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 May 17, 2013

Welcome, 2013-2014!

Yes, the 2012-2013 season is officially over, but we didn’t have to wait long before 2013-2014 showed up.

Wonder if Rachel Botchan’s foot and Reed Birney’s handwriting were considerations on their being respectively cast in This Side of Neverland and Core Values? For in the former attraction at the Pearl, Botchan plays Beatrice Page, an actress currently going barefoot, spurring her scene partner to say, “It’s a very pretty foot.” In the latter play, Birney is holding a business retreat in which he spends a good deal of time writing on a blackboard. His penmanship is excellent. Did his parents make him go to Catholic schools?

This Side of Neverland is actually two one-act plays by J.M. Barrie. Rosalind is the “pretty feet” one, a play first produced on Broadway 98 years ago – and yet, one in which former stage star Page complains that there are no roles for actresses “between 29 and 60.” And you thought that was only true of current-day Hollywood!

You’d never know that the second play, The Twelve Pound Look, made its Broadway debut 102 years ago. Its view of marriage constraints feels so contemporary. Harry Sims is about to be knighted, so he needs a typist to create the many letters that will spread the news. The typist turns out to be Kate, his first wife who mysteriously left one morning and never returned.

Oh, how Harry loves lording it over her that she dumped this future Lord! What glee he gets from pointing out that she must work when she could have been a lady of leisure! Ah, but Kate doesn’t care for a tenth-of-a-second. She learned while married that one’s freedom is worth more than being possessed by a wealthy spouse. How fascinating to see that Barrie had observed enough 19th century marriages to know it, too.

Core Values concerns a travel agency, a most endangered species in these days of Travelocity and Expedia. In fact, although Richard (Birney), the agency’s owner, doesn’t know it yet, Nancy, his prize employee, is about to move to the latter company.

Richard believes the firm’s annual retreat will solve all woes. Ah, but the days when these retreats were held at a posh Miami hotel are long-gone; even the later retreats held at a nearby Hampton Inn are now but a memory. This year’s retreat is being held in the firm’s office, which just makes it feel like a weekend where the staff feels that it’s just giving up a weekend to work.

Expert playwright Steven Levenson doesn’t state that “retreat” has two meanings, and that this travel agency is retreating in a different way. He lets us figure it out, as we watch Richard firmly in denial and fiddling while trips to Rome burn away. How sad when he and his employees go through their list of clients and see that many haven’t used their services in years while others have simply died.

As for Richard’s personal life, it’s even worse. Core Values may sound non-stop dire, but it’s far more often hilarious. It’s a little early to call it the Best Comedy of 2013-2014 (okay, a lot early), but don’t be surprised if it wins that title 11 months from now.

And the Best Musical Revival of the new season was delivered by teenagers who belong to the Rosetta LeNoire Musical Theatre Academy. They began with Saturday classes every October, started rehearsing Hello, Dolly! in January, and performed it last week. If LeNoire were still alive and had been able to see Christopher Scott’s excellent production, she would have started singing the title song of the musical she did the same year that Dolly opened: “I Had a Ball.”

As Vandergelder, Henry Houghton saved his first smile for when he heard that Ernestina’s last name was Money. Both he and Scott knew that if he made his Vandergelder utterly devoid of humor, he’d be that much funnier. When he finally saw Ernestina, the aghast look on his face was commensurate with the ones many have had when introduced to their blind dates.

Sierra Nelson was the object of Vandergelder’s non-affection. We always hear how there are no eccentric performers any longer. Well, here’s one. Nelson’s ditsy demeanor was enhanced by sounding as if Butterfly McQueen’s voice were speeded up from 45 to 78 rpms.

As Cornelius, Daniel Palladino adeptly played first the country mouse and then the city mouse before letting the man emerge. Palladino is a young man, of course, but the way that he expressed his deep feelings for Irene suggested that even at his tender age, he already knows what love is.

Jewell Noel resembles Patina Miller in both looks and talent. Her Irene Molloy was transformed from the moment she put on her hat and felt the ribbons down her back. Dolly must be strong and single-minded, of course, but Noel was no less determined. Her voice had the quality of a rare wine that had been aged to perfection.

Oh, and Dolly? Sheika Murray had an equally impressive vocal outing. When she sang “Listen and hear that brass harmony growing,” she made the word brass sound brassy in the same way that Streisand made wah-wah mute resemble just such a device.

Murray grabbed the title role with the conviction of a Humphrey Bogart grabbing an Arnold Stang. This lady didn’t request a sign from Ephraim Levi; she demanded it. She spoke as quickly as your average Amy in Company, but was far easier to understand.

This was my ninth production of Dolly dating back to 1965 – Channing, Rogers, Bailey and Feldshuh among them -- and yet, I got something new here from Murray. First, during “I Put My Hand In,” she made the sign of the cross when reaching the lyric “It’s my duty to assist the Lord above.” (That’s right: Dolly Gallagher Levi.)

Second, because male teens are still in short supply in musical theater, Dolly had to greet more waitresses than waiters in the Harmonia Gardens. She pretended that these lasses were Harry and Louie, but by the time that she got to Manny and Danny, she started addressing theatergoers sitting in front of her. Now that makes sense: why must all the greetings go to waiters? That night at the Harmonia Gardens, there were undoubtedly diners that she also remembered, so her shaking the hand of a first-row patron and singing “Glad to see you, Hank” made perfect sense.

There was one more surprise in store. When Murray sang “Lose some weight, Stanley?” to an audience member, she didn’t say it as a compliment, but actually sang it as advice -- or even as a command.

And wouldn’t you know that the fatso whom she singled out was I?

         — Peter Filichia


You may e-mail Peter at

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and each Friday at His book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons,

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