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.

Mitzi Gaynor Razzles and Dazzles at Feinstein’s

It’s hard to believe it, but before last night Mitzi Gaynor had never played New York City. I know, right? You’d think with Hollywood, TV, Vegas and countless tours and appearances under her belt, that she’d have taken the Big Apple by storm years ago. But it’s better late than never and Ms. Gaynor is conquering NY in an extended engagement at Feinstein’s at the Regency.

The ballroom at the Regency was packed as celebrities, friends and fans turned out in droves to see the star on her first night (including Mr. Feinstein, Chita Rivera, Polly Bergen, Paul Shaffer and Joy Behar). At about a quarter to nine, an old TV clip started playing as the crowd discovered that the CBS Saturday night lineup was going to pre-empted for a Mitzi special. Her band (four musicians with an unnecessary synthesizer) played a brief overture. Then, to the delight of all, Ms. Gaynor strutted out onstage in that trademark Nellie Forbush sailor suit. Once she gained composure she launched into that outfit’s complement: “Honey Bun.”

Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific is something that reaches far back into my childhood. It was the second Rodgers and Hammerstein film musical I ever saw, and was noteworthy b/c it was the only other musical aside from The Sound of Music that my father liked. So whenever it was on TV, we would be watching. My appreciation also grew with There’s No Business Like Show Business where she danced with Donald O’Connor, belted with Merman and held her own against Marilyn Monroe. Then there was also Les Girls, an MGM film that paired her up with Gene Kelly and made her a foil for brilliant comedienne Kay Kendall. Anyway, when I was invited by Feinstein’s to come see the show, I RSVPed – more than three months ago.

The voice isn’t as full as it once was, but she is still a supreme entertainer and can communicate beautifully through the words and music. Once she smiles that megawatt smile of hers, the years melt away and you are left with the one and only, now and forever Mitzi. When Mitzi takes charge, she has a congenial affair with her audience; the sort of thing that most younger artists will never know. She’s a charmer, for sure; warm and genuine, but also sassy and self-deprecrating – with razor sharp wit and the ability to laugh first and laugh last. Plus, she’s still got a knock-out figure.

The entertainer is one of the last links to a bygone era of entertainment, someone who sang with the greats – Sinatra, Merman, Kelly, etc. Her material ranged from songs she made famous to amusing specialties, most notably an adapted “Show Off” from The Drowsy Chaperone, which involved Mitzi twirling boobie tassles, climbing on the piano and showing off those knockout gams. In between sets, she would go off to change into yet another eye-popping Bob Mackie gown. During the interim, video montages would play – highlights from her films, TV appearances and pop culture references. From the hilarious to the poignant, she showed everything – the film soubrette, the camp icon of the 60s & 70s, but also her favorite role: as Mrs. Jack Bean.

Mitzi is a singer and dancer, yes, but she is also one of the greatest storytellers I have ever heard in my life. Striking the perfect balance between elegant and bawdy, we were given a glimpse into her private life as a young starlet being romanced by Howard Hughes (who advised her to buy property – off the Vegas strip!), falling in love with the man who would become her husband and dearest companion, Jack Bean (the moment she fell? when he told her she was “full of shit”) and stories about working with the one and only Ethel Merman. She said that if she went into the whole story of how she got South Pacific and the experience making it, her show would turn into “Nicholas Nickerby, or whatever the heck it’s called.”

The biggest laughs came from the two Merman stories. Flying into NY for the premiere of Show Business, Merm (whom Mitzi called “Mom” – Merm called her “Mitzeleh”) invited her and her husband to dinner with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at “Elmers” (El Morocco). She turned an anecdote about the simple act of putting on a cincher into comic art. Another story involved a chaotic evening at a Jersey casino, finding Merm and her pal Betty Bruce (who replaced Maria Karnilova in Gypsy) in the back seat of a Rolls Royce with a gallon of champagne.

Despite the presence of some pure camp and lowbrow humor, there were moments of unexpected vulnerability and openness. The termination of her film contract in 1954 and its devastating impact on her segued into a low-key, ruefully ironic reading of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” transitioning into an upbeat number on the lyrical cue “But you go on.” She brought a moving silence to the crowd as she spoke and sang of her late husband, who died of pneumonia in 2006.

It’s not the most polished show I’ve seen at the Regency, but that’s a moot point. You’re going for Mitzi and you get a helluva lot of Mitzi. Now that’s what I consider getting your money’s worth.

Following her encore, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” a young lady got up onstage, much to our surprise. She was there representing the NY area Emmy Awards. As it turns out, Gaynor’s PBS special won last month but since the star was on tour with her show she couldn’t be in attendance. The overwhelmed Mitzi gave a gracious acceptance speech, bringing the crowd once again to its feet for a final standing ovation.

Since it was opening night, there was a champagne reception in the ballroom foyer following the performance. SarahB and I were quite fortunate to chat with Mitzi for a couple minutes. The star was ever so grateful and gracious, and it was a thrill for all of us in that room last night to be there for such a star. The next morning, my parents were both curious to know about the evening, and I showed them the picture above. It marks the first time in all my years of going out to theatre and solo shows that my parents have ever been jealous. I think Mitzeleh would get a kick knowing that the first thing my mother did was to call the neighbors letting them know she’s in town.

Mitzi’s playing Feinstein’s (remember, the ballroom!) until May 29. Don’t miss this show, whatever you do.

Mitzi Gaynor to Make NY Debut in May

It seems unbelievable that Mitzi Gaynor has never played the Big Apple, but finally after decades of television, film and touring, the South Pacific star is excited to make her New York performance debut. The star will bring her one woman show Razzle Dazzle: My Life Behind the Sequins in an intimate setting like Feinstein’s to get up close and personal with her fans. In her show, Ms. Gaynor will bring her incomparable brand of showmanship to the stage in a glittering multimedia one woman tour-de-force of music and memories from her show-stopping life and career.

Gaynor says “over the years I’d been asked to play New York on numerous occasions but the stars never quite aligned. That’s why I was thrilled when Michael Feinstein asked me to bring my show to his club and said I could have the Regency’s Ballroom so I’d have more room to play. I really can’t wait to be there. There’s no city in the world like New York.”

It’s interesting that Mitzi has never played Broadway, yet has done so many great roles in tour and in stock. I, for one, think she would have been a fantastic replacement in the original production of Mame (among many other shows). But it’s better late than never. I’m going to be with there with a certain Elsa-in-crime. And whenever Miss Mitzi is onstage, it’s bound to be an event.

Gaynor will play five engagements at Feinstein’s at the Regency from May 18 to May 22. Tickets are available online or via phone (212-339-4095) and mention the code MG101 for complimentary presale seating upgrade.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Mitzi Gaynor

Most of us remember Mitzi Gaynor from the film adaptation of South Pacific. That landmark adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage launched Mitzi into an unusual stardom. She was a product of the studio system, often relegated to supporting roles in musical films. However, South Pacific was a bona fide blockbuster. You would have thought that the success of the film would have catapulted her to the top of the lists for starring roles in film and on Broadway. But for whatever reason, that was not to be the case. After South Pacific, only made three more films.

She was convinced to perform in Las Vegas, where she proved an overwhelming success. One thing led to another, and from her overwhelming success in Vegas she was asked to perform the Oscar-nominated song “Georgy Girl” at the Academy awards in 1967. Gaynor hadn’t seen the film Georgy Girl nor had she ever heard the song, but they staged it elaborately with spectacular choreography and costumes by Bob Mackie. The resulting performance brought about one of the longest standing ovations in Academy award history.

The buzz generated by this one-time performance was enough for television executives to give her a variety special of her own. Produced by her husband and manager, and as she will quickly attest, the real love of her life, Jack Bean, the shows aired once a year for ten years. Ms. Gaynor had Bob Mackie and his eye-poppings designs, as well as the frequent direction and choreography of Tony Charmoli (who choreographed Woman of the Year on Broadway), plus the help of noted choreographers Peter Gennaro, Bob Sidney and Danny Daniels. She was also able to get as many stars as there were in the heavens to make appearances, most notable in her one special Mitzi…and 100 Guys, which saw the likes of Bob Hope (performing a softshoe), Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Mike Connors, Jim Nabors, Andy Griffith Tom Bosley, Michael Landon (in a comic duet of “Delovely”) and a slew of others appear. When asked on WLIW about how she got all of them to appear, her simple answer was “We asked and they said yes!” Each year brought a different theme – and her one-hour specials turned out to be landslide winners in the ratings.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of South Pacific and the 40th anniversary of her first special, the simply titled Mitzi, a new DVD documentary has been released by City Lights Home Entertainment called Mitzi Gaynor: The Razzle-Dazzle Years, an introspective into the television specials with extensive footage of the shows as well as indepth memories from Ms. Gaynor herself, as well as Rex Reed, Kristin Chenoweth, Carl Reiner, Bob Mackie, Tony Charmoli and Kelli O’Hara. Ms. Gaynor herself is nothing short of gracious and humble, having a sense of humor about herself but also quick to give credit to everyone around her.

Looking at her perform throughout these specials, I can’t help but think of the variety of musical theatre roles she could have played in NY. From the lavishness of her specials, the first show that pops into my head is Mame. But I could also see her performing in Sweet Charity or Chicago as well. (Many of her costumes gave the censors agita, because they were rather coyly suggestive, especially during the ’70s, even though you really can’t see anything. After all, Mitzi is first and foremost a lady). Broadway’s loss was certainly television’s gain here.

Included on the DVD are several complete performances from her specials, including “Mitzi & Friends Salute Sondheim’s Company, with Jerry Orbach, Ted Knight, Suzanne Pleshette, Jane Withers and Cliff Norton performing “The Little Things You Do Together” set at a sophisticated dinner party in NY. Seeing the phenomenal Pleshette (yes she sings, in a baritone shades of Stritch and Bacall) here leads me to wonder if anyone ever thought of casting her as Joanne in Company. There are also some sketches, an outtake from the documentary about her appearance on the show the night the Beatles were on and a featurette with Mitzi and Bob Mackie discussing the costumes.

The performance footage seen on this documentary and in the bonus features has not been seen since the specials aired between 1968 and 1978. However, it would have been fun to see her showstopping performance at the Academy Awards on here, but I guess rights weren’t available.

Mitzi is anecdotal and warm, a complete delight to hear with many interesting stories about the people with whom she worked and an uncanny knack for impersonation. (And like I said, undeniably gracious and humble). It’s definitely worth taking a look as its probably in the listings for your local public broadcasting station (they are getting their pledge on!)