Monday, March 28, 2016

Broadway Musical Reviews—Revival of 'She Loves Me'; Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's 'Bright Star'

She Loves Me
Music by Jerry Bock; lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; book by Joe Masteroff
Directed by Scott Ellis; choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Opened March 17, 2016
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York, NY

Bright Star
Book and music by Steve Martin; lyrics & music by Edie Brickell
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Opened March 23, 2016
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski in She Loves Me (photo: Joan Marcus)

It’s hard to believe, but the team behind the 1963 musical She Loves Me—lyricist Sheldon Harnick, book writer Joe Masteroff and composer Jerry Bock—would the very next year create the earthshaking Fiddler on the Roof. By contrast, She Loves Me is a modest, intimate show based on Hungarian Miklos Laszlo's play, which also spawned the film The Shop Around the Corner and its trite update, Nora Ephron's You’ve Got Mail. 

The simple story is set in a Budapest parfumerie in 1934, as salesman Georg trades lonely-hearts letters with a young woman he has yet to meet. Enter fiery Amalia, who lands a much-needed job in the store: needless to say (and unbeknownst to either of them), they are the pen pals, and their mutual attraction on paper belies their constantly getting on each other’s nerves at work. It's no spoiler to say that they are destined to fall in love.

She Loves Me fills this unoriginal plot with romance and humor, heartbreak and redemption, along with some of the sturdiest songs to grace the Great White Way. Although none of them lives on separately from the show like Fiddler’s “Sunrise, Sunset” or “If I Were a Rich Man,” the perfectly pitched songs—from beautiful ballads "Will He Like Me?" and "Dear Friend" to charmers "I Don't Know His Name" and "Twelve Days to Christmas"—make a completely harmonious whole.

The rapturous new revival at Studio 54 takes place on David Rockwell’s enormously pleasing jewel-box set, the outside of the store opening into intricate, eye-catching interiors of such enchantment that the audience rightly cheers the dazzling dĂ©cor. Director Scott Ellis, who provides the entire performance with perfectly paced rhythms, has also cast the show nearly flawlessly: Byron Jennings, Michael McGrath, Gavin Creel and Jane Krakowski—who again shows off her incredible gifts for physical comedy—make a memorable store staff.

If Zachary Levi is merely an adequate Georg, that’s entirely forgotten whenever the radiant Laura Benanti's Amalia is onstage. Finally getting the leading-lady role she’s long deserved, this luminous actress effortlessly shows off her musical-comedy strengths—priceless line readings and facial expressions, gorgeous singing, lithe movement—and makes the most of her opportunity. 

Elegantly directed and sharply performed, this She Loves Me revival is, with Laura Benanti at its center, unmissable.

Carmen Cusack (center) in Bright Star (photo: Nick Stokes)

Bright Star, the inconsequential new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, is supposedly based on a true story, which it tells with all the persuasiveness of your average soap opera. Spanning more than 20 years, the parallel plots encompass young love, adoption, mistaken identity, and finding one's way in the world in ways that are more dramatically (and comically) suspect than one would expect from Martin, one of our most literate writers.

Set in North Carolina in the '20s and '40s, Bright Star features so many cliches and caricatures that at first it seems its creators are putting us on: indeed, when the big plot twist (easily guessed in advance) is finally explained, it's done for laughs, since it's so patently absurd. But mostly this is a painfully earnest show with a negligible bluegrass score of mind-numbing sameness, the lone exception being "I Had a Vision," an emotionally trenchant number that describes the fallout after a woman finds out from her ex-lover what happened to their son 22 years earlier.

Brickell's superficial lyrics actually feature howlers like "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do/When a man's gotta do what he's got to." Martin has, in his occasionally adroit book, come up with enough witty lines to make one wish that there was more of his smart humor to balance the rote melodramatics that drag down the show.

Director Walter Bobbie applies a welcome light touch, especially in the amount of detailed movement on Eugene Lee's spare set, which comprises desks, chairs and shelves moved on and off by cast members, along with a cabin housing several musicians at center stage. Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes are particularly adept at making the songs come alive visually, a needed diversion whenever the creaky plot and repetitive music become too much.

Two accomplished performances, from a compelling and forceful Carmen Cusack and a lively and polished Hannah Elless, help brighten this too often dim Bright Star.

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