“It’s Better Than the Movie”: Memories That Linger

With no Theatre to cover due to this nasty fellow…

A New Yorker toon (From 10-12 years ago!)

…I’ll share a few excerpts from “It’s Better Than The Movie,” my work-in-progress anecdotal memoir:

July 1956: I was an apprentice (as interns were then called) at Theatre-by-the-Sea in Matunuck, Rhode Island, one of the New England summer theaters then on the weekly star-package circuit. Unlike resident stock companies, where the same actors appear in a slate of plays back-to-back, the “packaged” shows toured intact, with complete casts except for small roles which were played by each venue’s own people, who also built the sets to specifications. (An advance director would cast and rehearse the locals a few days prior.)

One afternoon that summer, another apprentice, Pamela Gordon, and I were sitting cross-legged on the ground opposite one another, washing out paint cans to neutralize them for fresh colors. I was wearing old khakis, Pamela a long purple skirt bunched at her knees. Billie Burke, appearing that week in “Solid Gold Cadillac,” approached us. “That color [the purple] is unbecoming to you, young lady,” she said. “Well,” Pamela replied, “it’s old and I’m just washing out these paint cans.” Billie Burke drew herself up: “Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld has just told you that your skirt is unbecoming to you,” she said and walked away. Pamela got up, went inside and changed.        

I appeared that summer in “Solid Gold Cadillac” as well as in “Anastasia” with Delores del Rio and Lili Darvas; in the irrepressible Beatrice Lillie’s “Beasop’s Fables” revue; and as Ralph (a substantial role) in “Tea and Sympathy” with Mary Fickett (who had replaced Deborah Kerr on Broadway).

In Mary Fickett’s dressing room (as if). A publicity shot for the Providence Journal. (I was a Rhode Islander.)

Most adventurously, I played several bits with the legendary Tallulah Bankhead. Her “Welcome Darlings” followed a week of Ballet Theatre with Nora Kaye and John Kriza (Watching “Rodeo” and “Fancy Free” from the wings? Priceless.) and preceded Art Carney in “The Seven Year Itch.” Tallulah’s “Original Revue” included a sketch in which she played Peter Pan. It was a timely spoof: The play had run on Broadway in 1950 with Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff (and five songs by Leonard Bernstein) – and the Mary Martin musical, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, had opened in October 1954. (Curiously, it ran only about six months.)

In the Peter Pan sketch, Tallulah mock-flew into the Darling children’s bedroom and woke up Wendy.

[Wendy: “What’s a fairy, Peter?” Tallulah/Peter: “When the first baby laughed, its laugh broke into a million pieces and became fairies so that now there is one fairy for every boy and girl…I will never understand the appeal of this play.”]

Then Peter woke up little brother John. That was me. I was pre-set in a small bed placed head to foot downstage, blocking audience view of the whole bed. I was scrunched up under a blanket, dressed in drop-seat long johns. When Peter Pan stood by the bed and said “Wake up, dahling…I’m going to teach you to fly,” I was to get up from the bed, stand to my six-foot height in that absurd outfit and say “Fly? Nah, I don’t want to fly” and lie back down.

I had rehearsed the bit with the advance director, but not to an audience until we opened. I hadn’t anticipated the prolonged audience reaction when I stood and I took the appropriate pause-for-laugh before saying my line. To kill the hold I yawned and stretched my arms as if I’d been wakened. When the laugh died down I said my line and flopped back onto the bed.

After the show, when the audience had left, Tallulah boomed from her dressing room: “Where’s the Peter Pan boy?” (Imagine that foghorn voice calling out.) Over and over she yelled it until someone came outside and got me. I went into her dressing room, where she stood in a flimsy, open robe. She placed her hands on my shoulders and said dramatically, “You waved your arms. You stood and waved your arms. That was not rehearsed. No one stands and waves their arms when Tallulah Bankhead is on the stage. Don’t ever forget it. Now you may leave.” I left. And never forgot it.


In December 2003, by then a theater critic, I mentioned to an acquaintance of, shall we say, haughty theatrical taste, that I had seen “Never Gonna Dance” a few days prior. “Oh no,” he said, as if commiserating over the death of a pet. “Thank goodness I’ll never have to see that pale Fred and Ginger imitation.”  The following day I emailed him:

Well, you’re right of course, I wrote. Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager are no Fred and Ginger.  Who could be? And who would even venture the comparison if their show weren’t based, however loosely, on Fred and Ginger’s “Swing Time”? So don’t bother to see it. You won’t be missing a smash hit, though the leads are competent dancers, to be sure, and Karen Ziemba is excellent, as always. [She won the Outer Critics Circle Supporting Actress Award for it]. The book is just romantic fluff, and the scenery is on the cheap. The most familiar songs [all by Jerome Kern with various lyricists] are bunched in the first act, and Racey’s outstanding opening dance number, the character’s initial encounter with the rhythms of NYC, isn’t matched throughout.

But…BUT…If you must see it – if someone forces you, I suggest the following: Zero in on the fine new orchestrations of the Jerome Kern melodies, from the lively overture to the jazzy renditions of such as “I Won’t Dance” and “Pick Yourself Up,” which are sung and danced by the Broadway ensemble gypsies at the top of their game.

Most important, get seats in row D and invite a young woman recently emigrated from Honduras, who’s never been to a Broadway musical, who’s never before heard any of the songs, who’s never even heard of Jerome Kern, and whose boss lets her go an hour early from her shift [at the Westway Diner on Ninth Avenue] to go with you to the show.

Watch her tense up with anticipation as the house lights dim and the overture begins.  (“I’ve never been this close to an orchestra before.”)  See how she’s awestruck during the upbeat dance numbers and misty-eyed during the ballads. Hear her sigh when the couples divided get reunited, and laugh with her when the glittery confetti falls on and around both of you during the finalé. Notice how she sits agape during the prolonged curtain call (a la “A Chorus Line”), until the last note is played and she looks up at you with her huge, bright, brown eyes and tells you, half in English y media en Espanol, how much she loved the show and how she can’t wait to get home to Astoria to tell her mother about her first Broadway musical.    See it that way, my friend, and “Never Gonna Dance” might become your favorite musical.      Best, Phil

And finally, a more recent encounter:

In the early 1960s James Earl Jones and I were in (different) Broadway plays during the same months. We both hung out with a theater-crowd at Downey’s on 8th Avenue, the Joe Allen of its day, no longer there. Jimmy, as he was known, and I were friendly acquaintances. At the 2008 Outer Critics Circle Awards, where he had won Featured Actor for Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” I re-introduced myself and in the course of some mutual memory-sharing, asked if I could still call him Jimmy. “Of course,” he boomed. “I was Jimmy then and always will be.” Four years later, in May 2012, he won the same Award for playing the President in “The Best Man.” “Congratulations, Jimmy,” I said as I greeted him at the bar, where we chatted again about the ‘old days.’ As I walked back toward my table, a fellow critic got in my face. “You have some nerve,” he said, “calling James Earl Jones ‘Jimmy’.” “We’re old friends,” I said. “We were on Broadway together.”

And may we all meet there again soon…

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater, Professional, Regional

Politics As Usual? Not in “Radio Golf”

All ten of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays are not created equal, but just as the non-star players on a championship team are essential to its success, so are all the plays integral to Wilson’s monumental achievement. Precious is as precious does, and treating each of the plays with equal regard is the key to honoring the canon. Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey sets that standard.

Even ardent fans of the Cycle are unlikely to ferret out a production of “Radio Golf” among the mazes of “Fences” and “Jitney,”  so it behooves those Wilsonphiles to get themselves to Red Bank, where “Radio Golf” is running until March 22. The lesser-known Wilson play is Two River’s sixth in their drive to join the clutch of Regional venues to have produced all ten Cycle plays, a mission I suspect they will accomplish in 2024. As they have done since inaugurating their quest in 2013 with “Two Trains Running,” Two River has assembled a fine cast and engaged dynamic director Brandon J. Dirden to mold them into a superb unit.

Amber Iman and Carl Hendrick Louis [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

Premiering between 1982 and 2005, each Cycle play chronicles aspects of the African-American experience in a particular decade of the Twentieth Century. Nine of the ten, including “Radio Golf,” are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Wilson’s own origin city. Coinciding with the decade it represents, the 1990s, “Radio Golf” was also the playwright’s last-produced Cycle chapter. It premiered in April 2005 at Yale Repertory Theatre; August Wilson died the following October from liver cancer at age 60. (The Broadway opening was in April 2007.)

While specific to their time and place, Wilson’s themes resonate universally, much as do Shakespeare’s (a not ill-advised association). A drama about conflicting personal values and political expediency, “Radio Golf” certainly speaks to our current time.

Harmond Wilks (Carl Hendrick Louis) is campaigning to be Pittsburgh’s first black mayor. As prime mover of the redevelopment of the blighted Hill District, he has a pretty good shot. His campaign-manager wife Mame (Amber Iman) and realtor-partner Roosevelt Hicks (Robbie Williams) share his confidence. With Barnes and Noble, Whole Foods and Starbucks already signed on, what could go wrong?

Partners? Maybe. Harmond Wilks (Carl Hendrick Louis), left, and Roosevelt Hicks (Robbie Williams)

Enter Elder Joseph “Old Joe” Barlow (Wayne DeHart), who, backed by self-employed contractor and neighborhood handyman Sterling Johnson (Nathan James), claims ownership of a house on the re-development site that is slated for demolition. The crux of the story concerns the acquisition and subsequent disposition of the house, whose historical and cultural significance exceeds its modest dollar value.

In the interest of preserving the mystery, a genre in evidence, we’ll say only that a conflict of wills and values arises between those who would proceed under questionable ethics and even legality, and those for whom fairness and the rule of law are paramount concerns. The several debates on those topics are stirring and engrossing. It is not just a case of good vs. bad or right-and-wrong; compelling points are made on both sides and the outcome, as in all of Wilson’s plays, is inevitable.

Greeting Elder “Old Joe” Barlow (Wayne DeHart)

Also as in all the plays, there is an abundance of humor.  Roosevelt’s preoccupation with his golf game, which he extols on a radio broadcast, and him needing to keep his parked car in sight are lampooned, and Old Joe, seeming a bit dotty but really sharp as a tack, is a master of the non sequitur. “I have something for you,” Harmond tells him. “It ain’t no bread pudding, is it?” Joe replies, apropos of nothing. “I was just thinking about some bread pudding.” Mr. DeHart’s timing is exquisite. Mr. Louis exposes Harmond’s ambition and ambivalence, while Ms. Iman’s Mame is alternately encouraging and critical. Their political marriage is as real as any in today’s news.  And it all plays out on designer Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s expansive set, a fully realized real estate/political campaign office.

Mr. Williams plays Roosevelt’s go-along to get-along philosophy airily until the pot boils over and he goes all-in. Sterling is the odds-defying defender of principle. Mr. James’s rapid-speak can be problematic, but he is a compelling Cochise avatar.

Brandon J. Dirden is a master of the August Wilson book. At Two River alone he has acted in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and directed “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II.” Under his sure hand, the tension, humanity and humor of “Radio Golf” coalesce into a gripping whole. The play and playwright could not be better served.

Through March 22 at Two River Theater, Bridge Avenue, Red Bank NJ. Wed at 1pm and 7pm; Thurs & Fri att 8pm; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3pm. For further info and tickets ($40-$70): 732-345-1400 and online at www.tworivertheater.org 

Embedded in Wilson’s plays are pearls of wisdom – profundities, couched such that you don’t question the source. Late in “Radio Golf,” Harmond tells Sterling “I know how the game is played. I know the rules.” “But do you know when the game is over,” rebuts Sterling. “When you in an argument the best thing to do is to stop arguing.” Referencing a difference he’d had with someone, Sterling concludes “He ain’t had enough sense to see what I was saying, so I say ‘You right.’ And walked away.”    Wouldn’t [any of us] be better off following that advice.

Blog, Professional, Regional

Buoyant Performance Re-floats “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”

Composer-lyricist Meredith Willson’s 1960 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was inspired by an exaggerated tale about the exploits of real-life Titanic survivor Margaret Tobin Brown. While not as successful as Willson’s “The Music Man,” which it followed by three years to Broadway (and which was still running), “Molly Brown” ran for fifteen months on the strength of Willson’s score (Richard Morris wrote the book) and Tammy Grimes’ Tony-winning performance.

Debbie Reynolds was nominated for an Oscar in the 1964 movie, and while Kathy Bates was not nominated for playing Molly in the movie “Titanic,” she was named Blockbuster Entertainment’s Favorite Supporting Actress for the role. (Remember Blockbuster?)

Beth Malone, center front, and the “Molly Brown” cast [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

Beth Malone will not be Tony-nominated for the Transport Group’s revival of “Molly Brown,” running through April 5 at Abrons Arts Center, because Tony recognizes only Broadway, and AAC is an off-Broadway house. That noted, Ms. Malone is a sure bet for this spring’s more inclusive Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations (at least). Her Molly Brown is a ‘Can’t take your eyes off her’ performance.

The original musical was a fictionalized version, with some factual references, but overall a traditional musical comedy. This revival retains seven of the original songs and adds ten others, all composed by Willson, but with mostly new lyrics by Dick Scanlan, who also substantially re-wrote Morris’s book. Scanlan, Tony-nominated in 2002 for his “Thoroughly Modern Millie” book and lyrics, did not ‘darken’ the original “Molly Brown,” as has become a prevailing technique. Rather, he humanized it. Molly and the others are three-dimensional characters in what is now a substantive Play with Music.

No small accomplishment by Scanlan, and an apt framework for Kathleen Marshall’s deft direction and nimble choreography, which spans the spectrum from back-country high-stepping to high-society ballroom gliding. (A woman seated near me lamented the relatively small stage. “If they had more space they could do even more,” she said. Well, yeah…and that may well come to pass.)

Identifying herself with a breezy “Call me Molly,” Margaret Tobin Brown appears in prologue testifying before a U. S. Senate Committee in May 1912 on the month-earlier Titanic sinking. Her refusal to back down from her assessment of the “folly” that enabled the disaster establishes her bold feminist credentials from the start. It’s an effective device that hovers over the rest of the bioplay, as it unfolds in flashback. (Her takedown of the cowardly Quartermaster who commanded her lifeboat foreshadows a later scene, which, staged very simply, makes you feel like you’re in Lifeboat No. 6 with her.)

Beth Malone and David Aron Damane

Back to 1886 and the Horace Tabor silver mine in Leadville, Colorado, where that once-precious metal’s value plummeted when the U. S. currency adopted the gold standard. Encouraged by Molly, then just nineteen, the distressed miners finally strike gold, both literally and, in Molly’s meeting and marrying soon-to-be wealthy J. J. Brown (David Aron Damane), figuratively as well.

In those early scenes, Malone’s Molly is a bundle of late-teen enthusiasm and charm. She sings the original score’s “I Ain’t Down Yet” with the hearty chorus of miners, and you know she will prevail. And prevail character and performer do, through Molly’s maturing over several decades, culminating back in the post-Titanic year. The issues that evolve along the way – classism, income inequality and misogyny among them – are not hammered home gratuitously in Scanlan’s dialogue, nor do they need to be in order to resonate today. Ms. Malone is as enthralling a mature Molly as she was as the girlish, cartwheel-turning teenager.

Damane is a stalwart J. J., who shares Molly’s enthusiasm even as he harbors resentment over her dominance. “I’ll Never Say No,” they sing together (another holdover), until J. J.’s fall from grace drives them apart. With Scanlan’s lyrics set to an interpolated Willson melody, “I’d Like to Change Everything About You” is another duet highlight. And let aficionados of the original be assured (and newcomers advised), “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” is still an ensemble barn burner. (Michael Rafter adapted Meredith Willson’s music, which, played by music director Joey Chancey’s terrific nine-piece orchestra and sung with fresh enthusiasm, is a treat.)

Molly (Beth Malone) and Maureen (Kaitlyn Davidson) in Lifeboat No. 6

Whitney Bashor stands out as Molly’s close friend, and Kaitlyn Davidson is a heartbreaker as the woebegone young woman sharing Molly’s lifeboat. Brett J. Banakis’s minimalist set pieces establish place, and Sky Switser’s costumes leave no doubt about time. Ms. Malone is an absolute stunner in one red gown with silvery accents, designed for her by Paul Tazewell.

There may have been a reason or two to disparage Margaret Tobin Brown in real life, but you’ll not discern one in Scanlan’s script. If that’s a flaw in his dramatization, so be it. But from “Call me Molly” at the start to her closing admonition to “Be calm, never settle…we ain’t down yet,” Beth Malone is nigh flawless as the woman who rejected the notion that it was a man’s world. Her buoyancy may well float this production uptown.

Through April 5 at Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street, NYC. Tues–Sat at 7:30pm; Sun at 2 and 7; with some Wed & Sat 2pm matinees. For schedule and tickets (from $65): www.transportgroup.org or phone 866-811-4111.

Note: Even though Molly Brown is a commanding lead role, Tammy Grimes’s 1961 Tony Award was for Featured Actress, because performers billed below the title were considered featured regardless. That same year, Dick van Dyke won the Male Featured Tony – for his leading role in “Bye Bye Birdie.” [David Sheward’s “Big Book of Show Business Awards”]


Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Sexual Liberation Is So Last Century: “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” off-Broadway

The first quarter hour of “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” depicts Bob and Carol at The Institute at Big Sur, a  ‘new age-y’ retreat, where the thirty-something couple is converted into a life-style based on a philosophy of “Don’t think. Feel.” No more empirical evaluations or judgements about one’s own or others’ restrictions, motivations, and such as jealousy, recrimination…or the need for clothing. The indoctrination process, overseen by a facilitator in individual and group sessions, is acted and directed in an effective way that makes what follows, while outlandish, plausible. At least in director Paul Mazursky’s 1969 movie in which Bob and Carl are played by Robert Culp and Natalie Wood .

Now there’s the New Group’s off-Broadway musical adaptation at The Pershing Square Signature Center, which strains to replicate the feel of the film, falling more than a bit short. The “B & C & T & A” movie is not in a league with “Tootsie” or even “Pretty Woman,” both of whose stage adaptations felt like outtakes, but it shares with those two a unique quirk that just doesn’t translate to the stage. (It works both ways: think “A Chorus Line” or even “Phantom of the Opera.”)

Getting it on: From left, Bob (Joél Pérez), Alice (Ana Nogueira), Carol (Jennifer Damiano), and Ted (Michael Zegen) [Photos: Monique Carboni]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Atten-HUT! Snap to for ” A Soldier’s Play” on Broadway

Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982. Loosely based on Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” it was originally staged by the off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company and made into a widely praised 1984 film (as “A Soldier’s Story”), with several holdovers from the play, including Adolph Caesar, who won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his challenging role, and Denzel Washington in a pivotal one. The current Roundabout Theatre Company revival is the first Broadway production. (Revivals in 1996 and 2005 were off-Broadway.)

There is story and there is plot, as Stephen Sondheim said recently about “West Side Story,” and a good play combines the two. “A Soldier’s Play” is a good play, whose story is simple: A U.S. Army Sergeant has been shot to death on a stateside base by a person or persons unknown and a commissioned Captain has been assigned to solve the mystery.

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Forsooth? Fuggedaboudit! “Romeo and Bernadette”off-Broadway

If, as hypothesized, there are only seven basic plots, it is a sure bet that Shakespeare used them all. (I count four in “Hamlet” alone.) It is no wonder, then, that playwrights through the years have gone to the Bardly well for inspiration, with occasional successes, both spectacular (“Kiss Me, Kate”) and modest (“Desperate Measures”).

Now along comes “Romeo and Bernadette,” which lovers of Shakespeare, musical theater and the blending of both, are urged to visit in the Mezzanine Theatre at A. R. T. at West 53rd and Tenth. Loosely (but recognizably) inspired by the tale of the star-crossed lovers, the play is a compact, two-hour treat from curtain to curtain.

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway