Broadway, it’s cold outside. Come indoors, then, and enjoy two first-rate musicals, one a revival, the other an Off Broadway transfer.
The revival, Once on This Island, hails from 1990, when it received eight Tony nominations on its way to becoming a repertory favorite. For this remounting set designer Dane Laffrey has transformed Circle in the Square into a Caribbean paradise, worse for wear after a fierce storm. The parallel to Puerto Rico in its present crisis is unmistakable, but fantasy, and tragic romance, is the subject here, not politics. Come early and enjoy the in-character comings and goings of the cast, which includes a live chicken and goat.
Currently represented as well on Broadway with Anastasia, veteran composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty based this show on Rosa Guy’s 1985 star-crossed romance My Love, My Love, which was rooted in The Little Mermaid. But this isn’t Disney, and instead island flavorings are added to Romeo and Juliet. The storyline is simple: Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore), a peasant girl from one side of an island, rescues the well-born Daniel (Isaac Powell), driving during a storm from the other side, from a car crash. But the embroidery, expressed mostly through song, is complex. The crash was arranged by one of the island gods, as a test to see if love is stronger than death. The guileless Ti Moune, who herself was rescued by the gods as an infant, offers her life in exchange for his. Both their lives are spared, though this arrangement will have consequences as the course of true love does not run smooth.
The underlying gloom of the piece is offset by the irresistible pull of the music (from gentle ballads to full-throated showstoppers), the wonderful multicultural (and gender-fluid) cast, and that gorgeous production. (Director Michael Arden and Laffrey collaborated on the equally spellbinding Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening.) The tempestuous gods, including the once-and-forever Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga, as the love goddess Erzulie and Glee‘s Alex Newell as the iron-lunged Mother Earth, are a lot of fun. Fate conspires against the young lovers, but it does so in the guise of a full-fledged charm offensive. Buy a ticket and bask in the Island sun.
You can’t see everything…and I’ve made my peace with missing last season’s Tony winner, Dear Evan Hansen. (I’m content with the cast album. Maybe someday.) But sometimes things work out. Scheduling interfered with me seeing The Band’s Visit Off Broadway in December 2016, and given good reviews and awards attention I regretted it. Happily the band is back together again on Broadway, at the Barrymore, and what sweet music they make.
Based closely on the acclaimed 2007 film, The Band’s Visit is the Seinfeld of musicals: It’s upfront about telling you that it’s a show about nothing. The setting is Israel’s Negev desert, where in 1996, a police band from Egypt arrives for a cultural performance at an Arab arts center. But they’ve bungled the directions and having wound up at a one-cafe village are obliged to spend the night with the townspeople until the next bus arrives the next day. Meals are shared. There’s roller-skating. But no politics, where you expect the show might head. Love is in the air but it wafts in an unexpected direction, and only fleetingly. The bus comes. Curtain.
Yet the evening contains many surprises. (This ties with Once on This Island as the best of several new shows running an intermissionless 90 minutes on Broadway.) Throughout the show, confidences are exchanged. The primary sharers are the band’s leader, Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub), and cafe owner Dina (Katrina Lenk). They speak, haltingly and humorously, of lost loves and missed opportunities. The theme of the show, adapted by Itamar Moses, is that such talk of shared experiences is what binds people from different cultures, however briefly. But without strong speakers there wouldn’t be much at all too it. Great acting is what The Band’s Visit has in spades, however: Shalhoub is very much a national treasure, particularly on stage, and he and Lenk duet in one number, “Something’s Different.” (Monk sings!) Song-wise, it’s Lenk, an amusingly caustic and seductive chanteuse, who carries the material, never so movingly than with the time’s-gone-by number “Omar Sharif,” which joins the pantheon of terrific songs about actual people. With The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to his credit, Tony-nominated composer David Yazbek excels in the art of screen-to-stage translation, and this is another gem, expansive music for a modestly sized piece. (Musicians play some of the band members, and they put on quite an encore performance once the show proper ends.)
A piece that has been given a jewel-box presentation by director David Cromer, with a particularly strong assist by scenic designer Scott Pask, deftly manning the turntable set that encompasses the whole town. How rewarding it was to see what’s sure to be in contention for this year’s best musical at the Tonys.