Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Nude Deal for Christmas

(Greg Violand as Mr. Charles and Steven J. West as Shane in the Dobama Theatre production of Paul Rudnick's "The New Century." Photo by Steve Wagner.)

Last Saturday, Dobama Theatre proved itself to be the most obliging of theaters. The boyish box office manager offered a delightful tutorial on where to sit to receive the optimal gander at the entertainment's nominal star, a studly performer's "engine of desire." Then, just in case dyslexia inopportunely flared up, landing us where we could only admire the tush, the managing director personally escorted us to our voyeureristic throne.

Yes, the genitals were stellar, but since the purpose of the evening was legit theater, rather than male burlesque, it would be unseemly not to mention that they were attached to one Stephen J. West, who in turn was attached to a buoyant production of Paul Rudnick's "The New Century."

Just as Ibsen's social conscience and Chekhov's expert grasp of failed souls gave birth to a generation of high-minded passion plays, so here Neil Simon's knowing, wisecracking insights into human behavior and Patrick Dennis' campy, fey, joyous gooses of human absurdities commingled to engender the daffy wisdom of playwright Rudnick.

Rudnick functions best as a miniaturist. His plays and screenplays tend to splinter into hors d'oeuvres, rather than sustained meals. But these tidbits have the airy confection of an expert pastry chef. "The New Century" is composed of three separate character studies, each equipped with a gimmick, a multitude of Simon-esque guffaws and a well-earned heart tug. At the end, Rudnick attempts a flourish by bringing his disparate kvetchers together in a maternity ward for a mystical, Tony Kushner-like resolution.

The vignettes commence with the most liberal of Jewish mothers coming to terms with a triumvirate of offspring, who change their sex, eroticize feces and practice law in sadomasichistic leather. The second part chronicles the public-access TV adventures of one Mr. Charles, "the world's gayest man," as he combines Ed Sullivan and Liberace in a show dedicated to gay theater and more camping than ever took place in the Adirondacks. Eventually, the long-suffering Mr. Charles has to accept the fact that his brand of queerness has become passe and that his splendid boy-toy is anything but a brainless guttersnipe. The third vignette shows Rudnick's skill for sneaking melancholy into the mirth in Decatur, Ill., where one Barbara Ellen Diggs exults in the healing powers of macrame as she tearfully reminisces about the AIDS death of her beloved son.

There are many reasons why the evening's 90 minutes seem to dance by with the exquisite grace of Balanchine's snow flakes. But let us lay the blame or praise on Scott Plate, who directs with the giddy aplomb of a Paul Lynde mug. Among his gleaming ensemble players, Greg Violand's Mr. Charles suggests a castrated French bulldog in a platinum toupee. West, as his voluptuous sidekick, performs a wonderful sex change of the oh-so-wise dumb blondes of Judy Holliday vintage.

As the ur-Jewish mother, Helene Nadler serves up the vinegar-through-the-schmaltz routine in the manner of our finest delis. And in the most heartbreaking performance of the evening, Molly McGinnis unravels like one of her beloved tea cozies as the arts-and-crafts addicted Barbara Ellen.

"The New Century" may not be your traditional Yuletide revels, but it has the essential holiday ingredient - the milk of human kindness behind each ho-ho-ho.

"The New Century" runs through Sunday, January 9. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Muses in my midst VIII

(Alice Faye in "The Gang's All Here.")
For the worrying multitudes, relax. Frank Lloyd Wright and Michelangelo have finally gotten their act together, and the pantheon is ready to re-open for Christmas. I've had to do some serious soul-searching as to who is to host the opening-night Yuletide cotillion. Merman always cracks the crystals in the chandelier. Dietrich makes the queens hyper-ventilate. And Betty Grable keeps chewing gum. The answer is obvious: the eternally likable Alice Faye. Climbing the ladder from Jean Harlow wannabe to America's own shopgirl thrush, she was the reigning star of the 20th Century Fox musical from 1938 until her retirement from films in 1945. She could wisecrack with Mae Westian aplomb, wring glorious tears out of her made-for-Technicolor eyes, and even steal candy from America's most illustrious youngster, filching a scene from Shirley Temple while singing "You Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby." Faye made suffering at the hands of such scoundrels as Don Ameche and Tyrone Power as moving an art form as any geisha performing in a tea house. Garland got "Over the Rainbow" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," but Faye got the third musical plum of Hollywood Americana. No one who lived through World War II can help holding back the wave of nostalgia when she breaks into Harry Warren and Mack Gordon's "You'll Never Know" (from "Hello, Frisco, Hello"). If you want to sample the ultimate Alice Faye vehicle, we suggest Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." She also accomplished something very rare for a movie star. She got out of the business in time to have a deliriously happy marriage with comedian and band leader Phil Harris, with whom she had a second career in radio. Faye elegantly ended her years promoting senior health for Pfizer. She was a doyenne of good health and good cheer with the poignancy of Garland- minus the pharmaceutical baggage.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Lunching with Gertie and Fanny

(The cast of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at Beck Center.)
As a devotee of the then and departed, it gives me great satisfaction that Judy, Elvis and Mark Twain continue to rake in millions demonstrating that death can never curtail a trouper. Dickens, also proudly deceased, amply illustrated in his best-selling "A Christmas Carol" just how helpful the ministrations of ghostly souls can be. Following this precept, I never let their half-century-plus tour in the provinces of Hades spoil my Yuletide revels with Gertrude Lawrence and Fanny Brice next to our favorite table at Otto Moser's Restaurant in downtown Cleveland. Ignoring the puzzled stares of servers and patrons, I do my best to charm these illustrious dead divas while munching on my sauerkraut hot dog.

First, I let the girls do their usual gripes about how Hollywood has defamed and bowdlerized their reputations. Gertie moans over the sugary Julie Andrews ruining her tempestuous glory, and then Fanny kvetches about how that Streisand laid pretentious schmaltz on her kosher comedy. After the grousing, I placate their ethereal egos by soliciting their advice on what Christmas shows to see in Cleveland.

(The author and his beloved Gertrude Lawrence at Otto Moser's Restaurant in downtown Cleveland.)
Gertie has admired the work of choreographer-director Martin Cespedes ever since he toured, shirtless, with Faith Prince in Gertie's own "The King and I." She instructed me to see how and if he was able to breathe some life into the ubiquitous Webber-Rice Gap commercial rendering of the Old Testament, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," at Beck Center.

Fanny, who revels in the pulling off of stunts due to her own legendary run as adolescent Baby Snooks when well past 40, urged me to see the one-man version of "It's A Wonderful Life," titled "This Wonderful Life," at the Cleveland Play House.

Gertie was right. Cespedes is a genius of goosed-up pastiche. "Joseph" was written for church pageants back in the days when Webber's creative borrowing seemed fresh and cheeky. Every number is in a different style, ranging from country-western and Elvis rock 'n roll to French bistro music. Recruiting Connor O'Brien, who looks like the lost Osmond, to play the eponymous Joseph, Cespedes has a field day interpreting every musical number in an equally vibrant dance style. The array is so dizzying that we encourage the administrators at Beck to engage the audience in a guess-the-choreographer-and-show game. Here are some helpful hints: think Robbins' Sharks, Champion's shriners, Fosse's denizens of the Pompeii Club and de Mille's rodeos. My suggestion for the winner would be the first prize of a certificate for Cespedes' services to choreograph a bar mitzvah, wedding or briss. He can make any amateur dance like a twinkle toes.

Those of you who have sworn off this show after your fifth viewing at the local junior high should reconsider, for it has undergone a glorious resurrection and is perhaps only slightly less fulfilling than the dance-rich "Billy Elliott" that is wowing them at PlayhouseSquare.

(Fanny Brice shares a hallowed place on the wall at Otto Moser's Restaurant with Gertrude Lawrence and friends.)
Fanny, however, was not so sagacious in her choice. Admittedly, James Leaming has the charm and charisma of a rosy-cheeked Norman Rockwell caroler. Jumping off bridges onto offstage trampolines, doing a plethora of accents ranging from Barrymore to Stewart, and schmoozing the audience, he is likable enough to outdo Harold Hill in the sale of band instruments. The problem is that the concept of one man racing through the many-splendored script of a beautifully photographed and directed film classic is akin to someone playing Beethoven's Ninth on harmonica. It's an enjoyable stunt, but why? After a while, Leaming, with all his energy and brio, unfortunately starts to take on the air of a hamster speeding on its wheel. The final indication of what's wrong with this gimmick is that after seeing George Bailey's salvation and hearing Clarence's bell ring, the only music evoked by this production is Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?"

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoast" plays at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood through Sunday, Jan. 2. For tickets, call 216-521-2540.

"It's Wonderful Life" runs at the Cleveland Play House through Sunday, Dec. 19. For tickets, call 216-795-7000, ext. 4.