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Taking the First

For several reasons, Filichia loves to sit in the front row when he goes to the theater.

By New York City
Nathan Lane in Trumbo
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Nathan Lane in Trumbo
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
As I headed to the Connelly Theatre to see a musical called Poe -- about Edgar Allen, natch -- I relished the thought that I was about to have a rather rare theatergoing experience. Poe would be an informal staged reading, so that meant I could sit wherever I wanted. For me, that always means the very first row.

Some people feel, "Oh, the first row is too close," but I disagree. For one thing, when you sit there, every scene a veritable close-up; you can see each and every expression on an actor's face. Similarly, because you and those seated near you can easily hear everything, you never get a voice behind you whispering "What did he say?", followed by another voice repeating the actor's line and making you miss the next one. Also, having a first row seat means that no one's head will ever block your view.

So, why don't I always sit in the first row? Because reviewers aren't put there. Actors get unnerved when they see a critic taking notes right in front of them. (I wish they would assume that I'm writing "Hey, she's terrific" rather than "She stinks," but most don't.) Too bad! The closer I am to the stage, the more legible are my notes, since I can see more clearly due to the light coming from the stage. Nathan Lane once wrote me a caustic e-mail because I'd made a mistake in reporting on a scene in Trumbo, a production that was very dimly lit. The morning after I saw the show, I looked at what I'd written but had a hard time deciphering some scribbles atop of scribbles. So I misread and misreported, which made Lane wield his terrible swift sword. That's all right; my mistake. Let the punishment fit the crime. But it wouldn't have happened had I been in the first row.

At a staged reading, I'm always in the first row -- even though I don't take any notes because I won't be reviewing. Every time I'm there, I remember the first time I ever sat in the first row, for The Unsinkable Molly Brown at the Shubert in Boston in 1962. Because there was no defined orchestra pit, just a gold rail to separate the band from the populace, I was able to see the musicians clearly. I was shocked that the trumpeter was reading Goodbye, Columbus between numbers. Yes, it's a terrific book, but there's a time and place for everything! If he wanted something to do, he should have looked up and seen the wonder that was Tammy Grimes.

There are hazards in sitting in the front row. During the era where so many musicals used fog effects, I choked mightily on the second-hand smoke. Then there was the time I was first row center for the tryout of Black Comedy at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston. I reveled at my good fortune until the scene where Peter Bull's character got the wrong drink, hated the way it tasted, and spit it out with great force -- all over me.

In 1980, I was in the front row for a not-so-hot off-Broadway musical called Five After Eight. The set consisted of little more than a mirror-like Mylar curtain, at the rear of the stage, that reflected the audience. In the middle of the first act, before I even realized it, I caught my reflection and saw that I had the most judgmental scowl on my face. I had no idea that I could be such a harsh-looking theatergoer. Those poor actors! What they must think when they see a front row where everyone looks this way! (On the other hand, as my Star-Ledger colleague Peggy McGlone astutely observed, "It would be worse for them to see people out there asleep.")

In 1983, my girlfriend Linda and I were in Philadelphia, looking for a show to see. Ah -- something called Judy! was at a place called Grendel's Lair. Great! A Judy Garland impersonator would be a hoot. When we got there an hour before show time, we saw on the wall an 8-by-10 headshot of the pianist; he turned out to be our buddy Ted Kociolek, who'd go on to write the stirring music for Abyssinia. As luck would have it, Ted showed up at that precise moment and, after we hugged and kissed, he got us comps in the front row.

We were early, so Linda had more than one drink in her by the time the show began with the Judy impersonator -- believe it or not, a woman! -- singing a few bars of "Get Happy" in the famous "Get Happy" jacket and hat. Then Ted stopped playing, jumped up from the piano, and chided: "Judy, Judy, Judy! What's wrong with you tonight?" When Judy nervously replied, "Oh, I don't know Ted," the slightly besotted Linda started giggling and then laughing wildly, for she couldn't quite picture The Great Judy Garland deigning to confide in our pal Ted. As her laughter turned hysterical and incessant, I had to take up the slack. I clapped after every number with that slow, hard, deliberate, loud applause that says, "I am impressed. You are really something. You are an artist! Brava!" -- just so the poor actress would feel she was at least winning over one of us.

Speaking of Philadelphia: Last month, when Shakespeare in Hollywood was at the Wilma Theatre there, I called publicist Megan Wendell, who told me, "All I have for that performance are seats in the front row." What luck! I grabbed them and soon was enjoying the snaggle-toothed Puck, the scuffs on the leading lady's red shoes, and how lush Janus Stefanowicz's costumes were (not to mention beautifully stitched). During the curtain calls, as I made eye contact with the actors -- another advantage! -- I realized that the first row is the closest that many of us will ever get to being on stage.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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