BootLeg Betty

Shows Come In Fast In Time For Tony Consideration

UPDATED: SUNDAY, APRIL 28, 2013, 2:00 AM

USA: 'I'll Eat You Last' Press Reception

Fourteen Broadway premieres in four weeks. That’s a thumbnail sketch of a theater critic’s life in April. Shows come fast and furiously in the mad dash to open in time for the cutoff for Tony Awards consideration on April 25.

It can all be a blur. But there are reasons why some shows prove unforgettable — whether it’s a moment, a performance, the staging or the entire production.

Here are 10 standouts in Broadway’s April shower.

1. Bette Midler parks and dishes in “I’ll Eat You Last.”

Any play that gets Bette Midler back on Broadway deserves a hearty huzzah — even if John Logan’s wispy one-woman comedy, subtitled “A Chat With Sue Mengers,” is less a full-fledged play than one of Paul Rudnick’s gossipy Libby Gelman-Waxner columns — but supersized and live. Meow.

If that reads as snarky, then that’s what the late Hollywood superagent Mengers was all about. She was also about self-creation. In that sense, there’s a splendid synchronicity in casting Midler as Mengers — not to mention a box-office bonanza. The hit show finds Midler rooted to a couch telling profanity-trimmed tales. In her early days, Midler made up her own bawdy alter ego. Now she’s in a perfect marriage of character and performer.

2. Fiona Shaw tells the mother of all stories in “The Testament of Mary.”

No guts, no glory. Controversy juices up any Broadway season, and Irish writer Colm Toibin’s personal and audacious take on the mother of Jesus was bound to ruffle a few feathers. At the first preview of the play, 50 representatives of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property protested the play. That number more than doubled on opening night.

For my money, the play pushes buttons, but isn’t anti-Mary or anti-Christian. It’s a mother’s story, about a woman trying to come to terms with a son she’s lost forever. It’s a human tale that seeks to get beyond iconic imagery. Thanks to Fiona Shaw’s electrifying work alongside frequent director Deborah Warner, “Testament” succeeds.

3. Nathan Lane inspires laughs and tears in “The Nance.”

It’s said that the funniest comedians are also the ones with the darkest and most tormented souls. That is the irony fueling Douglas Carter Beane’s fine new play. Nathan Lane’s title character, Chauncey Miles, makes a living on the burlesque circuit playing a stereotypically swishy gay man — all for the sake of audience yuks. That Chauncey is gay offstage at a time when homosexuality is a crime provides little to laugh about. But this New York story is a reminder who how things change — and don’t.

4. Tom Hanks channels late, great Newser Mike McAlary in “Lucky Guy.”

Mike McAlary was a New York City tabloid columnist with big ambition and an ego to match. In 1998, months before his death from cancer, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Daily News coverage of one of the city’s most shocking stories of police brutality. That’s the stuff that dramas are made of. Strangely, that incident plays such a minor role in “Lucky Guy” and is skewed in such an odd way that it’s almost a footnote.

That’s one of the weaknesses of the play, but the sturdy star performance by Hanks has made for the hottest ticket in town. To play McAlary, Hanks checks his nice-guy image — on stage anyway. The play is by Hanks’ longtime friend and film collaborator Nora Ephron — and there’s something so menschy about the Oscar-winning actor seeing the show through after her death.

5. Cicely Tyson is driven in “The Trip to Bountiful.”

Horton Foote knew the enduring power of place on people — from small town to big city. He spent his long and deservedly illustrious career telling stories of fictional Harrison, Texas, inspired by his own roots in rural Wharton. Which explains why seeing a Foote work makes you reflect on your own past as much as the story that’s told on stage. That’s true of “Bountiful,” about an elderly woman who wants to return to her birthplace one last time. Sentimental stuff, but the chance to see Cicely Tyson work her acting magic makes it a satisfying and joyful ride.

6. Cyndi Lauper scores with her music in “Kinky Boots.”

Who would have thought that a one-of-a-kind pop star who has prided herself on being so unusual and different would find a whole new groove on the Great White Way, which tends to go for middle-of-the-road? But Cyndi Lauper’s tasty and eclectic and plot-propelling songs for “Kinky Boots” provide the heart and highs. If Harvey Fierstein’s book pushed too hard on the issue of self-acceptance, it nonetheless delivered and evergreen and important message: Don’t judge anyone until you’ve walked in their shoes — or, in this case, boots.

7. Tom Sturridge defies gravity in “Orphans.”

The dustup between Alec Baldwin and Shia LaBeouf, who left the show and was replaced by Ben Foster, got lots of attention before performances began. In this contrived story of fathers and sons, both Baldwin and Foster are terrific. But the indelible moments come courtesy of British actor Tom Sturridge, as the dimwitted Phillip, who has been raised as though he’s in captivity — and behaves in kind. In graceful, gravity-defying moves you’d see at a zoo, he gets around his house without touching the floor. Awesome — but awful, since it’s as though he has been led to believe he’s like an animal.

8. Little girls and librarians get a show to love in “Matilda.”

A smash in London, the musical “Matilda” arrived on Broadway with more buzz than a bee colony. The show lives up to its hype, especially when it comes to the eye-popping production design, which makes ingenious use of Scrabble tiles, books and alphabet blocks. Drawn from an off-kilter book by Roald Dahl about a 5-year-old girl with special powers, “Matilda” emphasizes that her ultimate secret to success comes because she’s an avid reader. At a time when books are an endangered species, that’s a message to sing about.

9. Judith Light kvetches and comforts in “The Assembled Parties.”

In the past few years, Judith Light has become a regular presence on Broadway stages, including “Lombardi” and “Other Desert Cities,” for which she won a Tony. In Richard Greenberg’s latest comedy-drama spanning 20 years of secrets, tensions, lies and change, Light plays a tart-tongued realist who serves barbs, babka and bittersweet truths.

10. Andrea Martin swings in “Pippin.”

In a musical about a search for the meaning of life that is filled with giddy-making moments, the one that’s the most intoxicating and joyful finds the ever-adorable Andrea Martin, who plays Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, in midair. To say much more would be a spoiler. See it.

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