The Broadway phenomenon of the year…is on Netflix, where you (and, finally, I) can see Springsteen on Broadway. But if you care to leave the comfort of your screen at some for the (colder) comfort of Times Square this holiday season, there are other shows that are “boss” along the Great White Way.
Chief among these is The Ferryman, a show that is outsized in every way, with live animals and a baby (an actual baby, not a prop) vying with a cast of nearly two dozen adult performers for our attention. Miraculously, over the course of more than three hours, everyone and everything has a chance to shine. It’s no small thing the way the excellent director Sam Mendes, back with us after a couple of cinematic assignments with 007, whisks the wee one and the nonhuman performers on and off the stage without interrupting the flow of Jez Butterworth’s narrative, which takes its time settling in before locking firmly in place.
After an ominous prologue the main action shifts to a farmhouse belonging to the Carneys, who in Northern Ireland circa 1981 seem to have put the Troubles behind them. The first part of the play is pleasantly bucolic and often quite funny (Butterworth, whose equally sprawling Jerusalem marked the emergence of a major talent after ambitious but often trying plays, based it on stories told by his actress wife, Outlander co-star Laura Donnelly) as we meet Quinn (the great Paddy Considine), his ailing wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), their seven children, and his Cassandra-like aunt, Maggie (Fionnula Flanagan), among numerous others. It gradually emerges that Quinn, a former member of the IRA, is more than a bit taken with Caitlin (Donnelly), the wife of his long-disappeared brother Seamus. It’s Seamus’ remains, recovered from a bog, that were being discussed by IRA members at the top of the show, and suddenly the past comes roaring back, in a series of escalating confrontations. All credit due scenic and costume designer Rob Howell for his perfect realization of a cozy, lived-in environment thriving on borrowed time.
Somewhere between the season highlight of The Ferryman and the dross of King Kong: The Musical is The Lifespan of a Fact, a play that an unheard-of three writers (Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell) have arranged for three actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale, and Cherry Jones). Based on a marathon session of magazine fact-checking that has become legend in the annals of magazine fact-checking lore, this will have much to delight you if you’re a fact-checking fanatic, as every assertion made by a truthy scribe is scrutinized by a freelancer for whom the actual truth is sacrosanct. If you’re not, well, there’s Cannavale as the macho author, Radcliffe as the dweeby fact-checker who flies to Las Vegas to buttonhole him, and Jones as the exasperated editor, all good company for 87 minutes. (Not the 85 minutes I read in other reviews; I checked.)
Also based on a true story (but veering far from it) is The Prom, thus far the most delightful musical comedy of the season. When news about Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), an Indiana teen who has been barred from prom for being a lesbian, reaches New York a quartet of faded theater performers decides to enter a PR-friendly “celebrity activist” phase and hit the sticks, for a cheerfully outrageous cultural clash. “We are liberal Democrats from Broadway!” announce Dee Dee (the formidable Beth Leavel was out when I saw it, replaced by a fab Kate Marilley), Barry (Brooks Ashmanskas), Angie (Angie Schworer), and Trent (Christopher Sieber), as they barge into a town meeting and bring the blue to the red state. A skeptical Emma would rather they not assist, but the narcissists are undeterred: “We’re gonna help that little lesbian whether she likes it or not,” says Barry. And so they do, with unexpected consequences for our self-involved heroes and their bamboozled foes.
No one does this sort of showbiz satire better than co-writer Bob Martin and director Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone), and the performers, Broadway babies all, trigger a rainbow of laughs. Some good jokes are also embedded in the songs, by co-writer Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar, with the requisite anthems as Emma finds her voice. I succumb easily to this sort of thing, an ideal diversion for a cold winter’s night, and the cast and production make it difficult to resist. When, in a number spoofing diversity and inclusion, the performers stopped singing and began signing (badly)–I was on the floor. Make a date for The Prom.