Bombs and (bleached) blondes

Our preview of Broadway Across America’s 2010-2011 season begins with a moment of silence for the surprise no-show of last year’s season: the 101 Dalmatians Musical, sponsored by the visionary theatrical troupe Purina Dog Chow. Purina is, of course, world-renowned for its investigations of early modern drama — who didn’t thrill to its Munich production of Pirandello’s Six Chihuahuas in Search of an Author? — but its occasional forays into the avant-garde have been no less transcendent. (Take, for instance, their ringworm-inspired version of Buchner’s Woyzeck, which remains to this day a staple of both performance studies and veterinary science.) Alas, philistine audiences and critics gave the cold shoulder to the tour of Dalmatians, which shuttered even before arriving in the Alamo City. Let’s face it: if a musical about puppies can’t break even in San Antonio, it can’t break even anywhere.

So: unless Chef Boyardee steps into the breach, this season promises to actually materialize on schedule and with a healthy slate of fare. And while it’s not going to win any prizes for adventurous programming — there’s still no socially provocative Spring Awakening or ebulliently campy Xanadu — at least BAA isn’t insulting its subscribers by serving up repeats from previous seasons.

The big news is the San Antonio premiere of Jersey Boys, which is already accompanied by a media blitz of Herculean proportions. Winner of fourteen bajillion Tony awards, including Best Musical, Jersey Boys has been hyped by critics and audiences as a superb reinvention of the “jukebox musical,” one that’s not only artistically satisfying and emotionally transporting, but which could also, if given half a chance, cure acne and assuage global tensions. When I caught the sit-down production in Chicago, I was startled to discover that this reinvention of the jukebox musical wasn’t a reinvention at all, but rather, a distillation; far from transcending its jukebox roots, Jersey Boys embodies them. Everything you’d expect in a cliché jukebox musical is here: a story of scrappy artists forming a band (“The Four Seasons”), finding hard-won popular success, and finally persevering in the face of The Usual Showbiz Obstacles (alcohol, troubled relationships, intermission). What saves the show is its unbelievably slick, almost cinematic direction (by Des McAnuff), with enough dazzle to make you forget that you’re watching, in essence, a television biopic.

As much as I was disappointed by the workmanlike plot of Jersey Boys, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, almost embarrassedly so, by Legally Blonde, which takes a tweener movie and actually makes it work on stage. Though the cartoony plot remains intact — of an oh-so-blonde sorority lass improbably catapulted into Harvard Law School — its nimble score and lyrics (by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin) are clever and self-knowing without being coy. (The title song, in particular, is preternaturally catchy. And pity the wordsmith who had to shovel that awkward title into a rhyme.)

Like Legally Blonde, Dolly Parton’s Nine-To-Five also made the leap from celluloid to the footlights; unlike Legally Blonde, Nine-To-Five received fairly disastrous Manhattan reviews and closed after a short-ish run. Its appearance in San Antonio, then, is something of a surprise: in a nod to the musical’s troubled gestation, unusually, the tour will feature a different director than the Broadway version. Another retooled production also arrives in the spring: the bilingual revival of West Side Story that won kudos for its choreography but not for its confusing mix of Spanish and English. Even before the musical’s transfer to Broadway, the producers second-guessed their original decision to translate some of the songs into Spanish and gradually re-replaced some of the new lyrics with Sondheim’s brilliant originals. (My guess is that by the time West Side Story arrives at the Majestic, the San Antonio audience will be far more bilingual than the Sharks.)

Rock of Ages, a nostalgic tribute to the bad hair superstars and overblown hits of the ’80s, was a surprise hit in New York, where it apparently plays to inebriated crowds; I suspect it’s the type of show best enjoyed that way. (Come to think of it, the 1980s were best enjoyed that way.) Lastly, Cirque Dreams Illumination brings its Cirque du Soleil-esque vibe to downtown.

Subscribers left despondent by the demise of 101 Dalmatians can enjoy a return visit of Beauty and the Beast, though that’s understandably meager consolation: 101 Dalmatians was sure to have all the beastliness and aching beauty we could ever hope for. Still, let us raise a glass to this year’s Broadway Across San Antonio; for better or for worse (and it’s often a toss-up), this is still the most professional theater in town. •


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