As it was at the overture and shall be at the exit music, bliss without end. Amen.

Theatre Aficionado at Large

Tag: Victoria Clark

A New Old World Revisited

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Late in the second act of The Light in the Piazza, Margaret Johnson tells Signor Naccarelli “There is no survey of the facts like time.” He doesn’t understand what she means, but in the years since the show’s premiere I’ve come to appreciate what she was saying. Piazza opened on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater on Monday, April 18 2005. I was in the house that night and fell hard and fast for a complex, character-driven musical for grownups. I’ve never had quite so visceral a reaction to any other show before or since.

The musical garnered favorable notices, and went on to win a whopping six Tony Awards (out of 11 nominations), extending its limited engagement four times, and airing as part of Live from Lincoln Center on PBS. Time has proven kind to the show. There have been many regional productions, the cast album is popular among musical theatre fans, and songs from the score are being sung to death in classes and auditions everywhere.

I first took notice of The Light in the Piazza in early 2003, when I saw a news article announcing that Victoria Clark had been cast for the world premiere at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. Unlike most 19 year olds, I was familiar with the 1962 film adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella (because of its star Olivia de Havilland). The story involves Margaret Johnson, a wealthy southern matron and her beautiful daughter Clara, who are vacationing in 1950s Florence, Italy. Clara was injured in a childhood accident involving a Shetland pony, leaving her mentally and emotionally stunted. When love blooms between Clara and the handsome Fabrizio, Margaret steps in to try and stop them.

My friend Noah Himmelstein attended one of the early Broadway previews and called me afterward to tell me I had to see it. He told me I should sign up for the LCT student rush program and insisted I avoid any samples of music or preview clips before seeing it. I was staggered when I was able to score a $20 to the show’s opening night (my first).

My professors excused me from all my classes that day, and I decided to spend my afternoon roaming about midtown, before heading to the Beaumont Theatre (another first for me). I people-watched in the lobby as John Lithgow, Helen Hunt and Maggie Gyllenhaal walked by until it was time to settle in to my rear loge seat.

As for Adam Guettel’s score, it was love at first measure. The moment I heard that first harp gliss, I knew deep inside that I was going to love what I was about to hear. My most vivid memories of opening night are the rousing ovation Victoria Clark received for “Dividing Day,” observing the pair next to me clutching each other and weeping as Kelli O’Hara sang the title song, and how the applause would not subside until Adam Guettel, Craig Lucas and Bartlett Sher took a bow. My immediate reaction was to call Noah on my way out of the lobby, telling him it was the greatest musical I’d ever seen. He read me Eric Grode’s rave review from Broadway.com over the phone. When we hung up, I dreamily roamed about the plaza at Lincoln Center (almost bumping into Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer).

To say that the musical consumed my life would be an understatement. It was all I could talk about for the remainder of its run. I talked about the show at length with anyone who would listen (I’m still occasionally apologizing to my closest friends). I even bought the cast album the day before its official release at Colony Records, and it didn’t leave my CD player for five months.

Then came the repeat attending. I was living in New Paltz, NY at the time, going to college and working at the campus library. Sundays were my day off so I would take an early Trailways bus into Manhattan, pick up at a ticket at TKTS and spend my afternoon being transported to 1953 Florence. I was at the final performances of Mark Harelik and Kelli O’Hara, the Live from Lincoln Center telecast and the highly emotional closing performance. In all, I saw the original Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza twelve times. I only wish I had gone more.

Before it was officially announced, I found out that there would be a 10th anniversary reunion concert when one of the cast members posted his regrets that he couldn’t be there. It took some sleuthing, but I was able to figure out that it was indeed happening in April at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. (It’s actually the 11th anniversary, but that’s a minor point). The moment tickets went on sale, I tried to get LincTix but was told “We’re sorry there are no tickets available.” I tried again and got the same message. So I panicked and bought a full-price front row center seat in the loge. No regrets.

Appearing in the concert were original cast members (in alphabetical order) Michael Berresse, Sarah Uriarte Berry, David Bonanno, Victoria Clark, Patti Cohenour, Beau Gravitte, Mark Harelik, Jennifer Hughes, Felicity LaFortune, Matthew Morrison, Kelli O’Hara, Adam Overett, Joseph Siravo, and Diane Sutherland.

On the day of the concert I could hardly contain my excitement. I was doing something I never thought I’d get to do again: to hear this score sung by this cast in the same venue. As people gathered in the lobby I was flooded with so memories: people watching the first nighters by the understudy board, or trying the show’s signature cocktail on my 8th trip (it wasn’t great). I remember browsing through the cast albums at Tower Records or books at Barnes and Noble (both long gone), or just happily roaming the LC campus. Everywhere I looked the night of the concert, I saw friends, including some I had seen the show, the most poignant of all being Noah.

The orchestra, led once again by Ted Sperling, was onstage, centered between upstage pillars of the massive set for The King and I. It was a delightful surprise to hear the complete overture, which was abridged during the show’s preview period (but recorded in its entirety for the cast album).

The actors had chairs and music stands lined up towards the lip of the main stage area and performed the show mostly off-book in the thrust space. The cast was, if anything, better than they were ten years ago; deeper, richer. There was a magical combination of nostalgia and muscle memory. They hit similar marks from the original staging with just a few props. Certain line readings brought familiar laughs. They even went so far as to recreate the breathtaking hat trick that incites the love story.

Victoria Clark, who won a Tony for the original production, is still a tremendous force as Margaret, the guarded, patrician mother. Her beautiful dramatic soprano is the perfect complement for the charming, complex woman she created years ago, and dare I say it, she looks even better now than she did then. The show has inexplicably never played London, and I think it’s time that both Piazza and Ms. Clark made their West End debuts.

Kelli O’Hara was something of a revelation to me, which is a bit surprising considering I saw her in the original production seven times (and I thought her spectacular then). She was freer and funnier; more at ease with making Clara’s pain and confusion more layered and more deeply felt. Her soprano is in peak form and her upper register is flourishing. The evening showed just how much Ms. O’Hara has grown as an artist and a leading lady in the past decade. Her rendition of the title song was a bona fide showstopper, as though everything she had ever done in her entire career had built to that one flawless moment.

Sarah Uriarte Berry sounds better than ever, and was on fire as jaded Franca, giving the best performance I’ve seen her give of her first act solo “The Joy You Feel” (for the record, her high F in “Aiutami” was jaw-dropping). I’d love to see Ms. Berry take on The Bridges of Madison County as soon as possible. It was also great to see stalwart Patti Cohenour back on Broadway, even if only for one night. Her soprano is still strong and supple, and it was quite moving to see her wiping away copious tears during “Love to Me.”

Speaking of tears, emotions ran high throughout the night. At any given moment, you could catch a performer welling up whether it was Kelli onstage, Kelli watching Vicki, Vicki onstage, Vicki watching Kelli, etc. The audience and cast were practically ugly-crying as one by the end of “Fable.”

When the lights came up, the person next to me, a total stranger, handed me a tissue without saying a word. It was a profound experience for me; one of the most personal of my life. I was overwhelmed by memories of a very happy, joyous time in my life and was glad to be able to share it with so many friends, old and new.

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.

“The Mikado” – Collegiate Chorale

The Collegiate Chorale offered a starry and exceptionally well-sung concert staging of The Mikado at Carnegie Hall on April 10 under the direction and baton of Ted Sperling. This marked my first time seeing the classic Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, though I am familiar with some of the more famous songs (and am a fan of Mike Leigh’s essential Topsy-Turvy, which details the fascinating gestation of the original production).

The Mikado is set in Japan, but in reality the characters and situations are a direct send up of mid 19th century England. The silliness of the show, its delightfully flippant point of view on death and execution and farce make for a pleasant evening. The concert staging doesn’t lend itself well to the comic nature of the libretto, so the opening was a bit slow. But after a bit, everything clicked and the audience was treated to an engaging comic romp.

Kelli O’Hara and Jason Danieley were in top form as Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo. O’Hara held the audience rapt with her gorgeous rendition of “The Sun Whose Rays” Chuck Cooper was a well-sung Mikado, while Steve Rosen added some laughs as “Pish-Tush.” Jonathan Freeman was delightfully droll as Poo-Bah. Amy Justman and Lauren Worsham added stellar support, especially when they joined O’Hara for a spirited rendition of the famous “Three Little Girls.”

However, the evening belonged to Christoper Fitzgerald and Victoria Clark. As Koko and Katisha, they all but leveled the house with the climactic “There is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast,” capping off an evening of mass hysteria from the two actors. Fitzgerald sang an updated version of the famed “A Little List, with references to tweeting, Kardashians and Newt Gingrich. This ruffled the feathers of a few purists who grumbled about it during intermission (and incidentally were also added to the list), but in spite of their misery, it was highly entertaining. He later scored major laughs with “Tit-Willow.” Clark entered like a harridan, with garish makeup, tussled hair held back from her eyes with chopsticks, and walked away with the show in her pocket. Her entrance was such a surprising contrast to the stately concert attire, she stopped the show before she even opened her mouth. Then she opened her mouth and proceeded to steal every single scene she was in.

The only unfortunate aspect of the night: that the Collegiate Chorale didn’t record this wonderful concert, with its illustrious chorus. It deserves to be heard again.

At Large Elsewhere: Stage-Rush TV Edition

In the last post, I mentioned toward the end that I made an appearance on Jesse North’s Stage-Rush TV (my 2nd!) co-hosting the 70th episode of his weekly web series about the goings-on in New York theatre, especially Broadway. This time around we talked about what shows I was looking forward to, as well as Kate Baldwin’s album, Sister Act and some of the Broadway grosses. Be sure to stick around to the very end.

“Sister Act”

One thing that surprised me about Sister Act: The Divine Musical Comedy (that’s some billing) is that it’s rather entertaining. The new musical based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film wants you to have a good time and pulls out every possible stop to do so. However, it’s also not very good; a by-the-numbers screen to stage adaptation lacking inspiration. Not everything is terrible, the show moves the action to late 70s Philadelphia and makes some concerted effort to be different from its source; but it’s the effort shows at almost every turn.

The show makes its inevitable appearance on Broadway after runs in Atlanta, the Pasadena Playhouse and most recently in London. The original book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner has been spiced up for Broadway by Douglas Carter Beane (and you can pretty much call Beane’s lines as you hear them). The book’s structure speaks to the second or third tier Golden Age musicals of the ’50s & ’60s. The dialogue creaks, some of the lines are just cheap (Deloris’ “going incognegro” stands out among the worst) and there is a preference for style over substance. These moments can be elevated or overlooked on account of the stellar cast, led by newcomer Patina Miller as Deloris.

Director Jerry Zaks has given the show a fluid pace, while Anthony van Laast’s generic 70s choreography fails to make a lasting impression. Lez Brotherston has designed the costumes, coming up with one exceedingly gaudy variation on a habit after another (and probably used up all the sequins in New York). However, it seems that no one on the creative team had an idea what a nun was like except from what they learned from The Sound of Music, and that showed in the way they were portrayed (with one notable exception, more on that later).

Ms. Miller is quite a find; a real triple threat with charm, poise and exceptional beauty. There is instant likability, and the star takes a more sincere and less sassy approach to Deloris than one would expect from the film. In the spirit of empowerment, she teaches her nuns to stand up to Mother Superior, but simultaneously discovers her self-worth. It’s a breakthrough performance, and we’re bound to see a lot more of Patina through the years, but the role as written doesn’t quite let her soar through the stratosphere as it should. She tears into her numbers with aplomb and style, particularly “Fabulous Baby,” but she is at her most effective and most appealing in the eleven o’clock spot, the title song.

The production’s hidden asset is none other than Tony-winner Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza) as Mother Superior. In a role that could easily be a cardboard cutout of austere authority, Ms. Clark grounds the entire production with a fully realized character, and the most honest, compelling performance onstage at the Broadway Theatre. The re-conception of the role was enough to warrant a second solo spot for Mother Superior in the second which offers the character a chance to express her crisis of faith. While I’d prefer to see the soprano as the Reverend Mother in that other aforementioned musical with nuns, it’s just a pleasure having Ms. Clark back on Broadway where she belongs.

Audrie Neenan scores major laughs channeling Mary Wickes as Sr. Mary Lazarus, Marla Mindelle gets to belt it to the rafters as Sr. Mary Robert. Chester Gregory plays “Sweatie Eddie,” the Philly cop assigned to Deloris (and in a more interesting creative stroke, the librettists gave him a backstory with Deloris, including an unrequited crush). Gregory is a major talent, but his number “I Could Be That Guy” doesn’t suit his ability (though it contains the most impressive quick changes in the show). Fred Applegate is always a delight, here playing eager Monsignor O’Hara.

One of the charms of the original film was the way existing Motown standards were adapted for the nun’s choir (also it was fun seeing old Broadway pros like Susan Johnson, Ruth Kobart and Beth Fowler among the singing nuns). This new original score is mostly charmless, occasionally awful and mostly unmemorable. It’s a mixed bag of disco pastiche and typically Menkenesque power ballads. The show is at its worst with songs like “It’s Good to Be a Nun” and the disgusting “Lady in the Long Black Dress” (three thugs sing about seducing nuns). The song most likely to be hummed as you leave the theatre is the opening “Take Me to Heaven” which is given the Golden Age treatment of multiple reprises throughout the show. “The Life I Never Led” feels like something written for and rejected from any of the animated films Menken has scored in the last twenty years.

Broadway has a new middle of the road crowd-pleaser on its hands. Sister Act is destined to do well among tourists and I imagine its success in New York will surpass that of London. I just wish the entire production was as flawless as Ms. Clark.

Merry Christmas

Tony-winner Victoria Clark sings “O Holy Night.” My best to you and yours.

Posted on December 25, 2010 at 1:39 pm.

Lucky to Be Me: The Music of Leonard Bernstein

When I purchased my ticket to NYCO‘s Lucky to Be Me: The Music of Leonard Bernstein a couple months back, it was for two reasons – Victoria Clark was singing and there would be selections from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I’m a big Bernstein fan and love his other shows, but I revel in the opportunities I’ve had over the past couple of years to hear songs from this lost score performed in NY.

You see, ever since I first heard the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue score and Patricia Routledge’s performances of “Take Care of This House” and “Duet for One” a few years back, I’ve wanted to hear Clark sing those numbers, as she is the closest we have to a Routledge on Broadway today. When the revised score, under the title A White House Cantata, is performed, opera singers without musical theatre backgrounds have been cast and much of the warmth and humor is gone from the role of the First Lady. So you can imagine my reaction when I opened the concert’s Playbill to see that she would be delivering this particular number in the eleven o’clock spot of the show. I think I summed it up best in my tweet: ‘Victoria Clark. Duet for One. They might to need to take me out of here on a stretcher.’

But I love Leonard Bernstein music in general. His material is interesting, tuneful and memorable. There is a distinctive sound that is his and his alone, with syncopation and variation and a love of difficult time signatures. His music evokes many reactions from me personally, and I find I’m pretty much able to appreciate and often love every piece of music he has written (that I’ve heard so far). Even when the wordsmith fails, the melody is still often compelling. And hearing his music live makes me wish I had been able to witness him conduct in person; his melodies are as impassioned and enthusiastic and full of life as he was on the conducting platform.

The entire concert was a delight from start to finish, with only minor quibbles about the technical aspects and staging. The performance was onstage at the David H. Koch (formerly the New York State) Theater. The songs were performed in front of the show curtain, which I found a strange choice. The chorus spent much of its time singing from either side of the first tier seats and the space limitations while not overly distracting, seemed generally constricting.

The first act was dedicated entirely to Bernstein’s classical repertoire, with selections from Mass, Songfest and a segment from his Kaddish Symphony No. 3. Aside from a brief introduction by Donna Murphy, the first act consisted of opera singers from NYCO’s current production of A Quiet Place as well as the reliable NYCO chorus and children’s chorus. Christopher Feigum sang “To What You Said,” Bernstein’s setting of Walt Whitman’s poem in Songfest, which amused me greatly as the melody has been recycled from the Prelude to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Feigum and Joshua Jeremiah, who sang a lovely “Simple Song” from Mass, were the solo highlights of the first act.

There were some other great singers onstage, unfortunately the acoustics in Koch Theatre made it difficult to hear them over the orchestra. The best sound seemed to come from the front orchestra section, where the children’s chorus lined up to sing – facing the stage – and could be heard clearer and louder than any of the trained opera professionals. Sound remained an issue throughout the evening, though it improved greatly during the Broadway themed second act.

As for act two, it was one showstopper after another from Bernstein’s five Broadway musicals. While the shows themselves run the gamut from classic hit to obscure failure, one thing remains consistent: Bernstein wrote damned good scores for all of them. The audience, which was exceptionally polite during the more solemn first act came to life during this portion. Darius de Haas, Michael Urie and Jeremiah Johnson got it started with a lively reading of “New York, New York” from On the Town which segued directly into a winning “Something’s Coming”  from West Side Story. Kelli O’Hara was the ideal Eileen with “A Little Bit in Love” from Wonderful Town, while Christine Ebersole had a field day as On the Town’s Hildy, with dynamite renditions of “Come Up to My Place” (with Urie) and “I Can Cook Too.” Cheyenne Jackson offered a lovely “Lucky to Be Me,” with the unbelievably gorgeous choral arrangement. Michael Baritone Sidney Outlaw held the audience captive with the most haunting rendition of “Seena” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that’s been heard since Gilbert Price originated the part.

Other highlights included Donna Murphy’s hilarious showstopping “One Hundred Easy Ways” from Wonderful Town, while Michael Cerveris countered with a beautifully understated, wistful rendition of “A Quiet Girl” from the same score. Clark and O’Hara danced and trilled their way through the comic duet “We Are Women” written for the original London production of Candide.  The high point of the evening was the combination of “Tonight” (sung by Jackson & O’Hara) with the “Quintet” which featured Cerveris as Riff and our Murphy as Anita. It was an electrifying performance that brought about one of the largest audience responses of the evening.

The finale packed a one-two punch: Ebersole, Murphy, Jackson and Cerveris performed the plaintive “Some Other Time” from On the Town. Then Armstrong and Jakubiak returned to lead “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Candide. There is a section in the song at its climax where the orchestra cuts out while the choral group is singing in 8 parts; its effect is almost indescribable. It is one of the most spine-tingling experiences a person can have as an audience member and a perfect way to cap off the evening.

As for “Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land),” I relish every opportunity I have to hear it. It’s a challenging nine minute number that involves more than just the woman at its center and a successful performance hinges on mastering its deliberately schizophrenic nature. It was probably the starriest version I’ve ever seen with Jackson standing in for Rutherford B. Hayes and Michael Cerveris delivering the oath of office. Clark was a wonder, clearly having a field day with the material. The staging was far more cumbersome than it needed to be, but Clark was a delight. I want to hear her perform it again and again.

The Bernstein estate should seriously reconsider the withdrawal of the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue score and create a new recording, akin to John McGlinn’s landmark reconstruction of Show Boat. While the show suffered an embarrassing failure in 1976, the score contains some dazzling material, including some truly great music left out of the concert revision, A White House Cantata. I had conversations with some concertgoers after the show and they asked me how I knew this score. They were astonished from the selections they heard and seemed genuinely interested in hearing more. “What a shame they didn’t record a cast album!” The Cantata does have a recording, but its staid and rather boring. Mr. Outlaw and Ms. Clark proved last night that the score deserves better. In the unlikely event the score ever does get a full recording, Clark should be first in line to play the First Ladies.

It’s Enough to Make a Fellow Fall in Love


Here’s a press shot of Patricia Routledge in her Tony-winning performance as Alice Challice in the failed Jule Styne-Yip Harburg musical Darling of the Day. The show lasted 31 performances at the George Abbott Theater (now the site of the Michelangelo Hotel) in 1968. In spite of the musical’s fast failure (which lost an astronomical $750,000), there are many merits within the show and score; friends and fellow bloggers know that I have long championed a revival.

Alice Challice is something of an unsung heroine of the musical theatre. She’s warm, vibrant, vivacious and pragmatic – a young widow living quietly in Putney who refuses to conform to the loneliness of widowhood. Endeavoring to get married, she uses a marriage broker to establish a correspondence with a nobleman artist’s valet. The role calls for a sensible, yet fun-loving comic soprano, “youngish,” whose material runs the gamut from tender ballads to raucous music hall numbers. There aren’t too many theatre fans familiar with Alice, but if they were it’s likely they would fall madly in love with her.

The show, which was a troubled vehicle for Vincent Price (!), failed rather miserably. It was based on Arnold Bennett’s comic novel Buried Alive about a shy British artist (Price) who switches identities with his dead valet “get out of the world alive” In doing so, he also takes up the deceased’s association with the Widow Challice, with whom he falls in love. An expectedly convoluted farce ensues where he paints under his pseudonym and is found out by snobbish art dealers, when all hell breaks loose.

Out of town reception was rather bleak, with critical pans in Toronto and Boston (in the latter city, Peter Filichia said it was one of the worst musicals he had ever seen, but much improved when he saw it in NY). There was a lack of steady direction, with four directors, two choreographers and five bookwriters. (Nunnally Johnson removed his name prior to opening night leaving the libretto without a credit). In spite of all this trouble the musical actually received a surprising amount of positive reviews. The only full-out pan was the estimable New York Times. Clive Barnes opted out of reviewing the show for the paper and it went to second stringer Dan Sullivan instead, who filed his wholly negative assessment. Barnes himself actually visited the show shortly thereafter and looked on it favorably. The Times also had Walter Kerr in the show’s corner, offering his Sunday column as a valentine to her many abilities. Kerr gave the leading lady one of my favorite pull-quotes of all time: “If you don’t catch her act now, you’ll someday want to kill yourself.” (He immediately added “I’ll help you.”)

Lying in the rubble of the show was Routledge’s Tony win (an award she shared with Leslie Uggams of Hallelujah, Baby!) is the show’s original cast album, which is a charming delight and showcases two major assets – Routledge and the elegant and vibrant score by Styne and Harburg (Styne considered this his “Lerner & Loewe” score and his second favorite of his own musicals behind Gypsy). The show has been rather well-received recently in a couple of engagements at Mufti, which saw revisions made to the book and score in an attempt to refurbish the vehicle. Those revisions were supervised by Erik Haagensen, playwright and Backstage critic, who also made an attempt to fix Routledge’s other failed Broadway musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the early 1990s.

There was a shoddy live recording made of the show’s opening night performance which plays like a raucous hit. The audience lapped up the stars, doling out entrance applause for the two above the title, as well as character actress Brenda Forbes. The most vociferous reactions were reserved for Routledge, who stopped the show with her first number “It’s Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love, as well as her reflective “That Something Extra Special” towards the end of the first act. The actress all but reduced the theatre to rubble with her eleven o’clock number “Not on Your Nellie.” During her ovation for the latter (which lasted a full minute), she can be heard very faintly asking incredulously “Is this all for me?” then after a beat pleading the audience “Ladies and gentlemen, if you please.” The audience took this as a cue to give one more cheer before allowing the company to the continue.

As I sit here writing, I realize that the musical opened on this day forty-two years ago. It’s a show that isn’t licensed for stock/amateur performances and has had very few revivals, the RCA cast album has been out of print for many years, but has resurfaced recently via ArkivMusic. The show remains off the beaten path, a lost gem that has brought me a great deal of joy.

Should Encores! (as I want to hear those vibrant orchestrations from Ralph Burns) take up the show, there is only one person in my estimation who should play Alice Challice (and I have Ken Mandelbaum’s agreement on this front) and that is Victoria Clark. What strikes me the most about this particular press shot is the uncanny resemblance between Clark and Routledge, as they share a similar voice type, sensibility and the honor of the Best Actress in a Musical Tony. By extension, I think David Hyde Pierce is ideal for the artist. Then I’d toss in Gavin Lee for the music hall numbers, and Edward Hibbert and Judy Kaye as the noblesse-oblige for good measure.

Darling of the Day is a gem just aching for rediscovery.

Posted on January 27, 2010 at 1:01 am.

"Kitty’s Kisses"

There was this musical about three years ago that came to Broadway by way of Canada. It was about a middle age recluse who listened to his favorite cast album as it came to life in his own living room. It won a few Tonys, was a decent hit and endeared co-librettist/star Bob Martin to the theatre world. The show was The Drowsy Chaperone, which glibly spoofed 20s musicals of a certain ilk, namely the light romantic musical comedy.

The first time I popped on the cast album of Kitty’s Kisses from PS Classics, I was immediately reminded of Chaperone, seeing the character archetypes and plot contrivances popular in the pre-Show Boat musical that are reflected on and spoofed in the later show. Kitty’s Kisses ran for 170 performances, not bad for a show of the era, back when it took a couple of months if not weeks to recoup. Though a success, it wasn’t a blockbuster like No No Nanette or Good News, and like many other likable period shows, fell by the wayside. Some of the songs by Con Conrad and Gus Kahn became hits (the liner notes mention that Queen Marie of Romania was particularly fond of the title song), but the show has been mostly forgotten, except as a footnote in musical theatre history books.

One of my biggest issues with The Drowsy Chaperone was its initial conceit, a point exemplified by the obscurity of Kitty’s Kisses. There was no such thing as an original Broadway cast album during the decade. It wasn’t until the 1930s that record producers started to experiment in preserving musical theatre scores. It seems a minor sticking issue, but it’s what’s kept Chaperone at bay for me. Though, I took less issue with the London production which adapted the show for the West End (the original London cast album predates the original Broadway cast album by quite a few years). My main beef – the Chaperone is pastiche. It’s sometimes amusing, but it’s mostly mediocre, coming off as a rehash of a rehash of a rehash (and truth be told, I hope and pray there is a moratorium on new 20s musical comedy spoofs).

But now we get a sample of the real thing, and what a superb treat it is. Kitty’s Kisses was a success in NY, then it went to London where it was merged with the Rodgers and Hart musical The Girl Friend (that’s something you don’t hear every day…). It was a charmer that got lost in the shuffle, and was eventually shelved in a New Jersey warehouse where it would have continued to languish were it not for Tommy Krasker. He stumbled upon the material while cataloging the Warner Bros music archive in the mid-80s and it is through his persistence that the restoration was done, with painstaking research and commitment as well as the blessing of Donald Kahn, Gus’ son (to whom the album is posthumously dedicated). Now after 23 years of hard work, he has given us an unexpected surprise this fall: an official cast recording of Kitty’s Kisses, billed as “The Bright New Summer Musical Delight.”

Rebecca Luker lends her shimming soprano to the title role, the innocent ingenue who finds herself at the center of the ridiculous period farce going on around her. The big scandal – Kitty poses as a married woman to get a hotel room and is mistaken for another married woman. Hijinks, mistaken identities and your usual machinations propel the plot (of which there is admittedly very little). But as was often the case, the script was an excuse for gags and light musical entertainment. The score is light, engaging and often delightfully clever with Kahn’s lyrics beautifully complemented by Conrad’s period sound. There are many studio recordings of scores that feel like a textbook document of a musical, rather than a vibrant cast album. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt such joy and warmth from hearing a “lost” score.

The effervescent Kate Baldwin is the free-spirited Lulu, getting things off to a fresh start with the opener “Walking the Track.” Victoria Clark is an absolute riot as grand dame opera singing dowager Mrs. Dennison, who shares the duet “I Don’t Want Him” with Luker. The “Him” in that number happens to be played by Danny Burstein, while Malcolm Gets plays his brother. Andrea Burns and Christopher Fitzgerald take on the specialty material, originally created for vaudeville duo Ruth Warren and William Wayne. Phil Chaffin is Robert Mason, Kitty’s stoic love interest. Jim Stanek makes a brief appearance as the train conductor leading “Choo Choo Love.”

The album was not only produced by Mr. Krasker, but he has supplied a concise, informative essay on the show, its fall into obscurity and its restoration and resurrection. The show’s synopsis is provided by Robert Edridge-Waks. Orchestration was provided by Sam Davis, who also conducted the recording. The CD booklet also contains various production photos and images of newspaper clippings as well as the program from the Newark tryout.

According to the Krasker, the material for the finale ultimo was never recovered. The show ended on Broadway with a song called “Steppin’ on the Blues,” (with additional music by Will Davidson) and I can only assume that the song itself is also lost. The powers behind the album have created a brand new finale ultimo for the show using the composing duo’s Oscar-winning song “The Continental” from the 1934 film The Gay Divorcee. It doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the score, but it’s a cute way of wrapping things up.

This is the third in a line of score restorations for the label; they released Vincent Youman’s Through the Years in 2001 and Kay Swift’s Fine and Dandy in 2004. I cannot stress how wonderful it is that the folks at PS Classics have taken the time to painstaking refurbish a show like Kitty’s Kisses. In the late 1980s and 1990s, John McGlinn was pretty much the go-to archivist with an emphasis on the works of Jerome Kern, while John Mauceri took care of the Gershwin canon. Those albums, however, were intent on restoring the works of major composers. However, the audience for show music sadly appears to be shrinking and shrinking, so less recordings like these are less likely to be made. John Yap make a series of full studio cast albums of entire vocal scores, but given the economy has left them sitting on the shelf (including the full album of One Touch of Venus made with Melissa Errico). It’s unfortunate, as each of these recording provides musical theatre fans with a further link to the history of the genre. I only hope it’s not another five years until PS Classics releases its fourth restoration.

Posted on November 12, 2009 at 3:57 am.
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Walking Among My Yesterdays

2016

2/11 - The King and I

2/12 - Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)

2/14 - Cabin in the Sky (Encores!)

2/16 - Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)

2/19 - She Loves Me (first preview)

2/21 - Translations (Oxford Arts Space)

2/22 - The Secret Garden (MCP Concert)

2/28 - Anna Netrebko in Recital (Met Opera)

2/28 - Kate Baldwin & Friends: Welcome to My Party (Sheen Center)

3/9 - She Loves Me

3/11 - Noises Off

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

4/3 - 1776 (Encores!)

4/4 - The Light in the Piazza (10th Anniversary Reunion Concert)

4/25 - White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

4/28 - Dido and Aeneas (City Center)

5/15 - Do I Hear a Waltz? (City Center Encores!)

5/25 - The Robber Bridegroom

6/3 - The Color Purple

6/8 - Bright Star

6/13 - Lettice and Lovage (Acting Company Benefit)

6/26 - The King and I

7/23 - Shuffle Along

10/24 - Sunday in the Park with George (City Center Encores! Gala)

10/29 - Kelli O'Hara at Carnegie Hall

11/9 - Guillaume Tell (Met Opera)

11/23 - Half a Sixpence (West End)

11/24 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/25 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

11/28 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/29 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

12/12 - Kiss Me, Kate (Roundabout Gala)

12/14 - In Transit

Walking Among My Yesterdays

2015

1/1 - Beautiful

1/8 - Honeymoon in Vegas

1/12 - A Good Thing Going: The Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince Collaboration (92nd Street Y)

1/15 - On the Town

1/25 - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Paper Mill Playhouse, opening night)

1/28 - The Merry Widow (Met Opera)

1/30 - The Elephant Man

2/6 - Lady, Be Good! (Encores!)

2/13 - The Screen (Taksu Theatre Company)

2/19 - You Can't Take It With You

2/27 - The Lion

3/1 - John and Jen

3/3 - Craig Ferguson: Hot & Grumpy Tour

3/8 - The Audience (opening night)

3/12 - The King and I (first preview)

3/17 - Hand to God

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

3/22 - Paint Your Wagon (Encores!)

3/25 - Cabaret

3/26 - The Visit (first preview)

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 1

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 2

4/8 - Gigi (opening night)

4/9 - Rhiannon Giddens at Town Hall

4/21 - Gypsy (West End)

4/22 - Wicked (West End)

4/22 - The Audience (West End)

4/23 - The Hard Problem (National Theatre)

4/24 - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (West End)

4/25 - Buyer & Cellar (Menier Chocolate Factory)

4/25 - Matilda (West End)

4/27 - Sweeney Todd (Tooting Arts Club)

4/28 - Follies (Royal Albert Hall)

4/28 - Gypsy (West End)

5/10 - Zorba (Encores!)

5/26 - The Visit

6/2 - On the Twentieth Century

6/9 - The King and I

6/14 - The Visit

7/2 - Little Shop of Horrors (Encores!)

9/21 - Hollywood Arms (Merkin Hall Reading)

10/4 - Dames at Sea

10/14 - King Charles III

10/16 - The Pirates of Penzance (Collegiate Chorale)

10/27 - Spring Awakening

11/2 - Kate Baldwin: Sing Pretty and Don't Fall Down (Keen Company Benefit)

11/17 - Songbird

11/25 - Gypsy (West End)

11/28 - Gypsy (West End, closing)

11/30 - The Winter's Tale (West End)

12/1 - Kinky Boots (West End)

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