If you disregard Hamilton as the all-pervading conqueror of Broadway this season, the other musical that has grabbed the headlines – for less positive reasons – is George C. Woolf's Shuffle Along, now ensconced at the Music Box via the Public Theater. It was certainly the musical I was most looking forward to seeing on my recent visit to New York. (Hamilton will have to wait until it crosses the Atlantic next year).
What a disappointment. It's great to look at (sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto and Ann Roth, respectively). Savion Glover's choreography is, to use a vaudeville term, tops in tap. The music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake are good without being great. But the show suffers a serious thrombosis where its book (by Woolf) is concerned.
In chronicling the difficulties and prejudice encountered by a group of black actors in their attempts to stage the first all-black musical comedy on Broadway, Woolf turns preacher-cum-historian by having his protagonists lecturing the audience throughout about the iniquities of racism in America circa 1920. The original show, which opened at the rundown 63rd Street Theater in 1921, centered around two small-town grocery store partners who become rival candidates in a mayoral campaign. In this version, the plot now plays second fiddle to Wolfe's 42nd Street concept in which the more important aspect is the actual creation of the show itself and how it finally triumphed on Broadway.
Act One ends on a high with Sissle and Blake's biggest hit, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," infectiously staged by Glover, after which the show has nowhere to go but down. Act Two canters through one personal disaster after another as Noble and Sissle and Miller and Eyles go their separate ways pursuing careers mired in mistakes and setbacks. It all ends on a downer as we learn the sad fates of several members of the original cast. Nor is there a big finish to send audiences tapping up the aisles on their way out.
Wolfe's determination to hammer home how difficult life was for black entertainers of the period is understandable, but August Wilson, in his play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (magisterially revived by London's National Theatre recently) said it far more effectively and without having to stand on a soapbox to do so.
A crack cast – including Brian Stokes Mitchell as Miller, Billy Porter as Lyles, Joshua Henry as Sissle and Brandon Victor Dixon as Blake – fails to camouflage the preachy nature of the material. Even the luminous Audra McDonald as the actress Lottie Gee isn't entirely comfortable in the role. A bit more Pearl Bailey and less Dame Nellie Melba would have helped.
Still, compared with the season's other big musical, Waitress, Shuffle Along is a masterpiece. Based on the late Adrienne Shelley's acclaimed film, Waitress tells the homely story of Jenna (Jessie Mueller), an unhappily married woman whose talent for pie-making and serving on tables in a local Southern diner provide distraction from life with her unemployed louse of a husband (Nick Cordero).
Her prospects brighten when she decides to enter a pie-making contest that carries a $20,000 prize. She also falls pregnant and simultaneously begins a romance with her personable gynecologist (Drew Gehling). A couple of romantic sub-plots involving two of Jenna's co-workers (Keala Settle and Kimiko Glenn) provide the kind of old-fashioned musical comedy support found in such vintage musicals as Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, The Pajama Game and a dozen others.
Though Mueller has genuine stage presence and creates the only believable character on stage, she's lumbered with an undistinguished country and western score by Sara Bareilles. Even her big eleven o'clock number “She Used to Be Mine” (which could do with a little less overkill) left me cold.
Jessie Nelson's book is a plodding affair, and all the Act One talk about the pie-entering contest vanishes without trace when Jenna's boorish husband steals the money she's saved in order to enter the contest. Why Jenna doesn't borrow the cash from the diner's sympathetic yet curmudgeonly owner (Dakin Matthews) – who, to vouchsafe a happy ending, wills his diner to her when he kicks the bucket – is never suggested.
It's a bland show, efficiently directed by Diane Paulus with undistinguished choreography by Lorin Latarro and okay sets by the prolific Scott Pask.
From country and western to bluegrass in Bright Star, which, while no game-changer heaven knows, is more of an audience pleaser than both Shuffle Along and Waitress. Though old-fashioned in style and predictable in its plot, it knows how to engage its audience. In its final 15 minutes the man sitting next to me was weeping copiously.
With a nod in the direction of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, its Victorian twists of fate involve a baby who is miraculously rescued Moses-like from certain death by drowning, the reuniting of a mother and her son after years of separation, a tongue-wagging pregnancy, a slow-burning romance that eventually catches fire, not to mention a double wedding and more than a soupcon of melodrama.
If anything, there's too much plot. Drenched in nostalgia and switching in time between the 1920s and 1940s, the musical is at its best whenever it concentrates on its determined central character, Alice Murphy, wonderfully played by Carmen Cusack (her Broadway debut).
When we first meet Alice in 1945, she's the editor of a prestigious literary magazine in North Carolina. Caring yet aloof, matter-of-fact and detached, her past has clearly shaped her present, and the show flashes back to her feisty teens and the traumatic incident that was destined to change her life.
The only way to surrender to the undoubted charms of Bright Star is to suspend your disbelief and swallow whole the sentimental tale devised by Steve Martin and Eddie Brickell, both of whom also wrote the catchy toe-tapping score. The show is less well served, though, by Brickell's rather clunky lyrics. An excellent cast commit wholeheartedly to the unlikely narrative, as does director Walter Bobbie, whose understated, easy-going direction – as well as Cusak's commanding central performance – keeps it nicely afloat.
On to School of Rock, based on Richard Linklater's 2003 movie starring Jack Black as an unkempt, over-the-hill but regenerative rock 'n roller who in desperation fakes his way into a job teaching privileged but over-regimented kids the joys of twanging an electric guitar, vocalizing or banging a drum. It transforms their lives and, while not entirely transforming ours, provides a feel-good factor that, when the show hits its stride, is hard to resist. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote the eclectic score (lyrics by Glenn Slater), hasn't had a success like this in years.
Like Matilda, which it resembles in several respects (but without Roald Dahl's darker recesses), School of Rock is dominated by a single adult. In the former it was Miss Trunchbull, in the latter it's Dewey, played with indefatigable energy by Alex Brightman, whose extraordinarily eccentric body language and spastic-like contortions are a sight to behold.
Ultimately, though, as was the case with Matilda, it's the children who make the biggest impact. Lloyd Webber, book writer Julian Fellowes, choreographer JoAnn Hunter and director Laurence Connor are blessed with a bunch of kids who would win any talent contest they cared to enter. School of Rock will never be anyone's pantheon musical, but it's a lot of noisy fun – a quality new to its celebrated composer.
The only non-musical I caught on this trip was Stephen Karam's The Humans. If you're going to write a play with such a pretentious title, it had better be a good one, and Karam has written a very good one indeed.
Dysfunctional families are as endemic to the American theatre as off-stage deaths are to ancient Greek drama, the very best of them being O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night. Though The Humans doesn't have that play's extraordinary emotional range or anatomize the human soul with the same depth or intensity, its portrait of a middle-class family in crisis in 21st-century America is compellingly astute, and for many, instantly recognizable.
It's Thanksgiving in New York's Chinatown. Erik and Deirdre Blake arrive from Pennsylvania to spend the holiday with their daughter Brigid and her new boyfriend Rich in their new apartment. With them is Brigid's older lesbian sister Aimee and grandmother Momo. Familiar terrain to be sure. But as the play – performed without an intermission – gains momentum, Karam shows how, with unfaltering detail, the pressure of living in America today impinges on and defines the Blake family's lives.
Brigid (Sarah Steele) wants to be a composer but can't pay her bills. Rich (Arian Moayed), who'll benefit from a trust fund in 10 years time, aspires to be a social worker. Aimee (Cassie Beck) has colitis, has broken up with her girlfriend, and has just been made redundant from her law firm. Their edgy father Erik (Reed Birney) has spent most of his life doing maintenance work at a private school, while his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) holds down an office job at the same school. Completing the family is grandmother Momo (Lauren Klein), who is wheelchair bound and for most of the time, either asleep or oblivious of what is happening around her.
As integral to the drama as the people that inhabit it is David Zinn's airless two-tiered set. As the play reaches its haunting climax, it takes on a character of its own when the apartment's lights mysteriously go out and strange disorienting noises go bump in the night.
Brilliantly orchestrating it all is Joe Mantello, whose subtly nuanced direction is so revealing and naturalistic you're never made aware of the precision and skill that has gone into it. This is art concealing art.
The performances, especially Houdyshell's, are magnificent – the finest ensemble cast I've seen on either side of the Atlantic in a decade at least. Seeing such a remarkable play justified my whole trip. This production and this cast has to come to London – just as the National's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom should play Broadway. That's what I'd call a fair exchange.