Kelli O’Hara in South Pacific, Victoria Clark in Juno, Faith Prince in A Catered Affair, Linda Lavin in Pride and Joy (The New Century) and Jane Houdyshell in Crafty (The New Century)
by NY Theatre Buzz columnist Richard Seff
I’ll be in London April 11th to 18th gathering News of their Rialto for you, but I leave you with a spring bouquet of leading ladies who’ve pleased us all in the past, now returned to brighten our New York scene once again, all in splendid form, in vehicles worthy of all of them. I can’t go into the greatest of detail with so many properties to cover, but I’ll try to whet your appetite for all of them, for each in her own way, is a gem.
First, the radiant Kelli O’Hara, who ignited The Light in the Piazza in the Lincoln Center production at the Vivian E. Beaumont Theater. She’s returned to her old stamping grounds, trading Firenze and a young lover for an island in the South Pacific and a 44 year old French planter. Between engagements, of course, she finally won her battle for a 7 l/2 cent raise and won Harry Conniff Jr. in the bargain in Roundabout’s The Pajama Game.
Her glorious return to the Beaumont in a blazingly good production of South Pacific will make you wonder why it’s taken 50 years to bring this great Rodgers and Hammerstein success back to Broadway. Maybe everyone was waiting for Ms. O’Hara to grow into the role of Nellie Forbush, or perhaps everyone had to wait until Paulo Szot could be pried loose from his opera contracts to fill the shoes of Emile de Becque. Whatever the reason, it was well worth the wait. Both bring complexity, zest, and lots of sex appeal to this major work. The great surprise is that the story, once thought to be dated and very specific to World War II, isn’t dated at all. Oscar Hammerstein admitted he was having trouble with its book. He invited director Joshua Logan to break tradition (R and H never had a collaborator before Logan) to help him out, and a good thing too. The book is still totally relevant today, and its principal characters ring true, complete with their psychological warts and all. Prejudice has not gone away, and it runs all through this romance. Peopled with adults and written by adults, it deals with them straight on, and with our awareness heightened in the past half century, the gifted director Bartlett Sher has handed them to us so that they move and inform and entertain us all at once. The supporting cast, Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary, Danny Burstein as Luther Billis, Li Jun Li as Liat, fill these wonderful roles with flesh and blood. I can’t speak for Matthew Morrison, who plays Lieutenant Cable, for he was not on the day I saw the show. His understudy, Andrew Samonsky, sang it and acted it beautifully. I hear Morrison is very good in the role, but young Samonsky did far more than keep the curtain up. He has a future.
I’ve been harping on the dreadful sound systems that most recent musicals have been employing. This time out I change my tune and offer profound thanks to sound designer Scott Lehrer,. For once a glorious score came at us from the throats of the singers, and every lyric in the chorus numbers was clear as crystal. There is nothing like “There is Nothing Like a Dame” sung by a dozen men, with just enough implemented sound to excite, but not enough to fuzz up the words, and make shrill the voices. The ladies who chirped “I’m In Love with a Wonderful Guy” along with Ms. O’Hara were so easy on the ear, and so easy to understand. Thank you Mr. Lehrer, Mr. Sher and anyone else who had a hand in this. It proves what I’ve been screaming for months – that music in musical theatre can still thrill on its own. It doesn’t hurt to have an orchestra pit filled with talent under the direction of Ted Sperling, and we all owe the management at Lincoln Center a big thank you for that. This is the smash they’ve been looking for. It will be interesting to see if it can be transferred, or run on at the Beaumont. It certainly deserves to and you should put it high on your list of priorities if you come to visit us this spring or summer.
Next up for me was the Encores! Production of Mark Blitzstein’s 1959 Broadway flop Juno, a musical based on Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. Rumor was that it had merit, was under appreciated, and that one of its reasons for failure was that it opened in the same season as Gypsy, which sent it to the mat. At a post-performance seminar, Joseph Stein, its adapter, told us that no, it was more than that. He felt it was miscast, even though it starred two popular stars, Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas. Neither, he felt, were up to the demands of the score. And he admitted that there were other problems as well – some of which were apparent at Encores! It’s a tough story to tell, set in l921 during “the troubles” in Dublin. By changing the year of the original play’s setting, the combatants in the musical are the British and the Irish rather than the various factions among the Irish alone. But it’s a dark tale and involves the loss in battle of Juno’s beloved son, her troubled marriage with heavy drinker “Captain” Jack Boyle and his drinking buddy “Joxer” Daly. There is a secondary romantic triangle as well, but it’s hardly a happy one, and when your young lover must sing “I Wish It So” and “My True Heart”, when her frustrated suitor must sing tell me “One Kind Word”, well – it’s not exactly entertainment; it is not very good operetta.
This production is blessed with the talent of Victoria Clark as Juno. She has the courage to be mean and tough and straight on in a role that does not earn much audience sympathy. Her lament, deep in Act II, asking “Where?” (where was God when she needed him), when her lovely boy was being riddled with bullets, he who was so full of promise and love for his fellow man – Clark nailed it, and finally broke our hearts along with hers. Conrad John Shuck and Dermot Crowley were less original as her husband Jack Boyle and his pal Joxer, turning out stereotypically drinking Irishmen. Crowley in particular had a case of the cutes and came across as a road company Barry Fitzgerald. “Darlin’ Man’ could drive you to drink, it’s so precious. And “Farewell, Me Butty” will not replace “Let’s Be Buddies” as a buddy song. “What Is The Stars” is another number for the duo, and I found myself nodding through that one as well.
The rest of the score is more interesting, but often remains distant and self-important. There are masterful touches in it, including a lovely melody to “The Liffey Waltz” and a sweet tune to “Bird Upon A Tree” which gives Ms. Clark a moment of tenderness. Juno, it seemed to me, suited the agenda of the Encores! program. A major writer’s work was given an airing, a major musical performing talent was given a chance to stretch her wings (the role is light years away from the chic and uptight Margaret Johnson Ms. Clark illuminated so beautifully in The Light in the Plaza at Lincoln Center a season or two ago.) It also gave her the opportunity to work with Garry Hynes, the Irish director who gave us The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Ms. Hynes served up a dark, evocative and occasionally stirring rendition of this piece, but I don’t think it will be moving on. Not everything need be a masterpiece. For theatre lovers, there was much to be learned and admired. Call it a well-executed near miss.
The third musical in my very musical week was one about which I knew little in advance. I’d never seen A Catered Affair, the film (with a miscast Bette Davis playing mother to Debbie Reynolds), nor had I seen the original Paddy Chayefsky teleplay on which it was based. I admit it sounded rather dull: a kitchen sink drama about a poor Irish family in the Bronx of 1953. But never underestimate talent. Harvey Fierstein has fashioned a very warm and endearing play-with-music from this material, and added enough of his own to make it stand well on its own legs. It’s small to be sure, and may have trouble finding a large audience on Broadway. Ten characters, three of whom are peripheral, no chorus, no dancing, a score comprised only of solos, duets and trios does not spell a $100 ticket. But A Catered Affair is written and played with such simple honesty, it totally captured the preview audience of which I was one member.
Faith Prince as the mother, is remarkable in it. The book, which has meat in it, is a challenge to the lady playing this role, for Aggie is second cousin to her predecessor Juno, another tough, poor, frustrated Irish woman stuck in a loveless marriage (or so she thinks). Like Juno, she is grieving the loss of a son (another son lost in war). She admits to her daughter Janey that she knows she gave the girl short shrift when it came to love or support. Her husband Tom is a hard working taxi driver, whose only dream is to have his own cab medallion, and when he finally gets the money to buy that, via the government pension paid for his dead soldier son, his wife insists it be spent instead on a catered wedding affair, the one thing she wants to do for their daughter in an attempt to make up for all the years of her neglect. It’s a foolish plan, and it goes awry, but how it does so is adroitly told, and simply sung., All in all, this chamber musical works on most levels.
Harvey Fierstein, the book writer, has given himself a plum role, the closeted gay brother of Aggie, the Uncle to the bride, who lives with the family in a tiny Bronx apartment. Fierstein has several touching scenes, but his climactic one is a stunner and he carries it off magnificently. This performance is a very long stretch from the drag queen he played in his own play Torch Song Trilogy and light years away from his Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. There’s a lot of unembroidered acting in the piece and credit must be shared between the actors and the gifted director John Doyle, who proves conclusively he does not need musical instruments on stage (a device he used brilliantly in Sweeney Todd and Company on Broadway in recent seasons) to make material hit home. Tom Wopat completes the trio of central characters, and he again proves he is a stage actor of major proportions. Sad, lonely, frustrated, masculine, attractive, impotent – all these qualities are in his performance – and he, Wopat, has not been able to show this much depth before, certainly not as leading man in Annie Get Your Gun or 42nd Street. There is great power in his quietude, and when he has his turn, when he finally erupts, his rage is astonishing and theatrically powerful. He and Faith Prince are superb, it’s as simple as that.
The Bucchino score is not all it could have been. The lyrics (also by Bucchino) are fine, but the music, particularly the music for the young lovers, is disappointing. Janey and her fiancé, nicely played by Leslie Kritzer and Matt Cavenaugh (last season’s Joe Kennedy in Grey Gardens) have a number of songs. The big one, sung in the moonlight on a fire escape, is called “Don’t Ever Stop Saying ‘I Love You'” and it cries out for a melody to match that sentiment. It doesn’t get it and it’s a shame. Other songs for Janey, “One White Dress” and “Ralph and Me’ don’t cut the mustard either, though they are well performed and staged. I was constantly surprised though by the twists and turns of the plot, by the integrity of the writing, right up to the end – we all expected a big wedding with lots of glitz – and instead we got an honest and very moving ending of hope and progress. All of these complex characters have taken us on a journey with song, and by the evening’s end (only 90 minutes and one act later) we know them, we care about them, and we are so very happy they are on their way to new beginnings. That’s a lot to say for a musical, and I hope this one can fight the big spectacles and major star packages against which it will have to compete for Tony recognition. I think at worst it will get nominations in every major category. If you want nourishment, take a chance on A Catered Affair. It wouldn’t hurt to take along a handkerchief, just in case .. ..
Paul Rudnick, the outrageously funny writer who pretty much sticks to gay themes in his work, is now showing up at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater with a series of one-acters under the collective title of The New Century. The first three short plays are monologues, and one of them, Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach, was seen several seasons back at another off- Broadway venue with the same Peter Bartlett playing Mr. Charles. The first play, Pride and Joy, was new to me, and welcome. With the sting of a wasp, Rudnick offers us the “most tolerant, open minded, liberal, loving mother in the WORLD.” Rudnick offers, but Ms. Linda Lavin, with platinum hair that was borrowed from Jean Harlow in Red Dust, and a figure, sheathed in a slinky form fitting dress that defies her forty plus years on the New York stage, is dazzling. She is absolutely hilarious as the mother of a gay son, a transsexual son who is now a lesbian, and a daughter who is just plain vanilla lesbian. When given this sort of wickedly funny material, this lady knows just how to go about taking us anywhere she wants us to go, and I found myself laughing for about 30 minutes straight, which is very hard on the stomach muscles. Welcome back to the New York stage, dear Ms. Lavin.
She’s not alone up there however. Jayne Houdyshell follows her in something called Crafty, this one a one-person play about another mother. Hers is the jovial sort, the life of the social club party, a woman from Decatur, Illinois who is sharing with us the wonderful chotchkes she has made by hand to be displayed in a crafts show. Here is an actress who can turn on a dime, forcing us to laugh like crazy and then instantly become choked up when she recalls her dead son, one of the victims of the AIDS epidemic. Never lachrymose, her Barbara Ellen Diggs is a survivor, a force, but she allows us to see her in one of her rare moments of doubt and confusion and unbearable pain, and this is what makes this playlet work so well. What a Birdie in The Little Foxes she’d make, what a Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba. Her string of New York characterizations, from The Mother in Well to another mother in The Pain and the Itch to the title role in this season’s The Receptionist, give this exceptional character actress a batting average of 1,000.
Peter Bartlett is master of the aging queen, but we’ve seen him do it before in The Drowsy Chaperone and Rudnick’s Jeffrey and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. He’s good at it, but it grows familiar. The three stars are ably supported by Mike Doyle, Christy Pusz and Jordan Dean, and they all appear in the fourth play, The New Century, which gives a very satisfactory conclusion to this bubbly little comedy that manages to say a lot about how we all cover up just to get through. A highly welcome invitation to a highly wacky world, the world of Paul Rudnick.
A long report, I know – and I apologize. But the season is ending in a burst of glory, with lots of varied material to relish. Just to keep an eye on our British cousins, my next report, after mid-April, will bring you news of the current theatre scene across the pond. Until then, have fun. Go see a show.