New York, New York, it’s a helluva town. The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down. Yes, New York City has, for many years, been considered an epicenter for culture in not just the United States, but the entire world. The city is the epitome of the “melting pot” that the U.S. has prided itself on for over a century, a raging metropolis that serves as an amalgamation of different cultures and art. And I got to spend a weekend there, soaking in all that they had to offer. On top of a gorgeous tour of the MoMA, where I had the opportunity to witness the works of Dalí, Picasso, van Gogh and Warhol, as well as run into a man I’m fairly certain is Saturday Night Live’s Bobby Moynihan in a bar, I had a chance to see three shows currently running on Broadway. And you know what? I’m gonna review them all, right now.
And in case you’re wondering, no, none of these shows will be Hamilton. I know, I’m bummed too, but I did stay right across the street from the Richard Rodgers Theater and get to see Lin-Manuel Miranda bid his final farewell to his fans.*
She Loves Me
The first play I had the fortune of seeing was Scott Ellis’ production of She Loves Me. She Loves Me is a 1967 musical by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, and is based on Miklós Lászlo’s Parfumerie. If you are unfamiliar with that play, go rent You’ve Got Mail (or, quite frankly, any Hallmark movie) and imagine that in the 1930s. Essentially, it follows the employees of Maraczek’s Parfumerie as they go about their lives, with special attention reserved for two staffers: assistant manager Georg (Zachary Levi) and the newest salesgirl Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti). Georg and Amalia can’t stand each other, and fight constantly, yet they share a key similarity: both of them are in love with their pen pal. Little do they know that they have really been writing…each other.
I’m going to start with my one nitpick, because the rest of this is going to be a straight up rave. Considering how talented a lyricist Harnick is (jump ahead to my next show if you wish to hear more about his skill), I found the lyrics to the songs of this show to be fairly disappointing. They weren’t bad by any means, but they lacked a complexity or intelligence that I appreciate in my musicals. Here, he left the heavy lifting to Bock, whose music permeates each scene and leaves the viewer humming each and every tune-if only they could remember the words to the songs now stuck in their heads.
Now for the praise. Every aspect of this show is perfectly staged, across the board. The set, in particular, is truly remarkable. It’s one of the two shows to manage to beat Hamilton at the Tonys, and frankly it is 100% deserved. It seems like a simple enough design-it’s just the outside of a shop and the inside, nothing major. However, it’s how they do it that is truly astounding. The set is built to open up, so that in its closed state you could see the front of the store and the streets, and in its open state you can see the entirety of the shop on display and the streets through the windows, with a middle staircase that can rotate to reveal the back office. Not only is this an intricate set that requires an incredible attention to detail, but it perfectly resembles a perfume box, not unlike what is sold inside the shop itself. It makes the Parfumerie a literal character in its namesake, and the process of creating that deserves all the praise in the world.
From an acting perspective, each member of the cast is top notch. The only member of the original cast not present at the show I attended was Michael McGrath as the genial middle-aged salesman Sipos, who left the show back in May. This worked out in my favor, however, as his replacement happened to be Tom McGowan, a character actor from my favorite show of all time, Frasier. Tom brought a heart and wit to Sipos that seemed completely natural. Byron Jennings and Nicholas Barasch both brought a lovable energy to their roles as Maraczek and Arpad, making two characters that might otherwise blend into the background leap to the forefront. Then you have the scene-stealers: Gavin Creel and Jane Krakowski. Creel (whom I was shocked to learn during my research for this review is 40 years old despite looking barely 30) milks his lecherous Steven Kodaly for all he’s worth, and his two major songs are two of the best moments of the play. Of course, he receives help from the incredible Krakowski. Ms. Krakowski is perhaps best known for her performances on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but she’s not fooling anyone-her heart belongs to the theater, as can be proven by her all-time great performance in 2003’s Nine. Krakowski brings a powerful voice, razor-sharp comedic timing and unbelievable heart to her performance as clerk Ilona, and would damn near steals the entire play if the lead actors weren’t as talented as they are.
Zachary Levi is perhaps best known for his performance as the eponymous Chuck or as Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled, but he immediately wipes your memory of these performances with his nervous-yet-natural performance as Georg. Levi isn’t really required to do much singing for the first act of the play, with the exception of one wonderful little patter song, so its easy to overlook his talent in that department. However, when his big moment comes in Act II, on the titular song “She Loves Me,” he throws himself wholeheartedly into it, with every bit of body language and every tone of his voice releasing his emotions to the wind in one joyous celebration. Levi looks like he’s having the time of his life up there, and the audience feels likewise. Of course, if this play were to belong to anyone, it would have to be the incredible Laura Benanti, whose Amalia Balash is a work of beauty. Benanti’s Balash is everything in one: sexy, smart, funny, clumsy, witty, charming, and most of all a joy. Her line deliveries throughout Act One as she hurls insult after insult at poor Levi ring out like church bells, but it is the show-stopping “Vanilla Ice Cream” in Act II that really cements her performance. Coming right after the comical “Shoe” number, the audience is lulled into a false sense of security, feeling at ease with Ms. Benanti. And that’s when she works “Ice Cream” for all it’s worth, exploiting each operatic note for her own benefit and bombarding the audience with her talent. Laura Benanti gives one of the most pleasant performances in one of the most pleasant Broadway shows I have seen. Sadly, the show ended its run even while I was there in New York, but there may be a copy of the Live Stream the show did a few weeks ago somewhere out there, if you wish to see a great show full of great people.
As a side note, after the show I waited for a chance to meet some of the actors. While Jane Krakowski and Laura Benanti did not come out to the fans that evening (although Laura did wave as she drove home), I did manage to meet Tom McGowan, which resulted in my paralysis as I spoke to a man who appeared in so many of my beloved shows, Gavin Creel, who seems like a pleasant enough guy, and most impressively, Zachary Levi, who came outside and, in what I have realized was a nightly occurrence, stayed an hour and a half after the show ended to make sure he signed every fan’s program and take a photo with everyone who wanted one. He’s a real class act, and I tip my hat to him.
Fiddler on the Roof
My second show was the current production of one of my three All-Time favorite musicals, Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler was also written by Harnick and Bock, because apparently I have a type, and was released in 1964. Fiddler on the Roof follows Tevye (Danny Burstein), a Jewish milkman in the early twentieth century. Tevye lives in the shtetl of Anatevka, Russia (side note: I’m learning that Microsoft Word does not recognize Yiddish, which, come on, Microsoft) with his wife and five daughters. Tevye must find a way to balance the religious traditions that he and his village have embraced with the changing times while his daughters’ marriages challenge these beliefs. And as if that wasn’t enough to shake up his world, he must also deal with the deep-seeded anti-Semitism of the world around him. And I swear to God, as dark as all of this sounds, it’s still one of the funniest plays around.
Fiddler has been one of my favorite shows for a long time, and a major reason behind that is the score. Bock crafts one of the most beautiful scores in all of Broadway history with this show, and perfectly blends a classical sound with a Hasidic folk style, and it resulted in some of the most recognizable songs in all of the Broadway Songbook. However, in contrast to She Loves Me, Harnick’s lyrics are at their peak maturity here: each lyric speaks volumes, harkening back to centuries of Jewish tradition while simultaneously looking forward to a progressive future, stating frankly what the character’s ambitions are while simultaneously providing ten metaphors for their deepest desires. I will go to my grave saying that “If I Were a Rich Man” is the greatest song from this show, the greatest song from any show, and one of the greatest songs of all time. This is how great I think this show is, and especially its score.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk a little bit about the staging. There are two key things that stand out about this show. The first is the new framing narrative that director Bartlett Sher has added to the play. While it is true that Burstein is playing the role of Tevye, his character is more accurately a 21st century man who has picked up a copy of Tevye and his Daughters to read. While this decision doesn’t make sense at first, the second directorial decision makes everything clear. The stage is left completely bare, with a makeshift shack and barn designed to fly in and out as needed whenever the scene absolutely calls for it. This allows for three of the most stunning visuals of the play. First, the remarkable opening, where the cast walks out from below stage, emerging over the top just as the chorus of “Tradition” begins. It’s enough to send shivers down your spine, it’s such a powerful image. Second, the number “Sabbath Prayer.” While “Prayer” is most likely the number you’ll skip if you are playing the soundtrack straight through, it is one of the most powerful scenes in the play, as you see the entire community in each of their homes, united through their love for God. To show this in the current production, the scene focuses on Tevye’s house as his family and guests pray, before the house flies offstage revealing the entire community, each gathered around their own table and participating in their traditions and prayers. It’s one of the most stunning depictions of this scene, and I find it absolutely stunning. It is the third moment, however, that ties together the framing narrative. After the entire Jewish community is kicked out of their home in Anatevka, the entire town packs up and moves. As they do this, the stage becomes completely bare and the company carries their possessions around the stage in a large circle. Burstein enters the stage from the audience, dressed as his 21st century man and finishing his book. He looks at the villagers, then the fiddler, and hugs the book close to his chest with a deep smile on his face. This moment becomes further realized in the knowledge that both Bartlett Sher and Burstein, despite being raised Catholic, discovered later in life that they were ethnically Jewish. Furthermore, choreographer Hofesh Shechter is not only Jewish, but was born and raised in Jerusalem. The interpretation that these three have put on the play is an incredibly powerful one: the anti-Semitic attitudes and violence that these people face is a cyclical event, as much as we try to blind ourselves to the hatred. However, through their faith and their perseverance, they have survived and pressed onward, allowing for the life of our 21st century hero, who has grown closer to his ancestors and their faith through his research, and in hugging the book at the end, the 21st century hero embraces the fact that he is Tevye, and he is damn proud of that fact. This action is the love letter that Sher, Burstein and Shecther are sending to their ancestors, and it is one of the most powerful images I have seen on stage.
Naturally, Burstein is nearly flawless as Tevye. It is one of the harder roles on Broadway-it requires a lot of comedic lifting and jovial spirits, yet must stay grounded, sober and relatable. It’s hard to put a spin on a role played by Zero Mostel, as well as one so closely tied to Topol that some people refer to Topol as Tevye and vice versa, but Burstein holds his own. While Mostel and Topol used the comedy of the character to distract him from his own misfortunes, Burstein uses the comedy as a way of embracing his own misfortunes-unlike the fairly hopeful performances of the past, Burstein seems more resigned to his lot in life, and it allows for the more sensitive traits of Tevye to shine through. This allows us to laugh with him, cry with him, and feel his pain, even if we disagree, when he turns away his daughter Chava, done symbolically by pulling a sheet across the stage and cutting her out of his life. It’s another home run for Broadway’s most underrated actor. Jessica Hecht, meanwhile, provides a fine performance as Golde. She’s not necessarily the strongest singer, but Golde doesn’t necessarily need to be. It’s a part based solely on acting ability and Hecht (whom many may know as Gretchen Schwartz from Breaking Bad) has barrels of it. Of course, as per usual, the scene-stealer of the play is Motel, here performed with a comedic-yet-earnest energy by Adam Kantor, who throws himself all over the stage to escape from Tevye’s bombastic wrath.
The daughters, meanwhile, receive the short shrift a bit. As the show is focused on Tevye’s acceptance of his daughters’ marriages instead of their actual relationships, the girls don’t really have that many songs to show their talent. Their only real showstopper is the classic “Matchmaker.” However, instead of the upbeat and optimistic version of the song many are used, Sher chooses to explore the darker elements of the song’s themes and messages. This results in a slowed down, more somber rendition of the song. It’s not bad by any means, it just doesn’t give the daughters a chance to run with it the way many renditions have, and leaves Samantha Massell as the sole daughter allowed to show off her chops (which she does splendidly in the haunting “Far From the Home I Love”).
The chorus is a bit of a mixed bag. When they are singing and dancing together, on songs like “Tradition,” “Anatevka,” “To Life,” and “The Wedding Dance,” it is one of the strongest choruses out there. However, when done in small groups and individual performances, the harmonizations aren’t always there. One particular performance of note is Alix Korey as Yente the Matchmaker. Korey is a talented actress, as her IBDB page demonstrates. However, her Yente seems to imply that she is trying to play the role someone very close to her-perhaps a rendition of her own mother or grandmother. While this risky strategy sometimes works out (see Louie Anderson in Baskets), it usually doesn’t work out quite right, and that’s what happens here. The result of this choice is a Yente that appears to broad and borderline stereotypical (which I am sure was not the intention), and takes you out of the moment.
These are, of course, merely nitpicks of an otherwise-great show. Fiddler is still one of the greatest musicals ever written, and if you wish to see what it looks like when performed at its highest caliber, get your tickets to this rendition as soon as you can. The show is still running as of this article’s posting time, and I cannot advise this play enough.
Also, shout out to Tevye’s Dream Sequence, which is performed in masks, stilts, and other images so surreal I had to check my bottle of water to make sure it wasn’t spiked (it wasn’t, but the Cosmo on the Roof I had at intermission was).
The Crucible was my most unique experience in New York, for several reasons. First, it was the only straight play I saw while there. Second, it was the only play I saw on the main floor (Row J, to be exact, close enough to see the stream of spit coming out of the actors mouths as they got worked up). And it was the most bizarre show I saw in my entire trip to New York. Directed by the renowned avant-garde director Ivo van Hove, this rendition of The Crucible interprets the material in one of the most fascinating ways yet. For those unfamiliar, The Crucible is written by the Great American Playwright Arthur Miller. The play tells the story of the infamous Salem Witch Trials, where the words of envious teenage girls were used to create a mass hysteria, and twenty-one people were put to death after being falsely accused of witchcraft. First written and performed in 1953, the play served as an allegory for the McCarthy hearings.
Van Hove maintains the themes and words of the original text, yet it is the setting that really makes this play stand out. The entire play takes place inside of a modern day school classroom, complete with fluorescent lights, a chalkboard with not-quite-erased words and phrases, and a water cooler. The classroom evolves with society as the play unfolds-it starts out neat and pristine before beginning to slowly fall apart, with trash littering the stage and the words of the teenage girls burning through on the chalkboard. The image of a tree slowly evolves to contain hanged individuals as time goes on, and a flickering light crashes to the stage near the end of Act II. By the end of the play, the room is completely destroyed, just as the witch-hunt has destroyed society, and the collapsed fluorescent is the sole source of lighting for the entire stage. All of this plays out as Phillip Glass‘ haunting new score echoes in the background. It’s a completely sobering visual, and as bizarre as it is to see seventeenth century dialogue delivered in a classroom by schoolgirls and professors, it is undeniably a striking visual.
In terms of performances, the entire cast is game to perform, and there really aren’t any weak links to be found. Obviously the two standouts are Sophie Okonedo and Bill Camp as Elizabeth Proctor and Reverend John Hale, respectively. Okonedo brings a quiet and nervous tendency to the character of Elizabeth, and her strained relationship with Ben Whishaw (Q in Skyfall) drives the play forward. Their reunion at the end can bring a tear to the eye of even the hardest of hearts. Camp, meanwhile, brings energy and passion to the role of Hale, the Reverend who inadvertently kicks off the witch-hunt, before leaving him with regret when he realizes how far it has gone. It is his spit you can see flying with each line delivery, as he starts out with the passion of your stereotypical pastor before his anger at his constituents begins to take hold as the entire endeavor falls apart. The rest of the cast plays just about as well as you can hope: Whishaw brings an everyman quality to John Proctor that makes the play work (also, the makeup work on his back for the final scene is straight out of Passion of the Christ, and it elicited a gasp out of my audience), Saorise Ronan (Oscar-nominated for Atonement and Brooklyn) plays Abigail with a fiery and sinister passion, and her possessed scenes are a highlight of the play, Ciarán Hinds makes each scene his Governor Danforth is in a literal nightmare, Tavi Gevinson is a frightened knockout as Marry Warren, Jim Norton provides much-needed levity as Giles Corey, and Jason Butler Harner is the proper level of sleazy for his role as Reverend Parris. As I said, there are no weak links in this cast.
Sadly, The Crucible ended its run this past Sunday, but I cannot stress enough the importance of this story, and I look forward to the next work directed by Mr. van Hove.
And thus ends my tour of New York’s theater scene. I saw three shows, and each one was an absolute smash. Here’s hoping that Broadway continues this trend of fantastic shows, and here’s hoping that one day those Hamilton tickets aren’t so damn difficult to come by.
*This, of course, occurring after I had gone barhopping with a friend at the How I Met Your Mother bar and the Birdman bar, so I really didn’t have much of an idea what was happening. Oops.