BROADWAY!

Spring Theater Preview: Motown, Matilda, Kinky Boots and More (PHOTOS)

This season's Broadway lineup is filled with tantalizing treats. Janice Kaplan on what's worth the trip to the Great White Way.

Clockwise from top left: Chris Bennion, Joan Marcus, Manuel Harlan, Joan Marcus

Clockwise from top left: Chris Bennion, Joan Marcus, Manuel Harlan, Joan Marcus

With Tony nominations just a month away, a swarm of new shows are causing unusual buzz, thanks to big stars from movies and TV. Tom Hanks debuts on Broadway for the first time ever this week, and Bette Midler returns after 30 years away. Other stars like Alec Baldwin, Cyndi Lauper, and Sigourney Weaver--along with some highly anticipated new musicals--are adding to the excitement. Hope springs eternal in the theater world, but here are the shows that could make it a hot season:

Joan Marcus

Lucky Guy

Tom Hanks and Nora Ephron made movie hits together in the '90s like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Now Hanks comes to Broadway for the first time, starring in the last work Ephron wrote before her death last year. It’s a grittier story than the rom-coms that made them famous, and two-time Oscar-winner Hanks, known as Hollywood’s good guy, goes against type playing tabloid columnist Mike McAlary. The rough-edged, hard-drinking journalist had a passion for revealing police corruption and lived when New York newspapers still mattered. If the play is a success--and the odds seem good--there’s already talk of making it into a movie.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters, via Landov

Motown: The Musical

Berry Gordy, Jr invented Motown and fell in love with Diana Ross--two big storylines that are the centerpiece of the much anticipated Motown: the Musical. Gordy himself wrote the original book of the show (though word is that it was much revised) and the music is all from the Motown catalogue, including hits from Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, and The Temptations. The '60s Detroit sound has been a hit on Broadway in shows from Dreamgirls to Memphis, and with two Motown albums based on the show already released, this could be a long-lived jukebox musical.

Manuel Harlan/National Theatre of Scotland, via AP

Macbeth

Alan Cumming brings multi-layered depth to his role as Eli Gold on CBS’ The Good Wife, but that’s just a warm-up for the complexity he reveals in his one-man Macbeth. The twisted story of ambition and treachery is set in a psychiatric ward where Cumming is the only patient, being watched on closed-circuit TV as he acts out every role of the Shakespeare play. Cumming’s huge talent sold out the National Theatre of Scotland when he performed the show there last year, and he has described the play as “the most challenging and fulfilling experience of my career by far.”

Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, via AP

Matilda the Musical

In London last year, Matilda the Musical broke the record for the most Olivier Awards (the equivalent of the Tonys) ever won. British hits don’t always inspire the same love here, but the show is based on the brilliant book by Roald Dahl that balances grim reality with inspiration and hope. The tale of an unhappy five-year-old girl who rebels against cruel parents at home and an awful headmistress at school isn’t as sweet as CInderella or Annie, but it has the excitement of a smart story and creatively edgy score. Vivid staging adds to the pleasure of watching an unusual child (played by four young actresses in rotation) who ultimately uses imagination to change her life.

Michael J. Lutch

Pippin

When it opened in 1972, the Bob Fosse-directed Pippin won a raft of Tony Awards and ran for five years. The story of a boy prince searching for the meaning of life has a lovely pop score that has lived on in school productions. But this first-ever return to Broadway offers a circus-inspired setting with acrobats, aerialists, and performers juggling swords. With a love story, magical staging, and unexpected characters, the show got raves during a brief run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge last year. Combining the best of Cirque du Soleil with Cabaret could make the show a winner.

Chris Bennion

Jekyll & Hyde

After his star turn in the original Rock of Ages, American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis lands on Broadway again in the revival of Jekyll & Hyde. The show has been touring the country to mediocre reviews, but audiences seem happy to hear Maroulis belting out popular songs like “This Is the Moment.” Maroulis specializes in what the very funny “Forbidden Broadway” dubbed “NASCAR shows”--and many producers will be happy if this one is as successful as his previous outing.

Caspar Tobias Schlenk/dpa, via Landov

Orphans

This three-person show about two difficult, orphaned brothers who kidnap an older man hit the gossip columns a week into rehearsals when Shia LeBoeuf left over “creative differences” with director Daniel Sullivan. Instead of making his Broadway debut, LeBoeuf apologized on Twitter for “my part of a dis-agreeable situation” and was quickly replaced by Ben Foster. The versatile Alec Baldwin plays the man who becomes their father figure, a role very different from his caustically funny Emmy-winning turn on 30 Rock.

I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers

Bette Midler comes back to Broadway for the first time in 30 years in a solo show based on an evening in the life of former talent agent Sue Mengers, who represented stars like Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, and Michael Caine. Midler has the big personality to play another big personality, much as actress Holland Taylor is currently doing in Ann, her one-woman portrayal of former Texas governor Ann Richards. Midler fans may be disappointed that the Mengers evening has no songs. There’s already speculation that  she’ll sing at the Tonys with old friend Barry Manilow, who also returned to Broadway this year after 20 years away.

Sean Williams/Broadway in Chicago, via AP

Kinky Boots

A quirky British film involving a shoe fetish, a drag queen, and a father’s legacy is the basis for a new show with music and lyrics by singer Cyndi Lauper. Though she’s never been on Broadway before, her friend Harvey Fierstein (who never seems to leave there) insisted she take the gig. Each has a distinctive voice, and together they could hit just the right notes. A remix of one of Lauper’s show songs already landed on the Billboard Top 10. And Fierstein, the talent behind hits La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray, and Newsies, invariably knows how to blend humor with heart.

T. Charles Erickson/Philip Rinaldi Publicity, via AP

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

In this hilarious modern take on Chekhov, David Hyde Pierce (of Frasier fame) and Kristine Nielsen play a brother and sister who hang around the house in pajamas, mourning their lost life. Then their glamorous actress-sister blows in, played by Sigourney Weaver at her over-the-top best, and threatens to sell the house and upend their lives. While the banter is uproariously funny, real emotion and life-lessons manage to peek through. When Nielsen sits alone on stage talking by phone to a potential boyfriend, her emotions range from shy to embarrassed to coquettish to hopeful--and she makes you believe every one.

Joan Marcus

The Big Knife

Playwright Clifford Odets’ boxing play Golden Boy had a knock-out revival earlier this season, and now his Big Knife comes back for the first time since Lee Strasberg directed the original in 1949. In a story of movie studio bosses and Hollywood scandal, Bobby Cannavale plays an actor with a secret that needs protecting. Cannavale has a way of inhabiting all his characters so they feel totally real--he was stunning opposite Al Pacino in the recent Glengarry Glen Ross--and he’s exciting to watch in almost any role.