When I was up in NYC last week I caught two celebrity-studded plays. First up was Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, currently at the Golden Theatre. It marks Glenn Close’s return to Broadway after a long absence and features other Broadway starlets like John Lithgow (who I saw a few years ago at a National Theatre production in London and was floored by). Looking through the program before things got started I couldn’t help but think that Martha Plimpton looked familiar. When I read her bio I had a total nerd freak out – she is the blond girl who quarrels/flirts with Mouth in the Goonies, aka the best movie of my childhood. Turns out she’s had a long and successful career on Broadway. Who knew?
Close and Lithgow are a wealthy married couple dealing with Close’s alcoholic sister (a brilliant Lindsay Duncan), a daughter headed toward her fourth divorce (Plimpton), and their best friends who are having a mental breakdown of unclear origins (Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins). It all takes place in a living room. It’s heavy drama but has constant flashes of brilliant comedy. The acting was superb. It was, quite simply, the best play I’ve seen in 10 years. It’s not around for that much longer, but if you are in NYC, check it out.
The next show I caught (as did Close and Plimpton, who sat behind me in the 4th row) was It’s Only A Play at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. It was a fun, if shallow play. It’s a another star-packed play, with mixed results. Martin Short and Katie Finneran were top-notch in their comic delivery. Micah Stock, making his Broadway debut, was a bright spot. Maulik Pancholy was trying way too hard. F. Murray Abraham and Stockard Channing were solidly okay. And Matthew Broderick, the purported star of the show, was all sorts of lousy. I don’t know if his character just wasn’t that interesting or if he was phoning it in, but he was like a robot on stage.
The play is, as the name would imply, about a play. It takes place at the opening night party for a play that Matthew Broderick’s character has written that flops. It’s full of quick laughs and name dropping jokes about the celebrities that are at the party but out of sight. Thus the fun, but shallow nature of the play. Most of the jokes are about Broadway, people on Broadway, or people who used to be on Broadway. It’s very insider baseball. If audience members aren’t avid Broadway fans, a lot of it would go over your head. I’m not sad I saw it (Short and Finneran were good enough to make it worthwhile) but I’d take ADB or the SBTB musical over it in a heartbeat.
Long-time YR readers will know my affinity for Saved by the Bell. I’ve easily seen every episode 20 times. I mean it was on TV all the time in the 90s. So imagine my delight when I found out that there is an off-Broadway musical about Saved by the Bell. Clearly I had to go up to NYC and catch Bayside! The Musical! at Theatre 80.
As an aside, I was excited to find out that Theatre 80 was the home of Silence! The Musical when it was in NYC. It’s coming to DC this summer at Studio Theatre (my favorite of the DC theatre circuit) and I have tickets. But I digress.
I arrived 10 minutes before show time to grab a drink at the small, old-timey bar (with an impressive absinthe selection) attached to the theatre. After purchasing a beverage and pre-ordering a drink for intermission, someone told me that Theatre 80 doesn’t have a liquor license that allows you to bring a drink into the theater. So that was a bummer and resulted in some embarrassing old lady beer chugging (I swear I was good at it once). After passing by an impressive merch selection (I got a Go Bayside! slap bracelet) I took my seat and waited with anticipation for what would surely be the most enjoyable theater experience ever.
I couldn’t have gone into this with higher expectations. I was setting myself up to be let down. But I wasn’t. Instead, I was crying because I was laughing so hard during the first minute of the musical. The culprit? Becky the duck. SBTB fans will recall an episode where oil is found under the football field at Bayside and a company sets up oil derricks on campus to collect said oil, which would in turn pay for all sorts of improvements at Bayside to build state of the art facilities. But the oil kills Becky the duck and we all learn a lesson about environmental safety or something. It was one episode. Becky the duck couldn’t have gotten more than two minutes of air time. But there she was in the opening musical sequence that introduced the main characters one at a time – Zach, Screech, Jessie, Slater, Kelly, and Lisa. And then Becky the duck comes onto stage, wings a flapping, and I lost it. If they were already making references that obscure, this was going to be AMAZING.
The play is set up in two acts, with each act basically serving as a long episode of SBTB. The basic premise holding everything together is that the Max is closing unless they can raise $500 (so, pretty close to the “Save the Max” episode from season one, minus the dance contest) and the gang engages in a series of fundraising activities over the course of the play, drawing on plots from the show (Screech’s spaghetti sauce, zit cream, hosting a prom, summer jobs at Malibu Sands, etc.). The ideas that the gang would execute were usually spurred on by suggestions from Tori, brilliantly played by Seth Blum (in addition to his duties at Mr. Belding, Max, and Mr. Carosi). Blum would just hit the stage out of nowhere with the force of a hurricane as Tori (“Hi Guuuuuys!”), drop some harebrained idea that might raise money, and fly off stage. Those little scenes were inevitably the funniest parts of the show. Some of them felt improvised and the backing band (the Zack Attack, obvi) would constantly bust up laughing at Blum’s antics.
Of course, the play wasn’t a straight mash up of Saved by the Bell plot lines. The show also poked fun at aspects of the show by adding original plot lines. Slater comes out as gay after a lot of innuendo throughout the show. Mr. Belding constantly hits on Kelly. Lisa Turtle realizes she’s black near the end of the play and does a vicious rap (“When I say white, you say devil. White! [Devil] White! [Devil]”) during the beauty pageant scene (rather than her original talent of violin on the series).
Other times they would take a plot line and expand or change it in a brilliant way. After Becky the duck, my biggest laugh came when Zack unveiled the custom banner he made for Kelly at the prom. On the show, it read “Zack and Kelly’s Prom!” and was set up outside the gym. This time it read “Kelly is Poor!” The caffeine pills moment was spread out through most of the play, building up one outrageous scene at a time before the “I’m so scared!” climax.
The actress who played Jessie, Amanda Nicholas, was the best of the bunch and had me gasping for air between laughs between all the caffeine pills antics and her extended butterfly interpretive dance from the talent show. Until her amazing rap at the end of the play, Shamira Clark didn’t get that many laugh lines as Lisa, though she provided the best true-to-the-show impression in the play. Micah Cowher was hilarious, if not quite true to form, as Slater, and while Sam Harvey didn’t look that much like Zack, he had the Zack Morris smarmy charm down to a tee.
Violet Bickerstaff was reimagined as “Tori Spelling” with other bit characters like Zack’s Indian mentor in the “Running Zack” episode and Miss Bliss making appearances along the way. It was impressive how many SBTB plot points and random references the show squeezed in without them feeling forced. The only notable show plot lines that I can think of that weren’t in the play were the Hope Line, chess tournament, and prank war with Valley.
If you are a big SBTB fan, you need to see this musical. I’ve never seen anything like it. Two big thumbs up.
I was in NYC this weekend for the epic Rentals show at Irving Plaza. I had time to catch a show, so I went with Michael Cera's Broadway debut in This Is Our Youth. He played a very Michael Cera character. The play was awesome. Kieran Culkin was the star, by a longshot. If you're in NYC anytime soon, check it out. It's a limited engagement.