Use the Force, Luker!
Rebecca Luker takes a chance, Encores! plants a Tree, and Harvey Fierstein switches from glad rags to sad rags.
There were a lot of art songs, some of them poems by famous writers set to music: "I Think to Live May Be a Bliss," by Emily Dickinson, with music by Steve Marzullo; "When You Are Old," by William Butler Yeats, with music by Joel Fram; "Love is Not All," by Edna St. Vincent Millay, with music by Jeff Blumenkrantz. Lovely? Yes, in a recital sort of way. Great American Songbook potential? Nope.
Peppered among the art songs were a handful of musical theater-style gems that served as tent-poles for the act. "Billions of Beautiful Boys," by Joseph Thalken and Marshall Barer, is a playful number that extolls the pleasures of threesomes. "The Alphabet of Alcohol," by John Samorian, offered Luker the chance to show off her musical comedy skills. (The song could well become a standard in piano bars). The evening's one genuine showstopper was a duet performed by Luker and guest star Sally Wilfert, in which they played two discerning young women checking out the possibilities at a singles bar; the number is a witty list song by Jeff Blumenkrantz, titled "Moving Right Along."
One hopes that Rebecca Luker will also move right along and put on a show full of Broadway hit songs. It would be a shame not to have the opportunity to hear her sing the standards.
Encores! also did its duty this past weekend, fulfilling its important mission of reviving great scores from otherwise-less-than-great Broadway shows. The memorable score for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was written by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields; the disappointing book, which comes off as a poor man's Carousel, was written by George Abbott and Betty Smith, adapted from the latter's novel. As presented on the City Center stage, the book -- in a "concert adaptation" by David Ives -- seemed a bare bones excuse for such wonderful songs as "Make the Man Love Me," "I'll Buy You a Star," "Growing Pains," and the musical comedy classic "He Had Refinement."
The well cast production starred Jason Danieley as the charming but weak-willed and drunken father who fails his wife and daughter. Danieley's heroic tenor was thrilling to hear; even more impressive, he displayed sharper edges as an actor than we had previously seen from him. Sally Murphy played his wife with a loving intensity. The show's screwball subplot is far more entertaining than its dreary main story, and it was given a further boost at Encores! by the performances of Emily Skinner as Cissy and John Ellison Conlee as her long-suffering boyfriend. We applaud Encores! for letting us see A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a project that apparently took several years to pull off because of difficult rights issues.
Harvey as Tevye
We returned to Fiddler on the Roof -- as so many others have -- to see Harvey Fierstein as Tevye. Stunt casting that works commercially and, to a lesser extent, artistically, Harvey's performance is a compelling curiosity; he acts the role beautifully, mining Tevye's vulnerability with his expressive eyes, but there's no way around the uniquely hideous sound of his voice. Nonetheless, you get used to it over the course of the show, and it becomes less and less distracting. In the end, the material is so foolproof, that Fiddler can survive, like its characters, under almost any circumstances. And Harvey certainly is fun to watch.
Less noticed than Harvey's replacement of Alfred Molina has been the changeover from Randy Graff to Andrea Martin in the role of Tevye's wife, Golde. Happily, Martin is Harvey's match in terms of comic timing, and she has the ferocity to hold her own in every scene in which she appears. Many of the original cast members have continued with the production, including John Cariani as Motel, the tailor. His Tony nominated performance is even more over-the-top now, but Nancy Opel is splendidly real as Yente the matchmaker. Several people in the company still look like they're from Ireland rather than Russia, but don't be blinded by the blarney; this is a stellar show.
The question is: When Harvey's contract expires, how will the producers of Fiddler top his casting? Send in your suggestions with a sentence or two explaining your reasoning, and we'll publish the best responses.