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New millennium theatre memories

Michael D. Jackson in the Broadway theatre district
Michael D. Jackson

This will be my last article as “New York Theatre Scene Examiner,” for I am off to California to return to Theatre Education. Thus ends a wonderful chapter of a life in the theatre and so I thought I would go back through the many theatre reviews I’ve written for Off Off Broadway Review, a blog and a book, New York Stages, as well as, to remember my greatest theatre going experiences. These are the productions that really thrilled me during the 21st Century in New York City.

I landed in New York in March, 2000. The first Broadway show I went to see during my first week as a resident (I had seen many before as a tourist) was a Noël Coward concoction called Waiting in the Wings, which was distinguished by the casting of Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris. I’ll never forget it, though the play itself doesn’t really make my list of true favorites. Without having to go back through my old reviews (I wrote reviews that I never even published about everything I saw as a kind of journal record), I can close my eyes and tell you that the most impressive and meaningful theatre going experiences of the first five years bring to mind four shows.

I have rarely been so moved in the theatre that I had to work to keep from sobbing, but The Laramie Project was one of those shows. The production told the story of the death of Matthew Shepard through interviews with the people of Laramie. I’ve seen it since and it hasn’t quite affected me like that original production. This is probably because the connection between the original cast (who were also the authors), to the people of Laramie they were portraying was direct. No future cast can possibly have that connection. There is also the impact of seeing something for the first time. This play will never be that fresh and that emotionally rich to me again and yet it still works with other actors in it.

Paul Newman showed up on Broadway in a production of Our Town. The production was as lovely as could be and I found myself misty eyed through the wedding scene as well as the ending sequence when Emily returns for her one last day on Earth. Paul Newman was ideal and made the production just a little more special by his presence. Live, in a Broadway theater, that production of Our Town was everything you believe a great Broadway show should be in legendary terms. A Showtime TV filming of the production without a live audience left the production feeling a little low on energy and so it is hard to imagine how special it really was in the theater. However, it is nice that the production was recorded for posterity.

August Wilson, who died in 2005, gave us the theatrically fantastic Gem of the Ocean for the 2004 season. Phylicia Rashad was the star and gave a mammoth performance as an elderly lady who had a direct connection to slavery.

I went to see The Light in the Piazza seven times. The production won most of the Tony Awards in 2005, except for Best Musical. Victoria Clark’s performance was sublime and one of those rare and unique turns on Broadway that future generations should wish they could go back in time to see the way we wonder what Ethel Merman was really like in Gypsy or how opening night of Show Boat or Death of a Salesman might have stirred our imaginations. Actually, you can see her performance from a Live from Lincoln Center airing on PBS if you were smart enough to record it for posterity.

From 2006 through 2007, several plays made a strong impression. This, in an era where the plays always seemed to be short-lived. Even the Tony Award winning Best Play of a season would normally not make it through the summer after winning the accolades. Off Broadway I was particularly taken with Dog Sees God by Bert Royal. This was the little play that could, coming out of the Fringe Festival and winning a commercial run with every young star of TV and the movies packed into it to help the ticket sales. There was nothing really wrong with that idea, for the cast was marvelous, headed by Eddie Kaye Thomas (from the American Pie movies) as Charlie Brown of “Peanuts” fame. This was a story about bullying and gay teenagers coming out using the effective gimmick of showing us what high school was like for the Peanuts gang as they finally started to grow up past the age of ten. The novelty was the hook, but the story was an important expression of the plight of the contemporary teenager.

On Broadway, two British transfers were particularly wonderful. A new play, The History Boys, explored the teen experience in an all boys school as the students prepared to apply for college as History majors. The relationships with their teachers, school and each other illuminated the beauty of humanity even while pointing out the ugly political side of their world. A revival of the World War I. drama, Journey’s End, featured the excellent Hugh Dancy and proved that time had not tarnished a potent human drama of love and sacrifice.

Corum Boy wasn’t a musical per se, but it might as well have been with its live musicians, singing choir and large cast of characters in a kind of Dickensian world. Full of theatrical flourishes, this big play was astonishing as much for simply being produced on Broadway against all economical good sense as for the dynamic story it told. A musical, which was a much smaller show, Spring Awakening, started Off Broadway in a church converted into a theater and moved to Broadway to great acclaim for being fresh, energetic and unlike anything else going in the commercial theatre. The very unconventional nature of the show may have done it in, for it wasn’t one of the really long lasting productions, but it had more substance and ingenuity than most. The show also made big stars out of its romantic leads: Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele.

2008 through 2010 finished off the decade with some big hits and some stunning productions. Lincoln Center’s South Pacific had a perfect cast with Kelly O’Hara washing Paulo Szot right out of her hair. The orchestra was 30 pieces and was highlighted by having the Vivian Beaumont thrust stage slide away to reveal the tuxedoed musicians play the overture in full view.

August: Osage County was another big new play on a three story set with a large cast of warring family members revealing one juicy secret after the other. The story was made into a rather small film that was largely disregarded save for the leading performance by Meryl Streep. Revivals dominated with stand-outs in Neil Simon’s Brighten Beach Memoirs, a cousin of Awake and Sing (also given a very good revival), and The Royal Family delighting in the comedy realm with a touching performance by Rosemary Harris.

A rethinking of Noël Cowards Still Life in the form of Brief Encounter gave a highly theatrical touch to a quietly emotional romantic story by adding technical gimmicks and original songs. The production showed that there was still some unusual creativity to be had on the Broadway stage without dropping chandeliers and helicopters.

Billy Elliot took everything that could be learned from the history of musical theater and plugged it into a sweet story of the boy who gives up boxing lessons for the ballet studio and gets out of his depressed small mining town to become a professional dancer. What was really amazing about this very rich show about the character of a community, was that as the character “Billy” discovers that he has talent as a dancer, we see an actual boy, live on stage, proving to us that he is not just a character, but the real McCoy. Every boy who played Billy was Billy in real life. When each of them sang the character’s expression of his heart’s desire, “Electricity,” we believed every word he sang for the song expressed the very child actor’s own convictions as he owned center stage and proved beyond a doubt that he would succeed in becoming the professional ballet dancer he yearned to be.

A short-lived gem was The Scottsboro Boys. With a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the story of a group of wronged black young men was told in the style of a minstrel show. The concept, not unlike Chicago or Cabaret, of using a theatrical art form as the frame for telling a serious tale worked again like gang-busters. The cast was vocally marvelous and danced up a storm to Susan Stroman’s dynamic staging on a very simple set. It is criminal that the show didn’t find an audience and isn’t still running, for it was more than worthy of a long healthy run.

The last four years brought us a really big mega-hit that was genuinely and originally hysterical, while satisfying as an old fashioned formulaic musical comedy: The Book of Mormon. This show received the kind of screaming laughter that said, “I can’t believe they went there!” The really brilliant thing about it was how it managed to respect religion and tear it down all at the same time.

A very different kind of musical came in the form of Once. There was nothing new about a cast playing their own instruments on stage for accompaniment (think Cabaret, Sweeney Todd and Company), but this time it worked better than ever and a small, sweet love story about humble people barely getting along in the world spoke to everyone’s heart even as its highly original style in presentation proved that the relative simplicity of the live theatre could be as much a thrill as the 3D Hollywood blockbuster.

Three plays in these recent years stood out with Clybourne Park showing what happened to the house that was the center of the plot of Raisin in the Sun as a new way of exploring race relations in different eras. The Nance was a big play with music that told of the demise of the Burlesque era and explored how gay people survived the Depression years in New York. There was interesting history, hilarious entertainment and a heartfelt story of a band of friends who try to make a depressed gay comic’s life (Nathan Lane) a little happier if he would only accept the happiness offered him. Another view of the 1930s came with a revival of the huge Clifford Odets play about the boxing world: Golden Boy. As big as a musical, this production had a stellar cast and an amazing central performance by Seth Numrich. This was the kind of production that makes you feel lucky to be in New York, for as rare as the big plays are, whether new or old, they still happen and with the best people to make them work.

Other notable occurrences of the theatre were three productions of Follies, all with merits, but somehow the last revival with Bernadette Peters at the helm seemed nearly perfect. The New York City Center’s Encores! series continues to delight with simple stagings of rarely produced musicals. Some of these were so splendid that they moved to Broadway. Chicago was the first, but that didn’t happen during this period. Wonderful Town, Finian’s Rainbow and Patti LuPone in Gypsy were the knock-outs that moved to Broadway. Other gems were found in It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, On Your Toes, Fanny, On the Town and The Most Happy Fella.

The award for the most fascinating production of all has to be Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark. It was the most expensive musical ever, had the longest preview period ever and even shut down for a month when the director was fired and a new book writer brought in to salvage the piece, which did have a decent run when you consider how bad the reviews were. In the end it was an elaborate theme park show and plenty of families with their 14 year old boys had a blast watching the high flying Spidy fight the Green Goblin over their heads.

Out of all this Broadway and Off Broadway commercial fare, there are two fringe theater pieces that really stand out in my mind. They didn’t move to commercial venues like Urinetown or Dog Sees God did, but they could have and they should have. They somehow missed the happy accident of the right person sitting in the audience who would have the power to extend the life of these pieces beyond the Fringe. The first was a small play called The Lightening Field by David Ozanich. Fresh and funny, yet dangerous and dramatic, the play was wholly theatrical, as when Ozanich brought on a storm, which grew with the intensity of an eruption between the gay couple central to the story. It was theatricality in the spirit of Tennessee Williams or August Wilson, where intense emotions cause the universe to shift.

The second was a beautifully strange ensemble musical piece: Gertrude Stein Saints. This show came from Theatre Plastique, a program of Carnegie Mellon University. The piece was made up of two texts by Gertrude Stein and the cast all contributed to musicalizing the material in a variety of styles. Mostly performing acapella, the cast acted, sang and danced Gertrude Stein’s words in an entertainment that was truly exhilarating. MFA Directing student Michelle Sutherland pulled it all together to make one of the greatest theatrical experiences I have witnessed in a decade. The good news is that Sutherland and company are still working on expanding the piece and will have a run at the Abrons Art Center in New York this June 12th through the 28th. Do not miss it! Also, this group is still fund-raising for the production. To find out how you can help with this exciting production, go HERE.

There are more shows I suppose, but these are the most unforgettable productions for me and there will be moments from these plays and musicals that come back to me time and again. Good-bye New York theatre scene. I might be living on the other side of the country from now on, but I’ll be back to visit.

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