Monday, August 27, 2007

High Button Shoes at Goodspeed Opera House

Connecticut is home to a number of first rate theatrical companies. My favorite is the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. Their mission is twofold. First, is the advancement of musical theatre, which was the impetus for their original stagings of Man of LaMancha, Shenandoah, and Annie before they headed to very lengthy runs on Broadway. Second, is “the preservation… of musical theatre.” Since 1963 Goodspeed has presented well-known and beloved musical productions as well as lesser known gems. Their second offering this year, High Button Shoes, falls into the latter category.

This rarely produced Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn show, originally directed by George Abbot (who co-wrote the book) and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, revolves around con man Harrison Floy and his sidekick, Mr. Pontdue as they repeatedly attempt to bamboozle the populace of New Brunswick, NJ. Throw in the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights football team, a love story, the Keystone Kops, and a happy ending and you have the basic ingredients for this immensely pleasurable show.

Stephen Bienske embodies the scheming, slippery, flim flam artist, Harrison Floy (portrayed in the 1947 production by Phil Silvers) with a sophisticated and refined contemptibility. While he plays the role with perfect aplomb, his characterization would be more believable (and enjoyable) if there was somewhat of a sleazier edge in his depiction of Floy—think Silvers or Robert Preston (a la The Music Man). But I’m nitpicking. High Button Shoes is probably one of the best cast musicals I have seen at Goodspeed in years. Every actor and actress fits their role beautifully. From the young lovers, ingénue Russell Arden Koplin as Miss Fran Beck; and Brian Hissong, as football star, Hubert Ogglethorpe; to the poignantly portrayed Mama and Papa Longstreet, played by Jennifer Allen and William Parry.

Director Greg Ganakas manages to keep the action moving along, especially in the somewhat slow-moving First Act, building towards the Second Act one-two opener, the cheery, “On A Sunday by The Sea,” and the wild and frenetic “Keystone Kop Ballet,” a merry romp in and around Atlantic City’s bath tents and boardwalk. Augmenting Ganakas’ work is choreographer Linda Goodrich, once again demonstrating how a seasoned professional can take such a small space—both on and off stage—and create sheer dancing magic. Two other members of the creative team worth noting are scenery designer Howard Chrisman Jones, for his varied and fully conceived depictions of life around the turn-of-the-century; and costume designer Gregory Gale for a slew of gorgeous and sumptuous outfits. Bravo.

The score by the aforementioned Styne and Cahn has a number of exceptional tunes including “Papa, Won’t You Dance With Me,” “Nobody Ever Died For Dear Old Rutgers,” and “I Still Get Jealous.” The latter song, sung by Jennifer Allen and William Parry is a simple, heart-warming number with a bit of the old soft shoe. The two theater veterans command the stage with no pyrotechnics or overstuffed orchestrations to clutter their style. A pure joy to behold.

High Button Shoes, the perfect respite for the last days of summer. Now through September 22nd at the Goodspeed Opera House.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Anticipated Musicals for 07-08

I’m back. My wife and I were over in Europe for a few weeks and, while I had all the best intentions of writing my blog from some smoky Internet Café while sipping expresso and noshing on a delectable and flaky pastry, I just never found the time. Can you blame me? Tour the massive St. Stephen's Basilica’s in Budapest or roam the old quarter of Innsbruck, for example, or hang out for a few hours in front of a blinking computer screen? I think you get the picture.

Anyway, August is here and the start of the new Broadway season has already begun—the well-received “Xanadu,” the first musical of the year, is now encamped at the Music Box Theater. Perusing the list of upcoming shows, there are three I am looking forward to with much anticipation:

Young Frankenstein—probably the most anticipated new musical of the year. And why not? It’s the same creative team—Director/Choreographer, Susam Stroman; score and libretto by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meeha--that brought us the blockbuster version of that other Mel Brooks movie, “The Producers.” As with “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” boasts a dream cast—Roger Bart (“The Producers” and revival of “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown”), as Dr. Frankenstein; Sutton Foster (“Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “The Drowsy Chaperone”, as Inga; Megan Mullally (revival of “How To Succeed…”), as Elizabeth (the Madeline Kahn role in the movie); Shuler Hensley (“Oklahoma” and “Tarzan”), as the Monster; and Andrea Martin (“My Favorite Year” and revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”), as Frau Blucher. There are probably more Tony winners in the cast than any show in Broadway history! If Brooks and company can, once again, reproduce the zaniness of the movie on stage a long run is in store. In addition to seeing such an accomplished group of actors on stage I am also looking forward to hearing the Mel Brooks score. Brooks has been writing songs for decades, even being nominated for an Academy Award for the title song from “Blazing Saddles.” The score for “The Producers” was quite good. Hopefully, lightning will strike twice.

The Little Mermaid—okay, you are probably wondering why I would be looking forward to another Disney kiddie musical. Well, there are a couple of reasons. No matter what you think of Disney’s invasion of Broadway over the years you cannot dispute the fact that all the shows have been first-rate, especially the production values. From the costumes in “Beauty and the Beast” to the puppet wizardry in “The Lion King” to the sets of “Aida” and “Mary Poppins” (I wasn’t a big fan of “Tarzan”), Disney shows have been a wonder for the eyes. So, I am VERY curious how they will produce the underwater kingdom of Ariel and company. Secondly, Sherie Rene Scott is one of the premiere actresses in musical theater. She more than held her own against Heather Headley and Adam Pascal in “Aida” and her peformance in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” jolted that show to life in the second act. As the wicked Ursula she should probably have the time of her life.

A Catered Affair--a new musical featuring the multi-talented Harvey Fierstein who not only is featured in the cast, but also wrote the book. Hmmm. Last time Mr. Fierstein wrote the book for a musical—“La Cage Aux Folles--he won a Tony Award. In fact, more times than not when Fierstein is involved with a Broadway show the production is a major hit and he ends up winning some type of Tony. In fact, is there any other person that has won as many different Tony Awards? He has a Best Actor in a play, Best Actor in a musical, Best Book of a musical, and Best Play. But Harvey Fierstein is only one, albeit large, reason to look forward to the show. The cast includes Tom Wopat, who was the best part of the Bernadette Peters revival of “Annie Get Your Gun” a few years back and the return of Faith Prince. It’s so sad that the economics of Broadway prevent such seasoned professionals as Ms. Prince from appearing on stage more often. The Director of the production is John Doyle, who has scored major artistic triumphs the past two seasons with his stagings of “Sweeney Todd” (didn’t like it) and “Company” (loved it).

Will any of these musicals, even with their well-pronounced pedigrees, hold up to the scrutiny of New York audiences? There’s no guarantee of a hit just because your last show was a smashing success or the talent level involved is in the stratosphere. That’s what’s great about Broadway—will the luck of the draw have you sit through an utter disaster (as in Paul Simon’s, “The Capeman”) or witness an artistic vision (as in the original “Dreamgirls,” for example). Only time will tell.