There are two reasons the Hill is a great place for a theater lover. One is the quality of the incredibly vibrant theater community of the Washington, Maryland, and Virginia region we call home. The other is how easy it is to take a break and head the 225 miles north to the mecca of big, bold, brassy musicals.
Three and a half hours by car. One hour by plane. Four hours by train. Four and a half hours by cheap bus. However you cover the distance, the rewards when the houselights dim in one of the theaters that constitute Manhattan’s Broadway make the trip worth it.
But which show to see, out of the 27 that are playing right now? Here are some suggestions.
First and foremost, make it a musical. Yes, straight plays can be wonderful on Broadway too. But straight plays are produced here in our region at much the same quality as up in New York. Our local musicals at theaters like Washington’s Ford’s or Keegan theaters, Virginia’s Signature Theatre, and Maryland’s Olney or Toby’s Dinner theater are special and wonderful, but they aren’t the same as a Broadway musical in a Broadway theater, where the productions are tailor-made to the houses in which they play.
OK. A musical. Which one?
‘Come from Away’
No matter the ages of your party – kids, adults, seniors – I don’t care. There is one show that will leave everyone feeling good about themselves, their world, and the entire human race. It is one that you may have already seen, as it played a pre-Broadway engagement last year here at Ford’s Theatre, where it earned four Helen Hayes Awards including outstanding musical. If you didn’t see it here, you should see it in New York!
“Come from Away” accomplishes an amazing feat. It makes a humanity-affirming affair out of a story of events of that terrible time when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. When the airspace above the United States was closed to commercial aircraft, 38 jets flying west from Europe were diverted to the airport next to the tiny town (population 9,000) of Gander, Newfoundland. Nearly 7,000 passengers had to be accommodated for what turned out to be almost a week. The story of the efforts of the townsfolk to see to the needs of those passengers and the relationships and friendships that developed between them is presented with fabulous, high-energy, fiddle-and-whistle music.
Two More to See
If you are taking children to New York and want to introduce them to the pleasure of Broadway or add to any experiences they have already had there, consider one of these two: “School of Rock” or “Anastasia.”
As you might guess from its title, “School of Rock” will be a more rock-infused experience with a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, composed in a style more reminiscent of his “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” than his light-operatic-style “Phantom of the Opera.” Here it is a fun story of a would-be rock star who takes on a teaching assignment in an exclusive prep school, only to find the kids in his class have all the skills necessary to form a prize-winning band. The adults in the show are good, and Eric Petersen is tremendously energetic as the teacher in question. But it is the kids between ages nine and 13 who steal the show. If the kids you are taking would respond to a slightly subculture rockfest, and you aren’t upset by slightly rough lyrics (one song is “Stick It to the Man!” – that’s about as rough as it gets), you all will have a rockin’ good time.
If your kids would more likely appreciate a show about a would-be princess, a good choice would be “Anastasia,” the story of a girl who might have been the daughter of assassinated Czar Nicholas of Russia. It is spectacularly staged using not just impressive sets and costumes but the latest techniques of projections and videos to create worlds that fairly glow from the stage. The score is by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the team that gave us “Once on This Island,” “Seussical,” and most importantly “Ragtime.”
Best show for a date? Try one that is that amazing accomplishment: a revival that is actually better than the original version.
“Miss Saigon” played the Broadway Theater for almost an entire decade (1991-2001) in its original production with huge sets, a superb cast, and a score by the team whose “Les Miserables” originally played at that same theater. Its producer, Cameron Macintosh, has returned to the piece, with a new director and a new design team, in the same theater for a limited run. This new production of the tale of the love between an American GI and a Vietnamese bar girl at the fall of Saigon is as lush and melodic as ever, but this director solves a few of the problems of the original, most remarkably finding a way so the famous scene of the flight of the last helicopter to evacuate the US embassy makes sense in the chronology of the play.
Often a show is crafted for a particular star, one who can sell tickets just on the strength of a name. We have a fine example of one crafted not for one but for two stars whom Broadway audiences have come to trust for a memorable evening of theater. Patti LuPone has been a star since 1980, when she won her first Tony Award as the title character in “Evita.” She won another in 2008 for the revival of “Gypsy” and has been nominated for the award five other times. Christine Ebersol also has two Tony awards, one for “42nd Street” and one for “Grey Gardens,” which was by the same playwright, lyricist, and composer as this new show. Ebersol plays cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden, while LuPone is her rival, Helena Rubinstein.
The women never actually met when battling for dominance in the cosmetics market, so many of the scenes of this colorful and tuneful show are spotlight moments for one or the other, or are duets set on opposite sides of the stage, until the climax when they are brought together for an imaginary encounter. Each star shines brightly, and the supporting male leads, John Dossett and Douglas Sills, are strong enough to hold their own.
One aspect of Broadway that rarely gets mentioned is the superb quality of the understudies who stand by to fill in if a star can’t go on. Washington audiences have long enjoyed the talents of Donna Migliaccio, co-founder of Arlington’s Signature Theatre and twice winner of our own Helen Hayes Award (with 11 additional nominations). She is currently understudying LuPone as Helena Rubinstein and has gone on in that role seven times. I’m sure that each time the announcement was made of LuPone’s absence, the audience felt disappointed. I’m equally certain that each time the audience left feeling they had seen something special.
Brad Hathaway covered theater for this newspaper for 10 years before retiring and moving to California to live with his wife on a houseboat in Sausalito.