Reviews - She Loves Me, Disaster, and Bright Star

Capsule reviews of two new musicals and a sparkling revival

Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi in She Loves Me
Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi in She Loves Me. Joan Marcus

Not long ago, I published a post with the deliberately provocative headline "There Are No Perfect Musicals." The article is basically about how even the best shows have their flaws, and that musicals don't need to be perfect to be fabulous. But the new Broadway revival of She Loves Me has me ready to recant.

She Loves Me comes about as close as any musical does to perfection, particularly under the expert direction of Scott Ellis, who also helmed the 1993 Roundabout revival. This She Loves Me had me grinning like a lunatic from the first note from the splendid orchestra, under the sure-handed baton of the great Paul Gemignani.

The rest of the production is a non-stop, end-to-end profusion of joy. The show itself is just so efficiently constructed, so disarming, so appealing in its tone and milieu, chockablock with both warm humor and deeply affecting moments. Plus, Ellis has really proved himself to be one of the most reliable directors on Broadway, particularly deft with comedy, both of the musical (On the Twentieth Century) and non-musical (You Can't Take It With You) variety. I've already gone back to see the show again since then, and I can't imagine that will me my last time.

In truth, there were a few very minor liabilities the first time I saw the show. Gavin Creel seemed seemed miscast as Steven Kodaly, rather awkwardly inhabiting the skin of a smooth womanizer. But the second time, Creel had at least upgraded to serviceable. Leading male Zachary Levi also seemed to need a bit more time to grow into his role, and well he did, exuding a warm, goofy charm as Georg Nowack.

The ladies of the cast were already letter-perfect upon my first visit. Laura Benanti is utterly outstanding as Amalia Balash, a role it would seem she was born to play. Her rendition of "Dear Friend" was a model of moderation, underplaying, and stunning vocal control. Benanti brings so much nuance and vulnerability to the role, much as she does in anything she does, really. She's easily one of the best stage actresses we currently have, and perhaps even one of the all-time greats.

Another major delight here is Jane Krakowski as Ilona Ritter, who hit "A Trip to the Library" clear out of the park both times I saw the show. Krakowski has so much control and focus, so much inner life when she's on stage. This was clear to me the very first time I saw her, in the Boston tryout of Grand Hotel back in 1989.

OK, in truth, I found a few very minor flaws in the show itself. George's motivation for lying to Amalia about "Dear Friend," saying he's bald and fat, isn't entirely clear. And the very end of the show lacks a certain suspense: we know full well these two are going to end up together, it's just an admittedly charming question of when.

But these are quibbles at best. As a whole, She Loves Me, both the show itself and this particular production, stands as one of the most glorious examples of the transformative power of musical theater. More »

The Broadway cast of Disaster
The Broadway cast of Disaster. Jeremy Daniel

If you have a taste for shameless physical comedy, groan-worthy song cues, and cheesy 1970s music, then Disaster! is the show for you. I don't necessarily mean all that as faint praise. Such guilty pleasures certainly have their place, and that place right now is the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway. Disaster! has nothing on its mind except delightfully ridiculous fun, and what's wrong with that, right?

The jukebox tuner is by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, and also stars the former and is directed by the latter. The show is a send-up of all those 1970s pretty-stars-in-mortal-peril epics like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, and there are moments of outright hilarity, and some genuinely clever comic set pieces. Like any show of this ilk, it's hard to sustain the laughs for two full acts, and Disaster! could easily have been cut to just one. Some of the songs sort of dissipate in their humor after the initial joke.

Apart from the ridiculous goings on in the plot, the main attraction here is the outstanding cast of pros as the various disaster-movie prototypes, including Faith Prince, Rachel York, Kevin Chamberlin, and Kerry ButlerAdam Pascal shows he has a sense of humor about himself, parodying his own exaggeratedly emotive singing style. (At least I hope it's a parody...) Max Crumm reveals that he's actually a fairly deft comic actor, and like Laura Osnes, has officially transcended his reality-TV-based Broadway introduction. Young Baylee Littrell is a star in the making, playing a pair of twins, and demonstrating a remarkable stage presence for his age in the process.

But hands down the best part of Disaster! is the hilarious Jennifer Simard, who absolutely steals the show as a nun with a gambling problem. Simard has the driest of dry delivery, and deftly finds ways of making her every line, every look a laugh riot. Look for Simard's name when awards season is in full swing. More »

Carmen Cusack in Bright Star
Carmen Cusack in Bright Star. Joan Marcus

One of the trends this season, both on Broadway and off, has been bluegrass music: Bright Star, The Robber Bridegroom, and Southern Comfort all featured non-stop bluegrass. And all were pretty darned awful shows, although I'm sure that's no fault of the genre itself. Watch for my reviews of the last two sometime soon. At present, let me focus on the utter mediocrity that is Bright Star.

The show has book, music, and lyrics by Edie Brickell and Steve Martin. Yes, that Edie Brickell. And, yes, that Steve Martin. The show is certainly well-meaning, but the words and music show very little craft. First, we have the expected faulty scansion and plentiful slant rhyme that we've come to expect from these pop music/celebrity dilettantes. Even worse, each meandering song seems virtually indistinguishable from the previous one.

The story of Bright Star shifts between two time periods, 1923 and 1945, and waits far too long to inform us how the two threads are related. Eventually things come together, and there's plenty of pathos in evidence, but the show doesn't earn any emotional buy-in until it's really too late. Also, the big reveal at the end is ridiculously coincidental, straining all sense of credulity.

The dialogue is...well... Toward the beginning of the show, one of the main characters says, "I never knew homecoming could be so cruel." Gee, I never knew dialogue could be so turgid. At another point, someone offers up this little chestnut: "Truth seeks us out and walks beside us like a shadow." I mean, yeesh. When the dialogue isn't painfully stiff, it's utterly pedestrian.

And the jokes... Sure, we expect a yuk-yuk or two from Steve Martin, but the forced humor here sticks out like a sore thumb. One man returns a thesaurus to book store because he mistakenly thought it was about dinosaurs. Groan. Another interchange has one character asking, "Are you the baby's father?" The other character replies, "It's conceivable."

The director here is Walter Bobbie, who once again proves that he's better with previously existing material (Chicago) than he is developing new shows (High Fidelity). The open-plan set and omnipresent cast members seem to indicate that he's trying to be Bart Sher, but he simply doesn't have the chops to pull it off.

Then there's the risible toy train that huffs and puffs by at the top of the proscenium, inadvisedly reminiscent of the ridiculous model Titanic from the eponymous musical. Bright Star also features one of the most horrifying and laughable act one tags in musical theater history. Sure, the event it depicts is crucial, but the staging and special effect involved were sorely misjudged. More »