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 November 30, 2012

November Leftovers

It was the month that Jumbo opened at the Hippodrome (well, in 1935), that Don Juan in Hell debuted at the New Century (in 1951) and Anya opened at the Ziegfeld (in 1965). They’re all gone – and so are the theaters that housed them. And that brings up a question: which demolished theater would you most like to have seen?

They can destroy the theaters, but they can’t destroy theater. There were plenty of new offerings this month. Granted, the story that Jay O. Sanders told about President Franklin Pierce was the most arresting aspect of Richard Nelson’s Sorry, and deserves a play of its own. But, my, Sanders as well as Jon DeVries, J. Smith-Cameron, Maryann Plunkett and Laila Robins – under Nelson’s wonderfully uber-naturalistic direction – make a good case for a “Sustained Excellence” award in what they brought to this third part of the trilogy.

The Golden Land, Zalmen Mlotek’s surprise 1985 hit offers a variation on the Fourth Commandment: “Honor thy great-grandfather and great-grandmother.” They’re the ones who came to this country, not knowing the language, fully believing that this was “the golden land” – and then getting a thoroughly rude awakening. How they sacrificed for us is well shown in a number of Yiddish and American songs from the early part of the 19th century. An excellent cast, headed by the always estimable Sandy Rosenberg, does the work proud. This is the last weekend for the show, so break all other plans and get to the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

I always get to the Seeing Place Theater whenever this young, ambitious company does a show. Even after only a few productions, I learned that Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican are two wonderful actors in town. And while Walker has a big part in Love Song, the current production of John Kolvenbach’s play, Cronican has a small one. (Well, she did direct, too.) Was I disappointed? No – because Seeing Place offered me two other extraordinary actors: Marnie Klar and Jason Wilson, playing a married couple that just doesn’t know what to do with her moody and seemingly unstable brother Beane (Walker). Suddenly, however, Beane has perked up because he’s found love. Or has he? If that sounds odd, Kolvenbach well explains it. Find out how at the ATA on West 54th through Dec. 9.

Went to the press preview for Bare, a musical now getting an off-Broadway revival at New World Stages. I missed it in 2004, and because that production yielded no official cast album, I knew nothing about it. Director Stafford Arima and set designer Donyale Werle filled me in: “Only one photograph is needed to show that someone is living a lie.” And given that the first song we were shown had two men singing about their “Best-Kept Secret,” I started wondering if 2012-2013 was a little late for guys to be in the closet and worried about exposure. 

And then I remembered the Tyler Clementi story. The 18-year-old Rutgers freshman had a roommate who clandestinely webcammed him having sex with another boy; Clementi was so mortified by the cyberbullying that he killed himself. We all look forward to the day when Bare is dated, but we’ll apparently have to wait, dammit.  

Early in my life, I had two chances to vote for Nixon for president, but never did. In fact, I later had a “Don’t Blame Me—I’m from Massachusetts” bumper sticker as a comment on how smart our state was as the only one to spurn him in 1972.  

I hadn’t changed my opinion of RMN after reading Gore Vidal’s An Evening with Richard Nixon or seeing Nixon/Nixon or even Frost/Nixon. But Douglas McGrath’s Checkers is the first play to make me feel sorry for the guy. Anthony LaPaglia helps in his sincere performance. And two cast members who play people in the background expertly bring their characters to the foreground: Kathryn Erbe and Lewis J. Stadlen, respectively as Pat Nixon and a foul-mouthed political advisor.  

Oh, so that’s where Nixon learned that language! Erbe’s Pat is scandalized by profanity, but doesn’t flinch when her husband uses it. Her excusing it is just one way in which she convinces us how deeply in love she is with him. 

By the way, much of Nixon’s 30-minute “Checkers” speech is replicated almost word for word. Think that McGrath should list Nixon as co-author? After all, Peter Allen get credit for one mere line in “The Theme from Arthur.” McGrath should share credit with Nixon, lest people accuse him of stealing and his having to rebut “I am not a crook.” 

We’ve all felt bad for the people – sometimes ourselves – who sit in the extreme left seats at the Newhouse Theatre. How much of the dead center action they miss! Ah, but those in those Siberian seats get an extra treat missed by the swells in the center sections who attend Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. 

It happens in the scene in which studmuffin Billy Magnussen is exercising and, for many long seconds, inadvertently sticks his gluteus maximus in the face of the seated Kristine Nielsen. The looks of disgust and horror that Neilsen gives is a highlight in a show that offers many comic bonanzas. 

But Nielsen isn’t in the play solely for laughs. In portraying a born loser who probably hasn’t had a date since Grease was Broadway’s longest-running show, she gets a call from a man who had been entranced by her at a party. The actress plays the scene in brilliant fashion, going from doubting that any man would ever call her to having more than a glimmer of hope. There’s that old belief that if you have a good scene on a telephone in a movie, the Oscar is yours. Let’s hope it extends to Obies and Drama Desk Awards, too. And yet, David Hyde Pierce’s completely hilarious rant in which he compares and contrasts the ‘50s to now manages to trump it.

Annie, Annie Get Your Gun, The Barber of Seville, Bye Bye Birdie, Carousel, 42nd Street, Fiddler on the Roof, Flower Drum Song, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Hello, Dolly!, I Had a Ball, The King and I, Les Miserables, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Miss Saigon, The Most Happy Fella, The Music Man, Of Thee I Sing, Oklahoma!, Peter Pan, Pippin, The Producers, Richard III, The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, Show Boat, The Sound of Music and West Side Story

No, this isn’t my Brainteaser for the Month; instead, it’s a list of only some of the shows that are referenced in The Great American Mousical. The children’s book that Julie Andrews Edwards and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton wrote some years back has been transformed into an absolutely enchanting musical that’s now making plenty of people happy at Goodspeed at Chester. Bless bookwriter Hunter Bell, composer Zina Goldrich and lyricist Marcy Heisler for doing so splendidly.The show is Forbidden Broadway without the satire but with plenty of love.  

We’re taken to a theater now only inhabited by mice, but ones that have theatrical blood in their little bodies. When they sing the lyric “Welcome to the theatre” in the opening number, it’s a very different sentiment from the one in Applause. They are a welcoming bunch. 

So a young stagestruck mouse named Pippin (!) feels right at home and quite lucky because “I get to sweep the floor. Right here in this room,” he decides, “is everything I need.” 

Here’s everything that a musical theater enthusiast could want, too. Emily Skinner plays Adelaide (!!) the resident diva who unfortunately has an excellent appetite, and can’t avoid a cheese-filled mousetrap. (Smart that it’s the gentle kind of trap that imprisons mice but doesn’t squish them.) 

Adelaide is rescued by Henry -- sweet Henry, a theatergoer who’s honored to be of help to such a great star. Ah, but Adelaide gives credence to the adage “The bigger they are, the nicer they are” before all ends well. 

The theatergoers especially appreciated an applauded the Annie take-off. Perhaps they simply got the good musical joke that Heisler and Goldrich had concocted; perhaps the attendees just know this much-seen musical more than others – but I’m hoping that the love they showed came from civic pride. Annie, you’ll remember, started off at the Goodspeed Opera House, and might not have happened if executive director Michael Price hadn’t green-lit the girl in the red dress --  a perfect color combination for the musical that concludes on Christmas Day. 

Speaking of brainteasers: last month I listed 43 shows in a specific order. Andrew Milner and the mother-and-daughter team of Laura and Rebecca Frankos figured out what the chronological list of shows represented: each production had a character named after a president from Washington to Bush. (There has never been a character named Obama in any play or musical – yet.)

Doug Kanter and who-knows-how-many-others went crazy trying to figure out the test, but I must apologize for making it harder. As Laura Frankos pointed out, I erred with the third clue. I cited Merrily We Roll Along, representing Joe Jefferson. But he’s Joe Josephson, as Frankos reminded me. In apology, I’ll offer a much easier brainteaser this month: 

Both members of a married couple were Tony-nominated in different years, and each played a Madame. One spouse even won. Who are the performers, and for what roles and shows were they honored?

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia


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