Garrett Stack's Theater Reviews

I use a 5-star rating system: 
*  don’t bother
**  some redeeming qualities
*** pretty good especially if you like who’s on stage 
**** excellent artistically and technically 
***** one of those must see shows (rare rating)

"Thoroughly Modern Milly"

*** I keep hearing about the need to escape from the swirling world events that seem to consume all the oxygen around me. If that sounds like you, then head to Goodspeed Opera House in East  Haddam, Connecticut for a dose of laughs and silliness, madcap hijinks and a tuneful score all rolled into one in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” This well-produced musical, nothing less than what we’ve come to expect from Goodspeed, provides the comedy, music and stagecraft that makes a theater outing something to enjoy.

It’s 1922 speakeasy New York and Millie Dillmount, played by the perky and talented Taylor Quick, arrives at Penn Station from rural America to be “modern.” First thing she does is get a bob haircut and ditch her dumpy frock. Her plan is to marry a really rich guy and live the life of luxury. Ms. Quick opens the show with the rousing anthem to shed her old self singing “Not For The Life Of Me” and then is quickly joined by other moderns for the title song “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Not only does the music rev us up for the rest of the show, we’re also struck by Gregory Gale’s spectacular costumes and sets by Paul Tate de Poo.

But then the plot gets bogged down and Act 1 seems to go on forever. Characters and twists, nefarious deeds by an Asian landlady and her Asian thugs, a runaway dizzy white heiress, a destitute romantic, and more convolute the first half of the show. Luckily a lift comes during the first act when Trevor Graydon, the rich business man who Millie has her eye on, tests her stenography skills in a hysterical musical romp called “The Speed Test.” Mr. Graydon is played by Edward Watts who was last seen as Thomas Jefferson in Goodspeed’s renowned production of “1776.”

With Act 1 behind us, and a quiet intermission lacking the usual enthusiastic buzz, Act 2 gets underway and so does redemption. All that exposition in Act 1 starts to make sense as Millie finds herself falling for the not-rich Jimmy. She can’t seem to stop the feeling but he’s not in her plan. Ms. Quick opens the act with a bright reading of “Forget About the Boy” trying to squelch her emotions. Later she sings “Gimme, Gimme” that cements her feelings about the boy she’s trying to forget. Her voice is powerful and clear. Another highlight comes while the gang meets up at Café Society where Muzzy, the de rigueur black chanteuse, played by Broadway vet Ramona Keller, delivers “Long As I’m Here With You.”

As the show’s parts come together at the end, mistaken identities, misunderstood intentions, twists and happy endings sent my head reeling delightfully. But the overall experience was just lukewarm.
Sometimes I see shows and I am taken to places I never thought possible. That’s a thrilling experience. Sometimes I see shows that I want to end now, or very occasionally I leave at intermission. Other times I see shows that are good, entertaining, have all the right elements, capable Equity casts, first-rate performances, fine musical direction but they just don’t wow me. As I saw it, this is the case with “Millie” at Goodspeed.

“Thoroughly Modern Millie” is in performance at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut through July 2.  (May 11, 2017 Press Opening.)

 "Come From Away"

*****  I don’t know about you, but I feel we are living through terrible times. It’s us vs. them. Them vs. us. The word we is absent. The word help is stricken. The phrase give a damn is obsolete.

On Broadway an antidote to this poison has come from away. People are sucking up this antidote like precious morsels of food in a famine.

I will start at the end and tell you why this is so. At the end of the brand new Broadway musical called “Come From Away,” the last note was sung, the lights went to black, in two seconds the cast assembled in one line on stage and the lights came back to full. In a massive spontaneous roar, the capacity-plus crowd leapt to its feet and cheered, wept and hollered. What is all this about?

On the surface “Come From Away” is a new musical that tells the story connected to 9/11/2001 when 38 jumbo trans-Atlantic jets heading to the United States were forced to land at Gander International Airport, Newfoundland, Canada. Gander, a town of just 10,000, had 7,000 stranded passengers sitting on the tarmac.

In a spontaneous, unquestioning act of selflessness, the Newfoundlanders took 7,000 tired, hungry, scared people into their towns, their converted schools-turned-shelters, churches and their homes. The 7,000 passengers did not even know why they were forced to land in Gander. It would be five days before the US airspace reopened.  The unfolding story of those five days is what “Come From Away” is about.

Below the surface, this show is the inspiring story of human beings at their best – the ideal demonstration of peace on Earth, good will toward men. The cast of 16 is an ensemble effort with everyone and no one being the “star.” This cast plays myriad characters. At first they’re Canadian residents getting the news at Tim Horton’s that 38 jets are about to touch down, then passengers and crew on the plane. Then local officials like the teacher, the police officer, the mayor, the school bus driver, the air traffic controller, and the veterinarian. And then on to individual characters with their own unique true stories. All this is tied together with music, lyrical narrative and stagecraft that propels the story without letup. 

There are laughs of course, sighs and sadness, but throughout the entire 100-minute, no-intermission show we wept tears of joy for witnessing human behavior at its best. Let me repeat that, human behavior at its best.

Come from away, wherever you are, and don’t miss this true story that explodes on Broadway. Act fast.

"A Bronx Tale" 

**** A Bronx Tale is a new musical, an adaptation of the 1993 film of the same name, with music added by the very capable Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. Worth noting, the film was directed and starred Robert De Niro. De Niro joins Jerry Zaks in directing this stage version. 1950s Bronx streets protected by the Italian-American mob set the scene for conflict between good and bad, crime vs. morality. Racial tensions, choosing to do the right or wrong thing, and looking beneath the surface of somewhat familiar characters fill the plot. With a cast of 30, powerful performances by the leads, something to say, and a score that is very accessible make this a good bet for a night out.

"Sunset Boulevard"

***** This London to Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s 1994 seven-Tony-winning Sunset Boulevard, based on the 1950 film noir of the same name, is the story of a screenwriter hired to rework a silent film star’s script who finds himself developing a dangerous relationship. Much touted, this musical revival is worth the hype for two reasons: Glenn Close reprising her Tony-winning role as Norma Desmond and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s rich and melodic score. 

Glenn Close is more age-appropriate and I feel more believable this time around. Her acting is, well, what else can be said about this national treasure. She delivers two showstoppers in full voice that simply bring the house down and indeed stop the show: With “One Look” in Act 1, and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” in Act 2 – worth the price of admission. That’s not to say the other performers like Michael Xavier as screenwriter Joe Gillis don’t add plenty to the show, it’s just Miss Close is larger than life.

As for the music and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, it is a sumptuous banquet for the ears. Soaring and sweeping, intimate and quiet, and downright hardy-party, the onstage 38-piece orchestra is the other star of the show. A 38-piece actual orchestra with real instruments is unheard of in today’s musicals because it is considered cost-prohibitive. It’s a very rare treat on Broadway.

One tiny criticism: lots of exposition in Act 1 made it slow starting before the welcomed phenomenal eruption of sight, sound and emotion.  It’s a limited run as the cast has come directly from the London production. It is set to close on June 25. This is one of those don’t miss shows.

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