Michael Dale's Martini Talk: Pygmalion & Die Mommie Die!

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While wandering by Amsterdam Avenue at 94th Street my eye was drawn to a red neon sign in a store window announcing "Albee For Babies."  Upon closer inspection I saw it was a toy store.  I wonder if they carry the Playskool Liquor Cabinet.

Although I'm a great admirer of each one's stage work, up until this past Saturday afternoon I wouldn't have considered Jefferson Mays and Boyd Gaines to be high on the list of obvious choices to play Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering in a Broadway revival of that classic comedy of manners, Pygmalion. It's a pairing I would have ranked somewhere below Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and just ahead of Abbott and Costello.  But the funny thing about good actors is that you never know what they're capable of until you give them a try, and thank goodness David Grindley, who drew such vivid performances from both of them in last season's riveting revival of Journey's End, saw in them the makings of George Bernard Shaw's most verbal men behaving badly.

Looking like Little Lord Fauntleroy and acting like Peck's Bad Boy, Jefferson Mays' Higgins' rosy cheeked and plaster haired appearance seems transported from late Edwardian Theatre (I wasn't there, but I've seen pictures), playing up the arrested adolescence of Shaw's self-centered phonetics geek with sharp comic eloquence and a zesty physicality.  Whether cuddling his mommy for security or unceremoniously shoving aside a servant who is slow in announcing him, Mays' classlessness is a continual source of amusement and his performance, even among an especially strong cast, dominates the evening.

Though the role of Colonel Pickering is a bit of a sidekick, Boyd Gaines, bearded up like he was peeled off a box of Smith Brother cough drops, adds a bit of rascality to the character's sturdy gentility.  Jay O. Sanders' gruff and stoney Alfred Doolittle, the common dustman with uncommon views on morals, is just a riot, as is Brenda Wehle as the grim-faced Mrs. Pearce. Helen Carey's Mrs. Higgins is a charmer, and Kerry Bishe is very funny as the dim-witted young socialite, Clara.

And then there's Claire Danes, who lists no stage acting experience in her Playbill bio and is making her Broadway debut in one of the theatre' classic roles, the ambitious flower girl, Liza Doolittle, who wishes to improve her life by learning to speak proper English.  It's not an aggressively bad performance, but sadly it's the least interesting one in the production.  Her soft voice is audible, but significantly less so than those around her, and she gives little vocal variety to her line readings while lacking any kind of specific character work in her physicality.  There's simply very little there which isn't just skimming the surface of the text, made all the more apparent by being the top billed star in such an otherwise cracking good production.  She improves by her final scene but by then the piece is safely tucked away in Mays' pocket.

"No man owns Carmen," sings Bizet's gypsy seductress but can any woman own "Meadowlark," Stephen Schwartz's rapturous mix of metaphor and high belting that was introduced by Patti LuPone in the vastly under-appreciated musical The Baker's Wife?  At last week's "Seth Rudetsky's Broadway Chatterbox" the effervescent Betty Buckly told an amusing story of a tense conversation between the two after Buckly recorded the song herself and started singing it in concerts.  That's all yesterday's meat pies now, but I wonder if Liz Callaway, who has a lengthy relationship with "Meadowlark" herself and who wowed the Town Hall crowd Friday night with her thrilling rendition of the piece on the first night of the Third Annual

Broadway/Cabaret Festival (more on the festival on Thursday), was ever brought up in their conversation. As far as I'm concerned, the more great artists we get to hear singing the American songbook's great songs, just like the more great artists we get to see interpreting musical theatre's great roles, the better it is for us all.

And speaking of The Baker's Wife, if you're ever in the mood to see me cry... I mean serious buckets...  I mean Paul Sorvino watching his daughter win an Oscar crying...  take a peek when I'm watching Lenny Wolpe play Aimable, the jilted baker who learns that by putting his wife up on a pedestal he's been neglecting her need to be seen and accepted as the woman she really is.  I've seen him play the role twice and it's one of the most touching, heart-tugging performances I've seen in my thirty years of attending musical theatre.  Lenny Wolpe once again appears as Aimable in the York Theatre's Mufti production of The Baker's Wife this weekend.  Go catch a beautiful performance in a beautiful musical.

Is it possible to not have a good time so long as Charles Busch has a dress on?  I don't think so.  Especially when they're the outlandishly stylish frocks Michael Bottari and Ronald Case have designed for him in the New York premiere of his 1999 comic thriller, Die Mommie Die!.  Busch, of course, is the playwright/drag performer who lovingly salutes the great empowering ladies of Hollywood's glittering age with performances that elegantly blend the voices and mannerisms of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead et. al. into a persona that reminds you of them all and yet stands as a unique individual.  His acting is quite musical with Busch the author writing lines that draw laughs from Busch the actor with a shift in cadence or tone.  His expressions of shock, self-satisfaction, heartbreak and anger seem exactingly choreographed yet gracefully natural.

It's 1967 and here he appears as washed-up singer Angela Arden, wrapped up in a passionate affair with a slick and smarmy actor turned tennis instructor (Chris Hoch) because she's stuck in a loveless marriage with a crass movie mogul (Robert Ari) whose idea of art is to cast Cary Grant as Teyve.  Angela's plot to murder her continually constipated hubby involves a very, very, very, VERY large suppository.  Their mod daughter Edith (Ashley Morris), who has the kind of father fixation that provides cheap novels with their cover art, recruits her socially inept brother Lance (Van Hansis) to... well, you know the play's title.

The supporting players all have their funny moments in director Carl Andress' inspiredly silly production, particularly Kristine Nielsen, the wide-eyed, quiver-voiced comic actress who delivers all the mannerisms of a stereotypical black maid, despite being white.  But the production is quite appropriately there to frame Busch who delightfully glides across set designer Michael Anania's eye-popping, yet tasteful mansion and is lit with comic abandon by Ben Stanton.  You try looking chic while trying to maneuver a missile-sized suppository. Now that's acting.

Top photo by Joan Marcus:  Jefferson Mays and Claire Danes in Pygmalion; Bottom Photo by Carol Rosegg:  Charles Busch in Die Mommie Die!
"Michael Dale's Martini Talk" appears every Monday and Thursday on BroadwayWorld.com.

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