In November I broke away from the busy local cultural season to indulge in a New York theater binge, squeezing in seven productions in five nights. Not bad in terms of theater stamina, eh? (A couple of years ago I set a record with nine shows in seven nights, but I’m quite satisfied with my scheduling this time around, too.)
I saw some wonderful shows. My three favorites (in order):
☆ “Dear Evan Hansen,” which I saw in previews, so I won’t be writing an official review. (But, man, it’s breathtakingly good. Can’t stop thinking about it.)
☆ “The Color Purple,” a close third, which overwhelmed me with its perfect direction, minimalist design and a towering performance from Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo.
I also saw two other shows in previews, so no official reviews there, either: “The Band’s Visit,” an off-Broadway musical based on the xxx film, which is fiercely compelling; and “A Bronx Tale,” which I’ll only say has pretty much already flitted out of my mind.
A review roundup:
‘Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812’
Closing: open-ended run
Originally staged prior to its Broadway run by the innovative theater company Ars Nova, this visually riotous adaptation of a sliver of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” sets the bar for immersive theater using a proscenium stage. The visuals pummel the senses: It’s as if a 19th Century rave collides with the most hopped-up scenes from the movie “Moulin Rouge,” then the whole concoction given an extra boost of caffeine. I’m happy to say the production took me to spectacular visual heights (and a few emotional ones as well), but just as often it felt like I was wedged into a foxhole on the Russian plains in an all-out ocular and aural assault on my senses.
From the moment I walked into the theater, I was disoriented. My orchestra seat faced not a stage but more than 100 audience members seated in sloping risers constructed all the way to the back of the theater. The space (with walls draped in red velvet and framed paintings) has essentially been transformed into a modified theater-in-the-round design. There’s no central “stage” on which the action unfolds; instead, actors wander use various platforms and ramps scattered at different eye levels. (Producers tore out seats in the orchestra section so those ramps could sweep through. At times, I could glance to my right and see an actor dancing maniacally just a few feet from me.) Even the orchestra is dispersed in clumps throughout the space.
Denée Benton, as Natasha, the famed Tolstoy character who loses interest in her faraway fiancee (he’s off being a soldier) and allows herself to be compromised by Anatole -- a slimeball aristocrat (played by a wildly pompadoured Lucas Steele, in a hyperactively effective performance), who conveniently forgets to tell her that he’s married -- manages to cut through some of the production’s visual excess with her ringing vocals and regal bearing. Josh Groban, who plays Pierre, the hapless and flailing aristocrat undergoing an existential crisis, likewise offers a compelling performance upon which you can focus and find shelter from the visual frenzy. He’s very good.
When do the visuals become too much? For me, it was the relentless strobe lighting in the big party scene (can a Broadway show cause a seizure?) and the floodlights (revealed when the ornate door at the back wall of the stage periodically opened) swamping my field of vision. Then again, I also appreciate the show’s assertive lighting design, such as when I felt immersed in a pounding blanket of red illumination that matched the characters’ disorienting intoxication at the moment.
And even though I’m a little harder on this title than many other critics, I wouldn’t trade my experience if it meant missing the famous moment when Pierre glances up at the overwhelming night sky and ponders the meaning of it all. From the ceiling, what appear to be skinny tubes descend to different heights in front of and over the heads of the audience. At the bottom of each is an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb. The staggered heights and the arrangement of the bulbs in space gives a three-dimensional feel. Never before had I ever felt as if I’d been part of the night sky itself.
‘The Color Purple’
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
Closing: Jan. 8
Get thee to New York and see Cynthia Erivo before this show closes. In this much-praised revival, she offers an indelible performance as Celie, the character created by Alice Walker whose strength and resilience in the Postbellum American South makes her a standout of literature and stage. When Erivo sings her first line in this hauntingly minimalist production, it’s one of the most exquisite vocal introductions to a character I’ve heard: so soft it seems to float, yet so solid that you know you want to spend the next two and a half hours with this remarkable singer.
John Doyle’s direction is so confident, so very still, that the staging feels cinematic, with one gorgeous camera shot moving to the next. Even when the ensemble is singing to the rafters, as befits the music’s church-choir ebullience, the play has a profound and contemplative, weighty feel, as if we’ve just opened a very solid door to the most handsome, understated home you can imagine. For all those Broadway productions that have spent millions on fancy sets and eye-popping technology, “The Color Purple” is a reminder that theater is most importantly about human connection with the audience.
I also got to see Broadway legend Jennifer Holliday in the role of Shug Avery, another delight.
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Closing: open-ended run
As cheery as a slice of homemade cherry pie, this winning new musical boasts great songs from Sara Bareilles and a towering leading performance from Jessie Mueller as Jenna, an emotionally wounded but stalwart small-town diner employee grappling with the news she’s pregnant. An abusive husband and hilarious romantic fling with her own obstetrician divide the show into its themes of darkness and light.
Mueller, who made such an indelible Broadway mark with her portrayal of Carole King in “Beautiful,” elevates “Waitress” to an emotional high-water mark. (When she finally “loses it” in terms of her husband, it’s a revelatory moment.) She’s great fun in the show’s extended quirky bits as well, but it’s when she finally unleashes her strong inner woman that I knew she deserved a really good tip.