Old Broadway versus new Broadway -- ''The Wild Party'' uses stars Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin, and Eartha Kitt to vie with ''The Music Man''

Old Broadway versus new Broadway

They stare at each other from opposite sides of West 52nd Street: the smiling face of Broadway Past glowing brightly over the SRO Neil Simon Theatre, host to The Music Man; the depressed scowl of Broadway Future gloomily regarding the half-empty Virginia, home of The Wild Party.

As the June 4 Tony Awards broadcast approaches (with host Rosie O’Donnell back and bouncing), one show is in a tough-to-call battle for Best Musical Revival with the incandescent production of Kiss Me, Kate that opened last fall. The other is apparently staying open long enough to see if it can cop the bacon-saving award for Best Musical. It has a shot: Of the four nominees in its category (the others are the dance-fests Contact and Swing!, and the parlor piece James Joyce’s The Dead), The Wild Party is the only one you can really call a musical — if, like me, you’re nutty enough to think a musical must have a live orchestra, a fully original score, and actual singing.

The Music Man isn’t nearly as good as some would have you believe, nor is The Wild Party as bad. Though cheerful, energetic, and approachably tuneful (”Seventy-Six Trombones,” ”Till There Was You”), The Music Man is historically distinct chiefly for being the answer to ”What show beat out West Side Story for Best Musical in 1958?” Michael John LaChiusa’s score for Wild Party includes a few lively numbers that are fine pieces of pastiche, redolent of the show’s Prohibition-era milieu and the decadent, nightlong party at its core — songs so good, actually, they nearly obscure the fact that a couple of the other tunes sound like they were written for Celine Dion, who wasn’t that big a draw in 1920s New York.

What this production of The Music Man does have is a trainload of talent, chiefly Rebecca Luker as Marian the Librarian. Luker sings wonderfully, dances credibly, acts persuasively, and spends the rest of the evening standing around merely looking beautiful. Director-choreographer Susan Stroman has polished Meredith Willson’s story and songs to a gleam almost bright enough to overcome the show’s cheesy sentimentality, and she caps the evening with the single cleverest and most moving piece of curtain-call staging I’ve ever seen. Luker and costar Craig Bierko (an appropriately toothy Harold Hill) have it a lot easier than the put-upon souls asked to bull their way through The Wild Party. But is it enough to say that the most credible performance in LaChiusa’s show is provided by Eartha Kitt, who slipped into self-parody three decades ago? If not, you should also know that Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) shouts a lot, and Mandy Patinkin overreaches so egregiously you can’t help but think of…Mandy Patinkin.

But the real problem with The Wild Party is less the performances than the imposing presence that has hovered over every new piece of musical theater to hit Broadway in the last 30 years. If Stephen Sondheim offers sharp, ironic commentary or grand, thematic gestures, so must every composer or lyricist who follows him. But Sondheim knew why he wrote Company (1970) and the equally meaty landmarks to follow, particularly Follies, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park With George: He had something to say. And finding the conventions of the musical insufficiently malleable, he proceeded to forge new ones. LaChiusa apparently feels the need to be serious and meaningful, but to no end. His last show, the muddled Marie Christine, was a retelling of Medea set in 19th-century New Orleans. Did he and his collaborators have reason to set Medea to music and plant it on the bayou? If so, they kept it hidden from audiences. And so it is with the frantic Wild Party, which doesn’t know why it exists.

For now, the face-off across 52nd Street continues, the oldies-celebrating, tourist-chasing old Broadway of The Music Man holding an apparently insuperable advantage over the angst-ridden, admirably ambitious but not-so-good new Broadway of The Wild Party. But maybe this isn’t a bad thing: What the opportunistic revivalists are creating, however unintentionally, is a permanent floating repertory company. And if the faithful crowds at the Metropolitan Opera are allowed to prefer their Wagner and Verdi to some new, obtuse exercise in minimalism or atonalism or exhibitionism, do those of us who favor Porter and Rodgers and Bernstein — or even Meredith Willson — deserve anything less? The Music Man: B The Wild Party: C-

Meredith Willson's The Music Man
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