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Review - Cirque du Soleil's Totem & The Broadway Musicals of 1961

A human ball of silver glitter hanging from a cord is lowered above what looks like a bungalow-sized muffin top. (It's supposed to represent a turtle shell.) Before the glitter ball makes its landing the cover is removed to reveal what looks like a tribe of humanish amphibians bouncing on trampolines and twirling on the muffin/turtle's frame. Shortly after, a sleazy-looking clown in a tropical shirt tosses a condom to a woman in the front row and says, "Call me!" Yes, dear readers, Cirque du Soleil is back in town.

This time around the Canadian troupe of world class circus artists is playing the parking lot of Citi Field for a stint scheduled to end on May 12th, but if the Mets do as well as expected this season, the space should be available to them for many more months to come.

Written and directed by Robert Lepage, Totem is described by Cirque as "a fascinating journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly," but as is usually the case with their shows, the artistic theme is not the reason for going. Still, as long as the acrobats, jugglers, leapers and flyers are center stage, Totem is a wild and fun adventure.

Unfortunately, Cirque doesn't provide free programs with the identities of the artists and the proper names of the skills they display. More familiar routines include a troupe of beefy guys holding long poles parallel to the ground while lither fellows bounce from one to another in spectacular leaps. A muscular male dancer twirls his female partner at breathtaking - and one would think neck breaking - speeds. Another male and female couple in continuous motion maneuver around a high trapeze.

Five female unicyclists ride in formations while flinging bowls to each other that they catch atop their heads. A pair of ladies juggle flat, pizza-like objects with their feet and a fellow placed inside a clear cone keeps colored balls spinning around like electrons orbiting a nucleus.

Some of Cirque's more eye-popping acts, like the wheel of death and the balancing contortionists, are left out of this one, but the crazy assortment of costume and lighting effects are sufficiently opulent, and the intimacy of the circular tent gives most of the crowd a great up-close view.

Photos: OSA Images.

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Broadway musicals were certainly not lacking for star power during that hectic year of 1961, as big-name performers, writers and directors all fought for box office attention.

The legendary AlfrEd Drake starred as the legendary Edmund Kean in a musical scored by Robert Wright and George Forrest. Elaine Stritch headlined Noel Coward's Sail Away as Barbara Cook did for Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's The Gay Life. The Happiest Girl In The World boasted Cyril Ritchard in no less than eight roles with Yip Harburg's lyrics set to Jacques Offenbach melodies. That kid from Off-Broadway, Jerry Herman, penned his first Broadway score for Milk and Honey, which brought 2nd Avenue favorite Molly Picon uptown. Composer/lyricist Richard Adler made his return to Broadway after the death of his partner, Jerry Ross, with the most controversial musical of the season, Kwamina, concerning an interracial love story in an emerging African nation, played out by Sally Ann Howes and Terry Carter.

The two biggest hits of the year were Anna Maria Alberghetti and, in his Broadway debut, Jerry Orbach in Bob Merrill, Michael Stewart and Gower Champion's Carnival! and Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee in Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows' How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, but if you were reading the early edition of the New York Herald Tribune on December 28th, you might have been tricked into thinking that the new Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne show, Subways Are For Sleeping, had just opened to unanimous raves because producer David Merrick, knowing he wouldn't get any money reviews, got permission from seven people with the same names as New York's seven opening night newspaper critics to attribute glowing quotes to them in a print ad. (Word of the scam spread quickly and the Trib was the only paper that printed it.)

And yet with all that musical theatre muscle being flexed, only a handful of songs from that year became popular standards. Even members of the knowledgeable audiences that frequent Town Hall's Broadway By The Year series might have been hearing more than half of these tunes for the first time. Fortunately, creator/writer/host Scott Siegel always recruits a top-shelf lineup of performers, accompanied by music director Ross Patterson helming his Little Big Band, to provide the most artistically satisfying of introductions.

Jeffrey Denman, one of contemporary musical theatre's top song and dance men, directed and choreographed the event, teaming up twice for charming duets of Coward's "When You Want Me" and Johnny Burke's "I Wouldn't Bet One Penny" (from Donnybrook!, a musical based on The Quiet Man) with his wife, accomplished Broadway gypsy Erin Denman. The former also relived a couple of moments from the days when he understudied Matthew Broderick in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, backed by a male ensemble for the classic "I Believe In You" and leading the company in a rousing "Brotherhood of Man."

Christine Andreas' entrancing vocals and intelligent dramatic phrasing sublimely brought out the mixture of melancholy and hopefulness in Sail Away's title song and graced Carnival!'s "Mira" and Happiest Girl's "Adrift on a Star" with warmth and charm.

Another fine musical theatre actress, Kerry O'Malley, brought some needed depth to two tepid ballads from Kwamina ("What's Wrong With Me?" and "Another Time, Another Place") but was far better showcased in How To Succeed's tongue-in-cheek homage to suburban conformity, "Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm" and Kean's richly romantic "Sweet Danger."

Two Carnival! ballads originated with Jerry Orbach's dark baritone ("She's My Love" and "Her Face") were given a new sound via Scott Coulter's sweet, airy tenor.

Fans of Emily Skinner may have been surprised to hear her singing in a legit soprano voice for The Gay Life's "Magic Moments" but her Broadway belt was back for a daffy, neurotic spin on Coward's comic gem, "Why Do The Wrong People Travel?"

Ensemble highlights included O'Malley, Skinner, Coulter and Denman in a jazzy four-part harmonizing of Subways' "Comes Once In A Lifetime" and an unamplified mixing of two ballads of romantic longing; Let It Ride's "His Own Little Island," (Coulter, Denman and Felipe Tavolaro) and Donnybrook!'s "For My Own" (Andreas, O'Malley and Skinner).

Tavolaro, who made a one-night trip to New York from his native Brazil to be in the concert, is a member of the Broadway By The Year Chorus, a group of young professionals directed by Coulter, that opened the show accompanying Andreas in Carnival!'s "Love Makes The World Go Round" and commenced the second act with a spirited, unamplified rendition of Milk and Honey's title song and its most popular melody, "Shalom."

Photos by Stephen Sorokoff: Top: Jeffry Denman and Erin Denman; Bottom: Emily Skinner.

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In another example of how Broadway can chew up and spit out promising young hopefuls, it has been reported today that Montie, the understudy for the cat in Breakfast At Tiffany's has been fired for not being able to remember his blocking. Guess it's back to dinner theatre productions of The Lieutenant of Inishmore for him.

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The shorthand response for why the original production of It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman only managed to eke out a three and a half month run on Broadway has traditionally been that the show opened during a newspaper strike.

And while there were most likely other factors involved, the lack of printed dailies, which were then the ticket-buying public's primary source of up-to-date rialto info, certainly made it difficult for director/producer Harold Prince and his publicity crew to get the point across that this was not a family entertainment meant to appeal to adolescent boys or adults hankering for a bit of childhood nostalgia, but rather a hip and deceptively smart evening of campy vaudeville that capitalized on the 60s trend of seeing Americana through retro-mod shades.

Even its lengthy title, necessitated by DC Comics' insistence that the name of the musical could not be simply Superman, was part of a 60s trend among plays and musicals (The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever...). Another stipulation that limited the involvement of characters from the source material forced first-time bookwriters David Newman and Robert Benton to create new foes for the Man of Steel.

At that time the pair was best known for their Esquire article, "The New Sentimentality," which challenged the acceptance of traditional values in favor of exploring individual feelings. No doubt inspired by their findings, they devised a plot whereby a ten time Nobel Prize losing scientist, Dr. Abner Sedgwick, hurt from seeing his contributions to society so frequently overshadowed, decides to take his revenge on the world by destroying Superman. Knowing the crime fighter is physically indestructible, he attacks him psychologically by having the hero of Metropolis consider for the first time that he has the power to help prevent the conditions that breed criminal activity, but instead prefers to allow crime to exist because he enjoys the adulation and celebrity he receives by catching crooks. ("'Superman.' Did you choose that name yourself?") Dr. Sedgwick is joined in his scheme by the Daily Planet's swinging bachelor gossip columnist, Max Mencken, a spewer of innuendo and self-serving patriotism who is jealous of Superman's status as the top guy in town, and a troupe of Chinese acrobats known as The Flying Lings, who have gone broke because Metropolitans no longer pay to see their act when they can watch Superman fly for free. (Chinese acrobats, as any frequent viewer of The Ed Sullivan Show will tell you, were a significant part of 1960s pop culture.)

On the romantic side, Newman and Benton present a Lois Lane who, in love with the ideal Superman but sick of his indifference to commitment, starts dating a nice, normal guy who, despite his flaws, is openly devoted to her, emotionally available for a long-term relationship and, in the end, turns out to be, arguably, more heroic than Superman. In turn, Max's secretary, Sydney, tired of her handsome and connected boss' lack of attention, starts flirting with fixer-upper Clark Kent, who is fascinated with the notion that he doesn't have to be a perfect Superman to attract this cute and spunky sparkplug.

Add some jokes referencing Tennessee Williams and Enrico Fermi, a plot twist involving Communist spies, insanely catchy music by Charles Strouse that mixes 60s pop, midnight jazz and brassy showtune and crazily funny lyrics by Lee Adams that frequently find the most perfectly awful rhymes ("You know you're really quite a dish. / You're what a guy might call delish... / You're packed as sold as a knish.") and you've got a truly unexpected brand of musical comedy.

There have been several revised versions of It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman through the years, including an attempt to replace the vaudevillian camp of the show with a firmer plot and another that, responding to complains that The Flying Lings were a racist caricature of Chinese people, replaced them with a French acrobatic troupe. Fortunately, the current Encores! concert version of the show, with the script only slightly edited, embraces its loosely-plotted showbiz roots and retains the Lings, though in an interpretation that I doubt anyone would find objectionable.

From John Lee Beatty's colorful skyline setting, styled somewhere between Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Rob Berman conducts the 27-piece onstage orchestra playing Eddie Sauter's exciting, detailed and period-evoking orchestrations; some of the best ever penned for Broadway. Sauter had a long career as a jazz arranger and entered musical theatre late in life, but his short stay also included outstanding work for The Apple Tree and 1776.

Director John Rando, one of the best musical comedy directors around, could have probably used a little more time than the brief rehearsal period Equity allows for concert productions to firm up the stylized humor, but nevertheless his terrific ensemble delivers an evening's worth of knockout performances while choreographer Joshua Bergasse's dancers quote enough go-go moves to fill up a season's worth of Hullabaloo.

In the title role, Ed Watts' square-jawed handsomeness, fine physique and virile baritone are capped with a comic naiveté well-suited for the role. As Lois Lane, Jenny Powers brings to mind mod vocalists like Petula Clark and Lulu, sporting costume designer Paul Tazewell's Carnaby Street-inspired mini-dresses, whereas Alli Mauzey, who, as Sydney, snazzily belts the score's popular jazz rumba, "You've Got Possibilities" appears cut out of Eydie Gorme's Las Vegasy cloth.

Will Swenson's snarkily sleazy Max is so faux-charming he can sneer through a toothy-white grin while crooning a fond farewell to his nemesis ("Here's mud in your x-ray eye.") and David Pittu's scene-stealing Dr. Sedgwick perfectly balances over-the-top villainy with smart explorations of the scripts most satirical edges. As his unsuspecting assistant, Jim, Adam Monley's nerdy maturity makes for interesting competition for Lois Lane's heart.

As far as The Flying Lings are concerned, such care seems to be taken to make their portrayal non-offensive that their realism seems a bit out of place in the cartoon world of the production. (The lyrics of their "Everything's Easy When You Know How " are scrapped.) But the intense warrior-like skills demonstrated by Craig Henningsen, Suo Liu, Jason Ng and Scott Weber do indeed fly spectacularly, particularly when they're engaged in choreographEd Battle during the climatic 11 o'clock number, "Pow! Bam! Zonk!"

Does Superman fly? Not with cables or cords, he doesn't. But this week at City Center the musical that bears his name soars with the kind of infectious fun that Broadway musical comedy does best.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Jenny Powers and Edward Watts; Center: Alli Mauzey and Will Swenson; Bottom: David Pittu and Will Swenson.

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