October’s Leftovers and November’s Brainteasers
It was the month that the baseball’s regular season finished with Jordan Zimmermann’s pitching a no-hitter. Well, that’s the difference between sports and musical theater: OUR Zimmermann had plenty of hits in her career.
Anyone walking into Terrence McNally’s IT’S ONLY A PLAY knew that it was The Most Star-Studded Show on Broadway, but the point was reiterated at the curtain call. How often does as Oscar-winner (F. Murray Abraham) take his bow before four people have yet to take theirs?
McNally drops names from A (Julie Andrews) to Z (Catherine Zeta-Jones), missing (by my count) only a U, V and X (he mentions Queen Elizabeth). More statistics? The audience broke into entrance applause for six of the seven performances, and then applauded either laughs or moments 17 other times. A total of 18 times theatregoers went “Oooooh!” at McNally’s audacious pot-shots at various has-beens (such as Faye Dunaway) and three times my program fell from my lap from laughing so hard.
And yet, and yet – in the midst of all this comedy about a new play’s bombing with terrible reviews, there’s much humanity as McNally points out that lives, reputation and money are on the line. He lets us feel what these poor souls are feeling. To paraphrase Leo Bloom, actors, playwrights, producers, directors and, yes, even critics are people too – and don’t forget that McNally has indeed eaten with all of them.
It was the month that America got to see the British musical FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, albeit only in a screening at movie theaters. When the show was at London’s Shaftesbury, nobody probably noticed what we could see in close-ups: the soldiers were smoking filter-tip cigarettes, which weren’t officially introduced in this country until 1953 -- more than a decade later than 1941 when this musical takes place.
Some expressions struck me as a little premature, too: “I can’t catch a break,” “You want a piece of me,” “serious money” and “the dick in your pants.” But the passage of time allowed for a scene that author James Jones had written but had been edited from his manuscript by his editor in 1951 – in which the guys go out for a fun-filled night of gay-bashing.
Stuart Brayson’s music isn’t grounded in the ‘40s, either. Had FROM HERE TO ETERNITY been repositioned to The Vietnam War, it would have been perfect. But we’ve had our Vietnam War musical, haven’t we?
Every performance was fine except for Ryan Sampson as Maggio, the role that won Frank Sinatra an Oscar. Sampson was directed to have had little gravitas and seemed to be the class clown who liked using a Liza Minnelli smile and a Harvey Fierstein delivery.
Rice’s lyrics sounded right, however; he may have set a personal record for stressing the right syllables, which has never been his trademark. And what of that famous shot from the Oscar-winning film in which Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr are on the beach kissing while oblivious to the waves washing over them? Here Darius Campbell took Rebecca Thornhill way upstage with her back to the audience, and began undressing her slowly. Just as we saw her naked gluteus maximus, the Act One blackout occurred.
Because we were first shown film of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and newspaper headlines -- and were given FDR’s famous “day of infamy” speech -- we were led to believe that when the scrim rose that we were in a post-Dec. 7, 1941 era. No – that sneak attack would happen at show’s end. That should have been made clearer.
Much clearer is YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. What better casting these days for dotty Penny Sycamore than Kristine Nielsen? Or maybe Penny isn’t so crazy; she’s always writing plays but doesn’t seem to expect any productions. Isn’t that the fate of most playwrights?
One wonderful ahead-of-its-time facet of Kaufman and Hart’s script is that they have the Sycamores treat their African-American hired help Rheba and her beau Donald as if they truly are part of the family. Notice at one point that director Scott Ellis has Donald enter in his bathrobe, suggesting he’d been involved in an intimacy. Has any previous production been that frank? And has a joke about Rasputin ever been delivered with two hands set wide apart to indicate the length of the Russian’s legendary member?
Well, the play does tell us that “Life is kind of simple, if you just relax,” so let’s relax on all potential criticism of YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU and celebrate a play populated with 19 immensely talented people.
The month’s Best First Line of a Play: Donald Margulies’s THE COUNTRY HOUSE has his curtain rise on Susie Keegan (the excellent Sarah Steele) sitting around, doing nothing much – and then from offstage we hear the inimitable voice of Blythe Danner, who’s soon pushing open the door, entering and loaded down with grocery bags, saying “Darling, I could use a hand.” And that’s exactly what she got from us. It was warm and welcoming applause, although it paled in comparison to what Danner (and everyone else) received during curtain calls. Justice was served.
Bless Paulette Haupt, artistic director of Premieres, which has a subdivision called “Inner Voices” for one-person musicals. Not only does Haupt produce them, but in the case of her current offerings, she paired up the writers. For GRACE, that meant wordsmith Charlayne Woodard and composer Kirsten Childs. For THE OTHER ROOM, Haupt matched lyricist Mark Campbell with composer Marisa Michelson. GRACE has the best female musical performance of the season by Andrea Frierson as novelist Grace Monroe, who can’t do anything about her approaching blindness. Phoebe Strole shines in OTHER ROOM as a woman who could do something to stop her good friend’s suicide, but knows it’s what he wants. Let’s see more from everyone involved.
October’s Question of the Month: “Why does an audience always laugh when a character puts too much sugar in coffee or tea?” It happens from the umpteenth million time in INDIAN INK and I have no inkling why this action amuses.
However, I was amused, moved and charmed by one cast member, but I wasn’t surprised. Since I first saw her at the world premiere of THE LION IN WINTER on Feb. 7, 1966 at the Colonial in Boston, she’s always dazzled me, and I’m not the only one. In William Goldman’s THE SEASON (about the 1967-68 semester) he mentions “The Harris girls – Julie, Barbara and Rosemary – whom everybody’s after these days.” Well, now Julie has passed and Barbara has long been passing up roles, but Rosemary, thank the Lord, is still with us.
As always, she’s giving a memorable performance, this time as the sister of a famous poet who’s stingy with information about the writer when she doesn’t like the person and much more gracious to an individual she does like. Yes, “gracious” – that’s the word for Rosemary Harris.
TAIL! SPIN! is assembled, not written, for all the words come from our elected politicians and the people who interviewed them. Don’t look for puff pieces, for the politicos are Larry Craig (R-ID) and Mark Foley (R-FL), who became involved in gay sex scandals, as well as Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and Mark Sanford (R-SC), who became involved in straight sex scandals.
Writer Mario Correa knew what lines to pick: Craig’s “My father told me not to quit a job” implies a type of nobility. Weiner’s statement that he was resigning “so my colleagues can get back to work” – oh, how considerate! Weiner’s wife Huma states “Our marriage, like many others, had its ups and downs” -- thus taking the “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone” approach. Meanwhile, Sanford, committing adultery in Argentina but originally claiming to be elsewhere, says “The Appalachian Trail” is not “where I ended up.” Yeah, that makes it sound as if the wind just happened to blow him there. Sanford’s wife (and ex-to-be) had it right when she said “He really should’ve stopped talking.”
Looking ahead? Here comes Christopher Marlowe’s 1587 hit TAMBURLAINE THE GREAT, courtesy of Theatre for a New Audience in its handsome new Brooklyn home. Director Michael Boyd is dividing it into TAMBURLAINE, PARTS I AND II. “First Major New York Production since Broadway 1956,” boasts the press release.
Wait a minute -- TAMBURLAINE THE GREAT once played Broadway? A check of ibdb not only verifies this but also informs that it played the Winter Garden. Can you imagine the sign spanning almost an entire block on Broadway trumpeting TAMBURLAINE THE GREAT? All right, it only wound up playing 20 performances, which I’m sure any of us could have predicted had we then been paying attention to New York theater. But Theatre for a New Audience is promising 50 performances of the work with the always magnificent John Douglas Thompson heading a cast of 19. I say see it there instead of waiting for a Broadway revival.
Last month’s brainteaser: I asked “What do the ORIGINAL PRODUCTIONS of these musicals with TITLE CHARACTERS all have in common? ALADDIN; ANNIE; CAROLINE, OR CHANGE; COCO; FANNY; MATILDA; THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD; PIPPIN and THE WIZ.”
The answer: They were all shows in which the title character did not win the Tony, but another performer in the show did. ALADDIN (James Monroe Iglehart), ANNIE (Dorothy Loudon); CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (Anika Noni Rose); COCO (Rene Auberjonois); FANNY (Walter Slezak); MATILDA (Gabriel Ebert); THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (George Rose); PIPPIN (Ben Vereen) and THE WIZ (Dee Dee Bridgewater).
Christopher Connelly was the first to get it, followed by Seth Christenfeld, Ed Weissman, Michael Ladenson, Ken Bailey, Karen Valen, Fred Abramowitz, Brigadude and Donald Tesione.
This month’s brainteaser: What famous line in a Sondheim song would be answered with a resounding “Yes!” by Agnes, Dot, Snookie, Gwendolen Fairfax and even The Sun (if it could talk or sing)?
You know where to find me.
— Peter Filichia