5 Must-See Broadway Shows This Spring

5 Must-See Broadway Shows This Spring

If anything can dispel the winter blues in New York, it's the prospect of a batch of new plays and musicals blooming on the Great White Way in time for the Tony Awards on Jun. 7. Between now, Mar. 18, and Apr. 23, the cut-off date for award eligibility (nominations are announced Apr. 28), 15 shows are scheduled to open. Here are the five that I would move heaven and earth to see.

The Audience 

Helen Mirren (center as Elizabeth II with her prime ministers in The Audience. Photo ©Joan Marcus 2015

Who wouldn't want to see Helen Mirren live and in person as Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, the role that won her the 2006 Oscar for Best Actress? Not that The Audience is a rehash of the movie The Queen. Peter Morgan, who wrote both, is far too clever for that. Instead of focusing on a single event in the queen's reign, the death of Princess Diana, he takes a recurring function of the constitutional figurehead, the weekly meeting between the monarch and the prime minister of the day, and imagines what those closed-door sessions must have been and are like. Her Majesty has been on the throne for 60-plus years, so the cast of characters is stellar, from Winston Churchill to Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair to the current PM, David Cameron. Morgan's previous foray on Broadway, the Tony-nominated Frost/Nixon (2007), proved how adept he is at translating history (in this case, David Frost's TV interviews with disgraced President Richard Nixon) into compelling human drama. It also doesn't hurt that Dame Helen comes to New York clutching the 2013 Olivier Award for Best Actress for her decade-hopping work in The Audience, which premiered in London's West End.

(Opened Mar. 8, limited engagement thru Jun. 28)

The Audience, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 212.239.6200

Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2 

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2. Photo by Johan Persson

The truth is, I can never get enough of Henry VIII and his matrimonial woes. From Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Henry VIII (1613) to Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) to Jonathan Rhys Meyers' sexy turn in Showtime's The Tudors (2007-2010), the king provides foolproof entertainment. But these two plays, totaling nearly six hours and presented in repertory—both, however, can be seen on a single day, either Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday—have something else going for them: Mike Poulton adapted them for Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company from Dame Hilary Mantel's engrossing, Man Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I'm doing my homework now, turning pages as fast as I can and relishing every one. The plot is familiar: Henry VIII divorces Katherine of Aragon, breaks with the Church of Rome and marries Anne Boleyn with the expectation of securing his dynasty's male line. But Mantel's hook is to tell the story from the viewpoint of low-born Thomas Cromwell, Henry's "fixer" and as wily a courtier as ever stood center stage. Cromwell's the original Teflon politico, whom you alternately love, loathe and admire. I've booked a Sunday in April. The last time I did so was for another Royal Shakespeare Company two-parter, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, dramatized by David Edgar from Charles Dickens' novel. That ranks as my all-time top Broadway theatergoing experience. I expect "Wolf Hall" to equal, if not exceed it.

(Previews begin Mar. 20, opens Apr. 9, limited engagement thru Jul. 5)

Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2, Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, btw W. 50th & W. 51st sts., 212.239.6200

The King and I 

Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara star in The King and I. Photo by Paul Kolnik

OK, I'm a monarchist. And a sucker for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lushest and most romantic score. The King and I has been revived on Broadway three times since its premiere in 1951: twice with its original leading man, the late Yul Brynner, and most recently in 1996 with Lou Diamond Phillips as the king. But Lincoln Center Theater’s new production promises to best them all, if the company’s unforgettable 2008 revival of that other R&H classic, South Pacific, is any indication. The same Tony Award-winning production team is in place: Bartlett Sher (director), Christopher Gatelli (musical staging), Michael Yeargan (scenic design), Catherine Zuber (costume design) and Ted Sperling (musical director). Academy Award nominee Ken Watanabe has been cast as the uncompromising king of Siam who melts under the humanizing influence of his (many, many) children’s Welsh nanny, played by the gorgeous and gorgeously voiced Kelli O’Hara. O’Hara has a proven track record of bringing out the sexy in her leading men (Matthew Morrison in The Light in the Piazza, 2005; Paulo Szot in South Pacific, 2008; and Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County, 2014). As to the venue, Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, with its stadium seating and thrust stage, is perfect for the spectacle. Expect a full orchestra in the pit, too. So, shall we dance?

(In previews, opens Apr. 16)

The King and I, Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., btw Broadway & Amsterdam Ave., 212.239.6200

The Visit 

At last, Broadway audiences get to see Roger Rees and Chita Rivera in Kander and Ebb’s The Visit. Photo by Frank Ockenfels

This dark, dark musical from the pens of John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), by way of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s cynical 1956 play, Der Besuch der alten Damen, has been circling Broadway for years. Finally, the eagle has landed, with the incomparable Chita Rivera as the world’s richest woman seeking revenge on the man who seduced and abandoned her decades before. Her plan? She’ll give her impoverished hometown a vast sum of money, but only if its inhabitants kill her former suitor. Strong stuff. And trenchantly funny, too, which is to be expected from Kander and Ebb of Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman fame. The opportunity to see the legendary Rivera in what may be her last starring role on Broadway (she was born in 1933) is another goad and should not be missed. A Broadway fixture for six decades, the triple threat (actress, singer, dancer) created the role of Anita in West Side Story (1957), the role of Rose Grant in Bye Bye Birdie (1960) and has won two Tony Awards for two Kander and Ebb shows, The Rink (1984) and Spider Woman (1993). A talent like her may never come our way again. Pay a visit.

(Previews begin Mar. 26, opens Apr. 23)

The Visit, Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., 212.239.6200

Hand to God 

Steven Boyer in Hand to God. Photo by Joan Marcus

Broadway audiences love a raunchy good time, and Hand to God promises to be the most politically incorrect show to hit the boards since The Book of Mormon. Bravo. Set in a devoutly religious small town in Texas, the black comedy by Robert Askins follows Jason, a shy Christian guy, whose once soft-spoken hand puppet (!), Tyrone, suddenly becomes the devil incarnate, talking through a potty mouth and shaking things up. It’s the classic conflict: the battle of wills between good and evil. When Jessica, a sweet teen like Jason, makes a hot-to-trot puppet of her own, and names her Jolene, the felt and yarn really flies. Teenage angst, raging hormones, repression, guilt, hypocrisy: the Muppets this definitely ain’t, so leave the kids at home. A hit when it played Off-Broadway last year, Hand to God features a star-making performance from Steven Boyer as Jason/Tyrone.

(In previews, opens Apr. 7)

Hand to God, Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 212.239.6200

Photo on home page of Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II posing for photographer Cecil Beaton in Peter Morgan's The Audience is ©Joan Marcus 2015