On the Town: April Edition

First off, some good news. The Drama Desk Awards committee has decided to reinstate the award for Outstanding Orchestrations, nominating Bill Elliott (Nice Work If You Can Get It), Larry Hochman (Death Takes a Holiday), Martin Lowe (Once), John McDaniel (Bonnie & Clyde), Michael Starobin (Queen of the Mist), and Danny Troob (Newsies). There was a considerable uproar from practically the entire Broadway community as well as theatre fans, with a grassroots campaign to try to rectify the situation. Blogs from Mr. Starobin and Jason Robert Brown went viral, Drama Desk president Isa Goldberg’s inbox was flooded with emails, and an online petition garnered over 3000 signatures, including many of Broadway’s best and brightest. I am relieved to see that all this action had a positive impact, and am glad to see the award reinstated. Congratulations to all the nominees, and all orchestrators, period.

Encores! presented Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream, an unusual failure based on the Steinbeck novel Cannery Row. While there are some lovely tunes in the score (and some gorgeous Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations), there is almost no musical there. Something about bums and prostitutes on the California coast living near each other.  The central conflict between the two would be lovers (a scientist who lives by the sea and a failed prostitute…I think) is that they are two stubborn to admit they love each other. The rest involves colorful characters, including a warm Madam, some bums and a character named Joe the Mexican. I doubt we’ll ever see this show staged again, so it was interesting to hear it at City Center. Will Chase and Laura Osnes played the lovers. Both sang well, but there wasn’t much for them to play. Stephen Wallem and Tom Wopat provided some amusement. The evening belonged to Leslie Uggams, who brought that big voice and charm to the proceedings. Her understated performance of “All At Once You Love Her” brought down the house. I was in hysterics during the last ten minutes, as everything suddenly rushed to the finale. There may have been a musical in Steinbeck’s novel, but it certainly wasn’t for R&H. A live cast album will be released by Ghostlight this summer. This excites me, as this might make it more financially feasible for other Encores! shows to be recorded.

Apparently I did the impossible: I won The Book of Mormon lottery. I was down in the city filming the Leap of Faith video for Patty and Emily, and decided to try. The girls were seeing a different show that night so they offered to help. My pal Russ Dembin joined us, as well. I was delighted and surprised to hear my name called. I entered not expecting to win, but rather to just get an entry in for the upcoming fan performance in June. One thing I’ll never forget is the look on the Lotto Guy’s face as he called my name and as I went to perk up, Patty and Emily started shaking their tambourines. It was the first and only time I’d seen him nonplussed this afternoon. Anyway, I made my way forward, and from the way everyone working the lottery and box office treated me, you’d have thought I just had my first child. I can honestly say I’ve never had a nicer time on line to buy tickets. This marked my first time seeing the hit musical, and my second time playing The Book of Mormon lottery.

Since it’s almost impossible to get into the show, I made the conscious choice a year ago not to listen to the original cast album. While hearing the score hadn’t impeded my enjoyment of, say, Urinetown or Avenue Q, I decided that I wanted to go in fresh. The only thing I knew was the translation of the phrase “Hasa Diga Eebowai” and the song “I Believe” from the Tony telecast. Most of the original cast is still in the show, and are likely staying put for a while. Andrew Rannells will likely never have a better role in his career, at least one that displays his considerable talents so effectively. Jared Gertner was on for Josh Gad, but considering how funny Gertner is it didn’t detract from the experience. When I wasn’t laughing, I was smiling one of those silly, ear-to-ear types, just basking in the joy emanating from the stage. And I just wanted to hug the Tony-winning Nikki M. James, she anchors the show with so much sincerity and heart.

The show is expertly crafted with great tunes and winning characters. Hats off to the writers for crafting an exceptional book, building the show to a gut-bustingly hilarious payoff in (“Joseph Smith American Moses” sent me to another plane entirely). Profane, for sure, but with a rather wonderful message. I’ve made up for lost time with the cast album in the days since, finding my appreciation and laughs growing with each subsequent listen. One of the cool things about being a lottery winner: I was sitting front row dead center, right behind musical director/conductor Stephen Oremus, whose conducting is a show in itself.

On the opening night front, there were something like 12,000 opening nights on Broadway this month. An exaggeration, but as sure hell felt like it. I attended one of them: One Man, Two Guvnors, the hardest I’ve laughed at a show since, well, The Book of Mormon. James Corden stars as the charmingly corpulent harlequin in this delicious update of an ancient commedia dell’arte imported from London with its original cast intact. (A band, The Craze which provides the skiffle music heard before and during the show is made up of American performers). Mixing the low comedy with improvised bits and audience participation, the show is nothing less than an all-out riot. Corden dominates the evening, but he is supported by a brilliant ensemble. Special mention to Daniel Rigby, Oliver Chris and especially Tom Edden for inspired bits of hilarity. I won’t say more, as I don’t want to spoil the fun. Just know that by intermission, my sides ached from laughter and I want to go back again and again. Also, you’re going to want the original London cast album. Trust me.

Now. Here. This. has since closed, but I’m glad I got a chance to see the new show from the [title of show] team at the Vineyard. Jeff, Heidi, Susan and Hunter were back and in glowing adorkable form as they shared personal memories, from hilarious to embarrassing to devastating. I can’t say the new show is an instant classic like their first Tony-nominated outing, but it was a joy to see all four performers together again and hear them sing and dance and quirk up a storm. I was especially moved by the segment about grandmothers, having a reaction similar to that at Love, Loss and What I Wore – their memories unlocked my own. I hope they all continue to give us more to see over the years. The quartet exudes such good will, that it is hard for me not to cheer them on. I hope a cast album is forthcoming. (You heard me, Ghostlight).

Tomorrow comes the Tony nominations and all the insanity that awards season brings. Good news: Hugh Jackman is getting a special Tony Award. I don’t know why these awards bodies decide on whims to delete important categories, especially the still-defunct Special Theatrical Event category that the Tonys had for a mere ten years. Since Mr. Jackman is ineligible to be considered in any category, and has done so much for the Broadway community, it is nice to see him so honored. More good news: Bernadette Peters is deservedly receiving the Isabelle Stevenson Award for all the charity work she has done on behalf of Broadway Barks and BC/EFA. I look forward to both acceptance speeches. (And for God’s sake, let them perform!)

“Follies” – The New Broadway Cast Recording

Follies - NBCR

Though the acclaimed revival of Follies will end its limited engagement on January 22, the landmark production has produced a staggering cast album, recorded by PS Classics and is without question a must-have and must-hear. The lavish 2-disc set captures is almost complete, capturing most of the score (more on that later) with its original orchestration intact (rare for any musical these days, most especially for a Sondheim show). It also may be the greatest album PS Classics has ever released; regardless of whether you agree with me or not, it is a spectacular achievement.

There are already four official recordings of Follies available on the market. There’s the devastatingly truncated original that preserves some incredible snippets of the performances (particularly Alexis Smith’s “Could I Leave You?” and Dorothy Collins’ “Losing My Mind”), the original London cast with its considerable changes, as well as the famed live concert recording Follies in Concert (or as I think of it, Follies without Context) and the most complete reading of the score, including cut material, the 1998 PaperMill production.

This latest Follies is as essential as these four. While I can’t say the album is definitive (the production and this recording lack the dance specialty “Bolero d’Amore”), it comes quite close. The album carefully captures the show in a way that in some ways improves upon the stage production, most specifically the inclusion of elements from the original 1971 libretto. In effect, the album is more like a radio play. Much of what is spoken is contained on separate tracks so you can program those out if you’re not a fan of that on cast albums (and knowing the friends I have, there are many who are not).

The disc captures the best of what’s onstage: Danny Burstein’s staggering portrayal of Buddy Plummer, with “The Right Girl” and especially “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.” Jan Maxwell’s brittle sophistication shines through, and the way she lands “GUESS!” in “Could I Leave You?” is one of the most satisfying things I have ever heard. Bernadette Peters tones down some of the more neurotic aspects of her onstage character for a more solidly sung performance on disc. Meanwhile, Ron Raines lends gravitas and his large baritone voice to Ben Stone’s mid-life crisis.

Onto the featured players, Elaine Paige sings a socko “I’m Still Here,” while Terri White tears into “Who’s That Woman?” which includes all the ad libs tossed around during the dance sequences. Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz are in glorious voice on “One More Kiss” while Susan Watson, Don Correia, the glamorous Mary Beth Peil and Jayne Houdyshell tear into the Montage trio. Every song is a gem, and each one has been recorded with great care.

One of the stars of this production, and subsequent recording, is the 28 piece orchestra conducted by James Moore. This production marked the first time I had seen a Sondheim production on Broadway using the original orchestration, and does it make all the difference. Kudos to Tommy Krasker and the team at PS Classics, as this recording brings out the colors and nuances in Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant charts with great clarity.

The double disc album is beautifully packaged by PS Classics, with a lavish booklet including an essay from NY1’s Patrick Pancheco, a personal note from album producer Tommy Krasker and a plot synopsis by Sean Patrick Flahaven. Also included are the show’s complete lyrics, as well as the dialogue heard throughout. Interspersed are some stunning photographs of the production. I don’t remember the last time a cast album was as stunning to look at as well as hear.

“Follies” on Broadway


A timpani drumroll, a series of minor chords and then seemingly out of nowhere, a showgirl appears. This tall, lithe yet shadowy figure seems frozen in time and space, but as the music takes on a dreamlike quality, she starts to move. But slowly, ethereally; as if of another world. This is the first image of Follies and it seems that for the next two hours, I’m holding my breath in theatrical limbo. The evening is supposed to be a happy reunion of members of the Weismann Follies, but the stage of the dilapidated Weismann Theatre becomes an area for delusions to be exorcised, regrets to be revealed and for the uneasy acceptance that life doesn’t always turn out how we want it to.

Bold and beautiful, flawlessly flawed, Follies is a show with a cult following unlike any other musical I can think of (flops need not apply). The 1971 musical all but shocked audiences with its  unsettling portrait of unhappy marriages and the disillusionment of middle age. There are ardent fans and ardent detractors, and it seems that whenever a production comes to NY, it becomes the talk of the town. Every song, character, line, production becomes the source of dissection and debate; comparisons abound. This marks the second time I have seen Follies live, and I realize that every time I have seen or will see the show, it will be at a different point of my life and that will inform my impact on my life. I have seen this production twice now: its first preview and its opening night.

The original Follies was a benchmark in grand production values and pushing the envelope of what a musical could be. Stephen Sondheim’s score has entered the upper echelon of musical theatre, with an astonishing mixture of pastiche and character numbers.  James Goldman’s book, always a bone of contention for many, is like a surreal Altmanesque puzzle. There are characters roaming in and out, some performing their old numbers, while two main couples confront some unfinished business that has left their respective marriages unpleasant.

Bernadette Peters, while not ideal for Sally, offers a fascinating portrait of depression and mental illness. When she enters at the top of the show and timidly tells the waiter, “I’m so glad I came,” you’re not convinced she is. Sally is a tough sell, and always has been: she’s delusional, angry and disappointed at her life. She arrives at the reunion with one goal: to take Ben, for whom she’s held a torch for thirty years, from Phyllis. Peters starts the show in a darker place than anyone else who’s done the part. Jan Maxwell is a couth delight as Phyllis, brittle, sophisticated and yet the only one of the four who is willing to fight for the relationship. She’s less aloof than one usually expects in the role, but delivers exceptionally on the dialogue and especially in the searing “Could I Leave You?” Ron Raines lends his sonorous baritone to the emotionally stunted Ben. Standing out among this main quartet is Danny Burstein, a revelation as Buddy, Sally’s sad-sack husband. His pain and rage come to a head in “The Right Girl” and brings down the house with “Buddy’s Blues,” but even when he’s not speaking he’s saying oh so much. It’s a performance that will not soon be forgotten.

Starry support comes from grande dame Elaine Paige as Carlotta, strutting around the stage in a sexy blue dress and dropping one-liners like Mae West. Ms. Paige delivers the triumphant anthem “I’m Still Here” with an intensity that seethes with anger and defiance, scoring a mammoth showstopper. (One quibble about a lyric change in this particular song: I hate that Brenda Frazier has been replaced by Shirley Temple. The former is a pointed comment about the fleeting nature of fame, while the latter just feels like a cheap shot). Rosalind Elias, the former Metropolitan star is making a spectacular Broadway debut at 82 as Heidi Schiller, offering one of the evening’s most arresting showstoppers in “One More Kiss” (shared with Leah Horowitz).

Lots of old pros are on hand: Terri White, belting to the rafters and schooling the chorines in hoofing, leads the ladies in rousing “Who’s That Woman?” Susan Watson (on Broadway for the first time since No No Nanette), Don Correia, Mary Beth Peil and Jayne Houdyshell deliver a dynamite “Rain on the Roof/Ah Paree/Broadway Baby” montage. Florence Lacey and Colleen Fitzpatrick add color to ensemble.

Then there are the ghosts, the younger versions of the party-goers, showgirls who float in and out ethereally. Nick Verina has a baritone that perfectly complements Raines. Lora Lee Gayer has created a Young Sally who is uncannily similar to her older counterpart. Erin N. Moore makes quite an impression as Young Stella, as does Kiira Schmidt who practically steals “Buddy’s Blues” as Margie (wait for her slide!)

Eric Schaeffer’s direction is simple and too realistic, with a lot of moments placed in-one which tends to be a bit static. Some of his best work involves the ghosts, especially the moments where past and present intermingle or collide. Warren Carlyle’s choreography is stellar, if lacking in invention. “Who’s That Woman?” is a joyous showstopper but “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” doesn’t quite build as it should (though it’s better now than it was at the first preview). Gregg Barnes costumes are eye popping in their period detail and grandeur, contrasting well with Derek McLane’s eerie set. The literal unit set depicting the dilapidated stage is brilliant, but his Loveland motif is a bit underwhelming. McLane also deserves credit for effectively shrouding the gauche Marquis Theatre interior. Natasha Katz’s lighting design is sheer perfection. James Moore leads the dazzling 28 piece orchestra in Jonathan Tunick’s sublime original orchestrations, some of the most beautiful ever arranged for musical theatre. This alone is worth the price of admission.

The production would be better served if it was performed without an intermission: the tension organically simmers throughout the evening until it explodes into “Loveland.” Stopping for fifteen minutes kills that momentum. Also, it would be nice to see a production of Follies that actually uses the full original text. Various lines and pieces that have been excised add more layers to the characters, most especially several illuminating moments for Phyllis and Sally. But any quibbles I may have for this particular production are meaningless. Each time Follies reaches its sobering conclusion, I look forward to the next opportunity to see the show. The revival is currently scheduled as a limited engagement with a closing date of January 22. Whatever you do, do not miss it.

My Favorite Performances, 2010

Kate Baldwin, I Do! I Do!  I couldn’t have asked for a better first experience at the esteemed Westport Country Playhouse. I had never seen the Schmidt and Jones musical of the Jan de Hartog’s The Fourposter, which offers an intimate portrait of a fifty-year marriage. Her performance was exquisite, with an earnest but achingly honest portrait of an early 20th century wife. Its sensibilities may be of another time, but through her performance she brought out elements of the play’s universality. It was not difficult to fall in love with her as she was flirting with, arguing with or encouraging her not-always-appreciative husband Michael (expertly played by Lewis Cleale).

Joshua Henry, The Scottsboro BoysI didn’t see the show at the Vineyard Theatre earlier in the year, and can only base my thoughts of Brandon Victor Dixon based on his stellar performance on the original cast album. But seeing Henry onstage at the Lyceum is something I will never forget. His performance was tough, grounded and always riveting and I find when I listen to the sublime cast album I miss some of his vocal flourishes and power. If there’s justice in the world (and the musical itself expertly showed there isn’t always), Henry will be adding a Tony nomination to his resume this spring.

Annette McLaughlin, Brief Encounter.  I was swept away by this adaptation of Noel Coward’s play Still Life and eponymous film adaptation, even though I wish I had seen it from the orchesta section or in its more intimate venue at St Ann’s. The entire cast is superlative, but as the tall, lithe cafe proprietress Beryl, McLaughlin grabbed my attention almost immediately. She is always on the periphery of the main relationship of the star-crossed lovers, but help add some levity and perspective with her timing, delivery (“sau-cay”) and musical abilities. I was so thoroughly charmed by the experience, but most especially with her exceptional supporting turn.

Jan Maxwell, Lend Me a Tenor.  It has yet to be proven that there is something that Jan Maxwell cannot do. I’ve seen her in a searing period melodrama, an elegant period comedy-drama and then her supporting all-out farce turn in Lend Me a Tenor, the funniest performance in this rather amusing revival of Ken Ludwig’s contemporary favorite. The play itself, admittedly, isn’t that funny. But Maxwell took the script and had a field day with it. Her character’s jealous mood swings and violent temper made for some of the play’s best moments. A mere hiss stopped the show dead in its tracks. Much of her time is spent off-stage and she was missed. She followed this farce with an acclaimed turn as a stroke victim in Wings at Second Stage. Again – this woman can do everything and I look forward to her Phyllis Rogers Stone in Follies at the Kennedy Center next spring.

Janet McTeer, God of Carnage.  I had seen and enjoyed the original Broadway cast with Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden, but didn’t feel compelled to see the play again. It’s an amusing play, but it’s really an actor’s play and its enjoyment hinges on the performances on display. However, I dropped everything when I heard that Janet McTeer, who originated the role of Veronique in the original London cast, would be stepping into the Americanized Veronica for the Broadway production. She was utterly superb – and this was the first performance this company had given. I was fascinated by her from the moment she entered to her exit, every flourish and nuance compelling. Funny and fierce, she was better than her Tony-winning counterpart and as a whole made the play even more interesting to watch.

Donna Murphy, Anyone Can Whistle.  “Ooh I could think all night!” If Encores productions were eligible for Tony Awards, we wouldn’t have never had any of the post-Tony controversy regarding Catherine Zeta-Jones’ win for A Little Night Music. Donna Murphy would have (and dare I say, should have) walked away with every award in sight for her gut-busting performance as evil Mayoress Cora Hoover-Hooper in this concert version of Anyone Can Whistle (even the way she said her own name reduced the audience into laughter). Every gesture, every nuance, every note – everything she did on that stage was so fascinating and so damned funny. As a result of this performance, I am convinced that she should be our next Mame.

Bernadette Peters, A Little Night Music.  Replacing a Tony-winning star is one of the toughest gigs on Broadway. Sometimes the performer is an improvement on the original, but that’s a rarity. However, in this case, the replacement was not only an improvement but also somehow transformed the entire production into a must-see. A Little Night Music somehow fell into the hands of Trevor Nunn, who did his best to ruin it. While the sublime Angela Lansbury was the reason to see it when it opened, the rest of the ensemble lacked cohesiveness. Every actor seemed to be in a different production, some even seemed to be in another theatre entirely. Somehow Bernadette’s presence made them a unified presence and while the revival still has its considerable shortcomings (and length), she gave the production the credibility it needed from the beginning. And her near-definitive performance of “Send in the Clowns” is worth the price of admission. If the Tonys hadn’t botched the replacement category, Bernadette would win in a heartbeat.

“The Muppet Show” and Broadway

When I was young, I was an avid watcher of The Muppet Show. I loved the Muppets in general, but this variety show was my favorite of them all and I enjoyed watching reruns . I was even ad avid watcher of the 1996 reboot Muppets Tonight! which failed to recreate the success of the original. Sure, I’ve seen the films and TV specials and other series and I’ve liked them, but this one was always my personal favorite. The Emmy Award winning show’s foundations were in vaudeville and music hall, with very special guest stars each week (this show made Rita Moreno an EGOT). The backstage shenanigans were complemented by the show-within-the show, which featured regular sketches and songs.

As I got older I started to realize that a lot of these guest stars, as well as the material which they performed, came from the world of musical theatre. I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but the show was highly influential in my early growth as a theatre person. I also still remember that it was the first time I ever saw Bernadette Peters in my life. Here are just a handful of those performances.

Julie Andrews and the gang sing The Sound of Music’s “The Lonely Goatherd”


Jean Stapleton (Bells Are Ringing, Funny Girl) sings one of Irving Berlin’s famous quodlibets “Play a Simple Melody” with Fozzie Bear.


Another Berlin quodlibet – and one of the more offbeat Muppet performances: Tony nominee Cleo Laine (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) sings “You’re Just in Love” from Call Me Madam with the Swedish Chef.


Ethel Merman sings a rather tender version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to Fozzie after his comedy act has bombed. The number transitions onstage for the Merm’s trademark finish.


Last but least is “Just One Person” from the musical Snoopy, which played off-Broadway and London in the early 80s. It was sung on this show by Bernadette Peters, but became closely identified with Muppet creator Jim Henson. When he died suddenly in 1990, the song was performed on a Muppet special that dealt with his death and also by his colleagues at his London memorial service.



Hat’s Off! Additional Kennedy Center “Follies” casting announced

Whenever a major production of Follies is announced, it immediately becomes an event. The casting news, the production team, the venue – everything about the show is manna for the most die hard Sondheim fanatics. When the show was announced for Encores! four years ago, I remember there were some who felt it wasn’t an appropriate choice for the venue, but that didn’t curb audience enthusiasm. The production sold out its entire weekend run, with such a demand that they added an extra performance. Talk about a Broadway transfer came about, but it wasn’t to be.

Now rumors of this 2011 Kennedy Center revival have been stirring for about a year now, with various names being tossed about as possible contenders for the wide range of available roles. Those same folks who busted down the doors to get into the City Center are now gearing up to take on DC next spring. Already, the production has been extended and will be running at the Eisenhower Theatre from May 7 – June 9, 2011.

The first name to be officially announced sent ripples of excitement through the theatre world: Bernadette Peters will be playing Sally. BroadwayWorld announced that joining her would be John Dossett as Ben, Danny Burstein as Buddy and Kim Cattrall as Phyllis. Casting for those two leading man roles is still yet to be made public, however, Cattrall will not be a part of the production. Instead, the formidable Jan Maxwell – who is one of the great theatre actresses of our time – will be playing the aloof Phyllis, who cuts loose in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.”

Additional cast members include Elaine Paige, making her first stateside appearance in a musical since her acclaimed 2004 run in NYCO’s Sweeney Todd, will be Carlotta and will belt out the showstopper of showstoppers, “I’m Still Here.” Tony winner Linda Lavin takes on Hattie Walker and “Broadway Baby” in the montage. Terri White, who stopped the show nightly in the all-too-brief revival of Finian’s Rainbow last season, is Stella Deems and will lead the ladies in “Who’s That Woman?”

Susan Watson, one of the foremost ingenues of the 1960s, will be playing Emily Whitman. Watson made her Broadway debut fifty years ago as the teenage Kim McAfee in the original company of Bye Bye Birdie. She also appeared on Broadway in Carnival, Ben Franklin in Paris and No No Nanette. Florence Lacey, whose thrilling belt graced Broadway in Hello, Dolly! and The Grand Tour, will be Sandra Crane. Régine will be Solange La Fitte. Also joining the cast will be opera singer Rosalind Elias as Heidi, Terrence Currier as Theodore Whitman and David Sabin as Dimitri Weissman. Additional casting is pending.

Eric Schaeffer is directing. Warren Carlyle will choreograph. James Moore (of my beloved Ragtime revival) will serve as musical director, conducting the Kennedy Center’s 28 piece orchestra using Jonathan Tunick‘s original orchestrations. Derek McLane will design the set, Gregg Barnes will design the costumes and Natasha Katz will design the lighting.

Tickets go on sale to Kennedy Center members on January 24 and to the general public on January 30. It appears I may just have to clear my entire schedule for the lusty month of May. If you want me, you can find me at the Kennedy Center. And I can tell you I won’t be alone…

Bernadette Peters in “A Little Night Music”

The summer nights in New York are now smiling broader than ever. A luminescent new star has taken the reins of A Little Night Music and has wholly revitalized what was once a lugubrious affair. The excitement among the theatre crowd has been considerably high since it was announced that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch would be replacing Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in the Broadway revival. Peters is giving the stage performance of a lifetime as the one and only Desiree Armfeldt, bringing the desperately needed Midas touch to a rather colorless staging. I all but hated the production when I attended its first preview (save for Lansbury, naturally), but with the addition of Peters, this Night Music is now a must-see.

Peters’ performance is a master class in poise, finding humor and humanity in her portrayal of the aging actress looking to settle down. But, not only is she bringing her A-game, but she is bringing out the best in those around her. Her relationship with Alexander Hanson’s Fredrik is loose, flirtatious and sexy and eminently more believable. With Peters running the show, you see why the men are drawn to her, but also understand her desperation to settle down with her family.  From an acting perspective I was impressed with the choices she was making – unexpected, original and wholly valid; not only is she likable, you want to stand and cheer for her by the finale. Everyone has that level of ease and for the first time it feels like a genuine ensemble onstage at the Walter Kerr. To say the production is better would be a colossal understatement; it’s like night and day. The change is especially apparent in the first act, which previously felt like Lutheran penance but is now a more breezy (if not brisk) farcical set-up. The knives were always there, but the whipped cream was lacking – it is now more balanced, more nuanced and more satisfying.

Then there’s “Send in the Clowns.” The delicate, intimate musical scene is one of the most anticipated in the entire canon. Not only was it the highlight of this revival, but it may be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen Bernadette Peters do – and that includes her superlative “Rose’s Turn” from the 2003 revival of Gypsy. Desiree and Fredrik sit on her bed as she makes the leap, risks everything for love only to have her dreams shattered right in front of her. Peters’ acting in the scene was truly remarkable. Between her beauty and nuance, it was impossible not to watch her as she listened, reacted and ultimately interrupted with Sondheim’s most famous song, tears streaming down her porcelain cheeks (and I might add, of most of the people around me). With Peters at the helm, the scene becomes the emotional apex of the show, as it should be (with Lansbury, it was “Liaisons”), a quiet showstopper that will continue to haunt you long after you’ve left the theatre.

Elaine Stritch has also joined the company, replacing Angela Lansbury in the role of Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s  imperious mother and former courtesan. Stritch delivers her lines as well as her one major solo (“Liaisons”) with a brittle, no nonsense approach, delivering one liners with blunt honesty and the driest of wit. The actress doesn’t quite have all her lines, but she manages to make those moments work as though they were a genuine product of age. Understudy Bradley Dean was on for Aaron Lazar at the performance I attended and is even funnier and more in tune with the character than Lazar.

The rest of the company remains the same yet they’ve all made vast improvements, over the course of a mere month. Ramona Mallory is more restrained, and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is bringing more clarity to Henrik’s hilariously over-the-top self loathing. The most pleasant surprise: Erin Davie has finally found her Charlotte. Davie is starting to get the laughs she’s missed before, has stopped playing Charlotte as a victim and the growth is exceptional. Leigh Ann Larkin’s accent still makes little sense, but even she is finding depth that wasn’t apparent a month ago. This was my first time seeing Katherine McNamara as the uncanny, wise beyond her years Fredrika and she is superb (the children hired for this production are exceptional). The Liebeslieders are, of course, marvelous, though I wish the silly “sway-ography” (only way I can describe it) they perform at the top of the “Night Waltz” would be cut. (I still miss the real overture).

For the record, I still hate Nunn’s hamfisted direction, those hideous sets (I really want to take a bottle of Windex to those mirrors), costumes and orchestrations, but this time the misguided scenography didn’t bother me. It’s by no means an ideal production, but when Desiree is well cast, very little else matters. Everything is better because of Bernadette. The ensemble finally feels like an ensemble and it should only grow better and stronger with each performance. The final preview for Bernadette and Elaine ran a bit longer than that never-ending first preview, but the hours seemed to pass in an instant. I only wish the producers opened with Bernadette in the first place. Peters and Stritch are contracted until November. Trust me, if you miss this star turn you’ll regret it for years to come.

Remembering Irving Berlin

Jerome Kern was once quoted saying “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” Berlin, a Russian immigrant turned patriotic American, was one of the most indelible songwriters of the 20th century. His first major hit song was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911, which made him a go-to composer on both Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. He and his partner Sam Harris built the Music Box Theatre in 1925, which is the only Broadway house ever built to accomodate the works of a songwriter. Over the course of 60 years, Berlin wrote so many songs that there is apparently some debate on the actual number (Time magazine cited 1250 as the total in 2001, but some sources put the total at 1,500). Here’s a list of 850 from Wikipedia.

The songs themselves are a part of the American fabric. For example there’s “Always,” “What’ll I Do?,” “Blue Skies,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Annie Get Your Gun (“There’s No Business Like Show Business, etc), Call Me Madam (“You’re Just in Love, etc), “Easter Parade,” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” to name only a few. He received the Best Song Oscar in 1943 for “White Christmas,” a Tony award for Best Score in 1951 for Call Me Madam (besting that year’s Best Musical, Guys and Dolls), a Congressional Gold Medal for “God Bless America,” the Presidential Medal of Freedom, lifetime achievement Tony and Grammy Awards, among countless other honors.

Berlin died on this day 20 years ago at the age of 101. As a tribute, here are Bernadette Peters and Peter Allen leading an immense, crowd pleasing production number paying tribute to the songwriter on the 55th Annual Academy Awards in 1983:

Tony Awards Tribute to Robert Preston

The theatre world lost one of its brightest stars in 1987 when two-time Tony winner Robert Preston died of lung cancer. Preston, a character actor who worked steadily in mostly B-pictures was turned into a major star when he originated the part of Harold Hill in The Music Man, leading the 39 year old actor onto a new career path as musical theatre leading man. Not bad for a person who’d never sung before in his life.

The year of his death, the Tony Awards brought two of his leading ladies, Barbara Cook (The Music Man, 1957) and Bernadette Peters (Mack and Mabel, 1974) onstage in a tribute to their leading man, followed by a rendition of “76 Trombones” led by a chorus and an enormous marching band. Incidentally, Angela Lansbury, the host for the evening, costarred with Preston in the 1960 film adaptation of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.