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A Mamma Is Björn?Next Move: Chess

Mamma Mia! is a monster hit at the Winter Garden, so guess what? Its ABBA auteurs are planning to bring Chess back to Broadway. logo


Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson
Now that Mamma Mia! has settled into the former Cats house called the Winter Garden, composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus are concentrating their energies on reviving Chess, which came and went very quickly on Broadway back in 1988 after a much longer London run in a different production. "You can count on it," insists Ulvaeus. "It's going to be back here in one or two years. We've written three new songs already, and we're starting it off in Stockholm in February."

Though casting of the new Broadway Chess is (obviously) far off, we can expect that the show will feature some fresh faces and voices: There are no less than 15 Broadway debuts in Mamma Mia!, including the mother and daughter in the center ring, Louise Pitre and Tina Maddigan. (Pitre marked her arrival on Broadway by planting a kiss on the stage on opening night.) As Maddigan's prospective groom, Joe Machota brings a conspicuous set of abs to the ABBA show; he says the Broadway-bowing took seven weeks but the body

Art for the original Broadway
production of Chess
workout is a life sentence. Another Broadway neophyte is Dean Nolen plays one of Maddigan's possible pops. He turned 37 on the night that the show started up previews, and it was a magical experience: "We had a party afterwards that producer Judy Craymer threw for our first night and the entire cast sang Happy Birthday to me," says Nolen. "Never again will something that glorious be repeated in my life!"

Back to Chess: Ulvaeus reports that the Broadway "revisal" will have more emphasis on human relationships than Cold War politics. With any luck at all, Mamma Mia! should still be dancing in place at the Winter Garden when Chess makes its comeback move. The first, ill-fated Broadway production starred Judy Kuhn, Philip Casnoff, and the late David Carroll. It had a book by Richard Nelson, roundly criticized at the time, that stressed the Cold War stuff. The show eked out a run of only 68 performances, but the Chess score retains a huge cult following.



I was in Philly for the finale of Lady in the Dark with Andrea Marcovicci at the Prince Music Theater last Sunday. The most ambitious and financially successful production in the theater's short history ended not with a bang but with a croak--a cultivated croak, but a croak: "Andrea would like you to know that, at this performance, the role of Liza Elliot will be played by Tallulah Bankhead," director Ted Sperling announced from the stage before the start of the show. Translation: Mme. Marcovicci had laryngitis. But, as Sperling correctly postscripted, "few people can speak a lyric as beautifully as Andrea Marcovicci." And that's just what she did, while still giving a game account of the psychologically troubled magazine editor.

Andrea Marcovicci and Beau Gravitte
in Lady in the Dark
(Photo: Mark Garvin)
I don't think that I've ever admired a Marcovicci performance as much, and her vocal problems actually worked for the role.

The previous weekend was a case of Another Weill, Another Town as I caught Street Scene at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in a co-production of the English National Opera and Scottish Opera. Unfortunately, the pedigree said it all: The Depression-age NYC originally envisioned by Pulitzer Prize winner Elmer Rice (shifted to the 1940s for the musical adaptation) was nowhere to be found on the vast Lyric stage. David Fielding's unnecessarily stylized setting--part street tenement and part bombed-out building, occassionally giving way to a glitzy 1990s Manhattan skyline--and the lack of an authentic feel for the material on the part of director David Pountney buried the piece in a house too big for the show by half. There was, in Lori Ann Fuller's flatlining performance, no Rose Maurrant blooming in this Street Scene--and, without a Rose, there's no show.

Though Catherine Malfitano is a fine singing actress (she was a great Rose herself 20 years ago in the New York City Opera production), she couldn't really handle the spoken dialogue of mama Anna Maurrant. But kudos to Lara Teeter, Timothy Nolen, Stephanie Ann Sheppard, and Kirby Ward, all of whom understood that this gorgeous piece is--like The Most Happy Fella and Sweeney Todd--a Broadway musical and not an opera, no matter how much ravishing music it includes. Overall, this Street Scene is yet another example of Broadway musicals entering the repertory of opera companies that don't know how to cast or direct them. Financial considerations seem to dictate this state of affairs, but look at what's lost!



And while we're on the subject of Broadway and opera, I must say that I had a ball reading Brian Kellow's Q&A with Karen Morrow in the November Opera News. When Kellow says that Morrow was conspicuous in her absence from the recent Broadway revival of Follies and wonders why, the lady whom Charles Nelson Reilly calls "our best theater singer" takes the gloves off to offer her explanation: "I can tell you why. Because I'm too old. Every woman here in L.A. auditioned for that. And here was this child, this absolute child, who had just been Tony-nominated for best director for True West [Matthew Warchus]. And I was in the room with this child, and the casting director, and a wonderful pianist who had worked with me in Follies before. I sang, and I thought, 'I'm busting my behind here for kids.' And [when I was there] Nancy Dussault sang 'In Buddy's Eyes' so beautifully. Brenda Vaccaro followed me. But all of us were just not the right age. It reminds me of when a friend of mine saw Carousel [with Michael Hayden as Billy and Sally Murphy as Julie] when it was revived on Broadway, and he said, 'You know, you really don't miss the singing of Carousel.' That stopped me dead in my tracks. You don't miss the singing of Carousel? I thought about Follies. Someone is going to say, 'You don't miss the singing in Follies.' "


Robert Torti and Michele Pawk
in Reefer Madness
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Poof! There goes Reefer Madness on Sunday, October 28, at the Variety Arts (after 23 previews and 25 performances) and in comes Summer of '42, opening very much out of season on January 10. Both musicals are based on movies about the timeless temptations that teenagers face. Robert Torti plays one of those temptations in Madness, double cast as a junkie and as Jesus. The latter character, writ large, has an Elvis-sized ego in the show. "We cross a few lines," admits Torti, "but it's all in good fun. I'm a Roman Catholic myself. I was an altar boy for eight years and sent to Catholic school for 12, so I can understand that it's not everybody's cup of tea."

A Tony nominee for Starlight Express, Torti is married to DeLee Lively, herself a Tony nominee for Smokey Joe's Cafe. In fact, they met workshopping Smokey Joe's. "I turned down the Broadway contract because I'd just gotten divorced and I wanted to stay near my son," he says, "but it worked out because staying in L.A. got me The Drew Carey Show and the Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do." Torti has a flick coming out in March: Who's Your Daddy?, an American Pie-like comedy about a 17-year-old boy who inherits $80 million and a Playboy-type magazine. William Atherton and Wayne Newton co-star.

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