John Cullum at Ninety-one…and Counting.

What might you be doing one month past your ninety-first birthday? For John Cullum, who achieved that milestone in March, the answer was a sort of fallback plan: Two years earlier, the venerable two-time Tony Award Leading Actor in a Musical was preparing a retrospective of his storied six-decade stage career for a run at Feinstein’s/54Below. Titled “John Cullum: An Accidental Star,” his performance plan was derailed by a bout of pneumonia, an emergency heart surgery and, upon recovery, by the COVID shutdown.

Effectively turning a negative into a positive, Mr. Cullum instead filmed his erstwhile cabaret piece. Streaming online through April 22, it will be accessible to many more theater junkies than would have seen it in person. In this case, dare I say, the restriction on live performance might be a blessing. Intimately acted, directed and filmed, “Accidental Star” is an affecting pleasure; watching it at home is akin to having John over for tea. Abundantly comforting, it put me in a reverie.

At eighty minutes separated into sections (Shakespeare/Changes/A Different Direction/etc.), the piece is more compact than short. Written by David Thompson (from Cullum’s recollections), the book unfolds in chronological order. Audition and performance anecdotes, interspersed with readings and song snippets, build upon one another in less-than-predictable fashion, reflective of the “Accidental Star” appellation. Auditioning for Joe Papp’s Shakespeare company with an awkward “Alas, poor Yorick…,” for example, led improbably to understudying and going on script-in-hand as Chorus in “Henry V,” and then, in 1960, to a “slightly snockered” audition for “Camelot,” in which he played Sir Dinadan and understudied Richard Burton’s King Arthur. He went on for Burton four times during the run before replacing Roddy McDowell as Arthur’s bastard son Mordred. (In 1964, Cullum played Laertes to Burton’s Hamlet, which was my first seeing that play.)

Leadng Man (“Shenandoah” 1975)

Tony-winning leads in “Shenandoah” and “On the Twentieth Century,” were to follow, both via quirky casting maneuvers. (Try to imagine Jack Palance in “Shenandoah.”) He came by “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Urinetown” (“…a ridiculous title”) and “The Scottsboro Boys,” his most recent Broadway outing, under improbable circumstances as well, earning rave reviews in them all.

[“Accidental Star” photos: Carol Rosegg]

Although Cullum might be equally known, especially by a younger demographic, for his TV appearances, notably as Holling Vancoeur in 115 episodes of “Northern Exposure,” that aspect of his career warrants no more than a passing mention. “Accidental Star” is a Theatre piece.

The only digression is Cullum’s tribute to his mother, who died in a car crash in 1956. (The exact date, not revealed here, adds poignancy to his telling.) The circumstance surrounding her loss still resonates with John after 65 years. Re-inserted into the text (“I wasn’t going to tell, but it’s important…”), it is a heartfelt reflection, none of it maudlin. So saying, and quoting Cullum, “Okay, enough of that.”

Musically, “Accidental Star” is a nostalgic mixtape. “On a Clear Day” is an ideal show-opener, and hearing it sung by its originator is a treat. Mr. Cullum might have lost some of his vocal range and pitch-perfection – he is 91, remember – but his resonance and phrasing are intact. Portions of three numbers from “Shenandoah” are well reprised, and “I Rise Again” from “On the Twentieth Century” earns its spot in the show. Cullum finesses a couple numbers from “Camelot,” but so did Burton – at age 35!

Leading Man Redux (“The Scottsboro Boys” 2010)

“Accidental Star” feels as close to live as anything I have seen on film or Zoom this past year. Directors Lonny Price and Matt Cowart frame their star mostly in full body, with some effective closeups and a few cutaways to accomplished musical director/pianist Julie McBride. In short there’s simply not a more congenial spot than a visit to “John Cullum: An Accidental Star.”

The Goodspeed Musicals and Irish Repertory Theatre co-production is streaming through April 22. For scheduling and “price you wish to pay” ticketing information: https://www.vineyardtheatre.org/an-accidental-star/

 

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

When “Damn Yankees” became Dumb Yankees

The 1955 Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” was based on Douglass Wallop’s novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” (to the lowly Washington Senators). A Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees” opened on March 3, 1994 at the (Marriott) Marquis Theatre. On August 12 of that year, Major League Baseball came to an abrupt halt when the Players went on strike against the Owners, cancelling remaining games and even the World Series.

1994 Revival Playbill

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater, Sports

Short Attention Span? Barrington Stage Has Your Back

Anyone interested in learning how to turn a negative into a positive might want to contact the folks at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For the past nine years, BSC’s “10X10 New Play Festival” has been part of Pittsfield’s winter arts festival, featuring ten new ten-minute plays performed live in their theater, which of course is off-limits now for in-person attendance.

What to do? How to continue the string and make up for the lost revenue? In a creative twist on a longstanding theatrical tradition, BSC has taken its tenth “10X10 Festival” on the road – accessible March 18-21 to anyone with an internet connection and thirty-five bucks. Believe it, you will not find a better thirty-five-cents-per-minute entertainment value anywhere. (Do the math.)

Socially-distant foxtrot: Doug Harris & Peggy Pharr Wilson in “Finding Help” [Photos: David Dashiell]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

The Seeing Place Theater Works Up a Virtual “Sweat”

A play-writing recipe: Stir together equal parts racial tension, economic uncertainty, labor-management unrest, and class distinction. Fold in a smattering of unprovoked violence. Bake under hot lights for two hours and you will have cooked up “Sweat,” a dish so well prepared and served by Lynn Nottage that it earned her the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Set in a blue-collar bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, “Sweat” follows a group of friends whose lives are upended when their common-employer factory is re-organized. The Seeing Place Theater Company, unable, of course, to perform conventionally during pandemic-mandated restrictions, adapted the play into a surprisingly effective remote production, which was live-Zoomed last weekend.

Top: Eileen Weisinger, David Nikolas, Juanes Montoya.  Middle: Joy Sudduth, Justin Phillips, Logan Keeler.
Bottom: Lori Kee

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

If it’s worth saying, it’s worth singing: “The Right Girl”

In recent months, with Covid-19 restrictions eased in some relatively low-affected areas, I have tracked down three theatrical attractions (all with pandemic protocols). In August it was “Godspell,” the nation’s first outdoor (tent enclosed) Equity-authorized production since the pandemic closings, at Berkshire Theatre Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In September, “The World Goes ‘Round” and “Little Shop of Horrors” ran in rep indoors at Weathervane Theatre in New Hampshire, and on November 1, I attended the first public viewing of “The Right Girl,” a new musical with its sights on Broadway, indoors at Barrington Stage Company, also in Pittsfield MA.

Okay, that last one was not live. Thwarted by the shutdown, “The Right Girl” presented as a Zoom-recorded screening. Labeled a “reading,” the Zoom-film was so artfully produced and performed that it seemed like the cast was right there on the stage. Which, following the screening, several of them were, along with director/choreographer Susan Stroman, whose attachment to the project invigorates it even before the first musical note is sounded.

Susan Stroman

While readings of new works are not subject to reviews, Ms. Stroman gave me leave to write about this one, acknowledging that adjectives might find their way into the piece.

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater, Off Broadway

“A Five Mile Radius” Hits Its Marks

I have long been aware of the existence of Hudson Guild Theatre Company, but until I was encouraged to watch their virtual world-premiere production of “A Five Mile Radius,” I had never seen their work, nor did I know about their parent organization, the Hudson Guild.

Based in and primarily focused on Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, the Guild, founded in 1895 as a boxing club for “young, rowdy boys,” seeks “to empower individuals and families to achieve their highest potential.” Programs include Adult, Youth, Children and Early Childhood services, directed toward “those in economic need” among a wide cultural, ethnic and racial constituency.

Hudson Guild Theatre Company was formed in 1994, with the stated aim of providing opportunities for people in the Guild’s community to experience live theater as active participants and as audience members. Guided by professional theater artists, they have presented some 65 productions, including “streamlined adaptations” of classics, Shakespeare among them; modern works by such as Tennessee Williams and August Wilson; and new works such as the one now Zoom-streaming.

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