Monday, August 9, 2010

Best of the Decade: The Best Musical Revivals, Part II

To read about my Best Musical Revivals, numbers 10 - 6, click here!

The past decade has certainly brought a pretty wide spectrum of revivals (even if most of them were be Stephen Sondheim), both in content and quality.  Among the shows that might have been better served by NOT being revived: Grease!, Bells Are Ringing, Finian's Rainbow, Into the Woods, Oklahoma!, La Cage aux Folles (2004), Guys and Dolls.  More interestingly, these shows were decent to great, but just didn't make my top 10.  Honorable mention goes to: The Rocky Horror Show, Little Shop of Horrors, 42nd Street, NINE, La Cage aux Folles (2010), and Sweet Charity (for sheer tenacity and good will).

Here are my Top Five picks for Best Musical Revival of the First Decade of the 21st Century:

5.  West Side Story (580 performances as of August 8, 2010; nominated for Best Revival of a Musical 2009.  Still running at the Palace Theatre.  Directed by Arthur Laurents, choreography by Jerome Robbins re-created by Joey McKneely, and starring Josefina Scaglione, Matt Cavenaugh, Karen Olivo, Cody Green.)

With a score you can't beat, dancing that remains a benchmark on Broadway history and today is still the best, and a classic story, this West Side Story thrilled me from start to finish, and still does.  Staged just as it was when Broadway didn't know what to do with it, the show is still as resonant and timely as it is timeless.  I especially loved Miss Scaglione in her Broadway debut as Maria - a heady mix of innocence, optimism and heartbreak.  And the unsung heroes of the ensemble?  The Jet Girls who really made "Cool" cool.  Some took issue with the addition of whole scenes in Spanish.  Yes, it was uncomfortable, but that was the point, wasn't it?  Think how the Sharks must have felt in an all-English world.  For us it was a few moments of discomfort, for them, the language barrier meant life or death.

The Shark Girls and The Jets

4.  Gypsy (2008) (332 performances at the St. James Theatre; nominated for Best Revival of a Musical 2008.  Starring Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines, directed by Arthur Laurents.)

There is no arguing that Gypsy is a classic.  Did it need to be revived twice in one decade?  No.  But I'm sure glad they did it the second time.  Directed by its original director and book writer, Arthur Laurents, Broadway finally got to see the Gypsy he always envisioned.  True he directed three Roses to Tonys, and no offense to Tyne or Angela, but Patti LuPone IS Rose.  The quintessential Rose, and in a performance that will be talked about as a landmark performance for years to come, and LuPone stopped the show twice - her "Everything's Coming Up Roses" was an absolute thrill ride, and her "Rose's Turn" deserved every mid-show standing ovation it got and more.  And if you were lucky, you got to see her notorious rampage that literally stopped the show.  But what really made this and extra extra special treat of a revival were her two co-stars also delivering definitive performances - Laura Benanti as Louise and Boyd Gaines as Herbie.

Gaines, Benanti and LuPone:
a Gypsy for the ages

3.  South Pacific (997 performances when it closes on August 22, 2010 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center; winner Best Musical Revival 2008.  Directed by Bartlett Sher, and starring Paolo Szot, Kelli O'Hara, Matthew Morrison, Danny Burstein and Loretta Ables Sayre.)

Lincoln Center, when it does it right, REALLY does it right.  And boy did it do well with the first-ever revival of South Pacific.  It was epic on all fronts: a giant cast, a giant staging (a full sized truck, palm trees and a fighter plane? YES! Chandelier?  YAWN), and a stunning, full-sized orchestra that got its due every night as it played, revealed to the audience, one of the most gorgeous overtures written for a Broadway musical.  But if the size and scale of the production not only underscored the enormity of the situation and setting, under the sure and superb direction of Bartlett Sher, the human scale of it was never ever lost, so sharp was the staging, the focus and the detail of every single performance.  Truly, one of the rare times I would have paid more for my ticket.  Even at full price it was a bargain.  Some enchanted evening to be sure, the show has set a very high standard for subsequent revivals.

"I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair!"

2.  Company (246 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre; winner Best Revival of a Musical 2007.  Directed by John Doyle starring Raul Esparza, Barbara Walsh, Elizabeth Stanley, Keith Butterbaugh and Heather Laws.)

With the superb orchestrations of Mary Mitchell Campbell, this minimalist version of the 1970 Sondheim classic worked in a way that other productions have not.  Stripping the show of almost any scenery and most props, and instead letting the musical instruments and the actors playing them tell the story, we got a clarity and a unity that made the plight of one Bobby and his nut job assortment of friends and lovers easy to understand and maybe even relate to.  Raul Esparza gave the performance of his career, making "Being Alive" and absolute anthem to solitude and neediness, and I think he was robbed of a Best Actor Tony.  Similarly, Barbara Walsh's "Ladies Who Lunch" was a definitive version, applauded by no less than its creator, Elaine Stritch.  Doyle's staging was creative and added much meaning to what amounts to a series of disjointed sit-com scenes that also happen to have one of the best theatre scores attached to them.  He made them work as one unit, and really made the full cast numbers like "Side by Side by Side" and "Company" really work.

"You Could Drive a Person Crazy!"

1.  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (349 performances at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre; nominated for Best Revival of a Musical 2006.  Directed and designed by John Doyle, and starring Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, Manoel Felciano, Alexander Gemignani, Mark Jacoby, Donna Lynne Champlin, Lauren Molina, Benjamin Magnusson, John Arbo and Diana DiMarzio.)

A cast of ten, each playing instruments with no music in front of them, one set, very plain and strewn with a odd set of objects, and no one leaving the stage for the entire performance was the direct antithesis of the original, sweeping epic scale original production of Sweeney Todd.  Arguably the best musical ever written (and certainly the pinnacle of Stephen Sondheim's career), this Sweeney was a revelation on all fronts.  The lack of anything visual, framed by the setting - an insane asylum - and a story retold by the patients, from the mind of young Toby who lived through it, added several layers of urgency to the entire affair.  And while there were plenty of laughs to offset the gruesome tale unfolding, the underlying and sometimes in your face violence gave the whole thing an edge.  And the new focus on the words, the deeds and the characters no longer swallowed by a gigantic orchestration or a mammoth set, gave this Sweeney something even the original production lacked: genuine thriller-level chills and thrills.  And its leads, in sharp departure from their predecessors (Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett for Angela Lansbury, and Michael Cerveris as Sweeney Todd for Len Cariou), added a youthful, more grounded and utterly terrifying level of intensity.  Ms. LuPone's nonchalant pouring of buckets of blood as the body count rises is scary in so many ways and gave me actual nightmares.  The show also boasted the single Johanna I have ever loved and felt for in the dozens of performances I've seen of the show, Lauren Molina

The Sweeney Todd 2006 Company

Although I would hate to see many more shows whittled down to this scale, both this show and Company really brought a new artistry to two musical classics.  And that's why they are numbers 1 and 2.

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