Thursday, October 22, 2020

358. NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Philip Thomas.
NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY [Dramatic Revival] A/D: Charles Gordone; S: John Retsek; L: Conrad Penrod; P: Ashton Springer and Jeanne Warner; T: Morosco Theatre; 9/9/71-10/10/71 (39)

Ian Sander, Mary Alice.

Charles Gorone’s 1969 Pulitzer Prize drama, the first by a Black author, had played for two healthy runs Off Broadway in its original and a return engagement. There are some fascinating notes on the play’s connection to the Public Theater in Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp's Free for All. It’s a play I’ve always had a fondness for, having directed a Brooklyn College production of it in 1978, with a promising young actor named Jimmy Smits in the lead. Whatever happened to him?

In 1971, only a relatively short time after the return engagement closed, it was revived on Broadway, directed by Gordone himself. The audience for it appears to have been dissipated, though, during its 578 Off-Broadway performances.

Terry Alexander, Susan Spaulding.

The new staging of this racially sensitive drama, set in a West Greenwich Village bar, was completely recast and reconceived, but its placement on a Broadway proscenium stage seemed to Douglas Watt to weaken its potency from that displayed in more intimate surroundings. Yet Clive Barnes felt it belonged right where it was, claiming, “The play is a lot better than it was originally,” its structure and impact being sharper than before. Jerry Tallmer’s opinion coincided with Barnes’s, calling it “a brilliant piece of theatre.”

Phillip Thomas played Gabe Gabriel, Ian Sander was Shanty Mulligan, Terry Alexander was Johnny Williams, Elaine Kerr was Dee Jacobson, Mary Alice played Cora Beasley, and Ed Van Nuys was Judge Bolton.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

357. NO HARD FEELINGS. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Nanette Fabray, Eddie Albert.

NO HARD FEELINGS
[Comedy/Marriage/Romance] A: Sam Bobrick and Ron Clark; D: Abe Burrows; S/L: Robert Randolph; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; P: Orin Lehman, Joseph Kipness, and Lawrence Kasha; T: Martin Beck Theatre; 4/8/73 (1)

Stockard Channing, Nanette Fabray, Conrad Janis, Eddie Albert, A. Larry Haines.

Even with the rash of one-night flops in the early 70s, it’s still hard to imagine one directed by Abe Burrows with a cast including Eddie Albert, Nanette Fabray, Conrad Janis, and young Stockard Channing. But such was the fate of No Hard Feelings, an inane marital farce about George Bartlett (Albert) and his wife, Roberta (Fabray), a suburban, middle-aged couple. After marrying off their daughter (Channing), they separate when Roberta announces she has fallen in love with Jimmy Skouras (Janis), a Greek waiter 14 years her husband’s junior.

George tries everything he can to win back his spouse, but must instead suffer the indignity of seeing her grow pregnant by and then marry her lover. George loses his temper, shoots Jimmy in the foot, is given a suspended sentence, and, a year later, visits Roberta to make up. His newfound friendly attitude, however, is beginning to disintegrate when the curtain falls.

Fast moving and often funny, the comedy could not conquer the obstacles of cardboard characters, mechanical plotting, lack of feeling, and a crateful of hard-driving, obvious gags. There was “total mindlessness and near total witlessness,” said John Simon of a play Douglas Watt dubbed “this pathetic little farce” and Clive Barnes dismissed as “efficient, glossy and heartless.”


Monday, October 19, 2020

356. NOEL COWARD IN TWO KEYS. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn.

NOËL COWARD IN TWO KEYS [Comedy/Hotel/One-Acts] A: Noël Coward; D: Vivian Matalon; S/L: William Ritman; C: Ray Diffen; P: Richard Barr, Charles Woodward; T: Ethel Barrymore Theatre; 2/17/74-6/29/74 (140)

“Come into the Garden, Maud” [Marriage/Romance]; “A Song at Twilight” [Homosexuality]

Anne Baxter, Thom Christopher.

Suite in Three Keys was the title of a 1966 London repertory bill by and starring Sir Noël Coward. One program was a full-length play, A Song at Twilight, the other was a pair of one-acts. In bringing the plays to New York in 1974, a year after Coward died, the producers dropped one of the short plays and put the two on a single bill, cutting the longer one by removing its intermission. The new title was Noël Coward in Two Keys.

The original British director was again at the helm, but the three principal roles played in London by Irene Worth, Lili Palmer and Coward were now in the hands of former movie star Anne Baxter and the husband-and-wife team of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Thom Christopher added a thespian fourth wheel in two minor roles.

Anne Baxter, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy.

Both plays are set in the same luxurious suite at a high-class Swiss hotel (something like what Neil Simon did in Plaza Suite). In the curtain raiser, “Come into the Garden, Maud,” Cronyn played Verner Conklin, a super-wealthy, middle-aged American businessman, with an avidity for golf, who’s on his yearly European vacation. With him is his wife, Anna Marie (Tandy), a pretentious social climber who behaves as if her husband’s boorish ways are an impediment to her snobbish aspirations. Enter a mature, attractive, but impoverished Italian noblewoman (Baxter) with whom Verner promptly falls in love. Deciding for once to be completely unconventional, he decides to drive off with the other woman in her Volkswagen.

Jessica Tandy.
Jack Kroll thought the piece “painfully thin,” but Clive Barnes called it “light and bright and quite deceptively simple” Neither the plot nor the dialogue “sparkled” for John Simon, though.

In the longer play, Cronyn was a famous old novelist, presumably modeled after Somerset Maugham, but with a heavy injection of Coward himself, who is staying at the hotel with his German secretary-wife (Tandy). He’s visited by an ex-mistress (Baxter) who wants his permission to print some of his old love letters in her autobiography. If he refuses, she threatens to expose some other missives of his, sent to a young man he once loved. (Note the similarity in plotting to Nightride, the previous entry in this series.)

Hume Cronyn, Anne Baxter.

The homosexual theme, seen as a semi-confessional exercise on Coward’s part, was viewed by some as affecting, though without Coward in the role it was less so than in the London version. A few thought the handling of the subject evasive and shallow, lacking compelling interest in the gay-lib 70s.

Douglas Watt called the evening “pure theatre and written with a flourish,” but “not particularly striking or original.” Barnes judged the plays “knowingly entertaining and yet still substantial.” The general feeling was that the work was lesser Coward, that his fabled talent to amuse had faded (he was 66 when he wrote the plays), and that only brilliant performances could save the show.

A number of critics lavished praise on the acting and direction, with Tandy collecting the best reviews. Even Christopher was considered good enough to win a Theatre World Award. There were, however, those who called the acting mediocre. Kroll, for example, wrote that the cast lacked “the Martini-marinated nuances to make you care about these pampered puppets.”

The show earned an Outer Critics Circle Award.

 

 

 

355. NO, NO, NANETTE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Ruby Keller, Bobby Van.
NO, NO, NANETTE [Musical Revival] B: Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel; M: Vincent Youmans; LY: Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach; AD/D: Burt Shevelove; CH: Donald Saddler; S/C: Raoul Pene du Bois; L: Jules Fisher; P: Pyxidium Ltd.; T: Forty-Sixth street Theatre; 1/19/71-2/4/73 (861)
Susan Watson, Roger Rathburn.

The enormous, unexpected success of this 1925 musical hit, conceived and produced (with Cyma Rubin) by Harry Rigby, ushered in a definite trend in the revival of long-forgotten American musicals of the century’s first quarter. Nostalgia was the primary incentive driving audiences to see these shows their parents and grandparents may have experienced, and producers capitalized by employing old-time stage and screen stars to play the leading roles. Patsy Kelly and Ruby Keeler, favorites of the 30s, made long-delayed returns to the Great White Way, and soon became the toasts of New York.

No, No, Nanette’s creators also had the perspicacity to engage that genius of 1930s Hollywood choreographic spectacle, Busby Berkeley, as production supervisor, although a book about the show, The Making of No, No, Nanette suggests his contributions owed more to his name’s legendary value than to his artistic contributions.

Company of No, No, Nanette.

Burt Shevelove performed a miracle of comic staging and book revisions, avoiding the campy flavor often found in such golden oldie revivals. The approach was a straight, sincere one despite the material’s intrinsic inanity. All the stars were very well liked, the tap dancing sequences proved sensational (especially one featuring the redoubtable and still agile Miss Keeler), and the charm of the old songs—“Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy” in particular—gave everyone a delightful tingle. Raoul Pene du Bois’s gorgeous designs played an enormous role in furthering the show’s value as sheer entertainment without any hint of social or literary pretension.

Ruby Keeler and company.

Plot, music, and choreography each went their merry way without that sense of integration that was to evolve in musicals of a slightly later generation. Everything meshed smoothly, however, to provide a perfect evocation of the Roaring Twenties spirit thumping at the heart of the show. Even with such success, though, one of the producers refused to be content. My friend, Mimi Turque Marre, the widow of Michael Turque, one of the show's stage managers, recalls that once the production was running, co-producer Cyma Rubin kept firing one person after the other. (This is a correction of my initial account, which mistakenly noted that the firings were during the production process, not after the show opened.)

Reviews were almost universally enthusiastic, although some hemmed at the book’s concerns with a middle-aged Bible salesman (Jack Gilford) in Atlantic City, his three adorable girlfriends, and his hiring of a young lawyer (Bobby Van) to prevent his wife from making mush of his mashing. Martin Gottfried used such words as “satisfying,” “charming,” and “enjoyable” in his notice. One of the “genuinely thrilling production numbers”  he pointed to had a group of chorines balancing on beach balls; to stage it, the show even hired a “beach ball instructor,” Ernestine Mercer. Shevelove’s book revisions improved the original, said many, because the result left “just the right amount of sentimental silliness to make us feel . . . a pleasing, rueful nostalgia for that long-vanished time,” noted Brendan Gill.

Ruby Keeler as Sue Smith and Patsy Kelly as Pauline garnered raves, the former for her sparkling dancing (notably in “Take a Little One-Step”), the latter for her laugh-getting abilities. Jack Gilford as Jimmy Smith was cute and clownish, and Roger Rathburn as Tom showed great promise, but the highest accolades were awarded to the marvelously versatile Helen Gallagher as Lucille Early. She was “electrifying,” said Walter Kerr, in a show-stopping number she and Bobby Van, as Billy Early, did in a variety of twenties’ dance styles. Gallagher’s role required her to remove her trademark bangs and come on strong as a sexy vamp, a feat she accomplished with aplomb in a torch song called “Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone-Blues.”

Helen Gallagher and company.

The company included Susan Watson as Nanette, Loni Zoe Ackerman as Betty Brown, Pat Lysinger as Winnie Winslow, and K.C. Townsend as Flora Latham. Among the 36 members of the ensemble were Ed Dixon and Mercedes Ellington.

Jack Gilford, Ruby Keller, Patsy Kelly, Bobby Van, and company.

Gallagher nabbed a Tony for Best Actress, Musical; Kelly got one for Best Supporting Actress, Musical; and Van landed a nomination for Best Actor, Musical. The show itself won an Outer Circle Award. Shevelove took home a Drama Desk Award for Musical Book, and a Tony nomination for Best Director, Musical. Donald Saddler won a Tony for his choreography, and a Drama Desk Award as well. Roger Rathburn received a Theatre World Award. And Raoul Pene du Bois earned a Joseph Maharam Foundation Award as well as a Tony, for his costumes.

In 1973, the show was produced in London with a British cast. It also had multiple international stagings.

 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

354. NIGHTRIDE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

 Chandler Hill Harben, Jeremy Stockwell, Lester Rawlins.
NIGHTRIDE [Drama/Alcoholism/Homosexuality/Theatre] A: Lee Barton; D: Milton Lyon; S: Alan Kimmel; C: Katrin; L: Ken Billington; P: Bill Shirley; T: Vandam Theatre (OB); 12/9/71-2/27/72 (94)

Chandler Hill Harben, Jeremy Stockwell.

The 1970s were a decade in which gay people were more openly declarative of their sexual inclinations than at any previous period in modern history. Some, however, continued to fear repressive measures if they chose to “come out of the closet.” “Lee Barton,” the pseudonymous author of Nightride was such a one, a man who was unprepared to face the social opprobrium he knew would greet him among friends and business acquaintances if he were to reveal his sexual nature. He called for other hidden gay artists to stand to stand up for gays, so that men such as he would not feel so threatened professionally for their sexuality..

In Nightride, he treated, somewhat melodramatically, the quandary of a renowned middle-aged playwright, Jon Bristow (Lester Rawlins), a man saddled with the burden of homosexuality—as per the playwright’s perspective—as well as alcoholism. Jon's career is running at low gear in the face of an ever-deteriorating artistic output. He is visited in his Puerto Rican home, where he lives with his lover, Peter (Jeremy Stockwell), by a gay rock star, Jab Humble (Chandler Hill Harben), who wants Jon to use as lyrics some revealing poetry written years earlier about a love affair between Jon and a young man. To the singer, the exposure of these poems will strengthen the gay cause, but the offer doesn’t appeal to the playwright, who wishes to remain in the closet.

The theme had interest for various critics, such as Clive Barnes, for whom it was “a serious play about homosexual life that makes no apologies and reveals no regrets.” But he also pointed out that the work took “a simplistic attitude” toward its material, and was flawed in several areas. Dick Brukenfeld thought it occasionally quite honest, but conceded that “the play proceeds more as argument than as experience, more as soap opera than as drama.” He said it too closely resembled the “muddy, ideological melodramas” of the old Broadway stage.

Lester Rawlins as Jon Bristow was widely praised. Barnes wrote, “Mr. Rawlins provides a magnificently rich and controlled interpretation. . . . [H]e weaves his way through all the false thickets of his part and all the phony confusions of his style to offer a performance that is both honest and poetic.” Rawlins won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance for his efforts.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

353. NIGHT WATCH. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Joan Hackett, Len Cariou.
NIGHT WATCH [Drama/Crime/Marriage/Mystery] A: Lucille Fletcher; D: Fred Coe; S: George Jenkins; C: Donald Brooks; L: Tharon Musser; P: George W. George and Barnard S. Straus; T: Morosco Theatre; 2/28/72-6/11/72 (121)

Len Carious, Elaine Kerr, Joan Hackett.

This first Broadway play by Lucille Fletcher (“Sorry, Wrong Number”), a highly successful writer for film, television, and radio, is a brooding mystery drama set in an expensive Manhattan apartment occupied by a neurotic, insomniac heiress, Elaine (Joan Hackett). She claims she has seen, in the window of a tenement across the way, a man’s horribly murdered corpse. The police investigation turns up neither corpse nor other evidence of foul play. It’s suggested that the woman’s story is fantasy. 

Eventually, the cops ignore her frantic calls. Her stockbroker husband (Len Cariou) attempts to soothe her and, among other things, proposes that she travel to a Swiss clinic for therapy. His motives, however, are made to seem nefarious. It’s clear that he’s having an affair with his wife’s friend (Elaine Kerr). The play ends with the surprise device of the wife having been the scheming genius behind the entire plot.

Joan Hackett, Keene Curtis.

Joan Hackett’s performance as the high-strung Elaine was masterful. Both she and the play were accorded several strong notices. Clive Barnes was pleased at this “most superior thriller . . . , which from its first blood-curdling scream to its last charming surprise is a first-class example of its genre.”

Fletcher’s characters, dramatic tension, and Hitchcockian suspense kept many on the edges of their seats. The play offered Douglas Watt “a satisfying series of surprises,” and fulfilled for Richards Watts “all the requirements for an evening of satisfying menace and mystification.” Martin Gottfried, however, claimed it was burdened with clichés and “unnecessary” persons and scenes, lacked mystery, was poorly acted, and was “never interesting and often trying.” And Walter Kerr assailed it for too many red herrings and a vastly confusing plot.

The cast included Keene Curtis, Jeanne Hepple, Martin Shakar, William Kiehl, Barbara Cason, and Rudy Bond.

 

 

Friday, October 16, 2020

352. THE NIGHT THAT MADE AMERICA FAMOUS. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Harry Chapin.
THE NIGHT THAT MADE AMERICA FAMOUS
[Musical Revue] M/LY: Harry Chapin; D: Gene Frankel; CH: Doug Rogers; S: Kert Lundell; C: Randy Barcelo; L: Imero Fiorentino; P: Edgar Lansbury and Joseph Beruh i/a/w The Shubert Organization; T: Ethel Barrymore Theatre; 2/26/75-4/6/75 (47)

Harry Chapin.

Harry Chapin, the then popular folk-rock balladeer from Brooklyn, was the star of this extravagantly staged presentation of about 30 songs he’d written, well known through his hit recordings. The show employed a company of nine backup singers and dancers, as well as three soloists in addition to Chapin himself. The trio was Kelly Garrett, Delores Hall, and Gilbert Price, all recognized artists. The critics chose Garrett as the show’s knockout presence. She and Price each received a Tony nomination for their supporting performances in a musical.

Spectacular multimedia effects, including closed-circuit TV, giant slide projections, huge masks, and unusual costumes, along with elaborate lighting, created by Joshua White of the Joshua Light Show, accompanied the tunes.

Delores Hall, Harry Chapin, Kelly Garrett.

Among the parade of songs were "Six String Orchestra," "Give Me a Road," Sunday Morning Sunshine," "Welfare Ray," "Peace Teachers," "Changing of the Guard," "Taxi," "Battleground Bummer," "Cat's in the Cradle," "Cockeyed John, Give Me a Dream," "Beginning of rhe End," and "The Night That Made America Famous."

The music, unfortunately, found few takers among the critics, although Martin Gottfried, often a negative outlier, demurred: “you will rarely find such musical values in the theatre. There are melody and rhythm, breath-catching voices and gorgeous orchestrations, all magnificently performed and handsomely staged.” More representative, however, was another frequent naysayer, John Simon, who said that the songs told “banal or pretentious stories, and [were] set to variations on one basic tune with minor changes in rhythm, or even without.” The poor rhymes led Brendan Gill to state that Chapin had a “tin ear.” “[T]he material was pretty flat,” inserted Douglas Watt, who described Chapin’s voice as “hoarse but enthusiastic.” “His music is somewhat monotonous and stereotyped,” chimed in Clive Barnes, for whom the show was “more like an animated record album than a musical.”