Michael Portantiere prays to see Patti LuPone in Gypsy, flips over NYU's Ragtime, and wonders what's going on at Manhattan Theatre Club.
I'm not the first person to come up with the brilliant idea that Patti LuPone should assume the central role of Rose in the current Broadway production of Gypsy. In fact, the thought dates back to the period when star Bernadette Peters's illness caused her to miss so many preview performances of the show that people wondered if she might have to take some time off -- though I honestly can't recall if it had already occurred to me before or after I heard it from someone else or read it on the Internet.
Well, it doesn't matter whose idea it was. The point is that it's a great one. Even though LuPone hasn't actually appeared in a Broadway tuner for about 16 years, she is a musical theater star of the first magnitude, as she most recently proved with her performance as La Mome Pistache in the City Center Encores! production of Cole Porter's Can-Can. Meanwhile, the Gypsy revival is running out of steam and desperately needs something or someone to rekindle audience interest. Hello?! Is this situation a no-brainer, or what?
LuPone would seem to be perfect for Rose in every possible way. While Peters has struggled to meet the musical demands of the role, Ms. Patti is deservedly famous for having vocal cords of steel and lungs of iron. (True, she did only six performances a week in the title role of the original Broadway production of Evita, but come on, folks -- that was Evita, the musical theater equivalent of opera's Norma or Turandot!) It's true that, like Peters, LuPone is not a major film or TV star and therefore could not be expected to keep Gypsy runnning for the long term. But I'm willing to bet that, if she did go into the show, every single theater fan in the New York area would buy a ticket to see her and the show's box-office receipts would go way up for several months at least.
Here's a fact of which you may be unaware: About a year prior to the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun that starred Peters, LuPone played Annie Oakley in a Lincoln Center Theater benefit performance of the show. I didn't attend (dammit!) but I did get a look at a videotape of the performance, and I'm here to tell you that LuPone's stupendous singing voice, faultless comic timing, and undeniable star quality made her a magnificent Annie even though she's not 100% right for the role in terms of age and type. It's a shame that more people didn't get to see her in the part -- and it would be a shame if none of us gets to see her play Rose in Gypsy.
I know, I know; it probably ain't gonna happen. Negotiations for this sort of thing are almost impossible to finalize in a hurry and, for all I know, LuPone may have a number of bookings coming up. (She's scheduled to appear at Feinstein's at the Regency, April 6-May 9, in a cabaret show titled The Lady With the Torch). Also, the scuttlebutt is that Arthur Laurents -- the author of Gypsy's book -- would never agree to LuPone starring in the show because she backed out of a regional production of his play Jolson Sings Again a few years ago, reportedly because she couldn't be assured that the show would come to Broadway. So the prospects of seeing the words "Patti LuPone in Gypsy" in lights on the facade of the Shubert Theatre are rather dim. But I can pray, can't I?
THERE'S A DARK, MURKY HAZE ON LYNNE MEADOW
"All the demons in hell are sent to torment me!" That line is uttered by Mrs. Lovett at the end of Sweeney Todd, but one imagines that Lynne Meadow must be having similar feelings these days. As artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club, Meadow has had more than her fair share of angst to deal with recently. First, the company's production of Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour was plagued by the replacement of two members of the five-person company before opening night; Laura Benanti departed during rehearsals and Jasmine Guy during previews. Then came the Rose's Dilemma debacle, which saw animosity between playwright Neil Simon and star Mary Tyler Moore escalate so high that Moore left on a jet plane less than two weeks before opening night. (Her role was taken over by her understudy, Patricia Hodges.)
Both of those productions were very poorly received and now MTC's latest, Drowning Crow, has opened to terrible reviews. The show's critical reception can't be considered a surprise, given the awful word-of-mouth that was heard during its preview period. Two friends of mine who attended two different performances used almost exactly the same language when they told of patrons "stampeding toward the exits" at intermission. (I subsequently asked another friend if this was true at the performance he attended. He replied, "No, not that many people left at intermission -- but the theater was pretty empty to begin with.")
All of this begs the question: What the hell is going on at MTC? Of course, Lynne Meadow didn't directly cause all or any of the theater's recent troubles; she didn't create the bad feelings between Simon and Moore that led to the latter's departure from Rose's Dilemma, nor did she personally cast Benanti and Guy in The Violet Hour. Even Meadow's decision to produce Drowning Crow was presumably not made in a vacuum. Still, as artistic director, she must bear responsibility (if not blame) for everything that's been going wrong at MTC, just as she deservedly basked in praise a few seasons ago when the company had major hits with The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and Proof.
The powers that be at MTC are apparently well aware of just how dire the situation is. Late last week, it was rather quietly announced that Michael Bush -- the organization's former associate artistic director -- will be returning to the fold as artistic consultant. Bush recently resigned his position as artistic director of the Charlotte Rep in North Carolina, a company that's having its own major problems. Here's hoping that he can help turn the tables at MTC. Lord knows, it can't be easy to run a major not-for-profit theater company in New York City; I'm sure I don't have to point out that the Roundabout has had lots of misfires amidst its successes. On the other hand, Lincoln Center Theater has managed to maintain an excellent track record; whatever they're doing right, they should only keep doing it!
Boy, am I glad that I got to see Ragtime at NYU last weekend. The school's Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions, Program in Vocal Performance offered an unbelievably good production of this great Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens-Terrence McNally musical, a show that I can never get enough of.
I had high hopes that NYU's Ragtime would be excellent because the school has such an excellent reputation, but I wasn't prepared for just how superb it was. Performed in the beautiful, brand-new Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on LaGuardia Place, the show had top-notch production values including a 28-piece student orchestra that sounded quite the equal of the Broadway band. And the on-stage performers were uniformly wonderful: Rebecca Ryan was luminous as Mother; Matt Hinkley was a stalwart, strong voiced Father; Maurice Parent was remarkably poised and focused as Coalhouse Walker; and John Allen Biles, who's already got his Equity card, sang the part of Tateh far better than Peter Friedman. As for Tanya C. Edwards's Sarah, the highest compliment I can pay her is to say that there were times when this young singer sounded almost exactly like Audra McDonald.
I attended Ragtime with Forbidden Broadway creator Gerard Alessandrini, another huge fan of the show. He was just as thrilled with the production as I was and he remarked how great it was to see the show in a far more intimate space than the cavernous Ford Center. He also praised the freshness and spontaneity of the production, pointing out that the original company of Ragtime had done the show for a REALLY long time in Toronto and in L.A. before it finally opened on Broadway. In contrast, the NYU kids had only been rehearsing since January and the musical was presented for only four performances, February 12-15.