Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Bye Bye Vi

Lots of changes are afoot these days, for myself and several of my friends. One day soon, I'll cover all the goings-on in my life, which has been action packed for the past month. Just as I am preparing a pretty significant addition to my own life, I've learned that my best buddies in Los Angeles, with whom I stay every December for some holiday cheer, are also undergoing some changes.

These guys have been enamored of Nature Shit, as I have often called it, ever since they got together a whopping 28 years ago.

This interest has manifested itself by their purchase of a huge RV, which for a long while, they took on the road about half of the weekends every year. That routine has slowed down in the past few years, as expenses and other considerations prevented their popping into the rig and hitting the road with all that frequency.

And let's be honest here, when I say these guys are interested in exploring Nature, what I really mean is, they hook up their monster vehicle to a power source and a sewage system at one of the area's trailer parks, and they settle in for a long weekend eating, drinking, and watching DVDs.

Occasionally, I believe, they venture out of the luxury condo-on-wheels, and take a healthy bit of a walk to their favorite nature spot.

Ah well, whatever makes people happy. They nicknamed the vehicle "Vi," over my objections, of course. One of my biggest pet peeves is assigning human names to inanimate objects, but these guys never listen to my opinion so, whatever. My friends have loved their time on the road, enhanced by the ability to take their pets with them when they travel, which is a must for them. I learned this week that the guys have made the very sensible and adult decision to sell their 8-year old RV, for some very logical reasons which are none of my business. Anyway, I know they part with the rig with a lot of sadness, even as they recognize that it was time to close that chapter of their lives.

Before their final goodbye to their mobile home, they made the video which is this week's Dance Party. I had no idea these guys had such musical talent, and please note the cinematography. The entire song was recorded in a single shot, on a cell phone no less. But the clip gives you a good idea of the layout of "Vi" (and I hope that is the last time I'll ever have to call it that), and is a fitting tribute to the many years of service the old gal gave the boys.

OK, I lied. The above clip is actually from a duo called Killer Paisley, one half of which is my friend Vaughn Irving (he's the tall one who gets naked). I still think this is a pretty swell piece of film making, and a catchy tune, too. But other than the fact that it was shot in a Recreational Vehicle, it has nothing to do with my old California buddies' life on the road.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday Dance Party: A Loopy, Limpy Dance

This week's Dance Party is appropriate for only one reason. I have been limping, severely, all week. On Monday, I used the only day off I am to have in a 20 day period, to travel roundtrip to New York. I had prepaid train tickets, on discount, so it was pretty important that I make my return train at 4 PM. My meeting ran long, and I was forced to dash 10 blocks, carrying a heavy backpack, to make the train. The next day, I could hardly move. It is disheartening, let me tell you, to recognize that simply walking fast would cause such muscle pain. I'm that out of shape? Anyway, I've been struggling to recover all week, just as rehearsals for Witness for the Prosecution have entered the crucial technical phase. My dogs have been barking, and more importantly, my calves have been mooing.

Here's a clip about a limp. The film, sometimes called Hold That Co-Ed, and sometimes called Hold That Girl, was released in 1938, and concerns a crooked politician based loosely on Louisiana's Huey Long. Somehow, his election campaign becomes entangled in a college football season, and musical hi jinks ensue. The film features a late appearance of John Barrymore as the crooked pol, and this little clip stars George Murphy and Joan Davis.

By the way, the trip to New York must be counted a success, which I will elaborate upon when and if I ever get some time off from rehearsal. Not likely any time soon. Until then, enjoy these youngsters dancing with limps. Why didn't this ever catch on?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Better Than Hackensack

New York City has been center stage this week, due to the big anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But Manhattan has been on my mind for other reasons which will be discussed in a later posting. For now, I'll just say that I have had a love/hate relationship with the city for many years. I think that may soon be changing, stay tuned.

Judy Garland had no such ambivalence. She loved New York, and she passed that love down to her eldest daughter; Liza and New York go hand-in-hand. This week's Dance Party is a clip from an old TV special, in which Judy sings a simple anthem to the city. The song was written by that most cosmopolitan of composers, Cole Porter.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Dance Party: She's Not Foolin'

This week's Dance Party stars a repeat offender to these pages, Mitzi Gaynor. You can enjoy her previous appearance here, as well as a brief bit about her career. The clip below comes from Bloodhounds of Broadway, released in 1952, and also features those great stars Mitzi Green and Richard Allen. Never heard of Mitzi Green and Richard Allen? Me neither, so I guess they sank into obscurity. But our Ms. Gaynor is still around, and just celebrated her 80th birthday on Sunday.

Our star is the brunette in this clip, and she clearly outshines her cohorts here. Enjoy:

Monday, September 5, 2011

Theatre Droppings: A Boy Detective and the Punks at Rydell High

I only had a couple of weeks between the completion of the last gig, and the beginning of the new one (and that's a pretty unusual thing in my career), so how did I spend the time? Busman's Holiday, of course.

I was very curious about the new musical rep which is just starting up over at Signature Theatre. As far as anyone can tell, it's the first time a professional theatre has attempted to run two World Premiere musicals in a rotating rep. My old friend Matt Conner is the composer of one of the shows, and I hope I can find the time to catch that one. But the double whammy we received here in DC, of the Unexpected Earthquake and Hurricane Irene, caused lots of box office trouble around town, so The Sig was offering hugely discounted tix to their preview performances of The Boy Detective Fails, the other musical in their Rep.

The show is based on a novel I have not read, so the story was all new to me. The production presented a bundle of contradictions, all of them good. The show has a lot of whimsy to it, not least of which is the scenic design, which turns all the buildings into dollhouses.

But the story at the center of the whimsy is psychologically dark. Our leading characters are all damaged souls who are haunted by losses of the past. I'm no judge of new musicals, that's for sure, but I think this one has a future.

Stephen Gregory Smith has the title role, and he illustrates those contradictions I mentioned, as he is both tightly wound and endearing, a pretty unlikely combo. The ensemble is quite strong, with some of the best character singers in town, including my former Don Quixote, Tom Simpson, who gets to go over the top as one of the villains of the piece. Tom plays his guy as a descendant of Christopher Lloyd at his looniest, I half-expected him to arrive onstage in a time-traveling DeLorian. Tom and Stephen have some great comic moments together, then Tom pulls a fast one by eliciting unexpected compassion from the audience, as he struggles with dementia. Joe Colarco has directed this piece with such strong visual and emotional elements, I hope it has further life.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, well, Grease is the word. I've already written a bit about my love/hate relationship with this perennial. I earned my Equity Card playing Teen Angel in this musical, and I remember well how much fun it is to perform. But having seen quite a few productions over the years, I'm not so sure that the audience has as much fun as the actors. Olney Theatre just closed their version, which was so successful it extended many times. It's a bundle of energy, and Olney's cast was peppered with quite a few performers with whom I shared the stage in Joe's Coat earlier this year.

Naturally, those folks did the most outstanding work. Funny how that always happens. A more lively bunch of slatternly thugs and molls you are unlikely to find. Grease, of course, makes heroes out of delinquents, and teaches the regrettable lesson that, in order to be accepted, you must conform.

Grease the stage musical is afflicted with the same phenomenon from which Cabaret the stage musical suffers. The film versions of these two shows were vastly more popular than the originals (and at least in Cabaret's case, the piece was greatly improved by the adjustments the film makers made). So nowadays, stage productions of these musicals are expected to incorporate some if not all of those changes. In the case of Grease, the show now includes the big hit numbers which John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John performed in the film, songs which were huge pop hits, but which do not appear in the original. These songs, including the title number, are shoe-horned into the stage show pretty bluntly, but what the hell. Anything which will increase the audience member's enjoyment is OK with me.

And Olney's show was great fun to watch, even as the leading players were, I guess necessarily, dead ringers for Travolta and Newton-John. My peeps did great, including Parker Drown as a pretty squirrelly Sonny, and Alan Wiggins as that engaging doofus Doody. Vinnie Kempski pulled off the Teen Angel number with terrific presence (and this kid is still in college!), and Ashleigh King dominated the prom scene as Cha-Cha (I was sorry that, in order to make room for all those songs from the film, the ballad usually sung by the character, "It's Raining on Prom Night," was cut). The choreography was electric, and in fact, was the most enjoyable part of this Grease.

I'm excited to begin Witness for the Prosecution tomorrow, at Olney Theatre of all places, and the show will keep me busy for the next couple of months. I may not be able to enjoy any more Busman's Holidays for a while, but I am glad I chose to see The Boy Detective Fails and Grease before my schedule filled up.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday Dance Party: The Supremes Reunion

This week's Dance Party celebrates a little-known reunion of the classic Pop/R&B group The Supremes. The event happened decades after Diana Ross left the group, and included four original members. But first, as usual, we are inspired by a dead guy:

Nick Ashford


This well-known songwriter, producer, and performer died last week, the same day as Jerry Leiber, who inspired last week's clip. It helps the Dance Party when famous musicians die.

Ashford was part of a performing/writing/producing team which included his wife, Valerie Simpson. Together they provided hits for just about everybody at Motown Records and elsewhere: Ray Charles, Teddy Pendergrass, Gladys Knight, both with and without Pips, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Marvellettes, the 5th Dimension, Chaka Khan, and the Supremes. As a performing team, they had a huge seller with "Solid," and had success with "Street Corner," "It Seems to Hang On," and others.

As producers, they found great success with many of the above artists, but perhaps above all, with Diana Ross. They produced her first three solo albums, including her self-titled solo debut. That album produced two big hits, both penned by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" and the song which provides today's Dance Party.

A bit of context: as The Supremes were hitting the heights with their music, there was trouble afoot backstage. In 1967, Florence Ballard, one of the founding members of the group, had gained weight and was hitting the bottle. During this period, Motown changed the name of the group to Diana Ross and The Supremes, preparing to spin the star off into a solo career. Jealousy reared its head, and after a period during which Ballard was unruly and often drunk onstage, she was replaced. This backstage drama forms the skeleton plot of the musical Dreamgirls.

But here's a little known fact. In the late 1980s, the Supremes reunited for one single performance. That reunion included Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and the singer who replaced her, Cindy Birdsong. If you watch this clip, the foursome are surprisingly assured, considering the animosity which the breakup of decades earlier had caused. So, in honor of Nick Ashford, here is one of his biggest compositions:

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Just One More Thing Obits

Both these gents died several months ago, and everyone heard about them, unless you live under a rock. But in attempting to clean out the ol' obituary file, they deserve some mention.

Peter Falk


He was not the first choice to play Columbo, he wasn't even the first actor to play the role. The now-famous detective first made his appearance in an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show in 1960, and was played by Bert Freed. The episode was written by Richard Levinson and William Link, who later adapted their teleplay for the stage (Scarlett O'Hara's father, Thomas Mitchell, played it in California and Boston, it never made it to Broadway). In 1967, third time was the charm, but even then, Falk almost missed his chance to create a TV institution. The role of Columbo was first offered to Bing Crosby, then to Lee J. Cobb; it finally went to Peter, who played it in the TV film which spawned the series.

Columbo became one of the most recognized detective shows in TV history, but was never a weekly series. After its first appearance as a stand-alone TV film (Prescription: Murder), a second, pilot film was shot (Ransom for a Dead Man, directed by a young Stephen Spielberg). Columbo was then placed in the revolving wheel of series which made up the NBC Mystery Movie, sharing the spot with Dennis Weaver as McCloud and the team of Rock Hudson and Susan St. James as MacMillan and Wife. After a break of several years, Falk returned as Columbo in a series of TV movies, ultimately playing the rumpled detective for 30 years or so. He won four Emmy Awards for his performance (an earlier Emmy was earned in 1962 for a guest shot on a Dick Powell series).

Falk's glass eye, a result of a cancer operation as a child, gave him a permanent squint, which served him well throughout his career. In the early 60s, he won back-to-back Oscar nominations for playing gangsters in back-to-back movies, Murder, Inc., and Pocketful of Miracles (which was to be Frank Capra's final film). He was working as an efficiency expert in Connecticut (he had a Masters degree in Public Administration) when he landed in an acting class taught by Eva LaGallienne, who encouraged him to become a professional. In New York, he was first noticed playing the bartender in the highly regarded revival of The Iceman Cometh opposite Jason Robards. He returned to the stage throughout his career, in plays by Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw, and Neil Simon (he was Broadway's original Prisoner of Second Avenue). He had a sure way with comedy, holding his own among the cast of clowns in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Great Race. He was also seen to good effect in several John Cassavetes films, all intermixed with his regular returns to the small screen and Columbo.

Peter Falk died June 23 as a result of complications from pneumonia and Alzheimer's. He was 83.

While Falk was a versatile actor appearing in a wide variety of roles throughout his career, this not. But he created a lawman on TV as enduring as Lt. Columbo.

James Arness


You would be nuts to put this guy in a Neil Simon play or opposite Gene Rowlands in a John Cassavetes film, but he made a significant impact on the landscape of weekly television. At 6-foot-seven, he belonged in Westerns (or Science Fiction. He played the title character in the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, in which his character was described as an "intellectual carrot"). He had quite a few films to his credit when his buddy John Wayne declined an offer to star in a TV Western, and suggested Arness as a substitute. James played Marshall Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke for a whopping 20 years, then revived the character in several TV films in later decades. The show earned Arness three Emmy nominations in its early years, when the show was a half-hour black and white program. By the time Gunsmoke ended, it had amassed 635 episodes, and currently holds the title of longest running prime-time drama series in American TV history (an accomplishment it shares with Law and Order, which produced only 456 episodes during its run).

Arness was a shy man who shunned publicity and banned the press from the Gunsmoke set. He walked with a slight limp, due to a WWII injury, and the fact that he had almost no training as an actor probably limited his versatility (his brother Peter Graves had a much more varied career, which I mentioned here). When he died in June, he was greatly praised for his work in Gunsmoke, a show which apparently broke the mold of TV Westerns by featuring a law man who preferred to talk rather than shoot. I say "apparently," because I never saw a single episode of the show, despite the fact that it ran during a period when I was growing up and was watching a lot of television. Westerns just did not appeal to me, so I never tried to sit through the show.

Full disclosure: I never watched an entire episode of Columbo either (though I did take a peek at the ill-advised spinoff series Mrs. Columbo, in which soap star Kate Mulgrew solved crimes on her own). Detective series were not to my taste either. But the contributions of Peter Falk and James Arness to the cultural landscape cannot be denied. Arness died from natural causes at the age of 88.