Under the Wire

I saw the following shows just in the nick of time. It seemed that my schedule might force me to skip them, but my gut instinct told me I had to see them, come hell or highwater. As a result, I saw all three shows on their closing weekends, two of which I attended the final performance. Jerusalem and Master Class both had extended limited engagements on Broadway, while Sammy Gets Mugged was scheduled for a five performance run as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.

Jerusalem – I love big British plays, so Jerusalem had been on my radar for some time when it hit Broadway this spring. Mark Rylance was offering his second tour de force of the season as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a performance which swept London by storm, and was also incredibly well received here in NY. The play had a surprising effect on me; it was visceral and surprisingly funny in spite of its vulgarity and the generally disagreeable nature of practically everyone on stage. Rylance is just staggering. I marveled at the sheer physicality of his performance. (He thanks his chiropracter and trainer in his bio). I am amazed that a single human being can deliver a performance like this just once, let alone that 8 times a week (and will do another four months in London starting this fall). On top of his physicality, it is a performance of extraordinary range and depth. I was startled by the play’s effect on me; the third act left me quite rattled and I left the theatre literally trembling. Strangely enough, Jerusalem reminded me of E.M. Forster’s Howards End in its exploration of the impact of social and economic change on England. Kudos to director Ian Rickson for staging the play with bravado. Able support was provided by the ensemble, most notably Mackenzie Crook and Geraldine Hughes.

Sammy Gets Mugged – I only saw one Fringe show this year, in my first real visit to the Lower East Side and the Living Theatre. There was supposed to be one more performance of Sammy, but Hurricane Irene made the performance I attended the closing. Playwright Dan Heching’s play is loosely based on his own experience being mugged in Paris a few years ago. Using that traumatic as a stepping stone, Heching explores subjective memory and perception  – and a la Rashomon we see different perspectives on the same incident. The cast of three was nimbly directed by Noah Himmelstein, who staged the play with imagination and clarity. Patrick Byas was simply superb as the Mugger, the most fully realized character in the piece. Stephanie Pope Caffey added grand support and a deft comic touch as the sole witness. Heching himself played Sammy, and while he was charming and likable, I feel that Heching needs to step aside and let another actor play the role in its next incarnation. I look at Sammy Gets Mugged as a work in progress, therefore stepping out of the play will allow Heching, the playwright, to fully realize the scope and potential of the play he has written.

Master ClassI will see Tyne Daly in anything. Mama Tyne, as I like to call her, is one of the most fascinating – and I think underrated – actresses working today. She is not typical casting for La Divina Maria Callas, but then again neither was Zoe Caldwell, who originated the role in 1995. Having seen her play various characters off-Broadway in Love, Loss and What I Wore and her delicious cabaret outing at Feinstein’s, I became convinced that Tyne can do anything. One of the things to remember is that the play is a fantasia on the life of the great opera diva and so those looking for a bioplay should just read a book about her instead. Tyne was in total command of the stage from her entrance to her exit. She was funny, she was scathing and ultimately she was captivating – especially during those two aria like monologues where we step out of the reality of the classroom and into Maria’s memories. She found the humor, pathos and heartbreak (you should have heard the audience sobbing toward the end of act 2) in the myth of a woman who may be the most legendary opera singer. It was fascinating to see her take the students, break them down and build them back up (especially Garrett Sorenson, whose acting may not be the strongest but whose aria brought down the house). Jeremy Cohen had quiet charm as the accompanist, while Clinton Brandhagen scored big laughs as the unimpressed stagehand. It was the final performance, and during the curtain call each actor presented Tyne with an orange, a reference to a gesture at the top of the second act. It was charming and lovely, and a beautiful way for Tyne’s towering performance to top off its acclaimed Broadway run.

Tyne Daly: "The Second Time Around"

Early in her set at Feinstein’s at the Regency, Tyne Daly takes a moment to reflect on the puns that have been made on her name in various songs and quotes, etc. She insists there isn’t one she hasn’t heard – and dared the audience to try and stump her. She uses this moment as a thematic stepping stone for her latest cabaret act, “The Second Time Around” as the actress has been brought back to the venue by popular demand. It exemplifies her wit and somewhat quirky sense of humor and self. Ms. Daly then proceeds to offer a master class in lyric interpretation, imparting sincerity into every single word and phrase she speaks and sings.

I’ve known of Tyne for many years – my first exposure being, of all things, her role as Clint Eastwood’s partner in The Enforcer, the third of the Dirty Harry features. She is probably best known for her TV work, but she is also a Tony-winner for her performance as Rose in the 1989 revival of Gypsy. My first opportunity seeing Ms. Daly onstage was two months ago in the fantastic off-Broadway production of Love, Loss and What I Wore at the West Side Theatre. (It is here that I admit that unfortunately, no we are not related).

Daly, sophisticated and real, charming and genuine, winsome and wizened, starts her evening with “The Hostess with the Mostes'” from Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam, a song she first sang at Encores! in 1995 with new lyrics specially written for the occasion (even a nod to the Berlin estate for having a sense of humor). She apologizes in advance for a missed lyric, or a note sung off-key. She needn’t have worried – the actress is so at ease in cabaret that if you’d think she’d been doing this sort of gig all her life. And while her voice is not quite her strongest asset as a performer, she sounds better here than I have ever heard her before.

The theme of the evening becomes time, as Ms. Daly uses her song set to explore her (and our) conceptions and obsessions with time – how one moment it can be suspended, then suddenly speed up. She ruminated on how life is in warp speed, and the events and incidents that can impact our lives (which makes for a lovely parallel with the concept behind Love Loss and What I Wore). One moment she’s reliving her high school dream to be a cheerleader, the next she’s wondering when her grandson got to be thirteen years old (and have his heart broken by Hannah in the 7th grade) and ruminating on heartbreak, joy, love, sorrow, etc.

While sitting at my table in Feinstein’s it dawned on me halfway through the performance that I had forgotten that there was anyone else in the room. On more than one occasion I felt as though Tyne was singing to me and me alone, heightening the intimacy of an already intimate venue, whose 10th anniversary she was also celebrating (“Where else in NY can you hear two Rudy Vallee songs in a row?” she deadpans).

The selections are eclectic, ranging from the popular to obscure. She sings popular standards, a cheer-leading rally, a devastatingly simple tribute to her mother with the 13th century folk ballad “O Waly, Waly.” She recalled her dream of being a cheerleader with a real obscurity – “Betty Co-Ed,” which contains “one of the worst puns in history.” She was exceptionally memorable with Bessie Smith’s blues classic “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair, a song juxtaposed with “That’s Him Over There” co-written by Marilyn Bergman.

For her grandson, she offers “Sonny Boy” combined with a fabulous rendition of Bill Withers’ classic “Ain’t No Sunshine.” She also paid homage to the “second girls,” those musical theatre sidekicks that get the laughs but not the guy. Her “Adelaide’s Lament” was a comic highlight; it’s the first time I’ve ever seen Adelaide portrayed as a real girl who happens to be ditzy – and not the comic cartoon that we’re used to. She also combined “Ooh, My Feet!” from The Most Happy Fella and “I Can Cook Too” from On the Town in dedication to the wait staff.

An example of her seamless segues, she talked about all the French references to food in the latter song, and it brought about her revelation that she has an imaginary friend (or rather alter ego), who dreams of being a French chanteuse a la Piaf. Tyne delivered – in flawless French – a stunning, understated rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Stardust’ which culminated in a piano solo with shades of Debussy by pianist John McDaniel (The Rosie O’Donnell Show).

But just when you thought she couldn’t take it further, she espouses her alter-ego’s desire to revive Jerry Herman’s Dear World, a short-lived musical adaptation of The Madwoman of Chaillot. Ms. Daly brings her cabaret to a shattering climax with a medley of “Each Tomorrow Morning/And I Was Beautiful” and “I Don’t Want to Know,” creating a carefully constructed and delineated character to the proceedings. If there are any risk-taking producers with chutzpah or the folks from Encores! out there reading this, you do not want to pass up that opportunity. The evening was capped off with her encore (Tyne saved herself a trip to and from the kitchen) of Sonny West’s “Oh Boy.” Probably best known from Buddy Holly’s upbeat cover, Tyne’s was slower, introspective and devastating.

Kudos to musical director and occasional harmonist John McD, who guided the band and supported the star with considerable poise. The orchestra, as Tyne loving called them, consisted of Tom Hubbard on bass, Ray Marchica on percussion, Rick Heckman on woodwinds and Peter Sachon on cello. I couldn’t imagine a better group or better arrangements to accompany the star. Tyne Daly is every inch a star, and she radiates the confidence and grace that comes from being one. But she is also a reflection of maternal dignity and warmth. The combination is a knockout.

“The Second Time Around” is playing at Feinstein’s until January 30. Her show runs Tuesday through Thursday at 8:30PM and Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00PM with a second how at 11:00PM. There is a $60 cover ($75 premium seating) and a $40 food/drink minimum. Also, Feinstein’s is introducing a new policy with select seats going for a $40 cover no food/drink minimum (subject to availability).

"Love, Loss and What I Wore"

Truth be told, had I not been invited to see it I probably wouldn’t have seen Love Loss and What I Wore. I’m not really the target demographic for this production, currently playing off-Broadway at the West Side Theatre/Downstairs. From what I’ve read, it didn’t seem to be the sort of show that would appeal to me. However, I am very glad that I found myself seated in the theatre for last Sunday evening’s performance. The play, written by Nora and Delia Ephron based on the book by Ilene Beckerman, features a rotating cast of five actresses recalling the various memories triggered by various articles of clothing and accessories, under the direction of Karen Carpenter.

I know very little about maternity clothes, shopping for bras and prom dresses or the frustrations stemming from a purse or shoes, so I wondered if would fully appreciate the situations and stories being relayed. Leaving the play, I was stunned at my own preconceived notions. The play was both hilarious and touching, but I also found great appreciation at the daily rituals and indignities women have to endure in Western society when it comes to their appearance. I’m usually done clothes shopping within a half hour; the only thing I ever bother trying on is pants. So I am stunned to hear that women find themselves facing hours upon hours of shopping in order to find clothes and accessories that are just right.

The play is performed as a staged reading, so there is a certain casualness to the proceedings that only heightens the intimacy between the actors and the audience, with many audience members expressing themselves vocally from their seats (the mere mention of Eileen Fisher got one of the biggest reactions of the night). The stories and monologues feel more like you are attended a party, picking up fragments and anecdotes as you work your way through the room. This is further intimated by the simplistic staging: the ladies remain seated on stools, with scripts on stands for the duration, smartly decked out in all black attire (a color choice given its due praise in the play).

Kudos to the Ephrons and Carpenter for shaping an evening that is often funny and often moving, but without becoming unnecessarily maudlin or overly sentimental. So many of the subjects touched on in Love, Loss are not unfamiliar and have often been beaten to death by the Lifetime and Hallmark networks. However, the proceedings are kept smart, savvy and the familiarity of the stories breeds universality rather than cliche.

Mary Louise Wilson serves as a sort of narrative base for the evening. She relays the life of a singular woman through cardboard drawings of the individuals wardrobe, essaying memories of childhood, love, lust, family, failed marriages, motherhood, and getting older with a certain casualness. She also got one of the biggest laughs instructing the audience on how to draw oneself (they include an insert in the Playbill so you can do it yourself, and they post them on a bulletin board in the lobby). Wilson

The other four actresses portray a wide variety of characters. Mary Birdsong brought her unique comic sensibility to her different women, but shone especially as a woman languishing in a loveless relationship for eight years. She and Lisa Joyce have one of the more affecting bits of stage business as they tell two seemingly separate stories simultaneously, only to gobsmack the audience with a twist that ties the two together seamlessly. Jane Lynch, who is well known for her comedic skills from her various film and TV appearances has the opportunity here to display her depth and range as she recounts one woman’s battle with breast cancer in the most moving segment of the evening.

And on top of all this, there’s Tyne Daly. The Tony-winning actress is simply sublime delivering a comic monologue about purses, and how they become a reflection of the individual but she’s also endearingly saucy as a southern woman recounting her romance with man in prison. Daly (sadly, no relation) is as warm and effusive onstage as you would hope her to be. On top of it, she makes it all look so innately easy. As much as I loved all the ladies, I found myself looking forward to all the moments directly involving her. However, there was a sense of camaraderie between the actresses. When one was working, the others were watching her; listening and genuinely appreciating what the other was saying.

A new cast is taking over this coming week, but pay that no mind. Part of the novelty behind this simple staging is that so many acclaimed actresses will have the opportunity to step in over the next few months. The show has been such a success that is has already extended itself into March. Kristin Chenoweth, Rhea Perlman, Debra Monk, Michele Lee and Capathia Jenkins are just a handful of the actresses who will be rotating in and out of the show over the next couple of months. (You can check out the cast rotation on the show’s website).

Since I didn’t know what to expect, I wanted to make sure that I brought someone with me who I feel would feel a connection to the material. When Roxie proved unavailable, I turned my good friend Dana, a savvy thirty-something with whom I used to work. I didn’t expect or know that the Jane Lynch monologue about breast cancer would hit as home as it did. But it matched detail for detail, save for the type of cancer. She had what she later referred to as a “moment” there, and it proved a very personal moment for the both of us as I considered how I fortunate I was to have this particular person in my life. She already has plans on bringing her mother and sister back to see the show.

After the show, I was talking to the show’s exceptional associate general manager, fellow blogger Jodi Schoenbrun-Carter. She, my friend and I were espousing the virtues of Love, Loss and What I Wore and she casually mentioned her husband retaining a particular item of clothing. For the example, she said “an old flannel shirt.” Suddenly, as though a light switch was turned on, I remembered that I actually keep a worn, XL flannel shirt in my old bedroom closet at my parents’ house. I acquired this shirt in ninth grade, and often wore it as a jacket, and used it for a production of The Wizard of Oz I appeared in my senior year. I’ve never worn it since that show, but because of its personal importance I’ve held onto it. Hanging alongside that shirt, are my Boy Scout uniform, college graduation gown, and a vintage 1970s Nino Cerruti sports jacket (total non-sequitur – my oldest brother bought the exact same jacket – same size, color, etc. around the same time unbeknownst to either of us until a year later). So gents, if you find yourselves wary of seeing the show, just remember – you can substitute purses, heeled shoes and maternity clothes with briefcases, fishing boots and tuxedos and you’ll find that you can start culling up memories of your own.

Quote of the Day: Tyne Daly on Rose

I then mentioned to Tyne that since the musical Gypsy is constantly revived, we should probably assume that it will come back again in a few years and, by the law of averages, someone sitting in the audience will probably be playing Mama Rose. Any tips? She turned out, glared and advised, “She is not a monster!” and stormed off. She’s still got it.

– Seth Rudetsky recapping his onstage conversation with Tony-winner Tyne Daly at the 20th anniversary of the “Gypsy of the Year” competition in his latest “Onstage & Backstage” column