New York City Is Its Own Reward


Those of us who live in New York often ask ourselves, “Who wants the worry, the noise, the dirt, the heat? Who wants the garbage cans clanging in the street?”

And then cultural opportunities crop up and we know why we’re here.

Jack Singer in HONEYMOON IN VEGAS sang “I like Broadway – once a year,” and while I’d enjoy attending modern dance more than that, the earth always seems to make a complete revolve around the sun before I manage to take in a dance event.

However, Stephen Schwartz being honored by PARSONS DANCE was enough to get me to the Joyce Theatre.

Broadway dancers are marvelous, of course; still, musical theater performers must be triple threats (or in some John Doyle productions, quadruple threats); dancers need “only” be single threats and single-minded in their discipline.

Thus their dancing is, frankly speaking, more thrilling to watch than what their Broadway counterparts deliver; even their hands manage to dance. The precision that Zach demanded of an ensemble in A CHORUS LINE was always in evidence here.

We often hear that dancers have developed their bodies and muscles enough that they could play in the National Basketball Association. Not only did Justus Whitfield prove it, but Zoey Anderson also made us believe the claim. In “Stranger in the Rain,” based one of Schwartz’s songs from CHILDREN OF EDEN (and beautifully sung by former Elphaba Shoshana Bean), Parsons had Whitfield propel Anderson into the air; somehow she managed to land on his back. That was extraordinary enough, but she later landed on his head which was even more amazing.

Decades ago, Schwartz wrote the smash-hit THE MAGIC SHOW; now he was party to another magic show thanks to Whitfield and Anderson.

Schwartz told the audience that he became “an enormous fan of David’s after I saw CAUGHT” – a piece that some minutes later astonished us all. It used a strobe light that flashed in the middle of the pitch-black darkness; every time it went on, Anderson was seen frozen in mid-air. The process was repeated close to two dozen times and Anderson was always seen in a completely different position each time defying gravity. It came across as a series of snapshots, and miraculous ones at that.

New York lends itself to celebrity sighting, and there was a good deal of it at this swank gala. I spotted Howell Binkley (HAMILTON’s lighting designer and co-founder of this dance company with David Parsons), Eleanor Bergstein (who wrote and produced the DIRTY DANCING film) and Alan Cumming who smiled and nodded at me. Granted, Cumming and I once had a nice half-hour chat — but it was on the telephone. I imagine he confused me with someone else, but in New York, you never know.

Being in New York allows us to take advantage of the one weekend window of opportunity to see Encores! It came up with another winner with ME AND MY GIRL, one of my all-time favorites.

Why? Because every character is nice and is intent on doing the right thing — with the slight exception of benign gold digger Lady Jacqueline. (But every show needs some sort of villain, doesn’t it?)

Workadays Bill Snibson and Sally Smith are very much in love when word comes to him that through his father’s dalliance, he’s now heir to a fortune and the title of Earl. Duchess Maria and Sir John Tremayne accept this, but now demand that he give up his lower-class fiancée.

No, Bill won’t, even to the point where he’d prefer to give up everything for her.

Are you now expecting that The Duchess and Sir John will maneuver to cheat Bill out of his money and earldom? That’s what I fully anticipated when I first saw the show in 1986: Country Rube outsmarts City Slickers.

Not at all. I was so impressed when Jane Connell as the Duchess stated that Bill was entitled to everything and she would educate him to be worthy of his new station. However, the Duchess also expects that he’ll eventually give up Sally.

Once again: no, he won’t. But Sally doesn’t want to stand in Bill’s way: that’s love. So she crashes the Duchess’ posh party with Bill’s old friends. This, she feels, will drive Bill to say “You’ve embarrassed me! You and I are through!”

Hardly. Bill even leads everyone in “The Lambeth Walk,” a glorious number that celebrates their modest neighborhood. Some have complained that the song’s one set of lyrics are repeated endlessly, but this is the type of song that in real life was written with only one verse. Whatever the case, it’s a terrific first-act ending.

But what to do with Sally? Now Sir John does the right thing in educating her. What a novelty: nobles who really are noble.

No one will ever eclipse Robert Lindsay’s Bill; he even beat Colm Wilkinson for the Best Musical Actor Tony despite the LEZ MIZ juggernaut that season. Lindsay entered not as a low-class blowhard that would cause the audience to dislike him and even might want him taken down a peg. The shy and nervous way in which Lindsay came down the marble steps allowed audience members to relate to his plight. Every one of us has had the experience of walking into a room where we don’t know anyone and fear what these people think of us.

Lindsay had us feel for him as he stood there hat-in-hand, nodding “hello” almost imperceptibly to those whom he considered his betters. He made an ever-so-tiny social gaffe by occasionally lifting up a thumb, in his world a symbol for “Everything’s all right,” but one that was considered vulgar by the so-called high-borns here.

Christian Borle didn’t do that, and yet, every decision that he and director Warren Carlyle made after that was winning and terrific. How well Borle was matched with Laura Michelle Kelly’s 100% honest performance as Sally. Harriet Harris was an excellent Duchess, especially at the end when she conceded defeat graciously (See? A noble!) and Chuck Cooper was wise enough not to harrumph his way with bluster but trusted the material would give him enough character to play. Indeed it did.

What we saw in 1986 was a Mike Ockrent revisal of what two librettists had fashioned in 1937. Wonder which one made a smart decision that a lesser bookwriter wouldn’t have imagined. Instead of showing us Bill’s first day of study and all the initial trial-and-error, the 1986 script brought us to his second day. “Let’s review” eliminated the initial do-this and do-that’s and instead showed us how much or little Bill has retained and progressed.

In other words, a writer should “Come in as late as you can,” as Samuel Kerr Lockhart stressed in his funny and incisive new play PAGE COUNT, which recently received an afternoon reading in a 48th Street studio.

Here’s another advantage to living in New York; during your lunch hour you can see a show in its infancy. A tasty treat this was, for uber-talented director Joe Discher got three terrific performers for this comedy-drama about a ‘30s Broadway playwright who goes to Hollywood, finds that his studio wants him to get help from an experienced screenwriter and accepts him – as well as the scribe’s cynicism and alcoholism.

Two Drama Desk Award winners were on hand: Bryce Pinkham (late of GENTELMAN’S GUIDE, too) as the neophyte and Jim Brochu as the drunk showed us why they got their prizes. The play has plenty of laughs that Discher and his cast of three landed without fail.

The third excellent performer was Diane Findlay, a Tinseltown know-it-all who was there to tell-it-like-it-is to the playwright. I first met Findlay in an elevator where she stuck out her hand and said “Hello, I’m Diane Findlay,” which got me to say “Diane Findlay! You were in COMEDY and sang ‘God Bless the Fig Tree’!”

Well, she was so surprised that she looked as if she’d been shot right through her forehead.

In case you don’t know the 1972 musical called COMEDY, it closed in Boston and didn’t brave the Martin Beck as scheduled. As a result, one could argue that if I had only been living only in New York, I wouldn’t have seen COMEDY and wouldn’t have been able to startle the good Ms. Findlay.

Yeah, but I wouldn’t have been in that New York elevator, either.