Theater News

How I Spent My Autumn Vacation

Filichia recoils from the sound level of Mamma Mia!, praises Norbert Leo Butz in Thou Shalt Not, and wonders why By Jeeves came to Broadway.

Louise Pitre and company in Mamma Mia!(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Louise Pitre and company in Mamma Mia!
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

And how did I spend my three-week vacation away from the Internet? By doin’ what comes naturally. That is, seeing shows.

Saw Mamma Mia! Loud show. Floor shakes from the sound. And when the extraordinarily loud first note of the entr’acte blared forth, people jumped in their seats as if Jonas Candide of Fields of Ambrosia had just pulled the switch on his electric chair and zapped them. Funny that Sophie, the young woman who’s wondering which of three men might be her father, says she was born in 1979–the same year that Gia, the young woman in Carmelina, wondered which of three men might be her father. Why did neither Catherine Johnson, who wrote the book for the current show at the Winter Garden, nor Alan Jay Lerner and Joseph Stein, who collaborated on the libretto for that earlier flop, want to credit the 1969 movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, which told the same story better than either of these two shows?

Buona Sera, after all, has the three guys–all Army veterans–returning to Italy for a World War II reunion. That makes more sense than Sophie’s inviting three guys to attend her wedding in faraway Greece. Would these relative strangers spend so much time and money to get there? Plenty of people won’t go to weddings that are even a state away, yet Sophie gets perfect attendance from her request? Well, Mamma Mia! doesn’t much care. Any musical that lists its songs alphabetically, not scene-by-scene, is admitting that it’s more interested in creating a concert than a genuine musical. (By the way: Given that the action of Annie Warbucks, the sequel to Annie, started at the precise moment that the original Annie ended, will there be a sequel to Mamma Mia! with twice as many ABBA songs that starts immediately after Sophie’s wedding, called ABBA-ABBA Honeymoon?)

Then I saw Thou Shalt Not, which wasn’t remotely the disgrace that I’d been led to believe it was. But that doesn’t mean it’s much good. I was stunned that the first four songs of the show were presented as performance numbers in a nightclub. Okay, that fourth song metamorphosed into a genuine character number, but there’s still something wrong with a musical that kills time by using its nightclub setting once, twice, three-and-a-half times. How I wish these pop songwriters who want to try theater would be content to write just the music and leave the lyrics to theater wordsmiths who know how to dramatize! Peter Allen made the mistake of penning the lyrics for Legs Diamond, which did have a few good melodies. Then Paul Simon made the same error with The Capeman, which had many more good melodies. Harry Connick, Jr. has provided Thou Shalt Not with a few nice tunes, but did he have to write his own lyrics and ruin everything?

Norbert Leo Butz and Debra Monkin Thou Shalt Not(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Norbert Leo Butz and Debra Monk
in Thou Shalt Not
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Of course, Norbert Leo Butz is amazing, as I learned seven years ago when I saw him at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival playing the title role in Lizard, all about a developmentally disabled boy whose classmates and relatives think he seems reptilian. I can still see Butz dragging his seemingly lame foot across the Octagon Stage, doing it so consistently for two-plus hours that I started to believe he really
was a physically challenged actor.

Butz has since made many fans through his work in Rent and Cabaret, and Thou Shalt Not is the third jewel of his musical triple crown. When his character was killed at the end of the first act, I thought of Dorothy Loudon, whom I saw killed at the end of the first act of Lolita, My Love in Boston one day in 1971. While I was in the Shubert Theatre lobby at intermission, just as the lights were flickering to summon us back, I overheard one young man say to another, “Well, there’s no sense in going back in there now that the best thing in the show is dead”–to which the other young man replied, “Maybe she’ll return in a flashback.” With that, both guys went back into the Shubert, their hearts full of hope.

So imagine my surprise when Butz did return in the second act of Thou Shalt Not in a completely new characterization, one that he handles with the same extraordinary expertise. But you know what I liked best about his performance? One subtle, little thing that happened early in the show. When Laurent asked him what he did for a living, he said, “I work for the state department?” Butz put an unnecessary question mark at the end of the sentence, making his voice go higher, the way people do when they’re not secure about what they’re saying and they’re hoping not to be judged by it. That’s real. Good for you, Mr. Butz.

Then I saw By Jeeves. The set ever-so-vaguely reminded me of the set for Moose Murders, the infamous, one-performance flop of 1983 that became an idiom for incompetence. By Jeeves isn’t that bad, of course, but I sat wondering why we were watching a teddibly English butler getting his teddibly British master out of various scrapes. Sure, the music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber–but it sounded better when the show was Jeeves in England in 1974, where full orchestrations (including some by ol’ pro Don Walker) sounded so lovely as opposed to the current, cheap-sounding ones for a six-piece band.

Martin Jarvis and John Schererin By Jeeves(Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons)
Martin Jarvis and John Scherer
in By Jeeves
(Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons)

I saw the revised version of the show at Goodspeed, where of course it seemed more adequate than it seems now in the harsh lights of Broadway. But the night before I went to see the show at the Helen Hayes, I met a reader and her husband who were about to attend also. “I like Andrew Lloyd Webber,” the hubby explained with relish–and I shook in my boots, thinking how this guy probably wasn’t going to get what he expected. For there’s much more Alan Ayckbourn than Andrew Lloyd Webber in By Jeeves. Twelve songs; that’s it. Indeed, the first scene–now that the delightful “Code of the Woosters” has been excised–is the longest without a song since 1776‘s music-less stretch between “The Lees of Old Virginia” and “But, Mr. Adams.”

Of course, that’s going to make some Andrew Lloyd Webber haters consider By Jeeves their favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. But let’s get real: The composer has had many more hits than failures here, while Ayckbourn, so
beloved in England, has only had one big hit here–and that was Absurd Person Singular, more than a quarter century ago. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard one person in the last 25 years mention how much he liked Absurd Person. So what absurd person decided to bring over By Jeeves?

Good Lord. Maybe I need an autumn vacation from my autumn vacation.


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