One man is the guvnor on Broadway

The Times

April 24, 2012


The next person to complain about feckless youth should be frogmarched into a New York theatre where the middle-aged and elderly are truly misbehaving. In a week of Broadway theatregoing, what lingers? The songs, virtuosic acting, sumptuous sets? No, the snoring of the over-50s; the ringing of their mobiles as they ignore the request to turn them off; their endless chuntering throughout: “Oh, it’s him!” Even, at the wonderful Peter Pan prequel Peter and the Starcatcher, “Shall we have ham tonight?” Please confiscate every bag of toffees or mini pretzels anyone over 50 is grasping; at the play’s most emotional moment you can guarantee a rustle, then the volcanically loud sound of chewing and biting.

Be impressed instead  with the strong British presence on Broadway. After the success of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem last year, One Man, Two Guvnors, featuring James Corden as the gurning, stressed aide to two crooks in Richard Bean’s Sixties-set farce, is the latest hit. Nothing was lost in translation at the performance I attended where the audience spent as much time as a bravura Corden dictated in hysterics. Fervent whooping also greeted the first night of Tracie Bennett’s furiously physical incarnation of a washed-up Judy Garland in the London transfer of End of the Rainbow.

As those productions arrived it was announced that The Lion King had overtaken Phantom of the Opera as Broadway’s highest-grossing show yet with a cumulative gross from nearly 6,000 performances, of $853,846,062. This is a totem to celebrate with qualification: Broadway, if its insane economics would allow it, would benefit from more original work than dead-cert crowd-pleasers, although even a crowd- pleaser can lose its way. The latest production of Jesus Christ Superstar began with an announcement that we could unwrap sweets as loudly as we like because the music would drown it out. This adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1971 rock opera is loud, but listless.

At the performance I attended, Jesus, played by an understudy, was a wet fish — less a leader of men than a weary whiner. The audience was commanded to listen by Pontius Pilate (Tim Hewitt), whose frustration at Jesus’s failure to defend himself added much-needed charge, while Bruce Dow delivered Herod’s Song with such a blitzkrieg of camp you could feel the audience wishing at the end not to be forced back to the dour, lifeless main show.

Still, as my companion noted, “Great scaffolding” — which turns out to be the season’s major design trend, most stunningly realised in the Disney musical Newsies. First a 1992 film, it focuses on the 1899 newsboys’ strike, in which the young New York street- sellers began a strike after the media magnates of the day raised the price of the bundles of newspapers they sold. The set, like a giant moving noughts and crosses board, proved a perilous- looking playground for the energetic young cast. The music is as slick and relentless as you’d expect from Disney but the standout star is Kara Lindsay as an ambitious reporter.

Newsies’s tang of real history is fatally missing from Michael Grandage’s hollow revival of Evita, which began in London in 2006. Even if you’re not a New Yorker who saw Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin act up a storm in the original Broadway production in 1979 (and Broadway devotees never forget), this is a rickety clunker. Is the problem Ricky Martin as a grinning, goosing Che Guevara? Martin seems to think he’s Dick van Dyke down Argentina Way, arms akimbo, narrating the action with a buffoonish inconsequentiality.

Elena Roger as Evita won a standing ovation — but every performance on Broadway ends like that, just as they begin with rounds of applause for any famous principals — though her voice, a Minnie Mouse on helium, was unbearable the higher it climbed. Only the expressive Michael Cerveris as Juan Perón shaded a whole character of ambition and desperation. The woman next to me said she had slept through the first half. “I normally stay awake in the second, but not for this.”

Once provided an oasis of originality. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s musical, with a book by Enda Walsh, is a beautifully rendered adaptation of the movie about an Irishman (Steve Kazee) and a Czech woman (Cristin Milioti) who meet in Dublin and fall in tentative, frustrated love over a broken vacuum cleaner and passion for music. The production is directed by John Tiffany, who furnished the tremendous Black Watchwithsuchkineticforce,andhere on a simple set that evokes an Irish bar (you can buy your drinks there before the show and at the interval) the actors play characters as well as instruments. Everything is right about Once: the songs, movement, the comedy which is sharp and salty (the Czechs passionately discuss the soap Fair City), the sense of longing and loss, ambition and regret and an ending that is as unhappy as it is happy, which is to say real.

Tellingly, both Once and Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher, the other winning musical of the moment, have landed on Broadway with none of the big-budget grandstanding of their geographical neighbours. Starcatcher is a charming and very funny prequel to Peter Pan, performed by a small company, who make a ship’s portholes and corridors and a roiling sea from a single strand of rope. Every performance is perfect, but Christian Borle stands out as the demonic, dyslexic and very gay pirate Black Stache. This is clever, uproarious pantomime, which still somehow moves you when orphaned Peter (Adam Chandler-Berat) grapples with first love (Celia Keenan-Bolger’s haughtily bossy Molly) and eternal boyhood. The show is eaten head to tail by Borle, who begs Peter at the end, as he is transfigured into Captain Hook, to stay with him “for all the franchises” their enmity can engender.

The starriest serious drama on Broadway features another animus. In Gore Vidal’s The Best Man John Larroquette as the ponderous, decent William Russell is way out of his depth fighting for the 1960 presidential nomination of an unnamed party against Eric McCormack’s reptilian challenger Joseph Cantwell, appropriately named for the cant he speaks. It’s a dry, repetitive play and beyond the unsurprising message that politics is a dirty game, nothing much surprises besides Candice Bergen’s neatly dry performance as Russell’s jaded wife. Angela Lansbury flutters vexatiously around both candidates as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the head of a women’s voters group keen to assert the importance of her own constituency.

The bitterly funny, piercing dramas Other Desert Cities, featuring Stockard Channing, and The Lyons, with Linda Lavin, expose the cracked façades of two far-from-normal families. A menacing quietness rumbles beneath Philip Seymour Hoffman’s despairing Willy Loman in a magnificent production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Hoffman not only reeks of despair; every word feels like a tightening of the noose as his family collapses under a slag-heap of lies, frustrated ambition and self-delusion.

The critics have mostly been ecstatic. The New York Times said Mike Nichols had “created an immaculate monument to a great American play. It is scrupulous in its attention to all the surface details that define time, place and mood.”

A London transfer would seem likely — including Hoffman, depending on his movie commitments — though no announcement has been made yet.

My Broadway week ended with Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer prizewinning, magnificently tart Clybourne Park, another London transfer which interrogates, with squirming frankness, race and racism through the prisms of a family tragedy and property prices. The first half features the fallout resulting from the first black family to move into a “white area” in the late 1950s, while after the interval, in the same house, with the actors from the first part playing different but echoing characters in the present day, a white couple defend themselves from charges they are “invading” a now-black neighbourhood.

When the punchline to the joke, “Why is a white woman like a tampon?” was delivered the theatre dissolved into gasping guffaws. If only more of Broadway could be this scabrous, intelligent and daring. For Clybourne Park, guess what? No snoring. No sweet wrappers.