October 16 was a very American night in the theatre, starting with a standing ovation for Francis Scott Keys' big hit, "The Star Spangled Banner" and ending with a hot dog on the way out of the Lyric after an exuberant rendering of On the Town.
Yes, yet again, the fleet's in — debarking three by three by three at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and scampering off for a nonstop 24-hour toot in New York City. The iconic trio occupying center stage — Gabey, Ozzie and Chip — first dropped anchor here 70 years ago come Christmas Week in the forms of John Battles, Adolph Green and Cris Alexander. Upstaging their sightseeing were comely diversions like Ivy Smith (Sono Osato), Claire DeLoone (Betty Comden) and Brunhilde Esterhazy (Nancy Walker).
Comden and Green wrote a funny book for it that still works without much contemporary coaxing (here tweaks by Robert Cary and Buyer & Cellar's Jonathan Tolins). They also wrote enduring lyrics to a score their friend, Leonard Bernstein, had written based on the hugely successful Jerome Robbins ballet "Fancy Free." All four soon-to-be-titan talents were harnessed and honed by director George Abbott into a hit that ran 462 performances (till Peace broke out — and some change).
Underlining this frolicsome escapade is a primal force that comes from the time when it was created — 1944 — when sailors and soldiers were allowed a small little free zone of fun before being shipped off to uncertainty, danger, maybe even death. For its third Broadway revival — a transfer from the Barrington Stage Company, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse — the time is still 1944, hence the National Anthem before the show begins (standard operational procedure during the war years). Beowulf Boritt, who just picked up a Tony for evoking the '20s and '30s in Act One, seems to be fighting the '40s with DayGlo and neon abstractions, but the cast plows right through it like it was a victory garden.
True to the tradition of 42nd Street, once housed in the Lyric under another theatre name, three raw kids from the chorus went out as youngsters in the sailor suits and came back Stars: Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves.
This is not Yazbeck's first time at the rodeo playing Gabey. He did the part — under Rando's direction, not-so-incidentally — six years ago in an Encores! race-through, and the role wears well on him, just as good a fit now as it was then. Talk about the importance of being earnest! Unlike his two rambunctious sidekicks after real live girls, Gabey falls for a poster of Miss Turnstiles of the Month and is instantly lovestruck. (Such things were possible, and practiced, in 1944, the year of Gene Tierney's "Laura.") His buddies pitch in, fan out and try to help him match up the poster with the real thing, but they are easily diverted by women of their own.
"I love this character," Yazbeck admitted. "It doesn't get old because it deals with the human heart. It's a very pure feeling to delve into a role that has such vulnerability." He didn't have to do deep research on the love stuff. Now that he's a big Broadway star, he has decided to settle down and get married. "That's the plan," he nodded, and the beautiful young lady on his arm at the Capitale after-party, Katie Huff, is the one he's taking down the aisle on Monday in Maine. "We got a changeover in the schedule so we got two days off. I found her in the ensemble when I was doing Singin' in the Rain. I saw her coming down the stairs, and I knew she was the one."
Read like a real Gabey. Fate, along with Comden and Green, allows the character to meet up with his Miss Turnstiles and give her a spin. Since she is played by New York City Ballet's Megan Fairchild in her Broadway debut, that proves to be quite a spin.
"It's a workout," Yazbeck confessed bluntly, "but it's on another level of the universe. It feels heavenly. When they teach the dream ballet, it feels like that as you're doing it." And with Fairchild flinging herself around the stage all evening with artful, reckless abandon, it looks pretty heavenly as well. At the opening night party, she was trying to adjust to her new status as a Broadway star. "I haven't even had time to process it yet," she admitted. "We've gone through previews, and I've gotten used to the idea of being in the show now and being on Broadway, but now we're just a show, not even in previews anymore, and that's something that I'm going to have to let settle in." New York City Ballet seems to have the fix in for Broadway nowadays, with her brother, Robert, and his new wife, Tiler Peck, following her onto the Main Stem this spring — he as An American in Paris and she as Little Dancer. (They fell in love in balletic flight in the New York Philharmonic Carousel last year.)
"Who would have thought it?" Megan mused. "I would have thought that Tiler and Robbie would have ended up on Broadway, but I never thought I would be beating them there. A casting director texted my brother, 'Would your sister be interested in auditioning?' They'd looked at a bunch of dancers and couldn't cast Ivy. I sat on it for 24 hours, thinking 'That's crazy. I don't sing or act.' And then I got back to them the next day, and I was, like, 'Well, maybe, but I don't sing,' but they said, 'That's totally fine.' So then I went and auditioned. Two days later, I got the part — in the room."
This is Yazbeck's big Broadway breakthrough as well, after many yeoman years in the chorus. He started out as one of Mama Rose's newsboys in 1989, worked his way up to Tulsa in 2008 and periodically stood out in many an Encores! chorus line.
Alves has a similar history. He distinguished himself in his 2000 Broadway debut as Tommy Gjilas, drum major for Prof. Harold Hill's Boys Band, and he has become one of Susan Stroman's favorite "character dancers" (Oklahoma!, Bullets Over Broadway).
It turns out all he needed was a bigger role in order for him to make a distinctive comedic mark, and his Ozzie is an amalgam of all the right moves, whether they come from director Rando, choreographer Bergasse or his own loosy-goosy self.
"Maybe it's all of the above — I don't know," Alves smartly suggested. "As much as we have all poured our individual ideas and bodies into this show, I think that one of the brilliant things about this experience is that it's really not merely one thing that has made everything work. It's the unity. It's everybody's input. It's the direction. It's the choreography. It's the cast. It's the original writing. It's everything."
Also displaying a full-blown, bountiful sense of humor in his dancing and acting is Johnson, who plays the third sailor-on-leave, Chip. "My idols are Jim Carrey and people like that who do physical comedy. It's my life. Josh gives me choreography, John gave me the direction, and I put my skin on it. We're a team from heaven."
He hails not so much from the chorus line level of entry as from the understudy route. "I understudied Gavin Creel in Hair and Aaron Tveit in Catch Me If You Can, and I swung the ensemble. The third one was my big break, Hands on a Hardbody."
Of course, there were years of preparation before those three big steps to Broadway stardom, and his dancing teacher, Diane West, came up from Fort Worth to inspect the fruits of her labors. She seemed pleased, as did Mary Michael Patterson, who was Johnson's dancing partner from age 12 on and is now his fiancée. (She is also the current Christine Daae opposite Norm Lewis' Phantom of the Opera.)
Johnson also took voice lessons in high school, according to A Little Night Music's Hunter Ryan Herdlicka: "He was in Fort Worth, and I was a Dallas-ite and we grew up with the same voice teacher who kept telling us how great the other one was. We grew up rivals without knowing each other, and then we finally met in New York."
In some respects, Johnson feels as if he is living the life he's playing. "He's just excited to be in New York City. He wants to see all the sights his father told him about, and he gets sidetracked by the most beautiful woman in the world." A couple of aggressive Manhattan mantraps (distaff division) devour the gullible gobs that Alves and Johnson play. Elizabeth Stanley, who was the innocent blonde sacrifice to Cry-Baby, displays a delightfully unglamorous approach to goofiness as the scrambled egghead who mistakes Ozzie for one of the Neanderthals at the Museum of Natural History. They promptly go ape with the "Carried Away" number.
"I couldn't ask for a better scene partner, or a more generous one, than Clyde," she said, "patient, creative, on the spot. He's willing to try anything, so we have a lot of fun. He gets to be himself and shine. He really has the goods. So it's thrilling on be on the stage with someone like that. I'm glad every one else can see what he can do."
And she likes being on stage with the character of Claire DeLoone. "She's probably my favorite role that I've ever played. I love her contradictions. I feel that I can relate, and I think many people can — especially New Yorkers. You know, you have to be very serious sometimes, and then, when you cut loose, you cut loose."
Hildy Esterhazy, the taxi hack who hijacks Chips affections, marks Umphress' fifth Broadway show and her first principal role, and she really goes to town with it, usually exceeding the speed limit. Her big "I Can Cook, Too" number is really cooking.
"It's my childhood dream come true, playing this role," she said. "I grew up with all the classic Broadway shows, and I think having my first principal role on Broadway in a classic, old-fashioned amazing musical is the way I always hoped it would be."
She fits the part without special tweaking, "but they juiced up a couple of lines for sure. There were a couple of little things that they added, but they wanted to be respectful to the original text and try to elevate it instead of change it."
The other major speaking roles are played by an armada of character comedians approximating roughly the population of Rhode Island. The ever-outrageous Jackie Hoffman leads the charge, with the chronically tipsy Madam Dilly, Miss Turnstills' vocal coach. One especially hilarious bit finds her colliding with stage flap and then trying to figure out which way to successfully exit with a measure of dignity.
"That was John Rando," the comedian acknowledged. "I wish it was mine. Don't worry. I got plenty of my own schtick in, but I owe a lot to him. A couple of lines came from Jon Tolins, but most of it was John's direction and my interpretation."
Phillip Boykin, the Tony-nominated Crown in the last Porgy and Bess, officially calls the show to order with his bass baritone booming out the first line of the musical, "I feel like I'm not out of bed yet." Then he sticks around and plays essentially the club-emcee role — but in a rangy assortment of disguises. One Persian characterization is enough to bring a lawsuit from Aladdin's James Monroe Iglehart.
"What John did was allow me to do whatever I wanted to, try different things," he explained. "If it worked, he kept it. If it didn't, he got rid of it. Like the Miss Turnstiles pageant. At first it was just a straight announcer — flat-out, just do it — but, since it was the sailor imagining what a pageant would be, I thought the character would be better portrayed if he was really feminine. That was my choice, and John said OK."
Stephen DeRosa also draws a number of emcees, some with hair and some without. "I had a guy come up to me and say, 'I love you in that toupee. It turns me on.' I was, like, 'God, I've got to go get a toupee. I'll get a dancer to bring home.' I like the job a lot. Any chance for me to be upstage of men in tight sailor pants is a great job."
Allison Guinn uses a glass-shattering nasal voice to get most of her laughs but brings some poignancy to that cold-sniffling lonelyhearts, Lucy Schmeeler, and the overqualified Michael Rupert plays Claire's overly understanding fiancé who suddenly sees possibilities in Ms. Schmeeler. There are no small roles... "This is actually perfect for me now. I don't have to carry the show," Rupert insisted. "I can come in and just do my one song and my two scenes and have a lot of fun, work with an amazing group of people and then I get a little paycheck. I love doing that old character guy where I don't have to play a big role. I can play a fun role, which is what this is. It's always been a boring role, and that song too. When he asked me to do the show, I said 'Well, it's a song that never really works, so we're going to try to find a way to make it work.' And they did. They found a way to make it funny."'
Kristin Chenoweth arrived at the theatre in glittery silver shoes, which she won't necessarily be wearing when she returns to the 'hood Feb. 12 to co-star with Peter Gallagher in another Comden and Green hit, On the Twentieth Century, which will open next door to the Lyric at the American Airlines Theatre March 12.
These back-to-back Comden-and-Greens mark Adolph Green's centenary. He was born Dec. 2, 1914, and his collaboration with Comden is the longest in theatre lore.
Green's widow, the chronically vivacious (or at least she seems that way to me) Phyllis Newman was in attendance at the opening, as were her son and daughter. The Leonard Bernstein heirs also showed, with a proper galaxy of stars: Brooke Shields, director Diane Paulus, Jim Caruso, Tony Danza and Ron Lurie (who are rehearsing Honeymoon in Vegas a few floors above the theatre and came down for the opening), Steven Van Zandt and wife Maureen, Padma Lakshmi, Andy Karl and wife Orfeh, Betty Gilpin, Jay Russell (who just finished "Venticelli" in Amadeus at Baltimore Center Stage), Nigel Lythgoe, director Adam Shankman, Annet Mahendru, Sara Mearns, Joanna Gleason (who did a terrific act at 54 Below the previous night) and Chris Sarandon, Michael Urie, Max von Essen and Alison Wright. One of DeRosa's emcees — the one with the unconvincing toupee — saluted in the audience, Buddy Jerome Rosenberg and his wife of 68 years. It was his 91st birthday, and he had been a major in the Air Force who flew over the Pacific in World War II.
"There's an online discount for veterans," DeRosa pointed out and underlined. "Anyone in the military can come see our show and get discount tickets.
"In this particular case, there are certain people that we do the birthday gag with — that are friends of people who know. If you're lucky and you have somebody who's old in their 80's or 90's, and they come to see the show, it's fun to celebrate that. "Out of our 30 previews, we've had maybe 10 times that we've actually had Military, and five times we've had actual World War II veterans. Not only does the audience get moved, and I get moved, they stand up — these 90-year-old men who fought for their country who are usually accompanied by their wives of 50, 60, 70 years, and, when they stand up, sometimes they salute. That makes me cry — but sometimes they themselves are crying. It is a moment for them to be acknowledged and remembered for doing something — genuinely putting their lives on the line as kids for their country. To know that still has meaning is what this show is about.
"The first thing John Rando said the first day was, 'This show is a celebration of The Greatest Generation and the American Century, when America meant optimism to the whole world.' In the face of people who were younger than my uncle when he died in the war, they stayed optimistic in the face of terror. They were kids, were willing to sacrifice themselves. We have trouble believing it now. It's very special."