I just came back from the city that “never sleeps… king of the hill… top of the heap.”
That’s right — New York, New York. Where the Bronx is up and the Battery’s over-charged (like everything else there).
While I was there to attend the conference of the American Theatre Critics Association, I was able to take in some great Broadway hits for my annual report to our readers.
My first stop, on Halloween night, was the Al Hirschfeld Theater where the spectacular production of “Moulin Rouge,” based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann, musical film about life in Paris’ Latin Quarter at end of the 19th century.
The sets, the costumes, the performances and the can-can dancers were spectacular — but the real stars of the evening had to be the team of intellectual property lawyers who secured clearance for the rights to use the 70 pop songs by 161 writers that comprise the score of this ultimate “juke box” musical.
Like the film, the scriptwriter John Logan strategically places hits such as “Diamonds are Forever,” “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Bad Romance,” “Burning Down the House,” “I Will Always Love You” and “Nature Boy” at just the right place in the production — often drawing applause, but more frequently laughter from the audience. They loved it.
However, I found this gimmick distracting from what could have been an epic love story as well as from the songwriters’ sensitive lyrics. Still it remains entertaining and enjoyable.
Next up was a trip to Lincoln Center to see Brian Cox (HBO’S “Succession”) as Lyndon Johnson in “The Great Society,” by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan.
I was hoping to return to those “good ol’ days.” Unfortunately, I was reminded that the society was not so great, and the days not so good in the mid and late ’60s.
There were wide divisions throughout the country over a senseless war, with a mounting death toll, anti-war riots and civil rights protests in the streets, with demands for the impeachment of the president. And you think today’s political climate is bad.
I also learned, as I suspected, that Brian Cox lacks the stature of the tall Texan, whose speaking voice never approached the rich tones of this fine Shakespearean actor.
More importantly, the 19 actors playing a cavalcade of political figures from J. Edgar Hoover, to Everett Dirksen, Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Mayor Richard J. Daley and Richard Nixon come off as a somewhat shallow historical pageant. It only adds to our discomfort with current political events.
As thousands of runners were preparing for the annual New York marathon, hundreds of theatre-goers at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in midtown Manhattan were getting ready for a marathon of their own — Matthew Lopez’s seven-hour, two-part drama “The Inheritance.” It’s a memorial and tribute to the more than 700,000 Americans, mostly gay men, who died in the disastrous AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Set in New York in the years from 2015 to 2018, the play is inspired by E.M. Forster’s novel “Howard’s End,” celebrates contemporary LGBTQ culture while looking back at the closeted life of the generation of gay men who preceded them.
“The Inheritance” is filled with moving and dramatic scenes — several of which are sexually explicit. However, it also has many humorous moments, some of which are reminiscent of Mart Crowley’s 1968, groundbreaking comedy “The Boys in the Band,” about a group of gay men, which came two decades before the AIDS crisis.
I am certain that this powerful and brilliantly staged and acted work, which won the Olivier, London Critics Circle and Evening Standard Awards during its 2018 London run, will eventually make it to Chicago, where it will be a must-see.
In this climate of binge-watching hours of TV, you will find it much easier to sit through seven hours of this meaty and heart-wrenching drama than you might think.
- Final verdict: Four gavels
The most enjoyable production I saw this trip was “Hadestown” at the Walter Kerr Theatre. With its well-deserved eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Featured Actor to former Chicagoan Andre De Shields.
With music, lyrics and book by singer-writer Anais Mitchell, direction by Rachel Chavkin and
featuring an on-stage R&B/Gospel band, “Hadestown” tells the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the Greek myth, Orpheus seeks to rescue his true love Eurydice from the underground where she is enslaved by King Hades.
This is one of the most joyful musicals I’ve seen in years. There is a hopeful final song which is a toast to all who prevail under the most dire circumstances.
- Final verdict: Four gavels