City Center Encores! Announces 23rd Season

Cabin in the Sky
Music: Vernon Duke
Lyrics: John LaTouche
Book: Lynn Root
February 10-14, 2016

Music and Lyrics: Sherman Edwards
Book: Peter Stone
March 30-April 3, 2016

Do I Hear a Waltz?
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Arthur Laurents
May 11-15, 2016

The 71st Annual Theatre World Award Winners Announced!

The 2015 Theatre World Award Winners for Outstanding Broadway or Off-Broadway Debut Performance during the 2014-2015 theatrical season have been announced! The ceremony will take place on Monday, June 1 at the Lyric Theatre, once again hosted by the inevitable Peter Filichia.

Geneva Carr, Hand to God
Daveed Diggs, Hamilton
Megan Fairchild, On the Town
Robert Fairchild, An American in Paris
Collin Kelly-Sordelet, The Last Ship
Sydney Lucas, Fun Home
Karen Pittman, Disgraced
Benjamin Scheuer, The Lion
Alex Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Emily Skeggs, Fun Home
Micah Stock, It’s Only a Play
Ruth Wilson, Constellations

The 2015 Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence in the Theatre: Leanne Cope, An American in Paris

The 2015 John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre: Chita Rivera

‘Gypsy’ – Savoy Theatre


While it seems as if there’s a new Broadway revival of Gypsy every five minutes, London has not seen a production of the legendary musical since the original West End production closed in 1974. The musical, which tells the story of Rose Hovick and her two daughters, who would go on to become Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc, has been an instant classic since its 1959 Broadway premiere and contains one of the all-time great musical theatre leading roles. When I learned that Imelda Staunton would be headlining the first London revival in over 40 years, I decided to book my flight.

This new West End production is an import from the Chichester Theatre Festival, where Staunton and director Jonathan Kent previously collaborated on a successful Olivier-winning production of Sweeney Todd. The two also worked together on the UK premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People. The critical response for Gypsy has eclipsed these two productions, garnering the sort of reviews that press agents can only dream about. Such notices can inflate my own expectations and lead to disappointment. Well, if anything, my expectations were exceeded. Imelda Staunton is giving a career-defining performance as Rose. Other Roses I’ve seen have given star turns (and were excellent), but Imelda just acts it. Her performance is epic in size, but unfailingly grounded. The cumulative result is one of the most searing star turns I’ve ever witnessed, and ranks among the top five performances I’ve ever seen in my theatergoing life.

The legendary cry “Sing out, Louise!” is heard from the back of the Savoy Theatre, and Staunton’s Rose, a diminutive spitfire, emerges from the shadows as though shot from a cannon. From these opening moments onward, there lurks a darkness in her, something a lot like rage, that sometimes rears its head at moments both expected and unexpected. These flashes sow the seeds for the inevitability of both “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (harrowing) and “Rose’s Turn” (utterly devastating). But Imelda’s Rose is also charming, playful, resourceful, alert and unrelentingly maternal. Her singing voice is also up to the challenge, nuanced and warm on the ballads, but with the ability to fill the theater with a powerful, gritty belt when necessary.

In the lead-up to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” as favored daughter June elopes and the vaudeville act falls apart, Rose’s new plan to focus on Louise (out of spite, out of desperation) was met with some uncomfortable giggling by the audience, who seemed incredulous that this woman was even remotely serious. This nervous laughter turned to silent sheer terror within seconds as Rose beat June’s letter as though scolding a child, and again moments later as Rose grabbed Louise by the nape of her neck and forced her to bow on the line “Blow a kiss, take a bow…”

Her “Turn” was in another realm entirely. During the mock-strip portion, she alternated between mocking Dainty June and imitating Louise’s gestures from the “The Strip,” caustic, withering and crazed. In a performance filled with bold risks, Imelda’s greatest was a pregnant pause before the line “Momma’s gotta let go.” The audience sat compelled in pin-drop silence as Rose worked through her maelstrom of emotions. Every second was earned and never gratuitous, and it haunted me for hours afterward.

That Ms. Staunton is so tremendous is a wonder give than the production is using the detrimental revisions made for the 2008 Broadway revival. These changes made by librettist Arthur Laurents to accommodate Patti LuPone strip away both comedy and vulnerability, and make Rose more one-dimensional. (The brilliant Styne-Sondheim score remains untouched). It’s a testament to Staunton’s triumph that she manages to bring humor and considerable pathos in spite of these limiting alterations. For the record, a more traditional ending is restored and is staged in such a way that I was moved to tears.

Lara Pulver is a good Louise. If it’s a bit of stretch to see her playing a child, her performance becomes stronger as her character ages. She is at her best after she’s transitioned from awkward Louise to elegant Gypsy Rose Lee. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the final scene played better. Blessed with an exquisite voice, Pulver also adds some delicious flourishes to the end of “The Strip.” She has one especially thrilling moment: gawkish Louise clumsily drops her glove during the opening of “The Strip” and bends over to pick it up. A cat-call is heard from the balcony. She looks up and smiles. She’s suddenly aware of her own beauty and the impact of her own sexuality on an audience. Gypsy Rose Lee is born.

Peter Davison is a warm, ingratiating Herbie, tall and lovable, with a calming presence. There have been some complaints by West End critics about his singing, and I find it amusing that we live in a time where we expect Herbie to be a good singer. Dan Burton, who is the West End equivalent to Tony Yazbeck, is a sensational Tulsa, with eye-popping technique in all three departments and a superb American accent, to boot. The three strippers are a knockout comic trio, especially Louise Gold’s Amazonian Mazeppa, complete with deadpan Lady Baritone.

Kent’s staging doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s a traditional production in virtually every respect, but Gypsy is a tried-and-true classic and doesn’t need much tinkering. His great achievement here is in the work he has done with the actors, particularly in cultivating the central mother-daughter dynamics. Some of the original dances remain, while Stephen Mear has choreographed the rest in the spirit of Jerome Robbins (the most notable: a new, more elaborate “All I Need Is the Girl” for Burton). There is a somewhat reduced orchestration (no strings), which isn’t ideal, but doesn’t detract from the overall experience.

Imelda is worth the price of admission. I would go so far as to say she’s also worth the price of the air fare and accommodation. Beg, borrow or steal; whatever you have to do to get to the Savoy Theatre before November 28 (when this extended limited engagement is set to close). This is one for the history books and you do not want to miss it.

Also: there’s a new 2015 London Cast Recording. It sounds fantastic, and while it won’t supplant other recordings in the canon (namely the superlative original Broadway cast recording starring Ethel Merman), it offers a wonderful document for those of us who have seen the production.

My Favorite Performances, 2014

Bryan Cranston, All the Way – It was staggering to see Cranston transform from the dopey dad on Malcolm in the Middle to the now-legendary Walter White on Breaking Bad. His performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson during the first year of his presidency was another astonishing feat. A tour-de-force, Cranston delivered a towering performance that was thrilling and captivating and occasionally unsettling. While the play itself seemed like it could have used some editing (particularly in act 2), Cranston’s performance was worth top dollar admission.

Jan Maxwell, The City of Conversation – While my feelings on the play are a bit complicated, my admiration for Jan Maxwell’s stunning portrait of a Washington DC doyenne dealing with her complex family knows no bounds. In fact, I’d say that this is the greatest performance I’ve seen Maxwell give, and I was lucky enough to see her in Coram Boy, The Royal Family, Lend Me a Tenor and Follies. It was worth the price of admission just to watch her excoriate her reprehensible daughter-in-law in the second act. This played off-Broadway at the Mitzi Newhouse; I wish Lincoln Center had just opened it on Broadway so Maxwell could win her long-overdue Tony Award.

Susan Mosher, Holiday Inn (Goodspeed Opera House) – I’ve always considered the film of Holiday Inn superior to its semi-remake White Christmas, and I feel the same applies to the respective stage vehicles. I don’t have much love for holiday shows of any kind, but I was taken by total surprise by this screen-to-stage adaptation of the Hollywood classic. I smiled non-stop for two and a half hours, when I wasn’t laughing at the hijinks. One of the show’s greatest gifts was a bold and brassy comic turn by Susan Mosher as the mechanic/handywoman/den mother who is utterly endearing, loving and outrageous. I cried actual tears of joy as she led a tap-happy company in a show-stopping rendition of “Shaking the Blues Away.” I hope the powers-that-be keep her for the inevitable Broadway run. I want an original cast album, and I want Susan Mosher to win the Featured Actress Tony.

Megan Mullally, Guys and Dolls (Carnegie Hall) – When it was announced that Nathan Lane would reprise his acclaimed performance as Nathan Detroit opposite Mullally, I immediately bought tickets without a moment’s hesitation. The one night concert at Carnegie Hall was musical comedy heaven from the first note to the last. Everyone was on point, well-sung and hilarious. However, it was Mullally’s Adelaide that walked away with the evening. Funny, warm and vulnerable, she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand all night. I hope she considers revisiting the role in a longer Broadway run.

Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, The Bridges of Madison County – I ended up seeing this overlooked gem seven times in six weeks, much to my surprise. O’Hara was given the role of a lifetime as Francesca Johnson, an Italian-born Iowa housewife who finds herself having a brief, yet impassioned romance with a National Geographic photographer. She sang gloriously, and imbued the character with such depth that it was impossible not to care for and about her. Pasquale gave one of the finest male vocal performances I have ever heard in my life. Together, they soared in Jason Robert Brown’s glorious duets, especially the showstopping “One Second and a Million Miles,” which got a mammoth standing ovation and cries of “Bravo!” from the packed house at the show’s closing performance on May 18, 2014 (trip #7). The original cast album is one of the best-recorded in the last five or ten years; a thrilling document of a beautiful, short-lived experience.

Alex Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Never leaving the stage for a moment in this transcendent adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel about a teenage boy with autism, Alex Sharp gives one of the most astonishing tour-de-force performances I have ever seen. I had mixed feelings on the book, but found myself enthralled from beginning to end by this imaginative adaptation. Sharp, fresh out of drama school, is making his professional debut, and his performance is a must-see. I don’t think I breathed during the last revelatory twenty minutes of the first act, as I was on edge as to what Mr. Sharp was going to do next. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the commanding work he is doing onstage at the Barrymore. I look forward to following what promises to be an astonishing career.

One of the best ensemble experiences I had all year was the Encores! production of The Most Happy Fella at City Center. In a starry cast led by Laura Benanti, Shuler Hensley, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Cheyenne Jackson, the production was a glorious, thrilling success (even more impressive since the entire cast was battling the flu that week). It was a great thrill hearing the original orchestrations played by 35 musicians, and to see a Golden Age musical presented with separate singing and dancing choruses. Of the Encores! shows of this season, this was the one that deserves a second chance and a cast recording.