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.

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