PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: To Be or Not To Be — The Importance of Being Ernst

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: To Be or Not To Be — The Importance of Being Ernst The first Broadway house to be named for a Broadway publicist — the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre — officially bowed for business Oct. 14 at the 47th Street site of the old Biltmore with an age-old, ponderously pondered question: To Be or Not To Be.

David Rasche, Jan Maxwell, Steve Kazee, Kristine Nielsen, Peter Maloney and Marina Squerciati, Michael McCarty, Brandon Perler and Robert Dorfman, Rocco Sisto and Casey Nicholaw
David Rasche, Jan Maxwell, Steve Kazee, Kristine Nielsen, Peter Maloney and Marina Squerciati, Michael McCarty, Brandon Perler and Robert Dorfman, Rocco Sisto and Casey Nicholaw Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Originally — like, 66 years ago — that stylish filmmaker, director Ernst Lubitsch, and his scripter, Edwin Justus Mayer, swiped their title from Hamlet's riff on indecision and wickedly re-coded it so that it would cue the cuckolding of the actor playing the melancholy Dane in the backstage film comedy, "To Be or Not To Be." When those six words were uttered on stage, a handsome young member of the audience would make for the exit and the dressing room of the actor's leading lady and wife. That left the middle-aged actor-husband stranded on stage with nothing but a soliloquy to keep him warm.

In his lifetime, Lubitsch made some memorable movie musicals ("The Love Parade" and "The Smiling Lieutenant," for two) — and, after his lifetime, some memorable Broadway ones: His "Ninotchka" and "The Shop Around the Corner" turned tunefully into Silk Stockings and She Loves Me. This latest Main Stem entry doesn't really push the song-and-dance beyond a Polish dirge and a hand-flailing, wildly improvised buck-and-wing, but it seems to be desperately wanting to be a musical, and it does have for a director the gifted and inventive Casey Nicholaw, who set the kingdom of Spamalot to toe-tapping and The Drowsy Chaperone to groggily twirling.

"To Be or Not To Be," the 1942 film, always deserved another life. (Never mind the 1983 Mel Brooks-Anne Bancroft remake.) It took years of televiewing to jack up its reputation to cult-classic status. Its audacity extended far beyond the improbable pairing of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as The Lunts of Poland (named the Turas here) — he preening and imperious, she long-suffering with a little extracurricular on the side.

It endeavored to take the sting out of being occupied by focusing on the travails and political intrigues of a Warsaw theatrical troupe coping with sudden swastikas in the audience. But it was released to a very unamused world on Valentine's Day of 1942, two months after our entry into World War II — and, even more fatally for the film, a month after Lombard perished in a plane crash returning from a bond drive.

The late-blooming admiration that the movie has subsequently amassed justifies why Manhattan Theatre Club jumped so eagerly at the bait of Nick Whitby's play adaptation. Unfortunately, as has been reported in the press, the honeymoon was better than the marriage. When Whitby came from his native Cornwall to look in on the production, two very able actors dropped out of the show, and opening night was pushed back 12 days. Declining rewrites, Whitby returned to England where he presumably was on opening night. His name never came up — a rarity for MTC. "I think we did a great job with what we had," sighed the usually smiling Nicholaw. "We were able to put up the script and all find it together and do the best we could."

His happy ending is already forming on the horizon: Minsky's, which he, directing and choreographing, will world-premiere at the Ahmanson. "We start rehearsals Nov. 24, and then we're out there in L.A. for January and February." The unstated hope is that the show will be on Broadway by spring.

This time it's a real musical — music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, both of whom were in attendance — and it's based on a movie title: Bob Martin, The Drowsy Chaperone's co-book-writer and "Man in Chair," adapted 1968's "The Night They Raided Minsky's" into the night they actually raided Minsky's, shelving the original movie plotline.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," promised Nicholaw, who's primed for it. "I'm very excited about the cast." Norbert Leo Butz, long-rumored for the lead, won't be doing it after all. "Chris Fitzgerald (the Eye-gor of Young Frankenstein) is who we're hoping for, but the deal's not done yet."

Nicholaw did say that Gerry Vichi, who recently went from The Producer in The Drowsy Chaperone to The Producer in Curtains, has been happily demoted to a baggy-pants comedian, a character that Bert Lahr was playing when he died during the filming. "Gerry was born to play this. It's the role of a lifetime for him. He gets to be burlesque, and the man is burlesque."

For the To Be after-party, first-nighters moved to Planet Hollywood, a galaxy far, far away to judge from the muzak piped in. After an Occupation play, it's never a good idea to go with a jaunty, upbeat rendition of "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

David Rasche (a late addition to the cast, after rehearsals began) doesn't do a conscious imitation of Jack Benny, but it's possible to catch a distant echo of the comedian in the clear, penetrating timbre of his voice.

"When you have lines like 'How idiotic?'" reasoned Rasche about his undeliberate Benny bid, "what are you going to do? You would sound like Jack Benny."

Unlike their official billing in the film (JOSEPH TURA and Maria Tura), the fairer Tura is the show's mainstay — especially as advanced here by Jan Maxwell. "Oh, I love Maria," the actress trilled blissfully. "She's great. I think she's more grounded than Joseph is. She's the one who keeps the company together, kinda the Snow White of the group. Not the brightest bulb on the tree, but her heart's in the right place."

Again unintentionally, there's a luminous illusion of Lombard here, which is pretty good considering Maxwell has only seen one Lombard film in her life and can't remember what that was. (Pssst, Jan: Lombard is now Star of the Month on Turner Classic Movies.) As it is, with a little help from costume designer Gregg Barnes, she keeps up the game and glam façade quite well. "I do love the costumes. My favorite part is the costumes. Gregg did such a beautiful job. It's the way he drapes clothing."

The "other man" rocking the Tura marriage — a bombardier with a big load to drop, you should pardon the expression — is dispatched, speedily at times, by Steve Kazee, who must race from the middle of the first row to the exit at the back of the house and then bounce back on stage. "I run," he confessed. "Halfway up the aisle, the lights go out, and I run as fast as I can. I get back down the hallway and right there in a matter of seconds."

Otherwise, the role sits well with him. "I get to come on and be the handsome guy, and I just stay that way for the show," said Kazee who has been that way since 110 in the Shade. "I'm waiting for the nice big juicy character role to come along." NOT.

The other new cast member, veteran Peter Maloney, brings to the role of the company manager a comic bluster and fluster that is downright red-faced. "I know," he said. "They tell me I get red. I'm not aware of it because I don't see myself. I've had people ask me in talkbacks how I do it. I don't know what they're talking about."

He's pleased with the part, though. "I love my character, and it's a much better character than the character in the movie. The man in the movie was a real old Hollywood character actor [Charles Halton]. I think he had a couple of lines, but my character in the play is much enlarged, and it was very satisfying to play." An extra flourish for one who doesn't usually get the (or a) girl: "It feels good to get the love of the beautiful young girl in the acting company and to know that we're going to be together and happy and have a family. And she's so beautiful, Marina [Squerciati]."

The rest of the company included an earnest Peter Benson, a Broadway-debuting Brandon Perler as a moppet for all seasons and occasions, Jimmy Smagula as a brutish Nazi thug and, flinging every comic crumb given her like a speed ball, Kristine Nielsen as Maxwell's ditzy, menopausal maid and dresser.

 

Christine Ebersole, Melissa and Christian Hoff, Miriam Shor, Erin and Jeffry Denman, Christopher Sieber, Faith Salie, Chris and David Lindsay-Abaire, Blanche Baker, Michael Mosley, Mimi Lieber with Daniel Sullivan, and Ivana Trump
photos by Aubrey Reuben

The Act II curtain rises on the evening's funniest spectacle — pear-shaped Michael McCarty in Teutonic attire, swinging a tennis racket. "Concentration Camp Erhardt" rides again! And McCarty has a high old time of playing the villain, Sig Ruman's celebrated cameo.

"Did you like my lederhosen?" was, coyly, his opening salvo to the press. "I like the character because he's so much fun. Werner Klemperer, who played Colonel Klink on 'Hogan's Heroes,' was a good friend of mine. He was Jewish, and he always said that he'd never play a Nazi unless it was a buffoon, so this is my homage to Werner."

He, and others, lost the German accent in rehearsals. "They stopped us from doing that because there were some confusions in the final scene where people were talking to people they hadn't been able to understand earlier, so it just became clear that we should ignore the accents and the audience just wouldn't think about it."

Rocco Sisto split roles and genders in the show — coming on first as a sinister Nazi agent and later as a bi-gendered drag dancer. "'Mister Mystery' is always a fun thing to do," he replied when asked what role was his favorite. He also played dead, which was much harder. To be a sitting-up corpse on stage is not the easier order in the actor's handbook. "It's really difficult, I must say," he reported. "Breathing is hard, and you're always fighting the impulse to open your eyes and sneak a peek."

Among MTC's invited revelers were Louis Zorich (from Roundabout's She Loves Me) and wife Olympia Dukakis; In the Heights helmsman Thomas Kail; White Christmas' choreographer Randy Skinner and dancing star Jeffry Denman, Rene Fris of "Shear Genius" and two directors who've been of some service to MTC: Dan Sullivan, who just returned the artistic director reins to the back-from-vacation Lynne Meadow, and Daniel Aukin, who will start previewing Itamar Moses' steroid drama, Back Back Back at New York City Center Stage II on Oct. 30 for a Nov. 18 premiere.

Jane Friedman, whose late publicist-father now has his name in lights above the former Biltmore, was honored guest. And his old deputy publicist, Bob Ullman, showed up to inspect (sans white gloves) his namesake lobby at the theatre.

The Tony-winning performers in attendance included Cady Huffman, the Blithe Spirit-bound Christine Ebersole and Jersey Boy Christian Hoff (soon to be Roundabout's Pal Joey — and a dad) with pregnant wife Amanda. Also: Christian Borle of the Legally Blonde that closes Oct. 19; Penny Fuller, who'll start Dividing the Estate Oct. 23 at the Booth; Blanche Baker; actor-composer Jeff Blumenkrantz, who made the last Broadway go-arounds of Damn Yankees and How To Succeed; Ivana Trump; Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, the consistently omnipresent Rob Ashford and Roberta Maxwell (no kin to Jan).

The actor-husband of Maxwell (Jan), Robert Emmet Lunney, said he was committing The Perfect Crime these days and will be up for parole Nov. 30 — a relatively light sentence, considering the play has run 21 years and the leading lady, Catherine Russell, has logged up more than 8,700 performances, missing only four.

Two shows were conspicuous at the party. The Shrek pack included Christopher Sieber, the Lord Farquaad, who got great notices for it in Seattle; lyricist-book writer David Lindsay-Abaire; choreographer Josh Prince and director Jason Moore.

The other play was Ruined. "It's written by Lynn Nottage, and it's about civil war in the Congo," said Kevin Mambo, who co-stars with Russell Jones and Quincey Tyler Bernstein. "Lynn went on the ground over there to talk to a lot of women who are living in the most extreme conditions and, kinda like a modern Mother Courage, posed the question of what war does to people and ultimately how the battleground of war is people. It's going to the Goodman in Chicago in November, then will be here [at MTC] in January through most of April. The director is Kate Whoriskey."

Since To Be or Not To Be is a tattered valentine to a life in the theatre, it may not surprise you to know Marian Seldes was a keenly contented customer. "Yes, I am," she cheerfully confirmed. In fact, "If I've got a theatre ticket, I'm happy."

The cast of <i>To Be Or Not To Be</i> at curtain call.
The cast of To Be Or Not To Be at curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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