Sunday, April 3, 2011

Broadway babies and Cleveland panties

(Daniel Radcliffe and Tammy Blanchard in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.")
Fortunately, musical rhapsodies to the glories of the Big Apple far outnumber those to Cleveland, land of the gauche anthems. At the forefront of these valentines are Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York," written for Liza Minnelli, and the opening to Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town." If you pledge your fidelity to original-cast renderings, New York is a "helluva town." If your taste runs more to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer technicolor, it's a "wonderful town." Either way, all this delicious musical froth periodically reminds us that we have to shuffle off from Cleveland-style deli to the banks of Manhattan in order to accrue knock-off purses in Chinatown, dine at Art Nouveau, Gigi-esque bistros and spend your annuity on original Broadway cast ambrosia.

Following in the footsteps of my New Testament predecessor, I will dispense some sage wisdom to my 12 followers (and whoever else may be peeking). First and foremost, forget about "The Book of Mormon." It's this decade's "The Producers," and any attempt to score tickets will cause untold humiliation waiting in cancellation lines, being mocked by condescending box-office personnel and losing your lucre, which could be better spent on weekly once-in-a-century bargains at that miracle on 34th Street, Macy's. Instead, you can achieve far more economical ecstasy by attending two sublime drag routines, one by a man (Brian Bedford) and one by an actual woman (Tammy Blanchard).

We, of course, define drag as the essence of caricaturing the foibles of a gender. Ironically, Oscar Wilde wrote the most savvy and perfect of English-language comedies in "The Importance of Being Earnest" and then was done in by the most unsavvy dictates of Victorian morality. Any well-acted production of "Earnest" would be worth the airfare to New York. But seeing Bedford, corseted and feathered, as Lady Bracknell would be worth your weight in gold, no matter how much you've cheated on your diet.

(Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest.")

Bedford's gender-hopping is far more than a stunt. It is one of the comic performances of a lifetime. He quivers with the indignation of Margaret Dumont being goosed by Groucho, outdoes even the great Jack Benny in feminine exasperation and positions his mouth to suggest Olympian distastefulness, showing that he has been studying hundreds of kinescopes of Milton Berle drag routines. Every imperious move and swish of his skirt evokes the comic perfection that we dream of at the Comedie-Francaise. Beyond acting, Bedford has directed one of the most performed of comedies with new insights, eschewing the expected cliches of over-dandified heroes and Victorian puppets. One of the boons of technology is that superb stage productions no longer have to disappear into the ether of time. If you are not fortunate enough to catch this gift to the gods of comedy in person,  you can experience it at your local movie theater in June.

Director-choreographer Rob Ashford is proficient in an overstated Vegas manner. But his rambunctious vulgarity cannot do in the joys of the classic "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." No, Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe does not have the wattage that Robert Morse radiated as the lead in the original 1961 production. If Morse was the human embodiment of a Hirschfeld caricature - all flashing eyes and impish smile - Radcliffe scores with a more subdued, Charlie Brown-like plaintiveness. Unlike Morse, he may not create lifetime memories, but his singing and dancing are more than winning.

What this second-row-center viewer will enshrine until senility is the crocodile smile of Tammy Blanchard as Hedy La Rue, the 60s variation on the ultimate man trap. Anyone who's seen Barbara Stanwyck play a stripper or Marilyn Monroe a gold digger will relate to this knowing spoof on sex: the self-loving twinkle as she reduces men to jelly and the radiating, palpable satisfaction as each hip twitch lands home. She pulls off the tightrope walk of making calculation lovable. Even a merely good revival of  "How to Succeed" - with its great Frank Loesser score the apogee of musical-comedy wit - will still show up most of what passes for Broadway levity today.

(Aaron Tweit and stewardesses in "Catch Me If You Can.")
The most audacious thing in "Catch Me If You Can" happens in the first five minutes, when a chase at the airport freezes and the fugitive hero comes forth to plead that a story can be re-rendered as a television spectacular - perhaps the most blatant subterfuge to turn a non-musical film into a song-and-dance show. This is one of those works that falls into the category of after-dinner mint - as forgettable as it is professional. With a score by "Hairspray's" Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, it has the same pizazz and amiability as its predecessor, as well as the feeling of an all-too-soon revival.

(Robin Williams in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.")
Because "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" was written by a Cleveland-bred playwright, was on the Pulitzer short list and stars Robin Williams as the tiger, you may feel compelled to see it. It is another in a long line of plays that have been inspired by this generation's theatrical guru, Tony Kirshner. Yes, Williams is ferocious and funny as the ghost of a departed tiger. For those who prefer metaphysics over flesh-and-blood characters and can find pleasure in imagery worthy of Gauguin, you should be well satiated. But for those old bores who still subscribe to the well-made play with protagonists you like or identify with, you may feel your time could have been more wisely spent gazing at Rembrandts at the Frick. To be frank, perhaps because I sat in a seat made for the proportions of Mickey Rooney (and I'm well over 30), it seemed to this audience member a rather chilly but well-crafted artifact of a distant civilization called youth.

(Katie Nabors as Louis Maske in "The Underpants" at the Beck Center. Photo by Kathy Sandham.)
For those of you who do not have the plane fare at the moment, Beck Center is presenting Steve Martin's adaptation of Carl Sternheim's 19th-century Teutonic farce, "The Underpants." Farce is all about the triumph of airy artificiality. Subsequently, it is as hard to concoct as a souffle and as easily prone to fall. A recent local example of a crestfallen souffle, "The Ladies Man" at Actors' Summit, left many in the audience scurrying out in search of Pepto Bismol. However, Beck Center has imported a master chef who has figured out an ingenious way to doctor up an old script. Director Matthew Earnest has come up with the cunning gimmick of italicizing the play's mechanical gears by utilizing German expressionism, ranging from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" to "The Threepenny Opera."

The characters are all painted in cadaver-like makeup and made to move and react like giant windup dolls. The style of acting evokes silent cinema and the ominous Grand Guignol of Sweeney Todd. The director is taking a big risk in alienating his audience with this technique, but it pays off royally. When the same work was done at the Cleveland Play House a decade ago, it played like rancid Neil Simon. Here the story of a comely German hausfrau whose panties fall in public, causing de rigueur complications of the genre, unfolds with the merry synchronicity of a giant German bell tower clock. It's an evening of joyous anarchy, proving that one can still find happiness in one's own back yard.

(Conrad Veidt in the the 1920 silent film, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.")
"The Underpants" runs at Beck Center through Saturday, April 23. For tickets, call 216-521-2540 or go to

1 comment:

  1. "It is another in a long line of plays that have been inspired by this generation's theatrical guru, Tony Kirshner." Who the hell is "Tony Kirshner"? Any relation to Tony Kushner? Oy.