The Tony Awards can be useful in guiding a visitor trying to pick out a musical to see on Broadway – a position more Canadians are finding themselves back in again this month now that border restrictions have been lifted.
But the stamp of approval from Antoinette “Tony” Perry is far from failsafe.
Skepticism is perhaps especially warranted in the case of the very strange 2020 Tony Awards, which finally took place in the fall of 2021.
This most recent batch was handed out in celebration of a 2019-2020 season cut short by the pandemic – the process was postponed to the point that voters were picking winners based on long-term memories.
Moulin Rouge!, a stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s cult 2001 pop-opera movie set in an anachronistic 1899 Paris, ended up with the much-coveted best new musical award, beating out Jagged Little Pill, a jukebox musical steeped in suburban angst and based around Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette’s classic 1995 album (with a few new songs thrown in).
Was that the right call?
Well, any ticket-buying tourist entering the Al Hirschfeld Theatre to see Moulin Rouge! will immediately feel that they’ve got their money’s worth on one level.
Derek McLane’s candy-box set overflows into the audience such that it’s like taking a seat at a chic and sexy Cirque du Soleil-inspired club.
Alex Timbers, the erstwhile off-Broadway hipster director who’s now regularly put in charge of big Broadway shows, has assembled one of the more visually sumptuous spectacles ever seen outside of Las Vegas.
When a quartet of triple threats (including Canada’s Jeigh Madjus in drag) break into Lady Marmalade at the top of the show, it’s like a rocket taking off.
But, unfortunately, the show starts to feel like its running on fin-de-siècle fumes not long after.
The plot is a collection of purposeful cliché. American songwriter Christian (Schmigadoon’s Aaron Tveit, who won a Tony, unopposed, for his performance – it was a strange year!) arrives in Montmartre and befriends a group of self-professed Bohemians led by artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah).
They take him to a fictionalized Moulin Rouge on the brink of bankruptcy – where Christian falls in love with the consumptive courtesan-cum-can-can dancer Satine (Natalie Mendoza).
Satine, as it happens, is also the object of obsession of the rich Duke of Montroth (a charismatically cruel Tam Matu), who agrees to back a brand-new show with songs by Christian – as long as he can continue to liaise with its leading lady.
Luhrmann’s movie distinguished itself from musicals past (or since) by having characters sing mash-ups of hits, rather than new songs or complete pre-existing ones.
The original mega-mixes have been savvily updated for the stage here with hits from the last 20 years by a team of expert orchestrators. Lady Gaga, Outkast, Postal Service, Adele, Beyonce – if you don’t like one of the songs or its style, wait five seconds and another will arrive.
In theory, creating a collage of lyrics from different tunes could communicate character and story more effectively than the full songs found out-of-context in other jukebox musicals.
In practice, however, what’s sung in Moulin Rouge! is hard to find meaning in, and great songs that have their own internal integrity are reduced to mere choruses or riffs.
It’s all sample, no substance – though I’d gladly fire up the cast album on a long car ride.
The script by John Logan (Red) that stitches the songs together is neither particularly funny, nor romantic – and the actors, Tveit especially, often seem adrift when not forced to schtick it up.
Mendoza, who replaced the original Tony-nominated Satine when Broadway reopened this fall, is an exception – an eccentric performer who shines bright like a diamond, indeed.
And an honourable mention goes to Ricky Rojas, who plays an aficionado of the tango named Santiago who shows what real passion looks like, unwittingly exposing its absence in the central coupling.
Jagged Little Pill, playing at the Broadhurst and directed by Diane Paulus, is no doubt a much less slick enterprise. The premise has certainly been done to death: Meet the Healys, a suburban family of four who aren’t as perfect as their Christmas letter suggests.
Though set in the present day, the musical features a chorus of backing dancers styled in the most embarrassing of nineties fashion who create the world around the main characters. They play uptight yoga moms or high-school students in a cartoonish way that reminded me of Morissette’s second-most significant artistic accomplishment – the TV series You Can’t Do That on Television.
Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody’s Tony-winning book is strong in some areas, but weak in others.
The plotline about the white Healy family’s bisexual Black daughter Frankie (Morgan Dudley) – and a love triangle she finds herself in with the gender-questioning Jo (Lauren Patten) and new boy in town Phoenix (Adi Roy) – takes up a lot of space.
But it only seems to skims the surface of the subjects it raises, especially interracial adoption. That is something Morissette’s music does not speak to in any genuine way. (Patton, a wonderfully magnetic performer, does turn You Oughta Know into a genuine showstopper, however.)
Jagged Little Pill finds power instead in a plot about sexual assault. Bella (Kathryn Gallagher), an acquaintance of overachieving Healy son Nick (Derek Klena), is raped while intoxicated at a high-school party.
This elicits complex feelings in Nick’s mom Mary Jane, who was subject to a similar assault in college that she has blamed for herself for and tried to brush off.
Mary Jane is torn between protecting her bystander son and her reawakened thirst for justice – all of this complicated by her addiction to opioids following a car accident.
Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui movingly uses doubling to depict the out-of-body feelings of post-traumatic stress disorder, allowing both Bella and Mary Jane at times to observe themselves from the outside.
I saw Heidi Blickenstaff, the actor now alternating with Tony nominee Elizabeth Stanley, in the role of Mary Jane; she gave an astonishingly raw performance that was also full of humour.
Jagged’s second act had me a quivering mess of emotion throughout – and the way Cody refuses to tie everything up in an neat bow is admirable dramaturgy.
If you want a bit of gorgeous escapism, Moulin Rouge! won’t disappoint. But if you like to leave the theatre feeling as though you’ve been turned backwards and inside out, Jagged Little Pill is the show to see.
It may not last as long on Broadway, but here’s hoping Canada will soon see a Toronto production or even a tour, given David Mirvish is an investor.
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