Impersonation? Yes. But With the Right Star, Something Richer.
Just before the pandemic I ambivalently attended a performance of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.” I knew some Tina Turner songs, and I was vaguely aware of her marriage to the abusive Ike Turner. I was only barely acquainted with her global celebrity, and skeptical about the depth a biographical jukebox musical could offer.
Though I had qualms about the show — particularly the depictions of violence — I left the theater feeling ebullient. I sneaked out near the end of what turned out to be essentially a postshow concert, but I hung on to the image of Adrienne Warren, as Turner, onstage.
What resonated with me was her spectacular star power — what most people would call presence. This is always what draws me in to Broadway productions about iconic figures: how an actor’s impersonation can also be a way to showcase their own star quality.
Whether or not the show can live up to the legend, however, is often a different story.
With the resurrection of Broadway this fall will come another handful of impersonations to test the hypothesis. Starting Nov. 2, we will see Jeanna de Waal as the Princess of Wales in “Diana,” who, thanks to her style, charisma and, ultimately, tragic death, became a mythic figure.
Diana is once again front and center in the cultural conversation, whether in “The Crown”; as a shadow figure in the royal drama between Buckingham Palace and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; or in the forthcoming biopic “Spencer,” with Kristen Stewart in the title role. (Naomi Watts played the part too, in the 2013 film “Diana.”)
In the musical’s initial run at La Jolla Playhouse, critics noted how de Waal nailed Diana’s coquettishness, though the character’s ballads (music and lyrics by the Tony Award winners David Bryan and Joe DiPietro) do lean toward an unrestrained earnestness. And despite de Waal’s performance, the show was criticized for zipping so quickly through so many moments of a shortened life that the emotional impact was dulled.
Will “Diana” capture the audience’s hearts on Broadway? And what impact will the Netflix recording of the show, which will be available for streaming before the theatrical opening, have on the prospects of the live production? As someone who’s been eating up “The Crown” (especially Emma Corrin’s performance as the princess), I look forward to finding out.
Also in November, Lincoln Center Theater’s “Flying Over Sunset” will bring the beloved Hollywood leading man Cary Grant to life in the tap-dancing person of Tony Yazbeck.
The musical, with a score by Tom Kitt and Michael Korie, imagines Grant; the playwright and politician Clare Boothe Luce; and the novelist Aldous Huxley sharing an acid trip in 1950s California. (All three were public about experimenting with L.S.D., but their cosmic connection is a product of the writer-director James Lapine’s script.)
“He was one of the most famous Hollywood movie stars of all time,” Yazbeck said of Grant in a video preview for the show. “When you get offered this, you have to rise to that level, but also put your own stamp on it.”
He seems poised to pull it off, and turning Grant (a child acrobat) into a former tap dancer plays to his strengths. Yazbeck already exudes charm; a well-pressed suit, a classic side sweep and the chance to dance should allow him to do more than imitate the beloved film star.
Then it’s Michael Jackson’s turn.
“MJ the Musical,” with direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon and a book by Lynn Nottage, begins performances on Dec. 6.
Like “Diana” and “Flying Over Sunset,” it was delayed by the pandemic. But this show faced further upheaval when Ephraim Sykes, the Tony-nominated star of “Ain’t Too Proud,” dropped out of the title role.
The producers still promise 25 hits from the King of Pop, and you have to expect we’ll see that cherry red “Thriller” jacket and bedazzled glove. But now it’s up to the largely unknown Myles Frost to bring to life that instantly recognizable voice and dance genius.
The musical as biography is a challenging form. How do you pair pop hits from an existing catalog to significant events in a life without undercutting the drama or underselling the songs?
Michael Jackson’s life, of course, poses its own set of challenges. What will the script make of allegations of abuse on the part of this megastar, which dented his reputation without dulling the affection for his music?
And will the qualities that make Myles Frost special be able to shine through when he is playing Michael Jackson? For “MJ” to succeed, the performer’s individual flair shouldn't be swamped by the icon’s.
There is no shortage of screen biopics — two about Aretha Franklin came out this year alone. But they don’t entice me the way the stage equivalents do.
The stage feels more upfront about its masquerade. No matter how accurately an actor playing Michael Jackson may moonwalk while singing “Billie Jean,” the very immediacy of your interaction with him in, say, a sold-out show on a Saturday night, forces you to sit in the uncanny valley: This isn’t the Michael you know, of course, but the real-time likeness — and unlikeness — both showcase the celebrity and reveal the talents of the performer.
What emerges is a hybrid, an approximation of a person that takes into account the public image — the legend and mythos — reflected through the prism of an actor’s experience, understanding and, finally, ability.
Here’s another way to think about it: I accompanied a friend to a locksmith kiosk recently where we were informed in advance that the keys being copied wouldn’t look exactly like the originals.
When I consider the impersonators coming this fall, I think of her new set of keys — perfectly imperfect clones. Their look is different, their shape is different, but the mechanics still work. It’s all about the job well done.
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