Characters in the classic American play, Dinner at Eight, will sing for their supper in a new musical version of the 1932 George S. Kaufman Edna Ferber drama, receiving a Feb. 8-10 reading in New York City.
Three private, industry-only performances will be presented, offering insiders an initial look at the new piece, penned by librettist Julie Gilbert (great niece of Ferber), lyricist Frank Evans and composer Ben Schaechter. Per Actors' Equity this is not a "workshop" but a "Equity approved presentation," with Broadway and New York talent, including Tovah Feldshuh in the role of faded stage star Carlotta Vance.
The soapy comedy-drama (later an M-G-M picture) tells overlapping stories of guests invited to and preparing for dinner at Millicent and Oliver Jordan's. She's neurotic, he's losing his fortune, and their daughter is having an affair with a depressed, faded matinee idol who is just a trigger-pull away from oblivion.
Evans told Playbill On-Line that Millicent has been made the center of the show. "The play is darker than the film," Evans said. "Because the play is a cavalcade, we've made Millicent [played by Deborah Tranelli], the society hostess, the center of the musical. She has a little more self knowledge and a much greater journey than Kaufman and Ferber's Millicent. Part of the challenge has been finding that line."
Bick Goss directs the private staging, produced by The Century Center for the Performing Arts (J.C. Compton, artistic director, Ralph Odom, managing director), in association with Gilford-Freely Productions and Silent Partner Productions. "We were initially attracted to the original piece because it seems to speak of the end of an era -- where there was such a huge difference in class," Evans said. "But that's all we hear about today, the great divide between the moneyed and the poor. The times are not dissimilar. So much depends on the stock market, both then and now."
Another choice new to the musical is changing the time from 1931 to 1934, to avoid the issue of Prohibition. "Where would Millicent get wine and liquor for her party?" Evans mused. "The local bootlegger? In 1934, she can buy legally."
The presentation cast includes Bob Ari as Dan Packard, Amanda Butterbaugh as Kitty Packard, Andy Gale as Oliver Jordan, Laura Griffith as Paula Jordan, Adam Heller as Ed Loomis, Fredric Marco as Dr. Wayne Talbot, Charles Pistone as Larry Renault, Lauren Rubem as Helen Copeland, Jane Smulyan as Mrs. Heidi Wendel, Steve Sterner as Gavin Hatfield, Mary Stout as Hattie Loomis, Deborah Tranelli as Millicent Jordan and Feldshuh as Carlotta Vance.
The original play was embraced as literate and human, but the Depression helped shorten its run to 232 performances in the 1932-33 season. Sam H. Harris produced at the Music Box Theatre.
Coincidentally, Feldshuh is expected to appear in a reading for another in progress musical based on a Kaufman-Ferber comedy, 1927's The Royal Family.
William Finn penned music and lyrics for The Royal Family of Broadway, and Richard Greenberg (Eastern Standard) wrote the book. Jerry Zaks directs, Scott Wise choreographs and Barry and Fran Weissler produce the three-week workshop, which begins Feb. 11 and culminates in a private readings Feb 28, 29 and March 2.
"Some of the characters cry out for musicalization -- certainly [movie star] Larry Renault," Evans said of Dinner at Eight. "Kaufman and Ferber must have loved John Barrymore -- they fictionalized him in both Royal Family and to a degree in Dinner at Eight. It's hard not to write for him and at one point his songs were taking over the show. He has a spectacular number in Act II just before he commits suicide, 'Extravaganza of the Year,' where he envisions his funeral. And Charles Pistone [Lincoln Center's Most Happy Fella, Kiss of the Spider Woman] really delivers."
We have also enhanced -- punctuated -- the romances," Evans said. "Past affairs, present affairs. But here, I don't want to give away too much. But it gives us fodder for ballads about unrequited love with exquisite melodies by Ben."
Songs in the reading include "The Night When it Might Have Been," "Ever So Young," "Do You Want to Buy a Theatre?," "My Goddess Greta" and more.
-- By Kenneth Jones