After a week spent on Broadway, I'm now off Broadway, and I don't mean the supposedly alternative theatrical landscape of off-Broadway that is now just as commercially entrenched in its values as its more high-profile neighbours. Yes, Broadway is still capable of producing the commercial and artistic goods that is represented by the likes of Twyla Tharp's galvanising modern ballet Movin' Out, set to tunes by Billy Joel, or the fantastic adult puppet musical Avenue Q, but the pickings for original works like these have been very thin this autumn.
Frighteningly bad or badly frightening?
Only two original musicals - usually the lifeblood of Broadway and one of the barometers by which its health is typically measured - have opened this season between the summer and Christmas, and both of them are frighteningly bad. Dracula - the Musical, of course, should be badly frightening, but turns out to be a Gothic horror in a different sense. Another in composer Frank Wildhorn's continuing cynical trawl through the catalogue of well-known literary titles, it's been afforded an eccentrically seductive production, full of flying figures and amazing physical transitions (designed by Heidi Ettinger) in one of Broadway's most beautiful old theatres, the Belasco.
But someone forgot to write the show, or rather three people did: between Wildhorn and his British lyric and book writers, Don Black and Christopher Hampton (the combo who did similar duty for the Andrew Lloyd Webber-scored Sunset Boulevard), they've failed to provide a convincing musical or narrative journey for the show to travel on. Instead, Des McAnuff's production is merely a spectacular visual pageant to accompany swelling romantic ballads (Mr Wildhorn's speciality) and the occasional bloodletting. But despite the noble efforts of a fantastically talented Broadway cast that includes one of its brightest ingénues, Melissa Errico (who has an almost fatalistic penchant for aligning herself with flop musicals), the show hasn't got fangs, let alone legs. I bought the mug and tee shirt, though: not just as collectables for what is sure to turn out to be a money-losing flop, but for a superbly evocative logo! If only the show had lived up to it in terms of mystery or artistry.
Equally toothless and almost entirely pointless is Brooklyn - the Musical, a new pop musical that aspires to do for the New York borough of its title what the still-running Rent did for the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but fails to fly in the same way. Marooned in its little Mamma Mia!-like fable of a young woman seeking to find the father she never knew are a bunch of five first-rate performers, including Dreamgirls Tony-winner Cleavant Derricks, Kevin Anderson (the original Joe Gillis in the London Sunset Boulevard) and blazing-voiced newcomer Eden Espinosa, but they are defeated by a small, feeble show at the Plymouth Theatre - originally seen in Denver last year - that lacks Broadway scale, style or panache.
Broadway is clearly scaling back, and not just on the musicals front: no wonder there's a proliferation of one person shows everywhere, from the Pulitzer-prize winning I Am My Own Wife (which I finally caught just before it ends its run this week, with a Tony winning performance from Jefferson Mays as the narrator to an intriguing true-life story) and regular Broadway performer Tovah Feldshuh in the Golda Meir biography Golda's Balcony to comedy appearances by Mario Cantone (Carrie's camp friend Anthony in Sex and the City) in the just-opened Laugh Whore, Billy Crystal (about to open in 700 Sundays), Whoopi Goldberg (in a re-run of the solo show that launched her career 20 years ago), and the imminent Broadway return of Dame Edna (Back with a Vengeance!, bringing out a title that Edna's creator Barry Humphries previously used for a West End outing of the character). There's also the latest solo show from Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler, The Good Body, which she has written and is also performing.
The best star vehicle I saw, however, is one you can't see anymore, at least not on Broadway: as part of a national tour, Bette Midler came back to town with Kiss My Brass for a four-night run at Radio City Music Hall, and there's no more extraordinary a live performer than the still divine Ms M, or a more extraordinary place to see her than the spectacular Radio City. I hesitate to call it a one-person show, since not only does her usual trio of Harlettes join her, but also there's an amazing onstage band. This is a Las Vegas style show - she enters riding high on a carousel horse - that is full of theatrical effects, wonderfully abrasive comedy and spectacular singing: Midler's energy at nearly 60 years old is as formidable as it is incredible. It should transfer to Broadway for an open-ended engagement.
On a far more intimate level, Mandy Patinkin is also back, appearing in one of the five auditoria of a stunning new theatrical multiplex, the Dodger Stages, which has been converted into an off-Broadway space from a former cinema, with the public spaces having the industrial, Spartan feeling of a modern minimalist hotel. Patinkin, with his wilfully eccentric vocal registers and sometimes over-mannered intensity, may be an acquired taste, and I know of many who find him too much to take. But there is also an earnest and sincere vulnerability and honesty to his concert performance, in which he is joined only by Paul Ford's estimable piano accompaniment, that I find ultimately bewitching. Patinkin may sometimes be "somewhat over-indulgent", to quote the Forbidden Broadway parody of his style, but when he tones and hones a song down, there's nothing to beat the quiet ache and longing he frequently finds, too.
Distilling the essence
Talking of Forbidden Broadway, I also paid a return visit to the latest edition of Gerard Alessandrini's long-running off-Broadway parody of everything on Broadway. Here, in just 90 minutes, is distilled the essence of the latest shows, and though it's always helpful to go in knowing them first, Alessandrini adds something both smart and knowing of his own to the parodies that makes them self-contained entities, too. As long as this show is around, Broadway can never take itself too seriously.
And perhaps I shouldn't either: I may have had a lacklustre week, but perhaps I just got to town a little too early. The next few weeks also promise the arrival of Gem of the Ocean, the penultimate in August Wilson's ongoing cycle of plays chronicling the black American experience across each decade of the last century (opening at the Walter Kerr on 11 November); the transfer of Michael Frayn's Democracy from the National to Broadway (opening at the Brooks Atkinson on 18 November); and revivals of musicals as disparate as Sondheim's 1976 Pacific Overtures (opening at Studio 54 on 2 December) and Jerry Herman's buoyant 1983 La Cage Aux Folles (opening at the Marquis on 9 December).
The New Year will also bring new musicals based on Little Women (opening at the Virginia, 23 January) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Spamalot (opening at the Shubert Theatre, 10 March), as well as new jukebox musicals built around the catalogues of Elvis Presley (All Shook Up, opening at the Palace Theatre, 24 March) and the Beach Boys (Good Vibrations, opening at the Eugene O'Neill, 27 January). There's also the Broadway transfer of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, heading to the Ford Center to open on 28 April.
Finally, though, when a friend asked me to name what the best thing I saw on my trip was, I had to answer: Vera Drake. Now since that's a film and not a play it's outside the scope of both this feature and this website; but since it's creators include Mike Leigh (who has a new play scheduled for the National Theatre next year) and the title role is played, with the most exquisite warmth, tenderness and heartbreak by Imelda Staunton in what is being hotly tipped to win her an Oscar nomination, if not the Oscar itself, I make no apology for signing off this column with it.