Broadway your way

Lance Richardson and Kristie Kellahan hit New York's musical heartland to sort the diamonds from the duds.

Taking a walk around the illuminated heart of New York's Times Square is to be bombarded by excess. "The best musical of the century!" reads one giant billboard. "The perfect musical for our times!" proclaims another. Indeed, "A big, fat, high-octane blockbuster!" qualifies as modesty here.

If you take the hype at face value, every single show on Broadway is brilliant and every musical number is a masterclass in emotion. That's a gross overstatement, of course, but hyperbole serves a specific purpose: it draws visitors through the doors to the box office.

In truth, Broadway musicals are hit and miss. For every sumptuous classic there are three turkeys waiting in the wings.

Several musicals are in such high demand - Book of Mormon, Once, Evita - that tickets are all but impossible to find for a traveller unwilling to spend hundreds of dollars. Others are giving away tickets for heavy discounts on the internet.

Broadway is increasingly catering to both sexes, with rock and comic books vying for marquee space too.

We cut through the hype, setting out to find a true word on five contemporary offerings and one mainstay - the sorts of shows a visitor to the city is likely to consider as affordable options. We also recognised that Broadway is increasingly catering to both sexes, with rock and comic books vying for marquee space, too. Which productions are for the boys? Which are for the girls? Which are worth their weight in those exclamation marks?

On with the show.

The jukebox show: Rock of Ages

Described by one Los Angeles critic as a "headbangin'-to-the-oldies-revue", Rock of Ages started in a Hollywood club before graduating to international acclaim. It is 1987 on the Sunset Strip and a small-town girl gets embroiled in the world of LA rock just as property developers move in to clean up the city's image.

He says: Rock of Ages wears its club roots on its sleeve: the set is cosy and immovable, with a plot so thin it sometimes seems non-existent. But that's because this one is really all about the music: Starship, Foreigner, Twisted Sister, Poison. No opportunity to grind things to a halt and rock out '80s-style is overlooked. Throw in bawdy strip numbers, big hair, bathroom encounters and double entendres, and what you have is Broadway at its brazen best - particularly for the boys. 4/5

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She says: Don't stop believin', hold on to that feeling! How could you go wrong with a show featuring the '80s power music of Journey, Whitesnake, Styx and Bon Jovi? You could cast Tom Cruise as the rock god, that's how. Cruise is totally miscast in the film version out now but thankfully no such sins are committed in the stage version, which has single-handedly brought acid-wash jeans and mullets back to Broadway. It's terrific, easy-watching fun and I dare you not to sing along to the best of the '80s. Rock on. 4.5/5

The geek ode: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

The comic book legend gets a dramatic makeover, thanks to Bono, the Edge, initial direction by Julie Taymor and a record-breaking budget of $US75 million. Peter Parker is a high-school underdog - that is, until a run-in with a radioactive spider leaves him with extraordinary powers.

He says: With such a fine artistic pedigree, what could possibly go wrong? A whole lot, apparently. The opening number featuring suspended dancers weaving a giant yellow net is awe-inspiring but from there the production steadily unravels, ending up in a tangled web of disparate plot elements, clunky dialogue and surprisingly unmemorable music. The design is sometimes terrific but comic books crossed with Broadway turns out an otherwise awkward mutation. One for the kids only. 1.5/5

She says: If you're an eight-year-old boy who loves comic books and has never seen a musical, this could be the best night out of your life. I don't like comic books, I don't like sci-fi and I didn't like this musical. At all. The only time the show transcends its 2D woodenness is when Spider-Man flies through the air attached to cables. Those four minutes are somewhat entertaining. The score from Bono should have been the show's saving grace yet it didn't hit the right note, heavy on guitar riffs and unmemorable tunes. All in all, a disappointment. 2/5

The '90s romance: Ghost

Molly, a beautiful sculptor, and Sam, her wealthy banker boyfriend, are living the dream in New York. That is until Sam is shot and killed one night by a mugger on the street. His ghost is unable to let go and move on until he warns Molly of the imminent danger she faces. He enlists the reluctant help of sassy Oda Mae Brown, a fraudulent psychic, who can miraculously hear him.

He says: Adapting an Oscar-winning film to the stage is always going to be a risky venture. In this case, some things come off with aplomb, including mystifying optical effects by acclaimed illusionist Paul Kieve. Other things - the dancing chorus of bankers, an awkward subway rap, slushy romance - are dead on arrival. Ghost should be commended for trying something different but it never shakes the spectre of its better source material. Having said that, an extra-sassy Oda Mae is a theatrical firecracker. 2.5/5

She says: With fond teenage memories of the 1990 film (particularly the saucy pottery-making scene), I was curious to see how Ghost translated to Broadway. In a word: impressive. This is a very modern musical, with special-effects wizardry and LED screen magic I've not seen before on stage. The lead performers were never going to eclipse the Demi, Patrick or Whoopi of our memories, but they certainly served up a touching tale of everlasting love. 3.5/5

The Disney contender: Newsies

In 1899, the homeless children of New York sold newspapers to survive. Then media magnate Joseph Pulitzer raised distribution costs, demanding they work harder than ever. The result? They went on strike. Disney made a film about their crusade in 1992 and now the film is a Broadway musical smash, with music by Alan Menken of The Little Mermaid fame.

He says: Read all about it! One Direction makes a musical about an obscure historical footnote! At least, that's my first impression. Second impressions are more favourable: the young, almost exclusively male cast jump around with raw ruffian energy, while dances are impressively athletic, particularly one featuring torn newspapers that must require a keenly polished stage. Sure, songs are over-baked in the earnest manner of Glee, but you'll probably be too caught up in an atmosphere resembling a Knicks basketball game to really notice. 3/5

She says: If Disney was a major sponsor of the Occupy Wall Street movement, this is what the protests would look like. Good clean fun, with thrilling tap-dancing sequences, underdog heroes we can cheer for and baddies that get their comeuppance by curtain call. It's an uncomplicated, slick formula for entertainment that works all over the world, nowhere more so than Broadway, where dreams are made and sold at intermission. The super-tight performances, rousing anthems and sweet romantic sub-plot make for an enjoyable evening. 4/5

The one with nuns: Sister Act

In another show adapted from a popular film, nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier is on the run after witnessing her gangster lover shoot a man in the head. A local convent takes her in and hilarity ensues as she swaps thigh-high boots for an ankle-length habit. Deloris teaches the choir a thing or two about showbiz, helping save the impoverished parish from closure. All-singing, all-dancing, all-glitter.

He says: "Is there a smoking section?" Deloris Van Cartier asks. "Yes," Mother Superior replies. "And you're heading right for it." The wit in this surprisingly endearing adaptation comes sharp and fast. The homeless dance back-up to a crooning cop; sequinned nuns belt out soul music and enumerate the pleasures of the habit (hint: there are none). Throw in several surreal tangents and you have a deliriously oddball atmosphere that makes the climactic Virgin Mary mirror-ball seem totally acceptable. Cynicism is a mortal sin. 3.5/5

She says: A gigantic disco-ball Virgin Mary! Witty ditties about the Stations of the Cross! Break-dancing hip-hop nuns! Sister Act is funny, silly and camp, with memorable songs and solid performances. Singer and actress Raven-Symone in the lead role of Deloris has a terrific stage presence and the audience clearly loves her, but the pretty, young, former Disney star doesn't have the same comedic shock value as potty-mouthed Whoopi Goldberg in the film of the same name. Still, a great night out, suitable for all ages. 3.5/5

The classic mainstay: The Phantom of the Opera

Beneath the glitz and glamour of the Paris Opera House lurks a disfigured "phantom", nursing an obsession for beautiful soprano Christine.

The longest-running show on Broadway, Phantom celebrated its 10,000th performance this year. The Andrew Lloyd Webber classic is an ode to love conquering all and the beauty to be found in unlikely places.

He says: It's impossible to go into this musical without a host of preconceived ideas, but from the second that dusty chandelier explodes into light and hoists above the audience, everyone is gobsmacked. Synth swells, fog roils and baroque costumes shimmer across a stage that changes from masked ball to moody catacombs in the blink of an eye. This is a well-oiled machine, flawlessly operating through years of practice. Considering the outrageous, over-the-top spectacle people have come to associate with Broadway, Phantom is the reigning champion for a reason. 4.5/5

She says: Andrew Lloyd Webber is in a musical class of his own. From the first stirring strains of the overture ("The phaaaantom of the opera is there, inside your mind"), the music of the night transports me to the grandeur and passion of 1880s Paris. This show has it all - opera, ballet, comedy, compelling drama, pathos, visual splendour, show-stopping tunes. It can be quite dark, so I wouldn't recommend it for littlies. The show has been a fixture on Broadway for a quarter of a century and it's not going anywhere in a hurry. 4/5

At the box office

To be certain you'll get tickets to the shows you really want to see, book before you leave Australia. Expedia, Qantas Holidays and Creative Holidays all sell Broadway show tickets online.

Follow the latest news and information on shows, performers and tickets on Twitter @BwayCollection.

If you're prepared to wait until you arrive in New York to book tickets, great bargains can be bagged on the day of the performance with discounted rush tickets. For each show's policy on rush and student tickets, see playbill.com.

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