When Coram Boy is referred to as Dickensian, poor Charles Dickens is getting the short end of the stick. Yes, the play has both the milieu and the structure of a
Dickens novel, but not the emotional underpinning. At least not for us – and we both cry easily. Nonetheless, it's only fair to report that audiences seem to be split on this show, some finding themselves moved to copious tears and others discovering, like Morales in A Chorus Line, that they feel nothing. For our part, we fully appreciate the sterling direction by Melly Still that keeps the show moving at a scintillating pace, but unfortunately that imaginative direction is in the service of a hoary, clichéd story. Simply put, Coram Boy is all about style over substance.
For a show to transport the audience to another world and hold them there, it can't feature the kind of jarring visual cues that Coram Boy regularly insists upon. For instance, the character of Melissa, the fifteen-year-old love interest of our hero, looks easily twice her purported age. This is no knock on the actress but rather on her casting. Speaking of which, young girls are constantly portraying young boys, some of whom pass for the opposite sex and some who simply do not. Most distracting of all, however, is the use of obvious plastic dolls to represent the children who do not make it to the Coram Hospital during act one. The clear choice to seriously fake-up the babies takes the viewers entirely out of the developing tale and reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that this is a play. No, we're not saying use real babies. But the choice to use such obviously unreal looking dolls was undoubtedly made so as not to upset the audience. But wouldn't upsetting the audience actually be the point?
Yes, there is some extremely stylish work in this show, not the least of which is a piece of theatrical legerdemain that creates a dramatic underwater scene. By the same token, the use of a turntable hasn't been so prominent – or so effective – since Le Miz originally spun into view. But "ooh" and "ahh" all you want, to our minds a show is in trouble when its most moving moment is the curtain call when the entire cast stands on stage and performs Handel's "The Hallelujah Chorus."
LoveMusik is a show for critics and a relatively esoteric part of the musical theater audience. You have to admire the courage of the players when folks with great musical theater chops like Donna Murphy, Michael Cerveris, and David Pittu are asked to sing at a level so far beneath their own gifts in order to better portray their characters. It's no wonder, then, that all three actors were nominated for Tony Awards, while the show and its creators – who asked them to hide their great voices beneath the masks of their sensational acting skills - were not. In other words, the work of the actors was highly appreciated but the Tony Nominating Committee, at least, would seem to have wished the actors hadn't been put in that position because they clearly did not like the show.
LoveMusik is not, after all, an easy show to love. The first act is strong, with one scene after another told with humor, song, and style. After a bold opening in pin spots revealing just the talking (should we say singing?) heads of our two protagonists, we immediately find Kurt Weill (Cerveris) at the moment he meets Lotte Lenya (Murphy). Just like Weill, we're instantly charmed by Lenya. Soon after, we meet Brecht (Pittu) in one of the show's most engaging directorial flourishes. Brecht's four followers become the posts that hold up the four corners of a boxing ring: and the battle between politics and entertainment is on ...
The second act is the problem as the issues and the personalities begin to flatten out. The dramatic arc of the love story between Weill and Lenya comes together intellectually but not dramatically. LoveMusik is, nonetheless, not only this year's most ambitious new Broadway musical; it is also the most artful – despite its flaws. It is not, however, the kind of show to tour, let alone garner an open run. If it wasn't produced at a subscription theater like MTC, it never would have happened. And even then it probably never would have happened without the star power of Murphy and Cerveris in the leads, not to mention having the legendary Hal Prince as director. A Tony nomination for Best Musical for this show, though wholly deserved, happens only in a world where quality is the only consideration.
Encores! has modulated. This justly much-admired institution that has carried the torch of musical theater history for fourteen years recently concluded its first ever original production. Well, sort of original. Stairway to Paradise carefully cherry-picked its songs and sketches from approximately 50 years of Broadway revues to create a new old show. You might call it a "Greatest Hits" revue. And you could hardly go wrong with a show that features such tunes as "Manhattan," Mountain Greenery," "Dancing in the Dark," "Rhode Island is Famous for You," etc., etc., etc.
To their credit, the Encores folks didn't just do famous songs; they unearthed obscure numbers like "Sing Me a Song With Social Significance" and once famous but now rarely done tunes like "F.D.R. Jones." No matter what was being sung, however, the show just kept on moving; the pace set by director Jerry Zaks was fast and funny. Clearly, a choice was made between keeping the show light and frothy versus stopping to give the concert weight and heft with some true eleven o'clock performances. The songs were there: "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" and "Suppertime," but both numbers were essentially buried in the show and purposefully directed to not stop the show.
Kristin Chenoweth was her usual adorable self, scoring particularly well with the sketch comedies. Kevin Chamberlin was a welcome presence, as was Ruthie Henshall. You couldn't get more charming than Jenn Gambatese and Shonn Wiley, but the two performers who, independently of each other, stole the notices were Christopher Fitzgerald, who excelled as a musical comedy song and dance man, and Kendrick Jones, who tap danced brilliantly in his two times on stage.
There has been much talk of this show moving to Broadway. It would be an expensive undertaking – and it would probably have to be both retooled and recast before such a move could happen. More famous songs would be needed for Broadway and a smaller cast to keep the costs down. And they'd need Kristin – or a star (or stars?) of her magnitude – to draw folks in. Stranger things have happened. Stay tuned to find out if this Staircase is going up or down.