In a Broadway season robust with bravura performances, comes another that makes demands of our souls along with our ears.
In “The Normal Heart,” Joe Mantello plays Ned Weeks, a stand-in for playwright Larry Kramer, founder and later ex-communicant from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The year is 1985 and for some time now, healthy young gay men have been developing mysterious ailments, including tell-tale purple lesions that never heal. They are dying in ever-greater numbers. No one is paying attention.
Ned befriends the sympathetic doctor treating most of these patients with a growing sense of helplessness. Dr. Emma Brookner, played by Ellen Barkin with a bit too-practiced sternness, believes that whatever it is, it’s probably spreading through sexual contact. The only way to stop it, she believes, is to get gay men to stop having sex until the pathologists can figure out what it is.
This is unwanted news in an age when anonymous sex is seen by outspoken gay men as not merely a right but a form of political expression. And so Ned, never easy in the best of circumstances, becomes the Cassandra of the West Village, hollering his alarmist message at anybody who’ll listen and especially at those who won’t. He’s unpleasant company.
Dead or Dying
As played -- no, embodied -- by Mantello with fathomless compassion and dignity (not to mention charm and humor), Ned is impossible to ignore. He is, after all responding to a nightmarish fact: All of his friends are dying or dead.
The main targets of Kramer’s jeremiad included a callous and possibly closeted Mayor Ed Koch, the squeamish New York Times and a homophobic medical establishment. But they are nothing compared with the wishy-washy crew who join Ned in organizing to alert the citizenry to the scourge. Some fear coming out. Some are just gentle souls ripe for Ned’s abuse.
In addition to Mantello’s riveting performance and a stellar cast, this revival, co-directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, has two things going for it that Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s brave original at the Public Theater lacked.
The first is memory: Over the course of the evening, the walls of David Rockwell’s blanched set become crowded with the projected names of the dead. When those walls no longer can contain them, the entire Golden Theatre becomes a sob-inducing memorial.
The second thing is the comforting illusion that with the advent of protease inhibitors, the plague ended. It didn’t. Which is why you may find Kramer on the sidewalk as you leave the theater, handing out a letter imploring you not to think of his play as ancient history.
“The Normal Heart” is unabashed agitprop, which is rarely welcome on Broadway, and Ned Weeks is an unlikely hero. But as “Jerusalem” is also showing us, not all heroes wear white hats. Some are unpleasant company, doing what they must, demanding that attention be paid. (Gerard)
At the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: ***1/2
‘Baby, It’s You!’
Borrowing from the conventions of “Dreamgirls,” “Jersey Boys” and “Memphis ” -- all hit musicals about the early days of rock and roll -- “Baby It’s You!” chronicles the Shirelles, four black women from New Jersey who topped the charts beginning in the late 1950s. It focuses on Florence Greenberg, the housewife turned recording executive who plucked them from obscurity, and Luther Dixon, who composed for and produced the group.
“Tonight’s the Night,” “Foolish Little Girl” and other Shirelles hits sound splendid, as do standards performed by contemporaries including “Walk On By” and “It’s My Party.” But Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s skimpy, episodic book offers less useful information about Greenberg and the Shirelles than the group’s Wikipedia entry.
Excerpts from the show: “When you got teenagers singing about teenagers, you got a hit!” Greenberg (Beth Leavel) instructs; dad gets cranky when mom embraces career and neglects family; Greenberg and Dixon’s interracial romance raises eyebrows around town; and Greenberg and her husband generously dispense Yiddishisms.
Mutrix and Escott were sounder last season with “Million Dollar Quartet” Not much of a story there either, but “Quartet” embraced its limitations and let its virtuosos showboat unencumbered.
The “Baby” players make the most of their threadbare parts. Leavel elevates the enterprise with pitch-perfect singing, acting and bouffant, her Florence blowzy and vulnerable.
Near the end, Greenberg concedes that the Shirelles sound needs updating. The women record the resplendent title number, co-written by the then-up-and-coming Burt Bacharach. For a fleeting instant, the first major girl group of the rock era and the show about them seem to be going somewhere new.
This week, the producers of the show, which include Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, were sued. In the complaint filed in New York Supreme Court, Beverly Lee, one of the original Shirelles, and Dionne Warwick, who is depicted briefly in the show, “seek redress for the brazen unauthorized use of their names and likenesses” in connection with the show. Warner Bros. spokesman Paul McGuire said Warner would not comment on the suit. (Boroff)
At the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: *1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Average * Not So Good (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard and Philip Boroff are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)
Philip Boroff in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.