As the 2013-2014 Broadway season wound down I was spending a lot of time at the theatre, which means I spent a fair amount of time at the movies, too. We’ve seen musicals of Big Fish, The Bridges of Madison County, and Kind Hearts and Coronets, and a play of A Time to Kill. The results were thumbs sideways: The funny and tuneful A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (from Kind Hearts) is killer, leading in both Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations. Bridges boasts some good songs from Jason Robert Brown (in the vein of his evergreen The Last Five Years) and a moving performance from Kelli O’Hara as the frustrated Francesca amidst a lot of dawdling to size a rightful chamber piece to the Schoenfeld, which after an unsuccessful engagement it will depart on May 18. Big Fish and A Time to Kill faded faster.
Broadway abhors a vacuum, so musicals of Rocky, Aladdin, and Bullets Over Broadway, all derived from original screenplays, have moved in. Rocky, the most improbable, is also the least successful of the three–but it’s not at all bad, just a little uninspired. The new songs, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, aren’t their best work (their resume includes the Tony-winning Ragtime, plus My Favorite Year and A Man of No Importance, so they’re old hands at movie musicalization) and are overpowered by “Gonna Fly Now” and “Eye of the Tiger,” streamed from Rocky III. Co-writer Sylvester Stallone might have given collaborator Thomas Meehan (The Producers) license to open up his Oscar-nominated screenplay more, beyond giving Adrian three sassy gal pals to hang out and sing with at the pet shop. (Why always three? Aladdin has two trios of sassy friends, one male and two female, to buddy up with its leads, too.)
That you’re not chuckling or cringing throughout attests to genuine merit, however. Rather than “do” the indelible Stallone or Talia Shire, stars Andy Karl and Maggie Seibert, both getting Rocky-ish big breaks here, refresh the roles with their own personality, and one of my favorite stage actors, Danny Mastrogiorgio, hams it up royally as Paulie, destroying Thanksgiving and Christmas before rallying behind the Italian Stallion before his redemptive New Year’s bout. The conceited Apollo Creed is a natural for song and dance, and Terence Archie cuts loose with both before the final match.
After Here Lies Love (returned to the Public after last season’s award-winning run) and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson this was, on paper, a fairly generic, let’s-try-this-out-in-Hamburg-first assignment for the innovative director Alex Timbers, and flat staging grounds “Gonna Fly Now.” Having Christopher Akerlind give the lighting a noir cast was a flavorful touch. Clearly a choice was made to reserve the Broadway bigness for the finale, in which a good chunk of the orchestra of the Winter Garden (hello again after decades-long runs of Cats and Mamma Mia!) transforms into a boxing ring, so stunningly you half expect Optimus Prime to leap out of the pit and thank you for coming. This is a TKO for set designer Chris Barreca and the automation team, and you watch elated.
Aladdin, a Disney blockbuster in 1992, hails from Disney Theatrical, which knows from adaptation. Usually, that is–Beauty and the Beast was a good start onstage, and The Lion King a genuine phenomenon. But Tarzan and The Little Mermaid, far shorter-lived on Broadway, were clunkily produced, tarnishing “the brand.” Newsies, which had the good sense to toss out much of its source, was a pleasant return to basics, and that continues with Aladdin. With limited options to reproduce the animated action, the musical (augmented with new tunes, some of which didn’t make the final cut onscreen) settles for kitschy, Kismet-style staging, taking flight on the magic carpet for the Oscar-winning “A Whole New World.” (The impact is obscured by a pulsating star curtain the first time it’s sung, but the reprise is staged minus the frou-frou, and it’s a how-did-they-do-that wow.) Somehow Aladdin, a movie with a princess, has become an official “princess movie,” so the character is more assertive and has more to do, which pleased my five-year-old daughter, whose first Broadway show this was. Making Dad happy was the casting of Jonathan Freeman, the silkily sinister voice of Jafar in the film, as Jafar in the flesh, and no opportunity for villainy is lost in translation. (Iago has become a wisecracking dwarfish sidekick, played by Don Darryl Rivera.)
Aladdin himself is played by a scrappy charmer, Adam Jacobs, a veteran of Disney shows, who makes sweet music with Courtney Reed’s Jasmine. Without a good Genie, however, the show would flounder–and it has a delightful one in James Monroe Iglehart (Memphis), who has the sass and verve of Robin Williams, plus a bit of the gravitas of the great Rex Ingram, the Genie from The Thief of Bagdad (1940). A more than fair trade, and my wish for my daughter to be enchanted came true. “Daddy, when will Frozen be a musical?” she asked when we exited the New Amsterdam, itself a magical venue. From your lips to Disney Theatrical’s ears, sweetheart.
My favorite of the new adaptations, Bullets Over Broadway, is also the most puzzling. Not for anything in the show itself, which does what it needs to do, and does it extremely well: director Susan Stroman has broadened the 1994 farce, adding a car, a dog (two other season enders, Of Mice and Men and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, have them), and a chorus of singing hot dogs, while Woody Allen, co-author of the Oscar-nominated screenplay (with Douglas McGrath), has deepened it. The preview performance I caught went over like a house afire, and I’m sure it’s knocking them dead at the St. James, the home of Stroman’s past triumph of transposition, The Producers. But my brethren seemed to yawn, and award nominators followed suit: in a weak year for new tuners, neither the Tonys nor the Drama Desks gave it a nod for best musical, preferring, in addition to Rocky and Aladdin and the burned Bridges, a middling revue (After Midnight) and a star-turn dependent jukebox musical (Beautiful: The Carole King Story). “What the fuck gives?” you can hear gangster Cheech muttering.
He has nothing to complain about, actually–both awards bodies gave Nick Cordero (a veteran of Rock of Ages) a nomination for a thoroughly winning performance, one that Allen has made more poignant this time around. You feel for the lug, torn between art and homicide. Allen has augmented all the characters–Brooks Ashmanskas, with an ever-expanding tummy, is a riot as Warner, the stuffed-shirt actor played in the film by Jim Broadbent, and, to my surprise, Betsy Wolfe has brought shading to the role of Greenwich Village gamin Ellen, a non-starter for Mary-Louise Parker. (It’s her unexpectedly torchy voice, offsetting a basic cuteness.) Born to play the “Woody Allen part,” Zach Braff plays it for all its neurotic charm, with that Allen quality in spades. (Long ago the Scrubs star had a role in Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.) And Marin Mazzie, one of those performers who keeps you going to the theatre, is a wow as the vainglorious Helen Sinclair. Were critics mad at a (typically Allen) needledrop score of well-chosen Prohibition-era tunes? Should someone have prevailed upon a living composer to at least write a new ditty called “Don’t Speak” for Helen? Or had movie-into-musical fatigue finally set in? Beats me–I thought it was a gorgeously high-style romp, with the laugh-out-loud fun missing from so much else of the season. Would that Honeymoon in Vegas, Ever After, and Finding Neverland, all said to be waiting in the wings, be as good.