Located on a small expansion shelf about midway between the Third and Fourth Circles, Musical Hell is presided over by Diva, a minor demon charged with passing judgement on the worst musicals ever committed to film. (She still hasn't figured out if this is their punishment or hers.) Take a seat on the bench and have your earplugs ready, because court is now in session.

New videos posted on the first Monday of the month. Other viewpoints, news, and general ramblings posted when they crop up.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Weekend in New York (or, A Gentleman's Guide to Matilda of the Opera)


My (very) belated Mother's Day present this year was a weekend in New York, and for me that means one thing: a chance to get some really good dim sum.  Seriously, there are like zero dim sum places in this area, it's so annoying...wait, what?  Oh yeah, and Broadway too, that's an important part of the whole New York trip thing, right.

I got in three shows and was able to enjoy myself at all of them, despite the occasional onstage flub or annoying audience member (who puts down the triple-digit prices for a Broadway ticket and then doesn't even bother to pay attention to the show, I ask you?).  And since I'm doing this whole review thing now, why not profess my opinions to all you lovely people out there?

****

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th St.

Dying is easy; comedy is hard--but dying several times in a comedy makes Jefferson Mays the hardest working man in musicals right now.  He plays no less than eight ill-fated upper class twits in this year's darkly hilarious Tony champion, a deliciously fun cross between the bloody rampages of Sweeney Todd and the farcical flights of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Mays' characters are all members of the well-heeled and unbearably snooty D'Ysquith family, holders of the earldom of Highhurst.  Monty Navarro (an adorably mischievous Bryce Pinkham) is ninth in the D'Ysquith succession line--unbeknownst to him until recently, as his mother had been cut off from the family for marrying below her station.  Treated with contempt by his kin, enraged at the indignities his mother suffered from their neglect, and desperate to prove himself to his socially ambitious lover Sibella (Lisa O'Hare), what is there for Monty to do but systematically bump off everyone ahead of him in line for the D'Ysquith title?

Pinkham and Mays carry the show through its series of amusing and creative demises, displaying excellent comic timing and excellent vocal chops.  The highlights in Robert L Freedman and Steven Lutvak's light operetta-esque score include the present earl's "I Don't Understand the Poor," Monty's tender ode to "Sibella," and "I've Decided to Marry You," a dizzy farce of a trio for Monty, Sibella, and Phoebe (Lauren Worsham), a demure branch of the D'Ysquith tree who charms Monty.

Alexander Dodge's stage-within-a-stage set is quite charming, and gives the production the same music-hall vibe as the recent revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  The entire production is a lot of fun, but if you can see it with Mays and Pinkham, do so--bloody intrigue has never been so satisfying, or so funny.

Matilda
Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th St.

The set for Matilda is one of the most fascinating I've seen in recent memory.  An explosion of letter tiles spills out around the proscenium, looking like the aftermath of a particularly violent game of Scrabble.  Study the seemingly chaotic jumble long enough, and words start to emerge that reflect the story to come: Burp.  Incredible.  Monster.

It's an excellent set-up for Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly's main theme in Matilda, which is the power of words and stories to bring pain, comfort, and rebellion.  For Roald Dahls' five-year-old girl genius, stories aren't simply a means of escaping the indignities suffered at the hands of nasty adults, but guidance and inspiration in finding her own strength.  Recognizing the helplessness of the characters in books to alter the inevitably tragic course of their lives, Matilda Wormwood vows to take matters into her own hands instead ("Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty" she reasons).  Meanwhile, school's headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Christopher Sieber, displaying good comic timing, marvelously sadistic menace, and an impressively padded HHH-cup bra) uses words as weapons as much as she does her towering strength and endless array of cruel punishments.

Matilda has long been my favorite Dahl book, and Minchin and Kelly do right by the source material's dark and whimsical feel in songs like "Miracle" (in which a troop of parents dote excessively on their horrid offspring) and "When I Grow Up."  (Word to the wise: have a good listen to the cast recording before attending; Minchin's lyrics tend to go by too fast to be properly understood the first time around, especially when sung by less-than-articulate child actors.)  They also expand on the original nicely, adding a more developed backstory for Matilda's kind but cowed teacher Miss Honey (Jill Paice)--a tale so fantastically morbid it's easy to imagine Dahl penning it.

While the child actors are hit-and-miss (as young actors often are), Matilda has enough musical delights to keep things going, and the adult cast is very well-rounded.  Lesli Margherita and Matt Harrington are wonderfully tacky as Matilda's awful parents, and Jill Paice is a pleasantly sweet Miss Honey.  Making the most of minor roles are Phillip Spaeth as Mrs. Wormwood's flamboyant dance instructor and Alex Brightman as Matilda's older brother--a dullard whose dialogue, despite consisting entirely of single-word barks, always carries the maximum comedic potential.  The power of language, indeed.

The Phantom of the Opera
Majestic Theatre, 247 West 44th St.

You can talk about Andrew Lloyd Webber's soaring, melodramtic score, the lavish sets and costumes, the chandelier.  You can mention Hal Prince's spooky-sensual direction, or the captivating quality of the story and how it resonates with the angry, lonely misfit in all of us.  But at the end of the day (and there have been over twenty-six years' worth of days) the real power behind Phantom of the Opera comes from the people in the cast, who bear the burden of breathing life and humanity into the musical's rather sketched-in collection of characters.  Without their energy and nuance, the entire thing drags and falls flat.  Luckily, the current Phantom cast has two particularly good examples of actors who make the most of what little the book gives them.

The first of these is Norm Lewis in the pivotal title role.  Lewis provides one of the more distinctive interpretations of the Phantom, a fact that has less to do with his ethnicity (he is the first black actor to don the mask on Broadway, and only the third to do so worldwide) and more to do with his voice, which is deeper and richer than is usually cast in the part.  He savors the phrases in "Music of the Night" with a visceral quality that makes the song sound fresh even after all this time, and balances the character's predatory, poisonously seductive qualities with a cringing pathos and maliciously childish streak that brings out the Phantom's ultimate, tragic humanity.

The other is Jeremy Hays, who has the somewhat unenviable task of embodying the Phantom's romantic rival, Raoul de Chagny.  The good, normal Prince Charming to the dangerous, darkly fascinating Phantom, Raoul always runs the risk of coming off as a non-entity, or worse, an insufferable boor.  Hays gives the character strength, sensitivity, and an unforced charm that makes him a worthy foil to the sinister masked man, which increases the dramatic tension and effectiveness of the musical's central love triangle.

As for the lady torn between them, the immensely (and to my mind, excessively) popular Sierra Boggess continues in the role of Christine for about another month, but don't feel too broke up if you catch a performance with alternate Mary Michael Patterson.  Patterson has a lovely, clear voice and does a wonderful job of developing Christine's growing strength and maturity over the course of the evening.  It would be great to see her take over as the principal when Boggess' limited run in the part concludes.

1 comment:

  1. > or annoying audience member

    There's a Patti Lupone interview where she talks about how she hated looking down into the audience and seeing people asleep during Evita. Who goes to a musical to sleep? She figured that it was probably people who were dragged there because "Tuesday is Broadway," "Wednesday is ballet," "Thursday is ..." and weren't particularly into it to begin with, IIRC.

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