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“Heights” channels “All About Eve,” the swoony strains of “South Pacific”

Check out first-time director Chris Terrio’s “Heights,” set in the New York theater world, in which Glenn Close, James Marsden, the adorable, very busy Jesse Bradford, Rufus Wainwright, Isabella Rosselini and a host of others playing gay and straight characters, collide romantically, as well as professionally.

The film was the last produced by the late Ismail Merchant, of Merchant-Ivory, and his name was on the lips of everyone who celebrated its opening at an intimate, Vanity Fair/Armani-sponsored soiree at chic Frederick’s on June 6. Terrio, 28, told me, “The good thing is Ismail loved this movie, and hopefully this will make him proud in some way. I hope that James Ivory will continue to make movies. Ismail wanted to do a project in New York for years, and this script was floating around and finally we got it off the ground. He was so happy, because this was his baby for a while. Merchant-Ivory came up with the money and let me do my thing. It was a tremendous risk for them and I will always be grateful that they took a chance on an untested director.”

Terrio met the producers when he worked as literary assistant to Ivory on “The Golden Bowl.” When I told him that his movie was, also, a nifty gay story, he said, “Thanks. It’s very specific. I’m not gay but I’m certainly not a stranger to that whole Chelsea world, so I didn’t ever feel like I was intruding in some foreign culture. I have coffee at Big Cup all the time and couldn’t think of anywhere else that could be the setting for one scene. As James Ivory said, ‘Every film is a period film,’ so hopefully this film is one, too, about New York City in 2005. And what I like is that there are gay characters, but it’s almost beside the point whether they’re gay or not. The Rufus Wainwright character and others are really normalized, which maybe ten years ago was something we couldn’t have done. Their being gay would have been the whole point of the film.”

“All About Eve” is a definite touchstone here and Terrio said, “I’m glad you’re the one who got it. There are even certain shots that I borrowed from ‘Eve,’ like when Glenn is leaving the theater, that’s when Margo Channing is leaving the theater and of course at one point I allude to Eve Harrington very deliberately. Probably only about five people get it but I wanted that because I love that movie too and felt that in any New York theater movie there had to be some reference to it.”

Terrio described Close as “a dream. I’d work with her in anything she wanted to do in a second. She was intimidating just at our very first meeting when I felt she was auditioning me. But once we got into the rehearsal room she became any other actor who rolls up their sleeves and gets to work because she really is a woman of the theater, not one of these film stars who’s worried about status. She just wants to do good work.”

When I told Close how very Margo Channing she was, she laughed. “There were aspects of that. My character was wonderful––a good wig. I had never really gone brunette on film before, so I wanted to try it. At her age she could be any color, so why not go for it? I thought the script was really good and when I met Chris, I totally fell in love with him––young, brilliant, funny, erudite and incredibly well educated. Ismail introduced him when he was an assistant on our film ‘Le Divorce,’ and it was he who sensed Chris’ talent and backed him up. I miss Ismail––his energy and larger-than-life personality. He loved cooking for everyone, all these great Indian meals.”

Later this summer, Close has another film, “The Chumscrubb­er,” which she describes as “another little film by a first-time director, really interesting. I play a mother whose son has committed suicide. It’s again with a very gifted, young director, Arie Posen, who knows exactly what he wants and has the talent and hunger to do the long haul.”

Sadly, she won’t be doing “A Little Night Music” on Broadway, which Jeremy Irons told me he was dying to do with her.

“No, I’m not going to do theater for a while because my daughter has her last year in high school,” Close explained. “She’s actually given up horseback riding. She did really well and loved it, but she didn’t want to make it her life. I’m happy because she missed a lot because of the discipline of the riding, and can now reconnect with friends and have a really great senior year.”

When I said to hard-partying James Marsden, “What a shit you played in this movie,” he laughingly replied, “Oh no, I liked him! I empathized with him, actually, a good, conflicted character is always fun to play. I read the script and my agents sent me a short film of Chris’ which I thought was pretty incredible. I said, ‘I’ll play any role you want me to.’ This is kind of a sad occasion because of Ismail, but we celebrate him for this is the kind of work that was his life. He was on the set every other day, making food for everybody, he made you feel like family and I’m proud to be a part of this.”

Hottie Marsden’s next film is “Alibi,” with Rebecca Romijn, Steve Coogan and Selma Blair.

“It’s about a guy who creates an alibi service for people who want to cheat on their husbands and wives,” Marsden told me. “A fun movie; it was nice to work with Rebecca, and she was not in full makeup!”

The real star of the glitzy Carnegie Hall benefit concert of “South Pacific” on June 9 was the magnificent Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under the masterful baton of Paul Gemignani. From the first notes of the overture––the inexpressibly lush strains of “Bali Hai–– the hall was awash in the sumptuousness of Richard Rodgers’ unsurpassed melodic genius. I sat behind Lauren Bacall and Phyllis Newman, who gushed over Brian Stokes Mitchell’s voice like two schoolgirls. He was, indeed, in top form, but I wish director Walter Bobbie had let him perform the role of Emile de Becque sans French accent. If you’re going to play around with the racial scheme of things, casting-wise, why stick with an obviously feigned accent, especially in a concert version, that merely restricts a performer and limits the music’s appeal?

As accents go, Reba McEntire’s couldn’t have been more corn-pone, making her Nellie Forbush even more of a “hick from the sticks” than usual. It really worked, however, as did her country voice, bringing fresh flavor to the old Mary Martin standards. Of course, you really had to witness Martin’s heartbreakingly ecstatic response to Ezio Pinza’s “Some Enchanted Evening” to understand that legend’s true magic.

What didn’t work was the cast’s heavy reliance on their scripts, especially during the songs. While one can understand the lack of time and rehearsal involved in these one-night-only specials, surely they could have learned at least some of the songs by heart. Show queens in the audience were practically ready to jump up on that stage!

PBS cameras recorded the evening for a broadcast next spring, and one can only wonder at the editing challenges this will produce, with so much intense onstage script reading going on.

When McEntire gleefully performed “Honey Bun,” the least significant song in the score, but the one she actually knew in its entirety, the show really took off, as it did during the stirring male chorus of “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” Jason Daniely was in honeyed tenor voice, and Alec Baldwin in fine, mega-butch, comic form as Billings, especially in coconut shell bra and grass skirt. But when, exactly, did Baldwin morph into Jackie Gleason?

Lilias White was an okay Bloody Mary, a bit overblown if that’s possible, but, as an Asian/Pacific Island-er from Oahu, I think at least one cast member could have been culled from that wide racial category in this casting mélange. Anyone deemed Polynesian in the original script’s many references was played by an African American. In particular, seeing black actress Alex de Castro, as Mary’s daughter, do fake hula-hula movements during “Happy Talk” just didn’t read right to me.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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