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June 12, 2015

Hail to Thee, North Shore Music Theatre!

It opened in Beverly, Massachusetts in 1954, long before I became aware of musical theater and prior to my learning to drive. Even after I got a license, I didn’t discover The North Shore Music Theatre until 1964, when I attended a production of MILK AND HONEY.

In those days, I considered the Carousel Theatre in Framingham the superior suburban Boston summer stock venue – and not simply because it was closer to my Arlington, Massachusetts home. Carousel got the stars: Ginger Rogers in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, Anthony Perkins in DAMN YANKEES and John Raitt reprising his Billy in CAROUSEL.

On my first visit, I was stunned to find Betty Ann Grove – that (now-forgotten) star from the (now-forgotten) THE ARTHUR GODFREY SHOW playing Lois in KISS ME, KATE. Better still, there was that actor who was currently starring in a ubiquitous commercial for washing machines. I couldn’t believe my good fortune to see him live-in-the-flesh as one of the gangsters. I truly felt as if I were in the presence of royalty.

North Shore didn’t get stars – not what I called stars. But on my second North Shore visit in 1965, I learned that a Broadway bit-player may well have the talent to carry a show. Mickey Deems, whose voice I’d heard on the original cast album of LITTLE ME as Junior Pinchley (“Did you scream, father?”), was a sensational Pseudolus.

There were no stars in North Shore’s NEW FACES OF ’66 – not yet, anyway. It became NEW FACES OF ‘68 on Broadway with Madeline Kahn and Robert Klein again in tow. It was the same show with one important difference: Ronny Graham, the big star of NEW FACES OF ’52, served as emcee in the ’66 edition. When the revue finally showed up at the Booth, I shook my head in disbelief that a musical needed two years to get to Broadway. Now, of course, the 77 producers of any musical who got it to Broadway in that time span would crow about that achievement now and forever.

As the years went on, North Shore’s ability to hire names, if not stars, was increasing. Jess Cain, a local deejay of some renown (who liked to mention that his daughter was born the night SILK STOCKINGS opened on Broadway), played the hypochondriac husband in SEND ME NO FLOWERS in 1969. Noel Harrison dropped by to do WHERE’S CHARLEY? in 1970, Molly Picon was a convincing Dolly Levi (but not a convincing Dolly GALLAGHER Levi) in 1971, and enjoyed showing us at the curtain call that at least one 73-year-old on the planet could still do a cartwheel.

I’ll always be grateful to the theater for its novel 1975 subscription plan. Yes, you could order the entire seven-show lineup of that included such chestnuts as CAROUSEL, LIFE WITH FATHER and OUR TOWN, but management also offered a three-show subscription for Jones and Schmidt’s PHILEMON, the Gershwins’ LADY, BE GOOD and Cole Porter’s YOU NEVER KNOW. As one who’d already ridden the warhorses, I was glad to spend less money and see only the obscurities I’d never before encountered.
The Carousel Theatre literally folded its tent in the early ‘70s, by which time North Shore had turned its tent into a permanent-walled structure. Mosquitoes were frustrated but patrons were not, for air-conditioning replaced their waving programs in hopes of getting a breeze on a typically humid New England night. Another improvement was the installation of genuine theater seats. Good riddance to those chairs that offered a butt-torturing single-piece-of-canvas stretched between tubes of iron.

So North Shore now seemed to be a permanent fixture on Massachusetts’ entertainment scene. But then a fire and financial problems made the theater die in 2009. Bless entrepreneur Bill Hanney who solved the problems. North Shore survives as one of the comparatively few in-the-round playhouses from the time when they dotted the entire country. What’s more, since those solid walls were built, the season which still begins in June has stretched into the winter. (A CHRISTMAS CAROL, anyone? Yes, in fact – plenty.)

At North Shore, when people saunter down the aisle dozens of minutes after a show has begun, they’re not necessarily latecomers. Most likely, they’re actors making their entrances down the “spokes of the wheel” that get them to the stage. Thus theatergoers who like to say “He was so close to me I could touch him!” have many pleasures to be had here.

(You have heard, haven’t you, the famous story of an in-the-round performance of FINIAN’S RAINBOW? A theatergoer allegedly left his seat to go the bathroom and was grabbed by techies who spray-painted his face black because they assumed he was the actor playing Senator Billboard Rawkins. Anybody know if this is true or just a suburban legend?)

This year’s opener was DREAMGIRLS, a show that lends itself to the round, for a trio of singers can each be positioned in a circle with their backs to each other, thus allowing each section of the house to have a Dreamgirl to make it happy. “The stars of tomorrow,” Curtis insisted to Apollo management, and Britney Coleman (Deena), Destinee Rea (Lorrell) and Bryonha Marie Parham (Effie) gave the impression throughout the night that he was correct.

For most regional theaters, “second stage” means a smaller theater in which edgier work is done. Here, it means a tiny proscenium built on the back rows of the house to represent the Apollo Theater. North Shore uses another part of the theater when a show demands it. The 2013 MISS SAIGON had its helicopter tucked away in the same place.

Ethan Mordden, the great musical theater historian, likes to refer to MAME and DOLLY as “Big Lady Shows.” DREAMGIRLS is a “Big Lady with a Bigger Ego Show.” Even when we first meet Effie Melody White, inexperienced as she is, she’s complaining of being tired. Soon that’s followed by “I don’t do ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’” because “I don’t sing behind anyone.”

Oh, but she’ll have to. Alas, director-choreographer Nick Kenkel missed accenting Tom Eyen’s smart writing when Curtis (the excellent Grasan Kingsberry) tells The Dreamettes that they’re now The Dreams and delivers more good news. The three should be over-the-moon excited so that when Curtis delivers the bombshell – “And, Effie, you’re singing backup” – too much had been promised for the other two and songwriter C.C. to fight for her. Here everyone wasn’t thrilled enough to make for a great silent contrast when the axe on Effie fell.

Soon Effie alienates herself from everyone, all because she believes herself a superior being. Later, when Effie does sing back-up for the first time, she showboats her voice when her one line arrives. By refusing to be a team player, she loses it all – including her romance with Curtis, the entrepreneur who makes the impossible happen: he gets a black entertainer booked into an all-white Miami nightclub and takes the Dreamettes from obscurity to stardom.

True, Curtis is often dishonest. But as Balzac said, “Behind every fortune lies a great crime,” so perhaps he’s not worse than any other multi-billionaires. What’s more, Curtis’ vision that things should change, could change and MUST change makes a difference for African-Americans everywhere. Civil rights are more important than Effie’s.

Perhaps all along Curtis did have Deena and not Effie earmarked as his wife. He does tell Deena “When I saw you, I said ‘Oh, my,’” more than once – but we had no evidence in Act One that he was drawn to her. Perhaps he did love Effie, but her non-stop intransigence after being demoted may have drained that love out of him. On the other hand, is his “Oh, my” line JUST a line to keep Deena IN line?

Sets have never been the province of in-the-round theaters. For the Dreams’ dressing tables, a row of lightbulbs shaped as a smile was all we saw of their mirrors. Door frames zoomed up from below, while the epicenter of the stage hosted an elevator that rose and fell according to Kenkel’s directives.

Anyone who knows DREAMGIRLS knew who was going to go down in that elevator: Effie, after insisting that she is not going, descended below the stage with a speed that The Wicked Witch of the West couldn’t match when melting.

As she disappeared, why didn’t Kenkel bring on the reconfigured Dreams? It’s a terrific “Life goes on” moment that shows how quickly show-biz success evaporates and that no one is indispensable. These were, however, the only Kenkel missteps in an otherwise worthy production.

The North Shore stage proved symbolic at show’s end, when The Dreams, who have come full circle, are standing on a full circle. A question: did DREAMGIRLS conceiver Michael Bennett believe that Effie would eventually succeed and Curtis would ultimately be defeated any more than he believed that Cassie would get the job in A CHORUS LINE?

Probably not. The prevailing theme of DREAMGIRLS, heard every now and then, is “It’s just show-biz.” It’s been substantially more than that for 60 years at North Shore Music Theatre.

         — Peter Filichia



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