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by Steven LaVigne
Can One Performer Destroy the Show?
By Steven LaVigne
My Fair Lady
Here’s the situation: You’ve bought tickets for a classic that you know very well, in this case, it’s the London transfer of My Fair Lady. The 2018 Broadway revival at Lincoln Center was exceptional: Harry Haden-Paton from Downton Abbey as Henry Higgins; Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) as Eliza; (the late) Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins, Allan Corduner (Topsy-Turvy) as Pickering and Broadway veteran Norbert Leo Butz as Alfie P. Doolittle. Directed by Bartlett Sher, the production was superb, for one reason, because Sher gave the show a new ending that was subtle, but worked!
In London, Haden-Paton recreated his Tony Award-winning performance. Malcolm Sinclair was cast as Col. Pickering, Stephen K. Amos as Alfie, and Dame Vanessa Redgrave stepped into the role of Mrs. Higgins. So, other than Redgrave’s cover going on for her (with no announcement beforehand) what could go wrong?
Amara Okereke caused a sensation with the press, because, evidently, she’s the first professional black actress ever cast as Eliza Doolittle, at least in the West End. The London Coliseum, a comfortable, old, worn-out, but still beautiful barn in St. Martin’s Lane would house this production. So you feel that old excitement when the familiar overture begins. But something seems wrong.
The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, is a thrust stage and the Coliseum is a proscenium, so Micheal Yeargan’s sets don’t really fit the stage. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are different, and they’re all wrong for the Georgian London period of the show.
The curtain rises on the familiar scene in Covent Garden, under the portal of St. Paul’s Actors Church, but the pillars are stage left. The eye naturally travels from left to right, here, Yeargan placed a fence and trash cans stage right, an unlikely site in Covent Garden to begin with, so as the story unfolds left, you’re eyes are drawn to what little action is stage right. Everything’s cramped, but the show opens with Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Sharif Afifi) knocking over Eliza Doolittle’s basket, her cries of lose wages and her first encounter with Henry Higgins.
For some reason, Okereke chose to make her Eliza memorable by playing her, not as the determined flower girl we’ve come to expect, but angry and defensive instead. This approach is completely wrong for the character, because it lacks the character’s naïve charm and curiosity. Okereke never drops this attitude either and her performance is totally one-note. When she arrives at Higgins’ home, although Eliza is trying hard to behave like a lady, she’s terrified, so she doesn’t succeed. Okereke’s negative energy has drained any joy from the production about 15 minutes into the first act.
Evidently, Okereke was cast for her exciting voice, but her voice is limited, and, because the song’s out of her ranged, it never soars in “I Could Have Danced All Night,” as it should. The orchestra covers for her on the final high notes. During the Ascot Scene, when Eliza makes her debut in society, Okereke plays it slapstick to milk for deliberate laughs. This is so inappropriate for My Fair Lady, because the decorum was already established at the top of the scene with the song “Ascot Gavotte.” The scene is written so Eliza’s dialogue will bring laughs. However, Okereke got away with it, turning the scene drab and ugly rather than trusting the material which has worked since 1956.
My guess is that Sher started rehearsals but left the show in the hands of company manager Jonathan Stott who thought he could improve this classic. In this production, everything is so misguided that the magic of the show is nowhere in sight. Sher is currently preoccupied with Aaron Sorkin on a new version of Camelot set to open at the Beaumont in 2023.
So how do we assess the damage done to this, one of the greatest musicals in the American Theater? Besides the awkward and often vulgar direction, the performances are far below standard. Haden-Paton, who won a Tony for his performance, appeared tired and bored; Sinclair played Pickering as if he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, with some disturbing pauses, you almost thought he couldn’t remember his lines. Stephen K. Amos is a renowned British comedian and probably the tallest, thinnest Alfie ever, but his Cockney accent comes and goes, seldom working to his advantage. As Alfie Doolittle, at Lincoln Center, “With a Little Bit of Luck” stopped the first act! In London, it didn’t.
The London reviewers fell all over themselves throwing accolades at Amara Okereke, but after seeing this performance, we question how was she cast in the first place, and furthermore, how she was allowed to get away with this performance. There must have been plenty of other women who could have played the role properly. Nothing in the first act worked. (My friend and I left at the interval).
Having seen countless productions over the past 60 years, both amateur and professional, I can cite two more times when an actor drained all the energy out of a production:
Terrence McNally was so passionate about Maria Callas that he wrote two plays about her. The first was a little thriller titled The Lisbon Traviata, but he wrote a biographical drama based on the diva’s stint teaching at Julliard the year before she died. That play, Master Class was produced on Broadway in 1996 starring Guthrie alumnus Zoe Caldwell, who won a Tony for her exquisite performance. However, when Caldwell left, Patti Lupone stepped in.
While Lupone is a well-reviewed, award-winning actress who’s recently garnered praise for stopping performances and scolding audiences when cell phones interrupt her, she’s not an especially competent performer. When listening to her, it’s often difficult to determine what she’s saying, because she garbles dialogue and doesn’t articulate. Never was this more evident than the performance of Master Class I saw in New York during the summer of 1996.
While Caldwell’s performance lasted close to three hours, Lupone had the matinee audience out of the theater in 2 hours, 5 minutes, including the interval. She never came close to capturing the emotions and pain Callas was feeling at this point of her life. While working with young singers, her mind wanders to memories of her life as the mistress of Aristotle Onassis. She gave up her career for him and even bore his stillborn child, but after he abandoned her to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, Callas gave up on life, retreating to her apartment in Paris, and becoming a recluse before dying at 53 from a heart attack.
Lupone never found either the emotional core and she ignored any aspects of Callas’ greatness. Callas’ Master Classes are available on CD, but I doubt Lupone bothered listening to them. Had she done so, she may have given a better performance.
At the 1997 Tony Awards, Dixie Carter, who replaced Lupone, talked about the joy she got from playing this character. Faye Dunaway bought the film rights and toured as Callas, but it’s doubtful a film will ever be made. Mike Nichols planned to make it with Meryl Streep, but the project died with him. It’d be difficult to watch the fair-skinned Streep play this Greek-American soprano for whom the term “diva” was created.
Kiss Me Kate
Kiss Me Kate is probably Cole Porter’s masterpiece. A superb blend of story and song, the show is based on observances of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne fighting backstage during a performance of The Taming of the Shrew. Bella and Sam Spewack’s libretto blends the highs and lows of backstage antics with Shakespeare’s comedy. The score features such great songs as “Too Darn Hot,” “So in Love (With You am I),” and “I Hate Men.” This was also Porter’s most successful show.
In 1999, Michael Blakemore directed a Broadway revival. However, the producers thought the book was dated, and hired John Guare to “fix” it. With the exception of adding “From This Moment On,” used in the MGM film version, Guare’s revision weakens the script, especially in the second act where Nixonian political attitudes show up uninvited.
Having never seen Kiss Me Kate onstage, I was excited to see Rachel York as Lilli/Kate and Rex Smith as Fred/Petruchio when the show came to the Ordway in 2001.
I’ve seen better bus and truck companies! This time, the energy was drained by Rex Smith. The audience could literally see that the entire cast was contemptuous toward him and the orchestrations were literally railroaded to keep him offstage as much as possible. Early in the story, his character is referred to as “a ham,” and Smith certainly was! An example of this was his rendition of “Were Thine That Special Face.” This is a seduction song but never once did Smith look at poor Rachel York, who was working so hard to overcome Smith’s antics. This same production was later filmed in London and broadcast on PBS with Brett Barrett replacing Smith. It was so much better than the Ordway production.
Who’s to Blame?
So where does the blame lie when actors perform like this? Because in many cases, the director doesn’t police the show after it opens, so most likely it’s the Company Manager or the Assistant Director, both of whom worked closely with the director, are far too busy to fix things gone wrong.
With Master Class, it’s clear that William Joseph Barnes couldn’t control Lupone, who’s renowned for her diva behavior, so he let her get away with playing the role her way. When it was reviewed, Vincent Canby in The New York Times, thought she’d been rushed into the role and needed more rehearsal, but I’m not sure that would’ve helped.
With Kiss Me, Kate, the blame is all Rex Smith’s doing. Blakemore had moved on to another project and once the show was on tour, believing his own publicity, Smith behaved poorly, alienating a cast and crew, who did whatever they could to salvage what was being done onstage.
What can we do about this? After all, it’s not fair that paying audiences should be confronted with an actor’s personal arrogance. One way is to walk out and demand your money back. I found it interesting that the My Fair Lady box office had closed before the interval, presumably to stop the demand for refunds. I decided that for the ticket price, I donated 110 pounds to the English National Opera.
Using the mail is another method of stopping this. I’ve sent letters to the addresses of theaters, whether to compliment a performer or to comment on a production. Emails are also effective. You may not get an answer, but your comments are certainly taken into consideration if they reach the appropriate party.
Finally, audiences need to be more discerning. Not everything you see deserves a standing ovation. I rarely stand for a production or actor. In fact, this summer, I saw five shows in London and one in Paris. The only time I stood was following the National Theater production of The Father and the Assassin, a remarkable play about Nathuram Godse, the man who murdered Mahatma Gandhi. While every show (except My Fair Lady) was exceptional, this was the only genuine standout!
Since the Pandemic, we’re thirsty for any theater, but it’s not fair to the audience to be subjected to unprofessional nonsense. Performers who are desperate to show their talent can do that without draining the positive energy from a show. All they need is a sure-handed director and Production Manager to control them.
Am I the only one who feels this way?
A Review of “Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers”
“Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers”
Reviewed by Steven LaVigne
If you’re involved in theater, you quickly learn that everyone seems to know everyone else. (And talks about them when they’re not around. We all it so don’t deny it!) The gossip can get pretty thick sometimes, too. Never has this been more obvious than in “Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers,” co-written with Jesse Green. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pages, $35.00).
While she was born and raised in privilege, Rodgers had a difficult relationship with both of her parents, so the daughter of renowned composer Richard Rodgers, holds nothing back, exposing truths behind decades-old myth and heresy. Hostile toward her parents from an early age, she discusses her parents’ terrible parenting skills and even though she shared authorship with her mother, Dorothy, in a book about child-rearing, Rodgers relates that it was all really just for show. Dorothy Rodgers was not a good mother.
A mischievous child, Rodgers pulled all sorts of pranks when she was enrolled at the Brearley School, but following in her father’s footsteps, she majored in Music at Wellesley.
Lifelong Friendship with Sondheim
Like so many other theatrical icons of the era, the Rodgers family relocated to Bucks’ County, Pennsylvania, near Rodgers’ musical partner, Oscar Hammerstein and his wife, Dorothy. It was there that, as a teenager, Mary met her lifelong best friend, Stephen Sondheim. The talented young composer and lyricist was being mentored by Hammerstein and he befriended her when, like so many other artists’ children, she was searching for a way of making her mark in the world. At a summer camp in the late 1950s, she was encouraged by Sondheim, to write the score for a short musical version of “The Princess and the Pea” with lyricist Marshall Barer. The two were later asked to expand the material which would become Rodgers’ most often-performed work, “Once Upon a Mattress.” Years later, it was Rodgers who introduced Sondheim to the man who would change his life significantly, Harold Prince.
According to his daughter, in spite of the themes of tolerance that are so much a part of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, her father was actually a racist, sexist, homophobic womanizing alcoholic. You’d think, after he and his wife helped his first musical collaborator, lyricist Lorenz Hart dry out frequently, Rodgers wouldn’t touch alcohol, but that wasn’t the case. Over the years, she learned that her father would hide his vodka bottles in toilet tanks and elsewhere around the house. He was disgusted by Hart, a brilliant lyricist, whose alcoholism derived, at least in part, from his homosexuality. Sadly, shortly after “Oklahoma” changed musical theater forever, Rodgers and Hart collaborated on a successful revival of their musical “A Connecticut Yankee.” Hart died shortly after the revival opened.
Mary Rodgers states that following his beautiful score for “The King and I,” that due to his alcoholism, his music became overly sloppy and sentimental. While this can be argued when discussing “The Sound of Music,” the Encores’ recording of “Pipe Dream,” which was R & H’s only genuine flop, and the score for “Flower Drum Song” dispute her statement.
For one thing, she distrusted her father, because once, after she played one of her compositions for him, he dismissed it for being derivative. She never played any of her music for him again. He was also jealous of anyone whose work might be better than his. It had been a dream of Oscar Hammerstein’s that Rodgers and Sondheim work together.
She once played a composition for her father and he dismissed her work, so she never played anything again. RR was jealous of anyone whose work might be better than his, especially Sondheim. However, Rodgers was terribly rude to him when they collaborated on “Do I Hear a Waltz?” which was also a failure. Nevertheless, the score is sensational!
Among the musicals Mary Rodgers has contributed to are “The Mad Show,” where one of her songs, “The Boy From…” a satire on the Bossa Nova hit, “The Girl from Ipanema,” featured a lyric by Esteban Rio Nido (aka Stephen Sondheim). She wrote songs for “Free to Be…You and Me,” the musical revues “Hot Spot” and “Working,” and Bil Baird’s marionette adaptation of “Davy Jones’ Locker.” She is the author of the “Freaky Friday” series of novels, “The Rotten Book” and “A Billion for Boris.”
Mary Rodgers wed her first husband, lawyer Jerry Beaty, in 1951. They had three children. However, Beaty was gay, so they divorced in 1958. After working for years as a single mother (much to her parents’ chagrin). She and Henry Guettel were married for 52 years and among their three children is composer Adam Guettel, whose works include the Tony Award-winning musical, “The Light in the Piazza.” Henry Guettel died in 2013 and Mary Rodgers died a year later).
If there’s a flaw in this book, it’s that there’s no index for easy reference. However, besides editing, in Jesse Green’s extensive notes, he explains the trouble he had goading Rodgers into completing the book. His notes cover a lot of ground and they fill in many holes, explaining who many of the people are and how they contributed to the theater.
“Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers” is an outstanding biography of a fascinating woman, and a must, especially for those intrigued by the history of musical theater!
Review of “Chita, a Memoir”
Review: Chita, a Memoir MACT Newsletter
by Steven LaVigne 1 June 2023
When she accepted her Tony Award for her performance as Velma Kelly in the revival of Chicago, (now the longest running revival in Broadway history), Bebe Neuwirth referred to Chita Rivera, who’d created the role, as a “goddess.” She is a goddess, but first and foremost, Chita Rivera is a living legend! At 90, Rivera has honored us with her beautiful book, Chita, A Memoir. It’s a definite must-have for any theater lover’s shelf.
Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Anderson, in Washington, DC, she was in the middle of five children, the remainder of them her brothers. At a young age, she broke her mother’s coffee table, so she was sent to dancing school. This led to appearances in the choruses of Call Me Madam, Guys & Dolls, Mr. Wonderful with Sammy Davis, Jr., and leading roles in West Side Story, Bye, Bye, Birdie, Sweet Charity (on stage and screen), Chicago, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Visit.
Nominated for ten Tony Awards, she’s been honored three times(The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and a Lifetime Achievement Tony). She’s the first person of Latin-American heritage to win the Kennedy Center Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In the opening pages, Rivera informs us that she’s actually two people: while Chita is the performer, willing to please everyone, Dolores is the fiery woman inside who takes over whenever she thinks something’s wrong and needs changes, no matter the circumstances. Dolores has helped Chita become successful quite often!
In 1951, Rivera accompanied a friend to an audition for the road company of Call Me Madam starring another theater legend, Elaine Stritch (and if you don’t know who she is, why are you in theater?) Rivera was cast instead and she was on her way to a 70+ year career full of highlights. The first of these was creating the role of Anita in West Side Story. She worked with composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, librettist Arthur Laurents and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, creating one of the theater’s great musicals. So important was Rivera to the show’s success that, she and her husband Tony Mordente, who played A-Rab, learned she was pregnant. Rivera stayed with the show until at eight months, she couldn’t continue. The London production was postponed until after the birth of her daughter, Lisa Mordente.
She returned to Broadway to create the role of Rose opposite Dick Van Dyke in Bye, Bye, Birdie, a production she writes about at great length. She loved working with director-choreographer Gower Champion, although he and Dolores had a few run-ins. She also played Rose, opposite Peter Marshall in London, and while she was there, learned that Rita Moreno would play Anita onscreen (Moreno won an Oscar for her performance) and that Janet Leigh would play Rose in the film of Birdie.
Rivera worked consistently, appearing on television and in such ill-fated musicals as Zenda, 1491 and Bajour. On an episode of The Judy Garland Show, Rivera’s in the spotlight, Vic Damone and Garland perform a medley of songs from West Side Story!
Rivera’s next big opportunity was working with Bob Fosse starring in the national company of Sweet Charity and playing Nickie in the film version. She also had a supporting role on her old co-star, Dick Van Dyke’s second TV series.
In the mid-1970s, Fosse and his wife, Gwen Verdon invited Rivera to create the role of Velma Kelly in the original production of Chicago. During the creative process, Bob Fosse had his first heart attack. To help keep several people in the ensemble employed, Rivera created a nightclub act that would keep them all busy until Chicago was back in rehearsal. She’s continued performing this nightclub act and it was featured several years ago on PBS. Curiously, Catherine Zeta-Jones won an Oscar for playing Rivera’s role onscreen. This is something Dolores has strong feelings about!
A legend is entitled to a couple of failures. Bring Back Birdie is a sequel that lasted 4 performances, while Rivera was the glue that held Merlin together, because her co-star, Doug Henning, was a fine musician, but couldn’t sing, dance or act.
In the early 1980s, Rivera Rivera became something of a muse for playwright Terence McNally, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, who wrote three musicals for her. The Rink, was produced in 1984, costarred Liza Minnelli and is about the conflicts between an estranged mother and daughter. Rivera won her first Tony, but during the run of this show, Minnelli realized she had a drugs and alcohol problem, and entered the Betty Ford Clinic for the first time. Minnelli was replaced by Stockard Channing, who gave a good performance, but she can’t sing either. (She has no legato, which I witnessed when I saw her in a Broadway revival of Pal Joey).
While appearing in the revue Jerry’s Girls, featuring the music of Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, La Cage Aux Folles) Rivera was in a serious car accident and her left leg was broken in twelve places. Ever the trooper, Rivera was back on the road a couple of years later touring in Cole Porter’s Can-Can.
Mssrs. McNally, Kander and Ebb created a Tony Award-winning role for her in the musical version of Manuel Puig’s novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman. It’s here that I need to interject that I’ve seen her twice onstage and got to meet her. In 1970 she starred with John Raitt and Barbara Baxley in the tour of Zorba, (also composed by Kander and Ebb). I saw it in Milwaukee and thoroughly loved it. Rivera was very kind and lovely to converse with. Zorba is a superb musical. I don’t know why it’s not produced more often! There are terrific roles for a multiracial cast!
Rivera took Kiss of the Spider Woman to London, but she returned to face the penultimate role of her career in The Visit.
The Visit was originally written for Angela Lansbury,who turned it down for personal reasons: her husband was dying and she chose to care for him. Based on the play by Friedreich Durrenmatt, this was the last play that Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne performed before they retired. It’s the story of Claire Zachanassian, the world’s wealthiest widow. Scorned by the populace of her hometown, she was forced to leave. Since then, the town’s gone bankrupt because she owns it. She agrees to change their economy if they’ll kill the man who wronged her. She plans to travel, carrying his coffin with her.
The Visit was perfect for Rivera. It was developed over the years, and its Broadway engagement was played in one act. (It was videotaped and can be seen on YouTube). It’s a lovely show and features fine roles for an older cast. When you hear the songs, you come to understand that no one but Rivera could have played this role so beautifully as she does.
Chita: A Memoir is beautifully written and filled with the type of theatrical experiences you wish we could all have. She writes about the people she knows and those who strongly influenced her over the decades.
The Fred Astaire Awards for Dance have been renamed The Chita Rivera Awards for Dance and Choreography, and she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Chita, a Memoir is a must-read! Brava, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Anderson!