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October 30, 2015

October’s Leftovers and November’s Brainteaser

The biggest news this month may very well have come from the world of magazines. PLAYBOY announced that come January, it would no longer feature nudes in its monthly issues. So maybe it’s time for Martin Charnin to revive the idea for the revue he once had that celebrated Hugh Hefner’s most famous creation . It was called I ONLY READ IT FOR THE ARTICLES, which now PLAYBOY readers will definitely do.

The biggest thrill this month came from PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE, a benefit that celebrated five years of The National Asian Artists Project, part of whose mission is to assert equal treatment for Asian performers in musicals. Bless Baayork Lee and Richard Jay-Alexander for putting together an evening in which young teens and their elders could do selections ranging from 1940’s HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS to our current ALADDIN. They got such director-choreography wizards as Bob Avian to do “Dreamgirls,” Margo Sappington to replicate “Turkey Lurkey Time” and Lee Roy Reams to stage “Hello, Dolly!” My favorite moment? Seeing dozens of little kids under Lee’s supervision singing “Food, Glorious Food” with voices that earned them very glorious food at the after-party at Hop Kee on Mott Street.

TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT is one of those evenings in which a few actors (in this case, four) play many roles (in this case, more than two dozen). When I first saw it 20 years ago, I got a bit lost and lost interest. The next time I had to see it, I decided to watch the 1972 film version so I’d know what was going on – and that helped.

The NEXT time I saw it, I didn’t have time to watch the film, and again got lost and lost interest. And damn if I could find the film in my collection this time around before The Keen Company made it its fall offering. (Of course, next week, when I’m looking for something else entirely, I’ll find it.)

I was inured to the fact that I’d get lost and lose interest once again, for I hadn’t seen the movie this millennium. But here’s the thing: Jonathan Silverstein’s direction is so clear that I followed it all.

It’s a very democratic show, for each actor gets to play Henry, the retired bank executive who is accosted by his aunt at his mother’s funeral, and soon is on the adventure of his life.

Although the film isn’t fresh in my mind, Maggie Smith’s performance as Aunt Augusta remains – and not for the best of reasons. Since she ruined THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (yes, I know, she won an Oscar, but if you’d seen Zoe Caldwell, you’d know what I mean), I’ve found her terribly mannered. To fall into that characterization – and trap – would have been very easy for Thomas Jay Ryan, but no: he’s sincere in his approach. The script often demands that he gives a grim smile after he’s said something unpleasant, and it certainly ameliorates the painful information. Best of all, the way he’s able to soften his face makes him a believable woman, which the cartoonish Smith couldn’t manage.

What I loved most of all was an early scene in which Henry tells his aunt that his hobby is raising dahlias and she takes umbrage: “Whatever would your father have said?” Translation: “That’s sissy stuff.” It’s a line meant to get a laugh, and that it didn’t proves once again that our current crop of theatergoers no longer mocks a type of guy whose behavior would have once engendered guffaws.

By the way, I had heard that George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who are among my favorite contemporary theater songwriters, were writing a musical version of TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT with bookwriters Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman. I hope that’s still on – but if they have to do it with only four actors (please -- don’t!), let’s hope they’ll be as a good as Thomas Jay Ryan, Jay Russell, Dan Jenkins and Rory Kulz.

FONDLY, COLLETTE RICHLAND is a real phantasmagoria – the euphemism we use for “messy play.” You can just let it, as the expression goes, “wash over you,” but you’ll feel more as if you’re under an avalanche.

The nearly three-hour assault on our senses at the New York Theatre Workshop was actually created and performed by The Elevator Repair Service. Given the inscrutability of Sibyl Kempson’s script, we might assume that these really ARE people who repair elevators for a living and have nothing to do with the theater.

No, that’s unfair, because a game cast does the best it can with this. You’ve heard of “kitchen-sink dramas” – the type of play like THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES, which takes place in that room of the house? Well, FONDLY, COLLETTE RICHLAND is a NON-kitchen-sink drama, into which director John Collins throws everything but the kitchen sink. To describe the plot to you is far beyond my abilities, but I did like the line “Jesus Christ doesn’t interfere in our lives as much as Satan does.”

And given that this is the month that we celebrate Halloween, my buddy Jay Clark found that New York actually has a very strange tax involving this semi-holiday: “Musical comedies, operas and chamber music are exempt from the sales tax, but not any Halloween show that features music if the admission charge exceeds 10 cents.” You can tell from the price that this is not a recent law.

Speaking of Halloween, this one marks the 12th anniversary of everyone on Broadway’s reading the reviews for WICKED. The four New York daily critics weren’t enthusiastic, but that hasn’t stopped the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical from becoming the current 11th longest-running show in Broadway history, what with its recently passing its 5,000th performance.

During the ‘70s, Broadway was so impressed that Schwartz had had three Broadway hits running simultaneously: GODSPELL, PIPPIN AND THE MAGIC SHOW. Each of them respectively ran 527, 1944 and 1920 performances for a grand total of 4391. So WICKED’S Broadway run is already longer than all three of those show put together.

All right, you’ll rebut: GODSPELL played 2124 performances off-Broadway from 1971 to 1976 before it segued to the Big Time. Fine – then WICKED must play about four more years on Broadway to truly break Schwartz’s triple-crown record. Well, many performances of Wicked are still at capacity and TKTS is still far in the future. No one would dare bet against WICKED’S still being at the Gershwin Theatre in 2019 – and, for that matter, long after that.

Halloween is also the 52nd anniversary of the opening of Martin Duberman’s IN WHITE AMERICA -- a look at race that was a mammoth off-Broadway hit; at the time, only four original plays had ever run longer than its 493 performances. And how many off-Broadway plays got an original cast album from Columbia Records?

Woodie King, Jr.'s New Federal Theatre and The Castillo Theatre are offering a splendid revival. The first act takes us from the beginning of black slavery to the Emancipation Proclamation. Happy ending? Hardly, as we see in Act Two.

And yet, the script has a couple of brighter moments than it did in 1963, for the show pretty much starts and ends with a quotation from President Barack Obama. He was all of 27 months old when the show opened, but, oh, has he done splendidly between the first IN WHITE AMERICA and this revival.

The superb cast of six has two white men (Ezra Barnes and Bill Tatum) who occasionally play black men to underline that all races have commonalities – not that there aren’t two black men on hand, too. Art McFarland and Shane Taylor matter-of-factly report all the atrocities many black men endured.

Those of us who love 1776 know that Thomas Jefferson late in the play says “Nothing is more certainly written in the Book of Fate than that this people shall be free.” But that’s only part of what he said; hear the entire quotation in this still-powerful piece.

Finally, did you hear that the invaluable Mint Theater Company must vacate its current home? This may well be a blessing in disguise, for the venue is hardly a showplace worthy of a night on the town. Believe me, if I were asked out on a date by a suitor and was brought to a midtown office building where I’d have to wait a LONG time for an elevator that would be overly crowded (because The Mint has many, many fans) -- and then walk into something that artistic director Jonathan Bank has worked hard to conceal is a dump -- I’d be disappointed and not for a second feel as if I were Going to the Theatre in New York City.

Given the exemplary work The Mint does – not to mention how much it’s taught us about plays we never knew existed – The Mint deserves better. Let’s all hope it gets it. Can anyone out there help?

Last month’s brainteaser: I asked you to think of a very famous Walt Disney animated character and his very famous song that could actually be his way of telling us that he owns an original Broadway (or London) cast album with Richard Rodgers’ name on it.

The answer? Pinocchio, who sang “I’ve got NO STRINGS.” Al Koenig was the first to get it, followed by Paul Roberts, Marc Castle, Fred Abramowitz, Meish Goldish, Jack Lechner, Ingrid Gammerman, Arthur Robinson, Jeff Vellenga, Ed Weissman, Christopher Connelly, Bryan Brooks, Brigadude, Ian Ewing, AnyaToes, Laura Frankos, Joseph Miller, Ira Rappaport, Rob Witherwax, Robert Burger, Jim Dickey, David Mitchell, John Bacarella, Karen Valen, George Connolly, Ron Pulliam, Marc Miller, Chris Davies, Gordon Carruthers, Joe Marino, Tony Janicki, Kerr Lockhart, Josh Israel, Scott L. and Jason Flum.

This month’s brainteaser? Tell why these musicals are in this specific order: A BROADWAY MUSICAL; HURRY, HARRY; BRING BACK BIRDIE; DRAT! THE CAT!; MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG; KWAMINA; LEGS DIAMOND; VIOLET; OH, KAY! and XANADU.

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia



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