These are dolorous times for the New York musical. The most popular of all theatrical forms seems to be in free fall. There hasn’t been a genuine hit musical on Broadway since March 2011 when The Book of Mormon opened, and that show, though enormously successful and acclaimed, is hardly a watershed entertainment. Once, the charming musical that won all the awards last season was an unassuming surprise, a small gem of a show, yet for all its charm, it doesn’t have the largess theatergoers have come to expect from a Broadway musical.
Where are the big new musicals of the 21st century like the ones of yore: West Side Story, Gypsy, A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd and The Lion King? Those shows, in their unique, individual ways, were all works of art. What one looks for in a musical is an entertainment that is not only exciting, but original too. If it is based on a book or a play or a film one expects that the creators will give their source material a fresh theatrical slant. Successful musicals of the past have consistently broken away from conventions and have explored new territory, as seminal classic works like Showboat and early Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals Oklahoma! and Carousel did.
After seeing the first two musicals of the 2012-2013 Broadway season – Bring It On, a musical version of the 2000 film about high school cheerleaders, and Chaplin, a formulaic retelling of the silent screen star Charlie Chaplin’s life, my prognosis remains unchanged: The American musical is still stuck in slough-like doldrums.
Both musicals are slickly produced and performed with skilled and professional brio by talented casts, but neither show satisfies playgoer or critic with the stimulating artistry or sheer pleasure that one has come to expect from a first-class musical.
Bring It On, at the St. James Theatre on West 44th St., is a perky High School Musical/Glee type of show brought to the stage. It strives to subtly weave tween social issues of competition, morality and adolescent angst, using a cheerleading championship bid as its forum.
Basically Bring It On centers around an attractive young student Campbell (Taylor Louderman) who seems to want nothing more in life than to be captain of her high school cheerleading squad. But the road to her goal is strewn with all sorts of teenage skullduggery. A ruse of school redistricting gets her transferred from the comfy Truman High to a mostly Latino and black Jackson High School on the wrong side of town, which doesn’t even have a cheerleading squad. With the help of another redistrictee sidekick Bridget (Ryann Redmond) and the hard-won alliance with Jackson’s most popular but indifferent student Danielle (Adrienne Warren), Campbell gets cheerleading and her self-worth restored, and propels the Jackson squad into the finals with rival Truman.
In between Campbell’s saga there are musical numbers by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda with lyrics by Amanda Green and Miranda. The show’s book is by the clever Jeff Whitty. All the songs seem to be either white-bread conventional musical theater numbers for the Truman High gang or faux hip-hop tunes for the Jackson High kids. There is lively, if repetitious, acrobatic choreography by Andy Blankenbueler, who also has swiftly directed the show, which on the night I attended seemed to be full of its target audience: adolescent girls who revel in Bring It On’s antics.
Chaplin, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street, attempts to musicalize the life of Charlie Chaplin, filmdom’s supreme clown. It fails in lots of ways, but mainly like the 1992 film, which starred Robert Downey, Jr., it wears out the audience trying to cover too many events in Chaplin’s long life. Chaplin was born in 1889 and died at 88 in 1977. Births, deaths, marriages, wives, children, politics, movies (both silent and talkies) and awards all pass us by like a fast-moving Wikipedia train, never pausing to let us really get to know the man or his genius. Some of the fault lies with the inexperience of the show’s main creator Christopher Curtis, who wrote Chaplin’s music and lyrics and co-authored the book with old pro Thomas Meehan of Annie, Hairspray and The Producers fame. But I have a feeling Meehan joined the show late after its narrative had been pretty well set by Curtis. Ironically the main problem is the show never has a clear focus, something the meticulous Chaplin would never have tolerated.
Once again the cast is filled with top-notch players. Rob McClure gives a spot-on impersonation of Chaplin; he probably would be giving a brilliant performance if the role were better crafted. Christine Noll is impressive as Hannah Chaplin, Charlie’s mentally unstable mother. Jenna Colella delivers a marvelous performance as the era’s malicious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and gives a sizzling rendition of the only show-stopping song, “All Falls Down.” Zachary Unger is a stellar pint-sized wonder doing double duty as the young Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan. Warren Carlyle directs the proceedings in a workmanlike fashion. Yet ultimately this talking, singing, dancing Chaplin disappoints.