To welcome Spring, Susan Stroman has brought the world “Happiness”, a terrific new musical at Lincoln Center. A deceptively simple little show about life and death, it is original, it is heartrending, it is close to two hours of pure imagination. It is the story of a group of New Yorkers who begin their day as they always do only to shortly find themselves trapped in a stalled subway car with a very strange employee of the MTA. The opening number, “Just Not Right Now”, sets up all the disparate stories beautifully, in a kaleidoscope of movement and song, as these characters prepare for another average New York day, only to find themselves stuck in strange circumstances some time later. There’s the bike messenger, the hotshot lawyer, the old lady in the wheelchair, the interior designer, the talk show host, the interns, the doorman, and the fashionista, all about to find themselves on their way to somewhere unknown. An, oh yes, they’re all dead. Sort of.
It’s a story that’s been seemingly done to death (ok, couldn’t resist) in various films from “Outward Bound” to “It’s A Wonderful Life”, to “Meet Joe Black”, yet it’s a premise that continues to resonate. Surprisingly, or considering current situations, NOT so surprisingly-it all still works. John Weidman’s book posits the following-before you’re allowed to go on your way, you have to come up with one perfect moment in your life when you were most happy, and if your story passes muster, you’ll stay in that moment for all eternity. But here, it’s given a gloss, a shimmer, and frisson of ecstasy that takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of exhilarating highs and heartbreaking hairpin turns, all orchestrated beautifully by Ms. Stroman.
The cast is terrific, but there are two standout performances that take your breath away. First, there’s the welcome return to the New York stage of Ken Page, who long ago (well, not THAT long) originated the role of Old Deuterotomy in the original Broadway cast of “Cats”. Page is avuncular and splendid in the role of the tart-tongued interior designer who stops the show cold with the beautiful “The Boy Inside Your Eyes”, sung to his dying partner. It’s a killer moment in a killer show. The other standout is the wonderful Phyllis Somerville as the wheelchair-bound old lady, who chooses to relive her meeting with a young soldier in a USO canteen before he’s shipped off to war. Ms. Somerville is outstanding, her eyes moist with the haunting memories of a perfect night, her voice quivering with regret as she tells her story. The rest of the cast includes stalwarts such as Fred Applegate, Sebastian Arcelus, Hunter Foster and Joanna Gleason and they are all exemplary. Congratulations to Ms. Stroman and to Lincoln Center for bring us the most surprisingly heartfelt show of the season thus far.
Over at Manhattan Theatre Club, the one-person show, “Humor Abuse”, written and performed by Lorenzo Pisoni, Jr, continues its run downstairs in Stage II at the City Center location. Pisoni tells the story of growing up in his father’s circus, with the aid of various props and slides on the rear curtain, telling the story of his life in the circus under the tutelage of his beloved dad. Pisoni has had a varied stage career in the last several years, including playing Daniel Radcliffe’s horse Nugget, in the recent revival of “Equus”, and his circus training has served him well in some very athletic roles. But here, in a tiny confined space, he is all over the place, even, at one point, climbing a ladder and falling from the top of it toward the audience. He includes audience members in his show as well, so beware sitting in the front row as I did, if you’re skittish about being dragged up on stage. This is a lovely 90 minutes for children of all ages, so bring the kids and get yourself over to W. 55th Street.
The news ON Broadway is gigantic. The revival of “Hair”, which many people predicted would suffer from moving out of Central Park, where it played last summer, to a Broadway house, namely the Hirschfeld on W. 45th Street, not only doesn’t suffer, but instead, becomes a transcendental experience akin to a time trip back to NYC’s lower east side, circa 1967. This iconic rock musical, which was the Public Theatre’s first big Broadway hit back then, is going to break records yet again in its new incarnation. It is a thrilling experience, a vivid, beautifully executed Broadway production that makes even the hoariest 60’s cliches not only seem fresh again, but even revelatory. Director Diane Paulus has recreated her recreation to the point that this is without a doubt THE most enjoyable Broadway production this year, surpassing both “Guys And Dolls” and “West Side Story” in terms of musical revivals, but also making everything else that has opened so far this season pale in comparison. The addition of Gavin Creel to its cast is laudatory; he invests the musical with a sense of loss and pathos that it didn’t have last summer. His Claude is a lost soul searching for an identity he’ll never have, a young man failing to fit in anywhere anymore. Will Swenson’s Berger has grown in scope and humor since last year, he is now not only the ringleader, but the catalyst that sets the sadness at show’s end in motion as well. The musical numbers encompass the entire theater, right up to the last row of the balcony, and wonder of wonders, EVERY SINGLE WORD, sung or spoken, is crystal clear. We should thank Oskar Eustis for instigating this production and getting it to Broadway. You will, very simply, have a stunning time. And the last moment of the production will haunt you the rest of your days. I defy you not to be disturbed and shaken.