Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Blithe Spirit

This seems a good idea, but I'm not so sure.

I applaud any project which brings the great Christine Ebersole to the stage. I'm sure she'll be fantastic in this revival of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. But I am a bit worried about her supporting cast. Broadway.com is floating the rumor that the great Angela Lansbury is being sought to play Madame Arcati, the medium who inadvertently summons the ghost which Ebersole will play.

The last Broadway incarnation of the show was in 1987, in a production starring Richard Chamberlain, Judith Ivey, Blythe Danner, and the great Geraldine Page as Madame Arcati. I'm Miss Page's biggest fan, and have previously mentioned seeing her live on Broadway in Absurd Person Singular. Here's a pic of the stars of that ill-fated Blithe Spirit revival back in '87:

I wonder what it is about the role of Charles, which attracts homosexual actors? Richard Chamberlain, as noted, played it in the '87 revival, Coward himself played it on TV in the 50's (opposite Lauren Bacall!) and Rupert Everett has been mentioned for the upcoming production. I've been an Everett fan since he was first introduced to American audiences, playing the gay snot who grows up to be a Soviet spy, in Another Country. I made a point of buying tickets to see his LA stage debut way back when; he was starring in a radical reexamination of Noel Coward's first, and least remembered, hit play, The Vortex, a play about heroin, hedonism, and oedipal complexes. What a riot! Rupert was riveting.

Back to Blithe Spirit, Coward's biggest hit. I'm a bit concerned about Lansbury's possible involvement in this planned revival. I'm sure she would be a delight in the role of Madame Arcati, but suppose history repeats itself?
Back in '87, in a classic case of "good news / bad news," Geraldine Page received the revival's only Tony nomination. She lost the award, and six days later, only a few hours before a matinee performance, she dropped dead.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Romeo and Juliet get Punk'd

Last week, I attended the all stag production of Romeo and Juliet at The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Because I am a firm believer in equality among the sexes, yesterday I popped into Taffety Punk's subversively cast production of the same play (their version is all female). I thought that comparisons between the two, though odious, would be inevitable, but I was wrong. The Punk production does not invite much comparison to their big-budget brother across town. This all-female version is much more reminiscent of the four character re-imagining of the play which ran at the Folger years ago, Shakespeare's R & J. That adaptation by Joe Calarco has since been making the rounds all over the country, as an alternative to traditional productions of the classic. In it, four prep school boys enact the play, portraying all the characters. The Taffety Punk production strongly reminded me of that production.

The set here suggests a simple jungle gym, complete with chain swing, similar to one which can be seen on any school playground. When the ladies make their entrance in the first crowd scene ("do you bite your thumb at me?"), it's unavoidably apparent that these are girls playing the roles. These initial scenes, indeed all the scenes, were clearly inhabited by women pretending to be men, a situation which might logically arise in an all-girl school. That impression was reinforced for me by the fact that all the actresses in the show seem oh so young.

When I claimed that comparisons are odious, I was telling the truth. That has never stopped me from making them. I'm happy to report that this week, I saw two of the strongest Romeos I've encountered. I already mentioned the wonderfully named Finn Wittrock, playing the role at The Shakes, and now I have to say that Rahaleh Nassri, playing for the girls' team, is every bit as effective. Among a group of ladies who know their stuff, she was the standout, and was the one who made me forget I was watching a woman. I'm pretty surprised to have so thoroughly enjoyed both Romeos, as the role is usually the one that makes me roll the eyes a bit. Most productions portray our hero as a bit of a wimp. Grow a pair already! No need with these versions. Both Wittrock and Nassri already have a pair.

Oh, here's a fun fact I learned last night after seeing the show. The actors playing the role of Mercutio at the different theatres are roommates. Go here to listen to a short interview with the dueling Shakespeares on WAMU. During rehearsals, that place must have been a Mab house.

On the local Rialto, there was some legitimate grumbling among actresses regarding the Shakes' announcement that their season opener would be all-male. Who could blame them? Women get short shrift in classical theatre, and Shakespeare is the worst offender, providing only two or three female roles in most of his tragedies.

So let's do some math. By casting men in the women's roles in R & J, The Shakes robbed four women of jobs. Taffety Punk, by casting women in the male roles, robbed over a dozen men of jobs. But I'm not bitter (much), they deserve to play a bit of catch-up.

But here's an irony: though minor, the role of Lady Montague has a couple of lines in the first scene, and appears without lines in another. The Shakespeare Theatre fleshed those out a bit, handing her more to do throughout the play, and actor Jeffrey Kuhn played the additional moments nicely.

Taffety, the company which set out to give more opportunities for actresses in the play, cut the character completely.

I confess that decision, though odd, may reinforce the very positive reaction I had to the work of Lise Bruneau, who directed the Taffety production. The direction, in fact, was for me the strongest aspect of the show. Bruneau, operating with a minimal budget I'm sure, may have made the decision to dispense with Romeo's mother due to casting restraints; most in her ensemble are already playing multiple roles.

One of their regular actors, however, is not. I wish the Punks might have given another role to one of their own. I have no doubt Paper Bag would have been a terrific Lady Montague.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman


Actor, Director, Humanitarian.

Lots of accolades, well-deserved, will be heaped on this Hollywood superstar. But when he comes to my mind, it is always with someone else. With Jackie Gleason in The Hustler:

With Strother Martin ("What we've got here is failure to communicate...") in Cool Hand Luke:

And of course, with Robert Redford:

My greatest sadness is for Newman's wife and partner, Joanne Woodward:

Newman was undeniably a sex-symbol when they first met, and Woodward, a well-respected young actress on her way up. The marriage lasted 50 years, a phenomenal length, by any one's standards and certainly by Hollywood's. Newman explained their longevity years ago in Playboy, when he was asked why he never had the desire to stray. "I have steak at home. Why would I go out looking for hamburger?"

Newman's acclaim as a film actor overshadowed his concurrent career as a director. He was not prolific in that respect, helming less than a handful of films and a singular television project, The Shadow Box. He placed Woodward at the center of these projects, which included Rachel, Rachel, for which he won the New York Critics Circle Award, and one of my favorite films, The Effect of Gamma-Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. The latter featured a tour-de-force performance by Woodward, playing an embittered single woman raising two daughters in a depressed urban neighborhood. She won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her work, but in spite of its heavy pedigree (it also starred the couple's daughter in her only film appearance, as well as Roberta Wallach, whose parents are Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson), Fox Studio had no idea how to promote the thing, and it never achieved the success it deserved. (It still hasn't; it has yet to be released on DVD).

The Newmans have my personal admiration for their decision to abandon Hollywood and settle in New England, where Woodward has been artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut. Newman was due to make his regional theatre directing debut this year, with Of Mice and Men, before his illness overtook him. Several years ago he appeared at the theatre as the Stage Manager in Our Town, in a production which transferred to Broadway and earned him a Tony nomination. PBS broadcast the show, and he snagged an Emmy nomination as well.

As Betty the Loon, Woodward's nickname in ...Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds often said:

"My heart is full."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dinner and a Show 3: Something Appealing, Something Appalling

As the Granada Hills Woman's Club Annual Fundraiser was morphing into the Granada Dinner Theatre, I was completing my undergraduate studies at nearby Cal State Northridge. It was during this period that I met my dearest friend, who continues to be a part of my life today, Judy. A fellow student, Judy directed me in various student productions, as well as providing me with my first musical theatre leading role, Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie.

My final show at CSUN was also my favorite. Directed by Judy, I appeared as Feste the Clown in Twelfth Night. This was a wild and wacky production, environmentally staged, with the actors climbing walls and flying through the air on ropes while the audience was seated in and amongst the action. For some reason which escapes me now, my mother and father could not attend the show on the same night, so Mom invited her friend Jo, the artistic director of the new Granada Dinner Theatre, to accompany her. Jo was blown away by the artistry which Judy displayed in this student production, and asked her to direct a show for her new theatre.

It was thus that I appeared as Pseudolus in the Granada Theatre production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Not unlike Toby's Dinner Theatre, we performed the show in the round (the first and, as far as I know, only time Granada Theatre allowed such a thing. All other productions were performed on the proscenium stage). I have many, many memories of this show, which remains one of my favorite stage experiences of all time. Judy cast the show superbly, completely ignoring the untalented ladies who were running the theatre, and instead placing her college chums in the piece. In addition to working with my old high school friend Claudia, this was the summer during which I became close to another friend who has remained with me through the years, Scott. This was an instance when I was playing a part I would not have been given elsewhere, as the character was originally played by Zero Mostel, and the role is still to this day cast in his general type. I was decidedly NOT a Zero Mostel type, then or now, so I welcomed the opportunity to play this hilarious role. Here's a publicity shot from the show, with me on the right, and my buddy Scott on the left:

...Forum was the only musical in my career (so far) which had five choreographers. There was no money at Granada Dinner Theatre, and none of Judy's dancer friends could commit to the long hours necessary to choreograph a large-scale musical. Judy hit upon a winning solution: she offered four choreographer friends the chance to stage one song each. So, my friend Valerie ended up choreographing my favorite number, the vaudeville-tinged Everybody Ought to Have a Maid, while one of the belly-dancing courtesans in the show staged the Marcus Lycus number. Another dancer buddy staged the arrival of the Roman Army, Bring Me My Bride and my dear friend Jenny handled the huge opening song, Comedy Tonight. Judy herself choreographed the remaining numbers. You would expect the result to be a real mish-mash, but instead, we were a hit. Adding to the delight of performing such a perfect piece of musical theatre was the fact that I spent the summer cementing friendships which would remain with me the rest of my life.

My next experience at Granada Dinner Theatre was much more emotionally draining. Several years passed, during which time the theatre grew a bit in stature, though they retained the Woman's Clubhouse as their crummy playing space. Meanwhile, I worked in other theatres around LA and elsewhere. This period was marred by my mother's declining health; she was entering the final phase of a decade-long battle with breast cancer. In early 1983, we were told that the battle was lost, and she would not survive longer than a month or two. We brought her home from the hospital and set up the master bedroom with oxygen tanks and other medical paraphernalia which would allow her to die at home, which was her greatest wish. And we set about trying to say goodbye.

During this period, I received a call from my college buddy Barrie, who had played one of the courtesans in the above mentioned ...Forum and had become a friend. Coincidentally, she was directing the next show at Granada Dinner Theatre. She had held exhaustive auditions, but was still shy one actor, and could I please come to her rescue and play one of the supporting leads? The show was Arsenic and Old Lace, and the role was one I had no business playing, Dr. Einstein, a drunken plastic surgeon, a role which had been written specifically for film star Peter Lorre. I was decidedly NOT a Peter Lorre type, but Barrie trusted me as an actor and asked me to take the part. I could not commit myself to the show without letting Barrie know that she must expect me to be absent at some point, during rehearsal or even performance, because my mother was about to die. It was thus that Barrie, who was a good but not particularly close friend, became one of only two people in my life to know that my mother was terminally ill.

This ghoulish pronouncement did not deter Barrie in the least, she still wanted me for the part. I am so glad she did not rescind her offer. My mother died in late March, about two weeks before the show was to open, so the week of rehearsal I missed was not crucial. What was crucial was the fact that, during this period of personal devastation, I had something else to thing about.

As I mentioned, I had no business playing Dr. Einstein, a middle-aged psychotic with criminal tendencies and a drinking problem. Somehow, rehearsing and performing this part became a haven from the despair I was feeling, and I threw myself into creating this off-the-wall maniac (that's me on the left), complete with the Suzanne Pleshette hairdo, and the most outlandish German accent since Hogan's Heroes.

This show was a ball to do, but cannot be considered the artistic triumph which Forum had been. Barrie had been forced into using many of the theatre's usual players, so the leading performances were largely regrettable (except another buddy, Rob, in the role of Mortimer, who was a scream). Another regrettable aspect of the show is now cause for amusement, though I wasn't laughing then. Granada Theatre, like all theatrical organizations, was always out to raise a few bucks, and artistic director Jo hit upon a sure-fire money-maker. At each performance, she auctioned off the chance to actually appear in the show.

If you know Arsenic and Old Lace, you know it concerns two elderly sisters who poison lonely people to put them out of their misery. As the show progresses, bodies pile up, and hilarity ensues. At one point about half-way through, the character of Dr. Einstein (that would be me) sneaks into the living room to remove a dead body from the window seat and carry it down to the basement to be buried. It was this role, that of the dead body in the window seat, which was auctioned off every night. Yep, whoever paid the most bucks earned the right to lie in the window seat and be hauled across the stage by yours truly. It didn't matter how fat, or how smelly, or how old, or how ANYTHING this person was; if they bid the highest, they became the corpse that I had to lift out of the window seat and carry into the basement.

Without rehearsal.

Night after night, I would make my way over to the window seat, praying to find a Michael J. Fox or a Karen Carpenter stashed there, but usually finding a John Goodman or a Cass Elliot.

Arsenic and Old Lace did not come near the artistic success of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but I don't regret a single moment of appearing in the show. I did not know it then, but it saved my life.

Or at least, my sanity.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Look Out for Cooties

Here in DC, currently there are dueling Romeos and Juliets (and Mercutios and Tybalts and Nurses and Friars and even Apothecaries), as the gigantor Shakespeare Theatre Company's all male production is playing opposite scrappy, nefarious Taffety Punk's all female version.

Guess which one this is...

The production at The Shakes has lots going for it: huge cast of gifted linguists, lots of nifty set pieces being swept on and off stage by spear carriers (or in this case, barrel rollers; the set consists of lots and lots and lots of wine barrels), and a really swell Romeo. The kid playing our hero here (Finn Wittrock, who also wins the Best Name Award...wasn't "Finn Wittrock" the name of the fisherman on The Flintstones?) is really one of the best Romeos I've seen. He and his Juliet, a young man named James Davis, are two bundles of angsty adolescence, never standing still, throwing emotional fits, and basically enacting spoiled teen-agers being told, for the first time, "No." They are fun interpretations, though I did wish I could tie Juliet's hands behind her/his back for at least one speech, just to see what would happen.

I have to admit that these two actors were better apart than together; there didn't seem to be much passion generated between the two. I don't blame this on the fact that they are the same gender; genuine human passion is commonly lacking in the huge productions at The Shakes. Terrific work is being done by stalwart Ted van Griethuysen as Friar Lawrence, and Aubrey Deeker continues to impress as Mercutio. Deeker has been at The Shakes for the better part of the past year playing a nice variety of roles, but I look forward to the time he returns to contemporary stagings; his performance in Mary's Wedding at Theatre Alliance many years ago remains one of my favorite DC performances.

But back to Romeo and Jules. Director David Muse (isn't that a great name for an artist: Muse?) has mentioned in interviews that his purpose in casting an all-male version of this extremely romantic, sexual play, is to return the play to its roots, to display a production similar to the one which Shakespeare himself first saw (he said "similar" to the original staging, not a bona fide recreation...though they are not using women in this production, they are using electricity).

The truth is that I forgot about the gender-bending a few minutes into the play, which I believe was one of the production's triumphs. Which begs the question, if in fact the actors are skilled enough to allow the audience to accept them as women, forgetting that they are men, what is the point of the all-male casting, exactly?

I freely admit I don't get it. That is, I didn't see any artistic truths emerge from the decision to exclude the ladies from the proceedings. All-male versions of Shakespeare are no longer unusual; there are entire repertory companies devoted to the style these days. There has been talk that the play is hugely masculine, and by casting men, that masculinity is placed front and center for the audience to see. There seems some logic in that, except for the fact that we forget we are watching all-men almost immediately, so couldn't the same result be had with traditional casting?

Well, I'm sure The Shakes is getting much more publicity from this version than a traditional one. They are trumpeting the production as their first all-male Shakespearean play, and that's true enough, but they have certainly dabbled with gender-bending in the past. Years ago, Kelly McGillis's Measure for Measure featured a man playing Mistress Overdone, and a little later, actor Dallas Roberts played Bianca in Taming of the Shrew (I can't begin to understand why that casting decision was made).

And of course, the most famous of The Shakespeare Theatre's cross-gendering was the casting of comedienne Pat Carroll as Falstaff and Volpone.

When the announcement was made that The Shakespeare Theatre Company's season opener would be estrogen-free, the local Rialto buzzed with the injustice of it all. In response, Taffety Punk is mounting (pardon the pun) its No Men Allowed version, which I will be seeing later this week. Perhaps the audience will be filled with straight men looking for some hot Girl-on-Girl action. Which leads me to the following observation: I'm sure there is one thing upon which both the Multi-Million Dollared Shakespeare Theatre and the Poverty Prone Taffety Punks will agree:

...whatever puts butts in seats!

Knock Me Over With a Feather

They call this a scoop?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Get Back in the Pool

So many top athletes have natural charisma that I suppose we expect ALL top athletes to have it. Sadly, that's not the case.

Tiger Woods, Mary Lou Retton, Arthur Ashe, Joe Namath, Joe Garagiola, Jesse Ventura, Cathy Rigby, Greg Louganis, among so many others, have (or had) enough natural charisma to translate beyond their sport. One of the most charismatic figures of the late 20th century came from the sports world, Muhammad Ali.

Sadly, this weekend's season premiere of Saturday Night Live proved that supreme excellence in sports does not automatically mean one should be hosting television programs. I doubt there has ever been a more awkward, uncomfortable, wooden performance on any variety show, anytime, anywhere.

And that includes Richard Nixon on Laugh In.

Michael Phelps's appearance was so two dimensional, it makes us hope all his future appearances remain on Wheaties boxes and Vanity Fair photo shoots. At least they're two dimensional, too.

And if this guy is able to parlay his success in the water into an acting career, I'm drowning myself.

I say this only because there is an unsubstantiated rumor out there, that Phelps is already planning his theatrical debut, in a production to be sponsored solely by Speedo. He plans to put his own unique spin on the title role of Jesus Christ, Superstar:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dinner and a Show 2: Miracle of Miracles

As I mentioned, I hold no feelings of superiority regarding Dinner Theatre. I spent many of my formative years appearing in such a venue; during those years, I learned a great deal of my craft, and played many major roles I had no chance of playing in larger, more professional venues.

My Dinner Theatre experience all happened at the Granada Theatre, in Granada Hills, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles at the north end of the San Fernando Valley. This theatre was actually an outgrowth of the local Woman's Club (no, I was not a member, smartass), a group which initially did one show a year as a fundraiser. They served donated food at these affairs, which all took place in a large meeting hall with a stage at one end.

The acoustics were all that you would expect in such a barn.

Anyway, my mother's friend (let's call her "Jo") was the ringleader of this gang of middle-aged ladies putting on shows. They had the ongoing problem of finding men to cast in their productions (you can only do "The Women" so many times, and the Nunsense musicals were yet to be inflicted upon the world). The ladies' husbands were usually not interested in donating their time to such projects, recognizing that if they did so, they would be spending far more time with their wives than if they declined to participate (who wouldn't want several nights a week of freedom from the girls, who were at rehearsal?).

Once Jo discovered that she had a friend with a son interested in performing, she demanded that I come down to the clubhouse to audition for their upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof. I could not have been more than 18 or 19 at the time. I have to explain at this point that, though I secretly considered myself a Musical Comedy Star, I was very self-conscious about my singing ability. I had been told in high school that I could not carry a tune very well (which may have been true at the time), so I was always hesitant to audition for the Big Musical. Once I hit college, though, I gathered up my courage and auditioned for Li'l Abner, and was astonished to be cast in the featured role of Lonesome Polecat. The role was pretty small, though he was memorable as the only Indian onstage (we called them Indians back then), and I was part of the dancing chorus of the show. The Big Thing for me, in getting this goofy little part, was the fact that, for the first time, I would be singing onstage, alone. I had sung onstage in a chorus in high school, but I had never had any kind of a solo.

In Li'l Abner, Lonesome Polecat has the distinction of being the first character to speak, and his first words were in song. I had two whole lines of the opening number, all to myself, at the very top of the show.

I acquitted myself admirably, I must say, so by the time Jo approached me to audition for her production of Fiddler, I felt I was ready for my next step: singing an entire song alone. So I agreed to come to the Granada Hills Woman's Club and audition. The role for which Jo was interested in me was Motel the Tailor, and that should tell you exactly how inadequate a director she was.

Motel is decidedly Hebrew, and I am decidedly Presbyterian; I should have been considered for one of the other young men in the show, both of whom are much more goy than Motel. But no matter, I learned Motel's big solo number ("Miracle of Miracles". Never heard of it? Nobody else has, either. It is one of the very few songs in the score which are NEVER sung outside the show).

So, I arrived at the clubhouse prepared, but nervous. My hesitation increased when I walked into the hall to discover at least a dozen club members waiting around just for me. I was going to have to sing this solo in front of all of them, as well as the director and musical director.

I climbed onto the stage to face my humiliation head-on. I realized the only way I was going to get through this nightmare was to treat the song as an acting exercise. (It is the way I treat every song I sing now, but way back then, that was a novel idea to me.)

"Miracle of Miracles" is an explosion of exuberant emotion from the character, who has just been granted permission to marry his love. So, while singing the song, I was constantly moving, leaping up onto furniture, dashing hither and yon, and even, in the last phrase, turning a cartwheel. The place exploded with applause, and Jo the director approached the stage to offer me the role. I crouched down to hear her words of praise.

"That was terrific, Scott! Could you tell that you were singing offkey?"

In hindsight, I don't believe singing offkey would have kept me out of the show, they were so desperate for male actors, but in fact, I knew very well that I was singing offkey. The song is written for a tenor, and I am decidedly not one.

"Yes," I replied, "the song is too high."

Jo gestured for me to follow her to the piano, where the musical director sat. I murmured that the song was lower in the Vocal Selections book from which I had learned the song. Don't you love actors who make excuses for their poor performances? The pianist took a look, played a few phrases which I sang (on pitch, thank you), and the part was mine.

This happened at least 30 years ago, and I have never since been privileged to have a song's key adjusted to suit my voice.

This production of Fiddler on the Roof remains etched in my brain. Remember it was being produced by a bunch of middle aged women, many of whom performed in the show. Yes, all five of Tevye's daughters were being played by ladies in their 40s and 50s. I played opposite a woman named Muriel, a very nice lady though a crummy actress (all she did was smile). I still shudder when I recall the wedding sequence, which culminates in a kiss between my character and hers. It was like kissing my mother on the lips.

Paging Dr. Freud.

There were other icky aspects of this show. The make-up artist, I think her name was Beverly, was a chain-smoking broad who sipped her Scotch while building my beard, on my face, one hair at a time. Think a smelly Elaine Stritch, but more butch. She claimed to have studied stage make-up, and she was pretty good at building beards, but she had apparently missed the day in class where one learns how to build a beard which can be used again. So, before each and every performance, I sat on a stool in the clubhouse kitchen while Bev spread spirit gum all over my face and laboriously built my beard, hair by hair. The fact that this practice was allowed to happen in the kitchen shows you how far under the radar this group operated.

All the actors were paid, of course. But not in dollars. We each received two cocktails per show for our efforts. Even those actors (both of us) who were under 21. It was during Fiddler that I had my first cocktail, and for many years afterward, I drank only Bourbon & Sevens, which may be the sweetest of all highballs. I always had my two drinks after the show, but I was the only actor who held off so long. Most of the others had their first drink at intermission, and their second after the curtain call.

After several performances, I started to think I should be doing the same. Motel the Tailor is at the center of the major plotline in Act One of the show, but in Act Two, my character receded into the background, with only a few appearances onstage. Why not enjoy my first cocktail with everyone else at intermission?

I did that only once.

That single drink did not make me drunk, but, mixed with the adrenalin of being onstage, it interfered with my equilibrium. There was one scene which, in classic musical theatre terminology, is played "In One." It is a scene which takes place in front of the stage curtain, and is placed there so a major scene change can be performed behind the curtain. In Fiddler, this scene consisted of several actors cris-crossing each other as they spread a rumor around town. The problem at the Granada Theatre was this: there was no apron on the stage (the apron is the part of the stage which juts out in front of the stage curtain), so this cross-over sequence always required some maneuvering, as one actor passed behind or in front of another.

Can you see this coming?

On that fateful night when I decided to have my first Bourbon & Seven at intermission, I entered this scene, crossed to center, stepped right off the front of the stage and fell into the audience.

This production of Fiddler on the Roof happened around 1977. From that day to this, I have never touched a drop of alcohol before any performance, no matter how many hours before the curtain goes up.

There are more stories from this fated production of Fiddler, but I'll continue to be grateful to those Granada Hills battle-axes for giving me a relatively safe place to learn how to sell a solo.

This group soon graduated from being an annual fundraiser for a Woman's Club into a full-fledged Dinner Theatre. I had many more adventures there over the next years. Stay tuned...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Dinner and a Show

...it's a classic combo. Everyone loves gathering for a meal, either before or after a live performance. Beforehand, there's the anticipation of watching a performance which will be unique unto itself, or apres, the delight of gathering for late-night supper to dissect the show, and perhaps run into one of the performers (at the bar, of course).

But try putting Dinner and a Show together, in the same building or, god forbid, in the same room, and we run away in horror.

Dinner Theatre has a bad rap, only partially deserved. Who can forget that hilarious sequence in Soapdish, in which Kevin Kline is portraying Willy Loman in a dinner theatre production of Death of a Salesman?

It's true that in most situations, Dinner Theatre fails at both: the dinner is inedible and the theatre is mediocre.

Here in the DC area, I'm told that there were half a dozen or more Dinner Theatres years ago. These days, only two or three remain, the most prestigious of which is certainly Toby's. I have seen three shows there in the 12 years I've been a resident. My first trip there (I was accompanying a Helen Hayes judge, so I got in free), the show was Jekyll and Hyde, a piece which will never be a classic. Though I dislike that kind of Pop-Opera immensely, I will say that this production seemed quite good. (I was not the only one who thought so; the production received several Helen Hayes Nominations, and director Toby Orenstein won the award.)

I admit that I was taken aback when our waiter approached, and he was one of the actors in the show. This is not always the case in Dinner Theatre, but at Toby's, your waiter is also your entertainer. For this particular show, I knew only one fellow in the cast, and wouldn't you know it, he was my waiter.

This is a bit disconcerting for me, to be face to face with an actor in the show I am about to see. I am from the Old School, I suppose, in which the actors are forbidden to interact with, or even to be glimpsed by, the audience before the performance. Even more disconcerting, the actor returns to your table at intermission, to see how you are liking the show, and to collect his/her tip. All very, very unsettling to me.

But I guess civilians don't mind, and even like it, since Toby's has been doing this so long.

My second trip to Toby's did not involve a meal; it was to catch their kids' show, Suessical Jr., about which I have already written.

My third trip to Toby's was this week, to see The Producers. It was a Wednesday matinee, and I had called ahead to insure I could purchase a "show only" seat. These seats are half the price of the regular entrance fee; of course, you don't get to eat. No biggie for me, as I recalled from my first visit to Toby's that the food, while respectable, must charitably be called Generic Comfort Food. Meats, potato dishes, iceberg salads, and the like. Nothing wrong with any of it, and indeed, it seemed to suit the taste of the audience members, all of whom were senior citizens.

I wish the box office lady had told me to arrive a little later. When I called, she proclaimed I had to be at the theatre "absolutely No Later than 11:30!" I'm a dutiful boy, and arrived at 11:15, so I spent some time outside enjoying the day. Well, when I finally bought my ticket and sat down, the elders were still making their way to the long buffet set up in the middle of the room. Toby's, you see, is a theatre in the round, or a restaurant in the round, or perhaps more accurately, a cafeteria in the round. The audience is seated at tables surrounding the playing area, which is also the serving area.

I have a hunch that the theatre shoots for an "estimated" curtain time for the show, considering the variables of people returning to the buffet for second helpings. As such, I sat at my table and watched the seniors eat for almost an hour. I was greeted by a very personable young waitress, from whom I ordered a glass of their house white wine.

Don't ever do that at Toby's. You'll get the most sugary sweet Chablis imaginable. The price is only $3.50, but you get what you pay for...

Finally, the dining portion of the event was over. Kitchen staff appeared and unplugged various heating instruments, cleared the buffet, and dismantled it. As I said, the serving area is also the playing area, so after the sections of the buffet were removed, the stage was swept and mopped. The waiter/actor folks continued to attend to their tables, clearing plates, refilling coffee, and selling booze. They finally excused themselves to go backstage to get into costume and makeup.

The show at Toby's is really an all-day, or all evening, affair. The audiences spend several hours eating, and then several more hours watching the show, which is introduced by an MC who gives a lengthy (20 minutes at this performance) curtain speech. Add in the half-hour intermission, and you may get the feeling you are on an overnight camping trip.

Finally, over an hour after I sat down, the show began. This ensemble did a bang-up job executing some pretty intricate tap choreography. I've had a bit of experience with performing a musical in the round, as I played the Devil in Damn Yankees in an arena staging in Los Angeles. So I know the challenges of choreographing big numbers so everyone on all sides has something to look at. Toby's does it very well.

There was a bit of irony during Act One's biggest production number, in which the full ensemble is dressed, identically, as Little Old Ladies (think Andy Griffith's Aunt Bea). They performed a hilarious tap routine with walkers, in front of an audience which included several dozen people who had themselves arrived using walkers. The oldsters did not seem to take offense.

The leading performers were all creditable, and two were even more so. Jeffrey Shankle, playing Leo Bloom, the milque-toast accountant, and Adam Grabau as Franz Leibkind, the Nazi playwright, were especially impressive.

The gal playing the female lead, Elizabeth Rayca, turned out to be my waitress, and she had a belt which took the roof off the joint.

Toby's is completely non-union these days, though I've been told she occasionally hired an Equity actor or two in the past. Many of the leading actors in the DC area began their careers at Toby's or other local dinner theatres, before moving on to the bigger Equity houses. Seeing The Producers reminded me of my own experiences in dinner theatre in LA, about which I will go on and on in the next blog. You can hardly wait, can you?

As for this experience, I enjoyed Toby's production of The Producers immensely, though I wish it had not taken four hours to do so.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sarah Palin

It's hard not to get swept up in the vitriol currently swirling around the presidential campaign, but my buddy Marni Penning is treating it with a light touch. She happens to bear a striking resemblance to the nation's most famous Best Kept Secret. Marni's a fabulous actress and fine mimic, as you can see, and I hope she gets some work out of this situation.

I can see no other upside to the current, inexplicable swell of positive reaction to Gov. Palin, the country's most famous Moose-Hater since Boris and Natasha. NPR's Diane Rehm led a lively discussion this morning regarding the GOP's masterful (some may say diabolical) manipulation of the media's access to Palin. Go here to listen: http://wamu.org/programs/dr/. One of her guests, "Heather," who is from something called the Independent Women’s Forum, clearly applauded the fact that Palin has been kept from the media, and thus the American public, for weeks

I don't care about Gov. Palin's amniotic fluid, or her unwed pregnant daughter, or her delight in slaughtering caribou. But I do wonder when she will be required to justify her certainty that she is ready to take over as President of the United States at a moment's notice. Apparently she's been using the last weeks to bone up on the issues, clearly signifying that she was not qualified to be a candidate when McCain chose her. Sadly, she will not be given extra study periods to learn her lessons when she is suddenly face to face with Putin or Ahmadinejad or Kim Jon-il or any number of hostile foreign leaders, none of whom will care that she has under-age children at home and thus should be treated with delicacy.

On Rehm’s program today, Ted Kopple lent a voice of reason to which I have to agree. There are less than 60 days until the public must make this vital choice. It is past time for Palin to step forward and answer questions regarding her positions, both domestic (Abstinence Only Education in schools? Any proof that’s working in Alaska?), and foreign (so far, her sound bytes reflect an inclination toward Standing Tough in the World, very similar to the bullying stance of the current administration. Any proof that’s working in the world?).

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, to anyone, but I can’t help it.

Stop hiding, Sarah. It’s time to Man Up.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Bill Melendez


Thanks for giving us Peanuts.

In a career which stretched over half a century, he had a hand in animating all the early Disney and Warner Bros. characters, as well as later efforts Garfield and Cathy. But his greatest legacy remains his work with Charles Schulz, who reportedly trusted no one else to animate his work. He voiced Snoopy in all his incarnations, and gave the world a singular classic: