UPDATE, 8 PM: Adds Paint Your Wagon review at end.
I think Elisabeth Moss was born to play Heidi Holland on Broadway. She couldn’t possibly have had better preparation than her role as Peggy Olson, the Mad Men character who entered the 1960s as a wallflower secretary and grew over the AMC series’ seven seasons into a force to contend with at the chimeric Sterling Cooper advertising agency. Had Peggy gone to college instead of to Madison Avenue, she might well have befriended Heidi, the smarty-pants art history major who rides the social roller coaster from the mid-’60s through the late 1980s — from proto-feminism through Clean for Gene to the Me Decade down, down into the Reagan era – in Wendy Wasserstein’s still remarkable 1988 play, The Heidi Chronicles.
Heidi knows what she’s about much earlier in life than Peggy did. The Heidi Chronicles opens in 1989 as the heroine lectures Columbia University students on prominent female artists from centuries past whose absence from standard art history texts belies their spectacular reputations among their contemporaries. How’d that happen? We quickly return to 1965, where Heidi’s journey begins, and when she meets the two most influential living characters in her life: “Scoop” Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs), a brilliant, caustically cynical nascent journalist, and Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham), Scoop’s anodyne, a smart, compassionate gay man who will become a workaholic pediatrician dedicated to children with AIDS.
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Played by Joan Allen in the original production of the Pulitzer-winning play, Heidi at once embodies and confronts evolving feminism as she lives through political campaigns, self-help groups and the one-percenter revolution heralded and embraced by Boomer, the trendy magazine founded by Scoop, who will sleep with Heidi but never marry someone so clearly his intellectual equal. Such women are just too much of a pain to deal with. And it’s Heidi who ends up — at least until the much-debated final scene — alone and feeling abandoned by both the men and the women of her generation.
I fear I’m making this seem much gloomier than it is. Few writers had this playwright’s comic gifts along with her authorial ferocity. Wasserstein, who died in 2006, lampooned with affection and empathy, and it’s equally easy to fall under the spell of the various women friends, notably those played by the terrific Tracee Chimo and Ali Ahn, in a succession of wigs to rival Keri Russell’s on The Americans.
Pam MacKinnon, just off the revival of A Delicate Balance, has staged the play with a light touch, a very good thing, and she is well served by the three stars. Moss wears vulnerability and determination with equal appeal; Biggs tops his terrific performance on Orange Is The New Black in subtlety and humor, and Pinkham has catching warmth as the caring doc. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are perfect, and Japhy Weideman’s lighting provides much of the atmosphere otherwise absent from John Lee Beatty’s uncharacteristically sterile sets.
I’m sure some will criticize The Heidi Chronicles as dated, but that strikes me as criticizing Selma on the same grounds, as if those once-crucial issues have faded or been resolved. What nonsense.
Disney Theatricals seems to love New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse ever since its tryout of Newsies turned into an unexpected Broadway hit. Now The Hunchback Of Notre Dame has opened there, following its premiere last year at the La Jolla Playhouse. The show, staged by Scott Schwartz, with dances by Chase Brock, expands the catalog of songs from the movie by Alan Menken (music) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) and a new book by Peter Parnell, replacing the 24 writers not including some guy named named Victor Hugo who were credited on the 1996 animated film’s screenplay.
The result is an admittedly darker affair, mostly because the talking gargoyles are more of a Greek chorus instead of the stand-ins for the film’s standard-issue Cute Jokey Disney Creatures. Also because of some large-scale choral music Menken has added and which is sung by the Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus, who sit or stand in the background of Alexander Dodge’s, um, Bell Epoch set, an imposing rough-hewn cross-section of the church tower, replete with outsize clangers and dangling knotted ropes.
The four principal characters are vibrantly well-played and gorgeously sung by Michael Arden in the title role; Ciara Renée as the beautiful Gypsy dancer Esmeralda; Patrick Page as the obsessed, unclean-thoughts-thinking priest Frollo; and Andrew Samonsky as the handsome smitten soldier Phoebus.
The biggest lesson of Hunchback is to remind one of just how remarkable an adaptation Les Miserables was, and is. Like it or loathe it, that show managed the so-far unrepeated feat of retelling a sprawling, dark narrative in Broadway terms both musically and visually, without seeming completely idiotic (remember A Tale Of Two Cities?). The Hunchback Of Notre Dame isn’t at all idiotic; it’s just not very good, and being darker than the film merely raises it from cartoon to illustrated novel. The big numbers are bombastic without being memorable and the story passes by only rarely touching the heart (a big thumbs up to Arden on that count), let alone the brain. Visually, however, it’s a knockout.
Encores! at City Center has done a smashing job with Paint Your Wagon, the latest in its series of semi-staged concerts of neglected shows. This 1951 Lerner & Loewe musical came between Brigadoon and My Fair Lady; it played on Broadway’s appetite for rowdy Westerns (Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun) and it could not be more un-politically correct. It’s set in a California gold-mining town and involves the auctioning of a spare Mormon wife, along with imported French “dancers” to calm the yearnings of female-starved rough boys.
But there’s also the sympathetic portrayal of a Mexican miner who falls in love with the young daughter of the main character and, well — who cares about the rest? This is the show that gave us “They Call The Wind Maria.”
Dated or not, Loewe’s soaring score is masterfully played by the Encores! orchestra under Rob Berman; the costumes by Alejo Vietti are sexy for the women, earthy for the men, and the staging by Marc Bruni — and especially the Agnes de Mille-inspired dancing by Denis Jones with a first-rate company, is exuberant.
Keith Carradine is ideal as Ben Rumson, the miner with a dream — no surprise as he’s made a specialty of such salty, gravel-voiced, good-hearted types. And Justin Guarini is most sympathetic as Julio, the young Mexican lover. But the real discovery is Alexandra Socha, a charmer who, as Ben’s daughter Jennifer, manages the uneasy transition from querulous tomboy to young romantic lead with simple grace and a wonderful, singular soprano that’s warm even at full cry. “I Talk To The Trees,” her Act I duet with Julio, is reason enough to put this very brief run on your to-do list this weekend.
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