A Critic’s Notebook: Philly’s slice in Broadway’s big pie

Every year for the past few years, Philadelphia has made at least one major appearance on Broadway. This season, it’s in a compelling play called “Orphans,”

about a tightly-wound petty thief and his mentally challenged younger brother. “Orphans” takes place in their North Philly row house – Oak Lane, to be exact. From the first minutes of the play, the city looms large as the older brother describes a robbery he’s just committed in Fairmount Park.

After I saw “Orphans” a few nights ago, I was back on Broadway in another theater –this time at a new, entertaining and way-too-long musical called “Motown.” It’s about the history of Detroit’s iconic record company and of course, it’s mostly set in the Motor City. When “Motown” gets to the part where label’s records begin to air outside Detroit, an actor pops onto the stage and announces he’s Philly’s Georgie Woods, the guy with the goods, from WDAS. After another line or two, he disappears. If you’re a Philadelphian, that’s the sort of cameo that becomes an indelible part of the show.

We’re used to seeing New York as a backdrop for plays and certainly, Los Angeles in movies and on TV. Playwrights sometimes use Philadelphia because they know the city or because it represents something they want to bring out in their scripts. In “Orphans,” the sense of North Philadelphia street life is important in the play, for instance, and the play incorporates the trimmings ofPhilly in the ’60s: the Philadelphia Inquirer is a source of talk in the plot. A gift comes delivered on stage by Alec Baldwin in a John Wanamaker’s bag. Broad and Olney becomes a major destination. Lyle Kessler, a Philadelphia native, wrote the play in 1983, and its excellent current production marks its first time on Broadway.

Last season, Philadelphia was the setting for the star-studded revival (Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, John LaRoquette and more) of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” his super-smart 1960 political comedy. Vidal apparently wanted to set his play about a presidential nominating convention in a backdrop classier than many of its characters. He chose the Bellevue Stratford on Broad Street. I don’t know if the scenic designer, Derek McLane, ever stepped into the Bellevue, but his set of many rooms there seemed on target, right down to the moldings.

Two seasons back, the joyful noise raised by the cast in the stage-musical version of the film “Sister Act” was supposed to be coming out of Philadelphia. The show’s now gone from Broadway, but its national tour stopped here at the Academy of Music just a few weeks ago. The popular film had been set in San Francisco. But when the celebrated show composer Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid,” “Little Shop of Horrors”) went to write the music, he switched the setting to Philadelphia.

Menken wanted the show to feature the Philadelphia sound of the ’70s, which had never fueled an original stage musical, he said. The busy playwright Douglas Carter Beane wrote the book for the musical. He grew up in Reading and snuck into Philly on weekends as a teenager to hit clubs of the ’70s like the Second Story and the Black Banana.

The stage version of “Sister Act” takes place in the fictional Queen of Angels cathedral in South Philadelphia, where the city lends its beat to a joyful noise. And, as in the other plays, to Broadway.

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Of the shows mentioned in this posting, two can currently be seen on Broadway: “Orphans” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (through June 30) and “Motown” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in an open-ended run.

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