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2004-2005 Season Wrap-up
by Matthew Murray

The 2005-2006 theatre season is already off and running, but until the Drama Desk Awards and the Tony Awards have had their say, 2004-2005 lingers on. This season, like every season, had its share of triumphs and heartbreaks, though less flat-out weirdness than we saw in 2003-2004. But if we were to choose a song from one of the year's musicals to serve as a theme song, what would it be?

There was enough powerful spoken drama to force you to remind yourself that "It's Only a Play," but increasing reliance on revivals and jukebox shows makes "Give Them What They Want" more appropriate. Regardless, this was a season of "Options," with some fantastic musicals and plays done away from the Great White Way. A couple of them were even so good, they gave you reason to "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life," which, while seldom easy this season, was probably the most apropos musical advice of all.

The Plays

The play of the year was undoubtedly Doubt - John Patrick Shanley's tightly written, thoughtful study of a Catholic school priest charged with child molestation by the school's determined principal. Because the play reveled in uncertainty and the least detailed of details, Doubt offered much to watch (fine direction by Dough Hughes and four perfect performances by Cherry Jones, Brian F. O'Byrne, Heather Goldenhersh, and Adriane Lenox certainly helped) and even more to discuss.

But November (when Doubt opened Off-Broadway) was a good month for Shanley overall, for it saw two other openings of his: A revival of his early Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at Second Stage was solid but unremarkable, but, at the Public, the tiny, glowing jewel Sailor's Song was a surprisingly entrancing, charm-packed show that challenged Doubt's supremacy as the brightest-shining light of the non-musical season.

On the surface a simple story a sailor who romances two sisters in a sleepy seaside town, its ruminations about love, life, family, and the threads that tie them all together were overwhelming in their quiet dramatic power. That the play was sprinkled with dance, executed with alluring, run-of-the-mill romantic simplicity, contributed to the movie musical feel, but this was entirely a theatrical venture, at once heartwarming, humorous, and shattering. If slighter than Doubt, it was nonetheless equally effective in what it intended, and proved that profundity can often be found where you least expect it.

Joy, which opened Off-Off-Broadway in February, was similarly captivating, though it was more innately humor-driven, studded with sung standards instead of dance, and dealt with homosexual relationships. It was perhaps the best-realized of the season's other plays with music, though Souvenir at the York boasted Judy Kaye, giving the performance of her career as the tone-challenged Florence Foster Jenkins. Others included Lincoln Center's Belle Epoque, a dizzily unfocused meditation on Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paula Vogel's The Oldest Profession, about prostitutes in early 1980s New York, which despite its muddled moral message was the strongest entry of the Signature Theatre Company's season dedicated to Vogel.

Just about every one of New York's major resident theatre companies had a mixed bag of a season. Primary Stages stood out for its ambition, with works ranging from a diluted Horton Foote charmer (The Day Emily Married) to a densely intellectual psychology-drama (Sabina) with plays about moral consciousness (Going to St. Ives) and fashion consciousness (String of Pearls) thrown in for good measure. Playwrights Horizons started weak with Jon Robin Baitz's embarrassing Chinese Friends, but rebounded with superb entries like Lynn Nottage's Fabulation and Neal Bell's Spatter Pattern that made up for an otherwise lackluster season.

Lackluster would have been the word for Roundabout, too, if not for Scott Ellis's gripping Twelve Angry Men, which opened in October and extended several times. It helped erase memories of the company's dismal After the Fall (starring the dismal Peter Krause) and The Foreigner, produced at the Laura Pels and surely the season's most unnecessary entry. (Fiction, about the lies that destroy a marriage, and McReele, about a cripplingly honest convict-turned-politician, also Off-Broadway, were better, but neither was completely satisfying.)

The Public's collaboration with the LAByrinth Theater Company continued to be fruitful; joining Sailor's Song was Brett C. Leonard's gritty Guinea Pig Solo and the funny and moderately insightful The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The Public's own plays included a decent Much Ado About Nothing in Central Park (anchored by an impressive comic performance from Jimmy Smits), a conceptually intriguing Richard III with dwarf Peter Dinklage in the title role, the simultaneously electrifying and stultifying The Controversy of Valladolid, and Neil LaBute's meta-theatrical examination of prejudice, This Is How It Goes.

Manhattan Theatre Club scored highly with Doubt and moderately with the mostly ingratiating Brooklyn Boy, but presented in its Broadway season uncentered revivals of Sight Unseen (with little to offer other than Laura Linney and Byron Jenkins) and Reckless. MTC's most notable Off-Broadway productions were in the spring: the overblown and underpowered Moonlight and Magnolias, about the creation of the Gone With the Wind film, and the terminally and ineffectively jokey A Picasso.

Second Stage started off well with a return engagement of Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney, but satisfied less with the productions in its "New Plays Uptown" series (The Mystery Plays and The Triple Happiness), and the recent Privilege, which featured two great child actors in Conor Donovan and Harry Zittel, and one not-so-great adult actor in Bob Saget. New York Theatre Workshop offered an adequate, deconstructionist Hedda Gabler that offered few new insights, but Caryl Churchill's A Number was daring and original; one of the most engrossing hours of the year, it was boosted by an engaging performance from Sam Shepard and strong support from Dallas Roberts.

But plenty of shows Off-Broadway attracted major attention: Okay, maybe not the wilted botanical comedy How to Build a Better Tulip (two words: black cornbread), but certainly the twin successful "straight Jewish" comedies, Jewtopia and Modern Orthodox. The former delivered huge laughs and little substance; the latter moderate laughs and moderate substance, though featured actress Jenn Harris gave one of the season's funniest performances. (So did Julie Halston in the otherwise forgettable race-relations comedy White Chocolate.) The season's new Off-Broadway offerings also included Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow, a compellingly written and acted look at celebrity, and David Mamet's bizarrely farcical courtroom comedy, Romance.

Broadway took on only a handful of original plays, but they were all memorable: August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, the penultimate entry in his 10-play study of the 20th-century African-American experience, was by turns engrossing and misguided in finally introducing Aunt Ester (the endlessly gifted Phylicia Rashad); Michael Frayn's Democracy was no Copenhagen, but despite an interminable first act had the tensest, tautest second act of the year; and Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman was both funny and oppressively dark, a jolt of theatrical adrenaline in an overly dreary spring.

But Broadway was mostly clogged with revivals, though only Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? really landed, with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin delivering near-revelatory performances. Other productions were fair to middling in their effectiveness, and are worthy of little additional discussion: 'night, Mother, The Rivals, The Glass Menagerie, Julius Caesar, Steel Magnolias, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Glengarry Glen Ross all fall into this category.

Off-Broadway revivals were considerably better, if you don't count Classic Stage Company's Happy Days (which featured Lea DeLaria and Samuel Beckett's play both buried under tons of refuse): The Keen Company did admirable work resuscitating The Hasty Heart and Outward Bound, but Hurlyburly, with its high-wattage cast led by the estimable Ethan Hawke and Parker Posey, stole most of the attention. But the Peccadillo Theater Company's elaborate Counsellor-at-Law, astounding in every aspect from the minutely detailed acting company (headed by John Rubinstein) on down, was the year's finest revival, on or Off-Broadway.

Solo Shows

Solo shows - cheap to produce and easy to cast - remained prevalent on Broadway this season. Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, a moving and funny look at his upbringing, was the most successful, financially and artistically. Other celebrities, ranging from Mario Cantone (Laugh Whore) to Whoopi Goldberg (Whoopi) and Jackie Mason (Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed), came in with their own comedy acts to varying degrees of success, while Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance! held court (okay, okay, with some dancers) at the Music Box with plenty of uproarious, gladiola-laden mayhem. Marc Salem had eyes popping with his Mind Games; Eve Ensler had them drooping with her navel-gazing The Good Body.

Off-Broadway's entries were even more variable, with some - Ann Randolph's Squeeze Box, the incisive Nine Parts of Desire, Judith Ivey's turn as Martha Mitchell in the Public's Dirty Tricks, the riotously rambling Thom Pain (based on nothing)), and Billy Porter's powerful musical evening, Ghetto Superstar - approaching play status. Others - producer David Black's unbearable Falling Off Broadway, Woman Before a Glass starring Mercedes Ruehl - were charitably described as disposable.

The Musicals

Any discussion of the season's Broadway musicals rightfully begins with The Light in the Piazza, one of the few Broadway musicals this year worthy of extended comment. Composer Adam Guettel and librettist Craig Lucas turned in a fascinating but flawed romantic Broadway chamber-opera musical, that - despite a great cast led by the luminous Kelli O'Hara and the warmly likable Victoria Clark - just never came together. But everyone tried, and if the result was ultimately a failure (aside from a few songs, including the passionate "Say It Somehow"), it was at least one they - and we - could be proud of.

Let's do what audiences did and ignore Dracula and Brooklyn, pausing to recall the first only for Heidi Ettinger's terrific Gothic scenery and the second for memorably awful set and costume plots that mocked every dollar of the show's admission price. We'll similarly pass on the season's jukebox "musicals," Good Vibrations and All Shook Up, except to note that audiences and critics who gave a pass to Mamma Mia! ("But it's fun!") should have realized what praising excrescence leads to: more excrescence. You reap what you sow.

Spamalot was functionally identical to a jukebox show, though with pre-existing gags (mostly from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) instead of a score. Writers Eric Idle and John Du Prez and director Mike Nichols added lots of new material, but neglected to either make it funny or hire performers who could make it (or the old stuff, for that matter) funny. Not that it matters - they're all laughing all the way to the bank. Yes, audiences are laughing, too, but at jokes they've already heard 1000 times before entering the Shubert.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, its primary musical comedy competition, was significantly flawed, but worked far better on every level than Spamalot. Librettist Jeffrey Lane got in some solid laughs, but composer David Yazbek did better with The Full Monty; so, for that matter, did director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell. The cripplingly self-referential show never created a world of its own, but its problem was less poor ideas than mediocre execution.

That was also the case with the bloated The Frogs, which was probably less waterlogged when originally seen in the Yale swimming pool. It offered one infectious new song ("I Love To Travel") and plenty of anti-Bush jokes, but was only decent entertainment and even less passable agitprop. Still, it offered more than Little Women, with a power-belting Sutton Foster laughably unbelievable as Louisa May Alcott heroine Jo March; only Maureen McGovern could entrance with Marmee's two lovely nightclub-styled turns. Entrance she did; the rest of the show didn't come close.

By default, Broadway's most entertaining new musical was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Jeremy Sams's book generally improved on the 1968 movie, though it sacrificed most of its humanity for the sake of the (amazing) flying car of the title; of the human players, only Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell similarly soared. If the show was thoroughly inconsequential, it was a fair amount of fun.

So were revivals of La Cage aux Folles and Sweet Charity, though neither was ideal. The former was unduly quaint, not edgy at all unless you count original star Daniel Davis's reported fits backstage. (Replacement Robert Goulet was adequate if less exciting than Davis.) The latter was overshadowed by TV star Christina Applegate's famously broken foot, which eventually proved up to the challenges of Wayne Cilento's ho-hum choreography, though Applegate couldn't fully sell the poorly conceived production. Still, she deserves some recognition; no one this season suffered more unless they saw (or were in) Dracula.

The season's third revival, Pacific Overtures, proved to Roundabout what it should have learned after Assassins: Stephen Sondheim shows about really eclectic subjects are hard sells. No one wanted to see a musical about the opening of Japan to the west in 1976, and no one wanted to see it in 2004, especially only a few years after a nearly identical production from the same director (Amon Miyamoto) played to acclaim (in Japanese, no less) at Lincoln Center.

The season's most interesting musicals were found away from the Main Stem. Aside from a spiffy (if slightly familiar) new edition of Forbidden Broadway, several come readily to mind: Transport Group's huge The Audience, with one ravishing Michael John LaChiusa song, a sensitive Rita Gardner performance, and little else for its 46-person cast; Ahrens and Flaherty's well-intentioned but watery slavery/women's empowerment show at Lincoln Center, Dessa Rose; and the beautifully booked, unnecessarily scored The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a major hit at Second Stage that saw Broadway just before season's end.

Odd entries could be found everywhere - Mark Harelik's The Immigrant at Dodger Stages, Kathie Lee Gifford's "let's celebrate gypsies" musical Under the Bridge, the gruesome (and repetitive) Shockheaded Peter at the Little Shubert, and the York Theatre Company's head-scratching Kenward Elmslie tribute Lingoland among them.

But for the strongest work, you needed to look no further than last summer's major theatre festivals. If you had to wade through some clunkers - particularly at the Fringe, where selections ranged from less intellectual than Good Vibrations (Granola! The Musical!) to the downright offensive (Jonestown: The Musical) - some truly arresting works could be found.

If Charles Bloom's eye-opening Insomnia at the Midtown International Theatre Festival stuck too close to Company in style and composition, it was full of jaunty, involving music and great performances. There was also the magnificent Ellen Craft, an opera so packed with emotion and character-driven plot that no theater is inappropriate for it. Lyricist Sherry Boone and composer Sean Jeremy Palmer provided the season's richest, most emotional score for a work of such weight and grandeur, it seemed impossible to believe it was playing at the Fringe.

But for the season's two best musicals, you only needed to attend the first-annual New York Musical Theatre Festival. If you missed the first, it re-opened later in the season at the new Dodger Stages Off-Broadway theater complex in a full, critically hailed mounting where it's still playing to great crowds. The second hasn't yet found a commercial producer willing to take the plunge.

The first is, of course, Altar Boyz, the season's wittiest and most hilarious musical. It follows a Christian boy band on the final leg of its tour, with a divine score (from Michael Patrick Walker and Gary Adler) and book (by Kevin Del Aguila) that viciously pokes fun at boy-band vacuousness and gently ribs Catholic doctrine and prevailing religious attitudes. But it does so with such an open heart (and plentiful laughs) that its warm-hearted, embracing messages about support and faith were often overlooked by audiences and reviewers.

Tyler Maynard, as the sensitive closet-case Mark, has taken the lion's share of reviews (and bravos) for his deft portrayal of sexual, social, and musical confusion, but David Josefsberg, Ryan Duncan, and Andy Karl do no less excellent work. While all four starred in the show at NYMF, its fifth cast member, Cheyenne Jackson, departed to star in All Shook Up. It's turned out to be the best thing for both him and Altar Boyz; the more natural acting style (and real-world experience) of his replacement, Scott Porter, better fits the role of the group's lead singer, Matthew. And Porter's impassioned wailing in the show's emotionally charged finale, "I Believe," is the year's most cathartic musical moment.

The show's recently released cast recording preserves the show's outstanding pop score, but little of its humor or boundless energy (Christopher Gattelli's choreography was nothing short of electric). But its upcoming national tour will give people all over the country the chance to see one of the best musicals in years; its success is richly earned, and happy proof - for those of us who needed it - that sometimes the most worthy shows actually do get what they deserve.

Still waiting for wide recognition is the season's best musical, which almost no one saw. The Woman Upstairs, with a book by Kait Kerrigan and music and lyrics by Brian Lowdermilk (with some lyrical aid from Kerrigan) is the type of brilliant show that, on paper, seems ridiculous: the anti-romantic, barely plotted posturings of a music-hating physicist (Deb Heinig) and the blind violinist who lives in the apartment below (Aaron Ramey). How could such a show possibly work?

In most writers' hands, it couldn't. But the two writers hit upon the only way to make a story like this play: Set it against the ever-bustling backdrop of New York City. Lowdermilk's stunning collage of a score melded songs of quiet introspection with beat-boxing and rap numbers, evoking 2004 New York with a facility akin to that of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim several decades ago. The most representative moment was the opening, a cacophonous layering of musical phrases of a dozen different styles that established where the show was taking place and what it was about better in 30 seconds than most shows manage in three hours. But Lowdermilk's character writing was also superb, for personalities as diverse as a drunken homeless woman (Alison Fraser) and a lesbian physics professor (the dry, delicious Kate Shindle), and the rollicking, sexual rock ballad "Of Course," delivered by the dynamic, steel-and-gold-voiced Ramey, was hands-down the season's best new song.

Lowdermilk, now only 22, is a fast-rising star among the most in-the-know of musical theatre cognoscenti. But though his work keeps showing up in concerts and readings, he has yet to achieve a breakthrough success. With his keen comic voice and sterling musicianship, it's hopefully only a matter of time before that happens, and he gets the notice - and funds - necessary to give musicals the shot in the arm they need.

Lowdermilk's presence is evidence that there's real, pulsing life to be found in contemporary musicals, if only they can get produced. The only thing that makes Broadway's half-baked adaptations and lifeless, heartless jukebox musicals palatable is the hope that their days are numbered, and that New York will soon again be a welcoming home for shows as diverse and thrilling as Altar Boyz and The Woman Upstairs. Money willing, the door to the future these shows boldly promise won't remain closed forever.

Altar Boyz photo by Carol Rosegg
The Woman Upstairs photo by Marcus Jones

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