Billy Stritch

Long a passionate believer in Cy Coleman’s passionate belief in jazz, Stritch jumps into the artist’s repertoire with “I’ve Got Your Number: the Jazz of Cy Coleman.” Yes, many theatergoers know him from his musicals (usually with Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields, or Michael Stewart), but that’s not how he started out. Let’s hope he covers some early tunes the late man wrote with Joseph A. McCarthy, tune like “Why Try to Change Me Now,” which was recorded both by Fiona Apple and Frank Sinatra.

Mon., March 3, 7 p.m.; Mon., March 10, 7 p.m., 2014


The Best Is Yet to Come–All That Broadway Jazz

The eight-man orchestra for The Best Is Yet to Come (59E59 Theaters), the revue of Cy Coleman’s songs compiled and staged by lyricist David Zippel, contains two brass instruments. This is excessive, since the revue’s five-person cast includes Lillias White, whose apparent function in theatrical life is to render brass instruments superfluous. White, an energized cannonball of a woman with a sweetly wicked smile, gets four or five chances, during the 85-minute show, to explode the cozy building in which it performs. After each of them, you may want to check that the roof hasn’t been blown off.

Having a force of nature like White at the show’s center does a good deal to compensate for its eccentricities, which would read as outright flaws if the cast were made up of less appealing individuals, or its music less inherently zestful than Cy Coleman’s. One of the few Broadway composers of the last half-century to be something of a genius performer as well, Coleman (1929–2004) derived much of his strength as a craftsman of showtunes from the same virtues that made him a spectacularly fine jazz pianist.

His songs are full of startling syncopations and ear-tingling harmonic surprises that reveal the mind of a constant improviser jiving his way through a night at the keyboard, always hunting for a new path out of the old patterns. (I once saw Stephen Sondheim, at the press opening of a Coleman show, nearly fall out of his seat with delight at an unexpected modulation.)

The rowdy jazz ambience of Coleman’s music made him something of an anomaly on Broadway—a fish out of water whose triumphant survival kept influencing the lay of the land around him. His composing posed an equal challenge to a long parade of lyricists that ranged from Dorothy Fields, who had been wordsmithing before Coleman was born, to such unlikely figures as Michael Stewart, better known as a book writer for musicals, and the Hemingway biographer A.E. Hotchner.

The shows they wrote with him were often rowdy, too, their characters a procession of tough talkers and oddballs, from the oil-field workers of Wildcat! (1959) to the hookers and brutal pimps of The Life (1997). Dance-hall “hostesses,” tough film-noir detectives, lower-middle suburban wife-swappers, circus promoters, vaudeville comics—refinement and stability are not hallmarks in the world of Coleman’s musicals. Their profusion of jingly marches, zippy “up” numbers, and cockeyed comic expostulations that suggest stand-up routines set to music leaves little space for tenderness. Indeed, Coleman’s scores feature few ballads, and those in his later works often employ the emotionally rhetorical ’70s-pop posturing that makes for stage waits in musicals; his spruce, spry, rhythm-dominated numbers have held up much better.

Zippel uses two such draggy ballads, both with lyrics by him, to bring The Best Is Yet to Come to an unintentional standstill shortly before its snazzy finale, which includes three of Coleman’s best-known cheer-producers, “It’s Not Where You Start,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” and “Hey There, Good Times.” The disparate quality of the two segments indicates the show’s erratic choices of material and of sequence. Even the cast is oddly unbalanced. The three women are all strong-voiced, forceful personalities—White, Sally Mayes, and Rachel York—who handily overpower their two male counterparts, Howard McGillin and David Burnham—low-key, laidback presences who often seem uncomfortable with the brash material.

The physical arrangements don’t help: The show jams its instrumentalists and singers together on the snug stage, dominated, front and center, by the piano of musical director Billy Stritch, who also sings (his “It Amazes Me” is one of the night’s few intimate moments), leaving a narrow central stairway and two downstage corners for the cast. That they can make do with these limited circumstances, each of them coming off with several small victories, is a wonder that almost matches the undimmed verve of Coleman’s music.

Inevitably, some of the best lyrics, particularly the saucy, witty inventions of Coleman’s first and best collaborator, Carolyn Leigh, get drowned out by the orchestra’s big-band enthusiasm, but you can’t blame the players. They clearly love what Coleman gave them to work with. Besides, they may be understandably jittery about having to compete with White.


Diana Krall

Peel me a grape, indeed. Now married and spawning with Elvis Costello, jazz chanteuse Diana Krall is at the top of her game. Though The Best Of Diana Krall was released in 2007, Cy Coleman would contend that the best is yet to come. 2009’s Quiet Nights has Krall’s hickory-smoked vox take on Burt Bacharach’s “Walk On By,” Cole Porter’s “Everyday We Say Goodbye,” and the Bee Gee’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” among others. Though Krall may never match her new wave husband in cool points, her Q-factor rates high. The female Michael Buble’s never looked nor sounded so suave.

Tue., June 23, 8 p.m.; Wed., June 24, 8 p.m., 2009



How do we define a great musical? If we mean one that can bring pleasure a second or third time around, even in an inferior revival, then Sweet Charity is a not-quite-great musical: It has the qualities that bring survival, but it has them wanly, only to a minor degree. Its story is mildly interesting rather than involving. The book being by Neil Simon, it has no characters beyond the hero and heroine; the other folk are mainly there to deliver the jokes. (Which are Neil Simon jokes: They’re not really funny but you laugh anyway.) The Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields songs, the show’s strongest asset, are an uneven lot, with some top-drawer numbers and a few too many from the middle drawer, though, as always with Coleman, there is apparently no bottom drawer; everything is wonderfully crafted musically, harmonically alive, and rhythmically tickling. Fields’s lyrics are up to her standard, which means always freshly heard but sometimes less than perfectly wrought. Whatever the writers’ shortcomings, the quality is there in the material, waiting for artists who can bring it back to life.

But Charity‘s not so easy to revive. Built in an equivocal time (1966), when the art of the Broadway musical was beginning to run down, it’s a quirky creature that demands sensitive handling. Its makers were practitioners of old-time showmanship, whose preferred mode was the Broadway of one-liners and razzmatazz. Trying to adapt themselves to the musical’s newer, Rodgers-and-Hammerstein “serious” vein, they had to stretch their creative muscles, and you often feel the strain. Sweet Charity is not based on a standard comic situation from some affectionately regarded old American book, play, or movie; it’s one of the few Broadway musicals based on a foreign film, a somberly ironic one at that: Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Certain things were naturally toned down to reassure Broadway’s expense account sensibilities: Fellini’s Cabiria is a prostitute; Simon’s Charity Hope Valentine is what used to be called a taxi dancer. This makes the show an anomaly in its time: Manhattan’s pay-to-dance halls had all but vanished by the mid ’60s, when Charity is supposed to take place, giving way to the peepshows and massage parlors of an increasingly seedier Times Square. Hence Charity is a quasi-realistic show that takes place in no discernible reality.

What eases an audience over Charity‘s reality gaps is, or should be, its showmanship. The shakier a musical’s basic materials are, the more it needs the cunning flamboyance of designers, choreographic imagination and energy, swift and knowingly detailed direction, character actors quick to characterize, and most of all a star’s charisma. Charity ran in 1966, and again in 1986, because it had all those things (a little diminished in 1986). The current production, to its misfortune, offers only bare hints of them. The result isn’t appalling; you go home thinking that these are pleasant enough people to be around, that Coleman and Fields wrote pretty good songs, and that Sweet Charity is by no means the worst old musical to have available in a year of largely miserable “new” musicals. But something’s distinctly lacking.

Don’t pin the lack solely on the person most visible onstage. Much ado has been made, pro and con, about Christina Applegate’s abilities. She’s not the worst performer ever to move from television into actual acting. She has looks, and pluck, and sweetness; she can sing a bit, and dance a bit better than that (even while favoring her newly mended foot). Probably, in a role better suited to her, her little dollop of charisma would go a longer way; probably, if she sticks with the stage despite all her Charity misadventures, her ability to project her presence will only increase. She doesn’t command the heartbreaking pathos for this role. And—an important point—she’s too pretty to play a girl who’s always getting dumped by men. Gwen Verdon’s off-angle looks and brash, throaty voice made this believable: You could see why some dumb guy might betray her, though you yourself of course knew better. Verdon only became a complete wonder when dance revealed her inner self. Since certain things have been made easier for Applegate after her foot injury, it’s hard to tell how far her dancing gifts extend, but it’s unlikely they come anywhere near the spectacular emotional bond that Verdon’s body, in motion, could forge with an audience.

To be fair, Applegate isn’t offered much of an opportunity to be spectacular, in dance or any other area. Because a show like Charity tests the production-makers’ imaginations in every department, you can plainly see the form’s decline in quality over the last two decades. Walter Bobbie’s production looks drab and hurried, its jokes and big moments punched heavily out front, to make sure the tourists catch on. Scott Pask’s sets, mostly dark, flat enclosures, heighten this by pushing the action downstage. Wayne Cilento’s choreography, relentlessly routine, makes the numbers seem to blur into one another. Denis O’Hare, as Charity’s hung-up boyfriend Oscar, gives the evening’s one strikingly original and commanding performance, but even he plays more broadly than he should. Janine LaManna and Kyra DaCosta are only adequate as Charity’s wisecracking co-workers; Paul Schoeffler is inadequate, in both looks and voice, as the Italian movie star who briefly picks her up.

Still, it’s a virtue to be charitable to Charity. Applegate has her own charm, if not the character’s. O’Hare, even coarsened, is a marvel. And even when kicked about this way, the Coleman-Fields score has its joys. Given the badness of most current Broadway musicals, Charity could almost be the greatest of these.


Czech Marks

Ah, Kafkaland— that world of nameless crimes, faceless bureaucrats, loose women, doomed men, dust, and decay. Synaesthetic Theatre, an ambitious clutch of recent NYU Experimental Theatre Wing grads, journey to those paranoiac shores with Rot (Surf Reality), a multimedia version of The Trial. While the company does capture some of the novel’s angst and anomie, their overabundance of ideas undercuts their production, offering diffusion in place of claustrophobia.

Directors Joy Leonard and Chris Nichols use live video feeds, distorted vocals, voice-overs, lip-synching, a trip-hop soundtrack, prerecorded film, cross-gender casting, dance, and stylized acting. Several of these elements do provide thematic complements to the play. The video of the stage action, though oddly framed and inadequately lit, presents each scene from multiple perspectives, emphasizing the spectator’s role as witness. The ambient soundscape, mixed live, cleverly samples bits of dialogue into its loops, creating a constant echo.

But the acting suffers alongside this technological arsenal. As if to compensate for the myriad distractions, the players stamp and bluster, employing grandiose gestures and hammy accents. Furthermore, their style proves woefully imprecise. In the dance interludes each actor executes the choreography at a slightly different pace, contrasting with the precision of the prerecorded film and engaging music. Yet Margaret O’Sullivan does fashion a strong Joseph K, and Maximilian Frey has a hilarious turn as a film-noirish femme fatale.

Though none of the director’s choices are indefensible, the multimedia overkill does occasionally render Rot a trial all its own. —Alexis Soloski

Tragic Comic

God only knows what funnyman Andy Kaufman’s grandmother actually looked like, but Rinne Groff— wearing a flannel bathrobe, stylish babushka, and geriatric sunglasses— definitely seems part of the same gene pool. When she arthritically jumps down from her chair to give wrestling-crazed grandson Andy (Leo Marks) a double karate chop, it’s hard not to giddily wonder whether the twentysomething actress has broken a hip. The sight of her convulsively shouting “Stop!” as you-know-who performs his feat of counting from one to 322 not only earns our profound gratitude, it brings the comedian’s bewildering shtick flickeringly back to life.

Just as it was impossible not to wonder what the hell was going on when watching the real Kaufman, so is it baffling to experience Elevator Repair Service’s uneven tribute to him. Language Instruction: Love Family vs. Andy Kaufman (Flea Theater)— a revival of the company’s 1994 collage blending Berlitz-style German and Dutch classes with highlights from Kaufman’s bizarre career— works best when Groff shuffles to the ludicrous fore. The problem isn’t so much that Marks makes a rather Howdy Doody­ishLatka, but that the piece lacks the hilarious conviction and pained urgency of the best of Kaufman’s radical nonsense.

Not that there aren’t deliriously winning moments— such as Katherine Profeta’s burst of seismic choreography that leaves the ensemble writhing on the floor or Colleen Werthmann’s deadpan depiction of Kaufman’s girlfriend Elaine Boozler. And though the device of foreign-language instruction voice-overs should be permanently retired, there’s no denying that Kaufman’s wit both begs for— and defies— standard comic translation. —Charles Mcnulty

Courting Divorce

The musical’s called Exactly Like You (York Theatre Company), but the score doesn’t include the old Dorothy Fields­Jimmy McHugh standard of the same title. The plot features once-married lawyers on opposite sides of a court case involving another disillusioned couple, but it’s not an adaptation of Adam’s Rib. Unfortunately, as Exactly Like You unfolds, audiences may wish it were a song-ized Hepburn-Tracy film and did include the Fields-McHugh evergreen. (Why would anyone— let alone Cy Coleman— name a musical after a hit tune? The answer: the same fuzzy thinking that afflicts the entire enterprise.)

Arlene and Martin Murphy are trying to convince a judge and two jurors that Kevin Bursteter did or didn’t engage in assault-and-battery when his mother-in-law, Priscilla Vanderhosen, accompanied him and wife on an anniversary trip to the Caribbean. (Kevin locked the battle-ax mother in the bathroom.) Arlene and Martin each present their arguments, as Mrs. Vanderhosen makes a play for the bribe-friendly judge, who’s up for reelection, and as those two jurors— he’s from the North, she’s from the South— air their cultural differences.

Not much brain behind this show then, but maybe a few itchy palms. What saves it from being a total waste of time are two numbers (despite A.E. Hotchner’s graceless lyrics) that almost have something to do with the narrative— the infectious “Don’t Mess Around With Your Mother-in-Law” and “Rio.” Not that the ditties are top-drawer Coleman, mind, but that director-choreographer Patricia Birch, straight from Band in Berlin and undaunted, puts her vivacious cast through clever paces. Otherwise, musical comedy boundaries haven’t been pushed, but retreated from. —David Finkle