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.

Stage Door Johnny

The show was Noises Off. I had entered a mall contest expecting nothing. Much to my surprise, I won 2 orchestra seats for the farce during the last week of performances for its original cast. Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Faith Prince and Richard Easton were headlining. The cast also included T.R. Knight and Robin Weigart before television made them household names. Oh, and the ever-reliable Edward Hibbert was on hand to droll things up. The critics showered the production and its cast with lots of love and the show was a nice comic hit.

However, there was one particular cast member who managed to walk away with the show. Katie Finneran took home a Tony that year as Brooke Ashton, the slow-on-the-uptake blonde bombshell who wreaks havoc with the worst fitting contact lenses known to man.

A friend and mentor regaled me for years of stories of waiting at the stage door: be it the St. James stage door to meet Ginger Rogers after Hello, Dolly! or the Martin Beck just to get a glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor after The Little Foxes. Well, frankly I grew curious about the experience. I decided that Noises Off would be my first attempt at this long-standing theatre tradition. I made sure to bring a sharpie and eagerly waited outside the Brooks Atkinson with my friend.  There is this ebb-and-flow sense of anticipation that arises every time the door opens. Much to our surprise, we were there the night Neil Patrick Harris was visiting backstage and that threw us for a loop.

Lo and behold, the first actor in the cast to emerge was Ms. Finneran. There weren’t many of us waiting around. It was a Tuesday night and there couldn’t have been more than 20 people milling around. This wasn’t one of those shows where a barricade was necessary. I was standing right by the door and stepped up to her. She then greeted me with a beaming smile. Staggered by her effusive warmth (and those strikingly beautiful eyes), I told her how much I appreciated her performance and  asked if she would sign my Playbill.

Amiable and lovely, she agrees. She goes to sign with my sharpie, and lo and behold it didn’t work. “Ooh, we got a clunker!” she said as she tried to make it write. It wouldn’t. Then she asked around to other theatre patrons milling around if they had a pen she could borrow. They all looked at her nonplussed, as though they hadn’t just seen her in the play. Then, in a moment which I shall never forget, she looks me straight in the eye with determination and says “Hang on.” She then took off her backpack and knelt on the sidewalk in front of me rummaging through her things. I’m standing there not knowing what to do, somewhat panicked as this was all new to me, thinking to myself “There is a Tony-award winner kneeling on sidewalk just for me.”

When her bag failed to produce an implement (this was before the current era where I literally keep 20 or more pens on me), she turned to some suit – it might have been her agent or a producer, whatever, and asks if he has something she can use. He does. She signs for me and chats a bit more with me about the show, about what it was like to win a Tony (something that still seemed to take her breath away) and anything else I can’t remember.

The only other signature I got that evening was from Peter Gallagher, the last to emerge, but the most energetic. He seemed genuinely interested in every single person hanging around, took time made eye contact and that was when my star-struck stammer finally hit, and mostly a result of absorbing the entire experience of all these actors milling about.

I don’t do the stage door experience any more as after a couple years I realized it wasn’t really my thing. But I fondly recall that hot July evening: all I can see is the gorgeous Katie Finneran smiling up at me from the sidewalk. I’ve remained a fan ever since, and am looking forward to seeing her again in Promises Promises (where she’s playing another choice supporting role that will put her on the Tony radar yet again). And, oh yes, I’m still smitten.