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ON THE TOWN…. with CHIP DEFFAA , November 8, 2017

I went to see Betty Buckley singing at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater. When she sang "Young at Heart" (by Carolyn Leigh and Johnny Richards), I felt like I'd been handed a gift. She sang with such concentration and conviction--as if she totally believed every word of that wondrous song--I could not help but share in her belief. I doubt I'll ever hear anyone sing that song "live" better. (The late Jimmy Durante used to perform that song wonderfully, in his own very different way, as of course did Frank Sinatra, who introduced it in the film of the same name.) That was, for me, the best moment I've experienced in any club this year, and I'm grateful.

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Greatness, in any field,  is rare.  I got to witness true greatness twice of late.  Let me start by talking about  that, before moving onto the  very good, the pretty good, and the not-so-good.  Because real greatness needs to be acknowledged.

I went to see  Betty Buckley singing at  Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater. When she sang “Young at Heart” (by Carolyn Leigh and Johnny Richards), I felt like I’d been handed a gift. She sang with such concentration and conviction–as if she totally believed every word of that wondrous song–I could not help but share in her belief. I doubt I’ll ever hear anyone sing that song “live” better. (The late Jimmy Durante used to perform that song wonderfully, in his own very different way, as of course did Frank Sinatra, who introduced it in the film of the same name.)  That was, for me, the best moment I’ve experienced in any club this year, and I’m grateful.  She was utterly focused, utterly inside the song.  And she was spellbinding.  Buckley at her best.  And she never really raised her voice, or held notes long, or tried to show off her voice the way young singers in college showcase productions so often seem to want to do.  It was restrained, yet as powerful  as it could be.

Betty Buckley

Her eclectic set at the early show I attended–which included songs by Jason Robert Brown (whom Betty noted would be attending her late show that night), Steely Dan, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joni Mitchell, Rodgers and Hart, and more–was being recorded for a forthcoming “live” album, to be released next Spring on Palmetto Records.. The audience included songwriter Joe Iconis, and actresses Payton Ella and Ellen Burstyn. Glad I got to be there.

From time to time, Miss Buckley also teaches master classes. If any aspiring singers are serious about their craft, she certainly has much to share.  She likes to teach, she says.  She’s trying to give young artists a gift, she says, that no one can take away from them.  Looks can fade.  The quality of the voice can change over time.  But if you really master your craft, you will have something–as Miss Buckley does–that endures.

I’ve enjoyed seeing this Tony Award-winning artist in the biggest concert halls and Broadway theaters; for me, it’s always a special treat to see her in an intimate space like Joe’s Pub.

Although Betty Buckley may be best known as a musical-theater and concert artist (with memorable Broadway credits including “Cats,” Pippin,” “1776,” “Carrie,” “Edwin Drood,” “Song and Dance,” Sunset Boulevard,” “Triumph of Love”), television viewers will also recall Betty Buckley as “Abby” on the long-running TV show “Eight is Enough.” In addition, she did memorable work on HBO’s “Oz.”  These days, she has a recurring role on “Supergirl,” too.

But at her best, performing “live,” she is a very powerful artist.   I hope she gets additional chances to show Broadway audiences what she can do. (I might add that she remains the greatest “Momma Rose” I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seem plenty of very talented artists play that demanding role in “Gypsy.”)  At her best, at Joe’s Pub, Betty Buckley  was just hypnotic.   I’ll look forward to the forthcoming “live” album of her at Joe’s Pub.

* * *

Bette Midler, in “Hello, Dolly!” at Broadway’s  Shubert Theater, offers us greatness in another form.  Bette Midler  carries with her the spirit of vaudeville, of the music-hall.  She is a singular entertainer, wonderfully eccentric, utterly unpredictable.  And she is great fun.  I’m very glad she agreed to do this particular musical comedy, which fits her terrifically.  She had the audience in the palm of her hand from her first appearance, succeeding  just as well with the comic dialogue as with Jerry Herman’s irresistible score.  (Incidentally, she’d make a sensational Auntie Mame, as well, if someone wants to revive Jerry Herman’s musical “Mame” on Broadway next.)  I loved the clowning, I loved the showmanship.  I can’t imagine anyone on the current scene playing this role more entertainingly.  I delighted in her performance, which I’ll long remember.

Bette Midler in Hello Dolly

I’ve seen many performers play “Dolly Levi” over the years.  Bette Midler is  better than almost all whom I’ve seen play that role, with two notable exceptions.  Carol Channing–whom I saw play the role repeatedly–had greater authority, presence, command of the stage.  And Pearl Bailey, also very special in another way,  had greater warmth, heart,  spirituality.  Different performers have different strengths.  Those two were my all-time favorite performers  in the role–equally great in their own very different ways. (And their performances were among the strongest I’ve ever witnessed in any show, on any stage, in all of my decades of theater-going.)   Midler wasn’t quite on their exalted level.  But her casual mastery of her craft is a treat to behold.  And–like Channing, like Bailey–she’s a unique personality, a larger-than-life personality.  Those are rare and to be treasured.  We’re not producing as many great stage personalities–eccentric characters  with styles and sounds all their own–as we once did.  Midler is a great stage personality.  She is part of a great tradition.  And the decision to cast her as Dolly was inspired.

I don’t think that David Hyde Pierce (playing “Horace Vandergelder” opposite Midler’s “Dolly Levi”)–as likable and engaging as he is–is an ideal foil for the mighty Midler.  To me he seemed, at times, like a very nice young man, trying to act gruff,  who was generally  overpowered by her.  I found him likable, but he wasn’t really a proper match for her.  I  have a hunch that someone like Lewis J. Stadlen–with more old-school tricks of showmanship up his sleeve, and great presence–could  have held his own better on stage with Midler; he’d make a formidable  Horace Vandergelder for the right star.  (If Patti LuPone ever winds up in the role, he’d be good opposite her.)

Of the supporting players in the current revival of “Hello, Dolly!,” Gavin Creel was the standout.  He’s the best singer I’ve ever witnessed  in the role of “Cornelius Hackl.”  (Some others who’ve played the role in past productions were funnier, but none sang as appealingly as he did; Creel is really a splendid singer.)  I thought the other supporting players were competent but not exceptional, and sometimes hit comedy lines too hard, pushing for laughs in scenes that did not need pushing.  I felt like they were occasionally signaling to us, “We are now being funny,” in a way that  made me wince a bit.

The big ensemble numbers were carried off brilliantly throughout the show.  I loved the dancing.  The dancers (as the waiters in the Harmonia Gardens) leaped over the orchestra pit in a way that was thrilling.

The audience clearly enjoyed the show.  Lots of laughter.  Lots of applause.  But at the end… when the curtain came down after the bows, it stayed down. And the applause died down surprisingly quickly. There was not that insistent  thing you sometimes witness in the theater, where an audience is just so damned enthusiastic—the electricity in the air is just so damned  strong–that the audience keeps clapping and and clapping and clapping until the curtain is raised again so the cast can take another bow.  And then maybe another.  And another.  The audience didn’t display that kind of wonderfully ecstatic response, which I’ve occasionally witnessed over the years (for Merman, for Channing, for a few others), where the audience did not want to let go of the show because it was just so sensational.   At the performance I attended the audience, as a whole, was clearly going home happy.  Contented.  Satisfied. But not ecstatic….  Interesting.

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I don’t have a solution for the problem I want to talk about next.  But I feel like I have to say something.

Broadway ticket prices have gotten way out of line. Top prices have risen far faster,  in my lifetime,  than the rate of inflation. And to build future audiences, producers need to make more tickets affordable to more people.

When my mom saw “Oklahoma” in its original Broadway run, in the 1940s, the top ticket price was $4.80. When Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway starred on Broadway in Hello, Dolly!,” a generation later, top ticket prices were $9.60. That was every bit as a big of an event then as the current production of “Hello, Dolly!” (starring Bette Midler) is today. But my sister and I–kids in school–were able to save up enough money to buy the best tickets for the whole family for Christmas, at $9.60 apiece. No kid of today could possibly buy the best tickets to “Hello, Dolly!” for their family for Christmas–not when the top tickets, at the box office, are being priced at $998 per ticket–more than 100 times as much as what tix went for, when we saw the great Pearl Bailey. (Even the current SOUVENIR PROGRAM for “Hello Dolly!” is priced at an outrageous $45!)

When I saw the hit revival of “Guys and Dolls” (starring Robert Guillaume, who just died) at the Broadway theater in 1977, I paid $5 apiece for a pair of balcony seats. I couldn’t afford orchestra tix, but any young person could come up with $5. The producers were making a deliberate decision to make some tix cost little more than movie tix. I’ve seen the greatest Broadway shows since my parents took the family to see “My Fair Lady” in its original Broadway run. Families could afford to go to the theater in those days. (Jerry Herman, the legendary composer of “Hello, Dolly!,” “Mame,” etc., told me that as a kid, his family went to the theater every week–a middle-class family, going to matinees. He learned about theater through that thorough immersion, which is impossible today.)

By the time I was 14 or 15, I stopped buying comic books, which I loved, so I could save up money to buy tix for theater (which I loved even more). I’d skip buying lunches in school, and save up money for Broadway tix (which cost me less than $10 apiece). Tix for matinees and weekdays cost less than tix for weekends. Maybe I’d pay $6.60 for a ticket. But I saw all the greats. And I wasn’t alone. (One older theater critic recalls paying $2.50 for standing room to see Merman on Broadway.) Ticket prices rose, due to inflation, but for many years it felt manageable. When top ticket prices rose from $10 to $12 to $15, it was do-able. I understand the desire of producers to charge as much as the market will bear. But if Broadway acquires an image of being something only the rich can afford, theater will suffer.

Memo to Broadway producers: You need to do everything you can to hook the next generation while they’re young.  I got hooked on theater because I saw the greatest performers, the greatest shows, from when I was very young.  It would be very hard for a young person of today to see as much great theater as I did, growing up.  When they read about some tickets going for a thousand bucks apiece, they might well conclude that theater isn’t meant to be for them, but mostly for rich older folk.  I have some friends who work in the theater who say they can’t afford to take their families to shows.  And that worries me.

* * *

One reason I like the Westchester Broadway dinner theater is that it manages, year after year, to offer a pretty good value for your entertainment dollar.  I’m not saying their shows are the equivalent of Broadway.  But their best productions are fun.  And you can enjoy dinner and a show for considerably less than the cost of a ticket alone on Broadway.  They’re currently presenting “Annio Get Your Gun.”  It’s their 202nd production, and it’s one of the more satisfying productions I’ve seen there.

Few musicals boast scores as rich, rewarding, and just plain delightful as that of Irving Berlin’s timeless “Annie Get Your Gun,” which is playing  now through January 28th, 2018 (with  time off in December for a holiday show) at the Westchester Broadway dinner theater, in Elmsford, New York.  It’s a glorious score, with big, rousing numbers like “I Got the Sun in the Morning” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”; superb ballads like “The Girl that I Marry” and “I Got Lost in his Arms”; and some of the greatest duets in the musical-theater canon: “Anything You Can Do,” “They Say it’s Wonderful,”  and the irresistible “An Old-Fashioned Wedding.”

And the libretto, by Herbert and Dorothy Fields–about  Annie Oakley and her rivalry/romance with fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler, set against the colorful backdrop of  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show–is engaging. There’s a great deal to like, for audience members of all ages, in the current production at Westchester Broadway, directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford.   Stafford understands well “Golden Age” musicals like this one; the story is told clearly and charmingly.  (And a bit of tap dancing on suitcases is great good fun.)  He’s put together a solid, exuberant, and appealing cast.

Devon Perry–whom I enjoyed very much when she starred in “The Wizard of Oz” at this theater–is appropriately spunky, sure of herself, and engaging as “Annie Oakley.”  Her heartfelt renditions of  the ballads work well.  And she and Adam Kemmerer (as “Frank Butler”) get thoroughly into the spirit of the duets, from “Anything You Can Do” to “An Old-Fashioned Wedding.”  (No, Devon Perry is  not going to erase my memories of Ethel Merman starring in the 1966 Broadway revival of “Annie Get Your Gun”; the galvanic Merman delivered one of the most potent and  memorable stage performances I’ve ever witnessed in my life.  But Perry is  an appealingly warm, confident  “Annie Oakley,” and she “gets” the great songs she’s been given to sing.)  Kemmerer has the right kind of deep, resonant voice the role of Frank Butler requires, and there’s a good onstage chemistry between him and Perry.

The two leads get fine support from such seasoned pro’s as Kilty Reidy (I warmed to him as “Charlie Davenport”) and Marshall Factora (terrific presence and authority as “Chief Sitting Bull”).  This is a good show that the whole family can enjoy, with appealing players in the leads.  It’s recommended.

Annie Get Your Gun–Devon Perry as Annie Oakley. Photo by John Vecchiolla

One minor complaint.  The original material has been “updated” here and there–needlessly, I think–in the name of political correctness.  For example, in the high-spirited number “Colonel Buffalo Bill,”  Buffalo Bill is no longer described as having fought off “Indians” but “hooligans”–which sounds a little silly to me. (And wrong for the era.)   Irving Berlin–who knew as well as anyone how to construct a song–did not write “hooligans,” he wrote “Indians.”  I think the original lyrics could–and should–have been left alone.  The comic song “I’m an Indian, Too” has been needlessly cut from the score. (Maybe someone thought it might offend native Americans, but it’s harmless.  Berlin, remembering the success that his good friend Fanny Brice had had back in the 1920s with a song called “I’m an Indian,” wrote this comic similarly titled number for Merman, playing an “Annie Oakley” who did not know much about native American culture, but was honored   that “Chief Sitting Bull” wanted to make her an honorary member of the tribe.  The shows works just fine, with or without that song,  But this worrying that that innocuous song might offend somebody seems misplaced.)   And the scene showing the sharpshooting-match between “Annie Oakley” and “Frank Butler” has been modified just a bit to emphasize more strongly  that gals and guys are equals, and will be equal partners in life.  These changes are all well-intended, but this classic musical comedy–a fun show, with plenty of heart and good cheer–wasn’t broke, and didn’t need such “fixing.”

Still and all, it’s good to have “Annie Get Your Gun” back (and at popular prices).  And to hear, once again, that enduringly popular theatrical anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”–one of Berlin’s greatest songs.  Berlin, incidentally, had no idea how good it was when he wrote it–he discarded the song;  his secretary, fortunately,  retrieved it from the waste-basket.

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Okay, now we come to “The Honeymooners,” which I caught at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse.

This new musical comedy is based on the famed television show that starred–in its best-remembered incarnation–Jackie Gleason as bus driver “Ralph Kramden,”  Art Carney as sewer-worker “Ed Norton,”  and Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph as their wives, “Alice” and “Trixie.”  There is a good bit to enjoy in this amiable but uneven  musical comedy. There are even some moments of  brilliance. But there are also times, alas,  when the show feels obvious and plodding.  If this musical comedy hopes to successfully transfer to Broadway–and I’d like to see that eventually happen–it will need  some work.  My fear is that producers may rush it to Broadway, essentially “as is,” and it won’t last too long there.

Writers Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss have created a serviceable book that often recalls fondly remembered bits from the classic sitcom.  The script is sprinkled with familiar “Honeymooners” catch phrases (“One of these days….,” “To the moon, Alice!,”  “Baby, you’re the greatest”).   We briefly see, in welcome nods to the original television series, Norton watching his beloved “Captain Video” on TV, or warming up at the piano by playing “Swanee River.” And we chuckle, happy to be briefly reminded of  some great vintage television bits.

The plot of this musical is intriguing enough.  Kramden and Norton enter a jingle-writing contest for Faciamatta’s Mozzaroni Cheese.  They land jobs with a Madison Avenue ad agency.  Trixie, meanwhile, wins a job singing and dancing at the noted nightclub El Morocco.  And the musical has us asking: Will success change the Kramdens and the Nortons?

I don’t envy anyone faced with the challenge of adapting, directing, or starring in a stage production of “The Honeymooners.” You need to somehow create a show that feels familiar without also feeling predictable or formulaic.  No small challenge.  You need to add songs that, hopefully, will be appealing, memorable, and feel right for these beloved characters.   You’re inevitably going to be compared with–judged against–one of the greatest of all television sitcoms, a show that was, in its prime, perfectly written, cast, and performed.  It’s very rare to have all of the elements fall into place as perfectly as they did for Gleason and  company in 1955-56, when the 39 classic “Honeymooners” episodes that we all know and love were originally televised.  There was a rare magic to those 39 episodes that even Gleason found impossible to fully recapture.  From the late 1950s through the 1970s, Gleason periodically revived “The Honeymooners” in one form or another, without ever really hitting the heights hit back in 1955-56.    The 39 episodes from 1955-56 have been re-broadcast countless time; they’ve achieved an enduring popularity that the later “Honeymooners” revival television presentations have not duplicated.

It was exciting for me, in 1966, when Gleason began presenting–in color–brand new hour-long musical episodes of “The Honeymooners” (with new actresses playing Alice and Trixie). And  in the 1970s, Gleason revived “The Honeymooners”  still again, for TV specials.   I watched all of those incarnations back then, always hoping for the best, always finding a good deal to enjoy–but also sometimes feeling vaguely disappointed, because these later “Honeymooners” generally did not land quite as well as the 1955-56 ones had.    And changing a cast-member or two weakened the chemistry.

Sitting in the audience at Paper Mill Playhouse on October 13th, I felt almost like I was watching one of those later incarnations of “The Honeymooners,” where there were moments that worked well, and other moments where I felt vaguely cheated, where I sorely missed the magic and the very special chemistry that the 1955-56 cast-members had.  Sometimes the songs worked.  Sometimes, however, they felt more like padding.  (For example, having fellow bus drivers sing, at some length, that they believe Ralph Kramden’s bubble will soon burst, because they all know his big dreams of success never really come true does not work better than having one person utter a spoken zinger would have.  As the bus drivers were singing how Ralph was bound to fail, I kept thinking, “Point made; now let’s move on; you’re slowing down the show.”  )

The Honeymooners

Here are some things I liked about this production.  The actor I saw in the lead role of Ralph Kramden–Michael L.Walters–offered about as good an evocation of Jackie Gleason playing Kramden as you could ever hope to see.  He had the look, the voice, the inflections.  It was almost like watching Gleason.  (Walters’ bio in the program says he is a “noted impersonator of Jackie Gleason and Dame Edna.” )  Now Walters happens to be the understudy; he was going on, at the performance I attended, for Michael McGrath, who ordinarily plays Kramden.   But he did a masterful Gleason impersonation.  And the chemistry between Walters and Leslie Kritzer–who was terrific as Alice Kramden–was very good.  You could open the show on Broadway with Walters and Kritzer in the leads, and audiences would embrace them. (I can’t comment on how  McGrath is in the role; he was out at the performance I attended. So I’ve not seen him play the part.) Walters gave about as satisfying a performance by an understudy as I’ve ever seen, in all of my years of theater-going.  He played Kramden with relish.  And I very much enjoyed that.

I thought Michael Mastro, whom I’ve loved in so many other Broadway shows (“Side Man,” “12 Angry Men,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Judgement at Nuremberg,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!”) was miscast as Ed Norton.  Mastro is an excellent dramatic actor–a favorite of mine since his unforgettable work in “Side Man.”  But, for me,  he didn’t quite have the goofy, sappy, endearing quality the role of Ed Norton requires. He didn’t display a great feel for the kind of comedy that “The Honeymooners” features.   And I didn’t feel the deep bond I should have felt between his Norton and Walters’ Kramden.

Laura Bell Bundy was fine as Trixie; but again, I didn’t feel the chemistry I should have, between her character, Trixie,  and that of Alice.

The performance I enjoyed the most–for me, it’s worth the price of admission just to see him–was  given by Lewis J. Stadlen,  in a supporting role as “Old Man Faciamatta,” head of the cheese company.  He took ownership of the stage the moment he walked on–old-school showmanship at its best.  The others in the show were good but he was great.  Stadlen’s not on stage a long time.  But what presence!  And he moved around the stage in the musical number “Infine la Felicita” with a wondrously whimsical poetic grace, evoking for a moment–just through movement–Groucho Marx (whom he portrayed  so unforgettably, years ago, in “Minnie’s Boys.”

Lewis Cleale–perfectly cast as a back-stabbing Madison Avenue advertising exec–was also impressive.  Again, he did not have a whole lot to do, but he commanded attention.  And sang surely and strongly.

I liked him a lot.  He played an unlikable character as well as it could be played.

The show, I might add, boasts a terrific surprise ending.  And the TV commercial  that Kramden and Norton create, near the end of the show, is hilarious.

But “The Honeymooners,” at its best on TV, could sometimes be quite poignant, not just funny.  Gleason, Carney and company were as expert at creating pathos as humor. They moved us.  And this musical comedy needs a bit more pathos.   I chuckled at times.  But I did not feel moved.

To be a truly  great musical, of course you have to have a great score.  This score is  hit-and-miss. (Some numbers are delicious, and serve the show perfectly; others seem all too obvious.) The lyrics   (by Peter Mills, whose work I’ve long appreciated) are  stronger than the music (by Stephen Weiner).   Sometimes, in this production,  you have very clever lyrics set to rather  ordinary melodies.

Some  of the melodies, I might add,  are not as memorable as the music heard, in passing, in  the original “Honeymooners” TV series.  I wish a way could be found to include in this musical  the familiar theme song (“You’re My Greatest Love”) that Jackie Gleason composed for  “The Honeymooners.” If you included it somewhere in the show–whether as instrumental underscoring or as a  song for Kramden to sing to Alice–it could only help.   (Gleason created the melody.  And there are also little-known  lyrics, by William Templeton, which aren’t bad.)  Gleason’s own compositions often had a touch of sadness.   And they had character.  (His famed “Melancholy Serenade”–long used on his variety show and recorded superbly by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey–was more memorable than the melodies I heard in this show.)

There’s a good deal to enjoy in this stage production at present. And I think there’s an audience for it.   But I think, with a little additional development, the show could become far more satisfying.  I’d like to see that.

* * *

The book, music, and lyrics for “Lili Marlene”–a musical running Off-Broadway in New York at St. Luke’s Theater–are, alas,  about as trite, banal, and obvious as those of any musical I’ve ever seen in New York.  The 14-member cast–directed and choreographed by Mark Blowers–works hard to pump life into the amateurish  material. And I applaud them for that.

The program says that Michael Antin, the author of this show (produced by John Lant), is a retired tax lawyer.  Anton has  come up with a good idea for a show; he simply does not seem to have the needed gifts as a writer/composer to make the story flow, or to capture our imaginations.  The show, the program tells us, takes place from June of 1932 to June of 1933 in Berlin.   The basic storyline (with some echoes, at times, of  the much more artfully crafted “Cabaret” and “The Prince and the Showgirl”) is interesting: an upper-class German fellow–whose family dislikes Hitler but does not, at first, fully comprehend the threat that Hitler poses–falls in love with a cabaret star, who happens to be Jewish.   But the slow-moving show does not really work either as entertainment (because of the shortcomings in the writing) or as education (because historic liberties are taken).

Initially, I thought I would not write a review of this show at all; the writing is so far below New York standards, I was tempted to simply not cover the show.  However, a few performers–new to me–were so effective, despite the material, I want to call attention to their good work. They merit recognition.

The show’s star, a recent AMDA grad named Amy Londyn, has presence; she’s sings engagingly; and with a winning, winsome charm.  Hers is a most auspicious debut performance, and I’m going to remember her name.  I warmed, too, to Clint Hromsco, who was very likable as her leading man.

Lili Marlene

And Matt Mitchell, in a supporting role as an earnest German aristocrat, putting his life on the line to oppose Hitler, made every moment on stage count.  His fine, true musical-theater voice was a joy to hear.  I give director Blowers credit for finding and casting such promising newcomers.  I look forward to seeing more of their work.

Antin has written all songs in the score, except for the famed “Lili Marlene,” which is sung appealingly  (twice) by Amy Londyn.  That song is so far superior to all of the other songs in the show, it makes the others seem even weaker.  It’s certainly the best song in the show, and I loved hearing it.  Oddly–and, again, amateurishly–the program does not credit the authors of that song.  The song–a great hit in both Germany and the U.S. during World War Two–was written by Hans Leip (original German lyrics), Ronnie Connor (English lyrics), and Norbert Schultze (music).

The song “Lili Marlene,” of course, was one of Marlene Dietrich’s signature numbers.  And it was very much a hit of World War Two.  The song did not yet exist during the period in which the play is set.  And yet the play, which starts in 1932, would have us believe that the song had already been around for years, and had been taught to the supposed cabaret star by Dietrich herself.  I had a hard time swallowing that.  It’s not a Weimar-era song.  It evokes the later war years.   If you’re going to throw such an iconic song into a score, you need to use it wisely. In the play, there are also discussions of  horrors taking place at Dachau.   But that’s a bit anachronistic, too.  The concentration camp horrors, by and large, came about after the period depicted in this play.  I could overlook such historical fuzziness if the show itself was powerfully entertaining.  But it does not pack much of a punch.

* * *

A very special shout-out to a very special Broadway pro — one of my favorites,  John Cullum. He’s joined the  cast of the hit Broadway musical “Waitress.” It is his 29th Broadway show!

Born in 1930, he made his Broadway debut in 1956, and he’s been in plenty of memorable shows since then: “Camelot,” “Shenandoah,” “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “1776,” “Deathtrap,” “On the 20th Century,” “Urinetown,” “The Scottsboro Boys,” etc. (I was lucky enough to attend the recording session for the original cast album of “Urinetown,” and I savored his showmanship in the recording studio as much as in the theater.) He continues to do plenty of television guest shots, as well. He’s just shot, for example,  a couple of episodes of “Madame Secretary. TV viewers will know him from his six seasons on “Northern Exposure,” and his recurring roles on “E.R.” and “Law and Order.” I’m very happy that this Broadway icon is still going strong in his 80s!

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Nobody in the Broadway community can belt the blues with more power than the great Terri Wgite. This terrific performer–a veteran of such Broadway shows as “Barnum,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Follies,” and “Finian’s Rainbow”–is currently a patient at a special hospital in Florida, getting treatment–including chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant–for a rare blood disorder.

Terri White

I like Terri a lot, as both a person and a performer. (She’s recorded for me–I’m very proud she’s on a couple of my albums–and I hope we can record again when she’s feeling better.) If any of our friends might like to send her a get-well card or note, I know she’d appreciate it. And she opens each card with care. If you’d like to write her, her partner,  Donna Barnett,  will make sure she gets them. You can write to her this way:

Terri White c/o Donna Barnett

Residence Inn Marriott

13420 Telecom Parkway

Temple Terrace, FL 33637

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One of the best lessons that Broadway legend Carol Channing ever taught me–and I love her; she’s taught me as much as anyone I know–is this…. If you’re casting a show or picking people to make a recording (or work on any kind of showbiz project), don’t just look for talent, “Look for people who really know how to say yes to life, who don’t want to just join your parade but want to carry the banner.” She taught me that if anyone is less than enthusiastic, or seems hesitant or unsure if they want to be in the play (or sing on the album, or whatever), “Don’t try to fix the mistake, just let them go, and look for the ones who are eager to join in. The world is filled with people who will always find excuses NOT to join in; look for the few–the elite, the elect–who really want to work with you, who really believe, ‘Happy is he who carries the banner.'” That is quintessential Carol Channing advice, and it is so true. The late master songwriter Fred Ebb gave me very similar advice–although not phrased as colorfully as Carol Channing, who is just about the most colorful person I’ve known.

Chip Deffaa and Carol Channing

I can hear her impressing upon me, on different occasions, in that unique voice of hers: “Happy is he who carries the banner” (which she says her late father impressed upon her in her youth). And I believe it  Wise, wise woman, Miss Channing.  She’s been on my mind of late.  And her words just seem worth sharing.

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I don’t usually comment on staged readings I see.  But I’d like to note that the staged reading I caught of “Bright and Brave” at Dixon Place was the best staged reading I saw this year. I got chills; there was so much that was so brilliant; and I certainly hope it has a future life. If there’s anything I can do to help, I’d be glad to help; it’s that good.

It’s the first musical by Peter Charney, Jack Saleeby, and Noah Silva–three recent Hofstra grads–directed by Matthew ZanFagna. It’s bracing, original, courageous, and it had me hooked from the taut opening scene. There are some terrific performances by Jack Saleeby–perfect in the key role–and James Dirck (new to me, and wonderful). I didn’t anticipate writing anything about this reading. I don’t usually comment on readings;  as  works-in-progress, they aren’t meant to be critiqued. In addition, this reading included several people I like very much and have been lucky enough to have worked with. So I certainly can’t claim to be impartial.  And perhaps I’m not.

But I do know good work. And I enjoyed the music, the lyrics, the book, and some key performances very much. It is very rare to see people right out of college create work at this level. (I could not have done it at that age.) One of my old friends has written many musicals that have been produced in New York; they’re all pleasantly entertaining. But none are as honest or passionate as this one.

This show pulled me into it from the start; I was leaning forward, engaged the whole night; and rose enthusiastically, along with everyone else in the packed house, at the end. I’m very impressed.  Charney and Saleeby (who created the songs) have acted  in shows and readings of mine, and have recorded for me.  And I may be biased a bit in their favor.  But I’ve never even met their collaborator, Noah Silva, who wrote the libretto.  I know good writing.  I’ve written eight published books, 16 published plays, plenty of songs, articles, and so on.  And Noah Silva  writes very well. I wish them well.

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Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Rent” will be getting a “live” telecast on Fox-TV, January 27th, 2019. They have not yet announced the cast. But I’m looking forward to this already. And I’m happy that Jonathan Larson’s father, Al Larson, and sister,  Julie Larson,  are involved; that should help make sure that the integrity of this trailblazing work is preserved. “No day but today!”

Speaking of “Rent,” I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Quadrino star in a production of “Rent” at Hofstra, a few years back.  He’s still doing the show, when opportunities arise.  He’s done the show in Switzerland and, most recently, in Aruba.  And this week, in Aruba, his director, Keiji Ishiguri,  surprised him by proposing to him, and he’s accepted. And they’ll be returning from Aruba engaged. “Seasons of Love” indeed! Here’s wishing them all happiness!

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I’m sorry to note the passing of Barry Z. Warm, and wacky, and ever-supportive, Barry was a fixture of the New York entertainment community for decades. I’ll miss this impish, ebullient man. For decades, he covered theater and cabaret on his “Barry Z” television program, which ran on odd channels, on cable TV and regular TV.

Barry Z

But it was always fun. He never missed a show of mine. (And no one was more enthusiastic.) He devoted a whole, hour-long program to my show “Mad About the Boy.” A lot of personality. And a good heart. He always claimed he was going to produce a show of mine, Off-Broadway, all by himself. I never took such talk literally, but I loved his enthusiasm. And I was always happy to talk with him. He LOVED theater. And he loved doing his show. My sympathies to his partner, Greg Swan.

And that’s it for this column….. I’m heading off to a rehearsal now, preparing a new show I’m writing/directing, “Irving Berlin: In Person,” starring Jon Peterson, which we’ll be trying out at the 13th Street Theater, NYC.

– CHIP DEFFAA, Nov. 10, 20127

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