Friday, June 7, 2024

Broadway Rewind: Looking Back at Some of Last Season’s Shows, Including the Sufjan Stevens’ Dance Musical, “Illinoise” and Cinderella, by way of Britney Spears, in “Once Upon a One More Time”

Illinoise (c) Matthew Murphy

Leading up to the Tony Awards on Sunday, June 16, I will look back on some of the shows that have made this season such a rousing success. Interestingly enough, two of the shows I saw had understudies in roles that are Tony-nominated for the original actresses. Both shows, in turn, started with the disappointment of not seeing their much-talked about performances but soon brought a different, vibrant energy because of it. 


Theater: Illinoise 
At the St. James Theatre 

Two musicals stood out this season. The more innovative and less traditional has to be Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury reimagining of singer Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album of the same name as a dance musical while a trio of vocalists sing the album. The story, which feels thematically linked to Stevens’ own life, focuses on Henry (Ricky Ubeda, a recent winner on So You Think You Can Dance), a young man living in rural Illinois who runs away to New York City with his best friend Carl (Ben Cook), leaving behind Carl’s girlfriend, Shelby (Gaby Diaz). In New York, Henry begins to explore his sexuality with Douglas (Ahmad Simmons). This is all told in flashback as Henry is working through the trauma of how this story ends through what could be called a psychology group therapy exercise. The dancing by Peck is expressive and emotional, and while some of the songs may feel extraneous, as they are stories of some of the other people in the group, they all add up to a collective grief finale that is cathartic and satisfying. This is not your typical musical, but with Stevens’ soothing and twee songs, and Peck’s dances, it is certainly a thrilling evening in the theater. GALECA, the LGBTQ critics group I belong to, gave Illinoise its prize for Outstanding Broadway Musical and Outstanding LGBTQ Broadway Production. 

Lempicka (c) Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Theater: Lempicka 

Futuristic fascism, in which the past is presented with a dystopian Orwellian vision, is the thematic palette of director Rachel Chavkin’s Nazi-era Paris to tell the story of Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka. Escaping Russia at the start of the revolution, Lempicka, along with her aristocrat husband (Andrew Samonsky) and baby daughter, adjusts to Parisian life by painting portraits on the streets before becoming a sensation with her unique artistic eye. Eden Espinosa received unilaterally rave reviews as Lempicka, but I saw her standby Mariand Toress perform, who commanded the stage, despite the limited rehearsal time, and who supposedly never ran the entire show with the cast. The show has other joys, including quirky and modern show tunes by the team of Matt Gould and Carson Kreitzer, as well as irresistible performances by Amber Iman as Lempicka’s muse Rafaela and Beth Leavel in various roles. I was grateful to get a glimpse into the life of this artist, whom I only knew tangentially. 

The Wiz (c) Jeremy Daniel

Theater: The Wiz 
At the Marquis Theatre 

In anticipation of the Wicked film this winter and the ongoing popularity of the original Broadway musical production, it feels like the right time to revive the first reinterpretation of the L. Frank Baum’s novel of The Wizard of Oz, the 1975 Tony Award-winning musical that reimagines and updates the story with an African American twist. The show is mostly known now for Stephanie Mills’ performance on stage as well as the 1978 film adaptation with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson easing on down the road. In this latest revival, Amber Ruffin has tweaked and updated the book, but the production, while competently directed by Schele Williams, doesn’t really put a modern spin on the material. What does make this show a fun watch has to be the game and talented cast, starting with a wonderfully expressive Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, as well as the trio who make up her traveling companions: the wonderfully bouncy Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow, the droll and level-headed Phillip Johnson Richardson as the Tin Man and the comical Kyle Ramar Freeman as the Cowardly Lion. Add to that the star power of Deborah Cox as Glinda (almost a cameo, but a welcomed one) and a showy Wayne Brady as the titular Wiz, as well as a talent ensemble interpreting JaQuel Knight’s crowd-pleasing choreography, you get a fun if unsurprising take on show. 

Once Upon a One More Time (c) Emilio Madrid

Theater: Once Upon a One More Time 

Last season we had & Juliet, a jukebox musical that included some of Britney Spears’ better-known songs as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s take on the Cinderella story, Bad Cinderella. This season we get a mash-up of the two with Once Upon a One More Time with another Cinderella take featuring only tunes from the Britney Spears songbook, and the result was a noble failure. While the musical is about many fairy tale princesses, Cinderella (Briga Heelan) takes center stage when she rebels against her narrative, leaving the all-controlling narrator (Adam Godley) and Prince Charming (Justin Guarini) at a loss on how to proceed. As much as I enjoyed hearing songs Toxic and Womanizer orchestrated for the Broadway stage, the book just wasn’t as fun as it should have been, except of course, the Stepmother, who steals the show in the person of Jennifer Simard. 

Hell's Kitchen (c) Marc J. Franklin

Theater: Hell's Kitchen 
At the Shubert Theatre 

Doing a better job with a musician’s oeuvre, Hell’s Kitchen is unmistakably an Alicia Keys show, but that’s because the show was co-written by Keys and based in part on her teenage years in the titular Manhattan neighborhood, which was certainly not the trendy neighborhood we know now. And Keys’ songs are gloriously performed and integrated into her story (although the minute a character is relocated to Gramercy Park, you know it’s more to fit a lyric that name checks that hood). The energy emanating from the Shubert Theatre is infectious and you can’t help but tap your toes. The performance by Maleah Joi Moon as Keys’ alter ego Ali was already making noise when the show premiered at the Public Theater, but the role is also in the capable hands of her understudy Gianna Harris, whom I saw perform. And the two roles of mother and mother figure played by Shoshana Bean and Kecia Lewis, respectively, are indeed the scene stealers as advertised. The second act loses some focus with the needless amount of stage time devoted to Ali’s father (although wonderfully acted and sung by Brandon Victor Dixon). The women rule the show, and every diversion pulls focus from the crowd-pleasing (if slightly rote) biopic musical it is. And if you think you are tired of hearing Empire State of Mind from the many blaring pedicabs of Times Square, think again. It is a worthy anthem successor to John Kander and Fred Ebb’s New York, New York, which itself inspired a musical last season. 

How to Dance in Ohio (c) Curtis Brown

Theater: How to Dance in Ohio 

One of the more inspiring stories of the season, How to Dance in Ohio, focused on a group of young people on the autism spectrum played by a cast of young people on the autism spectrum. The pure joy on stage was so infectious that it felt a shame the musical they were in was so traditional when it should have broken barriers as well. Still, the cast was the main draw here as well as yeoman Caesar Samayoa, who played the counselor Dr. Amigo, with a Harry Potter forehead scar from a stage mishap days earlier. Live theater is filled with unexpected challenges, and the excitement in facing and overcoming them, could be the inspiring Instagram story of everyone involved. The musical by Jacob Yandura and Rebekah Greer Melocik is based on a documentary with the same name and was overseen by Hal Prince before his death. You can definitely see why Prince was attracted to it.

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