A LOOK BACK AT SOME FAVORITE 2014 BROADWAY SHOWS

Shari HedwigHedwig and the Angry Inch: This show has become a cult favorite, with many fans returning to see the show time after time, despite (or perhaps because of) the rotating cast of Hedwigs. I admit that I am somewhat obsessed with the show, a condition precipitated by Neil Patrick Harris’s memorably heart-breaking performance as the original Broadway Hedwig. (I called it “the performance of a lifetime”). I saw the show a second time, with the talented Andrew Rannells (Tony nominated for The Book of Mormon) who created an angrier, less vulnerable, Hedwig. And yes, I have my ticket for an upcoming third performance, when John Cameron Mitchell (who starred in the original off-Broadway and film versions of Hedwig and wrote the show’s book), will once again don gold platform boots and step into the role. (Stay tuned). Lena Hall, a Tony winner for her role as Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak, remains in the show.

Disgraced: This is probably the best new play I saw in 2014, and fortunately for theatre-goers, it still graces the stage of the Lyceum Theatre. Ayad Ahktar’s tale of an upwardly mobile Pakistani/American attorney’s rapid fall deservedly won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The 5-person cast that includes Hari Dhillon, Gretchen Mol, and “How I Met Your Mother’s” Josh Radnor, does a splendid job, but here, “the play’s the thing.” Ahktar’s daring and insightful writing creates moments that both illuminate and shock, providing much food for thought and post-performance discussion.

Side Show PlaybillSide Show: Critics adored this revamped production of the 1997 original. Yet somehow it just never found its audience (or enough of an audience to satisfy the Jujamcyn organization). Like its predecessor, Side Show closed too soon, giving its final performance on January 4, just 7 weeks after opening night. I thought it was brilliant, touching, and riveting, with amazing performances by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett as the Hilton sisters. I called it “the best show you’ve never seen,” and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see it.

A Raisin in the Sun: The 2014 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s much-reprised and greatly admired play was as fine a staging as we’ll ever see. Although the cast member with the most star power was Denzel Washington (as Walter Lee Younger), it was the women (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okonedo, and Anika Noni Rose) who shined the brightest. All three were nominated for Tonys, and when I saw the play, my feeling was, “Give LaTanya the Tony right now!” (But who can compete with the genius Audra McDonald? (See below).

Lady DayLady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill: While Lanie Robertson’s play depicts jazz legend Billie Holiday at a low point in her career, Audra McDonald’s performance in Lady Day shows us a great talent at the height of her powers. McDonald won a record-setting sixth Tony Award (for Best Actress in a Play) for her unforgettable performance in this show, where, in contrast to the performance she reenacts, she played to sold-out audiences night after night. It was painful to witness the portrayal of decline and despair of a singular talent like the Billie Holiday at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, but at the same time it was uplifting to witness the brilliance of the gifted performer Audra McDonald in remembering and honoring the late great Lady Day.

Also Memorable: All the Way, Casa Valentina, Cabaret, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Love Letters, Rocky, Honeymoon in Vegas (Opens January 15)

Worst Shows of the Year: The Realistic Joneses, Bullets Over Broadway, Somewhere Fun (Off-Broadway)

See you on the Aisle in 2015!

Erin Davie

2014 TONY PREDICTIONS

Image

Well, the Tony Awards are tomorrow evening, so if I don’t get my picks down on virtual paper right now, it’ll be too late!

It’s been a really terrific theatre season, with many memorable performances. For the most part, the 2014 nominations are spot on, with just a couple of oversights on the part of the nominating committee. For example, as I wrote in a previous post, I feel that nominating 3 of the 4 performers in The Glass Menagerie (as deserving as they are), while omitting the amazing Zachary Quinto, is just wrong. And many theatre people feel that Bridges of Madison County should have been nominated for Best Musical, especially since the committee chose only 4 shows instead of a maximum of 5. Although Bridges (which closed early) was mostly underwhelming, despite some lovely tunes, both Kelli and her co-star Steven Pasquale (also overlooked) gave touching, vocally gorgeous performances.

I have seen all 5 nominated plays and many of the 7 nominated musicals/musical revivals. (I’ll be seeing If/Then 2 days after the Tonys, so I’ll report back on that one).

So let’s get to my picks for the top categories:

Best Play:  All the Way

The critics loved it, it’s a well-crafted (albeit too long) play covering an important event in American history (the passage of the Civil Rights Act), with an all-pro cast led by a TV star. Bam, done.

Best Play Revival: Twelfth Night

This Globe Theatre production (done in repertory with Richard III) was a groundbreaker and received lots of critical acclaim. Although The Glass Menagerie was a brilliant production all around (and it has never won the Tony), I don’t see its standing up against Twelfth Night.

Best Actor in a Play: Bryan Cranston (All the Way)

Best Featured Actor in a Play: Mark Rylance (Twelfth Night)

I’m bundling these together, as critics’ darling Mark Rylance is nominated in both categories. I predict Tony voters will honor him with the Best Featured Actor Tony for his celebrated drag performance in Twelfth Night instead of his star turn in Richard III. Cranston won the Drama Critics Award for Best Actor and I think he’ll take home the Tony as well.

Best Actress in a Play: Audra McDonald (Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill)

I haven’t yet seen Ms. Audra’s performance. And I think it’s odd that a performance that includes a dozen songs is considered a play instead of musical. Personally, I wanted to give LaTanya Richardson Jackson the Tony for Best Actress when the curtain came down on A Raisin in the Sun—she deserves it. But my Ouija board tells me that Audra, who already has 5 Tonys (also well-deserved) will soon need additional space on her mantle.

Best Featured Actress in a Play: Celia Keenan-Bolger (The Glass Menagerie)

All of the nominated actresses gave very strong, critically acclaimed performances. Both Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose were really fine in A Raisin in the Sun, but how to choose one over the other? They will cancel each other out. I’m going with another critics’ darling, Celia Keenan-Bolger. Who doesn’t just love her?

Best Musical: A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder

GGLAM leads with 10 nominations and it’s going to win a few, including the big one. It’s a clever, delightful, entirely unique show which is also a critics’ favorite.

Best Musical Revival: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

No contest. Take this one to the bank. (If we want to nitpick, which of course we do, we should mention that 2 of the 3 musicals nominated in this category, Hedwig and Violet, are not technically revivals, as they have never been staged on Broadway). So, GGLAM, say thank you to the Tony nominating committee.

Best Actor in a Musical: Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)

The performance of the season. Maybe the performance of NPH’s lifetime, in its astonishing divineness. No contest, even in this especially outstanding group of actors. Sorry, Jefferson Mays; bad luck that your show opened in the same season as Hedwig, because otherwise the Tony would be yours! (Unless there’s a tie. That would be lovely!).

Best Featured Actor in a Musical: James Monroe Iglehart (Aladdin)

Another sure thing. Iglehart stops the show 8 times a week with his high energy performance of “A Friend Like Me.”

Best Actress in a Musical: Jessie Mueller (Beautiful—The Carole King Musical)

I’ve only seen a couple of numbers from this show, but word is that although the show isn’t fabulous, Mueller is. However, many Tony voters feel that although Bridges didn’t live up to its potential given the talent involved, Kelli O’Hara was, as always, just breathtaking to listen to and watch. (And I agree). This could be the one big upset (and there is always one) of this year’s Awards. And although the angelic-voiced Ms. O’Hara has been nominated 5 times, she hasn’t won, yet.

Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman’s Guide)

I’m not 100% sure about this one. I’d love Lena Hall to win, but there’s only so much Hedwig love to go around. So I’m betting on the delightful Lauren Worsham in A Gentleman’s Guide.

And finally, the Tonys for Best Director:

Best Direction of a Play: Tim Carroll (Twelfth Night)

Best Direction of a Musical: Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder)

Both of these productions presented unique theatrical visions, in the case of Twelfth Night, a creative take on Shakespeare, and for GGLAM, a brilliant staging of a new complicated work.

Congratulations to all the nominees (and everyone who brought so much pleasure to the theatre-going public this year)! We can’t wait to see what you do next.

All the Way

Neil Simon TheatreAll the Way cropped

Shari on the Aisle Rating: **1/2

Director:  Bill Rauch

Playwright: Robert Schenkkan

Lead Cast: Bryan Cranston (President Lyndon Baines Johnson), Robert Petkoff (Sen. Hubert Humphrey), John McMartin (Sen. Richard Russell), Michael McKean (J. Edgar Hoover), Brandon J. Dirden (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), Rob Campbell (Gov. George Wallace and others), Betsy Aidem (Lady Bird Johnson and others).

In a Nutshell: The time is November, 1963-November, 1964. LBJ, a self-described “accidental president,” is trying to convince Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill while planning his strategy for the upcoming presidential election. Political deals are struck. Threats are made. Tempers flare. Although this is a pivotal time in American history, and the play is a laudable effort to educate those too young to remember the events that took place, obviously we know how things are going to turn out. The bill becomes law (minus the voting rights component) and Johnson wins the 1964 election against Republican Barry Goldwater. Certainly, as evidenced by the film Lincoln, which All the Way parallels in many ways, we know how gripping the back story of passing an important piece of legislation can be. However, although the events depicted in the play—both in the South and in Washington—are quite dramatic and well expressed, at just shy of three hours, All the Way is way too long.

Let’s Talk about Bryan Cranston: Although Cranston is no stranger to the theatre, All the Way marks his Broadway debut. He is of course best known for his performance as Walter White in the hit television series Breaking Bad. Cranston won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series three consecutive times for his work on the show—the first person to do so since Bill Cosby in the 1960s. Here’s the good news: Cranston is a hell of an actor. He is on stage for nearly the entire performance, and he does a terrific job capturing LBJ’s cantankerous brand of Texan bravado. Supposedly, he wears heel lifts to appear taller than he really is, but he’s so thin that when Lady Bird refuses him gravy for his pork chops because he needs to diet, it momentarily breaks the suspension of disbelief.

In Addition: The large cast is made up of many seasoned Broadway veterans, including: Michael McKean (The Best Man, Superior Donuts, Pajama Game, etc.), John McMartin (Into the Woods, High Society, Sweet Charity, Don Juan, etc)., and Brandon J. Dirden (Clybourne Park, Enron, Prelude to a Kiss). Everyone does a fine job. The single set, by Christopher Acebo, is creatively used to form spaces depicting the houses of Congress as well as various meeting venues for civil rights leaders and politicians. Projections designed by Shaw Sagady help shed light on various historical events of the time, heightening their sense of immediacy.

About the Title: Until late in the play the title held no meaning for me. Then, during the heated presidential election, Johnson’s supporters shouted his campaign slogan, “All the Way with LBJ!” Ah-ha!

Trivia: From 1994 to 1997, Bryan Cranston appeared on Seinfeld as Dr. Tim Whatley, Jerry’s dentist. Playwright Robert Schenkkan is also an actor. He portrayed Lieutenant Commander Dexter Remmick in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Bottom Line: All the Way is an intelligent play with excellent production values that highlights a pivotal time in U.S. history, although it can seem a bit pedantic at times. No doubt many non-theatre goers will buy a ticket to see Walter White in person, and that’s a good thing. However, both the play and Cranston’s fans would be better served if the production team would shave 20-30 minutes off of the play’s run time. Politics is dramatic, but only to a point.

Discount tickets for All the Way are frequently available at TKTS.