Saturday, March 22, 2008

Theatre Droppings: New York, 1991

Once I graduated college, my semi-annual jaunts to Manhattan ceased, as we all attempted to begin construction on our adult lives. I remained very close to many of my friends from those undergrad days, but the thrill of traveling together wore off. For reasons best saved for further entries, the 80's swept by without my heading east to New York. My next trip, then, was in 1991, when I visited the city on my own, camping out at a friend's tenement flat in Hell's Kitchen. (The toilet was down the hall, shared with two other apartments, and the bathtub was in the kitchen.)
I saw two straight plays that year, and four musicals. Our Country's Good, by Timberlake Wertenbaker (gotta love that name) was the kind of large-cast drama which is prohibitive in today's commercial houses. According to my program, there were 13 actors in the piece, including J. Smith Cameron, who had received a Tony nomination for her role. But the main attraction for me was the presence in the cast of Peter Frechette, who had been one of my favorite young character actors ever since I caught his performance in Skriker (a dense play about a shapeshifter) in a small theatre in LA. Frechette has had a long and varied career since then, including appearing in that controversial episode of thirtysomething, in which he and David Marshall Grant exchanged pillow talk as two gay characters who had just slept together. Anyway, Our Country's Good concerned a British penal colony in Australia in the 18th century. I thoroughly enjoyed this dramatic piece, and had no idea I was watching the early work of the actress who is now the preeminent stage actress of our time, Cherry Jones.

The second straight play I saw was a comedy, but full of backstage drama. The Broadway production of I Hate Hamlet has become an infamous one, due to an altercation between its young leading man, Evan Handler, and its star, Nicol Williamson. I've already mentioned Williamson's histrionics, and in this show, he apparently repeatedly refused to perform the stage fights as choreographed. There was a fencing match in the show, as Williamson, playing the drunken ghost of John Barrymore, dueled with Handler's character. After one evening performance, Handler had had enough, and walked off the show.

I did not see that particular performance, but by the weirdest luck, I was in the audience the very next show, a matinee, when the understudy, who had never appeared on a Broadway stage, stepped into the role. The papers that morning had been full of the altercation from the night before (this was back when what happened in a Broadway theatre actually was deemed newsworthy), so this young actor (Andrew Mutnick, I never heard of him again) was under considerable pressure to perform. The truth is, he wasn't very good, but the audience gave him a standing ovation anyway, after which Williamson himself made a curtain speech praising the young actor. The star failed to mention that the reason this guy was onstage today was because he himself had been misbehaving dangerously the night before. All this backstage trauma overwhelmed this light-weight piece, an early play by Paul Rudnick, but I enjoyed the show, which also starred Adam Arkin and Celeste Holm (Holm was awarded her own Dance Party in these pages when she died).
Mandy Patinkin and Robert Westenberg (remember him as the Wolf in Into the Woods?) were in the large cast of The Secret Garden, as were future Broadway leading ladies Rebecca Luker and Alison Fraser, but the show was swiped by two younger stars. Daisy Eagan played the orphan Mary Lennox with such panache that she won the Tony for the role, and John Cameron Mitchell, as the field hand Dickon, was also a highlight (Mitchell went on to create a sensation as the drag queen victim of a botched sex change operation in his own composition, Hedwig and the Angry Inch). The Secret Garden was a beautiful show to watch and to hear, particularly the haunting ballad sung by the brothers in love with the same ghost, "Lily's Eyes."

I have already mentioned seeing Angela Lansbury in a major revival of Gypsy back when I was still in the womb, and in 1991, I was privileged to see another dynamite performance of the iconic Mama Rose. The 90's revival of the show originally starred Tyne Daly, who was eventually replaced by Linda Lavin. By the time I caught up with the production, Daly had returned to the show to play its final months. Nobody would claim that Ms. Daly is a spectacular singer, and I would venture to say that, despite her success on TV, she is not a spectacular actress (I always preferred her under-rated TV costar, Sharon Gless).

But once I saw her in Gypsy, I will claim that Daly is a spectacular performer. From her first entrance from the back of the theatre, barking orders to her kids, Daly's Mama Rose was full of relentless drive.
The final two musicals I saw that year in New York were both products of the creative artistry of Tommy Tune. I've been a fan of Tune's since he was a young performer, winning his first Tony for a supporting turn in the musical Seesaw. I remember that his acceptance speech was quite moving, as he emphatically proclaimed that audiences could always be inspired to come to the theatre because it is "ALIVE."

By 1991, Tune's career had shifted from performing to directing and choreographing. The Will Rogers Follies was really an old-style vaudeville show, with the various acts surrounding a plot concerning the home life and career of Will Rogers (the show was subtitled: A Life in Revue). Gregory Peck's voice was piped in every night as Florenz Ziegfeld, and up-and-coming stars Cady Huffman and Dee Hoty played the women in Rogers's life. Film star Keith Carradine, the least creepy of the Carradine clan, was an ingratiating presence as Will, and my program tells me something I either never knew, or have forgotten: actress Martha Plimpton is Carradine's illegitimate daughter. How fun is that?

Despite the star power onstage and in the sound booth, the undisputed star of Will Rogers Follies was its director / choreographer. The show is the thinnest imaginable, but Tune was able to turn each and every number into a memorable moment. He stopped the show in the middle of Act Two with "Favorite Son," which had the entire chorus sitting side by side with Will, banging tambourines, switching hats, and tapping legs.

(that's Carradine's replacement, Larry Gatlin, above)

What Tommy Tune did with tambourines and hats in Will Rogers Follies, he did with chairs in Grand Hotel. The show had been running quite a while when I caught up with it (none of the original stars were in it at this point; I saw former Duke of Hazzard John Schneider, of all people), and the darkness of the plot, and the bleakness of the music, should have turned me off. But Tune created something truly wonderful out of this episodic tale of the inhabitants of a Berlin hotel in the midst of the Depression. The scenic design consisted of not much more than a huge revolving door, and all those chairs, which the actors rearranged in various positions to signify various locales. Doesn't sound like much, but this was one of the most visually exciting musicals I have ever seen. And those chairs did everything but tapdance...

My 1991 trip to New York was to be the last one I took for the express purpose of theatre-going. I have visited the city many, many times since, and have caught more than a few later Broadway shows, but the trip was always in conjunction with an audition, or a visit to a friend, or what have you. Those years, during which I would see 6, 7, 8, or more shows in a single week, are long gone. Who can afford that now?