Saturday Shenanigans: “Coco” at Mufti, Beekman Place & Turtle Bay

While heading to the York Theatre Company for their revival of Coco, I unexpectedly found myself at the corner of 49th and 2nd Avenue, which also happens to be “Katharine Hepburn Place”. The great Hepburn lived in a townhouse down the street, which I had never seen before, but since I was meeting up with SarahB and Chris Caggiano I continued on my way. I looked it as a good omen for the day and for sure, the day was a delight from start to finish.

This was my first time seeing one of  the Musicals in Mufti (roughly translated: street clothes) and it’s quite fun. Not as high profile as Encores! (street clothes, piano accompaniment, chairs and boxes), but certainly an excellent resource for connecting with lost or forgotten musicals. Scripts are in hand, staging is simple and the cast is game; a baptism by fire experience. When it comes to Coco, my feelings on the show are pretty well known – in spite of its failings (its lack of drama or conflict, and some poorly drawn supporting characters) I enjoy it very much, particularly the score. The cast album is one of the worst recordings in musical theatre history. The sound quality is terrible and it sounds like it was recorded in a hangar or tunnel. Apparently the album was released and was found to be so horrible that the producers went back and had it fixed immediately, so there are actually two versions of the cast LP (and I understand the poorer of the two has more dance music).

Alan Jay Lerner’s book is incredibly static, but contains some excellent one liners for Chanel. Andre Previn’s music is better than original critics would have you believe and in some places is quite beautiful. The lyrics are for the most part good, but there are many occasions where Lerner’s effort shows. (My favorite number in the show is “The Money Rings Out Like Freedom,” Michael Bennett’s showstopping tribute to the basic black dress). Also, the character of Georges is more of a cipher of Lerner’s misogyny than an actual human being onstage. In fact Lerner’s misogyny tends to permeate the entire show. Chanel espouses independence, but the writer implies that her life was unfulfilled from not marrying and having children. This production reinstated “Someone on Your Side” for the ingenue which should have stayed cut. There was also deadly musical patter for the models in “The World Belongs to the Young” that was not in the original production.

The show hinges on its star. In a live tape of the original, Hepburn, in spite of her considerable vocal limitations, dominates, giving a true star turn that is funny, fascinating and energetic. She also never missed a performance (her standby was the estimable Joan Copeland). Headlining this production was the elegant Andrea Marcovicci, who also starred in a San Francisco revival of the show two years ago. After so many years of listening to Hepburn, it was a bit jarring to hear the role sung and by a soprano. But Marcovicci was a lot of fun and especially memorable in the second act. Her performance of the title song was quite insightful and moving.

The cast also included the wonderful Charles Kimbrough and Lewis Cleale. David Turner was amusing as Sebastian Baye and a model of restraint when compared to shameless Tony-winning originator Rene Auberjonois. Droll support was added by Susan Bloemmart as Chanel’s assistant Pignol. One of the things I realized was that this show relies very heavily on its visuals for effect. Cecil Beaton won a Tony for his eye-popping designs seen in various Bennett fashion parades. But that doesn’t detract from my appreciation at the opportunity to see the show on its feet, its first NY revival since the original closed forty years ago. (There was a workshop last year that eliminated the utterly boring ingenue and juvenile characters, but that didn’t seem to go over very well).

There was a fascinating lobby display with press photos, articles and various programs of the show – including a playbill with Hepburn’s replacement Danielle Darrieux. Given that the show ran a mere two months with Darrieux, that’s a real curio. There is also an article announcing the show as a vehicle for Rosalind Russell (who was married to the show’s producer Frederick Brisson, whose health prevented her from taking on the show) and other curios. There was a talkback, but we decided to spend some time with Chris, who was leaving town in a couple hours. Two rows behind us, much to our surprise, was Andy Rooney who looks even surlier in person. He and wife didn’t return after intermission. We also had the opportunity to meet musical theatre writer and expert Seth Christenfeld, another cyber friend from the twitter/facebook world.

Afterward Sarah and I set out on a pilgrimage to Beekman Place. We figured since we were on the East Side, which is a rather rare occurrence for this Broadwayite, we might as well go have a look. Beekman Place is, of course, the location of Mame Dennis Burnside’s penthouse apartment. The fictional Mame lived at 3 Beekman Place, but apparently the real-life inspiration was housed next door at 1 Beekman Place (we had a quick but memorable view of its staggering lobby). The street is a tiny two block strip East of 1st Avenue and just north of the United Nations, and many of the buildings house UN missions. Some of the houses also contain plaques; Sarah and I were very surprised to learn Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic once lived there. Other famous residents included Irving Berlin, Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne and Ethel Barrymore. The riverside apartments have a rather impressive view of the FDR, East River and outlying boroughs. We took the opportunity to snap some photos and SarahB herself ended up the subject of an impromptu but requisite Beekman Place photo shoot.

After scoping out future real estate options, we made our way to the Turtle Bay Gardens on East 49th Street (the aforementioned Katharine Hepburn Place). Hepburn lived at 244 from 1931 until the mid 90s when her failing health took her to Fenwick, where the star died in 2003. Her famous neighbors have included Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon and Stephen Sondheim. My first observation of Hepburn’s address was “the house looks empty.” As soon as I said that,  I googled the residence to discover it was recently made available for rent. You can live at Hepburn’s legendary 4 story townhouse for a cool $27,500 a month. (Donations will be gladly and grateful accepted).

From there we walked back to 1st Avenue and strolled down by the United Nations, which I had never seen before and was impressed by its layout, but really think they need to rethink that hideous tower of offices. We also got a glimpse at the brand new United States UN mission. We also glanced south while stopped at a light and saw the impressive beams of light memorializing the attacks of Sept. 11. Then we headed back to our familiar turf for a nightcap at Angus and our usual antics, where we observed some rather unusual patrons. Sarah tried to get me to second act POTO, but I balked. We also thought the St. James was piping American Idiot music through the marquee as we walked by. To our surprise it was actually the performance and we felt the theatre doors of the St. James vibrating. No show needs to be that loud. Overall it was an exhausting and full day, but truly a Saturday to remember.