Before the Tonys, Broadway accelerates with ‘Once,’ ‘Newsies,’ ‘Jesus Christ’
By Peter Marks,
New York — It’s that gusty time of year again, when the skies open up over Broadway and out of the clouds come the April showers of new productions, all making landfall just under the Tony Awards deadline.
The month of April is by far the busiest of the year for Broadway openings: A total of 13 plays and musicals will open, or nearly one new show every other day — representing a third of the 2012-13 season’s new productions. (The deluge starts with a revival of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” officially opening Sunday, and concludes April 26 with the new musical “Leap of Faith.”)
The schedule defies most measures of logic and logistics, especially when one considers the perilous odds against Broadway success and the limited marketing tools new shows can wield in the effort to capture quickly ticket buyers’ attention. And still, in the Darwinian struggle to earn the legitimacy-conferring Tony nods that will be announced May 1, producers, as has become customary, pack the April calendar, clearly knowing that not everyone can survive.
The thunder has already begun to rumble, with the openings of three major musical productions, each seeking to get a jump on the coming Tony sweepstakes. (The trophies will be doled out at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre on June 10.) Each of the three — “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Newsies” and “Once” — is a viable contender for end-of-the-season recognition. Even if each relies on an entirely different, time-honored Broadway entertainment value: Be it blood (“Superstar”), sweat (“Newsies”) or tears (“Once”).
The most original and emotionally exhilarating of the trio is the new stage version of “Once,” the offbeat 2007 movie musical about the unlikely Dublin romance of a depressed Irish street singer and a buoyantly unsinkable Czech immigrant. With the enchanting songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova left intact — and a new book by Irish playwright Enda Walsh — “Once” successfully transfers its affectionate brand of edginess to the stage. And in the team of John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett, the director and choreographer behind the muscularly inventive “Black Watch,” the musical has found matching sensibilities for the story’s off-centered tartness.
A knock among the theater cognoscenti on “Once” — which had a run at off-Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop, birthplace of “Rent” — is that the story and characters aren’t writ large enough for Broadway; like the film, it belongs more naturally to the art house. I can’t vouch for its commercial potential, but if “Once” is for more rarefied air, it’s the sort of revivifying breeze nowhere more necessary than on Broadway.
The stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre is transformed by crackerjack scenery imagineer Bob Crowley into a Dublin pub. Each of the 13 cast members, with the exception of a child actress, plays both a character and an instrument. While the device has proved effective and affected in the much-talked about revivals of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” by director John Doyle, the approach feels seamless here. Music is the conveyance of love, as the singer known only as Guy (Steve Kazee) is schooled in tuneful confidence-building by the iron-willed Girl (Cristin Milioti), who falls in love with him and the sounds he makes on his guitar.
That sense of the melding of a style and personality is reflected bracingly in the permeable performances of Kazee and Milioti, who make virtually visible the magnetic pulls exerted by their characters on each other. Tiffany’s clever employment of surtitles in Czech — to indicate when the Czech characters are speaking in their native language — has a powerful payoff in Act 2: Bathed in a purple haze by the superb lighting designer Natasha Katz, Kazee’s Guy listens uncomprehendingly as Milioti reveals her desire for him but only in Czech.
You can bring teenage devotees of “Spring Awakening” or “Next to Normal” to “Once,” but take the little tykes, instead, to “Newsies.” My audience at the Nederlander Theatre, where the Disney musical had its official opening Thursday night, was filled with 30-somethings reveling in their memories of the 1992 movie. The film featured a singing Christian Bale as the swashbuckling king of New York’s hardscrabble turn-of-the-20th-century newsboys, facing off against a dastardly, money-grubbing newspaper magnate.
Here, Bale’s Jack Kelly is portrayed by the Cagneyesque Jeremy Jordan, fresh from Broadway’s ill-fated “Bonnie and Clyde.” His portrayal in this predictable tale, directed by Jeff Calhoun, of the poor Davids vs. the filthy rich Goliaths will appeal mostly to kids and those with abiding nostalgia for the movie. I grew tired of the reductive storytelling and wooden characters. Alan Menken and Jack Feldman’s serviceable score is a minor entry in the Disney canon. (How quaint, too, to think of a newspaper as the omnipotent weapon of the elite.)
Christopher Gattelli’s combustibly athletic dances are the show’s only real accelerant — though judging from how toned the newsboys are, you do wonder if hawking papers in 1899 came with a gym membership.
What “Newsies” is to happy feet, director Des McAnuff’s new, technology-obsessed “Jesus Christ Superstar” is to super-stressed vocal cords. As metal risers wend their way on and off the stage of the Neil Simon Theatre, an electronic news zipper keeps the audience apprised of when events in the rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have shifted to Nazareth or Gethsemane.
You’ll be glad to have a listen again to the now-vintage powerhouse score, especially out of the lungs of the amazing Jeremy Kushnier, who was subbing as Judas for an ailing Josh Young the night I was there. Alas, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the involved mechanics of Robert Brill’s set from the robotic lead performances. Chilina Kennedy’s glassy-eyed Mary Magdalene and Paul Nolan’s excessively opaque Jesus provide inadvertent support for the thesis that “Superstar” looks best on CD. It’s the emotions of this musical, not the volume, that need pumping up.
music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, book by Enda Walsh. Directed by John Tiffany. Movement, Steven Hoggett; music supervisor and orchestrations, Martin Lowe; sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Natasha Katz. About 21 / 2 hours. At Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200. www.telecharge.com.
music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Jeff Calhoun. Choreography, Christopher Gatelli; sets, Tobin Ost; costumes, Jess Goldstein; sound, Ken Travis; lighting, Jeff Croiter; orchestrations, Danny Troob. About 2½ hours. At Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York. 866-870-2717. www.ticketmaster.com.
Jesus Christ Superstar
music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreography, Lisa Shriver; music direction, Rick Fox; set, Robert Brill; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy. About 2 hours. At Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., New York. 877-250-2929. www.ticketmaster.com.