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I Saw Them When

Filchia's enjoyment of two actors in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels leads him to recall some others he's discovered over the years. logo
Norbert Leo Butz and Sara Gettelfinger in
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
(Photos © Carol Rosegg)
Had a good time at Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Book writer Jeffrey Lane has fleshed out characterizations, provided new plot twists, and has added at least three dozen snappy lines that weren't in the original film -- lines that Neil Simon would have been proud to have written in his prime. And while every other writer makes New Jersey jokes, how refreshing of Lane to pick on White Plains. Songwriter David Yazbek doesn't always go for the perfect rhyme, the correct accent, or even the best musical choice, but he's given us a quirky enough score to pass muster. John Lithgow wonderfully sustains his suave con-man performance; Joanna Gleason does a cleverly understated turn as a man-hungry tourist; and Sherie Rene Scott makes her soap heiress nicely vulnerable. But, for me, the night was all about two other performers.

In December, 1994, I was in Montgomery -- home of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival -- where Norbert Butz (the Leo would come later) had the title role in Lizard, Dennis Covington's adaptation of his own novel for young adults. Butz played the developmentally disabled teenager Lucius Sims, whose sort-of-reptilian looks and slow gait prompted mean kids to call him "Lizard." The following June, when everyone was giving prizes to Nathan Lane for Love! Valour! Compassion! and to Ralph Fiennes for Hamlet, I wrote in Theater Week that the best performance in a play that season had been Butz's. Since then, he's received a Tony nomination for Thou Shalt Not, in which he was the only terrific ingredient. This May, he'll get another nomination -- and probably something extra in June -- for his frenetic and foul-mannered Freddy in DRS.

In November, 1996, I saw a production of Oklahoma! at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and was mightily impressed by a tall, high-cheekboned young woman in the chorus, dressed in gingham and wearing a blue hair ribbon atop her head. Her name turned out to be Sara Gettelfinger. (Neither that name nor "Norbert Leo Butz" is as euphonious as "Mary Martin" or "Robert Preston," but many a new day will dawn before I forget either Sara or Norbert.) I had no inkling that, under those yards of gingham, Gettelfinger had the distinctive, long legs that would serve her well in the Nine revival -- first when she played Maria and walked down the staircase, later when she replaced Jane Krakowski (not to mention Jenna Elfman!) as Carla and waved them over the audience from on high. Now, Oklahoma again figures into the lady's résumé, for here's Gettelfinger in DRS playing a lass from the Sooner State, coming on midway through Act I to sing a great song and to appear in three nifty scenes. She takes the rest of the night off, but when she returns for her curtain call, the reception that she receives certainly show the audience hasn't forgotten her.

Butz and Gettelfinger are just two of the reasons I keep going to the theater. I adore seeing young actors and actresses make their debuts, being impressed with them, remembering their names, and reveling when they go on to greater glory. It's one of the reasons I'm proud to be associated with the Theatre World Awards, which annually gives prizes to 12 "rookies of the year." It all started for me when I was 15, with the sixth show I ever saw: I Can Get It for You Wholesale. I came out raving to all my 15-year-old friends about Barbra Streisand. When the cast album came out and I played them "Miss Marmelstein," they were totally unimpressed and mocked me for months because I kept telling them that she was great. Oh, how I thought of them on June 20, 1994 (a fitting way to celebrate my 48th birthday) when I was sitting in a packed Madison Square Garden. Even I couldn't have predicted in 1962 that I would one day be able to say to them, "She's going to sell out the place where the Knicks and the Rangers play; they're going to charge $325 for some tickets and thousands of people will be broken-hearted that they didn't get to pay it because too many other people beat them to the box office."

Seeing Tommy Lee Jones and Stockard Channing in the late '60s, when they appeared in Harvard University productions, was pretty exciting, too. Among dozens of performances, I most remember Jones as a stirring Coriolanus and Channing (she was Susan Stockard then) as a marvelous Isabella in Measure for Measure. Of course, I may remember those best because, when eBay came into existence, I decided to test the waters by putting up for bid programs to those two shows. The former, which was just one piece of paper (albeit with Jones' picture taking up the entire cover) went for $157.50. The more-substantial eight-pager in which Channing was shown on the front fetched $202.50. Gee, all my opening night Playbill for Anyone Can Whistle got was $100.

Bob Balaban and Blythe Danner
In the fall of 1968, I went to see Up Eden, a musical that would last for five performances Off-Broadway. I only needed one to realize that Bob Balaban and Blythe Danner were sensational. The following summer, I got a job reviewing for Boston-After-Dark, and because I was about the ninth-string critic, I was the one dispatched to Dennis, Massachusetts to see a new play whose plot made it sound terrible. A young woman falls in love with a blind boy? But Blythe Danner was charming in it (the Tony voters would agree 10 months later) and the play, Butterflies Are Free, was equally winning. (I also came out humming the title song written for the show, penned by some guy named Stephen Schwartz.) When I went to the office with my rave review, the editors gave each other a look of, "Oh, my God, what did we hire if he liked THIS?" But Butterflies would have a three-year Broadway run.

There was that summer night in 1978 when went to On the Twentieth Century for the umpteenth time, long after Madeline Kahn had departed and Judy Kaye was the talk of the town. But Kaye was out this night and her understudy, Christine Ebersole, was so magnificent that, for the first and only time in my life, I was moved to write a fan letter -- which Ebersole appreciated so much that she wrote me back. Twenty-seven years later, when I went to the Paper Mill Playhouse as the Star-Ledger's Jersey critic to interview her because she was playing the title role in Mame there, I started by saying, "Hey, do you remember getting a letter after you went on for Judy Kaye? Well, I'm the guy who wrote it." As you may imagine, we got along splendidly after that.

I could go on with memories of 1974, when I saw Christine Baranski do a delicious Dorine in Tartuffe at Center Stage in Baltimore, or of Gene Hackman in Any Wednesday in 1964. Hackman's signing for Murray Schisgal's Fragments off-Broadway in 1967 was enough to have me pledge $400 to the production -- though when I saw it the show, I was convulsed by a wonderful, unknown comic actor named James Coco. But I don't want you to think that I have an unerring magic touch. I can think of at least two examples when I caught people on their way up and assumed that they would stay down. At a Boston nightclub in 1968, I went to see political comedian David Frye, who didn't let me down. But the lady who opened for him was terrible, vulgar and trashy. That, however, was just what she wanted to be. I missed the point. A couple of years later, I was astonished when Bette Midler became a star.

Then, in 1976, when I went to see the Boston tryout of The Baker's Wife, I didn't take to the young actress in the title role. Part of the problem was that there was so much dialogue in the show saying, "Have you seen ze baker's wife? She is so beautiful!" And this performer looked like a plucked chicken to me. But Patti LuPone certainly has had the last laugh and doesn't need me to join her fan club, which has been overflowing with admirers for decades. I was so put off by her that I didn't even realize that the first song she sang -- "Gifts of Love" -- was beautiful. I was flabbergasted years later, when a cast album was finally released, by what an astonishing piece of material this is. Hmm, there's an idea for a column: songs I didn't realize were great until I heard them again. Maybe I'll see you Wednesday with that one. In the meantime, please share with me stories of performers you discovered early and for whom you predicted great success, as well as those whom you never thought would make it but certainly did.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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