On the Road: Like Autumn Leaves, Some Shows Are Falling From Broadway

There’s a hint of coolness in the New York air, suggesting an imminent change of seasons. Some Broadway shows are sturdily hanging on, sure to weather the bitter winter. Others, however, are scheduled to blow away in the fall wind.

The Kite Runner, Closing Soon

One of the latter is The Kite Runner, a lovely show that is currently playing at the (Helen) Hayes Theater. The play is a faithful retelling of the best-selling book by author Khaled Hosseini. Adults who belonged to book clubs in the early years of this century are sure to recall this 2003 novel, which is set in Afghanistan. It led The New York Times’ bestseller list for two years, and the book sold more than seven million copies. It was also made into a 2007 film.

So it’s no surprise that such a successful enterprise would be ripe pickings for theatrical treatment. When the Broadway show opened this summer, it received a spectrum of reviews, ranging from terrific to terrible. And now it’s set to close at the end of this month.

Amir (Amir Arison) and his childhood pal, Hassan (Eric Sirakian) sharing a quiet moment in The Kite Runner, now playing in the Hayes Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Why is this show exiting after only a few months?  Perhaps Americans aren’t interested in returning to Afghanistan for their entertainment fare. After all, US military forces had a rather clumsy exit from Afghanistan after a war that dragged on for decades.

If that’s the case, then it’s a shame. This thought-provoking show—told with far less spectacle than one often sees on Broadway—is certainly worth seeing. The direction, by Giles Croft, is superbly entwined with the show’s book, written by Matthew Spangler.

Although the characters are all Afghans, the show’s overall themes are universal. There are pivotal relationships between father and son, between best friends who grew up together and were later separated, between husband and wife, etc. And it is also a tale about refugees and how they fare in a new land.

In The Kite Runner, tabla artist Salar Nader is a constant onstage presence. Nader, the play’s composer, is considered Afghanistan’s tabla virtuoso. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Yes, there are kite-flying scenes, although these are mainly told through puppetry and onstage movement. The cast is uniformly strong, and it’s no small achievement that this show is the first to feature an Afghan woman in a Broadway cast—ever. Although the women are minor players in this story, Amir’s wife, Soraya, does have a few standout moments.

One of the show’s strengths is its capacity to take viewers to a completely different world. Over the course of two hours, the audience is transported through two decades and two continents. Much of the show’s otherworldly essence is contributed by Tabla artist Salar Nader. He sits quietly on one side of the stage, moving between several instruments to accent the action onstage.

Although the show originally was successful on London’s West End, if not Broadway, it is sure to attract attention from U.S. regional theaters in the future. Despite its large cast, the show can be done on one set, if necessary.

MJ—The Way You Make Me Feel

One of the splashiest shows on Broadway is also a box office winner for the early fall season. Producers are raking it in with MJ (this stands for Michael Jackson). Like him or hate him, there’s no denying that Jackson was one of the most influential performers of our time, and he had a large, loyal international following. This show will probably be at the Neil Simon Theatre for a long, long time.

But if you can’t make it to New York, never fear. The national tour of MJ is opening in Chicago next August. However, it probably won’t star Myles Frost, the award-winning “Michael” who’s currently performing on Broadway. Earlier this year, he won a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. He’s a triple threat who absolutely mesmerizes audiences with his uncanny looks, singing voice and dancing, all of which remarkably resemble the late Michael Jackson.

Accompanied by a very large troupe of singers, dancers and musicians, Jackson opens the show with a “rehearsal” for one of his tours. He quickly moves the show into high gear with an impressive performance of “Beat It.”

This is one of literally dozens of tunes featured in the show. Some depict Michael as a childhood performer with the Jackson 5. (These scenes feature a child performer known only as Corey J. He’s a talented charmer.) Other songs are strictly solo numbers. A sampling from the show’s program includes: “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Black or White,” “I’ll Be There,” “ABC,” “Man in the Mirror,” “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

Myles Frost and dancers on expansive Broadway set. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Of course, Jackson performs “Thriller,” too, but not until near the end of the show.

Since the show was created with the input (and blessing) of the Jackson family, it soft-pedals the relationship between Michael and his taskmaster father. There’s little emphasis on how the Jackson brothers related to each other over the years. During his rehearsal, Jackson is repeatedly pestered by a TV reporter who asks him numerous questions. That’s how we learn details about the inner workings of this man’s private life.

The show is set in time well before Jackson is charged with multiple child-molesting crimes, or when he hires a surrogate to birth his two children. There’s little reference to his strange lifestyle (aside from references to the crypto sleep chamber and Neverland), although Jackson’s drug use is mentioned.

The show has suffered some shade from the press for not illuminating the less appealing chapters of Jackson’s life. But after all, one can hardly blame the Jackson family for protecting their own. The book was written by celebrated playwright Lynn Nottage, and it is directed by Christopher Wheeldon.

Any misgivings about the show will not matter one whit to Michael Jackson fans. Although the show runs for 2 hours, 30 minutes, some followers would obviously beg for more. However, when one considers the stamina of Myles Frost, you can hardly imagine that this guy would have enough energy for one more number. He is simply stunning to watch, and he gives it his all. He is truly the epitome of a Broadway star.

***

The Kite Runner plays through October 30 at the Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St. The show runs 2 hours, 40 minutes. Masks are required for Wednesday matinees and Friday evening performances. They are optional at all other performances. For tickets, go to Telecharge.com, or call 212-239-6200.

MJ has an open run. It plays at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. The show runs 2 hours, 30 minutes. Masks are optional (check website for updated information). There’s a daily digital lottery for tickets. For more information, contact Ticketmaster.com.

Anne Siegel
Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic who has been a member of the American Theatre Critics Association for more than 30 years. She has served on the organization’s executive committee and has held a number of committee chairmanships. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites. We're pleased that she sometimes also writes for Third Coast Review.

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