A Broadway blast: `South Pacific,’ `Gypsy,’ `In the Heights’

Sep 01

A quick Labor Day trip to New York allowed me a little long overdue catching up on some Broadway shows.

I had three slots available, and I filled them all with musicals. Yes, I could have seen August: Osage County and any number of plays. Yes, I could have seen my dearly beloved [title of show], which apparently could use every audience member it could get.

But I went for the big ticket items, and I’m so glad I did. Here are some thoughts on my trio of musical theater delights.

SOUTH PACIFIC

Just how director Bartlett Sher turned this 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein relic into such a beautiful, vital piece of theater is somewhat miraculous. The show everyone said was dated and impossible to revive in our politically correct world is now the most moving, involving and astonishing musical on Broadway.

I’ve always loved the score of South Pacific – nearly every song is a hit – but I’ve never much liked the show (and the movie bored me from an early age). Until now. Sher made the wise decision to make the orchestra (and, consequently Rodgers’ music) a star of the show, and that puts a whole new emphasis on the evening. During the overture, when the melodies really rev up, the stage of the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont slowly rolls back to reveal the formally dressed members of the 30-piece orchestra. It’s a thrilling moment – the first of many.

Strangely, this South Pacific doesn’t feel like a musical. It feels like a contained world that resembles our own but exists in a heightened dimension where communication is not complete without a lush orchestra to underscore the emotion. The performers, from the brilliant Kelli O’Hara as Nellie Forbush to Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque, are grounded and natural in this alternate universe, and everything they do resonates with emotional truth and power.

So when Szot ends Act 1 with a reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening,” and that amazing stage comes into play again, it’s like a rush of heartbreak that pulses right through you.

Conversely, when O’Hara gushes through “Wonderful Guy,” you believe every word, and the same is true of Matthew Morrison as Lt. Joe Cable when he sings “Younger Than Springtime” and, more importantly, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Some have chastised South Pacific for preaching on the topic of racial intolerance, but that’s exactly what gives the show its emotional heft. When Nellie discovers just how powerful her prejudice is, we’re as disappointed in her as she is in herself. She’s desperate for change and to find her place in the world, but when she faces real change and has a chance to inhabit someplace as far away from Little Rock, Arkansas, she can’t simply rely on her charm, smile and giggle as a defense. She has to discover who she truly is, and she does in the most moving way possible.

Prior to this production, I had never really felt the weight of South Pacific or so strongly felt the tension of war that underscores everything, even the most buoyant numbers such as “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”

I used to think I had a favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein show (Carousel). Then I saw The King and I and had to re-think. Now it’s all about South Pacific and probably will be for a good long time. We’re a country at war, and we’re in the midst of a presidential race involving our first African-American candidate. How extraordinary that Rodgers and Hammerstein still have something to reveal about our world.

 

GYPSY

Everything you’ve heard about the Patti LuPone Gypsy is true. And it’s even better than that.

I should correct myself. This is the Arthur Laurents
Gypsy. In his early 90s, the book writer of Gypsy, considered by many to be the pinnacle of American musical theater, has reconfigured his masterwork yet again. As the director of this production, he has balanced the weights and come up with a show that is as good a play as it is a musical.

Sure LuPone is great – truly great – but she doesn’t overwhelm. Her Rose is spry, sexy and endearing. She’s not a steamroller, nor is she a nightmare. We like this quick-thinking woman for her spirit if not for her borderline abusive parenting methods. She’s fame damaged not because she’s famous but because she’s not and that’s what she most wants in the world. She uses her daughters and the men in her life to scramble for fame, but to no effect.

Her frustration, anger and utter self-involvement kills every relationship, and that pain infuses every confrontation she has, especially with Boyd Gaines as Herbie, her love interest and the manager of her terrible kiddie act, and with Laura Benanti as the grown-up Louise (aka Gypsy Rose Lee). These scenes are every bit as powerful as the musical numbers, and it’s easy to see why all three leads won Tony Awards this year.

I’d also like to make a case for Leigh Ann Larkin as June, a young woman trapped in the guise of the 10-year-old star of Rose’s act. During her duet with Benanti on “If Momma Was Married,” Larkin exudes a combination of bitterness and cynicism beyond her years along with a snottiness borne of Rose’s constant exhortations that June is a STAR.

One of the reasons Gypsy is held in such high estimation is “Rose’s Turn,” the most incredible number for an actress in musical theater. With her daughter now a world-famous stripper, Rose is left to wonder what her life has amounted to, and she has a nervous breakdown in the form of a musical fantasy. She sings her song, and at the end, the audience I saw it with (a lively Friday night bunch), flew into a boisterous ovation, standing and stomping, whistling and shouting. LuPone’s Rose curtsied and bowed, blew kisses and drank in the hosannas. It’s a perfect dramatic moment in which the audience becomes a character in the show: the adoring throng Rose has always dreamed of but will never know.

As the ovation quiets down, LuPone’s Rose keeps bowing and waving, and the effect is heartbreaking.

Gypsy is a juicy musical play, the kind that wouldn’t have been possible without Rodgers and Hammerstein tackling serious issues in their popular musicals. This is a musical that gets it all right, and we’ve had a hard time matching it, which is probably why it has returned to Broadway so many times.

 

IN THE HEIGHTS

There’s a direct line from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award winner for best musical. You’d be hard pressed to find someone more sentimental (in the good way) or someone more convinced of the inherent goodness of humankind than Oscar Hammerstein, and Miranda is definitely of the Hammerstein school.

In the Heights is exuberant, passionate and big hearted. It’s a show about rough, tough lives told in sweet, colorful ways.

Miranda’s music and lyrics bring the sounds of the barrio into a pop-Broadway fusion that is highly appealing. He gives us throaty ballads and lively group numbers (further enlivened by Andy Blankenbuehler’s dynamic choreography) that effectively connect show tune romance and longing with contemporary sounds. There’s a little bit of Rent in there, but Miranda’s score makes its own distinctive mark.

Quiara Alegria Hudes’ book is slightly less successful if only because it seems familiar and more romantic than realistic. We’ve got three primary stories: a young woman (Mandy Gonzalez as Nina) drops out of Stanford and returns to Washington Heights because working two jobs interfered with her studies and she lost her scholarship; another young woman (Karen Olivo as Vanessa) can’t find a place to live because she doesn’t make enough money working at the local hair salon; and a bright young man (Miranda as Usnavi) inherited his parents’ bodega and, in addition to taking care of Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), he keeps his eye on the neighborhood and tells everybody’s stories.

There’s life, death and a blackout, some sizzling salsa moves, a little rap, a winning lottery ticket and a whole lot of good folks struggling, banding together and achieving triumph in big and little ways.

Love stories abound as Nina falls for local boy Benny (Christopher Jackson), Usnavi works up the nerve to ask out Vanessa and longtime married couple Kevin (Eliseo Roman) and Camila (Priscilla Lopez of A Chorus Line fame) find themselves at a crossroads when their daughter’s troubles force a major business decision.

Under the direction of Thomas Kail, In the Heights is a highly enjoyable multi-pronged story told with flair and affection. There’s nothing terribly innovative about this musical, but the culture it chooses to explore and the people on whom it trains its focus aren’t all that common on Broadway, so it’s all the more welcome.

 

 

 

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