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 March 29, 2013

March’s Leftovers and April’s Brainteaser

It was the month in which Breakfast at Tiffany’s began performances on the 4th – which meant that by March 8th, after it had played five previews, it had already outrun the 1966 musical version.

Soon after, however, the critics ate Breakfast for breakfast. Richard Greenberg used, as the movies say, “strong language and adult situations” which the 1961 film didn’t dare. So what? As for Emilia Clarke’s Holly, God forgive me for what I’m about to say: she reminded me of Pia Zadora.

Perhaps the play would have worked if Sean Mathias hadn’t directed so leadenly. On the other hand, when a show is good, you’re barely aware that time has passed. The Flick was more than three hours long, and Sam Gold purposely made its pace slow to indicate the sluggish lives of the three people who work at a close-to-obsolete singleplex. (How can you tell which one is the bigger loser? He’s wearing the Boston Red Sox cap.) Annie Baker’s characters and dialogue were so potent that I didn’t feel I was at Playwrights Horizons nearly as long as I was at Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It was the month that I gave Klea Blackhurst some advice – which, as it turned out, she was wise to reject. The blazing talent had the Ethel Merman role in the York Musicals-in-Mufti reading of Happy Hunting, the 1956 show in which The Merm and co-star Fernando Lamas did not get along – to the point that at one performance he blatantly wiped off the kiss that she’d just given him.

“Klea,” I advised, “if you encourage your co-star to wipe off your kiss, the place’ll go wild.” But Blackhurst smartly didn’t go for it, because she wanted to divorce herself from a Merman photocopy. Yes, Blackhurst does have Mermanesque qualities, but she’s her own woman. So she didn’t give out with those distinctive Merman “yew” sounds in “Mutual Admiration Society” (a la “bl-yew-berry pie” in Gypsy.) Klea Blackhurst showed us how Klea Blackhurst would do the role, and, oh, did she do it superbly to the delight of packed houses.

Weeks earlier, Hollywood Pinafore made less of an impression at York. The idea that George S. Kaufman wanted to spoof Tinseltown personalities of the ‘40s was fine. But he erred when he tied his characters to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s melodies; that’s not the way people in Hollywood sounded back then.

Many have railed against my objection to Spring Awakening: that kids who lived in 1890’s Germany weren’t singing music that suggested 1890’s Germany. Many have inferred that I simply don’t like rock music in musicals. No; Next to Normal has rock, and it must – for this is the music of a 21st century family and the people they meet. Hollywood Pinafore showed that my objections can work the other way: render to 20th century musicals the music of the 20th century.

No lie: Craig Lucas’ The Lying Lesson made little impression, although Carol Kane magnificently impersonated Bette Davis. Kane’s face genuinely resembled the two-time Oscar-winner’s. But if you looked close, especially when she was in profile, she even more resembled – I’m serious -- Frank Rich (who would have, I’m sure, panned the woeful The Lying Lesson along with everyone else).

When Holland Taylor was remarkably portraying former Texas Governor Ann Richards in Ann, I hoped that she was telling the truth. For late in Taylor’s own highly amusing and moving play, Richards told us that after she’d moved to New York, she saw The Lion King five times. Brava to a transplanted Texan who relished the chance to go to Broadway!

Taylor made us truly care for Richards, who wasn’t afraid to laugh at her own jokes because she knew we’d find them funny. Richards was as comfortable in her own skin as she was in her tailored (Taylored?) white suit that matched that trademark mane of snow white hair. When Richards said that she once went to a Halloween party dressed as a tampon, you had to wonder if she wore what she was sporting in this show.

Bless both Richards and Taylor for the ultimate message that Ann dispensed: “Why should your life be just about you?” Well, if you can be as extraordinary as Ann Richards, it’s far less of an infraction.

A.R. Gurney’s acceptable The Old Boy mostly took place in the late ‘60s, a time that was tough for gays. Theatergoers did better by seeing how it all started to change in Hit the Wall. It became the season’s most hard-hitting play – literally hard-hitting, because a cop wasn’t above taking his billy club to a drag queen and lesbian on June 27, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn. The way that he verbally humiliated them was almost as painful. What followed, however, was a most gratifying scene that belied the belief that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Earlier, in one of the play’s more light-hearted moments, two gay men were assessing some new flesh on the block. “Who is she?” one asked. “Who does she hope to be?” It’s a line right out of The Boys in the Band, and I’d like to think that the gay man speaking had seen the play and was quoting it. Believe me, starting in April, 1968 -- and for quite a few years afterward – many theatergoers were quoting many of Mart Crowley’s great lines from his landmark play.

Nice, too, that Hit the Wall booked the Barrow Street Theatre – not at all far from where the Stonewall Inn revolution had taken place. The fact that the Number 1 train occasionally rumbled under us was authentic, too – probably more authentic than the claims that many people have made that “I was there on that Sunday night.” In years to come, people may well be bragging that “I was there” to see Ike Holter’s Hit the Wall.

Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson did extraordinarily well by Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly. While l was en route to the Laura Pels (and then again on my way home), I was whistling the marvelous theme from the TV commercial that aired during the play’s original 1980 run. Light, lovely tune. Anyone know who wrote it?

Wilson’s not-so-hot The Mound Builders also got a production. It’s one of those plays where a disparate group of people (in this case archaeologists) gets together and sparks fly. That was the trouble: sparks flew among the group members when a verbal forest fire needed to be raging and roaring among these disparate personalities. No wonder that the audience at the performance I attended applauded Act One only long after the house lights had come up. Ditto at the end of Act Two.

But I’d figured out that the crowd wasn’t with The Mound Builders before 20 minutes elapsed. Cynthia (the solid Janie Brookshire) came in from a dig and said, “I've been batting at a nonexistent fly all day. Everyone at the site waved at me.” Now that’s a funny line, but no one laughed -- because people had already tuned out.

Between Talley’s Folly and The Mound Builders, all we were missing was Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright. But we did essentially have The Madness of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie at the Women’s Project Theater.

The show reminded me of what my friend Mary Lidinsky said with half-closed and weary eyes after she’d turned 31: “When I learned that Jackie Kennedy was my age when she became First Lady,” she said, “I forgave her everything.”

Perhaps God didn’t. In Jackie, our title character is already dead and Marsha Ginsberg’s sewer-like set didn’t suggest heaven. We all have baggage, but Jackie carried more than most – for she lugged around inflatable dolls that represented JFK, RFK and Ari (Onassis, and not the title character from the 1971 musical).

Actually, playwright Elfriede Jelinek had the same impression as Mary Lidinsky. She had great sympathy for a young woman thrust into her husband’s spotlight, only to sit inches away from him when he was killed -- and then had to immediately leave her home. Jelinek underlined that Jackie felt so insecure that she married someone utterly unappealing simply for money. True, Jelinek’s play was shapeless (unlike the stunning dress that Susan Hilferty gave Jackie). But, oh, was Tina Benko astonishing in the title role.

Can’t believe it took me all these years and Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella to make me realize something I should have thought of decades ago. But not until Victoria Clark’s Fairy Godmother mentioned that Cinderella’s shoes would be made of Venetian glass did I think, my God, glass shoes would be a real health hazard, wouldn’t they? Just one footfall would make them shatter and would start your feet bleeding. No wonder that in this production, Cinderella purposely leaves at least one of them behind.

And what’s coming up next month? We’ll see Anne Hathaway off-off-Broadway. Well, Shakespeare’s wife would have to be a character in any play about his home life. And while William Gibson’s A Cry of Players told about Will and Anne before he headed out to London, Robert Brustein's The Last Will will tackle what life was like for the two after he’d retired and returned to Stratford. Under Austin Pendleton’s direction, it starts performances on April 5 at the Abingdon Theatre Company’s June Havoc Theatre.

Last month’s brainteaser: Allowing for a hyphen or three, what do the following musicals have in common? The answer was that all contained a song that was also the title of a musical: Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (Carousel), Little Mary Sunshine (Mata Hari), Pal Joey (Chicago), Rent (Contact), The Sound of Music (Do Re Mi), Stop the World -- I Want to Get Off (All American), Thoroughly Modern Millie (Jimmy) and Wonderful Town (Swing).

Joe Miller was the first to get it, followed by Donald Tesione, Ingrid Gammerman, AnyaToes, Brigadude, Paul Roberts, Fred Abramowitz but not Ira Rappaport.

This month’s brainteaser: If a certain prediction turned out to be accurate, how many performances at the very least did Musical Husbands run?You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia


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