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June 5, 2015

Welcome, 2015-2016!

Another season has come and gone. Bless the hits from 2014-2015 and adieu to the shows that closed faster than Seth Rudetsky talks.

One thing we learned about the doctor in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO: he certainly was no play doctor.

Good that ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY vaulted into the twenty-first century. I love that title song, don’t you? “New York in 16 hours! Anything can happen in those 16 hours!” You know, that lyric would make a good advertising slogan for WOLF HALL: “Anything can happen in those 16 hours.”

But now it’s time to look forward to the new crop of shows that will come in – or are already here as official members of the 2015-2016 season.

At the Signature, WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER should be what you do this summer. A.R. Gurney’s coming-of-age play takes us to the mid-‘40s. Grace’s husband is off at war, leaving her to cope with her young teen son Charlie and slightly older daughter Elsie.

Grace is as strong as any Rosie the Riveter, although – yes – she’s a mom who throws out her son’s comic books without asking. Let’s instead give her credit for initiating a frank discussion with her son on his nocturnal emissions. Carolyn McCormick is so down-to-earth, the mother we all wish we’d had, when she seemingly matter-of-factly tells Charlie during a drive that he needn’t be ashamed of the wet sheets each morning. (Nice detail: in those days, the Directional Signal had yet to be invented. Anyone driving a car had to stick an arm out the window to alert the driver behind him to a turn. Grace does.)

And yet, Charlie finds himself gravitating toward Anna, the town’s so-called “Wicked Woman.” Warns Charlie’s would-be girlfriend Bonny “She’s got (dramatic pause) mixed (greater dramatic pause) blood.” The audience gives a derisive laugh, for it learned long ago that such a “condition” is irrelevant?

Kristine Nielsen plays Anna in the appropriate crusty way, with everything in place except a corncob pipe. The script gives the actress ample opportunity to use her stock-in-trade trademark of delivering a chunk of dialogue in matter-of-fact fashion, and then, when the time comes for the punch line, italicizing it by dropping her voice half an octave as if to say “This is what I really mean.”

Actually, Anna is proud of her Native American heritage. Perhaps inspired by it, she crosses her arms across her bust in chieftain-fashion. Although she appears austere, she’s a paper tigress. She’ll soon be offering Charlie art lessons. “What you get from me,” she says, “will be far more than money.”

This doesn’t please Grace, for something happened between her and Anna some years back. Was it a man? In a way, but not the way we all immediately infer.

So Grace isn’t thrilled when Charlie starts gravitating toward Anna.
To him, the new parental figure seems more interesting and just plain better. We divulge to strangers that which we could never say to our families. So Charlie is willing to tell Anna “Sometimes I think I’ll never be a man.” While Noah Galvin is a bit mannered in the role, he’s quite fine here. If he isn’t a convincing fourteen, do remember that it’s a memory play.

Is the neighbor you now know better than the mother you’ve known? That is the question. An actual drummer is on hand to punctuate a lot of the lines, especially the purposely bad jokes. The device works, however, because so much of Gurney’s language is music to our ears. He has each character break the fourth wall to tell us that the play is “all about me.” But like all of Gurney’s many great plays, this one’s for us. Need we add that WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER is much better than the average student’s back-to-school composition on the same subject?

During 2015-2016, keep an eye out for Steven Carl McCasland’s plays. In May, he and his company Beautiful Soup Theater had no fewer than FIVE in rep at the Clarion Theatre on East 26th. (Longtime playgoers will remember the venue as the place where The Vineyard Theatre got started.)

McCasland’s 28 MARCHANT AVENUE referred to the tony address in Hyannisport, Massachusetts where the Kennedys once lived. Tolstoy’s famous ANNA KARENINA quotation – “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – applies here.
Joe and Rose have rows and rows and rows of children, including Rosemary, the developmentally disabled daughter.

Rosemary isn’t disabled enough to not ask the right questions. Trouble is, few in the family want to give her the right answers, assuming that the truth will hardly set her free. Joe fears that Rosemary will be seduced and will wind up pregnant in an era when that was A Woman’s Biggest Disgrace.

Dad is quite the be-all and end-all tyrant, too, as you’d expect from a man who refers to the president as “Franklin.” McCasland is on Rosemary’s side, and reiterates what so many of us have seen or learned in our lives: the better you treat a person in this condition, the better the person becomes.

The best line comes when Rosemary is talking to her mother, who is so upset at her daughter’s difficulties that she begins to cry. Rosemary wonders what prompted this, and Rose simply says that she has an eyelash stuck in her eye. Says Rosemary, “Eyelashes don’t get stuck in two eyes at the same time.” Any writer who comes up with a line such as that is worth watching – in 2015-2016 and beyond.

On June 15 at 7 p.m. at Birdland, we’ll see MERMAN’S APPRENTICE, the new musical with book and lyrics by Stephen Cole and music by David Evans. Cole got the idea while he was writing a children’s musical entitled MERLIN’S APPRENTICE and found the first word close enough to “Merman” to start him thinking.

Cole met Evans when his THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER needed a musical director. The two struck up a friendship that led to a collaboration. Says Cole, “Our original songs resemble Jerry Herman’s and Jule Styne’s without sounding pastiche.”

They enhance the story of Muriel Plakenstein, a 12-year-old motherless child who in 1970 runs away from her Brooklyn home, comes to Manhattan, and as she emerges from the subway at 44th Street, bumps into Merman. As it turns out, she’s been an uber-fan for a long time and knows everything about her, from A (NNIE GET YOUR GUN) to Z (IMMERMANN), including that unexpected extra “N” in the original surname.

Lest anyone question that a child would know Mermania, Cole hastens to remind us that The Merm wasn’t merely a name famous from 41st to 52nd Street, but was at the time known to most every American. “Ethel loved television,” says Cole, “and appeared on it every chance she could get. Oh, yes,” he says with a don’t-question-me nod and in a case-closed voice, “Ethel was very well known. And because Ethel had lost her own daughter only three years earlier, she takes a shine to the kid and takes her to Sardi’s, too.”

Every show must have conflict, and here it’s the result of Muriel’s needing a mother and Merman’s feeling that there’s no business in the mother business for her.

Richard Kind is in it, too, playing no less than David Merrick. He, of course, was Merman’s co-producer on GYPSY and who originally had The Merm in mind for Dolly. Now he’s been able to entice her to play Mrs. Levi for a short run – but can he keep her there? He wants to best that seemingly unassailable 2,717 performance run of MY FAIR LADY and become the producer of the longest-running musical in Broadway history? (Those shows are now respectively in 18th and 17th place.)

“The musical is a love letter to the Golden Age during which Ethel reigned as queen,” says Cole. “It also deals with how hard it is to do a musical. Ethel equated it with a nun’s ‘taking the veil,’ and so we have a song by that title, too. She understood that doing eight shows a week for 40 years make you lose your life in a certain way.”

While millions of people have referred to Judy Garland as “Judy” without having got within a Kansas tornado’s width of her, Cole is well within his rights to call Merman “Ethel.” He did indeed know her and escorted her around town during the last years of her life.

“Though there was one time when I thought the friendship was over,” he says with a shudder. “I was trying to arrange a Carnegie Hall concert of GIRL CRAZY with Ethel and Ginger Rogers in their original roles. Well, neither would take second-billing. Rogers felt that she was the original star of the show, and Ethel had far less to do, while Ethel felt that she made the bigger splash with ‘I Got Rhythm’ and her holding that l-o-n-g note.”

When I make a criss-cross large “X” with my index finger, Cole smiles, for he knows what I mean: Merman and Jimmy Durante each wanted top billing when RED, HOT AND BLUE! was being readied in 1936, so the arrived-at solution was to have each of their names printed on slanted lines that criss-crossed each other; that way, neither would seem to have been billed over the other.

Cole shakes his head no: “Because of the Western setting of GIRL CRAZY, I suggested a lariat rope with their names printed around it. But Ethel was furious that I even suggested it. I’m happy to say that she did let it go, though the concert never happened.”

Merman’s parents get into the show, too, played by Anita Gillette and P.J. Benjamin. “My conceit,” says Cole, “is that they’re very quiet people, and they have NO idea where this loud-voiced child of their came from.”

Elizabeth Teeter – yes, daughter of Lara of ON YOUR TOES fame – portrays Muriel. She was Jane Banks towards the end of MARY POPPINS’ run and can currently be seen as Young Elizabeth in THE AUDIENCE. And who better than Klea Blackhurst to portray Merman? Don’t forget that some years back she created the cabaret show EVERYTHING THE TRAFFIC WILL ALLOW: THE SONGS & SASS OF ETHEL MERMAN. In it, she not only paid great respect to the legendary star, but also replicated her big hits in the appropriately thunderous voice -- while admitting that “Ethel’s recordings were not good make-out music.”

True, but Cole and Evans have found room for two ballads: one for Merman and one for her apprentice. Now that MAMMA MIA’s leaving town, maybe MERMAN’S APPRENTICE and Blackhurst will play the Broadhust. We’ll know more come June 15.

         — Peter Filichia



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