On the Road: Broadway Prepares to Freeze Out Some Popular Shows in January

Going to watch a Broadway show during the holiday months of late November through December is a rite of passage for some individuals, friends and families. What better time to visit Times Square, when you can also take in the lovely holiday displays at Rockefeller Center, fashionable midtown boutiques and restaurants brimming with holiday décor?

That is particularly true this season, when an energized New York rebounds from two years of pandemic-limiting performances. Finally, the Rockettes are kicking up their heels again at Radio City Music Hall, the notes of Handel’s Messiah are ringing through Trinity Church near Wall Street, and the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker is creating a new legion of fans at Lincoln Center.

Broadway, too, is blossoming with a full roster of shows, ranging from effervescent musicals to hard-hitting dramas. Entertainment of all sorts is in full swing this year.

January is another story, however. With kids going back to school (and parents slogging back to work), January is typically the slowest month for Broadway attendance. The post-holiday let-down usually continues through the chilly, snowy months and may last until Easter—or later.

It’s no surprise that three shows seen on a trip to the Big Apple in November yielded some great performances. They are all four-star worthy. Two of the shows have posted January closings, but don’t count them out yet. A post-holiday uptick could push Beetlejuice into extending its run, as it has done several times since the initial closing date was announced in October. And another heavy-hitter, the critically acclaimed Death of a Salesman, might also be extended beyond January (unless some of the cast need to honor prior commitments).

Alex Brightman as "Beetlejuice," with Elizabeth Teeter as Lydia. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Get Used to “The Whole Being Dead” Thing

Few shows could have withstood the pummeling that Beetlejuice has faced over the past few years. After it opened in 2019, Beetlejuice was nominated for a handful of Tony Awards, but didn’t win a single one. The show closed during the pandemic, then reopened many months later. Then it was forced to move to a new Broadway theater to make way for The Music Man. But despite these setbacks, the show attracted a strong core of younger followers. One of the songs, “Dead Mom,” even became a TikTok sensation, sung by admiring fans worldwide.

The show is as edgy, silly and irreverent as promised—and it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

The show’s ringleader is “Beetlejuice,” a deceased character first made famous in the 1988 film starring Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara (who also played the mom in the Home Alone films). In the Beetlejuice musical, an extraordinarily talented Alex Brightman is so confident in his role that he blurs the memory of all who came before him. He is the emcee who moves the show along with visual gags (some very subtle), explosive dialogue, nasty retorts and otherworldly abilities. Although Beetlejuice’s power is most noticeable in the hilarious rendition of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O,” his skill is mostly used to embarrass and frighten folks.

Beetlejuice finds a kindred spirit in Lydia, a teen who is grieving the loss of her mother. Lydia, who appears in black mourning clothes, cannot get past her feelings—and that becomes the turning point on which the musical breaks away from the film plot.

Although there have been several Lydias over the years, the current lady-in-black, Elizabeth Teeter, does an excellent job of making the part her own. Lydia summons Beetlejuice to unleash a number of scary pranks. Much of her unhappiness is caused by her practical-minded dad. He has moved on, and wishes Lydia would just “snap out of” her funk. This infuriates Lydia.

Before the show ends, a number of oddball characters (including a priest, a Girl Scout, and a beauty contest winner) find themselves caught up in the chaos. But even if your appetite for the show’s obvious plot begins to wane, you will be totally knocked out by the elaborate special effects, including sets (David Korina), lights (William Kenneth Posner), puppets (Peter Michael Curry), scary sounds (Peter Hylenski), costumes (William Ivey Long), and illusions (Jeremy Chernick Weber). The ensemble, mostly composed of male singers/dancers, is as crisp and energetic as one would expect to see on opening night. The show is directed by Alex Timbers.

Beetlejuice continues at the Marriott Marquis Theatre (210 W 46th St) through January 8. The show runs 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission. Thankfully, a Beetlejuice national tour was recently launched. Chicago dates have yet to be released.

Wendell Pierce, as Willie Loman, with Sharon D. Clarke as Willie's wife, Linda. Photo by Joan Marcus.

A Classic Play Returns to Broadway with a Black Cast

Broadway audiences have been filling the historic Hudson Theatre to see a critically acclaimed production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The 1949 play was staged recently in London, where it earned several awards. Most of the original London cast appears on Broadway under the direction of Miranda Cromwell.

Miller’s classic drama has been revived on Broadway several times, but this is the first time it has been played by a cast of Black actors performing as the Loman family. This gives fresh context to the rise and fall of the play’s main character, Willy Loman, a salesman who has chased the American Dream all his life. Throughout the play, Willy longs for a happy ending that continues to elude him.

In another interesting twist, all of the other cast members are white. Although the dialogue has not been changed, this racial swap gives new meaning to Willy’s interactions with his white boss, with a white neighbor and longtime friend, and his son, Bernard. As kids, Bernard and Biff, Willy’s son, used to hang out together. Now that Bernard is grown, with a wife, children and a successful career, Willy wonders why the same outcome has eluded his own son.

Starring in the play are Wendell Pierce, who has appeared on numerous HBO specials and series and in films, and Sharon D. Clarke. Both are likely nominees for Tony awards. Their brilliant performances capture the essence of a play that takes place not only in real time, but also in flashbacks and hallucinations.

At times, Willy imagines conversations between himself and his long-dead older brother, Ben (suavely played by André de Shields). As a young man, Ben journeyed into remote jungles and successfully emerged years later (he found a source of valuable gemstones). Even as an older adult, Willy still yearns for Ben’s approval.

As Willy declines mentally and physically, he is supported emotionally by his long-suffering wife, Linda. His two grown sons, Happy (McKinley Belcher III) and Biff (Khris Davis), are less supportive. Of the brothers, Biff’s role is given more depth and complexity. Davis is heartbreakingly realistic, to the point where one wishes a better life for him than the life he threw away as a promising student athlete. Like Willy, Biff descends from being a golden boy to a hapless ne’er-do-well.

With the play’s emphasis on the characters and relationships, set designer Anna Fleischle holds back on giving too much visual information. Willy’s home is created with only bare essentials, dimly lit by designer Jen Schriever. It is not a warm, cozy place that audiences will want to linger in, and that’s entirely the point of this vibrant new production.

Death of a Salesman continues at the Hudson Theatre (139-141 W. 44th St.) through January 15. The show runs 3 hours, 10 minutes with one intermission.

As Kimberly, Victoria Clarke sits in her bedroom and muses about making high school friends.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

A Quirky Musical Pulls at Your Heartstrings

It’s far easier to sit back and enjoy this clever, oddball musical than it is to describe it. But let's give it a shot. Set in New Jersey in 1999, the show features a teenager named Kimberly (played by a much older Victoria Clarke) who struggles to be just “one of the gang” at her high school. A strange disease has sped up her hormonal system so that she looks 72 years old. But in every other way, Clarke convinces us that her personality is indeed what teen life looks like.

Aside from Kimberly’s age-forwarding disease, which threatens to rob her of a long life, Kimberly is also caught in an dysfunctional nightmare on the home front. Her pregnant mother is a hypochondriac, her drunken father sometimes forgets to pick up Kimberly at the roller-skating rink. It’s revealed that the family is on the run from an aunt with a criminal past.

Once Aunt Debra (played with incredible conviction by Bonnie Milligan) locates the rest of her family, she tries to enlist Kimberly’s friends in a check-washing scheme. As we learn in her song, “Better,” Debra has the moral character of a toad. Whether it’s ripping off old, demented ladies or marrying some dude who needs a green card (for cash), Debra finds her tactics completely acceptable. After all, the end result is to make her life “better.”

Kimberly tries to hide her family’s worst attributes from the kids she hopes will become her friends. Her best friend, Seth (a perfectly calibrated performance by Justin Cooley), is somewhat of a dreamer, who has his own quirks (he counts his tuba as his best friend). While there’s no sexual connection between Kimberly and Seth, they seem to “click” nonetheless.

Kimberly Akimbo first began as a play by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire. Years later, he collaborated with Tony Award-winner Jeanine Tesori and director Jessica Stone in turning Kimberly into a musical. It first earned rave reviews off-Broadway, and the Broadway version has been kept relatively intact. There are still only nine characters in the cast, and the sets are less ornate that one would expect to see on Broadway.

Still, the show retains its charm, and its heart. As Kimberly, Clarke sees the world from a cheery perspective, filled with hope and a desire to see it all before her life ends. Although not every scene is filled with laughter (such as the time when Kimberly figures out that the new baby won’t have a chance of inheriting her same disease), Kimberly retains her enthusiasm. She keeps hope alive, under all circumstances.

Unlike the other shows mentioned above, Kimberly Akimbo is scheduled for an open run. Let's hope it lasts beyond the Tony Awards presentation in June, as this musical is certain to be a contender in the Best Musical category. Kimberly Akimbo appears at the Booth Theater, 222 W. 45th St. It runs 2 hours, 25 minutes with one intermission.  

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene and sometimes beyond? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Picture of the author
Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.