Saturday, November 28, 2009

Theatre Droppings: Greed and Lust

This past weekend, I popped into two of the major DC hotspots to catch their current offerings, each of which examines one of the deadly sins.

Ben Johnson's favorite sin was avarice; his stories are populated with characters whose greed makes them easy dupes for the con men at the center of his plays. The Shakespeare Theatre Company resurrected one of those chestnuts, The Alchemist, which I caught on its closing weekend. The show got good reviews for its design elements (not unusual for The Shakes; they spend buttloads of money on the look and sound of their productions) but received only middling notice for The Alchemist's overall effect. I read a couple of pieces which thought the show lacked, I don't know, "pop." I think I disagree with those comments, though I do think director Michael Kahn had better luck with the first Johnson he directed for The Shakes, Volpone (the fact that I was in it has NO BEARING ON MY OPINION WHATSOEVER).

That previous show (at right,) had the advantage of a supporting cast made up of the best Shakespearean farceurs around: Floyd King, Ted van Griethuysen, Philip Goodwin, Wally Acton, Emory Battis, and Helen Carey (who won the Helen Hayes for her role in the show) all helped make Volpone accessible to the modern audience. With The Alchemist, Kahn did not have the use of that terrific company of classical clowns, so the production may not have measured up quite so well. (The title role in particular would have been a great fit for Floyd, but he was already attached to the next show at The Shakes.) Placing the action of The Alchemist in modern day caused a few bumps in logic, but I laughed much more than I expected to, and several of the performances were top-notch. Kate Skinner was effective as the prostitute with the heart of a cash register, and David Sabin was a hoot as a horny, over-the-hill knight. Michael Milligan was central to the action as the servant who masterminds the scheme to dupe the locals (and he looked pretty fine in those skin-tight military trousers), and fresh-faced Alex Morf made a great impression as a young social climber.

I think the reviews were too hard on this production; it fulfilled everything Ben Johnson could have wished.

Out at Olney Theatre, Camelot is settling in for a holiday run. This tribute to another deadly sin, lust, needs judicious pruning, and the gang at Olney has done quite a bit (that drip Morgan Le Fey is completely gone, which is always a good thing). Still, I find the show overlong in spots; Lerner and Loewe always had trouble keeping their shows to an endurable length, and the episodic quality of the show's source material translates to the stage like, well, a series of episodes. The music is swell, and is delivered by a nice-sounding cast and an orchestra of only six people (it sounds like many more).

To my knowledge, I have not seen either of the leading men before. Aaron Ramey fulfills all the requirements of Lancelot, and when he opens up on his big ballad, "If Ever I Would Leave You," there's no doubt why he was cast. I had trouble, though, with the King Arthur of the piece; he carried a sullen, morose quality with him throughout the performance, a choice which does not serve the early scenes, in which we should be charmed by Arthur's boyish lack of confidence. I have seen Patricia Hurly, who plays Guenevere, before, though only in a straight play (Doubt). She sounds terrific here, and can't be blamed for the fact that my mind kept hearing the incomparable Julie Andrews during her numbers. I could not get Dame Julie out of my head, a problem I also had with Evan Casey's turn as Mordred. Roddy McDowall (left) created that role in the original production, which also starred Richard Burton and Robert Goulet, and his brief performance on the original cast album made me put Mordred on my list of roles to play. Never got the chance, unfortunately, and how did this get to be about me?

The show is swiped by a friend of mine (go figure), Bill Largess, whose Pellinore is hilariously effective. His expositional scene as Merlyn works well, too, and he earns points for being able to act in a costume which is all gown and hair. This guy looks like Cousin Itt's grandfather on the way to part the Red Sea, but Bill makes it work.

The show could probably use a few more ensemble members, but in this economy, let's be glad Olney is even attempting large-scale musicals, while their infinitely wealthier competitor, Arena Stage, is sliding by with The Fantasticks, an eight character chamber musical more suited to high school drama departments. And really, you can't beat Camelot's score, which is one of the best of the old chestnuts.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friday Dance Party: West of the Wide Missouri

This week's Dance Party clip comes from a film which is a sentimental favorite of mine. Don't ask me why, I can't really explain it. Back in the 1960s, Walt Disney attempted to resurrect the long-dead studio system by putting two young triple-threats under contract for a series of musical films. John Davidson and Lesley Ann Warren were first paired in The Happiest Millionaire, with a score by Disney's favorite composing team, the Sherman brothers. That film clocks in at a whopping 2 hours and 45 minutes, and was presented as a prestige event, even including an intermission. (Hard to imagine an intermission in a movie, but several 60s films used them, including Hello, Dolly!, Lawrence of Arabia, Funny Girl, and Cleopatra. They called these "road show" movies.) Even with Fred MacMurray providing comic relief, The Happiest Millionaire isn't much of an event. Any movie which requires singing from Greer Garson and Geraldine Page is in trouble. Disney's next film for Davidson and Warren is much more satisfying. It carries the unwieldy title The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, and is scored once again by the Sherman brothers. It concerns a family of homesteading music makers who help settle the expanding west, and become embroiled in the presidential election of 1888. Riveting stuff, eh? Think The Partridge Family Goes Nebraskan. In addition to our ingenues, the film stars Buddy Ebsen, Janet Blair, and Walter Brennan; the film was originally envisioned as a two-part episode on Disney's Wonderful World of Color for television, which explains such recognizable faces as Richard Deacon and Wally Cox in supporting roles. The following clip takes place on election night, and the happy couple are feuding; they attempt to one-up each other by dancing with other partners. Davidson and Warren acquit themselves nicely here, and the sequence takes on added significance when Davidson is partnered with a perky blond in a mustardy, greenish gown: it's Goldie Hawn, only a year before her break-out on Laugh-In. It's a tiny role, billed as "Giggly Girl," but she gets some nice moves. I get a kick out of knowing that another of the film's stars was a teen-aged Kurt Russell; decades after appearing in the same film, Hawn and Russell became a Hollywood couple, remaining together for 21 years. They claim not to have met during filming of Family Band, though they both appear in this clip. Even if they had, Goldie would have been robbing the cradle had she sidled up to Russell in 1968. (Cutie-pie Kurt appears in his own Dance Party here.) Walt Disney was dead before Family Band was finished, and his successors pulled the plug on the contracts of Lesley Ann Warren and John Davidson, and indeed on the whole live-action musical genre. The wholesomeness of the Disney label could not compete in the era of Sgt. Pepper and Hair. It would be 25 years before the studio tried another live action musical feature, with 1993's Newsies. But this clip from 1968 is a pretty fun one. Isn't Hawn a terrific dancer? Here she partners with Davidson and ends up in a dance-off with Warren. In the larger cut of this song, Ebsen gets to hoof a bit, and if you keep your eyes peeled, you'll spot Richard Deacon, Wally Cox, and our boy Kurt Russell. Enjoy: 
Goldie Hawn turned 64 this week.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Easy Street

The star of this week's Dance Party was well-known in musical theatre circles, but the public at large would be hard-pressed to pick her out of a line-up. Dorothy Loudon spent her career onstage, with only two film appearances ( Garbo Talks and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) to her credit. The early years of her career were littered with flop after flop, though she usually emerged from each disaster with good reviews for her own performance. Nowhere To Go But Up, Fig Leaves Are For Falling, and Lolita, My Love are all shows of which you have never heard, but they all starred our Miss Loudon. Her breakout performance came when she was solidly middle aged, and it was a doozy. I saw her in this performance, as Miss Hannigan in the original production of Annie, and she lifted a very mediocre piece to musical theatre legend.

After Annie, she headlined one of the biggest flops in history, Ballroom, which I also saw and loved, and starred in a short-lived TV series called Dorothy. She appeared opposite Katherine Hepburn in her final stage play (West Side Waltz) and was in the original cast of Noises Off. I saw only one more live Loudon performance, in a new musical called Over and Over at Signature Theatre in 1999 (the piece is still floating around under the title All About Us). She clearly felt a bit trapped in the project, which, despite a book by Tony winner Joseph Stein (based on Pulitzer-Prize winning material by Thornton Wilder), music by Tony winners Kander and Ebb, and a cast which included Broadway vet David Garrison, upcoming star Sherie Renee Scott (only a year or so before her breakout role in Aida) and funnyman Mario Cantone, the thing just didn't work. Loudon, I understand, was hired to play a role which was cut during rehearsal, and ended up playing several smaller roles, each to hilarious effect. But her parting shot onstage was an ad-lib she has used many times in her career: "I'm too good for this show."

She was also too good for Annie, but she made it work for herself, and us. Here is a bit of one of her showstoppers from the Tony Awards, in which she displays her superb comic timing as well as her throaty pipes; she gave this performance just a few minutes after winning the Tony over her co-star, Andrea McArdle:

 Dorothy Loudon died six years ago this week, at the age of 70.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Day in the Life: Security Clearance

I've returned to DC after an all-too-brief sojourn in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and will be here until the holidays set in for real.

I registered to attend a SAG-sponsored workshop regarding security clearances. DC is a big town for industrial training films, many of which require their actors to have such clearances. Sadly, it's very difficult to get one, and often takes years. Most actors who have a security clearance got it only because they work (or worked) full time in a government job which required one. It was interesting to hear about the process, though there seems little likelihood I would ever get a clearance myself, considering my extensive criminal background.

I've been stealing shows for years. Ba-da-bum.

The moderator was a highly qualified attorney who had also worked as an investigator for the department of defense, and she had lots of tidbits to tell. While I enjoyed her seminar, I was reminded why I never attend these workshops (SAG offers them all the time, on all sorts of topics).

I cannot stand the type of people who attend these things. Without fail, there is at least one jackass in the crowd(today there was more than one) who wants everyone in the room to listen to him and, in the guise of asking a question (usually a stupid one), tells the story of his life. I remember this kind of fool from the several times I took traffic school in L.A.; there again, there was always some guy who loved the sound of his voice and was sure everyone else would, too. Drives me right up the wall.

After the seminar, I felt I deserved a reward for not throwing something at this blowhard, so I hopped the metro to Maryland, and landed at The Cheesecake Factory. They have the best fire-roasted artichoke on the planet, which goes down well with a glass (or two) of savignon blanc. I steam artichokes at home regularly, but have never been able to figure out how to fire-roast one. (At the Cheesecake Factory, you actually get an artichoke and a half, so it's worth the money.)

I indulge in this luxury maybe every month or so, always sitting in the bar area, so as not to take up a better table in the restaurant proper. I was a waiter too long to hog a table in someone's station by myself, when that waiter could instead make more money on a party of four. Anyway, as I was revelling in this artichokial delight, I noticed three women come into the bar. They were not together; they arrived separately and sat separately. They were older women with gray hair and weathered faces, and as the bartender knew which glass of wine to pour for each, they were clearly regulars there. As I was alone, I was able to observe these ladies for a while. One read a book, one watched the television, and one simply sat and sipped.

There is something very sad about an older woman sitting alone in a bar in the middle of the afternoon. For some reason a man sitting alone in a bar does not look at all odd, but I cannot get used to seeing women doing the same thing. What have they done with the rest of their day? What do they do until it's time to come into the bar and drink?

So, so sad, don't you think? Of course, there is absolutely nothing sad about ME being in a bar alone in the middle of the afternoon. Right?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Biting the Dust

You heard this guy died last week, right? It was all over the news:


In 2002, he was one of the snipers who randomly shot at people in the DC area while they walked across parking lots or filled their gas tanks. The region was paralyzed for several weeks while the police seemed completely incompetent, unable to catch the guys. For several days, they were stopping each and every white truck in the area, bottling up freeway traffic for hours, all due to a lead which was completely bogus. It was a tip from a bystander which finally brought Muhammad and his accomplice, Lee Malvo, to the attention of the keystone cops.

Muhammad was executed the day before Veteran's Day, which may have been ironic, as some reports indicated he suffered from post traumatic stress after his tour of duty during the first Gulf War. Who knew this monster had a family? He had several children by two ex-wives, one of whom was summoned to jail by our hero with this missive, "I don't want to be missed the day that these devils murder my innocent black ass." Yes, Muhammad never acknowledged his guilt, despite the evidence against him and the testimony of his cohort Malvo, who is currently serving life without parole.

I remember those frantic days in 2002. It was only a year after the 9/11 attacks, and these random killings were a pretty graphic reminder of that terrible day. While the snipers were enjoying their rampage, suburban DC was pretty terrorized. You would see people ducking toward the ground as they scurried across the parking lot from the Walmart to their car.

The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on Muhammad's behalf, and VA governor Tim Caine refused to offer a stay of execution, so he was lethally injected last Tuesday.

This guy died recently, too:


In the states, he was known primarily for his role as The Equalizer, a crime drama which ran from 1985-89. In it, he played a former intelligence agent who offered his services to those who could not get help from the police. He was a bigger star in England, performing in several hit TV series and maintaining a stage career as well. He trained at RADA, and made his American stage debut in Rattle of a Simple Man, which had transferred from London, in 1964. The role led Noel Coward to cast him as the male lead in the musical adaptation of his play, Blythe Spirit. High Spirits, which co-starred Tammy Grimes and Bea Lillie, had a healthy run on Broadway and established Woodward as a leading man for both musicals and straight plays. On film he appeared in The Wicker Man and Breaker Morant:

The long hours required to film The Equalizer damaged his health, and he developed heart and weight problems which affected him the rest of his life. He died Monday from pneumonia, at the age of 79.

If you live in LA or NY, you already know this guy died last week; those of us in the hinterlands did not get the word right away:


He was one of the most prolific sitcom writers in the business, furnishing dozens of scripts for series during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. He was a schoolteacher, if you can believe it, before entering television by writing monologue material for Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Dick Cavett, with whom he went to Yale. In the early 70s, he was enticed to Hollywood, where he wrote an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on spec, and sold it immediately. He was added to their writing team, and his career took off. His 1975 episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust" won him an Emmy, and is commonly named as one of the top episodes of any TV series in history.

He worked on all the offspring of the Moore show (Rhoda, Phyllis, Lou Grant) as well as on The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, Cheers, Wings, Frasier and more. He was often hired as a script consultant (in the theatre, we would call him a script doctor), and was well-respected for his ability to flesh out comic situations and furnish jokes with equal ease.

Lloyd deserves recognition for the only series he himself created, a sitcom called Brothers. The show concerned three brothers in working-class Philadelphia, one of whom bolts from the altar and announces he's gay. The networks shunned the premise, and the program ended up on Showtime for a healthy run. Years before Will and Grace, Brothers provided the first leading gay character on a sitcom who was not tortured by his sexuality.

David Lloyd is survived by several children including two sons who followed him into the business. Christopher Lloyd was a producer/writer for Frasier and currently helms Modern Family, while Stephen Lloyd produces How I Met Your Mother.

David Lloyd died last week at the age of 75, after a long battle with prostate cancer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

s'Newz occasional series of stories which recently caught my eye...

Jeremy Piven claims he was having a bit of fun with the interviewer the other week. Did you hear the story? He claimed he was developing breasts due to his intake of soy milk, and the interviewer swallowed the story. Piven's comment, "It was a very confusing time" seems to me to be the give-away that indeed, he was making a joke. But after all this guy went through in the past year, blaming his desertion of his Broadway show on all the sushi he had been eating, he ought to know better. Just shut up about your diet, dude. But I guess you can't fault the guy for wanting to blame some outside force for his current doughy appearance:
Elaine Stritch is coming back to the Cafe Carlyle with a new cabaret show in January. She's calling it Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim…One Song at a Time. Not quite sure what the "one song at a time" do you sing two songs at a time? Anyway, Stritch is one of my favorites, as I've written previously, and at the grand age of 84, she's tackling a new project. As she puts it, “I perform the best when I do something that scares the shit out of me. And what could be more scary than learning nine or ten Steve Sondheim songs? ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ almost put me in intensive care, for God’s sake.”
Stritch is not everyone's cup of tea (or more appropriately, snifter of brandy), and it's difficult to explain her appeal, particularly when she is singing. No one can claim she's a slave to the notes; she's more likely to slide off the melody than hold it for its entirety. But she's received acclaim for her musical performances in Sail Away, Company, Show Boat, and her Tony-winning one-woman show. The Emmy crowd loves her; she won for a guest shot in the early years of Law and Order and again recently, as Alec Baldwin's mother on 30 Rock. At her age, most legends would be avoiding the stress of performing onstage. If the show is successful, I wonder if we may be treated to another evening of our Elaine on Broadway...

I got a kick out of this picture that was making the rounds last week. Here is what lawmakers are concerned with during important debates in the Connecticut legislature: