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February 6, 2015

January’s Leftovers and February’s Brainteaser

Every New Year’s Day, I wish that the 1980 musical HAPPY NEW YEAR had received an original cast album. What would be a happier way to start the New Year than to hear 14 Cole Porter songs?

But since 1994, I’ve started the New Year by playing Track 16 of MY FAVORITE YEAR, Ahrens and Flaherty’s title song from the 1992 musical and one of musical theater’s finest title-tune ballads. And while I DO hope that this will indeed be my favorite year, I certainly hope it will be yours, too.

Want my first prediction of the New Year? Some critic who loves AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and its Gershwin score – which includes “I Got Rhythm” – will exclaim in the review “Who could ask for anything more?!”

The first funny line I read this year was in Jack O’Brien’s memoir JACK BE NIMBLE. O’Brien talked about his first directing effort at Juilliard, after which “Marian Seldes rewarded my effort by prostrating herself at my feet during the note session that followed. She was given to this kind of gesture, and later I recall that when I went into Brian Bedford’s dressing room, I accidentally stepped on her as she lay flat on the floor.”

January was the month that saw the premiere of a new movie called THE WEDDING RINGER. Are Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin already hard at work musicalizing it?

The first 2015 show I saw was a stinker: Victor L. Cahn’s VILLAINOUS COMPANY. Claire returns home from shopping and sees that one of her packages is missing. Luckily, Joanna, a store employee, shows up with the item. It’s not just customer service; she’s working in another capacity and has other plans for Claire and her visitor Tracy. Cahn has a decent enough plot, but he writes Joanna as too much of a know-it-all, which Eric Parness has exacerbated by making unfortunate Alice Bahlke play with such a smart-ass attitude that I came to hate her. Did Parness give Corey Tazmania’s Claire that terribly artificial walk, too? I noticed that those who left at intermission walked far more decisively.

The second? CONSTELLATIONS. Good Lord, give Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson every award in “the multiverse,” where Nick Payne’s pretentious drama takes place. The pair talk for a few seconds until a bell and lights go off and then they must repeat some but not all of the previous scene before going off on a new tangent. This must be the hardest play for actors to learn since Robert Anderson’s I’M HERBERT. Find it and read it; it’s hilarious – which CONSTELLATIONS isn’t and doesn’t want to be. It endeavors to point out that “every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” So many a scene is a variation on a theme. Ultimately, it’s the type of show that you walk into hating that the playwright will only give you 70 minutes; then, 10 minutes into it, you’re grateful and by play’s end, can’t believe that 70 minutes could take so long.

NEVERMORE – ostensibly a musical about Edgar Allan Poe -- had about five people flee DURING the first act and 40 at intermission. But to be fair, about 40 people stood at the end and bravo’ed like they’d just seen a matador kill 40 bulls in five seconds. Jonathan Christenson wrote book, music, lyrics and directed, too – which may mean that no one wanted to work with him on this.

Once can see why. It’s part Grand Guignol, Gorey Stories and steampunk. It’s done in rhyming couplets, some of which are far less successful than others. One character was said “to love theater with all her might.” Is that how we love theater? Does “might” have anything to do with it? But “might” does rhyme with “Saturday night,” doesn’t it?

Truth to tell, what Christiansen has put on stage is precisely what he wants there. It flows nicely and creates the eerie mood he’s conceived. But NEVERMORE is the least easy show of the season to sit through and it could wind up being one of off-Broadway’s all-time legendary misfires.

Purists, beware of HELEN OF TROY, NEW YORK at The Medicine Show Theatre, for it’s been heavily revised. Only six of the original 13 Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby songs from the 1923 hit remain, buttressed by six others and two snippets of yet others written by the pair. Given how little the story makes sense, director Barbara Vann may have played fast and loose with George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s script, too.

Sad to say, the most amusing moment came while watching a young man in a duet. He cannot sing at all -- at ALL, and Vann knows it. So she’s tried to overcompensate by having the lad sing full-out loud, hoping that we’ll be amused by his ineptitude. I daresay we weren’t.

But here’s the thing. In the middle of one number, this actor suddenly jumped in the air and clicked his heels – just as Louise does in GYPSY. All I could think of was Rose’s desperation to make Louise seem as if she could do something -- anything -- to fool the audience into thinking she had some talent. Well, perhaps this actor will become as successful as Gypsy Rose Lee.

So the first great show of the new year turned out to be Turgenev’s A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY at Classic Stage Company. It reiterates that we’re all crazy when it comes to love for we often choose the person who isn’t right for us and waste quite a bit of time being jealous. Then, when spurned, we pick someone, anyone on the rebound. No wonder that Mr. Pulvermacher in I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE mentions “a heartbreaking play or story that only Turgenev maybe could write.” Indeed he could.

What hilarious lines. Says the Doctor (the superb Thomas Jay Ryan) to Bolshintsov (Peter Appel, quite competent in playing incompetence), the boor he wants to fix up with the much-too-young-for-him Vera (the enchanting Megan West), he points out “You have character and 320 serfs.” When Natalya (the elegant Taylor Schilling) tries to endorse the oaf to the lass, she says “Bolshintsov!” with the same fake enthusiasm that Joanna Gleason’s Baker’s Wife exclaimed “You’ve the cape!” Even the actors asked to move the furniture do it with skill. (They should start a company called Nice Russian Boys and Girls with Truck.) But do sit on the right side so you can see how Peter Dinklage’s Mikhail reacts when impressed; his eyebrows rise and fall the precisely correct amount of time.

Funny to see the Pope take a curtain call. Oh, not the real Pope Francis (who deserves a bow for other reasons), but Mel Johnson, Jr. who’s dressed in white from skullcap to the hem of his chasuble, as Pope Augustine in Tom Dulack’s taut drama THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS. There’s a nuclear threat in Syria, so the Pope wants to go there, figuring that his presence there would ensure peace. Is he courageous or naïve? The plot would work better if director Michael Parva turned up the heat a notch or two. The mood is sterile, while the writing is not and the acting doesn’t want to be.

Never mind BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON; Shakespeare should have called his 1593 hit BLOODY BLOODY TITUS ANDRONICUS. And yet, Ross Williams’ admirable New York Shakespeare Exchange goes easy on the red stuff (for most of the time, anyway) and finds a novel and metaphoric solution for all the carnage. If you’ve always wanted to see this rarely performed work but can’t stand the sight of blood, get to a performance this closing weekend.

You have a bit more time with VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (and Cassandra and Nina, for that matter) at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ. If you missed the Tony-winner – and you might have, given that it played a mere 12 weeks after winning the prize – you’ll find a fine cast here in a virtual replication of the original production down to set and blocking. Michele Pawk doesn’t try to be as eccentric as Kristine Nielsen was, but has created a genuine human being. Mark Nelson, one of our finest actors, understands that Vanya shouldn’t exude self-pity.

But sit close. VANYA is getting the most productions of any non-Shakespeare play this year, but not in any house that has 1,200 seats. References to Chekhov (“I can’t remember the Italian word for ‘window’”) were met with silence, as was much of Christopher Durang’s humor – until Vanya’s marvelous tirade that tremendously resonated with Baby Boomers and members of The Greatest Generation. How can you go wrong in Millburn by mentioning Howdy Doody, Annette Funicello, Fulton J. Sheen and, needless to say, Pussy Galore. The response it received suggested that Millburn theatergoers forgave VANYA for its highbrow references and were glad they’d attended.

Finally, it was the month that The Oscars were highly criticized for a lack of diversity as a result of its not choosing a single person of color among its 20 acting nominees. May I point out that in the 68-year history of the Tonys, far more often than not, there’s been a minority represented in one of the eight acting categories. That the Oscars are as white as milk has made some faces in Hollywood so embarrassed that they’re now as red as blood.

The answer to last month’s brainteaser -- which asked what 10 musicals have in common -- is that all have songs with French titles, although none of the shows takes place in France: CAMELOT (“C’est Moi”), DARLING OF THE DAY (“Panache”), FOXY (“Bon Vivant”), GRAND HOTEL (“Bonjour, Amour”), THE LITTLE MERMAID (“Les Poissons”), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (“Liaisons”), MARIE CHRISTINE (“C’est L’Amour”), NINE (“Folies Bergere”), SHERRY! (“Au Revoir”) and SKYSCRAPER (“Haute Couture”).

Ira Rappaport was the first to get it, followed by Joe Miller, Fred Aronowitz, David Kanter, Jack Lechner, Brigadude, Laura Frankos and Donald Tesione.

This month’s brainteaser: Why are these songs in this order? “Charity Concert” (EVITA), “Dear Love” (FLORA, THE RED MENACE), “Camelot” (CAMELOT), “The Butler’s Song” (SO LONG, 174TH STREET), “Just You Wait” (MY FAIR LADY), “Loveland” (FOLLIES), “A Summer in Ohio” (THE LAST FIVE YEARS), “Paris through the Window” (A CLASS ACT), “The March of Time” (CLOSER THAN EVER), “A Well-Known Fact” (I DO! I DO!), “It’s a Boy” (THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES) and “Now’s the Time” (DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS).

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia



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