Editor's Desk

Staged Reading

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Arts Journalism, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

There's something about a long career on Broadway that makes lots of people think that their experiences are worth putting down in book form; over the years, I've known rehearsal pianists, dressers, chorus boys and stage hands who were busily scribbling their memoirs, most of which never saw the light of day. Now, one of Broadway's respected press agents, SUSAN L. SCHULMAN, has succumbed to the temptation. The result, Backstage Pass to Broadway: True Tales from a Theatre Press Agent, has just been published by Heliotrope Books. In Schulman's case, her efforts have been worth it; she's written a funny, sometimes shocking book about the things she's seen on Broadway for the past forty-plus years. (She got her feet wet in 1970 with Applause, starring the famously dyspeptic LAUREN BACALL, something that probably would have had most fledgling press agents applying for the night shift at Howard Johnson's.) Schulman is admittedly star-struck; there's a gosh-gee-whiz quality to many of her anecdotes, but her book is best when she's chronicling bad behavior: DAVID MERRICK's young wife NATALIE, LESLEY ANNE WARREN and JOHN DEXTER come off worst. If only most people who work in the opera industry were half this candid about their experiences, my job would be a lot more fun. 

BRIAN KELLOW

The Pop Side

(Brian Kellow, Crossover, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Theater, Cabaret) Permanent link

Anyone who wants a juicy demonstration of savvy, old-time show-biz razzle dazzle shouldn't think of missing Sin Twisters, the new club act starring ANITA GILLETTE and PENNY FULLER at Manhattan's popular theater-district nightspot 54 Below. I attended the opening on October 2. Sharply and confidently directed by BARRY KLEINBORT, Sin Twisters is frequently hilarious, frequently touching, and even more frequently awe-inspiring. Gillette and Fuller never attained top Broadway stardom, but they are two of the most respected and versatile actresses of their generation — what used to be called darlings of the theater. The show's title is a spoonerism — a treasured gag that runs through the show, adding to its infectious spirit. ("Pit it, Haul!" Gillette called out at one point to musical director PAUL GREENWOOD, whose stylish pianism and gorgeous vocals added immeasurably to the evening. I should probably admit here that I've always been a sucker for spoonerisms, "Ballulah Tankhead" being my own personal favorite.)

In this generously programmed act, both Gillette and Fuller showed crack comic timing and solid vocals, as they wove their way through a loose narrative that ticked off high points of their careers but never became stale or predictable. A raucous high point was Gillette's ultra-swacked rendition of "If I Were a Bell," from Guys and Dolls; she reached a stunning emotional peak with "Isn't He Something?" from Stephen Sondheim's Bounce, and the gorgeous "Once Upon a Time," from All American, which she sang with Fuller. (I've never known anyone of a certain age who didn't succumb to this lovely song). I had always considered "One Halloween" one of the junkier numbers from the 1970 musical Applause, a show that an Encores! concert presentation of a few years ago proved is beyond reviving. But in Fuller's expert hands (she received a Tony nomination for the role of Eve Harrington), it was magical — an example of a real artist transforming her mediocre material. In duet, Gillette and Fuller shone in "Little Me" and a medley of tunes from Cabaret; both actresses had their turn playing Sally Bowles on Broadway. The audience, which included SHELDON and MARGERY HARNICK, JOHN GLOVER, HARVEY EVANS, SONDRA LEE, MALCOLM GETS and LEROY REAMS, came away with a bracing sense of two women who have gotten the most out of their careers and still have many premium performing miles to go. They'll reprise Sin Twisters at Club 54 on October 9. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Free to Be

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening, Keeping it Local, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

Why is it so difficult for some singers simply to be themselves onstage? It's fascinating how quickly we can pick up on a singer's discomfort. A poorly chosen program, a determination to stand back from the emotional content of the music, a tendency to joke around too much onstage, can all become a kind of distracting armor that prevents performers from fully showing themselves to us. Throughout her performing career, and in the many master classes she has taught around the country, Barbara Cook has advocated throwing off that armor. On October 18, when Carnegie Hall presented her in an eighty-fifth birthday concert, she demonstrated a lifetime of lessons learned. Her music director/pianists were Ted Rosenthal and Lee Musiker, and the show was scripted by David Thompson, produced by Jeff Berger and directed by Daniel Kutner. 

Cook has made many appearances at Carnegie over the years — the first being in 1961, with Leonard Bernstein. "Here I am again," she said when she padded onstage. "Blinked my eye — and eighty-five!" She then launched into a highly satisfying program, skipping some of her famous theater hits ("Vanilla Ice Cream," from She Loves Me, "They Were You," from The Fantasticks, "It's Not Where You Start," from Seesaw) in favor of a well-chosen collection of pop and jazz standards. In places, Cook's voice sounded drier than it has on past occasions, and now and then, from her seated position, she couldn't quite muster the support for an isolated high note, so that her vibrato widened in ways we aren't used to hearing. But for the most part she was in excellent voice, nailing stunning high notes in "Georgia on My Mind" and "When Sunny Gets Blue" and making a heartrending lament out of "Bye Bye Blackbird." There were a few miscalculations: Dan Hicks's country-flavored "list" song, "I Don't Want Love," is better suited to a performer who uses bolder, cruder strokes, and Musiker's arrangement of "I've Got You Under My Skin" undulated so much that the song itself got lost. But the almost-forgotten '30s ballad "If I Love Again" was pure, heartfelt magic, and "The Nearness of You" and "Makin' Whoopee" were all but flawless. At the concert's end, some surprise guest stars — John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey, Sheldon Harnick, Susan Graham and Josh Groban — showed up to boost the birthday celebration by each doing a turn; the high point was Groban's cleanly sung performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around." 

But it wasn't as much an evening about music-making or vocalizing as it was about honesty. Clearly, it took Cook many years to reach the point of exhibiting such ease onstage, so we shouldn't insult her by describing her art as "effortless." But it is a rare pleasure to listen to an artist who never forgets that her biggest job up there onstage is just letting us know who she is. spacer 

The Classics Laid Bare

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances, Keeping it Local, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

Blogs Jacobi 1 511
Derek Jacobi as Lear in Michael Grandage's production, currently at BAM
© Johan Persson

Perhaps the best way to preview Michael Grandage's new production of Don Giovanni, due at the Met this fall, is to see his staging of King Lear, playing at BAM until June 5. The works have some things in common — the necessity of vivid, meaningful ensemble work; a descent into wildness as night falls halfway through the show; and a seminal place in each artist's oeuvre in competition with a sometimes more widely esteemed work (Le Nozze di Figaro, Hamlet). Of course, both protagonists spend a good deal of time with their shirts unbuttoned, too, though for admittedly different reasons.

Don Giovanni and King Lear share a common pitfall, too: they can both fall victim to pageantry. Grandage strips the stage naked for his Lear, leaving rows of planks upon which the action unfolds. The play benefits from quick, seamless transitions between scenes, thanks to the unit set, which puts a burning emphasis on the interaction between characters.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the Don Giovanni will go without eye-popping designs. The Donmar Warehouse, where Grandage is artistic director, has shown another way to humanize a classical work. For its sizzling Broadway production of Mary Stuart from 2009, the battling queens were sumptuously attired in period fashions — a visual feast against a spare background that threw into relief both the costumes and Schiller's ornate language.

Either way, if Grandage brings this kind of depth and humanity to Mozart, Met-goers are in for a real treat. spacer 

OUSSAMA ZAHR


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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3