THE YEAR OF THE UNDERSTUDY

A big moment from 42nd Street(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A big moment from 42nd Street
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The 2000-200l Broadway season ends tomorrow night (May 2), not with a bang but with an orgasmic burst of glitz and tap. 42nd Street on 42nd Street (at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts) may not be the best musical of the season, but it is the best revival. And, like the best musical of the season (The Producers), it revels in the myth of The Understudy As Star, which was already old in the 1933 movie of 42nd Street.

In the stage adaptation of that film, it's the "raw kid from the chorus" (Kate Levering in the current revival) who steps into the star spotlight at the insistence of her director (Michael Cumpsty): "Sawyer, you're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" In The Producers, it's the effete director (Gary Beach) who is similarly pep-talked into emergency stardom by his "common-law personal assistant" (Roger Bart): "You're going out there a silly, hysterical queen, and you're coming back a great, big, passing-for-straight Broadway star!

Stranger things have happened--and continue to happen. In point of fact, the actor Beach replaces as his hit-making Hitler (Brad Oscar) stepped into that part in Chicago when the originally cast Ron Orbach was sidelined by a leg injury. In his last Broadway outing, Oscar was part of the body count for the rampaging Jekyll & Hyde-in-residence.

Follies, Broadway's other backstage saga, also has a cast member who can testify that the understudy-as-star myth is alive and well: Nancy Ringham, the first one down the staircase in the "Beautiful Girls" parade, did Eliza Doolittle when vocal problems sandbagged Cheryl Kennedy in Rex Harrison's last go-round in My Fair Lady.

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ROLLINS ON

Between Charles Brown and Brian Stokes Mitchell, who play out a duel to the death in August Wilson's King Hedley II, there is a curious, real-life connection. Brown originated the lead role of the investigating Army captain in Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize winner of the 1981-82 season, A Soldier's Play. When that property reached the screen in 1984 as A Soldier's Story, the part was played by Howard E. Rollins Jr., whose only other feature-film role was that of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in Ragtime (for which he received an Oscar nomination). Mitchell played that part when Ragtime premiered as a stage musical in Toronto on Dec. 8, 1996--two hours after Rollins succumbed to cancer in New York.

Another coincidence is that the Tony race for sets may boil down to a Battle of Back Porches: David Gallo's Pittsburgh slum in Hedley vs. John Lee Beatty's South Chicago suburb in Proof.

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Maria Karnilova in Zorba(PhotoFest)
Maria Karnilova in Zorba
(PhotoFest)
MARIA...I'LL NEVER STOP SAYING MARIA

Last February, when the Paper Mill Playhouse reprised An Ideal Husband, I happened to mention to George S. Irving at the opening night party that many of us kept hoping he'd arrive at one of these receptions with "that wonderful wife of yours on your arm." He smiled appreciatively and said softly, "Oh, no, that's not likely to happen."

And, indeed it didn't. Last week, the beloved dancer-actress Maria Karnilova died at the age of 80. The first Golde of Fiddler on the Roof and the first Tessie Tura of Gypsy, she has left us with indelible memories. But if you only know her from Broadway musicals, you don't know the half of it. She was one of a kind, part of show business era that has vanished, never to return.

Karnilova's was a career that could only happen once. A charter member of American Ballet Theater (then called, simply, Ballet Theater), she was a soloist--a principal dancer--at a time when producers like Sol Hurok were reluctant to grant such status to Americans. And Karnilova got it not through being a Swan Queen or a fading village sylph, but as a comedienne--a character dancer. She had the dance technique and the acting chops to excel in comic ballets by Tudor, Fokine, de Mille. She did the serious ones too; but, oh, what a flair for comedy!

Her gifts and charms captivated Broadway audiences when she finally got there in Call Me Mister (that's where she met the man who would call her Mrs.), and she was a featured performer in many of the shows directed and/or choreographed by Jerome Robbins (Miss Liberty, Two's Company, Kaleidoscope). I still remember her show-stopping "Signora Pandolfi," choreographed for her by Carol Haney, in Bravo, Giovanni, and her Tony-nominated performance as Hortense in the original Zorba (1968). She later appeared as Mamita in the stage version of Gigi as as the Queen opposite her husband's king in the New York City Opera production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella.

Chances are that, if you're under 40, Karnilova was and will always be Golde, her Tony-winning performance. To many of the rest of us, she was and is Ballet Theater. Either way, she's unforgettable.

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BROADWAY SUBSTANDARDS

Hershey Felder can't sing--and looks and sounds thoroughly unpleasant trying to do so--in his pedantic, charmless, one-man show at the Helen Hayes Theater. George Gershwin alone survives George Gershwin Alone...but barely. As one cabaret performer muttered on the way to the exit, "I never thought I'd be wishing George Gershwin had a shorter career." Indeed, you're very grateful that Rhapsody in Blue, which caps the show with a baby grand flourish, doesn't have a vocal part for Felder to go sharp on.

Yes, when it comes to sour notes on a Broadway stage, Felder is the present title-holder; but there is a worse show on the Main Stem. That would be The Gathering, which is also produced by Martin Markinson, owner of the Hayes. Because of these abysmal bookings, Broadway was deprived of By Jeeves, Mack & Mabel, The Enigma Variations, and who knows what else.