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Say Goodnight Gracie

Susan Granger’s review of “Say Goodnight Gracie” (Helen Hayes Theater 2002-03 season)

In the most outstanding solo performance of the season, Frank Gorshin embodies George Burns, the wisecracking comedic genius who concocted the vaudeville team of Burns and Allen which later went on to radio, screen and television fame. “Say Goodnight Gracie” is Rupert Holmes’ amusingly inspired, engaging, biographical play, adeptly directed by John Tillinger, and the title refers to Burns’s traditional last line to his wife and partner, comedienne Gracie Allen.
The evening begins with Burns’ encounter with God in 1996 after his death at the age of 100. “I’m a big fan of yours,” Burns wryly tells the Almighty. “I loved the Ten Commandments.” But in order to get out of limbo, Burns must reveal his life and, thus, be weighed in the balance.
Utilizing film clips and waving his ever-present cigar, Burns relates his childhood on New York’s Lower East Side, peppering his banter with names of other celebs who shared his humble beginnings. He recalls how he met and married his beloved Gracie, whose ditsy delivery turned him from a jokester into a straight man, and how Jack Benny played a pivotal role in his life.
What’s most amazing is how utterly convincing Frank Gorshin is. Growing up in Beverly Hills, I knew the Burnses, who were friends of my parents. And here’s Frank Gorshin, best known as The Riddler in the ’60s television series “Batman,” impersonating George so convincingly that even Gracie would be astonished. Apparently, he always did mimicry and his repertoire includes James Cagney, Kirk Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando and Edward G. Robinson. And now Gorshin will convince you that he’s George Burns. “Say Goodnight Gracie” is irresistibly genial, gracefully affectionate entertainment

Nine

Susan Granger’s review of “Nine” (Roundabout Theater at Eugene O’Neill, 2002-2003)

If you have to choose just one musical to see this season, make it “Nine”! Handsome, charming matinee idol Antonio Banderas and 16 – count ’em – glamorous women add up to make this revival the hottest ticket on Broadway.
Written by Arthur Kopit and based on Federico Fellini’s autobiographical film “8 1/2,” the story revolves around Guido Contini (Banderas), a celebrated, self-absorbed Italian movie director who is desperately trying to plot a new film he’s been commissioned to direct. Seeking sanctuary at a health spa in Venice, this self-styled Casanova is “visited” in a stream-of-consciousness fantasy by all the women he’s loved since the age of nine – including his wistful, long-suffering wife (Mary Stuart Masterson), tantalizing mistress (Jane Krakowski), reluctant leading lady/muse (Laura Benanti), Parisian producer (Chita Rivera) and mother (Mary Beth Peil). Director David Leveaux parades the women up and down a steep spiral staircase on Scott Pask’s simple yet spectacular set, and Jane Krakowski’s dazzling, gravity-defying descent on a swing during “A Call From the Vatican” is a sensational showstopper! Why the stage is flooded like the Grand Canal during the second act remains a mystery but Antonio Banderas, damp but undaunted, sloshes on, gamely singing with resonant vibrato.
While Maury Yeston’s score, superbly orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, doesn’t offer unforgettable tunes, it punctuates and propels the emotional, Fellini-esque character study of an ambivalent, petulant man-child. In comparison to the original 1982 version, this shamelessly inventive, revitalized version soars. “Nine” is exuberant, eye-thrilling theatrical entertainment!

Hairspray

Susan Granger’s review of “Hairspray” (2002-2003 season)

In 1962, Baltimore, “The Corny Collins Show” (the local “American Bandstand”) reigns. White kids compete for prizes as they dance to rock ‘n’ roll music. Black kids have a chance only on “Negro Day.” At least that’s the case until Tracy Turnblad (Marissa Jaret Winokur), a plump, perky white rebel, teams up with Seaweed J. Stubs (Corey Reynolds), son of a black DJ (Mary Bond Davis), to break the dance-floor color barrier epitomized by her beautiful blonde teen-queen rival, Amber Von Tussle (Laura Bell Bundy). So much for aerosol-fueled social satire.
Inspired by John Waters’ clever, off-beat 1988 film, this Broadway musical, adapted by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, lacks the brazen goofiness of the movie while retaining the campy concept of a comic fairy tale, particularly in the cross-gender casting. In the movie, Ricki Lake made Tracy believable, while her mother was played by female impersonator Divine; here, that role is outrageously vamped by Harvey Fierstein. Waters wallows in excessively tacky tawdriness, and the audience seems to love it. Far more than I did. Admittedly, director Jack O’Brien generates an ingratiatingly energetic, exuberant ensemble, augmented by David Rockwell’s candy-colored sets, William Ivey Long’s costumes and Paul Huntley’s wigs. Problem is: while generating the ’60s ambiance, no one seems to be living in that era. They’re far too smug with their underlying lack of prejudice and penchant for bad taste. The Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman score literally lacks soul, peppered with bouncy but recycled tunes. Plus, at two hours, 40 minutes, it’s far too long. All in all, “Hairspray” is mere shpritz in the pantheon of musicals-adapted-from-movies like “The Full Monty,””Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “The Producers.”

La Boheme

Susan Granger’s review of “La Boheme” (2002-2003 season)

Bravo! After revitalizing the movie musical with his controversial, Oscar-nominated “Moulin Rouge,” Australian director Baz Luhrmann has launched a Broadway revolution with his exciting, revisionist version of Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” which includes an international cast of sleek, young, attractive singers who – surprise! – can also act. The story relates the tragic love affair between the seamstress Mimi and the impetuous writer Rodolfo, set in the world of starving bohemian artists in Paris. Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s libretto has been updated from the 1840s to 1957. In this celebration of doomed romance, three actresses rotate in the vocally demanding Mimi role (Lisa Hopkins, Wei Huang, Ekaterina Solovyeva), just as there are three Rodolfos (Alfred Boe, Jesus Garcia & David Miller). Two singers alternate as the painter Marcello (Eugene Brancoveanu, Ben Davis) and coquettish Musetta (Jessica Comeau, Chloe Wright). They sing Puccini’s opera in the traditional Italian text with eye-catching English subtitles strategically superimposed on the eye-candy scenery created by Luhrmann’s talented wife, Catherine Martin, illuminated by lighting designer Nigel Levings and costumed (even the stagehands) by Angus Strathie. Opera purists may gripe about the subtle use of body microphones to amplify the singers and two digital keyboards to augment the 26-piece orchestra, but I was spellbound. Baz Luhrmann’s genius is not just in the fluid, sumptuous visual staging and minute detail but in his audacious repackaging of this highbrow classic for mainstream musical theater. On the Granger Theater Gauge of 1 to 10, this “La Boheme” is an inventive, sexy, stylish 10. It’s an intense, astounding, exhilarating theatrical experience, the one Broadway show not to miss.

I’m Not Rappaport

Susan Granger’s review of “I’m Not Rappaport” (Aug., 2002 – Booth Theater)

When the curtain opens on this revival of Herb Gardner’s Tony Award-winning comedy, you see Judd Hirsch and Ben Vereen as two old geezers sitting in Central Park, bathed in an autumnal glow, as they battle the ravages of age. You sense immediately that you’re watching two old pros at the top of their game. Indeed, 17 years ago, Judd Hirsch won a Tony playing the feisty 81 year-old New Yorker who spends his days on a park bench. And now he seems to have an even better grasp of the part, while Ben Vereen makes the perfect foil for his hilarious repartee. They’re so convincing that it’s hard to believe they’re still only 67 and 54 years old, respectively. Under Dan Sullivan’s direction, the geriatric dilemmas the characters grappled with in the ’80s seem to have even more insight and relevance today in our aging society, as does the old vaudeville routine from which the title comes. Judd Hirsch plays Nat, the rabble-rousing Marxist, who can fend off muggers but has more trouble with his well-meaning daughter (Mimi Lieber) who is determined to relocate him to a suburban retirement. Ben Vereen is Midge, the almost-blind building superintendent, who’s hiding from the tenants’ committee chairman (Anthony Arkin) who plans to fire him. While Nat brazenly drives the narrative, Midge gives it a dignified, poignant balance. (The late Cleavon Little played Midge in the 1985 Broadway production, and there was a 1996 movie version, starring Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis.) Tony Walton’s set, Pat Collins’ lighting and Teresa Snider-Stein’s costumes add to the gentle ambiance. Not only is it an impressive, highly entertaining revival but the witty, warm and wise “I’m Not Rappaport” leaves you laughing – and a bit happier to still be alive.

MAMMA MIA!

Susan Granger’s review of “MAMMA MIA!” (Wintergarden Theater)

This whimsical musical comedy celebrates the happy marriage of rock ‘n’ roll with theater. Utilizing the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA, the show is a delightful crowd-pleaser. So it’s critical carping to point out that the sitcom script is ridiculous and the dialogue cliché-drenched. Audiences love it! The predictably corny story – remarkably similar to the 1968 movie “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” – revolves around the upcoming nuptials of 20 year-old Sophie (Tina Maddigan) whose free-spirited, hippie mother Donna (Louise Petrie) owns a taverna on an idyllic Greek island. Sophie longs to be walked down the aisle by her father, but she doesn’t know who her biological father is. By studying her mother’s diary, she narrows the field down to three men with whom her mother was involved when she was conceived. So, unbeknownst to her mother, she invites all three of the them to the island, each unaware of her true motives. Also on hand are Donna’s two best friends, played by Judy Kaye and Karen Mason. Director Phyllida Lloyd rejoices in Catherine Johnson’s concept’s campy quality, plunging into “Dancing Queen,” “S.O.S.,” “Money Money Money,” and “Chiquita” with bouncy exuberance. Van Lasst’s artful choreography scores high marks, particularly “Lay All Your Love On Me,” performed by a male chorus clad in flippers and snorkels. And credit Mark Thompson’s simple yet flexible set. With her bombastic energy and mature sensuality, Louise Petrie is sensational, stopping the show in the second act with the poignant “The Winner Takes It All.” Like “Saturday Night Fever,” warm, wacky “Mamma Mia!” scores pop-solid at the box-office which, after all, is where it counts.

RICKY JAY: ON THE STEM

Susan Granger’s review of “RICKY JAY: ON THE STEM” (Second Stage Theater)

In 1994, astonishing sleight-of-hand showman Ricky Jay sold out the entire run of “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants” (i.e.: a deck of playing cards) in just hours; in 1998, he repeated the trick again. So for me to recommend that you run, not walk, to the box-office to get seats for his current limited run at the Second Stage may be an exercise in futility; then again, the box-office seems to do its own amazing tricks to squeeze people into the small theater. If you manage to wangle a ticket, you’re in for a treat! Written by Jay and directed by David Mamet, this production pays homage to Broadway (“the Stem”) with Ricky Jay flawlessly performing his magic and memory tricks while spinning intriguing tales about the legendary scammers, gamblers, pickpockets, grifters, spiritualists and burlesque stars who formulated the seamier side of New York City’s bygone entertainment history, illustrated by a rolling backdrop of illustrations designed by Peter Larkin. Jay’s dexterity remarkable – evidenced by his juggling and card-throwing – and he has charm to spare. Who else could slyly persuade an audience member to sign a written contract for the purchase of the Brooklyn Bridge or slyly go down the aisles hawking $5 cardboard boxes filled with candy? (His book, “Jay’s Journal of Anomalies,” is also on sale.) The one-man show culminates with the “Automaton Orange Tree,” a magnificently complex optical illusion invented in 1848 by Robert-Houdin, whose name was later adopted – in homage – by the great Harry Houdini. And if Ricky Jay already looks vaguely familiar to you, yeah, you’ve seen him as a character actor in David Mamet films, like “Heist,” “State and Main” and “House of Games.”