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December 5, 2014

November’s Leftovers and December’s Brainteaser

So did you miss dressing up as your favorite Broadway character for Halloween? No matter – for a nominal charge, Broadway Fantasy Camp will put you in the costume of your choice any day of the year, and will take your picture to boot. Either call 212-713-0366 or visit (And tell me if that person pictured in Anna Leonowens’ dress is a man or a woman. Damn if I can tell.)

Two moment truly tickled me in BILLY & RAY at the Vineyard. Mike Bencivenga’s play is set in 1943-44, when Billy Wilder rejecting out of hand Raymond Chandler’s suggestion that their film of DOUBLE INDEMNITY should start with a dead man’s narrating. Seven years later, Wilder used just such a device for SUNSET BOULEVARD.

Later, when Chandler falls ill, we know he’s wound up in the hospital when we hear the announcement over the sound system “Dr. Sheldrake, please come to X-rays.” Wilder apparently loved the name Sheldrake, for he used it not only in SUNSET BOULEVARD but also in the highly underrated KISS ME, STUPID and THE APARTMENT. Bet you knew about the last one because, of course, he’s mentioned in a Hal David lyric in PROMISES, PROMISES.

November 16th marked the 55th anniversary of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which became the film about which Pauline Kael complained “Wasn’t there perhaps one little Von Trapp who … got nervous and threw up if he had to get out on a stage?” Well, while listening to the cast album on its anniversary, I did hear one kid sing “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye. I leave and heave.” Well, if you’re heaving, then we’re glad you’re leaving – and not a moment too soon.

The Theatre for a New Audience’s TAMBURLAINE deserves to have the latter two words of the title restored: THE GREAT. Given that Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson) is a sociopath who routinely destroys everyone in his path, director Michael Boyd wisely had Paul Lazar, who portrays the first king Tamburlaine kills, play him as a true moron so we feel he doesn’t deserve to be in charge.

It’s one bloody play, but fight director J. Allen Suddeth wasn’t overtaxed, because Boyd has theatricalized the murders. One example out of dozens: one victim simply poured a goblet of red wine on his white tunic, and that signaled the end of him.

Thompson’s terrific (as always) and Merritt Janson as his enemy’s Queen excels in showing a conquered woman who becomes more and more inured to her fate. Indeed, fate does play a big part in Christopher Marlowe’s 1587 hit. Classical drama fans are fated to be mated with this production.

Death is also a factor in THE FABULOUS LIPITONES, but not as bloodily. The comedy by John Markus and Mark St. Germain now at the George St. Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, tells of a barbershop quartet – nay, barbershop trio now that they’ve just attended the funeral of their founder. Phil assumes this is the end of the group and wants it to be. “Nobody cares about this kind of music anymore,” he grouses. Howard and Wally instead feel “This was one of the only things that worked for us” and “The only true success we ever had is as a team.”

There was a time when a playwright conveyed how bad a musical act was by citing its playing a Ramada or Holiday Inn. These two playwrights trump that by making the venue a Holiday Inn Express – the budget line of the famous hotel chain.

How the guys find their fourth involves a big suspension of disbelief. They’re talking on a speakerphone to a business associate and overhear one of his employees singing – and that’s enough to ask the guy to come by and audition. What’s surprising to Howard and Wally – and abhorrent to Phil – is that when they meet Bob (real name Baba Mati Singh), he’s a Sikh, right down to his turban and religious beliefs.

Markus and St. Germain make an excellent point on how many of us automatically judge anyone with this background as dangerous. They reiterate that the American way demands that one is considered innocent until proven guilty. Good, too, that they’ve made Bob (the charming Rohan Kymal) understanding of such treatment, stating that every ethnic group endures such scrutiny and suspicion “until there is someone newer.”

Under Michael Mastro’s speedy and sure-handed direction, Donald Corren is excellent at expressing Phil’s racism without becoming disgusting. As Howard, Jim Walton is superb at playing the peacemaker who never sees any setback as the last straw, but is more intent on remaining the straw that stirs the drink. Wally Dunn is so goofily amusing that you never think he was cast because his character’s name is Wally, too.

Set designer R. Michael Miller’s basement apartment (part den, part laundry) includes a terrific detail. On the wall is a window card from an amateur production of THE MUSIC MAN. Yes, assuming that The Fabulous Lipitones played the roles once assigned to The Buffalo Bills is easy enough. Frankly, any production of THE MUSIC MAN would be lucky to have Corren, Dunn, Kymal and Walton, for oh, how they can harmonize!

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Benjamin Sears and Bradford Conner anticipated the 100th anniversary of Irving Berlin’s WATCH YOUR STEP by doing a charming and beautifully sung staged reading.

Even in 1914, the libretto was considered so skimpy that the title page proclaimed “Plot (if any) by Harry B. Smith.” Actually, it’s stronger than that: Jabez Pennyfeather’s will states that he will leave $2 million to the male heir “who has never been married, engaged or ensnared by any of the female sex -- or most of all, in love.” The pits against each other Joseph, Deacon (a funny Sears) and – in a name that tells you what passed for humor in those days – Howe Strange (an amusing Conner). If none qualifies, the fortune goes to a female heir: Ernesta (the well-named Carolin Musica).

As a result, Ernesta has no shortage of suitors. Everything must be settled by midnight, which showed that Smith knew the best plots have things happen fast. Of course time would be made for the usual jestus interruptus (Suitor to Ernesta: “You have two mill – two beautiful eyes.”) Eventually the plot does find Ernesta in love.

Such a line as “How could you expect a man to fall in love if he doesn’t know how to do the latest dances?” tells us that Broadway was there to teach the nation how to move those feet. Hence such Berlin ditties as “I’m a Dancing Teacher Now,” “Show Us How to Do the Fox Trot,” “The Syncopated Walk” and an unspecified “Polka.” In keeping with such then-hot dances as The Turkey Trot and The Bunny Hug, one line of dialogue goes “She wants to learn all the dances named for the animals that can’t defend themselves.”

Because musical comedy was the new kid on the block, Smith took pot-shots at opera (“the most expensive music in the world”) and Berlin devised a multi-minute parody of the art form (“Aida, I’m going to chop up your meter”) that was the FORBIDDEN BROADWAY of its day. This and such lines as “I don’t like long-hair musicians” prove once again that youth must pooh-pooh the culture of previous generations. But the European influence is still-in-place; Berlin’s music gives singers the chance to trill and his lyrics use “whate’er” for “whatever” and “o’er” for “over.”

And I’m almost o’er with this week’s column. Let’s move on to the Brainteaser. Last month’s was “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)?”

The answer: “Does anyone still wear a hat?” because (Flaming) Agnes in I DO! I DO!, Dot in SUNDAY IN THE PARK, Snookie in 110 IN THE SHADE, Gwendolen Fairfax in ERNEST IN LOVE and even The Sun (Has Got His Hat On) in ME AND MY GIRL all still use headgear.

Jay Aubrey Jones was the first to get it, followed by Brigadude, A.C. Vanness, John Bacarella, Jeff Vellenga, Donald Tesione, Jack Lechner, Susan Berlin, Ted Zoldan, Fred Abramowitz, Robert Viagas, Bryan Brooks, Gordon Carruthers, Ingrid Gammerman, Karen Valen,
Laura Frankos, Arthur Robinson, Joe Gaken, Chris Davies, Richard Sherwin and David Kanter.

But credit to Richard Hillman, that ace of press agents, for coming up with “It’s hot up here.” And who am I to disagree? Agnes says in her flaming song that she’s hot; Dot constantly complains about the heat; Snookie and her town are enduring scorchingly hot temperatures; Gwendolen is as hot as a 19th century heroine could be and the 53,540-degree Fahrenheit level of which the Sun can boast speaks for itself.

This month’s brainteaser: What do these musicals have in common? ANNIE, BIG, HAIR, BABY, ONCE, DREAM, ROCKY, SATURDAY NIGHT and FOLLIES?

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia



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