TIME Theater

Finding Neverland and The Visit: Two Broadway Musicals to Savor

"Finding Neverland" Broadway Opening Night - Arrivals & Curtain Call
Getty Images (2) Left: The cast of Finding Neverland takes a bow on April 15, 2015 in New York City. Right: The cast of The Visit takes a bow on April 23, 2015 in New York City.

After long, troubled voyages to Broadway, both shows have provided a happy ending to the season

The troubled history of Finding Neverland, the new Broadway musical about author J.M. Barrie and the writing of Peter Pan, is one of those juicy backstage stories that theater insiders love. Producer Harvey Weinstein, the independent film mogul overseeing his first Broadway musical, scrapped one earlier version of the show, replaced the entire creative team, complained about the critics and fought with his own publicists — all before the show finally opened on Broadway two weeks ago.

But is it possible to ignore the backstage soap opera and actually look at what’s onstage? Audiences apparently can, since they’ve been flocking to the show in near sellout numbers. As for the critics? Not so much. The mostly negative reviews seem to be more a judgment on Weinstein and his shenanigans than on the musical itself. Because what I saw onstage, at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontane Theater, is a surprisingly enjoyable show.

To appreciate the sheer craft involved in pulling it off, you need to compare it to the rather treacly, Oscar-nominated 2004 movie on which it’s based. Rare for one of these screen-to-stage transfers, the musical improves on the movie in almost every way. Matthew Morrison, recently of the TV show Glee, is more convincing and relatable as Barrie than the moony and mercurial Johnny Depp in the film. Kelsey Grammer has a firmer fix on the character of Barrie’s gruff producer (and better comic timing) than Dustin Hoffman. The stage version is less saccharine and less dragged out; we’re spared all those endless shots of Kate Winslet gazing beatifically at Barrie and her boys, whose game-playing supposedly inspired him to create the famous children’s story. It strikes me as the very model of a modern family musical: briskly told, brightly staged, with a score (by British rocker Gary Barlow) as tuneful as one could expect from a show set in turn-of-the-century London that’s not by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Much credit goes to James Graham’s script, which is witty, efficient and mostly dry-eyed. Director Diane Paulus’s staging is slick and inventive, but never over the top. As Barrie watches the boys bounce on a bed, they are borne aloft by stagehands in dreamy slow-motion (no tacky wires here). A stuffy dinner party, attended by Barrie and the boys, suddenly breaks into a spirited fantasy interlude, a production number that captures the kid-at-heart awakening of Barrie better than anything in the movie. Mia Michaels’ choreography avoids traditional Broadway chorus lines, acrobatics and ballet pretensions for clever, tightly synchronized, character-driven group movement, and it is winning.

Yes, the story still inspires some qualms (a brief bit of dialogue raises intimations of pedophilia), and there’s some heavy-handed comedy business involving the huffy stage actors who are forced to play kids and dogs in Barrie’s new children’s play. (Plus one offhand, out-of-character reference to Grammer’s old TV series Cheers that has been treated by the guardians of Broadway purity as if it were grounds for federal prosecution.) But these are trivial flaws in a show that displays a lot of poise and professionalism, and deserves a long run.

The Visit, a musical version of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s great 1956 play, is another show that arrives on Broadway with plenty of backstage baggage. One of the last collaborations between songwriters John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago), the show was originally staged in Chicago in 2001, has been tinkered with and restaged several times, and has survived to make its Broadway debut thanks largely to one salutary constant: its star, 82-year-old Broadway legend Chita Rivera.

She plays Clare Zachanassian, the world’s richest woman, who returns to her impoverished home town with a strange retinue: a tuxedoed butler, two blind eunuchs and an empty coffin. She has come back to see the lover (Roger Rees) who once jilted her, and to calmly offer the town a way out of its economic misery: she will pay $10 billion if they will murder him.

Clearly, we are not in Oklahoma! territory here. Durrenmatt’s play is a product of the postwar experimental European theater tradition — an allegorical, anti-realistic style, a touch of absurdism and a bleak, unsentimental view of the human predicament. The play is a parable of greed and revenge and conformity — and perhaps Nazi Germany too. (Durrenmatt was a Swiss who wrote in German.) Though embellished by Kander and Ebb’s sweet, deceptively simple, oom-pah-pah songs, it is the darkest musical I think I have ever seen on Broadway.

But it is a stunner. Terrence McNally’s clear, spare adaptation is almost as good as his musical masterpiece, Ragtime. Director John Doyle has pared down the version I saw in 2008 at Virginia’s Signature Theater, perhaps skimping a bit too much on the town’s evolving reaction to Clare’s shocking proposal. But he gives the show an intensity you rarely see in a Broadway musical. Set in a decrepit railway station, relentlessly gray except for the dabs of yellow as the townspeople begin to eye their possible riches, the show hits a peak in the unsettling anti-production number “Yellow Shoes,” as bright and chilling as a blast of winter ice.

Rivera is commanding as Clare, looking regal (“That’s not beauty,” says one of the townspeople; “that’s money”), her throaty voice still strong, betraying no fragility despite using a cane (the character has an artificial leg, along with other replacement body parts). She deserves the raves she is winning, but that shouldn’t obscure the achievement of this brave, uncompromising slice of Broadway misanthropy.

TIME Theater

Review: Curb Your Enthusiasm for Larry David’s Fish in the Dark

Fish in the Dark
Joan Marcus—Philip Rinaldi Publicity/AP Rachel Resheff, left, and Larry David during a performance of the comedy Fish in the Dark, at the Cort Theatre in New York.

TV's favorite curmudgeon delivers a Broadway hit, but a mediocre play

The Cort Theater has the worst men’s room on Broadway. The line at intermission for the undersized facility starts upstairs at the bar, snakes down the steps and then winds back and forth like the Saturday-afternoon queue for Space Mountain at Disneyland. At a recent performance of Larry David’s Fish in the Dark, a couple of dozen patrons were still waiting their turn when an usher announced that the curtain for Act II would go up in exactly five minutes — and anyone not in their seat would be denied admission for the rest of the play.

I tell this not to expose my bladder issues, or to complain about officious, anti-consumer Broadway theater policies (though I could). It just seemed like the perfect set-up for a Larry David routine. Imagine his cry of petulant indignation at the notion that, thanks to a theater’s inadequate bathroom facilities, paying customers might be barred from the show’s second act and forced to take a premature cab ride home.

Then again, they wouldn’t be missing a lot. David’s first Broadway play, which opened last night after weeks of buzz and booming box-office business, runs barely two hours, but it seems padded out, overpopulated (18 characters — enough for a Shakespeare history play!), and funny only in spurts. It’s great to see David, the star and creator of the popular HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, taking a crack at Broadway. But for all the audience’s indulgent laughter and the obligatory standing ovation at the end, one can’t help but detect a certain, well, lack of enthusiasm.

The play is certainly made to order. David plays Norman Drexel, a version of the familiar character he portrays on Curb: a dyspeptic curmudgeon who is constantly exasperated by the petty slights, annoyances and absurdities of everyday life. The play opens in a hospital waiting room, where Norman’s father is dying and assorted family members are coming to pay their last respects — and squabble over everything from which son will have to take care of Mom to who gets Dad’s Rolex watch.

On Curb Your Enthusiasm (and before that on Seinfeld, the hit NBC sitcom he created with Jerry Seinfeld), David proved himself a master of structure: weaving three or four storylines each week into a neat, 30-minute operetta of comic angst. With a two-act play to fill up, David has made everything bigger. The first predicament facing the family is whether the dying patriarch should be hooked up to a ventilator to prolong his life or not. A promising avenue for David’s dark, politically incorrect comedy — but he drops it after 20 minutes with perfunctory haste, and nary a punch line. From there the plot meanders through complications both consequential (the maid reveals that she and the dead man had a secret affair — and a love child) and superfluous (Norman’s daughter won’t drop the British accent she’s sporting for her starring role in My Fair Lady).

Onstage, David is bigger too. His whiny voice and perplexed expressions are perfectly sized for the small screen. Here he has to project his trademark shrug to the back of the mezzanine — hunching up his shoulders and stretching his arms so wide he looks like a seagull coming in for a landing at Kennedy Airport.

Still, David works hard to please, and he is helped out by pros like Rita Wilson, as Norman’s wife, Ben Shenkman, as his brother, and Louis J. Stadlen, as a loudmouth uncle. Fish in the Dark is hardly devoid of laughs — like a running gag about tipping doctors, and the story behind the play’s mystifying title, which involves a dinner where Dad almost choked on some fish bones because it was too dark to see the food.

But for a comedy writer who practically reinvented the TV sitcom, it’s surprising to see how clumsy and old-fashioned David’s playwriting is. For each of the many scene changes, the curtain has to drop, while the audience is distracted by a video projection of a death certificate and perky, ba-da-ba-da-ba vocals that sound like they come from a 1960s Ross Hunter comedy. Given the sorry state of recent Broadway comedy (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won a Tony award!), Fish in the Dark may be just diverting enough to satisfy theatergoers who are paying up to $500 to see Larry David’s hangdog act on stage. To that, I can only respond with a shrug.

TIME Theater

Cold Weather, Hot Shows: Honeymoon in Vegas and Constellations

"Honeymoon In Vegas" Broadway Opening Night - Arrivals & Curtain Call
Walter McBride—Getty Images/WireImage From left: Matthew Saldivar, Tony Danza, Rob McClure, Brynn O'Malley, Nancy Opel and David Josefsberg with the cast during the Broadway Opening Night Performance Curtain Call for Honeymoon in Vegas at the Nederlander Theatre on Jan. 15, 2014 in New York City.

Broadway's bleakest month is brightened by two very different shows

“Opening in January.” They’re the three most depressing words in movies — a telltale sign that the lame action film or Jennifer Lopez thriller you’re being touted is a sorry leftover, dumped by the studio in the fallow month following the big holiday releases. It’s not much different on Broadway, where big shows tend to close, not open, during the most low-trafficked month of the year. Two recent openings, however, are making this January a happy exception.

Honeymoon in Vegas, a long-aborning musical that opened last night at the Nederlander Theater, is based on the 1992 Andrew Bergman movie about a marriage-phobic guy who takes his fiancee to Vegas to tie the knot, only to see her fall into the clutches of a lovelorn gambler. With a book by Bergman himself and songs by the prolific Jason Robert Brown, it makes the screen-to-stage transition better than a lot of recent musicals (like last season’s Bridges of Madison County, which Brown also scored). The show is splashy and fun, and I’m betting it’s a hit.

Fans of the movie, it must be said, will notice a few deficiencies. As the nervous bachelor Jack Singer, Rob McClure (so wonderful in the title role of the musical Chaplin) settles for generic Broadway spunk, a far cry from the frantic angst that Nicolas Cage brought to the movie role. And the show’s biggest star, Tony Danza, is just a TV-bland smoothie as the gambler, with none of James Caan’s intriguing mix of menace and vulnerability on the big screen.

But hey, this is a Broadway musical, where production ingenuity, not character subtlety, is the coin of the realm. And by that measure, Honeymoon in Vegas is in the chips.

The story, for one thing, has more heft and coherence than most musical-comedies. Jack’s resistance to marriage stems from a promise to his dying mother (Nancy Opel), who pops up throughout the show, amusingly, as a nagging dybbuk. Then, just when Jack is about to break the curse and get Betsy (Brynn O’Malley) into a Vegas wedding chapel, he loses $58,000 in a poker game to the gambler — who offers to forgive the debt in exchange for a weekend with the girlfriend.

Director Gary Griffin (Broadway’s The Color Purple) takes all this seriously enough that the slick, Vegas-style production numbers don’t render the moral dilemma meaningless. Brown, one of the new generation of theatrical songwriters indebted to Stephen Sondheim, here seems to be channeling Jerry Herman instead, with bright, listener-friendly tunes full of big-band sizzle and lounge-show steam.

And then there are the flying Elvises. In the film’s most famous scene, Jack hitches a ride back to Vegas with a band of skydiving Elvis impersonators and parachute-jumps to Betsy’s rescue. The pompadoured Elvii — dressed in gold spangled leisure suits, grunting in unison — are a real hoot, and the skydiving sequence is done with such witty, low-tech stagecraft that it instantly earns a spot (along with “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie, and Susan Stroman’s walker-tapping grannies in The Producers) on my list of Broadway’s great comic production numbers.

Nothing could be further from the splashy Honeymoon in Vegas than the spare, mystical, two-character play Constellations, which also opened this week in a Manhattan Theater Club production. But if the first is an affirmation of the pleasures of old-fashioned Broadway professionalism, the second is heartening proof that Broadway can still, occasionally, find a place for serious and challenging new work, too.

Nick Payne’s one-act play, first produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre, is the chronicle of a couple’s life together, told in brief, time-jumbled scenes that recount the key moments of their relationship, from their first meeting (at a rain-soaked barbecue) through various crises, reconciliations and turning points. The gimmick (and I mean that in the nicest way) is that each scene is replayed several times, often in short, repetitive snippets, representing various alternate scenarios. A first night at Marianne’s apartment, for example, ends abruptly (“I’m not asking you to understand, I’m asking you to leave”), then warily, then tenderly, depending on each new iteration of the dialogue and tone of voice.

The point, we are told a little more explicitly than you might expect, lies in Marianne’s work as a theoretical physicist. She expounds on something called the “quantum multiverse,” where “every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” Scientifically speaking, there’s probably less here than meets the eye, but it’s a neat artistic construct to bring home the randomness of life, the way our personal histories can turn on the thinnest of dimes.

It wouldn’t work, however, without the exacting direction of Michael Longhurst (who directed the original London production). Each scene and time change is signaled with a quick change of lighting and a Law and Order-style sound burst. Just as important is the fine-grained acting by Jake Gillenhaal (doing an acceptable British accent) and Ruth Wilson (doing her real one), who register each emotional shift with precision and feeling.

I could have done without one major plot turn — a health crisis — that takes the play in a more conventional (if undeniably affecting) direction. Yet Payne sustains his conceit to the end, and manages to complete a theatrical high-wire act with breathtaking skill. Even the flying Elvises would be impressed.

TIME Theater

Broadway’s Second Season: 10 Shows to Watch For

From left: Broadway bound cast of Finding Neverland Jo Lawry, Tata Vega, Darlene Love, Gary Barlow, Aidan Gemme, Hayden Signoretti, Sawyer Nunes, Alex Dreier and Laura Michelle Kelly after performing songs on ABC's 'Good Morning America' on Nov. 27, 2014 in New York City.
Jenny Anderson—2014 Getty Images From left: Broadway bound cast of Finding Neverland Jo Lawry, Tata Vega, Darlene Love, Gary Barlow, Aidan Gemme, Hayden Signoretti, Sawyer Nunes, Alex Dreier and Laura Michelle Kelly after performing songs on ABC's 'Good Morning America' on Nov. 27, 2014 in New York City.

Big musicals, British imports and Larry David highlight Broadway's winter-spring semester

Correction appended: Jan. 14, 2015

The first half of the Broadway season has been, at best, a disappointment. Only one new musical — The Last Ship, which has already announced its closing later this month — along with a surfeit of big-star revivals (It’s Only a Play, with Nathan Lane;The Elephant Man, with Bradley Cooper). But Broadway’s season, now more than ever, is heavily backloaded, with most of the high-profile shows waiting until closer to the spring and Tony-nomination time.

Among the most promising shows waiting in the wings:

Honeymoon in Vegas (opening Jan. 15). Big musicals generally don’t like to open in the frigid, audience-challenged month of January. But last year’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical bucked the conventional wisdom, opened in January and became one of the season’s unexpected hits. Trying to duplicate that feat this year is Honeymoon in Vegas, based on the 1992 movie about a guy who takes his fiancee to Vegas, then has to keep her out of the hands of a smooth-talking gambler. Jason Robert Brown (last season’s Bridges of Madison County) wrote the score, and Tony Danza stars in the show, which got good reviews in a pre-Broadway run at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse.

Fish in the Dark (Mar. 5). The publicity campaign is already in high gear for the Broadway debut — as both star and playwright — of TV’s favorite comedy sourpuss, Larry David. The Curb Your Enthusiasm star and Seinfeld co-creator has divulged few details of the story — it’s about a death in the family and centers on a character very much like Larry David — but has surrounded himself with a formidable cast of TV and Broadway vets, among them Rita Wilson, Rosie Perez, Jayne Houdyshell and Lewis J. Stadlen.

The Audience (Mar. 8). Helen Mirren, who at this point could probably fill in for Queen Elizabeth at knighthood ceremonies, once again plays the British monarch in Peter Morgan’s historical drama, which imagines the conversations between the Queen and a succession of British prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to David Cameron. Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) directs the production, which was a hit at London’s National Theatre, as well as in a live movie-theater presentation in 2013.

The Heidi Chronicles (Mar. 19). The first Broadway revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1989 play, about an art historian whose life mirrors the ups and downs of the women’s movement from the 1960s through the ’80s. Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men) stars as the confused feminist, and director Pam MacKinnon (who won a Tony for the recent revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) will help us determine whether the play holds up as more than a period piece.

Skylight (Apr. 2). Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan star in a revival of David Hare’s 1995 play about a restaurateur who pays an unexpected visit to the flat of his former girlfriend. Another British import (directed, again, by the estimable Stephen Daldry) that arrives here following rave reviews and sellout crowds in London.

Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2 (Apr. 9). A double dose of British history: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s bestselling novels about intrigue in the court of Henry VIII. The two plays, adapted by Mike Poulton and originally titled Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, were hits in London, but whether they can entice Americans theatergoers to spend two music-free evenings at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater (longtime home to Cats and Mamma Mia) remains to be seen.

Finding Neverland (Apr. 15). The critics were mixed when this musical based on the movie about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie premiered last year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. But producer Harvey Weinstein, overseeing his first Broadway show, is a determined man, and he’s corralled star Matthew Morrison (Glee) and director Diane Paulus (who helmed the hit revivals of Hair, Porgy and Bess and Pippin) to try to transform it into a Broadway smash.

The King and I (Apr. 16). The lovely, creamy-voiced Kelli O’Hara continues her march through the Rodgers & Hammerstein songbook, starring in a revival of the team’s beloved 1951 show about a British schoolteacher and the King of Siam. Director Bartlett Sher, who guided O’Hara in the successful 2008 revival of South Pacific, is again at the helm, and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe makes his Broadway debut as the king.

Fun Home (Apr. 19). The critics have already given a big thumbs-up to Lisa Kron’s heartfelt musical, with songs by Jeanine Tesori, based on graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s memoir of her troubled family life. The question is whether this very downtown show, transferring to Broadway after its acclaimed 2013 run at the Public Theater, can win over a mainstream audience.

Doctor Zhivago (Apr. 21). Either the biggest hit or the biggest joke of the spring season: a lavish musical (with songs by Lucy Simon) based on Boris Pasternak’s famed novel about the Russian Revolution. Critics who saw the show in Australia were impressed, but the lack of stars and a poor track record for foreign-born musical spectacles on Broadway (see Rocky) could make it a Russian white elephant.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the first name of the playwright for Wolf Hall. He is Mike Poulton.

TIME Theater

Review: The Elephant Man: Bradley Cooper’s Broadway Freak Show

From left: Anthony Heald, Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson during the Broadway Opening Night Performance Curtain Call for 'The Elephant Man' on Dec. 7, 2014 in New York City.
Walter McBride—Getty Images/WireImage From left: Anthony Heald, Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson during the Broadway opening-night-performance curtain call for The Elephant Man on Dec. 7, 2014, in New York City

In The Elephant Man, People's Sexiest Man Alive has found an ideal stage vehicle

Anyone attending the new Broadway revival of The Elephant Man might get the idea that, for most theatergoers, the real show doesn’t begin until after the final curtain. That’s when an excited crowd of fans gathers outside the stage door, waiting for star Bradley Cooper to make his appearance.

I had, by chance, a front row seat for the post-show frenzy after one recent performance —at one of the tables in Junior’s, the deli restaurant right next door to the Booth Theater. What amazed me wasn’t just the press of flesh and flashbulbs outside, waiting for the hunky Hollywood star to emerge. It was the crowd that had gathered inside the restaurant: patrons interrupting their corned beef sandwiches to gawk through the windows and point their cellphones — taking photos of the crowd taking photos of the star who was all but invisible behind the horde of autograph-seeking fans.

It seemed a fitting coda for a year in which Broadway’s parade of star power hit an all-time peak. Neil Patrick Harris, Bryan Cranston, Michael Cera, Hugh Jackman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and (most recently, as the new Sally Bowles in Cabaret) Emma Stone were just some of the TV and movie stars who made their debuts, or high-profile returns, on Broadway this year. In most cases, they were headlining revivals — and not always of plays that needed reviving. This is the third Broadway production of The Elephant Man (the last was in 2002), and it surely wouldn’t be back if Bradley Cooper — People’s former Sexiest Man Alive, star of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and The Hangover films — didn’t think it would be a good career move.

It’s easy to see why. In the role of John Merrick, the hideously deformed man who was transformed from a circus freak into the toast of Victorian London, Cooper has a near-perfect, high-impact showcase in which to demonstrate his stage chops. The main gimmick of Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 fact-based drama is that the grotesque title character is portrayed by a perfectly normal-looking actor, without makeup or prosthetics, who simply manipulates his body and voice to simulate the deformities that revolt (and later fascinate) all who meet him.

Cooper’s sheer physical gorgeousness makes the transformation a surefire crowd pleaser. Watch him twist his face and contort his buffed-up body into a lopsided hump. Listen to the gurgles and clicking sounds as he gasps out his words in a strangled, high-pitched wail. The standing ovation is assured; a Tony nomination nearly so.

I don’t mean to denigrate Cooper’s performance, which is impressive and often touching. So is Pomerance’s play, with its canny mixture of historical drama, moral inquiry and social satire. Merrick is rescued from his freak-show horrors by the kindly Dr. Frederick Treves and introduced to a patronizing gallery of Victorian swells, who simply transfer the freak show to well-appointed drawing rooms. Scott Elliott’s production junks the Brechtian intertitles in Pomerance’s script, which added a nice layer of irony to the proceedings, and as a result the play becomes a little more of a heart-tugger than it probably ought to be. But tug at the heart it does.

Cooper is helped quite a bit by an excellent supporting cast, especially Alessandro Nivola, who neatly walks the line between sympathy and smugness as the doctor, and Patricia Clarkson, a bit brittle but engaging as the actress who becomes Merrick’s friend and patron. It is an intelligent, thought-provoking, briskly paced evening of theater, over in a surprisingly fast two hours. Plenty of time left to grab your cellphone, join the stage-door scrum — and still have time for slice of Junior’s cheesecake.

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