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What Broadway Shows Should I See? Top 10 Suggestions

“I just want you to pick the shows for me,” an out-of-town friend, planning a visit to New York, said to me recently, exasperated that I was trying to determine his taste in theater before making some recommendations.

This is the time of year when people turn their attention to Broadway, for two reasons — it’s the summer, a good time to visit New York; and their interest is piqued thanks to the annual three-hour TV commercial for Broadway known as the Tony Awards broadcast.

Below are some suggestions, listed alphabetically under several categories, starting with long-time hits. They are recommendations based largely on my taste.

 

FOUR LONG-TIME HIT MUSICALS

These musicals have proven to be audience favorites, but a caveat: The original casts have long since moved on.

THE BOOK OF MORMON
The Eugene O’Neill Theater
Opened: March 24, 2011
Director: Jason Moore and Trey Parker
Twitter feed: @BookofMormonBWY
This musical by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (book), the creators of South Park, and Robert Lopez, one of the composer-lyricists for “Avenue Q” and “Frozen” (music and lyrics) is about the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and his modern disciples. It is outrageous, irreverent in one way, but also deeply reverent to (even while parodying) the best traditions of the Broadway musical.

My review of The Book of Mormon: Ridiculing Religion, Worshiping The Great White Way

Tickets to Book of Mormon

 

THE LION KING

Minskoff Theater (200 West 45th Street)
Opened: November 13, 1997
Twitter: @TheLionKing
Based on the 1994 Disney animated film about the coming-of-age of a young lion in the African jungle, this musical offers African-inflected music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice and the visual magic of Julie Taymor. Taymor is the director, a composer and lyricist for some of the songs. But above all, she is the designer of the costumes, masks, and puppets — and it is these visuals that make this show a good first theatrical experience.

Tickets to Lion King

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Majestic Theater (247 West 44th Street)
Opened: January 26, 1988
Twitter: @PhantomBway
The Phantom of the Opera, based on a 1911 French novel by Gaston Leroux, is about a disfigured genius named Erik who lives in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House and falls in love with Christine, an aspiring singer whom he helps…until an old flame of Christine’s named Raoul steps back into the picture.
However, the story in the musical, written and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber — with more than its share of 1980′s heavy power ballads — is starting to take second place to the story of the musical, which is the longest-running Broadway musical of all time, and the most profitable. I find this show too loud and overwrought for my taste, but it is the one exception I’m making to the list of recommendations based on my personal taste, because it’s a tourist favorite, and admittedly visually stunning – people still ooh at the falling chandelier.

 

Tickets to Phantom of the Opera

 

Wicked NY

WICKED
Gershwin Theater (222 West 51st Street)
Opened: October 30, 2003
Twitter: @WICKED_Musical
The musical tells the story of “The Wizard of Oz” from the witches’ perspective, more specifically from the Wicked Witch of the West, who was not, as a child, wicked at all, but just green-tinted, taunted, and misunderstood. There is so much to like about this musical, the clever twists on the familiar tale, the spectacular set, and music that is a lot more appealing in context (such as the song “Defying Gravity”) that I will forgive the contortions necessary to tack on a happy ending.

Tickets to Wicked

FOUR GREAT NEW PLAYS

Broadway is full of “straight” (non-musical) plays, which don’t tend to have long runs and aren’t publicized as much, but can be more substantive, stimulating and satisfying (and less expensive.)

laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper and Jane Houdyshell

A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2
John Golden Theater (252 West 45th Street)
Opened: April 27, 2017
Twitter: @DollsHousePart2

The main pleasures in A Doll’s House, Part 2, are rooted in the chance to watch four accomplished performers in this compelling, and surprisingly humorous sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, written 138 years after that first play by Lucas Hnath, making his Broadway playwriting debut. Laurie Metcalf is magnificent as Nora, returning home 15 years after she left her husband and children, with an urgent ulterior motive, and encountering Chris Cooper as Nora’s husband Torvald, Jayne Houdyshell as her former nanny Anne Marie, and Condola Rashad as her daughter

More on A Doll’s House Part 2

Tickets to A Doll’s House Part 2

INDECENT
Cort Theatre (138 West 48th Street)
Opened: April 18, 2017
@IndecentBway

There are many reasons to find deep satisfaction in Indecent, a fascinating backstage tale strikingly staged about a century-old Jewish drama entitled “God of Vengeance,” which featured a scandalizing kiss between two women that caused its Broadway cast to be prosecuted for obscenity. It marks the long-delayed Broadway debut of Paula Vogel, who at 65 is one of the theatre community’s most admired playwrights and playwriting teachers.

It is proof that a play can explore a range of frighteningly relevant issues and be simultaneously enlightening, moving and entertaining. There is so much delightful music in the show that it often feels like a musical.

More on Indecent

Tickets to Indecent

OSLO
Vivian Beaumont Theatre
150 West 65th Street
Opened: April 13, 2017

@LCTheater

“Oslo” explores the little-known story of how a Norwegian couple instigated and pushed along the secret negotiations that led to the famous moment when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White House in 1993. The play offers a lucid refresher course on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, provides entertainment that is both surprisingly funny and suspenseful. It also leaves us with a sense that maybe even the world’s most unsettling situations can someday be settled.

More on Oslo

Tickets to Oslo

Khris Davis and Will Pullen

SWEAT
Studio 54 Theatre (254 West 54th Street)
Opened: March 26, 2017
Twitter; @SweatBroadway

Playwright Lynn Nottage won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Drama for this play about a group of friends and family members who hang out in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, which was identified in 2010 as the poorest city in America. Like Grapes of Wrath, it offers a devastating look at social and economic breakdown, told not with rants or statistics, but through a riveting tale about good people in a bad situation.

More on Sweat

Tickets to Sweat

TWO BELOVED NEW MUSICALS

DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Stree
Opened: December 04, 2016
Twitter: @DearEvanHansen

Ben Platt gives an extraordinary performance as Evan Hansen, an anxious high school student with no real friends who becomes the center of attention when a classmate he barely knew commits suicide and, through a misunderstanding, people think that Evan was his best friend.  Evan turns that misunderstanding into a lie, and the lie gets out of hand. The musical offers insights into an array of issues, from adolescent insecurity to the downside of social media, while keeping us emotionally engaged with the characters. The songs by Pasek and Paul are tuneful and deeply felt.

More on Dear Evan Hansen

Tickets to Dear Evan Hansen

Lucas Steele as Anatole and Denee Benton as Natasha

NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812
Imperial Theatre  (249 West 45th Street)
Opened: November 14, 2016
Twitter: @GreatCometBway

They’ve made a party out of what looks on paper like unlikely material —  a sing-through musical with  an unwieldy title based on  70 pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But Dave Malloy’s eclectic score is tuneful, the performances are terrific, and the stagecraft is groundbreaking.  Director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien in particular deserve kudos for re-creating on Broadway something very close to the kind of immersive theater that’s lately been intriguing theatergoers all over the world. (Josh Groban as Pierre leaves in July.)

More on Great Comet

Tickets to Great Comet

 

WHAT ABOUT GREAT CHOREOGRAPHY?

 

Check out Bandstand and On Your Feet (which is closing August 20),

 

WHAT ABOUT HAMILTON?

Javier Munoz and cast

I loved Hamilton,  Off-Broadway ,  on Broadway  and now with the new cast , finding it ground-breaking and breathtaking. You have to decide whether it’s worth spending the kind of money that it would take to get a ticket this summer — and not just from the resellers, but from the show itself, where top ticket prices are $849. My feeling is you shouldn’t need to choose between seeing a show and taking a trip to Europe.

There IS a daily lottery online  where you can try your luck at snagging one of the tickets for only  $10 (because Hamilton’s face is on the ten-dollar bill.)

Tickets to Hamilton

WHAT ABOUT HELLO, DOLLY! AND COME FROM AWAY?

This is my taste, remember?

More on Hello, Dolly!

Tickets to Hello, Dolly!

More on Come From Away

Tickets to Come From Away

 

ON A LIMITED BUDGET?

There ARE ways to get affordable tickets to Broadway shows, especially if you are willing to 1. Wait until the day of the performance, and 2. Live with uncertainty. Getting tickets to a hit Broadway show for as little as $10 (and no more than $80) takes time, luck, knowledge and/or ingenuity. Most shows now have digital lotteries and “rush” tickets. For a show-by-show breakdown on the discounts available, check out Broadway for Broke People

 

DON’T FORGET OFF-BROADWAY

Some of the best shows on Broadway began Off-Broadway. Off-Broadway shows tend to be more adventurous and less expensive. But they also tend to have more limited runs, and be less publicized. Off-Broadway shows don’t get the attention they deserve. A willingness to hunt a little will pay off in a satisfying discovery, and bragging rights possibly for years to come.

Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello

To pick one current example of a terrific show Off-Broadway: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s glorious murderous musical, began in 2014 in Harrington’s, one of London’s oldest working pie shops. An impressively detailed replica of Harrington’s has now set up shop Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theater, including the pies

More on Sweeney Todd (The show now has an All-American cast, led by Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello.)

Tickets to Sweeney Todd

LOOK OUT FOR THE NEXT HIT

Check out my latest monthly calendar of openings to what’s newly available on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway.

 

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Watch Anastasia, A Bronx Tale, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, Great Comet at Stars in the Alley

Performers from more than 20 current Broadway shows offered a free concert in Shubert Alley this week, to celebrate the Broadway season just past, and whet appetites for the Tony Awards on Sunday, June 11th.

Watch below videos of some of the performances

Watch Telly Leung of Aladdin, Corey Cott of Bandstand, Michael Xavier of Sunset Boulevard at Stars in the Alley

Once again, Broadway offered its free two-hour concert in Shubert Alley today, featuring the casts from more than a dozen current musicals.

Below, watch Telly Leung of Aladdin, Corey Cott of Bandstand, and Michael Xavier of Sunset Boulevard.

More to come.

2017 Tony Awards – Who YOU Want As Winners

Here are the results of the survey in which I asked you to pick your personal preferences (not predictions) in 15 of the 24 categories in the 71st annual Tony Awards.

Best Musical

Nominated:Come From Away, Dear Evan HansenGroundhog DayNatasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, 

*Your preference: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,

 

Best Play

Nominated:A Doll’s House, Part 2Indecent  Oslo
Sweat

Your preference: A Doll’s House, Part 2

 

Best Revival of a Musical

Nominated: Hello, Dolly!FalsettosMiss Saigon

Your preference: Hello, Dolly!

 

Best Revival of a Play

Nominated: JitneyPresent LaughterSix Degrees of SeparationThe Little Foxes

Your preference: Jitney

 

Best Lead Actress in a Musical

Nominated: Denee Benton, Great Comet; Christine Ebersole, War Paint; Patti LuPone, War Paint; Bette Midler, Hello Dolly; Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon

Your preference: Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!

Best Lead Actor in a Musical

Nominated: Christian Borle, Falsettos; Josh Groban, Great Comet; David Hyde Pierce, Hello Dolly; Andy Karl, Groundhog Day; Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen
Your preference: Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen

Best Lead Actress in a Play

Nominated: Cate Blanchett, The Present; Jennifer Ehle, Oslo; Sally Field, The Glass Menagerie; Laura Linney, The Little Foxes; Laurie Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Your preference: Laurie Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Best Lead Actor in a Play

Nominated: Denis Arndt, Heisenberg; Chris Cooper, A Doll’s House Part 2; Corey Hawkins, Six Degrees of Separation; Kevin Kline, Present Laughter; Jefferson Mays, Oslo

Your preference: Kevin Kline, Present Laughter

Best Featured Actress in a Musical

Nominated: Kate Baldwin, Hello Dolly; Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen; Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos; Jenn Colella, Come From Away; Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

Your preference: Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen

Best Featured Actor in a Musical

Nominated: Gavin Creel, Hello Dolly; Mike Faist, Dear Evan Hansen; Andrew Rannells, Falsettos; Lucas Steele, Great Comet; Brandon Uranowitz, Falsettos

Your preference: Lucas Steele,Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Best Featured Actress in a Play

Johanna Day, Sweat; Jayne Houdyshell, A Dolls House Part 2; Cynthia Nixon The Little Foxes; Condola Rashad, A Dolls House Part 2; Michelle Wilson, Sweat

Your preference: Cynthia Nixon, The Little Foxes

Best Featured Actor in a Play

Nominated: Michael Aranov, Oslo; Danny DeVito, The Price; Nathan Lane, The Front Page; Richard Thomas, The Little Foxes; John Douglas Thompson, Jitney

Your preference: Danny DeVito, The Price

Best Choreography

Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand; Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, Groundhog Day; Kelly Devine, Come From Away; Denis Jones, Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical; Sam Pinkleton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Your preference: Sam Pinkleton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Best Direction of a Musical

Christopher Ashley, Come From Away; Rachel Chavkin, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen; Matthew Warchus, Groundhog Day The Musical; Jerry Zaks, Hello, Dolly!

Your preference: Rachel Chavkin, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Best Direction of a Play

Sam Gold, A Doll’s House, Part 2
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, August Wilson’s Jitney
Bartlett Sher, Oslo
Daniel Sullivan, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes
Rebecca Taichman, Indecent

Your preference: Sam Gold, A Doll’s House, Part 2

* Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is separated by only a single percentage point from Dear Evan Hansen,
Jitney is separated by three percentage points from The Little Foxes.

More than 350 people have replied to this survey,  which is still open.

2017 Tony Award Winners — YOUR Pick?

Make your pick for 15 of the 24 categories in the 71st annual Tony Awards, honoring Broadway’s best. The awards ceremony will take place on June 11th at Radio Music Hall in New York City. Most of it will be broadcast live on CBS.
.

This is for who and what YOU want to win, not who you think the Tony voters will pick — preference, not prediction. I’ll post the results later this month.

Watch 4 Best Musical Tony Nominees of 2017: Video Highlights

Watch videos from the four Broadway musicals nominated for the 2017 Best Musical Tony Award, listed alphabetically.

Above each of the show’s video(s) is a link to a post with production photographs and my review

Come From Away

Dear Evan Hansen

Groundhog Day

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Bonus videos:

The three videos below are of songs from Great Comet as performed at Bryant Park before the show moved to Broadway. However, the performers from each of the three songs — Amber Gray, Brittain Ashford and Denee Benton — are those who sing the respective songs on Broadway)

2017 Tony Nominees: A Closer Look…and Listen.

Below are 2017 Tony Award nominees who spoke at the Meet the Nominees press reception the day after the announcement, grouped more or less show by show. Click on individual photographs to read sometimes extensive captions that quote what they said about their show or their career or the theater in general.

More to come.

2017 Tony Award Nominations: The Great Comet, Bette’s Show Lead

 

 

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 leads the 2017 Tony Award nominations with twelve, followed by the Bette Midler-starring revival Hello, Dolly! with ten and Dear Evan Hansen with nine. The play A Doll’s House, Part 2 got eight nominations, followed by Oslo with seven.

Complete list below:

The winners of the  71st Tony Awards will be announced in a June 11 ceremony, with host Kevin Spacey, at Radio City Music Hall, broadcast live on CBS.

Best Musical

Dear Evan Hansen
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Groundhog Day
Come From Away

Best Play

Oslo
Sweat
Indecent
A Doll’s House, Part 2

Best Revival of a Musical

Hello, Dolly!
Falsettos
Miss Saigon

Best Revival of a Play

Jitney
Present Laughter
Six Degrees of Separation
The Little Foxes

Best Actress in a Musical

Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!
Patti LuPone, War Paint
Christine Ebersole, War Paint
Denee Benton, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon

Best Actor in a Musical

Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen
Andy Karl, Groundhog Day
David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly!
Christian Borle, Falsettos
Josh Groban, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Best Actress in a Play

Laurie Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2
Jennifer Ehle, Oslo
Cate Blanchett, The Present
Sally Field, The Glass Menagerie
Laura Linney, The Little Foxes

Best Actor in a Play

Kevin Kline, Present Laughter
Jefferson Mays, Oslo
Denis Arndt, Heisenberg
Chris Cooper, A Doll’s House, Part 2
Corey Hawkins, Six Degrees of Separation

Best Book of a Musical

Come From Away
Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Dear Evan Hansen
Steven Levenson

Groundhog Day The Musical
Danny Rubin

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Dave Malloy

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

Come From Away
Music & Lyrics: Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Dear Evan Hansen
Music & Lyrics: Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

Groundhog Day The Musical
Music & Lyrics: Tim Minchin

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Music & Lyrics: Dave Malloy

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Michael Aronov, Oslo

Danny DeVito, Arthur Miller’s The Price

Nathan Lane, The Front Page

Richard Thomas, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes

John Douglas Thompson, August Wilson’s Jitney

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Johanna Day, Sweat

Jayne Houdyshell, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Cynthia Nixon, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes

Condola Rashad, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Michelle Wilson, Sweat

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!

Mike Faist, Dear Evan Hansen

Andrew Rannells, Falsettos

Lucas Steele, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Brandon Uranowitz, Falsettos

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly!

Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos

Jenn Colella, Come From Away

Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen

Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

Best Scenic Design of a Play

David Gallo, August Wilson’s Jitney

Nigel Hook, The Play That Goes Wrong

Douglas W. Schmidt, The Front Page

Michael Yeargan, Oslo

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Rob Howell, Groundhog Day The Musical

David Korins, War Paint

Mimi Lien, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly!

Best Costume Design of a Play

Jane Greenwood, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes

Susan Hilferty, Present Laughter

Toni-Leslie James, August Wilson’s Jitney

David Zinn, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Best Costume Design of a Musical

Linda Cho, Anastasia

Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly!

Paloma Young, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Catherine Zuber, War Paint

Best Lighting Design of a Play

Christopher Akerlind, Indecent

Jane Cox, August Wilson’s Jitney

Donald Holder, Oslo

Jennifer Tipton, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Howell Binkley, Come From Away

Natasha Katz, Hello, Dolly!

Bradley King, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Japhy Weideman, Dear Evan Hansen

Best Direction of a Play

Sam Gold, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, August Wilson’s Jitney

Bartlett Sher, Oslo

Daniel Sullivan, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes

Rebecca Taichman, Indecent

Best Direction of a Musical

Christopher Ashley, Come From Away

Rachel Chavkin, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen

Matthew Warchus, Groundhog Day The Musical

Jerry Zaks, Hello, Dolly!

Best Choreography

Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand

Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, Groundhog Day The Musical

Kelly Devine, Come From Away

Denis Jones, Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical

Sam Pinkleton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Best Orchestrations

Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen, Bandstand

Larry Hochman, Hello, Dolly!

Alex Lacamoire, Dear Evan Hansen

Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

 

Nominations per Production:
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 – 12
Hello, Dolly! – 10
Dear Evan Hansen – 9
A Doll’s House, Part 2 – 8
Come From Away – 7
Groundhog Day The Musical – 7
Oslo – 7
August Wilson’s Jitney – 6
Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes – 6
Falsettos – 5

War Paint – 4
Indecent – 3
Present Laughter – 3
Sweat – 3
Anastasia – 2
Bandstand – 2
The Front Page – 2
Miss Saigon – 2
Six Degrees of Separation – 2

Arthur Miller’s The Price – 1
The Glass Menagerie – 1
Heisenberg – 1
Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical – 1
The Play That Goes Wrong – 1
The Present – 1

 

Shows with no nominations: Amelie, A Bronx Tale, Cats, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Cherry Orchard, In Transit, Les Liaison Dangereuses, Paramour, Significant Other, Sunset Boulevard,

* * *

Recipients of Awards and Honors in Non-competitive Categories

Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre

James Earl Jones

Special Tony Award

Gareth Fry & Pete Malkin, Sound Designers for The Encounter

Regional Theatre Tony Award

Dallas Theater Center

Dallas, TX

Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award

Baayork Lee

Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre

Nina Lannan

Alan Wasser

Bandstand Review: Corey Cott, Laura Osnes in Postwar Blues and Jitterbugs

“Bandstand,” a new musical about a group of traumatized World War II veterans who form a 40’s jazz band with a Gold Star widow as their singer, attempts to combine an original score of period music and exciting dance with an exploration of the toll that war takes on soldiers, not just in combat but once they return to civilian life.

The show, the last of the 20 musicals that opened on Broadway in the season just ended (seven of them revivals), is one of the few to try to ground its entertainment in a serious issue. That ambition makes it stand out. It surely says something that both “Anastasia” and “Groundhog Day” include glib jokes about Cleveland, while “Bandstand” is set in Cleveland. (There is even an ode to that city, “I Got A Theory.”)

But the show has much more than good intentions going for it.

Click on any photograph by Jeremy Daniel to see it enlarged

The cast, led by two rising Broadway stars, Corey Cott and Laura Osnes, is pitch-perfect, not only acting persuasively but also actually playing their musical instruments, backed by an unseen 13-piece orchestra. The catchy, beat-happy score by Robert Oberacker, making his Broadway debut, pays homage to the big band era of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, offering swing, boogie-woogie, jazz and blues. (The zesty orchestrations have already been nominated for both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards; the Tony nominations will be announced next week.)

Director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who won Tony Awards for his choreography of both In The Heights and Hamilton, seamlessly nods to 1940s popular dances like the jitterbug in coming up with some lively, inventive moves, performed by some terrific dancers. One number, “Right This Way,” is an effective and moving comment in dance on the veterans’ plight: A band member struggles to move forward, weighed down by a man leaning on each shoulder, until he takes a pill, and they gracefully fall away – the horrid memory of his fallen comrades tempered, at least temporarily, by medication.

Similarly, “Welcome Home,” the last of the show’s 16 songs, is a fiercely delivered litany of the pain of returning veterans, which got a standing ovation the night I attended.

All of this terrific entertainment and artistry is arranged around a plot that also recalls the 1940s, but ultimately not in a good way. The book, written by Oberacker and Robert Taylor, who is also his co-lyricist, focuses on Donny Novitzki (Cotts), starting with a scene of him in combat with his best friend Michael, who dies. Back home, damaged psychologically by what went down overseas and unable to find a job, he hears on the radio that NBC and MGM are sponsoring a song contest in honor of veterans, the winning song to be featured in a Hollywood movie. Donny decides then and there to put together a band of veterans, a self-admitted gimmick that he hopes will tilt the contest in their favor.

In the song “I Know A Guy,” Donny, a pianist, finds his band, first an acquaintance of his dead buddy Michael, saxophonist Jimmy (James Nathan Hopkins.) Jimmy leads Donny to bass player Davy (Brandon J. Ellis), a soldier who helped liberate Dachau, and now drinks to forget. Davy recommends trumpet player Nick (Alex Bender), who cannot control his temper, who in turn recommends drummer Johnny (Joe Carroll), whose military Jeep flipped over three times, and so he is now brain damaged. The last member of the band, trombonist Wayne (Geoff Packard) is a neatness freak, clearly someone with OCD. Keeping a promise to his dead friend, Donny visits Michael’s widow, Julia (Osnes), which results in a series of deeply touching scenes, aided immeasurably by the presence of Beth Leavel as Julia’s warm, wise-cracking mother. Julia, as it turns out, is a talented singer, though she has only as yet sung in church, and so she eventually joins the band as well.
All of this, while obviously by the numbers, works fine. But the more the singing contest takes over the plot — the preparations for it, the preliminary trials for it, the fundraising to go to New York for it, even contract disputes over it (I’m not kidding.) — the more the plot stumbles. The plot recovers in the climax, but then the last scene, a kind of tacked-on epilogue which I could have done without, is all about the band’s success. Are we meant to see that the wounds of war heal with time, or (more absurdly) that a successful career will make you get over your war-related physical injuries and post-traumatic stress? Or was it simply a decision to hew to a commercial formula, and play down the veteran angle, in order to sell tickets on Broadway?
Some might bristle at the formula plot, just as some might have preferred the actual song standards from the era. But I found it refreshing to hear new compositions, rather than yet another jukebox musical, even if Oberacker’s tunes are unlikely to get any jukebox play. (“Bandstand” is getting a cast recording, to be released on June 23rd.) And I recognize the plot as simply the creative team’s using a familiar old serving dish for its richly flavorful and largely nutritious meal (albeit based, to extend the metaphor, on a tried-and-true recipe.)
No, “Bandstand” is not “South Pacific.” But Osnes, whose sophomore effort on Broadway was as Kelli O’Hara’s replacement in “South Pacific” and has been a go-to leading lady ever since, deepens what could have been a stock character.

Cott, who made such an auspicious Broadway debut replacing Jeremy Jordan as the chief kid in “Newsies” and an inauspicious follow-up as the too-young tuxedoed Gaston in “Gigi” (Watch Corey Cott, from Newsies to Gigi), has matured at age 27 into an impressive leading man – handsome and charismatic and golden-voiced, but also adept at using the tools he has as a performer to express an authentic-feeling intensity and angst in his character Donny.

Ok, yes, Donny and Julia get together romantically at the end. (That is a spoiler only for somebody who has never seen a musical.) I wish they had not, to be honest, but I acknowledge that would have defied the physics of Broadway. Yet, “Bandstand” is smart enough to have delayed the inevitable as late as possible, and, before it happens, to include a wonderful song entitled “This Is Life” in which they argue for keeping their distance. Sample verse:

If we were singing Hammerstein songs
We could fix all the wrongs in rhyme
But this is life
With the heartache it brings
And we know that these things take time

It takes hubris to diss your better like that, but it’s an example of what’s right about “Bandstand.”

Bandstand
Bernard B Jacobs Theater
Book by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker; Music by Richard Oberacker; Lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker; Co-Orchestrator: Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen; Music arranged by Greg Anthony Rassen; Vocal arrangements by David Kreppel; Musical Director: Fred Lassen
Directed by Andy Blankenbuehler; Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler; Associate Choreographer: Mark Stuart; Scenic Design by David Korins; Costume Design by Paloma Young; Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter; Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg; Hair and Wig Design by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova; Makeup Design by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova
Cast Laura Osnes, Corey Cott, Beth Leavel, Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon James Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, Geoff Packard, Mary Callanan, Max Clayton, Patrick Connaghan, Matt Cusack, Andrea Dotto, Marc A. Heitzman, Ryan Kasprzak, Andrew Leggieri, Erica Mansfield, Morgan Marcell, Drew McVety, Kevyn Morrow, Jessica Lea Patty, Becca Petersen, Kevin Quillon, Jonathan Shew, Ryan VanDenBoom, Jaime Verazin, Mindy Wallace, and Kevin Worley
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission
Tickets: $59 to $159. Rush ticket: $35
Bandstand is scheduled to run through December 30, 2017

Hello Dolly Review: Bette Midler stars as Bette Midler

There are moments in Bette Midler’s Hello, Dolly that offer unsurpassed entertainment, demonstrating the ideal match between show and star that many people expected when they first heard that Midler would be the 15th Dolly Gallagher Levi on Broadway. That excitement (along with outrageously inflated ticket prices) resulted in the highest advance sale of any show in Broadway history.

There are not enough of those perfect moments, however, to justify the ardor for this unexceptional, pastel-hued fourth Broadway revival, nor to explain fully the exuberant acclaim for its star, who has not performed live as a character in a Broadway musical for 50 years. (She played a daughter in the original Fiddler on the Roof!) The reaction to Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly” is a sociological phenomenon that transcends what occurs on stage.

I understand it. I’ve idolized Midler since first hearing her debut album, “The Divine Miss M,” and discovering this sassy songstress with a gorgeous voice, delivering retro sultriness with a persona simultaneously self-mocking, sexy and sincere.

That voice is gone now, judging from the performance I attended at the Shubert, replaced by a rasp of limited range. She also apparently can’t really dance; her movement on stage is more like rhythmic walking, and it’s in bracing contrast to the professional dancers who are virtually flying around her.

What remains vibrant is the Bette Midler persona, evident from the moment she makes her entrance on stage. It is not a grand entrance, at least not initially; it’s a sly surprise entrance. A “horse”-driven bus (actually two guys in a horse suit) comes on stage with a group of passengers reading newspapers that obscure their faces. One of them abruptly snatches the paper down; it’s Bette Midler. The audience greets her thunderously. She walks forward, first lifting her arms out in a diva welcome, then placing her palm against her chest, as if to say “your reception is giving me heart palpitations.” She is playfully portraying somebody who would make a gesture like that, but she’s also sincerely making the gesture.

This is not Dolly Levi Gallagher’s gesture, a widow in late 19th century New York who works as a matchmaker and anything else that might make her a buck. It belongs to Bette Midler, or more precisely to the Bette Midler persona.  The audience is responding not to Dolly but to Bette – and to our memories of the Divine Miss M. I am not dismissing those memories. In live theater, the adoration of the audience can palpably lift up a performer and a production, a gift of energy that is passed back and forth between audience and actors.

There are moments, though, when this “Hello, Dolly” is not just the Bette Midler show, or at least when she shares billing with her character. “Some people paint,” she says at one point. “Some sew. I…meddle.”

It’s delivered as a classic Bette wisecrack, with that mischievous grin and the practiced inflection of Jewish housewife as Borscht Belt comic. Suddenly, somehow, Dolly is Bette, and so Bette is Dolly.

And meddle she does. (They do?) Dolly has been looking for a wife for the “half-millionaire” Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde Pierce), and has decided that that wife should be herself. This means she must sabotage his planned proposal to New York milliner Irene Malloy (Kate Baldwin.) Dolly does this by arranging for Horace’s two assistants Cornelius (Gavin Creel) and Barnaby (Taylor Trensch) to woo (respectively) Irene and her assistant Minnie Fay (Beanie Feldstein, making a memorable Broadway debut.) Dolly is also busy scheming to prod Horace into reversing his adamant opposition of nuptials between his niece Ermengarde (Melanie Moore) and Ambrose (Will Burton) because of Ambrose’s disreputable career – he’s an artist. Is it a spoiler to reveal that love – or at least Dolly – triumphs?

Most of the supporting cast is at least competent; both Creel and Baldwin have voices to die for. Pierce feels miscast: His grumpy Horace is so off-putting that Dolly couldn’t desire him for anything but his money, which changes what we think of her. (That presumes, of course, that we think anything of the characters, as opposed to the performers.) The real heavy-lifting — sometimes literally —  is done by the vigorously athletic, inexhaustible and sometimes exhausting ensemble.

The plot is book-writer Michael Stewart and songwriter Jerry Herman’s adaptation of a play by Thornton Wilder, who adapted it from an earlier play of his, which was an adaptation of a German play that was in turn adapted from an 1835 English play. It is, in other words, almost two centuries old; it’s hardly an insult to call it old-fashioned. Director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle seem happy to keep it that way. Santo Loquasto, whose past innovative stage and costume designs have garnered many awards, here opts for familiar postcard-looking backdrops, and blindingly bright pastel costumes, as if imagining what the stereotypical tourist would have worn had they existed at the turn of the 20th century. They all seem to be acknowledging that their job is to preserve the vehicle. “Hello, Dolly” has always served as a vehicle for its star – originally and most notably (and most repeatedly) Carol Channing, but also Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Phyllis Diller, et al. Each has tried to own the part; some merely rented it.

Bette does own Dolly, but Dolly doesn’t always live in Bette; the melding of the two is only periodic. It fails conclusively during Dolly’s conversations with her dead husband Ephraim, which are played as straightforwardly sincere, without an overlay of the Divine Miss M’s self-mockery, and paradoxically came off to me as insincere. She also disappoints in “Before the Parade Passes By,” one of the four or five supremely tuneful songs in Jerry Herman’s score.

Where Midler shines is in comedy. This was evident even in The Rose. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in that serious 1979 film as a self-destructive rock star, but it was the brief comic scene of her crashing a gay bathhouse that is the most memorable. It’s her 1980’s movie comedies that thrust her into the mainstream, and her campy revues that perfected her comic persona and cemented her adulation by her long-time (heavily gay) fans. Comic verve is one talent that can actually improve with age.

Where Bette Midler reaches something close to perfection in “Hello,Dolly” is in two show-stopping scenes that couldn’t be more different. There’s the over-the-top “Hello, Dolly” number at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, where she descends the stairs in a gown of screaming red sequins and baubles and a crown of red plumes — a vision of glamour, yes, but somehow a comic vision of glamour. It’s the number most audience members are likely to agree with the hyper waitstaff as they sing:

Oh, hello Dolly, well, hello Dolly

It’s so nice to have you back where you belong

 And then there is the odd scene near the end in a courtroom, where she is eating a meal. (I must have missed the explanation for this.) She dips a turkey leg into a gravy boat, but that’s not enough. She dips her fingers into the gravy, but that’s not enough. Oh, what the hell, she lifts the gravy boat up to her mouth and just drinks the whole thing. Her meal stops the show, literally. “Hello, Dolly” grinds to a halt, the entire cast on stage watching her eat. It’s like a scene from another show – Beckett? Carol Burnett? It might or might not be Dolly, but it’s all Bette, and it’s hilarious.

 Tickets to Hello, Dolly

Hello, Dolly

Book by Michael Stewart, based on “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder; Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman

Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreography by Warren Carlyle; set and costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by Natasha Katz, sound design by Scott Lehrer.

Cast Bette Midler, David Hyde Pierce, Donna Murphy (at certain performances), Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch, Will Burton, Melanie Moore, Jennifer Simard, Cameron Adams, Phillip Attmore, Giuseppe Bausilio, Justin Bowen, Elizabeth Earley, Taeler Elyse Cyrus, Leslie Donna Flesner, Jenifer Foote, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Stephen Hanna, Michael Hartung, Robert Hartwell, Amanda LaMotte, Analisa Leaming, Jess LeProtto, Ian Liberto, Kevin Ligon, Nathan Madden, Michael McCormick, Linda Mugleston, Hayley Podschun, Jessica Sheridan, Michaeljon Slinger, Christian Dante White, Branch Woodman, Ryan Worsing and Richard Riaz Yoder

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including one intermission.

Tickets: $59.00 (fat chance) to $229.00

It is worth noting that on Tuesdays beginning June 13, 2017, the role of Dolly Levi will be played by Donna Murphy. Donna Murphy will also perform the role of Dolly Levi on June 27 – July 2, July 5 – 9, Sunday evening – July 30, September 6 – 10, Sunday evening – October 15, Monday evening – October 30, November 1 – 5, Friday – November 24 @ 2pm,  and Sunday evening – January 7.

“Hello, Dolly” is scheduled to run through January 14, 2018

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