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Martini Talk: Rock 'n' Roll, Richard III & Ziegfeld's Oldest

At a time when many young boys would lie about their age to serve in the army, 14-year-old Doris Eaton lied about her age to get into The Ziegfeld Follies of 1918.  She is the youngest person ever to hold that legendary job title "Ziegfeld Girl" and today, at 104 years of age, Doris Eaton is the oldest living American girl to be glorified in those legendary Broadway revues.  She's shared the stage with the likes of W.C. Fields, Fannie Brice and Eddie Cantor and this Saturday night she will share the stage with considerably younger talents at Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolics of 2007, a one night only event in the style of the intimate shows the great impresario produced at the Roof Top Theatre of Broadway's New Amsterdam.  Looks like a great deal.  For twenty five smackers you get wine. hors d'oeuvres and a Ziegfeld revue featuring Doris Eaton dancing (yes, dancing!) to Irving Berlin's "Mandy," Eddie Cantor's signature tune from the 1919 follies.  Just like in Ziegfeld's day, you can't charge seats by phone or on the internet. They've been taking mail orders up until now, but if there are tickets remaining they'll be sold at the door (Central Presbyterian Church, East 64th St. & Park Ave., 6th Floor) on a first come/first served basis.  Cocktails at 6:45 and showtime is at 8:00.

As I'm sure my dear readers are all aware, Tom Stoppard is that terribly smart British playwright whose sole purpose in life is to make Americans feel stupid and undereducated.  I'm not going to lie. There's a lot in Rock 'n' Roll, his densely dialogued work exploring the connection between rock music and the seeds of revolution that led to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, that I didn't get. But even if references to Czech politics, Marxism, the reasons why Pink Floyd dumped Syd Barrett and how The Plastic People of The Universe influenced the election of Vaclav Havel are not the primary topics of discussion at your favorite showtune bar, the key to enjoying Stoppard is to wish the obscure references going over your head a merry flight and rely on the emotional pull to guide you through the piece.  And director Trevor NunnCats, Les Miserables, Sunset Boulevard – knows a heck of a lot about relying on emotional pull.

Spinning like an LP on Robert Jones' turntable set, Rock 'n' Roll begins in 1968 and bounces between scenes involving Jan (Rufus Sewell), a rock music loving Czech student at Cambridge who returns to his homeland after Soviet tanks have rolled in, and Max (Brian Cox), his Karl Marx loving former professor back in England whose classical literature professor wife Eleanor (Sinéad Cusack) is battling cancer while their daughter Esme (Alice Eve) has become a flower child.  As the play progresses into the 1990's Ms. Cusack takes on the role of an older Esme with Ms Eve as her daughter.

While the passionate Jan finds serenity in only his music collection, most of which was smuggled across the border, and the bellowing Max barely softens with age, it's Cusack's Eleanor, positively electric in a superb speech where she insists that cancer will not define her, that stands out in an excellent company.

The funny thing about rock music is that it exists in a culture where immediate clarity is not a necessity. Repeated listening are often required to interpret lyrical imagery or sometimes just to figure out what words the vocalist is singing.  Maybe that's what makes Tom Stoppard the perfect playwright for the subject.

It's hard to predict when the Grinch will once again be attempting to steal Christmas on Broadway, but in the meantime, playgoers looking for a deliciously crafty villain to entertain them should head downtown to the Classic Theatre Company's terrific production of Shakespeare's Richard III where Michael Cumpsty is both funny and chilling in his quest to steal the throne of England.

Like the Grinch trying to trick Cindy-Lou Who when she catches him with her family's Christmas tree, Cumpsty keeps his hands gently clasped at his chest, as though someone's just caught him in the middle of prayer, and with a sweetly modest little smile on his face, seems to be asking, "Who?  Me?," as he is offered the crown.  It's all an act, of course.  An act we as audience members have been in on since the play's opening moment when a mirrored reflection of the disfigured royal impishly waved at us.  In a production co-directed by Cumpsty and Brian Kulick, the actor's conspiratorial manner when alone with the audience and a bit of active participation makes us in the seats Richard's confidants in the bloody rise to the throne of a supremely charismatic and dark-humored master politician whose idea of a good joke is to calculate a way in which to send each head in his path to the chopping block.

The intimate production has a fine cast surrounding its star, particularly Roberta Maxwell, a thunderstorm of fury as the betrayed Queen Margaret.  Set designer Mark Wendland hangs eight crystal chandeliers above the playing area.  An intriguing choice, but the reasons why some are lowered and raised during certain scenes is unclear.  Clearer is costume designer Oana Botez-Ban's gradual elimination of color as the play progresses and Richard's dark gray becomes the style for the entire company.

Arguably the most versatile of New York's frequently seen stage actors, and as smashing in light comedy and musicals as he is in classic dramatic roles, this is Michael Cumpsty's third Shakespearean lead with CSC, having starred in Richard II and Hamlet. I say bring on the whole canon for the guy.

Michael Dale's Martini Talk appears every Monday and Thursday on BroadwayWorld.com.

Photos by Joan Marcus: (top) Sinéad Cusack in Rock 'n' Roll, (bottom) Michael Cumpsty in Richard III


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