Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday Dance Party: Once Upon The Natchez Trace, Twice

 The Robber Bridegroom, CSUN, 1978.
I still have this shirt.
I've been feeling a bit nostalgic for my old undergraduate college days, for a couple of reasons.  Cal State Northridge's Department of Theatre celebrated its 60th anniversary a few weeks ago, and a big party was held. I couldn't attend;  I'm afraid the days of my making frequent return trips to L.A. are behind me now, my finances just won't support such things.  But thanks to the glories of Facebook, I was treated to many photos of the event, and it surely seemed "my generation" of alumni (who attended the college during the latter 70s and earlyish 80s) dominated the proceedings.  We certainly felt "dominant" while we were there back then.
Broadway heartthrob Steven Pasquale has been playing the title role in The Robber Bridegroom in a major Off-Broadway revival.  It closed this weekend.
By coincidence or providence, the weekend before this big event occurred, I snagged a ticket to the Off-Broadway revival of a barely-remembered musical from the 70s, The Robber Bridegroom.  
The musicians in this revival are not hidden in the pit. Here's
Banjo-Boy Mike, center stage with the star.
I have an acquaintance in the cast, a young gent who played guitar for a production of Man of La Mancha in which I appeared in Virginia years ago (see a pic from that production in a moment).  Michael Rosengarten has since graduated to the big time, playing and singing all over New York City, and he is a central part of the onstage band accompanying this new Bridegroom.
Our Robber Bridegroom, with a cast of about two dozen, plus a bluegrass band uptop.
The "Story Theatre" style of the piece kept the full cast on
stage throughout the show, as the actors created the
atmosphere. Note my superb presence at the left. We call
that "active listening."
The show itself brought back many memories. I appeared in a college production of the piece, during my final year at CSUN (hence the heightened nostalgia I've been feeling lately).

The Robber Bridegroom has had a unique history.  It was developed in the early 70s during a musical theatre workshop, where John Houseman snagged the piece for his fledgling group of Julliard grads, The Acting Company.  
Fresh out of Julliard, Patti Lupone landed her
first Tony nod for her 2 week Broadway run in
The Robber Bridegroom. That's fellow alum
Kevin Kline with her. Whatever happened to
those two?
They ran the show for two weeks on Broadway before setting out on a national tour.  (Can we imagine such a thing happening today?) This first cast included Patti Lupone and Kevin Kline;  Lupone actually earned a Tony nomination for her performance in the two week gig.  The tour was such a success that another production was created, which reopened on Broadway the following season.  Though the runs were barely a year apart, the show was now considered a revival (has there been another musical which was revived only a year after its first production?).  
Barry Bostwick won the Tony playing
Jamie Lockhart, while the original
Robber Bridegroom, Kevin Kline, was
stuck on tour.
The national tour was still going strong, so the show was recast and the new leading man, Barry Bostwick, won the Tony.  It is this cast which recorded the "original Broadway recording," though it in fact was not the original cast (Patti, Kevin, et. al., were still on the road).
This "Original Cast Recording" really isn't one, but it's the only one out there, so far.  The Off-Broadway revival which just closed is set to release a new recording, which may renew interest in this very accessible score.  It's a cinch to sing, and the show itself is catnip to any hammy actor.
I didn't know any of this history when The Robber Bridegroom was announced as the big fall musical at CSUN in 1978. This was toward the end of my college career, during which I made many close friends and learned a little bit about the Theatre as well.  
No, it's not Frau Blucher, it's Maryellen
Clemons, who guided our production. I
did 3 musicals for her at CSUN, but she
never gave me a chance at a substantive
I'm sure those years will occupy a few chapters in my memoirs, and the director of this production of Bridegroom will probably get a footnote.  When she died a long while ago, I wrote about the director of Bridegroom, MaryEllen Clemons, with whom I had an oddly difficult relationship (go here for that memory).  Suffice it to say that whenever I auditioned for a MaryEllen musical, she trusted me enough to place me in the ensemble, but never gave me the chance to audition for a leading (or even supporting) role.  The Robber Bridegroom was no exception.  As I recall, the audition process for this show was lengthy, going on for weeks on end, and I auditioned exactly once for it, during the initial call.  
This cast was packed with
my good friends,
including these two,
Valerie and
My great buddy Judy was MaryEllen's assistant director, and she later reported to me that, each time the auditionees were cut from consideration, I remained in the pile of actors to keep.  Yet the director never called me back for an actual role, in fact I forgot all about the show until the cast list went up and I was on it.  In the ensemble, natch.
Maryellen cast the strongest ensemble I saw in any musical during my time in college.  Most of us had played leading roles in other musicals, in fact, during our rehearsal period, I was in performance off-campus, playing the Dick Van Dyke role in Bye Bye Birdie.
Jenny and Ronnie were good friends of
mine, and very close to each other. I'm frankly
surprised MaryEllen allowed them to
choreograph several numbers, including the
hysterical highpoint of our second act,
"Goodbye, Salome."
Everybody knows the chorus of a musical does a lot of the work, and ours even more so.  We remained onstage throughout the show, singing back-up and moving various planks, barrels, and stools around the raked stage to create the world of the play.  It's the usual concept for this show and it worked like gangbusters.
This is a typical moment in our production, hauling planks around the stage to reset the scene. This caused us some trouble at early blocking rehearsals.  We would call it quits for the evening, then when we returned the next night, everything had been struck, since our theatre was used as a classroom during the day. We could never remember where the hell all the planks and barrels were, or even where WE were, when we picked up the action, so we'd have to retrace our steps by starting over.
MaryEllen had cast the ensemble with actors who had played larger roles, so the background players of this show were very, very alive.  
In the midst of such a strong cast, it must be said that our show
was stolen by these two first-class musical clowns. John
Dantona as hapless thief Little Harp, and my best buddy
Claudia DeCea as wicked stepmother Salome, were pure gold. 
I recall being told by an audience member that he had returned to see the show multiple times, each time keeping an eye on one or another of the ensemble members, just to enjoy the individuality we were each bringing to these background roles.
In the revival, Leslie Kritzer as Salome is a human firecracker.  Leading man Steven Pasquale (in the vest) throws himself into this show with huge abandon.  They both won Lucille Lortel Awards for their performances.
My buddy Susie Kaufman as simpleton Airie.
The revival handed this role to a large black
ensemble man, who plopped a silly blond wig
onto his head to play the role. It was a hoot. 
The Off-Broadway revival of the show maintained the concept of the ensemble creating the world of the play.  The Laura Pels Theater is considerably smaller than the house we played in at CSUN (well it would be, wouldn't it?) and the cast was less than half the size of our college production (well, that's understandable too, isn't it?).  The writers of The Robber Bridegroom were involved in this revival, trimming it down a bit so it now fits into the 90-minute, intermissionless formula current theatre-goers seem to prefer.  Alfred Uhry, the lyricist and librettist, was a youngster when he adapted this American fairy tale into a musical;  he went on to write a little thing called Driving Miss Daisy and to win a little thing called the Pulitzer.  (He's won two Tonys and an Oscar as well.) So surely he knows what he's doing, but I still blame him for removing, in the current incarnation, my big scene:
In the original two act version, an early scene takes place at an inn and includes a duplicitous Landlord, who sets up a wealthy farmer to be robbed.  I played that Landlord, so I waited with eager anticipation for the scene to be played in the revival.  I waited in vain: it was cut.  It must be admitted, though, that the scene wasn't really needed, so perhaps this guy Uhry knows what he's doing.
The Robber Bridegroom revival closed this weekend (it was always meant to be a limited run), so it's appropriate that this week's Dance Party come from the score.  There are lots of clips out there of various regional productions of the show, as well as high school, college, and community theater versions.  
This is not The Robber Bridegroom. Years ago, I played
Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha in VA, and this guy
(with the guitar) opened the show with impressive string
skills and tenor notes in the sky. Mike Rosengarten always
finds a way to grab attention! He's out of work today, but not
for long, I'm sure.
It seems the show is better known in the regions than in New York.  All those clips are grainy and pretty much unwatchable.  Sadly, the two years in which the show was nominated for Tony Awards occurred before it became traditional to showcase numbers from the nominated musicals on the broadcast;  thus, there are no network quality clips of the show out there.

But our gal pal Patti Lupone saves the day.  She introduced one of the few ballads in the Bridegroom score, and still sings it on occasion.  One such occasion gives us this week's Dance Party.  
Our leading lady Cindy had a glorious voice and deliciously offbeat comic timing which served the piece well. This quiet moment between our lovers led to "Sleepy Man," my favorite song in The Robber Bridegroom.
At a recent benefit, Patti and Kevin
recreated this moment from the
I love this simple song, which holds a special place in my memory.  Back in my CSUN days, though I did my share of musicals, I did not consider myself much of a singer;  this song proved to myself that I could deliver harmony, which was a bit frightening to me back then (I still remember my notes!)  
Lupone sings "Sleepy Man" to Kline in the original.
The men were the only ensemble members singing backup to this song, and the richness of the harmony comes through nicely with only the gents singing.  It comes at one of the very few quiet moments in an otherwise raucous show, as our heroine sings to her sleeping lover while removing the disguise which fuels the mistaken-identity plotline.  This one's for the gang who created the Natchez Trace at CSUN, so many years ago. Enjoy.