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Robert Patrick Fondly Remembers Jack Wrangler


Legendary playwright Robert Patrick shares some thoughts and remembrances of the late Jack Wrangler...

Jack Wrangler, the man who invented porn stardom, has died in New York, "peaceful and comfortable," according to his doctor, Wendy S. Ziecheck. Jack, a Hollywood child (Marilyn Monroe baby-sat him), was getting nowhere much as an actor when a porn movie was offered him. He consulted with his father, a producer of Bonanza, who told him, "just be the best." Jack took his screen name from his jeans and became the first identifiable personality on the tiny, blurry screens of gay porn. At a time when most "adult" actors wore socks and even masks, he created a persona modeled on the Marlboro man - butch, beautiful and unashamed. And imitated! The gay "clone" look (plaid shirt, jeans) was inspired by Jack's signature outfit. Having conquered gay porn with no real competition, he moved on to the more lucrative straight area, and, according to him, lost his heterosexual virginity on camera! He then met and married singer Margaret Whiting, magically compatible because they were both "Beverly Hills brats." They were enviably, and to many people inexplicably happy. Jack successfully produced and directed many stage shows, but wryly remarked that all publicity about him, even thirty years after he took off his jeans forever, still began "Porn Star Jack Wrangler." Jeffrey Schwarz's excellent documentary, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, just last week won as Best Alternative Release at the Gay Video News Awards.

In 1980, John Glines got Jack to appear in my play T-Shirts. The role of Jack's roommate called for a funny fat man, who had a funny fat nude scene. Every fat actor in New York turned it down, so I played it. Jack was rigorously professional, a joy to work with. There was but one rough spot. The third character, a stray twink, was played by one Dale Merchant. Halfway through the play, Dale and I had a scene while Jack was out to the store in a rainstorm. Just before he re-entered, a stagehand would toss a pan of water on him. Jack, I repeat, was a professional. Dale and I were more freewheeling. At each performance, our scene would expand as we improvised new jokes. A page before Jack's re-entrance cue, the stagehand splashed him. But Dale and I continued, Jack dried up, and the stagehand wetted him again. Finally, at a matinee where he had to be doused a third time, he slammed the door open before his cue and acted the ensuing scene with clenched teeth. When I got too close to him as I hurried to catch up with the staging, I got a professional elbow in a kidney with a force that would have knocked a lighter clown down. The scene returned to normal length.

Photo by Wren De Antonio: Robert Patrick and Jack Wrangler in Patrick's play, T-Shirts, produced by The Glines, 1980

 

Posted on: Tuesday, April 07, 2009 @ 04:56 PM Posted by: Michael Dale


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 4/5 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week

"When I invite a woman to dinner, I expect her to look at my face. That's the price she has to pay." -- George S. Kaufman

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 4/5/2009 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: EXIT THE KING (12.9%), JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE (8.9%), ROCK OF AGES (5.4%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (4.0%), IMPRESSIONISM (3.4%), GOD OF CARNAGE (2.1%), REASONS TO BE PRETTY (0.1%),

Down for the week was: GUYS AND DOLLS (-22.8%), THE 39 STEPS (-11.2%), AVENUE Q (-8.5%), IRENA'S VOW (-8.3%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (-7.9%), MARY POPPINS (-7.8%), HAIR (-6.5%), SOUTH PACIFIC (-6.2%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (-6.0%), CHICAGO (-5.8%), BLITHE SPIRIT (-5.8%), THE LION KING (-5.8%), IN THE HEIGHTS (-4.5%), MAMMA MIA! (-3.4%), JERSEY BOYS (-3.0%), WEST SIDE STORY (-2.4%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-2.3%), WICKED (-2.3%), AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (-1.7%), 33 VARIATIONS (-0.5%),

Posted on: Monday, April 06, 2009 @ 05:04 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Being Audrey: Oh, To Be A Movie Star

While the new musical by James Hindman (book) and Ellen Weiss (score) appears to be a promising work in progress, Transport Group's premiere production of Being Audrey, helmed by the company's Artistic Director Jack Cummings III, is loaded with bright, shiny charms that display their material in a dazzling little jewel box.

Shining brightest is the leading performance of Cheryl Stern, who is also credited with additional book and lyrics.  As explained in a voice-over introduction, narrated by Vanity Fair's own Dominick Dunne, Stern plays a princess (of the Jewish-American variety) named Claire, who one day meets a Prince Charming who whisks her away to his Upper East Side penthouse where she spends many an evening losing herself in the romantic fantasy world of Audrey Hepburn movies.  But when her husband is suddenly struck with an aneurism and Claire frantically finds herself in a hospital waiting room unable to see him, but knowing he's near death, her mind cuts off reality and takes her to the comforting safety of the worlds of Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Love In The Afternoon and Funny Face.  While face to face with a handsome and distinguished gentleman (Brian Sutherland) who is a conglomeration of all of Ms. Hepburn's leading men, hospital personnel become familiar supporting players who quote and paraphrase classic screen dialogue as, like Dorothy in Oz, Claire seeks to go home to Tiffany's

(Regretfully, there's only one quick reference to My Fair Lady.  Thankfully, there's no sign of Mickey Rooney trying to pass for Japanese.)

A big bubbly bundle of wonderment with a hearty singing voice, Stern is totally endearing as a woman who lacks the movie star's gentle grace and poise, but yearns to be a part of her elegant world.  Whether wrapped in a blue satin bed sheet and singing a soft rumba as she considers the man lying beside her, or clad in black and dancing to beatnik rhythms, she is wonderfully engaging, empathetic and humorous.

The remaining six players who appear in various small roles (Stephen Berger, Andrea Bianchi, Valerie Fagan, Mark Ledbetter, Michael Maricondi and Blair Ross) sport some terrific voices.  Ross also displays a snazzy sense of showbiz sparkle leading a number suggested by Kay Thompson's Funny Face opener, "Think Pink."

The fluid movement of the production by Cummings and choreographer/musical stager Scott Rink takes its style from the clockwork efficiency of hospital workers rolling screens, beds and equipment off and on to create locales, reveal characters and suggest classic film visuals.  A simple, but beautifully executed idea is used for a song where Claire and her leading man take a stroll along Roman Holiday's Wall of Wishes.  As they walk, actors holding black plaques represent the wall and continually change positions to keep the structure consistently in their path.

While Hindman's book is well crafted and cleverly incorporates movie moments, Weiss' lyrics - though character specific, plot advancing and properly rhymed - lack the elegance and literate quality needed to lift the show into the fantasy world it tries to depict.  Her music, played by a five piece ensemble led by Lanny Meyers, is perfectly pleasant (though the title tune is distractingly similar to Bye, Bye, Birdie's "Rosie") but has few inspiring moments.

There's a good deal of potential in Being Audrey, if only the material can eventually match the spirit and imagination of this premiere production.

Photos of Cheryl Stern by Sarah Ackerman

Posted on: Monday, April 06, 2009 @ 09:32 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


It's... Exit The King

No dear playgoers, it has not come to pass that some smart producer put up a quickie, low-budget revival of Spamalot in the Barrymore Theatre and tried cutting costs by removing all the songs.  But there's definitely a Pythonic style in the look and text of Ionesco's Exit The King as co-adapted by Geoffrey Rush (who also stars) and Neil Armfield (who also directs).  You can sense it in the way Brian Hutchison, as a faithfully detail-oriented armored guard, dutifully announces each royal occurrence as it happens, correcting himself, when necessary, with bellowing authority ("The King is dead."... "The King's alive."... "Long live the king.").  It's there when Andrea Martin, as a sullen, much-abused servant, makes a comic production out of trying to keep the monarchs' royal robes draped straight, and it's abundantly present when Rush, as the 400-year-old King Berenger, who is down to his last 90 minutes of life ("When the play is over you'll be dead."), kicks up what's left of his heels in a silly little dance.

Of course, this is all quite appropriate for Ionesco's absurdist 1963 text, which pre-dates John Cleese, Eric Idle & Co. by a smattering of years (and might very well have been an influence).  Unfortunately, the serious undertone of a man's refusal to face his own mortality (The king's crumbling mind and body is paralleled by the dilapidated state of his monarchy and palace.) doesn't quite surface often enough before the very effective finish, leaving its share of slow spots in the two-and-a-half hour production.  But the evening's crown jewels shine brightly, even if the showcase can use a bit of polish.

Rush, wearing purple-striped pajamas over his regal robes (There's a neat children's theatre whimsy to Dale Ferguson's costumes and backdrop tapestries) romps through his man-child role with glee without ever losing hold of his once powerful figure's (stealing fire from the gods and writing The Iliad are among his accomplishments) gradual physical and mental decline.  As his first wife, Margeurite, Susan Sarandon plays it straight for the night, being the necessary grown-up amidst the antics.  Her brittle wryness toward her husband, who favors his pretty, younger wife (Lauren Ambrose as a dim, overly emotional bimbo), softens though, when the inevitable finish finally sets in. 

Andrea Martin exhibits superior clowning skills and pathos as the hardship-ridden servant who faces her meager life matter-of-factly, Brian Hutchison pings the one note of his role with comical consistency and William Sadler adds to the festivities as a vaudevillian doctor.

Although Rush and Armfield manage to sneak in a contemporary reference (The royal washing machine had to be pawned to cover the treasury bail-out.) they admirable avoid any temptation to shade their central character in George W. Bushian tones, despite snickers when mention is made of a long, economy-draining war.  On the other hand, if they had favored that direction, a slightly altered translation might have made an excellent vehicle for Will Ferrell's Broadway debut.

Photo by Joan Marcus:  Susan Sarandon, William Sadler, Geoffrey Rush, Lauren Ambrose and Andrea Martin

Posted on: Sunday, April 05, 2009 @ 12:26 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


An Oresteia: He Had It Comin'

"Men like women with character," is the sisterly advice a muddied, snarling, grief-stricken and murderously-crazed Elektra gives to pretty little Chrysothemis in Ann Carson's wildly clever adaptation of the ancient Greek story of bloody family doings titled An Oresteia.  Growled in all seriousness by the fabulously bitter Annika Boras, the line got a huge laugh the afternoon I caught Classic Stage Company's crackling good premiere production; the swiftest five hours of theatre I've enjoyed in a long, long time.

As suggested by the title, this is not exactly a translation of The Oresteia, the trio of plays by Aiskhylos dramatizing the infidelity and homicide among family member of the House of Atreus.  (In brief, Klytaimestra is pissed at her husband, King Agamemnon, for sacrificing their daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods as insurance for winning the Trojan War.  She plans to kill him on his return home and in the meantime has been sleeping with his cousin, Aegisthus.  The fun begins when Agamemnon arrives with his new mistress, Kassandra, and things really heat up when their daughter, Elektra - who resents her mom's infidelity - and son, Orestes - who'll do anything for his dear sister - enter the picture.)  Instead, Carson begins with Aiskhylos' opener, Agamemnon, then, as these ancient Greek playwrights all wrote about the same things anyway, continues with Sophokles' Elektra and finishes with Euripides' Orestes.  (CSC offers the first two plays as one performance and the third as a separate showing, or you can see all three in a weekend marathon.)

Without delving into spoof or camp, Carson offers a fast-moving, contemporary-sounding text that mixes dark humor ("That is what family is for; fighting enemies to the death.") with mood-lightening spots of anachronistic silliness (sunbathers in 1940's style swimsuits smile for a Polaroid camera by saying "Orestes").  The hot-looking cast is dressed to impress in Oana Botez-Ban's sexy (though not revealing) outfits that are mostly modern but sometimes suggest the ancient.  As the audience enters, the actors are already busy trying to wash the blood off of Riccardo Hernandez's set, which is primarily a high wall of unpainted wood sporting many actor-revealing doors.  While the production is not exactly tension-filled, it's extremely entertaining.

The first two parts, co-directed by Brian Kulick and Gisela Cardenas are rather straightforward in style and are highlighted by two attention-grabbing performances.  Stephanie Roth Haberle is a deliciously arrogant Klytaimestra, strutting around the stage in high red pumps (orange for poolside) and a regal manner like a cougar surveying her domain.  Annika Boras, exceptionally detailed in voice and expression, truthfully connects with Elektra's anguish, making lines like, "At what point does the evil level off in my life?" all the more funny.

The mood takes a sharp turn toward downtown sensibilities in the third part (directed by Paul Lazar, associated directed and choreographed by Annie-B Parson) which has Elektra delivering an expository speech as if she were a strung out coffee house poet.  Mickey Solis' Orestes, who had been playing it pretty bland up to now, is steeped in his own psychological funk until his Uncle Menelaos (a coolly intellectual Steve Mellor) helps bring his madness to the forefront.  Dan Hurlin and Karinne Keithley make up a two-person chorus that intensely speaks commentary into microphones when they're not doing needlepoint and David Neumann scores with a sort of 11 o'clock number as a eunuch Trojan slave who sings in the style of Leonard Cohen.

Now, if someone can just explain to me why Elektra can apparently walk on water, I'd be a happy man.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  Mickey Solis and Annika Boras; Bottom:  Stephanie Roth Haberle

*************************************

Hey Jekkies, the momentum and the moment are back in rhyme on June 15th as SAW Theatricals/Sarah Melissa Rotker in association with Deborah Blumenthal, Stephanie Leaf, and Phillip Pallitto present a one-night concert production of Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde for the benefit of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.  Robert Petkoff will star in the title roles with Brooke Sunny Moriber as Emma and Jennifer Hallie Rosen as Lucy.

Now, I know the words "benefit performance" usually mean pretty steep ticket prices but this recession friendly concert will only run you $15-$20.  And if that leaves you with some bucks to spare, you may want to hop over to the benefit party to help raise funds for the production.  That's this Sunday night at 7:30pm at one of my favorite haunts, The Irish Rogue.  There's a $15 cover charge, a cash bar (I'm told fans under 21 may attend but obviously will have to stick to the soft stuff) and yes, a screening of the Jekyll and Hyde DVD featuring the one, the only, the Hasselhoff.

You may not sit forever with the gods but you're bound to make a few friends who share you showtune obsession.

Full info is at ethicaljekyll.com.

Posted on: Friday, April 03, 2009 @ 09:23 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


God of Carnage: Screw the Middle Classes! I Will Never Accept Them!

There's a fine, fine line...  No, let me rephrase that.  There's a wide gaping canyon between clever social commentary and unmotivated slapstick.  And while I'm not suggesting that Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage had me longing for the subtle nuances of Messrs. Moe, Larry and Curly I will admit to being reminded of the famous Tallulah Bankhead quip, "There's less to this than meets the eye."

It's a heady little trick the trio of Reza (playwright), Christopher Hampton (translating from her French original) and Matthew Warchus (director) have pulled off before with Art and Life (x) 3, drawing me in with an interesting premise but inevitably leaving me too bored to be disappointed.  Here the nemesis of the bourgeoisie (defined in this American version as sensitive female intellectuals and their oafish alpha-male spouses) shows us that no matter how civilized we think we may be, there's always the beat, beat, beat of the tom-tom (actually provided by composer Gary Yershon and sound designers Simon Baker/Christopher Cronin) like a voice within us that keeps repeating, "Me, me, me."

Set and costume designer Mark Thompson depicts the Brooklyn living room of Michael and Veronica Novick (James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden) with a free-standing cave-like wall placed in front of a stage-engulfing blood-red backdrop.  Books and earth tones are all over the place.  Their guests are Alan and Annette Raleigh (Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis), parents of the 11-year-old lad who busted two of the Novick's 11-year-old son's teeth in a playground skirmish.  Appropriately, as we'll soon see, the deed was done with that most primitive of weapons, a stick.

Strangers to each other, the two couples go through the niceties of discussing the situation like civilized Brooklynites, though each has their own take on the situation.  High-powered lawyer Alan, who spends most of the evening taking calls on his cell, thinks it's just healthy male aggression in action while his wife Hope feels that formal apologies and reparations can cleanly settle the matter.  Guy's guy Michael figures the boys can work things out themselves but Veronica, an author and historian sees the event in the same socio-economic terms that led to genocide in Darfur.

And then those darn tom-toms just bring out the ol' primal urges that reduce grown-up outer-boroughers to childish, self-centered animals.  It starts with a sly comment here and a nasty retort there, but the next thing you know someone's puking on an out-of-print Oscar Kokoschka catalogue and suddenly, there are no rules!!, leaving no cell phone, tulip arrangement or hamster safe from Reza's plot-manipulating path of destruction.  It's too much, too quickly and even at 90 minutes it goes on for far too long.

But Warchus stages the farcical ballet with raucous kineticism and varying rhythms that spark things up a bit and his fully committed cast work admirably as an ensemble; each honing in on specific quirks and mannerisms that fuel their respective meltdowns.  Unfortunately, watching the fine craft of the actors on stage is far more interesting than caring about the characters; particularly when it comes to Marcia Gay Harden, whose skills have been reduced to displays of shrillness and athleticism.

With all that said, there's no doubt in my mind that after a successful Broadway run this one-set four-character comedy will be making people laugh in many, many regional and amateur productions for years to come, as there is certainly an audience perfectly eager to pay good money to watch upper middle class snobs beating up on one another.  If there wasn't, the National Hockey League would have folded decades ago.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels; Bottom: Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini

Posted on: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 @ 09:40 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 3/29 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week

"Appeasers believe that if you keep on throwing steak to a tiger, the tiger will become a vegetarian."

-- Heywood Broun

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 3/29/2009 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: GOD OF CARNAGE (19.3%), HEDDA GABLER (5.6%), MAMMA MIA! (0.6%),

Down for the week was: IMPRESSIONISM (-14.3%), AVENUE Q (-11.8%), IRENA'S VOW (-8.6%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (-8.3%), EXIT THE KING (-7.2%), THE 39 STEPS (-6.8%), JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE (-6.0%), MARY POPPINS (-5.6%), AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (-5.6%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (-5.4%), GUYS AND DOLLS (-4.4%), 33 VARIATIONS (-3.9%), IN THE HEIGHTS (-2.8%), SOUTH PACIFIC (-1.7%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (-1.4%), BLITHE SPIRIT (-1.3%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-0.9%), JERSEY BOYS (-0.7%), REASONS TO BE PRETTY (-0.7%), CHICAGO (-0.6%), HAIR (-0.5%), WEST SIDE STORY (-0.4%),

Posted on: Monday, March 30, 2009 @ 04:36 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Finian's Rainbow: Musical Comedy Gold

"If musical theatre doesn't address important issues, who will?," read a t-shirt I spotted at the Broadway Flea Market several years ago.

And while America's theater history is rich with important issue addressing musical dramas like Show Boat and Ragtime, when Finian's Rainbow hit Broadway in 1947 it was pretty much unheard of for a musical comedy to have its main plot centered on attacking institutionalized racism.

Of course, if you only listen to the Burton Lane music and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg lyrics, you might mistake Finian's Rainbow for a sentimental musical romance typical of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era; though certainly one with a superior score that mixes Irish folk, blues and gospel through the Broadway sifter.  The subdued sexuality of "Old Devil Moon," the pure hopeful tenderness of "Look To The Rainbow," the breezy flippancy of "The Begat," the noble affection for home express in "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and the fickle-hearted waltz, "When I'm Not Near The Girl I Love (I Love The Girl I'm Near)" would be enough to make this a significant Broadway entry.  But when you add the joyously building "If This Isn't Love," the snooty delight "When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich," the lyrical whimsy of "Something Sort of Grandish" and...  well, I could just list the who darn score here... you have one of the most sumptuous collections of melody and gentle wit ever presented on a Broadway stage.

It's only when you consider the book, penned by Harburg and Fred Saidy, that you realize that in its premiere run a night at Finian's Rainbow was like attending a taping of one of the most sharply satirical editions of Saturday Night Live.  Its story of an Irish immigrant who arrives in the American south (the Rainbow Valley section of the state of Missitucky, to be exact) to bury a pot of gold "borrowed" from a leprechaun in the ground near Fort Knox - because he's heard that just letting gold lie inactive in that ground rapidly increases its value - cheerfully spoofed the nature of the bustling American postwar economy ("We got something better than money!  It's credit!").  But what made Finian's Rainbow really daring was when it asked us to laugh at those who would institute poll taxes and write segregation into our law books at a time when these practices were still going quite strong.  Eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and three months before Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Lane, Harburg and Saidy presented the American theatre with a white racist senator who, through the magic of a pot of gold, is accidentally changed into a black man and must consider facing the rest of his life being subjected to the kind of discrimination and hatred he used to enforce.  And they made it funny.

Hopefully we're somewhat more advanced nowadays when it comes to race relations but the positively dazzling Encores! concert revival of Finian's Rainbow proves there's quite a bit in the material that still gets contemporary laughs; especially when the jokes remind us of just how fragile the economy can be.  We can heartily enjoy it when Philip Bosco, as the smug Senator Billboard Rawkins, arrogantly blurts out such absurdities as, "My whole family's been having trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country," and even though some may get a tad uncomfortable during a scene where his new black servant (Joe Aaron Reid) is taught the proper way to shuffle when he serves mint juleps, the comic payoff is a scream.

And this is a score that screams to be heard by a full orchestra embracing Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker's string-heavy and full-bodied orchestrations.  Rob Berman's 32-piece ensemble practically converses with themselves though the extended dance sections and the playfully arranged overture.  Director/choreographer Warren Carlyle's buoyant production boasts a loveable, strong singing cast headed by Jim Norton as a rascally comical Finian.  As his brash daughter, Sharon and the strapping tobacco sharecropper Woody, Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson thickly fill the City Center air with romantic musical theatre magic as she tenderly voices "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" and "Look To The Rainbow" and the two of them simmer with sexual tension as they ponder the "Old Devil Moon."

As Og the leprechaun, Jeremy Bobb nicely delivers Harburg and Saidy's delicately-worded humor playing a character that experiences a different type of sexual tension; having lost his pot of gold, he's gradually becoming mortal and is going through the same kind of inconvenient discomfort that afflicts pubescent boys.

Though for decades productions of Finian's Rainbow have been using blackface makeup to accomplish the feat of changing the senator's skin color (a point that has caused some to declare the musical itself as being racially insensitive) more recent productions have been utilizing other means.  For Encores! Bosco's blustery fool is magically replaced by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who mourns the loss of his white identity until he finds friendship and good will with a gospel quartet in need of a new quarter.  The snappy harmony and precision classiness that Santiago-Hudson, Bernard Dotson, Joe Aaron Reid and Devin Richards bring to "The Begat" is just sensational.

Also pretty sensational are the molasses thick vocals Terri White uses to fill the house with vibrancy as she leads the ensemble in the bluesy, "Necessity," and the airy grace and charisma of Alina Faye as Woody's mute sister Susan, who only communicates through dance.

David Ives performs his usually Encores! task of editing the book to a concert adaptation, and though I always prefer to see the material as the authors wrote it, I'll credit him for allowing the whimsical voice of the original to ring out strong and clear, ridiculing the notion that this is a musical with a creaky, impossibly dated book.  There really is musical comedy magic in Rainbow Valley.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson; Bottom:  Terri White and cast

Posted on: Sunday, March 29, 2009 @ 10:58 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!

Though probably best known to theatre folk as author of the long-running Broadway comedy, Luv, Murray Schisgal first hit it big with the Off-Broadway double bill of one-acts, The Typists and The Tiger, and the short play form continues to be a steady part of the 81-year-old humorist's repertoire.

The National Yiddish Theatre - Folksbiene features three of his one-act selections in a charming evening of music and comedy titled Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!  As is the company's tradition, the plays are performed in Yiddish (translations by Moishe Rosenfeld) with English and Russian supertitles flashed above the stage, giving the nostalgic feel of Second Avenue Yiddish Theatre to material written long after its heyday.

The company's Associate Artistic Director, Motl Didner, directs the opener, The Pushcart Peddlers, which does take place at a time when Yiddish was the dominant language of Lower East Side theatre.  Greenhorn banana peddler Shimmel Shitzman (Michael L. Harris) is not having an easy go of it selling his produce so a more experienced hawker, who calls himself Cornelius J. Hollingsworth (Stuart Marshall) offers to sell him a new American-sounding name; a surefire way to success.  It's all a con, of course, as is his offer to sell the lad his own business but when a blind flower girl named Maggie (Dani Marcus) enters the picture and shares her dream of being a musical comedy star, Shimmel tries to make her believe he's a producer.  But Maggie didn't get off Ellis Island yesterday and as the amusing piece progresses it's not easy to tell who's conning who.  The three actors play their broad-stroked characters with swift vaudevillian flair.

Broadway director Gene Saks helms the brand new, The Man Who Couldn't Stop Crying, about a very successful businessman (I.W. "Itzy" Firestone) who not only cries at weddings but also at parades, Jerry Lewis movies and just about anything else.  His wife (Suzanne Toren) tries to get to the bottom of his emotional outbursts but despite a game effort by the actors, the play rarely offers laughs and barely offers plot or theme.

Finishing strong, 74 Georgia Avenue, directed by veteran character actor Bob Dishy, offers the most interesting and well-acted third of the evening.  Set in the Brooklyn apartment of Joseph (Tony Perry), a black man who lives with his bedridden, long ailing wife, it takes place the evening he receives a visit from Marty (Harry Peerce), a Jewish man who grew up there.  This one is performed in English, though it switches to Yiddish when the characters actually speak the language.  While it's not clear why Joseph lets Marty inside, the two men start bonding when it's realized they both knew the same long-gone members of the local synagogue where the Jew attended services and the black man's father was the janitor.  "Those old Jews," as Joseph calls them, are a shared spiritual heritage for the two men who otherwise have little in common.  The unusual way in which Joseph shares a part of their mutual past may seem a bit contrived, but it is very touchingly played by Perry.

Between plays Lisa Fishman heartily sings a collection of songs from the Yiddish Theatre, including Sam Lowenstein and Joseph Rumshinsky's subway tribute, "Vatch Your Step," and Joseph Lateiner, Perlmutter and Wohl's "Amerika!"  In a more contemporary vein, Rosenfeld provides a translation for Bob Theile and George David Weiss' "What A Wonderful World."

Photos by Michael Priest:  Top:  Dani Marcus, Michael L. Harris and (Stuart Marshall; Bottom:  Tony Perry and Harry Peerce

Posted on: Friday, March 27, 2009 @ 09:17 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Impressionism: Chagall's In Charge

If you're going to open your play with the two main characters discussing their preference of either muffins or coffee cake with their morning brew, your dialogue had better be sparkling.

It's not.  In fact the biggest problem with Michael Jacobs' Impressionism is that its main characters can't seem to express themselves as cleverly as the author seems to believe they are.  Pseudo-sophisticated urban shorthand abounds in this ninety minute pounding into the brain of the notion that, like an impressionist painting, life is so much clearer when observed from a distance.

Jacobs' first Broadway venture, the very funny and sadly short-lived 1978 comedy, Cheaters, was essentially a middle-brow stage sitcom.  Since then his career has focused predominantly on creating and producing television sitcoms like "Boy Meets World," "My Two Dads" and the Scott Baio vehicle, "Charles in Charge" (for which he co-composed the insanely catchy theme song).  Trying for something deeper in this, his second Broadway outing, the unfortunate new tenant of the Schoenfeld is a lot of fuzzy ideas contained in a beautifully designed, poorly paced production with accomplished, high-quality stage actors doing as good a job as can be expected under the circumstances.

The breakfast banterers in question are photographer Thomas (Jeremy Irons) and art gallery owner Katharine (Joan Allen).  Katherine is one of those attractive, smart and successful neurotic messes that generally roam about romantic comedies guarding their hearts against terribly attractive, well-spoken but annoyingly erudite baggage carriers like Thomas; her self-appointed, presumably unpaid assistant who wandered into the gallery two years ago and decided to make himself a fixture.

Aside from the Chagall that she keeps removing from view every time Thomas insists on displaying it, Katharine has an emotional connection to each piece that keeps her from selling the darn things.  (How the two manage to pay the rent, not to mention drum up the cash for their breakfast treats, is never explained.)  A Mary Cassatt portrait of a mother and daughter sparks memories, shown in a flashback, of watching her dad (played by Irons) leave her mother (Allen).  The nude woman in a Modigliani takes her back to an embarrassing time when she was ready to disrobe for a (fictional) painter (Irons again) in his Soho loft.  Thomas' own photograph of a young boy in Tanzania inspires a scene where we see the child's significance in his life and the tragedy that has made him give up photography since.  Far from illuminating, the scenes are underwritten and obvious.

Marsha Mason livens up the night a bit as a wealthy and gregarious customer and Andre De Shields brings understated elegance to his scene as the bakery owner who offers his romantic interpretation of a painting Katherine has grown too cynical to see.  Michael T. Weiss, Margarita Levieva and Aaron Lazar have little of interest to work with in their supporting roles.

Scenes frequently crawl under Jack O'Brien's direction, particularly the ones where Irons takes numerous meaningful pauses.  But the visuals are quite lovely as Elaine J. McCarthy's scrim projections allow us to see enlarged versions of each painting as well as the faces of the actors as they look directly at them.  Between scenes there are more paintings fading on and off the scrim curtain, accompanied by Bob James' piano music; the kind of upbeat free-form incidentals reminiscent of the background music used for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.  And while those moments are allowed to go on for far too long, they do, at first, make a very nice impression.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons; Bottom:  Marsha Mason

Posted on: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 @ 04:14 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Inked Baby: Pregnant By Design

While there are laws restricting the tattooing of minors, the unseen infant title character in Christina Anderson's Inked Baby has the unfortunate honor to be indelibly marked even before birth.  The play's premiere production at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater is honored with a fine cast and some truly captivating moments provided by both the playwright and director Kate Whoriskey.  But once the very human story is firmly established, the plot takes a twist that - while certainly based on realistic situations - abruptly changes the mood of the piece into something akin to sci-fi mystery.  The awkward clashing of the two worlds of the play reduces what is no doubt meant to be a pivotal scene into the kind of silliness that, at least on the night I attended, draws loud giggles from a good part of the audience.

But that opening scene is a knockout.  Big, blue-collar nice guy Greer (Damon Gupton) takes off his pajama top as he prepares for a quick sexual encounter with his kittenish sister-in-law Lena (Angela Lewis) who nervously reveals herself in sexy black lingerie.  They know they have 45 minutes until Greer's wife, Gloria (LaChanze) returns home.

It's not what you think.

After two unsuccessful pregnancies it has become clear that Gloria cannot carry a baby to term.  Having spent most of their savings on medical treatments, leaving them unable to afford artificial insemination, the couple has asked Lena to have sex with Greer and give birth to a child who will be raised as theirs.  Having been recently laid off, Lena's severance package will pay for medical expenses.

Yes, I know.  It sounds like the kind of situation that any playgoer will tell you is going to lead to trouble, or at least to an eighty minute intermissionless drama, but the wonderfully honest and detailed work by Gupton and Lewis make you believe every moment as he fights his sexual attraction for his wife's sister out of loyalty to his spouse (though he knows he must get aroused somehow) and she tries to get him in the mood without feeling disrespectful to the person they both love.  The staging of their eventual tryst is surprising, emotionally revealing and seriously hot.

Though not clearly stated, if seems as though Lena got impregnated on the first try, so we don't get a look at the interesting complications that no doubt would arise if the two had to make a series of attempts.  But there's plenty of the expected tension as the serious-minded Gloria strictly monitors Lena's health habits and vents frustration over missing the usual experiences of having a baby.  Being financially supported by the couple for the nine month use of her body, Lena spends a lot of time shooting the breeze with her animated, Langston Hughes quoting friend Ky (an amusing Nikkole Salter).

Then it gets weird.  In a cartoonishly mysterious scene Ky is called to the office of a medical assistant (Nana Mensah) to undergo some nutty procedure.  I won't reveal what we eventually find out about why so many people in a certain part of town are being called in for similar examinations, or what physically changes are occurring to them, but this underwritten plot detour is far less interesting than Gloria's feeling of loneliness which drive her into the arms of tattoo artist Odlum (Che Ayende), allowing LaChanze to add more interesting textures to her portrayal.

Because the playwright specifies that all the characters are Black American, there's a strong suggestion that she means to address a certain racially based political and social issue in her companion plot.  But her work in Inked Baby is far stronger, and frequently exceptional, when the characters deal with issues that have nothing to do with skin color.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  LaChanze and Angela Lewis; Bottom:  Nana Mensah and Nikkole Salter

Posted on: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 @ 09:20 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback




About Michael: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.