After a season of uncommonly strong programming — including tours of The Color Purple, Frost/Nixon, and Avenue Q — Broadway Across America has taken a big step backward. Though we’ve not sunk so low as the annus horribilis of 2007, BAA is again programming a previously seen production on their (putatively) new subscription series, just as they did with Mamma Mia. But I ask you: Is every subscriber really clamoring for a return of the The Lion King as a mandatory show? Oh, I suppose that a third grader might now appreciate the Shakespearian/Oedipal underpinnings of Simba’s struggle with Scar, an aperçu that eluded him in his more innocent kindergarten years; or that a middle-schooler may newly appreciate Julie Taymor’s incorporation of Asian puppetry techniques now that she’s all of 11. But wouldn’t we be better off if The Lion King were offered as an option for subscribers and their kids (like the re-return of Mamma Mia and Riverdance)? This isn’t, after all, some sort of dramatic re-envisioning of Taymor’s The Lion King, a postmodern deconstruction exposing the sinews of the original tale and blinding us with the novelty of its theatrical vision. It’s the same goddam show we just saw. We’re theater-lovers, not amnesiacs.
A perk of subscription seasons in other cities is that the productions are recent and fresh, and there are plenty of touring productions that could have taken Lion King’s place. For instance, the astounding alt-rock musical Spring Awakening won’t be making a pass through the Alamo City even though its central theme — of adolescents screwed over by their parents’ unwillingness to discuss the mechanics, much less the consequences, of sex — is perfect for Texas and its skyrocketing teen birth rate. In all sincerity, I believe that there’s no better musical for parents and teenagers to share together (Sarah and Bristol Palin, for instance): It tackles pressing social issues with unblinking honesty and a respect for the complicated emotional impulses of teenagers. Spring Awakening is wise, harrowing, artistic, and not playing at the Majestic.
Likewise for the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’s ferociously entertaining Oklahoma soap opera. Sort of like Eugene O’Neill on laughing gas, Letts’s play explores the downfall of the Weston family during its fateful titular month; the piece includes several marvelous roles for women as well as the most corrosive matriarch since Livia. Originating at Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater, this bracing tour-de-force of a touring show won’t be at the Majestic, either.
You would think that a Latino-themed production would be a natural for a Broadway Across San Antonio theater season, but you’d be wrong and — like me — sobbing into your Dos Equis. In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical of life in Washington Heights, will be enjoyed, for instance, in the vibrant Latino mecca of Appleton, Wisconsin, but not, alas, in San Antonio.
I could expand the list, but I think my point is clear: Superior productions are going elsewhere, even (perhaps especially) those of obvious interest to San Antonians. Besides The Lion King — again — what is coming to San Antonio? Well, 101 Dalmations, the penetrating exploration of the ethics of taxidermy, swings through in May. Something called RAIN: A Tribute to the Beatles plays the Majestic in October, but it’s unclear how this will differ from last year’s tour of 1964 … The Tribute. (Superior punctuation, I guess.) Young Frankenstein, the follow-up to Mel Brooks’s The Producers, boasts a few jaw- and ear- and limb-dropping production numbers, but even director Susan Stroman can’t salvage the terrible book and lyrics, which revolve almost entirely around penis and hooter jokes. (And I like penis and hooter jokes. Sprinkle in some vaginal puns, with all the trimmings, and we’ve the Holy Trinity of lowbrow humor. And if you like my pun on vaginal trimming, then you should probably get tickets to Young Frankenstein asap.)
Happily, there are a couple of genuinely worthwhile productions making the rounds. Maria Aitken’s astonishingly inventive direction of The 39 Steps elevates this British quick-change spoof to seriously funny satire: Four actors reenact the entire script of Hitchcock’s 1935 cinematic thriller, including plenty of gender-bending costumes and a delirious chase aboard a speeding train. I caught both the London and Broadway incarnations, and while I’m worried that the touring production might be swallowed whole by the mammoth size of the Majestic, this should be high on any prospective theatergoer’s list. Bartlett Sher’s revival of the warhorse South Pacific might seem a worrying proposition, but the New York reviews have been rapturous; at the least, it will provide an excuse to wash the men right out of our hair. Perhaps, even, to send them on their way.
I anticipate that probable responses to my kvetching are 1) times are hard; 2) commercial theater always appeals to the lowest common denominator; 3) San Antonio audiences actually prefer to see the same shows over and over (for example, the Greater Tuna tetralogy; 4) etc., etc., etc. The fact remains that many of “the finest national touring productions” are not coming to San Antonio, whatever the rhetoric on BAA’s website. The unconscionable reengagement of a previously seen show demonstrates that Broadway Across America doesn’t yet trust its audience — or its city — to deliver new or challenging fare. This time around, The Lion King enters San Antonio not with a roar — but a yawn.
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