A Crowded Spring on Broadway
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, March 15, 2017
One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be a very crowded spring on Broadway. Although, just a few weeks ago, more than half of the 41 theaters on Broadway were empty, by the time we reach the cutoff for the Tony Awards in late April, every theater except one will have, or will have had, a show playing there. (And the Helen Hayes will only be “dark” because it’s closed for renovations.)
Some eighteen new productions are scheduled to open before the end of the season, fourteen of those in April alone. Pity the poor Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle voters who are supposed to see all of those shows before voting. (Of course, it’s sort of hard to feel sorry for the awards voters, since they get free tickets, which clearly mitigates the onslaught.)
In a season this crowded, it’s possible — even likely — that some very worthy shows will get lost in the crowd. Although Broadway attendance is at an all-time high, and box-office numbers are breaking all kinds of records, a rising tide doesn’t always lift all boats. There are bound to be some casualties. On the positive side, ticket buyers are going to have plenty to choose from before the inevitable attrition begins.
Toward that end, here’s a selective — and subjective — guide to some upcoming shows that should be worth checking out. Will these all become hot tickets? There’s really no way to say. But based on the people involved in each of these shows, and/or the advanced word we’ve been hearing about them, it’s pretty much a sure thing that there will be something genuinely worth seeing on stage at the show’s respective theaters.
War Paint — It’s dueling divas at the Nederlander Theatre this spring. Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole — both two-time Tony winners — play cosmetics-industry rivals Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden in this unapologetically old-school musical from the creators of Grey Gardens: Scott Frankel (music), Michael Korie (lyrics), Doug Wright (book), and Michael Greif (director). I had a chance to see the show in Chicago, and LuPone and Ebersole do not disappoint. The songs are every bit as tuneful and clever as you would expect of Frankel and Korie. Wright’s book is a tad pedestrian, and Greif’s direction was far from innovative. But the show delivers on its central promise, which is to give two of our greatest living musical-theater performers a chance to duke it out in song form. No self-respecting theater maven will want to miss this. (War Paint opens April 6, 2017 at the Nederlander Theatre.)
Groundhog Day — A few seasons back, Kinky Boots stole the Tony for Best Musical from what IMHO was a much better show, Matilda. Now the Matilda team (score by Tim Minchin, direction from Matthew Warchus, choreography by Peter Darling) is back, and with a show that some people are saying is the one to beat for the this year’s Tony. Groundhog Day had a successful limited run in London last year, and comes to New York riding high on a rave from the chief critic from The New York Times, Ben Brantley. The show is based on the 1993 film starring Bill Murray, a film that, interestingly enough, Stephen Sondheim himself was considering turning into a musical, before deciding that the film was already perfect the way it was. Broadway favorite Andy Karl will recreate his London performance for the New York run. (Groundhog Day opens April 17th, 2017 at the August Wilson Theatre.)
Present Laughter — Present Laughter has apparently entered the pantheon of classic plays that seemingly can’t be revived often enough, so long as there’s an award-winning star who wants the role. (See The Glass Menagerie, A Raisin in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, etc.) But when the star in question here is Kevin Kline, well, then perhaps it doesn’t matter that Present Laughter was on Broadway with Victor Garber in 2010 and Frank Langella in 1997. Also of note are Kline’s costars, the always marvelous Kate Burton and the delightful Kristine Nielson. Plus, there’s director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who made quite a splash a few years back with Hand to God. It will certainly be intriguing to see if he can transfer his comic touch from such scabrous material to Noël Coward’s drawing-room sensibility. (Present Laughter opens April 5, 2017 at the St. James Theatre.)
The Little Foxes — Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes is a bit of a guilty pleasure. The play is moralistic and heavy-handed. And the characters are painted with the broadest of brushes, either unremittingly good or irredeemably bad, and never the twain shall meet. But, boy, is it fun to watch. Bette Davis is simply delicious as the avaricious Regina Giddons in the 1941 film version. And Stockard Channing hit it out of the park as Regina in the 1997 Broadway revival. For this season’s revival, there’s the added attraction of Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, two of the finest actors of their generation, alternating between the roles of Regina and “Birdie” Hubbard. It’s great gimmick, most recently employed in the 2000 revival of True West with John C. Reilly and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Personally, I’m more interested in seeing Linney as Regina, but if the production is good, I may go back to catch Nixon’s take on the role as well. (The Little Foxes opens April 19, 2017 at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.)
The Play That Goes Wrong — Most of the productions listed here have big-named stars on stage. This one features a cast of virtual unknowns, a bevy of Brits who have devised what looks like a raucous comedy in the vein of the recent One Man, Two Guvnors, one of my favorite recent nights in the theater. But there are some intriguing names above the title: producers Kevin McCollum and J.J. Abrams. McCollum is the successful producer behind such high-profile hits as In the Heights, Avenue Q, and Rent. (Of course, he also produced High Fidelity, Motown, and The Last Ship, so…) And J.J. Abrams may not be a Broadway vet, but he’s written and/or directed such Hollywood hits as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Trek Into Darkness, and created such popular TV shows as Alias and Lost. Why choose The Play That Goes Wrong as his Broadway bow? It’s not like he’s hurting for money, right? Clearly he must see something in the play that makes him want to be a part of it. Color me intrigued. (The Play That Goes Wrong opens April 2, 2017 at the Lyceum Theatre).
Cover: Cast of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong;’ photo: courtesy of production.