Eleventh of a series

NEW YORK –  Gee, Wiz. The latest revival of the black musical, based on L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” tosses convention out of the window.

Change is good, yes, but familiarity breeds the comfort  you feel at home.

So, click your heels, and explore “The Wiz,” playing through Aug. 8 at the Marquis Theatre in the Marquis Hotel. It’s lively, with lots of pops of color in neon costumes that brighten but not necessarily heighten the glee.

Nichelle Lewis makes a credible Broadway debut as Dorothy, in this retelling, but she is challenged with trying to project her numbers to reach the huge theater. I attended a matinee, jammed with black fans, with many women dressed to the nines in sequined red caps, blouses, pants and skirts. Almost like the twinkles spilled off the stage and into the house.

Meet Lion (Kyle Lamar Freeman), Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis), Tinman (Phillip Johnson Richardson) and Scarecrow (Avery Wilson).

With a new book by William F. Brown, with additional material from Amber Ruffin, there are subtractions and additions, possibly providing something for everyone, old and new.

Happily, Charlie Small’s music is retained, and yes, and tunes like “Ease on Down the Road,” “Believe in Yourself,” and “Home” are treasured anchors. It would have been wicked to eliminate these classics.

Dorothy here has left the ‘hood to live with her Aunt Em (Melody A.  Betts) in Kansas because of discomfort and bullying by her peers. Don’t recall this element in earlier versions. FYI, Betts shows up as the evil witch, Evillene, later in the show.

The Tornado is a “character,” featuring seven dancers whirling and twirling.

Of course, a tornado whirls and twirls and blows Dorothy afar.  In a singular breathtaking sequence, Tornada – a “character,” featuring a corps of seven dancers, clad in gray  fabric “wings” resembling land-locked manta rays spinning and fueling wind and rain. It’s a stunning moment of choreography conjoined with light, sound and special effects.

Jeepers, leapers: The Scarecrow (Avery Wilson) is acrobatic.

This thing-as-characters style, however, is not necessarily  effective, with four dancers in yellow uniforms, serving as The Yellow Brick Road, but look like soldiers. But they do soldier the movement after Dorothy meets and engages in the lives of the Scarecrow (Avery Wilson, agile and acrobatic, in need of a brain), the Tinman (Phillip Johnson Richardson, cheerfully hearty, but nonetheless aching for a heart) and the Lion (Kyle Lamar Freeman, nervous and fearful, but eager to discover courage).

Midway in the show, Wayne Brady projects rhythm and style as the Wiz;  he’s not feared in this playout. His exit is better than his entrance…

The good witch, Glinda (Deborah Cox) is bathed in gold, the hue of grandness.

Evillene has an army of poppies in the Emerald City.

Oh, and I don’t know the protocol, re Dorothy’s slippers/shoes. They’re silver here, not red.

Another oh. There’s no Toto in this show;  animal lovers should protest!…

And that’s Show Biz…


Tenth of a series

NEW YORK – Old age, middle age, and young age are a given in life. In the new Broadway musical, based on a book and a movie, “The Notebook” is in residency at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.  It’s an occasional challenge and an inevitable distraction, because of color blind casting, with different actors with different ethnicities playing the six key roles of a couple, Allie and Noah, over a time span of four decades.

With an underlying  theme of the impact of Alzheimer’s, perhaps dual directors Michael Greif and Schele Williams wanted to include a memory test for spectators – visual in this case – to identify six actors portraying the same characters at different stages of life. I’ll admit; I had occasional difficulties.

Joy Woods and Ryan Vasquez are drenched in faux rain, in “The Notebook.”

Older Allie (played by Marian Plunkett) and Older Noah (enacted by Dorian Harewood)  are the elders. She’s white, he’s black. They are emotionally moving and powerful, and consequently Tony-nominated this year.

Middle Allie (Joy Woods) and  Middle Noah (Ryan Vasquez) are the middle-aged  duo. She’s black, he’s Hispanic. They make a splash – literally – as they are doused, in a clinch, in realistic rain in Act 2.

Young Allie (Jordan Tyson) and Young Noah (John Cardoza) are the youths. She’s black, he’s white. They make charming, bubbling lovebirds .

The three Noahs, from left: John Cardoza, Dorian Harewood and Ryan Vasquez.

Allie and Noah usually appear together, but there are tricky instances – part of the device of storytelling flashbacks – where old, middle and young selves all appear together. Example: In Noah’s ark, the three gents appear in a scene where all wear brown tops. Happily, though the two younger Noahs are blond, they are identifiable.

The three Allies, from left: Maryann Plunkett, Joy Woods and Jordan Tyson.

Inspired by the 1996 book by Nicholas Sparks and the 2004 rom-com weeper of a film, starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, the tale revolves around the notion that if Noah renovates the family home, Allie will thus remain. In her old age, he reads her memoirs from a notebook, in a nursing home, which triggers actions and reactions with the middle duo and the young ones.

Bekah Brunstetter’s book features folks from Allie’s life, like her disapproving parents — Mother (Andrea Burns) and Father (Charles E. Wallace) – who withhold several hundred letters from Noah that Allie never receives. No confusion here, since there are just one  of each parent.

Ingrid Michaelson’s music and lyrics are reflective of the specific joy, sadness, love and depression depicted in the storytelling. Breakaway hits, however, are not likely.

David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis’ scenic design includes a water element, featuring a brook/pool running the span of the stage, with faux rain descending in Act 2, and architectural gems, like a wooden skeleton of a home and a moving second-floor porch-walkway.

Dangling lights, like upside candles, hang from above, and occasionally, the actors see reflections from mirrors at both sides of the stage, as they reminisce – as do the audience…

And that’s Show Biz…


Ninth of a series

NEW YORK – When a seminal youth novel is  made into a movie, and years later reinvented as a Broadway musical, the challenges are many.

S.E. Hinton’s  1967 young adult book, a staple literary classic for English middle school and high school students, also became a 1983  hit film about teen-age angst, with a stellar cast of unknown actors who became mega-stars.

So yes, “The Outsiders” has a storied past. The film version, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, made stars of Rob Lowe (Sodapop Curtis), Patrick Swayze (Darrel Curtis), Matt Dillon (Dallas Winston), Ralph Macchio (Johnny Cade), C. Thomas Howell (Ponyboy Michaels), Tom Cruise (Steve Randle), and Emilio Esteves (Two-Bit Matthews). The key actress then was Diane Lane (Cherry Valance).

The Broadway arrival can’t match the stardust from the film version but boasts a couple of key talent —  Brody Grant (Ponyboy), Sky Lakota-Lynch (Johnny), and Joshua Boone (Dallas) – who are Tony nominees this year. The production also is nominated for Best New Musical and Best Book of a Musical and Best Director.

A scene from “The Outsiders,” a new Broadway musical.

Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “The Outsiders”  — playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre –- is essentially a story of socio-class conflict between the Greasers and the Socs– specifically, between Ponyboy and his colleagues from the other side of the tracks, and Soc leader Bob (Kevin William Paul), whose girlfriend Cherry Valance (Emma Pittman) gets involved with Ponyboy, igniting the furor.

“The Outsiders” scopes familiar grounds like gang wars, cultural clashes, territorial turf. There’s a lot of tension and turmoil along the way.

The rain scene in “The Outsiders.”

While Ponyboy and Johnny reflect on days past, they are confronted by Soc Bob and his hooligans. Johnny is beaten and Ponyboy is nearly drowned in a park fountain, till Johnny – carrying a knife – stabs Bob.

So they flee on a train, finding momentary solace at an abandoned church.

There’s a fractured bond among the Curtis brothers, whose parents have died in a car accident.  Ponyboy is literate and academically accomplished; his oldest brother is the surrogate parent bro Darrel, the hard worker who had to quit school to hold two jobs. Sodapop is the middle bro, open-spirited with charm and a good-looker.

The tone is dark and murky, for the most part, with shadowy fisticuffs and nocturnal escapes, with lots of cigarette smoking. To perhaps cool out the flames, a rumble in the rain is an exquisite visual moment.

Director Danya Taymor’s storytelling is visceral and intuitive, enabling her cast to move the story with power.

Unlike the novel  and the film, the musical is modernized to include multiracial casting, with blacks and whites and a Native American (Lakota-Lynch). The book by Adam Rapp and Justine Levine is properly gritty, and the musical score by Jamestown Revival (Johnathan Clay and Zach Chance) and the aforementioned Levine help cloak the friction.

Voices are strong and several tunes stand out – “Hopeless War,” by Ponyboy and Cherry; “Far Away from Tulsa,” by Ponyboy; and “Stay Gold,” by Johnny and Ponyboy – but this is not “Oklahoma!”…

‘Lion King’ still roaring hot

“The Lion King” remains the king of the Broadway Grosses jungle for yet another week.

And at No. 2, “Wicked” still has its magic.

The Top 10:

1–“The Lion King,” $2,090 million.

 2—”Wicked,” $2,007 million.

 3—”Hamilton,” $1,905 million.

 4—”Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club,” $1,899 million.

 5—”Merrily We Roll Along,” $1,762 million.

 6—”Hell’s Kitchen,” $1,638 million.

 7—”The Wiz,” $1,372 million.

8–“Aladdin,” $1,353 million.

9—”MJ the Musical,” $1,253 million.

10—”The Great Gatsby,” $1,172 million.

The entire list, courtesy the Broadway Guild:

And that’s Show Biz…


Eighth in a series

NEW YORK – “Merrily We Roll Along,” a musical by Stephen Sondheim, arrived late to the Broadway community of successes.

Extended a few times at the Hudson Theatre, its staying power is understandable, because of a trio of stellar leads, and the directorial vision of Maria Friedman. The piece, with a book by George Furth, originally premiered on Broadway in 1981, and was a mega-flop, shutting down after only 16 performances.

The current audience taking in the show in 2024 likely don’t know that “Merrily” was an initially an embarrassing failure. So, you can’t judge a book by its flub.

The show’s uncanny zenith comeback, on Oct. 10, 2023, certainly owes its mounting success to its trio of celestial actors – Johnathan Groff as Franklin Shepherd, a musical composer; Daniel Radcliffe as Charley Kringas, a wizard of a lyricist; and Lindsey Mendez, as a former novelist and now a stage critic — whose brilliance, staying power and on-stage camaraderie have been channeled into Broadway Gold.

“Merriiy” threesome, from left: Lindsay Mendez, Johnathan Groff, and Daniel Radcliffe.

The show will finally wind up its run on July 7, 2024, and “Merrily” is undoubtably staying alive just in case it earns a Tony Award or two or three or four. Groff (Best Leading Actor in a Musical), Radcliffe (Best Featured Actor in a Musical) and Mendez (Best Featured Actress in a Musical) could all win, in a well-positioned distribution of possibilities, and “Merrily” should be the undeniable winner of Best Musical Revival. “Cabaret” could be the spoiler.

“Merrily” has style, structure, and substance, with a flashback timetable; it starts at the end, working towards its beginning, and Sondheim’s characteristic soundtrack of words and music, with phraseology and cadence adored by actors. Sondheim has created his signature language, and the revision maintains all his traits, like repetitive lyrics, three or four times. Often, there’s a note of familiarity, like hearing a tune from another of his hit shows, “Into the Woods.” Kinda-like hearing, seeing and recognizing  a Bob Fosse number.

And because the songs are show-specific and propel the storytelling, a break-out tune is unlikely. Yet a number, like “Old Friends – Like It Was” performed by Mary and Charley,  could have life outside of the show. But Charley’s  homage to his buddy, “Franklin Shepherd, Inc.” is a difficult-to-remember-and-articulate tune, with precise hand motions in context of the show, and clearly is owned by Radcliffe, who has the skills to belt this one out to wild applause.

As friends go, Frank is ambitious and fearful, but adorable; Charley can be contentious but is poised; Mary is supportive and trustworthy. The group trio tune, “Old Friends,”  is the epitome of the bond  among Frank, Charley and Mary, underlying the show’s theme of aging together.

The story begins in 1976, as folks are celebrating Frank’s first Hollywood film hit. It ends when the trio are 20-year collegians  on a rooftop awaiting the nocturnal sighting of Sputnik.

Lindsay Mendez, Johnathan Groff and Daniel Radcliffe.

The backward reflections spotlight the tight bond of the trio, including the idiosyncratic differences, and the challenges of maintaining the fragile friendship.

By the way, Radcliffe brings joy and stardust to the cast. I admire his uncanny range of roles since he outgrew Harry Potter (think “How to Success in Business Without Really Trying,” “Equus,” “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “Weird: The Al Yankovic Movie”). I’m pulling for him to finally earn a Tony this year.

While Sutra Gilmore’s costume design is reflective of the number of decades depicted,  though Frank appears frequently in white shirt tucked into black trousers. Radcliffe often dons argyle vests reminiscing his Potter span, whether inadvertently or not. Methinks he’s smartly trying to shelve his HP era; his mass fanhood knows his roots and are supporting him nonetheless.

Johnathan Tunick’s orchestrations are faithful to Sondheim sound…

And that’s Show Biz…