Don’t sing along — he’s telling a story on Broad­way

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MIKAEL WOOD POP MU­SIC CRITIC

NEW YORK — Bruce Spring­steen opens his new Broad­way show with some ter­rif­i­cally un­nec­es­sary ad­vice — namely, an ac­count­ing of some of the at­tributes you might find help­ful “if you ever come face to face with 80,000 scream­ing rock ’n’ roll fans.”

The singer drew from real-life ex­pe­ri­ence, of course, in com­pil­ing his list, which in­cludes nat­u­ral abil­ity, study of craft and “a naked de­sire for fame.” As one of rock’s big­gest su­per­stars — and a widely ac­knowl­edged spokesman for ev­ery­day folks — Spring­steen has spent decades play­ing are­nas and sta­di­ums, in­duc­ing mas­sive crowds to sing along to ev­ery word of in­deli­ble hits like “Born to Run” and “Born in the U.S.A.”

But 80,000 scream­ing fans isn’t just a sight you and I are un­likely ever to en­counter. It’s also a sight the singer him­self avoids in “Spring­steen on Broad­way,” which was to open Thurs­day evening at the Wal­ter Kerr The­atre.

In this lim­ited sold-out en­gage­ment, set to run through early Fe­bru­ary, he’s play­ing for fewer than 1,000 peo­ple

a night in one of Broad­way’s cozier houses. And they’re not al­lowed to scream.

“I’ll han­dle it my­self,” Spring­steen said tersely as au­di­ence mem­bers be­gan lift­ing their voices for his song “Danc­ing in the Dark” dur­ing a pre­view per­for­mance I at­tended Wed­nes­day.

The com­mand was sur­pris­ing, star­tling even — a rad­i­cal dis­rup­tion of the squishy com­mu­nal vibe that has de­fined Spring­steen’s con­certs for as long as any­one can re­mem­ber.

So meet the new Boss, some­what less gre­gar­i­ous than the old Boss.

The per­former said he was in­spired by a gig he played at the White House in Jan­uary, shortly be­fore Pres­i­dent Obama split, and “Spring­steen on Broad­way” strips al­most ev­ery­thing from the ac­tion-packed pre­sen­ta­tion this 68-year-old New Jer­sey na­tive has per­fected with the help of his long-run­ning E Street Band.

The two-hour show puts Spring­steen, wear­ing a black T-shirt and jeans, in the mid­dle of a stage that’s empty ex­cept for a piano, a stool, a water glass and sev­eral beat-up road cases; be­hind him, a brick wall looms, sug­gest­ing the side of an old fac­tory or maybe a Catholic church. Ev­ery once in a while, a stage­hand walks out and gives him an acous­tic gui­tar, and Spring­steen uses ei­ther the gui­tar or the piano to ac­com­pany him­self as he sings songs and tells sto­ries adapted from his impressive 2016 mem­oir, “Born to Run.”

On Wed­nes­day, the singer’s wife, Patti Scialfa (also a mem­ber of the E Street Band), joined him for two songs. But that’s about it as far as pro­duc­tion goes in a con­cert that feels in­fin­itely smaller than, say, the epic blowouts Spring­steen de­vised last year to close out the now-de­mol­ished Los An­ge­les Sports Arena.

Ac­tu­ally, there is one way in which “Spring­steen on Broad­way” is big­ger than a nor­mal Boss gig, and that’s the price of tick­ets, which topped out at $850 each be­fore they sold out al­most in­stantly — and then cropped up on StubHub at even cra­zier prices. (As I write this, a ticket for Fri­day night, in a cen­ter-orches­tra seat sev­eral rows be­hind where I sat, is go­ing for $2,800.)

Even the face-value num­bers are “ridicu­lous,” said Micki Mer­sky of Short Hills, N.J., who told me that she’d paid $850 as we en­tered the the­ater — one con­tri­bu­tion to­ward the $2.3 mil­lion that “Spring­steen on Broad­way” rang up in its first week of previews, ac­cord­ing to the Broad­way League.

An­other show-goer, who gave his name only as Bruce, was more blunt when I talked with him and his twen­tysome­thing son af­ter the con­cert. “It’s stupid, and he’s greedy,” he said of Spring­steen. “He doesn’t need this much money.”

Then again, this Bruce had forked over the bucks to see that Bruce. And he said he and his kid were com­ing back in two weeks.

You can un­der­stand the al­lure. As the lights went down in­side the Wal­ter Kerr and Spring­steen emerged from the wings to take his po­si­tion, the mo­ment car­ried an un­de­ni­able elec­tric­ity — the feel­ing that we were in for some­thing new.

Plenty of rock­ers have done the acous­tic-on-a-stool thing, in­clud­ing Spring­steen, who taped a mem­o­rable episode of “VH1 Sto­ry­tellers” in 2005. And Broad­way has hardly suf­fered from a lack of at­ten­tion from the elec­tric-gui­tar bri­gade; Sting, U2, Paul Si­mon and Green Day all have writ­ten mu­si­cals, to vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess.

But “Spring­steen on Broad­way” isn’t a con­cert or a mu­si­cal. With its scripted di­a­logue and its pre­cisely cal­i­brated mu­si­cal ar­range­ments — at times, you could hear the click­ing of Spring­steen’s fin­gers on his gui­tar strings — the pro­duc­tion is look­ing for some un­ex­plored mid­dle ground between the two: It wants to use the­atri­cal con­ven­tion to bring the au­di­ence into Spring­steen’s mind, not to cel­e­brate but to il­lu­mi­nate.

He be­gins at the be­gin­ning, strum­ming “Growin’ Up” as he talks about his dis­cov­ery of mu­sic as an es­cape from the “life­less black hole” of school and church and green beans for din­ner. He de­scribes a giant tree in the front yard of his child­hood home in Free­hold, N.J.; he re­calls be­ing sent by his mother to fetch his dad at one of the smoky bars he refers to as “citadels of mys­tery.”

This part of the show, set to “My Home­town” and “My Fa­ther’s House” and “The Wish,” is re­mark­able — a mes­mer­iz­ing half-hour or so in which you al­most for­get you’re in a the­ater sur­rounded by other peo­ple, so evoca­tive are his im­ages and so nat­u­ral his shifts between singing and talk­ing.

Soon he’s mov­ing on to re­count his early days as a singer and his ef­forts to as­sem­ble the E Street Band, which never had the “best play­ers,” he says, but it didn’t mat­ter — the group had the right play­ers.

In “Tenth Av­enue FreezeOut,” he takes a lengthy di­gres­sion to pay trib­ute to the late E Street sax­o­phon­ist Clarence Cle­mons, who died in 2011; he uses “The Promised Land” and “Born in the U.S.A.” to fill out a mov­ing tale about a lon­gago road trip to Cal­i­for­nia, where he met au­thor Ron Kovic at the Sun­set Mar­quis — “an up­scale lowlife kind of place,” per Spring­steen’s vivid de­scrip­tion.

He’s good too with Scialfa as they do “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Bril­liant Dis­guise,” both with a sense of lived in­ti­macy that puts across some of what they must see in each other.

Through­out all this, I scarcely thought about the fact that Spring­steen was us­ing a prompter for his di­a­logue — ei­ther be­cause he wasn’t look­ing at it that of­ten or be­cause his per­for­mance kept my at­ten­tion from the very large mon­i­tor hang­ing from the front of the mez­za­nine.

But that changed in the sec­ond half of the show, which moves away from the specifics of Spring­steen’s life and into a more philo­soph­i­cal mode as he sings tunes like “The Ris­ing” and “Long Walk Home.”

Dur­ing the lat­ter, he de­scribes “men in torch­light pa­rades” and refers to the cur­rent mo­ment — the Trump era, one pre­sumes, though he didn’t ut­ter the name — as a “bad chap­ter in the on­go­ing bat­tle for the soul of our na­tion.”

Pol­i­tics has al­ways been tricky for Spring­steen, who was ar­guably pro­pelled to star­dom by a blue-col­lar fan base we might now clas­sify with the color red.

Af­ter the show, I stood on the street and talked with Fred Jenny, a fan from Verona, N.J., who pointed out that “Bruce took a lit­tle bit of a beat­ing in his ca­reer when he did ‘Amer­i­can Skin,’ ” a song from the early 2000s about the New York po­lice shoot­ing death of Amadou Diallo. “And I think from that point on, he kind of soft­ened” the po­lit­i­cal con­tent in his mu­sic, Jenny said.

Per­haps that was why Spring­steen seemed to be fol­low­ing the prompter more closely — stick­ing to a care­fully strate­gized script — as the con­cert touched on is­sues that stood to di­vide his au­di­ence.

At least that’s how it struck me. Jar­rod Roy, a young guy from Lafayette, La., who said he’d cried through half the show, told me he thought the Trump stuff felt lightly han­dled.

“Bruce thinks what’s go­ing on now will fade,” Roy said.

And Spring­steen would prob­a­bly say Roy is right. Near the end of “Spring­steen on Broad­way,” the singer quotes Joe Strum­mer of the Clash, in­sist­ing the fu­ture hasn’t been writ­ten yet. He re­calls tak­ing a re­cent trip to his old home in Free­hold and dis­cov­er­ing that the giant tree had been cut down.

“But some­how we re­main,” he says, a bit pon­der­ously.

Here he seemed to be work­ing up to the kind of op­ti­mism Spring­steen dis­penses in his big arena shows, mov­ing us out of his head and back into a wider space.

But then the thing kind of fell apart. No­body on Wed­nes­day had tried with any se­ri­ous­ness to sing along un­til “Danc­ing in the Dark”; it hadn’t felt ap­pro­pri­ate, or even pos­si­ble, in a way.

When that changed, though, it turned out that Spring­steen wasn’t ready for it, which felt al­most like a be­trayal. Ear­lier, his in­ward fo­cus had seemed like a gift, but now it had a pun­ish­ing qual­ity that only deep­ened when he closed the con­cert with a dour, blah-sound­ing ren­di­tion of “Born to Run.”

He’d taken away the joy and the re­lease that the E Street Band doles out but was no longer re­plac­ing it with any fresh in­tro­spec­tion; you sud­denly longed to be in a much larger room with many more peo­ple.

As he sang all by him­self about a “run­away Amer­i­can dream,” I couldn’t help but think about some­thing I’d talked about ear­lier with Mer­sky and her friend Sh­eryl Co­hen.

They said they re­garded Spring­steen as the ul­ti­mate rocker, so I asked them if they could imag­ine any­one else do­ing this kind of unique en­gage­ment. Mer­sky said no way, but Co­hen thought of an­other Jer­sey icon, Jon Bon Jovi, which made Mer­sky scoff.

“Bon Jovi doesn’t re­late like Spring­steen re­lates to the work­ing peo­ple,” she said, and maybe that’s true.

But I’m con­fi­dent that Bon Jovi — whose light­weight rep­u­ta­tion means he’s as un­likely as I am to play Broad­way — would’ve un­der­stood eas­ily when his peo­ple needed to feel as though they be­longed.

Rob DeMartin

BRUCE SPRING­STEEN is tak­ing songs and sto­ries to Broad­way. Think­ing of singing along? Don’t even.

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