By Johnny Pomatto
With so many people heading out of town to visit family, this time of year is a perfect time to get into some hot New York theater that might ordinarily be sold out or overpriced. These days, producers unleash their award hopefuls in the spring, to appeal to Tony voters with short term memories, but there have been a few notable gems this fall that are well worth checking out and will likely appeal to every one of your own visiting family members. If you’re losing your mind trying to find ways to entertain your relatives, here’s some shows to take them to which will occupy at least a few hours of their time.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG AND THE NIGHTTIME
I can’t begin to describe all the thought and imagination that went into Simon Stephens’ theatrical adaptation of Mark Haddon’s popular novel THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG AND THE NIGHTTIME. I’ve seen the show. I’ve observed with my own eyes the incredible visual storytelling used to turn a completely bare stage into the busy and chaotic mind of its central character, a young boy named Christopher (the astonishing Alex Sharp), and yet the play works such a magic on your senses that it’s hard to pick apart the individual devices used to form the experience. CURIOUS INCIDENT… is the story of a young boy struggling with what we suspect to be some form of autism, though it’s never specified. When the lights come up on Christopher at the top of the play, he’s standing over a dead dog, pierced by a garden fork, which he’s later accused of killing. Christopher is adamant that he did not kill the dog and assures his father and neighbors that he will make it his duty to solve the mystery of who did. However, Christopher’s mind doesn’t quite process information like everyone else, and often the audience feels like we are guiding Christopher through his own thoughts, but always letting him do his best to figure things out himself. The mystery of the dog ends up leading to a much greater discovery that changes Christopher’s life forever, even though change is not something he deals with well. Director Marianne Elliott makes us feel every one of Christopher’s thoughts and discoveries with visual cues. The set, a giant blank box can be filled with objects and projections of patterns and pictures in an instant, as if we are witnessing Christopher’s brain light up every time he learns something new. When he’s overwhelmed, the stage will transform into a tight, claustrophobic nightmare, and as Christopher calms down, things suddenly return to normal. This transcendent play is one of the best I’ve seen all year and will be an unforgettable experience if you choose to go on this amazing journey.
HANSEL AND GRETEL
Between things like “The Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular” or “The Nutcracker” at City Ballet, there’s no shortage of Holiday events for us all to create our own individual traditions. My personal favorite is The Metropolitan Opera’s annual holiday production of Engelbert Humperdink’s HANSEL AND GRETEL. Richard Jones has directed a version of the classic fairy tale that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. With the help of John Macfarlane’s gorgeous sets and costumes, HANSEL AND GRETEL is a trip into a surreal, hallucinatory dream world, one that has the power to simultaneously terrify adults and delight children. You know the basics of the story, but Jones’ production takes you to places of pure imagination and wonder, as you witness ballets of giant-headed chefs and fish-faced servants. The final confrontation with the witch is set in what looks like an immense kitchen, more like the kind you’d find in a 5 star Manhattan restaurant than your average house made out of gingerbread. It’s not unusual for The Metropolitan Opera to reinvent a familiar opera and turn it into something fresh and new, but there aren’t many Met productions each year that will excite children and adults alike. This may be one of the Met’s most accessible productions, but it’s also one of its most enchanting.
HONEYMOON IN VEGAS
I generally have a lot of disdain for the trend of adapting all too familiar movies into Broadway musicals. Most are totally forgettable and the ones that aren’t easily forgotten often do damage to the film’s legacy. Hopefully years from now nobody will remember that films like ROCKY, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and ELF were ever tainted by monotonous scores and lazy direction. There are notable exceptions to this rule, but never did I expect the new musical adaptation of the early 90’s Nic Cage comedy HONEYMOON IN VEGAS to be one of them. I’ve always had a soft spot for that silly Andrew Bergman comedy, and part of the success of this musical can be credited to Bergman’s adaptation of his own script. The story of an unlucky loser, (the very funny Rob McClure, of last season’s “Chaplin), who loses his fiancé in a rigged poker game is the stuff of fluff, but this is a perfectly fluffy musical. Jason Robert Brown’s score is light and brassy, and I dare say it’s his best since “The Last Five Years,” with the two shows often sharing similar tones and familiar tunes. Central to the show’s success is Tony Danza, (in the James Caan role), who may not be a name synonymous with musical theater, but this is the kind of suave and smarmy role that he excels in. His voice is just good enough pleasantly surprise you, and some of his dancing skills will seriously impress. I don’t want to oversell this show. It’s light fare that you might feel a bit guilty for enjoying. I went into the theater prepared to hate it, and was surprised to find it completely and utterly charming.
When the true life story of the conjoined Hilton Twins was adapted into a musical in 1998, I thought it was strange and somewhat morbid subject matter for the great white way, though I suppose no less morbid than the story of a murderous, deformed phantom killing opera singers. The show found a devoted cult following, though I hadn’t seen or heard a moment from it since its original Tony Awards performance with Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner. I found myself almost immediately swept up in the story of two conjoined twins rescued from a nightmarish traveling freak show, only to find more exploitation on the vaudeville circuit, the price of their newfound fame. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett play Violet and Daisy Hilton (respectively) and, though joined at the hip, each makes their twin unique and fully formed. Their beautiful voices compliment each other perfectly. The first act, with the twins surrounded by their family of freaks, (some played by real life sideshow performers) is engrossing and harrowing. A flashback depicting the twins’ upbringing and life path to the freak show is heartbreaking and instantly made me want to learn more about the pair. As the second act becomes a bit more conventional, taking some odd turns, particularly in a number in which the girls’ impresario has a hallucinatory breakdown about why their love can never flourish. Henry Krieger’s score is haunting and powerful, only occasionally falling into tonal trappings of 90’s musicals, which feel dated at worst, but mostly nostalgic. SIDE SHOW ends on an incredible high point, when Daisy and Violet sing to each other the show’s most famous song, “I Will Never Leave You.” Though the irony of these words is lost on no one, the sincerity and love the girls show for one another is gut wrenching, as you witness them prepare for a difficult and vulnerable life alone, but not alone. It’s a shame that SIDE SHOW didn’t acquire many new devotees with this new Broadway revival directed by film director Bill Condon. After a very successful run at the Kennedy Center last summer, the show has struggled with its Broadway run and is actually set to close on January 4th, but I urge you to see it with what little time there is left to do so. Odd, offbeat musicals like SIDE SHOW are usually relegated to five night concert engagements at City Center Encores, not full Broadway revivals. There’s no telling when any of us will get another chance to see this strange but enchanting show again.