- The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Bash’d, Damn Yankees and Broadway’s Rising Stars
- by Richard Seff
Two Chris Durang plays in a week! Mr. Durang is raking it in from these two early plays alone. Proof that one’s children can be of help in one’s older age. I’ve told you about the Sag Harbor Theatre’s excellent production of Beyond Therapy. This past week I caught the Roundabout’s New York presentation of The Marriage of Bette and Boo, younger sibling to the first play. What Durang didn’t do to psychiatrists in Therapy he now does to families in this one, birthed in l984. This guy’s met with and lived with some mighty colorful people. Marriage casts him in the role of Narrator, and in fact Durang himself played the role in the original production 24 years ago. His claim is that he is the only one in his family to “escape.”
It’s an odd play (all his plays are odd, often delightfully so) in that it’s constructed in 33 scenes. I was reminded of an abstract artist flinging paint on a large canvas. We start with a wedding, then we travel through a very unhappy marriage; we meet the couple’s parents, and the bride’s two sisters and one brother (the Narrator). All of them are slightly nuts. Bride’s mother had to be exposed to “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella” at a young age, for she is always perky no matter what. Her husband has a stroke early on and can’t talk very well but no one seems to mind. The in-laws are a macho male and his mate, whom he delights in calling “the dumbest white woman in the world”, to which she always reacts with a hoot and a holler, thinking that’s cute. One of the bride’s sisters apologizes for living, blames herself for everything bad that happens to everyone else. The other sister is a mistress of the putdown and has some swell one-liners to back her up. Add to this mix a priest who manages somehow to explain and demonstrate how to properly fry bacon while he is performing the marriage ceremony. Got the picture?
A cast of experts brings it all to life, though for a while in Act One I wasn’t so certain about that. The cast was fine, but after l8 short scenes, I was getting worn out. However, in the second act, though there were 15 more to go, I began to really care about these crazies. Imagine, the bride delivers one healthy boy (the Narrator, the escapee) and four stillborn children, and the groom drinks himself into oblivion by Scene 30. Now isn’t that the stuff of which comedies are made? You don’t think so? Well, Mr. Durang disagrees, and if you have a chance to see this play with a great cast, join him and I’ll bet he convinces you.
Victoria Clark plays the birdbrain of her career, and proves herself a master comedienne. Kate Jennings Grant and Christopher Evan Welch bring verve, vitality and variety to Bette and Boo, and Charles Socarides is an appealing Narrator. Nice too to see John Glover and Julie Hagerty kicking up their heels as the groom’s parents, and sharing their fun with us. Under Walter Bobbie’s direction, this all works out to be just fine summer fare.
- Remaining Shows: Thru Sept 7th
- Tickets: Roundabout Theatre
Days later I found myself at a most unlikely site for a theatre, the Zipper Factory, in the middle of a long block on West 37th Street. Hard to find, no sign outside, factories and office buildings all around, lots of construction going on. Not a happy street. I’d never been to the Zipper though it’s been there for some time. I’d never have chosen Bash’d as the vehicle with which to introduce me to it, but there I was. All I knew was it was “a gay rap opera” and it was written and performed by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow, with music by Aaron Macri. It took five producers and two associate producers to get it to the Zipper, which in today’s world is par for the course. I’m not a rap fan, but having enjoyed In The Heights, which has a lot of rap in it, I hoped to keep an open mind and give this one a chance to take me to a new place. Well, it did.
The theatre itself is fascinating. First you enter a ‘dark secluded bar’ (Hernando’s Hideaway?), where young men and women are quietly downing drinks and conversing amiably. The place smells a bit damp, but it is after all underground, dark, and very old. Decorated with all sorts of bizarre bric a brac, statues of plump women on chaises, old posters, it’s all very East Village (except it’s on the west, somewhat north of Chelsea). The theatre has a wide but shallow stage, and perhaps 190 seats in three sections, on bleachers. The seats are old car seats, two to a cushion, and they are tilted slightly backwards, perhaps to be more comfortable, perhaps to accommodate those theatergoers who arrive slightly under the weather or over the top.
Promptly at 8:10, lights flashed and out popped the two and only – Messrs. Craddock and Cuckow – to introduce themselves, and we were off. Dressed casually, but with two “telephone” mics affixed firmly to their heads, they started out clearly but within minutes they were blasting away so that I got about every fourth word. And that’s too bad, because the words seemed funny and bright and useful in telling the story of this gay couple who met, courted, slowly fell in love, married, lived together, then faced grueling sadness when one of them, the younger, was grabbed by ruffians and badly beaten just because he was, to these punks, a ‘faggot.’ From this came rage on the part of his partner, and we were right in the middle of another mid-eastern crisis, more tribal warfare between the Sunnis and the Shiites. And so it goes on and on. Not a very entertaining or even particularly enlightening 75 minutes, but I tip my hat to the clever minds of these two writers. If only they’d trust their material more, and not feel they must blast it (at one point one of them added a hand mic lest we not feel sufficiently pounded by his head adornment) at us, relentlessly, without cease. “Assault” seems to be in the subtext all the way, and I for one do not like to be assaulted, even at the reasonable cost of $50 a ticket. Ron Jenkins is listed as director, but all I saw was two guys bouncing around in sneakers yelling at me. Maybe that was the point. They’d been bashed, so now it was our turn.
- Remaining Shows: Thru Aug 30
- Tickets: The Zipper Factory
Durang writing in the 80s, Craddock and Cuckow very 21st century, my next foray took me back to the mid l950s and the second of the two musicals Richard Adler and Jerry Ross managed to deliver before Ross’ untimely death, That would be Damn Yankees and the Encores! Series at City Center, after hitting the jackpot with special event Gypsy last summer, decided to have another roll of the dice with this lighter musical. So they gathered three very special current Broadway stars, and that was a splendid idea. We’d not seen Cheyenne Jackson in a straight leading man role before, we’d not seen Jane Krakowski in a starring role, and we’d certainly never had the good fortune to have Sean Hayes on a New York stage, though most of us had joined his fan club on “Will and Grace” over the 5 or 6 years it was aired. Based on a light novel, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant”, this one’s aim was merely to entertain. It did then, it does now.
There are two reasons to cheer this revival. The first is the stunning cast that’s been assembled. Sean Hayes proves himself a major stage personality in this, his New York debut. In the old days, a debut like his would have had the best writers scrambling to come up with a new musical for him. Alas, there is no such continuity any more, but I certainly hope Mr. Hayes comes back to us soon. “Mr. Applegate” is not the greatest role ever written. The character has one musical number, plus a lot of hoary book material, but under Hayes, everything comes up roses, even when his minor magical moments don’t work. His presence onstage, his star quality is immediately apparent, and like all great talents, he understands the maxim that ‘less is more.’ I could return to see this show again and again just to watch him take full control of the role, the material and the audience. Welcome, Sean Hayes, and please sir – come back to us soon.
Jane Krakowski has been doing some dazzling work on stage in Nine and Grand Hotel but it took this role that made a star of Gwen Verdon to do the same for her. Some artists make good money in television and film, and Miss K. is one of them. But the stage is where she glimmers and glows and her “Lola” is filled with sexuality, nuance, amazing dexterity and a great sense of fun. She’s no carbon copy of the great Verdon, which is meant as a heavy duty compliment, for the choreography she’s been handed is pure Bob Fosse, and it was created for Verdon. That Krakowski can make it seem her own is a tribute to her. “Whatever Lola Wants” stops the show cold, “A Little Brains” does the same, and with lesser material later in the show, she still manages to delight. And Cheyenne Jackson, who’s been thought of as a good looking hunk, period, not only did very well as “Elvis” in the show of that name, but took over the lead in Xanadu on a moment’s notice, and nailed that cockeyed hero too. Now we get a look at him in a more conventional straight leading man role, and he’s dazzling. His face and physique alone would guarantee him a prominent place in the firmament, but his voice is mellifluous, and he knows how to sell a lyric far better than most leading men. “Near To You” is very moving in his capable hands. As is “A Man Doesn’t Know”, both excellent examples of the gifts of Adler and Ross, who had so much to offer the theatre. And one must mention Randy Graff and P.J. Benjamin who make Joe and Meg Boyd a couple we’d really like to know better. They both feel so secure singing, we just relax and enjoy them.
John Rando’s direction is ok, but getting away from the brilliant 5 principals and the refreshing score and the young and sprightly Bob Fosse choreography, Damn Yankees is not up there with the hall of fame musicals. It’s an entertainment, pure and simple, a very good example of the well crafted shows that came season after season from the best of the lot – the experience and expertise of a George Abbott, the youth and talent of an Adler and Ross. Encores! is doing us all a great service by supplying a production like this, using Laura Stanczyk’s infallible eye (she was trained by the brilliant Jay Binder) for casting, which means we get to see some of the most talented people right down to the small role of “Mr. Welch” in the very capable hands of John Horton. And once again Scott Lehrer, the Tony Award winning Sound Designer, has proved that musical theatre can be clear, vivid, alive, without any distortion from over amplification. You could feel the palpable thrill of a chorus singing the big numbers, “Six Months Out of Every Year”, “Heart” and “The Game,” with every lyric impeccably clear. And nuance has come back into performance of the solos, so that Jane Krakowski can get every ounce of humor out of the lyrics to “A Little Brains” and “Whatever Lola Wants,” Sean Hayes can get laugh after laugh on words in “Those Were the Good Old Days.” Rob Berman’s musical direction had pizzazz and from the first notes of the very fine overture, a good time was had by all.
Damn Yankees closed July 27
Broadway’s Rising Stars
On the very hot evening of July 21st, I sat me down in the very cool Town Hall to enjoy the latest offering from Scott Siegel, the impresario who has created a world spanning the entire season at this space, which was once known as a haven for classical singers and instrumentalists. Each year Mr. Siegel gives us “Broadway by the Year”, “A Night at the Operetta”, “All Singin’, All Dancin'” and this week’s offering, “Broadway’s Rising Stars.” The Hall was packed with a very enthusiastic group of friends, teachers, agents, coaches, critics, and members of the theatre-loving public, to greet these twenty recent graduates of NYU Tisch School of the Arts and NYU Steinhardt, AMDA (American Musical and Dramatic Academy), and other schools specializing in musical theatre training.
From the first number, “Applause”, sung by the company, to the finale “Make Your Garden Grow” and a reprise of “Applause”, the stage was filled with talent and an amazing amount of assurance and professionalism, remarkable because these young people have had so very little (if any) professional exposure. One thing they must teach at all the colleges is “Learn how to take the stage, to have ‘presence onstage’.” Each of the twenty had his/her moment center stage, and some filled in as well as part of duets and trios. You won’t know these names yet, but make a mental note: the likes of F. Michael Haynie singing “Let It Sing” from Violet, Mark Cajigao recalling “Her Face” from Carnival, Danielle Simone Roundtree (now, there’s a name to conjure with!) offering “Squeeze Me” from Ain’t Misbehavin’ to Greg Kenna selling “A Miracle Would Happen” from The Last Five Years to Kyu-Jeong Han asking “What Is It About Her?” from Lippa’s The Wild Party to Dawn Cantwell responding to that song with a “Maybe I Like It This Way” from the same show, to the truly incredible Elena Mindlina doing “If You Loved Me”, a Piaf tune and Karen Myatt knocking the socks off the difficult “Suribaya Johnny”. Many of these young people may turn away before anything major happens to them, for it’s a rough business and they may not all have the stamina and fortitude to face rejection and a steep uphill climb. But I thought they deserved mention, for they all behaved like the evening should have been called “An All Star Night on Broadway”. I couldn’t list all of them, but I chose those who seemed to me to be most castable. I hope each of them gets enough fulfillment in their choice to follow their hearts. But for some, this may have been the only time they will ever stand at center stage, singing to a wildly appreciative house, and even that is an enormous achievement from which I hope they all derive one big fat happy memory.
Two caveats: It was interesting to note that all the material was written by the newer generation of composer/lyricists. That was probably appropriate, though it might have been all right to include more than “Applause” and “Climb Every Mountain” from the pens of the Masters of the Golden Age. I didn’t think that four numbers from three Jason Robert Brown musicals should have nudged out at least one from, if not the Porter-Rodgers-Berlin world, at least from the next generation of Kander-Sondheim-Herman. Take a gander at this lyric from Mr. Brown: “A new world charges down like thunder, a new world shattering the silence, louder every moment (that part’s true), come to me.” I’m sorry folks, but doesn’t that sound a tad pretentious, like it’s trying very hard to say something profound, but isn’t? I don’t like to think that the young performers are going to forget the past – which brings me to caveat number 2 – my usual howl against hand mics on a Broadway stage. It’s difficult to judge talent when it’s working with only one hand (the other being tightly wound around that awful looking contraption.). I’m certain that costume designers go slightly mad when they see the appendage, for it looks like it’s part of the costume. A little help from the sound engineers, ok, but why in the world hand mics in Town Hall, created and renowned for its acoustics, when your program consists exclusively of numbers that were originally sung more or less unplugged? Oddly enough, Mr. Siegel allowed four numbers, plus the glorious finales, to be sung au natural and all of them stopped the show
Scott Siegel’s next production of Broadway by the Year begins again Feb, 2009.
- DCTS Podcasts featuring Richard Seff:
- Interviews with and about Chita Rivera, Love and Love Alone
- Interviews with and about John Kander, With Complete Kander
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway
- Inside Broadway: A Return Visit with Richard Seff