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Editor's Desk

Staged Reading

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Arts Journalism, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

There's something about a long career on Broadway that makes lots of people think that their experiences are worth putting down in book form; over the years, I've known rehearsal pianists, dressers, chorus boys and stage hands who were busily scribbling their memoirs, most of which never saw the light of day. Now, one of Broadway's respected press agents, SUSAN L. SCHULMAN, has succumbed to the temptation. The result, Backstage Pass to Broadway: True Tales from a Theatre Press Agent, has just been published by Heliotrope Books. In Schulman's case, her efforts have been worth it; she's written a funny, sometimes shocking book about the things she's seen on Broadway for the past forty-plus years. (She got her feet wet in 1970 with Applause, starring the famously dyspeptic LAUREN BACALL, something that probably would have had most fledgling press agents applying for the night shift at Howard Johnson's.) Schulman is admittedly star-struck; there's a gosh-gee-whiz quality to many of her anecdotes, but her book is best when she's chronicling bad behavior: DAVID MERRICK's young wife NATALIE, LESLEY ANNE WARREN and JOHN DEXTER come off worst. If only most people who work in the opera industry were half this candid about their experiences, my job would be a lot more fun. 

BRIAN KELLOW

The Pop Side

(Brian Kellow, Crossover, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Theater, Cabaret) Permanent link

Anyone who wants a juicy demonstration of savvy, old-time show-biz razzle dazzle shouldn't think of missing Sin Twisters, the new club act starring ANITA GILLETTE and PENNY FULLER at Manhattan's popular theater-district nightspot 54 Below. I attended the opening on October 2. Sharply and confidently directed by BARRY KLEINBORT, Sin Twisters is frequently hilarious, frequently touching, and even more frequently awe-inspiring. Gillette and Fuller never attained top Broadway stardom, but they are two of the most respected and versatile actresses of their generation — what used to be called darlings of the theater. The show's title is a spoonerism — a treasured gag that runs through the show, adding to its infectious spirit. ("Pit it, Haul!" Gillette called out at one point to musical director PAUL GREENWOOD, whose stylish pianism and gorgeous vocals added immeasurably to the evening. I should probably admit here that I've always been a sucker for spoonerisms, "Ballulah Tankhead" being my own personal favorite.)

In this generously programmed act, both Gillette and Fuller showed crack comic timing and solid vocals, as they wove their way through a loose narrative that ticked off high points of their careers but never became stale or predictable. A raucous high point was Gillette's ultra-swacked rendition of "If I Were a Bell," from Guys and Dolls; she reached a stunning emotional peak with "Isn't He Something?" from Stephen Sondheim's Bounce, and the gorgeous "Once Upon a Time," from All American, which she sang with Fuller. (I've never known anyone of a certain age who didn't succumb to this lovely song). I had always considered "One Halloween" one of the junkier numbers from the 1970 musical Applause, a show that an Encores! concert presentation of a few years ago proved is beyond reviving. But in Fuller's expert hands (she received a Tony nomination for the role of Eve Harrington), it was magical — an example of a real artist transforming her mediocre material. In duet, Gillette and Fuller shone in "Little Me" and a medley of tunes from Cabaret; both actresses had their turn playing Sally Bowles on Broadway. The audience, which included SHELDON and MARGERY HARNICK, JOHN GLOVER, HARVEY EVANS, SONDRA LEE, MALCOLM GETS and LEROY REAMS, came away with a bracing sense of two women who have gotten the most out of their careers and still have many premium performing miles to go. They'll reprise Sin Twisters at Club 54 on October 9. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Douce France

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Keeping it Local, New York City, Chanson) Permanent link

It's probably fair to say that the ever-broadening scope of song recitals in Manhattan owes a great deal to the New York Festival of Song. Under the guidance of artistic director Steven Blier and associate artistic director Michael Barrett, NYFOS has, over the years, built an intensely loyal audience with an imaginatively programmed series of concerts that at their best are both pithy and enormous fun. Blier, the series pianist and host, has a real knack for turning the group's performing space — most often Merkin Concert Hall on West Sixty-Seventh Street — into something with an intime nightclub feel. But it's a very in-the-know nightclub: Blier loves the thrill of musical discovery, loves to share his cleverly designed programs with his audience, which responds by hanging on every word of his savvy blend of erudition and plainspoken cool. 

On Tuesday, February 19, NYFOS presented a deeply satisfying program of French popular song, Jacques Brel & Charles Trénet: Fire and Fantasy. The ensemble was wonderful — Blier at the keyboard, plus guitarist Greg Utzig (who was sometimes a bit loud, throwing off the balance) and the marvelous accordionist Bill Schimmel. In addition to playing superbly (with no music in front of him all night long), Schimmel looked the part, as if Central Casting had come up with the ideal character actor to play a French accordionist in a Truffaut film. Tenor Philippe Pierce got things off to a stunning start with Brel's ever-accelerating "La Valse à Mille Temps." Pierce has a fine voice and sure rhythmic command, but in some of the evening's more soulful works he came up a bit short, lacking the French "lived-in" quality for a powerful song such as Brel's achingly poignant "Chanson des vieux amants."

In the second half, Brel gave way to Trénet. "Maybe if Irving Berlin and Mary Martin had had a baby they might have come out with Charles Trénet," said Blier, "but I doubt it." Here, Pierce's teammate, mezzo Marie Lenormand, gave what for me was one of the standout individual performances of the season, making magic out of "L'âme des poètes" (I won't soon forget the sublime way she landed on the word "artiste") and the famous "La mer," while showing great comic verve in her big finale with Pierce, "Grand-maman, c'est New York." 

At the end, Blier announced that the evening was something of a landmark — the fortieth anniversary of his first public performance. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Striking a Pose

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Cabaret) Permanent link

For a while, during her club act at 54 Below on January 24, Marin Mazzie looked like she might spend the evening circling without landing. She opened with a remembrance of her Illinois childhood, giving us a snapshot of a typical Saturday evening when her parents, cocktails at the ready, danced in front of the hi-fi to classic romantic ballads of the period such as "Tenderly." During this part of the evening, Mazzie seemed oddly "posed" and removed from the audience; she seemed to be in on a joke that she wasn't going to share with us, and it was hard to get a handle on where we might be heading. 

Fortunately, things picked up once she began to sing Top-40 hits from her own growing-up years. With excellent support from a band headed by her musical director Joseph Thalken, Mazzie gave killer renditions of schlocky '70s numbers such as the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You," the Barbra Streisand–Paul Williams Gibson greeting-card romance "Evergreen" and Barry Manilow's "When Will I Hold You Again?" which she managed to make us believe is a pretty terrific song. Just as she was reaching an excellent performance peak, the evening seemed to end rather abruptly, leaving the audience feeling just slightly undernourished.

Mazzie is one of the most exciting singing actresses on the Broadway scene, and I'm always a little frustrated that, apart from Passion, she hasn't originated a show that was really worthy of her. (Her replacement-cast performance in Next to Normal, opposite her talented husband Jason Daniely, was one of the most electrifying turns I've seen in years.) Now I'd like to see her do a full-scale cabaret show on the order of those offered by the great Marilyn Maye — something that really lets us know who she is. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW


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