Broadway's Bread & Butter: Musicals

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The King and I

At the Neil Simon Theatre

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Recommended: Default

At the St. James Theatre

State Fair

At the Music Box Theatre

You've heard all the hoopla about such "revolutionary" musical creations as "Rent" and "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk." But the real bread and butter of Broadway is classic musicals - revived, revised, gussied up, and enlivened with star power.

This spring season is no exception, with two works by Rodgers and Hammerstein and one by Stephen Sondheim returning to the boards.

To dispense with the obvious question first, no, Lou Diamond Phillips is not Yul Brynner, but he acquits himself nicely in the new Broadway revival of "The King and I," one of R&H's beloved classics. He brings a strong sense of presence to the role, acts in suitably intense kingly fashion, and, what's more, he's got the torso for it.

This $5.5-million production, which began life in Australia, proves once again that they do everything big Down Under. It's a large-scale, strikingly gorgeous show, so lavish in production values that it wouldn't look out of place at the Metropolitan (either the opera house or museum). Brian Thomson's sets, Roger Kirk's costumes, and Nigel Levings's lighting coalesce to re- create 1860s Bangkok in all its glittery splendor.

The atmosphere begins even before the show does, with spectacular stage curtains framed by a frieze depicting giant elephants, costumed monks offering prayers in the side boxes, and incense wafting over the crowd.

The musical has been staged with a precision and rigor that drains some of the fun out of it, however, (the director has extensive opera experience, and it shows). Although everyone remembers the show's exoticism, and the beauty of one of R&H's best scores (there are at least seven certified standards), what's often forgotten is how funny Hammerstein's book is.

The tentative, unconsummated romance between Anna and the King is marvelous in its subtle humor. Here, both the comedy and the necessary tension receive short shrift.

This is partly due to co-star Donna Murphy. Although she is a generally fine Anna, she seems even more buttoned up than the character requires. Another problem: With Lou Diamond Phillips's youthful appearance, the show seems more like "The Prince and I."

Still, there are numerous pleasures, and the "March of the Siamese Children" is as much of a crowd-pleaser as ever, with the most adorable moppets seen on a Broadway stage since "Annie." It's nice to have "The King and I" back on Broadway, in a convincing demonstration that the show does indeed have life after Yul.

If there were any doubts about whether Nathan Lane is now officially a star, they were erased with the tumultuous reception he received as he stepped onstage at the beginning of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

The comic actor could almost be the long lost son of Zero Mostel, who originated the part in the 1962 Broadway production. Lane has always resembled Mostel in his outsized comic style and mannerisms, and his performance here, in which there is no small amount of borrowing, serves as an homage to his predecessor.

"Forum" is a broad farce, practically vaudevillian in its humor. The comedy is set in ancient Rome and concerns the furious attempts of Pseudolus (Lane), a slave, to win his freedom by procuring the virgin next door for the young son of his masters. The plot, which is filled with cases of mistaken identity, frantic chases, misbegotten schemes, and elaborate deceptions, is much less important than the constant gags, both visual and verbal, provided by book writers Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove.

This was the first Broadway show for which Sondheim contributed both music and lyrics, and his score, with the exception of "Comedy Tonight," isn't one of his most memorable.

But the lyrics have a wonderful cleverness, and songs such as "Lovely" and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" serve the show beautifully.

The broad humor won't appeal to all tastes, and wears thin by the end of the evening, but director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Rob Marshall have staged the piece with remarkable precision, getting the maximum comic mileage out of the material. The very first number is the classic "Comedy Tonight," and it is hard to imagine it any funnier. Staged with a smashing ebullience and enough sight gags for a dozen silent comedies, it is a wonderful beginning to the evening.

Zaks has surrounded Lane with a cast filled with expert farceurs, including Mark Linn-Baker as the beleaguered fellow-slave Hysterium (two of his numbers, "I'm Calm" and "Lovely," are comic highlights); Lewis J. Stadlen as the lusty senior citizen Senex; Mary Testa as his shrewish wife, Domina; and Ernie Sabella (who, along with Lane, provided one of the hyena voices in Disney's film "The Lion King") as Lycus.

But it is Lane who is the centerpiece here, and he provides a masterly comic turn, practically redefining the word "aggrieved" with his battery of slow burns, double takes, and hysterical shtick.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's "State Fair" is not officially a revival, but it might as well be.

Technically, it has never been done onstage before; it exists in two film versions (1945 and 1962).

This production feels like a retread, though, due to the familiarity of the story: Members of the Frake family of Iowa make a bid to win grand prizes at the Des Moines State Fair with their favorite pig and their mincemeat pie.

The songs are familiar too: "It Might as Well be Spring," "Our State Fair," "It's a Grand Night for Singing," taken not only from the film but also from the R&H catalog.

Unfortunately, "State Fair" is not one of the stronger R&H confections, and this pleasant but uninspired production, which toured the country extensively, simply isn't up to Broadway standards.

Performers such as John Davidson, Kathryn Crosby, and Andrea McArdle, affable as they may be, don't have the star wattage or the charisma to make the creaky material come alive.

The only relief comes from the dancing of Donna McKechnie and Scott Wise, who in their production numbers display enough energy and charm to show why they can't be kept down on the farm.

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