What a pity that Leonard Bernstein wasted so much of his (and our) time on being a ho-hum classical composer instead of concentrating on musical comedy, for which he had a true genius. Catch the fine revival of Wonderful Town, a superb musical, then listen to the messy Mass and negligible Chichester Psalms—well, it’s no contest. They cannot hold a candle to On the Town, West Side Story, Candide, or this most idiomatic rendering of My Sister Irene, which handily earns its eponymous epithet.
In a refurbished reprise of the worthy Encores! production, the onstage orchestra under the charismatic Rob Fisher captures our ears and benevolence instantly with the Overture—24 musicians playing their hearts out. The opening number, “Christopher Street,” sets the 1935 Greenwich Village scene of tour guide, tourists, and colorful locals with brisk assurance. Kathleen Marshall’s choreography starts out on the right foot and feet; John Lee Beatty’s spare but smartly stylized and floatingly mobile scenery, Martin Pakledinaz’s tongue-in-cheek costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski’s chameleonic lighting put us in the proper mood for a riveting ride.
By the second number—when Donna Murphy’s Ruth and Jennifer Westfeldt’s Eileen join in the masterly duet “Ohio,” a comic dirge about two sisters from Columbus initially daunted by the prospect of conquering the Big Apple as, respectively, writer and actress—we feel cradled in good, nay, great hands. Here as throughout, the easefully bull’s-eye lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, cozily ensconced in the savvy Joseph Fields–Jerome Chodorov book based on Ruth McKenney’s endearingly quasi-autobiographical stories, create an atmosphere of inspired insouciance. This is a show more than just to look at and listen to; it is one to actually live in.
And then there is Donna Murphy. If she has not yet been numbered among the musical theater’s superstars, any unjust doubts are herewith erased. She is a consummate singer and incomparable actress, but also a first-rate comic and a comely presence. She is endlessly versatile, hitting all stops between vulnerable woman and audacious clown, and she has timing the Greenwich Observatory might envy. Above all, she has a breathtaking fearlessness, and the talent to back up her temerity.
But the entire cast needs no reviewing, only congratulations. Gregg Edelman, as Robert Baker, finally gets a chance to show that he also has a grand sense of humor; Jennifer Westfeldt, whom we dimly recall from film and television, leaps onto the Broadway stage in full-fledged acting and singing splendor as the adorable Eileen; Raymond Jaramillo McLeod seems born to play a Wreck as heartfelt as hulking; and all the others, down to the smallest parts, function as a flawless ensemble, confirming that Kathleen Marshall is able to cast and direct as strikingly as she—sharper than ever before—choreographs here.
Still, we must end as we began. Building on Comden and Green’s piquant words, Bernstein has given us an immortal score, making all others on today’s Broadway calling themselves musicals look like the pygmies they are. Long may Wonderful Town wave and weave its life-enhancing enchantment.
The punningly but awkwardly titled Caroline, or Change is a musical with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, originally intended as an opera, and still pretty operatic, being sung-through, with minimal dialogue. It is a memory piece of Kushner’s childhood, but fictionalized—what he archly calls “a mismemory piece.”
As usual with Kushner, he bites off more than he can chew. Caroline is partly about a Jewish family in Louisiana, the Gellmans: the abstracted father, who mostly plays the clarinet; his son, Noah; and his new wife, Rose. Noah’s mother has recently died and, it being 1963, JFK is about to be assassinated. Noah’s paternal grandparents, very New York, will soon descend on Lake Charles, Louisiana, for Hanukkah. Noah has a habit of leaving coins in his pants that Caroline, the black maid, scrupulously preserves in a bleach cup. Parsimonious Rose keeps trying to break Noah of this habit, but the boy—partly Kushner and partly an idiot—refuses to learn. As the change piles up, Caroline’s temptation to pocket it grows (thus the title’s first meaning).
Caroline, a single mother of four, has pinned her hopes for the future on Kennedy, and now he has gone and gotten killed. So she may not change (title meaning No. 2), but be doomed to doing the Gellmans’ laundry. Her companions are the radio (impersonated by three black singers, think Supremes), the washing machine (voiced, Aretha Franklin-style, by a big belter), and the dryer (a cross between James Taylor and Nat “King” Cole). These she talks, i.e., sings to, and they sing, i.e., talk to her. Later comes a talking bus.
So we have here a warm but troubled southern Jewish family (think The Last Night of Ballyhoo), a disturbed boy who seeks a surrogate mother in a black servant (think Member of the Wedding), the hopes and hopelessness of a southern black family, plus Caroline’s fairy-tale fantasies.
Kushner keeps panting after significance, as when the text reiterates that there is no underground in Louisiana, only underwater, an image that tries to rise into a symbol only to slip on the banana peel of a slippery imagination. But sometimes his lyrics score, and Jeanine Tesori’s music is a steady delight in melody, variety, and orchestration. The cast is just fine top to bottom, including a passel of children, and the production values are always apt, in the case of the Jules Fisher–Peggy Eisenhauer lighting, remarkable. George C. Wolfe has directed fluidly a show that, nevertheless, seems more underwater than on firm ground.
Amy Freed’s The Beard of Avon is the most madcap showbiz farce since Noises Off. It concerns the vexing question of the much-disputed Shakespearean authorship, and most of the top candidates are here: Bacon and Derby; Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford; and the Virgin Queen herself. Also that “upstart crow” from provincial Stratford-on-Avon, Will Shaksper or Shakespeare, as he became as spear carrier or shaker on the London stage.
It is a very free, footloose, and funny conception of what went on in the Stratford household and the London theater, envisioned by Freed, our Avon lady par excellence. We get Will’s troubled marriage to the older Anne Hathaway, the young man’s escape to the capital’s playhouse to become an actor (not yet playwright), and his involvement with De Vere and his presumed lover, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. It turns out that the rakehell De Vere is good at plots, and Will at poetic verbiage, as they slide into an uneasy collaboration. Soon all are turning to Shakespeare to front their clandestine scribblings; as nobles, they need a beard for such socially frowned-on activity.
Meanwhile, the abandoned Anne sets out for London in male drag (think Rosalind and Viola) to recapture her husband, and becomes his paramour without his recognizing her. At one time or another, both Anne and Will end up in the charmingly dissolute, and sometimes murderous, De Vere’s bed—and more, much more. Freed has cleverly invented a language that combines Elizabethan and modern English, cockily melding archaism and anachronism, clothing today’s ideas in yesteryear’s costume; thus “I have a most pernicious deficit of my attention’s ordering” and “ ’Tis but the crisis of thine middle years.” Now that Frisian is a dying language, might Freedian replace it?
All of this is delightful, and I have but minor quibbles. The excellent Tim Blake Nelson is a bit old for Will, and his balding wig sports unsightly wrinkles; the delectable Kate Jennings Grant is too young for Anne, thus skewing their tricky relationship. But they and nine gifted others act up an infectious whirl, even if space permits mention only of Mark Harelik’s seigneurially amoral De Vere, Mary Louise Wilson’s starchy and sardonic Elizabeth I, and David Schramm’s dictatorial yet unctuous theater manager. Add exemplary décor by Neil Patel, sassy costumes by Catherine Zuber, playful lighting by Michael Chybowski, shrewd music and sound by David Van Tieghem, and, watchfully hovering over all, Doug Hughes’s ceaselessly inventive direction. In best Shakespearean tradition, I propose a subtitle for this rib-tickling spoof: The Beard of Avon, or As We Like It.