We honor Agnes Moorehead annually with awards in her name for the best live performances of the year because there was no actress more versatile than she. Recent viewings of two of her films confirmed this for me once again — unnecessary as that was.
In the classic, essential women’s jail drama “Caged,” she could have played any of the more flamboyant inmates portrayed so memorably by embattled Betty Garde, dykey Lee Patrick, and that terrific human gargoyle Hope Emerson. Instead, she was the prison’s warden, investing this essentially sympathetic, yet ultimately powerless authoritarian with a nicely dry concern for her prisoners that never veered into sentiment.
And she was on the wrong side of the law in “The Revolt of Mamie Stover,” as Bertha Parchman — she always had the best movie names! — the madam of a notorious downtown Honolulu brothel during World War II. Platinum blonde here and enjoining her “hostesses” to sparkle while they push drinks to GI’s, she’s the most convincing whoremistress in film history, with a fascinating moment when, in a heated argument with her thuggish factotum, he says, “You’re nothing but an ugly…” and she interrupts him with an acidic “Don’t say it!”
In no particular order, the “Aggie” awards for 2013:
David Adjmi’s genius, funny, and wrenching post-modern take on that French queen was, hands down, the most thrilling, original play of the year. Rebecca Taichman’s superb direction provided the perfect minimalist yet glowing frame for a captivatingly acerbic titular performance by Marin Ireland, which automatically enters the ranks of theatrical legend.
Who knew that those two refugees from John Waters indies and in-your-face downtown performance art, Mink Stole and Penny Arcade, could be the perfect, raffishly compelling interpreters of later Tennessee Williams? Vividly directed by Cosmin Chivu, with a spanking Dixieland band onstage, this was by far the most successful Williams production seen in New York in a decade, at least.
“The Assembled Parties”
After so many indifferent outings, ever-fecund playwright Richard Greenberg really scored with this compelling family saga and comedy of manners, which recalled the elegance of S.N. Behrman and Philip Barry, with added social content. Jessica Hecht’s deliciously mannered performance drove some viewers crazy, but I think it beautifully fueled the production.
“Buyer and Cellar”
For sheer, deliciously accessible entertainment, Jonathan Tolins’ study of ultimate acquisitiveness as perpetrated by ultimate star Barbra more than fit the bill. Michael Urie’s dazzling virtuosic performance will live on in the memory of anyone who saw it. (Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St. at Seventh Ave. S., through Apr. 13; barrowstre
“Motown the Musical”
And while we’re talking accessible, all you had to do here was relax into your seat before wanting to jump up and dance to the evergreen, bewilderingly vast catalogue of hits the world has embraced for generations. The book was avid, to say the least, but never has this mattered less in a musical, faced with the jaw-dropping barrage of musical talent onstage, with a special holla to Valisia LeKae’s uncanny Diana Ross, Charl Brown’s Smokey Robinson, and Raymond Luke, Jr.’s adorable Michael Jackson/ Little Stevie Wonder. (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.; motownthem
“The Trip to Bountiful”
A black cast breathed beautiful new life into Horton Foote’s chestnut. Magnificent Cicely Tyson made the most spectacular big star comeback in years, finally front and center in a role worthy of her, like her “Sounder” and “Miss Jane Pittman” four decades ago. She and wonderful co-stars Vanessa Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr., found fresh, often bitchy humor in the corn-pone material that was nothing short of revelatory.
The late Adrian Bunting’s play was a deserved top prize winner at NYC Fringe. This clever, colorful, and informative work was about the London riots of 1809, which started when the rebuilt Covent Garden theater charged ticket prices that infuriated its patrons to an incendiary degree. Sheer, brazen charm was the order of the day here, especially in the sterling performances of the great Guy Masterson and Beth Fitzgerald, as well as hilarious audience plants Matt Baetz and Marla Schultz.
Judy Collins at Town Hall
I finally caught up with this music legend and was overwhelmed by her utterly ageless Valkyrie beauty and that unchanged voice, which is so enduringly resonant that it seems to contain its own personal Dolby sound system.
Bettye Lavette at Town Hall
Another mythic artist delivered total originality, an irresistibly salty stage presence, and ultra-loose jazz-funk song stylings that defied easy classification — the mark of a true, imperishable artist
Good, fun camp, rare as it is, is always welcome, done to a fare-thee-well by Manhattan showbiz-ites who really know what they’re about. This parody of 1970s disaster epics featured the shlockiest songs of the era, brayed by the motliest assortment of characters since, well, “The Poseidon Adventure.” Mary Testa’s Shelley Winters tribute and Jonah Verdon’s hysterical double role as brother and sister moppets were cast stand-outs, but Jennifer Simard’s convulsing nun, Sister Mary, a recovering gambling addict, really stole the show, the single funniest performance I saw this year. (St. Luke’s Theatre, 208 W. 46th St., through Feb. 28; disastermu
Also in the cast of “Disaster!” is Matthew Farcher, who, portraying the ship’s hunky player of a waiter, is another big reason for the show’s success. When he sang that un-killable Gilbert O’Sullivan hit, “Alone Again, Naturally,” his stunning clarion tenor actually cut through the self-pitying corn of the lyrics, making them seem truly heartfelt, and I immediately thought, “This is a voice I’ve gotta hear more of!”
Farcher easily fits the handsome, blonde leading man physical requirement for his role, but even more attractive is his easy-going modesty and good-natured availability. Although he had a show to do and it was his 23rd birthday, he took time off to meet me at a local Starbucks for a quick interview — that’s the kind of good guy he is.
When I complimented his rendition of that song, he laughed: “Yeah, it’s all the music you love to hate. But I’m lucky that all the songs sit right in my register, making them easy to sing. I’m also so lucky I got the part. I went to the general audition and was surprised that Seth Rudetsky [the show’s star and co-creator] not only was there, but played the piano for me. I was nervous — he’s famous! — but he immediately put me at my ease. He knows all this music so well, he can play it by heart, and was sitting there at the piano, watching my every move. I’m sure they could have gone with a bigger name, so I am grateful that I’ve gotten this great chance and am now meeting so many great people through the show. Seth knows everybody!
“It’s just so amazing to stand on that stage with Seth or Mary or Jennifer, performing with them and taking in all that incredible energy and talent. Every show is like a master class for me, watching them, and every show is so much fun! Even before we opened and the reviews were in, we were pretty confident this was a go because of the ecstatic audience reception we got in previews.”
Farcher hails from Saugerties upstate and is a bizarrely well-adjusted middle child who never had intentions of performing, being far more into baseball. Through his siblings, he got roped into school theatricals, but says that if he has talent, “It all comes from my mother [laughs]. She would want me to say that!” Productions of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Les Miz” really crystallized things for him and, “I started taking voice lessons.” (You can watch an incredible YouTube video of him gorgeously singing “Bring Him Home” at age 17.)
Farcher, single at the moment — “Yeah, no girlfriend” — went to Pace University and has done the typical actor/ waiter thing, waiting for that break, which “Disaster!” seems to be for him. Before this, he enjoyed performing the work of composer Adam Guettel (“a great experience”), and “Les Miz,” “Phantom” (both male leads) and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” are roles he aspires to play.
Farcher was also in the road company of “Beauty and the Beast,” playing Gaston, “which was kind of strange, but I worked out and bulked up as much as I could. Although I was nothing like the actor who replaced me, who was huge and could sing, and so right for the part.” The most Farcher told me about being replaced was that he got sick, but I later found out more of the story.
He was in Houston, when he caught what he thought was the flu, but which turned out to be a serious and rare auto-immune disease called aHUS (atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome). Luckily, the doctor treating him there had the drug Soliris, which treats aHUS. The Saugerties community rallied to his side to help him out with costs not covered by his health insurance — and offer some return for his family’s generosity over the years. Farcher’s parents own Lox of Bagels, a local eatery noted for the charitable work it does with students from the local high school — basing an annual holiday donation on the kids’ sizable bagel purchases over the year. Last year, the students turned the charitable tables on the Farchers. Pretending they were doing a school newspaper story on Lox of Bagels, senior class officers Eric Beresheim and Ryan Cornelison showed up, only to slip Matt an envelope with a check inside.
Between 300 and 500 people suffer from aHUS every year, so our holiday thoughts are with them and with the Farcher family. Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night!