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What to See Right Now, Before the New Season Begins

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By Michall Jeffers

We are mere weeks away from the beginning of the Fall Theater Season, and something’s coming, something good. But first, there’s no better time to catch or re-visit some of the great shows currently on the boards.

Even though the Spanish in this West Side Story has been toned down, it’s still enjoyable to hear characters who are supposed to be Puerto Rican sing and speak in their native language. This show, such a classic, but like me, you may well have never actually seen it on stage before. The play is dated; it’s almost laughable to imagine that anyone’s shocked when the gang rumble turns, can you believe it?, violent. No way Anita is dumb enough to walk alone into a room filled with angry Jets. The night I went, an audience member loudly asked, “He’s what??” when Tony’s Polish heritage was revealed. But it’s the performances which made this show a knockout, particularly Karen Olivo’s star turn as Anita, who’s usually played as a firecracker. With Olivo, think Fourth of July. Matt Cavenaugh’s rendition of “Maria” is so pure and heartfelt, if you’re not moved, you’re either made of stone or a theater critic. I don’t know why at this stage of his career his voice is still unpleasantly nasal at times, but look beyond this and just fall in love with the boy.

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There’s nothing not to love with In The Heights, and you don’t have to be Hispanic to appreciate it. But it does help to love New York. The heartbeat of the City echoes through every song, powers every dance move. The neighborhood isn’t perfect, but it’s home.

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Hair was indisputably the defining musical of my generation, but even though the songs have become classics, there’s something cold and mean about this production. “Easy To Be Hard” is the show’s real anthem, not the gentler, more optimistic “Let The Sun Shine In.” Maybe it is a generational thing. The young person I took with me thought it was terrific, even though she’d never before seen it or heard any of the tunes. Perhaps this show would be better to experience without the knowledge of what was soon to come. Hard drugs, lost souls, and a very long war covered over the Summer of Love with cold, deep, slippery ice. Those of us from the “The Stone Age” who are burdened with memories of a not so great time may just need to come up for a little “Air.”

Rock of Ages

Although the 80′s weren’t exactly the height of style or class, I found Rock of Ages a lot more fun, and I recommend it for large parties of kids, who will have a ball celebrating their Bar Mitzvahs and Halloweens with this all-singing, all-dancing mover of a musical. James Carpinello, as the Mick Jagger ringer Stacee Jaxx, was a standout, but the entire cast is tireless and very much into the spirit of the era. Please note that as with most current Broadway musicals, you need to wear earplugs if you don’t want to lose your hearing.

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I never jumped on the bandwagon for Billy Elliot. I wasn’t wildly impressed with the dancing, the music is less than memorable, and I do not stay up nights fretting about Margaret Thatcher’s treatment of British mine workers. There is a very good actor I’m tracking named Santino Fontana; he brought to life the thankless role of Tony, Billy’s brother, and I’m confident he will go on to have great success in a meatier part.

Burn the Floor

On the other hand, there’s great dancing in Burn The Floor. The big names come and go; I saw Maxim Chmerkovskiy, a man who could swagger in a tutu, and his fiancé, the lovely Karina Smirnoff. They’re both luminaries on my guilty pleasure TV show, Dancing with the Stars, and it’s easy to see why by the way they shine on the Broadway stage. This is not for the kiddies, but if you like gorgeous bodies in skimpy costumes and a lot of sexy moves, you’ll have a great evening.

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Next To Normal is not easy, safe theater, and you will not leave humming the tunes. But my Lord, it’s so great to finally see originality back on the Broadway stage. Watching suburban housewife Diana descend into madness, we are swept along on the journey through the sheer force of Alice Ripley’s mesmerizing performance. She’s almost too good; every time the audience is wowed by her voice, the fourth wall is cracked. The same is true of Aaron Tveit as Gabe, the center of the contentious tug-of-war between Diana and her husband, Dan. J. Robert Spencer makes Dan such a weak character, the equation is completely unbalanced. Who wouldn’t rather be kept company by the gorgeous, affectionate, and much more ebullient shadow son? No doubt either about the bright future of Jennifer Damiano, as the much put-upon daughter, Natalie. This is the family dynamic turned tip-tilted and through a pretty warped looking glass. It’s a domestic train wreck, but beautifully realized, and we just can’t look away.

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Whenever I’m asked to recommend a show, my first question is “Have you seen Jersey Boys?” The combination of great songs, humor, and the classic rags-to-riches tale of four kids from the streets of the Garden State is as close to a sure-fire crowd pleaser as you can get. This is theater for people who say they don’t like theater, as well as for the Broadway musical aficionado.

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Returning on September 8, last season’s hit God of Carnage is eagerly welcomed back from vacation. It’s not a great play, and I cringe to think just how badly it may be presented when it’s released for production to every summer stock house and amateur theater group in America. But here, the cast is everything, a string quartet in perfect harmony. Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and especially the glorious Marcia Gay Harden, just couldn’t be better.

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I know I’m supposed to recommend Avenue Q, but I just can’t. I hate those smarmy little puppets. And don’t listen to what anyone says; it is confusing to see the actors sing and talk as we’re supposed to be watching those nasty you-know-whats. The jokes are stale and unfunny, and the supposedly shocking content is only eye-opening for those who have made the egregious mistake of taking their students to a class outing (you should excuse the expression) of this clunker. It’s closing September 13, so you still have plenty of time to miss it.

Catch Me If You Can

In some cases, you will not be seeing the performers I’ve mentioned, but look out for them in the future. For example, the wonderful Aaron Tveit is now working on Catch Me If You Can, which may or may not be coming to Broadway. Don’t be hesitant to see a performer who has taken over a role. It’s been my experience that by the time actors make it onto the Great White Way, whether as principle, standby, or replacement, they are well worth watching. And you just may discover a new star in the making.

I purposely haven’t listed awards won or lost. The fact that these shows have survived in this economy is reward enough.

Photos of Jersey Boys, God of Carnage, Rock of Ages and Next to Normal by Joan Marcus.

Michall Jeffers has been a professional theater critic for many years. Her eponymous cable TV show, which features reviews, commentary, and celebrity interviews, is syndicated throughout the Tri-State area. She’s an active member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle. Her website is www.michalljeffers.com

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