Friday, July 2, 2021

609. YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-195

Liz O'Neal, Carter Cole, Dean Stolber, Lee Wilson, Stephen Fenning, Grant Cowan. (Photos: Martha Swope.) 

YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN [Musical Revival] B/M/LY: Clark Gesner; D: Joseph Hardy; CH: Patricia Birch; S/L: Alan Kimmel; L: Jules Fisher; P: Arthur Whitelaw and Gene Persson; T: John Golden Theatre; 6/1/71-6/27/71 (32)

Stephen Fenning, Liz O'Neal.

The enormously successful, 1,597-performance, Off-Broadway production of Charles Schultz’s widely popular “Peanuts” comic strip closed in February 1971. Several months later it was revived on Broadway. The cast was not up to the original, wrote Mel Gussow, but Clive Barnes, reviewing it on the radio, said it had “neither suffered nor been changed.” Other reviews were similarly positive. Still, it failed to click in its larger quarters and closed in a month.

Lee Wilson, Grant Cowan.

The cast members were Stephen Fenning, Dean Stolber, Lee Wilson, Carter Cole, Grant Cowan, and Liz O’Neal.

 Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Thursday, July 1, 2021

608. YOU NEVER KNOW. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Jamie Thomas, Dan Held, Lynn Fitzpatrick, Esteban Chalbaud, Grace Theveny, Rod Loomis. (Photo: Kenn Duncan.)
YOU NEVER KNOW [Musical Revival] B: Rowland Leigh; M/LY: Cole Porter; D/DS: Robert Troie; P: Stanley H. Handman; T: Eastside Playhouse (OB) 3/12/73-3/18/73 (8)

Cole Porter’s 1938 drawing-room musical is based on a Viennese play, Candle Light, by Siegfried Geyer and Robert Katscher, which had starred Gertrude Lawrence and Leslie Howard on Broadway in 1929, following its London production (as By Candle-Light), starring Yvonne Arnaud. Candle Light was a mild success, running for 129 performances, but Porter's musical was a 78-performance flop. so the reasons for this 1973 Off-Broadway revival are unclear. Porter himself famously disliked his work.

Pared down from the original’s cast of 12, among which were Libby Holman, Clifton Webb, and Lupe Velez, this six-actor version made many changes in the script and characters, and there were also adjustments to the score. These included the insertion of “Ridin’ High” from Red, Hot and Blue. The hit numbers “At Long Last Love” and “From Alpha to Omega” were intact, but there were too few graces present to keep the show from repeating the fate of the first production.

Clive Barnes reported that “it revolves around—and around and around—a master and servant, and mistress and maid, exchanging roles. The possibilities for such humor, easily dampened are quickly extinguished by the quality of the writing.”

The performers, none of them considered up to the task, were Dan Held, Esteban Chaband, Grace Theveny, Lynn Fitzpatrick, Rod Loomis, and Jamie Thomas.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.

 Next up: You're a Good Man Charlie Brown.


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

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

Nuria Espert (left), Jose Luis Pellicena. 
YERMA [Dramatic Revival/Spanish Language] A: Federico Garcia Lorca; D: Victor Garcia; S/C: Victor Garcia, Fabian Puigserver; L: Polo Villasenor; P: Brooklyn Academy of Music ad Nino T. Karlweis in the Nuria Exert Company Production; T: Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 10/17/72-10/29/72 (16)

Victor Garcia, a renowned Spanish director, achieved a universally acclaimed masterpiece of theatrical innovation in this Spanish-language production of Lorca’s tragedy starring Nuria Espert of the Madrid company that bore her name. It came to BAM following its great success with Madrid and London critics. Simultaneous translations were available with rented headsets.

Lorca’s poetic study of a barren village woman and her frustration at being unable to bear her husband children, normally staged in a realistically designed setting, was here put forth on a giant trampoline that could, by the attachment of ropes to eyelets by actor-stagehands, be converted at need into a myriad of highly imaginative locales. It was as much an actor as anyone in the play as it took shape as a cave, a floor, a wall, a female breast, hills, the sky, a plain, and so forth. The ritualistically choreographic staging, employing actors both on the trampoline and on platforms running around and beneath the canvas, established visual metaphors that brilliantly suggested the internal images Garcia discerned in Lorca’s people and situations.

Nothing about the staging was literal or illusionistic—all the techniques were exposed, not hidden—yet the emotional and intellectual impact of the production had an overwhelming effect, even on those with no Spanish. Striking sensuality was evident in several scenes, including those employing nudity and sexual embraces, to underline the longing of the central figure after whom the play is named (Yerma means “barren”).

Henry Hewes said the drama’s story “now emerges not only as the tragedy of a wife doomed to accept her marriage to a man who cannot and does not wish to make her pregnant, but also as a poetic and surrealistic metaphor of the needs and frustration of the female condition.” Clive Barnes saw the conception as on a level with Greek tragedy in the intensity of its power. Harold Clurman considered this Yerma “one of the outstanding successes in the effort during the last decade to enlarge the scope of the contemporary theatre.” A surprising factor was that Garcia, apparently, had accomplished his goals without “distortion of the text.”

Garcia and Fabian Puigserver won a Drama Desk Award for their scenic design.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Next up: You Never Know.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

606. YENTL, THE YESHIVAH BOY. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

John V. Shea, Tovah Feldshuh. (Photo: Thomas Victor.)
YENTL, THE YESHIVAH BOY [Comedy-Drama/Education/Jews/Religion/Romance/Period] A: Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin; SC: a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer; D: Robert Kalfin; S: Karl Eigsti; C: Carrie F. Robbins; L: William Mintzer; M: Mel Marvin; CH: Patricia Birch; P: Chelsea Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 12/17/74-1/26/75 (48); P: Cheryl Crawford, Moe Septee, and the Chelsea Theatre Center with Mrs. Victor H. Potamkin; T: Eugene O’Neill Theatre; 10/23/75-5/2/76 (224): total: 262

Center: Tovah Feldshuh. (Photo: Laura Pettibone.)

Isaac Bashevis Singer was already an elderly man, widely recognized for his Yiddish-language short stories, when he turned to playwriting. Yentl, his third play (adapted with Leah Napolin from one of his stories), was his first dramatic success, and remains a popular work, partly because of the movie version starring Barbra Streisand in the title role; on stage, the character proved a career breakthrough for Tovah Feldshuh. The play received strong enough notices in its Off-Broadway showing at Brooklyn’s Chelsea Theatre Center that, 10 months after it closed, it received a commercial Broadway run at the O’Neill, albeit with one major ans several minor cast changes.
Leland Moss, Bernie Passeltiner, Tovah Feldshuh. (Photo: Laura W. Pettibone.)

Yentl is a Jewish girl living in a Polish shtetl in 1873 with her widowed father (Bernie Passeltiner). She greatly hungers for the traditional education that Judaic law restricts to men (as it still does in ultra-orthodox communities). Her father secretly teaches her from the Torah and Talmud himself. When he dies she resolves to attend the forbidden yeshivah by dressing as a boy named Anshel. She develops a very close friendship with another student, the handsome Avigdor (John W. Shea), and soon finds herself betrothed to Avigdor’s former fiancée Hadass (Neva Small, Chelsea; Lynn Ann Leveridge, O’Neill), whom she ends up marrying. Eventually, Yentl reveals her deception, Avigdor (whom she still loves) marries Hadass, and the fruit of their union is named Yentl.

The ramblingly structured play is far from perfect, being highly episodic, containing some awkwardly phrased dialogue, and an excessively anecdotal, literary style. It also bears the weight of an intriguing folk tale that, for some, simply asked too much suspension of disbelief. “Not a word of this strikes me as playable on a stage,” wrote Brendan Gill.

Lynn Ann Leveridge, John V. Shea. (Photo: Laura Pettibone.)

Nevertheless, the gorgeously designed production, making excellent use of a revolve and an artless, village style using minimal props and sets, was brimful of the period feeling emanating from the world of 19th-century peasant life. What Gill called Robert Kalfin’s “immaculate” direction made ample use of orthodox rituals. The characters were ably etched by the well-cast ensemble, and the thematic implications were intriguing, albeit anathema to potential audiences from the contemporary descendants of the community it depicts.

John Simon’s opinion was fairly typical. “Yentl is all theatre and no play.” He called the production “a whirring, whizzing marvel,” and none disputed the assertion. Singer’s views on traditional Jewish attitudes were provocative in a decade rent by feminist activity. The play’s sexual ambivalences were likewise much discussed.

The Broadway staging shaved nearly an hour off the Brooklyn version, tightening the focus on the central love triangle, but not eradicating the essential problem of the play’s non-dramatic personality. A major cause for celebration, as noted, was the presence of Tovah Feldshuh, whose characterization of Yentl caused T.E. Kalem to hail her as “an actress of imponderable scope and stature. . . . Tovah Feldshuh has the delicacy of a Tanagra figurine. She is kinetic in presence, graceful in gesture and capable of igniting, as well as displaying, passion.”

John V. Shea was also highly approved, Howard Kissel commenting on his “remarkably graceful, affecting performance.” Others in the large cast included Leland Moss, Hy Anzell, Robin Bartlett (O'Neill Theatre), and Blanche Dee.

Feldshuh won an OBIE, a Drama Desk Award, and an Outer Critics Circle Award, but the Tonys ignored her. She would, of course, have been up that season against Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, Elizabeth Ashley, and Liv Ullman, not a one of them small potato latkes.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Next up: Yerma.

 

               


Monday, June 28, 2021

605. THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1

Randall Duk Kim, Pat Suzuki, Tina Chen.
THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON [Drama/Asian-American/Death/Family/Race] A: Frank Chin; D: Russell Treyz; S: Leo Yoshimura; S: Susan Hum Buck; L: Victor En Yu Tan; P: American Place Theatre; T: American Place Theatre (OB); 5/22/74-6/15/74 (29)

The second of Frank Chin’s plays about Chinese-Americans and their problems of social and cultural assimilation once again starred Randall (Duk) Kim and was given by the American Place Theatre. Its major point of interest was the realistic depiction of a milieu unfamiliar to the average American audience. The play itself was fairly conventional in its look at family issues, the generation gap, and the self-realization of a budding writer.

It tells of a San Francisco Chinatown family whose dying patriarch, Pa Eng (Conrad Yama), is the community’s mayor. It is the Chinese New Year and Pa Eng has gathered his brood to be with him when he passes. Around him are his first wife (Pat Suzuki), his successful restaurateur daughter from Boston (Tina Chen), his Caucasian son-in-law (Doug Higgins), his tourist guide son (Kim), and a shiftless younger son (Keenan Shimizu).

The play pictures the tensions that run through this group—parental, marital, cultural, and social. A good deal of the play focuses on the older son’s struggle with his father over the son’s future responsibility toward the family vis-à-vis his desire to become a writer.

Aside from the inherent interest in presenting a world then infrequently seen on the mainstream stage, the play provoked little enthusiasm. It was too discursive and lacking in “energy,” according to Clive Barnes. Edith Oliver faulted it for being “not yet as strong as it could be” because there was insufficient command of the dramatic action. John Simon concurred, noting that, despite “flashes of wit and flights of anger,” it lacked “discipline” and bordered on soap opera.

There were respectable notices for the acting, especially for Randall Kim, although Simon thought “his mannerisms are becoming disruptive.”

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Next up: Yentl, The Yeshivah Boy

Sunday, June 27, 2021

604. WOYZECK. (2 Productions) From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Kenneth V. Lowry, Juliene Marshall, Curt Karibalis. 
1.

WOYZECK [Dramatic Revival] A: Georg Büchner; TR: Henry I. Schmidt; D: Robert Weinstein; S: Bob Olson; C: Daniel Michaelson; L: Jon Brittain; P: Robert Weinstein i/a/w Two Arts Playhouse; T: Fortune Theatre (OB); 5/25/71-5/30/71 (8)

German playwright Büchner’s 1836 proto-expressionist drama was given an unimaginative, poorly conceived staging by a young acting company, the Actors’ Group. Mel Gussow commented that “Almost everything is too representational—and dispassionate” for so highly charged a work. Further, “the acting lacks conviction and penetration.” Martin Washburn concurred: “the many scenes . . . hung in floppy disassociation” and the cast seemed unconnected to the play.”

This was the play’s first English presentation. A German one had been shown in 1966. More would bcome in the following years, including the following German example. Cast members were Curt Karibalis, Kenneth W. Lowry, Julienne Marshall, and Dorin McGough.

Wolfgang Reinbacher, Dieter Brammer. (Photo: Hilde Zemann.)

2.

D: Hans Joachim Heyse; S/C: Christian Bussman; M: Dieter Shönbach; P: Goethe Institute of Munich and the Gert von Gontard Foundation; T: Barbizon-Plaza Theatre (OB); 12/5/72-12/10/72 (7)

Die Brūcke (The Bridge), a traveling German troupe that appeared periodically in New York in the late 60s and early 70s, offered this revival in the play’s native language. A.H. Weiler thought the production “fairly cheerless” in its depiction of Büchner’s unfinished tragicomedy. He was, however, held by its “spellbinding” effect.

Wolfgang Reinbacher’s much-put-upon Woyzeck was “not so much a fool as a simple man confused and misused by the people around him.” There were strong performances by Dieter Brammer as the Captain and Gerhard Friedrich as the Doctor. The “workmanlike” production’s setting was simple, and changed for each of the 26 scenes by the actors themselves.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Next up: The Year of the Dragon.

 

Saturday, June 26, 2021

603. THE WORLD OF LENNY BRUCE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Frank Speiser. (Photo: Ken Howard.)

THE WORLD OF LENNY BRUCE [Solo/Biographical/Show Business] AD: Frank Speiser; SC: Life and works of Lenny Bruce; D: Frank Speizer; P: Norman Twain i/a/w Michael Liebert b/s/a/w Marvin Worth; T: Players Theatre (OB); 6/11/74-10/6/74 (137)

A one-man show based on the words of stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, in which Frank Speiser, who put the show together, impersonated the controversial performer. The interest in Bruce at the time was powerful enough to inspire the present show only two years after Lenny, a Broadway hit that made Cliff Gorman a star; in fact, the movie version of that show, with a riveting performance by Dustin Hoffman, arrived the same year as the present work. It’s easy enough to explore the later careers of Gorman and Hoffman; I have no idea of what happened to Frank Speiser. Do you? Bruce himself remains a figure of importance, as witness his presence in the TV series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” even if his re-enacted routines are no longer very funny.

In The World of Lenny Bruce material that might once have landed the iconoclastic comic in jail had become so ordinary that there was no fear of police concern. Audiences had become inured to his once radical use of language and ideas in the eight years since his death from a drug overdose.

The biggest problem with the otherwise capably handled show, according to Clive Barnes, was that in 1974 Bruce’s material already seemed stale. Only those unfamiliar with it or with Bruce might have found it amusing. Barnes felt that Speiser had insufficiently conveyed Bruce’s pain and torment in the later years of his besieged career. Still, the show stuck around for over four months.

The show's first half was made up of familiar routines. The second was based on what Bruce had said in defense of his right to say the scandalous things used in his act.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Next up: Woyzeck.

 

 

 

Friday, June 25, 2021

602. WORDS AND MUSIC. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Jon Peck, Kelly Garrett, Sammy Cahn, Shirley Lemmon. (Photos: Martha Swope.)

WORDS AND MUSIC [Musical Revue] M: Various composers; LY: Sammy Cahn; D: Jerry Adler; DS: Robert Randolph; L: Marc B. Weiss; P: Alexander H. Cohen and Harvey Granat; T: John Golden Theatre; 4/16/74-8/3/74 (128)

Sammy Cahn. 

Following directly in the wake of the musty Music! Music!, which opened a week earlier, Words and Music hit Broadway like a breath of clean spring air. Whereas the critics had mauled the earlier work, they cuddled up fondly to the new one. Clive Barnes called it “simple and enchanting,” “a lovely fun show,” “human and civilized,” and told his readers not to miss it.

The program was arranged around familiar songs with lyrics by the prolific veteran Sammy Cahn, with Mr. Cahn (described by Walter Kerr as looking “like Snoopy posing as the Statue of Liberty”) being the central performer, vocally and at the piano. Supporting him was a terrific threesome, Kelly Garrett, Shirley Lemmon, and Jon Peck, of which, as so often, Garrett was the standout.

Cahn wove the songs—among them “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen,” “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” “Be My Love,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” and “I Should Care”—together with a nostalgically charming and funny personal narrative of his career. A hilarious highlight was his telling of the gestation of “Three Coins in the Fountain.”

“The evening is a feast of . . . show-biz foolishness, intimate, candid, proudly unapologetic,” wrote Kerr. Cahn’s froggy voice led Barnes to call him “probably the best bad singers in the world.” A sour note among the dulcet tones came from—wait for it—John Simon, who cast aspersions on Cahn’s talents—“He is only a word machine”—and attributed his success to the composers for whom he created the lyrics.

Cahn won a special Theatre World Award for his contribution.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Next up: The World of Lenny Bruce.

 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

June 24, 1942: ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER


Gypsy Rose Lee.
For the last installment in my series, "On This Day in New York Theater," please click on THEATER LIFE.

601. THE WOOD DEMON. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Sheila Reid, Ian McKellen. 
THE WOOD DEMON [Dramatic Revival] A: Anton Chekhov; TR: Ronald Hingley; D: David Giles; S: Kenneth Mellor; C: Stephen and Wendy Doncaster; L: Howard Eldridge; P: Brooklyn Academy of Music i/a/w Brooklyn College in the Actors Company Production; T: Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 1/29/74-2/24/74 (10)

Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge founded the Actors Company in 1972 as a democratically organized troupe in which all decisions were arrived at communally. The group came to New York in 1974 as part of a British season at BAM, and offered four plays in repertory. Their production of The Wood Demon, the 1889 prototype of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, was the first major staging of this rarely-seen comedy (an Off-Off Broadway version was offered by the Equity Library Theatre in 1967). It turned out to be, if not the masterpiece represented by the later play, a finely written drama in its own right and perfectly suited to the stage.

The Actors Company, which drew out “the almost Dickensian eccentricities of the play’s characters,” wrote Clive Barnes, gave a “consistently entertaining” interpretation of it. It offered comedy and pathos in equal measure and allowed for sensitively detailed characterizations by the talented company. Most of the critics found the experience of viewing this incipient Vanya a fascinating experience, especially as the later play had only recently been given a star-studded revival at the Circle in the Square, directed by Mike Nichols.

Walter Kerr even discovered material here he wished Chekhov had retained. In particular, he pointed to the character of the “wood demon,” Dr. Kruschov (McKellen), who later developed into the supporting figure of Astrov, but here dominated the action. This may partly have been owing to what Barnes dubbed McKellen’s “brilliant” performance, which Edith Oliver described as “absolutely wonderful, . . . so sensitive and intemperate in manner that a few of his neighbors consider him a psychopath.” McKellen earned a Drama Desk Award for his performance.

The entire production was generally lauded, but John Simon praised only the direction, declaring that the acting was uneven. This applied to a sizable cast including such eventually renowned artists as John Woodvine, Robin Ellis, Robert Eddison, Edward Petherbridge, and Sheila Reid.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.  

Next up: Words and Music.

 

 

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

600. WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

David Schramm, Mary Jane Negro. (Photo: Diane Gorodnitzki.)
WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN [Dramatic Revival] A: Thomas Middleton; D: Michael Kahn; S: Douglas W. Schmidt; C: John David Ridge; L: Joe Pacitti; P: City Center Acting Company; T: Good Shepherd Faith Church (OB); 10/16/72-10/28/72 (8)

Rarely produced in modern times, Middleton’s Jacobean melodrama of 16th-century Florentine society was given its first professional American staging by the young actors of the newly founded Acting Company. They produced it as part of a six-play repertory season, their first in New York following their graduation from Juilliard.

Michael Kahn gave the bloody play a workable staging that offered a lighter tone than Mel Gussow would have preferred. Nonetheless, he thought it “both accessible and entertaining.” Harold Clurman found it “ably staged and handsomely costumed.” Dealing with deception and immorality, with nearly every character ultimately self-seeking and perfidious, Middleton’s complexly plotted drama proved stageworthy and pertinent in its cynical view of mankind.

Gussow pointed out the weakness of young actors playing older parts, but “on the whole,” he declared, “the company acts with firmness and clarity.” Clurman argued that the company was not yet ready for so tough a work and said he missed many of their words.

The company included David Schramm as Leantio, Mary Joan Negro alternating with Patti LuPone as Bianca, Kevin Kline as Guardiano, Dakin Matthews as Fabritio, Mary Lou Rosato as Livia, Sam Tsoutsouvas as Hippolito, Leah Chandler as Isabella, David Ogden Stiers as the Duke of Florence, Benjamin Hendrickson as the Lord Cardinal, as well as Gerald Shaw [Guiterrez], Annie McNaughton, Jared Sakren, Cynthia Herman, and James Moody in other roles. Many, of course, would go on to important careers on stage and screen.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.  

Next up: The Wood Demon.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

599. WOMEN BEHIND BARS. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

 

Top: Madeleine le Roux, Helen Hanft, Sharon Ann Burr; center: Leslie Edgar, Hope Stansbury, Mary-Jennifer Mitchell, Ann Collier; front: May Boylan, Maria DeLanda, Pat Ast. (Photo: Arthur Weinstein.)
WOMEN BEHIND BARS [Comedy/Homosexuality/Nudity/Prison/Sex/Transvestitism/Women] A: Tom Eyen; D: Ron Link; S: Herbert Nagle; L: Lawrence Eichler; P: Alan Eichler, Ron Ling, and Craig Baumgarten; T: New York Theatre Ensemble; 10/17/74-11/17/74 (20); Astor Place Theatre (OB); 5/1/75-6/15/75 (54)

Parodies of old movies were a popular 70s genre, especially in view of the freer spirit surrounding the various sexual revolutions dominating the times. Camp values were particularly prevalent in such burlesques, a major example of which was Women Behind Bars, conceived as a takeoff on 50s B-level prison films. It first played Off-Off Broadway at the New York Theatre Ensemble, and then moved to Off, with one or two cast changes.

Opening with black and white titles on the rear of the prison cell set, the play proceeded to travesty the archetypal characters and plots of the movies that inspired it. The crux of the plot—covering the years 1952-1960—had to do with the arrival at the since-demolished Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village of a virginal young prisoner named Mary-Eleanor (Mary-Jennifer Mitchell) and her almost immediate corruption at the hands of horny inmates, a reception that includes rape with a broom.  Eight years later she is released into the free world as a hardened ex-con.

Eyen’s verbal and sight-gag grab-bag of blatant obscenities, offensive ethnic wisecracks, deliberately clichéd situations, sexual outrageousness, transvestitism, nudity, and sado-masochism epitomized what Douglas Watt called “junk theatre” in its deliberate trashiness. A number of critics found it well worth their while, however. The mainly female cast was often extremely funny in their roles as the lesbian Matron (Pat Ast); the butch Gloria (Helen Hanft), with her tongue of acid and heart of gold; the lobotomized blonde beauty, Ada (Madeleine le Roux), fresh out of Section 10; the sexy, bosomy Cheri (Sharon Ann Barr); the murderous old Granny (Mary Boylan); and assorted other cartoon figures. All the play’s men were played by the versatile Walker Stuart.

This “brief, delirious evening of grade-A tomfoolery,” wrote Mel Gussow, was called by Edith Oliver “bold and original and seemingly effortless and very funny.” Even the frequently acidulous John Simon guffawed loudly, although thinking it could have been even more effective with subtler writing and direction. Watt said it was “the sort of theatre that renders criticism useless,” and Martin Gottfried declared it “juvenile and sloppy.” A couple of reviewers felt the subject matter was toon innocuous to need such extravagant ribbing.

 Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.  

Next up: Women Beware Women

Monday, June 21, 2021

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


Dorothy Loudon, Marian Hailey, Myrna Loy, Jan Miner, Kim Hunter, Rhonda Fleming, Mary Louise Wilson. (Photos: Friedmnn-Abeles.)

Jan Miner, Rhonda Fleming, Marian Hailey, Kim Hunter, Alexis Smith.
THE WOMEN [Dramatic Revival] A: Clare Booth Luce; D: Morton DaCosta; S: Oliver Smith; C: Ann Roth; L: John Gleason; P: Jeremy Ritzer and Joel Key Rice i/a/w John W. Merriam and Milton Moss; T: Forty-sixth Street Theatre; 4/25/73-6/17/73 (63)

Myrna Loy, Leora Dana, Elizabeth Perry. 

Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 smash hit, about a bevy of bitching Park Avenue beauties, was greeted mildly as a piece of camp nostalgia for its period costumes, décor, and wisecracks. Its episodic, soap-operaish plot and glamorous characters were now too clichéd and familiar, and its one-time ribald peek at what women say in the privacy of other women seemed anti-feminist in a decade immured in the rhetoric of Women’s Lib. Lifelike and laugh-provoking only sporadically, The Women served chiefly to offer an assembly of flashy, well-dressed roles for a number of one-time stage and screen stars.
Dorothy Loudon, Marian Hailey.

Morton DaCosta’s direction and the sets and costumes, respectively, of Oliver Smith and Ann Roth (still at today!), captured the mid-30s ambience with accuracy and spirit. The many scene changes were smoothly accompanied by period pop music. Actresses picked out by most reviewers for were Alexis Smith as Sylvia, Kim Hunter as Mary, Dorothy Loudon as Edith, Jan Miner as the Countess De Lage, and Mary Louise Wilson as Nancy. Others in the very large cast, which required doubling from several actresses, included former movie icons Myrna Loy, as Mrs. Morehead, and Rhonda Fleming, as Miriam Aarons. 

Rhonda Fleming, Jan Miner, Alexis Smith.

Of the play itself, Walter Kerr’s remark is representative: “Hail, and so far as I am concerned, farewell.”

Polly Rowles, Jan Miner.

The entire cast, it should be noted, received the Outer Critics Circle Award.

Myrna Loy, Kim Hunter.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

597. THE WIZ: THE SUPER SOUL MUSICAL "WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ." From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Clarice Taylor, Dee Dee Bridgewater. (Photos: Martha Swope.)
THE WIZ [Musical/Fantasy/Race/Youth] B: William F. Brown; M/LY: Charlie Smalls; SC: L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wizard of Oz; D/C: Geoffrey Holder; CH: George Faison; S: Tom H. John; L: Tharon Musser; P: Ken Harper; T: Majestic Theatre; 1/5/75-1/28/79 (1,672)

Tiger Haynes, Ted Ross, Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle.

After troubled beginnings stemming from less than thoroughly positive reviews, a splashy TV ad campaign helped pump fresh life into this Black musical version of one the most beloved children’s books (and movies) by attracting a racially diverse audience that did not typically attend Broadway shows. In consequence, The Wiz, which opened in Baltimore in October 1974 before arriving in New York, became one of the most successful Black musicals ever, in terms both of the length of its run and the profits it generated (including a popular movie version starring Diana Ross). As for Baum's material, Broadway wasn't finished with it, as Wicked one day would prove.

Mabel King.

Any show that attempts to come up with a totally original approach to a well-loved and deeply familiar classic will encounter enormous obstacles. These The Wiz managed to overcome by turning L. Frank Baum’s beloved 1900 book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which generated successful stage shows in its own time, into a jive-talking musical in which every character and line is expressed in contemporary African-American cultural terms. Even the myriad fans of the great 1939 MGM movie found in it much to entrance them.

Critical opinion on William F. Brown’s slangy book, which had Dorothy swept up from a Kansas that resembled a typical ghetto, was divided. Douglas Watt called it “spotty,” Clive Barnes accused it of being “somewhat charmless,” and Martin Gottfried objected to the very premise of an “all black” version of non-Black material, observing that “the second act fell apart.” Edwin Wilson termed the book “undistinguished,” though audacious, and John Simon regretted that “it cannot make up its feeble mind” about its point of view. Yet Howard Kissel approved its “sassy archness,” and Jack Kroll enjoyed its “warmth and flair.”

Contrast also marked the reception of Charlie Small’s rock, gospel, and soul music score, which was seen by Watt as “dull, . . . commonplace, and . . . uninspired,” and “too insistent and oddly familiar” by Barnes. Yet Kroll thought it packed with “drive, wit and theatricality," and Gottfried conceded that it was imbued with “the slickness but also the unbeatable drive of the Motown sound.”

Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle.

The impression given by most reviewers was that, despite the inadequacies of the libretto and score, The Wiz was so imaginatively conceived and directed, and so enthusiastically performed, that, as Gottfried testified, “you could hardly sit still in your seat.” “The show is alive; a triumph of spirit and performance over material,” said Wilson. Watt ignored all flaws to announce that The Wiz is “so enormously good-natured, spectacular looking and slickly done that it is hard to resist.” John Beaufort called it a “gorgeously prismatic experience,” while T.E. Kalem dubbed it “a carnival of fun. It grins from the soul, sizzles with vitality, and flaunts the gaudy lines of an exploding rainbow.” Kroll’s opinion that this was “One of the most cyclonic blasts of high energy to hit Broadway in long time,” was supported by Brendan Gill saying it was “a big, fervent, handsome, and skillfully directed show and deserves a goodly run.” Barnes, however, while approving of the “first-rate and highly innovative” staging of Geoffrey Holder, could not prevent feeling that the show left him “cold.” Simon, as so often, faulted almost every part of the production, from the design to the direction to the performances.

Holder, who also designed the fantastical costumes, received general acclaim. Innovative visuals predominated, including Tom H. John’s eye-popping sets, particularly that for the Emerald City, while Holder’s costumes for the Munchkins, Scarecrow (Hinton Battle), Lion (Ted Ross), and Tinman (Tiger Haynes) were considered novel conceptions that were in no way copies of those in the movie. He even devised a way of making the Yellow Brick Road human, by dressing four tall dancers in huge blond Afros ad yellow brick jackets.

George Faison’s first Broadway choreography gig was exemplary, a highlight being his creation of a tornado suggested by a dancer whirling about with a very long strip of black cloth attached to her hair. “As this human twister moves across and around the stage, the black strip unwinds until it envelops everything in sight. Other dancers appear with umbrellas inside out and streamers on poles,” wrote Wilson.

Fifteen-year-old Stephanie Mills became a star for her performance as Dorothy, which she played for much of the long run. “Her eyes are filled with wonder and sometimes seemed brimming with tears, and her voice is just sensational,” shouted Kissel. Simon, however, demurred, calling her “untalented and unappealing.” The rest of the cast also showed mettle, including the Munchkin chorus, played by dancers on their knees. The witches were wonderful as portrayed by Mabel King, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Clarice Taylor, and the still dynamic Andre De Shields--subject of a lengthy Times article just today--gained acclamation for his white-suited, pimp-like, epicene Wiz. Battle, Ross, and Haynes as Dorothy’s unhuman companions were equally admired.

The song-packed score included such numbers as "The Feeling We Once Had," "Tornado," "He's the Wizard," "Soon as I Get Home," "Ease on Down the Road," "Slide Some Oil to Me," "I'm a) Mean Ole Lion," "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard," "What Would I Do If I Could Feel?," "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News," "Everybody Rejoice,"   "Wonder Wonder Why," "Believe in Yourself," and "Home." The Wiz landed the Best Musical award from the Drama Desk and Tonys. Drama Desk Awards went to Ross (Supporting Actor, Musical), Smalls (Music and Lyrics), Holder (Costume Design), and Faison (Choreographer). Tonys were handed to Holder (Direction, Musical), Bridgewater (Featured Actress, Musical), Holder (Costume Design), Faison (Choreographer), Ross (Actor, Musical), and Smalls (Score), while Tony nominations were given to King (Featured Actress, Musical), Battle (Featured Actor, Musical), and Brown (Book).

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Next up: The Women.