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January 31, 2014

January’s Leftovers and February’s Brainteaser

It was the month that Playbill carried on its “A Life in the Theatre” page a feature on Michael P. Price, the executive director of Goodspeed Musicals since 1968. The last line quoted him: “I think I’ll hang around. I have a little bit more time left in me.”

Would that that were true in the professional sense, for despite that statement, Price announced early in the month that he’d retire this year.

How many thousands of people would have had lesser careers had Price not been at the helm of Goodspeed for nearly a half-century? Certainly the creators of ANNIE are grateful; Price took on the new musical in 1976 when all other theaters looked the other way. But that’s only one of dozens upon dozens of new musicals that first showed their face to the world in Connecticut.

In East Haddam, hundreds of vintage musicals had been sitting on shelves just gathering ornate, decades-old spider webs until Price produced them. Both old and new shows needed actors, directors, designers, builders, stage managers, administrators, press agents, front-of-house staff and plenty of others who might have otherwise been spending their time asking “And would you like fries with that, sir?”

The regional theater movement was still in its professional infancy when Goodspeed started, and while Price is fond of saying that he arrived there in 1963 and was soon fired (until the powers-that-be were smart enough to ask him back), many of us would have never heard of, let alone ventured to, East Haddam and Chester. Price’s two theaters weren’t the easiest places in the world to reach, but we managed to get there, didn’t we? We had to: so often, the rewards were so great.

And we haven’t even mentioned The Scherer Library of Musical Theatre, the Max Showalter Center for Education in Musical Theatre and the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony. No, Price never did ROCKABYE HAMLET -- further proof that he was no dummy – but one of its lines applies to him: “I shall not look upon his like again.”

I liked BEAUTIFUL more than most critics. Yes, the story of a woman who meets with professional show biz success while losing her man was old stuff when FUNNY GIRL did it literally a half-century ago. But Doug McGrath made the story seem as if this scenario never happened before, adding plenty of good jokes in the process. He also ensured – although Jessie Mueller certainly helped here – that Carole King never lost the common touch and that we continually cared for her.

Oh, I doubt that Don Kirshner was really as non-stop nice as he is throughout the show, but by and large I enjoyed being in the company of these characters – especially Cynthia Weil, because Anika Larsen acted in the fashion I most like to see from performers: she wasn’t acting at all, but just inhabited the character.

Yeah, I would have preferred that BEAUTIFUL not be a jukebox musical. When Carole and her husband-lyricist Gerry Goffin are starting to make it, she tells him that she’s glad that songwriting is now his day-job. Now THAT’S a good subject for a song, but of course we’re not going to hear it because Carole King never wrote anything like it. What we do hear is a lot of bubble-gum rock with lyrics. When I hear the opening strains to “The Loco-motion” --“Everybody’s doin’ a brand new dance now … I know you’d get to like it if you give it a chance now” – I’m thinking, “Oh, you’ve got to give it a chance? It isn’t automatically appealing?” But considering what’s happened to pop music in the last quarter-century or so, my, these songs sound – well, beautiful.

You’ll have a better time at the current CRAVING FOR TRAVEL if you didn’t see (or don’t remember) FULLY COMMITTED. The 1999 hit that stayed around for 675 performances dealt with Sam, a struggling reservationist at a trendy restaurant (read: out-of-work actor) who had to tell demanding phone-callers that the boite was totally booked via the euphemism “fully committed.” Mark Setlock not only played Sam, but also provided the voices of all the callers -- brilliantly.

Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg have used that structure to tell about the fading travel agent industry. Here instead, we have Joanne and Gary, two rival travel agents who, like Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, were once married until infidelity set in – only it was a gay relationship that ended this couple’s union. Now each wants to win the travel agency’s equivalent of the Tony Award; to emerge successfully, they’re going to have to put up with a great deal from those who still use travel agents. The always wonderful Michele Ragusa and Thom Sesma have to pull out every voice and accent with the possible exception of Swahili-tinged tones, and they’re spectacularly successful at it. Do go, unless you’re fully committed.

Who’d expect that the most famous line from JUMBO would show up in Brecht’s A MAN’S A MAN? It’s the most entertaining moment of the long night at Brian Kulick’s production at CSC. No – I take that back. Julian Vivian Bond, who takes pride in being androgynous in real life, is a most convincing woman down to her feminine gams, and Duncan Sheik’s music is fine. But, my, what deafening sounds are made thanks to incessant hammering on big oil drums. If it’s true that we lose a teeny-tiny bit of our hearing every time we hear a loud noise, we and the actors are going to part company with quite a bit as a result of this production.

The estimable ReGroup Theatre had Paul Green’s daughter Janet in attendance last Sunday for a double-header of her father’s works. The matinee was a rare revival of THE HOUSE OF CONNELLY (running through Feb. 9) followed by a reading of Green’s 1927 Pulitzer-winner IN ABRAHAM’S BOSOM. This upcoming Sunday, Feb. 2 at seven, skip the Super Bowl and catch NATIVE SON, which Green adapted with Richard Wright from the latter’s novel.

Wright was black, and, said Janet Green at the talkback, he came close to some genuine danger if not death when he came down South and infuriated Green’s friends and neighbors. And what did he do that was so terrible? He entered a white man’s house from the front door and not the back. IN ABRAHAM’S BOSOM was potent in telling us the way things used to be down South, but I suspect that NATIVE SON will pack an extra punch. See you there!

Jessica Dickey had a good idea when writing ROW AFTER ROW. She took a look at those people who like to re-enact Civil War battles. So we have Cal, who’s really into it; Tom, who enjoys it; and Leah, who’s just moved to town who thought she’d try it for a lark – not knowing that she’ll be criticized for not being authentic enough in the way she dressed, et al.

Okay, decent enough scenario, but the reason I attended was to see Erik Lochtefeld, who plays Tom. Back in 1991, I became a lifelong Lochtefeld fan after seeing him portray Pseudolus in his high-school production of FUNNY THING. The auditorium was packed – so much so that a chair was added at the end of each aisle to accommodate the overflow. Thus, my second-row seat on the far left aisle was no longer an aisle seat. (I’m not complaining; this simply turns out to be part of the story.)

The director, like so many before him, played loose with the show, and had a scene where Lochtefeld would come off the stage and into the audience, where he’d pull the person in the first-row seat on the left aisle to take him on stage. Now it would be the person in the extra seat.

Into the dark auditorium Lochtefeld came, and as he reached for the kid, he saw at the last second that the lad wasn’t in an added seat.

He was in a wheelchair.

Without missing a beat, Lochtefeld, with his hand already extended, suddenly pointed to the lad and then to the one behind him -- the one sitting next to me -- and said, “Eeeny, meeny, miney, moe,” alternating between the kid in the wheelchair and the kid sitting behind him. He ended the chant, of course, by choosing the kid not in the wheelchair, but that boy laughed in admiration at Lochtefeld’s amazing presence of mind. I’m not surprised to see that Lochtefeld has now had nearly 20 years of professional acting work, given that he showed at an early age how good he was at improvisation.

It was the month that the powers-that-be at Joe Allen addressed a world-shaking question: “A lot of people have been asking if we are going to put SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK on the flop wall, so let me say, once and for all: absolutely not. Any show that plays for three years on Broadway, providing steady employment to members of the theater community and pumping money into the local economy, is no failure in my book.”

Frankly, I’m glad. I don’t want that monstrosity that played the Foxwoods to share space with such noble failures as PRETTYBELLE, LA STRADA, RAGS and HERE’S WHERE I BELONG. Here is NOT where the window card of SPIDER-MAN belongs – meaning a restaurant that celebrates Broadway when it really was still Broadway.

And INTIMACY via The New Group at the Acorn? Thomas Bradshaw is our most outrageous and courageous playwright. He isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind (and many other minds) where sex is concerned. Scott Elliott has brought together an equally courageous cast who must say and do what few actors have ever been asked to do on stage. The upshot? Bradshaw tells the truth, and anyone who thinks he doesn’t is pretty naïve.

Last month’s brainteaser: The commonality of the ten shows cited was that all had songs that had “Lament” in their titles. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (for Ten Men), CINDERELLA (Stepsisters’), THE DROWSY CHAPERONE (Brides), EVITA (simply “Lament”), GUYS AND DOLLS (Adelaide’s), HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (Hedwig’s), INTO THE WOODS (simply “Lament”), THE MAGIC SHOW (Charmin’s), MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT (Diva’s) and THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE (Chip’s).

Scott McClintock was the first to get it, followed by Jack Lechner, Laura Frankos, Rebecca Turtledove, Ingrid Gammerman, Fred Abramowitz, Donald Tesione, Brigadude and David Kanter.

And this month’s brainteaser? This past week, you probably missed marking the birthday of a certain person who never became all that famous. And yet, one can effectively argue that we’re talking about a name that has probably been mentioned more times on Broadway than any other non-fictional person – thanks to two shows, each of which at one time held the crown of Broadway’s longest-running show. I’m asking you not only to name the faded celebrity, but also to cite the two classic shows and the two songs that continue to keep this person’s name alive and well.

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia

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