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Michael Dale's Martini Talk: The Ritz & A Feminine Ending

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Hello, dear readers, and welcome to the first installment of Michael Dale's Martini Talk, a bi-weekly column which I hope will become a beloved addition to your Monday and Thursday BroadwayWorld.com enjoyment.  Here you'll find my theatre and cabaret reviews, assorted observations on the current Broadway scene and, of course, my desperate attempts to amuse.

At the risk of getting a little sappy, I'd like to dedicate my first column to the Mark Twain of theatre scribes, Mr. Peter Filichia.  Aside from being the best Broadway humorist around, Peter is a swell guy who has been extremely supportive in my writing endeavors.  I'll try not to copy too much from him unless I'm really stuck for ideas.

And I'm very excited that I can start my first column by telling you about a terrific new play that opened at Playwrights Horizons last night.  (Yes, contrary to what some may think, the best part about being a theatre critic is the excitement that comes with telling people about a terrific new play.)  Sarah Treem's A Feminine Ending, about a female musician whose battles against gender inequities cause her to opt for a mid-life crisis about 30 years too soon, is a witty, imaginative, insightful and warm comedy boasting an engaging cast and an emotionally rich production by director Blair Brown.

Composer and oboist Amanda (Gillian Jacobs) is the type of person who can hear music in the way a garbage truck harmonizes with a lawn mower and (in a clever bit) in the way her parents argue.  While trying to gain recognition as a classical composer she writes commercial jingles for a New York advertising agency. Her rocker boyfriend Jack (Alec Beard) is being touted as the next huge thing and already has adoring fans even though he hasn't even recorded an album yet. Amanda may have talent, training and a creative soul, but Jack has star quality.

Amanda's mom (Marsha Mason), "who was too stoned to help out much during the feminist revolution," is convinced her husband (Richard Masur) is cheating on her and calls for her daughter to come home. Determined to make her visit a quick one, Amanda is retained by renewed interest in her once shy teenage sweetheart Billy (Joe Paulik), who has grown into the kind of guy she may share more of a connection with than her intensely sexy star-to-be.

Though the play is about a woman's frustrating battle against the "the tyranny of gender" in the less obvious parts of out lives (the title refers to a musical term used when a movement ends in an unstressed note or weak cadence), the playwright is evenhanded in her sympathies for the male characters and the actors respond with amiable performances.  If Beard's Jack says the wrong thing from time to time his lack of sensitivity seems to come out of his fear of being a neophyte trying not to screw up a great opportunity.  And if Paulik's Billy is a bit of a know it all his satisfaction with what some may call his meager accomplishments is endearing.  Treem's dialogue is lively and expressive without ever sounding unnatural.  ("Nobody sees a girl alone with an oboe and thinks she must be brilliant.  They think she must be weird or maladjusted or stuck-up," complains Amanda in an emotional speech where she longs for the perks that girls get when people like them.)  Mason and Masur are especially adept at getting huge laughs without ever sounding like they're delivering punch lines.

But it's Jacobs, on stage for the entire play, who dominates the evening with a performance as scrappy and lovable as it is intelligent and detailed.  If the character she's playing lacks star quality, the actress displays it in abundance.  And that goes for the playwright, too.

Congratulations to all the winners and honorable mentions in the New York Musical Theatre Festival's 2007 Awards For Excellence.  I had the honor and delight to serve as one of the 12 jury members who rated each element of the festival's 34 eligible productions and I had to chuckle a bit when Î noticed that most of the winners were from shows I hadn't even seen.  With so many productions done during a three week period it's unlikely any jury member could see everything.  What was the best part of the experience?  Knowing that, even for just a few weeks, anyone could plunk down just twenty bucks and see accomplished Broadway performers in musicals that may lack spectacle, but aspire to be well written, clever, dramatic and intelligently entertaining.  If only they can find a way to do that year round.

And while I'm congratulating people, congratulations to Kristin Chenoweth for placing 9th on BeliefNet.com's list of Hollywood's Most Powerful Christians.  I was there for the competition where she edged out film producer Philip Anschutz by bench pressing 248 lb. and clearing 301 lb. on the dead lift.  She may be small but she's sure powerful.  See ya at the gym, Cheno.

My play-going days were still ahead of me when The Ritz made its Broadway bow in 1975 but I imagine Terrance McNally's door-slamming farce about an innocent lug hiding out from his mobster brother-in-law in what he soon discovers is one of New York's legendary gay bath houses seemed a lot funnier back then.  Even if you're able to erase from your head the knowledge that many of the customers in this establishment where casual, anonymous sex abounds will most likely be among the first known victims of a horrible, yet-to-be-named epidemic, there's still the question of whether or not a straight guy feeling nervous around a towel-clad gay man clutching a can of Crisco is really funny anymore.  Certainly to 1975 Broadway customers, especially those who hadn't been down to Cafe Cinno, there must have been a humorous novelty in seeing a straight fish out of water trying to remain unnoticed among a homosexual majority, but it doesn't quite land in this century where enjoying showtunes, being well groomed and having sex with gay men have all become a normal part of straight male living.

Still, the cast works their well-toned butts off in director Joe Mantello's lively production which, if it doesn't quite soar into hysterics, is absolutely not lacking for laughs.  Kevin Chamberlin is one of Broadway's most endearing clowns and has a wonderfully child-like pathos as Gaetano Proclo, whose father-in-law's deathbed request was to have a hit put on him.  Rosie Perez is often difficult to understand, and not in the funny way, as the heavily accented, talent-challenged showtune singer Googie Gomez, who mistakenly believes Proclo is a Broadway producer. She performs The Ritz's centerpiece moment, a medley of inappropriately interpreted theatre classics sung in broken English, with the required gusto and pitch problems, but her performance lacks the desperation – a vital ingredient in farce – of a long-time unknown finally given her one shot at stardom.

Terrence Riordan as the well-chiseled hit man with a helium voice and Patrick Kerr, as a lusty chubby-chaser make entertaining contributions and I would say Seth Rudetsky deserves a hand as a talent show competitor but, in the evening's best sight gag, he has enough of them already.

In his scene-stealing role as an orgy-hungry guest Chris, who puts his appetite on hold to come to Gaetano's aid, Brooks Ashmanskas' flair for flamboyance is put to perfect use as he regally graces Scott Pask's three leveled, multi-doored set in a loosely fitting robe tied ceremoniously at the front. If there's a message in The Ritz, it comes from Chris' carefree attitude that sex is a gift to be enjoyed.  It still is.  Just with a precaution or two.

By the way is it just me or is anyone else surprised that the movie version of Naked Boys Singing! wasn't filmed in 3-D?  I mean, I just assumed...

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Alec Beard and Gillian Jacobs in A Feminine Ending; Bottom: Rosie Perez and Kevin Chamberlin, with Terrence Riordan and Brooks Ashmanskas under the bed, in The Ritz


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