It’s a mov­ing mem­oir with songs filling in the gaps

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - CHARLES McNULTY THE­ATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — The ques­tion hang­ing over Bruce Spring­steen’s Broad­way de­but was whether the show was go­ing to be a con­cert re­lo­cated to ac­com­mo­date a rock star’s ag­ing vo­cal cords and fan base or a gen­uine the­atri­cal of­fer­ing some­where between a trumped-up cabaret and a stripped-down mu­si­cal.

Hav­ing now ex­pe­ri­enced “Spring­steen on Broad­way” at the Wal­ter Kerr The­atre, where the show is mak­ing “Hamilton” sud­denly seem like a box-of­fice slow­poke with its run­away ticket prices, I am still not sure how to cat­e­go­rize this in­ti­mate, dream­like en­counter with a mu­sic leg­end ac­cus­tomed to sell­ing out foot­ball sta­di­ums.

A spe­cial event if ever there was one, “Spring­steen on Broad­way,” which had its of­fi­cial open­ing Thurs­day, slips out of gen­res to in­vent a new hy­brid form. Call it a con­fes­sional jam ses­sion.

Nomen­cla­ture aside, there’s no deny­ing that the man of Broad­way’s fall sea­son is de­liv­er­ing a per­for­mance that few lucky enough to at­tend will ever for­get. This is Bruce (no last name

needed) un­plugged, but the show goes far deeper than a hot­house ex­hi­bi­tion of an artist un­wind­ing while the MTV cam­eras roll.

Alone on stage for nearly the en­tire per­for­mance, the 68-year-old rock ’n’ roller ac­com­pa­nies him­self while look­ing back in rugged tranquillity. His songs pro­vide the road map for where he’s been. The crags in his still com­mand­ing voice mark the dis­tance between now and then, but he brings the gui­tar-sling­ing, piano-pound­ing, har­mon­ica-blow­ing heat along with the ret­ro­spec­tive wis­dom.

Elvis Pres­ley, the Bea­tles and Bob Dy­lan are touch­stones for Spring­steen, but I found my­self con­nect­ing his in­ner in­ten­sity to a cer­tain school of Amer­i­can act­ing, the one that in­cludes Mar­lon Brando, Al Pa­cino, Robert De Niro and all the other fear­lessly orig­i­nal stage and screen stars who open old wounds for the sake of their char­ac­ters. Spring­steen is, of course, portraying him­self, but he’s reck­on­ing with his own myth, peel­ing back lay­ers to re­dis­cover the boy from Free­hold, N.J., who stared at the grand cop­per beech tree out­side his bed­room win­dow while dream­ing of a life that would tran­scend, though not desert, the blue-col­lar world he came from.

Kafka said that a book should serve as the ax to break up the frozen sea in­side us. Spring­steen uses his mu­sic to dis­sect the psy­chol­ogy of its cre­ation. The songs bring him back to the places and peo­ple, the long­ings and the losses, that in­spired their birth — the dis­tant fa­ther whose ap­proval he could never seem to win as a kid, the de­voted mother who held the fam­ily to­gether by sheer force of will, the band mates and in­dus­try gu­rus, the women he loved and ran away from.

There’s too much lyri­cal pat­ter for this to qual­ify as a con­cert. Much of the talk is lifted straight from his su­perb 2016 mem­oir, “Born to Run,” a book that sets a new lit­er­ary stan­dard for the celebrity stroll down mem­ory lane. Spring­steen is billed as both writer and di­rec­tor of the show, which doles out the writ­ing in lumpy por­tions in the open­ing setup built around “Growin’ Up” from his 1973 de­but al­bum, “Greetings From As­bury Park, N.J.” But ev­ery­thing quickly snaps into place. The anec­dotes Spring­steen re­lates have a shaggy dog qual­ity, but the feel­ings they sum­mon in him in­spire the choice turns of phrase and vivid im­agery of his best songs. He traces the Gar­den State ge­og­ra­phy of his imag­i­na­tion to once again see Mary’s dress sway­ing as she walks through the screen door and dances to the lonely sounds of Roy Or­bi­son in “Thun­der Road.”

Spring­steen could eas­ily have turned his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy over to Broad­way hacks, who would have jumped at the chance at adapt­ing his life story into a juke­box mu­si­cal. But thank­fully he cre­ated some­thing more art­fully haunt­ing than “Jer­sey Boy: As­bury Park Edi­tion.”

His prose, even when over­ripe, con­veys his heart’s rich­ness. But his pres­ence on­stage com­mu­ni­cates his soul. Spring­steen’s stage de­meanor ex­udes a ra­di­ant fer­vor. His eyes seem to pref­ace ev­ery­thing he says and sings with the words, “Bless me, Fa­ther, for I have sinned.” (His sly smile sug­gests he knows he’ll sin again, but once a Catholic boy, al­ways a Catholic boy.) To­ward the end of the twohour in­ter­mis­sion-less show, he in­tones the Lord’s Prayer, but by then it’s clear that “Spring­steen on Broad­way” is for him a kind of sacra­ment.

On a set by Heather Wolen­sky that throws into re­lief the beauty of the Wal­ter Kerr stage and en­cap­su­lated by the light­ing sor­cery of Natasha Katz, Spring­steen runs slowly through lyrics he knows were lost in the up­surge of pop glory. But he keeps his ten­dency for marathon overkill in check, tak­ing his time while stay­ing on course. He doesn’t set out to im­press yet ends up im­press­ing all the more for his de­sire to be true — to the song­writ­ing, to the shared mo­ment with his faith­ful fans and to his own mu­ta­ble yet con­tin­u­ous self.

An­them-style rock took his com­mer­cial suc­cess to a strato­spheric level in the 1980s, but here he di­vulges what was whis­per­ing to him in the songs that were cy­cling reg­u­larly on Top 40 ra­dio. Although of­ten pre­sumed to be blindly pa­tri­otic, “Born in the U.S.A.” was a protest song about bear­ing wit­ness to the strug­gles of vet­er­ans and work­ers politi­cians would rather ig­nore. He mod­estly points this out, but it’s only when he re­moves the sonic blus­ter that he re­veals the song’s Woody Guthrie heart.

The melan­choly un­der­ly­ing “Danc­ing in the Dark,” Spring­steen’s big­gest hit, holds sway in a ren­di­tion that is al­most dirge-like in its quiet beauty. Like so many of us, Spring­steen is wor­ried about Amer­ica’s drift away from its ideals, but he doesn’t get on his soap­box. His po­lit­i­cal re­marks stem from his com­mit­ment to ev­ery­day peo­ple. He’d rather con­nect than pros­e­ly­tize, rec­og­niz­ing as he says that the se­cret of his suc­cess, “the magic trick,” is the bond he has with those who in­spire him to sing in the first place.

Per­haps the most mov­ing in­stance of this is when his wife, Patti Scialfa Spring­steen, joins him on­stage for a pair of nu­mi­nous num­bers, “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Bril­liant Dis­guise.” They barely make eye con­tact, but the way he glows as she gen­tly shad­ows his voice, ca­ress­ing it in a vo­cal penum­bra, tells you ev­ery­thing you need to know about their en­dur­ing love.

Spring­steen can’t help iron­i­cally not­ing that when he wrote all those car songs he didn’t even have a driver’s li­cense, when he sang about re­turn­ing sol­diers he won­dered who died in his place in Viet­nam, and when he be­came the bard of fac­tory work­ers he felt a lit­tle self­con­scious he had man­age to skate through life with­out hav­ing to hold down a 9 to 5 job. He may be rich, fa­mous and charg­ing a for­tune for tick­ets, but he’s no phony.

By the time “Born to Run” ends the show, Spring­steen has the crowd packed be­side him for a last-chance power drive. Broad­way, it turns out, is an ideal high­way for his ma­ture artistry.

An­gela Weiss AFP/Getty Im­ages

THE THE­ATER MAR­QUEE says it all for a pro­duc­tion steal­ing a bit of “Hamilton’s” New York thun­der.

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