Every first Wednesday of the month, get caught up on what’s new on stage with a review round-up. And that vaguely hollow, clinking sound you hear at the end of each segment? That’s me tossing in my two cents.
The theater season unofficially ended last week with a flurry of shows sliding in for Tony consideration. (See, life really is like high school; even Broadway shows wait until just before the deadline to turn in their work.) With so many papers to grade, we’re splitting the round-up into two posts. Friday, we’ll take a look at some Broadway big guns. But today, let’s explore three shows with stellar work in unexpected and often unheralded corners.
Combining “golden age” music theater sincerity with taboo-busting comedy, the season’s certified blockbuster musical, from the creators of South Park and Avenue Q, follows two young Mormons on their mission in Uganda.
“I am here to report that a newborn, old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical has arrived…” New York Times
“It’s a fiendishly well-crafted, hilariously smart — or maybe smartly hilarious — song-and-dance extravaganza.” New York Post
“…at once revolutionary and classic, funny and obscene, uncompromising in production standards and unafraid of just about anything else.” Entertainment Weekly
“…you’re likely to leave The Book of Mormon a little happier for the experience.” USA Today
Mizer’s Two Cents: What more can I say? The show works and is thoroughly entertaining. Unless you’ve got that metaphoric stick stuck up your proverbials, you will laugh at what is essentially a surprisingly heartfelt (though obscenity larded) musical comedy exploration of the challenges of faith–and, oh yes, genital mutilation. In all the praise, however, I wish more critics were singling out the affectionately riotous (and now Tony-nominated!) performance by Rory O’Malley as a missionary attempting to tap dance his way around certain unsanctioned sexual leanings. Show queens, you have a new king.
Nina Arianda makes a slam-dunk Broadway debut in a revival of Garson Kanin’s comedic ode to American democracy as seen through the intellectual and romantic awakening of a chorus girl who is not the dumb blonde even she thinks she is.
“…a solid but inessential revival of Garson Kanin’s comedy…” New York Times
“Watching these two lock horns is so pleasurable, you want to see them again as soon as the curtain comes down.” New York Post
“I hereby nominate the luminous laugh-goddess Nina Arianda for president…” New York Magazine
“…it’s pleasurable to escape into the fantasy of less cynical times.” The Hollywood Reporter
Mizer’s Two Cents: As I’ve said here before, Nina Arianda deserves all the praise she’s getting for her quick-wittted, tough/tender performance in this solidly enjoyable revival. After a deliberate start, the play builds and builds (basically jump-started by Arianda’s first major scene) until I wanted to spend all night with these winning characters. There’s a warmth to the proceedings, for all the bluster of the dialogue, that made me nostalgic for the play’s less cynical age, full of optimism about politics, theater and the importance of education. The production’s secret weapon, however, is Robert Sean Leonard in a sly, understated performance that balances the heroic with the fussy; he exudes a condescension-free delight in his scene partner that puts the romance back in romantic comedy.
Some of the music theater pros behind Hairspray and Ragtime spin a sparkly, 60’s variety show-style musical out of the Spielberg film about a teenage con-man and the cop charged with bringing him in.
“…mostly just seems to stand in one place, explaining itself.” New York Times
“…there’s not much flow to the show.” New York Post
“…natty little boutonniere of ear-tickling pastiche and ersatz Rat Pack swagger…” New York Magazine
“Impressive star performances…, a lively production, the best sounding new music currently on Broadway — all built around a succession of glossily frenetic, non-compelling production numbers.” Variety
Mizer’s Two Cents: If you want to be reminded what a truly great musical theater performer can do, see Norbert Leo Butz transform character-actor work into blissful triple threat entertainment. Much as the wondrous Donna Murphy did in last year’s Anyone Can Whistle concert, Butz finds a path through the strengths and weaknesses in the material and magically balances smart character-defining choices with unabashed showmanship. Moment to moment, I was entertained by the hard working chorus and the slick professionalism of the show, though I couldn’t help but imagine what the harder-edged and emotionally raw style of Kander & Ebb (vs. the bubbly craftsmanship of Shaiman & Wittman) might have done with the much-debated variety show framing device. But for diehard musical theater fans, Butz is the reason to see it.