Monday, August 13, 2012

NYC Musical Roundup: 'Bring It On' from Stage to Screen; Sondheim's 'Into the Woods' in the Park; Irish Rep's 'New Girl in Town'

Bring It On
Starring Taylor Louderman, Adrienne Warren, Ryann Redmond, Elle McLemore, Kate Rockwell
Music by Tom Kitt & Lin-Manuel Miranda; lyrics by Miranda & Amanda Green
Book by Chris Whitty; choreographed and directed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Performances began July 12; opened August 1
St. James theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Into the Woods
Starring Amy Adams, Jamie Mueller, Donna Murphy, Denis O’Hare, Chip Zien
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lupine
Directed by Timothy Sheader, co-directed by Liam Steel
Performances began July 24; opened August 9; closes September 1
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

New Girl in Town
Starring Cliff Bemis, Patrick Cummings, Danielle Ferland, Margaret Loesser Robinson
Music and lyrics by Bob Merrill; book by George Abbott
Choreographed by Barry McNabb; directed by Charlotte Moore
Performances began July 18; opened July 26; closes September 14
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY
Bring It On (photo: Chris Schwartz)
Loosely based on the 2000 cheerleading movie, Bring It On is leaps and bounds (and tumbles and backflips) ahead of its cinematic predecessor, and the result is a rare show that thrills its target audience of young women and teens at the same time it’s a fun two-plus hours for everybody else.

Jeff Whitty’s book smartly dispenses with most of the movie’s plot, even if the story still turns on the battle royal between Truman High’s snooty upper-class squad against Jackson High’s inner-city street crew. Whitty has also written clusters of funny lines which happily eschew the rancid campiness that crushed that other recent gymnasium musical, the gimcrack Lysistrata Jones.

The characters are at least lively caricatures, and the unknown youthful cast comes up aces: Taylor Louderman as the gangly, likeable heroine, Campbell; Kate Rockwell, a scintillating find as Skylar, the beautiful, Barbie-perfect cheerleader; Elle McLemore, as the evil Eva, with formidable pipes inside her Kristin Chenoweth-petite frame; Ryann Redmond as the amusingly frumpy wanna-be cheerleader relegated to mascot; Adrienne Warren as the foxy head of the Jackson High crew; and Gregory Haney in a bravura performance as the cross-dressing student named  La Cieniega.

The rather schizophrenic score welds Tom Kitt’s standard-issue big ballads and belters to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s more with-it soulful rap tunes; but, coupled to Miranda and Amanda Green’s clever lyrics, the songs mirror how these kids blow up petty issues to tragically Shakespearean heights. David Korins’ fluidly mobile set and Jason Lyons’ flashy lighting abet Andrew Blankenbeuer’s brisk direction and outstanding choreography, which keep Bring It On moving, onward and upward: the athleticism on display, coupled with the unrivaled artistry, may win him another Tony.

O'Hare and Adams in Into the Woods (photo: Joan Marcus)
For this summer’s second Central Park entry, the Public Theater chose another foliage show: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, the 1987 musical that’s been on Broadway twice already, which returns in a satisfying staging that takes advantage of the natural beauty of the Delacorte Theater surrounding than As You Like It did.

Into the Woods problematically combines several fairy tales, both on their own terms and as a psychologically “modern” look at characters like Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, among others. If Sondheim’s songs—which are not up to his considerable best—have their bright moments, most notably the final “Children Will Listen,” Lapine’s less-clever-than-it-thinks-it-is book dominates the longish show.

Co-directed by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel, the visually arresting Central Park staging includes changes (the narrator is a young boy rather than an older man, for instance) that don’t make complete sense. John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour’s set design delightfully complements the park’s real “woods,” while Rachael Canning’s uneven puppetry effects reach their zenith when the splendidly-wrought giantess (voiced menacingly by Glenn Close) suddenly appears. Sondheim’s always elegant score is adroitly performed, in Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, under Paul Gemignani’s direction.

In a capable cast, only Donna Murphy, who’s having a blast playing the Witch, is totally in her element with a vocally ravishing performance. Amy Adams’s pleasing singing voice and comedic adeptness auger well for a light-touch Baker’s Wife, but Denis O’Hare’s meager vocal resources and dour tone trip up the Baker. Jessie Mueller is a bewitchingly sung Cinderella, Ivan Hernandez and Paris Remillard are a stentorian pair of Princes and Tess Soltau a sweet-voiced Rapunzel. But it’s too bad that Sarah Stiles is mordant to the point of irritation as Little Red Riding Hood—so of course she’s an audience favorite.

New Girl in Town (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Turning Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie into a frothy musical took daring by composer-lyricist Bob Merrill and book writer George Abbott, who collaborated on 1957 Broadway hit New Girl in Town. Originally a vehicle for Gwen Vernon—with choreography by an up-and-comer named Bob Fosse—the show has been revived,amiably if undistinguishedly, by the Irish Rep, whose artistic director, Charlotte Moore, directed.

O’Neill’s melodrama—interesting but not the equal of masterworks The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night—has become a romantic comedy with some of O’Neill’s tragic touches remaining; but in the flimsy context, they make less sense. Luckily for Moore and her cast, the tuneful songs are taken by leads who sing better than they act. Margaret Loesser Robinson’s Anna has a marvelous voice and musical bearing making up for her shortfall in the acting department, while Patrick Cummings’ Matt—more than a handsome face—equals her in the pipes department, but he’s otherwise too robotic.

If New Girl in Town founders in the no-man’s-land between O’Neill’s tragic inclination and Merrill and Abbott’s Broadway sensibility, it’s worth seeing all the same.

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