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 April 19, 2013

Mainstream Broadway, 2013

This winter, when I heard Barry Manilow sing “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” from the stage of the St. James, I realized that this song was now being performed in two Broadway theaters. For the last seven-and-a-half years, it’s also been part of the second act of Jersey Boys.

The song made it to second place on the charts on July 22, 1967, while Betty Grable was at the same St. James doing Hello, Dolly! Back then, no one would have predicted that Broadway would someday sport songs originally written for the pop-rock market.

From the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne, we can now hear “Bye Bye Baby,” “Happy Birthday,” “You Are You” and “Do You Love Me?” These are not, however, the songs from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Zorba; Flora the Red Menace or Fiddler on the Roof, but Motown hits that wouldn’t have been expected on Broadway when they were written.

I’m really not complaining, mind you, but observing. Those who predict the future are condemned to see the vast majority of their predictions fail.

Yes, the only constant is change. From August 1975 to August 1977, I attended the original production of Chicago eight times. Each and every time that Mary Sunshine stripped and revealed that “she” was a man, the audience gasped in complete surprise.

Since 1996, during my nine visits to the show, the moment that Mary Sunshine has sauntered on stage, I’ve heard some audience member say “That’s a man” – well, except in Utrecht in the Nethlerlands in 1999, when the woman next to me said to her companion “Dat is een man!”

What has happened in the ensuing 20-plus years? “Drag queens are mainstream,” Lola insists in Kinky Boots, and she’s right. The bookwriter for the new hit musical is one of the reasons why. Harvey Fierstein courageously went public with his penchant for drag by writing and appearing in his landmark Torch Song Trilogy; soon he’ll celebrate the 30th anniversary of his winning one Tony for writing it and one for appearing in it – a day before what would be his 28th birthday.

Only two months later, Fierstein wrote the book for an even bigger hit: La Cage aux Folles. For Kinky Boots, he’s borrowed a bit from it by having Don, a rugged factory worker, join everyone else in drag and enjoy the experience. As much of a stretch as that is, it is more believable than the same scene in La Cage, when Eduoard Dindon -- the deputy general of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party -- comes down the staircase all dolled up, does some bumps and grinds and thoroughly enjoys himself.

That’s Fierstein’s fantasy: the average Joe would just be so much happier if he’d only let down his guard and dress in women’s clothes.

Bertie Carvel seems at home in them, although the leading “man” of Matilda could never pass for a woman -- unlike Billy Porter, who gives a wonderfully restrained performance as Lola, who’s first and foremost a human being and then a drag queen.

Matilda started out in London, where drag has been mainstream since time immemorial, thanks to pantos, which the authors must have had in mind. How I wish that Matilda had been Americanized, as The Fully Monty was for Broadway – and Matilda was for the 1996 film. In the latter, Pam Ferris – a genuine woman -- was a terrific Miss Trunchbull, and I would have liked to have seen a member of her sex try it on Broadway. (I do see the danger of that realistic approach, however: Miss Trunchbull is a deranged bully, and having the cartoonish Carvel play “her” does take it one step away from a too-horrific reality.)

The show could have profited from Americanization in another way: we could have better understood what those kids are saying and singing. Give them credit for managing to accomplish British accents, but they’d of course be more at home with their usual speech. Director Matthew Warchus hasn’t helped by more than once positioning Matilda near the lip of the stage with her back to us while she speaks – making our understanding her even more difficult.

And while a better score would be welcome, Dennis Kelly’s book is one of musical theater’s best for what it has to say: in these times when ignorance is more accepted than ever – and intelligence less valued than ever – we need to return to an appreciation of knowledge. We certainly don’t get any in Motown, an It-Is-What-It-Is musical. Motown, which had Berry Gordy on hand to write the book and tell it like it was, turns out to be far less interesting than Dreamgirls, which had no one with first-hand knowledge on staff. In this case, truth is duller than fiction.

Near show’s end, Smokey Robinson tries to buoy Gordy by listing all the wonderful and altruistic things that the magnate has done for people. The list would have had more impact if we’d been given a chance to have seen him doing them.

When I saw Smokey Joe’s Cafe in 1995, I thought the creators missed a marvelous opportunity. All they did was put on stage one Leiber and Stoller song after another. Given that these two were white guys who wrote music that sounded black, wasn’t a story there? What happened when they showed up at offices run by African-Americans? Were they distrusted? Resented? Were the black executives inclined to embrace or reject their novel and revolutionary idea of adding strings to an R&B song? In truth, their sound influenced Berry Gordy when he was dreaming up his empire.

Now I fear that the book for the Smokey Joe’s Cafe would have turned out to be as dull as Motown’s. Advance word said that it was a Berry Gordy hagiography, but that hasn’t turned out to be true -- at least not in one scene. Believe it or not, we learn that on the first night Gordy took Diana Ross to bed, he couldn’t get an erection. Why this happened isn’t explained -- which might have made the scene more interesting -- but some theatergoers must feel this is it too-much-information time. Others, however, will like hearing that a powerful man couldn’t rise to the occasion with a beautiful woman for whom he had feelings; they won’t have to feel bad about their sexual failures.

If Fierstein had written the Motown book, would he have had Gordy put on a piece or two of women’s clothing and become immediately long and hard?

Charles Randolph-Wright’s production is a little sloppy. At the beginning, we get each year specified through back-wall projections, but then the production loses interest in telling us what year it is. Yes, that would be unnecessary when we hear about the many assassinations of the ‘60s, but there are plenty of other scenes when we don’t know what year it is or how much time has passed. What’s more, Randolph-Wright has succumbed to the hoariest cliché from movie musicals: Gordy sits at a piano, starts playing and singing alone before he suddenly stands and continues singing as the orchestra takes over the melody.

Worst of all, the show has a terrible case of songus interruptus. Almost five dozen songs are listed in the program, so to get them all in, abbreviated versions are often given. A song that we know and love begins, starts to build -- and then it’s suddenly over. Fewer songs done in their entirety would have spurred more tumultuous reactions, although Motown does get plenty. But it could have been rewarded with many more.

Part of the unbridled cheers and applause are the result of Brandon Victor Dixon, Valisia LeKae, Charl Brown and Bryan Terrell Clark, who are respectively marvelous as Gordy, Ross, Robinson and Marvin Gaye. But oh, that Raymond Luke, Jr. as Michael Jackson! We see him early in the show delivering a few lines as Young Berry and Little Stevie Wonder, but we have no idea how he’ll explode in the second act.

The usually excellent John Jellison is miscast as a thoroughly unneeded Ed Sullivan. But including Ed also means Gordy can get a nostalgic laugh from the audience by referencing Topo Gigio.

And while Bryan Terrell Clark and Raymond Luke, Jr. are making their Broadway debuts, Topo Gigio is not. For the last seven-and-a-half years, he’s been mentioned in Jersey Boys. Never mind that we once wouldn’t have been able to predict that two Broadway attractions would have sported “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You”; who would have anticipated way-back-when that a mouse puppet who hasn’t been on prime time TV since 1971 would be cited in a couple of Broadway musicals, too?

         — Peter Filichia


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