News Column

Glitz, girl power vie for 2013 Tonys in a bumpy season

June 9, 2013

YellowBrix

June 09--Broadway is celebrating girl-bookworm power, drag-queen power and circus power in its newest crop ofhits, "Matilda," "Kinky Boots" and " Pippin."

Excerpts from these and other musicals will be part of the Tony Awards ceremony Sunday night (June 9), in the annual telecast honoring Broadway highlights.

It's one of TV's best variety shows, an antidote to the last gasps of NBC's mock-Broadway soaper, "Smash." But the Tony revels, hosted again by nimble Neil Patrick Harris, may not rise from a record low viewership of 6 million in 2012 -- a year when the Oscars drew 39 million.

Still, Broadway needs the splash, after a season when box-office grosses were steady -- about $1.1 billion -- but attendance dropped 6.2 percent. Why? Well, Hurricane Sandy, a barren fall, and, I'd wager, an average ticket price of $101. (That's 9 percent over 2011-12, and a giant leap from $58 a decade earlier).

More than ever, Broadway tickets are luxury items, prefab commercialism abounds, and creative, cutting-edge musicals emerge off Broadway. Still, Times Square churned out enough hits by May to crow about, and spark national tours sure to visit Seattle.

In the wobbly Broadway play ranks, celebrity vehicles (think Bette Midler and Tom Hanks) sold best, while most "legit" fare was the work of big-name authors from Odets to Mamet to Durang.

A sign of the chilling effect of those high-priced tickets: the lack of risk-taking on worthy works by younger writers. Makes you wonder: could the young, unsung Clifford Odets or David Mamet catch a break on today's Broadway?

Just before the Tonys are bestowed, let's scan some late-season shows with "legs" and nominations:

'Matilda'

The Royal Shakespeare Company brings us this delightful London smash based on a funny-scary Roald Dahl children's novel. It's hip family fare, sweet but not saccharine.

Little Matilda is a brainy, imaginative 5-year-old with crassly philistine parents who vastly prefer their dunce son to their intellectually precocious daughter.

Dahl lamented his own dismal early alma mater, and the show brilliantly evokes the Dickensian chamber-of-horrors school attended by plucky Matilda (played soulfully by Millie Shapiro the night I went) and run by loony sadist Miss Trunchbull (terrifying, hilarious Tony nominee Bertie Carvel). This twisted principal's tantrums are extra-creepy, but Matilda and her exuberant classmates exact some sly revenge.

There's great verve here in the buoyant dances, laser and other inspired visual effects, Tim Minchin's clever songs and the low/ high jinks inventively staged by Matthew Warchus.

As "Matilda" celebrates its heroine's resilience and smarts, it also honors the value of a caring teacher or librarian. But it's not just encouraging adults who rescue Matilda. It's also her love of books. That's a refreshing take-away for the legions of youngsters who'll flock to this show.

'Kinky Boots'"

"La Cage Aux Folles" meets "Billy Elliot" in this glitzy/folksy musical scored by pop star Cyndi Lauper and scripted by Harvey Fierstein.

Given the success of other splashy drag-related tuners ("La Cage," "Priscilla Queen of the Desert"), the 2005 indie film "Kinky Boots" was bound to get a Broadway musical makeover.

It tracks a rewarding gay-straight friendship between Charlie (Stark Sands), the young heir to his father's failing shoe factory, and Lola (powerhouse Billy Porter), a sizzling drag chanteuse who jazzes up the footwear to save the business and earn the respect of its wary workers.

Jerry Mitchell's staging pours on the sass and snazz, and Fierstein's bawdy wisecracks abound. But the story is thin, the songs have a generic ring and the I've-Gotta-Be-Me sentimentality gets cloying.

Ultimately "Kinky Boots" is not so much a walk on the wild side as a leisurely stroll through sequined cliches. No matter: Whenever the glam Porter brasses up tunes like "The Land of Lola," the audience couldn't care less.

'Pippin'

This Tony-contender revives an offbeat 1972 hit musical long overlooked by Broadway.

A fable about seeking your bliss in war, politics and sex before settling for the square virtues of family and country life, "Pippin" was first staged by the great Bob Fosse with a hippie-ish ensemble of whiteface clowns and a seductive emcee (Ben Vereen) narrating the saga of a callow young son of the emperor Charlemagne.

Initially, Fosse's choreographic genius and Stephen Schwartz's tunesome score overcame a weak book. Director Diane Paulus works her own magic by reconfiguring "Pippin" as a one-ring circus replete with clowns, aerialists, acrobats. (No coincidence: She also recently staged Cirque du Soleil's "Amaluna.")

While Matthew James Thomas, an endearing Pippin, drifts goofily from phase to phase, the ensemble cavorts, flips, soars up poles, dives through hoops.

The cirque spectacle, the score and original "Pippin" cast member Chet Walker's revamping of Fosse's slinky choreography blend seamlessly.

The derring-do is so entertaining, the moldier gags and soppy ending are forgivable. And intrepid Tony nominee Andrea Martin brings down the house as that daring older gal on the flying trapeze.

'The Nance'

Tailor-made by author Douglas Carter Beane for Nathan Lane, "The Nance" has several agendas. A paean to old-time burlesque, it's also a romance, a gay-history and anti-censorship drama and a bantering comedy.

Lane holds the unwieldy parts together with his bravura turn as a 1930s comedian whose specialty is "the nance" -- a flamingly effeminate stock character.

Chauncey (Lane) has an acid wit and keen sense of irony honed by the torment of being a closeted gay man in a punitively homophobic New York. Wracked by self-loathing, he's more comfortable with furtive one-night trysts than a committed relationship with a younger lover of near-angelic devotion.

Jack O'Brien's staging showcases the depth of Lane's gift for musical comedy, and nuanced pathos.

It's hard to imagine "The Nance" without Lane's pivotal portrayal -- which is why he's up for a Tony, and Beane's overextended script isn't.

'The Assembled Parties'

Competing for a best new play Tony in a rather weak field, Richard Greenberg's latest is that familiar animal, the Dysfunctional American Family Drama. It observes a secular Jewish clan coping with secrets and reckonings at Christmas dinners in 1980 and 2000.

The Bascovs reside in a huge Central Park West apartment (some of it captured via turntable in Santo Loquasto's sumptuous design), the architectural equivalent of the elegant illusions its inhabitants live by.

As the rooms and years turn, the hidden fissures in marriages, financial portfolios, parent-child dynamics appear. A death is foreshadowed, a mental meltdown witnessed.

Enacted by a tight-knit ensemble (including Tony nominee Judith Light as an upscale matron with a beatnik past), the Bascovs gradually unravel mysteries and make amends. Yet one watches their sardonic and heartfelt encounters from a cool distance -- and, in my case, with fluctuating degrees of interest and empathy.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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