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March 25, 2016

March’s Leftovers and April’s Brainteaser

Don’t forget to celebrate World Theatre Day on Sunday, March 27. But here’s my question: was this day chosen because it was the day in 1964 that Barbra Streisand read all her raves for her performance in FUNNY GIRL?

I’m delighted to see SHE LOVES ME get across-the-board raves, for every human being alive should see this magnificent musical. Last week when Patrick Pacheco interviewed me, I described this 1963 masterpiece by stating “This is the platinum show of the Golden Age of Musicals.”

I have a couple of nitpicks, though. Everyone in Scott Ellis’ new revival came across as very American; no one seemed to have spent a day in Budapest. More problematic was Peter Bartlett as the maitre’d of the Café Imperiale. He’s so over the top that he should perform on the Freedom Tower.

How surprising that Ellis either approved or encouraged Bartlett to uncontrollably cavort. Here’s the same director who staged the 1993 revival in which Jonathan Freeman – so moving when he tried to soothe the stood-up Amalia – got a Tony nomination in a role that only involves one song and scene. Bartlett is so arch that he makes the one in St. Louis look like a croquet hoop; thus, when he must switch gears and be sincere with Amalia he can’t adjust enough to even approach Freeman’s achievement.

Many articles from the past pin the failure of SHE LOVES ME on HELLO, DOLLY! – stating that people preferred a slam-bang musical comedy to a gentle musical play. This canard has been spread for d-e-c-a-d-e-s. Makes my blood boil? Well, I should say. Now friends, let me tell you what I mean: SHE LOVES ME closed on Jan. 10, 1964; DOLLY opened on Jan. 16, 1964. Whatever caused SHE LOVES ME to be unloved has nothing to do with the Harmonia Gardens heroine who was still far away from the lights of 14th Street when SHE LOVES ME opened on April 23, 1963.

That, incidentally, was Shakespeare’s 399th birthday. The date may have been arbitrarily chosen, but I like the symmetry between the birth of a genius and the birth of a work of geniuses Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.

The postponement of NERDS – and I hope it’s just that – is giving everyone connected with it a chance to make a significant change.

Not since HOME SWEET HOMER have I disliked a title of a Broadway musical as much as this one.

As Noah says to God at the end of Act One of TWO BY TWO, “Must it be?” I’d be mighty embarrassed for Broadway on the night of the 2016-2017 Tonys if the presenter were able to say “And the nominees for Best Musical are NERDS …” Those who hate musicals will have another arrow in their quiver that substantiates that this art form is shallow and superficial. Given that it centers on Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – no fools they – why not have a title that reflects their brilliance?

But if it MUST be called NERDS, have the producers approached Nestle, the company that makes a (terrible) candy product by that very same name? If they haven’t, they’re missing a big financing opportunity.

The FOURTH production of HUGHIE to reach Broadway in 51 years didn’t fare much better than NERDS. Hotel transient Erie Smith – beautifully underplayed by Forest Whitaker – has been accustomed for years to chatting with night clerk Hughie, who enjoyed the palaver, for he was “a family man” with a wife and two kids and therefore didn’t have the adventures (real or imagined) that Erie did.

That 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift might well have been Hughie’s second job. Now wonder the clerk died so comparatively young; he may well have wanted to.

Erie even visited Hughie in the hospital and attended his funeral. As Edward Kleban taught us “The next best thing to love is love” – meaning that a deep enough feeling between friends is worthy enough to be termed love. Eugene O’Neill let us see that the next best thing to friendship, which Erie and Hughie had, is still friendship.

Given that Frank Wood was the clerk in this two-person drama, was this the first Broadway show ever to have an entire cast with the same initials? Is this the Broadway production that has now given a previous Tony-winner (Wood, Best Actor in a Play, SIDE MAN) the role with the least number of lines?

No, that distinction goes to Charles Nelson Reilly, the 1961-62 Tony-winner as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for the original HOW TO SUCCEED, who appeared in another two-character play: CHARLOTTE, meaning Charlotte von Stein (1742-1847), the woman behind both Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Uta Hagen played her while Reilly portrayed her husband, and – like many husbands – couldn’t get a single word in all night long. I later asked Reilly why he’d take such a role. “Are you kidding” he censured. “Getting that close to the wonder that Uta Hagen is night after night after night and seeing how she works?” Actually, it wasn’t all that many nights: 20 previews and five performances. But there were all those rehearsals, too.

If you knew Tunie like I know Tunie, you’d be even more amazed with Tamara Tunie’s performance in Danai Gurira’s FAMILIAR. Her character’s name is actually Marvelous, and while the actress is, the woman she plays certainly isn’t. What a difficult wife and mother, who is, believe me, nothing like the charming and delightful real-life Tunie.

Marvelous came from Zimbabwe and was educated at M.I.T. where she met and fell in love with Donald, another immigrant from Africa. She became a biochemist and he a lawyer. If Clint Ramos’ set is any indication – a very upscale version of the duplex we see in THE HUMANS – they’ve done extraordinarily well.

Tunie anchors the stage, annoying her two daughters – bride-to-be Tendi and folksinger Nyasha -- until Myra Lucretia Taylor enters as a human tsunami. This is an astonishing characterization of a woman who has more self-esteem than Australia’s Ninety Mile Beach has grains of sand. She insists on a traditional Zimbabwe wedding, and woe to anyone who gets a syllable wrong in reciting any part of the ceremony.

There’s a hilarious first-act curtain, but its set-up is contrived and unbelievable and it’s quickly forgotten without any impact in the second act. Gurira instead unleashes one of the favorite tricks in any playwright’s arsenal – The Disclosure of a BIG Secret – but her skill in creating and sustaining drama makes us glad she went there. As for Donald, he’s not unlike The King in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS; he has a lot to say and finally gets his chance to say it. We’re glad he does.

If STOMP hadn’t been named STOMP, then THE ROYALE could have accurately taken that name. Marco Ramirez’s play doesn’t ask its boxers to punch each other, but simply has cast members stomp their feet every time a punch lands.

Although the boxers do perform a bit of sparring, they don’t have to punish each other. Good! I expect that Andy Karl and Terence Archie are still recovering from what they put each other through more than 200 times last season in ROCKY (which doesn’t include rehearsals).

THE ROYALE offers a GREAT WHITE-HOPE-ish story: African-American Jay has been beating members of his own race in a era when “a pair of black boys will never see the front page.” You may assume that that’s one reason why Jay wants to battle white champion Max, but there is quite another unexpected one. Ramirez occasionally punctuates his dialogue by having the cast clap hands; you’ll find yourself steadily handclapping at Rachel Chavkin’s fine production

On Monday, March 14, 238 people watched Whoopi Goldberg grapple with the script to WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT. And how do I know it was that many? About ten minutes of the 75-minute show asked the audience, starting with the occupant in the most remote seat in first-row stage left to count “One!” followed by the person next to him stating “Two!” all the way to the 238th patron in the Westside Theatre’s upstairs haunt. This didn’t make me, patron 128, sing out “That’s Entertainment!”

The gimmick is that Goldberg – or any actor that succeeds her – has never before seen the script that’s handed to her right out of a manila envelope. Now she has to read and make do with it.

The problem is that Nassim Soleimanpour’s play is terribly serious, and Goldberg anticipated – as did the rest of us – that she’d be reading a laugh-a-minute monologue. So we saw Goldberg’s irresistible smile dissolve when she told about the 18 ways that people can commit suicide, how 95% of first-time suicide attempts fail and how 37% of the failures succeed the second time around.

Goldberg finally had to look at us and ask point-blank “Is this a little different from what you expected to see? I’m as shocked as you are.” We always hear that some performers are so great that they could read the phone book. Goldberg and we wished that a Manhattan Yellow Pages had been placed before her instead of this fun-free drama.

Finally, my buddy Jay Clark of Chelmsford, Mass. once again showed his shrewd memory and powers of observation by recalling that in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, Freddie sings that “I wanna be like Trump!” Many of us might well have voted for Freddie if the two had gone toe-to-toe (or, better, mouth-to-mouth) in these primaries.

When I consulted the CD liner notes of SCOUNDRELS to ensure that I would correctly cite the line, what did I find? After Trump came in tiny print “TM.” You mean Trump’s name is trademarked? That even trumps Franklin Shepard, Inc.

Last month’s brainteaser asked why these nine musicals were listed in a certain order. The reason is that they each have a song that involves an amount of money, and each was listed from the least amount to the highest: RAGS (“Penny a Tune”), RAGTIME (“Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”), THE PAJAMA GAME (“Seven-and-a-Half Cents”), SIMPLE SIMON (“Ten Cents a Dance”), DO RE MI (“All You Need Is a Quarter”), JAMAICA (“Yankee Dollar”), AMERICA’S SWEETHEART (“I’ve Got Five Dollars”), CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (“The Twenty Dollar Bill”) and THE ME NOBODY KNOWS (“If I Had a Million Dollars”).

Deb Poppel was the first to get it (at 6:56 a.m.) followed by Rob Witherwax, Laura Frankos, John Bacarella, Tony Janicki, Barry Kleinbort and Bryan Brooks.


You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia



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