What’s hot (and not) on New York stages

New York City I see hundreds of shows in Toronto annually, but every now and then I like to.

New York City I see hundreds of shows in Toronto annually, but every now and then I like to see whats going on south of the border. My recent trip to the Big Apple included a solid mix of big, splashy shows, intimate chamber dramas and one of the most powerful productions of a classic musical Ive ever seen.

First the splashy musicals. Were used to seeing innovation onstage. But how many Broadway shows actually transform the audience area?

Thats the eye-popping novelty of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812 (Rating: NNNNN), Dave Malloys very loose adaptation of Tolstoys War And Peace. Director Rachel Chavkin and scenic designer Mimi Lien have constructed runways, little islands and even new staircases in the Imperial Theatre so the actors can perform and mingle in the crowd. Even the band is scattered throughout the theatre.

The stage itself, dominated by a grand double staircase, also seats audience members who get an intimate feel for the action and can look out at the resplendent theatre, where a few haunting moments happen in the uppermost balcony.

This is all appropriate for Tolstoys sprawling tale, which Malloy has condensed into a love story about bookish, middle-aged Pierre (Josh Groban), impulsive ingenue Natasha (Shoba Narayan in the performance I saw: a revelation), her off-at-war fiance (and Pierres good friend) Andrey (Nicholas Belton), and Anatole (Lucas Steele), a vain layabout who catches Natashas eye and also happens to be Pierres scheming wife Helenes (Amber Gray) brother.

Malloy understands if you get confused about the characters and how theyre related. Hes even written a number about it, penned in a unique style that like the rest of the score mixes period elegance with streetsmart swagger and singer/songwriter emotion.

The production has been getting most of the attention and Lien will surely win the set design Tony but Chavkins efficient direction and the performances deserve as much love. Grobans Pierre, looking properly homely in wire glasses and padded suit, grounds the show with his gravitas and soulful voice, while Gray, Steele, Belton and Brittain Ashford (as Natashas concerned cousin Sonya) all have their moments to shine.

While Natasha, Pierre makes imaginative use of its set, the new revival of Miss Saigon (Rating: NN) dumps a lot of money onstage including a new variation on that famous helicopter moment but cant compensate for the utter emptiness of the material.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonbergs updating of Puccinis Madama Butterfly in Vietnam has never been my favourite show. The book is convoluted and confusing, the characters shallow, the music syrupy and banal.

But at least this production, imported from Londons West End, features an actual Asian actor in the best role that of pimp/opportunist the Engineer. (Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce originated it.)

Jon Jon Briones is phenomenal, cockily strutting, scheming and grasping his way through the part, pulling out all the stops in his big number, The American Dream, complete with updated Trump joke.

Hes much more watchable than the sweet-voiced but charisma-less Eva Noblezada as Kim and Alistair Brammers bland Chris, who are both upstaged by that helicopter.

The Broadway transfer of Joshua Harmons Significant Other (Rating: NNN) gives it a weight I dont think it can support.

Its a bittersweet comedy about Jordan, a late 20s gay man (Gideon Glick) whose support network of straight female friends is disappearing as they all get married.

Harmons writing has been compared to the late Wendy Wassersteins, and he certainly has a way with one-liners.

But although Glick gets deep into the role, especially in the plays best scene, where Jordan lashes out at his bestie (the soulful Lindsay Mendez) about her upcoming nuptials, its hard to care about the frustratingly self-involved character. The show is, however, an opportunity to see living legend Barbara Barrie as Jordans grandmother, who subtly puts his angst in perspective. And you’ve got to love a play that references a Celine Dion ballad. (The show closes April 23.)

The imported off-Broadway production of Stephen Sondheims Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (Rating: NNNNN) proves you dont need elaborate sets or even a big orchestra to create effective musical theatre.

Londons Tooting Arts Club is a site-specific company, and theyve made the Barrow Street Theatre look like an actual pie shop, complete with communal eating tables. (You can order a pie and mashed potatoes before the show.)

This Sweeney is literally in-yer-face. The bug-eyed, razor-wielding Sweeney (Jeremy Secomb) prowls the space even striding on the tables youre sitting at looking for victims, while Siobhan McCarthys Mrs. Lovett attempts to make a pie right in front of you.

In one amusing scene, rival barber Pirelli (Betsy Morgan), seeking out customers, splashes a supposed hair-growing tonic on the pates of bald audience members.

Clever lighting effects and subtle sound cues help suggest lots of the violence, and director Bill Buckhurst even makes use of the shows interval to further the plot.

The cast, backed up by a three-person band that sounds much larger, is magnificent, finding the drama, romance and pain in Sondheim and Hugh Wheelers Grand Guignol masterpiece.

Read about the Broadway premiere of homegrown musical Come From Away here.

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