NEW YORK — Suffering from the midwinter blues? Why not take the Broadway cure? Excuses for a Gotham getaway abound — this week Valentine’s Day, then Presidents’ Day, and school vacation. Herewith, a guide to some shows that are definitely worth the trip, and aren’t impossible to get into:
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s stylishly loopy revival of Rupert
Holmes’s 1987 musical murder mystery washes over you in torrents of flat-out fun. (Remember fun?) Based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens and starring Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, and Chita Rivera, “Drood’’ is a play-within-a-play in which a London troupe of Victorian-era music hall performers enacts a tale of love, obsession, betrayal, and various murky doings.
These include the unexplained disappearance of the title character (played by Block), who is betrothed to the fair Rosa Bud, portrayed by the excellent Betsy Wolfe. She turns the ballad “Moonfall’’ into a thing of shiver-inducing beauty, though Holmes’s score is more typically built on pop hooks or raucous sing-alongs. Tunes like “There You Are,’’ “The Wages of Sin,’’ “No Good Can Come From Bad,’’ and “Settling Up the Score’’ also showcase his knack for clever, tongue-twisting lyrics; he’s obviously studied his W.S. Gilbert.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Since Dickens died before he could tell readers whodunit, Holmes allows the audience to slip into the role of author by voting on the identity of the murderer. It’s not a bad gimmick, but the real kick lies in watching the cast — 21st-century actors playing 19th-century actors — seize their chance to ham it up. They flare their nostrils; they suddenly freeze in attitudes of cartoon villainy; they deliver bad jokes as if declaiming lines by Oscar Wilde.
A mutton-chopped Chase, as Drood’s opium-crazed uncle Jasper, entertainingly hisses and leers his way through “A Man Could Go Quite Mad.’’ Block acquits herself well as Drood, but really shines as the haughty actress who plays Drood and stalks out of the theater — clutching her small dog — after her character is eliminated in the first act. Jim Norton, as the emcee of the performance, perpetually breaks the fourth wall by offering gossipy tidbits to the audience about the music-hall performers or grandly intoning, “We must not stop this dramatic momentum we’re building here.’’
I personally wouldn’t dream of it. In fact, when a young spectator two rows ahead of me bounced up and down in delight during “Drood,’’ only middle-aged restraint kept me from doing the same.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
Edward Albee’s 1962 drama of scorched-earth marital warfare is one of the great American plays. For a reminder of its continuing power to startle, check out a ferocious Steppenwolf Theatre Company production, directed by Albee favorite Pam MacKinnon, that makes “God of Carnage’’ look like a pillow fight.
Yet there is compassion, too, in MacKinnon’s vision of the play, especially evident in Amy Morton’s portrayal of Martha. She is not the braying virago Elizabeth Taylor depicted in the 1966 film version of “Virginia Woolf,’’ but an empathetic figure, retreating into self-delusion after years of disappointment. When Martha surveys the home she shares with her husband George and remarks, “What a dump,’’ her tone is not contemptuous but rueful, almost defeated. But the actress also captures Martha’s appetite for psychological combat as matters escalate between her and George over a long and boozy night. Martha knows how, when, and where to plunge in the knife for maximum injury.
However, it is George, portrayed by the actor-playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County’’), who seems in control here. As he sizes up and draws out Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon), the young couple who’ve made the mistake of accepting an invitation for drinks, George has the air of a malevolent chess master, waiting for an opening to pounce. Yet an undercurrent of self-loathing is always threatening to push its way to the surface, as if George knows deep down that he is exactly what Martha, in her cruelest moments, says he is. You can’t — you don’t dare — take your eyes off him. If Letts is not nominated for a Tony Award for this brilliant, shattering performance, someone ought to convene a grand jury.
ALIVE & KICKING!
“Oh, it’s so mean!’’ a guy behind me exclaimed midway through a performance of this satirical off-Broadway revue. He sounded absolutely delighted. You will be, too.
Unless, that is, you’re Bernadette Peters, or Matthew Broderick, or Sutton Foster, or Catherine Zeta-Jones, or Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Al Pacino, or any of the other performers whose mannerisms, egos, blind spots, and general excesses are so skillfully lampooned by writer Gerard Alessandrini and a cast of four.
But Alessandrini, a Needham native who attended the Boston Conservatory of Music and launched the “Forbidden Broadway’’ series 31 years ago, has never just been about the takedown. The best editions of “Forbidden Broadway’’ — and this is definitely one of the best — use the power of satire to hold the Great White Way to account for a slippage in its standards: to, in effect, sing truth to power.
At the performance I attended, Jenny Lee Stern, as Peters, sang “In Stephen’s Eyes’’ to the tune of “In Buddy’s Eyes,’’ from “Follies,’’ tweaking both the big-name stars who insist on playing roles for which they’re not suited and the big-name creative types who let them. (Stern was recently replaced in the cast by Lindsay Nicole Chambers.) Natalie Charle Ellis, as Mary Poppins, sang “Feed the Burbs’’ to the tune of “Feed the Birds,’’ mocking Broadway’s focus on tourist-friendly schlock. That tendency to dumb down is also the focus of a “Rock of Ages’’ spoof: “We filled this city with NASCAR shows.’’
The solemn self-importance of “Once’’ takes a hit, as does the charisma-free performance by Elena Roger in the revival of “Evita.’’ Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the stratospherically priced “The Book of Mormon,’’ are the targets of an especially biting number, which takes them to task for greed and charges them with another offense, too: an attempt to “murder good taste.’’
SILENCE! THE MUSICAL.
Seldom does good taste get in the way of this singing, dancing, deliciously deranged off-Broadway parody of “The Silence of the Lambs.’’ As for murder, well . . .
Pamela Bob, playing FBI agent Clarice Starling, lisps her way through a hilarious Jodie Foster impersonation as the pop-eyed Clarice pursues a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill (a genuinely creepy David Ayers) with the assistance of the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter (Sean McDermott), a mastermind with a perpetual case of the munchies.
Director and choreographer Christopher Gattelli misses no opportunity to concoct loony scenarios, from a chorus line of tap-dancing lambs to a dream ballet for Clarice and Hannibal that unfolds as a cockeyed homage to another exclamation-point musical, “Oklahoma!’’
“Silence!’’ librettist Hunter Bell, of Broadway’s “[title of show]’’ fame, sticks remarkably close to the script of the 1991 film but bends its moments of horror into humor, punctuated by gleefully unhinged songs by Jon and Al Kaplan, including an ode to Clarice by Hannibal and an ode by Buffalo Bill to himself, neither of which has a printable title. This is probably a good time to mention that “Silence!’’ is emphatically not for young children. The theater warns that its language, partial nudity, and thematic material “may not be deemed appropriate for children under the age of 14.’’
The plucky orphan who conquered Broadway more than 35 years ago, while melting the heart of billionaire industrialist Oliver “Daddy’’ Warbucks, has returned in a snappy production directed by James Lapine.
While Lilla Crawford won’t make anyone forget Andrea McArdle, who played the title role in the original 1977 production, she is fine as Annie. She vigorously belts out “Tomorrow, ’’ the national anthem of optimists. She teams up to good effect with the other tykes in the orphanage for a high-spirited “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,’’ and tugs the heartstrings with “Maybe,’’ as Annie imagines the parents she’s never met.
But the best reason to see this “Annie’’ is Katie Finneran’s endlessly inventive performance as Miss Hannigan, the sour pickle who runs the orphanage. Finneran’s Miss Hannigan is cartoonish enough to be funny and human enough to be poignant, and the actress blends both qualities in her tour de force performance of “Little Girls,’’ bewailing her loveless lot: “Some women are dripping with diamonds/ Some women are dripping with pearls/ Lucky me! Lucky me! Look at what I’m dripping with/ Little girls . . .’’
There’s a timeliness to Lapine’s production, set in 1933, the depth of the Great Depression, and aimed at an audience still emerging from the Great Recession. In one scene, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Cabinet join Annie in a lusty rendition of “Tomorrow,’’ and FDR is so inspired by the curly-haired orphan’s can-do gumption that he comes up with the idea for the New Deal on the spot. If a single show tune can do that, just imagine what a theatrical sojourn could do for a case of the midwinter blues.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
At: Booth Theatre,
222 W. 45th St., New York,
through March 3.
FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: ALIVE & KICKING!
At: 47th Street Theatre,
304 W. 47th St., New York,
through April 28.
SILENCE! THE MUSICAL
At: Elektra Theatre, 669 Eighth Ave., New York.
At: Palace Theatre,
1564 Broadway, New York.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.