'Once,' 'Chaplin,' 'Edwin Drood' and 'A Christmas Story' offer a little something for everyone
Tandy Karl, left, Peter Benson, Betsy Wolfe, Will Chase, Jessie Mueller, Robert Creighton, Chita Rivera and Gregg Edelman star in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," based on Dickens' final novel.
"Once," starring Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee, won eight Tony Awards this year, including best musical and best actor.
"Chaplin" stars Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin, Zachary Unger as Jackie Coogan and Christianne Noll as Hannah Chaplin.
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NEW YORK -- The Big Apple is always charged with excitement, especially around the holidays, as the Post-Gazette ShowPlane found true even in the aftermath of Stormageddon Sandy. (Of course, we were in midtown, far from the battered waterfront.) Our menu was newly opened Broadway musicals, and although we didn't see an obvious hit, we enjoyed the variety and found plenty to talk about over drinks at Sardi's.
One show not reviewed today is "Scandalous," the story of Aimee Semple McPherson, the colorful, controversial 1920s evangelist. The performance for which we had tickets was canceled at the last minute (the lead was ill) -- a disappointment, because I was looking forward to its conjunction with "Chaplin," two studies of pioneer 20th-century entertainers.
That cancellation sent us all off to the TKTS booth in Times Square to spend our refunds. Our four-day visit also included two other open matinee slots, so everyone had a chance to indulge their own tastes, along with shopping, sightseeing and museums. I used my open slots to take my grandchildren to "Peter and the Starcatcher" (reviewed previously) and to see "Forbidden Broadway" (more about this in a few days) and the 2012 Tony-winning best musical, "Once."
This was certainly the best thing I saw, a sweetly comic/melancholy musical version of the small 2006 Irish film about a Dublin street musician and a Czech immigrant pianist who struggle to make music together, in both senses. All 13 cast members play instruments, creating the show's music on stage, without benefit of a pit orchestra. The setting is a Dublin pub, where music is as natural and plentiful as drink -- and in fact, you can go up on stage at intermission and buy a pint.
The story is packed into just a few days as the feisty Czech (named Girl) takes charge of the shambling Irishman (Guy), who's mired in gloom, and insists that they make a record, using her circle of noisy, funny, Czech musician friends. (When they break out in Czech, there are surtitles behind them, most of the time.)
However small this may be for a Broadway musical, there's nothing small about the creative talent, starting with noted playwright Enda Walsh, who adapted John Carney's film; Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (music and lyrics); such Broadway luminaries as Bob Crowley (sets and costumes) and Natasha Katz (lights); and Tony-winning director, Scotsman John Tiffany.
Steve Kazee (guitar) and Cristin Milioti (piano) are the lead couple, he soulful, shaggy and handsome, she small, intense and glowing, and you root for them to find their way to a conventionally happy ending. As to just how happy the ending is, you'll have to decide, but the show is luminous throughout with the joy of its folk-rock score, and its meditative/doleful sections are touching, though blessedly free of soppy sentimentality.
At Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.; 1-800-432-7780.
Musical comedy is never easy. Still, you might think a musical about Charlie Chaplin and the Little Tramp would be funny. This is, in spots. But comedy isn't really its goal. The show is very interesting, but in its quasi-documentary determination, its default demeanor is dour.
Mainly, this is because the book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan (Mr. Curtis also wrote the music and lyrics) -- in addition to refusing to sentimentalize Chaplin, perhaps because the Little Tramp already touches those tear ducts -- refuses to give us enough of his comic creativity. The score serves the story without leaving any string melodic impression.
The focus is on Chaplin's life, albeit trimmed and simplified. It comes across as a repetitive tangle of lovers, wives, struggles for purer artistic expression and battles with the conservative Hollywood establishment that led, eventually, to his being tarred as anti-American. Eventually Hedda Hopper and J. Edgar Hoover hounded him out of the country.
That the musical insists on telling this story is admirable, but it's such a big story, ranging from the psychology of Chaplin's abusive/mentally impaired parents to the American zeitgeist, that even with all of its flashbacks and flashforwards, it can't tell it with much depth or nuance. The show's opening high-wire act, repeated at the end, is a baldly obvious metaphor -- as is that phallic pole Chaplin shimmies up, given all his sexual adventures.
None of this, including the occasional ghost of his mother, can really account for Chaplin's comic artistry. However, the musical does feature a different artistry in the central performance by Rob McClure, a very winning Tramp and believably obsessive Chaplin. It's no surprise to learn that Pittsburgh's Dan Kamin served as "Chaplin consultant," and Mr. McClure shows he is capable of more emotional depth than the docudrama-like script gives him a chance to show.
Stylistically, "Chaplin" features fabulous sets (Beowulf Boritt) and costumes (Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz) all in shades of black and white and muted browns -- like a silent movie -- with very occasional splashes of emblematic red -- a recurring rose and curtains for Chaplin's final Hollywood rehabilitation.
At its best, the musical does suggest interesting connections between Chaplin's biographical anguish and the darkness that underlies the Tramp's comedy. Although it may not give us what we expect, "Chaplin" implies a good deal about the media culture of today.
At Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.; 1-800-432-7250.
This richly melodic comedy has been a favorite of mine since it debuted in 1985 with a cast led by Betty Buckley (Drood), Cleo Laine (Puffer) and George Rose (the Chairman), and including a very young Rob Marshall. Now it's back, led by Stephanie J. Block, Chita Rivera and Jim Norton in those same roles, and it's as much fun as ever and more lavishly designed.
The key to this tour de force by Rupert Holmes (book, music and lyrics), based on the incomplete novel by Charles Dickens, is that it has far less to do with Dickens than with Mr. Holmes, and less to do with either than with the theatrical pleasure of making something up right on the spot. This is not just the entertaining gimmick of having each audience vote to determine how the story ends, but the actorish comedy of the frame story, in which we watch a Victorian music hall company (we'd call it vaudeville) squeeze its talents into the constraints of comic musical melodrama.
The result is plenty of show-off acting, with everyone playing a performer playing a part. A good example of this double layer is Betsy Wolfe, who plays a curvaceous vamp who then folds herself into the demure role of Rosa Bud. The richest part is the opium-addicted choirmaster, played with mustache-twirling relish by Will Chase, and my personal favorite is Mr. Norton's ever-busy Chairman, archly commenting on every scene.
When it comes time to vote, don't sift for clues, just go for a favorite performer. The night we were there the audience voted the exotic Landless siblings the happy couple and Rosa Bud the murderer, but every audience has its own will, which keeps the actors on their toes. Don't expect the thrill of melodrama or even much Dickens, but plenty of comedy and a score that is infectiously jaunty one moment and surprisingly lovely the next.
At Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.; 1-212-719-1300.
Just about everyone in America seems to know this Jean Shepherd tale, mainly from the 1983 movie (based on several 1966 stories), annually repeated on TV. I'll leave it to others to parse the difference between stories, movie and now musical (book by Joseph Robinette, based on the movie), but the result is a family musical comedy with enough of Shepherd's sardonic wit to keep it from curdling.
The story is a "Wonder Years"-like exercise in autobiographical nostalgia, narrated by the grown-up author, revolving around 9-year-old Ralphie's campaign to get a BB gun for Christmas, but deviating into some entertaining side stories. The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is jolly enough, with a few songs that stick in your mind, and John Rando ("Urinetown," a reassuring credit) provides brisk direction, with an eye for irony.
I especially liked Erin Dilly's Mother. Being a dad myself, I didn't care for the sitcom stupidity of John Bolton's father (called The Old Man). Dan Lauria is the Ralphie-grown-up narrator. But the real star is Ralphie (Johnny Rabe and Joe West alternate), plus an ensemble of some dozen other kids, especially pint-sized tapper Luke Spring. The bottom line, as online critic Jonathan Mandel says, it that it has more elves than "Elf," more child gangsters than "Bugsy Malone" and twice as many dogs as "Annie."
At Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.; 1-800-745-3000.
First Published December 2, 2012 12:00 am