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March 27, 2015

March’s Leftovers and April’s Brainteaser

Faithful readers will recall that a few weeks ago, I wrote about the sadness that actors endure when they say a line or sing a lyric that refers to a closing when the show is actually closing. Case in point: how did Bill Hayes feel on the final performance of ME AND JULIET when he had to sing the line “For an actor in a flop, there isn’t any choice but to look for another show.”

Peter Alfano then wrote me to say he was surprised I didn’t include one that really fit the topic. I am officially humiliated that I didn’t think of it. But imagine what Arnold Moss as Dimitri Weismann felt at the Winter Garden on July 1, 1972 when he said “Welcome to our first – and last – reunion.”

Let’s advance 19 years to 1991, when the big news was that MISS SAIGON was offering us a helicopter – making us all assume that a device would swoop across the stage and fly from wing-to-wing. How disappointed many of us were when we saw only its front, not to mention that the damn thing simply went up in the air with all the excitement of the elevator that chugged up a flight in SWEET CHARITY.

My point, you ask? Mrs. Primrose’s riding on the front of the train in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY offers no less a theatrical thrill than MISS SAIGON’s helicopter. In 1978, some years before the mega-musical, the show’s creators wouldn’t have thought to hype it as much as Cameron Mackintosh would his chopper. For Prince, Coleman, Comden and Green, it was just another nice piece of opulent but pro forma scenery for a Broadway musical.

To paraphrase Lincoln Steffens, I have seen the future of the 2015 Grammy in the cast album category and it is ON THE TOWN. Yes, I’ve heard every one of the same recordings that you have, but Alysha Umphress does “I Can Cook, Too” better than anyone. Anyone.

Michael Colby could have very well called his memoir THE BROADWAY KID, given his unadulterated love for The Street.

Case in point: Colby took such a shine to Norman Krasna’s 1967 effort LOVE IN E-FLAT – to the point where he took to the phone, called numbers out of the blue, pretended to be a prerecorded voice and stated “See Broadway’s notable new hit LOVE IN E-FLAT.”

Still Colby chose THE ALGONQUIN KID as his title, for that famous hotel is where he spent his childhood, thanks to his grandparents’ owning the famous the West 44th Street landmark.

This allowed him to rub elbows with such celebrities as Leon Uris -- the author of EXODUS who later wrote the book and lyrics for its musical version ARI. Colby learned that when Uris was six, he wrote an operetta inspired by the death of his dog. Could it have been any more a dog that ARI?

Colby has written many a musical, and offers a generous chapter on his 1982 show CHARLOTTE SWEET, going into what was successful about the show and what wasn’t about the total experience.
He also recalls that when he was auditioning performers for his musical NORTH ATLANTIC, one actress had on her resume that she had played Sally Bowels (sic). I had to wonder if the credit may have not been for CABARET, but for a laxative commercial that promised that bowels would sally forth.

You may have heard that Stephen Schwartz gave up on writing HOUDINI, but you can still hear some of the songs he wrote – and have a splendid time while listening, too. Schwartz has teamed with Princess Cruises to create new revues for the leisure cruise line, thus upping the quality of entertainment on each boat. The first, of which we saw a sneak-peek at the Hudson Theatre on March 12, is MAGIC TO DO; so it’ll be a nice home for those HOUDINI hits. (In the process, the cruise ship line will give new meaning to the term “Princess shows.”)

Remember that in the 1977 musical THE ACT Liza Minnelli sang, “Oh, yes, I’d been through EST, dear, but I was unimpressed, dear?” We no longer hear much about those Erhard Seminars Training that were popular in the ‘70s and even a little into the ‘80s. But if you care to see what they were like, catch SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS at Ars Nova. Here six unfortunates are looking to put their lives on the right course – whatever that might be – and attend a weekend retreat in which they are forbidden to talk.

So they communicate by those titular small mouth sounds, which begs the question: if you’re not supposed to talk, should you be exercising the loophole of mouthing words and making frantic gestures to convey what you mean? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

The leader says things like “You have come here to meet yourself” and “You don’t have to go back to who you were.” But playwright Bess Wohl has her doubts. She keeps the audience roaring with laughter (yes, roaring) for about 90 of the play’s 100 minutes – until she reminds us that these are sad people who are desperately looking for something -- anything – that will make them happy. So while the audience gets out plenty of belly-laughs, suddenly many are going “Awwwww” in the way people do when they genuinely sympathize with someone. SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS emerges as funny, powerful and a reminder that the word “retreat” also indicates going backwards.

Remember Becky Mode’s FULLY COMMITTED, the 1999 hit in which Sam, taking reservations for an oh-so-trendy restaurant, is constantly fielding multiple phone-callers, all of whom he portrayed? It apparently inspired Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg to give us two performers in CRAVING FOR TRAVEL – about travel agents. (Thom Sesma and Michele Ragusa were brilliant in it.) Now they’re back to one actor – the astonishing Christina Bianco – who, in APPLICATION PENDING, portrays Christine, an admissions officer for a prestigious private school.

While all the phoners amuse us with their demands or concerns, the play wouldn’t amount to much if it offered nothing more. So Edwards and Sandberg wisely have made Christine a single mother who’s asked to work late on Halloween. How smart, for next to December holidays and birthdays, kids most look forward to October 31 when all that free candy comes their way.

It’s mostly a terrific show. But the supposed benefit of having two writers on a play is that one will edit the other. Too bad that either Edwards or Sandberg didn’t veto the occasional remark that’s tasteless (one involves a charity “for legless children”) or unbelievable (“a third-grade production of EQUUS”). Worst of all is the moment when Christine takes out her displaced hostility on the caller we care for most. Sam in FULLY COMMITTED never lost his cool, even when many of us would have, and it’s one reason why FULLY COMMITTED became a turn-of-the-new-century sensation around the country.

WHERE’S CHARLEY? He’ll be at the Rosebud Cinema (316 Kinderkamack Road, Westwood, NJ), 22 miles away from the St. James Theatre where he, courtesy of Ray Bolger, became the tenth-longest-running musical in Broadway history. The film is rarely shown and has never been marketed on any home video format, so here’s your chance from April 29 through May 2. Visit!current-production/cb3i

The answer to last month’s brainteaser -- which asked you to find the commonality among seven musicals, which were in a certain order for a specific reason.

The answer was that each show had a song that had a color in it, and the order of the seven musicals followed the spectrum, chummily known as ROY G. BIV (which gives the initial for each color): “Little Red Hat” (110 IN THE SHADE), “Oranges from Seville” (LOLA), “Yellow Drum” (THE GRASS HARP), “All about the Green” (THE WEDDING SINGER), “I’m Blue, Too” (HENRY, SWEET HENRY), “Mood Indigo” (SOPHISTICATED LADIES) and “Violets and Silverbells” (SHENANDOAH).

Laura Frankos was the first to get it, followed by Joshua Ellis, Ingrid Gammerman, Donald Tesione and Joseph Miller.

This month’s brainteaser asks what is the commonality among the original productions of these long-run Broadway musicals – CATS, A CHORUS LINE, JERSEY BOYS, MISS SAIGON, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, RENT and WICKED -- that is NOT a commonality with the original productions of these long-run Broadway musicals: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, 42ND STREET, GREASE, LES MISERABLES, THE LION KING and MAMMA MIA.

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia



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