Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Need for Musicalization? - New Musicals Reviews

Sousatzka - Elgin Theatre - Toronto, ON - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by David Shire, Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., Book by Craig Lucas, Directed by Adrian Noble
Runs until Apr. 9th 2017

The Girls - Phoenix Theatre - West End - London, UK - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, Directed by Tim Firth

A Bronx Tale - Longacre Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Book by Chazz Palminteri, Directed by Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks

War Paint - Nederlander Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie, Book by Doug Wright, Directed by Michael Greif
(Preview performance)

The View Upstairs - The Lynn Redgrave Theatre - Off-Broadway - New York City, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Book, Music and Lyrics by Max Vernon, Directed by Scott Ebersold

Sousatzka, the new musical from producer by Garth Drabinsky, seems to have enough intrigue behind the scenes for another show, but lets talk about the musical itself here. Sousatzka is an ambitious new musical that feels like it is from another era. With a cast of 57 trying to tell the tale of Holocaust survivor Madame Sousatzka, a brilliant piano teacher who has taken on Themba, a young prodigy who escaped from Soweto, Africa and brought to 1982 London to pursue his talent. Themba is torn between the world of classical music and strict training from Sousatzka and the ferocity of his mother, who was one of the leaders against Apartheid.

There is a compelling tight story with the clash of different worlds, and the unifying experience of survival. The musical tries to mine it, but then layers it with backstories for everyone, including Themba's father currently imprisoned in Soweto. Then just to keep padding the show, we get the colourful characters of a boarding house where Sousatzka lives, their lives, a look into the classist system in London and the ultimate attempt to get Themba his debut concert. There is a compelling tight story somewhere at the centre of this megasized show.

There are three musicals in the show and while the alternating musical styles could have been an interesting juxtaposition, especially between Sousatzka's classical ways compared to Themba's African musical roots, the creative team have also thrown more typical Broadway music to enrapture the era of early 80s London and moments that satirize the classist art world of the riche. All of which have little to add to our understanding of Sousatzka and Themba themselves (and I had to keep reminding myself that the show was apparently titled Sousatzka and who we were supposed to be focusing upon).

Still, in it's current form, we get to see the always wonderful Victoria Clark in a meaty central (if not focused) role, and Montego Glover in the underused and under examined role of Themba's mother. Judy Kaye, Fuschia!,  and local/Stratford's Jonathan Winsby are terrific in their secondary, if unnecessary roles, while newcomer Jordan Barrow is extremely talented and tries to fill out Themba despite the sketch of the central role. Everyone sings gloriously, but many of the side characters get their own songs that add little to the central story.

Many of the songs are quite lovely, especially those for Victoria Clark, and the African music by Lebo M sound glorious with the large cast (although the staging with a rising sun and the music by Lebo M has been iconicized already in The Lion King). There is a compelling story buried somewhere in this gigantic show, but the emotional effectiveness may have worked better as a smaller, simpler chamber piece, with a smaller cast.

A few years back there was a stage play version of Calendar Girls based on the film based on a true story. Lacking the charms of the film version, the play felt like an unnecessary transition to the stage, and wondered why it wasn't at least turned into a musical, since it felt like it had all the right elements to become one. Well, Gary Barlow (Take That) and Tim Firth apparently felt the same and have written The Girls, the new musical version of the now famed story of a group of older women who decide to make a nude calendar for charity.

What results is an utterly charming musical that uses the calendar theme, a year in the life of this small town in Yorkshire, to follow a group of women struggling with various issues as they get older. The musical also makes the idea of the calendar as a rallying effort as the pinnacle of the first half, and then the courage to actually do the nude calendar as the pinnacle for the whole show, and dramatically it works far better than the play that had the calendar shoot in the middle of the show.

As a big fan of Gary Barlow and his boy band days with Take That, I was disappointed with his music for Finding Neverland, but he redeems himself here with a musical score that fits with the story.

The cast of Girls, with Joanna Riding and Claire Moore as the leaders of this calendar idea, and Debbie Chazen, Sophie-Louise Dann, Michelle Dotrice, and Claire Machin are wonderful, as well as Josh Benson, Ben Hunter and Chloe May Jackson as their teenage kids with their own problems.

A Bronx Tale is a new musical based on Chazz Palminteri's play, but it also owes a lot to Jersey Boys and West Side Story (no seriously, how much are they paying in residuals?) and every Italian American cliché you can fit into a "new" musical that feels done. The show feels lazy with cheap laughs in a story about a young Italian boy whose devotion is torn between his father and a gangster but luckily sharp casting of Nick Cordero (Waitress) and Richard Blake (Legally Blonde) makes the most of what they can. The music by Alan Menken feels phoned it but it's still Menken music so still enjoyable.

Eyes kept rolling along with the clichés but then Ariana DeBose (Hamilton) appears as our young lead's potential love interest and her chemistry with Bobby Conte Thornton brings a new glow to the heavy handed show. Despite the hoary cliché´s and the lazy script and songs, watching Thornton and DeBose was enough to make the show enjoyable and I ultimately left the Longacre with a huge smile on my face.

War Paint tells the story of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden's lifelong rivalry in the cosmetics industry and their contributions during the war. It's a fascinating story but this musical solely exists to see Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole diva-it out on stage as Rubinstein and Arden, respectively. As their male sales partners (gay BFF, husband respectively) swap bosses and allegiances, the drama of these two women moguls in a time of male dominance is nicely mined, with pleasant, if forgetable songs from Frankel and Korie (with songs that have more mainstream appeal than their Grey Gardens) that give LuPone and Ebersole chances to one-up each other until the characters finally meet in the end.

But for a musical called War Paint, with Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as rival cosmetic icons, it's surprising that it takes until the end of the show before their characters appear in the same room together. It may be more true to life, but it makes the show a tedium of back and forth scenes between Rubinstein and Arden. While the creative team figure out a way for them to have some moments together, particularly with the final Act 1 song, it lacks any true fireworks you would expect about a rivalry between two divas.

Without LuPone or Ebersole in the main roles, there's a generic traditional musical at its core that is only skin deep. LuPone throws out the zingers but the show isn't fun and campy enough and tries to respect the story yet does not go deep enough to truly understand the characters. The show even starts with the rivalry already in place, and does not really try to explain how it all began. For such a colourful premise, War Paint feels surprisingly flat. It's beautiful to look at, with a beautiful set by David Korins and costumes by Catherine Zuber, but there's very little contour in the show.

The View Upstairs is at its best when it regales in the regular patrons of a 70s gay bar the Upstairs Lounge in the French Quarters of New Orleans. The twist however throws a time-traveling loop, throwing a young millennial entitled fashion designer into the old bar as he learns what it's like to be gay when it wasn't as open as it is now. Lessons are learned and the future boy becomes a better person yada yada but the real fun is with the characters from the bar, especially when Frenchie Davis or Nathan Lee Graham speak or sing. And boy does the cast sing, with some lovely songs by Max Vernon, showing a lot of promise for the future of musicals. Michael Longoria, Ben Mayne, and Randy Redd are excellent as some of the other bar regulars.

Photo of Sousatzka by Cylla von Tiedemann
Photo of The Girls by Matt Crockett
Photos of A Bronx Tale and War Paint by Joan Marcus
Photo of The View Upstairs by Kurt Sneddon
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