Over the past 14 years, a nifty unit has formed on East 54th Street: The Mufti Family. It only meets six times a year -- three in the autumn, three in the winter -- when the York Theatre Company presents its Musicals in Mufti series. The Mufti Family savors the troupe's staged readings of neglected musicals ranging from shows that closed out-of-town (Mata Hari) to one-performance flops (Onward, Victoria, Kelly) to tuners that ran more than a year but didn't pay off (Destry Rides Again, Golden Boy) to bone-fide hits that few people think of any more (Carmen Jones, Wish You Were Here) to British musicals that never even made it to our shores (The Good Companions, Pacific 1860).
Of course, many Mufti Family members are also Encores! Family members; but we have more of a chance to talk with each other at length at the York because the venue is so much smaller than the gargantuan City Center. How many times have each of us called a friend after seeing an Encores! presentation to say how we felt about it, only to hear our pal say, "I was there, too! I didn't see you!" At Mufti, we have an easier time spotting people and getting to talk to them.
So I said hi to Ronni Krasnow, who of course was there, for the keeper of the Ahrens and Flaherty website tries to see as many productions of the talented pair's shows as possible. Given that Krasnow didn't discover their work until the '90s, she missed the original Playwrights Horizons production of Lucky Stiff in 1988 and, before this, had only caught what she calls "crappy community theater productions." Now she had the chance to see original casters Ron Faber, Paul Kandel, Barbara Rosenblat, Mary Testa, and Stuart Zagnit reprise their roles. She's was so excited by the prospect that she purchased tickets to all five Mufti performances.
I also said hello to Bruce Yeko, who's recorded hundreds of cast albums, and to Ron Spivak, who was taking a break from designing Neva (Henry, Sweet Henry) Small's new album. Then I spotted Sean McCarthy, who'd come all the way from Toronto, and Carol de Giere, who'd arrived from Iowa, and Michael Glenn Smith, who told me that he's written a new song for his Elvis-parody musical Vaya Con Dios, Las Vegas. As I went to my seat, I noticed something interesting: Many people in the first row had turned around to talk to the people in the second row, just as those in the third and fifth rows had spun around to chat with those in the fourth and sixth rows. Although no statistics are kept on which theaters have the most people turning around in their seats to talk to the people behind them, if someone crunched the numbers, I suspect he'd find that the Mufti Family is high on the list.
But everyone turned around to face front when Jim Morgan -- the bespectacled, happy-faced artistic director of the York -- bounded onto the stage. "Welcome to the second performance of the second presentation of the 14th year," he said as chuckles of recognition resonated through the house. We know that Morgan always starts with these statistics, that he'll go on to say that the cast got its first look at the material on the previous Monday and had received 30 hours of rehearsals -- "whether they needed it or not," a line that's always accompanied by an eye-twinkle. He also mentioned that Rowena M. Hill actually came in on Wednesday after another actress -- he didn't mention that it was Emily Skinner -- had become incapacitated. We members of The Mufti Family gave Hill a warm round of welcoming applause.
Morgan spent the next few minutes hawking subscription packages, compact discs, and a raffle that included among its many prizes "four complimentary tickets to Dance of the... Oh, no, excuse me, we're not offering that anymore." As always, he pointed out that a prize was available to anyone who could guess the theme for this series of three shows. One member of The Mufti Family had guessed that Oh, Boy!, Man with a Load of Mischief, and Lucky Stiff were all Viagra commercials, while another was more blatant in suggesting that they were musicals adapted from gay porno movies. But Seth Christenfeld took a much higher road in stating that they represent the Three Ages of Man. None of these people, however, gave the answer that Morgan wants, so the prize is still up for grabs.
After Morgan concluded, the cast of Lucky Stiff entered and was given a warm reception by The Mufti Family. But that was just the beginning. What a wonderfully enthusiastic crowd it once again proved to be! There was a generous burst of applause when a performer delivered a socko song and a damned good amount of laughter and hand-clapping even when an actor gave a well-delivered one-liner.
At intermission, not one single human being was talking on a cell-phone; instead, everyone was busy talking to someone else. Some were assessing the show, of course ("Now that musical comedy is back, I can see this at the Booth or the Hayes") but, mostly, it was typical Mufti Family chatter: "Did you go to that reading they had here last year?" "The deadline for the Richard Rodgers Award is Friday." "I did that show my first season there." "I can't say I got a major gig, but at least it's a gig." And I heard "You're looking good, girl!" said to both women and men.
Some walked over to the wall to view a marvelous display of photos provided by press agent Bill Schelbe and to try to identify those pictured. ("That's John Kander, Fred Ebb, Peter Stone, and Harry Guardino, but who's that guy in front of them?") Others cooed over a photo that showed the marquee of a now-defunct Village theater: "Circle-in-the-Square has the honor to present Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh." Said one patron, "That's a big step up from 'proudly presents,' isn't it?"
We returned for the second act, during which our enthusiasm grew and grew. There was a scene in which Malcolm Gets was sitting with his back to the audience, and when he leaned forward, we could see that what looked like Hebrew letters were tattooed right above his tush. We couldn't have noticed such a thing at Encores!
Mufti matinees offer post-play discussions. I knew that Ronni Krasnow wasn't leaving, for Lynn Ahrens and Steve Flaherty had attended this performance and were going to talk about how they created their baby. Alas, many reluctantly had to leave in order to meet up with members of their other families. But as the stayers said good-bye to the exiters, there were cries of "See you next week!" in reference to The Mufti Family Reunion that will take place at Man with a Load of Mischief.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]