Death of a Salesman
Faced with this season’s abundant Broadway revivals, I considered staging a protest. If they couldn’t come up with anything new, then neither would I, so I was going to fill these pages not with reviews but with Entertainment Weekly‘s own greatest hits. Like last year’s topless cover photo of Jennifer Lopez or maybe a vintage profile of Regis Philbin. But then, before I could reprint something and leave early, three of the aforementioned revivals — Annie Get Your Gun; You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; and Death of a Salesman — took the stage and, with fresh coats of paint and richly talented casts, revitalized Broadway’s museum row.
The most vibrant musical talent on display is that of Bernadette Peters, starring as the pistol-packin’ Annie Oakley in director Graciela Daniele’s immensely enjoyable update of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, the show with an indestructible score, including ”There’s No Business Like Show Business,” ”They Say It’s Wonderful,” and ”I Got the Sun in the Morning.” Having not been born in time to see the late Ethel Merman originate Annie Oakley in 1946 — and knowing her work primarily from her disco album, an appearance on The Love Boat, and a cameo in Airplane! — I assume that the old girl moved through the role on a diesel-fueled mower. But Peters softens the edges of Annie, a hillbilly heroine who’s plucked from obscurity, becomes the toast of Europe as the star of a Wild West show, and (natur’lly) learns to love. Without tarnishing Annie’s brass, Peters humanizes her, which is a purt-near miraculous feat; even as she belts out ”You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” you can hear the creak of growing pains. (It’s one of the most fully realized musical-comedy performances you’re likely to see.) The man who can’t be got with a gun is played by Tom Wopat, the former Duke of Hazzard, who anchors the show with his hefty stoicism and machismo. This doesn’t make for great chemistry with Peters, but his presence does keep the show’s camp elements at bay. That in itself is an accomplishment for a performer who sings ”My Defenses Are Down” with a hunky cowboy chorus.
There’s no chorus at all in the much smaller scale You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown — just six characters drawn from Charles M. Schulz’s beloved comic strip. That’s why the 1967 Clark Gesner musical is such an easy mark for summer camps and high schools. That’s also why — despite director Michael Mayer’s smart reworking of the book, lovely new songs by Andrew Lippa, and stylish sets by David Gallo — critics have complained that Charlie Brown is too unassuming for Broadway (it was originally staged Off Broadway). But any show that employs the talents of B.D. Wong (as Linus), Roger Bart (as Snoopy), Ilana Levine (as Lucy), and Kristin Chenoweth in a star-making turn as Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally (a role created for this revival), will get no good grief from me.
Speaking of grief: What more can be said about Death of a Salesman? When this tragedy about the final days of a used-up Everyman opened in 1949, playwright Arthur Miller was accused of trivializing the American dream. Since then, of course, the play has taken its rightful place in the pantheon of Great World Literature, and Willy Loman — willing subscriber to and victim of postwar American materialism — has become our preeminent cautionary symbol. As it happens, director Robert Falls has found plenty to say about it. Faithful to Miller but reminiscent of a nightmare, Falls’ production stars the great, lumbering Brian Dennehy as Willy, who is pursued relentlessly by the ghouls of disappointment and tormented by the unwitting demons he calls sons (Kevin Anderson as Biff and Ted Koch as Happy). Most chilling is Elizabeth Franz as wife Linda Loman, whose smile quivers with all the fear in the world. She becomes the play’s unlikely spine, for Franz doesn’t just revive a character, she builds a new soul, and she’s right at home on Broadway this season. Who ever thought Linda Loman could have so much in common with Annie Oakley and Charlie Brown’s little sister?
Annie Get Your Gun (TM): A-
Charlie Brown (TC): B+
Salesman (TC): A
Death of a Salesman