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I Saw 4 New Broadway Musicals in a Week—2 Were Incredible & 2 Were...Oh Boy

Two new shows deserve a standing ovation

4-new-shows-on-broadway: A photograph of the illuminated facade of the Imperial Theater. It's outlined in light bulbs and features ornate gold decorative detailing. There are people waiting outside the theater. There's also a sign for the Water for Elephants show.
Marleen Moise / Staff/Getty Images

One of my favorite things about living in the Big Apple? I can swing over to a Broadway theater any time I want to catch a show.

This season’s new Broadway offerings are numerous—and exciting. We’re talking Cabaret starring Eddie Redmayne (which was nominated for several Tonys), The Outsiders (based on the classic 1967 novel) and Merrily We Roll Along (starring Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe).

I had the good fortune of being able to take in a whopping four new Broadway musicals in a single week—Illinoise, Water for Elephants, The Great Gatsby and The Notebook. Two of them are incredible, must-see options and two of them…well…you can probably sit these two out.

The first show I checked out was the latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. There have been a number of movies made about the story over the years (most recently with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Jay Gatsby) and there are currently two very different musical versions appearing on stage (one is playing at A.R.T. in Boston and the other is on Broadway).

The Broadway production, starring the dreamy Jeremy Jordan, was unfortunately a big miss for me. The first third of the show is slow, unmemorable and lacking the in-your-face spectacle that you get from the Broadway productions of, say, Moulin Rouge or And Juliet. When we finally get Gatsby (Jordan) and love-of-his-life Daisy (the fabulous Eva Noblezada) on stage together, it’s far too late to save the day. The last song of the first act between the two stars is, surprisingly, fabulous—leaving me very confused at intermission as to why it took so long to get some true drama and emotion up on the stage. If you only have time to catch one show this season, this really shouldn’t be it. That said, Jordan fans (of which there were many waiting outside the stage door post-show) will undoubtedly enjoy his gorgeous singing chops even if the production itself is lacking. And hey, maybe the A.R.T. version will shine a bit brighter when it inevitably arrives on the Great White Way.

The second show I caught, Illinoise, was by far my favorite. The production is nominated for a Best Musical Tony and I sincerely hope it walks away with the win.

I went into this musical knowing zero about the music or “story” and I’m really glad that was the case (so if you’d like to have a similar experience, feel free to skip over the next section and grab your tickets anyway). The dance-focused musical features no dialogue, with the “plot” and action told entirely through song and dance. The show is inspired by Sufjan Stevens’s album, Illinoise, and focuses on a group of friends telling stories (using their bodies) around a campfire.

This musical took me completely by surprise with how beautiful, moving and raw it is. The dancing is phenomenal and I found myself fully invested with the journeys of the individual “characters”. Plus, clocking in at a cool 90 minutes, the show is easily digestible and left me wanting even more. Illinoise is a truly creative and exciting production, leading the pack this Broadway season.

Next up, I took in a matinee showing of Water for Elephants, based on the gorgeous novel of the same name by Sara Gruen (and yes, there was also a 2011 movie version starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson).

This show provides the incredible spectacle I wanted from Gatsby and is definitely a musical you should take in if you’ve got family in town. The story follows a young man who runs away to join the circus and finds love, adventure and one special elephant in the process.

The visuals in this production are beyond creative with a train appearing one moment, a circus tent erected the next and animals taking the stage (courtesy of truly gifted performers and puppeteers) the next. But perhaps the most exciting part of the musical are the acrobatics. At times feeling more cirque du soleil than circus, the ensemble members pull off incredible feats and tricks one after another. The wow factor is truly a 10 out of 10, making for a fun and thrilling show.

I wrapped up my week of theater with an evening performance of The Notebook, another book adaptation (this one based on the novel from Nicholas Sparks) that also inspired a film (starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams). This one was tough for me, guys. I really had high hopes and expectations here, particularly considering the high-quality, high-drama source material. And while there were some scattered beautiful moments, the production really was a let-down (and will likely be even more of a let-down for mega fans of the film, of which I am not one).

Aside from confusing storytelling and casting, the production also just never reaches the deeply emotional romance levels of the film. Yes, that climactic scene in the rain does occur on stage and, no, it does not hit the same cinematic notes. If you already have tickets, fear not, the musical has a few sweet tunes and solid performances. But for those who have yet to purchase tickets, I’d highly recommend going with one of the stronger offerings this season.

The Great Gatsby is now running at the Broadway Theatre. Illinoise is now running at the St. James Theatre. Water for Elephants is now running at the Imperial Theatre. And The Notebook is now running at the Schoenfeld Theatre.

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