Bette Midler & Ben Platt Rock Broadway

by Chris Narloch

The 2017 Tony Awards may be history, but most of this year’s nominated productions are still playing in New York City, and several of the winners are breaking records at the box office.

Better late than never, here are reviews of the eight musicals I saw during my annual pre-Tony’s trip to the Big Apple, where actors Bette Midler (‘Hello, Dolly!’) and Ben Platt (‘Dear Evan Hansen’) are the toast of the town.



Hello, Dolly!
After you’ve seen her play Dolly Levi, the hilarious Jewish matchmaker at the center of this blockbuster Broadway revival, it’s hard to believe that the indefatigable Bette Midler is 71 years old.

Her 100 watt smile is still intact, as is her evergreen comic timing, and she looks fantastic in the colorful period costumes designed for her by Santo Loquasto, who has been a production designer on many of Woody Allen’s films.

Ms. Midler is in fact so vivid in the lead role that this production of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ has become a sold-out sensation at the Shubert Theatre, where the show has repeatedly broken house box office records.

The musical can be dull and dated with the wrong Dolly, but when it gets a Channing or a Streisand or a Merman, this old-fashioned diva showcase is enormously entertaining, and Bette is just what the doctor ordered.

Looking petite and pretty, the actress offsets Dolly’s brassiness with so much wit and warmth that you surrender immediately to her charms, as do most of the other characters in the show.

The holdout, of course, is Horace Vandergelder (the great David Hyde Pierce), the wealthy curmudgeon who does not take a shine to his bossy matchmaker. (She pretends to be fixing him up with a wealthy woman while in actuality Dolly has set her own sights on him.)

It all ends predictably, to be sure, but what keeps this golden oldie from seeming stale is the blazing comet at the center of the show and the simple fact that Bette Midler was born to play Dolly Levi. (The show’s cast recording is now available.)

The Great Comet of 1812
Speaking of blazing comets, the one that ends this acclaimed new musical isn’t the only illuminating thing about the show. It’s full title is ‘Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,’ and the mostly sung-through musical is based on – of all things -- a segment of Leo Tolstoy’s novel ‘War and Peace.’

Written by composer/lyricist Dave Malloy, who played Pierre initially, off-Broadway, ‘The Great Comet’ follows several tortured souls whose soap opera-ish story is set in Moscow against the backdrop of Napoleon’s imminent invasion of Russia.

What gives the show distinction, apart from its multi-talented cast, are Malloy’s original score, which mixes influences from Russian folk and classical music with indie rock and pop, and the unique design and staging of the production.

The Imperial Theatre has been reconfigured and remodeled to allow audience seating on the stage as well as action involving the cast all throughout the theater.

That remarkable set design is the real star of the musical although the night I saw ‘The Great Comet,’ singer Josh Groban lent his own celestial glow to the proceedings, as Pierre, complete with a fat suit under his costume.

The role of Pierre has been recast since I saw the show, during Groban’s limited run, but ‘The Great Comet’ continues its successful stay on Broadway.

If you can’t make it to NYC to see this enormously entertaining new musical, check out its recently released original Broadway cast recording, which does feature Groban.

Spamilton
Not to be confused with ‘Spamalot’ or ‘Hamilton,’ this show is an affectionate roast of ‘Hamilton’ from the warped and wonderful mind of Gerard Alessandrini, the writer and creator of the long-running and hugely popular ‘Forbidden Broadway,’ an off-Broadway satire of all things Broadway.

Alessandrini has a wicked wit when it comes to spoofing other people’s shows (and their lyrics), and he obviously had great fun nailing the biggest blockbuster in Broadway history via reworked lyrics like ‘The Film When It Happens,’ ‘Cool Duel,’ and ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Cries.’

‘Spamilton’ is essentially another version of ‘Forbidden Broadway’ that concentrates mostly on making fun of ‘Hamilton,’ but other shows receive their jabs as well, including fresh targets such as ‘Hello, Dolly!’, ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ and ‘Anastasia.’

The evening I saw the show, Mr. Alessandrini performed the role of “The King” made famous by Jonathan Groff on Broadway, and he appeared to be having almost as much fun as the audience. (The other six members of the regular NYC cast, who all play multiple roles, are also excellent.)

‘Spamilton’ has delicious fun taking on the egos and eccentricities that populate Broadway. You can check out the show in either of two locations, NYC and Chicago, or buy the musical’s terrific new cast recording at www.spamilton.com.

Waitress
This was my second time seeing this new musical on Broadway, and I enjoyed it just as much if not more than the first time.

Pop songstress Sara Bareilles (‘King of Anything,’ ‘Brave’) wrote the music and lyrics for ‘Waitress,’ and her songs are, as always, catchy and clever.

Based on the 2007 film of the same name, which starred Keri Russell and was directed by the late Adrienne Shelly, the musical tells the story of a waitress in an unhappy marriage who becomes pregnant and then falls in love with her gynecologist.

It’s worth noting that the show is female-centric and female-positive (without being preachy about it) to a degree that is unusual for Broadway. In addition to Bareilles’ score, women are also responsible for the musical’s book (Jessie Nelson) and direction (Diane Paulus).

The heroine of ‘Waitress’ ultimately learns to put her dreams and the future of her baby before her wedding vows, and the musical is a sweet salute to motherhood and sisterhood. (The bond between the three waitress friends is an integral part of the show’s appeal.)

As a committed lover of all kinds of pie, ‘Waitress’ works for me on every level. Pie is made and sung about on stage, and the theater even smells like pie, which is sold warm during intermission.

Grab a slice of ‘Waitress,’ which is playing indefinitely at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. You can also buy the musical’s cast recording and a separate CD of Bareilles singing songs from the show, both excellent, at www.waitressthemusical.com.

War Paint
An entirely different sort of sisterhood is unfolding nightly six blocks away at the Nederlander Theatre, where Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole are playing dueling cosmetics queens in ‘War Paint,’ a new musical about the real-life rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.

LuPone and Ebersole may be fast friends, but the characters they play in ‘War Paint’ were adversaries in business, always trying to get a leg up on each other. The women apparently never met in real life, so their stories play out separately and sometimes simultaneously on stage, with the pair almost meeting in the same restaurant, etc.

I enjoyed ‘War Paint’ for what it is -- a showcase for two top-tier talents – even though the “separate but equal” structure of the book eventually feels contrived, and the made-up, sentimental ending is a complete mistake.

It’s enough just to watch great talents like LuPone and Ebersole, both two-time Tony winners for past roles, sing their lungs out for a couple hours. For more information about the musical’s cast recording, please visit www.sh-k-boom.com/war-paint.

Groundhog Day The Musical
If you’ve never seen the hilarious 1993 comedy ‘Groundhog Day,’ generally considered by critics to be Bill Murray’s finest film, you should definitely check it out. After that, you will want to watch the surprisingly faithful (and surprisingly funny) Broadway musical version of the movie.

Handsome Andy Karl takes over for Murray in the lead role of an arrogant, jaded Pittsburgh TV weatherman who ends up repeating the same day over and over again during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Philadelphia.

Karl plays the lead with boundless energy, the solid score is by Tim Minchin, the man behind ‘Matilda,’ and Danny Rubin, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Harold Ramis, created the entertaining book.

Two set pieces in the show – one involving a carnival ride and the other a car chase – are absolutely inspired, and if I had to wake up every morning and see ‘Groundhog Day’ all over again, I wouldn’t mind a bit.

‘Groundhog Day The Musical’ is playing an open-ended run at the August Wilson Theatre, and its original cast recording is now available from Broadway / Masterworks.

Come From Away
This sleeper hit show came out of nowhere to snag seven nominations at this year’s 71st Tony Awards, winning one trophy for Best Direction of a Musical for Christopher Ashley’s ingenious staging.

A feel-good show that isn’t sappy or stupid is difficult to pull off, but ‘Come From Away’ succeeds in spades.

The show is set in the week following the September 11th terrorist attacks and tells the true story of what happened when 38 planes were ordered to land unexpectedly in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland.

The characters in the musical are based on (and in most cases share the names of) real Gander residents, as well as some of the 7,000 stranded travelers they housed and fed.

Uplifting without being a tearjerker, ‘Come From Away’ is a cathartic reminder of the capacity for human kindness in even the darkest of times, and it features a superb ensemble of twelve actors of all shapes and sizes (and colors!) who remain on stage for most of the show, switching between dozens of characters.

The musical’s original Broadway cast recording is now available, and the show will surely tour the country over the next several years.

Dear Evan Hansen
The teen and ‘tween theatergoers in New York City who helped make ‘Hamilton’ a sold-out success have moved on from that show to this one, which won the statue for Best Musical at this year’s Tony Awards.

The breakout star of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is a phenomenal, 23-year-old actor/singer named Ben Platt, who played Benji in the ‘Pitch Perfect’ movies and who has become the new obsession for Broadway fan-girls and boys, after Lin-Manuel Miranda left ‘Hamilton’ to go off and make movies.

Platt plays a high school senior with social anxiety disorder who pretends that he was friends with a classmate following the boy’s suicide, in part to get closer to the young man’s sister, who he has a crush on.

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ has an ambitious, suspenseful book by Steven Levenson and a lovely score by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, and its exploration of bullying, lying, and the ethics around social media could not be more timely.

I highly recommend seeing the musical in New York City, if you can get a ticket, because the original cast is flawless, and it will be a very tall order to replace them when it comes time to cast the inevitable national tour.

Like Bette Midler in ‘Hello, Dolly!,’ Ben Platt gives a peerless performance that fully inhabits the character he is playing, and, like Midler, he doesn’t stop acting when he is singing. If anything, his acting gets deeper during his musical numbers.

You can hear all that emotion on the excellent cast recording of ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ an Atlantic Records release that is available everywhere you buy or stream music.

Note: If, like me, you are on a budget and can’t afford to pay premium prices for theater tickets, which can sometimes cost hundreds of dollars for the hottest shows in New York City, check out my favorite Broadway website: www.broadwayforbrokepeople.com. There you can find valuable information about more affordable standing and rush tickets as well as digital lotteries for cheap theater tickets.



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