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October 4, 2013

So What Are You Looking Forward To?

Considering that I attend the theater between 300-370 times a year, I’m often asked “So what are you looking forward to?”

My answer is always “Everything and nothing.”

As a veteran of almost 10,000 shows, I long ago learned not to get excited about an upcoming production, because I’ve been let down too many times. If it turns out to be wonderful, I’ll have the rest of my life to be excited by it.

Getting excited in advance about ROMEO AND JULIET would have been a mistake. And, no, I didn’t mind that Romeo came in on a motorcycle. What rankled was the flat production that sat there like an out-of-gas, on-its-side Harley-Davidson. Here’s hoping the upcoming production at CSC does better.

I had no expectations about Anne Washburn’s MR. BURNS, now at Playwrights Horizons, and now can rave. It’s named after the aged and emotion-free character that made four appearances on THE SIMPSONS about two decades ago. The famed animated series is what people are discussing while surrounding a late-at-night campfire. Each contributes a few facts that he or she remembers, but two people on the periphery are silent and appear shell-shocked.

They actually are. The world has endured an apocalypse and there’s little-to-nothing left -- except story-telling. It’s the first step to creating plays, just as it was thousands of years ago when the Greeks moved from conversations to characters.

Seven years later the survivors are trying to produce what amounts to a community theater production. Those who have toiled in so-called “little theaters” in their most difficult and trouble-plagued productions have had an easier time than this group.

After intermission, it’s 75 more years into the future, and the survivors’ children have advanced enough to try a through-sung musical. How wonderful that they want to keep this art form alive for all to enjoy!

Because the lyrics include the word “individdle,” we infer that THE WIZARD OF OZ has been remembered. No surprise there. But hearing “This is the moment” and “I’m not afraid of anything”? Those suggest that Washburn believes JEKYLL & HYDE and Jason Robert Brown’s work will be remembered nearly a century from now.

And while there are musical echoes of Sir Arthur Sullivan, Richard Rodgers and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the music is harsh, dissonant and often unmelodic, but that’s the point: it’s primitive, because people are still finding their way. It’s hard to do a musical!

Cole Porter probably thought otherwise by the time that he did MEXICAN HAYRIDE. After all, the 1944 musical was his sixth hit in a row, following LEAVE IT TO ME!, DUBARRY WAS A LADY, PANAMA HATTIE, LET’S FACE IT! and SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS. As for his bookwriters, MEXICAN HAYRIDE would be in the middle of five straight hits for Herbert and Dorothy Fields. In addition to working with Porter on his previous two successes, they’d go on to do UP IN CENTRAL PARK and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.

All right, I’ll admit to looking forward to MEXICAN HAYRIDE at Musicals Tonight! during its Oct. 8-20 run. Yes, I’ve seen the 1948 film, but that didn’t do this Cole Porter fan any good; every song was dropped. The film was refashioned as a vehicle for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, a comedy team that dominated ‘40s pop culture.

Actually, the movie isn’t so far afield plot-wise. In it you can see the embers of the story: Joe Bascom (who’ll be played here by M.X. Soto) is a small-potatoes American gangster who’s in Mexico to evade the FBI. There he meets Montana (Jessica Wagner), a female bullfighter to whom he tries throwing the bull. Montana, by the way, was originally played by June Havoc, formerly known as Baby June, Dainty June (and even Baby Claire and Dainty Claire for a few out-of-town performances of GYPSY).

MEXICAN HAYRIDE wasn’t, to quote a future Cole Porter lyric, “a show typically Shuberty,” for it was the first non-Shubert production to play the Winter Garden. Because producer Mike Todd had an ego the size of a hayride AND Mexico, how proud he must have been of that.

How involved was Todd? During a rehearsal, a cello player simply keeled over and died. Todd told the cast and orchestra to continue rehearsing. We had producers then!

Did Porter share his royalties from the song “I Love You” with Monty Woolley? He should have, for the actor had bet Porter if he were saddled with that most mundane of titles he wouldn’t be able to come up with a good song. But Porter did, to the point where Bing Crosby had a number one hit for five weeks.

Another Porter hit was “Sing to Me Guitar” sung by Corinna Mura as minor character Lolita Cantine. If you’ve seen CASABLANCA, you’ve seen Mura. She sings along with her guitar as Mr. and Mrs. Victor Laszlo ponder what their next move will be. Mine will be to see MEXICAN HAYRIDE.

Could you get excited about a play called THE MORONS? One wouldn’t expect it to contain Shavian wit. No; for that you’d go to the Pearl Theatre Company, which you should, to see David Staller’s excellent production of YOU NEVER CAN TELL.

The director is so smart in starting with ragtime music and having the first action of the play – a dentist extracting a tooth – accompanied by a loud fanciful pop. That tells the audience it’s going to have a fun time. A bit later, when Shaw has his dentist and a young woman fall in love at first sight, Staller has the lights dim around them and music play. The audience is having such a good time that it doesn’t even notice when the play turns mighty talky. Staller had eased his theatergoers into it by getting their attention and approval within the first few minutes. Wise, wise, wise.

Back to THE MORONS. En route, I dreaded running into a friend who’d say “What are you seeing tonight?” – everyone always assumes I’m seeing something tonight – and I’d have to answer, “THE MORONS.” As it turned out, I was a moron to worry about it. Dan McCormick’s satire is as sharp as the knives that Bernardo and Tony once wielded on the west side. It’s about Father, who’ll happily degrade himself to get his family on an upcoming reality show called THE MORONS. When he gets to the humiliating point where the world’s biggest masochist would say “Not me!” Father is rarin’ for more.

McCormick makes incisive observations on our dependency on iPhones, but the cast hardly phones it in. Steve Hayes must be in the Guinness Book of World Records for his ability to make the greatest number of funny faces. Barbara Suter amuses as Mother, who thinks she has all the answers but is as clueless as Clouseau. And while McCormick says that Son is a 13-year-old boy, he and superb director Christopher Scott make no bones – not one – about casting ever-so-adult (and ever-so-apt) Timothy Mullins as the kid who can’t focus. THE MORONS is a searing comment on our times, but when you consider our times, what else could it be?

All right, maybe I did expect too much from THE GLASS MENAGERIE, considering that John Tiffany’s production is said to be one of the greatest ones that this town has ever seen. And what about those not-since-Laurette-Taylor reviews for Cherry Jones?

She’s good. Solid. Fine. So are the other three. Solid. Fine. But Tiffany’s production isn’t revelatory and revolutionary – unless you count the way that Laura makes her first entrance and final exit. You won’t believe what you’re seeing. That’s also true of the overly flouncy dress that Bob Crowley has given Jones to wear in Act Two. It would be more apt for Christopher Durang’s FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN-BELLE TOLLS, his GLASS MENAGERIE parody.

Well, Tennessee Williams’ dialogue does stress that his masterpiece “is not realistic,” and Tiffany has taken that license for quite a drive. Some years ago, there was a production of CAROUSEL in Washington that didn’t have a CAROUSEL; this GLASS MENAGERIE doesn’t have a glass menagerie, just one lonely unicorn. Is Tiffany stressing that this is the only one that truly matters to Laura? I don’t think it is, but whatever the case, he should have had Laura play with her toys far more than she does. Without seeing her constantly interacting with them, we don’t get the impression that this is her entire world.

While Tom and Laura are usually out of earshot when Amanda recalls her 17 gentlemen callers, here they’re virtually on top of her while discussing her reverie. Later, the unsteady and painful way that Tom enters after coming home from “the movies” suggests that he may have been gay-bashed. The manner in which Laura catches him when he falls makes us believe that she’s kept him from hitting the hard floor many times in the past.

As people age, they worry about getting flabby arms. Jones doesn’t have to worry, because she gives her two limbs quite a workout thanks to the hundreds of gestures she delivers. Miraculously, she never indicates; her arms are simply expressing herself naturally.

But there is one gesture that stands above the rest. While she is setting the table (at least that’s what it looks like; no realism, remember), Jones’ lower right arm suddenly starts shaking out of control, as if she has palsy. She reins it in quickly, lest Laura, who’s helping her, see it. This allows us to get a new side of Amanda: someone stronger than we thought, someone who suffers in silence rather than worry her children.

Hmmm, maybe I liked this GLASS MENAGERIE more than I thought …

         — Peter Filichia

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