The writers, actors and creative types of the Algonquin Round Table drank, smoked, joked and cursed in the Roaring '20s. In a world premiere musical, At Wit's End, they also sing.
Florida Stage in the Palm Beach area is giving voice to a new musical about the famed habitues of the Algonquin Hotel's oaken rooms, playing June 19-Aug. 12 in Manalapan, FL. The new piece — by Chicago lyricist-librettist Cheri Coons and composer Michael Duff — brings to life those wits, writers and artists who gathered in the 1920s and participated in the creation of The New Yorker magazine. Official opening is June 22.
Characters in At Wit's End include Manhattanites Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, Jane Grant, Robert Benchley, Harold Ross, Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, George S. Kaufman, and Edna Ferber. Coons told Playbill On-Line the "Greek chorus" of the show includes Parker, Benchley, Ferber, Kaufman, Hayes and Bankhead, with a focus on Woollcott (played by Blake Hammond), Ross (Sean Grennan) and Grant (Kathy Santen). The show's frame is a 1929 theatrical presentation by the wits (in the oaken lobby of the famous Algonquin) to commemorate the 10th anniversary of their first luncheon, and to tell the story of The New Yorker's founding. The action covers 1919-25, and addresses Woollcott's obsession with New York Times writer Grant, who would become the wife of New Yorker founder Ross.
Coons said she has wanted to write a musical about the wits since her college days, more than 20 years ago, and she was armed with pages of notes and research when the current show began taking shape in 1994. The book musical is a departure from Florida Stage's history of presenting summer musical revues. Chicagoans Coons and Duff wrote the score of Phantom of the Country Palace, produced in the Windy City and regionally.
Joe Leonardo directs a cast that includes Irene Adjan, Ladd Boris, Elizabeth Dimon, Jeff Dumas, Steve Full, Grennan, Hammond (Kiss Me, Kate, The Music Man), Eva Kaminsky, Dan Leonard, Santen (Les Miserables) and Brooke Tansley. Santen and Grennan, playing the married writers Grant and Ross, are married to each other off-stage and in addition to being actors have collaborated as librettists with Coons and Duff on other projects (including their cult hit, Phantom of the Country Palace and the Chicago-produced Ms. Cinderella). Designers are Jim Morgan (set), Jim Fulton (lighting) and Suzette Pare (costumes). Craig Ames is musical director. Marla Lampert is choreographer.
Tickets are $30-$35. Florida Stage is at Plaza del Mar, 262 South Ocean Boulevard, Manalapan. Performances play Wednesday-Sunday. For information, call (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837, or visit the website at floridastage.org.
— By Kenneth Jones