Saturday, October 31, 2009

Linda Lavin in "Broadway Bound"

Since the announcement of the cancellation of Neil Simon's Broadway Bound at the Nederlander, I am sorry audiences won't get the chance to see Laurie Metcalf dive head first into the play, which garnered a Best Actress in a Play Tony for Linda Lavin in that original 1986 production. Here is a performance of a scene from that year's Tony Award telecast with Lavin, and that production's Eugene, Jonathan Silverman.

"Brighton Beach Memoirs" - An Elegy

Watching the family of seven in Brighton Beach Memoirs trip over one another, share dinners, get into squabble and fights and sort through the chaos of daily living made me smile knowingly as I recalled my own childhood. My mother, my father, my three brothers and myself lived together in a house in suburban Westchester, with rampant Irish Catholicism and its trimmings in lieu of Judaism. My father worked as a firefighter and house-painter while my mother tended to the household and make some extra money by babysitting neighborhood kids. Our financial situation was never as dire as the Jerome family, but I think back and wonder how we ever managed to survive together in the house, as I found myself sharing a bedroom with my brothers while six of us sharing two bathrooms. This is never more evident than when all of us reconvene at the family home and we find ourselves near claustrophobic. The chaos of my youth has turned into warm memories of days gone by.

It's disappointing, but not surprising to discover that The Neil Simon Plays are closing up shop tomorrow after an unfortunately brief run at the Nederlander. Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound were to play in rep, with David Cromer making his Broadway directorial debut (and whose Our Town continues at the Barrow Street Theatre). However, ticket sales have been poor; last week's average ticket price was $21.32. When the show opened to mixed to positive reviews last Sunday night, the writing was all but on the wall.

Originally I had planned to wait to see both shows in marathon, since The Norman Conquests proved that a full day at the theatre is most exhilarating. However, when I started to hear from the rumor mill that Broadway Bound would be canceled, I took the opportunity to see Brighton Beach Memoirs this past Tuesday. Much like my experiences with Coram Boy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Souvenir, I find myself looking back on a show that deserved a better fate and a longer run.

Loosely based on Neil Simon's childhood, the plays are 2/3 of a trilogy (the other being Biloxi Blues) about the growing up of Eugene Jerome, a precocious kid from an impoverished Jewish American family in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn who simultaneously dreams of playing for the New York Yankees in the World Series and becoming a writer. The shows opened in the 1980s, where they were some of the longest running plays of the decade (with Brighton running for 1,299 performances) and established Matthew Broderick's career (for better or for worse) and garnered Linda Lavin a Tony award (for Broadway Bound).

Cromer has directed his ensemble with pinpoint precision, finding great emotional depth in a play that could easily be played for cheap laughs. Showcasing the humanity of its story and its characters, these characters are fully-formed, dimensional and part of an American family, which also happens to be Jewish. Nowhere is this more evident than in the triumphant, ultimately moving performance of Laurie Metcalf as matriarch Kate who runs her harried household with tough love and a consistently stern exterior. However, it is in the nuance and specificity of Metcalf's choices that make her a stand-out among the ensemble. There is a particularly striking moment as she descends the staircase while having a breakdown, leading into the first major argument she's ever had with her sister. Her obvious one-liners and zingers come from a place of deep emotional resonance. Nazism is rapidly expanding in Europe, talk of war becomes more and more prevalent and all the while, she is left to make sure that a family of seven is sheltered and fed. Kate Jerome is a woman who is moving forward with the weight of the world on her shoulders. I only hope that the Tony nominating committee will remember her performance come June.

If Metcalf's Kate is the rock upon which her family is built her performance is beautifully complemented by Dennis Boutsikaris as her husband Jack, the heart of the household. Jessica Hecht is virtually inrecognizable as Kate's widow-turned-wallflower sister who lives with them and gradually finds the strength to become an effectual mother to her young daughters (Grace Bea Lawrence and Alexandra Socha). Santino Fontana is winning and winsome as Kate's eldest son Stanley, who means well but often lands himself in trouble.

Then there is Noah Robbins. The young actor is nineteen years old and making his professional acting debut, let alone first appearance on Broadway. As the alter ego for the playwright, his character guides the evening as an observational narrator, a testament to the uncanny writing ability that he and other family members espouse. (And by extension, Mr. Simon himself). It was especially touching to see his wisecracks and commentary rounded out by his coming of age, and the metaphoric end of his childhood. With the show's closing, I only wish him the best of luck as he embarks on what could be a most promising acting career.

It is disheartening for the show to fold so prematurely. The plays that are attracting the stars these days tend to be anything with major movie stars. It's unfair that the show should suffer the stigma of a 9 performance run, but that is unfortunately part of the unpredictable nature of show business. It just seems as though there wasn't great audience interest in these seminal Neil Simon works. Cromer is establishing himself as a director of merit in the New York scene, and his work here is consistent, compelling and often moving. One of the things I was most impressed was how he and his actors found a way to tell a nostalgic story without getting lost in a sea of diabetes-inducing sentimentality.

After the curtain call of Brighton Beach Memoirs, I turned to Noah and commented how much I was looking forward to seeing the second play. I feel for the entire ensemble, particularly Mr. Robbins and his Broadway Bound counterpart Josh Grisetti, a fresh-faced off-Broadway up and comer who won a Theatre World Award for last season's Enter Laughing. One made an auspicious Broadway debut, and the other was poised to do the same. Beg, borrow or steal to get a ticket to see this one before it closes tomorrow afternoon - you won't want to have missed it.

The question has been brought up whether or not Mr. Simon is still relevant to Broadway audiences, as his works have been met with indifference in recent years. I think it's still to early to write him off just yet - he'll be represented this spring at the Broadway Theatre with the revival of Promises, Promises, for which he wrote the libretto.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Marilyn Horne: "C is for Cookie"

Over on Twitter, SarahB posted a clip of Renee Fleming on Sesame Street performing a version of "Caro Nome" that used opera to teach children how to count. Jim Henson's shows were rather extraordinary in how they introduced children to all sorts of eclectic performers, especially those from the worlds of opera and Broadway. The show is remarkable in its intelligence and incorporation of music and art in educating children.

I watched Sesame Street when I was really young, but would found myself watching it again when I was a little older and my mother took to babysitting younger neighborhood kids after school. One thing I remember quite vividly was how amused we were by Marilyn Horne's rendition of that perennial favorite, "C is for Cookie":

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Finian's Rainbow" Shines on Broadway

The powers that be behind the Roundabout revival of Bye Bye Birdie, the new textbook example of how not to revive a second-tier Golden Age property, should look to the St. James Theatre to learn a thing or two. The seemingly unrevivable Finian's Rainbow has made its way back to Broadway in a loving, vibrant production that illustrates the enchanting wit and charm that made the show a resounding success in its original production.

The musical, last seen on Broadway in 1960, has had something of a problem in receiving a full-scale revival. The libretto by Fred Saidy and lyricist Yip Harburg is generally considered the deal-breaker in resuscitating the show. While it combines elements of fantasy and whimsy with a satiric look at racial bigotry and capitalism, the book has long been considered dated, and rightly so. It is dated. Finian's Rainbow was a period satire written in 1947 that surprised audiences with its storyline, which included a white racist senator being transformed onstage into a black man, with the use of black face. The stage trick worked for a 1940s audience, but would prove disconcerting to our more racially aware society. There's also a leprechaun turning mortal while looking for a stolen pot of gold, a mute who communicates solely through dance, among other hijinks.

The Encores! presentation brought in resident script doctor David Ives to condense the problematic book, but in doing so left much to be desired as too much of the story was stripped away. A brand new adaptation has been arranged for the Broadway transfer, executed by Arthur Perlman which is a considerable improvement. While it doesn't completely smooth out the script's roughest edges, it manages to make them somewhat more palatable. (And I do love the exchange between Finian and Og involving popular musical theatre lyrics of the time).

Kate Baldwin is effervescent as Sharon McLonergan, a feisty colleen finding herself transplanted from her native Ireland to Rainbow Valley, Missitucky on her father's whim. Sharon's first song of the evening is the popular "How Are Things in Glocca Mora?" and Baldwin's simple, lucid interpretation is the most spellbinding I've ever heard. Cheyenne Jackson is her paramour Woody, the town's hero, who cuts a dashing figure and sings well, but is, dare I say it, wooden. Jim Norton ties together the entire production as Finian McLonergan, who incites chaos by stealing a pot of gold from a leprechaun in one of the more outrageous get-rich quick schemes known to drama. With a twinkle in his eye, and a skip in his gait, Norton appears to be having the time of his life.

There has been some recasting of roles since the Encores concert. Christopher Fitzgerald brings considerable comic charm and impishness to the leprechaun Og, and is a versatile improvement over his predecessor. David Schramm (Roy from Wings) plays Senator Rawkins with a vivacity reminiscent of the late Burl Ives, while his counterpart Chuck Cooper has a field day with the second act number "The Begat." (It boggles my mind that no one ever thought of double casting the part before). Audience favorite Terri White belts out the rafter-shaking "Necessity," repeating her duties from the Encores concert. However, one major difference - her performance on Broadway (as written and staged) was more of a genuine supporting turn rather than the glorified cameo it was at Encores.

Warren Carlyle's staging and choreography are full and energetic, with "If This Isn't Love" practically stopping the show. His earlier work from the Encores! production has been expanded and adds a certain clarity to what is essentially a convoluted story. He has the light touch necessary to bring his cast of 30 above and beyond what is normally expected from this show, and it would be interesting to see his work on top tier Golden Age material. (I wonder if he might be the man for Carnival!). The costume and lighting design are sumptuous, however, the set design by John Lee Beatty is surprisingly unattractive. There is a lovely patchwork show curtain, but the unit set is a gaudy extension of the Encores set up, which is unfortunate since the orchestra was moved to the pit.

As it was at Encores, the real star of the evening is the music of Burton Lane and lyrics of Yip Harburg. Harburg was known especially for his word play, and his tongue in cheek playfulness with the English language is complemented by Lane's sophisticated use of melody. I dare you to leave Finian's without one at least one of those songs running through your head. I've always admired its score. Harburg's lyrics are always superlative (even his work in the flop Darling of the Day is better than most contemporary successes) and Lane is one of our most underrated composers (I enjoy On a Clear Day and even Carmelina). The score is one superb musical delight after another.

I should confess, I was never a big fan of Finian's Rainbow. It's story and script have left me rather cold over the years, and that certainly wasn't helped by the tepid film adaptation or Ella Logan's bizarre idiosyncratic performance as Sharon on the original cast album (one of the rare occurences where I prefer a revival album to the original). However, the vivacity of this production has made me reassess my opinion of the entire show, as I find myself hoping to make a return visit.

When the show played the City Center last March, I still wasn't entirely convinced that it was worthy of a Broadway run. (The only Encores! I've ever felt was ready for Broadway was the superlative No No Nanette from 2008). However, in bringing Finian's Rainbow to the St. James, much care has gone into making it a fully realized evening, and one with warmth to spare. For whatever quibbles there are with the script, the polish and poise in Carlyle's production is enough to keep you smiling long after you've gone home looking for your own rainbow.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Their Time...Our Time"

"Like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic..."

Whole songs and chunks of dialogue disappeared and new material had to be learned. Sets and costumes changed. "It was Dunkerque," recalls [Patricia] Routledge. "I never knew how I would get to the end of the show. Sometimes I didn't know which way I was facing." Adds [Ken] Howard: "I couldn't sleep or eat. I found it hard to focus my mind on what I was doing onstage. I became a zombie, an automaton." But, says Howard, the endless changes that were made in the show were only "like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

- The two stars of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the chaos of the experience in an informative article documenting the show's failure from the May 31, 1976 edition of Time Magazine.

Quote of the Day: Dee Hoty Edition

What musicals should be revived soon on Broadway? 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Rex and, yes, Whorehouse Goes Public, in rep with the first Whorehouse. THAT would be swell. Like the Chicago rediscovery, I believe someone will put that show up & really nail it.

From her Playbill Cue & A feature. Don't agree so much on the Whorehouse Goes Public, but clearly classy Dee Hoty has some estimable taste. Perhaps she'd want to play the First Ladies? This also leads me to wonder... did she also see the original Broadway production...?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Angela Lansbury in "Dear World"

When discussing the musical theatre career of Angela Lansbury, sometimes Dear World gets lost in the shuffle amidst the more popularly received Mame, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd. The musical adaptation of Jean Giradoux's play The Madwoman of Chaillot brought Lansbury her second of four Tonys for her work in musicals.

The new musical reunited Lansbury with her Mame team, with Jerry Herman supplying the score and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee writing the book. However, those expecting another Mame were in for a surprise. The show is a delicate story about an eccentric woman in living in Paris, fighting greedy businessmen who wish to drill for oil in her beloved neighborhood in Paris. Hopes were high for a repeat success, with Lansbury signing another two year contract and producer Alexander Cohen sparing no expense in bringing the show to life.

The play was a poetic satire that just didn't translate well to the musical stage. There was trouble out of town as the show went through three directors (Lucia Victor, Peter Glenville and eventually Joe Layton) and negative reviews poured in. One of the major problems with both the musical and its source material was a decided lack of plot. Another reason was that the light play was being turned into a big Broadway musical.

Trouble continued during New York previews, where there were 49 of them after several opening night postponements. Finally, after critics told the production they would just review it anyway, the musical limped open to mostly negative reviews. The show managed to eke out an official run of 132 performances at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. The general consensus was that the musical was of inferior quality, but that leading lady Lansbury as the Countess Aurelia was stunning.

For the most part, the score is quite incredible. However, it was done in by some huge production numbers. The act one finale "Dear World" was an attempt to cash in Jerry Herman's blockbuster success with a title song, which was at odds with the show's story and style. "One Person" was another similarly big, brassy way to bring the show to a close. However, Lansbury stopped the show cold with her act one waltz "I Don't Want to Know," stunned with the devastating "And I Was Beautiful" late in the second act and took part in one of the most impressive musical scenes written by Mr. Herman, "The Tea Party" in which Aurelia and her two closest madwomen gather to take action but get lost in their memories and delusions. When the score is light and delicate, it is more in tune with the nature of the original play.

For what its worth, a film version of The Madwoman of Chaillot was released that same year starring Lansbury's good friend Katharine Hepburn. It too was dismissed by critics and audiences. However, Lansbury's Tony-winning performance is still well-regarded by those who managed to see it. The score is worth checking out on the original cast album, as there is much to enjoy with Lansbury and her ensemble (her support was Jane Connell, Carmen Mathews, Kurt Peterson and Milo O'Shea). Once you hear Lansbury's "And I Was Beautiful," you will never forget it.

As for the failure, Lansbury assigned blame to herself saying that audiences were expecting another Mame. But given her reception in the part, it seems very clear that she was the least of the show's troubles. The creators have continued to revise the score, with a chamber production that played at Goodspeed in 2000. There was also a late 90s workshop at Roundabout with Chita Rivera as Aurelia, and supported by Madeline Kahn. But neither of those have had any continued life. I do think that Encores! should eventually get around to presenting it in their season.

Here is some silent video footage of the original production, set to a live recording of the title song:

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Aficionado Goes Back to Church

It was time for yet another gathering of "The Bloggers Who Brunch" yesterday, as Esther, Steve and Doug, Chris, Hubert, and Alicia came in from out of town to join Sarah, Roxie, Byrne, Jimmy and myself over our usual Algonquin-esque gathering. The location this time was Cognac on 55th and Broadway, and as always the banter was witty, the brunch libations flowing as we caught up on what we had seen and what we were going to see in the near future.

Some of us weren't seeing anything, so when our pals departed for their adventures we decided to keep the party rolling. In what could be classified as the first-ever Theatre Bloggers Bar Crawl, Sarah, Roxie, Byrne, Jimmy and myself headed up to Trattoria Dell'Arte on 57th to visit Noah, and have a drink (and stare at the giant sculpted breast on the wall). And then there were four as Roxie had to depart to strike the play she costume designed out in New Jersey. With nothing on our agendas, and a beautiful autumn Sunday in New York, the rest of us continued the party by taking Sarah to the Mark Hellinger Theater for the first time.

Last November, a small group of us went in on a Saturday and had a look around. No services were going on, so the place was rather empty and we could soak in the interior from the orchestra section. I'll never forget that day as long as I live. The only thing none of us thought to do was take pictures of this glorious piece of architecture. On this field trip, SarahB made sure to document the trip for posterity, and all the photos are hers.

If there's anything I won't forget about this second trip, it is definitely Sarah's reaction upon entering. I've done it myself; and I still was taken aback even though I'd been inside less than a year earlier. We hadn't even gone into the theatre itself when I told her that Dear World, Coco, My Fair Lady and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue all played in this very theatre.

Sarah made the smart call of snapping some photographs of the interior. The lobby is quite reminiscent of the sort of theatres you find in London's West End, and are a rare commodity in NY. The closest I've ever seen that comes to his is the New Amsterdam on 42nd Street, and even that pales in comparison to the Hellinger.

The lobby, which must reach about three stories in height, is a spacious elliptical area, with two separate staircases that lead to a comfortable mezzanine lounge. Everything about the interior still screams theatre, and I half expect the ushers to have a playbill for God starring David Wilkerson.

It is the most spacious lobby in any Broadway house, and these pictures do not begin to do it any justice. The house itself can seat approximately 1600 people and has excellent sight lines (and would be a sumptuous money-making house for many of the larger musicals and revivals).

The one thing that can be said for the Times Square Church is that they've spared no expense in the building's upkeep. Since the building is protected by the city of NY as a landmark, they are required by law to maintain the original integrity of the architecture and interior design - the grandeur and beauty which make it such a remarkable Broadway house.
The church is in the hands of David Wilkerson, who last year famously (and in my estimation carelessly) predicted a vague disaster in the midtown area that would wreak havoc and cause riots, etc. It's that sort of thinking that proselytizing that turned me off of organized religion in the first place. In fact while we were in the church, the minister implored the audience, "If you're thinking of becoming a Jew, come talk to me first" in a tone that made Jimmy and I both look at each other in muted horror.

The church has no interest in selling, unless a more suitable venue can be found in the Times Square area. (The Minskoff anyone? No one would care). Unless there's some divine intervention it's highly unlikely the Hellinger will ever be a legit house again. And it is that divine intervention for which I will pray.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Ragtime" First Preview - Some Random Thoughts...

- Sometimes the first preview performance can be more exciting than even an opening night. (If I get to the opening night of this one, I'll let you know...) Especially with a revival of a popular title. I stood outside the Neil Simon Theatre last night until about 7:55 watching people gathering and entering the theatre. "I can't wait." "I'm so excited." "This is supposed to be so good!" Those were some of the things I overheard being said by the excited theatregoers as they had their tickets scanned. The energy in the house was so palpable you could practically touch it.

- The house lights went down and the audience erupted into applause. We listened to the simple pre-show announcement. At that point the house lights came down entirely as the curtain rose on the entire company posed and poised on three tiers of Derek McLane's set. The audience reaction was so intense that the show was stopped before it could even begin. After about 20 or 30 seconds, the actor playing Edgar stepped downstage and we were off.

- The opening number of Ragtime is one of the best ever written. It's a mastery of musical theatre writing: establishing every major character without becoming lumbering, establishing the time and place as well as tone, and culminating in one of the most thrilling finishes known to man. All those high B naturals! Truly stunning, and its staging by director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge is a triumph.

- It's the very first preview so I'm not going to go into performance analysis or comparisons with original cast members. I will say that the cast is superlative. As actors, as singers and as dancers. Superlative. I also think Christiane Noll is guaranteed a Tony nomination. That is all.

- A good number of the actors were making their Broadway debuts last evening. Among them were Donna Migliaccio as Emma Goldman, Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Stephanie Umoh as Sarah. I do expect at least one or two to be considered for the Theatre World Award.

- Again, first preview and all: there were a few technical glitches with the lighting but nothing outrageous or distracting. However, it did seem like some numbers were missing verses. I couldn't tell if it was editing or slip-ups, but not knowing was a minor distraction. The score to Ragtime remains one of the most elegant and stirring of the past twenty years.

- At the show's finale, the audience was one giant weepy mess. The actors hold out the final note of "Wheels of a Dream." In that instant between the note and the fall of the show curtain, the last thing seen by the cast onstage is the audience rising from their seats in an instant standing ovation - and not one of those where someone starts and people follow. This was genuine, heart-felt and wholly deserved.

- Rob Petkoff delivered the best save of the evening as the show curtain came down after the curtain calls.

- How lovely to hear a full orchestra essaying original orchestrations. When musical director James Moore finished conducting the exit music, the audience burst into applause that was just as vociferous as it had been for the cast onstage.

- I want to go back. And how.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The people called it "Ragtime"

For whatever it's worth, I've never felt that Ragtime was given its due the first time around. The musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel was highly anticipated, and opened with great fanfare on Broadway at the brand new Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now Hilton) Theatre. However, the musical didn't have the staying power that many thought it would have.

The show had the misfortune of opening two months after The Lion King, whose overwhelming critical success made it the hottest ticket in town for years. When it came time for the Tony Awards, The Lion King took home Best Musical, among many others. Ragtime ultimately took home four awards, with honors for Best Featured Actress (Audra McDonald), Best Book (Terrence McNally), Best Score (Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) and Best Orchestrations (William David Brohn). The final nail in the coffin was the fall of Livent, Inc., the Canadian-based production company run by Garth Drabinsky that not only produced Ragtime, but had built the theatre in which the show had been playing.

I first became aware of Ragtime by accident. The musical opened in the middle of my freshman year of high school, and truth be told I wasn't quite up on my Broadway at that point. I knew a lot of stuff about the classics but almost nothing about contemporary musical theatre.

It was January 19, 1998 - Martin Luther King Day. I was home from school and watching The Rosie O'Donnell Show that morning. Rosie was still riding high as "The Queen of Nice," and was a constant champion for all things Broadway. Performing on the show that day was the cast of the newly opened Ragtime, presenting an abridged version of the opening prologue. This enormous cast, decked out in period costume, filled that tiny stage of Rosie's TV studio singing this stirring title song. By the time the company was singing the final pullback, I was so mesmerized and stirred, I realized I was standing as close to the TV as I could get.

I can't quite put into words the effect that musical number had on me that day. I couldn't stop thinking about it, nor could I get that hook "the people called it Ragtime" out of my head. As is usually the case when I discover someone new that fascinates me, I become obsessed and try to learn everything I could about Ragtime and its origins. That week I went to a local bookstore later that week and purchased the original novel - a book I have read more times than any other. (I was fascinated with Doctorow's narrative structure). I went to the library and researched all the major characters represented in the story, especially since I had never heard of most of them at the time.

In spite of all this attention and obsession, I never got to see the original production. It closed in January 2000 after 834 performances. I didn't see my first show on Broadway until that March. I knew the score backwards and forwards from its 1996 Toronto concept album and the definitive 2-disc Broadway cast recording, listening to both with great regularity. The two show albums led me to follow the careers of the original stars: I saw Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell in Kiss Me Kate, Mark Jacoby in Sweeney Todd, Audra McDonald in 110 in the Shade and Carousel at Carnegie Hall and Judy Kaye in Souvenir. I even saw little Lea Michele in Spring Awakening.

Tonight I will be at the Neil Simon Theatre for the first preview of the new revival of Ragtime, which has transferred from a successful run at the Kennedy Center. It's hard to believe that I've gone almost 12 years without ever managing to take in a live production, but it's all coming full circle. And while I'm at the theatre tonight cheering on this new cast and new production, I want to show you the performance that started it all for me:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Avenue Q" Rises Again

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but the final preview of the current Off-Broadway transfer of the Tony-winning smash hit Avenue Q was my first time ever seeing the show. There was really no excuse for my not having seen it before, as its been around for six and a half years. But sometimes even the good ones fall through the cracks - I didn't see Hairspray until its penultimate performance. Anyway, this little musical that could, which famously upset juggernaut blockbuster Wicked for the 2004 Best Musical Tony, played 2,534 performances at the John Golden Theatre and closed up shop on September 13.

However, in the best closing notice coup since Roger Berlind announced the revival of Kiss Me Kate would remain open after 9/11, producer Kevin McCollum stunned all in the audience and onstage with the news that the show would reopen at New World Stages the following month. In this day and age of Twitter, Facebook, et al, it's stunning that they were able to keep this secret so airtight.

But now the show, a Sesame Street style spoof on post-collegiate life in NY, has reopened at New World Stages 3, comprised of many Avenue Q alumni from the Broadway run and national tour. So while I don't have much perspective of how the show played on Broadway, but I can't help but feel that the more intimate the space the better. (I entered the Golden for the first time two weeks ago, and it felt even a trifle too big for even Oleanna and it's one of the smallest Broadway houses).

So how did I miss this show? Well, I'll admit. I get very excited for an original cast and try to see a show when it's fresh and new. My first experiences on Broadway involved tired companies of juggernaut musicals that felt more like death warmed over than exciting live theatre (Miss Saigon and Cats). It wasn't until my 3rd experience, with the revival of the aforementioned Kiss Me Kate (and its original cast), that I felt this post-show rush that can be best described as floating ten feet in the air. Ever since, I'm wary of any production once the originals leave - particularly in a musical.

Well, I am sorry I waited for so long. The show is what it is - a ribald, irreverent but timely pastiche. Its explorations of life in New York City aren't exactly going to erase your memories of Company, but the creators use the familiar techniques employed by children's shows to create an endearingly satiric portrait of adulthood. So instead of learning our ABCs and 123s, we are treated to such Tony-winning musical gems (courtesy of Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez) as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "The Internet is for Porn," and "Schadenfreude." There are the instructional animated films, the requisite marginally older & wiser humans, and inevitably the life lessons ("There's a Fine, Fine Line" and "For Now"). What truly impressed me was the strength of the Tony-winning book by Jeff Whitty, which is much sharper in focus than many of the other self-referential musicals that have come after Avenue Q.

The engaging cast is comprised of Q alums, many of whom were involved in the final Broadway company. Seth Rettberg leads the charge as Princeton & Rod and illuminates the stage with offbeat charm. I can't decide which is funnier: his delivery of "My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada" or the ensemble's outrageous pregnant pause that greets it. Sassy beltress Anika Larsen as Kate Monster & Lucy T. Slut is a petite powerhouse, with an especially showstopping delivery of "Special." Cullen R. Titmas scores big as Trekkie Monster and Nicky. Nicholas Kohn and the irrepressible Sala Iwamatsu comprise the incongruous couple of Brian and Christmas Eve.

However, for whatever reason, my favorite is Maggie Lakis, who mostly provides silent support as an extra puppeteer but scores the biggest laughs of the evening as one of the Bad Idea Bears. Whenever Ms. Lakis is onstage, I couldn't help but watch her. Not that she steals focus, mind you. She is just that fascinating a presence in a unsung performance ripe with humor and stagecraft.

There were two unexpectedly personal moments for me in the show. One was Princeton's opening "What Do You Do With a BA in English?" I actually picked up one of those some years back and am still asking myself that question on a regular basis. The other, and one a bit more poignant, was "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," a reflective moment where the ensemble contemplates what were arguably the best years of their lives. I turned to my friend and fellow blogger Jimmy mid-song and said "That was my weekend." I was at my alma mater for an alumni weekend reception hosted by the Theatre Arts department, my other area of study (talk about a win-win...)

While greeting old friends and faculty, I had the chance to mingle with bright, optimistic and engaged theatre students who were anywhere from five to eight years younger than I am now. (I'm 26). In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't that long ago, but we (Roxie and myself) started pondering when did we get so old, and why do these kids look so young? In the six years since the show opened (and closed and reopened), life for the post-bachelor's student has grown increasingly more difficult and how strange that most of the themes pertaining to the show are still relevant to most of the people I know under the age of 30. This show got me thinking about myself, where I'm going and what I am doing with myself. And all they had to do was use puppets. Not many shows have that sort of effect on me, the most recent I can think of being the short-lived Reasons to Be Pretty.

Kudos to the house staff at New World Stages, who go the extra mile to make sure that there are no cell phone interruptions during the show. (Including reminding someone in the press about the NYC statute against cell phone use inside a theatre). This was also my first experience with the in-seat drink service, something in which I might partake should I go back again (which, yes, I am already considering). Though, I wondered during the audience collection if alcohol was a factor in inspiring an audience member down front to throw a Nutri Grain bar at the cast...

The move to off-Broadway was surprising, but it makes sense. The show is built for intimacy, and it is more cost effective for the producers to run it in a 499 seat house outside of Broadway. (And apparently The 39 Steps may follow suit...? Who knew?) It's also nice to see that the show is becoming a theatrical institution for the city. As long as there are fresh-faced college grads tackling the world head on, there will always be a place for Avenue Q. Especially in New York.

"Nine" - The Rehearsal Montage

I guess you could call this video a trailer of sorts. Still not sure what to make of the film, except that I'm fascinated to see how such a cerebral musical comes to life on film. I'm also not sold on the loss of so many great songs from the original stage score, but we'll see if I'm forgiving once the film comes out. In the very least it will be visually stunning. And in a musical where every turn is a diva turn, it will be interesting to see so many Oscar winners throwing themselves into the production numbers. I'm also really curious to hear what Daniel Day Lewis' singing voice sounds like...

The film comes out on Christmas Day.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Ragtime" Rehearsal Video

I didn't think we'd be getting another production of Ragtime so soon after the original closed (some would say prematurely). The musical was announced to be part of the 2008 lineup at NYCO, with the idea of reuniting original cast members under the direction of Frank Galati (who directed the original 1998 production). For whatever reason, that fell through and was replaced by Candide.

Then last spring, the musical was part of the Kennedy Center season. The run extended from three weeks to five, and sold out for the entire engagement. Reviews were exceptional, and word of mouth positive. Suddenly word on the street was that the show, based on E.L. Doctorow's acclaimed 1975 novel, was being considered for Broadway transfer. Now, this new production starts previews this Friday at the Neil Simon Theatre. I am so excited because I will in the audience that evening to welcome this exceptional piece of musical theatre back to NY. Here is a video from of the press rehearsal, with performances and interviews that got me pumped up for what's to come:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Revisiting "The 39 Steps"

When I first saw the delightful production of The 39 Steps at the American Airlines Theatre, I don't think I could have anticipated that it would have run for two years. But it was the little play that could, and one of the rare plays to transfer not once, but twice. The show closes in January, but I decided that I should check in one last time before it goes.

Of the original cast members, only Arnie Burton remains. Sean Mahon (The Seafarer), Jill Paice (Curtains) and Jeffrey Kuhn (Assassins) have assumed the other roles. The show is still bright and vibrant, scoring many of the laughs. My enjoyment the first time I saw it was tempered by the fact that I was in a house with a great many Hitchcock-philes. This time around, there weren't as many but it still managed to crack myself up, along with my show people SarahB and Byrne.

The play is still a mastery of theatrical invention and cleverness. Slyly self-aware, the evening moves at a rapid pace as memorable moments from Hitchcock's original film are recalled, with nods and winks at many of the famed director's other works. It's still a jaw-dropping marvel watching Man #1 and Man #2 (Kuhn and Burton) switch off between about hundred roles throughout the evening, as they switch off hats or wigs, dresses for trench coats with razor-sharp precision and flawless timing. While not the doppelganger for Robert Donat that the role's originator Charles Edwards was, Mahon brings charisma and bemusing wit as Richard Hannay, the "wrong man" at the center of the story. Paice is a pleasure to watch as his three leading ladies, with an especially hilarious over-the-top Scottish brogue.

The highlight remains the recreation of the chase on the Scottish moors, presented as a shadow puppet display. In a post show talk back we found out that that was a favorite moment for everyone in the show, as it is the moment involving the entire cast and crew. There's even the Hitchcock cameo. These and every other moments are so innately clever and imaginative that during the moments you're not laughing out loud, you're grinning from ear to ear. Watching Kuhn and Burton re-enact the hotel lobby scene still blows my mind.

My one issue with the show remains: it would work better without an intermission. Granted, I'm sure the actors can use the 15 minutes to catch their breath and regroup for the second half, but it would just add to the flow of the evening if it kept going in one shot. The show's final performance at the Helen Hayes Theatre is on January 10, 2010 after 771 performances, making it the longest-running non-musical play in seven years.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Someone in a Tree"

Pacific Overtures. 1976. Winter Garden Theatre. Original cast. Watch:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Katharine Hepburn's Unique Star Bio

The musical Coco received rather negative reviews for all of the parties involved when it opened in December 1969, with the exception of Michael Bennett and his choreography. However, the negative notices didn't keep the show from becoming a major theatrical event, spurred on by the presence of Katharine Hepburn in what would be her only appearance in a musical. Hiding her insecurities behind her Yankee resolve, Miss Hepburn gave the audience a mega-watt star turn that defied her limitations as a singer and dancer. While not many folks are fans of the show or its score, I think there is a lot to enjoy on the original cast album (admittedly a poorly produced record). When Hepburn left the show, an actress (Danielle Darrieux, who was French, could sing and dance, and was similar to Chanel) more suitable to the role replaced her and the show folded within weeks. The audience was there to see Hepburn, who kept the Mark Hellinger Theatre filled.

Hepburn took the show out on national tour, with original Broadway cast members Gale Dixon, Jeanne Arnold and George Rose recreating their roles. Joining the cast was Don Chastain as the ingenue's lover and Daniel Davis as Sebastian Baye, the effete designer who has it out for Coco (Rene Auberjonois won the Tony for his scenery-chewing performance in NY). The tour also had a souvenir program. Featured are publicity shots and stills of the production, but also one of the most unusual star bios I've ever seen with Hepburn providing a running commentary about every role she had played professionally from 1928-1969. Only a no-nonsense star like Hepburn would be so frank in looking at her career.

The following is a chronological list of Miss Hepburn's plays and films and her capsule comments on each. [A couple of the dates regarding her films are inaccurate, and I considered changing them. However, I figured it was better to just present what the star had included, imperfections and all.]

1928: (Plays) Edwin Knopf Stock Company, Baltimore
1928: (Play) The Big Pond - "Lead...fired after first night"
1929: (Play) These Days - "Small part...Arthur Hopkins (producer)...Good reviews"
1929: (Play) Holiday - "Understudy"
1929: (Plays) Stockbridge Stock Company
1930: (Play) Art and Mrs. Bottle - "Ingenue...Good reviews...Fired and rehired"
1931: (Plays) Ivoryton Stock Company
1931: (Play) Death Takes a Holiday - "Fired out of town...mixed reviews"
1931: (Play) A Month in the Country - "Maid and understudy"
1931: (Play) The Warrior's Husband - "Fired and rehired...Good reviews"


1932: A Bill of Divorcement - "Raves"
1932: Christopher Strong - "Mixed"
1933: Morning Glory - "Academy Award"
1933: Little Women - "Raves"
1933: Spitfire
1933-34: (Play) The Lake - "Roasted by all...Bottom of the heap in two and a half hours"


1934: The Little Minister - "Mixed"
1935: Alice Adams - "Raves...Nominated"
1935: Sylvia Scarlett - "Total Disaster"
1935: Break of Hearts - "Bore"
1935: Mary of Scotland - "Roasted"
1935: A Woman Rebels - "Poor"
1935: Quality Street - "Poor"
1936: (Play) Jane Eyre - "Closed...On tour good... Roasted out of town by Brooks Atkinson in Chicago, who came to Chicago only for this"
1937: Stage Door - "Raves"
1938: Bringing Up Baby - "Mediocre"
1938: Holiday - "Mediocre...Box office poison...Couldn't get job."
1939: (Play) The Philadelphia Story - "Raves... On tour, raves"
1940: The Philadelphia Story - "Raves...nominated"
1941: Woman of the Year - "Spencer Tracy...Good, Nominated"
1941: (Play) Without Love - "Mixed"
1943: Keeper of the Flame - "Spencer Tracy...Good"
1944: Dragon Seed - "Fair"
1945: Without Love - "Spencer Tracy...Good"
1946: Undercurrent - "Fair"
1946: Song of Love - "Fair"
1947: Sea of Grass - "Spencer Tracy...Good"
1948: State of the Union - "Spencer Tracy...Good"
1949: Adam's Rib - "Spencer Tracy...Raves"
1949: (Play) As You Like It - "NY mixed...On tour, raves"
1951: The African Queen - "Nominated"
1952: Pat and Mike - "Spencer Tracy... Good"
1952: (Play) The Millionairess - "London, raves...New York, roasted"
1953: Summertime - "Raves...Nominated"
1955: (Play) The Taming of the Shrew - "Australian tour, raves"
1955: (Play) The Merchant of Venice - "Fair"
1955: (Play) Measure for Measure - "Mediocre"
1955: The Iron Petticoat - "Poor"
1956: The Rainmaker - "Good...Nominated"
1957: Desk Set - "Fair"
1957: (Play) The Merchant of Venice - "Stratford (Conn.)...Good"
1957: (Play) Much Ado About Nothing - "Raves"
1958: Suddenly Last Summer - "Raves...Nominated"
1960: (Play) Antony and Cleopatra - "Excellent"
1960: (Play) Twelfth Night - "Roasted"
1961: Long Day's Journey Into Night - "Good...Nominated"
1967: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - "Spencer Tracy...Raves...Academy Award"
1968: The Lion in Winter - "Raves...Academy Award"
1969: The Madwoman of Chaillot - "Mixed"

Friday, October 16, 2009

'Cause That's How Young I Feel

Angela Lansbury, an icon of film, television and especially theatre, is celebrating her 84th birthday today. The actress is in the middle of a second coming on Broadway. After a 25 year absence, she returned to NY and live theatre with three shows opening in as many years, winning a record-tying fifth Tony Award for her crowdpleasing performance in last season's Blithe Spirit.

Starting this winter she will be seen as the droll, disapproving Madame Armfeldt in the first Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music with Catherine Zeta-Jones. This will mark Angela's first appearance in a Broadway musical since the 1983 revival of Mame, and her fourteenth Broadway credit.

We are so very lucky to have this international treasure still creating magnificent work, with no signs of stopping or slowing down. In honor of her birthday, I think it's appropriate that we should take a look at Angela, in the '83 Mame, stopping the show with "That's How Young I Feel." Enjoy:

Quote of the Day: "Bye Bye Birdie" Edition

I don't know what it is about a bomb that really brings out the creativity in journalists and critics. While there are a plethora of gems that I could cite from the universal evisceration received by Roundabout's dead-on-arrival revival of Bye Bye Birdie, I'll let you enjoy finding those on your own. But reading Harry Haun's account of the opening night festivities on, I encountered this insightful passage with director-choreographer Robert Longbottom. Here the auteur-in-training talks about some of the touches that make this revival unique:

'Longbottom has made quite a few alterations in the original text. "The first act wasn't touched, not a word of it," he quickly pointed out. "The second act—I wasn't crazy about the way one thing flowed to the next. Nor were Charles and Lee, so we all put our heads together and looked for ways to make it a little more cinematic. "We found a better place to put 'Kids,' and I got rid of the Shriner's Ballet, which I had no interest in doing. It was [the original director] Gower Champion's number. It had nothing to do with the plot. It forwarded the plot nowhere. I didn't really want my leading lady on her knees underneath a table, actually. Which is exactly what that was. I didn't quite get that. I'm sure it was fabulous, but it wasn't for me."'

Just sayin'...

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I've long anticipated a Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie. The 1960 show, which took on the national frenzy over Elvis Presley's drafting, was a sleeper hit and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Its success made Broadway stalwarts of director-choreographer Gower Champion, composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams and librettist Michael Stewart. The show brought Dick Van Dyke to the attention of Hollywood and made a bona fide Broadway star out of Chita Rivera. The musical has its share of detractors and granted it's a well-worn property, but I've always found it pleasant. The score is quite memorable, in its mix of character songs and rock and roll parodies. The book has a great deal of charm and warmth, and in spite of some creaking it can still work. It's never failed to entertain me. That is until now.

Bye Bye Birdie has been brought back to Broadway by way of the Roundabout Theatre Company in what is one of the most charmless, miscast and misdirected revivals of a musical I have ever seen. There was considerable hype surrounding this revival as it's the first time the show has been on Broadway since the original closed in 1961. It is also the inaugural production of the new Henry Miller's Theatre on 43rd Street. One can only hope that the theatre's next tenant isn't as colossal a disappointment.

There was excitement as the house lights went down and the orchestra struck up that familiar overture. That was short-lived. After a clever tableau establishing the MacAfee family behind a scrim came an unnecessary montage of video projections showing screaming fans and the revival's Birdie, Nolan Gerard Funk, gyrating in period costume. For some reason, my heart started to sink. The broad, cartoonish nature of this prologue hinted that the powers that be didn't trust the material. It turned out to be much worse.

TV star John Stamos is headlining as Albert Peterson, the nerdy mama's boy composer and would-be English teacher. Stamos has tackled the Broadway musical in the revivals of How to Succeed, Cabaret and Nine, and his singing is somewhat pleasant, but too inconsistent. His acting consists of two-dimensional facial expressions and constant mugging. The show's breakout hit song, "Put on a Happy Face" showcases Mr. Stamos in what looks to be an homage to Dick Van Dyke - if Dick Van Dyke suffered from St. Vitus' Dance. The rest of the show he spends meandering around the stage pouting. Perhaps twenty years ago he might have made an appropriate Conrad, but he completely misses the mark as Albert.

Gina Gershon, who also showed up in Cabaret and scored good notices for her work in the very funny Boeing Boeing last season, is entirely out of her element. She cannot sing. She cannot dance. And she is entirely lost at sea performing musical comedy material. Instead of hitting the notes, she scoops, spins and rattles around the music with an unpleasant vibrato. On the rare occasions she's actually on pitch, it's still nothing to cheer about. She recently told reporters that the "Shriner's Ballet" was cut because it was too "gang-rapey." After several tepid high kicks and awkward spins, it became quite obvious that she just couldn't have handled it. She also somehow manages to make Rose, for whom the audience should cheer, unnecessarily cold and unlikable. To her credit, Gershon was the hardest working of the leads, clearly trying to make sense of her character but ultimately falling remarkably short.

The role of Rose Alvarez was originally written to be Polish for Carol Haney. After Haney got sick, they signed Chita Rivera and made necessary rewrites. Rose is a Puerto-Rican American (by way of Allentown, PA) who is written without a single cultural stereotype, and in fact spoofs them in "Spanish Rose" late in the second act. Of all the talented actresses in New York City, there wasn't one musical theatre actress of Hispanic descent that could have played the part? It would have been an ideal vehicle for Andrea Burns or Karen Olivo, et al.

Jayne Houdyshell, who gave one of the best performances I've ever seen in Well, is merely adequate as Albert's overbearing, racist mother Mae. She scores a few laughs but seeming somewhat uncomfortable in the part. The immensely talented Dee Hoty is entirely wasted in the non-role of Mrs. MacAfee. While always a welcome presence, Ms. Hoty deserves a better part in another musical. Allie Trimm, of last season's 13, plays the ingenue Kim MacAfee. She gets off to a winning start in "How Lovely to be a Woman," but is the victim of the monotony going on around her. Matt Doyle mostly blends into the scenery as Hugo while Nolan Gerard Funk plays Conrad Birdie like Ricky Nelson on a bad day.

The most egregious casting is Bill Irwin as Harry MacAfee. The role was originated by Paul Lynde, who put a definitive stamp on the part of Kim's irascible, put-upon father. Irwin hasn't a clue what he's supposed to be doing with the character or with musical comedy, and compensates with bizarre, unintelligible line readings. (Not to mention the gothic horror that is his singing voice). The only way I can think to describe his performance is as an unsettling hybrid of William Shatner on crystal meth and Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Mr Irwin was nothing short of brilliant with his Tony-winning triumph in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and fascinating in last season's overrated Waiting for Godot. But his performance here is an epic fail for an otherwise stellar presence in New York theatre. The audience seemed to eat up his shameless, inappropriate shtick, but it also seemed that they were laughing at the show, not with it.

If there is anyone to blame for this mess, it is director-choreographer Robert Longbottom. For two and a half hours he has actors onstage singing and dancing without giving them any reason to do so. There is such incongruity and incompatibility that the principals seem more suited for a road company of Lifeboat. There is no chemistry between anyone and ultimately no reason the audience should care. The show is a heartfelt, gentle send up of late 50s culture and calls for someone like Gower Champion to guide it with a light touch and a stroke of genius. Longbottom's presentation of period satire is akin to a child hammering a rectangular block into a circular hole. The show should be effervescent and fun. Instead it feels forced, contrived and joyless.

The dancing is bland and unoriginal, and some of the production numbers are distractingly unpolished. In the middle of the second act, "A Lot of Livin' to Do" comes out of nowhere and goes back there almost instantly. This particular number goes on far too long and lands with a dull thud, which applies to practically everything in this maelstrom. The powers that be pointlessly switched "Kids" and its reprise. "Spanish Rose" comes off as spiteful afterthought. By this point, no one cares. And just when you thought it was safe to leave the theatre, the show curtain flies up for a tacked-on rendition of the film's insanely catchy title song leading into the curtain call.

The costumes by Gregg Barnes hammer home when the show is set, but instead of designing for character he has designed for cleverness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the migraine-inducing sea of color-coordinated pastels worn by the ensemble, who look like rejects from a flimsy Universal-International feature. Not helping matters at all is the hideous set by Andrew Jackness, which is made up of unsightly sliding panels and traveling set pieces. The iconic "Telephone Hour" is ruined by cluttered, busy phone booths that overwhelm the teenagers. Whether or not it was their intention, their work outwardly mocks the show and the period in which it's set. While we're talking design, the unflattering fright wig Ms. Gershon wears at the top of the show gives her an uncanny resemblance to Amy Winehouse.

Not everything was a total loss. It was nice to see teenagers playing teenagers and they sure give it their best. The ensemble boasts some folks I've enjoyed in other shows: namely Jim Walton (virtually unrecognizable as the bartender), John Treacy Egan and the always delicious Patty Goble. And then there was the precocious Jake Evan Schwencke as Randolph MacAfee, who was the only one with lines who seemed to have a grasp on what he was supposed to be doing.

In a big surprise, the orchestra sounds extraordinary with new charts by Jonathan Tunick that emulate Robert Ginzler's originals. (Tunick was a protege of Ginzler, and the so-called "Ginzler flutes" in "Put on a Happy Face" are homaged in Tunick's orchestration of "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" from Follies). There are a whopping sixteen musicians listed in the Playbill. An orchestra this large is an unusual change of pace for Roundabout, who are notorious for skimping on the music.

Don't be fooled by the cutesy advertising - the show is a bomb from the world go. If you're looking to revisit this classic musical, you'd be better off waiting for your local high school or community production. Or if you need a quick fix, I suggest getting your hands on the superlative original cast album and having a listen at home. It's worlds better than wasting your time and hard-earned money on the egg being laid by this Birdie at the Henry Miller.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Cry For Us All"

All throughout the year, Bruce Kimmel at Kritzerland records has been releasing cast albums on CD for the first time. He got the ball rolling with Anya, and has continued with Illya Darling, Show Girl and the 1968 off-Broadway revival of House of Flowers. Now he is releasing the 1970 flop Cry for Us All, which when you consider the show's troubled tryout and fast failure, sounds more like a plea from the cast than the show's title.

The musical is based on the hit 1965 off-Broadway play Hogan's Goat, written by William Alfred. The original play is a tragic melodrama written in blank verse about a young, ambitious Irish immigrant who wants to run against the corrupt incumbent Brooklyn mayor. (The play and musical are set in 1890, before Brooklyn was incorporated into New York City). The hero's secrets and demons come back to haunt him, destroying his life and his marriage. His dying mistress, and his civil marriage are cause for political scandal, ultimately culminating in his wife dying after he pushes her down a massive staircase. A real crowd-pleaser.

Mitch Leigh decided that the property should be a musical. Leigh, who had a successful career in advertising, was most famous for the music to Man of La Mancha and the popular jingle "Nobody Doesn't Like Sara Lee." All of his other theatrical ventures were failures (and all lacked a good lyricist). La Mancha director Albert Marre was brought in on the project and he co-wrote the libretto with Alfred (who was also co-lyricist with Phyllis Robinson). However, along with Marre came Mrs. Marre, stage diva Joan Diener.

Joan Diener is a musical theatre eccentricity. Trained in opera, she found her greatest successes - and failures - in the American musical theatre. Working exclusively with Marre, she only had two hit shows, Kismet (for which she won a Theatre World Award) and Man of La Mancha, in a role she latched onto as if she were the Pope. As Lalume in Kismet, the voluptuous Diener was scantily clad as an exotic temptress who tore the roof off the theatre with "Not Since Nineveh," where she first made an impression with her unusual voice which combined a mezzo-belt and operatic soprano, which she navigated seamlessly if recklessly.

She recreated Kismet in London and in later revivals. As Aldonza, she performed in the original Broadway cast, the original London cast, the original Paris cast (in French, translated by and starring Jacques Brel), the national tour, the 1972 Broadway revival and a replacement in the 1992 flop revival when the score proved to be too much for Sheena Easton. Diener is at her best on the original cast album, where she sings with great flair and energy. Starting in London (if not before), she started slowing down the tempos for all her numbers, turning them all into dramatic soprano arias. Her "It's All the Same" in the '72 Vivian Beaumont revival was especially lugubrious. I can't help but wonder if this was in a bid for more stage time.

She also starred in the out of town failure At the Grand which thirty years later showed up on Broadway (and wholly revised) as Grand Hotel. Cry for Us All was meant to capitalize on the La Mancha success and lasted a week. Her final original musical role was as Penelope opposite Yul Brynner's Odysseus in the one performance wonder Home Sweet Homer, which was based on and toured for a year under the title Odyssey. If Diener had a large voice, her acting style was even larger. Her character choices were broad and often bombastic, and entirely wrong for the character she was playing here. In talking about Cry for Us All in his book One More Kiss, Ethan Mordden says Diener "played the lead role as An Evening with Joan Diener."

It is Diener's miscasting in the role of the delicate Irish wife, Kathleen, that is seen as the show's first step on the rode to failure. Robert Weede, the virile baritone of The Most Happy Fella and Milk and Honey was brought in to play the Mayor. John Reardon was hired to play the hero, but quit during early rehearsals when Steve Arlen took over. Rounding out the leads in what were supposed to be comic relief roles were Tommy Rall and Helen Gallagher.

Out of town is where the trouble really started. Audiences in New Haven found the leading couple rather unsympathetic and drastic measures were taken to make them more likable. What that meant was that material was taken away from Rall, Gallagher and Dolores Wilson and given to Diener, whose part was starting to become much larger than it needed to be dramatically. A crucial role from the play was written out entirely and things got out of control. Other cast member's were not thrilled with what was perceived to be Diener's hijacking of the show, and resented losing their material to her.

In Boston they retitled the show Who to Love before reverting back to the original. Audiences there seemed to like the show, with some numbers even stopping the show. However, problems with illness, on set accidents and problems with the set were abundant. The set consisted of a three story house on a turntable which moved around to transport the action. The motor caused the set to constantly hum, and at one performance an 1800 pound tree fell into the wings (surprisingly no one was hurt). The show came into New York in April 1970, as a two hour, one-act lumbering bore.

The source material was so intensely melodramatic that it most likely should have been an opera instead of a Broadway musical. The score was the best thing going for the show. The stilted lyrics range from mediocre to appallingly bad, but the music was often quite extraordinary. The title song is somber but stirring, "This Cornucopian Land" is a fascinating eleven o'clock number, and ironically enough Diener lands the best number of the entire score in "The Verandah Waltz." The three street urchins who function as a Greek chorus have several interesting items. Plus, it's got a spectacular overture.

However, there are the duds. Rall sings a variation of the ribald "Leg of the Duck" song (with lyrics such as "I gave it to Amy, she said it's too gamey") and Gallagher sings that perennial favorite "Swing Your Bag" (according to Mordden, Diener jumped in on the last three notes culminating in a D above C - something not present on the album). However, there are too many numbers that are reminiscent of or that retread Man of La Mancha: "The End of My Race," the overly dramatic "Who to Love If Not a Stranger?" and "That Slavery is Love" for Diener. There is also the finale where a priest sings the "De profundis" in Latin as Diener emotes a death scene.

The musical opened at the Broadhurst Theatre and was eviscerated by critics, closing one week later after 9 performances. The cast album, a favorite of collectors, has long languished on LP, but thanks to Mr. Kimmel it's been released in a limited release of 1,000 copies. So for the curious, you'd better get your copy while you can.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Looking Back on "Bye Bye Birdie"

When the Roundabout revival of Bye Bye Birdie opens this Thursday, it will mark the first time the show has been seen on Broadway since the original production closed in 1961. That first production starred Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke, with Paul Lynde, Kay Medford, Dick Gautier and Susan Watson filling out the rest of the principal roles. For director-choreographer Gower Champion, it was the beginning of his second career as a Broadway auteur. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote the score, an engaging mix of character numbers and gauche parodies of period rock and roll music.

I first saw the musical when I was in elementary school and a family friend was playing Rosie in her high school production. Only a few weeks later I found the original cast album in the store, on audio cassette no less. It marked my first purchase of an Original Broadway Cast Recording. Well, I began to listen to it ad nauseam. From its jubilant overture to affectionate finale I have always been endeared by its charm and effervescence.

Dick Van Dyke's triumph brought him the Tony and the attention of Hollywood. After playing the role in New York for a year, he went to Hollywood to start work on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Champion won for his direction and choreography and the show itself won Best Musical, besting Do Re Mi and Irma La Douce (there was some scandal that Lerner and Loewe's Camelot wasn't even placed in nomination).

Tangent: That year Richard Burton in Camelot and Elisabeth Seal in Irma La Douce won as leading actors (she over Julie Andrews, Carol Channing and Nancy Walker, no less!) Van Dyke and Tammy Grimes in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (besting Chita) won for Best Featured Actor and Actress in a Musical. All four roles are considered leads in their respective shows and in the case of Grimes, it's a star vehicle. But back then the rules were very rigid: above the title you were a lead and below the title you were featured or supporting. It's not very fair for those who are genuinely offering a memorable supporting or featured turn to compete with their leads. Interestingly enough, Tammy Grimes' name was moved above the title after winning the award.

Van Dyke was already in California when the awards were handed out. Back then there was no major telecast, only a small dinner ceremony in NY. Unceremoniously, Van Dyke was the only one home when he found a telegram under his doormat congratulating him on his win.

But I digress. The show was a decent hit in NY, running for 607 performances. The original London engagement with Rivera and Peter Marshall played for 268 performances. Then of course, there's the film. Yes, it's got Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde recreating their roles. Ann-Margret played the innocent Kim as a knowing vamp, with a memorable delivery of the title song over the opening credits (which was written specifically for the movie). Janet Leigh and Maureen Stapleton were on board as well. However, it just doesn't work. Too much of the original story was altered, and as a whole it's lacking. There was an early 90s national tour starring Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking; a 1995 made for TV movie starring Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams tried but failed to capture to the spirit of the original. The title even found itself as part of the City Center Encores! lineup in 2004.

Now, coming full circle, it will open at the refurbished Henry Miller's Theatre this week. But before it does, I offer this glimpse back to the original cast performing selections on Ed Sullivan in November, 1960...

Dick Van Dyke tries to cheer up some of Conrad Birdie's fans in a train station with "Put on a Happy Face":

Paul Lynde performs the scene leading up to and including "Hymn To Ed Sullivan," in which his character vents the frustrations at being inconvenienced by Conrad Birdie (an appropriately crass Dick Gautier):

Rosie, who's waited eight years for Albert to give up the music industry to get married, vents her frustrations toward Albert's mother, who is constantly berating Rose for her Spanish heritage. Fed up, she offers "Spanish Rose":

Monday, October 12, 2009

Anecdote of the Day

'The most hilarious Julie Andrews story was recounted by both Chris [Durang] and Michael [Rupert]. She has a house in Switzerland and that's where the creative team of Putting It Together went to talk to her about being a part of the show. She agreed to do it and the next morning took one of her exercise walks around the mountains that bordered her house. Julie hadn't been on a New York stage in 35 years and she thought that she'd better start getting her voice in shape. She was vocalizing and singing different songs from her past and decided to test her soprano by singing something from The Sound of Music. She began the song while nearing the peak of a mountain and right when she got to "The Hills are alive…with the sound of music" she was coming down the other side of the mountain. Well, that moment coincided with an entirely filled tour bus coming down the road! Julie was horrified that a bunch of tourists saw her literally coming over the Swiss Alps while singing, "The hills are alive with the sound of music." Julie said their faces had the subtext of "How sad. She still thinks she's still in The Sound of Music. Poor Julie Andrews."'

- Seth Rudetsky, recalling his recent interview with Michael Rupert & Christopher Durang in this week's Onstage & Backstage column

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Grey Area

During my senior year of college, one of my English professors was arrested and charged with the sexual abuse and assault of one his students (who for the record, was a woman in her early 40s). We were all shocked by the allegations, considering the professor was 81 years old at the time, had been partially paralyzed by a stroke and was a well-respected member of our university's faculty. The professor in question was permanently banned from entering the school campus and denied his retirement benefits. He maintained his innocence, contending that their sexual encounter was entirely consensual and that she was one who instigated their physical relationship. Brought to court, the case was ultimately declared a mistrial based on inconsistent grand jury testimony by the alleged victim, her history of previous sexual accusations which were proven false, and an audiotape made after the arrest in which she admits the relationship was consensual.

I couldn't help but think about that case while reading about Oleanna in the days leading up to seeing it. It got me thinking about sexual harassment and, to a greater extent sexual abuse and rape charges. Especially when these incidents occur within a stratified environment, such as a university or workplace, where power becomes a factor. Should my professor have embarked on a sexual relationship with one of his students? No. At least, in my opinion - I see it as an abuse of that power. But as is often the case with two sides of the same story, the truth usually lies somewhere in that murky grey area called the middle.

There's not much to like about either character in David Mamet's volatile two-hander. John is a pretentious middle-aged professor too preoccupied with his pending tenure approval to focus on his students. Carol is a hypersensitive feminist who comes in search of his help, but ends up leading both down a path from which there is no return. However, likability isn't in question here, nor is it relevant.

The play itself is slight, clocking in at around 75 minutes. But, oh does it get intense. It was actually my very first experience seeing a David Mamet play. I don't know how I've missed any of his stage or film work, but there you have it. It took me about the first ten minutes to identify and understand the rhythm that is essential to his rapid-fire dialogue. As soon as I got used to it, I was riveted. And then enraged. (Possible spoilers ahead - you've been warned).

Oleanna originally premiered in 1992, only a year after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy and it was an incendiary piece of theatre that got people talking and taking sides. Mamet was tackling hot-bed issues such as sexual harassment and political correctness at point blank. Well, the conversation is still happening as evidenced the other evening when I saw the play's first-ever Broadway production. Director Doug Hughes originally staged this production in Los Angeles with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles to stellar reviews, and it has now transferred to Broadway's Golden Theatre with its cast intact.

The first scene shows the two characters in his office (which seemed more like a dean's office than anything I've ever seen for a tenuring professor). She is worried about failing his course and is seeking additional help. He's too preoccupied with the preparations for the new house he and his family are about to move into. One, of course, befitting his new tenure track and accompanying pay raise. Exasperated and desperate, she's constantly interrupted by the phone calls he receives. He's not giving her his full attention, which comes across as insensitive and down-right rude. In fact, in her most vulnerable moment, he snubs her for that ever-ringing cell phone and then surprise party in his honor that he's late for. However, his actions toward her in the scene don't prepare the audience for the second half, where she becomes the dominant force in their student-teacher relationship, complete with allegations of sexual harassment.

Pullman acquits himself well as the stammering professor whose seemingly innocuous, if insensitive, actions turn out to provoke Carol into action. While some of his earlier lines were inaudible, he gets into a groove with the dialogue and character. Pullman successfully shows his unraveling as the world around him steadily spirals out of control, as Carol's actions push him to his limits. Stiles, who naturally exudes intelligence and strength (as evidenced in much of her film work), seemed a bit out of place in the first half, but becomes more believable as the play progresses. I hope Stiles, who carries herself well onstage, makes this the first of many appearances on Broadway.

When the lights came up at the end of the play, I felt contempt for Carol. I wondered why she would ruin this man's career and life by misconstruing their encounters. At most, I felt perhaps he was too open about his family life, but didn't see physical or verbal evidence to support her allegations. Why did she take the words he said and distort them to use against him? What was her underlying motivation? Was it just a misunderstanding blown out of proportion? His initial actions in the first scene, to me anyway, seemed rather casual. Perhaps he was a bit too forward in disclosing his personal life, but I didn't see anything that really overstepped the boundary of teacher and student in terms of physical and emotional intent.

Now, Mamet has also stacked the play against Carol, making it more difficult to sympathize with her side of the story, as well as believe her interpretation of the facts. Plus, there's an incongruity in how she claims ignorance at his phrasing and sentence structure , yet has the ability to construct rather complex, academic statements on her own. Another head-scratcher was Carol's decision to revisit John's office after filing her rape charge. It's goes against what law enforcement officials and legal counsel would advise, plus it's highly unlikely that anyone would do such a thing without a third party present.

I turned to Sarah to discuss all of these thoughts and ideas and immediately learned her perspective and perception was the exact opposite of mine, but was also completely valid. We saw the same performance, but a different play. And in this case, that's a good thing.

Even more spirited was the post-show talk back. Every preview has featured special guests from various backgrounds - the night we saw it there were two sexual harassment arbitrators. With the help of a moderator, they offer their perspective, but more importantly the audience has the chance to get voice their opinions. The reactions cover the broadest spectrum imaginable. People were anxious and eager to talk about what they had seen with ideas popping up left and right. Theories abounded that Carol was calculated and manipulative, or that she has borderline personality disorder, or that she was a used by her unseen (presumably) feminist group, to enact a curricular rebellion. When the question was posed as to whether Carol represented modern feminism, there were more than a few woman who jumped out of their seats vociferously answering "No!"

It reminded me of the atmosphere that permeated the Walter Kerr Theatre four years ago after I saw John Patrick Shanley's Doubt (also directed by Hughes) where people were talking about the truth of the situation - who was right, who was wrong. In both plays, you have two lead characters completely at odds with each other over their perception of events. Both plays got audiences talking as the houselights came up, with people taking sides and hashing it out with one another. In Doubt, Shanley offers a level playing field for both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. His ultimate goal is to put us in that grey area. However, Mamet is being more provocative, daring us to take a side.

At one point in the play, John talks about how we see the world through our own screens. We interpret everything through our own critical lens, which is colored by our life experiences and personal histories. Mamet takes the issues at hand, creates tense situations and uses the ideas to create the onstage dialogue in what is ultimately (if you'll forgive me for being momentarily Mametian) a dramaturgical mind fuck. There are no right answers. There are no wrong answers. In fact, there is no simple answer for any of the questions raised by the play, just a continuing dialogue of ideas and perspectives.

Oleanna will make you uncomfortable. It should also make you tense, nervous and very likely really angry. It is for these reasons, though, that it should be seen. Be sure to stick around for the talk back; no doubt it will just as interesting (if not more) than the play.