A Terrific Show, By George (and Ira)!
Encores! triumphs with Pardon My English, the Roundabout flops with Twentieth Century, and new cabaret clubs keep popping up in NYC.
The concert did what it was supposed to do by giving a grateful audience the opportunity to hear a magnificent George and Ira Gershwin score while providing the context from which some truly wonderful songs sprung forth. In particular, "Isn't it a Pity?" -- a song often performed in cabaret -- was a revelation as a musical theater piece. It was wonderful to hear brilliant, virtually unknown verses of the song that described the changing nature of a relationship as the plot unfolded. And what a deliciously silly plot! Herbert Fields and Morrie Ryskind wrote -- and endlessly rewrote -- the original until it was a tattered mess. David Ives adapted the script for this concert production and provided some laugh lines that were never heard in 1933.
The original show might have had book trouble before it opened and quickly closed on Broadway, but its fundamental error was probably one of timing. Not only did Pardon My English open during the very worst year of the Great Depression, it reached Broadway just as Hitler came to power in Germany. The last thing New York theatergoers wanted to see in 1933 was lovable Germans in a light musical comedy. No wonder the show tanked!
In addition to reviving a terrific score, the Encores! Pardon My English proved that there are actors besides Nathan Lane who know how to give a genuine musical comedy performance. Brian d'Arcy James was sensational as both Golo the gangster (lovingly patterned on James Cagney) and a foppish Brit named Michael Bramleigh, switching back and forth between these split personalities whenever he was hit on the head. Matching him, Emily Skinner was a riot as a Polish chanteuse named Gita Gobel. The plot has Golo in love with Gita while Michael is in love with the police commissioner's daughter, Frieda (Jennifer Laura Thompson). All sorts of nonsense ensues, including a countless number of blows to Golo/Michael's head to keep him spinning from one persona to the other. A genial subplot provided the opportunity for winning performances by Don Stephenson and Felicia Finley.
Under the direction of Gary Griffin, the cast performed songs like "I've Got to be There," "The Lorelei," "My Cousin in Milwaukee," and "Where You Go, I Go" -- as well as "Isn't It a Pity?" -- to the hilt.
If you have the desire to see a genuinely brilliant version of Twentieth Century, rent the 1934 movie directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Do not see the stage version of Twentieth Century that is presently laboring at the American Airlines Theatre in a Roundabout Theatre Company revival. Someone should have given director Walter Bobbie a chemistry set for Christmas because there's not even the slightest glimmer of a spark between the production's stars, Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche.
As the grandiose and conniving Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, Baldwin comes off as pompous; he works so hard that his performance lacks charm. As his contentious love interest, actress Lilly Garland, Heche is brittle where she should be subtle and is ultimately unlikable. We never really know why these two people love each other beneath all the fighting, something that's abundantly clear in the movie.
The supporting cast steals what little there is to heist here. Julie Halston gives a terrific period performance as Jaffe's right-hand woman and Dan Butler is equally fine as his right-hand man. Having said that, we now close the iron door on this production.
New Nightspots, New Ideas
Only a year and a half ago, there was a dearth of clubs in which this city's talented cabaret performers could play; now, we are on the verge of having a glut of such places. In addition to new venues like Mama Rose's, Dillon's, The Stanhope, and Le Jazz Au Bar, Helen's Hideaway in Chelsea is opening on April 2 with Julie Wilson. Soon thereafter, on April 12, Opia on East 57th Street will have a grand opening for the press.
The question is, how are these clubs -- old and new -- going to attract audiences in large enough numbers to avoid a shakeout? One answer, it seems to us, is that the clubs have to be more aggressive about building relationships with top-of-the-line performers. Each venue should have its own identity built around the entertainers that it books. Just as The Duplex had Baby Jane Dexter for the better part of a year on Saturday nights at 9pm and the Stanhope has Steve Ross as a resident performer, other clubs should pay what is necessary to secure the services of the finest performer available and keep them in place for lengthy runs.
People like Karen Mason, KT Sullivan, Mark Nadler, Jeff Harnar, Tom Andersen, Julie Reyburn, Jeanne MacDonald, Karen Mack & Michael Holland, and others who draw audiences should be hired by individual clubs for periods of weeks and months rather than for a few performances here and there. Exceptionally talented performers should not be nomads in New York; they should have places with which they are associated. If all of the clubs named above are to thrive, a new way of doing business has to emerge. It makes sense to hire top talent and to promote it propertly; the clubs need to make that kind of investment in their own futures if they are to flourish in such a competitive market.