November’s Leftovers and December’s Brainteaser
It was the month that SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK finally announced its long-anticipated closing. Considering that we don’t have access to the financial records, we’ll take at face value the reports that the show lost $65 million.
This spurred my buddy Josh Ellis to notice something; there was a time when KELLY, a musical that ran a single performance on Feb. 6, 1965, was considered the biggest Broadway flop of all time. It lost $650,000 – meaning that SPIDER-MAN is 100 times the flop that KELLY was.
It was the month that Alabama finally pardoned the nine Scottsboro Boys, albeit long after each one had died. I could be wrong about this -- and we’ll never know -- but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Kander and Ebb’s Tony-nominated musical had something to do with bringing the case back in the public eye. This may be one more example of how art can influence and persuade.
It was the month that ROCKY replaced MAMMA MIA! on the Winter Garden sign, making for only the third change that sign has had in the last 31 years as. ROCKY BROADWAY, it now says, advertising the new Ahrens-Flaherty musical.
At least I assume that it’s promoting the show. There is the possibility that it’s simply there to remind us that we’re in a rocky Broadway era. Maybe “ROCKY BROADWAY” is the new expression to replace “The Fabulous Invalid.”
It was also the month that we marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This came up in Helen Sneed’s terrific play, FIX ME, JESUS, although the main thrust of the comedy-drama was a woman’s looking back on a mother and grandmother who were only interested in her being a symbol of THEIR success; they wanted to forge her in their own image of what A Lady growing up in Dallas, 1963 should be.
Ronnie Cohen and Jane Beale’s engrossing WITNESSED BY THE WORLD takes place in the present day, which is still a time when people would like to know more about Jack Ruby. Granted, the playwrights offer far more questions than definitive answers; how could they be expected to do otherwise? But they certainly get us thinking, which is more than we can say for many plays today.
I also caught a college production of ASSASSINS in Philadelphia. The most chilling line had John Wilkes Booth telling Lee Harvey Oswald “Fifty years from now, they’ll still be arguing about the grassy knoll, the Mafia, some Cuban crouched behind a stockade fence.” ASSASSIN’S bookwriter John Weidman wrote those words more than 22 years ago, about 28 years after the assassination. But they didn’t turn out to be an overstatement. We heard plenty of arguments this very month.
Is that Archie Rice portraying Richard III or is Mark Rylance? Have we ever seen the hunchbacked and deformed man who will be king played with such a sense of humor? Rylance punctuates his iambic pentameter with the type of braying laugh that hasn’t been heard since Mozart in AMADEUS – or maybe even since Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies barked out his laughs. But why shouldn’t the chutzpah-filled Richard be outrageous in the humor department, too?
The way Rylance walks, you’d swear he’s maneuvering on two from-the-knee-down prostheses. And yet, he doesn’t look as bad as many other Richards; although barrel-bellied, he wears a cloak over his right shoulder which does wonders to hide his hump.
Not until late in the play does he take it off – when we see that he’s also used it cover a terribly deformed arm. How smart of both costume designer Jenny Tiramani and director Tim Carroll to keep that from us for two hours; just when we think we’ve seen it all, the new deformity comes as a new shock. Lucky for Richard he was living in a telegenic era.
Funny; in the troupe’s TWELFE NIGHT, I felt that Joseph Timms, playing Sebastian, was more feminine than Samuel Barnett, who played Viola. In RICHARD, Timms gets the chance to be both Lady Anne and Lady Grey, and does so with elegance and – yes – even beauty. But Kurt Egyiawan is the ultimate in non-traditional casting: a black man plays a white duchess. On the other hand, when you think of it, non-traditional casting was the norm in Shakespeare’s day, wasn’t it?
You’ve got to hand it to LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. It’s a night of great fun, and yet most of that comes straight from the original film. William Finn’s score is not one of his finest, but it’s hard not to get caught up with a family that has more problems than the Prozorovs. The thrill of the show arrives when the family doesn’t worry about anything but showing solidarity for each other, and the moment is theatrical heaven.
While I know KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, I don’t know Roy Horniman’s novel ISRAEL RANK on which the new musical A GENETLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER is officially based. So I don’t know if I can give huzzahs to bookwriter Robert L. Freedman for improving the property; what’s he’s added to the musical might well be right out of the novel. But it certainly isn’t in the film.
One change is a simple one: the anti-hero is Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini in the film and is Monty D’Ysquith Navarro here. Louis is far more murderous in meticulously planning the murders of the members of his family that did his mother wrong; here, the killings are more palatable because Monty seems to fall into them.
For example, one relative who is an inveterate bee-keeper mentions that he’s so familiar with the insects that he’d barely feel a sting and that “it would take 100 of them” to kill him. That puts a bee in Monty’s bonnet. Similarly, when Monty finds that another relative has a penchant for travel, he suggests high-risk places, and eventually the cousin is killed. But no one forced the guy to go, and so Monty isn’t as responsible as the violence-prone Louis is. That the excellent Bryce Pinkham looks horrified at each turn of events helps a great deal, too; Dennis Price in the film seems happy when each of his nefarious plans succeeds.
The show takes place in 1909 London, a time and place in which a popular type of entertainer was the quick-change artist. Well, we have a new one at the Kerr in Jefferson Mays. Yes, there are doubles who spell him during his eight roles, but he still must be putting his dressers to the test. He’s terrific, but Bryce Pinkham is the real lead of the show, and his Monty is phenomenal. While he has plenty to do, I would have liked to have heard him sing a song while he was writing his memoirs in prison instead of just having a voice-over narrate.
The result of his telling all is softened in the musical version, too, and I mean that as a compliment. Steven Lutvak’s lyrics sparkle, although his music is mostly only serviceable. But I’d be a liar if I didn’t note that a trio, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” received the strongest applause I’ve heard any new number get this season.
Delighted to hear that MURDER FOR TWO was recorded. Bless you, Ghostlight, for making that happen. Now, upon repeated listenings, I assume I’ll be able to figure out the plot that escaped me at New World Stages. Having one person play all the suspects is terribly confusing. That said, Jeff Blumenkrantz is giving the performance of the season as all those suspects. After playing dozens of different characters eight times a week, he must be sleeping very well at night.
Had a nice note from Ron Bruguiere, whose book COLLISION is a fine look at Broadway in the ‘70s. When I met him this summer, I learned that he’d started attending Broadway in the ‘50s, for he brought with him a list of shows that he’d seen in his youth that made my mouth water and pulses race, from CANDIDE (“amazing”) to CHERI (“Oh, that Kim Stanley!”) to THE NERVOUS SET (“which I saw four times”) and THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG – of which he said nostalgically, “That was the first time I ever saw rain on stage.”
I guess you never do forget the first time you see rain on stage. Mine was -- spoiler alert! -- 110 IN THE SHADE. And yours, dear reader?
Last month’s brainteaser: Many a Pulitzer and Tony-winner originally played a theater that has a different name from the one it has now: But what one show was the ONLY one to play at this theater while it had a certain name?
The answer was THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES, which played the Winthrop Ames Theatre, which had been The Little Theatre when its previous tenant BABY WANT A KISS was there in early 1964. After ROSES moved out in early 1965, the house became a TV studio, but returned to legit use in 1974 and to its previous name The Little. (Now it’s the Helen Hayes.)
Ed Weissman was the first to get it, followed by Stuart Ira Soloway, Rob Witherwax, David H. Cohen, Joe Miller, Ron Schroeder, Laura Frankos, David Kanter and Chris Stonnell.
This month’s brainteaser: Two musicals that were produced by David Merrick have something in common that few other Broadway musicals in the history of entertainment share. When they opened, the commonality wouldn’t be known until each had been long closed. What is it?
You know where to find me.
— Peter Filichia