Several openings in recent weeks and an opening to come provide some spectacular talents around Broadway and off-Broadway to provide treats for the holiday season and hopefully, well beyond. Needless to say, there’s plenty to choose from in the bounty the theatre has to offer right now.
First up is my favorite of the bunch, and it’s a show that as of this writing, hasn’t even officially opened yet, but I can honestly say it’s a terrific treat and should please even the most finicky audience member. It’s “Shrek, the Musical”, and boy, is it a GAS! This may sound like heresy, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen any of the Shrek movies, or read the books(there’s books?), nor the television specials, BUT I had a great evening of theatre recently immersed in Shrek lore. This is one family musical that’s not just meant for the kids; there’s enough in the way of double entendres, sight gags and goofy humor to satisfy just about any age. First off, the sets and costumes are eye-poppingly original and vibrant(the dragon ALONE is worth the proverbial “price of admission”), but it’s the huge cast of talented men and women who make this piece work-they look as though they’re all having the time of their lives. As Shrek, Broadway veteran Brian d’Arcy James, under a ton of makeup that obscure his leading-man looks, pulls off the impossible-he makes us believe this giant ogre is real. He’s touching, he’s funny, he’s got a terrific singing voice, and so what if he looks like a hybrid of a green Popeye the Sailor and 30’s character actor William Bendix-he’s adorable. He anchors the musical, but the show is all but stolen away by two supporting players-a hilarious Daniel Breaker as the Donkey, and the side-splitting Christopher Sieber as Lord Farquaard, sporting a performance done entirely on his knees-so to speak. I’ll not give anything away, but let’s just say Sieber is probably the shortest supporting player on Broadway right now, the kid in “Billy Elliot” included. Sutton Foster as Fiona adds admirably to the mix, but this is the whole package, people; some of the songs are going to be cabaret and piano bar regulars for some time to come-especially my two personal favorites, “The Goodbye Song” and “Freak Flag”, which I suspect will become the anthem for the sad and disenfranchised henceforth. Tickets to “Shrek”? Perfect stocking stuffers!
I have to admit, I had few expectations going into “Shrek”, in fact, all my hopes were pinned on the British import “Billy Elliot” for big musical of the season. So, as much as “Shrek” surprised me, that’s how disapointed I was in “Billy”. Now, don’t get me wrong, “Billy Elliot” has a lot going for it…a surprising score by Elton John, masterful direction from Stephen Daldry (who directed the film on which the musical is based), terrific choreography by Peter Darling, and an understated, great performance by Gregory Jbara as Billy’s coal-miner Dad. It also has long stretches that bored me silly, which was curious considering the same man wrote the musical’s book and the original film, and a couple of performances I won’t elaborate on that simply didn’t come across at all, also surprising considering how much time went into finding exactly the right cast. Despite the intense praise the critics have heaped upon the piece, I still found it uninvolving and waaay too long…something I’ve often found as my response to British musicals, but that never stopped “Phantom Of The Opera” from becoming a hit. Maybe it’s just me.
The critics were definitely wrong and unnecessarily spiteful towards Stephen Sondheim and his latest incarnation of his musical about the Mizner Brothers, now called “Road Show”, formerly called “Wise Guys”, “Gold” and “Bounce” over the last ten years. The production, currently winding down its run at The Public Theater (and that’s sad, too) is a splendid addition to this theatre season, its stars, Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani, give virtuoso performances as the brothers, and Mr. Sondheim’s score is delightful and extremely clever. We should thank the Public Theater’s Oskar Eustis for producing it, John Doyle for directing it and y’all need to see it before its gone.
Finally, there’s a gem of a play by 92 year old Horton Foote (the man who won Oscars for his screenplays of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies”) currently running at The Booth Theater called “Dividing The Estate”, about a family of Texans squabbling over money and other serious matters of interest, that is a gentle, funny reminder of the kind of play Broadway used to be famous for-the family drama. The cast is quite wonderful, not a mediocre performance to be seen, and particularly vivid in my mind are Gerald McRaney(anyone remember the CBS series, “Major Dad”?), Hallie Foote, Elizabeth Ashley, and the particularly luminous Arthur French. A cast like this doesn’t come along very often and this is a limited run, so waste no time. It must be seen.
Happy Holidays and a joyous, hopeful New Year. We deserve one after too long a stretch.