Yes dear reader, Mrs Chrisparkle and I snuck in a quick weekend to New York a few days ago, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hit Broadway. I think it’s actually the law that a tourist must go and see at least one Broadway show every two days they are in New York. So by seeing two shows in two days we admirably covered our legal obligations.
With a plethora of choices, I whittled it down to a few, and the first to come up lucky trumps was It Shoulda Been You (I know, American grammar), at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, originally the Mansfield Theatre, which was renamed in 1960 after the New York Times Drama Critic. I wonder if any theatre will be renamed the Chrisparkle in years to come? No, I don’t suppose so either. Anyway it’s a beautiful ornate theatre and our seats were slap bang in the middle of the third row of the Mezzanine – that’s Row C of the Dress Circle to you and me – and they give you a superbly clear view of the stage.
The book and lyrics are by Brian Hargrove, and it’s directed by David Hyde Pierce, best known to us Brits as Niles from Frasier. Funnily enough, we saw Mr Hyde Pierce the last time we saw a show on Broadway, in the rather irritating Curtains, back in 2008. Mr Hyde Pierce and Mr Hargrove are also married to each other. So I think it’s fair to say this is falls under the category of “joint enterprise – keeping it in the family”. That can sometimes be an uncomfortable category, when one partner just hasn’t got the heart to tell the other partner that their contribution to the project sucks. Or, indeed, that the whole project sucks. Believe me, we’ve seen a few like that.
But fortunately no such conversation need take place in the Hyde Pierce/Hargrove household because the show is a complete delight. Played for laughs, you could summarise it as Hilarious New York Jewish Wedding Disaster, but there’s more to it than that. Rebecca Steinberg is getting married to Brian Howard, and the families have hired this swanky hotel for the day. Rebecca’s horrendously sniping mother Judy, and Brian’s horrendously snooty mother Georgette, don’t see eye to eye on much. Good news, then, that they have a miracle worker of a wedding planner in the form of Albert, to make sure that wrinkles are kept to the minimum. There’s an ex-boyfriend too, Marty, who discovers the wedding is taking place at the last minute, and who has no compunction about gatecrashing. And there’s Jenny, Rebecca’s sister, always the bridesmaid and never the bride, made to feel as wretched and irrelevant as possible by Judy’s tactless tongue. As you can imagine, there are last minute hitches, embarrassing moments, brides in hiding, in-laws getting drunk, and all the usual rough and tumble of a difficult wedding shebang. Somehow, the happy couple make it, and become Mr and Mrs Howard. And just as you thought they were going to live happily ever after…. I wouldn’t dream of telling you what comes next, but as Albert the wedding planner says, to a wave of hysteria from the audience, “well, I didn’t see that one coming!”
This is a show that definitely puts laughter and entertainment first. It’s great to look at, there are some funny and well performed songs, and it’s full of recognisable characters who, almost without exception, remain believable and don’t stray into caricature. It doesn’t go too deep in its soul-searching and whilst it has some interesting things to say about modern marriage and relationships in general, it does keep its nose well above water and comes out showbiz-tapping the morse code (figuratively speaking) whenever it can.
Anna Louizos’ set design is a delicious multi-layered, multi-storeyed affair, easily suggesting at least eight rooms and a landing at any given time; and I really liked the corridor effect between the downstairs front and rear rooms which enables characters to move left or right through the set whilst remaining partly visible, thereby linking all the different stage areas together at the same time. William Ivey Long’s costumes look smashing, giving him plenty of scope to provide Sunday-best wedding outfits and opportunity for couture-based one-upmanship between any warring parties. Lawrence Yurman’s orchestra give the music light punchiness and musical tricks to keep the party sparky. All in all, it’s a show with very high production values.
The cast work seamlessly together to create a busy ensemble of to-ing and fro-ing wedding guests and participants, but there are a few star performers who really light up the show whenever they’re on. Heading the cast (and, we admit, the main reason for choosing to see this show) is Tyne Daly, one of Mrs C’s heroines when she was a wee girl (she was glued to Cagney and Lacey in her formative years). We haven’t seen Miss Daly live before and she’s a complete hoot. As the combustible Judy, she throws herself into delightful scenes of calculating viciousness and pretend self-effacement, with effortlessly brilliant comic timing. There’s a slight element of pantomime in the way she occasionally catches the audience’s eye to let us know she’s about to do something outrageous, but that just adds to the fun. The audience adores her, and I must say, I did too.
As her opposite in the mother-in-law-from-hell stakes, Harriet Harris takes on the role of Georgette with one hand keeping her hair coiffured and the other clutching a gin and tonic. It’s a wonderfully funny performance, giving her two personas to play with: the rather wretched wife and mother, clinging on to the wreckage with alcoholic support, wallowing in her attempts to stop her son from marrying just so that she can have him all to herself, sticking with her equally manipulative husband just for the sex; and the posh, point-scoring social animal, regarding having her hair done by anyone other than Elsie as simply beneath her, ready to outsmart the Steinbergs at all opportunities, and to take joy in their discomfort. Despite having been in loads of shows over the years, Miss Harris is new to me but what a fun and assured stage performer she is.
Lisa Howard is fantastic as Jenny, the older sister with a beautiful heart but not (as Judy will point out) the classic figure to accompany it. She has a wonderful singing voice and she easily gets the audience on her side in her battles for what’s right. She is matched perfectly by Sierra Boggess as Rebecca; the essence of sweet and charming, also with a magnificent voice. Josh Grisetti makes his Broadway debut as Marty, and it’s going to look great on his CV. A funny, athletic performance – you can feel the audience cheer up whenever he enters the stage. If he can get the girl, any of us can – a shining beacon of hope for us all. As Albert, Edward Hibbert gets many of the best lines and squeezes as much fun as possible out of them, oozing over the top campness to great comic effect. But the whole cast give an excellent performance and it’s impossible to come out of this show without laughing your head off on the way back home. It’s due to close on August 9th, so if you are in New York, do yourself a favour and book. It’s much, much more than just a “wedding gone wrong” show.
P.S. The performance takes approximately 100 minutes – without an intermission. Regular readers might remember that I really like my intervals wherever possible. It’s an opportunity to move around, have a drink, pop to the loo and discuss the show with your nearest and dearest. It also makes more of an occasion of the show by making it last a little longer, as well as being good for the theatre’s shop/bar/snacks sales. There were two moments in this show where an interval would have fitted in perfectly. Alas, they didn’t take that opportunity.
P.P.S. It’s really fascinating to compare British and American audiences. American audiences get so much more wrapped up in what’s happening on stage and will react more audibly and with greater vitality than us Brits. There were several moments during this show when the audience simply couldn’t contain their joy at what they were seeing on stage – and where a British audience member would simply have thought to themselves “oh yes, jolly well done”. I know that, on Broadway, if you don’t get a standing ovation at the end of the show, basically you’ve done something seriously wrong. But for me, this show fully deserved its S.O.
The brilliant production photographs are courtesy of Joan Marcus.