Theater is Alive on Broadway! Reviews by Kevin Thomas

Since more than a dozen shows have left the Great White Way this
January, one would think Broadway’s in a lull, just waiting for the
spring thaw when new shows come to town.

But the streets of Manhattan are alive with the sound of music!

First of all,  “In the Heights” really is the #1 show to see. It’s still fresh, exciting and as vibrant as it was when it first opened. “In the Heights” is truly the mash-up musical of our time, mixing traditional Broadway ballads and choreography with hip hop beats and raps. The show is about to approach its one year anniversary on Broadway (even though it’s been around in workshops and off-Broadway since 2002) and many of the same stars are still with the show. The main star and creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, continues to amaze after all of this time, but he is leaving in February, so now is the time to see him and the show. I’m sure his replacement will bring his own freshness to this show, but still catch Lin-Manuel while you can. “In the Heights” also has a lottery for every performance for front row tickets for $26.50. You need to show up at the theater 2 1/2 hours before the show and the drawing is held 2 hours before the show (cash only).

I really hope “In the Heights” can weather the poor economy storm as it seems the perfect show for new (younger) theatre goers to get their first taste of musical theatre they might like, thanks largely to its hiphop songs. The show should also appear to the touring visitors from New Jersey and the Midwest as there are enough of the sweet ballads that make shows like “West Side Story” a perennial favorite.

If you’ve got two days in Manhattan, “Shrek the Musical” proved to be more fun than I even imagined. I am not a fan of the movie but went to see the live musical version because of the dream cast of Brian D’arcy James, Sutton Foster, Christopher Sieber and Daniel Breaker. This cast more than delivers! James is in fine voice in the title role even though I did miss his personal charisma behind that green face. Foster continues to build on her great resume of theatre roles as Fiona and Breaker makes you forget Eddie Murphy as the Donkey. But Sieber practically steals the show as Lord Farquaad, playing the entire role on his knees to bring himself to the Lord’s diminutive height. Other actors better take notice of Sieber because no matter the size the role, he usually makes any show his.

“Shrek” also has plenty of underlining double entendres that should appeal to adults in a seemingly kids show. Throughout the show, homage is paid to other Broadway shows – done in such a subtle way that they might sneak by even the more sophisticated theatergoers. Some of the adult and even gay overtures are easily noticeable – from the song “Freak Flag” to the tranny Big Bad Wolf. And since this is a hot ticket, you
won’t always find them at the half-priced booth. If you pay full price, I will say the Broadway Theatre has the best box seats. And for discount tickets, you can try the show’s lottery. Sign up on the 3rd Floor of M&M World on the corner of 48th and Broadway each performance day for your chance to win $26.50 (plus fees).

And a Monday in New York usually offers few options as most theaters are dark. But off-Broadway there’s a very cute, more concert style musical called  “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” a tale of a high school singing quartet who bring their in-fighting to the stage for all to see while they sing popular 1950s and 1960s songs. There’s even a cute bit in which the audience members have to vote for Prom Queen. Of course, our four would-be friends are all on the ballot and the back-stabbing takes front stage as the winner is announced.  All four leads are wonderful and excel in different ways – Farah Alvin seems to have the stronger voice, Bets Malone has more a comical flare, Victoria Matlock is better at improv and Beth Malone is the queen of slapstick. And for an old-fashioned show, they have a great website with downloads, fun facts and links to their facebook and myspace pages – so please check out the extremely fun website at www.marvelouswonderettes.com.

If musicals aren’t your style, Richard Greenberg’s “The American Plan” is a well-layered tale of an overbearing German mother and her over-privileged daughter, coming to emotional blows in their Catskills estate, while meeting a couple of potential near-do-wells. For the most part, the cast of five all bring their A game, even though Mercedes Ruehl’s German accent comes and goes. And Greenberg, writer of Tony
winning “Take Me Out,” continues to amaze with his honest, organic dialog and the show’s sexy little plot twist.  “The American Plan” is part of Manhattan Theatre Club and you can actually get some good price tickets through their website if you buy a passport for the season. Check it out at www.mtc-nyc.org.

GETTING TICKETS:  if you really have to see the show, you should definitely buy the tickets before you come to New York at full price and get the perfect seats you want. For discount tickets, besides the TKTS booths and different show lotteries in New York, I think a good way to get Broadway show tickets is at www.theatermania.com. And while it’s not great for New York City, www.goldstar.com offers discounts in  San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Boston, San Diego and Chicago.

And with all of the money you’re saving on discount tickets, you might also try “Avenue Q,” “August: Osage County” and “Alter Boyz.” And perhaps on my next trip to the Big  Apple, I will be able to report on “Billy Elliot,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Hair,” “Happiness,” “Rock of Ages” (moving from off-Broadway), “The Story of My Life,” “West Side Story” and “9 to 5” (which I like in LA)

If you can’t make it to Broadway, there’s always theatre you can find in your own town. One way to seek out shows is through playbill.com – there’s a tab on the left side of the page under tickets, click on “Regional/Touring” and search by city.

That’s how I found “Miss Saigon,” the Tony award winning musical that was the tenth longest running Broadway musical of all times, playing just outside of Chicago.

The show may not be coming back to New York for now but it is playing an exclusive run through March 8 at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, IL. The greatest appeal for me with “Miss Saigon” has always been the spectacle that it was due to its grandiose sets. This show had a helicopter and Cadillac right on stage. If that didn’t make your jaw drop, then nothing in the theatre will. But alas, this production is more scaled down and the over-the-top sets are gone so don’t expect to see a helicopter land on this stage.

But your jaw will drop with the shows performances. Melinda Chua Smith and Kevin Vortmann bring their own magic to the story of star-crossed lovers who meet during the Vietnam War. Smith’s Kim is an orphaned young woman who is forced into prostitution and rescued by the sweet GI Chris, played by Vortmann. The modern retelling of the classic “Madame Butterfly” makes its own mark as “Miss Saigon” primarily due to its musical score, filled with many memorable songs.

And while I have seen “Miss Saigon” several times, I was very impressed with both Smith, who has an excellent range and was able to make her songs emotional without being overly dramatic, which is easy to do with the source material. And Vortmann, who has a great rich quality to his voice and was able to sparkle in the quiet moments as well as those times when he needs to truly belt it out..

Smith  as actually a really nice and sweet woman – and she seemed so fresh, even though she just played the part two times that day. She is quite convincing as the 17 year old Kim, which might be surprising when you discounted that Melinda is in her mid 30s, having played various parts in “Miss Saigon” since the early 1990s.

Tickets can be purchased at www.drurylaneoakbrook.com or www.ticketmaster.com. The ticket prices can be as low as $22 but if you want to try to find even a better deal, try www.chicago.oodle.com or www.chicagoplays.com.