Monday, March 31, 2008

"A White House Cantata"

Colossal failure. That's the summation I generally give 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Leonard Bernstein-Alan Jay Lerner flop that played a tumultuously chaotic out of town tryout and limped into New York for a 7 performance run. Where did it go wrong? Probably at the very start. Lerner was frustrated over the Watergate scandal of 1972 and collaborated with Bernstein on a concept musical that would examine the first hundred years of the White House, with an emphasis on race relations through that time. Highly ambitious stuff.

Tonight I was at the condensed revision of the piece (which eliminated practically the entire book and focused on the historical musical scenes) called A White House Cantata. The event was presented by the Collegiate Chorale under the artistic direction of Tony award winning actor Roger Rees and marked the NY premiere of this revision, and the first time the score had been heard in NY since it closed May 8, 1976.

The piece calls out for a more theatrical staging rather than the staid classical production it received tonight. The Collegiate Chorale stood and sat upstage in a semi circle, with four chairs and four mike stands (everyone had a binder) downstage. Chills were to be had several times throughout. "Take Care of This House" and "To Make Us Proud" (which reminded me so much of "Make Our Garden Grow") are stunning pieces. The crescendo of the latter was beyond gorgeous. ("To Make Us Proud" should never have been cut as the finale. It is a stunning summation of liberal patriotism - and that last note is held forever and a day). Hearing those original orchestrations (by Bernstein, Hershy Kay and Sid Ramin) was worth the price of admission alone. Dwayne Croft was amusing as the President, and in stellar voice, if no great shakes as an actor. Emily Pulley's "Duet for One" was well executed - she found the comedy where June Anderson failed in the initial presentation/recording ten years ago. And needless to say, the number stopped the show. However - she did not take the high D above C at the end which separates the good First Ladies from the superlative First Ladies (like Routledge and Judy Kaye, who made the first official recording of the showcase for John McGlinn). Robert Mack and Anita Johnson were fine as Lud and Seena; especially with the infectious "I Love My Wife." Rees also made an amusing cameo as Admiral Cockburn during the "Sonatina."

As the show is done now, with practically nothing left of the book it runs an intermissionless 90 minutes. Basically it's everything you hear on the (disappointingly lifeless) album they recorded of the London premiere ten years ago (with Thomas Hampson and June Anderson). But I feel though that by removing the entire book, you're left with just songs and little context. They tried to make up for that with a historical powerpoint presentation that lasted the entire performance. They also wisely used supertitles for lyrical clarity. Which brings me to my aforementioned quibble. The piece is eminently theatrical and not classical - it would have fared better with musical theatre actors in the leads. Say for instance, Marc Kudisch and Victoria Clark as the President and First Lady. (Let's face it, Victoria Clark should just do the Patricia Routledge songbook). There was a lack of cohesion that was made even more obvious with the lack of dialogue or even a narration. Hmm.. That sounds like an idea for the cantata, link the fragmented musical sequences with narrative. That would make more sense than just jumping from one musical piece to another. It could also help the audience care more for Lud and Seena, since they are the fictional characters of the piece, who really come out of nowhere and go nowhere, except to serve as catalysts for racial discussion within the musical numbers. We should have an opportunity to care for them. But let's face it, it is a problematic show, otherwise it wouldn't be obsessed by elitists and curious flop fiends.

I am, as many of you are well aware, fascinated to no end by the piece, especially since it's one of such breadth and scope. And there seems to be a masterwork yearning to break out of the confines of the show in each of its revisions. I found that there was more fun to the piece when it was a Broadway musical and not an oratorio (the piece demands the energy and acting, especially in regards to the satiric numbers). They've reinstated the much more reserved original Prelude as opposed to the lively overture that opened the show on Broadway (which is decidedly Bernsteinian) and the framework of "Rehearse" which is infectious and little tidbits, like "The Honor of Your Presence is Requested" which for whatever reason I just love the melodic line. The impeachment scene between President Johnson and Seena is one of the most compelling dialogues that the show had to offer. It was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the servants rarely interact with the President and First Lady in the revision. The fragmentation sort of defeats the author's original intent, doesn't it?

The following quote from John Adams' correspondence with his wife Abigail, written on his second day of occupancy was missing - and it makes for a beauty of a line:

"I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof."

After the show, there was a highly engaging talkback hosted by Seth Rudetsky with Richard Muenz, Beth Fowler, co-director George Faison and Fowler's husband John Witham (they met during this production and were married a year later). Also present was Warren Hoge, who covered the show during its preview period in 1976 - and told an amusing anecdote about how he sang "Take Care of This House" to Ronald Reagan at a White House dinner. One of the audience questions was actually a comment from a man who was at the closing and recalled how Routledge received such an ovation for "Duet for One" that she performed an encore. Fowler backed him up saying it was the only time she had ever seen anything like that "They wouldn't let the show go on." She also does a rather amusing Pat Routledge impersonation. They mused on what worked and didn't work. The chaos of rehearsals and being out of town. The confusion of having rehearsed half a scene, only to perform the new first half and the old second half at the evening perform. Yikes. Many mixed reactions on the original work from all onstage. "A wonderful-terrible experience." They were all thrilled to hear the score again - and Faison summed it up best when he said that Lerner and Bernstein were trying to say too much.

Erik Haagensen, who was cited in the concert notes as having written an article about the musical for Show Music magazine in 1992, has worked on an estate-approved revision of the work that was done in the early 90s. What a shame we can't get his work out in the open, because I feel that there is a masterwork among this ruin that has yet to surface.

One final quibble. For a show that deals with race it was jarring that the chorale was almost all white, with nary an African American woman in sight, save for Ms. Johnson.

While it was a treat to hear the piece live in NY, A White House Cantata is not and should not be the final word on this score.

"Hail, Who?" Tonight's the Night!!

A White House Cantata...
Collegiate Chorale, Jazz at Lincoln Center...
Frederick Rose Theatre

Sunday, March 30, 2008

One-Armed Dancing and the Celtic aura of "Juno"

It's a whirlwind couple of days for me. In the span of two days I'll have had the privilege of hearing two favorite flops scores. Unbelievable, huh? Tonight it was Juno, the Blitzstein-Stein adaptation of Sean O'Casey's acclaimed tragicomedy Juno and the Paycock at City Center Encores! Tomorrow night it will be A White House Cantata, the concert revision of Bernstein-Lerner's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is being presented by the Collegiate Chorale at Frederick Rose Theatre.

There is much to admire in Juno. Running for only 16 performances in 1959, the musical was plagued by the lack of a solid director, as well as being considered far too dark for its time. I treasure the original cast album. The score is fascinating to no end: Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas lead the way as Juno and Jack Boyle, with support from Monte Amundsen as their willful daughter Mary and Jack MacGowran (Squire Danaher's lackey from The Quiet Man, playing a similarly sycophantic role) as Boyle's drinking buddy Joxer Daly. Tommy Rall was Johnny, their son, who was left with one arm and the guilt of betraying his comrade in the rebellion to the British. When a British attorney comes to town, he says that the Boyle's have come into an inheritance, and let's just say it is downhill from there.

There are certain issues to be had with the musical. One: Juno and the Paycock is considered so deft a masterpiece that many critics feel musicalizing the material was necessary. Two: (and this could be from the Encores! treatment, not necessarily the show itself) the libretto is underwhelming and lacking cohesion. Three: Garry Hynes could have done a better job staging the piece. Four: A query more so than a critique... would Juno have fared better if it had involved the Irish civil war of 1922 (when the play is set) as opposed to the Irish rebellion against the English of 1921 (a not so subtle shift for which the author's received O'Casey's permission).

I am certainly most grateful to the Encores! crew for sticking to their mission this year (as much as I loved the Follies) and giving us these shows. I couldn't help but feel that there were many directorial choices that could have been fleshed out further. Vicki Clark was a force of nature as Juno, the sharp tongued and long-suffering (yet good-hearted) earth mother. She sang with conviction and made the most of what is, musically, an underwritten role. Conrad Shuck was amusing, if not entirely successful as the Captain. He sang with gusto, but he missed much of the humor, particularly as Joxer's foil in "Daarlin' Man" (Listening to the cast album afterward, was a night and day experience; I was actually laughing out loud at the number). A stand-out was Tyler Hanes as Johnny; while we didn't get the first act ballet, we got the second act nightmare in which the character faces much of his demons and fears onstage. It was a particularly breathtaking moment, and as pointed out to me, really difficult because he's dancing with one arm. Celia Keenan-Bolger was excellent as Mary, even if her upper register is a bit under-developed. Michael Arden was good if vocally underwhelming (You couldn't give us a real Irish tenor for the resplendent "One Kind Word"? Or at least one who could sustain those notes under Mary's dialogue?). Celia's art songs were fine; though "My True Heart" got awkward when it became a soft-shoe duet. Keep it a solo. But dramatically those songs are a marvel. The orchestrations are full and rich; Blitzstein really was wondrous at capturing the feel and texture of Irish folk music (even a parody of a John McCormack mother-worshipping tear-jerker). The "Hymn" and staged funeral should have not been placed upstage, I feel it would have had a better impact had it been placed downstage, with a more prescient force.

The surprise of the night to me? Juno and Mary's madrigal "Bird Upon a Tree" stopped the show. And what a gloriously sung piece it was too.

Not a perfect piece but I'll take it. And I'd gladly like to see it tried and attempted to be fixed once again.... all for love ;)

Milo O'Shea was in the house last night; why wasn't the man onstage?

Had a grand time at Seppi's afterward with some grand company and some daarlin' white Russians. One flop down, one to go...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The most electrifying moment in American theatre this season...

All due respect to Patti & co, as well as everyone else currently chewing up the scenery this season, but this picture captures the greatest moment in American theatre today. I'm not explaining the context. If you haven't seen it yet, go and you will know why it comes out on top.

The Weinstein's and Jean Doumanian are rumored to be teaming up for a film version of August. They'll cast name actors as Violet and Barbara, what else is new? As long Violet isn't played by Meryl. I think Kathy Bates would do the role justice. But perhaps Laura Linney as Barb? Or perhaps Felicity Huffman? There are probably a great many character actors to fill the male supporting roles. Deanna Dunagan is to this play as Laurette Taylor is to The Glass Menagerie.

I know a film would give the piece an accessibility that would transcend the normal theatregoing audience. However, my preference would be to see the current production taped for telecast.

Casting ideas anyone? Particularly for Vi?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Everything's Coming Up Patti

"The Ecdysiast Play"

Oh you know the one I mean. Where crazed patrons choke one another. Where vents fall from the ceiling and light bulbs explode. Oh, and curtains come down on Laura Benanti. Yes. It's the latest revival of Gypsy. It's a little strange for me since its the first time I've seen a second production of a show on Broadway (especially in so short a lapse between). Bernadette Peters. Remember her? Well, anyway, Gypsy is welcome back on the Rialto anytime, as far as I'm concerned. And tonight was one of those electric nights where everything aligned for that certain 5'2" bundle of dynamite, Ms. Patti LuPone in what early ads were referring to "the role she was born to play." They were not wrong.

Patti came.
Patti saw.
Patti conquered.

Taking the early mold of her previous experiences with the musical, both at the Ravinia Festival in '06 (the start of the journey that culminates in her opening last night) and the City Center presentation last summer, LuPone has refined her character with the precision of a diamond cutter. Rose is a determined mother of two very lovely young girls that she thrusts into the throes of show business in an effort to assuage her own unfulfilled ambitions. It just screams musical comedy, no? Well, anyway. It's genius. The score. The orchestrations (and that overture. yowza!) The book. It's almost fool-proof (so why did you tamper with it, Mr. Laurents?) You follow through Rose, the character as she goes from unmitigated determination ("Some People") through desperation when she uses Louise in an effort to mask her emotional scarring and fear of failure ("Everything's Coming Up Roses") through her eventual breakdown when confronted with the reality that both show business and daughters have passed her by (her defeat: "Rose's Turn"). Might I add, Patti's diction was almost too perfect (not a problem, just an observation) and her vocals were the best I've ever heard live. Just for the record.

From Mr. Brantley, who was decidedly mixed this summer:

"When Ms. LuPone delivers “Rose’s Turn,” she’s building a bridge for an audience to walk right into one woman’s nervous breakdown. There is no separation at all between song and character, which is what happens in those uncommon moments when musicals reach upward to achieve their ideal reasons to be. This Gypsy spends much of its time in such intoxicating air."

Nuance, chemistry and impressively layered acting abounds. From Patti. From Laura. From Boyd. From Leigh Ann. From Nemora. From Alison. From Tony. All of whom are superlative in their roles. (For my money, Laura, Boyd and Tony are definitive in theirs). As for the ending, I'm not really sure what I think. I guess if you tamper with what has been for years, you're bound to notice. But on the flipside, the staging of the new ending is a bit more naturalistic and honed into the unresolved rift between mother and daughters. It's not really going to make or break the experience. That happened five minutes before.

Did I mention, it was opening night? Yep. Noah and I sat in the balcony behind a deluded crone and her rude mother. One insisted on leaning forward the entire show and the other chimed in with an extensive crinkling of a candy wrapper, for literally the entire show; except when she leaned forward. That group clearly had no idea what was going on and looked out of water when the crowd continually went to pieces, especially the overwhelming standing ovation received at the end of the "Turn." Thankfully it didn't detract too much from the overall experience. Kari and Sarah were also among the first nighters reveling in what was a thrilling experience. Post show, we had dinner at Angus McIndoe's. As Kari and I sat waiting like wallflowers for Noah and Sarah while they kibbitzed, I spotted none other than Mr. Stephen Sondheim at the bar. Kari and I immediately made our way over; not to speak with him make no mistake, but to sit near at the bar like the total theatre geeks we became in about, oh I don't know, 3 seconds. (Kari surreptitiously snapped a photo with her iphone - and no one was the wiser. And she was literally trembling from her proximity to musical theatre's living deity). Dinner was fantastic. The booze was fantastic - and I drank almost half a bottle of water - not a Poland Spring or Fiji, no I guzzled one the size of a large merlot bottle - as we made our way out. Pity it wasn't vodka or gin. I might have had another act to my evening.

Those sighted: Angela Lansbury, Mandy Patinkin, Laura Linney (flawless with little to no makeup), Martha Plimpton, Corky from Life Goes On, Thomas Meehan, John Weidman. Others I probably had no clue were in the house. They even had a red carpet and an official opening night sticker on the playbill.

Oh, and after her curtain call, Patti LuPone lay fully prostrate onstage to her cast. It was that kind of event. Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents got their props. And Sondheim gave a shout out to the late Jule Styne. (Class act). Though it appears Laurents gave Patti notes as they exited the stage...

Hey guys. Gypsy is back on Broadway. What the hell are you doing reading my blog? GET TICKETS AND GO NOW!!!!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

David Lean Centennial

Today is David Lean's 100th birthday. One of the most legendary directors in cinema, the two-time Oscar winner (who is also the namesake of the BAFTA's Best Director award) was known for his epic auteurship, but also crossed genres with considerable ease. His early career got off to an impressive start with several collaborations with Noel Coward on adaptations of Coward's works. He followed this with definitive screen adaptations of two of Dicken's most famous works (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations). I've not yet seen all of his films, but allow me to recall those I have...

Blithe Spirit (1945) - Highly amusing Technicolor feature starring Rex Harrison as Charles. Constance Cummings is Ruth. Original cast member Kay Hammond recreates her Elvira. Most notable is Margaret Rutherford, also from the original company, preserving her role as the scene-stealing eccentric medium Madame Arcati. (For the record, I might add that the ever-delightful Mildred Natwick originated Arcati in the first Broadway run).

Brief Encounter (1945) - Has a fleck of ash flying into a person's eye every been more romantic or devastating? Adapted from Coward's one-act Still Life, the film was an overwhelming success, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes as well as gathering a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Celia Johnson. The film is rather iconic: it's use of the railway station, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 for the musical score, Celia Johnson's voice-over narration, character actor Trevor Howard as a romantic lead, the memorable climax and of course the overwhelmingly British sensibility throughout. It's remarkable to watch today.

Summertime (1955) David Lean again tackles a stage adaptation. this time Arthur Laurents' The Time of the Cuckoo, a stage success for Shirley Booth as a spinster who carries on with a married man in Venice. Katharine Hepburn is the star. Or is it Venice. Both are remarkable to watch. The color cinematography is extraordinary and in spite of the ways the screenplay was softened, the film is still masterful and dare I say it, preferential to the original play or subsequent musical adaptation. Filmed in 1955, I'm surprised that Lean opted to use the standard Academy ratio of 1.37:1 instead of going for the widescreen expansiveness of CinemaScope or VistaVision. For such a romantic film, it starts to point towards his creative peak.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Fascinating (and fictionalized, people) account of British POWs who are forced to build a bridge for Japanese forces in Southeast Asia during WW2. Frequent Lean collaborator and antagonist Alec Guinness won his Academy Award as the obsessive Colonel whose behavior borders on collaboration with the enemy. William Holden stars as the sardonic escapee who reluctantly returns on a mission to the destroy the bridge. Won 7 Oscars total, including Best Picture and Director.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) His most famous film. Hands down. If Lean hadn't made any other film, he would still be held in high esteem for this effort. Peter O'Toole is T.E. Lawrence in this lengthy epic of the rise and fall of a megalomaniacal and bizarre military genius. Two years were spent making this film - and the effort shows. Needs to be seen on a big screen for the first sand shot to be appreciated. It's so stunning you think it can't be real. A dynamic achievement that also won Best Picture and Director. Also Lean's first collaboration with composer Maurice Jarre (who also won for that extraordinary score).

Doctor Zhivago (1965) The first David Lean film I ever saw. My brother was in high school and had to watch it for his Russian class. I was entranced. The poet/doctor (Omar Sharif) whose romance for his wife and for his muse, Lara (in the role that made Julie Christie an icon) is set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Based on the Nobel prize winning novel by Boris Pasternak (which to date is the only "Russian novel" I've successfully read), the film is a visual delight. Also, the most famous score of any David Lean film with the balalaika-based "Lara's Theme" later adapted into the popular song "Somewhere, My Love." Another Oscar for Maurice. Lean didn't hit the trifector: The Sound of Music bested Zhivago for Best Picture and Director.

A Passage to India (1984) Lean's final film. An adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel about racial tensions in Colonial India. Judy Davis stars as Miss Quested, a repressed British tourist who falsely accuses a successful Indian doctor of rape (and the resulting chaos and inevitable trial). The film is superb, but most notably for the brilliant Oscar-winning turn by Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore, the open-minded and kindly chaperone, whose performance alone makes the film required viewing.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Well, I'm Not"

Only a star with the luster of Chita Rivera could shine through the abortion that was the four performance flop Bring Back Birdie, a woefully misguided and poorly written sequel to Bye Bye Birdie, checking in the familiar characters twenty years down the line. (Donald O'Connor, in his Main Stem bow, succeeded Dick Van Dyke, Maria Karnilova took over Mae from Kay Medford). The sparkplug the production needed, Rivera received a Tony nomination for her efforts, which were welcomed relief for otherwise severely disappointed theatregoers. "Well, I'm Not" was her big solo effort in the second act, a follow-up of sorts to the "Shriner's Ballet"/"Spanish Rose" numbers where Rosie defiantly sings and dances up a storm because she's mad at Albert.

Peter Filichia recalls the first act audience reaction at the very first preview in this 2002 article.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Another Openin', Another Show...cont'd

Your tickets:

Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 6:45 PM
2 Tickets, Center Balcony Row B, Seats 102-103
Total Cost: $120.50

That's right! I'm going to the opening night of the Great American Musical!

I Dream of...Lalume?

Yes, ladies and gents, Jeannie is singing and dancing (and take note: showing her navel. Call the censors!). Barbara Eden was one of the four stars to take part in the 1967 TV production of Kismet, that glorious '50s operetta by Wright & Forrest using the themes of Alexandre Borodin. Jose Ferrer starred as Hajj, Anna Maria Alberghetti was Marsinah and the telecast featured an utterly atrocious performance from George Chakiris as the Caliph. (So hard to believe this man won an Oscar). Anyway, as Lalume, Barbara vamps it up as a sex-pot love interest for Hajj. Bored with her disinterested husband, the villainous Wazir (Hans Conried), she gets to tear things up with that great showstopper, "Not Since Nineveh" in the role created on Broadway by Joan Diener and immortalized on film by Dolores Gray. Much to my surprise, she's actually quite good (if you can forgive the cheese in the orchestrations and staging). Methinks we could have used her on Broadway, no? She also toured in productions of Woman of the Year and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (Both of which she apparently taped for TV. Anyone seen those?) Enjoy this little treasure trove.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Lady and Her Music

"I love it! I love it! I love this business. I wouldn't do - look, I can't I don't, know how to do nothin' else, but if I did, I wouldn't change this for anything in the world. Whoo. I mean, you don't know. You-you don't know, but there is something that goes on between us, I must tell you. When you get home into the quiet of your wherever, think about what you are doing for me. You're sending in - it's a- it's, it's tangible, I can feel it. I can hear it, even when you're quiet. It may just be pockets around here that don't even like it, but what you sendin' in is so positive that I'm workin' with it, you know! I'm using it! Really, it's fantastic. I not - I not only am - exist on you and really, when I'm out here, I don't give a damn about anything that's going on outside..."

Lena Horne, The Lady and Her Music

One of the finest solo Broadway efforts in history. Be sure to give it a try.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Quote of the Day

"I actually think, after doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and then Virginia Woolf, that part of my mission in life is to correct Elizabeth Taylor’s performances."

Kathleen Turner, NY Magazine

Sunday, March 16, 2008

"We can't stay here, honey, we gotta go on..."

Let it be known. I love Shirley Booth. Her films were too few and far between; and she is largely forgotten by many today save for those who remember the TV series Hazel. However, it should be Booth had an exemplary career onstage (from 1925-1970):

Liz Imbrie in the original company of The Philadelphia Story
Ruth Sherwood in the original company of My Sister Eileen
Bunny Watson in the original company of The Desk Set
Leona Samish in the original company of The Time of the Cuckoo

That isn't even taking into consideration her musical theatre career which started with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1951 (where she sings the classic "He Had Refinement" - the delivery on the cast album is so definitive you'll never want to hear anyone else do it) and continued a downward spiral through By the Beautiful Sea and the flops Juno (a personal favorite) and Look to the Lilies.

The role for which she will be most regarded is that of Lola Delaney in William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba. Booth created the part in the original Broadway production and would later recreate it for film opposite Burt Lancaster; she would become the first person to win the Tony and Oscar for the same role. Watching Booth is an unmitigated joy. A shining example of a character actress, Booth's distinctively nasal voice, her radiating warmth and stellar range turns the film version of Sheba into an acting master class. (If you have not seen this film and are still reading this, you really should be on your way to Blockbuster now). Booth evokes that kind of soulful and loving reaction that is reserved mostly for beloved aunts and grandmothers. You know what I mean.

How do you describe Lola Delaney. In certain ways she reminds me of my mother: incredibly talkative, always friendly to everyone she meets and willing to talk about everything. That's about where the similarities end. Lola is basically trapped in her marriage to Doc, her recovering alcoholic husband who is driven back to the bottle by the seemingly virginal boarder, Marie that lives with them. Marie's a little ho. She adores the Delaney's but she is carrying on with the muscular and lascivious Turk while all but engaged to another guy back home. She functions as a surrogate daughter for the childless Lola and Doc, but she also inadvertently wakes the demons surrounding their marriage. Basically, it's as though they've settled, but Marie reminds them both of their lost youth and innocence in their own ways. By the play's end, so much that has been left unspoken is - and as a couple must learn to cope and go on with their lives.

Not much happens, but it's a marvel to behold. Especially by S. Epatha Merkerson in the Broadway revival. Lola is, aside from being charming and endearing, also a character of deceptive simplicity. She isn't written with great histrionics of many other characters of the era, in fact there is an innate honesty in the way that Inge created his character. In fact many of her earthshattering moments are when she isn't speaking at all. Merkerson's performance is so genuine that you never felt you were watching an actress perform, but a lonely housewife managed to wander onstage and we became a part of her life, albeit for two hours. And more importantly, you never once would think you were looking at Anita van Buren, the formidable police lieutenant she's portrayed on Law & Order for more than a decade.

There is a brilliantly constructed sequence in the first act that depicts Lola's life after her husband has gone to work and Marie has left for school. In the first pause after she is alone, just the way she looks around the room while slowly rubbing her hands down her waist speaks inordinate volumes. Then she encounters the new mailman, whom she invites in for water and inundates with small talk. Similarly, she invites the milkman in as well immediately following. Both cases, she is desperate for kindness and kinship, the warmth and neediness that is there because Doc is complacent but emotionally distant. With the postman, she delivers a rapid-fire monologue just for the sake of conversation that leaves him wanting to leave; but the remnants of the coquettish flirt of her youth manage to win him over. Same for the milkman; whom she is even more successful for admiring his athletic physique. By the end of both brief sequences, she has won them over. This scene plays importance during the denouement where Lola is too distracted to see the mailman seal a letter and place it in the mailbox (a fulfillment of an early promise) or appreciate the milkman's photo display in the health and fitness magazine. Yet it displays to the audience the kind of positive impact Lola's innate goodness has on others. Not to mention how she befriended her next door neighbor Mrs. Coffman, whom at first she suspected of killing Sheba, but during the violent drunken climax, is first on hand to help Lola.

I'm loathe to reveal more of the plot since the piece isn't quite the chestnut you'd expect. There are certain elements that could be considered archaic, but the play is unexpected in many ways. And for that, you should treat yourself to a quick read of the script, or better yet, watching the film adaptation.

The show was woefully a limited engagement (that closed on 3.16). If you got to see this actress at her peak, count yourself among the lucky. If you missed it, more's the pity. Let's hope S. Epatha Merkerson comes back to the boards as soon as possible.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Well, maybe next year...

With the recent glut of Sondheim revivals on Broadway, where is the full-scale (quick! someone throw garlic on John Doyle) revival of A Little Night Music? Possibly the loveliest of Sondheim's scores, it's one of the more accessible shows that he ever composed, with a smashing book by Hugh Wheeler and those rich orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. My goodness, folks, perhaps LCT can bring this in when South Pacific closes? It just feels strange that to think we're on our way to a revival of Merrily We Roll Along before this gem. I vote for Emma Thompson as Desiree and Angela as Madame. (And if Thompson were to do it as rumored for the Menier Chocolate Factory, Patricia Routledge as Madame). Enjoy this clip - one of the all-time treasures - the original, and definitive, Desiree Armfeldt, Miss Glynis Johns, recreating that famous ballad (so mercilessly butchered by pop and cabaret singers who hardly get the point of the song).

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Happy Birthday, Tessie O'Shea!

O'Shea was a Welsh music hall performer who became immensely popular in the West End. Her signature song (capitalizing on her weight) was 'Two Ton Tessie from Tennessee', and henceforth was known affectionately to many fans as "Two Ton Tessie, " a performer with an infectious smile, endless warmth and a clarion voice that could soar with the best of them. She made her Broadway debut in 1963 in the original cast of Noel Coward's final musical The Girl Who Came to Supper, which starred Jose Ferrer and Florence Henderson. Adapting Terrence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince, a play about an American chorus girl who arouses the desires of a Prince Regent during the coronation of George V in 1911 London, Noel Coward received negative notices for attempting to ape the highly successful My Fair Lady.

One the shows pros - and structurally one of its cons - was creation of the role of Ada Cockle, a fish and chips peddler in the heart of London, for O'Shea, whose sole purpose was to deliver a 15 minute song cycle of music hall numbers (that ultimately didn't advance plot or character)*. However, audiences and critics adored O'Shea and her song-cycle, and for those showstopping 15 minutes in the first act, she would receive the Tony award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. The show itself couldn't overcome the negative reviews and box-office drop-off (1963-64 was one of the richest seasons in the history of the American musical, with Hello, Dolly! as the toast of the town, and other memorable shows such as She Loves Me, High Spirits, 110 in the Shade and Funny Girl) and closed after 112 performances at the Broadway Theatre.

The score is rather pleasant. Typical of Coward with some operetta and pastiche materials and, as always, his witty lyrics. Ferrer acquits himself well for a poor singer. But it's Henderson and O'Shea who get the best of the material. Henderson had two choice ballads, but also had a 10 minute showcase in the second act in which she delivered a one-woman abridgement of her character's musical The Cocoanut Girl. (Much like "The London Medley" in the first act, "The Cocoanut Girl" was strictly peripheral to the story, but also brought down the house). I have a minor quibble about the latter: if Mary Morgan is so good that she can sing, dance and act the entire show by herself, then why isn't she the star of the show, or at least the star's understudy? But, it's a minor quibble and a joy to hear Henderson take on the multi-octave send-up of period musicals.

O'Shea also appeared as the matriarch in the devastating flop A Time for Singing, a sung-through musical adaptation of How Green Was My Valley. While a quick failure, the musical contained a magnificent and soaring musical score, thankfully recorded, albeit highlights. She got to lead several numbers, most notably the rousing title song. The show played 41 performances in 1966, and also starred Shani Wallis and, in his Broadway debut, George Hearn.

Many of you might recognize her from her appearances in the films Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Enjoy this entertaining lady at the top of her form.

PS - What the hell kind of accent was that, Ed?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Went to see the revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this afternoon. It was an extraordinary experience, as the Broadhurst was completely sold out and the audience was alive and kicking. Truth be told, this is my first Wednesday matinee since I saw Urinetown on, would you believe it, Wednesday March 12, 2003.

I was fascinated by the mixed critical response. The ways in which they were divided only made me want to see the production more. Many critics singled out one of the four leads as the chief asset of the play; making you wonder if they saw the same production. I thought that it was a decent production; well staged, well-acted. It could have used some tightening and reigning in at points, but the experience was never ultimately hindered. In fact, my only problem was the tendency for broadness. The ever-youthful Anika Noni Rose of Caroline, or Change is all grown up as the sexually frustrated Maggie the Cat. Rose is alluring, sensual and really manages to convey her character's sincerity. Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones are forces of nature as Ida and Big Daddy. Rashad literally storms onstage during the first act like whirling dervish and you just can't help but adore her. Her third act arc is beautifully realized with pain and humor. Jones is having more fun than should be allowed by law - and he makes no attempt to hide it. Big Daddy is the scene-stealer of the piece; he gets the bawdier jokes and has the most dynamic character arc. When he's raunchy, he is RAUNCHY, but is incredibly poignant in the second act when confronting Brick for the truth behind his problems. Terrence Howard made an impressive stage debut with a subtly nuanced turn as Brick. I'm hoping that he continues to look for stage work as he could amass an impressive body of theatrical credits; and become an even more stellar stage actor in the process. Giancarlo Esposito and Lisa Arrindell Anderson are Gooper and Mae (Sister Woman), the conniving brother and sister-in-law, who are characters straight out of melodrama, and go overboard far too often.

The change in the characters' race adds a fresh perspective on a classic work; it is also bringing out a larger African-American audience, who were the majority of the audience at this afternoon's performance and were thoroughly engaged. The audience as a whole had an energy that may have surpassed the high-octane charge onstage. What surprised me so much was the amount of laughter that has been the response. I'm not sure it was directed as such; I think it just happens. We've grown used to hearing shocking and depraved things on TV, the news, etc. that our sensibilities have softened. The frank talk of sexual desire and homosexual overtones that shocked audiences in 1955 (and had to be toned down for the highly entertaining film adaptation of 1958) doesn't have the same impact today. Our tendency nowadays is to laugh at dysfunction rather than let it shock us. A couple of times I felt uncomfortable - laughter when Brick was chasing Maggie around the bedrom with the crutch and during the candles exchange between Ida and Big Daddy (Rashad is heartbreaking in that moment, I might add). Later on at dinner I thought more about that: the characters and themes at August: Osage County are much more dysfunctional and shocking than anything in Cat and the audiences are howling even more at that one. Just the way things are. And that's okay. It's fun to be at a matinee crowd that wasn't saddled with students or elder theatre patrons. This performance was alive on and offstage and that kind of energy just fuels the fun factor in such an experience. If not the perfect production of the play, it's a highly entertaining and engaging experience.

And it might be insidious to add, but Tennessee Williams sure writes fantastic and memorable dialogue. Always a good time.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Imogene Coca performs "Repent"

Coca originated the role of Mrs. Letitia Primrose (a role Mildred Natwick turned down for being too salacious), the religious fanatic from the lunatic asylum in the screwball musical comedy On the Twentieth Century. This highly entertaining number was her one solo in the show in which she instructed the audience on the only way they could find salvation: to "Repent." The musical opened in 1978 at the St. James starring Madeline Kahn, John Cullum and Kevin Kline. Directed by Hal Prince, with music by Cy Coleman and book and lyrics by Comden & Green, the musical is an adaptation of the farce Twentieth Century, most famous for its 1934 film adaptation with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. The show is a treasure: the two leads parallel Kiss Me Kate in that they must be able to sing with near operatic quality, but they must also be funny (not to mention the mammoth egos of the leading characters). The show is about a desperate theatre impresario trying to make a comeback with his former leading lady/ex-lover, who has gone on to Hollywood stardom. The score is phenomenal and the cast recording is a must have, in spite of the fact they recorded on a day when Kahn was experiencing vocal problems. (Oh, but what an overture and what a great listen).

(Kahn would depart the company after two months, the specifics of which are still partly cloudy. Understudy Judy Kaye became a star replacing her in the lead role. Sarah, Noah and I were privileged enough to see Kaye sing "Never" at the Theatre World Awards a couple years back and she could still play the role at 60). The show won 5 Tony awards including Best Actor (Cullum), Best Feat. Actor (Kline), Best Book, Score and Scenic Design (a celebration of art deco that audiences cheered as much as the show itself).

The musical played 460 performances and has only been revived in NY under the guise of an Actor's Fund concert starring Douglas Sills, Marin Mazzie and Joanne Worley.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Finished? We're just beginning..."

"...and there's no stopping us this time!"
A glimpse at the star trio for the upcoming April issue of Vanity Fair.

Monday, March 3, 2008

"La Foule" - Edith Piaf


The Great American Musical Returns!

Patti LuPone officially returns to Broadway tonight in the latest revival of the musical Gypsy playing the St. James Theatre. As we are well aware, this is a transfer from the Encores! Summer Series concert that played the City Center last July. The production has transferred, company and all. (Save for Nancy Opel, who is currently starring in the national tour of The Drowsy Chaperone. Lenora Nemetz returns to the Great White Way after an extended absence as Mazeppa and LuPone's stand-by).

Click the title above for my open letter to Mr. Laurents about this revival.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

La Môme

Though I was pulling for my personal favorite Julie Christie to win at this year's Academy Awards, I was in no way disappointed in the selection of the gorgeous and talented French actress Marion Cotillard for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. It's a tad bit unusual as far as biopics are concerned as it doesn't follow a solid throughline. The film shows her life from early childhood to her death from liver cancer at the age of 47, but non-linear; almost a puzzle piecing together her past with her present. The film is extraordinary because of Cotillard and her magnanimous portrait of the famed chanteuse. As is the case with many Oscar winning performances from bio-pics (Reese Witherspoon's inexplicably poor rendering of June Carter Cash a notable exception), there is a transformation at which you can do nothing but marvel. However, the prothesis aside (though seeing the frail and aged Piaf near death is jarring), Cotillard finds the humanity behind the legend, showing us that in spite of off-stage drama that colored her personality and aura, she was a passionate performer with an unending need to sing. (When she turns to her friend on her deathbed and knowingly asks "I'm never going to sing again, am I?" you are absolutely heart-broken). I do have to comment on Cotillard's physicality. She has every gesture from the posture to the "singing through the hands" trademark down pat. I also wanted to comment: Edith Piaf was 4'8". Marion Cotillard is about 5'7" though you'd never know it from watching the film; she's that convincing.

I didn't know that much about Piaf prior to seeing the film, but have become fascinated. She is, in essence, the French Judy Garland (or was Garland the American Piaf?) She lived a torturous and brief existence, booze soaked and drug addled, mixing a powerful mezzo belt with the fire and intensity of an artist's soul. The daughter of a street singer and an acrobat, she spent several years of her childhood being raised in her grandmother's brothel. (A fascinating sequence; also, Piaf was struck blind due to infection, the religious prostitutes raised money to send her on a Pilgrimage to St. Thérèse de Lisieux). The superlatives applied to what will become Cotillard's most famous role have all but exhausted the thesauri in the world. You've read the reviews and I won't add to them. The accolades and awards are deserved; and Marion is a treasure to behold. Taking us through the dimensional world of a struggling insecure artist who's temper and alcoholism are juxtaposed with moments of such vulnerability that all you want to do is hug Piaf. (It is during these moments where I feel Cotillard is channeling Giuletta Masina's Gelsomina from La Strada, which is an extraordinary achievement that lesser actors couldn't begin to fathom). The film, though doesn't end just with her death, it is interspersed with her world-premiere performance of another signature song "Non, je ne regrette rien" (which translated means "No, I regret nothing"). Superb.

Trivia for the musical fans out there, Piaf's close friend and composer Marguerite Monnot (played in the film by Marie-Armelle Deguy) who wrote the music for many of Piaf's major pieces (most notably "Hymne à L'Amour," with lyric by Piaf) became world-famous as the composer of the delightful musical comedy Irma La Douce which, composed in 1956, became the first French musical since the operettas of Offenbach to achieve world-wide popularity.

See the movie. Rejoice in the music. Marvel at Marion Cotillard.