Theatre: “American Psycho the Musical;” “Bright Star;” “Dear Evan Hansen”

AMERICAN PSYCHO the MusicalYES
Closes June 5th at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45 Street

IMG_3424If you are in NYC, or plan to be by 6/5, AND you have an affinity with musical theatre or share a concern about where America is heading, I urge you to see “American Psycho.” It is truly the first modern, i.e., 21st Century, musical. Its genesis is the music video, not vaudeville nor the musicals of Broadway’s Golden Age. It is a funny and searing indictment of a time and place (Manhattan, 1989) whose values have brought us to a point in time where Donald Trump appears headed to become the Republican candidate for President. It also contains two of the most brilliant, and inexcusably overlooked, performances of the season–Benjamin Walker and Heléne Yorke.

This is not a show for children as there is coarse language and simulated intercourse as well as simulated acts of violence. It is a show for adults who like musicals that are challenging and cause one to think. A musical like “American Psycho” comes along rarely. Eventually, it will be re-mounted and recognized, but the thrill of this original Broadway production should not be dismissed.

See my earlier posts about “American Psycho” here and here.

“DEAR EVAN HANSEN” – NO
Closed May 22nd at Second Stage; opening on Broadway later in 2016

"Dear Evan Hansen" is currently playing at Second Stage through May 22nd.
“Dear Evan Hansen” recently closed at Second Stage, and is scheduled to open on Broadway later in 2016.

Some theatre-goers were commenting that this off-Broadway show was “superb,” so several weeks ago I went with hopes high, not knowing anything about it. Unfortunately, my elation quickly turned to annoyance and tedium. The book, by Steven Leveson, of teen-age loneliness and angst rang false and unrealistic. The show, to me, was poorly written. The first 20 or 30 minutes did not move the plot forward, it simply repeated: Evan is friendless and has some type of social anxiety disorder, wringing his hands and”Waving Through A Window.”  He is being raised by his single Mom who, I seem to recall, was going to school herself or working a second job. Evan’s therapist has instructed him to write a daily letter to himself (hence the show title,  get it?) encouraging himself that today will be a good day. Evan silently pines for a girl at school, Zoe, whom he believes barely notices him. The only true character conflict came in the last 15 or 20 minutes when Evan’s reprehensible behavior is revealed and his relationship with the other characters is now cracked and tested but the writers never explore this. Evan’s actions, supported and abetted by his teenage schoolmates, struck me as dishonest, disagreeable, despicable and emotionally cruel. The lone exception is the innocent Zoe, who becomes one of the victims of his inexcusable behavior.

With the exception of Ben Platt who is a good performer but too mature to be playing a teen-ager, the acting was poor all around. The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dogfight,” “A Christmas Story,” “James and the Giant Peach”) had no song that caught my attention nor whose melody I even remember. The point was made numerous times that Evan and his mother were abandoned by the father/husband, so there was no need for a useless song about a baseball glove, “To Break In A Glove.” The plot made the point repeatedly of Evan’s strong affinity for jazz music, and in which music class he first set eyes on Zoe, yet there’s not one note of jazz music in the score. It’s all blue-grass, guitar and banjo strumming and depressing.

Michael Greif’s direction was basic and unimaginative with nearly every song sung downstage and to the audience and with little to no connection between the teen-agers and adults on stage. Act One ended for me with no reason to return. I did because I was still hoping there might have been a positive reason to have sat through the first act. There wasn’t.  The show was over-produced–sliding panels gliding on and off, back and forth, onto with were projected images of teen-age emails and instant messages. The reason for these being, I suspected, to distract the audience and maintain attention while masking the fact that nothing was truly happening.

Some folks appear to be making much of this show and its supposed relevance to today. To which I strongly disagree. This show will date quickly. The Broadway audience for this show strikes me as limited at best. I recognize that many people believe this show is superb with fine music and lyrics, and that I’m in the minority. In my opinion, the reason for this Evan Euphoria stems from an unconscious collection of critics and fans of Pasek and Paul who sympathetically believe attention and recognition is due to this creative team. “Dear Evan Hansen” will not survive a transfer. The theatre work of Pasek and Paul up to now will not stand the test of time. Let’s see what they write in the future for the theatre, after they mature and leave the children and young adult shows and films behind them.

See my earlier post about “Dear Evan Hansen,” here.

BRIGHT STAR” – YES
Currently at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street

facebookMy opinion about the score’s overindulgent use of repetitive lyrics and false rhymes remains unchanged from my first hearing of the Broadway Cast Recording (Sh-k-Boom/Ghostlight). Since seeing the show at the Cort, however, which gave context to the score I found that I truly enjoy listening to the cast recording. Truly, truly. The show’s book is simple, straightforward, even predictable. Still it’s full of heart. It also has one of the season’s brightest Broadway debuts, Carmen Cusack. See this for her.  See it too for Alexander Paul Nolan, Hannah Elless, A. J. Shively and Emily Padgett, all who deliver fine performances.  You’ll also have a good feeling have when it’s over, and you’ll be glad you went. Don’t be surprised to find Steven Martin, one of the co-writers, showing up to play the banjo in the Entr’acte with the on-stage band. He’s known to do that.

See my earlier posts on “Bright Star” here and here.

 

Theatre Review: “Bright Star,” 2016 at the Cort, Broadway

On Saturday, May 21, I attended the matinee performance of “Bright Star.” It won me over. One word before you stop reading. Go!

The show itself proved to have a big heart and was welcoming and loving. Only a true curmudgeon would not want to love it back.

"Bright Star" Playbill cover
“Bright Star” Playbill cover

I’ve grown fond of the music after numerous listenings to the score (available at Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records). Hearing it played live was real treat. It was even more lively in the theatre and the on-stage musicians were fun company. The lyrics are just as repetitive and filled with poor rhymes as they are on the recording. Like a relative with poor grammar, however, what in-the-Hell is one going do except wince privately to oneself. Still, I couldn’t help tapping my toes all the way through the end of the audience exit music. The Orchestrations by August Eriksmoen, and the Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements by Rob Berman are outstanding.

Steve Martin, the show’s co-composer and co-lyricist with Edie Brickell, made an unannounced appearance with the on-stage musicians to play the Entr’acte. He plays a mean banjo.

The choreography by Josh Rhodes was winning too, especially in the “Another Round” number, danced and sung by Emily Padgett and A. J.Shively. The Director, Walter Bobbie, kept things moving, unfortunately those efforts—mostly actors pushing, pulling and turning sets and props on stage—bordered on distracting. I saw this in another musical recently and it was distracting there too. I so wish directors would keep it simple.

Carmen Cusack, star of "Bright Star"
Carmen Cusack, star of “Bright Star”

Carmen Cusack was genuinely brilliant, radiating love and joy whenever she was on stage. She deserves to win the upcoming TONY if there is any justice in the world. She was warm, she was funny, she played her emotions and made them real, and boy did she sing. Paul Alexander Nolan, as her love interest, showed his strong voice along with good masculine looks to match. It was easy to imagine and to want them to be a couple.

I still stand behind my earlier comments about the recording. Seeing the show in the Cort Theatre highlighted a critical point. The show’s producers and director should have cast secondary leads with voices distinct from the leads. That is not a criticism of Hannah Elless or A. J. Shively, the secondary leads.  They are both terrific performers, singing and acting so fine.  Seeing “Bright Star” on stage helped me understand  the story.  It also pointed out how critical good casting is to good story-telling. A smart producer would ensure that the secondary leads are never confused with the leads, vocally or physically.

Let me be clear, “Bright Star” is by no means the greatest musical ever. What it is though is a warm, true, well-meaning, heart-tugging, tear-inducing, toe-tapping musical with a brilliant Broadway debut.

As I wrote earlier, Go! You’ll be glad you did.

brightstarmusical.com, Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48 St., Broadway

Visit: sh-k-boom.com

CD Review: “Bright Star”

“Bright Star” the musical with the music, lyrics and story written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre on March 24, 2016.  The show was directed by Walter Bobbie, and stars Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan.  The cast also includes Michael Mulheren, A. J. Shively, Hannah Elless, Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Stephen Lee Anderson, Emily Padgett and Jeff Blumenkrantz.  The musical has been nominated for 5 TONY Awards: Best Musical;  Best Score; Best Book; Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical and Best Orchestrations. The Original Broadway Cast recording will be released on May 27, 2016, and comes with a beautifully illustrated 10-page lyric booklet which includes a synopsis as well as statements from the authors, Steve Martin and Edie Bickell.  It is available today at sh-k-boom.com.

"Bright Stat" cover art
“Bright Stat” cover art

After repeated listenings I found the music to be lively, upbeat and easy to take.  It has a warm wonderful sound of back woods down home–plucky, toe-tapping’, banjo strummin’, foot stompin’, goin’ to revival meetin’ sound.  The superb orchestrations by August Eriksmoen and the Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements by Rob Berman keep the recording moving at a fast pace and interesting.  Against my better judgement I found myself liking the sound of this score, and I should add the sound of the recording.  It’s clear, crisp–a bit like a cold night in the woods when every tree, every star, every footstep is distinct.

Carmen Cusack, making her Broadway debut in “Bright Star,” has  performed on the West End and toured the UK, as well touring the U.S. as Nellie Forbush in the 1st National Company of the Lincoln Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”

Carmen Cusack, star of "Bright Star."
Carmen Cusack, star of “Bright Star.”

She also starred as Dot in the Chicago Shakespeare production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday In The Park With George.”  Her voice is strong and likable with a hint of breathiness that I find reminiscent of Tammy Grimes.

Unfortunately, while Ms. Cusack’s voice can be heard in nine of the twenty one tracks, she does not have a true solo among them.  She is either singing with an ensemble or the entire company.  Even in one of two bonus tracks where she sings the song with the most repetitive lyrics (more to come on that) she is augmented with back-up singers. The other unfortunate fact of this score is that Ms. Cusack, who as noted above has sung lyrics by Hammerstein and by Sondheim among others, finds herself here, along with the rest of the cast, saddled with lyrics by Martin and Brickell.  Lyrics that are cliched, dumb and say nothing in a dramatic musical. The lyrics are also infinitely repetitive, saying nothing over and over and over and over and over again.

Let me give you a few examples.  The first song on the recording is entitled “If You Knew My Story” and starts it with a melancholy fiddle leading into the song. Ms. Cusack sings “If you knew my story you’d have a hard time believing me you’d think I was lying.” From that fiddle I get the sense that this is perhaps a memory piece.  After listening to the recording numerous times, however, I still don’t know whether to believe that she’s lying or not because have no idea of the story.  A musical score that starts with “If You Knew My Story” and then over twenty subsequent songs doesn’t clearly tell you the overall story nor identify the central character is poor musical story-telling.  The listener shouldn’t be forced to rely on the printed synopsis and/or the lyrics to understand what is happening.

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, authors of "Bright Star."
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, authors of “Bright Star.”

Then there are the repetitive lyrics, starting with that first song. The words “if you knew my story” are repeated ten times throughout the three minute track. This is followed closely by the title song where “bright star” is repeated at least a dozen times. Not long after the dumb and meaningless lyrics “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do when a man’s gotta do what he’s got to” make their audible presence known, and again later in the reprise which serves as the Act One closing song.  The song with with most repetitive lyrics though has to be “Sun Is Gonna Shine,” where the lyrics “the sun is gonna shine again” are sung over thirty times.  A rousing church song?  I dunno, maybe.  We’re well into Act Two and someone needs cheering up but I don’t know who or why. Theatre lyric writing has changed and someone who prefers a more traditional musical score may not warm up to this.

Thanks to the orchestrations I do find the “Bright Star” score to be infectious and an enjoyable way to get moving.  Still, when the best track on the recording, hence in the score, is the “Entr’acte” that alone says you have a words problem.   Now I’ll go read the synopsis or better yet, perhaps go see the show.

RECOMMEND.

brightstarmusical.com, Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48 St., Broadway

Visit: sh-k-boom.com