Friday, May 31, 2013

Divas in Training Take Broadway

It is the year of the child on Broadway and this week I saw two of the leading ladies: Annie and Matilda. Two shows about mistreated girls. Two shows with nasty women blowing whistles. One girl smiles with hope through her adversity. One scowls and doesn't let us in. And lots of children.

Annie” was the last musical I did in Texas in 1987 before I moved to NYC. I was Bert Healy and I have fond memories of that. I actually didn’t think I’d ever want or need to see it on stage again, but decided to give the Broadway revival a try.

Let me start by saying that I love Lilla Crawford as Annie. The girl has a wonderful voice that never seems to strain. She approaches the role in a much more ‘laid back’ way instead of the constant wide-eyed look we get from previous Annies. I appreciated that realness and loved her relationship with Daddy Warbucks. What I do not like in this production is the accent the director has chosen to make her use. I realize it’s supposed to be a Brooklyn, NY accent, but it sounds more cockney and it’s a shame she has to be impeded with the silly thing. (As a matter of fact, the director has many accents in this show – Bert Healy sounds German, Lily St. Regis is an over the top Asian, Texans in the White House…it was a show all about accents!)

Merwin Foard (who usually plays FDR) went on as Daddy Warbucks and I loved his performance. A big man with a beautiful voice, but such heart and warmth shines through when he sings about Annie.

Jane Lynch (of TV’s Glee) has taken over as Miss Hannigan and she really has made the role her own. Sometimes ‘stunt casting’ on Broadway doesn’t work – but this one got me to the theater with her smart comic timing, totally serviceable voice for the role and it seems to be enjoying herself greatly.

The show looks good. Nice sets (especially in the mansion when they turn huge pages of a book to create different rooms). It has held up well over the years. But something seems to be ‘missing’ from this production. The scenes with Rooster and Lily should send us into overdrive and the choreography and relationships were lackluster. I’m sure young audiences seeing it for the first time won’t even notice any of this, but there’s a sense of going through the motions – a trap in which many shows can fall. Still, it was nice to return to the songs by Strouse and Charnin.

And then we have “Matilda”. The British import that has won over every critic touting it as the biggest thing since…EVER.

I have never read the book. I never saw the entire Americanized movie version. So I went in cold. The show is very ingenious. The direction, staging, choreography, the score by Tim Minchin – all of that is pretty wonderful. (You will want to be a kid again and will go out singing “When I Grow Up”.) The energy on that stage is incredible – and much of that comes from the ensemble. The kids and adults in the ensemble work their rears off! And I was super impressed with what they did. Four girls share the title role and I saw Sophia Gennusa who was adorable. Great voice. Good actress. If only they would allow her to relax and pull us into her world.

If you ever saw the movie Lemony Snicket’s with Jim Carey – that is what I felt I was witnessing on stage. That movie had such a unique look with quirky, dark, odd qualities and Matilda offers all of those (even with shadow puppets at times). It’s a never ending wild ride of ‘what can we throw in next to be strange?’ type of feel. Even in the casting of a man in the role of Miss Trunchbull the headmistress of the school. I can’t find any other reason why a man must play the role. And Bertie Carvel as a mix between Riff-Raff in Rocky Horror and the child catcher in Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang has created a very creepy/odd/wonderful woman. (Though I’d still prefer to see Rob McClure take the Tony award for Best Actor.) Matilda’s parents are completely insane over the top comical performances (probably to take away from the fact they are so dreadful to her) that one would see in old Benny Hill sketches. (I’m completely dating myself with that reference.) And Lauren Ward gives a beautiful and moving performance as Miss Honey, Matilda’s teacher that seems to be one of the few people in her young life that actually cares about her.   

When people compare this to “The Lion King” – I tend to disagree. That show continued to top itself throughout the performance. This one, we walk into a world of this cool set of blocks and books, but we continue to go back to the same scenes over and over. I also felt it needed to be cut. It runs a little long, especially for a kid’s show and I found myself looking for the end.

 This show will probably run forever. People will not be able to get enough of it and I know I’m in the minority on this one. I like a show with heart – where that shines through. (Probably why I loved “Once” so much.) This is about the magic and clever way of telling a story – yet the poor child playing Matilda didn’t smile until curtain call. That made it difficult for me to care about her journey to right the wrongs of the world…all at five years old. And while much has been said about four girls playing the role – I don’t see it necessary. One girl played Mary in “The Secret Garden” on Broadway and won a Tony. One boy played Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” and carried that show. One girl sings her lungs out in “Annie” and rarely leaves the stage. All of those had alternates that may have to go on now and again (I actually saw the alternate in "A Christmas Story" and loved him), but the producers didn’t see the need to quad cast it so each does two shows a week. Personally, I think that was just one more thing on a very long list to make Matilda different, quirky and get audiences to return to compare each girl so that groupies can decide their favorites.

Have you seen these shows? Leave your comments and let me know what you think!


  1. Thanks for the insight. A group from my theatre just saw Matilda and had much the same impression.

    1. Glad to know I'm not alone, Rick. Thanks.