NEW YORK -- Some of theater's marquee names have arrived on Broadway in recent weeks in shows that share Southern sensibilities. The new musical "Big Fish," starring two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz, takes place in Alabama when it's not riding on a cloud of imagination. And Zachary Quinto makes an auspicious Broadway debut in "The Glass Menagerie," which also stars fellow Carnegie Mellon alum Cherry Jones. The play is confined to an apartment in St. Louis, but the fierce matriarch Amanda Wingfield is a Southern belle of the first order.
"The Glass Menagerie"
The play that launched Tennessee Williams' career is back on Broadway to glowing reviews that have only grown in euphoria since its Sept. 26 opening at the Booth Theatre.
No argument here.
"The Glass Menagerie" debuted on Broadway in 1945, and before the current production arrived from the American Rep in Cambridge, Mass., it had seen five revivals. Williams followed it with "A Streetcar Named Desire," and it's easy to see how Amanda Wingfield foreshadows another of the playwright's aging belles. But where Blanche Du Bois relies on the kindness of strangers, Cherry Jones' Amanda survives on sheer will after being deserted by her alcoholic husband. Her mothering leans toward smothering her children: dreamer Tom, a warehouse worker whose salary helps the family stay afloat, and painfully shy Laura, who has been physically and emotionally hobbled by a childhood illness.
Amanda pleads with Tom to sit up straight, not to drink, to bring home a gentleman caller for his sister .... She has a lot to say, but Ms. Jones' expressive face can say as much with a glance as a speech.
She can reveal a woman who is terrified that her son might wind up like his father, or that her daughter will end up alone. Her anguish and determination are palpable -- even when she's wearing the silliest, frilliest dress costumer Bob Crowley could imagine. Compassion surfaces when she discovers Laura has been skipping typing classes, dashing hopes for a future in the workforce. Amanda doesn't dwell on the disappointment, moving quickly to Plan B: Tom must find a suitor for his sister.
Mr. Quinto's Tom illuminates the whole as a put-upon son and brother who loves his sister but longs to get off this familial sinking ship. When the going gets tough in the suffocating apartment, Tom escapes to the movies, and perhaps fans will come to "The Glass Menagerie" expecting to glimpse the actor's screen personas, but they'll have to add Tom Wingfield to his list of indelible characters.
Tom's memories lean toward regret, manifesting as an invisible pull toward obligation or a push toward freedom. Mr. Quinto allows moments of playfulness to peek through his interactions, but it's his heart-heavy introspection that provides the framework for a full picture of the Wingfield women.
As fragile Laura, Celia Keenan-Bolger shrinks from conflict, shaking uncontrollably one moment, seeking comfort in her glass figurines the next. Tom eventually brings home "gentleman caller" Jim (Brian J. Smith), a former golden boy who has been knocked down a notch and is buoyed by Laura's attention.
Amanda pins all her hopes for her daughter's future on this meeting, a position that makes the family as vulnerable as the glass unicorn Laura cherishes.
The characters fade in and out of the set that serves as a stunning accompaniment to the powerful performances. The apartment floats on a pitch-black sea, with stairs leading down toward freedom and a fire escape twisting heavenward.
Director John Tiffany's exquisite production gives commanding purpose for bringing "The Glass Menagerie" back to Broadway. Ms. Jones' bravura performance alone is worth the trip.
"The Glass Menagerie" has been extended through Feb. 23 at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York, N.Y. Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 1-800-447-7400.
It's hard to like Edward Bloom, the seemingly self-indulgent absentee dad of the new musical "Big Fish." Sure, you may get caught up in his wild stories of giants and mermaids and witches and such, but there are father-son issues that are hard to overlook. It takes a star as bright as Norbert Leo Butz to help us empathize with Edward's wandering soul and forgive his hollow reasons for alienating his son.
The book by John August maintains the sometimes dark tone of his screenplay for the Tim Burton movie, which was based on the best-selling novel by Daniel Wallace. Echoes of both are on stage, but the musical is its own beast.
Susan Stroman comes close to finding a balance between Edward's fantasies and the increasingly hostile father-son dynamic, and the tall tales are rendered with all the pomp and creativity you'd expect from the director-choreographer of "The Producers."
Mr. Butz's energy is boundless, and it has to be -- he carries the show as a traveling salesman who drops into his family's life and casts himself as the hero in his magical world. Bobby Steggert as the adult Will has yearned all his life for a dad who just wants to play catch, but Will's alienation snowballs as we watch the character grow from child to adult pragmatist.
Along the way, "Big Fish" welcomes Broadway newcomers Ciara Renee as a prophetic witch and Ryan Andes as the gentle giant Karl, whose 6-4 listed height gets a boost from stilts. Brad Oscar, who worked with Ms. Stroman on "The Producers," hams it up as an unscrupulous circus owner.
Edward is at his most likable in the presence of his tolerant wife, Sandra. Played by the effervescent Kate Baldwin, she also is cast as the beautiful heroine of Edward's tales.
Ms. Stroman puts Mr. Butz and ensemble through their paces in the early number "Be the Hero," the catchiest of Andrew Lippa's songs, and her imagination kicks into high gear as witches appear out of tree bark and cowboys emerge from a television set. Julian Crouch has designed a faux-water front to the proscenium that's fit for a mermaid -- or a very big fish -- and William Ivey Long's endlessly creative costumes include a dancing campfire. The orchestra is revealed in a tic-tac-toe setup when the curtain is lifted for the stirring "Red, White and True" number, a spy-mission within a USO show.
As things move not so merrily along for father and son, Edward becomes gravely ill. Only when Will delves into Edward's past are the elder Bloom's stories cast in a different light, and you might find a tear welling up by the end.
It's hard to get a grip on the emotions evoked by "Big Fish," with such wild swings between whimsy and familial discord. It stays with you, and that lasting connection plus the wealth of talent on stage and Ms. Stroman at the top of her creative game are among the reasons to take the plunge with "Big Fish."
"Big Fish," Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., New York, N.Y. Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com or 1-800-982-2787.