Wednesday, June 03, 2009

SOB's Best Of 2008-09: Best Musical Revivals

SOB's Best Of 2008-09: Best Musical Revivals

Over the past year, I've managed to see over 70 performances of a wide range of musicals, plays and "special theatrical events." Ten of those were revivals of musicals, including three of my favorite tuners of all time (each of which, sad to say, disappointed me to varying degrees).

While four of the revivals I saw were produced on Broadway, three of the best were found elsewhere. Thankfully, it's been reported that the one musical revival at the top of my "5 Best" list is likely to be Broadway bound.

Drumroll, please:

5 - Pal Joey (Studio 54, Roundabout Theatre Company, New York, New York)

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's enduring classic "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" from Pal Joey lived again thanks to Joe Mantello's sparkling revival.

This was certainly not your grandfather's Pal Joey, as John O'Hara's book was substantially updated by Richard Greenberg. Nevertheless, the underlying story of the ne'er-do-well ladies' song-and-dance man Joey Evans, who blithely bounces between women, remained true to the original. Stockard Channing imbued her Vera with a natural grace, style and seductiveness. But the real revelation was the bewitching Martha Plimpton in her absolutely stunning portrayal of Gladys Bumps. Is there nothing this amazing Tony-nominated actress can't do?

In this entertaining Pal Joey, bewitched won out over both bothered and bewildered.

4 - The Pajama Game (Schneider Theater for the Performing Arts, Bloomington Civic Theatre, Bloomington, Minnesota)

"Seven and a half cents," as the song from Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' 1954 musical The Pajama Game duly notes, "doesn't buy a hell of a lot."

But just try telling that to the nearly flawless cast of 27 and 17-piece orchestra members from Minnesota's Schneider Theater for the Performing Arts' production of The Pajama Game. Their indomitable spirit joined forces with John Command's nearly pitch-perfect direction to make this roundly enjoyable revival practically as good as a Broadway show, yet at a fraction of a Rialto budget. It never ceases to astound me when I take in a small regional production that bundles boundless energy and determination to make for an entertaining evening at the theatre, worthy of what "the professionals" of the Great White Way do.

It's true that good things can come in small packages. And for the relatively small package price of just $25 per top ticket, this Pajama Game was most definitely a good thing worth trying on for size.

3 - Caroline, Or Change (Wurtele Thrust Stage, Guthrie, Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Finally! Change we can believe in.

An intensely profound, mystical musical, Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's Caroline, Or Change -- as directed and choreographed by Marcela Lorca at Minnesota's Guthrie -- transfixes, even as it transports. Kushner ingeniously uses the coins Caroline Thibodeaux continually finds while washing the pants of young Noah Gellman as a transcendent metaphor for all the sweeping change surrounding her, including the emerging civil rights movement, the swelling Vietnam War and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Greta Oglesby's brave turn as Caroline alone is worth the price of admission. As Oglesby transforms, she breaks your heart.

2 - Hair (Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York, New York)

Want a good buzz? Then go see Diane Paulus' inspired third coming of Hair -- unequivocally Broadway's best musical revival this season. Paulus finds the sun and lets it shine in with her exceptional cast radiating the alternately playful and poignant score from Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot.

If the second act isn't exactly the first's equal, Paulus more than makes up for it with a heartwrenching conclusion that sneaks up on you with a powerful wallop. It left me teary-eyed.

Credit Tony nominee Gavin Creel with his charisma and exquisite voice for winning the day. With the boundless energy of the cast, you just might find yourself treading the boards of the Hirschfeld yourself.

1 - A Little Night Music (Menier Chocolate Factory, London, United Kingdom)

Isn't this rich?! Who would have thought that a show staged in a style so deceptively simple could be so sublime, not to mention utterly romantic. Rich, indeed.

Now, if you're not a romantic at heart, you need not bother. But for the rest of us, there's the pure heaven found in Trevor Nunn's gorgeous revival of A Little Night Music. It enveloped every one of my senses like a welcome salve for these troubled times. Only a heart of stone could not be moved by Stephen Sondheim's ravishing score and Hugh Wheeler's über-clever book.

Thanks to Nunn's deft and gentle touch, this tale of requited love in turn-of-the-20th-Century Sweden feels timeless, transcending all expectations. It is sure to make you feel a twinge in your heart and leave a tear in your eye. The bewitching allure of this excellent revival has already transferred to the West End, but how about to Broadway? Well, maybe later this year.

So what were the best musical revivals you saw over the past year? I invite you to join the conversation by sharing your theatre experiences with me.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 04 June, 2009, Blogger Esther said...

No surprise - Hair was my favorite. I mean, anytime you make your Broadway debut in a show, it's going to be pretty special, right? ;-)

I was afraid the whole thing would be a quaint nostalgia trip - and it was kind of that. But Diane Paulus has created a production that doesn't sugarcoat the 1960s. She presents the joy and the breaking down of barriers, the loosening of inhibitions but also some of the very real situations that people faced during that decade. It didn't seem at all like a museum piece but very relevant.

Also, I really enjoyed Pal Joey. It was a darker musical than I'm used to seeing. And I loved the way all of the elements worked together, including the set design, to accentuate that mood. Plus, Martha Plimpton was great.

At 04 June, 2009, Blogger Esther said...

Btw, given my interest in the '60s I really would like to see Caroline or Change someday.

And I've never seen A Little Night Music so hopefully I've got that to look forward to.

At 04 June, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I hope you'll be able to see A Little Night Music when it's finally revived. It's magnificent.


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