News from New York: Color Purple and Fun Home are hits, Pacino flops, Groban arrives

In Broadway, Features, Musicals, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Mark ShentonLeave a Comment

Mark Shenton rounds up the week’s biggest theatre stories from across the pond…

CYNTHIA ERIVO BECOMES AN OVERNIGHT STAR

London’s Menier Chocolate Factory have just scored their fourth Broadway hit: after previously transferring Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music, and Jerry Herman’s La Cage Aux Folles, to Broadway after runs in the West End first, this time they’ve by-passed the West End to go direct to Broadway with The Color Purple and take coals to Newcastle once again, returning a musical ‘home’ whose original production only closed seven years ago.

And even if the headline star is Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, absolutely universal raves greeted the Broadway revival of our very own Cynthia Erivo. (But can we have her back, please, when you’re done with her?)

Cynia is variously described as “an incandescent new star” (New York Times), “an absolute marvel” (Associated Press), “transcendent, indelibly present, lucid, unflinching and rigorously honest, profoundly moving, emotionally raw, affecting, the real deal, not to be missed” (Hollywood Reporter),”a performance of magnetic directness and simplicity” (Time Out New York), “the tiny point of dynamite” (Variety), “spectacular” (New York Daily News), “masterful” (vulture.com), “remarkable, astonishing, a star-making moment” (Entertainment Weekly) and “shimmering” (Financial Times).

According to Ben Brantley in the New York Times, “The greatest joy of all, at least for longtime believers in theater mythology, is the ascendancy of Ms. Erivo, who was very good when I saw her in London but is even better here. Celie undergoes a drastic metamorphosis from battered, invisible wife to determined, self-reliant businesswoman. Ms. Erivo escorts us through these transformations with a subtle but tensile performance that parallels her character’s evolution. Like the rest of the show, she never oversells herself; she asks us politely but compellingly to listen, even when she speaks in a whisper. By the production’s end, Celie has developed a muscular voice that reaches to heaven, and Ms. Erivo has emerged as a bona fide star who lifts the audience to its feet.”

In NJ.com, Christopher Kelly, writes, “The famous name attached to the revival of the musical version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is Jennifer Hudson. Yet Hudson is not the performer you’ll leave this show talking about. This Color Purple instead belongs to the virtually unknown British actress Cynthia Erivo, who as Celie gives one of those galvanizing, star-is-born performances of which Broadway dreams are made.”

In Newsday, Linda Winer writes, “Genuine showstoppers rarely happen in the musical theater, especially in the middle of an act. But when they do, something happens — maybe to the air pressure in the lungs of theatergoers — which seems to buoy whole groups of disparate audiences to their feet. It happened at a recent preview of The Color Purple and, chances are, it’s happening every night. Edging toward the finale of the show, Cynthia Erivo, a British actress in her thrilling Broadway debut, lays into a song (“I may be poor, I may be black, I may be ugly, but I’m here!”) full of defiant realization for her character Celie after a lifetime of insult, drudgery and self-sacrifice.”

And finally in the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones comments, “Hudson is not the performer who brings down the house, although I suspect that is just fine with Hudson. That work belongs to Cynthia Erivo, the British actress playing — actually, inhabiting is the better word — the role of Celie On Saturday night, the show was stopped for ovations on several occasions. The Color Purple probably is back on Broadway in no small measure because of Erivo, and she is reason enough.”

WHAT WENT WRONG WITH CHINA DOLL?
In last week’s New York column, I offered a digest of some of the (mostly negative) reviews of China Doll. I quoted Ben Brantley, talking about the negative atmosphere surrounding the show’s opening:

Even with weekly grosses exceeding a million dollars, China Doll, which is directed by Pam MacKinnon (a thankless task), soon found itself being circled by theater vultures for whom the scent of disaster is an aphrodisiac. The word was that Mr. Pacino couldn’t remember his lines and that audience members were walking out in baffled annoyance at intermission. The show’s original opening night was delayed by about two weeks, and Mr. Mamet was said to be rewriting copiously.

According to the New York Post’s Michael Riedel, who was the public source for much of that narrative, in the first place the show “turned out to be this year’s Moose Murders, the 1983 flop by which all Broadway catastrophes are judged… the stage equivalent of a car crash.”

In a feature that was published in the New York Post on December 13, he asks what went wrong.  He is particularly critical of director Pam MacKinnon, whom he quotes “insiders” saying has been ineffectual from the beginning:

“She’s nice, but she’s incredibly literal and unimaginative,” one person says. “And she can’t handle stars. She cedes control to them, and they run right over her.”

Around Broadway her nickname is “The Elk” — because “she’s too big for the room and she runs around banging her antlers into the wall,” a source says.

She was extremely deferential to Pacino during rehearsals. Someone close to the show explains: “She’d say, ‘How about if you tried this, Al?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, I have to look at this newspaper over here, so I’m going to do it this way.’ And she’d say, ‘Fine.’ He really directed himself.”

The one time MacKinnon pressed a point, Pacino barked, “I’m not your f - - king puppet, Pam!”

Riedel also reports that the show is having a physical toll on Pacino, and finds the two-show day on Saturday exhausting… and hair-raising. “Lately he’s been chauffeured to his house in Nyack between shows. Getting back in time for the evening performance is hair-raising because of the traffic. Last Saturday, Pacino jumped out of the car at 49th Street and ran down to the theater on 45th Street. He walked through the stage door at five minutes after the 8 p.m. start time.”

JOSH GROBAN TO MAKE BROADWAY DEBUT
The easy-listening recording star Josh Groban is to make his Broadway debut in the transfer of the off-Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, an adaptation of a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, that will open in New York next September after a run that opens tomorrow (December 16) at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre, which is fast becoming the go-to place for Broadway shows to originate. (Pippin started there; so did Sara Bareilles’ Waitress which opens in April).

His latest album Stages is comprised of covers of show tunes, and he has previously starred (brilliantly) as the Russian chess player Anatoly Sergievsky in a 2008 London concert production of Chess at the Royal Albert  Hall that was filmed (watch him singing ‘Anthem’ here. But this is the first time he’s doing a proper run of a musical, albeit an unconventional one.

According to an interview with Groan in the New York Times, he’s fielded many offers to appear on Broadway before, but chose this one: “For a first time doing it, I wanted it to be something that was a little less expected, and I wanted it to be a show and a character that forced me to get a little bit out of my comfort zone and do something that people haven’t seen before. To have the opportunity and freedom to take off the hat of ‘me,’ and to dive into a character, is something I think will be very freeing, and very fun.”

FUN HOME RECOUPS ON BROADWAY


It might have seemed a long shot when Fun Home, a musical about a young lesbian’s troubled relationship with her gay father, transferred from Off-Broadway’s Public Theatre to Broadway’s Circle in the Square this year, but then it went on to (unexpectedly) win this year’s Tony Award for Best Musical — I thought it would go to the more commercially accessible An American In Paris — and it has now announced that it has recouped its transfer costs.

In an interview in the New York Times, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theatre, commented, “The American public continues to impress with how much they’re willing to embrace the new — every time we thought we had reached the limit for the audience base, it turned out we hadn’t. This also means that we have turned a corner on what it means to be gay in the United States. Angels in America was the first time I could see mass audiences identifying with gay characters — Prior Walter was an Everyman — and that’s what Alison is. She’s a lesbian, and one never forgets that, but she’s a lesbian who speaks for all of us.”

The New York Times points out that the show “seems to have benefited from good timing, having arrived on Broadway just before same-sex marriage became legal nationwide and when sexuality is an increasingly mainstream theme in popular culture.” Hear hear and bravo to that!

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Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton has been a full-time freelance London-based theatre critic and journalist since 2002, and is proud to have co-founded MyTheatreMates with Terri Paaddock. He has variously (and sometimes simultaneously) been chief theatre critic for the Sunday Express, The Stage, WhatsOnStage, What's On in London magazine and LondonTheatre.co.uk. He has taught at ArtsEd London in Chiswick on musical theatre history since 2012. He was until recently President of the Critics' Circle, and is also on the board of Mercury Musical Developments and the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF). You can follow him on Twitter @ShentonStage, and on instagram at @ShentonStage. His personal website is www.shentonstage.com.

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Mark Shenton on FacebookMark Shenton on RssMark Shenton on Twitter
Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton has been a full-time freelance London-based theatre critic and journalist since 2002, and is proud to have co-founded MyTheatreMates with Terri Paaddock. He has variously (and sometimes simultaneously) been chief theatre critic for the Sunday Express, The Stage, WhatsOnStage, What's On in London magazine and LondonTheatre.co.uk. He has taught at ArtsEd London in Chiswick on musical theatre history since 2012. He was until recently President of the Critics' Circle, and is also on the board of Mercury Musical Developments and the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF). You can follow him on Twitter @ShentonStage, and on instagram at @ShentonStage. His personal website is www.shentonstage.com.

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