Monday, June 17, 2024

Broadway Catch Up: “Suffs” Puts Shain Taub on the Map, “Uncle Vanya” Gives Alfred Molina a Surprise Moment, William Jackson Harper a Star


I just caught up with two new Broadway shows whose premieres I couldn’t make — there were just too many openings this season!

The first is “Suffs” an original musical from writer-star Shaina Taub, directed by Leigh Silverman. The second is “Uncle Vanya,” an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic play at Lincoln Center Theater.

“Vanya” first. Steve Carell stars as the title character. He’s best known from “The Office,” although Carell is a serious actor who’s lodged terrific performances in movies like “Foxcatcher” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” Still, Carell is a comic actor at heart, and he tries to bring the best of his experience to Vanya.

This “Uncle Vanya” is as far from its Russian roots as it could be. Directed by Lila Neugebauer, it feels like it could be in outer space at any given time in history. Maybe this to make it accessible to a new audience, but it’s a mistake. Neugebauer and translator Heidi Schreck have spent so much time trying to reinvent the wheel that the first act is slow and plodding as they have to rebuild the characters from scratch.

The good news is that once the strain of the first act is finished, the second act leaps into action. We’re back on track of the original “Vanya” because otherwise there would be no way to get to the end. Suddenly, Chekhov is back. The pace picks up because the characters know where they’re going. What a relief!

Carell is just fine as Vanya, playing him for laughs and tears. He comes alive in Vanya’s big breakdown moment when the proposal to sell the farm he’s cultivated for decades is threatened. Carell’s dramatic moments are actually more impactful than the comedy.

The breakout stars here are Alfred Molina (who could easily be playing Vanya) as the brother-in-law know it all professor who is entirely self-possessed. Molina is a star who’s taken a secondary role here, which is surprising. But when he gets his spotlight, he makes the most of it.

The other breakout is William Jackson Harper. A theater actor who went over to TV’s “The Good Place” (a show I never liked or understood), Harper has a Tony nomination for this performance. He deserves it. In his scenes with Anika Noni Rose (also excellent), Harper turns the focus of this “Vanya” to his relatively minor character of the lovelorn visiting doctor. After this, film and theater should be looking at him more closely. “Uncle Vanya” is on until June 16th.

“Suffs” might be this year’s Best New Musical. The reason? Aside from the talented cast, the score and book by Shaina Taub — who is also the star — are substantial and memorable. You will walk out singing “Great American Bitch.” One listen to the entire score post-show, and all the songs register as original hits.

“Suffs” has an all female cast as it tells the story of women getting the vote one hundred years ago. I thought it would be stuffy and preachy. It’s anything but. Taub — who’s also collaborating with Elton John on “The Devil Wears Prada” musical — breathes life into every one of her ensemble cast and characters. Tony winner Nikki M. James is startling as Ida B. Wells. The whole group is sensational including Emily Skinner as Alva Belmont, and Grace McLean as Woodrow Wilson (yes, that’s correct). Hannah Cruz makes an impact as gorgeous lawyer and suffragist Inez Mulholland.

Again, I was a little afraid of “Suffs.” Not a show for guys, that sort of thing. Boring, history lesson. What a shock. Just go. There’s nothing better than having a good time and learning something!

(PS I look forward to seeing this movie.)

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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