So far, the theater season in New York has been rather disappointing; at least for the shows I’ve seen. Beginning with the 100th revival of Grease back in August, the year began with a whimper rather than a bang. Truth to tell, I was actually looking forward to seeing this show, as I’d never actually seen the stage version of the beloved musical. The film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John has always been a favorite of mine, so I had great expectations for the stage show as well.
And I’m sorry to say, I was a little let down. Not to say the Broadway musical is bad, because it’s not. But it’s not that exciting either. And I don’t think it’s the fault of the cast, because everyone is pretty good and true to their characters. They just don’t have much to work with. The songs are great, no question. But the book of the musical is so weak and senseless that the show sort of drags whenever someone isn’t singing or dancing. And I think that was probably the point when the show first premiered back in the 1970s. It was meant to be a nice nostalgic slice of life without much substance. But today, this same plot has been played out so many times that even “Hanna Montana” would find it dull.
So though I left “Grease” feeling like I’d just witnessed a show in need of a serious facelift, I was still hopeful that a fresh musical interpretation of the 1950s was just around the corner. Because the next event on my theatrical agenda was “Happy Days,” a new musical adaptation of the popular television series. Sounds interesting, right? I mean, how bad could a musical based on classic sitcom be? And as Hollywood heavyweights Gary Marshall and Paul Williams were attached to the project, I decided to give it a shot. Plus, it was playing at the nearby Paper Mill Playhouse, which meant I didn’t have to go all the way into the city to be entertained.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t experience anything close to being happy at “Happy Days.” The premise of the show is so wafer thin, you might have swallowed it the last time you took Communion. It has something to do with Fonzie having to overcome his demons and pride just in time to help save Arnold’s Diner from being demolished. Along the way, the cast sings a series of easily forgettable songs with tunes that aren’t even catchy. That was my biggest disappointment with the show, as I was expecting the music to be fun and upbeat. But the songs were rather dull and not really memorable. Or even hummable. (Which was surprising to me, as Paul Williams had already written some wonderful period songs for my favorite children-as-gangsters spoof, “Bugsy Malone.”)
The other weird thing about the show was that some of the characters were portrayed exactly as they were in the television series, and some weren’t. Fonzie for example, is almost a carbon copy of Henry Winkler, even down to the mannerisms and vocal inflections. Then there’s someone like Ralph Malph, who is now fat and balding (at least the actor was) and trying very hard to be the class clown. Potsie, on the other hand, was the straight man, offering little more than vocal support during choral numbers.
The main focus of the show was Richie trying to help Pinkie Toscadero trying to help Fonzie trying to help Arnold, who is trying to save his diner. Then there’s the equally tired subplot of Marion trying to get some respect as a housewife in 1950s suburbia. Again, both storylines that might have been pulled from your typical ABC After-School Special, but not really much to sing about.
Taking a break from my foray into the fifties, I next went to see the dueling Mary Shelley inspired musicals, “Frankenstein” and “Young Frankenstein.” (Please see previous blog posting “The Case of the Dueling Frankensteins,” for my reviews on those particular shows.)
Now on to “The Ritz,” which I must admit I went to see with much lower expectations, having read several bad reviews of the show. But I have to say, of all the theater I’ve seen so far this season, this is the one I laughed at the most. From the very opening scene to the end, I was thoroughly caught up in the zany world of Carmine Vespucci and his plot to kill his brother-in-law, Gaetano Proclo. It was sometimes over-the-top and silly, but it also had a lot of heart, which was something sorely missing from the previous shows I’ve mentioned.
Not everyone is going to like “The Ritz,” especially if you have issues watching a show that takes place in a men’s bathhouse. But I thought it was hilarious. Rosie Perez is incredible as Googie Gomez. This is my first time seeing Ms. Perez on stage, and I was very impressed. This role was made for her. She is so committed and truthful in her portrayal, that you really feel for her character’s struggle and determination. Plus, her Act One Musical Homage finale is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in a long time.
The other supporting characters are all very good too, with some stand-out performances from Brooks Ashmanskas as Chris and Patrick Kerr as chubby chaser Claude Perkins. There are plenty of hot male bodies to watch as well, including famous porn star Ryan Idol, who looks like a beefy Marlborough Man as he struts his stuff around the stage. The set is also amazing, an eye-popping display of doors and rooms amidst the winding hallways and cruisy caverns of a three story bathhouse. It’s a very entertaining evening, despite what some critics may have said. And luckily, it is one of only eight Broadway shows that are still running during the current stagehand union strike.
Next on my theatrical agenda will be Disney’s new power show, “The Little Mermaid.” That is, if the current strike doesn’t prevent me from seeing it. But my tickets aren’t until November 20th, so I’m sure I’ll be fine. I mean, they’ll be able to resolve all their issues in two weeks, right? Right? Hello? Is anyone out there?