I Went to Broadway and All I Got Was This Lousy Show

39 steps.jpgFinally made it to New York yesterday (first time this season) and saw The 39 Steps. The show, a farcical, campy, reimagining of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 romance/suspense/thriller, won one of the five Tony Awards for which it was nominated (Best Lighting) and was praised effusively by Ben Brantley in the New York Times. I settled into my seat with high expectations and the lingering frisson of excitement that still hits every time I head into the business end of the Lincoln Tunnel.

So all the greater was my disappointment when the production was halfway as good as it could have been, with a set design halfway as creative as several Philly Fringe shows I'd seen, and with a halfway committed cast running on autopilot. At intermission, my companion (and provider of my ticket) St. Paul Pioneer Press theater critic Dominic Papatola, remarked, "Well, this is a strange little show for Broadway." 

Strange indeed, and not in a good, gatecrashing, Passing Strange, kind of way. Rather, it was strange that of all the shows in the English-speaking world to choose to pick up and mount on Broadway, why should this bit of West End escapist fluff that seems plucked from the rounds of regional repertory theaters--an Irma Vep with a bigger cast and less ingenuity--be anointed? Mind you, I have nothing against fluff, even if it arrives during an era ripe for meatier fare (witness August: Osage County's success on that front). But this fluff? Really?

Following the show, we indulged in a discussion of Broadway's current impotence and regional theater's growing virility, which is all well and good, considering we're both covering theater in our respective regions. But while it's nice to be smug about your city's healthy theater scene, the power of the regional theater inferiority complex is such that you still wonder if in the face of the Manhattan machine, your hometown triumphs are merely the result of boosterism and provincial pride.

Well, guess not. In this weekend's announcement of the closing of Forbidden Broadway, its founder, Gerard Alessandrini cited plain old boredom as the reason for shuttering his nearly 30-year-old star-skewering satirical institution. 

"When Broadway becomes too theme-park-like, it makes it difficult, and it just looks like it's becoming overly commercial the next couple of years," he said.
When it's not even fun to make fun of Broadway anymore, something is terribly wrong. Visiting New York should be like opening a compendium of the best new American plays and musicals instead of walking down memory lane, or even worse, walking straight down the middle of the road to Broadwayland. A revival here and there is fine, but you don't end up getting a Gypsy or All My Sons in the first place by only banking on the tried and true. One look at the 1956 Tony nominations (or even the 1976 nominations), packed with original productions of original ideas and well, compared to this season's lukewarm musicals and revivals of revivals, perhaps it's best to avert your eyes. Or hey, look elsewhere--like to regional producers--for guidance.
September 15, 2008 1:00 PM | | Comments (6)


Kevin: What have you seen in the regional theatre lately? Not "from," but "in." Get some perspective, man,; at least Wendy and Dominic did so.

Nothing like a dated novel, grab your Henty books lads.....

Or, maybe the Governor of Alaska would prefer Sax Rohmer.....

Sort of--the Buchan novel by way of the 1935 Hitchcock film.

I'm assuming this is a rehash of the Buchan Novel, which, as every English schoolboy knows is tedious and best forgotten....

Minimalism wasn't the issue, it's that they could have made better use of the little they had. Big budget extravaganzas, while they have their place, aren't what turn my head. it's inventiveness and the unexpected that win out every time. Unfortunately, I thought 39 Steps was weak in both areas.

As for the regions, it's true that producing nonprofits pepper their seasons with second run Broadway successes, but these days there are even less of them to choose from. Plenty of excellent American plays and playwrights (and plenty of New York playwrights too) make their way onto regional stages and see regional success, only to be clobbered by the same lame revivals you can find at Christmastime in any major city. I mean, do we really need another Guys and Dolls already? Or Shrek, for that matter? Come on.

If that's the extent of the theater she provides and the culture she nurtures, she won't be turning heads for much longer.

Couldn't disagree more about The 39 Steps which I saw two weeks ago. It is inventive and fun and I laughed through the entire performance. If you want sets and costumes you should have seen another show, the minimalist quality of The 39 Steps is what makes it so much fun. And people from the regional theatre are always talking about the vitality of the regions compared to Broadway, which, btw, is only a small portion of the New York theatre scene, but then if regional theatre is so galdarn potent then why are your seasons continually the hollow echo of shows that have appeared on Broadway first? This isn't to say that from time to time the regions don't bring forth an amazing piece of work (like August) - but more than likely even those pieces are vetted early for a run at the Rialto. It is too easy to just run down NYC and the theatre that she provides and our culture that she nurtures.

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