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Sunday Morning Michael Dale: They're Over The Moon For Idina Menzel in Which Way To The Stage

Also, Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks commences with California and jazz favorite Nancy Harrow scores Chekhov + Turgenev

Every year, The Broadway League's report on audience demographics...

...reminds us theatre-obsessed souls that we are but a tiny minority of the Broadway ticket-buying public. The number of Broadway attendees who can be seen at fifteen or more shows a season usually hovers around 5%-6%, while there is much more money to be made appealing to those who attend far less frequently.

So shows with a lot of inside-theatre appeal tend to stay Off-Broadway in smaller venues. Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway has run on and off for decades, favoring the funny bones of those who bust a gut at Ted Chapin jokes, while Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell's Obie-winning [title of show], with its never-ending references to both hit and obscure musicals, was a hot ticket at the Vineyard and drew fans to its early performances at the Lyceum, but never developed a long-lasting Broadway audience.

So while I'm not expecting to see Ana Nogueira's hilarious, touching, and even controversial Which Way To The Stage playing the Booth anytime soon (though I'd be delighted to see director Mike Donahue's production make it), I do recommend theatre folk, especially musical theatre folk, to try and catch its last week of performances at MCC.

How inside is it? Well, it opens in with two actors, Judy and Jeff (Sas Goldberg and Max Jenkins, who click together with rapid-fire banter), making their nightly vigil at the Richard Rodgers Theatre stage door trying to get Idina Menzel's autograph after a performance of If/Then. As the play opens they're in the middle of a heated debate over their preference of Bernadette Peters or Patti LuPone as Rose in Gypsy.

Among Judy's points is that Peters is more believable as someone who could have become a star stripper if she hadn't given up her showbiz dreams for motherhood, but Jeff prefers LuPone because. "I need to feel afraid of my Mama Rose." (I won't comment on what they say about Imelda Staunton.)

But while the author's clever theatre chat may lure show people in, it's really a gateway to more universal issues about body judging and identity. Judy is auditioning for the duo-character female lead in a regional production of Avenue Q, and while she feels perfectly suited for the nice, girl-next-door Kate Monster, she's self-conscious about playing the overtly sexual Lucy The Slut, especially when she meets another auditioner, Nicole (Michelle Veintimilla), who has the looks the public usually associates with vampy roles.

She also meets the very handsome Mark (Evan Todd), who has quit his job in finance to chase his dream of being an actor. While both he and Nicole recognize the advantages their looks give them, they also have moments to express legitimate complaints about people's reactions to their appearances.

Meanwhile, Jeff, who has the kind of showbiz moxie Judy lacks, has always be regarded as not masculine enough to get cast, so he's made a career for himself playing iconic female musical theatre roles in a gay bar's weekly drag show, and a showcase moment in the play is the premiere of his Idina Menzel as Maureen in Rent act. (Adding authenticity to the scene is Veintimilla playing a drunk bride-to-be at her bachelorette party, trying to make herself the center of attention at a gay bar.)

But the act also prompts serious debate when Judy finally admits she thinks of Jeff's drag shows as "targeted mocking".

"It's humiliating. Her body is not a costume that can just be worn and discarded. She's not a costume."

Jeff defends his performances by saying the roles he plays were written by gay men (Jonathan Larson being an exception) as substitutes for themselves.

"Those women are written by men like me who weren't allowed to write about themselves, who weren't allowed to talk about what they were going through, so they put their experience into Mama Rose and Dolly Levi and Fraulein Sally Bowles!"

My actress friend, a former Maureen in Rent, said this was the first play in a long time that she "saw herself" in. I imagine a lot of people will feel the same.

My childhood memories of long family car trips...

...consist mostly of fighting with my big sister over control of the radio (I was a Monkees devotee and she preferred The Beatles) and making lists of how many state license plates we've spotted. An eight-hour drive could be good for at least thirty, though I don't think we ever spied any elusive Hawaii plates.

They get more creative in Trish Harnetiaux's California, the first entry in Clubbed Thumb's 25th Annual Summerworks series (tickets $25), held at The Wild Project, that cozy East Village venue off Avenue A.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  They're Over The Moon For Idina Menzel in Which Way To The Stage
Mallory Portnoy (Photo: Marcus Middleton)

Directed by Will Davis with a heightened sense of subtextual weirdness, the cast spends most of the play seated in 5 chairs, representing a family station wagon. Mel Ng's costumes set the action sometime in the 1980s. Dad (Pete Simpson) intends to make the 1,300 mile trip from their Washington State home to their grandparents' California residence without stopping. That seems fine with mom (Annie Henk) who spends most of the trip asleep, but teenagers Lizzie, Tucker and Rob (played by adults Mallory Portnoy, Ethan Dubin and Jordan Bellow) are bored and restless.

Dad gets excited when an old radio drama, like the kind he and his family would listen to back in the day, comes on the air, and when they lose the station, he proposes a game where the family improvises their own drama, documenting it on Lizzie's tape recorder. (Though not on the side of the cassette where she had recorded herself belting out The Police's "Every Breath You Take.")

"Only one rule," Dad insists. "You are no longer you... You're a version of you. This takes full commitment."

So what follows in the 60-minute play is a story-telling combination of the narrative the family improvised intertwined with each child's adult memories of the day.

No narrator should be trusted, especially the guide (Henk) who gives the audience a tour of the Hanford Nuclear Plant, advising us that during the 1940s many of its workers were unaware they were developing an atomic bomb that would be detonated over Nagasaki.

Enjoyably odd and certainly worth the ride, California will be followed in the Summerworks festival by Gab Reisman's Spindle Shuttle Needle and Angela Hanks' Bodies They Ritual.

At age 91, Nancy Harrow might very well hold the honor of being the eldest composer of a new theatre score currently playing in New York...

Back in 1961, she was a fresh voice on the jazz scene with her debut album Wild Women Don't Have The Blues, and with her jaunty way with a lyric soon established herself as a favorite for American Songbook standards.

But then she turned her career to writing music and lyrics for theatre, most notably the score for the puppet presentation of The Adventures of Maya The Bee, which enjoyed a long Off-Broadway run at The Culture Project.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  They're Over The Moon For Idina Menzel in Which Way To The Stage
Silvia Bond and Manny Dunn
​​​​​​​(Photo: Russ Rowland)

Just before COVID closed the theatres, Harrow and writer/director Will Pomerantz (Associate Artistic Director of Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theater) premiered a musical adaptation of Ivan Turgenev's 1860 novella First Love, retitled About Love. The chamber charmer has been remounted and is playing in repertory with the pair's new adaptation of Anton Chekhov's classic 1900 drama Three Sisters. The two plays inspired by Russian literary giants are packaged by Blueprint Productions as Chekhov + Turgenev, promising "Two plays about love, not war."

Much of About Love is lifted from the original, with the ensemble cast taking turns speaking lines of third person narration that apply to their characters. Set in the Russian countryside, Manny Dunn plays 16-year-old Peter, who becomes infatuated with his family's new neighbor, 21-year-old Zina (Silvia Bond).

He's not the only one. Every night Zina entertains - or rather, is entertained by - a quartet of grownup suitors who are willing to meet in a group and make fools of themselves competing for the slightest sign of affection. When Zina invites Peter for a visit, he's unaware it's to become a member of her posse, but he plays along and learns a few lessons about love and romance.

Though not a traditional musical, Harrow has written some lively flirtatious numbers for Zina and a lovely ballad for Peter, which are charmingly delivered by the two leads and music director Misha Josephs' 4-piece combo,

One might argue there's little to sing about in Three Sisters, Chekhov's study of how, trapped by the limitations inflicted on their gender by society, the pragmatic Olga (Elizabeth Ramos), the blasé and artistic Masha (Amanda Kristin Nichols) and the naïve Irina (Essence Brown), spend their years experiencing romantic and marital disillusionment in their country home, far away from the excitement of Moscow.

Pomerantz's streamlined production is well-acted and enhanced by Harrow's background scoring and musical interludes, most effective when suggesting the central characters' restlessness and mourning of lost opportunities.

An airport waiting room may seem an odd choice for setting a memory play about connecting with your cultural heritage...

...but it makes sense in Adam Kraar's The Karpovsky Variations, which ends its premiere run for Boomerang Theater Company at A.R.T./New York Theatres this afternoon. (tickets $25).

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  They're Over The Moon For Idina Menzel in Which Way To The Stage
Rivka Borek and Ezra Barnes
​​​​​​​(Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum)

Director Tasha Gordon-Solman's minimalist production is highlighted by the engaging central performance of Rivka Borek, who plays Julia Karpovsky, a Jewish-American woman who spent much of her childhood abroad with her divorced father, Lawrence (Ezra Barnes), an international journalist who only seemed to connect with her through their mutual love for playing the clarinet.

After his death, Julie tries establishing a better connection with her family through her two career-driven uncles who make time for her in their busy lives during layovers in airport terminals.

As the title may suggest, the play tends to jump back and forth in time, dealing with thinly connected plot points involving its six characters. Perhaps a future production can establish a firmer theme involving daughter, father and clarinet.

Curtain Line...

"As the Tower of London said to The Tower of Pisa, I have the time if you have the inclination." - Arlene Francis



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