BROADWAY TONIGHT Puts Understudies Center Stage

Hugh Jackman's understudy went on last night and nobody demanded a refund. There were no groans from the audience when it was announced that Kerry Butler and Hunter Foster would not be playing Audrey and Seymour. In fact six Broadway understudies performed in leading roles last night and they were all greeted by cheers and encouragement. No, a flu epidemic has not hit Broadway; just the first installment of Broadway Tonight, a series presented by Musicals Tonight! giving audiences a sampling of Broadway understudies performing songs from the starring roles they cover.

For the past six years the non-profit Musicals Tonight!, brainchild of producer Mel Miller, has helped preserve the history of musical theatre with staged readings of neglected musicals. Not just "well known" obscure shows like King of Hearts and So Long, 174th Street, but forgotten works of the great masters such as Watch Your Step (a 1914 Irving Berlin musical that helped introduce ragtime to Broadway), That's the Ticket (a Harold Rome fairy tale that closed in out-of-town previews) and Chee-Chee (a Rodgers and Hart flop that nevertheless displayed a highly interpolated score years before Oklahoma!.). Later this season they'll be mounting the New York premiere of a Gershwin musical, Primrose, which was a hit on the West End but never reached Broadway.

But for six Sunday nights throughout the 2003-04 season, Broadway Tonight will give audiences a chance to enjoy the work of, as Master of Ceremonies Stephen DeAngelis described them "the closest thing producers have to life insurance."

With everyone involved donating their time and talent, the informal show was mounted on a bare stage, save for the piano graced by musical director Eugene Gwodz's versatile accompaniment. The swiftly moving 90 minutes included not only songs from current Broadway productions but amusing stories about the lifestyle of an understudy and an additional tune or two from each performer's repertoire.

Emily Rozek, the freshly scrubbed looking ingenue who understudies the title role in Thoroughly Modern Millie kicked things off with knockout renditions of "Not For The Life of Me" and "Gimme, Gimme". She prefaced a delightful "A Cockeyed Optimist" with the story of how in a previous understudy assignment, covering Erin Dilly on tour in South Pacific, a last minute call for her to go on as Nellie Forbush resulted in some technical difficulties during that show's famous shower scene. An unrehearsed removal and re-application of her body mic while she was washing that man right out of her hair resulted in a blown circuit and loss of amplification.

Last season Jonathan Rayson got word at 12:30 one afternoon that Jay Goede, the leading actor he was covering in "A Year With Frog and Toad" had a burst appendix. That night, with a minimal amount of preparation, he was singing, dancing and throwing cookies with co-star Mark Linn-Baker, who halted that evening's curtain call to publicly congratulate his new Frog and announce to the audience that they had just seen this talented young man's Broadway debut. Rayson treated us to a sample of his work during the two weeks he performed that role during Goede's recovery with a tender "Alone". These days Jonathan stands by for both Seymour (which he'll be playing November 13) and Orin in Little Shop of Horrors. His comic knack was put to good use with "Grow For Me" and, what is quickly becoming a cabaret favorite, "Way Ahead of My Time", Peter Mills' hilarious tune about a caveman who makes a discovery much more fabulous than fire.

But before Rayson left the stage he was joined by fellow Little Shop standby Jessica-Snow Wilson for what could be the only time they will ever sing "Suddenly Seymour" opposite each other in front of an audience. Like Rozek, her first chance to fill in for the star was made more interesting by technical problems. In this case the plant malfunctioned in the middle of Act II and the performance had to be held up for 20 minutes. Wilson's sweet quirkiness shone through in "Somewhere that's Green" and, another cabaret favorite, Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler's comic gem "Taylor, the Latte Boy".

When a show's movie star leading man receives far better reviews than the musical that showcases him, it probably helps for the relatively unknown understudy who covers him to have a sense of humor. And if Hugh Jackman ever does miss a performance or two of The Boy From Oz, ticket holders who stay will not be deprived of seeing a talented young hunk with chiseled features, a charming presence and yes, quite the sense of humor. Kevin Spirtas, a seasoned cabaret performer (as well as soap star) displayed a smooth, expressive voice with Peter Allen's "The Lives of Me" and "Once Before I Go", along with an imaginative blending of "As Time Goes By" with "Time Heals Everything". He even managed to throw a few extra laughs into "My Fortune is My Face", a song that seems to be popping up everywhere since this year's CD release of Fade Out - Fade In.

A delighted gasp came from all sides of the audience as Jenny-Lynn Suckling (understudy for Ulla in The Producers) removed her raincoat to reveal a scrumptious figure barely covered in an elegantly revealing black unitard that would have made even Madonna scream "Girl, put some clothes on!". But as Ulla's song says "If You Got It, Flaunt It", and with pianist Gwodz filling in for Max and Leo while trying to keep his eyes on the music, Suckling comically sex-kittened her way through a show stopping song and dance. Later on she used a more subtle delivery to get laughs with "Death is Such an Odd Thing", a song she performed four times during her understudy stint with Dance of the Vampires.

After nearly seven months of waiting for the phone to ring, Paul Schoeffler will finally get his chance to play Guido Contini, the emotionally stunted genius at the center of Nine, on November 15th and 16th (and possibly the 18th). After sampling his daffily charismatic "Guido's Song", akin to an overgrown Puck in serious need of decaf, and his equally effective "I Can't Make This Movie", I'd say it'll be worth the wait. Too bad they can't interpolate Cole Porter's "A Little Skipper From Heaven Above", a Jimmy Durante signature tune that Schoeffler sang with dignified silliness.

Although it's understandable for a ticket-holder to be disappointed if an actor they specifically came to see will not be performing, Broadway Tonight is just another example of how there is no lack of talent and experience among the pool of Broadway understudies. They often offer the most exciting performance in town.

For information about future editions of Broadway Tonight and Musicals Tonight!'s season of staged readings of neglected musicals visit http://www.musicalstonight.org.

For Michael Dale's "mad adventures of a straight boy living in a gay world" visit dry2olives.com

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