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 May 31, 2013

May’s Leftovers and June’s Brainteaser

“I’d like to make the laws,” said Marie earlier this year when Encores! did Fiorello! I’d certainly like to make two as far as Encores! is concerned.

Law One: at least one show a season must be a musical that has never been recorded. The shows that have been chosen for next season – Little Me, The Most Happy Fella and Irma La Douce -- have all had London and Broadway cast albums; the first two have even had revival cast albums while the last-named has had foreign cast albums. How about giving some other shows a chance?

Law Two: Encores! should always offer us one an antique, a la Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, Sweet Adeline or The New Moon. Granted, there are thousands of theatergoers who feel that musicals respectively from 1962, 1956 and 1960 are antiques. But of all the annual Encores! trios, this season is one of the most recent-centric. Only Irma La Douce hasn’t been often aired in New York since it closed on New Year’s Eve in 1961.

I’ve always heard (which doesn’t make my information true or accurate) that there have been rights problems between the French and English estates over Irma La Douce, and that’s why we’re so rarely offered productions. Perhaps. But its lack of exposure is one reason why it will have an eye on moving to Broadway. For one thing, Irma will be comparatively cheap to run; it only had a cast of 17 when first produced, and it could probably get by with fewer. The sound of the cast album suggests to me that it requires fewer musicians, too.

If it does move, you can bet that some people will say, “Oh, I see they made a musical of Irma La Douce” – because they only know it from the 1963 film version that castrated the show of its songs.

An Encores! Little Me will be worth it if we return to Neil Simon’s original script, and not the rewrites he did either for the 1983 or 1998 revivals. Notice that whenever Simon set out to improve his works – Hotel Suite, the 1996 TV Sunshine Boys – he made them worse. Little Me is no exception.

Onto modern musicals: those who see Here Lies Love will have to stand for 90 straight minutes, which they might not mind as much if they were allowed to stand in one place. But ushers in orange jump suits (escaped convicts?) are constantly telling the audience to move this way, move that way and don’t lean against the wall. At times the performers insist that the crowd dance, so it’s move to the left, move to the right and put your hands up in the air now. In a strange way, this is the right approach for the show – because it’s the story of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the Philippines couple who ran a politically oppressive regime. The story is Evita all over again, so director Alex Timbers had to do something to make it seem fresh and new – and his fascistic staging achieves that.

The idea of Klea Blackhurst playing Dolly Gallagher Levi sounded 100% right, but at a recent press preview offered by the Goodspeed Opera House, I see my estimated percentage was on the low side. How magnificent Blackhurst was in the way that she crowed “Before the Parade Passes By,” with a voice that shone like a new trombone and a new baton.

Blackhurst also played with the melody just a bit, but not enough to have unnerved Jerry Herman (or Charles Strouse). Best of all, even from this one number we could infer that Blackhurst will be no imitator of any previous Dolly, but will bring her distinctive personality to it. Hello, Dolly! runs June 28 through Sept. 8 at that East Haddam haunt, and you’ll only be sorry on Labor Day if you haven’t seen it by then.

This month marks the 30th anniversary that Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, two rookies in the BMI Workshop, agreed to work together. They’re still at it, thank the Lord. Flaherty provides the classic sound of Broadway while making the music sound fresh; consider the beautiful title song of My Favorite Year. Ahrens writes with great sensitivity; few lyricists would be able to come up with a line as simple and glorious as “You are part of the human heart.”

Think how many performers of color have worked thanks to Once on This Island and Dessa Rose. How many kids have caught the theatrical bug from appearing in or seeing Seussical in their schools or community theaters? While many top-notch writers only look to create big shows, Ahrens and Flaherty haven’t neglected off-Broadway-sized musicals, from their first, Lucky Stiff to A Man of No Importance to their most recent, The Glorious Ones.

But if we do want to talk about big musicals, what’s bigger than Ragtime, the last great musical of the 20th century? It required the largest of canvases, and these two artists painted to perfection. How many other songwriters could have achieved as convincing a sound for black, WASP and Jewish characters?

Next year at this time, Ahrens and Flaherty will celebrate their 31st anniversary with Rocky at the Winter Garden. I look forward to opening night (and the party that Baskin-Robbins will undoubtedly cater).

Speaking of Lucky Stiff as well as performers of color, we’ll soon be seeing its film version with Nikki M. James playing Annabel Glick, the representative for The Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn.

“I’m so grateful that (director) Chris Ashley thought out of the box when casting,” says James. “But directors have been non-traditionally casting me ever since eighth grade, when I played Scrooge.”

James realizes, however, that she can’t quite call her high school performance as Dolly Levi non-traditional casting, for Pearl Bailey triumphed in the role long before her. But the Livingston, New Jersey native did get a nomination for a Rising Star Award from the Paper Mill Playhouse. “I didn’t win,” she says.

What she did win, of course, is a 2010 Tony for The Book of Mormon. “I have to admit,” she says, “that for a while, wherever I went in my house, I took my Tony from room to room with me.”

Don’t expect her to sing “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” during her June 23-24 engagement at 54 Below. “It doesn’t make sense out of context,” she explains. “I will sing ‘Times Like This’ from Lucky Stiff as well as a song from Bernarda Alba and ‘In the Ghetto,’ the song I was to do in All Shook Up until it was dropped.”

Another James will soon be performing at 54 Below: Morgan James, currently playing Teena Marie in Motown. Says the blonde beauty, “Teena was only one of two white artists on Motown. In fact, for her first album, they didn’t put her picture on the cover, because they didn’t even want people to know they were recording a white artist.”

James says she sometimes feels that she was African-American in another life, for she does have a great affinity for black music. “I went through an Ella phase, a Dinah phase and a Billie phase,” she says, referring to Fitzgerald, Washington and Holiday.

But the one for whom she has the greatest affinity is Nina Simone. “Part of it is because we both went to Juilliard and both expected to be part of the classical world,” she says. “And then we discovered this whole other world of music.” James pays tribute to Simone during her June 3, 17 and 25 stints at the club.

Judy Kuhn arrives at 54 Below on June 10 and 12. Much of her act will center on her new CD, All This Happiness, named for a song she didn’t sing during her recent run in Passion. Also on the album is an Adam Guettel selection from Saturn Returns and the song that Billy Barnes wrote for Blanche DuBois as his first assignment when he was in the BMI Workshop. (It’s since had a life as “Something Cool.”)

Here’s hoping that the gig gives Kuhn less angst than the 1986-1987 Tony Awards. “I was nominated for Cosette in Les Miz,” she says, “but it was also the year I had done Rags. Less than a week before the broadcast, (Rags star) Teresa Stratas decided that she didn’t want to appear, so they asked me to do the title song. It was to happen after the winner in my category was announced, but nobody came to get me and bring me backstage. Eventually I figured I’d just better get back there myself, and I got there j-u-s-t in time to do the number.”

Ah, it’s true, isn’t it? If you don’t win, they forget all about you. Let’s not forget either Judy’s upcoming engagement or her CD.

54 Below is trying something new with on June 13 and 14. Bruce Vilanch, a comic rather than a singer, will perform. You know that he’ll be wearing a T-shirt, but we must wonder what it’ll say.

Nothing too profane, of course. “When I was on the road with Bette (Midler, natch) and we were following Aerosmith, I remember people wearing ones that said ‘Ugly women have (vulgarism for vaginas), too’ and another that had emblazoned on it ‘No (a different vulgarism for vagina) too tuff.’ That’s where I drew the line.”
Fine, but here’s hoping that during his act Vilanch tells the hilarious story of how he once tried to explain a certain sex act to Donny and Marie Osmond. He saw their eyes widen before they concluded that he just had to be joking, and that no one could possibly do such a thing. (Oh, yes, they could – even in Sal Tlay Ka Siti.)

Last month’s brainteaser: I gave the names of a dozen Tony-winners and asked what they had in common. The answer is that each played a character whose actual name was never revealed in the show: Yul Brynner (The King), Alan Cumming (The Emcee), Alfred Drake (The Poet Later Known as Hajj), Joanna Gleason (The Baker’s Wife), Joel Grey (The Emcee), Steve Kazee (Guy), Kevin Kline (The Pirate King), Beth Leavel (Chaperone), Patricia Neway (Mother Abbess), Jonathan Pryce (The Engineer), Sara Ramirez (The Lady of the Lake) and Ben Vereen (Leading Player).

Rob Witherwax was the first to get it, followed by Brigadude, Chris Davies, David Kanter, Joseph Miller, Jack Lechner, AnyaToes, Ted Zoldan, Ed Weissman, Rebecca Turtledove, Laura Frankos, Dennis Crowley, Brendan Padgett and Scott McClintock.

And speaking of Anya Toes: Jay Clark, who’s read me long enough to start recognizing some names that often show up in my columns, asked, “Do you think AnyaToes saw On Your Toes at Encores!?” So I e-mailed A.T. about it. “I live too far away,” (s)he said, without elaborating where. That’s okay; anyone named AnyaToes ought to have a little mystery about him. Or her.

This month’s brainteaser: What do Billy Elliot, A Class Act, Falsettos, Jesus Christ Superstar, Mame, Nine, Snoopy!!!, Take Me Along, The Tap Dance Kid and Titanic have in common?

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia


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