Martha Plimpton sings “God Bless America”

Martha Plimpton, three time Tony nominee and a stand-out in the otherwise ignoble revival of Pal Joey a couple seasons back, is finding new success in television. She had been making some guest appearances on shows, but is now starring in the new series Raising Hope which has become one of the new hits of the season. Airing at 9PM on Fox, the series is about a white trash family whose son finds himself with a baby after a one night stand with a crazed serial killer. In spite of that description it’s a rather sweet show – and all the peril the baby finds itself in is smoke and mirrors.

Plimpton plays a 39 year old grandmother. Cloris Leachman her sometimes lucid, sometimes naked grandmother (known as “Maw-Maw”). Garret Dillahunt is a comic wonder as Plimpton’s immature husband Burt. Lucas Neff, a Chicago-based theatre actor, is having a career breakthrough as the show’s lead Jimmy. It’s a superb ensemble and a very funny show, to boot.

Martha’s singing ability shouldn’t be that much of a surprise – her parents Shelley Plimpton and Keith Carradine met while performing in Hair on Broadway. Her mother was starring in the show while pregnant with Martha. But nevertheless, folks were surprised when she came out onstage in Pal Joey as Gladys and belted her way through the mock strip tease showstopper “Zip.”

The star made an appearance on Saturday night at the World Series in Arlington, Texas to sing “God Bless America.” One qualm though. Last year’s deciding game 6 featured a stunning performance of the song by Kelli O’Hara, but a commercial was shown in its stead. That’s a problem that I hope the Fox network has fixed. Meanwhile, here’s Martha…


Drama Desk Awards: Tuesday Night Quarterbacking

The Drama Desk Awards, held Sunday evening, were once again shown via web cast on Theatermania. I recall the time they used to show them on PBS, but I guess that’s ancient history at this point. Anyway, this year the quality of the live stream was better than ever. However, from a technical standpoint there were some unusual shots, angles and closeups. I know it takes place in a glorified high school auditorium, but can’t they place the winners closer to the stage? Most of the time was filled up waiting for them as the presenters looked out during what seemed dead air.

The ceremony itself was rather uninteresting on the whole. Patti LuPone was an adequate host, who got in a couple of laughs but was really just there to keep things moving (at a clip). No performances, nothing too too exciting in terms of winners. The onstage pianist played far too many bizarre pieces, most jarringly “Don’t Fence Me In” every time Fences won an award. Many of the wins had me nonplussed; I was genuinely bored at a second tie between Montego Glover and Catherine Zeta-Jones for Best Actress in a Musical. (They shared the prize with the OCC too). Let’s not go for the trifecta on that front, folks. However, there a couple of surprises including Christopher Fitzgerald’s win for Finian’s Rainbow. Santino Fontana’s unexpected win for Brighton Beach Memoirs provided the most memorable of all acceptance speeches. He was genuinely shocked and completely amazed, and it added to its charm

Another surprised winner was Jan Maxwell, who won for Best Actress in a Play for her superlative comic turn in The Royal Family. She’s likely to be bested by Viola Davis in Fences (who was a Featured winner here) at the Tonys, so it was nice to see her recognized here for that work (Maxwell is a Drama Desk regular, but a Tony bridesmaid). She was very emotional and immediately apologized, “I’m sorry, I’m usually an aloof bitch. Surprises get to me.”

Martha Plimpton inadvertently established a memorable running gag following a spirited non sequitur about Mitzi Gaynor complimenting her shoes. Other Mitzi comments would follow, but the biggest laugh went to Outstanding Solo Performance winner Jim Brochu who started his acceptance with “Oh, and Mitzi Gaynor just told me to go fuck myself.” Brochu, who won for his turn as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour declared F. Scott Fitzgerald a big fat liar, stating, “there are second acts.”

For a ceremony that boasts recognition of Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway, the deck seems quite stacked in favor of Broadway. I’m not saying it’s a crime, but it just seems that you’re more likely to get it if you’re a Main Stem show. There were five major Off-Broadway wins – The Scottsboro Boys won for lyrics, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson won for its book and When the Rain Stops Falling won for its sound design. Love Loss and What I Wore took home Unique Theatrical Experience and Zero Hour won Outstanding Solo Performance. Other than that, it was all Broadway. Scottsboro and Yank! are now ineligible for Drama Desks next year, so automatically next year’s nominations should be interesting.

Seeing as it was the Lost finale, there were fewer fellow watchers on Twitter and environs this year. However, participants inside the auditorium were encouraged to tweet so that kept it somewhat interesting throughout the night. Let’s hope the Tony Awards are more interesting.

"The Play That Changed My Life" Contest!

What was the play that changed your life? That’s what the American Theatre Wing asked several contemporary playwrights for its upcoming release of The Play That Changed My Life: America’s Foremost Playwrights on the Plays that Influence Them, which takes a look at that moment in these artist’s lives that turned them on to the theatre. Nineteen playwrights have contributed to the book, which will be released by Applause books this December. The choices may surprise you, as it covers the gamut of David Henry Hwang seeing Equus in San Francisco, to young Edward Albee seeing Jimmy Durante and the star elephant in Rodgers and Hart’s Jumbo at the Hippodrome in 1935 (I personally love the randomness of that one – it just goes to show you never know what sort of theatre experience will be the one that propels a person’s life). The project was the brainchild of the Wing’s Executive Director Howard Sherman and is edited by Ben Hodges (Theatre World), with an introduction by Paula Vogel. I can only hope that this will be the first in a series of volumes (actors, composers/lyricists, directors, designers, producers, etc).

However, The American Theatre Wing is curious to know the play that changed your life. They have announced an online essay contest in conjunction with the book’s release:

“What show had the greatest impact upon you, when you saw it in the course of your life, and most importantly why it meant so much to you. Entries (limited to 350 words) will be judged based on their creativity, their clarity and perhaps most importantly, for how they convey your passion for the theatre.”

So tell ATW about the play that changed your life – those few hours in the theatre, at any age, in any theatre, that had the greatest impact on your life and your perception of theatre — and have the opportunity to share your story with the thousands of visitors to the American Theatre Wing’s website while getting the chance to win an autographed copy of The Play That Changed My Life and other theatrical books from Applause Publishing.

The contest entry period is from Monday, November 2nd until Sunday, November 29th. To enter, visit the American Theatre Wing online. The final expert panel judging the contest includes ATW Board of Directors Chairman and President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin; Applause Books’ Editorial Director Carol Flannery; award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang; and former Time Magazine arts editor and divine theatre blogger, Janice Simpson. Additional prizes will be given based on voting by the general public, which will continue through December 11.

In the meanwhile, here’s what two Tony-nominated leading ladies had to say about the theatre experience that forever changed their lives:

Martha Plimpton:

‘I think it was in a strange way kind of a natural progression, you know? My mother was an actress, everyone in our lives were in show business, I grew up in the theatre world in New York, my mother was in the original company of Hair. So it just kind of came naturally, it just kind of evolved. And by the time I was eight years old it was already sort of a foregone conclusion. If we weren’t in the theatre – we went to the theatre constantly. So it just seemed like a normal thing to do with your life. It didn’t seem odd or different or strange or far away at all. I think in the early years of the Park, the Delacorte, there were things that we saw there that made me just sort of mesmerized. I couldn’t tell you the first one, but I do remember seeing Raul Julia in Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center and thinking, “That’s cool.” And then when I was a little older, I guess about sixteen or seventeen, I saw John Malkovich in Burn This. And that was a performance that made me feel like that was a perfectly legitimate thing to want to be an actor — almost even respectable, possibly.’

Allison Janney:

‘There’s one that comes to mind right now, which for some reason always does, even though there have been many plays I’ve seen that have had a powerful impact on me: my mother took me to see Miss Margarida’s Way with Estelle Parsons and I just remember being blown away by that, by her performance. I was confused by it; I was like, “Is she a real teacher?” I was just giddy with that play and I’ve always sort of had a secret desire to do it, even though I probably wouldn’t be right for it. I just remember that having a big impact on me. I thought it was really fun — I was shocked by it and I think I was just young enough that I just thought she was a crazy woman up on stage and that kind of intrigued me, and I loved that play’

Walter Lippmann wasn’t brilliant today

And neither was the revival of Pal Joey which I saw last Sunday at Studio 54.

The musical by Rodgers and Hart, with a book by John O’Hara (based on his stories) is one of the first to offer an anti-hero as a protagonist. Joey is an opportunistic two-bit nightclub singer, doing whatever (and whoever) he can to headline his own club. The show wasn’t a huge success with 1940 audiences lasting almost a year and 374 performances. However, it did catapult a little known hoofer named Gene Kelly into stardom, soon leaving for Hollywood… well you know the rest. Vivienne Segal was the boozy, sardonic Vera, the uber-rich and uber-bored wife of a milk tycoon who becomes the object of Kelly’s intentions. Segal and Harold Lang recorded a studio album of the show in 1950 for Goddard Lieberson at Columbia records which helped bring the score back into the public’s consciousness (as well as preserving the glorious soprano’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” the most famous song from the score). The success of the studio album brought about the show’s first Broadway revival in 1952, which remains the most successful production of the show, with considerably more positive critical response than the first time around. The show lasted 540 performances. Lang and Segal recreated their roles with Tony-winner Helen Gallagher as Gladys and Elaine Stritch as Melba. (Stritch recounts her experiences in this production while simultaneously standing by for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam in At Liberty).

There was the 1957 film with Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak that bowlderized the story and lyrics while taking many creative liberties including a “happy ending,” interpolated other Rodgers and Hart standards and accommodating the non-dancing star Sinatra. This was followed by a Tony-nominated turn by Bob Fosse at the City Center in the early sixties and a troubled 70s revival with Joan Copeland and Dixie Carter as Melba.

Now we have a revisal of the show with a new book by Richard Greenberg and new orchestrations from Don Sebesky (in an unlikely splurge from the Roundabout folks: I counted 13 players in the pit). The ever-reliable Paul Gemignani is conducting. Unfortunately, aside from two key performances there isn’t anything particularly memorable about this rather lackluster revival. Understudy Matthew Risch famously replaced Christian Hoff early in previews. Hoff, who was officially let go due to a foot injury was rumored to have been less than stellar. Risch, while he can dance up a storm, is lacking in every other necessary department. The short of it: his singing is poor and he lacks charisma. Joey, even in his nature as a cad, should have that presence and personality that puts the audience in his corner. As hard as he worked, Risch couldn’t overcome that shortcoming.

Stockard Channing is making her first Broadway appearance since the 1999 revival of The Lion in Winter and should consider making a return trip sooner rather than later. Channing is a breath of fresh air, tossing off one-liners and displaying an extraordinary emotional range as Vera. Her singing is decidedly weak, and she only scores once musically with her breathless, nearly spoken but captivating delivery of “Bewitched” in the first act. She also looks better than ever and is given some choice costumes from William Ivey Long, particularly a stunning negliglee for her bedroom soliloquy. I think with her dry as a martini delivery she would be even better suited for that other Vera, Ms. Vera Charles in Mame.

Now we get to the outstanding highlight of the evening. Martha Plimpton has been busy working in so many different plays in the past few seasons, garnering Tony nominations for her in The Coast of Utopia and Top Girls. Here she surprises with strong musical chops. All you could hear at intermission were astonished patrons talking about her credible musicality. Every time Plimpton walked onstage she scored as the aging burlesque chorine Gladys Bumps (who has a history with our Pal Joey). Plimpton, who is reminiscent of a young Elaine Stritch – only with a better sense of pitch, doesn’t really have that much to do, but makes every moment worth the price of admission. Her deadpan turned the throwaway “The Flower Garden of My Heart” into an audience favorite at the top of act two. There is one major difference with this revival. The character of Melba, a superfluous but amusing diversion in the original second act is gone. Instead she has been absorbed into Gladys’ floor show which allowed Plimpton the opportunity to provide the sole showstopper of the afternoon, “Zip.” The song is a rather brilliant parody of Gypsy Rose Lee’s act, with a deconstruction of how Lee encorporated witty banter into her strip. The topical nature of the song is dated, though several of the references have been updated to less obscure figures of the 1930s.

She was the only reason I really wanted to see the show and was easily the highlight, though Channing came in a close second. The direction and choreography were underwhelming. I especially expected the dance heavy show to soar in those moments, but ultimately didn’t. The set was rather drab (and let it be said I didn’t notice that the El was a part of it until the final scene). However the costumes were wonderful and Rodgers & Hart sure gave us a fun score. If only the production itself could have bewitched rather than bother and bewilder. As I left the theatre, I couldn’t help but wish I had seen the well-received Encores! presentation of the show with Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Vicki Lewis and Bebe Neuwirth in 1995.

Hodge Podge

It was announced today that joining Stockard Channing and Christian Hoff in the Roundabout revival of Pal Joey would be none other than that songbird of the stage Martha Plimpton. Wait. Martha Plimpton? Martha “I Hate Mouth” Plimpton from The Goonies is going to be in a musical? I’m not thinking that it won’t be interesting – I just renewed my Roundabout subscription (with a free upgrade to center row A mezz seats) for the coming year, but you gotta admit, it’s a tad bit surprising. However, I think Plimpton will provide an amusing interpretation of Gladys Bumps. What worries me more is that Richard Greenberg has revised the libretto, changing characters and through-lines, and reassigning songs. For instance, Plimpton’s Gladys is going to be delivering “Zip,” the cameo show-stopper for the wise-cracking Melba that Elaine Stritch revisited in At Liberty. However, I’m thinking the script revisal is more of an excuse for Roundabout to commission the inevitable “new” orchestration that will feature a piano, a violin and a kazoo.

Cry-Baby was the first Tony casualty. The show ends its brief run at the Marquis Theatre this Sunday, June 22 after 45 previews and 68 performances. After seeing the lifeless production number with the license plates, I’m not surprised…

Well, it seems that Delta Burke’s – or rather – Faith Prince’s (oops! my bad) pitch-wary performance on the Tony awards didn’t help A Catered Affair’s advance. The show, in spite of its addition of a Thursday matinee for the middle-aged female crowd who has reportedly taken to the piece, will end its run at the Walter Kerr on July 27 after 27 previews and 117 performances. My first thought is, “Wow, Matt Cavenaugh is going to experience some major deja vu.” (As Grey Gardens closed the same weekend at the same theatre last year). That’s gotta be a weird experience for an actor, you know?

There will never be a dancer who epitomized beauty, elegance and poetry in motion like Cyd Charisse. When the world lost her this week at the age of 86, another glorious legend was lost to all but our cinematic conscious. Do yourself a favor – watch The Band Wagon or It’s Always Fair Weather or Silk Stockings or rewatch Singin’ in the Rain for her cameo in the “Broadway Melody” sequence. She was one of a kind – and when she dances, it’s ethereal. If it’s got Cyd, it’s got class. Charisse realized her dream of appearing on Broadway in the early 90s when she assumed the role of Elizaveta Grushinskaya, the aging ballerina in Grand Hotel. She is survived by her husband Tony Martin – yes the MGM musical star, to whom she was married for sixty years. He is currently 95 and still performing. She is also survived by her two sons and her niece Zan, who is most noted for her turn as Louise opposite Angela Lansbury in her London and Broadway productions of Gypsy.