Want to escape CNN, Fox and parking fees on the Strip? My brother and I did last week when we visited New York City and saw seven Broadway shows. Here are my thoughts on the shows as a very non-professional critic, but eager audience member:
The Band’s Visit
A friend recommended The Band’s Visit, though its 2018 Tony Award would probably have put it on any Broadway visitor’s list. The Band’s Visit, as you may know, is about an Egyptian band stranded in a small Israeli village. The townspeople sing about living a predictable somewhat boring life just waiting for something different to happen. Indeed, the band’s visit is that something.
Katrina Link is the show’s captivating star and she won a 2018 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical. Her co-star, Tony Shalhoub, also a Tony winner, is no longer in the production. His replacement, Sasson Gabay, was in the movie version of this story and was a particular favorite of my brother’s. The New York Times said The Band’s Visit is ”a musical for adults”. Other reviewers have called the show a comedy and a story of love. The show is not a large and noisy presence. It is a lovely small show that seemed to be so recognizably human. The band concert at the end of the show is wonderful – interesting instruments with a Middle Eastern flair. The concert sent us all home with pep in our step.
Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen was on my list because it was on all the lists I consulted, but I knew nothing about the story until attending the musical. Dear Evan Hansen then became one of our favorite experiences of the whole trip. It was as if we had personally discovered the musical, but then again, a year earlier, the Tony award for best musical went to this production.
The story of this musical is that a lonely high school boy, Evan Hansen, played effectively by Michael Lee Brown, has been sent to psychological counseling and has been asked to write a daily pep talk letter to himself. One of those letters comes into the possession of a local bully named Connor, who, like Evan, has no friends. When the bully ultimately kills himself, his parents find the letter assuming their son had written it, and Evan, to help the parents cope, creates an imaginary friendship between the two boys. Suddenly Evan is keeper of the flame for the now deceased classmate and he garners all the attention he once wanted. However, eventually Evan must cope with the fantasy life he created. The show moves quickly and has much humor despite the rather gloomy subject matter. And the show is not just for young people. Audience members, young and old, who have ever felt like outsiders (and that’s most of us at one time or another) have loved this show, and we did as well. (The touring version of this show is part of the Smith Center of the Performing Arts upcoming Broadway season in Las Vegas.)
I have tried to get New York Hamilton tickets twice in the past and was always told the show was sold out. Therefore, this year I was pleasantly surprised to finally be able to walk up to the box office and get tickets to this 2016 Tony Award Musical.
The show has been so roundly praised that I even hesitate to say this, but I had some trouble understanding the rapid dialogue, particularly at the beginning of the show. At intermission, I asked the lady next to me if she, too, had difficulty understanding and she said “No, I listened to the cast album before I came.” Ah ha.
I did get the gist of the story, young rebels fighting for a new country, and was very impressed with the staging of this show. Even when I wasn’t sure of dialogue, I was intrigued with the ballet of people moving around the stage. I was surprised that so much of the show dealt with Alexander Hamilton’s personal troubles, but as we know, such troubles come with the territory (the political life). As with several of the shows we saw, skin color on Broadway is not an issue. This cast was totally mixed in terms of race. Michael Luwoye, as Alexander Hamilton, is Black and he earned a standing ovation. I will try to see this show again or at least listen to the cast album.
My Fair Lady
Obviously, the current My Fair Lady is revival. The original star of the revival, Lauren Ambrose, left the show the Sunday before we saw the show, but fortunately, the revival’s original Henry Higgins, Harry Hadden-Paton, was still with the show, and I swear, he was as good or better than Rex Harrison. The new Eliza, Laura Benanti, is a Broadway pro with her own Tony awards (and she occasionally appears as Melania Trump on the Stephen Colbert show), but my brother and I were most impressed by Hadden-Paton. The man who played Eliza’s father in the show had a style of whimsy and dance that was all his own. I looked at the program and saw that the father was played by Norbert Leo Butz, an actor I have seen before who seems to always stop whatever show he is in…and he did it again. The staging of this show was wonderful with scenes moving seamlessly. My Fair Lady has always been a great musical, and this production is top notch. Loved it.
Note: The last line of this My Fair Lady gets a different reaction from Eliza than I have seen in past productions. Professor Higgins asks about his slippers and Eliza leaves the scene, in this case, she walks off the stage and up a long flight of stairs in the audience. Professor Higgins hasn’t changed, and apparently this Eliza is not content to put up with it….quite likely the reaction a modern audience would understand.
The Lifespan of a Fact
This production is a play with just three characters. The star of the play, Daniel Radcliffe with an American accent, is so good, so quick, so articulate, it was a pleasure to see him work. This play is based on a true story about a writer who is famous for his essays, but when one particular essay is fact-checked, the essay is riddled with inaccuracies. In the play, the writer, played by Bobby Cannavale, talks about his “art” being more important than facts. The story being checked (by Radcliffe’s character) happens to be about a suicide in Las Vegas and the many references to Las Vegas rang a familiar bell. The story discusses real issues, but is very funny along the way and has my highest endorsement.
My one “interaction” with an actor came after this show. Audience members were asked to make contributions to Equity Fights Aids, a charity supported by the Broadway community. Bobby Cannavale, in the theater lobby, held the bucket into which I dropped my contribution. He looked me in the eyes and said…. “Thank you”.
This show on Broadway was still in previews when we saw it. We just took a chance that all the talk about the size and complexity of the King Kong character would be worth our time. For us it was. The gigantic man-made ape makes quite an impression. We also were impressed with the leading lady, Christiani Pitts, and with the very masculine choreography that accompanies the musical numbers. This production began in Australia and has come to New York along with a bunch of folks whose job it is to move the King Kong character. Once we see King Kong and hear his roar, we are transfixed. The story (except for the music) does not differ from the movie we’ve all seen so we know the ending and nothing surprises us. Though Ms. Pitts has a great Broadway voice, the beast got the biggest reaction from the audience during curtain calls. This show is not for very young children who could be scared, but it is a show that is not easily forgotten by older folks. I shall be anxious to see how this show is reviewed by the critics once it officially opens November 8.
Come From Away
Ben Brantley of the New York Times called Come From Away “a bearhug of a musical”. This show is set in the town of Gander, Newfoundland. The musical tells how the townspeople reacted when, immediately after 9/11, a number of airplanes were forced to land in Newfoundland instead of in the U.S. due to a freeze on American air space. We see the stranded passengers and hear their stories. We see the townspeople and learn their stories as well. This show stars its ensemble, all of whom can sing and play multiple roles. The staging is simple and clever as chairs move to create the various scenes in the show. The ensemble players mix races and body types (thin, pudgy, old, young)– and all seem right for the production. This show will be playing in Toronto, Melbourne, Dublin, London and on tour (including the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas). Loved this show, too.
We saw no orchestras playing in front of the stages for the musicals we saw. All the musicians were hidden under the stages, behind the stages or on tall platforms at the side of the stage. Sometimes we could see a conductor; other times we couldn’t.
When a Broadway show has an intermission, the rush to the washroom is almost universal and the lines can be long. At Hamilton, the line to the ladies’ washroom snaked from the lobby into the theater and down a major aisle. Amazing.
Seeing Broadway stars is a thrill, but so many talented people are available to perform on Broadway, even the replacement for a replacement will do a job worthy of an audience member’s time and money. I’m amazed at the depth of talent available in New York.
The tickets we purchased for all these shows were bought at the box offices on the Monday of the week of our visit. Producer and cast tickets aren’t always sold, but are held back till near show time and we have found no need to purchase tickets in advance. We pay full price ($150 and up) for “best available” tickets and had excellent seats (about 15th row center) for every show. We ate in no New York restaurants, preferring to grocery shop and use the microwave in our room. We spent our money on the shows.