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 December 7, 2012

Musical Theatre Musings

Before the year comes to an end, let’s take a look at the state of musical theater art in late 2012.

In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, isn’t it fitting that Chita Rivera gets to start “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead”? She never has, has she? In fact, she didn’t quit while she was behind in 1986, after an auto accident broke her leg in a dozen places. To think that a quarter century has passed, and the soon-to-be octogenarian is still giving her all on stage.

No wonder that on Monday at the annual Gypsy of the Year competition, the first words and last words heard were said by Rivera. How apt, given that Rivera has been the poster child for gypsies since the era when dancers really did move from show to show with the speed of gypsies. (Today, of course, jobs are so precious that dancers get them and keep them until closing night. Where else are they going to go?)

At Gypsy of the Year, titanic applause greeted the numbers fashioned by Bring It On, Chicago, The Lion King as well as “Show People” from Curtains. But perhaps the biggest hand went to the six people representing Rebecca, who’ve had to survive after the disappointment of the last few months. (By the way, I’d predicted a few weeks ago that Gerard Alesandrini would use a Rebecca-Sprecher “rhyme,” but D.C. Anderson, who had been cast in the musical, beat him to it when providing the lyrics for the spoof of the aborted show.)

The show always provides great anticipatory excitement, but there wasn’t much less in the York Theatre Company lobby on Sunday night. Many of us who’d seen Loni Ackerman, George Lee Andrews and Margery Cohen do Starting Here, Starting Now in 1977 at the now-defunct Barbarann were eager to see them again at this reunion production. Even previous box office manager Erik Haagensen (now a Backstage reviewer) was there. (But former Barbarann bartender Scott Wittman apparently had other things to do – such as writing for Smash.)

There was, however, some apprehension among some. Would these three performers, now 35 years older, embarrass themselves? So many of Richard Maltby’s lyrics are terribly tricky and David Shire’s melodies have their intricacies, too. Would they make mistake after mistake?

Hardly. Ackerman showed that Streisand doesn’t own “What about Today?” Andrews perfectly remembered “I Don’t Remember Christmas” and ripped through it with the requisite hatred. Cohen, who been away from the stage for a while, used the opportunity as an audition piece to show she still has it. And she has. If they do a musical version of The Golden Girls, this Rue McClanahan look-alike must play Blanche.

Things went so swimmingly that the York has extended Starting Here, Starting Now for two more Sundays. Expect the excitement to be just as potent on December 9th and 16th.

At the Lunt-Fontanne, the belly laughs pervade A Christmas Story. Many came in the scene in which Ralphie is bullied by the local tough and his toady. Yeah, but there’s nothing funny about bullying in real life, and that’s why the marvelous musical has partnered with STOMP-Out Bullying to launch the “Anti-Bullying Story Competition.”

The show “triple-dog-dares” young writers in the sixth through eighth grades to submit stories up to five pages long on how bullying has affected their lives, be it from an incident that they might have witnessed or theories on how to avoid harassment. Every story should include an action that the writer believes that other kids, school administrators and community members could initiate.

The competition is open to students within a 100-mile radius of Broadway. Prizes range from two tickets, the cast album and a walk-on all the way to the cast album and an award certificate. All entries must be sent via email to before December 14.

How nice that Marc Kudisch and Jeffry Denman will once again do their enchanting and hilarious Yuletime revue: The Holiday Guys in Happy Merry Hanu-Mas. They do everything from “Jingle Bells” to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and, of course, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” They also put the comma in the right place in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Denman accompanies himself on a ukulele, while Kudisch plays a guitar better than Elvis (the prototype for his breakout role, Conrad Birdie, in the 1991 Tommy Tune tour). Despite Kudisch’s devilish goatee and big buff body, he has a Charlie Brown-innocence that well-serves a touching Christmas song.

As for Denman, he’s a more suave version of Stan Laurel. He’s is charming in his rendition of “The Christmas Song.” I’m only sorry that Marge Champion is now no longer eligible for the song’s wish of “Merry Christmas to You.” She turned 93 this year, and, as we know, the songwriters only offer that “simple phrase to kids from one to 92.”

Christmas music need not always be sentimental, as Denman proves with his nifty rendition of David Friedman’s “My Simple Christmas Wish.” I was pleased to hear the audience members give a gurgle of excitement as soon as they heard the vamp. The song is already a holiday standard, a term one wouldn’t usually use for one that takes the time to call Bette Davis a bitch.

Friedman had less luck when providing some music -- along with David Pomeranz and Kathie Lee Gifford – for Scandalous, the wan little musical that closes this Sunday at the Simon. Teenage Aimee Kennedy wants to be an actress but is denied by her religious mother. Gifford has a good lyric in “The only acting I’m allowed is when I’m told to act my age.”

One thinks of Madame Armfeldt’s assertion about her daughter: “I even named her Desiree,” meaning that she had hopes and good reason. So why did Minnie name her daughter Aimee if indeed she wanted her to walk the straight and narrow? And why, then, is “Mother distressed when she learned that I’d married a Holy Roller”? And why doesn’t bookwriter Gifford show us that confrontation instead of letting us hear about it?

“How can I have faith in something that I don’t understand?” Aimee asks. How can we have faith in a show that never tells us if Amy is a mere put-on or one who becomes genuinely religious? Even the line “I am bringing a 4,000-year book back to life” doesn’t make that clear. Equally as murky is Minnie’s line to Aimee “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you” – but after we’ve only seen years of neglect. Is Minnie sincere or phony or does she really believe it? The point-of-view is never made clear on a set that screams “This is all we could afford” on which the ensemble dances just to dance; no event spurs it.

I’ll file a minority report: Carolee Carmello is only adequate as Aimee. We all hoped that this would finally win her a Tony, but she’s terribly one-note, although no one could be much more when one considers the writing.

While I’m filing minority reports, the movie of Les Miserables isn’t much of anything. It’s never very exciting and it eviscerates the score. Can “Drink with Me” be more than 45 seconds long? Does “One Day More” even crack the two-minute mark? Obviously the screenwriters and director believed more in “Do You Hear the People Sing?” which they have follow it. (I’m not complaining at the switch; just observing.)

That the singing was actually done on location has been much-publicized, but it makes the score sound thin. Although the cast was singing in France, the orchestra sounds as if it had been playing in Belgium.

The film’s neither terrible nor disastrous and everyone in it is fine. I predict that Leonard Maltin’s 2014 Movie Guide will give it two-and-a-half stars – making it a far cry from all those Oscar predictions I’ve been hearing.

Looking for holiday presents? Masterworks Broadway has released a 12-disc set called Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Complete Broadway Musicals. Yes, the team wrote 11 works, but Allegro’s recent studio recording accounts for the extra disc.

On the cover is a photo of a Broadway theater marquee taken from the side; look close, and you’ll see that it’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Hammerstein would be quite happy at that, but how would Rodgers feel? (And by the way, what’s Sondheim’s reaction to Rodgers having a theater named for him while Hammerstein doesn’t?)

Is a 12-CD set too expensive a gift for your friends or relatives? Then how about the four-CD set of Victor Herbert: Collected Songs? Herbert (1859-1924), who wrote the music for 46 (yes, 46) musicals, hailed from Dublin, whose influence can occasionally be heard in his luscious melodies. He could do it all, from march to waltz, and his native elegance and daintiness is shown to great advantage here.

What’s also impressive is how many of our current musical theater performers –George Dvorsky, Aaron Lazar, Jeanne Lehman, Rebecca Luker, Daniel Marcus – get into the spirit of early 20th century music under the watchful eyes of arranger Larry Moore and pianist William Hicks. These 102 selections sound as if they’re authentic recordings from the period – just without the hiss and scratches for which 78s became saddled.

When one thinks of the Ziegfeld Follies, Herbert may not immediately come to mind, but here are 14 of his selections from Follies dating from 1917 to 1923. One can even infer that “The Old-Fashioned Garden of Mine” (from the 1923 edition) is what Jule Styne had in mind when composing “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” And speaking of beautiful, there are quite a few beauties mixed in with some amusing comedy songs, too.

Does your budget only allow for one CD? Make it Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Simply Broadway. What’s great about this disc is that Mitchell just doesn’t croon show songs; he becomes the characters who sang them in their musicals. So here he is not just singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” but becoming a veritable Tevye. (He’s also the best since Mostel in making the sounds of those chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks.) When he does “How to Handle a Woman,” he not only seems Arthurian but he also includes the seldom-heard verse. His doing “It Ain’t Necessarily So” has extra-special meaning: in 1990, it was the song with which he auditioned for Sportin’ Life in the Met’s Porgy and Bess and David Merrick’s Oh, Kay! He got both jobs, and chose Broadway, for which we’ll all be grateful – in this holiday season, yes, but now and forever, too.

         — Peter Filichia


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