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 December 28, 2012

December Leftovers

It was the month that I saw a musical revue at the Mark Hellinger Theatre.

Well, in a manner of speaking. On Dec. 21 at 7 p.m., I attended a free concert called Come Home for Christmas at what has been the Times Square Church for far too long. It was my first visit there since the penultimate performance of Legs Diamond on Feb. 18, 1989.

My original plan was to sit in H 19, the orchestra seat I had lo those decades ago when I saw my first live stage show here: My Fair Lady. But arriving a full 20 minutes before show time was too late. The seat was taken and the place was packed; I literally had to sit in the last row of the balcony.

It did afford me a glorious view of the theater, and the nine handsome murals that surround the proscenium. I’d already been dazzled by the lobby. What I’d heard over the years is true:  the church has kept the place in tip-top shape. Apparently cleanliness is next to Godliness.

“How many have been here before?” pastor Patrick Pierre asked the crowd. I did not raise my hand. I did raise myself out of my seat and took my leave after 22 minutes. The singing of Christmas carols by the combined adult and youth choir was closer to Rex Harrison’s than Julie Andrews’.

As I looked at the lobby one last time, I noticed that the brass plaque commemorating Mark Hellinger is still in place. Good. But it isn’t enough, is it?

It was also the month that I attended a performance at a just-starting-out not-for-profit theater company, and found in the program the two things I always find in such a playbill.

First, I saw the producing artistic director’s name (let’s call him Donald Madison). Second, I saw the page that listed the theater company’s benefactors; on the top line were the names of a man and woman with the same last name as the artistic director (say, Evelyn and Walt Madison). Yes, even after Evelyn and Walt paid all that tuition to get little Donald through drama school, now they must pony up more bucks to help fund their darling boy’s theater company.

While passing by the Belasco one Wednesday afternoon, I saw hundreds of school kids entering to see Golden Boy. Good! Bet they had a great time. But I’m hoping that their teachers take them to Bare, a musical that every high school kid should see.

It’s the story of classmates Peter and Jason. Peter reads gay; Jason doesn’t, down to his playing an important role on sports teams. What’s more, Jason has the pretty, sweet and hot Ivy chasing him like crazy. But he’s attracted to Peter.

High school has progressed to the point where Peter isn’t harassed for being gay; everyone assumes he is and leaves him alone. But what’s it like to be butch and gay? Coming out would shock friends and family. John Hartmere’s book and lyrics tackle this issue head on, and by the time matters come to a feverish head, we’re completely involved. Bare is must-see theater for Peter, Jason and Ivy’s peers.

A play from more than 100 years ago proved to still have plenty of punch: Edward Sheldon’s The Boss, which the invaluable Metropolitan Playhouse revived. The elegant Griswold family’s business is being swallowed up by upstart Michael Regan, an uneducated boor who is smitten by the Griswold daughter, Emily.

Okay, that sounds reminiscent of a million plays, and yes, Emily does agree to marry Michael to free her family from economic trouble. But who’d expect that she’d tell Michael that the marriage will be a sexless one, and that the only benefit he’ll get from it will be the prestige of having landed a highborn lady?

Michael’s agreeing to the white marriage may seem implausible, but because he’s used to getting everything he wants, he assumes that in time Emily will come to love him.

Six months later, Michael’s still waiting. But he’s big with the gifts – especially a diamond brooch shaped like a frog, with rubies representing its eyes. (Michael has great taste, too.) But when matters get more difficult for the Griswolds, Emily feels she must favor him with sex in exchange for the favors he’ll do for her family.

Surprise! Michael doesn’t want it that way, but wants her to genuinely want him. Aren’t people complicated? And don’t the best playwrights know that and show us as many sides of people as possible?

Dave Hanson’s Michael was extraordinary, down to his lackadaisical hands-in-pockets posture when in a tuxedo, and Meghan Hoffman was equally potent as the little lady who was able to bring him down. The Metropolitan Playhouse promises two more shows this season, and if they’re as good as this one (or their previous production of Both Your Houses), don’t dare miss them.

And while you’re making plans for 2013, take advantage of The Freedom of the City’s returning to the Irish Repertory Theatre. No, the story that Brian Friel tells is not one that actually happened on that famous Bloody Sunday in Ireland, but he certainly makes it feel real. So does Ciaran O’Reilly’s taut direction.

Three people just trying to get out of danger on that horrible 1972 day duck into the first building they can find. Little do they know that they’re in the Lord Mayor’s private digs – and now the authorities outside assume that this is the worst kind of hostile takeover. Imagine what happens later when they’re hauled into court.

No – don’t imagine. Go. Bless Irish Rep for taking a nine-performance 1974 Broadway flop and revealing that it has as much worth as Friel’s masterpieces Dancing at Lughnasa and Philadelphia, Here I Come! Make sure that West 22nd Street, here you come.

Scandalous closed quickly, which didn’t surprise any of us who thought it wasn’t much good. What did astonish me, however, is that one of the producers was Foursquare Foundation, the organization that came from the church that Aimee Semple McPherson had founded in 1927.

I wouldn’t have expected that the Foundation would have backed a musical that made clear that Aimee was found innocent in a court trial because of blackmail and bribes. Wouldn’t you assume that the Foundation would like to keep that quiet about its founder?

While we’re on the subject of failed musicals: Long before there was a Rebecca musical, there was a 1945 Broadway play that Daphne Du Maurier adapted from her 1938 novel. Granted, it only ran 20 performances, but if I were running a theater company, I’d put the play into production right now. Wouldn’t you attend?

Onto a hit musical: When you attended Elf, did you notice that the first kid to sit on Santa’s lap was wearing a Wicked T-shirt? Now if you were a kid visiting Santa Claus -- whose yardstick is “naughty or nice” -- would you wear something that might suggest to him that you’re wicked?

On the other hand, the Schwartz-Holzman smash is so successful that Santa is probably aware that Wicked is a musical; its road company has probably already visited the North Pole a couple of times.

To call Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 “intoxicating” is too easy; there was a genuine bottle of vodka on every table. This musical of War and Peace is “a Linda Blair Show” – meaning that you wish that your head could spin around so you could see everything that was happening on the several mini-stages peppered around a long narrow room.

That the house lights were up most of the show also allowed us to see plenty of happy faces, although some of them sported frozen embarrassed smiles when the performers directly looked at them. Other faces showed genuine fear when a dancing Natasha and Andre almost danced into their table. And finally, many a mate looked at a companion with a look of “Are you enjoying this?”

I did. The idea of a musical War and Peace is the type of thing that Comden and Green used to joke about writing. Of course, as my wise friend Jeremy Fassler pointed out, adaptors hardly tackled the entire novel. Still, when a synopsis is printed in a program, the authors are admitting to a less-than-great job of storytelling. But considering how difficult War and Peace must be to adapt, let’s praise composer Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin for all they accomplished.

Last month’s brainteaser: 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?

David Kanter was the first to know that Maria Karnilova was a 1968-1969 Tony-nominee for Madame Hortense in Zorba, after which her husband George S. Irving was a 1972-1973 Tony-winner for his Madame Lucy in Irene.

Kanter was followed by Joe Miller, Thom Snode, Ed Weissman, Marc Castle, Stuart Ira Soloway, Joe Gaken, John Griffin, Ron Fassler, Susan Berlin, Alan Gomberg, John Bacarella, Robert Armin, Douglas Braverman and Thomas Lucy, who was expected to get it, given his last name.

This month’s brainteaser: What do the following musicals have in common? Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, A Tale of Two Cities, Parade, The Cradle Will Rock, New Faces of 1952, Rent, Fosse, The Happy Time, A Joyful Noise, The Boy Friend, Hairspray and almost The Book of Mormon.

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia


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