Broadway Musicals: Which Ones To See, Which Ones Not To See

Colombus Dispatch
Broadway musicals: Four worth seeing this summer, and one to skip
July 2, 2011

Live theater is fleeting…. and declining ticket sales do take their toll.

While books last (even if some go out of print) and movies and TV shows can be caught up with later on DVDs or now online, theater productions from New York to Columbus usually remain only in our memories after the final performance.

Yet, I still savor my memories from my most recent Broadway trip, and want to share some with you – especially useful, I hope, if you’re thinking about making a quick weekend trip to New York during the summer months when many shows don’t sell out.

Although The Book of Mormon has become such a Broadway hit that getting tickets is simply mpossible until next year, several other musicals that I enjoyed recently are worth seeing, most notably Sister Act and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert just for the pure fun of it.

And while I can’t recommend Baby, It’s You!, I can recommend Catch Me if You Can (with caveats) for serious musical-theater fans curious about a high-level and professional show that doesn’t quite reach its potential. Both musicals aren’t doing that well at the box office and both may close by or before the end of the summer – which means catching up with Catch Me soon is a good idea.

Here for the Theater Talk record – and a reminder of what to see (and what to skip) on your next New York theater trip – is an edited reprint of my Sunday Arts cover roundup following my last New York trip:

Musical comedy is king again on Broadway.

Although several more-serious musical dramas that opened in the fall failed to attract audiences, a spring surge of crowd-pleasers are raking in bucks by generating yuks.

No show has bigger buzz ”“ or bigger “I can’t believe what I just heard” laughs ”“ than The Book of Mormon, the boundary-pushing Broadway debut by the outrageous creators of South Park.

At their best, though, a few other spring shows come close among the recent crop of lighthearted hits. Here’s a snapshot of five new musicals expected to tour the country and probably reach Columbus.

Baby It’s You!
Creators: The Million Dollar Quartet team of author-conceiver Floyd Mutrux and author Colin EscottFocus: A jukebox musical about Florence Greenberg, who changed the recording world in the early 1960s when she discovered The Shirelles and created Scepter Records.
Star turns: Beth Leavel, a Tony winner for The Drowsy Chaperone, comes closest by giving Greenberg a vivid personality that compensates somewhat for a weak script
Memorable moments: None
Pros: The catchy retro songs (Shout, Mama Said, Soldier Boy) appeal to aging baby boomers
Cons: The Shirelles come across as one-dimensional back-up singers in a clichéd and sometimes cringe-worthy story with underwritten characters and a formulaic hit-parade staging
Details: Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. (Telecharge: 212-239-6200,,

The Book of Mormon
Creators: Composer-author-lyricists Trey Parker (also co-director) and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), choreographer-director Casey Nicolaw (Spamalot) Focus: The naïve faith of two young Mormon missionaries is tested and stretched when they’re sent to AIDS-plagued, poverty-stricken, tyranny-entrenched Uganda.
Star turns: Andrew Rannels is sympathetic as the allegedly more mature missionary, but Josh Gad steals scenes and ultimately the show as his needy and overimaginative sidekick who borrows from hobbit lore and Star Wars to sell their religion to the natives
Memorable moments: Too many to list, but let’s start with Turn It Off, a paean to self-repression; Hasa Diga Eebowai, a blasphemous dig at the optimism of The Lion King; and Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, a giddy nightmare n which the teetolating missionaries are haunted by giant Starbucks coffee cups.
Pros: Clever lyrics, hilarious dialogue, some pretty nice tunes and a surprisingly sweet story that ends up affirming the power of faith even amidst some absurd beliefs.
Cons: The South Park guys take profanity, scatology and religious satire to such extremes that the show is unsuitable for children and might offend some adults.
Details: Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St. (Telecharge:

Catch Me If You Can
Creators: Author Terrence McNally (Ragtime, The Full Monty) and the Hairspray team of composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Wittman, director Jack O’Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, scenic designer David Rockwell, costume designer William Ivey Long and lighting designer Kenneth Posner
Focus: The cautionary fable is based on a true 1960s story and Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film about FBI agent Carl Hanratty’s pursuit of Frank Abagnale Jr., a young con artist who forged checks while impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer.
Star turns: As the relentless but fatherly agent who finally gets his man only to discover that he’s really a boy at heart, Norbert Butz (a Tony winner for Dirty Rotten Scoundrel and now also this musical) often overshadows Aaron Tveit’s charming blank as the con man.
Memorable moments: Live in Living Color, in which Frank begins to tell his life story in the winking format of a 1960s TV variety show; Don’t Break the Rules, one of Butz’ most rousing numbers; Fly, Fly Away, Kerry Butler’s poignant solo as Frank’s girlfriend; and Butta Out of Cream, Tom Wopat’s vainglorious anthem as Frank’s loser dad.
Pros: The smart staging, wrily intelligent book and a sparkling ensemble of topnotch performers
Cons: This tale of a phony sometimes feel phony, while the plot-heavy show isn’t as funny or poignant as it could be. Hairspray fans will be disappointed.
Details: Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. (Ticketmaster: 877-250-2929,

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Creators: Authors Stephan Elliot and Allan Scott, director Simon Phillips, choreographer Russ Coleman and producer Bette Midler
Focus: A disco-mad jukebox musical of the cult 1994 film about three Australian drag queens who take a bus trip across Australia to perform at a rural resort.
Star turns: Priscilla the bus, covered with glittering Vegas-style waves of LED lights, sometimes outshines the performers, but Nick Adams is amusing as Adam/Felicia and Tony Sheldon adds dignity and poignance as the older Bernadette.Memorable moments: The procession and profusion of increasingly flamboyant and campy costumes, topped by dancing cupcakes in the over-the-top MacArthur Park number
Pros: A shamelessly entertaining Boogie Wonderland
Cons: Shamelessly manipulative and perhaps too campy and gay for some theatergoers.
Details: Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, (Ticketmaster)

Sister Act
Creators: Composer Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast), lyricist Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid), authors Cheri and Bill Steinkellner with additional text by Douglas Carter Beane (Xanadu), director Jerry Zaks (La Cage aux Folles, Guys and Dolls) and producer Whoopi Goldberg
Focus: A musical comedy based on Goldberg’s 1992 film about an African American nightclub singer who witnesses a mob murder and hides in a convent where she forges an unlikely bond with the soon-to-be-singing nuns
Star turns: Victoria Clark (a Tony winner for The Light in the Piazza) is hilarious as the Mother Superior, making deft use of some of the best-written dialogue
Memorable moments: Besides the punch lines, Take Me to Heaven is a rousing opener and Spread Your Love Around, a joyful finale
Pros: Menken’s tuneful score, Jerry Zak’s peppy direction and snappy one-liners make this formulaic show a guilty pleasure.
Cons: The stage version vulgarizes the film, which already was a sitcom. Patina Miller sings and acts well but lacks the sassy charisma of Goldberg, who lifted the movie.
Details: Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway. (Telecharge)

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