Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is That All There Is?

Once again, darlings, we've been plunged into a whirlwind of activity, most of it centered around that will-o-the-wisp so many of us unceasingly chase: live performance; more specifically, cabaret and musical theater. These are maddening and elusive mistresses to be in thrall of; it's a crap shoot every time one takes a chance, and when a performer or production misses, boy, there's nothing more excruciating or frustrating than to be witnessing such failure first hand. But when something or someone hits the bull's eye, nothing could be more thrilling than to be in that audience, live, in the moment, rejoicing at experiencing something that can never be exactly duplicated ever again.

Marilyn Maye and Bucky Pizzarelli at The Iridium: the looks on their faces say it all.

A prime example of the latter type of experience was the four-show run celebrated chanteuse Marilyn Maye had with the legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli at The Iridium jazz club on November 5 and 6. To say that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience each and every performance would be an understatement. Devoted SSUWAT readers know that we have applauded Marilyn Maye's remarkable talents from these virtual pages frequently, loudly, and enthusiastically; when we say that the added challenge and joy of sharing the stage with another performer at the absolute pinnacle of his field took her to a whole different level of performance, we do so without a trace of hyperbole. These concerts were happenings.

Storming the stage with a medley of the 1950's pop classic "Let There Be Love" and "It's Love" from Wonderful Town, Maye never let up for a second, tearing through her signature medleys like a lioness devouring a particularly delicious prey. Her crack trio of drummer Ray Marcheca, bassist Tom Hubbard, and pianist/director Tedd Firth seemed to spur Maye on to even jazzier flights of fancy. Once the dapper and ebullient Mr. Pizzarelli joined her onstage, the mood turned even friskier, as these two pros playfully played off of one another -- with all due respect to Mrs. Pizzarelli, and Maye's oft-quoted line that she's survived "three husbands and one meaningful love affair" only to find her most meaningful relationship with her adoring audiences -- we couldn't help but picture these two amazing artists riding off cinematically into the sunset together. They romped like colts in a field through such sunny, upbeat tunes as "'Deed I Do" and "Just in Time" before slowing things down for a beautiful, voice-and-guitar rendition of Johnny Mercer's "Skylark." Mr. Pizzarelli's solos -- "This Nearly Was Mine" from South Pacific and the sadly underperformed Burke/Van Heusen classic, "Darn That Dream" -- were stunningly beautiful, as he made his guitar sound as eloquent as any singer actually performing the lyrics. This remarkable engagement was the sort that one dreams about, and rarely does the reality live up to the fantasy. Thankfully, as long as we have performers like Marilyn Maye and Bucky Pizzarelli still "doing their thing," we have at least a few sure bets.

Miss Peggy Lee

The odds were considerably less favorable when we headed downtown on November 10 to see "Downtown Sings Peggy Lee: A Book Launch Celebration" at Joe's Pub. The event was to celebrate the publication of James Gavin's much-talked about new biography, Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee. And, as befits the title of the tome (which is quite excellent, by the way, and one which we recommend), the evening was...strange. The curious roster (accompanied by The New Standards, who provided some pleasingly cool-to-hot playing) consisted of cabaret stalwarts like Baby Jane Dexter and Carol Fredette; quirky neo-jazz/cabaret chanteuses like Barb Jungr and Nellie McKay; cult artists Tammy Faye and Justin Vivian Bond; comparatively newer, more mainstream talent like Jane Monheit and Spencer Day; and, most thrillingly, authentic jazz royalty in the form of Andy Bey and, as a surprise, unannounced guest, Helen Merrill. Merrill was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening, although her throaty, emotive "Wild is the Wind" still kept the meter firmly pointed towards the "strange" reading: Peggy Lee had never performed that particular song!

It was all wildly uneven, with Fredette's simple, classy piping of Jerome Kern's "Remind Me," Jungr's supremely sexy but sophisticated "Some Cats Know," and even Dexter's primal roar interpretation of "I'm a Woman" coming from a seemingly different planet than Tammy Faye's absurd, borderline-offensive burlesque of "Big Spender," one of Lee's later signature tunes. Making her entrance in Peggy Lee-cum-flasher drag -- long, white pageboy wig; round sunglasses; and a trench coat, which was quickly doffed, stripper-style -- Tammy Faye then proceeded to sing in a tuneless and charmless voice, give unsolicited lap dances to embarrassed ringsiders, and in what had to constitute the nadir of this or any evening, straddle and hump a stairway railing while announcing, "My vagina hurts!" Surely, Miss Peggy Lee -- described by Gavin is his book as seductive but intensely "proper" -- would have been aghast.

If Tammy Faye was vulgar, then Justin Vivian Bond was merely unprofessional. The transgendered performer's long-established "demented diva" persona could have lent a certain zany, camp humor to Bond's selection -- "Black Coffee," one of the great torch numbers of all time, and a certified Peggy Lee classic -- but instead, Bond's obvious incapacitation (due to what, we hesitate to speculate) was painful to behold. False stops and starts, muffed lyrics, disorientation and seeming obliviousness; if Bond's intent was to satirize an infamous incident where Peggy Lee herself had disastrously performed under the influence at the White House, it was performance "art" in the most egregiously bad taste imaginable. If Bond was merely under the influence as well, it was pathetic.

The cast of Show Boat at the New York Philharmonic.

Some SSUWAT devotees are surely familiar with the famous critic's quip regarding Tallulah Bankhead's legendary failure, Antony and Cleopatra: "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night -- and sank." We had a similar reaction to the much-ballyhooed New York Philharmonic production of Show Boat: it felt more as if we were aboard the Titanic. Miscasting, bad acting, ludicrous staging, and the costuming, oh! the costuming! Unlike the Philharmonic's "semi-staged" productions of Carousel and Sweeney Todd over the past year, which were presented with some sets and full costuming, Show Boat was inexplicably done as neither concert version nor staged, but some frustrating purgatory in between. Skeletal sets consisting mostly of a few rickety tables and chairs were clumsily carried on and off stage by the ensemble, some of whom were "sort of" in period, with the majority in tuxes and modern cocktail dresses.

So you had Vanessa Williams in evening gowns which, if you narrowed your eyes, might pass for period, but just as easily might have been sitting in her closet since she did Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway several years back, particularly the inappropriately vampy, sexy black stunner she wore to sing what should have been the second act showstopper, "Bill." In what is intended as the lowest emotional and physical ebb in her character's life, Williams instead looked as if she were waiting for some chorus boys to twirl her around in a 1940's-style nightclub number.

Vanessa Williams as Julie in Show Boat.

Similarly, "Ol' Man River" should never be sung by an actor and chorus in tuxedos -- and staged exactly thus, as sung adequately but dispassionately by Norm Lewis, this river was more a stream, devoid of any dramatic context or power. Lewis is unquestionably talented and has a beautiful voice, but his tone and range were all wrong (a deep bass in the ensemble who had a brief snippet of a solo would have been the better choice!), and he seemed to be sleep walking through it. Magnolia, the fresh faced ingenue at the core of the story (and what a terrific story it is...yet mercilessly and unnecessarily bowdlerized to make room for subpar songs which had originally been cut), was portrayed by Lauren Worsham; her ne'er-do-well swain, Gaylord, by Julian Ovenden, most recently of Downton Abbey fame. As glorious as their duets were musically, they were dramatically undercut by the incongruous sight of Ovenden looking dapper and dandy in his period-correct suit, while Worsham was "costumed" in a flouncy, short dress and high heels. She was a walking article from Seventeen magazine on how to "get the look for less"; and unfortunately, she played Magnolia as not only seventeen-ish, but 21st century seventeen-ish, to boot. It was all wrong. Ovenden, however, played his part beautifully and sang like an angel.

Lauren Worsham as Magnolia and Julian Ovenden as Gaylord in Show Boat.

More anachronisms: Magnolia and Gaylord's young daughter, Kim, is away at a convent school, where she makes her entrance, led by a "nun" with cleavage, while Kim is wearing sequins and tulle! How the director (who was also the conductor -- perhaps a case of spreading oneself far too thin?) couldn't see that such "choices" were madness is beyond our comprehension -- but then, this is the same director who felt comfortable allowing Jane Alexander to play Parthy, Magnolia's starchy, permanently exasperated mother, while wearing a glittering blue evening gown which made her look not like a work-hardened show boat denizen, but rather, Dame Helen Mirren on the red carpet. Nothing in this production made much sense, frankly, and it was a thoroughly dispiriting experience. With music as glorious as the score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, and Hammerstein's rock solid book, it takes concerted effort to screw up Show Boat. In that case, a bouquet of dead roses to the brain trust behind this production: we congratulate you.

The cast of Encore!'s The Band Wagon.

Similarly, it takes a certain amount of nerve to attempt to reinvent one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time with a comparatively drastically new book, especially when the source material was written by the formidable Comden and Green. Oh, on the surface, the bare bones of The Band Wagon as it was presented at Encores! is more or less the same as it was in the classic 1953 MGM film, starring the incomparable Fred Astaire. But look closer, and in Douglas Carter Beane's revision of the nearly peerless Comden and Green screenplay, he seems hell-bent on this newfangled determination to insert darkness and conflict wherever possible, presumably to appeal to more cynical, modern tastes. The fact that Beane is doing so in a show-about-a-show which fails miserably precisely because of these needless "modernizations" of the classic musical format is an irony seemingly lost on him -- but, unfortunately, not the audience. Not one of the changes made to inject drama or conflict to the story actually propels the plot along one iota; in fact, they detract from it.

In the film, it's a rather simple story of two temperamental artists -- Tony, a former stage hoofer turned has-been film star, and Gaby, a rising prima ballerina -- who meet nasty, and then fall gradually in love while working on a show together, thus bridging the gap between their two worlds. That's it. Yes, the comic Broadway songwriting couple and the egomaniacal Orson Welles doppelgänger are brilliant supporting characters, but the bare bones of the plot couldn't be simpler than the age-old boy meets girl. In this The Band Wagon 2014, the romance between Tony and Gaby takes a back seat to a completely contrived backstory romance between Tony and the female half of the writing team behind his comeback musical, Lil (and subsequent rivalry between Tony and Lester, Lil's husband and partner). It adds nothing to the basic story, yet adds tons of unnecessary stage time and dialogue, not to mention layers of angst to what should be a lighthearted romp.

And that's where The Band Wagon fails most miserably. Where it should fizz, it fizzles. The pace is leaden, with nearly everyone, from leading man Brian Stokes Mitchell to the ensemble, seemingly just going through the paces. As Lil, Tracey Ullman displays a few flashes of inspiration, although they come in fits and starts. Only Tony Sheldon, as the delightfully egomaniacal Jeffrey Cordova, the theatrical wunderkind who puts the first ill-fated show-within-a-show together, throws himself completely into his role and easily walks away with the entire production. When he made his exits, one could almost hear the entire audience sigh with regret. Tellingly, Sheldon's interpretation of the role is a wicked imitation of Jack Buchanan's peerless performance in the film; and the character is the only one which Beane saw fit to more or less keep intact with Comden and Green's original vision. He's the only one that works.

One of Broadway's few true leading men, Mitchell seems like a natural choice to play Tony Hunter, the former star fallen on lean times; but the role was conceived for Astaire, one of the most elegant and eloquent dancers to ever grace the stage or screen. Mitchell, by contrast, is blessed with one of the great theater voices, but his dancing is merely competent, not transporting. And with all of the seemingly arbitrary revisions Beane made to the book, the one he inexplicably didn't make was to turn Tony Hunter into a singer instead of a dancer. So instead we have Mitchell seeming determined yet grim, and slightly awkward, as he hoofs, taps, and soft shoes. More distressingly, Mitchell plays Hunter with an abrasive edge which alienates the audience before the end of the first act; it's particularly grating when nearly all of the other male characters are also abrasive in varying degrees, from Sheldon's flamboyant control freak to Michael McKean's soused, jealous composer to Michael Barresse's smug villain. Amidst all these neuroses, Tony needs to be played as even-keeled and charming. Mitchell plays him as slightly out of control and volatile. His Tony Hunter is not someone you feel like rooting for.

You may have noticed that we have yet to mention the role of Gaby, who was portrayed by the incredible dancer Cyd Charisse in the film. On stage, the part is essayed by Laura Osnes, a seemingly very nice girl who, unlike Charisse, has a beautiful voice; but, also unlike Charisse, not a whit of glamour or personality. She's so colorless, it's perhaps no wonder that her part has been relegated nearly to that of a featured player, rather than co-star (Osnes is fifth billed, beneath Stokes, Ullman, McKean, and Sheldon).

Yes, live performances can be thrilling. They can also be deadly dull, or maddening. Is that all there is to a deal with the devil? Is that...all there is?


  1. Darling, you have been busy! Excellent critiques, one and all. I actually thought of you when - due to clashing social calendar events - we missed Marilyn Maye's brief appearance here in London at the fantabulosa 'Crazy Coqs Cabaret Bar'.

    Thanks to your reviews I now know which of the others to avoid if they too turn up - as they surely will - in the West End... Jx

  2. A whirlwind indeed! Thanks so much for sharing it with us. I hasten to add that, as a writer, you are at the peak of your powers. A wonderful read!

  3. EXCELLENT writing!! I am very impressed! Keep up the good work!

  4. Such fabulous events you attend--I saw Justin Julian Bond at The Meeting of the International Order of Sodomites this weekend at Joe's Pub with Justin Sayre's homage to Candy Darling; while Mr. Sayre was hilarious and moving almost simultaneously, Bond's performance was, as you say, unprofessional if it was not an act (and it didn't seem like an act). Perhaps you'll review one of these fabulous Meetings sometime; now that I've seen one I only wish I lived in New York so I could be a regular attendee--not to mention seeing a delicious Alan Cumming greeting fans in the foyer before the show...

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