Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, June 25, 2018

Finale-Pyramid-with-Original Broadway cast of ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ now playing at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre, includes, from left, Levi Kreis (on microphone) as Jerry Lee Lewis; Robert Britton Lyons (standing on top of bass) as Carl Perkins; Corey Keiser playing bass; Eddie Clendening (kneeling) as Elvis Presley; and Lance Guest (standing) as Johnny Cash. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK – The 2009-10 Broadway season ended in late May, and the Tony honors (the New York theater’s equivalent to TV’s Emmys and Hollywood’s Oscars) were presented in mid-June. So the time has come to review a couple of sleeper successes and to look back and assess how Broadway did this year – box-office-wise. This should be done cautiously, keeping in mind what happened to Lot’s wife.

A first quick glance at the figures released by the official Broadway League, a coalition of professional theater guilds and unions, indicates that things are smashingly positive: Broadway yielded $1.02 billion in grosses, and total audience attendance reached 11.89 million. Grosses were up 1.5 percent – probably because of a slight increase in ticket prices – though attendance was down 3 percent from the 2008-09 season. Still, even during the continuing economic downturn, Broadway is holding its own as a favorite entertainment destination.

What is disturbing is that this season there was only one American play of any distinction, "Red" by John Logan, and that arrived in New York via London’s Donmar Warehouse where the play had its premiere last December. Even more surprising is the fact that there was no new musical show of first quality like last season’s "Billy Elliot," or long-running hits such as "Jersey Boys," "Wicked" and "The Lion King."

This is not a good sign, since the Broadway musical is the commercial theater’s most popular attraction with the largest group following, and is vital to Broadway’s bottom line. Of the new musicals, the biggest disappointment was the highly touted "The Addams Family," which even its stars, the very funny and charming Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, could not save.

The show that won the Tony for best musical, "Memphis" (at the Shubert Theatre on West 44 Street), is a mediocre try at creating a big, old-fashioned Broadway show. Unfortunately, the musical, which chronicles the beginnings of rock and  roll in that southern city in the 1950s, comes across as jerrybuilt, often melodramatic and largely humorless. It is like a fusion of two past musical successes, "Dreamgirls" and "Hairspray." The patchwork book and  lyrics are by Joe DiPietro, and the undistinguished music that mimics, rather than reimagines, the songs of the period, is by David Bryan, an alumnus of the rock group Bon Jovi.

What saves "Memphis" from being a total failure is the skilled staging of director Christopher Ashley; the brilliantly energetic choreography of the gifted Sergio Trujillo and its first-rate cast, especially its two leads. Montego Glover, an Afro-American actress-singer of extraordinary talent, who plays the role of Felicia flawlessly; and as her leading man, Huey, Chad Kimball nails the white local disc jockey who pulls her out of obscurity and mentors her singing career to show-biz heights.

It should be noted that the story of "Memphis" deals with adult themes and has a smattering of strong language.

If there were a Tony for an audience favorite entertainment of the season, "Million Dollar Quartet" (at the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street) would win hands-down. Ironically, it too is set in Memphis. The time is Dec. 4, 1956. The place is Sun Records in downtown Memphis, where gathering together are four singing legends, Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons), Johnny Cash (Lance Guest), Jerry Lee Lewis (Levi Kreis) and Elvis Presley (Eddie Clendening), for what will turn into an impromptu, one-night-only, historic jam session. Each performer sings his signature song hits, such as "Blue Suede Shoes," "Memories Are Made of This," "Sixteen Tons," "See You Later, Alligator," and at least 20 other favorites. The audience I saw it with unabashedly loved every minute of the show, even the slim book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux that barely holds the evening together. It helps that the cast is all spot-on actor-singers – no Las Vegas impersonators here. There are a couple of standouts: Kreis embodies Jerry Lee Louis completely and plays a mean piano. He won a Best Supporting Actor in a Musical Tony for his fine work. Elizabeth Stanley, who plays Elvis’s visiting girlfriend, is especially admirable, and sings her two solo songs, "Fever" and "I Walk the Line," with fire and grace.

What "Million Dollar Quartet" delivers is something a lot of theatergoers crave: a good time, simple, no-nonsense, "G"-rated fun for the whole family.

The new Broadway season begins on July 13 with the reopening of the popular revival of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical "A Little Night Music" (Walter Kerr Theater on West 48th Street), with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch taking over roles played earlier this year by Catherine Zeta-Jones, another Tony winner this year, and Angela Lansbury.

A couple of days later, "Harry Connick Jr. in Concert on Broadway" opens at the Neil Simon Theatre for a July 15-29 run. Let the 2010-11 Broadway games begin!

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.