It was the month that we had the 50th anniversary of a big event. On Feb. 2, 1962, the moon was in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligned with Mars. In short, it really was the official dawning of the age of Aquarius.
We also had the Super Bowl. My buddy B.J. DeSimone told me a lot of non-football fans would be watching because Madonna was doing the halftime show. I pointed out that the fourth Super Bowl actually had Carol Channing in that spot. Hard to believe, eh?
Then we had the annual dispensing of The Poor Man’s Tonys. Well, shouldn’t the Oscars be called that? After all, movies cost around 12 bucks, which these days can’t even get you into an off-off Broadway show.
I kept waiting for some winner to superciliously say what Fade Out--Fade In’s Lila Tremaine, née Hope Springfield, planned to say when she won her Academy Award: “I would like to thank all the little people.” I guess nobody’s ever been egomaniacal enough to say that at any Oscar ceremony. But you know who could have said it without sounding totally condescending? Judy Garland, when she got her honorary Oscar for The Wizard of Oz.
Speaking of that property, I was recently in London and caught the stage version of The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium. I doubt that there were 400 in the vast house. There were only two other people in my entire row. What an irony that Wicked -- which wouldn’t exist if there had never been The Wizard of Oz -- is still SRO.
With so few in the house, I fully expected that there’d be a little slip in my program that said, “At this performance, the role of Professor Marvel, usually played by Michael Crawford, will be played by Walter Plinge.” No: Crawford was there and, more importantly, gave 110%, as did everyone the cast with one exception: the white dog that was non-traditionally cast as Toto.
I won’t embarrass him by giving his name. But when this Toto had to walk the Yellow Brick Road -- an oval treadmill -- he hung his head low and perfunctorily put one foot ahead of the other. The expression on his face said, “I hate this part of the show.” Indeed, for the rest of the performance, Dorothy didn’t depend on him to walk the walk, but literally carried him.
What’s more, on the occasions when Toto was called on to bark, I suspected that those sounds we were hearing were coming out of the sound system and not the dog’s mouth. Sure enough, at the end of the show when he did deign to give us a couple of yelps, the difference in sound left no doubt. We hear a lot about the atrocious and unethical practice of lip-synching in today’s theater, but who would ever expect it from Toto?
While in London, I also saw the high-tech Pippin that used a lot of video game imagery. I was more fascinated by the show itself – and a lyric in the final number. Back in 1972, Stephen Schwartz was presciently describing himself when he had Pippin sing that he wanted “magic shows.” After all, Schwartz followed Pippin with The Magic Show, and now his next musical will be one about the ultimate magician: Houdini.
So a man is in his underwear, looking utterly unprepossessing. Once he’s dressed, however, we see that he’s the Pope – Pope Paul V, in fact, who tells an aide not to torture this Galileo Galelei who insists that the earth moves around the sun while everyone knows that the sun moves around the earth. “Just show him the instruments of torture,” says the pontiff.
Seeing him nearly naked is a clever way of stressing that the Pope is merely a man, and one capable of fallibility. It happens in Brecht’s Galileo, now receiving a strong production at Classic Stage Company. But after a Pope says “Just show him the instruments of torture,” don’t you want to see that scene? Alas, it happens off-stage. What a lost opportunity to see some crackling drama.
Nevertheless, F. Murray Abraham does yeoman work in the title role, and Andy Phelan, one of our most exciting young actors, excels as his assistant who believes all too staunchly in Galileo. We’re always glad when Abraham returns to the stage, but the day will soon come when Phelan is just as anticipated. And despite the flaws of the play, it does bring up a good point: if a powerful institution could be so in error about one facet of life, couldn’t it be wrong about others, too?
Look Back in Anger could be called Sunday in the Flat with Jim – Jimmy Porter, that is, who revolutionized mid-20th century British theater as The Angry Young Man. “I hate Sundays,” he says, and so must his wife Alison and roommate Cliff, for all he does is sit around and complain. John Osborne’s play makes a good case for working on weekends so that people won’t have to interact with each other.
Porter is such a hard character to take, which is why Alison’s old friend Helena has no patience with him. After the play made its Broadway debut in 1957, producer David Merrick famously hired a woman to come out of the audience, go on stage and slap Jimmy. That didn’t quite happen in the current Roundabout production, but when Helena turned out to fall for Jimmy, a woman in the audience couldn’t help herself from yelling out, “Oh, no!” Or did Todd Haimes plant her there?
Director Sam Gold decided to use only about five feet of space and walled up the rest of the stage, giving his actors fewer than two yards to maneuver. Wonder if Roundabout picked up a few extra bucks by renting the stage space behind that wall? People in theater always talk about the fourth wall, but here we were all gabbing about the second one.
I also saw amateurs – meaning “those who love,” not “those who are unaccomplished” -- play Amateurs. Tom Griffin’s comedy was at the Concord (Massachusetts) Players, possibly the nation’s oldest established permanent community theater. It was founded as the Concord Dramatic Union by no less than Louisa May Alcott, so as tribute, the troupe presents Little Women just as often as Oberammergau does The Passion Play: every 10 years – and this is the year.
No, the troupe isn’t doing the recent musical of Little Women (which failed to be astonishing) or even Jo, the 1963 off-Broadway musical (which, in 1976, I saw a rival Concord community theater present). Instead, the Players commissioned its own script from Concord resident David Fielding Smith. It opens in April.
As for Amateurs, the plot sounds like fun: it’s the opening night party of a community theater production. (Who says art doesn’t imitate life?) Every cast member is excited, because the Big Critic from the Big Local Newspaper has finally deigned to attend and review a Little Theatre production. Alas, at the party, the critic has a heart attack and now no one’ll know what he thought.
Griffin also tries to mine laughs from the host’s husband, who seems quite eccentric. He keeps bringing in chair after chair, far too many for the limited number of guests expected. After a cast member finally asks what’s wrong with him, he’s told that the poor soul has never been the same since his son fell off a playground jungle gym and died. Now what is such a horrific image doing in a lightweight comedy? The audience, which had been enjoying the show, was suddenly silenced by this much too harsh reality.
Nevertheless, the amateurs in Amateurs once again reminded us of the wealth of talent in community theater. These are people who pursued marriage, families and steady paychecks rather than the uncertain life of professional theater -- but that doesn’t meant that they don’t have talent commensurate with the pros. So hats off to performers whose names you may not ever see other than here: Kate Blair, Roland “Boot” Boutwell, Rich DeYoung, Johnny Kinsman, Stacy Kornweis, Mark Mason, Paula Ruberti McNabb, Alexandra Neville and Julian Willard. Each proves that “professional” truly means how you conduct yourself, whether or not you’re paid.
Last month’s brainteaser was “These 10 musicals, all of which made it to Broadway, are adapted from plays. It’s your job to figure out why I placed them in this order: Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen; Wonderful Town; Let It Ride! (or Banjo Eyes); Seesaw; Sherry!; I Remember Mama; Seventh Heaven; High Spirits; Mame and I Do! I Do!”
Michael Shayne was the first to get it right, followed by Marc Castle, Val Addams, Brigadude, Thom Snode, AnyaToes, Daryl Orts, Ian Ewing, Marc Bonanni, Ed Weissman and Alan Gomberg.
The answer is that the musicals were all based on plays that had run the longest of any plays that were musicalized and made it to Broadway: Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, The Teahouse of the August Moon (1,027 performances); Wonderful Town, My Sister Eileen (864); Let It Ride!/ Banjo Eyes, Three Men on a Horse (835); Seesaw, Two for the Seesaw (750); Sherry!, The Man Who Came to Dinner (739); I Remember Mama (713); Seventh Heaven (704); High Spirits, Blithe Spirit (657); Mame, Auntie Mame (639) and I Do! I Do!, The Fourposter (632). Notice that I included the words “made it to Broadway,” for if I hadn’t, I would have had to include Say Hello to Harvey, the 1981 out-of-town closer based on a 1,775-performance smash that we’ll soon be revisiting.
This month’s brainteaser: Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray have two things in common. One: they co-starred in a revue called Two on the Aisle; you can still hear both of them on the original cast album. You’re asked to find the second commonality, which Lahr shares with quite a few men and Gray with only a couple of women. What is it? You know where to find me.
— Peter Filichia