Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Return of Princess Leia

A nice line from Christopher Shinn's play, WHAT DIDN'T HAPPEN goes like this:
"I keep trying to convince Elaine to go back to regional theater, where she might be cast in roles she'd never get to do in New York––Lady Macbeth, Mother Courage––plays in cities where people actually go to the theater to be told a story, not just confirm their status as masters of the universe."
Perhaps blogging kind of relates to the above, but I still like to be told a story, even a true story like the one being told at Studio 54:

Wishful Drinking

If you follow the doings of Hollywood at all, you know that one of the most famous scandals was when Eddie Fisher left Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor.  That’s just one event in a very complicated succession of marriages and divorces connected to the daughter of Fisher and Reynolds, Carrie Fisher.  The Hollywood craziness definitely affected Carrie Fisher in not so positive ways that she is still dealing with, not to mention she became an icon in her own right when she accepted the role of Princess Leia in STAR WARS.  That’s enough to really mess you up!  This single credit (or call it a triple credit due to the trilogy) has made Carrie Fisher immortal and reason enough to enable her to fill a Broadway theater.  Her one woman show, WISHFUL DRINKING, is not a play at all, but a visit with Carrie Fisher, who basically explains her crazy Hollywood life with the greatest sense of humor.  One expected to get some funny stories out of her, but she is actually a rather wonderful stand up comedian and the laughs are plentiful.  She has golden material to work with for sure.  One terrific segment involves Fisher leading us through “Hollywood Inbreeding 101,” as a large bulletin board of PR photos that makes up a kind of family tree flies in.  With a pointer, Fisher helps us keep track of all the marriages and divorces that lead her daughter to start dating Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson.  She just wanted to make sure they weren’t somehow related. “Related by scandal,” Fisher concludes.  Another segment takes us through how Fisher’s Princess Leia image has been turned into dolls, pez dispensers and sex toys and a very funny roasting of that signature hairdo.  “George Lucas owns my image.  Whenever I look in the mirror I have to send him a few bucks.”  WISHFUL DRINKING is an honest and very funny evening from a very smart lady who has been through a lot and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.  Although the evening isn’t a proper play, it isn’t a lecture either.  Fisher and director Tony Taccone have made the event completely entertaining, utilizing multi-media and music.  Fisher even sings and rather well.  For a comic, yet nostalgic finish, Fisher hugged a stuffed doll of the robot R2D2 saying, “And now a poem by George Lucas,” and proceeded to recite the Princess Leia holigram speech to Obi-Wan Kanobi.  Carrie Fisher is delightful.  

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie

In the new Henry Miller Theater

True excitement is attending the first paid performance of the first Broadway revival of BYE BYE BIRDIE in 48 years in a brand new Broadway theater. The old Henry Miller theater has a retained facade and name, but the inside is modern and new from top to bottom. Artifacts from the original theater have been retained for decoration and a sense of history. The entrance to the house is unique because it opens up to the top of the mezzanine rather than the orchestra seating area, which is two floors below ground level. The house is upholstered in red, with a red act curtain and wood detailing. The lines are ovals and “S” curves. There are double the regulation stalls in the bathrooms, which are handsomely designed with rich colored tiles. The sight lines are excellent all the way around and even the back of the mezzanine seems rather close to the action. The only complaint about this beautiful new space is that the seats are as narrow as the ancient theater’s seats, rather than the roomy, plush comfort of the restored Selwin (American Airlines Theater), which is also managed by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

My old Music Circus friend David Holcenberg was conducting a paired down and revised orchestration by Jonathan Tunick, but it sounded just like BYE BYE BIRDIE should. The overture represented the only nod to the original production, with the projected depiction of the Conrad Birdie craze ending in the announcement that he has been drafted. Andrew Jackness has designed a unit set looking like a TV variety show stylized in mid-century modern graphics. The famous colorful boxes that housed the teenagers of the original production are suggested here, but “The Telephone Hour” took place in revolving telephone booths, flashing bright solid colors as they turned. The teenagers received entrance applause, or maybe it was the anticipation of the number, which proved to be the great showstopper of the evening as it always is. Director/Choreographer Robert Longbottom’s choreography mixes rock ‘n roll with variety show jazz and is most effective when the kids are on stage. The three leads, John Stamos as Albert, Gina Gershon as Rosie and Nolan Gerard Funk as Conrad Birdie, do not have the dancing confidence of the teens. Each of them, though they physically manage the moves, seem to lack confidence. The three performances are tentative, possessing little command, though each can shine bright at times.

John Stamos is certainly likable and has a pleasant singing voice. He has developed a slightly nerdy character who takes off his glasses when he gains confidence. However, he seems like a good Civic Light Opera casting choice rather than the man to helm Broadway. Part of the problem is the role, there isn’t a lot there, but it is open enough for a strong personality to step in and take over. Tommy Tune was able to take on the challenge successfully in the big touring production of the early 1990s and we all know what Dick Van Dyke could do. Mr. Stamos is not the magic person, but it’s hard to blame him for trying.

Gina Gershon seems like Annette Funicello was cast in the role. She just needs a little of that echo on her mic to finish the effect. She sings it better than Ann Ranking did on tour, but doesn’t come close to the clean, clear belted singing of Chita Rivera’s performance. Much of the character’s dancing has been cut, but Gershon turns in a very effective “Spanish Rose.”

Nolan Gerard Funk is an intriguing person as Birdie. Somehow he is beguiling and yet he does not emerge as the stunning new star he should be. His singing is only adequate and singing is Conrad’s main function. He has the Elvis moves down, but his actual youth, though accurate to the character, means that he does not have the experience to both play the send up of Elvis and radiate as an honest to goodness break out pop star. He needs to be the real McCoy in a way if we are to buy his power to make the ladies melt and this young man would not survive the American Idol competition.

Bill Irwin as Harry MacAfee is the hero of the show, with an original performance filled with his trademark physical comedy. Bill Irwin re-imagines the role in a way that can erase the memory of Paul Lynde for at least two and a half hours. Jane Houdyshell is properly hilarious as the mother, Dee Hoty does what she can with Mrs. MacAfee and little Jake Evan Schwencke as Randolf is brilliant in that he can match Bill Irwin in their very funny scenes together. Many of the kids from “13” have graduated to the kids of “Birdie” and foremost is Allie Trimm as Kim. She is the appropriate age, as seemingly are all the teens. Miss Trimm has a simple, clear and charming voice and is the most real person in the production. Matt Doyle as Hugo is delightful. He gets a lot of humor out of his teen angst and sings with a buttery Pat Boone voice in an added bit in “One Boy.”

Although the production has its imperfections and lacks the complete polish of other Roundabout musical revivals (namely the perfect PAJAMA GAME), it is winning all the same. The show itself exudes a charm of old Broadway that is hard to resist. There is enough innovation in it to make it seem fresh and there is enough reverence for the writing as is, to leave well enough alone and just let it be the jolly frolic that it should be. I imagine that the production will tighten up and the three leads will gain more confidence as they head to opening night. If this can happen, then the new BIRDIE will be very welcome indeed.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Carol Channing and Friends

As a benefit for the Dr. Carol Channing Foundation for the Arts and California Musical Theatre, Carol Channing, her husband Harry Kullijian, JoAnne Worley, Carole Cook and the surprising Joyce Aimée gave a two hour performance as a tag end event to the Music Circus season.  The first half had JoAnne Worley telling stories, including one about a Music Circus performance of HELLO, DOLLY! when a skunk came right up on the stage and sprayed the actress playing Irene Molloy.  Worley’s reply: “Irene, your perfume is a bit strong today.”  She sang a comedy version of “‘Till There Was You” and then introduced an old-timer, unknown to me, Joyce Aimée.  Aimée plays the accordion and sings Edith Piaf songs, among other things.  She has slightly bawdy jokes and has good anecdotal stories about playing vegas and opening for top name acts.  She was completely mesmerizing, able to hold the attention of that big audience and thoroughly entertaining.  The entire show could have simply been Joyce Aimée and I would have been content.  Next came Carole Cook, who had been Maggie in the original cast of 42nd STREET and has had a long show biz career of Broadway, TV and nightclubs.  She did a very funny stand up comedy routine and finished with a song.  This concluded the first act and for the second we had Carol Channing.  Dear Carol Channing.  She was fragile and accident prone.  She got lost in her routine many times (a routine I have seen before and knew better than she did at this point) and her husband Harry had to feed her the cues to get her back on track.  Yet, once the music started, she was right there where she belonged and sold her several numbers like an old pro.  She did small versions of “Girl From Little Rock”, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, “Hello, Dolly!” and the Ephraim speech leading right into “Before the Parade Passes By,” which was lovely.  Channing’s age was showing and her difficulty in getting through her material was uncomfortable, but we were right there with her for support.  She was trying to support the next generation of artists by raising money to fund arts programs in the schools.  More power to her!  What a great way to finish out a career.  The experience was joyful, but the sad fact was, we were looking at a few of the last of a brand of entertainer from another era and they are irreplaceable.