By the time Baby New Year was wearing a sash that read 1966 it was becoming abundantly clear that rock 'n' roll was more than just a temporary dance craze and that Broadway's dominant influence on our popular music charts was coming to an end. But musical theatre wasn't about to roll over like Beethoven. 1966 was a stellar year on Broadway, when daring and off-beat musicals stood side-by-side with frothy entertainments, all put together by a brilliant collect of artists.
The names alone are enough convey what a spectacular year it was. Harold Prince guided the young team of John Kander and Fred Ebb to write a masterful score for Cabaret, which brought Lotte Lenya back to the stage and introduced a newcomer named Joel Grey. Earlier that year, Prince camped it up with Charles Strouse, Lee Adams and Jack Cassidy in It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman, where Linda Lavin gave a breakout performance. Bob Fosse stamped his now-signature style on a score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields and a book by Neil Simon that planted Gwen Verdon center stage as Sweet Charity. Jerry Herman's Mame made a musical comedy star out of Angela Lansbury. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt wrote only two characters for their new musical, but with those two characters being played by Mary Martin and Robert Preston and Gower Champion packaging it all into one of his inventive productions, I Do! I Do! was enough to fill any theatre. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock gave Barbara Harris delicious songs and characters to help earn her a Tony for The Apple Tree. Duke Ellington offered his last Broadway score for Pousse-Café and Sammy Kahn and James Van Heusen sent audiences merrily humming out of Walking Happy.
It was a year when even the most literate of book musicals gave opportunities for actors to perform, and for the 1966 edition of Town Hall's Broadway By The Year series, creator Scott Siegel assembled a strong-acting company that could also perform the hell out of a number. With that flashy song and dance man Jeffrey Denman directing and choreographing, the night was filled with brash showmanship and skilled interpretive work.
Denman himself welcomed us in as Cabaret's emcee, mimicking that show's saucy "Wilkommen" introductions by presenting the cast with his own personal quips. ("Michele Ragusa! Wait till she shows you her obbligatos.") The night included several songs, like "Wilkommen," that are tightly connected to the way they were first staged, and while Denman didn't shy away from the originators' choreographic language, he variated on each theme enough to let his own ideas, and each performers assets, shine through. So there was still a taste of the Chaplinesque bits for Meredith Patterson's wonderfully giddy "If My Friends Could See Me Now," and Sara Gettelfinger, Jennifer Rias and Elizabeth Clinard sizzled Latin heat for "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This."
Denmen's tapping, always a highlight of Broadway By The Year, was featured with panache in the title song of Walking Happy and he and Shonn Wiley teamed up with the smoothly sexy Rias for a jazzy interpretation of "The Spider and The Fly" that seemed inspired by Jack Cole.
And when the dancing stopped, there were electric vocal moments. Kerry O'Malley followed a bouncy "You've Got Possibilities" with fully dramatically realized "Cabaret" that was simply breathtaking. Michele Ragusa, that rare legit soprano with serious character comic chops, used both marvelously for "Gooch's Song" and "Gorgeous." Robust leading man Robert Cuccioli was vibrantly romantic for "Too Many Tomorrows" while Bob Stillman offered a tender and endearing "My Cup Runneth Over." Real-life married couple Wiley and Patterson played up the gentle humor of "I Love My Wife" before being replaced by Ragusa and Cuccioli for a roaring "The Honeymoon is Over."
As usual, music was supplied by Ross Patterson's Little Big Band, but the surprise of the evening came when the music director's son, 8-year-old Mercer Patterson, stepped on stage for the first time in his life and charmed the Town Hall crowd with young Patrick's solo in Mame, "My Best Girl," high-fiving his dad after being called out for an extra bow.
The luminous Liz Callaway - who remarkably mixes girlishness with elegance - was on hand for two solos, "Where Am I Going?" and "If He Walked Into My Life," both sung with her signature pristine clarity and soft, intricate phrasing.
A last-minute addition to the show was the young cabaret singer Carole J. Bufford, making her second Broadway By The Year appearance to sing "What Makes It Happen?" While still at an early stage of her career, Bufford is a captivating song interpreter whose confident vocals are matched with strong story-telling skills and interesting lyrical shadings.
Photos by Genevieve Rafter Keddy: Top: Shonn Wiley, Jennifer Rias and Jeffry Denman; Bottom: Kerry O'Malley.
Whether you're a naked boy singing, a naked girl giving herself to a boy with a strange obsession for horses or you just happen to land a gig in a Charles Mee play, there comes a time in many performers lives when they feel they must have that special talk with a loved one that usually begins with the words, "Mom, I'm taking off my clothes on stage."
Not that there's anything wrong with going ecdysiastic for art, but it ain't always the career path parents have in mind when they're driving their young'uns to ballet class. Take the case of Gotham's rising burlesque star, Calamity Chang, a strip-tease artist who has spent the past six months or so producing, hosting and fan-dancing on Sunday nights at Chow Bar's Dim Sum Burlesque; a fact that's been more or less kept secret from her dear traditional Chinese mother back home in Texas.
But mom has flown up to New York for a visit and the younger Chang sees this as a special opportunity to reveal the truth this Sunday in a special evening, The Coming Out To My Mom Show!
"The first time she and I encountered burlesque together was when we watched the Gypsy DVD when I was in high school," says Chang. "At the time we just thought that was striptease back in the old days, which essentially is what traditional classic burlesque is. Last year I told her I was stage kittening and tried to explain what that was but I believe she thinks (and still thinks) that I was and am picking up 'stripper droppings' at strip clubs."
(For those who require a translation, a stage kitten is a scantily clad lady who helps set the stage for burlesque performers and gathers up the clothing when an act is done.)
"Fortunately for me, whatever she will see on Sunday night at Dim Sum Burlesque will be far, far better than what she is expecting! I plan to keep it pretty and classic, so no fetish or gothic acts. Not for this visit at least!"
Also on the bill are huntress, warrior, and glamour puss Dame CuchiFrita, raging glitter-oholic Gal Friday, Russian princess "in hiding" Nikkita LeMarcelle, goddess of soul Broadway Brassy and singing siren Shelly Watson. Each will be prepared to hold back Mama Chang should she try to drag her little darling off the stage.
Calamity Chang talks more about the cultural issues faced by Chinese women in burlesque in this enlightening article in Northwest Asia Weekly.
Photo by Michael Webb.
Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.
Posted on May 14, 2010 - by
About the Author: 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 Citi Field 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.