Tuesday, April 20, 2010
NY theater flashbacks: 1995
It took me a year to get around to writing my second installment of my New York theater memories (if you missed the 1994 installment, click here). Of course many things have interfered in the interim and, quite honestly, the second installment doesn't contain shows that generated the excitement in me as a novice N.Y. theatergoer as the ones I saw in 1994 did. Still, I want all the years chronicled and as they go forward, the titles will become somewhat of a misnomer as well as they are identified by year but they really cover season, which always are split years in Broadway parlance. The first two outings just happened to actually occur in the post title years.
Tom Stoppard is one of the most clever, cerebral playwrights working today and sometimes that can be a hindrance. It had been so long since I'd seen this play, I was fortunate that the Playbill had some notes to give me a vague idea of its subject matter which spanned time periods and concerned itself with geometry and styles of English garden landscaping. I do remember the cast, who all did a good job with the very dense subject matter, and included Blair Brown, Paul Giamatti, Robert Sean Leonard and the play's standout, a relative newcomer on the scene named Billy Crudup. Even with the help of the notes though, my memories are but a fog beyond Crudup and Jennifer Dundas and the fact that my seats in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center were directly behind the late Garson Kanin and his wife Marian Seldes, whom I'd seen the year before in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women.
Shakespeare's great play lured Ralph Fiennes to Broadway and he picked up a much-deserved Tony for his effort. For me at least, it's damn hard to screw up Hamlet (though Kenneth Branagh tried with some of his stunt casting in his uncut film version). Admittedly, this Broadway production was the first time I'd ever seen the play staged and, as one would expect, cuts were made which I'm sure set purists' hair on fire. However, Fiennes' work was a wonder to me. Far too often, it seems to me that when people perform the Bard, they speak too deliberately, as if they are afraid the poetry will shatter in their mouths if they act too much. For the first time, Fiennes' Hamlet seemed to me as if he were spontaneously thinking the things he was saying, not just regurgitating memorized text. You can fake that on film sometimes, but in a live production, you can't and I was very impressed, even if the rest of the production didn't quite live up to Fiennes' standard.
When I was in elementary school, my first contact with Frank Loesser's musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was the movie version with Robert Morse repeating his Tony Award-winning Broadway role as J. Pierrepont Finch and I loved it. I'd seen it many times since, so I was anxious to see a stage version. Matthew Broderick now had the Morse role and Megan Mullally, who was new to me last year in the lame revival of Grease with Rosie O'Donnell, had the role of Rosemary that Michele Lee played in the film. For added fun, the narration of the book that gives the musical its title was recorded by none other than Walter Cronkite. The entire cast proved to be a blast from Victoria Clark as Smitty and Jeff Blumenkrantz as Bud Frump to Ron Carroll as J.B. Biggley and Jonathan Freeman as Bert Bratt. Plus, it's a show that's so entertaining with so many great songs by Loesser, that it's nearly impossible for someone to undermine it too badly, even though I thought Broderick mugged a little too much and his singing voice did leave something to be desired. The showstopper turned out to be a surprise when Lillias White, playing the secretary Miss Jones, really belted out her part of "The Brotherhood of Man" and brought the house down, despite it being a number that involved the entire company. On the celebrity sighting side, seated directly in the row behind me in the Richard Rodgers Theatre were Meat Loaf, his wife and his (I'm guessing) teenage daughter.
Terrence McNally's play about a group of gay men who gather together during three separate holiday weekends at a remote lake house about two hours outside of Manhattan won the Tony for best play. It's not a bad play, but it did have the misfortune, in my mind, of following on the heels of the epic two-part Angels in America. Love! Valour! Compassion even played in the same theater that Angels did, the Walter Kerr, and its director was Joe Mantello, one of the Tony-nominated actors from Angels in America. As I mentioned in my 1994 theater flashback, Angels remains my greatest Broadway experience, so returning to the same theater and, though McNally's play's ambitions were nowhere near that of Tony Kushner's, it couldn't help but feel as if I were watching Neil Simon opening a comic take on The Seagull the week after Chekhov opened his original. Granted, McNally's play leans toward the comic, but it has its serious moments as well and it really was only the strength of its cast that lifted it for me. Justin Kirk was very good as the blind member of the group and Anthony Heald did a very good job in the role that Stephen Spinella had originally played when the show began off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club. By the time I saw the show, Nathan Lane had left the show and been replaced by Mario Cantone, probably still best known for his work on HBO's Sex and the City as Anthony, Charlotte's wedding planner friend. I wasn't familiar with his work at the time and it seemed to me that Cantone was trying too hard to do a Nathan Lane impression. The show's standout (for which he deservedly won a Tony) was John Glover in the role of twin brothers, one a bitter man, the other a sweetheart dying of AIDS. It was a wonder to see him pull off a scene with himself when he's doing it live. He was even more impressive in the film version when you saw how he modulated the characters for the new medium and was still just as great.
Glenn Close owes me tickets to The Late Show With David Letterman. Let me explain. At this point, my Broadway obsession had grown beyond reason. Ignoring the fact that I disliked pretty much all things Andrew Lloyd Webber and that every instinct in my body told me that a musical made out of Billy Wilder's classic film, one of my 10 favorite movies of all time, was a bad idea and sacrilegious, when they opened up ticket orders, which had to be done by mail, I sent one in. The minute I received my ticket and knew the date, knowing Letterman tickets also were hard to get, I wrote off for tickets to his show for that same time period and I got them. Then damn Glenn Close decided to take a vacation for that week. If I was spending that kind of money to see the damn show, I better see her, so I canceled my tickets and asked for replacement ones. Not only did that mean I lost my chance to see Letterman live, the replacement ticket they sent me was for summer, once Betty Buckley had replaced her as Norma in the show. To make matters worse, George Hearn also was gone and I had to sit through the god-awful show as well. At the time, I used to frequent the Playbill chat room on AOL and there would be endless debates about "Who was the best Norma?" Glenn Close? Patti LuPone? Faye Dunaway? Karen Mason? Betty Buckley? Screw them all. The best Norma still is and always will be Gloria Swanson. As far as the musical goes, have you ever seen the classic Simpsons episode "A Streetcar Named Marge?" That's what I couldn't get out of my mind because a lot of the lyrics were like that, trying to incorporate the film's classic lines into songs. She's still big/it's the pictures that got small. As for Buckley as Norma, all she really played was the vulnerability. You didn't get any sense of the manipulator, let alone the psycho. An impressive staircase does not a show make. What a waste.
Widely considered the first modern American musical, Show Boat has long been a mainstay of musical theater since 1927 with its book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein but music by Jerome Kern prior to his more famous pairing with Richard Rodgers. While I was more than familiar with the many famous songs from the show, I'd never seen it staged and hadn't even seen a film version. When I read that director Hal Prince had done some tinkering with the book to modernize it even further, I guess I was thinking even more broadly than anyone else. With the character of Julie (well-played by Lonette McKee), a light-skinned African-American passing for white, I kept expecting the revelation that Cap'n Andy, the owner of the title Show Boat, would turn out to be her father, but the show wasn't that far ahead of its time. Staged in the cavern that is the Gershwin Theatre, the talented cast did their best to overcome the hurdles of such a mammoth room. Unfortunately, Prince directs the show as if he wants to make sure you know it has a director. It always was busy to the point that you weren't sure where to look. Some of the montages to cover the passage of time truly were impressive, but much of it was just too frenetic so it was a relief when it slowed down and allowed its cast to sing its great songs. It also was no way to use the unique talent that is Elaine Stritch. In another celebrity sighting, the still alive-and-kicking (then anyway) Sylvia Sidney was in the audience.
Who would think that the most satisfying theater experience I would have in this series of flashbacks would come in the revival of a 1947 play based on an 1880 Henry James novel and best known for its 1949 film version, but that was indeed the case in 1995. Granted, a great deal of the credit for how wonderful a night of theater The Heiress turned out to be belongs to Cherry Jones in the title role, but the entire cast shone and the play held up well. Jones won a Tony for her work as did Frances Sternhagen as her aunt and both prizes were very much deserved in this Lincoln Center production that played at the Cort Theatre and also starred Donald Moffat and Michael Cumpsty. Praise needs to be given to Gerald Gutierrez's inspired direction as well. (He also won a Tony for his work, a prize he'd win again the following year for an even greater revival.) It seems funny that when I think of Jones, this is what I think of first while nowadays, what first comes to mind for most people is the president on TV's 24. If they'd seen Jones here, that wouldn't be the case. She'd make them forget Olivia de Havilland as well: Her work as the targeted spinster was that strong; it's forever seared in my memory. As for Sternhagen, as great as she was in the play, part of her was still Cliff's mom on Cheers to me, with some left over as Charlotte's awful mother-in-law Bunny on Sex and the City.
The final play I took in for 1995 (or at least 1995 as far as this piece goes) was my only visit to off-Broadway for this year and it was a trip to the Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center to see A.R. Gurney's comedy about a romantic triangle between a husband (John Cunningham), his wife (Mariette Hartley) and his dog (Sarah Jessica Parker). Yes, Parker played a dog and this would seem, even if I were mean-spirited, an appropriate place to insert some sort of South Park joke. The play was very funny and Parker did play the bitch very well and you would think the gimmick of an actress pretending to be a dog would grow old after awhile, but Gurney and the rest of the cast managed to make it work for the entire evening. That doesn't mean Sylvia isn't a lightweight play, but I've certainly had worse nights at the theater. The real find of the evening though and the show's highlight was the least well-known member of the cast: Derek Smith. Smith played three roles, two of which were women, and he was an absolute riot. I would later to get to see him in other plays and it wasn't a fluke: Smith was a true comic acting find. Overall, my theatergoing experiences certainly were a letdown compared to 1994, but it didn't dim my enthusiasm. What's more, I was still traveling to New York from the middle of the country, which cut down on what I could see. However in the next year, I would move to Florida during the 1995-96 season, making N.Y. jaunts much easier, much more frequent and begin to spiral out of control. Hopefully, it won't take me a year to write about that year.
Labels: Awards, Branagh, de Havilland, Dunaway, Frank Loesser, Giamatti, Glenn Close, Gloria Swanson, Hammerstein, HBO, Letterman, Matthew Broderick, Neil Simon, Ralph Fiennes, Rodgers, Shakespeare, Stoppard, The Simpsons, Theater, Wilder