Friday, March 29, 2024

Review: Merrily We Roll Along

Review of the Wednesday, March 27, 2024 matinee performance at the Hudson Theatre in New York City. Starring Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez, with Krystal Joy Brown, Katie Rose Clarke, Brady Wagner and Reg Rogers. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Based on the play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart. Scenic and costume design by Soutra Gilmour. Lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker. Sound design by Kai Harada. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Choreography by Tim Jackson. Direction by Maria Friedman. 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission.

There are shows that change the way you think about things. There are shows that make you feel good about life. Merrily We Roll Along is neither of those. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad I saw it, but I think I'm done with this show for awhile. While this production is the first to be an actual financial hit, it has mostly to do with the principal cast, and not much else.

For all the huzzahs thrown about concerning Maria Friedman's direction, it is nothing particularly revolutionary. In fact, there were long stretches where I found my mind wandering, and other times where I found myself thinking, "this is actually boring." The staging is oddly repetitive - and don't even try to talk me into it being a way to show the passage of time in reverse. Several other productions have done it more successfully. Tim Jackson's choreography (what there is of it) is fine but not much more than that. Who'd have guessed that "The Blob" would be a highlight?

The problems with the show remain. George Furth's talky book has never felt more labored to me; it reminds me of those lengthy book scenes in 1776. The characters start out in a bad place and are, by and large, unlikable and off-putting. Little care has been taken to give us even an inkling of why we should even care about them. The score remains one of Stephen Sondheim's best, full of outstanding numbers, and I found myself anxious for the next one to start. (The orchestra was superb!) Despite all of this, the emotional payoff as everything comes together at the end, er, beginning, was still satisfying. The bottom line here is that I've seen many elements of this show done much better in other productions. Still, I'm glad I saw it.

Technically, the show is, well, utilitarian and uninspired. Kai Harada's sound design is good, you could hear almost every word from the last row of the balcony where we sat, though he has no control over actors who mumble their lines. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting is serviceable, but hardly notable, and the occasional use of spotlights was distracting. While Soutra Gilmour's costumes were mostly clever (and occasionally silly to the point of distracting), her unit set is dull and reminiscent of the family room in The Brady Bunch

At the performance I saw, very close to the end of act one, all of a sudden a black curtain slowly descended. We sat in confusion. Was it time for intermission? If so, why stop mid-song? Then, after many people were already headed to the bars and bathrooms, a voice announced we were in a hold for a technical difficulty, and the show would resume shortly. And so we sat. The curtain came up the lights came back up and the stage manager called the company to the stage. The audience goes wild, the cast applauds us. And they started the last number over about a verse back from where they stopped. Then, as if by some miracle, the show had a burst of energy, the cast seemed fully engaged. Two minutes later it was over and (a very long) intermission began.

As we sat there, it clicked for me. We had been seeing a cast that was good, doing everything as directed, but with mid-run doldrums. It happens. It's just harder to swallow at premium prices. But that stoppage lit a spark in them all, and it stopped dragging, my mind stayed focused for the rest of the show, Again, they weren't bad at the start, they were... meh. Now, they were an enthusiastic company giving us the hit of the season as advertised.

The ensemble does a lot of scenery moving and walking around. The blob, indeed. There were a couple of standouts, though - Talia Simone Robinson was an interesting Meg - the next girl to catch Frank's eye, and Evan Alexander Smith was terrific in several small roles.

Brady Wagner was appropriately adorable as Frank, Jr., and Reg Rogers made a decent case for liking Joe, the producer with questionable taste in projects and even more questionable taste in wives. 


As the two women in Franklin's life, Katie Rose Clarke (as Beth, the first wife, above left) and Krystal Joy Brown (as Gussie, the second wife, above right) are a study in two extremes. Even before the show pause, Ms. Clarke was a welcome breath of fresh air, who, even at her character's lowest point, was completely captivating, and she was even more impressive in act two. Her rendition of "Not a Day Goes By" was a heartbreaking highlight, and her contribution to the nightclub act sequence was delightful. On the other hand, Ms. Brown - an actress I list among my favorites - was a disappointing mess of scenery chewing and bizarre overacting and cartoon-y affectations. Didn't that "Broadway Star" stereotype become passe after All About Eve? She made me notice Gussie more than I ever have before, and that's not a good thing. 

I'll be blunt. The entire reason that this production is the hit that it is rests with the three above the title actors in it. Any and every time the three of them were together, it was truly magical. You could feel their very genuine love for each other - true friendship simply is, it is not something you can manufacture. Of the three, Lindsay Mendez was my favorite, because every single second she was on stage, she was interesting, thoughtful and her choices were so focused and purposeful. I loved her brassy, character-driven singing, and her physicality was spot on. You could feel Mary's longing for Frank and her desperation to be noticed. What can I possibly say about Daniel Radcliffe that hasn't already been said? He is everything you've heard and more: captivating, utterly charming and heartbreaking as Charley Kringas. His rendition of "Franklin Shepard Inc." is the highlight, not just of this production, but of the season so far. His palpable chemistry with his two co-stars keeps the whole thing together.

Oddly, the one actor of the trio that I was least worried about, Jonathan Groff, was the one I liked the least. While I wouldn't exactly say that his turn was one-note, it was damned close. Even as we eventually get to see Franklin at his most hopeful and optimistic, Groff is somehow still cold and not entirely sympathetic. Up until the stoppage, he actually seemed bored and going through the motions. I mean, there's low-key and then there's uninterested. Many times, he sounded like Michael Keaton in Batman, still other times his delivery was indiscernible mumbling.

Thankfully, the last scene was just about the three of them, and we got to see what the whole thing could have been. Their "Our Time" was as emotionally satisfying as I've ever seen it. Clearly, they look forward to that scene, we are the fortunate recipients of their love for it and the relationship they portray.

I'm kicking myself for believing the hype for this production - a sure recipe for disappointment. I should have revisited my review of the filmed version of this same production from just over a decade ago. At least then, I might have tempered my expectations.

📸: M. Murphy

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

2023 - 2024 Broadway Musical Logos: The Outsiders

I have a long history with The Outsiders. It was one of the first young adult novels I read, though I was only in 3rd grade. The librarian actually called my mother to make sure it was okay for me to check it out. I'll never forget it. She whispered into the phone, "You do know that it has gangs and violence...and murder in it!?" My mother didn't even hesitate to say yes, I could check it out. And so I did. Needless to say, if it was worth a phone call and a whispered conversation, I could not wait to dig in to the book. I loved it so much that I read it twice in one day, and promptly returned to the library to check out more books by S. E. Hinton. Even today, decades later, it is still one of my favorite books. Ponyboy Curtis loved to read just like me. And Johnny Cade was afraid of his own shadow, but ended up a hero. He gave this painfully shy boy hope for the future. Now, it is coming to life as a Broadway musical, and of course, I'm very excited to see it. Does its show art add to or lessen my excitement?

2023 - 2024 Broadway Musical Logos:
The Outsiders

This first version of the show logo is a pretty great start. Starting off with the "Based on..." line is a smart marketing move. There are tons of adults like me who cherished that book, and maybe even more are fans of the classic film featuring a main cast of stars who weren't even famous when it came out. The color, a darker sky blue/green is somehow both comforting and ominous, while the golden glow at the bottom suggests a new dawn - always a hopeful sign. Then there's the silhouette of the six teens who make up the central characters. How they are grouped is significant to the story, so I won't spoil it here. But actually, there are a number of ways those six figures could be interpreted. Clever and poignant. 

Finally, the title, in a scrawling handwritten font style suggests that this is a personal journey. Anything more stylized, graffiti-like or formal wouldn't fit at all. And the gold lettering clearly ties into the themes and recurring imagery of the Frost poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," which figures prominently in this tale of the haves and have nots struggling to find their way.

The show's Playbill, outside the theater advertising and most of the media they have shared includes photos of the boys - the Greaser Gang a few Socs - and their Soc ally, Cherry. I think it is an excellent choice to let us see them together, happy, unified and in their accustomed environment. It sets expectations, too, that they are not lookalikes to their film counterparts. These fresh faces represent to new generation of Broadway talent, and that is something to celebrate.

This key art makes me even more excited to see it. Grade: A+

Monday, March 25, 2024

Star-to-Be: John Cardoza

Although I love seeing the complete original cast when I see a new show, many times for one reason or other actors are out at the particular performance I attend. I can't think of a single time I was disappointed when I saw what the understudy had to offer. One time this was the case was when I saw the guy who was on as Phoenix in Jagged Little Pill. I knew almost immediately that this young man was going to have a future on the stage. So far, I've been correct about John Cardoza. With charisma to spare, matinee idol looks and the voice of an angel, he has that "it" factor that eludes a specific definition. Now, he's back on Broadway in the featured role of Younger Noah in The Notebook. He's definitely on his way.

The Notebook's John Cardoza

After earning his BFA in Musical Theater from the Boston Conservatory of Music, he has worked quite a bit. Regional credits include the Stephen Schwartz musical revue, Snapshots at ACT of CT, and Gabe in Next to Normal at TheaterWorks Hartford. Then came Jagged Little Pill at A.C.T and then Broadway where he played the drug dealer/ensemble track while understudying the role of Phoenix. He originated the role of Daniel in the Broadway-aimed The Karate Kid: The Musical, then took over the part of Christian in the 1st National Tour of Moulin Rouge! In the midst of all that, he also created the role of Younger Noah in the world premiere of The Notebook, and came with the production to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on W. 45th Street.

Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook

Next to Normal

Jagged Little Pill

The Karate Kid: The Musical

Moulin Rouge!: The Musical

The Notebook

Friday, March 22, 2024

2023 - 2024 Broadway Musical Logos: Water For Elephants

Broadway's newest circus-themed musical, Water For Elephants, opened its tent for business just last night. So does its key art work well enough to entice theatergoers to buy a ticket? Is it just right for merch sales? Here's what I think:

2023 - 2024 Broadway Musical Logos:
Water For Elephants

For a relatively simple logo, it sure conjures up a lot of thoughts and feelings for me. I love the colors and textures employed here. The dark, worn wood texture, knots, uneven finish and all evoke a rural area in a long gone era, with the orange elephant silhouette looking like it was stenciled on by circus advance men advertising the show's imminent arrival to town. Or maybe it's the same treatment only on the side of a train boxcar. The white lettering, slightly uneven and not uniformly bright suggests both a rush and a weathering, further suggesting that this circus came in a rush, and maybe was here somewhat less than recently. Overall, the implication is that this isn't a premiere traveling menagerie, and that this isn't a modern day event.

The string of simple old-time lights hung with a curve hints at the big top, and the slight opening between the center boards barely contains a much brighter light. What's back there? Why is it so bright? Adventure awaits!

The title font, simple and curved ever so slightly, fairly calls out the "showmanship" of such a spectacle - it draws your attention so that you can grasp it quickly. The curved stem on the "a" playfully suggests an elephant's trunk. Important information, sure. But the star of the show (and the title) is what should and does draw the eye: the stylized shape of an elephant's head.

This image is so appealing, and, in my opinion, one of the best icons for a Broadway show in years. While it incorporates the wooden texture, it takes on a life of its own. The jagged ears are rugged, yet elegant. But the headliner here is the use of acrobats to create the head and trunk of the titular pachyderm. (The animated version that plays on the Imperial Theatre's marquee is mesmerizing.) Not since Cats' iconic logo image have the human and animal elements of a show been so cleverly, so poignantly, been integrated.

It's been some time since I've wanted a show t-shirt. I may just invest in one when I see the show next month. Grade: A+

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Play It Again: South Pacific's "I'm In Love With a Wonderful Guy"

PLAY IT AGAIN: “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” 

For this new series, Jeff has invited me to choose some classic Broadway show tunes and compare versions of these songs from several different cast recordings. Wherever possible, I’ll link to the songs on YouTube, where I listen to most of them myself.

This week I compare five versions of “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” from
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Finding herself on an exotic island at the height of the war, American nurse Nellie Forbush exults in her newfound love for a distinguished French man despite his questionable past. As you can see, this role and this song have been blessed with the unique talents of five legendary performers (actually more than that, since you can also find recordings out there featuring Kiri Te Kanawa and several other leading ladies). For pure listening pleasure, I’m happy to recommend each of these fine recordings; choosing my favorite in each category, and the big winner, was a particular challenge this week.

My overall favorite version is marked with two stars (**); one star (*) is used to indicate that a particular version stands out in terms of singing, orchestra, sound, or other miscellaneous qualities. (Note that there’s a tie in the “singing” category this time around.)

- YouTube

Nellie Forbush: Mary Martin

*SINGING: Martin’s famously pure voice really shines in this song. Her singing is classically beautiful, but with personality to spare and lots of variety. There are passages that are perfectly smooth and others that are notably clipped, and relatively quiet passages that develop into jubilant shout-singing when she reaches the title words.

ORCHESTRA: The orchestration is quite brassy throughout, which doesn’t seem quite as appropriate as the breezier orchestrations heard on a couple of the other versions below. The introductory verse especially calls for something a little more supple. The energetic dance break does sound great, though.

SOUND: This pre-stereo, pre-Lieberson recording can’t compete with later versions, with much more distortion than we’re used to with LPs from the mid-1950s and onward. The orchestra is also very quiet.

MISCELLANEOUS: This one has the slowest tempo (judging by the length of the track) but doesn’t drag in any perceptible way. (There’s not a whole lot I’ll be saying in this category, to be honest. Usually there are some significant differences in tempo, in what is included on the recording, or in the actual words and music, but not this time.)

- YouTube

Nellie Forbush: Mitzi Gaynor

SINGING: Gaynor’s voice isn’t as dynamic or intense as Martin’s, but she does create a unique, vulnerable personality with her sometimes breathy (or breathless) delivery. The end is a bit of a let-down; her voice merges completely with the chorus rather than standing out against it.

*ORCHESTRA: As I’ve noted before, movie soundtracks often have an advantage in this area, with greater resources in terms of time and personnel, and that’s definitely true here. But I also simply like the mellower, less brass-centered approach. I especially enjoyed the dark, somewhat exotic touches in the verse. 

SOUND: Fairly clear, and balanced, but a little distant and flat compared to some later recordings.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo sounds quite brisk.

- YouTube

Nellie Forbush: Florence Henderson

SINGING: Henderson’s voice is very pleasant throughout, but probably with the least variety in her vocal style; consequently, her characterization is not especially detailed. At least until the very end, where her zesty repetition of “I’m in love!” over the chorus makes for the best finale of the bunch.

ORCHESTRA: Kind of a middle-ground between the film soundtrack and the Broadway orchestration, it’s mostly string-oriented, with brass and woodwind for color. The brass does take over in the dance break, but it’s not overwhelming. 

*SOUND: Very clear and perfectly balanced; orchestral details are beautifully preserved.

MISCELLANEOUS: Moderate in tempo. 

- YouTube

Nellie Forbush: Reba McEntire

SINGING: McEntire, it goes without saying, brings her own delightful style to the song. There are some noticeable limitations in terms of enunciation and breath control, but it’s hard to compare this version to the others, which were recorded in a studio rather than on stage.

ORCHESTRA: Quite similar to both of the Broadway versions (original and revival).

SOUND: Quite good; clear and balanced.

MISCELLANEOUS: Probably the fastest version, or at least it gives that impression. This is a live recording, with a few stray noises and audience applause at the end.


Nellie Forbush: Kelli O’Hara

*SINGING: Although O’Hara at first seems more restrained than Martin, she reaches similar heights as the song progresses. The verse and beginning of the song itself are quite reserved, but she builds nicely to full-throated exultation when she finally declares that she’s in love. I like her self-deprecating vocal touches on individual words (like “conventional” and “trite”), and the chorus-backed finale is almost as vivid as Henderson’s.

ORCHESTRA: Similar to the original and Carnegie Hall recordings, i.e., a little brass-intensive for my taste.

SOUND: The balance between singer and orchestra is good, but the overall impression is a bit flat, with some orchestral details lost in the mix.

*MISCELLANEOUS: This one is the fastest by track length, but it didn’t seem rushed at all.

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