Saturday, August 9, 2014

Farewell, Dear Elaine Stritch

The last time I saw Elaine Stritch was in the lobby of the Imperial on 46th Street not too long before she left New York.  For just a moment, i thought I’d try to catch her as she left the theatre and hurried down 46th Street.  And now that she is gone, I regret that I didn’t make the attempt, that I never got the chance to tell her how long I’ve been an admirer.  My devotion to Stritch began during the run of Pal Joey at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1952.  I saw the production so often that my parents suggested that I just move into that theater on 45th Street. There was much to admire in that O’Hara - Hart- Rodgers masterpiece, of course, and Stritch’s rendition of “Zip” (“My artistic taste is classic and dear —/ “Zip! Who the hell’s Lilli St. Cyr?) was just one of the show’s highlights.
I did not get to see her again until she appeared in Bus Stop, William Inge’s 1955 play, which I attended half a dozen times.  The play, which was directed by Harold Clurman, starred the great Kim Stanley as Cherie, a down-on-her-heels nightclub singer who is stranded with other travelers at a very small restaurant in Kansas very late at night.  It doesn’t surprise that each “guest” had a story to tell.  At first Stritch was the waitress.  And then, in 1961, I took a group of students to see Noel Coward’s Sail Away. It was fun to watch Stritch cavorting on the stage of the Broadhurst again.

Although it was  a mediocre work, I saw Stritch perform in Goldilocks at the Lunt-Fontanne in 1958 with a book by Walter and Jean Kerr based on the 1955 The Vamp. The plot was based around the silent movie industry in 1913, and it was set in the film colony at Fort Lee, New Jersey.  But an audience was never really found for the production; however, I still enjoy listening to Leroy Anderson’s tuneful score.

It was her distinctive gravelly sound and sardonic delivery (in “The Ladies Who Lunch”) that made Stritch a perfect Jo-Anne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company (1970). For that show, George Furth provided a book that was almost without any plot.  And the musical centered around several birthdays in the life of the show’s main character, a New York city bachelor named Bobby (Dean Jones) .  His friends are all bored New Yorkers; and when he sees how boring the marriages around him are turning out, he has a problem.  And at the play’s end, he attempts to stay “Side By Side By Side” with his friends as everyone asks, “What Would We Do Without You?”  And yet, finally, Bobby goes off on his own.

I have written more about Elaine Stritch in a separate article on my site.  And, too, there is a wonderful DVD of this great performer (Elaine Stritch: At Liberty). Watching this excellent recording isn’t quite the same as seeing the great Stritch in person.  But, except for our memories, it’s all we have.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Theater Review

Cabaret is back in town.  And the Roundabout Theatre Company's production is decidedly worth your attention.  The first time I saw this musical was at the Broadhurst in 1966. But the production was seriously damaged by the inadequate performance of Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles.  And so, in spite of fine performances by Jack Gilford, Bert Convy and Lotte Lenya, the casting of Sally was cause for concern. That egregious error, I believe, kept us from fully appreciating the brilliance of the production. But the situation changed in 1968 when I saw the sublime Judi Dench perform the role of Sally in London.

I'm old enough to have seen the late, great Julie Harris in I Am a Camera, the  play by John Van Druten that was inspired by the short stories of Christopher Isherwood.  That play, of course, celebrated the birth of a character, Sally Bowles. And now we have Sally again; and this time she is portrayed by Michelle Williams.The Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54 has been converted into the Kit Kat Club, complete with tables and chairs so that members of the the audience can pretend that they are actually patrons of the club in the play. Michelle Williams is a lovely Sally Bowles.  And, too, she effectively captures the character's vulnerability.

The major performances are commendable. In addition to Michelle Williams,  Linda Emond is a fine Fraulein Schneider; Bill Heck is excellent as the sexually ambiguous Clifford Bradshaw.  Danny Burstein is just right as Herr Schultz, a man who must hide his true identity.  And the supporting roles are all very ably handled here.

Everything in this production (setting, characterizations, choreography) appears to capture the Berlin of 1930. And we get the feeling that the doors in Fraulein Schneider's house will lead us to something dangerous and dreary, even deadly. The Berlin of 1939 was insecure and squalid. Robert Brill's settings, containing minimal furniture, also reflect the menace. And the one character who best personifies the ugliness and dangers of the time, of course, is the Emcee; and, once again, he is brilliantly portrayed by Alan Cumming.  Reserve a table at Studio 54. Attention must be paid.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bullets Over Broadway, The Musical

Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway at the St. James, which is based on his 1994 film and adapted for the stage by Allen himself, has songs from the 1920s.  You might recall that the story line centered around several gangsters who want to get into show business.  And since the production has been directed and choreographed by the seemingly ubiquitous Susan Stroman, you know that there will be much to enjoy.  Stroman starts the show with a fast-moving tap routine that is so exciting that I'm afraid the show reaches its peak at that point.  Still, there are so many things to admire and applaud thereafter that it won't spoil your evening, even if I suggested that nothing matches the velocity of that prelude.

The plot line doesn't much matter: Cheech (Nick Cordero) iis a mobster who is employed by Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) a night club owner in the 1920s. Warmer Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas).  Warner, Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie) and Olive Neal (Helene Yorke) are show-business people who have been cast in an inane play by a new (and very young) playwright, David Shayne (Zach Braff).  But Chech, who appears to know all about playwriting, begins to change the script until it actually has merit.  But the book of the show here is mediocre.  And the numbers appear to be forced into place.  When, for example, a dead body is thrown into a canal, the tune is "Up a Lazy River."  But the nightclub numbers appear to work nicely enough.  And there's a little bit of The Producers here; and, given the situations with thugs, there's something right out of Guys and Dolls, too.  But nothing is on the sublime level of those two works.

Still, the dance routines have spunk.  The performances, too, have merit.  And Santo Loquasto's colorful settings appear to adequately suit the time and place.  And I must report that it was gratifying to see Karen Ziemba as Eden Brent.  I have been enjoying Karen's performances ever since I first saw her in Miami years ago.  She never disappoints. 

Theater Review: April, 2014

The revival of Les Miserables, the pop opera currently on the boards at the Imperial, still manages to get the audience to stand and shout its approval at the final curtain.  That in itself is not an accomplishment, of course, since every show on the boards these days manages to do just that.  Still, the production is worth your attention. This musical, which is based on Victor Hugo's novel and takes place in France during the nineteenth century, tells the story of a solemn fugitive, Jean Valjean (Ramin Karimloo), who is pursued by police officer Javert (Will Swenson) for an extraordinarily minor infraction.

It appears that Paris in 1832 was a dangerous place: There was the threat of insurrection and revolutionists were scheming to scale the barricades.  Meanwhile, the unhappily tragic Fantine (Cassie Levy), who was forced into prostitution, dies; her daughter, Cosette (Samantha Hill), is adopted by Valjean after he whisks her away from devilish innkeepers  (Andrew Kober and Christinne Tisdale).  When Cosette is grown, she marries a handsome student, Marius (Andy Mientus).  By now, however, the revolution has begun, and crucial events follow: Javert and Valjean meet squarely; Valjean allows the police officer to go free; and Javert loses his senses and takes his own life.  And now, Valjean is at peace at last.

Claude-Michel Schonberg's lilting score, Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics, Mat Kinley's set design and Paul Constable's lighting are all worthy of commendation.. And the directors (Laurence Connor and James Powell) appear to have put the entire production into splendid shape.  And not for a moment did I miss that ubiquitous circular revolving platform.

But the truth is that this has never been one of my favorite shows.  Still, I must have been enjoying the performance because I never thought about that wonderful parody of the show in Forbidden Broadway: In a spoof of the song "Bring Him Home," a member of the cast sang (as he painfully reached for the high notes):  "Bring it down. It's too high."

Monday, January 28, 2013

Theater Review: January, 2013

On 20 April 1977, the choral director, who was also the orchestra conductor for the annual high school musical that I supervised and directed, accompanied me to the last preview of Annie at the Alvin Theatre.  And so, it seemed appropriate that I invite him to a recent performance of the current revival of the 1980 musical, which is now on the boards of the Palace. And the good news here is that the show, based on Harold Gray’s once-popular comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, still affords playgoers an enjoyable entertainment.

The popular work, for which Thomas Meehan wrote the book and Martin Charnin provided lyrics to Charles Strouse’s music, is set in New York City during the great Depression.  This was a time when a huge chasm existed between the underprivileged working class and the bourgeoisie.  But the show, which has been skillfully directed by James Lapine, is primarily about kids during this difficult time; and so, it’s not surprising that the curtain rises on a dormitory in an orphanage at bedtime.  Annie (the energetic Lilla Crawford) helps to calm the other girls by offering some hope to these inmates who lead “a hard knock life.”  She sings as she attempts to sooth the other orphans because “no one’s there when your dreams at night get creepy.”  The suitable dance steps here (and elsewhere) were created by Andy Blankenbuehler.

But it’s not long before we’re introduced to the villainous termagant, Miss Hannigan (an effectively over-the-top Katie Finneran), who insists that “if I wring/Little Necks/Surely I will get an acquittal.”  But Annie knows that “just thinkin’ about/Tomorrow/Clears away the cobwebs,/And the sorrow.” And it isn’t long before she’s rescued and living in the huge mansion owned by Daddy Warbucks (the excellent Anthony Warlow).  It is in this lavishness that Warbucks instructs his devoted secretary (Brynn O’Malley) to make sure that Annie is made to feel comfortable at her new home, where her orphan friends are always welcome.  And with a huge staff of butlers and maids, that task proves not to be too difficult.  She even gets to sing “Tomorrow” with F.D.R. (Merwin Foard).

Complications set in when Hannigan, her disreputable brother. Rooster (Clarke Thorell) and his scatterbrained girlfriend, Lily (J. Elaine Marcus) try to initiate a blackmail scheme.  But they are quickly dispelled. FDR promises a “New Deal for Christmas” and Sunny, Annie’s dog, gets his own curtain call.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Theater Review: August, 2012

“And Gershwin keeps pounding on tin,” the brothers George and Ira Gershwin once sardonically wrote. But a visit to the Imperial Theatre, where Nice Work If You Can Get It appears to be entertaining audiences, will confirm that George’s infectious, lilting tunes and Ira’s clever lyrics still sound remarkably fresh and vibrant. The production, which has a book by Joe DiPietro and was directed and choreographed by a seemingly ubiquitous Kathleen Marshall, stars Kelli O’Hara as a 1920s bootlegger and Matthew Broderick as a millionaire playboy. These two stars (along with a super supporting cast) do a great deal to breathe a bit of life into a musical that still provides us with a rather creaky libretto.

Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara
The show’s book by Joe DiPietro is supposedly similar to the one the Gershwin brothers used in 1926 for the  production of Oh, Kay!  The musical takes place during the Prohibition era and is set on Long Island, where wealthy Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick) is scheduled to wed Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson). But everything changes when Billie Bendix (Kelli O’Hara), a gal who illicitly  provides the liquor for the numerous parties that Jimmy often attends, appears on the scene.  Billlie, it appears wants someone “who’ll carry the key” to her heart, and this lad need not “put on some speed” because he’s already there.  And how can he resist?  Even in men’s apparel this gal looks appealingly sexy.

Everything in this old-fashioned musical is meant to please, but there are libretto problems.  Still, when the book stalls (and occasionally it certainly does), there’s always someone like the inimitable Judy Kaye who amuses by happily swinging from a huge chandelier.  While it’s true that the production often relies on gimmicks to keep things rolling, the supporting players also do much to help.  On hand, for example, is Michael McGrath as Cookie McGee, a glorious comedic role that conjures the late great Bert Lahr. (I’m old enough to report that I saw Lahr in several Broadway shows.)  Also participating in the festivities here are an amusing Jennifer Laura Thompson, Robyn Hurder and Stanley Wayne Mathis.

Derek McLane has provided the production with elaborate and colorful sets; Martin Pakledinaz is responsible for the excellent lighting design; and David Chase deserves the credit for the lively musical arrangements.

A couple of times during the proceedings, the two protagonists argue that “You like potato and I like po-tah-to;/You like tomato and I like to-mah-to;/Potato, po-tah-to, tomato, to-mah-to--/Let’s call the whole thing off!” But before you call off or cancel a trip to the Imperial, know that although Nice Work...  might generally be sniffed at, here and there something shines amid the commonplace proceedings on the Imperial’s stage.

Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, Matthew Broderick is cast as a millionaire playboy.                                                           All photos: Joan Marcus

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Theater Review, April 2012

I was a student at the University Heights campus of NYU in the Bronx when, in 1949, a girlfriend and I climbed the stairs at the Morosco Theatre, where we were seated in the last row of the balcony. The occasion was a performance of the original production of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s “elegy in a Brooklyn side street,” which starred Lee J. Cobb and was directed by Elia Kazan and had received glowing reviews in the New York papers. After the curtain came down on this brilliant documentation of man’s frustration and we were attempting to return to our respective homes in the Bronx, we discovered that we had mistakenly taken a train to Brooklyn. It was, in fact, the powerful theatrical experience we had just witnessed that had actually disoriented us.

I have since seen the role of Willy Loman performed by George C. Scott (1975), Dustin Hoffman (1984) and, more recently, Brian Dennehy (1999). And all of these fine actors performed the part brilliantly. In the current production at the Ethel Barrymore, expertly directed Mike Nichols, Willy is portrayed by the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman. And when the lights come up on Jo Mielziner’s original scenic design, we see that the entire setting is almost completely transparent.

And so, too, is the play’s title character. Willy is coming to the end of his career, and his dream that financial success awaits the salesman who is well-liked is quickly evaporating. He had once pinned his hopes on his two sons. But Biff (Andrew Garfield), who was a star athlete in high school, seems to be as much of a mediocrity as Happy (Finn Wittrock), his younger brother. It is Willy, however, who preaches that nothing is more urgent and important to a salesman than working hard and that children, even if they sometimes hide it, have an inherent love for their parents. It is his belief, too, that wealth can be obtained quickly, and it is this false hope that ultimately destroys him.

I was (during the current production) particularly moved by the scene in which the two sons decide to entertain Willy in a Sixth Avenue Manhattan bar. In a phone conversation, Willy’s wife, Linda (the admirable Linda Emond), admonishes Biff to “be sweet to” his father. “Be loving to him. Because he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor.”  But in the scene where Willy pleads for his job, he’s told by his boss (Remy Auberjonois) that “I don’t have a single solitary spot.... It’s business, kid, and everybody’s gotta pull his own weight.”  And the bar scene that follows turns out to be grim and shocking.

Everything begins to spiral downward. And after Willy’s suicide, we’re once again moved by his long-suffering wife’s speech. Linda, who pleads for forgiveness at her husband’s grave, says that she “made the last payment on the house today.  Today, dear.  And there’ll be nobody home... We’re free ... We’re free...We’re free” she repeats and as Biff wraps his arms around Linda and leads her away, the stage darkens and the curtain falls on what remains an American masterpiece.