On the Town: The January Edition

I was just thinking to myself that I couldn’t believe January is over already before my thought process segued to me wondering when I turned into my parents. But we’re already a month into 2012 and so much has been going on.

Today, incidentally, is Carol Channing’s 91st birthday. I was lucky enough to attend a preview screening of the new documentary Carol Channing: Larger than Life this summer at Tavern on the Green with SarahB, and was fortunate to receive an invite to a press screening this month. Dori Berinstein’s new film is a love letter to the Tony-winning star most famous for her roles as Lorelei Lee and Dolly Levi. Running 87 minutes, the film focuses on Carol’s extraordinary discipline and professionalism, her current project to get arts back into public schools and her  late-in-life reunion with middle school sweetheart Harry Kullijian, Channing’s third husband.

The film is highly entertaining, featuring clips from her various TV and stage appearances, with that larger than life persona out on full display. Her dedication to her career, the commitment to her public persona has endeared her to audiences for 60 years, so it was interesting to hear others talk about her, including JoAnn Worley, Lily Tomlin, Barbara Walters and Tyne Daly (to name a few). Amid the laughs, the film hints at the difficulties in her life, most notably her battle with ovarian cancer, but doesn’t delve as deep as one would hope. Still, for fans, this is  a must-see with many laughs along the way. The scenes revolving around Carol and Harry’s reunion have taken on a deeper poignancy, since Harry’s death last month and are quite moving as a result.

Celebrating under-appreciated musicals is something I do well, and enjoy engaging in conversations with other like-minded individuals through Twitter and Facebook. One of the most notable is Jennifer Ashley Tepper, who’s the Director of Promotions for Davenport Theatricals. But when she’s not at her day job, Jen is working on a variety of other projects, but none I think is as near and dear to her as If It Only Even Runs a Minute, a concert series she and collaborator Kevin Michael Murphy have been hosting for the last two years. The duo bring together a group of wonderful singers (sometimes original cast members) and offer a musical theatre history lesson, focusing on musicals that either flopped or have been forgotten with time. With each installment, the show has only grown and is fast becoming a must-see event.

This eighth installment took place in Joe’s Pub (my first time there, btw) and featured songs from shows as diverse as Lady in the Dark, Doonesbury and Bring Back Birdie. It was great to hear “Bernadette” from The Capeman (sung by Jared Weiss) and the manic “Dressing Room Shuffle” from I Sing! (sung by George Salazar and Julia Mattison), shows I confess I am not all that familiar with. Claybourne Elder reminded us that his was the best song in Road Show, with a lovely rendition of “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened.” Alli Mauzey told hilarious stories  about Cry-Baby and sang her hilarious number, “Screw Loose,” proof that all shows regardless of success or failure should be recorded. Murphy and Lucy Horton sang the spirited “Fireworks” from Do Re Mi, which begat the “shouting the title” trend that became a fun running gag. While I can’t be there to join in on the 9th installment on March 26, as I’ll be in London, I plan to be back for number 10.  (And Jen, you are not allowed to do 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue without me).

I also dropped by the City Center for their Encores! Kick-off event which featured a panel discussion led by artistic director Jack Viertel. James Lapine, Marc Bruni and Rob Berman were on hand to talk about the three shows in this season’s line-up (Merrily We Roll Along, Pipe Dream and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Much of the discussion revolved around the history of Merrily, and how it’s evolved since its disastrous debut on Broadway in 1981. Viertel mentioned that Encores! honors the wishes of living writers in how they present these shows, which is why Merrily will be seen in its La Jolla revision (with Jonathan Tunick reorchestrating the revisions to match his original charts).

Bruni talked about the challenges of bringing Pipe Dream, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s biggest flop (246 performances) to the stage today. Based on John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, the novel is about bums and prostitutes living on Cannery Row. However, Hammerstein’s libretto glossed over the grittier edges of Steinbeck’s work, much to the author’s displeasure. Another reason for the show’s difficulty was in its star casting. Originally, R&H wanted Henry Fonda for their lead, but after months of coaching realized he could not sing. They went another route, in star casting the role of Fauna, a madam, with Wagnerian opera star Helen Traubel. The role was originally envisioned to be belted, but with Traubel they took the songs up to more operatic levels. The most interesting facet of the conversation (for me anyhow) was that they were considering taking the keys down for whomever takes on Fauna. (I do have a question for anyone who might know: When Nancy Andrews replaced Traubel, did they lower the Fauna keys for her?)

Berman talked about the music for all three shows (he is conducting all of them), but focused specifically on Blondes, especially paying homage to Hugh Martin’s brilliant vocal arranging, which are some of the tightest in musical theatre. There was no word, though, on who was going to be cast as Lorelei.

Last but not least, the acclaimed revival of Follies played its final performance at the Marquis Theatre, making way for the upcoming revival of Evita. I was at the last show, along with many friends, but in spite of that wonderful last show, I find myself thinking back to two earlier viewings of the show. Both memories revolve around Carlotta. The first was in October, when I went with my friend Kevin, and in the middle of I’m Still Here realizes he is watching the First Lady of the British Musical and leans over declaring excitedly, “Oh my God, that’s Elaine Paige!” The second memory was in November, when I went to see the show with Roxie and Russ Dembin. Another wonderful performance, but Ms. Paige was in Korea for the week and Florence Lacey was on. One of the beautiful things about this production is that understudies were allowed to create their own characters, complete with their own unique costumes. Ms. Lacey was wonderful, and sang a thrilling rendition of “I’m Still Here.”

“Bonnie & Clyde”

Odds are if you mention the name Frank Wildhorn to a die-hard theatre fan, you’re going to be met with a rather impassioned opinion. While not a critical darling, the composer of Jekyll & Hyde, continues to bring new shows to Broadway with what appears to be continually diminishing returns. I am familiar with some of Wildhorn’s scores, but have not had the opportunity to see one onstage until his most recent, Bonnie & Clyde,  a spirited re-telling of the infamous duo famous for their murderous string of robberies in the 1930s South, and were also considered something akin to folk heroes as well.

While Mr. Wildhorn takes the brunt of criticism for his shows, as his is the *name* that is most associated and marketed with them, it’s not necessarily his fault that this new musical doesn’t really work. In fact, I think his problem is more in the selection of his librettists and lyricists (though I do enjoy The Scarlet Pimpernel). In this case, Mr. Wildhorn is dealing with a libretto (by Ivan Menchell) that contains a dramatically inert first act, in which the audience faces 75 minutes of pure exposition. The number that should serve as the first act finale appears in the beginning of act 2. The songs don’t have clear motivation, and there are often times when I wondered why a character was even singing. The lyrics (by Don Black) are mundane and don’t reveal very much about character. There are songs that range from the abysmal (“Made in America”) to the unnecessary (“When I Drive”) to the familiar (“You Love Who You Love,” a sort of Southern homage to “In His Eyes” from Jekyll & Hyde). The eleven o’clock number is “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad,” which speaks to the cliched nature of the lyrics in general.

This is even more disappointing than I would have expected because the show’s leads are absolutely terrific, especially the two leading ladies. Jeremy Jordan does what he can with Clyde, but it’s an insurmountable challenge to make him even remotely sympathetic as he’s written like a petulant schoolboy and all attempts at sympathy fail to counterbalance his life of crime. (Excuses that his actions were the product of the Depression don’t interest me; even if that were the case Barrow’s actions were met with a consequence that is unsurprising). He has a strong voice, though he pushes a bit much. Even better is his leading lady, the ravishing Laura Osnes, who radiates star quality from her entrance to exit. She sings beautifully, acts with a compelling sincerity and is on top of all her multiple talents, a visual knockout.

Making a warm, winning Broadway debut is Claybourne Elder, who first caught my attention off-Broadway in Road Show, as Clyde’s brother Buck. Playing his wife Blanche, arguably the most fascinating character in the entire story, is Melissa Van Der Schyff. At a post-show talk back, I discovered that Ms. Van Der Schyff had avoided the film through the show’s genesis, which made it all the more interesting how like her Oscar-winning counterpart in the film (Estelle Parsons), Van Der Schyff walks away with the show.

Louis Hobson sings well as a the police officer in love with Bonnie, but the role as written seems just like all the other unrequited love stories we’ve seenThe musical also features a strong ensemble, most notably the hilarious Marissa McGowan who gets some of the biggest, most unexpected laughs of the entire show with a bit part in a hair salon.

There isn’t much in the way of choreography, but Jeff Calhoun has staged the musical well creating some interesting stage pictures, with the assistance of costume and set designer Tobin Ost, whose multifaceted unit set is one of the most inspired aspects of the musical. Ost’s period costume designs evoke the feel of the time and place, but also manages to recreate iconic clothes seen in images of the outlaws. But you really shouldn’t leave a musical humming the sets.