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Loose Lips

Brian Scott Lipton chats with John Cullum, keeps tabs on Norm Lewis, and looks forward to some Joe's Pub shows featuring Broadway faves. logo
John Cullum, JD Cullum, and Carol Mayo Jenkins
in rehearsal for The Dresser
As first reported on TheaterMania, New Yorkers will have to wait until October for the return of stage favorite John Cullum, who'll be playing Cardinal Bernard Law in the New Group's production of Michael Murphy's controversial play Sin: A Cardinal Deposed. But if you want to see Cullum before then, hop a plane to Knoxville, Tennessee -- the star's hometown -- where he's appearing through September 12 in a production of Ronald Harwood's The Dresser opposite his son, actor JD Cullum. "JD wants to come back to the stage after being in Hollywood for the past 12 years," says the elder Cullum, "so I decided to look for something we could both do that would be challenging for us. I think the relationship between Sir [the actor] and Norman [the dresser] is very interesting when you look at in a father/son way. I also have a long association with the role of King Lear [which Sir plays within the show], so that part of it is fun for me."

He is aware that his audiences may have seen the Oscar-nominated movie version of The Dresserr, starring Albert Finney as Sir and Tom Courtenay as Norman (a part that Courtenay also played on Broadway, opposite Paul Rogers). But, says Cullum, "I'm not worried about being compared to Albert. JD just saw the film for the first time recently and he told me that he thought Albert was fantastic, but he didn't love Tom Courtenay." While JD will use an authentic Yorkshire accent as Norman, Cullum plans to downplay the English accent a bit. "When I first come to New York, I had to use an English accent a lot to cover up my Tennessee one," he says. "I did English in Camelot [he was the original Sir Dinadan] and The Rehearsal [he understudied the star, Keith Michel], as well as a lot of Shakespeare. But I think I will use more of a flat, Middle American accent here."

Having spent a great deal of time in the world of musical theater -- he won Best Actor Tony Awards for Shenandoah and On The Twentieth Century, and starred in the original Broadway production of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever -- Cullum knows about dressers. "I have had dressers like Norman, who hover over you and take care of everything and become attached to you on a personal level," he tells me. But that wasn't the case in his last musical: "No, I didn't have a dresser for Urinetown. In that world, you had to wipe your own butt. In fact, for the Off-Broadway production, we shared our dressing room with the women. But I wouldn't have stayed with the show for two and a half years if I didn't love it."

As for the future of The Dresser, Cullum remains realistic yet optimistic. "I am hoping we can eventually bring it to New York, but that's a tough road," he says. "Michael Ritchie has just taken over the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and he's expressed some interest in the show, so that might be the next logical step."

Bigger isn't necessarily better for master puppeteer Basil Twist, whose hit 1998 show Symphonie Fantastique returns this week for an open-ended run at the brand new Dodger Stages on West 50th Street. For this updated version, the show's centerpiece -- a huge water tank -- has doubled in size to 1,000 gallons. "That means we need to use five people instead of four, and it's a little more physical show for all of us," says Twist, "but it's still going to be a relatively small, intimate experience for the audience. For me, it feels more like I shrunk rather than the show got bigger; it's sort of like I've gone back to being a 10-year-old." Speaking of doubling, Twist has another project on his fall agenda: Dogugaeshi, inspired by an increasingly rare form of Japanese puppet theater, will run at the Japan Society from November 18-23.

It won't shock any of you that al Qaida can't scare off Elaine Stritch. Last Wednesday, the great star graciously came to the York Theatre, located in the threatened Citigroup Center, to check out The Musicals of Musicals: The Musical. Fortunately, the cast -- especially co-writer Joanne Bogart, who does her own take on Stritchie in the show's brilliant Stephen Sondheim parody -- was unaware of the star's presence. But they were relieved to hear that, upon her exit, Stritch told York artistic director James Morgan that she thought the show was "adorable." The long-running production has just been extended yet again, through October 2.

Norm Lewis
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Does Norm Lewis ever stop working? This summer, the handsome star of Side Show (and that adorable Olive Garden commercial) has already done The Fantasticks at Sacramento Music Circus and Dreamgirls at the Pittsburgh CLO with Frenchie Davis and Billy Porter. Next up, Lewis takes on the role of Coalhouse Walker in the North Carolina Theatre production of Ragtime, September 11-19, in company with his recent Baby co-star Michael Rupert (as Tateh) and the fabulous if too-young-for-the-role Julia Murney (as Mother).

If that's just not enough Norm for you, Mr. L. is also scheduled to be part of the star-studded Actors' Fund of America benefit concert of Hair at the New Amsterdam Theatre on September 20. (I'm not sure what he's singing but I doubt that it will be "Frank Mills.") Finally, on October 25, Lewis will take part in another one-night only benefit concert version of a musical: Raisin, to benefit AMAS Musical Theater, at the John Houseman. Here, he'll be performing alongside Tony Award winners Lillias White and Chuck Cooper.

It's good to know that the original Broadway cast of Angels in America is keeping busy. Stephen Spinella will star in Colin Teevan's Svejk, which kicks off Theatre for a New Audience's season on November 6...Joe Mantello is directing Mario Cantone's solo show Laugh Whore, which bows at the Cort on October 5...Ellen McLaughlin will star opposite Mary Testa in Michele Lowe's String of Pearls at Primary Stages, beginning September 15...Kathleen Chalfant is doing her customarily excellent work as lawyer Gareth Pierce in Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom at 45 Bleecker and, on October 7, she will join her Talking Heads cast-mates to read excerpts from that OBIE-winning work in the "Food for Thought" series at the National Arts Club. Then Chalfant heads to Manhattan Theatre Club for Five by Tenn, beginning previews on October 19.

On the film front, Jeffrey Wright can be seen in The Manchurian Candidate and is now filming Lord of War with Nicolas Cage, while Ron Leibman is onscreen in Garden State. Finally, Oscar winner (and new mom) Marcia Gay Harden recently appeared in a reading of Pen by fellow cast member David Marshall Grant at NY Stage and Film. Harden will be seen in the upcoming movie P.S. opposite stage faves Laura Linney and Paul Rudd.

Joe's Pub is playing host to an eclectic and exciting collection of Broadway favorites this fall. Avenue Q star John Tartaglia goes solo there on September 5-6; soon-to-be-mom Daphne Rubin-Vega kicks it up on September 12; Hairspray star Jackie Hoffman continues her kvetching on September 13 and 27; the fabulous Darlene Love saves the day on September 22; and former Hairspray star Laura Bell Bundy debuts her wicked new act Shameless on October 4.

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