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ON THE TOWN… with CHIP DEFFAA, February 3, 2018

“A Chorus Line” at the Westchester Broadway dinner theatre remains the all-time greatest “what-it-means-to-be-a-performer” kind of show.

Chip Deffaa, Editor-at-Large

Chip DeFFaa, Editor-at-Large

Worthwhile theater can be found in plenty of places, not just New York City. For my column this week, I’d like to discuss a few noteworthy examples.

“A Chorus Line,” which is playing through April 1st, 2018 at the Westchester Broadway dinner theatre remains the all-time greatest “what-it-means-to-be-a-performer” kind of show.  It captures brilliantly the hopes, fears, and aspirations of young dancers.  And it does so with such honesty, empathy, and insight that it feels universal.  Almost anyone–in any field–with desires and dreams and worries about future success in life can relate to what the performers on stage are sharing.   It’s an unusually well-constructed, truthful and satisfying musical.

The Playbill for the Westchester Broadway Theatre production of “A CHORUS LINE”

The original New York production (conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett), which I remember fondly, won seven Drama Desk Awards, nine Tony Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize (which is rarely ever awarded to a musical). It ran in New York from 1975-1990.  I saw it several times during the original run.  (I might add, the original cast was one of the strongest ensemble casts I’ve ever seen, anywhere.)    When “A Chorus Line” finally closed in 1990, it was the longest-running show in Broadway history, up to that point.

“A Chorus Line” is such an unusually potent show–with a first-rate book (by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, derived from dancers’ taped comments about their lives) and score (by Marvin Hamlish and Edward Kleban)–that even a flawed production, such as the one currently at Westchester Broadway, delivers a powerful punch.  Even though the acting in this production is uneven, with some performances far more on-target than others, the material itself is so strong that we come to care about the characters.  And even though I know this musical inside out–I’ve seen assorted productions in assorted places, over the years–I was surprised at just how much I cared.  I choked up, I teared up.  When one dancer, near the end of the show, was injured, I felt his pain.

The current production is far from perfect, but there is enough that is “right” to make it well worth seeing.  The show worked for me, and I’m recommending this production, while noting its imperfections.

My favorite performer in this production is Michael John Hughes, playing Paul San Marco–a sensitive gay man with a troubled past–with admirable restraint, subtlety, and nuance.  His performance was naturalistic.  His delivery was conversational.  His character felt utterly real, and we were pulled in immediately.  He also possesses a beautiful singing voice.  He’s got an important role and a difficult one, and he did good work.

I very much liked the strength and authority that Erica Mansfield displayed in her acting scenes as Cassie–the dancer who is seeking a job in the chorus, although the director (her former lover) feels she’s too talented, too much of a star, for that.  Mansfield  has presence and commands our attention, which is great; she had me hooked from her first spoken words. Her acting was completely convincing.

Erica Mansfield as Cassie in “A CHORUS  LINE”

However, at the performance I witnessed, she didn’t quite yet “own” the dancing in the big “Music and the Mirror” number.  That is a long, involved, exceptionally demanding number, with nine segments (the slow segment, accelerando, the pirouettes, etc.).  She was good, but there were still some moments that felt tentative, like she was thinking about what steps came next.  The “Music and the Mirror” sequence felt a bit under-rehearsed, as did some of the big ensemble numbers.  I saw the show on Saturday, January 21st–the first Saturday reviewers could see it–and, if I can offer a general note,  I sometimes felt the production hadn’t fully gelled yet.  (I wish I could see this show again, later in its run.  It’s booked for a good, long run–through April 1st, 2018.  I have a hunch that some of the shortcomings I saw at this performance, so very early in the run, may disappear as the performers keep running the show and everything falls into place.  By necessity, Westchester productions are mounted rather quickly–the producers simply don’t have the luxury of the longer  rehearsal periods found on  Broadway–and “A Chorus Line” is  an unusually demanding show.)

“A CHORUS LINE” at Westchester Broadway Theater

It pained me to see Logan Mortier–overacting for dear life–playing Bobby Mills III as if he were some cartoon character rather than a human being with hopes and fears and insecurities.  Mortier hit almost every line too hard, like a desperate stand-up comic doing shtick.  I got so uncomfortable I almost wanted to walk out.  Mortier turned Bobby into an object of ridicule, a goofball we might laugh at when he expresses hopes of being a star.  Thommie Walsh (whom I knew well) originated the role of Bobby on Broadway; Walsh let us meet–and relate to–a very real human being, wondering if he’ll ever make it, even as he tosses out bright one-liners.  When Walsh expressed hopes of becoming a star, we could empathize. (We’ve all had dreams of success, and we’ve all wondered if we’ve got the goods to get there.)   If we laughed at some things he said, we still felt for him; we sensed his vulnerability under the bravado.  Mortier is giving us only the bravado, and that’s not enough.  Walsh uttered every line with conviction.  (And why not?  The character of Bobby Mills III was him, the dialogue drawn from autobiographical words that Walsh had actually spoken in the tape-recorded workshops where the show was developed.)

Occasionally there were moments when Mortier eased up just a bit, and you could sense a likeable human being under all of that manic performing, and you briefly got a hint of how effective Mortier could be in this role if he did not push so hard.  He hasn’t really found the character yet.  If he does–if he’s willing to give us Bobby as a person, not a cartoon-like figure– the production will be stronger.   But the director should be guiding the actor.  If I’m directing any show, I encourage the actors to find the humanity in their characters.   You have to believe in your character if you want the audience to do so.  (I’m not condemning Mortier as an actor; I’ve never seen him in anything else.  I’m criticizing the performance I witnessed.  Mortier has been given a wonderful role to play; and he needs to give us–with some sensitivity–Bobby as a real person, not just a guy doing shtick).

There were others in the cast trying too hard, as if they were more interested in getting a laugh than giving us a believable person.  Every member of the original Broadway cast performed with conviction.  (It was easy for them; they were, in many cases, sharing their own stories; their dialogue was derived, in part, from their own words, as captured in tape-recorded workshop sessions.)  We need more of that conviction here.

Alexandra Matteo, whose work I enjoyed a lot in “Saturday Night Fever” at Westchester Broadway, hasn’t yet found what’s to be found in the character of Diana in “A Chorus Line.”  She gets a first-rate song, “What I Did for Love,” and sings it with a hard-edged professionalism and polish.  Every note is perfect.  But what the song needs is an open-hearted vulnerability that is missing here.

“A CHORUS LINE” at Westchester Broadway Theatre

This is fourth production of “A Chorus Line” I’ve reviewed in recent years.  Each production has had  a few cast members who seemed to completely “get it,” performers who made their characters feel completely real.  And each production has also had, alas, some cast members who never seemed to fully get  inside of their characters, but offered us caricatures of people. If I could somehow just take the best performers from each production–like, for example,  the memorable Jake Vielbig and Emily Louise Franklin from Pace University, Drew Minard, Analia Heredia, and Tyqaun White from PPAS, Tim Federle, Luis Villabon, and Brian LeTendre from Paper Mill Playhouse–I like to imagine we’d have a near-perfect cast.  It never seems to work out that way in any individual production.   But I’ll take my pleasures where I find them.

“A Chorus Line”–even when imperfectly cast–still packs a strong punch.  Despite the flaws in the current Westchester production, I was touched, and moved, and impressed.  It is a very strong show.  (Very few shows come along with this kind of impact.)  I’m glad Westchester Broadway has chosen to mount “A Chorus Line.”   There are enough good performances here to make it work.  And I suspect the production will only get better as the run continues, and everything gradually falls into place.

May I share one little-known historical tidbit concerning “A Chorus Line”?  The show ran for a record-setting 15 years on Broadway.  It actually might have run a good many more years on Broadway, had it not been for Irving Berlin.  Yes, the legendary songwriter–the most successful single songwriter in American history–played a role in when the show closed.

“A Chorus Line” was presented for 15 years in one of Broadway’s biggest musical houses, the Shubert Theatre.  In its final years, as attendance began to fall off somewhat, it was getting harder for “A Chorus Line” to bring in the revenue needed for that big house.  The Shuberts–and producer Joe Papp of the Public Theater–noted there was still a loyal audience for “A Chorus Line,” just not quite as large an audience as there had been in the show’s heyday.  They figured they had two options–close the show when it could not bring in enough revenue to cover the cost of the big Shubert Theatre–or transfer it, intact,  to a suitable smaller Broadway house, where costs would be lower.  There was one Shubert theater available at the time that seemed perfect–The Music Box Theatre.  The Shuberts and Joe Papp crunched the numbers.  With the right rental agreement at the much-smaller Music Box Theatre, they were certain that “A Chorus Line” could continue running on Broadway for years.  The Shuberts were all for the idea, and were willing to offer a long-term rental contract at very favorable terms.  But centenarian Irving Berlin, who had built the Music Box Theatre in 1921 and still owned 50% of it (the Shuberts owned the other 50%) would not agree to the terms that the Shuberts and Joe Papp felt appropriate.   And the idea of transferring the show to the Music Box was abandoned.  The show ended its 15-year Broadway run, having netted a profit of some $50 million dollars.

* * *

If you’re in the mood for a night of laughter, “The Outsider”—a new comedy by Paul Slade Smith, receiving its East Coast premiere in January and February at the Paper Mill Playhouse–is great good fun.  Oh, I’m not claiming it’s profound or a show that you’ll never forget, like “A Chorus Line.”  If “A Chorus Line” is like a fine roast-beef dinner, “The Outsider” is more like a hot dog with all the trimmings.  But sometimes a hot dog with all the trimmings just hits the spot.

“THE  OUTSIDER” Playbill

“The Outsider” (directed by David Esbjornson) made me laugh more than any show I’ve seen in a good while.  And I’m grateful for that; I was in the mood for that.  Slade knows how to set up a joke and make it pay off.  The night offers lots of gags–sometimes at the expense of character development or insight.

The show is impeccably cast: Lenny Wolpe, Julia Duffy, Erin Noel Grennan, Burke Moses, Kelley Curran, Manoel Feliciano, and Mike Peterson.  There isn’t a weak link.  Wolpe—whom I’ve enjoyed in many shows on Broadway, at Paper Mill, and on TV–is as endearing as ever.  (He was a perfect “Herbie” in Paper Mill’s production of “Gypsy,” starring Betty Buckley—still my favorite out of all of the productions of “Gypsy” I’ve seen anywhere.)   Julia Duffy—whom many may remember happily from her years as a regular on the sitcom “Newhart”—seems like an old friend.  Newcomer Erin Noel Grennan makes the most of her part as a clueless average citizen thrust into the political spotlight, à la Sarah Palin.  Burke Moses, playing a win-at-any-cost political consultant, sweeps in with the energy that made him so memorable in the last Broadway revival of “Kiss Me Kate.”  And Kelley Curran and Manoel Feliciano are appealing as the cast’s two most normal-seeming characters, and also provide a love interest.

The play revolves around the American public’s current willingness to fall for candidates with little experience—think of Sarah Palin, think of Donald Trump–to yearn for an “outsider” rather than a member of the establishment. I don’t want to say much more, lest I give away some surprises.

By and large, I had a good time.  And the audience was laughing a lot.  Kudos to writer Paul Slade Smith who’s also an actor.  (He was in Broadway’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Finding Neverland”—every time I saw “Finding Neverland” he was playing a different character—and he will soon be in Lincoln Center’s revival of “My Fair Lady.”)

My own enthusiasm for “The Outsider” began to fade just a wee bit towards the end; I felt like I was watching a funny sketch that had gone on a tad too long; by then I sort of knew where it was going.   But it’s a largely winning show, with lots of good moments—Slade knows how to write jokes–and an absolutely perfect cast. I’m glad I got to see “The Outsider.”  It’ll be at Paper Mill—which has been doing quite well in recent years—through February 18th.

* * *

As I look back over the year that’s just ended, I recall several shows I saw outside of NYC that I’m very glad I caught.  Let me tell you about some of them.

The best “family show” I saw in the past year was the  handsome production of “Annie,”  directed by Mark S. Hoebee, presented in November and December by the  Paper Mill Playhouse.  They really did right by “Annie.”  In recent years, Paper Mill has been doing such good work in general, and Hoebee has such a flair for older-style musicals, I think it’s worth taking a bit of time to properly discuss this production.

“ANNIE” logo at Paper Mill Playhouse

“Annie,” with a smart, funny book by Thomas Meehan and heartwarming, melodious score by Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics) is equally appealing for both adults and kids.  And I sometimes feel we’re losing the ability to craft such shows.Today, all too often, shows aimed at kids are so dumbed-down that adults endure them rather than enjoy them.  Kids all love “Annie.” (How can they not love a show where the hero is a wonderfully likeable kid herself? And she’s flanked by moppets of assorted ages.)   But there’s nothing dumbed-down about the show.  Adults–no less than kids in the audience–can appreciate the orphans socking out  with vaudevillian panache “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” or the comically mean–but hapless–head of the orphanage, Miss Hannigan, drowning her troubles in drink, while desperately listening to a radio soap opera’s promise that, if you’re a woman of a certain age,  there is still hope for romance.  Adults can appreciate, too, the  somber social consciousness in the song “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover.”  And the comic bantering between Oliver Warbucks and President Roosevelt and company is well-scripted.

Paper Mill’s production just might be the most satisfying production of “Annie” that I’ve ever seen.  I’ve enjoyed any number of good productions of this musical over the years. I have particularly warm memories of the original 1977 Broadway production with Andrea McArdle and Dorothy Loudon–both first-rate–and also the lively 1997  Broadway revival that starred Nell Carter (who was sensational in her her own way–they even added an extra song for her–but she so overshadowed everyone else that I felt I was watching “Nell Carter and her Gang,” rather than “Annie”).

I liked almost everything about this new production at Paper Mill–the tone, the humor, the heart, the pacing.  Hoebee had all of the right ingredients, and all were properly balanced.  The show really worked, from first scene to last.  And Beowulf Boritt’s wonderfully ornamented settings were far more intriguing than those in the original Broadway production, which were rather spare and bland by comparison.

“ANNIE”: “A Hard Knock Life” sung by the Orphans in the Paper Mill Playhouse production

Beth Leavel was a brilliant “Miss Hannigan.”  She caught every laugh from her first entrance.  I can’t think of anyone working today who’d be better for the role. (And Leon Dobkowski costumed her with delightful–and highly colorful–zest.)  Leavel won the Tony Award for her rich portrayal of “the Drowsy Chaperone” in the 2006-2007 Broadway musical comedy of that name.  But–as sometimes happens in show business–Leavel hasn’t found another part nearly  as “right” for her  as that terrific part was, since “The Drowsy Chaperone” closed a decade ago.  She made the most of a small supporting role in the musical “Bandstand”–she was, for me, the best element in that musical–but there was only so much that could be done with that small role.  Her comic gifts are very well-displayed in her portrayal of “Miss Hannigan.”

Christopher Sieber–whom I’ve enjoyed in many Broadway shows, from “Triumph of Love,” to “Shrek,” to “La Cage Aux Folles”–made an ideal “Daddy Warbucks.”  The singing was strong and sure; the acting  heartfelt.  He’s my favorite “Daddy Warbucks” to date.

And I don’t know where they found Cassidy Pry–the little girl (new to me) playing “Annie” at the performance I attended (opening-night).  But she’s terrific.  Almost every line reading was exactly right–the spirit, the pluck, the gumption.  She was “Annie.” (The role, I might add, is double-cast; Cassidy Pry alternates in the role with Peyton Ella, whom I had the pleasure of seeing in “Annie” at Westchester Broadway Theater last summer; I enjoyed her very much, too. Incidentally, her mother played one of the orphans in the original Broadway run of “Annie.”  So Peyton Ella is carrying on a family tradition in doing that show!)   And every one of the orphans was well cast.  The kids charmed individually and collectively.  Erin Mackey was an appealing Miss Farrell.  I was won over by this production from the start.

Erin Mackey, Cassidy Pry and Christopher Sieber in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of “ANNIE”

It’s an excellent family musical–equally satisfying for adults and kids.  And Paper Mill sure did right by it.  I give Mark Hoebee and company a lot of credit.

When “Annie” first opened back in the late 1970s, my guest and I both thought it was rather good but not great, you know.  We saw it not too long after we’d seen the original Broadway productions of “Chicago” and “A Chorus Line”–two of the best musicals of that era (or of any era, for that matter), and “Annie” suffered a bit by comparison to those recently seen masterworks.  But so many badly written shows for kids have come along in the years since then that “Annie”‘s strengths–in the writing of the book, music, and lyrics–seem clearer now than ever.  Compared to most of the shows targeted for kids in the past 20 years, “Annie” seems likes pure gold. Meehan, Strouse, and Charnin wrote a show for everyone, not just kids.  I really enjoyed Paper Mill’s production.

Incidentally, when “Annie” ended its original Broadway run in 1983, it had racked up 2,377 performances, making it–at that time–the sixth longest-running show in Broadway history.  The only shows, at that point, that had run longer were “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Life With Father,” “Tobacco Road,” “Hello Dolly!” and “The Music Man.”

I have one small complaint to register.  Nowhere in the program for the Paper Mill production of “Annie” did I see even so much as a mention–much less a biography–of the late Harold Gray, the brilliant author/illustrator who for decades wrote and drew the original comic strip “Annie,” which was the source material for the musical.  Gray deserves credit and recognition in the program; a bio would be fitting.  The logo for the musical “Annie” incorporates Gray’s conception of “Annie.”  An image of “Annie” and “Sandy”–again, as conceived by Gray–graces the curtain as we enter the theater.  Gray created and defined  the characters of “Annie,” “Sandy,” “Daddy Warbucks.”  They are iconic creations.  Other writers and artists, continuing the comic strip after Gray’s death, were unable to sustain the magic of his original creation, and the strip gradually lost readers until it finally died.  Gray was a tough act to follow.

It would take nothing away from Meehan, Strouse, or Charnin–the gifted authors of the musical “Annie”–to also acknowledge the foundation provided by the man who dreamed up that plucky, self-reliant red-headed orphan in the familiar red dress. And in the 1920s and ’30s, when the heroes of nearly all comic strips were either boys or men, Gray made a young orphan named “Annie” an international favorite.  It doesn’t seem ethical, to me, to leave Harold Gray out of the program.

* * *

Year after year, decade after decade, “The Nutcracker”–the classic ballet featuring music by Tchaikovsky–succeeds in enchanting audiences of all ages.  And it’s long been a Christmas-time tradition for me to revisit “The Nutcracker.”  I almost didn’t make it this winter.  In December I was hit by the worst bug I’ve had in years, and when the day came to see “The Nutcracker,” I was feverish and wanted very much to  simply rest in bed (as my doctor had ordered).  But I’ve never missed “The Nutcracker,” and I thought seeing the beauty of that work once again might well be good medicine. So–despite being ill–I drove 112 miles up to the Warner Theatre in Torrington, Connecticut, to catch a Sunday matinee.

“THE NUTCRACKER”: Nutmeg Ballet Company

Seated near me, by chance, was a mother with her five-year-old daughter; the daughter had caught the matinee the day before and had enjoyed “The Nutcracker” so much she had persuaded her mother to take her to see it again.  “You are going to love it,” this five-year-old expert on “The Nutcracker” assured me.  “The best part is when all of the clowns keep coming out of a magic box and there are clowns everywhere.”

“And when do we get to see the clowns?” I asked the little girl.

She thought for a moment, recalling the show, and then explained to me with surprising accuracy–for clearly she’d paid careful attention–“A little bit after the Russian dancing.  That’s where the Russian boys bump bellies!”  (And indeed, in the “Trepak-Russian Dance” sequence, as choreographed by Tim Melady, the two male soloists bumped bellies in mid-air at one point; I was impressed that the little girl had observed and recalled so well.)  She also told me that when she was a little older, she wanted to be in “The Nutcracker”–she wanted to be a mouse in the battle of the mice and soldiers, and an angel in the Kingdom of the Sweets, and she most wanted to be a clown, naming roles open to young children.  I was glad to see that “The Nutcracker” continues to cast its spell over young viewers.

“THE NUTCRACKER” ensemble

Standouts at the performance I attended were Andris Kundzins as “the Nutcracker Prince” and Kaliece Carter as “The Sugar Plum Fairy.”  I was too ill to fully, properly appreciate “The Nutcracker,” but Kundzins and Carter deserve mention.  Kundzins is clearly the Nutmeg Ballet Company’s most accomplished male dancer; he has the best technique, and his dancing–elegant, refined, precise–is always rewarding to watch.

I am happy to witness the ongoing growth of Kaliece Carter as a dancer.  She has been part of “The Nutctracker” for years, going back to when she was one of the angels as a child.  And she has such grace and carries herself so well, I’ve complimented her in this column in the past, even when she was simply a member of the Corps de Ballet and not a featured soloist.  And her regal bearing and poise–clearly evident even in still photographs of her in performance–draws one’s eye to her. (All of the terrific Nutmeg “Nutcracker” photos, incidentally, are by Susan Marine Suhanovsky.) I always enjoy seeing Kaliece Carter on stage, and wish her well.

THE NUTCRACKER” with Kaliece Carter

The gorgeous ensemble work in the Land of the Snow sequence lifted my spirits.

And, oh!  I greatly enjoyed “the Russian Dance.”  Kundzins was one of the soloists in that number and his precision and elegance elevates any scene he is in.  Complementing him well was the other soloist, a dancer (new to me) named Stone Dresser, whose exuberant playful spirit helped light up the stage.  He doesn’t yet have Kundzins’ finesse, but he dances with flair and is fun to watch.

I’m not sure that going to see “The Nutcracker” with a high fever was the right call; my doctor wanted me to take a few days of complete rest.  But I like experiencing–even if under-the-weather–the wonder of “The Nutcracker.”  And seeing the continuing growth of promising dancers.   I wish I could have seen another performance when I was feeling a bit better, but my schedule did not allow.  (I wish, too, I could have seen some other Nutmeg dancers in key roles, just for the fun of it, since different dancers were featured  at different performances; I would have welcomed seeing, for example,  Sydni Allen and Rachel Kundzins–whom I’ve enjoyed very much in the past–in featured roles.  But there will be other times, hopefully.  I  very much missed some dancers who’ve enlivened past Nutmeg shows but have moved on, such as Alma Evertz and Julius Taiber.  Special mention must be made of Thomas Evertz who, once again this year played Dr. Drosselmeyer about as well as one could hope to see that role played.  I hope the younger dancers sharing the stage with him appreciate the lessons he is giving them in how to command a stage.  He has great presence; he makes every gesture count; and he remains 100% in character–and compelling–even throughout the curtain calls.

* * *

The best secondary-school or college production that I witnessed in 2017 was “The Last Five Years” (written and composed by Jason Robert Brown), presented by Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont.  The best performance by a young actor that I witnessed in 2017 was that of Oscar Williams, playing the role of “Jamie Wellerstein” (based on Brown himself) in “The Last Five Years.”  His co-star in the production, Emily Friedrichsen, playing the role of “Catherine Hiatt” (inspired in part by Brown’s first wife), also did an excellent job, as did their pianist/music director, Patcha Hennessey.  What made their accomplishments all the more remarkable was just how unusually young they all are.  Friedrichsen and Hennessey are 15, Williams is 14.  Their 17-year-old director, Jaden Rogers, began work on the project last year.  He faced real challenges, getting the high school administration to consent to presenting a show with such mature themes, and such very “adult” language.   There were times when he wondered if the production would ever come to pass.  But he persevered, and the final results were terrific.  I like people with vision and moxie; Rogers knew what he wanted to do–he’s a great admirer of Jason Robert Brown and he felt he had actors who could do justice to the show–and he had the tenacity to make it come to pass.

“THE LAST FIVE YEARS”  with Emily Friedrichsen and Oscar Williams

And Oscar Williams!  I already knew he could act because he’d been impressive in the original Broadway cast of the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home,” and in Lincoln Center’s concert production of “The Secret Garden.”  And when I attended the 2016 Tony Awards I saw him briefly portray Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Born and raised in Vermont, Williams spent 20 months in New York City in 2015-2016,  actively involved in the theater community, and then returned home.)  But even so, I was dazzled by his work in “The Last Five Years.”  In a two-character musical, the actors have nowhere to hide.  I watched Williams–intense, eyes ablaze–and I marveled.  He’s got star quality.  When I’m casting a show, I look for a certain light in an actor’s eyes; I want performers who are fully alive on stage.  Williams has that.

“THE LAST FIVE YEARS”  with Oscar Williams

I don’t expect perfection from any actor, especially a teenage actor.  I’m not claiming that every note Williams produced landed perfectly, or that every movement was a model of grace. There’s always room for improvement.  But his instincts, by and large, are superb.  He knows when a subtle inflection will make a phrase take flight.  He knows how to get a needed laugh simply by lowering his voice at the right moment.  He was thoroughly believable on stage, whether arguing, cajoling, or seducing.  And he could convey a lot just with his expressive eyes.   He was effective whether “acting” or “reacting”–such as appearing to grow uncomfortable as she voiced her hopes for the future of their relationship; without saying a word, he was signaling that he felt she was holding him back and he wanted to move on.

“The Last Five Years” is a challenging piece for actors of any age–and especially challenging for  youths who must rely more on imagination than life-experience to interpret the script. It traces, via intercut scenes,  five years in the lives of a guy and a gal, in their 20s.  His story is told forward: he falls in love with the gal; they marry; his career takes off while hers founders; he no longer loves her; and beds another.   Her story is told backwards; her scenes start at the end of their relationship and move backwards in time, poignantly, to when they first fell in love.   Each actor must make us feel the reality of the situation, as he or she experiences it.  Ideally, we should feel for both characters.

I thoroughly bought Williams’ performance.  He is vivid on stage.  I relished his performance from beginning to end.  Had my schedule permitted, I would have enjoyed seeing the production twice.

“THE LAST FIVE YEARS” with Oscar Williams and Emily Friedrichsen

And Emily Friedrichsen actually played her role more sympathetically–and with greater vulnerability–than did Sherie Rene Scott, who memorably originated the role in New York. No, I’m not saying that Friedrichsen is a greater actress; but she gave us a wholly sympathetic characterization, and she really felt “right” for this particular role.  My heart broke for her.

Sherie Rene Scott is an immensely talented performer, and there was much to savor in her original Off-Broadway performance; she’s a strong singing actor with great presence.   She can effectively sell–with plenty of punch and consummate professionalism–any song she is handed to sing.  And I enjoyed her greatly, when I saw the original New York production of the show at the Minetta Lane Theatre.  But she is not an especially vulnerable performer.   She just naturally seems to radiate strength.  If she sang a song expressing her unhappiness with her career as an actress and insecurity about the future, I’d be thinking something like,  “What are you worrying about?  You’ve got the goods to carry any show.  And if you quit acting, you’ll wind up the vice-president of an advertising agency or something like that, before too long.  You’ll always land on your feet.”

Friedrichsen has a great deal of natural likability.  She’s endearing.  And she’s needy.  She seems more fragile than Scott did–and in this particular role, that is a “plus.”  Watching her, you want to protect her.  In a key scene in the play, she is singing of her unhappiness doing summer stock in Ohio.  Her career is not going any place; she has doubts about her future.  And those doubts seem entirely plausible.  She wants–she badly needs–to have her husband with her, providing emotional support.  And as she sings of her needs, pleadingly, in a nice-but-far-from-big voice, we feel for her.  Our hearts go out to her.  And her husband can’t–or won’t–meet her emotional needs.  His career is going great guns; he wants to be hobnobbing with New York’s glitterati, not killing time with his weak little wife in some hick town in  Ohio.  Williams is convincing as the ambitious guy.  Friedrichsen is convincing as the insecure gal.  And by the time Williams’ character cheats on her–rationalizing that it won’t hurt her because she won’t ever know–we understand where both of the main characters in this play are coming from.

“THE LAST FIVE YEARS” with Oscar Williams and Emily Friedrichsen

The dynamics between the two actors–Williams and Friedrichsen–were great.  Both were well cast.  And they made the whole show feel very real.  The pianist–a 15-year-old student from Thailand–played Brown’s superb score brilliantly.  (And I’ve seen some pianists at auditions in New York City, alas, who can’t play Brown’s difficult music as well.)  The whole show worked.

The backstage crew sure had plenty to do, executing frequent scene changes.  This is also the first high-school production of any show I’ve seen that had “dressers” (which are common on Broadway)–backstage assistants  to help the stars get in and out of costumes quickly.  Cole Patno had to help Williams make a dozen or so costume changes within 90 minutes!  One moment Williams’ character might be in a suit; the next he might be in underwear (cheating on his wife), the next, casually dressed in jeans.   At the curtain call, everyone who worked on the show–including not just the stars but the director (Jaden Rogers) and the backstage crew (Reilly Roth, Suzie Zimmerman, Leah Boget, Cole Patno)–strode on stage for a moment of public recognition.  That’s fairly common in high school productions (although not in professional productions).  I think it’s kind of sweet.  They’re all theater people; this year’s dresser may be next year’s star.  I’m not joking; I know seasoned Broadway pros like Ray DeMattis and Walter Bobbie who started as dressers. (Cole Patno, if you ever star in “The Last Five Years,” let me know!)   And all should be proud of this production.

I can understand the school administration’s uncertainty about whether to permit the production.  The show includes language (including the “F” word) that students would not be permitted to use in school.  And teens acting out on stage an extra-marital affair–with a guy singing that he ardently yearns to be inside the gal–will make some administrators uneasy.  But the student actors–and all involved–can learn from being challenged.  They were eager to do this show. They devoted many hours to the project.    And they did first-rate work.  I wish Jason Robert Brown could have seen this production.  (Jason, if I knew it was going to be this good, I would have offered you a ride up to see it.) I’ve never seen kids this young do so mature a show so very well.  I enjoyed it a lot.

I might add that, over the years, I’ve often seen especially good performances by kids of shows that they had to fight with school administrators just to do–kids may become more thoroughly invested in shows they have to  fight to do.  I’m recalling of the production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” that I attended in Trumbull, Connecticut, a few years ago (sitting with friends and family of Jonathan Larson); in a case that attracted national attention, the students had to overcome objections of a school administration that worried “Rent”–with its references to drugs, AIDS, homosexuality–was too controversial.  And I’m recalling students in Waterbury, Connecticut, who had to fight to do an August Wilson play which the administration worried about because it contained the “N” word.  And I’m recalling students at one of my nieces’ school, who had to fight for the right to do “Godspell”–without cuts–because the school administration said it contained “violence” (Jesus’ crucifixion), and the school had a zero-tolerance policy for violence.

* * *

At an end-of-the-year awards ceremony, veteran stage/scree/television actor Michael Townsend Wright presented the 13th Street Repertory Theater’s second annual “Matthew Nardozzi Award”–the only award for reliability and dependability in theater–to Kate Solomon-Tilley.  Currently working as a stage manager for a production of “Hairspray” in Maine, Kate Solomon-Tilley has done seemingly every possible backstage job in the theater.  Her numerous credits include work as a director, stage manager, house manager,  lighting designer, board operator and more.  She’s worked as a child-wrangler for “The Lion King” on Broadway and as an assistant to one of the stars of “Aladdin.”  She’s worked on numerous shows at the 13th Street Rep, in various jobs, acquiring a reputation for usually being the first to arrive at the theater and last to leave.

Kate Solomon-Tilley gets the Matthew Nardozzi Award from Michael Townsend Smith

Michael Townsend Wright–whose many credits include the films “The Rat Pack” and “Lansky”; such television shows as “The Uncle Floyd Show,” “The Naked Brothers Band,” and “Emergency”; and such stage shows as “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “The Seven Little Foys”–noted that he’d worked on shows with both Nardozzi and Solomon-Tilley. and was honored to be connected to both. Townsend worked with Nardozzi on “The Seven Little Foys” and “Irving Berlin’s America” (for which Nardozzi won the “Young Entertainer’s Award”). Nardozzi–a Broadway and Hollywood pro who is currently in California and could not attend the award ceremony in person–offered congratulations by phone.    I’m glad to see reliability and dependability acknowledged.  The first annual Matthew Nardozzi Award went to actor Benjamin Grier.  This year’s award went to an equally reliable backstage pro.  Such professionalism is always worth praise.

* * *

For this theater-lover, one of the happy events of 2017 was the renovation/restoration of the Hudson Theatre, built in 1903. Many notable Broadway shows played there between 1903 and 1967 including “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “State of the Union,” “Detective Story,” and “Toys in the Attic.”  After five decades, it’s finally back in use as a Broadway house.  I’d long called for its return to the fold, but never thought I’d live to see it happen.

If I can offer one wish for 2018, I’d like to see a couple more vintage theaters brought back into the Broadway fold.  The Times Square Theatre on 42nd Street, which has been vacant for two decades, is a candidate for restoration.  It was once the home to such stage productions as “The Front Page,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Strike Up the Band,” and “Private Lives.”  In the 1930s, it was converted into a movie theater, and a retail store was constructed on the stage behind the movie screen.  Removing the brick walls of the store to fully restore the original stage would not be easy or cheap.  But the auditorium is intact, and a restoration of that theater would add a much-needed additional Broadway house to our city.  Another alternative–if fully restoring the original stage proved too problematic–would be to extend the stage forward–perhaps create a thrust stage.

The Liberty Theatre on 42nd Street could also be restored to legitimate use.  The Broadway musical was practically born at the Liberty; that’s where George M. Cohan premiered “Little Johnny Jones.”  From the stage of the Liberty, Cohan first sang his signature songs “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” His great hit “Little Nellie Kelly” also played there as did many other noteworthy shows.  (I own an original Playbill from that run.)      The stage, the proscenium, the boxes–all remain intact.   Perhaps a not-for-profit theater company (such as the York or the Irish Rep) would welcome a home in the theater district.  Especially one so rich in history.as di

And I’d love to see someone buy back the glorious Mark Hellinger Theatre from the church that now owns it.  It’s just about as big and beautiful as any Broadway theater.  That theater was long home to “My Fair Lady,” among many other hits.  (I saw “My Fair Lady” there as a child.)  And we could use another big, beautiful Broadway house.  Long-running shows have a lock on some of the best Broadway houses today.  It would be wonderful to have a couple more theaters available.

Finally, I note with sorrow the passing of Rick McKay.  He was not just our preeminent Broadway documentary filmmaker, he was a warm, likable friend. When I first met him, years ago, he was a cabaret singer; I saw him sing in a little club, before he made a name for himself as a filmmaker. We connected because we both shared a love for Broadway and, in particular, the great musical theater stars of a generation or two before us. He began filming interviews of some of the noted old-timers in theater, asking them to share recollections of working on Broadway in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and so on. He felt he was racing against the clock, seeking to preserve–in exclusive filmed interviews–stories of the senior-most members of our theater community, before they passed away. He produced one of the most important of all theater documentaries–“Broadway: The Golden Age.” It garnered about 15 awards! (If you don’t own a copy, you can buy one on Amazon.)  Many of the Broadway legends he interviewed for that long, detailed documentary, have since died: Gwen Verdon, Barbara Cook, Comden & Green, Fred Ebb, Elaine Stritch…. Others–like Angela Lansbury, Robert Morse, and Carol Channing–are still with us, now in their 80s or 90s…. This documentary–which intermixed rare performance footage with spoken recollections–was to be the first of an intended trilogy.  I hope someone can bring his project to completion.

– CHIP DEFFAA, February 3rd, 2018

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