On Monday, September 26, I was officially in Musical Comedy Heaven, with a double feature of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Big Time,” followed that evening by The Actors’ Fund benefit performance of “On the Twentieth Century.”
Beane is one of the few living writers I can always count on to make me laugh out loud and “The Big Time,” with the sprightliest music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen, was the undoubted highlight of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. For once, in this particular theatrical genre, the book was the draw, although everything else, from Christopher Ashley’s nimble direction to the chic set and impeccable cast, was pretty special, too. Debbie Gravitte and Sal Viviano shined as Donna and Tony Stevenitti, two hack Las Vegas lounge singers somehow mistaken for the real Steve and Edie (Lawrence and Gormé, to you), especially when she whined “We’re going over like ham salad at a Hadassah! The last time I asked for a request, a nun in the audience yelled ‘Shut up!’” and he managed to break your heart amidst all the hilarity with a love ballad dedicated to her.
As a Russian terrorist decrying “evil” capitalistic Western entertainment like Fosse choreography, unfunny Abbott & Costello/Laurel & Hardy routines, and jazz scatting, the peerless Jackie Hoffman was, as always, peerless, snarling, “Whoever heard of doing a musical at one o’clock in the afternoon? I still have phlegm from my coffee!” And what about Bradley Dean as a light-footed CIA agent, giving satirical voice to my favorite absurd musical line of them all, “God, I’m a dancer! A dancer dances!” This show was simply riddled with big laughs, or, as Beane posits, “Neil Simon laughs.”
Tout musical-mad Manhattan—that is, every gay man in the five boroughs, plus Connecticut—turned out for “On the Twentieth Century,” which was given probably the best performance it has ever gotten. I say this, being old enough to have seen the original 1978 Broadway production and being underwhelmed by it. I worship the 1934 Howard Hawks film on which it’s based, but never really thought its breath-neck script needed the padding of songs. I found the Cy Coleman score unmemorable, John Cullum miscast as the egomaniacal Oscar Jaffe, and Madeline Kahn ditheringly weak as Lily Garland. A magnetic Kevin Kline was the sole highlight, in the role of a matinee idol, which shot him to real stardom, just as Lily Garland did Carole Lombard in the film. Imogene Coca was merely impishly irritating, giving one of those Helen Hayes/”Airpor-ain’t-I-adorable?” old bag performances.
What a joy, then, in 2005, to apprehend an on-fire Douglas Sills giving a performance every bit as good as John Barrymore’s immortal turn in the film (plus vocalese) and Marin Mazzie, my personal candidate for the new Ethel Merman/Real Queen of Broadway title, absolutely acting the shit out of dear old Lily. These are killer roles in every sense, with their vocal and hysterical histrionic demands, and both performances were the stuff of legend. And Kathleen Turner reminded us of what a great comedienne she is, playing a faded diva, scarily asked to sing at an audition.
The entire evening, with its smooth Peter Flynn direction and luminous cast, was a triumph for artistic producer/ music director Seth Rudetsky, who confessed to initially balking at the idea of doing it when it was presented. Phyllis Newman, widow of Adolph Green, who co-wrote it with a sadly absent Betty Comden, charmingly introduced the show, wearing, as she confessed, all the jewelry Green had given her.
Another highlight of the Musical Festival was “The Banger’s Flopera.” Decidedly not everyone’s cuppa for its raucous—I thought pretty sensational—rock score (John Gideon) and gratuitously gross script, this new porno/hiphop/punk take on John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” worked for me. I particularly loved the song, “My Bad,” which could be the “Somewhere” for a new generation. Sure Kirk Wood Bromley’s book and exhaustingly lewd lines could be pared down, but there was no denying all the originality and creativity on stage, plus wonderful performances by Joe Pindelski of the powerhouse voice as Macky, April Vidal as a Polly Peachum nymphet to end all (“Gangstas make my girl goop gush”), a surprisingly touching Hank Wagner as The Beggar and Anni Bruno as an operatically rapping Polly’s mother. But what up with Sarah Engelke, last seen as the charming lead of Cole Porter’s oh-so-different “Nymph Errant”? She listed herself in the program as Sarah@somedot.org domain, Hey girl, be proud—you’re an eye-catching talent and this show was nothing to be ashamed of!
Things were not so great elsewhere on the musical alterna-Rialto. We can draw a veil over “Plane Crazy” (seen September 24), which took the peppy idea of ‘60s stewardesses and quadrupled the inanity factor, and “Camille” (October 1) with lyrics like “She’s Madame Camellia/Beware of your genitalia.” Despite a strong cast, including two talented “Altar Boyz” alumni, David Josefsberg and Andy Karl (dance-wise, the most soulful white boy on the planet), “Slut” (also seen October 1) was a facile disappointment. This show seemed aimed at the kind of straight audiences who have unaccountably made “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” a long-running hit. I mean, with ‘Slut” as a title, don’t you need at least one gay character?
“In the Wings,’ which I caught on its September 28 opening night, was critically slaughtered, but lovable Marilyn Sokol attacked her part, as James Agee used to say “as if it was sirloin and no one was looking,” and the party was a blast. One of those obnoxious double-decker tourist buses took us to Planet Hollywood and we had this clueless guide up top, hilariously pointing out Lincoln Center to the most jaded bunch of New Yorkers ever assembled.
I sat with funny duo Christine Pedi, now happily working her beloved Atlantis cruises, and Bryan Batt, and we cheered for him when the guide mentioned his “Cats” as having broken records at the Winter Garden, and screamed when the guide told him he looked like George Clooney. Batt did look fab in a mauve Etro eyelet jacket; he told me he had matching pants but not the nerve to wear them.
At Planet Hollywood, “Wings” playwright Stewart F. Lane, who has done everything from male model to produce the original “La Cage aux Folles,” clued me in about his upcoming musical, “Princesses.”
“Our out of town Variety review was very encouraging, so now we’re rewriting it, reworking the characters, and adding a couple of songs,” he confided. “We expect to do a reading here in New York in December, at which time I’m hoping a theater will shake out. I’m looking for a house with about 1,200 seats. The Palace, which I own, is too large—you need a cast of at least 30 to fill the stage. The Virginia, Al Hirschfeld, or Dodgers would be ideal, but they’re all booked.”
The book of “Princesses” is an update of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic “A Little Princess,” which made one of Shirley Temple’s more watchable films.
“It’s a contemporary take on these wealthy girls in an all-girl school in upstate New York who are forced to put on a production of ‘A Little Princess’ by a music teacher,” Lane said. “She wants to teach them character and responsibility through the arts, so it’s a little Brecht—a play within a play. The storyline of the play begins to mirror their real lives as father and daughter.
“David Zippel conceived it, put the team together, and it’s his first time directing. I came on later and saw the vision—a clear story line with pop music. When was the last time we had real pop music in a Broadway show? That is exciting and brings young people back into the theatre without it being a jukebox musical.”
By the way, for you costume-devotee lovers of the legendary Irene Sharaff, Planet Hollywood displays three of her creations—Yul Brynner’s “King and I,” plus Natalie Wood’s and Russ Tamblyn’s “West Side Story” drag. Now, where else but here would you learn that?
And who doesn’t love the house of Hermés, especially if you can afford it? However, even for you cash-challenged non-fashionistas, there’s reason to visit the boutique at 691 Madison Avenue at 62nd Street to see the photograph exhibition, “Half Life,” by the talented Michael Ackerman, through November 5. In the beautiful, circular gallery space there are black and white images of my favorite subject—men—of every stripe, taken around the world.
Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com