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April 4, 2014

March Leftovers and April’s Brainteaser

If you have little kids, you couldn’t pick a better first-ever show for them than ALADDIN. Young children love anachronisms – “They didn’t have that then!” -- and this new musical almost manages to touch every alphabetical base in low-comedy wordplay: Ally ally oxen free, bubeleh, Cleveland, disinfectant, “Everything’s cool,” Freebie, glass menagerie, Hawaii, Ix-nay, “just a gland problem,” Karma, lot of pressure, maitre ‘d., “No way,” “Okay,” pyramid scheme, quandary, red-hot tabouli, Shriners, “Tom, Dick or Hassim,” “uno, dos,” valets, “Whatever,” “You wrote the book” and zoot suit.

All right, to be fair, bookwriter Chad Beguelin inherited some of these from the film, and yes, a zoot suit is only seen and not mentioned. Sharp-eyed readers will note that I wasn’t able to include an “x,” but I will predict that ALADDIN, despite some of Alan Menken’s best music, will be x-cruciating to many.

Perhaps putting an animated film on stage and keeping it cartoon-like was not the way to go. ALADDIN is such a cartoon that I fully expected a character to smash through a wall and leave his exact body-shape as the hole.

“Proud of Your Boy” – written for the film but unwisely dropped – has been reinserted and demonstrates what the musical could have been. Aladdin says how he wants to achieve great things, not solely for himself but also to please his parents; that’s a good value. But virtually everything else is schlock.

One problem of putting a cartoon on stage is that the fight scenes will always pale in comparison to the animated film. At the top of the movie, Aladdin j-u-s-t escapes his captors time and time again, thanks to animators who are able to get him out of scrapes that are convincingly razor-close. Here, however, fight director J. Allen Suddeth isn’t able to convince us that Aladdin won’t be caught a number of times with all the people chasing and getting arms-length close to him. The only reason he isn’t caught is because the story doesn’t want him to be.

Considering Bob Crowley’s lavish scenery, the old theatrical practice of in-ones is revived; a curtain comes down close to the lip of the stage so that a scene can be played in front of it while behind it the stagehands move the next set into place. I haven’t seen that convention in more than 30 years, since the ON YOUR TOES revival -- which purposely used in-ones to replicate its original 1936 look.

The cast is good. Yes. Good. That includes the much-heralded James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie. Good. Fine. Does the job. But if he’s a Genie who can’t get out of a lamp, why is he out at the top of the show to function as the musical’s narrator? Guess we’re not expected to notice because we’re all dazzled by, to use another of the show’s anachronisms, “the bells and whistles.”

APPROPRIATE is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ version of DIVIDING THE ESTATE, in which everyone wants the biggest piece of father’s pie, house and possessions. Early on, we find that Bo and Rachel’s young daughter Cassidy has a crush on her older cousin Rhys. “Well, we’re in Arkansas,” drones Bo. Don’t you love when a playwright tells us where we are in such an unobvious way?

The play is quite the family holocaust. Near the end, Toni (the absolutely astonishing Johanna Day) says “Can you believe I was actually looking forward to this weekend?” You should look forward to APPROPRIATE -- but don’t leave the theater during intermission. The crew’s sprucing up the set from chaos to orderliness is in itself one of the best shows in town.

Aside from Nikki M. James and to a lesser extent Caissie Levy, the new production of LES MIZ is very good, and – what, you don’t want to hear about it? Instead you’re bemoaning that it’s come back so soon? Yes, statistics do show that one could have seen the show on Broadway for all but seven of the last twenty-seven years. But for those of you who are decrying “We just had it!” I’ll admit that, yes, WE just did -- the intense theater followers. But there is such a thing out there called The General Public that doesn’t know within seconds of a press release that a show is opening, closing or changing casts. Here’s LES MIZ for them – and for all the people who weren’t of age then or only discovered this marvelous animal known as The Broadway Musical during the last six-plus years that LES MIZ hasn’t been in town. Clearly there’s a need for revivals -- even recent ones.

Down in Long Branch, New Jersey, a felicitous musical called DATE OF A LIFETIME shows great commercial potential. For one thing, it has only two characters and doesn’t need much of a set. For another, it’s terrific.

It deals with speed-dating – you know, where you sit and talk to a potential mate for a few minutes before a bell goes off and you move to a table where another potential mate is a-waiting. Marvin Shapiro and Katie Clemmons experience love at first sight and have second thoughts a second later. They relish when they have something in common, but are dashed when they suddenly disagree
after three or four nice connections.

A show about dating is duty-bound to stress that looking for someone to love is as much fun as going to see an unemployment counselor for the ninth week in a row. To nifty music by Robert Baumgartner, Jr., librettist-lyricist Carl Kissin adds some fascinating details: “I wish you’d talk to me the way to talk to dogs on the street,” sings he. “Will you tell me now and not in 10 years that you’re gay?” sings she. Jamie LaVerdiere is fine as Marvin but oh that Trisha Rapier! She’s Carol Burnett and Karen Morrow combined, with a jaw that Hirschfeld would have loved to have drawn.

Kissin makes good work of the famous cliché “Where are we going?” With Marvin glued to ESPN, Katie sings a song full of sports imagery, ending with the fact that after each game that decides a championship “the winner winds up with a ring.” That’s what she wants, too. It leads to a wedding day: “Something borrowed, something blue; something Gentile, something Jew.”

Of course that’s when things get stickier. He mourns “this tiny shackle on my finger.” When the fight, they reconcile through baby talk: “You know I wuv you” -- as we know they no longer do.

If it sounds dour, Kissin has many a surprise in store that keeps it buoyant and entertaining. I smell a smash-hit that will be embraced by couples who are dating and couples who are glad that’s all behind them. In short, millions of theatergoers will eventually make a date with DATE OF A LIFETIME.

But the most moving theatrical experience of all came at Cooke Center Academy on Macdougal Street in a basement room. THE TRUE COLORS OF WEEDLE, the children’s musical with book and lyrics by June Rachelson-Ospa and music by Allison Brewster-Franzetti, was staged for the benefit of dozens of students with autism, Down syndrome or other special needs.

Weedle Watkins is a lad who was born without any color at all; he’s “Mr. Invisible” and “Mr. Nobody” to his peers. He endures constant bullying – “Leave me alone! All of you!” – which makes him woefully wonder “How did this happen to me? Why was I born like this? Why is everyone so mean to me just because I’m different?” Some head-bobs of acknowledgment came from the young audience members.

Others leaned closer when Weedle asked himself “How can I get even with such mean people?” Indeed, Weedle got revenge – only to find it sour solace indeed. The studied faces in the crowd were surprised to learn that retaliation wasn’t the answer.

But THE TRUE COLORS OF WEEDLE didn’t turn out to be just a polemic. There was much fun on hand, proved by the giggles the kids gave out – especially when a character got scared by the sudden appearance of an unexpected visitor. A makeshift caterpillar costume was greeted with enthusiasm by kids who immediately filled in the blanks that the costume didn’t bother to include. And how smart of Rachelson-Ospa to include this creature which could morph into a beautiful butterfly and deliver the message “I told you that there was something beautiful inside me.” Weedle learned that “the colors were inside you all along” and that “there’s a place for everybody where all God’s children live in peace and harmony.”

Was every spectator engaged? Of course not. Some stayed in their own little worlds and barely looked at the stage. And yet, when a character sneezed, a few kids were quick to say “Bless you!” The majority of kids paid rapt attention and joyfully joined in when told to “Clap your hands!” Some even sang along with the third A-section of a song after having heard the first two. What a nice compliment to Brewster-Franzetti! One boy was so moved by what was happening that he just had to jump on stage and be part of it. And while a teacher rightfully but gently guided him back to his seat, here’s hoping this won’t be the lad’s last on-stage appearance.

Last month’s brainteaser: I asked what these musicals had in common: CABARET; FANNY; FIDDLER ON THE ROOF; FUNNY GIRL; THE GAY DIVORCE; HELLO, DOLLY!; THE KING AND I; LES MISERABLES and THE MUSIC MAN. It seemed to be a good question to ask during the month in which the Oscars were dispensed, for all of them were made into Oscar-nominated films, but none of them won.

Jack Lechner was the first to get it, followed by Charlie Faul, Brigadude, AnyaToes, Ian Ewing, Ira Rappaport and Joe Miller.

This month’s brainteaser: Notice anything interesting about these Sondheim works? “Tonight,” “Happily Ever After,” “Everybody Says Don’t,” “Love Is in the Air,” “Agony,” “Silly People,” “Take the Moment,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” “Four Black Dragons,” “Still Got My Heart,” “How I Saved Roosevelt,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “I’m Still Here,” “Loving You” and “All I Need Is the Girl.”

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia

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His book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award,
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