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May 23, 2014

Welcome, 2014-2015!

All the nominations are out, and even some awards (such as the Outer Critics’ Circle) have ben dispensed. Time to move on to the new season. Welcome, 2014-2015!

Boy, Elizabeth Seal must have been something in IRMA LA DOUCE. After all, she bested Julie Andrews, Carol Channing and Nancy Walker for the 1960-61 Best Actress in a Musical Tony. As we saw at the recent Encores! production -- yes, production, not reading; those days are gone -- the show really belongs to the actor who plays Nestor. He’s her lover/protector who jealously wants the happy hooker to stop plying her trade so that he can be the only man in her life. Hence, Nestor takes on an assumed identity of rich benefactor Monsieur Oscar. That gives an actor even more to do.

Rob McClure was up to the challenge, although his beard and Groucho-like false nose and glasses would have embarrassed a middle-school production. Billy Wilder’s 1963 film gave Jack Lemmon a better facial disguise, although he still looked like Jack Lemmon.

“What a good thing that she doesn’t remember faces,” Nestor told us, indicating that they’re having carnal knowledge. But Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond had him only play solitaire with Irma and do nothing sexual. That Irma wouldn’t see through a fully clothed man was easier to believe than if she’d seen her usual lover’s naked body.

Of course, Wilder committed the cardinal sin – nay, POPE-sin – of dropping the score. Oh, some will tell you he didn’t, for a lot of Marguerite Monnot’s music turned up in Andre Previn’s background score. But incidental music does not a musical make.

Wilder’s work on IRMA brings to mind what William Goldman said in THE SEASON of Gower Champion’s handling of THE HAPPY TIME: “Yes, he made it good and, yes, he made it bad.” But even making some of it good is more than we can say for John Doyle’s lackluster production at Encores! “You forget time when you’re happy,” said Nestor. Alas, we were well aware of how slowly the minutes were passing at this IRMA LA DOUCE.

Many have pointed out the similarities between A LOSS OF ROSES, William Inge’s 1959 play that ran three weeks, and a certain 1947 classic by Tennessee Williams that originally ran two years. Yes, both Lila Green and Blanche DuBois are currently single and are approaching the middle point of middle age. Each is dead broke and must crash in someone else’s home when an opportunity presents itself to sleep with a young hunk.

But many of Blanche’s problems are of her own making; Lila is living in 1933 and is victimized by the Depression. Blanche could have been employed as a teacher until she cared to retire had she not been involved in a scandal. On the other hand, Lila is a stage actress whose troupe is now bankrupt. She remains optimistic, however, especially after she’s told “People aren’t going to be satisfied with celluloid forever.”

The Peccadillo Theater Company audience laughed, because it has continually seen movies triumph while stage shows have struggled. But is that true? When A LOSS OF ROSES opened, the Broadway district had many more movie theaters than it does now, but the number of legitimate theaters has basically remained the same. We win!

During ROSES’ May 10th performance, the cyclorama at the back suddenly sported a bunch of irrelevant words. We’ve all seen this happen when a computer goes awry from human or non-human error; computer commands suddenly make an unwelcome appearance. Usually many in the audience laugh at such a gaffe. They didn’t here, because they were so immersed in what was happening.

What I liked best: Lila came on to Kenny, the grown son of her good friend Helen who’d taken her in. He resisted in a vivid push-me-pull-you scene. Then they stopped – and then and ONLY then did Helen walk in.

Now – how many times in how many millions of plays would a writer instead have the third character walk in during the conflict? Inge knew that a more compelling scene would have Lila and Kenny struggling to act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened – and to have Helen suspect (as opposed to actually see) what had happened. A LOSS OF ROSES certainly doesn’t seem like a play that could only manage 25 performances.

On May 12, I emceed the 6TH ANNUAL THEATRE NIGHT AWARDS at Montclair State University in New Jersey – in which prizes are given to high school students who do drama and comedy. In my sum-up speech, I said “I have interviewed thousands of actors, directors, designers and crew members, and I have asked every one of them, ‘When you became interested in theater, were your parents behind you?’ I’ve found a direct correlation between great success and great parental support, be it financial or emotional. Those people who have been less successful have often told me ‘No, my folks weren’t behind me at all.’”

That brings me to the one-man-show THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOSH at the Players Theatre. Joshua Rivedal grew up with a Bible-thumping, super-religious father in (surprise!) Trenton, New Jersey. Josh became interested in theater, but his father wouldn’t approve, even as his son was snagging leads in high school as “Danny Zuko, Sky Masterson, Cornelius Hackl and that real chick-magnet, the Mayor of the Munchkins.” Dad’s reaction to Josh’s show-biz life? “Don’t forget where you came from or how you were raised.” No wonder the kid started hoping that he’d been adopted.

Still, Josh persevered, sending out pix-and-resumes to LAW & ORDER so often that “I was lucky they didn’t put out a restraining order on me.” He finally got the call to audition for the show, but why he couldn’t make it turns THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOSH from an affable good time to a potent drama. Rivedal is so appealing that I suspect he’s going to be one of those people who confound my theory of parental support = success. And, as Madam Liang says in FLOWER DRUM SONG (a show Rivedal has never done, although he’s played a white Porgy, albeit not in a summer in Ohio), “Can’t wait to see it.”

Who would have expected that we’d see revivals of ALLEGRO and ROCKABYE HAMLET on the same street? And in Astoria, yet! My schedule isn’t permitting me to see ROCKABYE (again; I was at its last preview in 1976 two days before the poisonous reviews came out). I did however make it to Tom Wojtunik’s fine ALLEGRO, which has extended through this weekend.

Wotjunik provided the gentleness that one associates with OUR TOWN, which had to be on Oscar Hammerstein’s mind when he conceived the 1947 musical. Would that he conceived a main character; there’s very little here for Mark Banik to play, for Joseph Taylor, Jr. obeys his parents at every turn and becomes a doctor like dad without giving a thought to alternatives. He falls in love with the girl close to next door, and Crystal Kellogg keeps us guessing on whether or not Joe is making a mistake. After they’re married and Joe discovers she’s been cheating on him, he delivers a 15-sentence tirade that includes “What became of her? The dream girl of my college days?” Now why isn’t this speech a song?

Still, what there is of Rodgers’ music is lovely, especially “Come Home,” the final number; Daniella Dalli (as Joe’s mother) sings it beautifully. During its original run, many missed this song, for ALLEGRO was famous for walkouts. Stay around – even if you don’t plan to see a performance of ROCKABYE HAMLET afterward.

Speaking of musical geniuses, we have Leonard Bernstein’s 1955 Broadway entry in Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre. Scratching your head to remember what Bernstein had on the Main Stem that year? Why, TROUBLE IN TAHITI, which was part of a triple bill with a Tennessee Williams one act (27 WAGONSFULL …) and a dance piece by Paul Draper. Can you picture such an offering on Broadway now?

Yes, it’s an opera and not a musical, but the stirring music includes echoes and previews of the shows we know and love. (All right, no WONDERFUL TOWN.) The libretto – which Bernstein fashioned himself – is amazing. Sam (the impressive Isaac Grier) and Dinah (the marvelous Stephanie McGuire) have been married for 10 long years – a good thousand days past the seven-year-itch. Worse, as Bernstein sees it, they live in suburbia.

The couple starts bickering at breakfast. This takes a toll on their kid, who can’t get a word in edgewise. Those who know the 40-minute piece may say “But the kid doesn’t appear!” Not usually, but director Gina Crusco brings her in here, which heightens the tragedy.

“You live your life and I’ll live mine,” bellows Sam. Easier sung than done when you’re in wedlock (with an accent on the second syllable), especially in a 1951 marriage. At the office Sam is a master of the universe who’s considered “an angel” and “a big-hearted man,” but at home, the person who (allegedly) loves him sees him very differently and accurately – especially when she asks him for spending money. When he arrives home after work, he sings “And I have to go in” three times, stalling. What’s sadder than not wanting to go into your own home?

That afternoon, Dinah had escaped to the movies, although the film TROUBLE IN TAHITI turned out to be a bore, as we hear in a stirring aria. In a terrific twist, the next night Sam suggests they go see it. Dinah doesn’t even bother to tell him she’s seen it, but immediately agrees. Anything, even seeing this rotten picture one more time, is better than sitting home and talking, for that would only lead to a fight, anyway.

Bernstein stresses that Tahiti isn’t the only island where there’s trouble. Roosevelt, Long, Shelter, Staten and plenty of others are experiencing what Sam and Dinah are enduring. Too bad Underworld Productions Opera only did three performances. But maybe that’s all that Sam and Dinah could take.

         — Peter Filichia

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