Thomsen Talk: April 2018
Some people binge watch with Netflix. I binge watch with Broadway. Here are short reviews of the shows I saw on my latest trip to New York City.
Thursday afternoon – THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA:
My name is Brandon, and I am addicted to PHANTOM. I never tire of seeing this show. I’ve seen it on tour three times, and this was my third time seeing it on Broadway. I admit is a very flawed show, and I’m not sure anyone could follow all of the details of the plot, but I think it’s a seamless production where every element comes together to tell the same story: the costumes tell the same story the music is telling, and the music tells the same story the lighting is telling, and the lighting is telling the same story the scenery is telling. It’s so cohesive. The opening of the show with the auction and then the rising of the chandelier gets me every time. I’ve yet to see a production where I was moved by the acting (apart from YouTube videos of Michael Crawford), yet the show remains a pillar in direction and design and continues to inspire me in my own work.
Thursday evening – HELLO, DOLLY!:
I first saw this production in May 2017 with Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce. The production values were top notch. The Divine Miss M has a magnetism, and the audience couldn’t take their eyes off of her, and they cheered whatever she did. I felt she was always herself and was just saying the lines. I hardly felt for and routed for her Dolly. David Hyde Pierce gave a nuanced performance and found so much humor in what could often be played as a one-note-curmudgeon.
Now to 2018…..
It was like seeing a different show. The production has smoothed out and is much more even across the board, and that is a very good thing. Bernadette Peters surpassed my highest expectation. She is an ACTRESS with a keen knack for connecting to an audience while always remaining true to the character. Her speeches to her late husband Ephraim Levi were especially poignant. She sang beautifully, danced impeccably (especially for being 70 years old!), and her comedic antics were on point. Victor Garber, while not being as funny as David Hyde Pierce, was an excellent counterpart. He was firm yet vulnerable. There was an understudy in for Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy. I admit I groan when I know it’s going to be an understudy because the casting is sometimes off, but let me tell you: she was incredible! And I think I preferred her to Kate Baldwin. She was gorgeous, sang like a dream, and had such mischief and dreams in her eyes.
The show itself is a feast for the eyes and ears and is a huge salute to the classic golden age of musical comedies. (And there is a full blown train that comes out onstage! How do they do it? Where do they keep it?)
Friday night – MY FAIR LADY:
When Lincoln Center presents a classic revival, I know it’s going to be done with the utmost care. Their SOUTH PACIFIC remains the finest piece of theatre I have ever seen. THE KING AND I was exquisite, especially the costuming. I knew that MY FAIR LADY would be no exception. Director Bartlett Sher is a master at surprising his audiences with theatrical spectacle: For SOUTH PACIFIC the stage rolled back to reveal 30 musicians under it playing the overture. In THE KING AND I, after the overture, the stage rolled down to cover the orchestra and out came a full-sized boat that rolled down to the front row of the audience. With MY FAIR LADY, the big surprise was the appearance of Henry Higgins’ house. (I can tell you about it in person if you’d like.) It was a massive unit that eventually turned throughout a scene as actors moved from one room to the next. The second act in this production began at the Embassy Ball, and for this scene, the orchestra appeared onstage! All 29 players! (They returned to the pit during dialogue and played only the first scene of Act Two onstage.)
What truly makes a show for me is not the spectacle, it’s the acting. Bartlett Sher directs with such care, analyzing every word. Lauren Ambrose was a compelling Eliza. The role can easily be played over the top and annoying, but she was never that. She was aching for more. I do wish that she spoke up more, and in certain songs I wish that she sang louder. Henry Higgins was played by Harry Hadden-Paton. He was credible. I appreciated that he was a Higgins who tried to understand Eliza and was in turmoil with himself; however, I thought that he lacked star power. Throughout the performance, I kept thinking how thrilling it must have been to see Rex Harrison in the original production. Norbert Leo Butz was the star power in this production as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. While I did not care for any of the choreography throughout the show, Butz’s simple tap dancing on a table in “Get Me to the Church on Time” was a highlight.
Saturday afternoon – THE BAND’S VISIT:
This is the one I’m still thinking about. It was so highly praised, and when it was over the audience leapt to its feet. It was very low key. It’s a quiet, slow musical with little plot, and yet the audience admired it enthusiastically. With today’s audiences clamoring for loud, funny, and familiar shows, the response to the show surprised me. I’m anxious to get the cast recording because I think the music will grow on me with multiple hearings.
Saturday evening – THREE TALL WOMEN
I didn’t know anything about this Edward Albee play. I wanted to see at least one play on this trip, and I admire Laurie Metcalf as an actress and knew that Glenda Jackson’s return to the stage was a big deal. The play is a fascinating look at who we are and what we do as we age. The performers were top notch, with Glenda Jackson being an incredible old-school stage presence, alongside the ever-fascinating and hilarious Laurie Metcalf. Alison Pill had the least showy role, but she held her own. There was an ingenious set design that we can talk about in person: another “how did they do that” that supported the play and pulled me into it. The audience was very responsive and very engaged.
Sunday afternoon – CAROUSEL:
Just within the last few years I have become a huge fan of CAROUSEL. I think the score is gorgeous and the story layered. I am fascinated by the highly flawed and damaged characters who can’t say “I love you.” This production is still in previews, and I heard that they were making cuts. It’s true: several songs were cut as well as dialogue. The show felt disjointed. Because of the edits, I felt I didn’t get to know the characters — it was done in broad strokes. I felt the choreography was busy and needed focus: I couldn’t tell what story the choreographer was trying to tell. There were some lovely costumes and some not so lovely costumes. There was some really interesting scenery and some not so interesting scenery. There were actors that were layered and nuanced, and there were actors that were flat and out of their element.
The orchestra and the orchestrations were outstanding and gave such honor to the Rodgers and Hammerstein score. A true highlight was opera star Renee Fleming singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Her rich, full voice filled the theater, and the lyrics were all there in her eyes.
Sunday evening – SWEENEY TODD:
In the words of Dolly Levi, “wow, wow, wow, fellas.” This production was top-notch. Fascinating and so clever. The theater was renovated to be a working pie shop. The audience sits at long tables and benches, and the actors get on the tables throughout the show. You can even eat a meat pie before the show! There are three musicians, and eight actors played all the characters. It’s a small space and an immersive experience. There was no spectacle or high technology, and yet it was one of the most mesmerizing experiences.
Both director and actors clearly understood every word being uttered, and they justified all of their choices. Lighting a candle at the piano to start the show, the cast scraping knives and forks together in the opening Ballad, hearing the water in a dishpan while a plate is being washed to represent Sweeney and Anthony at sea, hats being hung on the wall as each customer meets his untimely demise are just some of the innovative staging devices employed to tell this rich story.
The level of finesse and attention to detail in SWEENEY TODD is what I had hoped for in CAROUSEL and will serve as inspiration to me in my own work.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to visit New York and see such high quality productions. I’m even more grateful to have the opportunity to do theatre every day of my life and work with the loving, supportive, and talented people of Quincy Community Theatre.