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April 23, 2010

TT: Size matters

This week's Wall Street Journal drama column, in which I review three new Broadway musicals, is a mixed bag. I very much liked the revival of La Cage aux Folles, a musical of which I'm not greatly fond, but I had no use whatsoever for American Idiot and was unable to shake off strong doubts about Sondheim on Sondheim. Here's an excerpt.

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Now that money is tight in the world of theater, small-scale productions of large-scale Broadway musicals are popping up everywhere. Some are illuminating, others constrictingly ill-conceived. The Menier Chocolate Factory's revival of "La Cage aux Folles," which has transferred to Broadway after a hugely successful London run, belongs in the first category--and then some. I've never cared for "La Cage," but I loved this modest staging, which is so good that it makes the show seem better than it really is.

The trouble with the musical version of "La Cage" is that it's loud, crass and overblown. Not so the 1978 film on which it is based, in which the story of two middle-aged gay men who run a transvestite nightclub (one is the manager, the other the drag-queen star) is told with such sweet simplicity that you can't help but be touched. In the process of turning this charming little tale into a big-budget Broadway show, Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein smothered it in brassy one-liners and knock-'em-dead production numbers, and somewhere along the way the sweetness turned sour.

By stuffing their staging into a shabby-looking set roughly comparable in size to a second-rate nightclub, Terry Johnson and Tim Shortall, the director and set designer, have clipped away the tinsel and made it possible for the audience to focus on the relationship of Georges (Kelsey Grammer, lately of "Frasier") and Albin (Douglas Hodge). To be sure, the score is still banal and the jokes still grate, but at least you can believe in what you're seeing, and Messrs. Grammer and Hodge are so engaging that the show's shortcomings recede into the distance....

Whatever else it is, Green Day's "American Idiot" isn't an opera, just as the stage show that has now been made out of it isn't a musical. The original album, released in 2004, consists of 13 sketchily related punk-rock songs that purport to tell the story of a trio of disaffected teenage slackers, and the show consists of the same songs, with a few others thrown in to bring the running time up to 90 minutes. The onstage version of "American Idiot" contains no dialogue, only intermittent snippets of first-person narration, and Michael Mayer's image-driven video-style staging is discontinuous to the point of plotlessness.

All this being the case, "American Idiot" rises or falls almost entirely on the strength of the songs themselves, and I regret to say that I found them to be brain-numbingly dull. Perhaps I might feel differently if I were 14, but I was all but incapable of attending to the puerile maunderings of Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day's lyricist...

In addition to being a great songwriter, Stephen Sondheim is the object of a cult, the members of which are gathering nightly at Studio 54 to take part in a religious ceremony disguised as a revue. "Sondheim on Sondheim," devised and directed by James Lapine, Mr. Sondheim's longtime theatrical collaborator, consists of lively performances by eight singers of three dozen Sondheim songs, all of them introduced by the man himself, who appears not in person but via the wonders of digital projection. The handsomely mounted results suggest a cross between a PBS documentary and a lecture-recital and at times are almost as interesting...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 23, 2010 12:00 AM

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