My Favorite Performances, 2012

Bertie Carvel – Matilda. Hearing Carvel’s performance on the original cast recording was my main impetus in making sure I got to London to see the show while he was still in the cast. As Agatha Trunchbull, the grotesque headmistress at war with Matilda Wormwood, Carvel creates one of the great comic villains in music theatre, a domineering physical presence whose second act anti-child number “The Smell of Rebellion” is a show-stopper. There are panto elements in the performance, but he plays Miss Trunchbull without winking or leering, showing shades of the insecure bully who resorts to all sorts of nasty business. I’m so thrilled NY will have a chance to see his performance in the upcoming Broadway transfer.

James Corden – One Man, Two Guvnors. The most brilliant comic creation I’ve seen since Mark Rylance took Broadway by storm with Boeing Boeing, Corden’s Francis Henshall – portly, silly, lovable – was a delight from start to finish. It’s rare that pure silliness can beget pure joy. Corden managed to do this through the mix of high and low (mostly low) brow humor in Richard Bean’s updating of A Servant of Two Masters. I saw the show a total of three times, including opening night and the utter free-for-all that was the closing night (hijinks, pranks, nudity, and all sorts of glorious hijinks in the spirit of the show) and I consistently laughed until my sides ached every time. Much of this is due to Corden’s brilliance. I do wish the play had continued after his scheduled departure, but fortunately it’s still running in London for those who want some breathless hilarity.

Linda Lavin – The Lyons. Lavin gave up supporting roles in Broadway transfers of Follies and Other Desert Cities to play this leading role off-Broadway, and with good reason. Rita Lyon is one of the most fascinating mothers in American drama since Violet Weston went nuts on her family. Lavin was able to turn a magazine page turn into a comic gold mine, and constantly surprised. Her exit speech was so brilliantly delivered that she received two back to back showstopping ovations.

Tracy Letts – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee’s play is one of my favorites and I would gladly see any production of it anywhere. This Steppenwolf import is an intense, visceral experience that makes the battle for the upper-hand one of the games along the way. Intense work by a superb ensemble, but Letts comes out on top in this reimagined look at the fascinating George. He is terrifying, hilarious, charming, dangerous and unsettling making a role seem new. Everyone else in the ensemble is the better for this searing portrayal. A must-see performance.

Donna Murphy – Into the Woods. Critics were mixed on this production (and having seen it three times throughout its run, I think it was a mistake to let them in early), but Murphy’s portrayal of the Witch was one of the most galvanizing performances I have ever seen. Playing up the character’s pragmatism and relationship to Rapunzel, it was as though I understood a maternal need for the character that either I missed before, or just wasn’t present in other performances I have seen. Her “Last Midnight” was nothing short of legendary; one of then most terrifying and devastating showstoppers of the year.

Imelda Staunton – Sweeney Todd. I made it a point to catch this highly-acclaimed revival while in London, and I am so glad that I did. Michael Ball was Sweeney Todd, and while he was better than I expected, it was Imelda Staunton’s searing, gritty portrayal of the enterprising, conniving Mrs. Lovett that I left thinking about. Practically every facet of her performance is seared in my memory – from her reaction to Pirelli’s dead body, to the chilling look out front while James McConville finished singing “Not While I’m Around,” to the spectacular work she did in the show’s searing final scene. Apparently Ms. Staunton is uninterested in a Broadway transfer, and that is truly New York theatre’s loss.

Katie Thompson – Giant. There was much to admire in the Public Theater’s presentation of Michael John La Chiusa’s Giant, including the winning lead performances of Brian d’Arcy James and Kate Baldwin, but as Vashti Hake, the jilted cowgirl heiress turned tycoon’s wife, Katie Thompson took me completely by surprise. Ms. Thompson got two of the best songs in the show,”He Wanted a Girl” and “Midnight Blues” and delivered a featured performance so striking I want to see her star in her own musical.

Anthony Warlow – Annie. This Australian powerhouse made his Broadway debut as Daddy Warbucks the current revival, recreating a role he has played several times before. Much to my surprise, Mr. Warlow managed to steal this classic musical about that orphan from both of its leading ladies, with his gruff but sincere demeanor and a voice that is nothing short of spectacular. His rendition of “Something Was Missing” brought down the house, something I wouldn’t have thought previously. He is the heart and soul of this uneven, but entertaining production.

Eleanor Worthington-Cox – Matilda. In the past year I have seen an inordinate amount of child performances. In the past I haven’t taken too well to kids on stage – not unlike the stage manager in Gypsy – but for the most part I saw real children giving strong performances that weren’t overly precocious or cloying. And while I was in London, I so loved Matilda that I saw it twice. While the Matilda I covered was the exceptional Sophia Kiely, I think Eleanor Worthington-Cox gave the greatest child performance I have ever seen in my life. (With all respect to Ms. Kiely, who was superb). It felt like I was watching the perfect embodiment of Dahl’s character.

In a category all its own was the sublime reunion concert of Assassins, which brought back almost the entire 2004 cast at Studio 54. A sterling ensemble, it’s a shame they couldn’t have a revival of the revival as they are all still so extraordinary.

Also worth mentioning: Victoria Clark and Christopher Fitzgerald who both walked away with the Collegiate Chorale’s concert presentation of The Mikado. Clark entered like a virago, stopping the show before she even opened her mouth. She and Fitzgerald created pandemonium with their eleven o’clock performance of “There is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast.”

Show Round-Up

Annie – I caught an early preview of the classic Strouse-Charnin musical at the Palace. I have a dubious history with this one; the last time I saw it onstage was 21 years ago and while I don’t remember much, I wanted Hannigan to win. Fortunately that was not the case in this new production directed by James Lapine and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Katie Finneran holds nothing back as Miss Hannigan, but the performance hadn’t quite gelled when I saw the show, and it didn’t help that her Rooster and Lily are barely there (and what’s up with Lily’s accent? Not cool, kids). Lilla Crawford has great sincerity and a clarion voice that brought down the house repeatedly, but her accent gets in the way. Merwin Foard, a reliable standby in so many recent productions, is finally onstage and a total delight as FDR. The real standout, though, is Australian baritone Anthony Warlow, whose sumptuous baritone is the 8th wonder of the world. His “Something Was Missing” stopped the show cold in act two. I was mixed on the set, though I loved the chandelier/Christmas tree effect. The choreography is, to put it mildly, terrible. Only the final number really had cohesion, and it was still a hot mess. Quibbles aside, the show is a charmer, thanks to its score and the sharp libretto by Thomas Meehan.

The Performers – I caught a late preview of this fast flop, which was entertaining but tremendously slight. There was no real conflict, mostly a non-porn couple who inexplicably question their monogamy while visiting Las Vegas for an adult film industry awards show. The play is rife with enough raunchy dialogue to make your great-grandmother’s monocle pop, but ultimately feels…tame. That said I found much to enjoy, and much to laugh at. Props to the terrific ensemble led by Alicia Silverstone, Henry Winkler and Cheyenne Jackson. However, the real star of the evening was Ari Graynor as Peeps, a dim, defensive porn star with a heart of gold. Everything she said or did went over like fireworks on the 4th of July, and a performance I am glad I had the opportunity to see. The play’s closure after 7 performances was a bit of a shock, as I’ve seen far worse enterprises run longer. While I don’t think it’s much of a play, I think the script could make for a more enjoyable film.

Giant – Edna Ferber’s novel is now a musical, in a sprawling retelling of the story of a Texas cattle baron and his decades long marriage to a Virginia socialite. This bold, ambitious piece is currently playing the Public Theater  and while it could use some tinkering and fine-tuning, it’s a thrilling experience. Michael John LaChiusa’s music is haunting and often soars. The show has a cast of 22, and an orchestra of 16 – rare for an off-Broadway production. Brian D’Arcy James is excellent as Bick Benedict, a cattle baron whose unconditional love for Texas is challenged by a changing world. Kate Baldwin is giving the the performance of a career as his wife Leslie. John Dossett provides brilliant, sympathetic support as Uncle Bawley, while Michelle Pawk brings gruff pragmatism to Bick’s older sister Luz. Katie Thompson is a find as Vashti Hake, a ranch heiress jilted by Bick who becomes one of Leslie’s closest friends. Thompson can really sing, and deserves to be a leading lady herself. The character of Jett Rink lacks definition and as written barely registers as an antagonist (played by a game P.J. Griffith). For a show set in and about Texas, the musical feels somewhat cramped on the Newman stage. A show of this scope cries out for a venue like the Vivian Beaumont.

20 years of Encores! A Gala Celebration – This 90 minute program featuring many of Broadway’s finest talents performing under the music direction of both Rob Berman and original Encores! musical director Rob Fisher. Kelli O’Hara opened with “It’s a Perfect Relationship” from Bells Are Ringing, but her highlight was a sumptuous rendition of “Lover, Come Back to Me” from The New Moon. Raul Esparza revisited “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle and cut it up big time with the tongue twisting “Tchaikowsky” from Lady in the Dark. Rob McClure was charm squared leading “Once in Love with Amy” (and yes, the audience sang along!) from Where’s Charley? Joel Grey did “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago, Rebecca Luker, Sarah Uriarte Berry and Debbie Gravitte revisited their glorious “Sing for Your Supper” from The Boys from Syracuse. Other numbers came from Finian’s Rainbow, Too Many Girls, Fanny, Anyone Can Whistle, Do Re MiJuno, Lady in the Dark, Carnival and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Of special note was a middle section of found items, including “Where Do I Go From Here?” cut from Fiorello!, thrillingly sung by Victoria Clark. The most esoteric item on the bill was the overture for Nowhere to Go But Up, a nine performance bomb from 1962. Jack Viertel had asked Jonathan Tunick about whereabouts of its “the long-lost overture” during Merrily orchestra rehearsals. Turns out Tunick had it in his apartment. The evening ended with ‘Til Tomorrow from Fiorello! (which was the very first Encores! and will be revived this January). All musical numbers used the original arrangements and orchestrations. If there was a complaint it was that the evening ended too soon.

Catching up with “Life After Tomorrow”

Annie doesn’t quite rank as one of my favorite musicals, as my first experience with the show was decidedly less than stellar. So I admit I was somewhat reluctant to watch the 2006 documentary Life After Tomorrow, a chronicle of the actresses who played the title role and other orphans in various professional productions. The film was conceived and co-directed by Julie Stevens (Gil Cates, Jr. was the other director), who was an orphan in the original production and pulls together 40 or so alumni of the production together to talk about what it was like to be a part of the musical. In some respects the documentary is a sobering look into the world of professional theatre in the United States, in others it’s like watching a train derail. Annie is a significant part of these ladies’ lives, for better and for worse.

Interestingly enough, Andrea McArdle and Aileen Quinn – arguably the two most prolific actresses to have played America’s favorite redheaded orphan – were not involved with this documentary. However, other actresses were more than willing to talk about the experiences of performing the show, the burden of being prepubescent breadwinners and the reality check when they were abruptly no longer part of Annie. The girls were told they were too tall, too developed, too…whatever to continue in the show and were replaced. One of the women who plays Annie on tour talks about her last night, coming offstage and her replacement being whisked into her costume for photo call in the lobby as fans cheered the replacement and not her.

It’s rare that a musical becomes a cultural phenomenon. I’d say the biggest in recent memory would be Wicked, which has has found a solid fanbase in the same demographic that devoured Annie over thirty years ago. There have been countless television appearances, personal appearances, various professional productions all over the world, two film adaptations, a best selling original cast album and a woefully misguided sequel. The show of “Tomorrow” will long continue to linger on in public consciousness, quite possibly more than the comic strip upon which it was based.

The negative experiences had by cast members are particularly compelling, as they provide a sobering view at how show business isn’t necessarily all that appealing. Kristen Vigard, who was replaced by Andrea McArdle when the show was trying out in Goodspeed, has clearly not gotten over that career blow (and coming at such an impressionable age, it’s no surprise). History was repeated in 1997 when the 20th anniversary production replaced its leading actress with another orphan two stops pre-Broadway. However, it’s not all negative: one of the great success stories of an Annie alum is Sarah Jessica Parker, who’s gone to what is arguably the most successful career of any of the girls talks at lenght and at ease about being in the show. (Alyssa Milano and Molly Ringwald were also in productions, but they weren’t interviewed).

The experiences discussed run the gamut from fun (Henry Winkler visiting at the height of Happy Days) to the nasty (original cast member Robyn Finn was the recipient of an offensively anti-Semitic hate letter – from a fellow orphan!) There were tales of heckling hookers down the street, going to Studio 54 multiple nights a week (including seven year old Danielle Brisebois – where the hell were the parents?!). The parents could be problematic – going on the road and living it up, with affairs, partying and clashing. These same parents are discussed from varying degree from supporting and loving to cum laude graduates from Madame Rose’s school. There were no child handlers as there are these days, so the education was practically nonexistent. Chorus members and principles were resentful that these children were paid more than they, and took it out on them – one unnamed Hannigan actually hit the girls onstage.

Then there are the men. A replacement in the original production and a star of Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge, Harve Presnell offers his insight from a professional’s perspective. Musical director Peter Howard, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist & director Martin Charnin talk about the musical with great fondness, but seemingly unaware the impact the show had on the girls after the fact. There is a brief look into the casting process, but not nearly enough for my liking. For many of these girls, Annie was the experience of a lifetime; something that was never repeated. Whereas for these men, it was another chapter in their long and varied careers of bringing shows to Broadway.

One of the more unexpected aspects of the entire film was Jon Merrill, who is considered the show’s number one fan. Mr. Merrill, who insisted he was neither gay nor a pedophile, talked about the impact of the show on him from “It’s a Hard Knock Life” and how it inspired him to start “Annie People,” a newsletter for fans of the show. He says he no longer wears costumes to the show, or stands with a clipboard at the stage door waiting for interviews, but still enjoys the show. It’s not odd to love a show, but he paints an unusual portrait of himself wearing Annie sweatshirts and surrounded by Annie memorabilia. I have to admit, it was odd watching him pull little girls’ costumes from the 1982 film out of his closet.

The documentary ends with the interviewees recreating “Tomorrow,” some quite exceptional, some clearly showing that longevity in show business was not guaranteed. They get together for reunions and reminisce, talk about their experiences – and they’re right: this is an incredibly unique bond that they share. The choreography and lyrics are muscle memory and they can step right back into “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” without thinking twice.

It’s a fascinating but all-too-brief 73 minutes. There is a lot here, but it seems as though there could have been a lot more. Personally, I’d be fascinated to hear more about McArdle’s experiences with the show, and also why she chose not to participated in this film. I was also curious to know about the actresses playing Miss Hannigan, specifically the one and only Dorothy Loudon, who bested McArdle for the Tony that year. Loudon isn’t even mentioned here and that, to me, is a crime. Other Hannigans of note include Alice Ghostley, Kathleen Freeman and June Havoc, who is seen briefly consoling one of the girls on closing night.

Annie turns 35 in 2012. A second Broadway revival is planned and I’m certain interest in the original production will once again surface. The cast will be coming out of the woodwork once again to discuss their experiences. Bet your bottom dollar – did I really just say that? – there will be some sort of national casting contest/campaign to drum up press. I do hope that those kids involved will be handled with greater care, and those in charge can learn from the past.

Oh – and one of the great things about this documentary is that it’s available to watch online for free:


My First Time

Well, at least it was the first time I judged. My earliest show memory is a vague recollection of a local production of Peter Pan. However, my earliest memory of seeing theatre, processing it and making a discerning opinion about it was a local semi-professional production of Annie when I was eight years old. Or at least I think I was eight. Whenever it was, the details surrounding my seeing said production aren’t as important as the impact it had on me.

I spent nine years as a student in Catholic elementary school. I was a pretty good student who was especially taken with music, something not lost on the music teacher, this terrific nun named Sr. Rose Marie. Had she not been called to the convent, I think she would have been a major Broadway soubrette, standing by for Angela Lansbury in Mame, etc. (If I think of one, I usually think of the other – they both are altos with distinctive timbres). I later learned that she was also a big fan of musical theatre, having seen the original production of South Pacific, among others, and she gave me some of my first cast albums (yes, records). She encouraged me to learn about music, watched as I started to play piano by ear and challenged myself to sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” I also joined the school choir, which she directed. She has had an enormous impact on who I am as a person, and as a student of music and theatre.

Oh, and some fun trivia: Sr. Rose Marie was part of the chorus that sang for Richard Rodgers when the composer visited Manhattanville College to research liturgical music for The Sound of Music in 1959.

But I digress… Anyway, my first year in the choir we were treated to a Christmas field trip, as a sort of thank you for all the holiday singing we’d been doing (the perennial favorite: the nursing home & senior center circuit). In fact, where we were going and what we were doing was a well-hidden secret from all of us. We didn’t really care much, as you can expect – getting to skip class and leave school is always a joy.

Well, details surrounding the production are sketchy. I was familiar with “Tomorrow” (is anyone not?) and had heard of the comic strip. I’d never seen the movie and was never into the strip itself (those Annie characters creeped me out with those dead eyes…) and would still rather read Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts. The musical also explained to me for the first time why Annie was living with Oliver Warbucks.

So, the show got underway. Nice overture – still a knock-out with those trumpets. There were orphans, and an earnest redhead girl who couldn’t have been much older than myself who came out to sing what I would later learn was “Maybe.” Almost immediately I felt this sense of disdain; there was something about this that didn’t strike the right chord. She was the heroine, but why didn’t I like her? My disdain started to grow to sheer dislike as the first act progressed. Perhaps she was too cloying, too sweet for this orphan (if you look at Andrea McArdle’s performance from the Tony telecast, she at least supplied some sass). I cannot explain with clarity what it was about her performance that I disliked so much, the most vivid recollection is the garish wig they shoved on her at the finale (I’ve seen fake clown wigs that were more effective).

However, I knew the show wasn’t a total loss when this slatternly middle-aged woman, clasping a flask, whistle around her neck, entered and started tearing things up. Suddenly I was paying attention. The impression this woman made on me – an actress of whom I have no recollection. (My ticket stub and program are long lost). But it was she who single-handedly saved the afternoon from being a total bore. She had the best lines, the comic delivery and in the battle of Annie vs. Hannigan, I wanted Hannigan to win. I don’t know if that speaks more about this production or myself, but c’est la vie.

When all was said and done, I didn’t have much to say about the score, the book, the performances – except for this actress. And since the show was a surprise and essentially a group Christmas gift, it would have been rude for me to speak up and say I didn’t like it. On the bus ride home, I have what is my earliest memory of experiencing a headache. Coincidence…?

So much did I dislike the musical, I didn’t bother with either film version nor have I seen the show live. However about ten years down the road, the Broadway’s Lost Treasures series started airing on PBS and one of the clips was the original Broadway cast performing on the Tony awards. That was when I first experienced the magic of the late, great Dorothy Loudon, and made it a point to familiarize myself with the score, which has grown on me. I’ve always been so impressed that she took what is a comic supporting role and made it a star turn (not to mention winning the Best Actress Tony over McArdle).

If it weren’t for Miss Hannigan (and the long-forgotten actress that played her), I may have given up on stage musicals all together. Well, perhaps that’s not quite correct… if it weren’t for Miss Hannigan and Sr. Rose Marie.