Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: The Boys of Spring

Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: The Boys of Spring THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE
No question, there are few scores more blissful than the one Rodgers and Hart composed for their 1938 hit The Boys From Syracuse. And no question, City Center's Encores! series could not have chosen a better title to bring its season to the perfect spring-like conclusion, nor could they have cast it better.
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THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE
No question, there are few scores more blissful than the one Rodgers and Hart composed for their 1938 hit The Boys From Syracuse. And no question, City Center's Encores! series could not have chosen a better title to bring its season to the perfect spring-like conclusion, nor could they have cast it better.

True, one could quibble that, with three good recordings and regular revivals, including one at Goodspeed a few years ago and one at Canada's Stratford Festival that was televised, Syracuse is not exactly the kind of rarity the series was meant to resuscitate. But the book that George Abbott fashioned from Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, while a perfectly proficient farce mechanism, no longer gleams, and makes the likelihood of a full-scale Broadway revival unlikely. So Encores! had no choice but to get around to Syracuse, which features what is probably the team's best score in a decade that also included On Your Toes, I Married An Angel, Babes in Arms, and Too Many Girls (with Pal Joey near the top of the '40s).

Although the Encores! production featured numerous good dances by Kathleen Marshall, this Syracuse was far more along the lines of the concert style with which this series began (and which was pretty much abandoned in the last entry, Promises, Promises, which qualified as a virtual production, lacking only backdrops). So things were more reliant on the performers, and they were grand. Malcolm Gets, of late preoccupied with TV's Caroline in the City but seen earlier in such off-Broadway musical productions as Hello Again, Merrily We Roll Along, and Juno, demonstrated that as soon as he is released from the NBC series, he should be at the top of the list of musical theatre leading men. Mario Cantone and Michael McGrath were just right as the comic twin servants, Sarah Uriarte Berry was the sweet ingenue involved in the duets "This Can't Be Love" and "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea," and there was strong work from Patrick Quinn, the always amusing Julie Halston (as the courtesan who reminds her employees that "time is drachmas"), and, in cameo roles, Tom Aldredge and Marian Seldes.

Three of the leads must be singled out for top vocal honors. Davis Gaines had charm and voice to spare on "Dear Old Syracuse" and the two duets with Uriarte. Rebecca Luker, freed from her usual glum roles to sparkle, delivered a lustrous "Falling in Love With Love." And the music of "Oh, Diogenes!," "He and She," and "What Can You Do With A Man" fit the voice and always authentic period flavorings of Debbie Gravitte to a tee. It should be noted that both Gaines and Luker might have been unavailable if their respective Broadway vehicles this season, Whistle Down The Wind and Time and Again, had made it in to town.

As always, Rob Fisher did great work directing the music, and Susan H. Schulman staged the proceedings well. The good news is that DRG will be recording this Syracuse (the Encores! Sweet Adeline recording has yet to happen), and because the production featured Larry Moore's reconstruction of the original Hans Spialek orchestrations, it is likely that the recording will be the best of the four Syracuse albums. You won't want to miss it.


THE WIZARD OF OZ
I've never seen the point of taking treasured musicals written for the screen like Meet Me In St. Louis, Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and Gigi and transferring them to the stage. There's no way to equal the magic of these films in a stage transfer, not to mention the fact that mere mortals can never hope to compete with the likes of Judy Garland or Gene Kelly. But if such stage adaptations (with the notable exceptions of 42nd Street and Beauty and the Beast, the latter a different animal as it went from animation to actors) have fared poorly on Broadway, they have a big life in stock, and it was inevitable that the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, perhaps the most popular of all musicals written for the screen, would find its way to the stage.

As indicated, I have little use for such adaptations, but for two reasons, I happily accepted the invitation to the opening at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden (where A Christmas Carol has now had three holiday outings) of The Wizard of Oz. First, it was the New York premiere of the official stage adaptation of the MGM film fashioned a decade ago by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and featuring fine orchestrations by Larry Wilcox and dance and vocal arrangements by Peter Howard. This version had several presentations in England (there's a very enjoyable cast recording of it) and has since had a healthy life around the U.S., but New York had still not seen it.

It made it to New York by way of the Paper Mill Playhouse of Millburn, New Jersey's 1992 production, with director Robert Johanson further adapting it for this 90-minute version that plays as many as four performances a day. While most of the film was still present, such RSC extras as the cut song "The Jitterbug" were dispensed with for Madison Square Garden.

For all its special effects, lavishness, and talented cast, this Wizard did not escape the inevitable problem of such occasions--how can you match a perfect film, and the performances of Garland, Lahr, Bolger, Haley, Morgan, Hamilton, etc.? In addition to the sweet-voiced Jessica Grove, the principals at the Garden include Ken Page, playing the Cowardly Lion, as he once did on Broadway in The Wiz, and Lara Teeter, best known for taking on Ray Bolger's role in the 1983 revival of On Your Toes, here playing Bolger's role of The Scarecrow.

But of course the second reason for my attendance was the lady playing Miss Gulch/The Wicked West of the West. Never did I expect to see Roseanne on the New York stage, much less in a musical, albeit in a non-singing role (I was hoping for a bit of "The Star Spangled Banner," but it never happened).

While the penultimate episode of her TV series was hitting the airwaves, Roseanne was hurling herself into the role(s), and if the performance was as broad as anything I've ever seen and never exactly believable, she was certainly game, willing to be flown all over the place, and looking like she was having a good time.

It should be noted that there were squeals of delight from children around me; if this production can turn young people on to the theatre, it will have served its purpose.

But better news than anything in the evening is the fact that Paper Mill Playhouse will be reviving Follies next season; as Paper Mill is one of the few New York-area venues with the wherewithal to do justice to that show's cast size and design demands, it should be something to catch. Also on Paper Mill's schedule for next season: the Stephen Schwartz-John Caird Children of Eden.


TONY-RELATED MUSINGS
Two food-for-thought items related to the upcoming Tony Awards. By the time I receive my Tony ballot in the mail each year, I am pretty certain of my preferences. I have seen everything nominated (a statement on the ballot asks you not to vote in any category in which you have not seen all nominees), have had time to study the nominations, and to mull over my feelings about the productions, performances, etc.

But for me, it's not always as simple as that. One could, of course, simply go down the list and place a check next to one's favorite in each category. For the most part, that's exactly what I do, and this year most of the categories will be easy, as, among others, I strongly preferred one musical, one play, one musical actress, one dramatic actress, and one featured musical actress, over the others. And even in categories where I don't especially favor one nominee this year (i.e. Best Director of a Musical), I've pretty much made up my mind by the time the ballot arrives.

But here's the thing: Having followed Broadway and the Tony Awards since the late '50s, I am a pretty good judge of what will win and what simply won't. Yes, one should always vote for one's preferences, but there are times when it's obvious to me that my favorite in a category doesn't stand the remotest chance of winning (yes, you can say that if everyone thought this way then underdogs would never win, but, trust me, I'm a pretty good judge of what can't possibly win, even if I vote for it). At this point, strategy may enter in: Should I decide which of the nominees--perhaps it's between two- actually stand the best chance of winning, and vote against the one I feel is least deserving? My logic here is, as my favorite can't win, I can do more good by voting for something that stands a chance of winning against something I really don't like.

I can assure you that I almost always vote for my preferences. But once or twice in the last decade, I have followed the strategic route described above, and it appears to have paid off.

The other Tony-related issue I wish to address this week is one that almost no one has seemed to notice. New York Times Sunday theatre critic Vincent Canby has apparently been ailing, and has not filed reviews since January. Because no replacement was brought in to finish the season, the Times has, for the first time in decades, had no Sunday critic during the busiest portion of the theatre season. And I believe this may have a significant effect on the Tony Awards.

In 1991, daily critic Frank Rich disliked The Will Rogers Follies (he liked that season's Once on This Island, and, to a lesser extent, Miss Saigon, and was mixed on The Secret Garden). Sunday critic David Richards loved Will Rogers, and it went on to win Best Musical. Two years later, Rich raved over Tommy but was cool to Kiss of the Spider Woman; Richards loved the latter, and it won Best Musical. In 1994, Richards, now daily critic, was not especially fond of either Beauty and the Beast or Passion. But Sunday critic Canby panned Beauty and loved Passion, and the latter took the prize.

Granted, it cannot be proven that it was the Sunday Times review that caused those musicals to win. But I believe that those reviews exerted considerable influence, and may have even turned things around in the case of Will Rogers and Spider Woman. With no Sunday critic this spring, daily Times critics Ben Brantley and Peter Marks have been the sole voices, with no later voice either seconding or contradicting their opinions. It's possible that a rave or a pan for one of the late-opening musicals might all by itself have made a particular show into a winner, but it won't happen this season.


I TOLD THEM SO
Just a month or two ago, articles were appearing everywhere in the press averring that, with six or more musicals just about to open on Broadway, the British megamusical was dead and the American musical was back in full force. As for myself, I was writing in this space ("Getting It Off My Chest," April 6) that it was perhaps not such a good idea to open so many musicals back to back, and that doing so might have an adverse effect on the box office. I went on to suggest that it might have been wiser to open one or more of these shows sometime in January, February or early March.

Now appearing everywhere (including two pieces in the New York Times) are articles stating that it was perhaps not such a good idea to open so many shows so close to the Tony deadline, and that business prospects for several of them would appear to be less than wonderful. I tried to tell them, didn't I?


THEATRE CDs OF THE WEEK
RCA Victor has a recording of Songs For A New World, a revue of the songs of 27-year-old composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown that was seen at the WPA Theatre in 1995. It's of particular interest because newcomer Brown is doing the score for next season's Parade, Livent's Broadway bound musical directed by Harold Prince (whose daughter Daisy Prince directed Songs) and with a book by Alfred Uhry. Songs's cast of four includes two cast members of Dream, Brooks Ashmanskas and the increasingly impressive Jessica Molaskey.

Because Songs is not a narrative piece, it's difficult to tell from listening to it how Brown will fare with a book show, and a rather serious one at that. But Brown makes quite a good first impression here, with much that is attractive and talented, so one looks forward to hearing his Parade score.

Continuing its series of the first note-complete recordings of classic titles, Jay has a double-CD, 107-minute South Pacific, a studio recording but one that features four leads who have played their roles in major stage productions of the show. Paige O'Hara is a brassier Nellie Forbush than most, but a good choice, as is veteran opera bass-baritone Justino Diaz. The coup was getting Pat Suzuki, the glorious singer of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, to record another R&H role, Bloody Mary. Suzuki does not sound much like her old self, but it's nice to hear her again.

It's lovely--not to mention unexpected--to have deathless scores like this one preserved absolutely complete, and in their original theatre orchestration; these recordings will be of enormous help to those involved in future productions, both major and minor. And a fair amount of dialogue has also been included. If the performances on this South Pacific don't erase memories of the original Broadway cast, this is a valuable set nonetheless.

Also from Jay is the cast recording of the 1992 Haymarket Theatre of Leicester, England production of Merrily We Rolll Along. First released as a single, 75-minute CD on TER, the Jay edition is a double-CD set running 88 minutes; the Jay version does not feature any additional songs (at one time this recording was to have included the cut song "Honey"), but has more dialogue, expanded versions of a couple of numbers, and bows and exit music.

Like Varese Sarabande's cast recording of the York Theatre Merrily, the Leicester set preserves the final, revised version of the show. Although Varese has Malcolm Gets as Frank, the Jay cast is slightly more stellar, including Maria Friedman (whose other Sondheim roles in England include Dot in Sunday in the Park With George and Fosca in Passion), Evan Pappas, Louise Gold, and Jacqueline Dankworth. But the singing on the York version is slightly preferable.

The original leads and larger orchestra make the 1981 RCA original Broadway cast recording of Merrily still the most exciting of the three cast albums. But the RCA recording represents the original, now obsolete version, whereas the York and Leicester recordings represent the current performance version. So one needs to have the original and at least one of the later sets, and the Jay album is certainly the longest of all Merrily recordings.

Jay has also released domestically TER's complete, double-CD cast recording of the unsuccessful 1989 West End pop opera Metropolis. When I reviewed this recording eight years ago, I found it almost entirely resistible, with the exception of leading lady Judy Kuhn's thrilling singing. With worse pop operas having come along since, it now sounds somewhat better; it's still not a lot of fun, but it has its moments, even if I believe that Fritz Lang's silent classic was a fine pop opera source that received less-than-inspired treatment here. The recording remains a must for Kuhn fans. Composed by American Joe Brooks, Metropolis has had a few American regional productions since its London premiere.

Before leaving the subject of recordings, I have to note that the most exciting new CD I've received of late is RCA's 23-minute special Tony Awards advance mix of three tracks from the Titanic cast album: The stupendous 16-minute opening, the moving duet for the stoker and telegraph operator, and "Still" for the doomed Strauses. Haven't stopped playing it for two weeks, and can't wait for the full disc in July.


QUIZ OF THE WEEK
When Pat Suzuki played Bloody Mary in South Pacific for Long Beach Civic Light Opera, who had the leading roles of Nellie and Emile in the production?
Answer to last quiz: Chuck Wagner was Jekyll and Hyde in the 1990 Alley Theatre, Houston, world premiere run of Jekyll & Hyde.


ASK KEN
Send your questions to kenmanbway@aol.com