Commentary: The Best (And Worst) Musicals of 2017
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, December 29, 2017
For critics, the end of the year represents a time to look back on the shows they’ve covered. We fondly reminisce about the productions that have transported us, moved us, enlightened us, reaffirmed our dedication to the art form of our choice. And we shake our heads in disbelief at the shows that bored us, irritated us, made us question our calling.
Are the few transcendent shows enough to counterbalance the bad? That’s the hope, of course. In fact, as a testament to the overall quality of the musical productions from Broadway, Off-Broadway and beyond that I was fortunate enough to see this year, I’ve limited the number of shows on my worst list to five. Thankfully, there weren’t enough genuinely bad shows to justify my usual ten.
10. Merrily We Roll Along (Huntington Theater, Boston, MA)
Merrily is one of those musical flops that breaks the hearts of showtune fanatics. You listen to Stephen Sondheim’s brilliantly crafted score and wonder how the show could possibly have failed. Despite numerous revisions, most subsequent productions failed to address the show’s flaws, including an unlikeable lead character, and a lack of emotional weight. Then along came director Maria Friedman, whose acclaimed 2012 production at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory recently played at Boston’s Huntington Theater Company. Friedman somehow found a way to make Franklin Shepard, if not quite sympathetic, at least believably complex. And she found more emotional weight in the piece than I’ve ever seen before. Friedman, of course, was ably abetted by British imports Mark Umbers (Franklin Shepard) and Damian Humbley (Charley Kringas) from the London production, plus Broadway ringer Eden Espinoza as Mary Flynn.
9. Come From Away (Broadway)
Come From Away is one of the most unlikely smash hits in recent memory. A Broadway musical about the events of 9/11? Many scoffed at the very notion. But director Christopher Ashley took the heartwarming story of 38 planes being rerouted to the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, along with a decidedly rousing score from Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and created a fluid production of almost inexhaustible ingenuity. Sure, the characterizations are a bit thin, and the narration-heavy book too frequently commits the cardinal sin of telling versus showing. But the powerful story, the touching moments of humanity, and the timely message of communal support make Come From Away virtually irresistible.
8. Sunday in the Park With George (Broadway)
Geez, didn’t we just have a revival of Sunday in, like, 2008? Well, when Jake Gyllenhaal decides he wants to do a show, it almost doesn’t matter what the show is, or when it was last produced. You go, and you’ll be glad you did. Gyllenhaal thankfully remains committed to stage work, and for good reason. He’s really good at it. He made a very credible Seymour in Little Shop or Horrors at Encores! a few season back, despite his decidedly un-wimpy physique. And he brought layers of subtlety and nuance to George that even Mandy Patinkin couldn’t manage. Plus, Annaleigh Ashford was her impish, delightfully playful self as Dot. A spare but resonant production.
7. Fun Home (National tour, Providence, RI)
I’m an ardent fan of Fun Home, and have been since its debut at the Public Theater in 2013. After seeing the show twice Off-Broadway, and then five times on Broadway, I wanted to see how the show held up on tour, and with a totally new cast. But during the show’s Boston run, decent seats at the cavernous Opera House were running over $200, and to me there was no point in seeing the show from row Z or beyond. So, I picked up an $80 ticket to see the show a few weeks later during its Providence stop. Thankfully, Fun Home retained all of its emotional power. The new cast members gave characterizations entirely unique to their talents as performers. In particular, Robert Petkoff as the tragic Bruce Bechdel was every bit as complex and layered as Tony winner Michael Cerveris.
6. Dear Evan Hansen (Broadway)
It’s been gratifying to see Broadway audiences embrace such serious and challenging shows as Next to Normal, Fun Home, and now Dear Evan Hansen. In fact, Dear Evan Hansen seems on track to become much more than a mere succès d’estime. It’s becoming an unqualified blockbuster. Count me among the many devotees of this intimate, complex, and heartbreakingly real musical. The Broadway production had even more of an impact on me than the 2016 staging at the Second Stage Theatre. Ben Pasek and Justin Paul, both a mere 32 years of age, have demonstrated themselves as capable of rich and complex scores (including that for Dogfight) that rank with those of our greatest living composers and lyricists.
5. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (Broadway)
Call me bitter, but I just can’t let go of the catastrophically inept producing that led to the premature demise of my beloved Great Comet. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to work with producers Howard and Janet Kagan any time soon, after the botched job they did with this show. First, they brought the show to Broadway dependent on a miscast star, Josh Groban. Then, despite many weeks of grosses over $1 million, they failed to create a cash reserve to help the show survive Groban’s departure. Then, they bungled the announcement that Mandy Patinkin would be taking over for Okieriete Onoadowan, allowing people to form the impression that the replacement had to do with race. It’s a crying shame, because all their fumbling meant the early closure of a ravishingly beautiful show, both in terms of its content and its physical production.
4. Hello, Dolly! (with Bette Midler, Broadway)
The hottest ticket of the season did not disappoint. Bette Midler’s star turn in Hello, Dolly! became a sensation the very day it was announced. Critics were rapturous, audiences euphoric. I don’t always agree with other critics, nor do my tastes always coincide with the groundswell of public opinion, but almost as soon as Bette took the stage, I was entranced. And there’s really nothing as invigorating as being in an audience that’s simply enraptured by the show at hand. The roars of approbation, the waves of pure joy. Bette’s voice has gotten a bit thin (Hey, she just turned 72), but her comic timing is spot-on. And the production and cast surrounding her were about as perfect as you could possibly imagine.
3. Hello Dolly! (with Donna Murphy, Broadway)
After seeing Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!, I knew that I had to go back to see Donna Murphy, who has played the title role on Tuesday nights and when Bette has been on vacation. Two-time Tony winner Murphy is one of the most reliable and hardest working actors in musical theater today, and she’s one of my personal favorites. And the experience was every bit as thrilling, thanks in no small part to director Jerry Zaks’ clockwork production, as well as the stellar supporting cast (including David Hyde Pierce, Kate Baldwin, and recent Tony recipient Gavin Creel). The night I saw the show, the ovations for Donna Murphy were only slightly less thunderous than those for Bette. Bette may be a star, but Donna is a trained stage performer. What Donna may have lacked in superstar magic, she more than made up for in craft and professionalism.
2. Once on This Island (Broadway)
Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of disappointing revivals of plays and musicals that I used to think I loved. Our youthful obsessions don’t always hold up to modern scrutiny. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with Once on This Island. Director Michael Arden has established himself as an imaginative and rejuvenative director, previously with the Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening, and now with his spirited restaging of lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty’s debut Broadway musical. Arden’s post-hurricane production concept gives the show an intensely timely resonance. And his in-the-round staging, combined with Camille A. Brown’s buoyant choreography, create a celebratory atmosphere unlike any other show currently on Broadway. The cast is nearly perfect, and give vibrant life to Ahrens and Flaherty’s lush, idiomatic score.
1. The Band’s Visit (Broadway)
The Off-Broadway production of The Band’s Visit was simply exquisite. Quiet, intimate, ravishing. Fortunately, the show has lost none of its charm and immediacy in its transition to Broadway, despite moving to a theater that is five times as large. Like Come From Away, The Band’s Visit is about lost travelers (an Egyptian military orchestra) and the sleepy community that comes to their aid (a backwater town in the Israeli desert). It’s amazing that the show works on Broadway, as there’s nothing flashy here, nothing decorative. But the characterizations are so rich, and David Yazbek’s score is so mesmerizing, that you don’t even notice that there really isn’t much action in the show. It’s just a chance to commune with these raw, aching, but terrifically real people. Although the cast is perfection, the captivating Katrina Lenk is the standout. If there’s any justice, she’ll get the nod come Tony time.
Honorable mention: Rags (Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam CT)
A special shoutout to the good folks at the Goodspeed for resurrecting and renovating one of the most heartbreaking flops of the past 30 years. I saw the Boston tryout of Rags back in 1986, and about half the score was positively gorgeous. The rest of the score was pedestrian, and the book was convoluted and uninvolving. Composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Stephen Schwartz returned to write a considerable number of new songs for the Goodspeed run, and librettist David Thompson almost completely rewrote the late Joseph Stein’s original book. The result was a revelation — an improvement by an order of magnitude — but this Rags will probably need another workshop or two before it’s ready for a full-scale revival.
5. Curvy Widow (Westside Arts Theatre, Off-Broadway)
The very definition of a vanity project, this self-aggrandizing musical by Bobby Goldman celebrates her own sexual liberation after the death of her husband. The humor was cheap, the score forgettable, and the plot proceedings decidedly crude. Not even the great Nancy Opel could save this production from rank mediocrity.
4. Kid Victory (Vineyard Theatre, Off-Broadway)
This ambitious Off-Broadway entry is a textbook case of mismatched tone. The story concerns a young man held captive as a sex slave, while the score features jaunty musical comedy songs. The apparent intention was for the songs to provide a means of escape for the tortured young man, but despite reliably beautiful melodies from veteran composer John Kander, the show was unsettling in ways the authors clearly did not intend. The terrific cast, including Karen Ziemba and Jeffry Denman, did their best to make the jarring shifts in tone workable. But the resulting show was confusing, if not downright off-putting.
3. Red Roses, Green Gold (Minetta Lane Theatre, Off-Broadway)
Some shows simply scream “for fans only,” particular many of those of the jukebox variety. Red Roses, Green Gold features songs by Jerry Garcia and his fellow members of The Grateful Dead. The songs, as you might expect, were terrific, as was the game and talented cast delivering those songs with spark and conviction. But the plot surrounding those songs, something about a family of bumpkins trying to hold onto their boarding house/general store/emerald mine (seriously), was absolutely ridiculous, unworthy of even the most lame of theme park entertainments.
2. Groundhog Day (Broadway)
It continues to amaze me that Groundhog Day was nominated for Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Score. Over War Paint? Anastasia? A Bronx Tale? The Tony voters must have had a major hair across their collective butts about these shows to place the radically inferior Groundhog Day above these admittedly flawed but reasonably well-crafted shows. The book to Groundhog Day wasn’t all that bad. In fact, it was pretty darn funny. But that score. Oh, my sainted aunt, that score. This is the same Tim Minchin who delivered the alternately lively and lyrical score to Matilda? The songs to Groundhog Day are, almost without exception, flat and formless. Here’s hoping Mr. Minchin rediscovers his considerable talents for any future shows he pens.
1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Broadway)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I was actually looking forward to seeing what composer/lyricists Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman could do to punch up the score for the stage adaptation. Unfortunately, their efforts here are lifeless and grim, paling in comparison to those from the 1971 movie. Not even two-time Tony winner Christian Borle could add any spark to the leaden book and irritating score. The production as a whole amounts to little more than a cheap, cynical money grab on the part of Warner Brothers, producers of the movie and of the stage adaptation. The set is laughable, when there actually is one, especially the supposedly awe-inspiring backdrop for “Pure Imagination.” Such a highlight in the film, here it is reduced to a chintzy, minuscule roll-on set piece, forcing the cast members to unconvincingly “ooh” and “aah” over this risible prop the size of a king-sized bed. For shame.
Dishonorable mention: The Golden Apple (Encores!, NYC)
After years of hearing how The Golden Apple — music by Jerome Moross, lyrics by John La Touche — was supposedly this forgotten gem of the musical-theater canon, a long-neglected masterpiece just itching for a first-class revival, I finally got a chance to see it at Encores!. What a letdown. Moross’s music is admittedly ambitious, but it’s not exactly pleasant to listen to in the theater. Plus, the sung-through style winds up enervating the story — based on The Iliad and The Odyssey, no less — with a tedious procession of recitative and aria, recitative and aria…. The classic tale held no emotional weight in this treatment, and the many attempts at comedy fell disappointingly flat.
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Cover: The company of ‘The Band’s Visit;’ photo: Matthew Murphy.