There are very few living legends in today's musical theater, but Cy Coleman is one of them. Early in his career, he was a jazz pianist, playing clubs around town with his Cy Coleman Trio in the '50s. Then, in 1960, he had his first Broadway musical produced: Wildcat, starring Lucille Ball. His subsequent Main Stem successes have included Sweet Charity, On the Twentieth Century, The Will Rogers Follies, and The Life. Coleman's many hit songs are a big part of his current show at Feinstein's at the Regency. (Click here for schedule and other information.)
The act begins with a nod to Coleman's pre-theater history: three great tunes by others are performed by his new trio, including a sensational arrangement of "St. Louis Blues" (W.C. Handy). With only one further exception, the rest of the evening is all Coleman, all the time. And what a treat! A tribute to Mabel Mercer, in which Coleman couples "Why Try to Change Me Now" (lyrics by Joseph A. McCarthy) with "It Amazes Me" (lyrics by Carolyn Leigh), is a sweet and romantically poignant highlight of the program.
The climax of the show is a gargantuan, 14-song medley of the composer's hits. We usually abhor this concept, but Coleman has written so many standards that an ever-increasing sense of history overtook us as we were showered by more than 40 years' worth of brilliance. Coleman and company continue at Feinstein's through October 23.
A Singer and A Song
A parade of talent is regularly marshaled at Birdland on Monday nights for Jim Caruso's Cast Party. One of the distinct pleasures of hanging out there every week is the opportunity for new discoveries, and there were two major ones this week.
An attractive young woman named Julie Stirman galvanized the audience and these critics with her emotionally charged rendition of William Finn's "Sailing," from A New Brain. A vibrant newcomer to New York's musical theater scene, Stirman is one of those hundred people who just got off of the bus, and she looks like a keeper. Our other discovery at Birdland was a deliciously satirical new ditty by songwriter par excellence John Wallowitch. His dry delivery of "Osama is Alive and Well and Living at the Waldorf" had us laughing so hard, there were tears in our eyes.
While the opening night celebration for Nine Parts of Desire bubbled in the lobby of the Manhattan Ensemble Theater at 55 Mercer Street, we sat in the theater with the play's writer-star, Heather Raffo. Earlier that evening, she had elicited a standing ovation for her one-person show about the lives of nine very different Iraqi women. What we wanted to know was how she had arrived at this magical moment.
The action of the play is set in war-torn Iraq, so we were stunned when Raffo told us, "I've been working on this since 1998. Only three of the nine characters had to be substantially rewritten after the war started; the rest are essentially the same." She added that, between George H.W. Bush's war and George W. Bush's, "The only thing that really changed is the occupation."
The daughter of an Iraqi father and an American mother, Raffo grew up in Michigan. One of the characters is clearly based on her: a young woman in New York who tries desperately to phone her relatives in Iraq during the early bombing. When she finally reaches an aunt who barely speaks English, all the older woman can say is, "Go to church and pray. I love you, I love you, I love you..." and she keeps saying those three words until the line goes dead. "Every word of that happened to me when I called my own aunt, " Raffo told us softly.
Nine Parts of Desire is the first MET production following Golda's Balcony. When we asked David Fishelson, the theater company's artistic director, if this was a case of political even-handedness, he smiled and said: "No, I never thought about that. I simply read the play, fell in love with it, and said, 'We have to do it.' "
White Chocolate is a comic fantasy in which a rich New York power couple suddenly and inexplicably turns black. Written with loads of laugh lines by William Hamilton, the play is funnier than it is successful; its central joke is spun to the point of exhaustion. By the beginning of the second act, you'd rather eat white chocolate than watch it. The saving grace? Julie Halston, as an upper-crust relative, gives a brilliantly madcap performance that makes you think you're watching a masterpiece whenever she's on stage. The irony is that Halston was a last-minute replacement for Nora Dunn in the role; now, she's the main reason for seeing the play.
String of Pearls, the current hit at Primary Stages' new home at the 59E59 complex, has just been extended for two more weeks. In the course of the play, a pearl necklace passes through the lives of a wide variety of women, all played by four gifted actresses. You have to give yourself over to the conceit of the playwright's invention, but once you get past some of the rather forced ways in which the pearls make their way from one woman to the next, this is a very satisfying and often moving show. While all of the cast members are impressive at various moments during the production, Mary Testa is extraordinary in every role she plays, proving once again that she's one of New York's most versatile talents.
Last but not least in this roundup of standout performers is Paul Sparks in Finer Noble Gases by Adam Rapp at the Rattlestick Playwright's Theater. The play has its memorable moments, including the longest full frontal urination scene in theater history. (We suspect that, in fact, it may be the only full frontal urination scene in theater history.) Finer Noble Gases is a dark comedy about a bunch of stoners; it strives for poignancy but finally amounts to not much more than -- well, gas. Nonetheless, Sparks infuses his central character with complexity and a sly sense of humor. He also shows off a lively sense of physical comedy. A two-time Drama Desk nominee, Sparks is a downtown actor perched on the brink of stardom.
As one of many special, one-night-only events occurring in this benefit season, the newly named Songbook Project took over the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Monday, October 11 to raise money to help bring our musical theater heritage to young people around the country. The concert was titled Women on Stage but it was hosted by the object of affection of so many women on stage, Malcolm Gets.
Charming and affable as always, Gets introduced four very different female performers, each of them scoring big-time. Among the highlights: Liz Callaway's "Meadowlark," Liz McCartney's "I Could Have Been a Sailor," Barbara Walsh's "Holding to the Ground" -- and everything that B.J. Crosby sang.