Spring has arrived in New York, or so it’s rumored. We’re currently in the grip of February weather. So, too, is the theatre season blowing hot and cold, on Broadway and off.
Gale force entertainment is on view at Studio 54, where a sensational revival of She Loves Me is brightening the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 50th anniversary season. The original 1963 production was somewhat lost in a shuffle of shows that included Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly!, but the Roundabout revived it in high style in 1993, and now it’s back to delight a new generation. The source material, Hungarian playwright Miklos Lazlo’s Parfumerie, is well-traveled, having inspired the classic film The Shop Around the Corner (1940), the 1949 musical In the Good Old Summertime, and the modernized hit You’ve Got Mail (1998). An outstanding cast led by my No. 1 Broadway crush object, Laura Benanti (paired with a charming Zachary Levi) and a shimmering production highlighted by David Rockwell’s smoothly transforming set takes it out for another spin, and the results are magical. Suggestion: Its tale of bickering shop workers (who are also uncomprehending pen-pal lovers) is an evergreen, so rather than trot out the likes of Grease and The Sound of Music again why not give this good-to-go crowdpleaser a shot at a live TV telecast? Just a thought. Something you can definitely do if you’re in New York: see She Loves Me, then walk down Broadway and revisit the Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick musical that opened a season later, Fiddler on the Roof, which has also been stirringly revived. Such astounding versatility these two displayed.
Off Broadway the Roundabout has also resurrected The Robber Bridegroom, which ran just long enough in 1976-1977 to win star Barry Bostwick a Tony. Book and lyrics writer Alfred Uhry would have a much bigger hit with Driving Miss Daisy, but the musical has proved a regional favorite. As they did with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, director Alex Timbers and set designer Donyale Werle have gone all in with the down home cracker American trappings, transforming the stage into a Mississippi lodge, where traveling players enact the star-crossed shenanigans of a Eudora Welty short story set in the 18th century. If your taste runs to Southern-fried silliness, deftly delivered, this one’s for you. Even if “antic” doesn’t float your boat, there’s enjoyment to be had in a fable about a backwoods bandit semi-reformed by love among the upper crust, notably in carb-rich performances by lead Steven Pasquale (who most recently played Mark Fuhrman in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson) and Leslie Kritzer as a scheming stepmother. The disembodied head jokes split between a pair of brotherly bad guys made me chuckle.
Welty is name-checked in Bright Star, another bluegrass-fueled concoction now on Broadway. Steve Martin and veteran New Bohemian Edie Brickell have won Grammys for their collaboration on a couple of albums, and their heart was in the right place for a show about love lost and regained in the Blue Ridge mountains. Lacking any wildness or craziness, Martin’s book is too earnest by half, as a hard-hearted literary journal editor (Carmen Cusack) who counts Welty and Hemingway among her stable shepherds a young soldier who hopes to be a writer. The post-World War II setting recedes into the past of the early 1920s, as the low-born editor relives her doomed love affair with a local lad of means, whose terrible resolution caps the first act–but we’ve already figured out the unsurprising twist, and there’s a lot of twanging regret and reconciliation yet to come. (Plus some gay jokes at the expense of the editor’s assistant, apparently to take the must off the scenario.) The music, beautifully played by an orchestra housed in a wood shed on Eugene Lee’s set, is well-served, but on its own it doesn’t generate enough atmosphere to uplift the lackluster proceedings. In her Broadway debut, however, Cusack is truly a bright star in the making.
Timothy Olyphant doesn’t sing in Hold On To Me Darling, but in the first ten minutes of Kenneth Lonergan’s new comedy-drama he says more than he did in six seasons of Justified. Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company he’s playing country-music legend Strings McCrane, who despite flabbergasting fame as a recording artist and movie star has never been able to loosen his mother’s apron strings. When she dies, he decides to find his “real self” by moving back to his hometown in Tennessee, where he buys a feed store with his half-brother (C.J. Wilson) and settles down with a local masseur (Jenn Lyon). But Strings’ narcissism continually collides with his goal, as he gets involved with a distant cousin (Adelaide Clemens) and finds his willful obscurity as much a prison as his fame. Lonergan has come to favor his work (including This is Our Youth and the film You Can Count on Me) having a loose, raw, unfinished feeling about it, and the play, running close to three hours, obliges its star to go around in circles as much as the turntable set. For all the talk, Strings doesn’t give Olyphant many shades to play, and the expends time on digressions, like the baseless rumors regarding Strings’ relationship with his dimwitted assistant (Keith Nobbs). Lyon’s brassier characterization, as a wronged woman straight from his songs, strikes more sparks. A final encounter with a face from Strings’ past deepens the show, and Olyphant’s performance.
More terse, Lucy Prebble’s British import, The Effect, can’t quite decide what it wants to be. After separate interviews looking for paid volunteers, Connie (Susannah Flood) and Tristan (Carter Hudson) are ushered into a drug testing program examining the effects of antidepressants. Haltingly, given different personalities and outlooks, the two fall in love–or is it just the antidepressants kicking in? Are there antidepressants, or just placebos? What of the doctor (Kati Brazda) administering the trial? Many questions are raised, but despite a hot topic in our age of suspect drug trials and a lot of surface buzz with projections, frequent Barrow Street Theatre director David Cromer (Tribes) can’t find much rhythm in Prebble’s issues-packed storytelling, and the energy levels of Flood (too little) and Hudson (too much) could use adjusting. Brazda is just right, but a shift in perspective can’t make the character any less of a device.
Finally, Disaster! Talent of the Tony-level caliber of Faith Prince, Roger Bart, Kerry Butler, and Kevin Chamberlin isn’t tested by a show on the level of a 40-year-old Carol Burnett sketch. Sprinkled with disco tunes, it’s a jukebox parody of 70s disaster movies, about a Manhattan floating casino becoming unmoored and unhinged, and while I applaud the creators for working into the mix the obscure Killer Fish (about piranhas) it doesn’t do more over two acts what Burnett and friends did in a few minutes. That said, Jennifer Simard (who received a Drama Desk nomination for an Off Broadway incarnation) is a riot as a nun with a gambling addiction, and her rendition of “Torn Between Two Lovers” brings the house down. So this threadbare new musical doesn’t, totally, live down to its title.