It’s a Thanksgiving miracle.
A limited-run, Christmastime-only Broadway show is usually as entertaining as the Channel 11 Yule Log. (See, if you must: Elf.) The latest is another dreaded film-to-stage transfer. And, worst of all, it was conceived as a national touring production, only brought to New York after being schlepped through Detroit, Tampa, Fla., and Hershey, Pa.
But as it turns out, A Christmas Story, The Musical, which opened Monday night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, is a fantastically good time, the resolutely non-sentimental 1983 holiday movie transformed into a resolutely non-cheesy two and a half hours of song, dance and shtick. It is—and I’m as surprised by this as you are—the most fun I’ve had at a Broadway musical all year.
You remember the movie: snowy Indiana in the prewar 1940s, bespectacled kid Ralphie dreaming of a BB gun for Christmas, and a Wonder Years-style adult narrator recounting the story. “You’ll shoot your eye out,” “triple-dog dares,” the immovable snowsuit, the leg lamp and Chinese food on Christmas night. (Thanks, TBS marathons.) It’s a wry, somewhat downbeat, nostalgic and ultimately quietly uplifting story, stocked with those now-classic bits.
On stage, Joseph Robinette’s script retains that offbeat tone and, admirably, lands those bits in a way that respects but doesn’t milk them. The score, by the 20-something team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is pastichey and peppy. The child actors—all the actors, but especially the kids—are hardworking and hilarious. And the staging, by John Rando, with Warren Carlyle choreographing, includes two delirious, show-stopping production numbers: a kick-line featuring those leg lamps, and a tap dance capped off by the bravura stylings of Luke Spring, a 9-year-old Gene Kelly. Johnny Rabe, 12, competently and confidently leads the show as Ralphie.
Sure, it’s not perfect. Dan Lauria, as the narrator telling the story (no movie-style anonymous narrator in this live show), is left with sadly little to do. Messrs. Pasek and Paul’s lyrics are less impressive than their music. The prologue and epilogue created for Mr. Lauria’s narrator add unnecessary padding. The uncomfortably racist “Fa-Ra-Ra-Ra” scene in the Chinese restaurant probably could have gone.
But it’s old-fashioned showbiz, and it works. After a grim year for Broadway musicals, that’s gift enough for me.
In real life, of course, there are no miracles.
So we are made painfully aware in Nathan Englander’s The Twenty-Seventh Man, which opened at the Public Theater on Sunday night. It is equally fantastic, but also harrowing and heartbreaking.
In 1952, after a secret trial, 13 Soviet Jews were executed in a Moscow prison. All had been prominent in the wartime Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a group created on Stalin’s orders to fight a propaganda war against Nazi Germany. Among the murdered were five leading Yiddish poets and novelists; others were actors, editors, translators, doctors. Details about the so-called “Night of the Murdered Poets” were kept largely secret until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Englander included the story “The Twenty-Seventh Man” in his debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, published in 1999. He first wrote it in the early 1990s, before those details were known. In it, he created a fictitious world based on that true one, a crucible of a single prison cell that contains three famous Yiddish writers—Zunser (Ron Rifkin), a master novelist; Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes), a poet and notorious libertine; Korinsky (Chip Zien), a poet and notorious toady, a man who’d used his skills to flatter the regime—and, finally, the 27th prisoner, Pinchas Pelovitz (Noah Robbins), a child who writes but has never published, a brilliant boy placed suddenly among his idols, likely, and sadly, by clerical error.
The story, and Mr. Englander’s stage adaptation of it, uses these four men, with occasional interlocutions from their jailers, to explore a range of themes: the death of a vibrant literary culture, the compromises an artist makes to survive in a totalitarian world, what makes someone an honest writer or an honorable man. In Mr. Englander’s telling, and with director Barry Edelstein’s forthright staging, the result is brisk, crisp, efficient and deeply moving.
In the play’s final moment, Pinchas recites for his accomplished cellmates a story he has composed while in jail. They approve of it, and he is validated, and happy. Then they are all shot. It is horrifying.
But the stories, through thousands of years and in Jews like Mr. Englander, live on.
August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, the fourth of his acclaimed Century Cycle plays about the 20th-century African-American experience and one of two to win the Pulitzer Prize, opened Sunday in a one-off revival at the Signature Center that offers a far more hopeful view of the future.
But it’s not clear for most of the play that we’ll end up there. It’s 1936 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), a hardworking and widowed domestic, is raising her young daughter, Maretha (Alexis Holt), and living with her uncle, Doaker (James A. Williams). These are good, decent people, but they also seem incapable of escaping their pasts—Doaker reminiscing about the old times with a visiting cousin, Wining Boy (a flashily scene-stealing Chuck Cooper), and Berniece unwilling to consider a future with Avery (Eric Lenox Abrams), a pastor who wants to marry her.
The future arrives in the loud, scheming person of Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden), Berniece’s brother, up from Mississippi. A sharecropper recently out of prison, he has a plan to buy some of the land on which their family had been slaves. He just needs money to do it—which means selling the intricately carved piano sitting in the Pittsburgh house. The piano was carved by their grandfather, as a slave, to remind him of his wife and son, who were sold away. It is the repository of the family history.
This is a rollicking, visceral production, staged by the actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson. It leaves you wondering whom to root for: Berniece and Doaker’s past is honest and worthy but over; Boy Willie’s future is progress but he’s a buffoon. Mr. Wilson’s accomplishment is how he finally bridges that gap, providing a way for the family to move forward by embracing, not rejecting, its past. That’s quintessentially American, even in the Hill District.
But is anything more quintessentially American than a saga of Texas and oil, family and loyalty, greed and racism, tradition and change, big vistas and small minds? It’s the stuff of Edna Ferber’s epic 1952 novel Giant, now an epic and excellent Michael John LaChiusa musical at the Public Theater.
Together with playwright Sybille Pearson, Mr. LaChiusa has created a beautiful and important near-opera of 20th-century America. It is both a family story—the sprawling Benedict clan, centered on the rancher Bick Benedict (a marvelous Brian D’Arcy James, who is finally again allowed to do more than make salads and be cuckolded), his East Coast intellectual wife, Leslie (an equally good Kate Baldwin), and their two kids, a bookish boy called Jordy (Bobby Steggert) and his tomboy sister, Luz (Mackenzie Mauzy)—and a broader look at a society.
It is, in that respect, and in its setting and some of its themes, not entirely dissimilar to the Reagan-era TV fantasy Dallas, if with less extravagant hairdos. (If it were up to me, I’d have jettisoned the snippet of dialogue about a pillow embroidered “JR.”) But this rises far above soap opera, not least because of the delicate and sensitive portrayals of those family relationships. Bick and Leslie lose hold of each other, but they settle into an awkward, ongoing silence, not an explosive divorce. Bick can’t understand Jordy, and is disappointed by him, but he also never rejects him.
Michael Greif’s staging suspends the orchestra over the stage, calling special attention to Mr. LaChiusa’s lush score and the 17-piece orchestra playing it, much as the retracting Vivian Beaumont stage highlighted the music in the 2008 revival of South Pacific. But by cutting the height of the stage in half, Mr. Greif has also, paradoxically, made the playing space seem bigger—a long, wide horizon, running on forever in the distance. On a tiny downtown stage, it’s wide-open America.
The Good Mother, in a New Group production at Theatre Row, is another family story, but instead a very intimate one.
Gretchen Mol plays Larissa, who is the titular good mother, or is at least trying to be a good one. She’s single and struggling, but she’s got a house, just over the Bronx line in Westchester, and her own business, and is dedicated to her autistic daughter. She also has a history as an addict who spent time as a teenager in a support group for troubled youths, and she may or may not have had an inappropriate relationship with the group’s leader, Joel (Mark Blum), an unorthodox therapist. There are also appearances by Joel’s troubled son, Angus (Eric Nelsen), whom Larissa accuses of sexual impropriety toward her nonverbal daughter and who accuses Larissa of sexual impropriety toward him; Jonathan (Darren Goldstein), the trucker Larissa gets involved with; and Buddy (Alfredo Narciso), Larissa’s long-ago ex, also from the support group, who’s now a cop on the verge of making lieutenant.
The play, written by Francine Volpe and directed by Scott Elliott, spends its time slowly revealing different takes on these different potential scandals, with no one’s version quite aligning with anyone else’s. Despite its tone of building dread, however, it never reaches the climax you feel you’re waiting for. Rather, we struggle through, engaged and curious, trying to piece everything together. Eventually we do, sort of, but we also don’t. Just like Larissa—which may be the point.
Murder Ballad, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Off Broadway space in City Center, is a straightforward love triangle, performed as a rock opera. There’s not a lot of complexity to it, but thanks to the driving bar-band rock-’n’-roll score by composer and co-lyricist Juliana Nash, the intimate environmental staging by director Trip Cullman, and knockout performances by Will Swenson, as an obsessed downtown bar owner, John Ellison Conlee, as an uptown poet-turned-family man, Karen Olivo, as the woman who marries one but can’t forget the other, and Rebecca Naomi Jones, as the bar singer who narrates their story, it’s an intense, riveting 90 minutes.
Julia Jordan wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics, and, in a form that demands archetypes rather than characters, there’s not much depth. But Mr. Cullman’s in-your-face direction—there’s a bar at center stage, many audience members sit at café tables, and the cast roams among the audience—and the immense talents of these top-notch singing actors (Ms. Olivo won a Tony for West Side Story; Mr. Swenson was nominated for one for Hair) combine to pull you into a quick, gripping tale.
That, and a tight four-piece rock band onstage never hurts.