Tuesday, May 22, 2007

SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best New Musicals

SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best New Musicals

During the 2006-07 Theatrical Season, I've enjoyed the opportunity to see 16 new musicals.

While some were decidedly cutting-edge, others took a more traditional approach. Still others sought to transform beloved films into equally adored stage versions, usually (but not always) with limited success.

Overall, there are more than a handful of tuners that I enjoyed enough that they've made my personal "5 Best" list of musicals covering the past twelve months:

1 - Grey Gardens (Walter Kerr Theatre, New York, NY)

If I were a Tony voter, Grey Gardens would easily be my choice for Best Musical, if not the most sublime show of the year. This unconventional yet completely satisfying tuner is a triumph of the first order.

The incredibly talented Christine Ebersole has more than proven she's at the height of her career. Her virtuoso performance in Grey Gardens is one that I'll never forget. Ebersole more than masterfully channels both Edith and Little Edie Bouvier Beales of the funny-if-it-weren’t-so-tragic seventies documentary of the same name. She luminously inhabits mother Edith in act one and then incredibly suspends any disbelief that you are watching anyone but the real Little Edie in the second act. Right before your eyes, a radiant and breathtaking Ebersole becomes Little Edie.

Thanks to a potent mix of intriguing fact and supposition by Doug Wright, the musical telling of their story provides plausible answers to the question of how the once mighty could have fallen so far. What makes this theatre of the absurd so intoxicating is not just the flawless execution of replicating key passages of the original film, but also the way Little Edie is continually haunted by the specter of the life she could have had. This musical transforms into a poignant, modern tragedy, where pathetic dismissal gives way to empathy. Credit Michael Greif's brilliant direction, Mary Louise Wilson’s powerful Edith and Ebersole’s heartwrenching Little Edie.

Click here for The SOB Review of Grey Gardens.

2 - Curtains (Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, Los Angeles, CA)

Thank goodness for a real honest-to-goodness old-fashioned backstage musical! Complete with stirring overture, Curtains possesses one show-stopping number after another, invigorating choreography, sharp dialogue, intelligent book and genuinely marvelous cast. This show is exceedingly smart, exceptionally funny and a thrilling theatrical finale for the legendary songwriting team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb. In a word, it’s fun.

Rob Ashford’s brilliant choreography has once again enabled a leading man not typically known for his dancing prowess to shine (see my notes on Guys and Dolls and Ewan McGregor), particularly on the lovely dream sequence of “A Tough Act to Follow” that pairs David Hyde Pierce (playing Lieutenant Frank Cioffi with gusto and comic precision) and the exquisite Jill Paice. For the rest of Curtains’ troupe -- including the wonderful Debra Monk, who consumes the stage with her portrayal of the brash, yet cunning producer/stage mother Carmen Bernstein -- it becomes a breathtaking ride through the unusually large number of rousing and memorable numbers.

This valentine to Broadway certainly is a fitting way to send off two of the Great White Way’s most proficient songwriting duos during the last forty-five years. It all adds up: murder + mayhem + music = must-see!

Click here for The SOB Review of Curtains.

3 - The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place, Chicago, IL)

OK, by the time I finally took in this wonderful little musical early last summer, it probably could have been called the "26th Annual." No matter, since I completely fell for its charms, even if I spelled it N-O-N-S-T-O-P L-A-U-G-H-T-E-R. This excellent musical gem, complete with superb ensemble, absolutely delights with a little tale of one of those uniquely American displays of educational prowess: the lowly spelling bee.

In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, director James Lapine finds surprising depth and heart in each of his spelling bee contestants. With an exquisitely written book by Rachel Sheinkin (she won a Tony Award in 2005 year for her effort) and blissfully funny score by William Finn, the audience is treated to an unexpectedly strong set of back stories that set up how each of the kids made it to the competition.

But there's nothing quite like the contest itself, which is moved along by the adults played by James Earl Jones II, Bill Larkin and Lucia Spina and includes requisite audience participation. Yet, ultimately this is a struggle among the kids, fabulously portrayed by Eric Roediger, Cristen Paige, Jen Sese, Derrick Trumbly, Brad Weinstock and Christine Werny. The members of this highly-charged ensemble expertly capture the essence of their characters. The result is a fresh, exuberant musical that moves by almost as fast as a spelling bee lightning round.

Click here for The SOB Review of The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee.

4 - Spring Awakening (Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York, NY)

You didn't really think I was not going to mention this electrifying musical based on a 116 year old German play by Frank Wedekind, did you? While Spring Awakening is not exactly your grandfather’s musical, credit Michael Mayer’s expert direction for enabling this show that grapples with 19th Century German teen angst to motor on at a brisk, riveting pace.

Steven Sater's collaboration with tunesmith Duncan Sheik on the score is anything but predictable. The songs are about as fresh, smart and downright infectious as anything I’ve seen on Broadway over the past five years (even if the words don't always quite rhyme). The music effectively amplifies every scene and revs up each actor. Chief among them is the sensational Jonathan Groff as the bad boy with brains Melchior. He holds what the show’s “adults” (Christine Esterbrook and Stephen Spinella, both excellent) view as an indecent corrupting influence over mediocre student Moritz played by the breathtaking John Gallagher, Jr. in a sharp, stunning departure that I believe will earn him a richly deserved Tony.
While the show is anachronistic and a little too self aware of how cool it's striving to be (not to mention that much of Steven Sater’s storyline on the sexual maturation is telegraphed throughout), ultimately this astounding, astonishing musical is highly entertaining.

Click here for The SOB Review of Spring Awakening.

5 - [title of show] (Vineyard Theatre, New York, NY)

Perhaps it wasn't my absolute favorite musical from the past year, but it should matter that it wasn't my ninth favorite! With nothing derivative about the wonderful little musical [title of show], I can honestly say that not since The Musical Of Musicals-The Musical have I so thoroughly enjoyed such a delightful, decidedly small tuner with an enormous heart (a key element lacking in Spring Awakening).

The engaging and endearing Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen essentially play themselves -- and true to its premise, they wrote the actual book, music and lyrics, too -- as two friends who embark on writing a musical to enter into the New York Musical Theatre Fest. They succeed in bringing it to life exactly as they wrote it against all odds. Along the way, they invite two female friends -- the effervescent Heidi Blickenstaff and the "handsome" Susan Blackwell -- to help shape the show.

Clever dialogue and a terrific score -- along with Michael Berresse's lovingly precise direction -- kept the 90+ minute show moving at a quick pace that was never dull and largely entertaining, particularly when they dished on some of Broadway's most renowned guilty pleasures or were interrupted via voicemail by some of the Great White Way's most acclaimed female stars (including Christine Ebersole). Best of all, they remained true to themselves and their vision.

Click here for The SOB Review of [title of show].

Honorable Mentions:

Two musicals I saw over the past year are deserving of special nods. The first is a show that actually opened on Broadway last season (but I finally saw it in September), while the other is perhaps the best musical based on a film that I saw all year. Here are those honorable mentions:

  • The Drowsy Chaperone (Marquis Theatre, New York, NY) -- By no means is The Drowsy Chaperone a perfect musical. Bad puns abounded. But thankfully, more often than not, our narrator "Man In Chair" -- deliciously played as the ultimate theatre queen by Bob Martin, who also co-wrote the libretto with Don McKellar, offers up disarming and downright hysterical comments suggesting many of the show's elements are labored or nonsensical. You can't help but think you've been played all along and that the joke is actually on you. (Click here for The SOB Review of The Drowsy Chaperone)

  • Priscilla Queen Of The Desert - The Musical (Lyric Theatre, Sydney, NSW, Australia) -- Based on the 1994 film, Priscilla Queen Of The Desert - The Musical is a sexy, silly, sometimes incoherent, über-campy, often tasteless and crude, completely over-the-top musical if there ever was one. Yet it's ultimately irresistible. And with many of the key motion picture elements roundly being eagerly anticipated and cheered upon delivery -- including the infamous ping pong scene -- the musical itself is, well, a ball. Just when you think that the book (by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott) is teetering dangerously close to the brink of excess, you're either suddenly lurching back to some semblance of reality or finding yourself cheerfully going along for the ride wondering just how far into fantasia this tuner will dare to go. (Click here for The SOB Review of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert - The Musical)

What were the best new musicals you saw over the past year? I invite you to join the conversation by sharing your theatre experiences with me.

Also, don't forget to vote for the shows you believe will win in each of the four major Tony Award categories: Best Musical, Best Play, Best Revival of a Musical and Best Revival of a Play. You'll find all four polls on the right-hand side of Steve On Broadway.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for Curtains tickets.
Click here for Grey Gardens ticket information.
Click here for Spring Awakening tickets.
Click here for The Drowsy Chaperone tickets on Broadway; here for London.
Click here for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee ticket information on Broadway, Chicago, Los Angeles and the North American tour.
Related Stories:
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best New Plays (May 21, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best Revivals Of Musicals (May 18, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best Revivals Of Plays (May 16, 2007)
The SOB Five "Worst" Of 2006-07 (May 14, 2007)
SOB's Best & Worst Of 2006-07 Theatre Season (May 14, 2007)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #1 - Theater Of The New Ear (May 30, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #2 – Guys And Dolls (May 26, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #3 – Hedda Gabler (May 25, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #4 – A Blameless Life (May 24, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #5 – Reeling (May 23, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #6 – “MASTER HAROLD”…And The Boys (May 21, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #7 – Love Song (May 19, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #8 - Billy Elliot The Musical (May 18, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #9 - The Well-Appointed Room (May 17, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #10 - Sweeney Todd (May 15, 2006)
SOB's Best and Worst of 2005-06 Theatre Season (May 12, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2004-05 (May 26, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2003-04 (May 25, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2002-03 (May 25, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2001-02 (May 24, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2000-01 (May 23, 2006)

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At 22 May, 2007, Anonymous Esther said...

I felt the same way about "A Tough Act to Follow." David Hyde Pierce was terrific in that number!

I've been telling everyone I know who might be even remotely interested in seeing a Broadway musical how much I loved Curtains. It had lots of humor and the plot kept me guessing. It's what I always thought a big Broadway musical would be like - filled with memorable characters, intricately choreographed dance routines, music that ranged from tender ballads to rousing showstoppers.

I had such a fun, memorable evening. I can't say enough about this wonderful show and its equally wonderful and gracious cast.

At 22 May, 2007, Anonymous Esther said...

I'm not really sure where to mention this, because it's not a revival and it's not new. But apart from the thrill of being at a Broadway show for the first time, my most enjoyable theatrical experience of the year was seeing the touring production of Wicked.

The way it pays homage to The Wizard of Oz, yet takes you beyond that familiar story, is just so inventive. It's absolutely inspired. It just works on so many levels, from conjuring up a great childhood memory to offering a very relevant social and political commentary.

And it's the only show I saw all year that moved me to tears. When I heard "For Good," well, I started to cry. I thought of all the friends, people I've known for years and those who've just come into my life, who have had an impact on me.

I can understand why Wicked has become so popular all over the world. It's a show I could see again and again.

At 22 May, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I'm reminded that Chicago wasn't appreciated for the socko entertainment that it is when it originally appeared on the Great White Way. It had the serious misfortune of debuting right before A Chorus Line took its first bow.

My reason for outlining that is that I believe Kander & Ebb are usually ahead of their time, and believe that even tough Curtains is an old-fashioned musical, it may take a revival 20 years down the road for its genius to be truly appreciated.

As for Wicked, well, I was listing the five best new musical works I saw this past year. I saw the original direction, if not the original cast, of a couple. Therefore, I believe that your points regarding Wicked are completely in keeping with the spirit of my post. And I agree that it's a great show.


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