NEW YORK — Two Broadways coexist, in uneasy detente, amid the narrow swath of theaters stretching from West 41st Street to Lincoln Center on West 65th. One of these Broadways is a haven of serious talent and a platform for transfers, remounts and revivals, mostly, but not always, of well-received fare from off-Broadway, the rest of the country and London.
The other Broadway is made of flimsier material: gussied-up celebrity vehicles, brand-name movies maladroitly reengineered into musicals and other ill-conceived curiosities that hoodwink investors and seek to do the same to ticket-buying tourists, who make up two-thirds of the theater audience in Times Square.
Sometimes, artier ventures soar like big-time commercial hits (this season’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” for example), and sometimes, the gaudy sure things wither quickly (last season’s “Bullets Over Broadway”). The boundaries between the Broadways are nothing if not permeable and endlessly shifting.
In some shape or form, it probably has forever been thus, but this April, the deadline month for Tony Award nominations and as a result the busiest month by far for Broadway openings, provides as clear a snapshot of the Broadway fault lines as I’ve encountered. Two sterling productions — “Fun Home” from off-Broadway and the Lincoln Center Theater revival of “The King and I” — and three tepid ones or much worse — the musicals “Finding Neverland,” “It Shoulda Been You” and “Something Rotten” — map out vividly the distinct territories of the two Broadways.
Bearing in mind that critics’ taste — or that of the shrinking proportion of regular Broadway theatergoers — is an increasingly unreliable barometer of success, one has to say that the longevity hopes for any of these shows, on either side of my dividing line, are difficult to foretell. Even so, I’d bank on “The King and I,” recently rolled out to splendid effect by director Bartlett Sher in Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, as the show among these with the brightest future.
This just may be, in fact, the finest staging of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in my experience, even taking into account Sher’s own masterly treatment for Lincoln Center Theater of “South Pacific.” Here, the director grandly redeploys Kelli O’Hara, the Nellie Forbush of his 2008 production, as Anna Leonowens, the schoolmistress who beguiles a palace filled with the children of a king of Siam. As that monarch, magnetic Japanese film actor Ken Watanabe (“The Last Samurai,” “Letters from Iwo Jima”) proves a delightful, more playful antidote to Yul Brynner, who sealed an eternal bond with audiences in his movie and multiple stage portrayals. He doesn’t supplant the memory of Brynner; he merely shows us a more human-scale idea of this king.
Together, O’Hara and Watanabe generate more heart-melting heat than any “King and I” pair I’ve seen, particularly in the moment when Watanabe slips his arm around O’Hara’s waist in a breathtaking rendition of “Shall We Dance?,” choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. The revelations of this lushly sung production extend to a moving Lady Thiang by Ruthie Ann Miles (who played Imelda Marcos in “Here Lies Love”) and Ashley Park’s assertively persuasive Tuptim. Michael Yeargan’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes amplify the production’s epic lavishness, and Sher’s wise inclusion of the often-cut song “Western People Funny” greatly enhances our sense of the personality of the king’s court.
The fortunes of “Fun Home,” the musical adaptation of cartoonist and MacArthur genius grant winner Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, are less certain — even though the show is the kind of understated, offbeat gem that offers Broadway a badly needed, subtler permutation of luster. The show, with an elegantly plaintive score by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics), should do well when the Tony nods are announced Tuesday morning. Given the sadness that suffuses this coming-of-age story, of a woman grappling with her parents’ devastating secrets and her own sexuality, it may need the sales boost that the accolades accord. Last June, the Tony for best musical propelled a Broadway basket case, “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” to the box office winner’s circle.
“Fun Home” has moved to Broadway from off-Broadway’s Public Theater, and though the acoustics and sightlines of Circle in the Square aren’t ideal, the power of Tesori and Kron’s storytelling has not been measurably diminished. In director Sam Gold’s impressively unsentimental handling, Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn are outstanding as Alison’s father and mother, in turns as brutally honest as you’re likely to find in modern musical theater. Alison is played by three actresses at various ages, and each — Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs and Sydney Lucas — adds her own distinctive hues to a marvelous triptych.
Broadway’s flip side is represented in the openings in rapid succession of three new musicals, each one an oddly ersatz venture, of shoddy conception and all too brassy execution. The least objectionable of them, “It Shoulda Been You,” at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is a musical situation comedy built on an endless string of wedding-day cliches — the overbearing Jewish mother, the browbeaten bride’s father, the wisecracking lush of a groom’s mother — and one truly ludicrous plot twist.
The cast, which includes Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris, Chip Zien and Montego Glover, is entirely overqualified for the low brand of shenanigans manufactured by the show’s creators, Brian Hargrove and Barbara Anselmi. That they’re whipped into shape by director David Hyde Pierce does allow for a veneer of competence. Being able to say the show hits its marks, though, would seem a fairly paltry point of pride.
“Something Rotten!,” at the St. James Theatre, is a different sort of throwback: to the day before yesterday, the last time most of its wink-wink private-parts quips were delivered. A satire set in Shakespeare’s England, it’s the tale of a pair of playwright brothers (Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani) who, wallowing in the shadow of the Bard (Christian Borle), conspire through the visions of a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) to produce the world’s first musical.
This persuades the show’s songwriters, Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, to declare open season on theater, with an endless parade of digs about musicals and Shakespeare. It’s all the most obvious sort of material: Borle’s one-joke Will is a pompous, self-adoring bore, the 16th century’s answer to Conrad Birdie, and the show’s big production number, “A Musical,” is so relentlessly over the top it enforces a desire to resist. (Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, also one of the directors of the far, far superior “The Book of Mormon,” is a skillful parodist, but here that’s all he reveals.)
Still, I’d gladly sit again through “It Shoulda Been You” or “Something Rotten!” if it meant never having to hear another word about “Finding Neverland,” the spectacularly noisy and awkward misfire at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Based on a Miramax movie that starred Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie, playwright of “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” the charmless musical posits “Glee’s” Matthew Morrison as the tortured Barrie, who rediscovers his talent through his association with a family of fatherless boys.
Any of the lump-in-your-throat potential of “Finding Neverland” is squandered by director Diane Paulus in the show’s miscalculated fireworks. (Among the casualties: Kelsey Grammer, in a doubling as Barrie’s producer and more bizarrely, as an inspirational version of Captain Hook, who stirs Barrie’s imagination.) The score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, meanwhile, is a nest of thin tunes and near-rhymes — “truth” and “use,” “earth” and “hurt” — that grows ever more grating as the evening wears on.
The show’s “Peter Pan” tie-in is the kind of branding advantage that may assist in “Neverland” finding its audience through marketing, in lieu of something more meaningful. In any event, it will be interesting to see which Broadway the Tony nominators judge it to be a part of, when their decisions are made public.
Finding Neverland, book by James Graham, music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Directed by Diane Paulus. About 2½ hours. $65-$242. At Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.
Fun Home, music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Directed by Sam Gold. About 95 minutes. $75-$150. At Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St.
It Shoulda Been You, book and lyrics by Brian Hargrove, music and concept by Barbara Anselmi. Directed by David Hyde Pierce. About 100 minutes. $75-$211. At Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.
The King and I, music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Bartlett Sher. About 3 hours. $97-$325. At Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St.
Something Rotten!, book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. About 2½ hours. $37-$225. At St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.