Peter Filichia (left); Matthew Murray (right)
Peter Filichia (left); Matthew Murray (right)
This Tuesday, April 5, my young colleague Matthew Murray and I will take the stage at the 45th Street Theatre at 6pm to resume our "Bitch and Brag about Broadway" series under the aegis of Musicals Tonight! producer Mel Miller. For those who didn't attend either of our two sessions last fall, they start with Matthew and me each picking something about Broadway (or Off-Broadway or regional theater) that makes us miserable and prompts us to bitch; then we follow up by bragging about something that makes us proud.

We often bitch at each other, too. I suspect that, with the reworked and rewritten Sweet Charity about to come in -- it is, isn't it? -- Matthew and I will continue our debate on revisals.One of us is adamant that no show should have a single word, a note, even a comma changed for a new production; the other feels that, as Buddy Fidler says in City of Angels, "Nothing was ever hurt by being improved." What may surprise you is that Murray, who's 30 years younger than I, is the hard-liner who believes that the books, music, and lyrics of yore should be treated like the Holy Scriptures, while I'm not so sure. Of course, I'm not looking for anyone to "improve" the classics, no more than I'd want arms added to the Venus de Milo; but with shows that have problems, I don't mind if someone tries to solve them. Broken toys don't get played with, and there are many imperfect musicals that don't get played but might be presentable if some judicious repair work were done. Look: Not every building is landmarked, because not every building deserves it. If someone can fix a show like Sugar and give it a new life during which it will bring pleasure to thousands (and thousands to the estates of the creators' heirs), well, as they say in that very musical, "Hey, why not?"

After Matthew and I have our say, we invite members of the audience to come up on stage and do their own bitching or bragging about Broadway. Maybe you'll be the person with whom I'll battle over the current production of The Glass Menagerie, which I liked. So sue me -- or bitch at me! Christian Slater is the most butch Tom I've ever seen. I like it that, when his mother asks about the guys he knows at work, he says, "No, there are no nice young men" in a tone that communicates, "Are you kidding? How could you have expected any at a warehouse?"

When Jessica Lange did A Streetcar Named Desire, you had to sit close to hear her. But in this production, her audibility is no problem -- and she's worth hearing. (You should still sit close if you can, because Natasha Katz's lighting doesn't go in for illuminating faces.) Lange is especially good in the scene where Amanda trying to sell magazine subscriptions on the phone; she doesn't say "I think she hung up!" with the righteous indignation of all the other Amandas I've seen but with the anguished desperation of seeing a sale that she was starting to count on suddenly disappear.

I'd also hate for you to miss the moment when Lange's Amanda says "I'm old and don't matter" and slightly raises her chin because she thinks she's being noble. More importantly, catch the glow she has when she speaks of her husband. Her tone shows that she's forgiven herself for falling for him. Here's where Sarah Paulson especially shines, for while much is made of how Laura doesn't see her herself as pretty, Paulson looks genuinely beautiful when Amanda is telling Laura of her own jonquil-filled youth. You can see in that face how much she loves her mother and appreciates who she used to be. I also liked the way that Paulson's Laura almost had a nervous breakdown after saying goodbye to her Gentleman Caller, and how she blew out her candles. In my 40-plus years history with this play, I've always seen an ethereal miss gently letting out three wan blows. Director David Leveaux has Paulson blow them out lickety-split, one-two-three, as if to say, "That's it. My life is over now. It's official."

Want to talk about Hot 'N' Throbbing? Sure! Matthew, who reviews for Talkin' Broadway in addition to his job as associate editor of TheaterMania, didn't much appreciate it, but I did. I say that the play makes many good points about pornography: middle-aged divorcee Charlene is writing "adult entertainment" for a living and has rationalized that it isn't doing her or her family any great harm. Little by little, though, Vogel proves that being involved with this industry does have its consequences, not the least of which is that porn is second cousin to violence.

Maybe you can come up and we'll just brag about The Magic of Theater. I know that's a cliché but I still find it in evidence. It happened at the performance of Dessa Rose I attended, when Rachel York dropped her napkin onto the floor and I wondered if she or any of her fellow actors would pick it up or just ignore it. Then York's dining companion said to LaChanze, "Dessa, would you pick up your mistress's serviette?" I thought this might have been an improvised line of dialogue, but the plot complication that followed proved that it wasn't. Now, if we'd seen the napkin drop in a movie, we'd know for sure that it was supposed to happen; but this is a live stage production, so there were those few seconds during which we all wonderered if we'd seen something unplanned. (By the way, I think Dessa Rose has been unfairly maligned. I find the story quite engrossing, with the two leads portraying three-dimensional characters, and there are lots of surprises in the show.)

There's theatrical magic at Altar Boyz, too -- in more ways than one, to be sure, but I'm talking about what happens right at the top of the show. We all laughed when a techie came on stage and sprayed fog from a machine. Part of our glee was that he had a perfunctory, I'm-just-doin'-my-job demeanor that was supposed to debunk the notion of The Magic of Theater, but we also laughed because stage fog is so overused. That it was shown to be patently fake calls to mind the famous expression that two boards and a passion are all you need to make good theater, though Kevin Del Aguila's book, Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker's score, Stafford Arima's direction, and a terrific cast headed by Tyler Maynard -- whose face can look as innocent as Bambi's -- also make for good theater.

By the way, even without Cheyenne Jackson (who did the show in August but moved over to All Shook Up) as Matthew, Altar Boyz is still the best musical in town. I first saw it and loved it when I caught it at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. There, when the Boyz turned on their Soul Sensor, the machine's LED display showed that there were 100 sinners in the house. Now, it tallies 328! But don't assume that sinning is increasing in New York; it's just that Altar Boyz is now playing at Dodgers Stages 4, which has that many seats. Look for the number to increase further when the show plays bigger venues, which it must to accommodate all the theatergoers who are going to want to see it.

Agree? Disagree? Then attend "Bitch and Brag About Broadway" on Tuesday and take the stage. Everyone who comes up to talk with us gets a free CD, even if Matthew and I think you're the biggest bubblehead since Amber von Tussle.

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