Review - Broadway Originals

"I want you to know that the most exciting part I've received recently is my new knee."

That's how Tammy Grimes greeted the Town Hall audience on Sunday as she braced herself on a walker in her first public performance since replacement surgery; singing a trio from her Tony-winning stint 50 years ago as The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Her pipes still strong and expressive, that unique timbre once again brought tenderness to "My Own Brass Bed" and optimistic verve to her signature march, "I Ain't Down Yet." Sandwiched between them was "I'll Never Say No," which was introduced by her leading man, Harve Presnell. ("I'm going to sing Harve's song in Harve's honor... in Harve's key.")

Such moments of nostalgia and excitement have become expected at Broadway Originals, traditionally one-third of Town Hall's Broadway Cabaret Festival. Now in its seventh year, the annual trio of concerts created, written and hosted by Scott Siegel will continue on October 22nd with a concert by Elaine Stritch and conclude with A Tribute to Judy Garland and the Art of American Dance, featuring Lorna Luft and Susann Stroman, on October 28th.

This edition of the show, directed by Scott Coulter, stretched back as far as 1958, with Yvonne Constant giving her rousing rendition, in both French and English, of a popular tune she performed in La Plume de Ma Tante, "One of Those Songs." In another classic re-creation, Lorraine Serabian ended the concert with her thrilling "Life Is" from Zorba. Earlier on, she explained how she was originally a chorus member who was understudying the role of The Leader when the show was in rehearsals, but was graduated to her featured part by the first out of town preview. Now of the age where should could play Zorba's leading lady, Serabian gave a saucy performance of a number introduced in the show by Maria Karnilova, one of Kander and Ebb's great story-telling songs, "No Boom Boom."

Barnum's Marianne Tatum displayed her still-lovely soprano with "Love Makes Such Fools of Us All," and vamped comically with "L'Amour, Toujours L'Amour" from her Drama Desk nominated performance in The Three Musketeers.

Though the great impressionist Marilyn Michaels is not especially known for musical theatre, she did star in the national tour of Funny Girl and belted out a socko "Don't Rain On My Parade." She followed with a pair of hilarious routines from her gig in Catskills On Broadway, where she sang Rogers and Hart's "Manhattan" with a series of pin-point impersonations (Dinah Shore, Joan Rivers, Diana Ross, Bette Midler and even Jackie Mason) and performed a condensed version of The Wizard of Oz, mimicking Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Billie Burke and, of course, the representatives of The Lollipop Guild.

A pair of trios were reunited. Crazy For You's Manhattan Rhythm Kings (Tripp Hanson, Brian M. Nalepka and Hal Shine) lent their harmonies once again for "Bidin' My Time" and "The Real American Folk Song Is a Rag." Caroline, Or Change composer Jeanine Tesori temporarily replaced music director John Fischer at piano to accompany her musical's "Radio Ladies" (Ramona Keller, Marva Hicks and understudy Vanessa A. Jones) in "Salty Tears" after recalling how director George C. Wolfe used to tease her about her "Church Lady" singing voice when she played new songs for him. Their performance was dedicated to the beloved Broadway performer, the late Alice Playten.

More memories were provided by Bob Stillman ("Drift Away" from Grey Gardens), Sarah Uriarte Berry ("Safe In The City" from Taboo), Daisy Eagan ("The Girl I Used To Be" from The Secret Garden), Jesus Garcia & Ben Davis ("O Mimi tu piu non torni" from La Boheme), Andrea Frierson ("The Human Heart" from Once On This Island) and, in the 11 o'clock spot, Alexander Gemignani's beautifully delicate performance of Les Miserables' "Bring Him Home."

Photos by Genevieve Rafter Keddy: Top: Tammy Grimes; Bottom: Marilyn Michaels.

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The three one-act comedies that comprise Relatively Speaking are said to be connected by their common theme of finding humor blossoming from the family tree. But really, don't be bothered with any themes or messages in this one. All that matters is that playwrights Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen, director John Turturro and a company loaded with top-notch comedy actors have whipped up a solid evening of laughs that just gets funnier and funnier as the night goes on.

Coen's curtain-raiser, Talking Cure has Danny Hoch as a menacing, but genially chatty post office worker assigned to a psychiatric hospital after an altercation with a customer. Jason Kravits plays the doctor engaging him in conversation as treatment, which gives the patient a platform for his violent and philosophical musings. Eventually we get a flashback peak at what may have shaped his mental state.

In Elaine May's George Is Dead, Marlo Thomas is a hoot as Doreen, a wealthy woman with her own unique way of grieving after getting word that her husband was killed in a skiing accident. ("They called me from Aspen. He died doing a double snowplow on the intermediate hill. We're going to sue, of course but it's too fresh for me to think about that.") She arrives at the home of Carla (Lisa Emery), the daughter of the nanny who raised her, looking for sympathy and someone to scrape the excess salt off of her saltines. Carla, who grew up convinced that her mother loved Doreen more than her, has spent her life trying to prove her worth with an overly-altruistic nature that is breaking up her marriage. May definitely nails the zingers, particularly when Doreen has a breakdown over the "pressures" of her life (Thomas plays it hilariously as Doreen stresses over her indecisive staff: "Would you like quiche or a soufflé, shall we cut the roses or will the poppies be happier, will you want a fire in the bedroom or are you going into Manhattan... and on and on and on.") but she also draws out empathy for these two women discovering what each meant to the other in their childhood.

Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel opens with a sight gag nearly as old as silent movies, and it's a perfect signal for the screwball insanity ahead. Set in the tackiest of Long Island motel suites, Jerry and Nina (Steve Guttenberg and Ari Graynor) are an ecstatic couple ready for a night of honeymoon passion. There's just one problem... I won't reveal it, but let's just say it might remind you a bit of a chapter from the playwright's personal life. Somehow the wedding guests have tracked the couple down and with every knock on the door enters another zany character and a slew of borscht belt jokes. ("Did you see the look on the rabbi's face? Like someone gave back the West Bank.")

There's Grant Shaud in his expertly neurotic form as Jerry's friend trying to talk some sense into him, Julie Kavner and Mark Linn-Baker as the bride's bickering parents, Richard Libertini spewing out biblical nonsense as the inebriated rabbi and Danny Hoch as a philosophical pizza delivery guy who tries acting as peacemaker.

Fast and furious one-liners frequently come out of nowhere ("In Poland, where my grandparents came from, they serve pizza with no salt, no cheese, no tomato sauce, no flour. There was no taste, but the portions were huge.") and while gags about Lorena Bobbitt, Freud's cigar and the dangers of trying to have sex in a Jacuzzi may seem familiar, Honeymoon Motel is still a riotously funny capper to a great night of comedy.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Lisa Emery and Marlo Thomas; Bottom: Ari Graynor and Steve Guttenberg.

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Having firmly established himself as one of the finest actors we currently have regularly gracing the Broadway stage, Frank Langella's presence turns any production into an event. And with the plot of Terrence Rattigan's 1963 drama, Man and Boy, giving him a chance to play a scoundrel of a cold-hearted businessman experiencing a downfall suggesting that of Bernard Madoff, it might be thought that Roundabout has taken a reasonable risk in reviving a play that flopped quickly in its London and Broadway debuts, especially since they've brought in director Maria Aitken, whose 2006 British production was better received.

Langella does make a hearty feast of Romanian-born financier Gregor Antonescu, who, at the height of the Great Depression, arrives at the Greenwich Village basement apartment of his son, Vassily (Adam Driver), who long ago cut off ties and makes a meager living as a piano player. (Perhaps it was the need to fill up the stage of the American Airlines Theatre that motivated designer Derek McLane to provide a setting that looks downright palatial in size compared with your average Greenwich Village basement apartment.) It seems that Gregor is trying to secure a merger with a closeted CEO (Zach Herries) by hinting that Vassily, who is actually straight, might make himself available to him. But when the press leaks word about his multimillion dollar dirty dealings it sets the police on the prowl. Vassily offers the unconditional love he never got from his father by trying to plot an escape while the old man considers suicide.

The play is primarily a portrait of a man who matter-of-factly rejects any emotional attachment in his life ("Love is a commodity I can't afford.") and Langella's sly elegance beams a charming, old world manner that slowly crumbles in a young country toying with socialist concepts to climb out of hardship. The evening takes off when Driver's Vassily challenges his father's immorality, while still yearning for paternal affection, but most of the talky, drawn-out production lumbers in Aitken's rather perfunctory staging.

The company is capable, but all eyes are likely to be fixed on the crafty and detailed Langella who lifts the play into a satisfying night out.

Photo of Frank Langella by Joan Marcus.

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