STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Debbie Allen, Scott Bakula and Chita Rivera

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Debbie Allen, Scott Bakula and Chita Rivera
 
This month we speak with Debbie Allen (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Scott Bakula (Dancing in the Dark), and Chita Rivera ("Johnny and the Sprites").
Debbie Allen
Debbie Allen Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Once again, the Shubert Alley Cat's out of the bag, prowling the boards in Tennessee Williams' little den of mendacity. This time around, however, there's something new. The director's a woman. Multi-talented Debbie Allen makes her Broadway directorial debut with the fifth Main Stem incarnation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

When we spoke, previews were in progress (prior to last Thursday's opening), but rehearsals continued. Explains Allen, "We're still exploring material and refining performances."

A Mississippi Delta plantation is the setting for action that revolves around the dysfunctional Pollitts: patriarch Harvey ("Big Daddy"), his wife Ida ("Big Mama"), daughter-in-law Maggie ("The Cat"), her husband Brick, his brother Cooper (nicknamed "Gooper"), and Gooper's wife Mae (whose kids Maggie dismisses as "no-neck monsters").

Cast in the above roles are three Tony winners — James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose — plus Terrence Howard (his Broadway bow), Giancarlo Esposito and Lisa Arrindell Anderson. (One of Howard's three children, ten-year-old Heaven, plays the "no-neck" Dixie). Directing Rashad (her sister) is a delight, notes Allen. "I changed the whole tone of a scene today, and she loved it. She explores and discovers, smolders and excavates. And I love Anika Noni Rose [a Caroline, or Change Tony winner, and one of the movies' "Dreamgirls"]. She works so hard. Her interpretation of Maggie is brand new."

Ben Brantley's New York Times review stated, "The big question...was whether Ms. Rose...would be able to hold her own in such daunting company...Ms. Rose more than holds her own. She...runs the show whenever she's onstage, and when she's not, the show misses her management."

Big Daddy's vulgar language is thought by some to be new, but it was penned by Williams himself in a 1974 revision. As stated in a New York Times article at the time, the playwright "substituted expletives for euphemisms."

James Earl Jones was quoted in Vanity Fair: "When the play was written, you couldn't utter certain words...I love saying — well, you know — onstage." In '74, Williams also restored an ambiguous ending that he'd changed (at director Elia Kazan's request) in the original 1955 production.

Cat had the longest run and was the biggest hit of any of Williams' dramas, earning him a second Pulitzer Prize; his first was for A Streetcar Named Desire (which has had seven Broadway productions). Upon publication of his preferred adaptation, he called Cat his favorite play.

Reveals Allen, "There are four versions — one with Brick standing up to Maggie, others with and without Big Daddy's elephant story [not in the current production]. We made a few adjustments, with the estate's permission."

Allen saw the film version (complete with a revised, happy ending) years ago. "I couldn't remember it. When I was brought in, they gave me a DVD. But it wouldn't play. I thought: 'Okay, I'm not supposed to see it.' [Laughs]

"We were born in [Houston], Texas, and always called our father [dentist Andrew Allen, nicknamed Tex] 'Big Daddy.'" She has two siblings involved. Besides Rashad, "my brother Tex [born Andrew, Jr.] wrote the music for this production. My mom [Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Vivian Ayers] is coming to opening night, with my other brother Hugh."

Starting as a dancer, Allen's talents include choreographer (for Carrie, and several Oscar ceremonies), actor (among her credits are "Ragtime" and "Roots: The Next Generation," and she's known as Lydia Grant from the film and later TV's "Fame," 1982-87), director (stage, plus 200 TV shows), producer, lyricist, Kennedy Center artistic director, dance instructor, columnist and author (two children's books).

Emmy-nominated 14 times (as choreographer, actor, director), she's received three for choreography (1982, 1983, 1991), and also won a 1983 Golden Globe for her "Fame" role. When does Allen rest? "I don't sleep well; I'm always thinking."

Purlie, the musical version of Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorious, marked Allen's Broadway debut, as "a replacement [dancer], just before it went on the road." Raisin followed (the musical based on A Raisin in the Sun, for which Allen was hired as a lead dancer.

During the tryout engagement, she also understudied the role of Beneatha. "The actress playing the part called in sick." Allen went on, and "they gave me the part, plus $50 more a week. In one scene, Mama slaps Beneatha. She hauled off, and I was still crying three days later. But I learned to duck. It was a great start."

Billed on Broadway as Deborah Allen, her first name was changed "when I went to Hollywood." Returning to New York as Debbie Allen, she very much wanted to play Anita in the 1980 Broadway revival of West Side Story.

"All the creators — Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents — were there. I'll never forget that show," which earned her a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk Award.

Bob Fosse's 1986 revival of Sweet Charity, Allen's most recent Broadway appearance, cast her in the title role, for which she received Tony and Drama Desk nominations. Fosse was an inspiration. "In rehearsals, you could look up any time, and Bob would be right there. He was the best!" Gwen Verdon, the original Charity, was often at rehearsals, and Allen has warm memories of her. "She was so funny."

They worked together in a 1998 all-star benefit concert of the musical with Allen singing "Where Am I Going?" and Verdon acting the closet scene, where Charity hides from a movie star's paramour, smokes a cigarette, and exhales into a garment bag. (Verdon once told me that Fosse created the closet scene. It's all that remains of his attempt to write the show's book, before assigning it to Neil Simon.)

Carrie, the musical based on a Stephen King novel, marked Allen's debut as choreographer. "We did it in London [starring Barbara Cook]. Then we came to New York [closing after 16 previews, five performances]. Betty Buckley [who took over Cook's role] was amazing! It had a wonderful score [by Michael Gore (music) and Dean Pitchford (lyrics)]. Terry Hands [the Royal Shakespeare Company's artistic director, who directed, co-produced, and designed the lighting] was British. He didn't understand American proms. Because of the way they were dressed, all the high-school [kids] looked 40."

Which of Allen's roles has given her the most satisfaction? She's "hard-pressed to answer. I loved being Charity Hope Valentine, but I guess I'd have to choose Anita."

Since 1984 Allen's been married to former NBA player Norman Nixon. Daughter Vivian is a dancer; son Norman, Jr. (nicknamed Thump), a college sophomore. Vivian Nixon appeared on Broadway in Hot Feet. A special kick for her proud mom was when Vivian "played Anita in West Side Story in Paris. She was amazing!"

Upcoming for Allen is The Bayou Legend, "a musical based on Peer Gynt," for which Allen is lyricist and director. James Ingram composed the music. Also on tap: "a movie based on 'Dancing in the Wings,'" her second children's book. (The other's "Brothers of the Knight.")

"Tennessee's words inspired the set [for the current production]," Allen points out. "He wrote that things should be almost invisible. We use scrims. I worked closely with the scenic designer [Ray Klausen] and the lighting designer [William Grant] to develop a beautiful new look."

Not intimidated by previous productions, the director asks, "How many ways are there of doing Julius Caesar? It's going to the same river, but stepping in different water." Please raise your mint juleps to toast Debbie Allen.

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History of a Play: Following are various versions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with the usual order of roles — Maggie, Brick, Big Daddy, Big Mama, Gooper, and Mae.

Barbara Bel Geddes (Tony nominee), Ben Gazzara (whose understudy was Cliff Robertson), Burl Ives, Mildred Dunnock, Pat Hingle and Madeleine Sherwood were the leads in the original 1955 production. Also Tony-nominated: the play, director Kazan and Jo Mielziner's set design.

Patricia Neal took Bel Geddes' place while the actress went on a three-week vacation. Neal once told me, "I loved playing Maggie. I'd done a scene at the [Actors] Studio, and then Kazan put me in the Broadway company."

Directly following the replacement stint, Kazan cast Neal as the female lead in "A Face in the Crowd" opposite Andy Griffith. Jack Lord, and later Alex Nicol, succeeded Gazzara. The play ran 694 performances.

1974: Elizabeth Ashley (Tony nominee), Keir Dullea, Fred Gwynne, Kate Reid, Charles Siebert and Joan Pape. (It played two previews, 160 performances.)

The 1990 production's players were Kathleen Turner (Tony nominee), Daniel Hugh Kelly, Charles Durning (Tony winner), Polly Holiday (Tony nominee), Kevin O'Rourke and Debra Jo Rupp. (Nine previews, 149 performances.)

Leads for the most recent (2003) Broadway revival were Ashley Judd (succeeded by Kelly McAndrew), Jason Patric, Ned Beatty, Margo Martindale (Tony nominee), Michael Mastro and Amy Hohn. (It played 28 previews, 145 performances.)

John Carradine and Mercedes McCambridge toured (as the elder Pollitts) in the 1970s. According to Carradine, a tall, gaunt man, Williams had envisioned Big Daddy exactly that way, and Carradine had been offered the role initially. Due to a conflict, he was unable to accept.

Long Wharf produced the play's 1955 original version in 1984 with Christine Lahti, Peter Weller, Stefan Gierasch, Jan Miner, Beeson Carroll and Pamela Payton Wright. Kennedy Center's 2004 production featured Mary Stuart Masterson, Jeremy Davidson, George Grizzard, Dana Ivey, T. Scott Cunningham and Emily Skinner. Gerald Gutierrez had been scheduled to direct, but died. Mark Lamos took over.

Movies and TV: M-G-M's 1958 film version, adapted and directed by Richard Brooks, starred Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Judith Anderson, Jack Carson and Madeleine Sherwood.

Nominated for six Oscars, it won none. Ives did win as Best Supporting Actor, but for "The Big Country." He was not nominated as Big Daddy. It's available on DVD.

Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Laurence Olivier (who co-produced), Maureen Stapleton, Jack Hedley and Mary Peach played in a TV adaptation that aired Dec. 6, 1976, and was poorly received by critics.

Williams' restored version, with sexual innuendos (and Big Daddy's elephant story), but sans expletives, aired on Showtime (Aug. 19, 1984) and on PBS (June 24, 1985). Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Rip Torn, Kim Stanley (Emmy winner, in a sterling last performance), David Dukes and Penny Fuller (Emmy nominee) starred. Available on DVD.

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Mara Davi with Scott Bakula in rehearsal.
photo by Sandy Huffaker

Two decades after his most recent Broadway appearance (in Romance/Romance, for which he received a 1988 Tony nomination), Scott Bakula is taking a not-quite-"Quantum Leap" back to musical theatre. Considered by many to be one of the nicest people in show business, Bakula stars in the world-premiere engagement (March 4-April 13) of Dancing in the Dark at San Diego's Old Globe. Might the show transfer to New York? Says Bakula, "That's what they've talked about since day one."

Douglas Carter Beane has adapted Betty Comden and Adolph Green's Oscar-nominated screenplay for "The Band Wagon" (1953). The popular M-G-M movie starred Fred Astaire as dancer Tony Hunter who, because of his fading film career, agrees to co-star with a ballerina (Cyd Charisse) in a Broadway musical.

Writers of the show are two of his friends (Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant) — a team not unlike Comden and Green — and the director's a theatrical Renaissance man (Jack Buchanan). Playing those respective roles at the Old Globe are Bakula, Mara Davi, Beth Leavel, Adam Heller, and Patrick Page. Among those also in the cast are Sebastian LaCause, Benjamin Howes and Jacob Ben Widmar.

Has Bakula seen the movie? "Yes, but not for a long time." I'd read that Bakula plays more a singing, rather than dancing, Tony Hunter, but he tells me: "I'm Tony Hunter, the singer and the dancer. I do a fair amount of dancing, but no one's Fred Astaire.

"Elements of the story are the same, but it's deeper. It has a new creative energy. Douglas has had the freedom to go in and, with Gary [Griffin, who's directing], flesh out the story, especially in the second act, so that it isn't just number after number [as might be said of the film]." Featured in "The Band Wagon" score, by Howard Dietz (lyrics) and Arthur Schwartz (music), are songs first written for eight of their Broadway revues. Two songs deleted from the movie ("Bran' New Suit," "Sweet Music") have been reinstated. Numbers from Dietz and Schwartz shows were added: "Something You Never Had Before" (from The Gay Life) and "Rhode Island Is Famous for You" (Inside USA). "The Girl Hunt" ballet, danced by Astaire and Charisse in the movie, has been eliminated.

Due to his TV exposure, one could count Bakula among the most readily recognized actors. With which character do most people associate him — Sam Beckett, the "Quantum Leap" scientist (1989-93), or Jonathan Archer, the "Star Trek: Enterprise" captain (2001-05)? "Both," he replies, "but 'Quantum Leap' probably carries the day."

Each week, time-traveler Beckett leaped year to year, into the body of a different person, in order to improve matters. His guide was Al, a hologram, played by Dean Stockwell, with whom Bakula remains friends: "He's a good man."

"Quantum Leap" earned Bakula four Emmy nominations, and as many Golden Globe nods (winning the latter award in 1992). The actor directed three of the 96 episodes, and sometimes sang on the series. A 1989 show had him performing songs from Man of La Mancha. "That one had John Cullum and Janine Turner — before they did 'Northern Exposure' [their 1990-95 series] — and Michele Pawk was in it, too."

"Boston Legal" (in February) featured Bakula singing "Once Upon a Time" and playing piano. It reunited him with Candice Bergen, with whom he did 13 "Murphy Brown" episodes (1993-96). "Candice is a love, and great to work with." Will he appear again on "Legal"? "You never know. [Laughs] I didn't die at the end."

Shenandoah, "with John Cullum as the star, was the first Broadway show I ever saw." A few years later, Bakula made his professional stage debut in the musical "at a North Carolina dinner theatre. I've appeared in the show several times, playing various roles. I did it on the old straw-hat circuit, with John Raitt one year, and Ed Ames, another; a couple of national tours; twice at Paper Mill Playhouse." In 2006, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., Bakula graduated to "the lead role of Charlie."

Following a turn as an understudy in Is There Life After High School?, Bakula's Broadway debut occurred as baseball's Joe DiMaggio in 1983's short-lived Marilyn: An American Fable. Does it bring back any memories? He laughs. "Many, but they're way too long."

On April 8, 1995, Bakula appeared as J. Bowden Hapgood, opposite Madeline Kahn (Cora Hoover Hooper) and Bernadette Peters (Fay Apple), in a Carnegie Hall benefit concert of the Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical Anyone Can Whistle. Angela Lansbury, who had originated the Hooper role, narrated.

Recalls Bakula, "It was extraordinary! It was almost impossible to step back and appreciate what was going on. I knew Bernadette, and had met Angela a few times, but I didn't know Madeline. She's greatly missed. It was wonderful to share that rare and magical night with her."

Born in St. Louis, MO, Bakula's the father of four. Daughter Chelsy and son Cody are the children of his marriage to Krista Neumann; Wil and Owen are his sons with actress Chelsea Field. Do any of them plan to follow in Dad's footsteps? "They all love [the business] in different ways, but I don't know what they'll end up doing."

His most recent musical theatre experiences include a May 2007 engagement of the Richard Rodgers-Samuel Taylor musical No Strings at UCLA's Reprise!, and An Evening with Scott Bakula, a January 2008 benefit concert for the restoration of Ford's Theatre.

Film appearances include 1999's Oscar-winning Best Picture, "American Beauty," in which Bakula and Sam Robards played Kevin Spacey's neighbors, a gay couple named Jim and Jim. His next TV stint is five episodes of "State of the Union," a sketch-comedy series, co-starring Tracey Ullman, that starts March 30 on Showtime.

Claims Bakula, "The Old Globe engagement [of Dancing in the Dark] gives us a great opportunity. It's a very big show, with a lot of numbers, and really great actors." Saying that it would be great to have him back on Broadway, Bakula laughs, and responds, "I hope to get there."

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About the Movie: Hugh Fordin's book "M-G-M's Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit" devotes a chapter to "The Band Wagon." The author writes that it was producer Freed's idea to create a picture (scheduled to be called "I Love Louisa") around the Dietz and Schwartz catalogue, and that he hired Comden and Green to do so.

Freed assigned Vincente Minnelli to direct. He and Minnelli subsequently asked Alan Jay Lerner to supply (sans credit) the narration for "The Girl Hunt" (a Mickey Spillane-spoof) detective ballet. Jose Ferrer inspired the director's role, which was declined by Clifton Webb. Though Webb sang and danced on Broadway (including three Dietz and Schwartz revues), he never did either on the screen.

Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price were considered, but on Webb's recommendation the part went to Britain's Jack Buchanan. Fordin also states that when Freed wanted a new song for the finale, Dietz and Schwartz took only a half-hour to write "That's Entertainment!"

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Set your alarms and tune in to Disney Channel's "Johnny and the Sprites" March 15 (7:30 AM ET), and see Broadway royalty — the indefatigable, two-time Tony winner Chita Rivera — playing the Queen of All Magical Beings.

How did the gig come about? "I just got a call. I'm a great fan of Johnny's [Avenue Q Tony nominee John Tartaglia], so I said 'absolutely!' I've got a grandniece, you know. Everything worked out perfectly.

"Have you ever been on that set? If things get rough and tough, and you hate everybody, go to that set. They are the most talented, gifted, magical people. They've built a beautiful world. It makes you smile; it cleans you out."

Daryl Watson wrote the episode, "Johnny's Not Invited," directed by Richard A. Fernandes. The sprites (Ginger, Basil, Lily, and Root) are excited because "a special visitor" is due to arrive "to throw a royal party."

Enter Chita: "Welcome everyone. It is I, the queen of all the sprites, and fuzzies, and other magical beings." Since she doesn't mention humans, the sprites believe that Johnny ("the greatest human in the whole world") can't attend — and they're afraid to question Her Majesty. (The morale: "You should never be afraid to ask questions," advises Tartaglia. "After all, that's how you learn.")

Rivera sings ("Welcome to Grotto's Grove"), very briefly trips the light fantastic, and spouts a little "sprite" jargon. "When I left, one of the girls gave me a tiny, beautiful queen, made from bits of material from the dress and crown. It went on my Christmas tree. It's not really an ornament, but her thoughtfulness was lovely."

Included among Chita's previous children's fare are appearances on "Captain Kangaroo" and "Dora the Explorer: Dora's Fairytale Adventure." Admits Chita, "I saw part of [the 'Dora' DVD, in which she's the voice of the evil witch] a few days ago. The [grandniece] was watching it. She refuses to believe that it's me. [Laughs] I'm grateful."

Extensive television credits include "all the variety shows — Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar, Judy Garland — and the second 'Dick Van Dyke Show.' I've done 'Will and Grace' [she and Michele Lee played a lesbian couple], and so many others."

Confides Chita, "TV's enjoyable, but it's too instant. Now you see it, now you don't. I'm used to beginnings, middles and ends — rehearsals, the whole process. That's what I love, that's what I prefer doing. I still think theatre is it for me." (Lucky for her legion of fans.)

To date, she's appeared in 15 Broadway musicals, received nine Tony nominations, and won twice (The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman). Tours include Call Me Madam (starring Elaine Stritch), Kiss Me, Kate, Zorba (opposite John Raitt) and Can-Can.

Regionally, Rivera's non-musical performances range from Born Yesterday (1972, at Philadelphia's Walnut Theatre, playing Billie Dawn to John Randolph's Harry Brock) to The House of Bernarda Alba (2002, at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, as the domineering matriarch.)

Anita (Debbie Allen's favorite character) was, of course, originated by Chita. However, librettist Arthur Laurents has written that he meant the part for singer Anita Ellis (sister of the original Tony, Larry Kert). But when Ellis couldn't dance, Rivera nabbed the star-making role.

Chita once told me that, prior to its premiere, she was skeptical about the success of West Side Story. "There were dead bodies [at the end]. I asked: 'Do you think it will work?' [Laughs] That's why I'm still dancing and not directing."

Opening the 10th anniversary celebration (November 2006) of the Chicago revival, Chita performed "All That Jazz," which she introduced in the original production. "That song is the best," she insists. "To be able to do it at the 10th anniversary was just marvelous! The Kander and Ebb score is breathtaking. It's really what the theatre is all about."

When the Chicago revival began, Rivera appeared in London and Las Vegas productions, but she wouldn't do it on Broadway. I once asked her why, and she said, "Because the 'Technicolor' was gone" — referring to Gwen Verdon, whom she adored.

It was a mutual feeling. In my last interview with Verdon, I checked a quote she had made: "I have no desire to go down in 'The Guinness Book of Records' as the oldest dancing star." Gwen confirmed it. She then laughed loudly, and told me, "Chita's going to do that!"

Come April, Rivera, a 2002 Kennedy Center honoree (in her native Washington, D.C.), co-stars with George Hearn, at Virginia's Signature Theatre, in John Kander and Fred Ebb's The Visit. Based on the 1958 Friedrich Duerrenment drama of the same name (which marked the Lunts' final Broadway appearance), it concerns the world's richest woman, seeking revenge on a town's mayor, for a transgression.

At Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where she co-starred with John McMartin (in 2001), Rivera won accolades for the "Peg-Leg Tango" (her character has a wooden limb). Are there plans to bring the show to Broadway? "Yes, there are." I say that's where she belongs. Chita concurs: "It feels good there."

One of Rivera's legs contains nuts and bolts, due to a 1986 taxi cab accident. At a Tony nominees luncheon, when she was up for Nine, I jokingly asked: "Do the nuts and bolts make it easier to place your leg on Antonio Banderas' shoulder?" Without missing a beat, she purred, "No. Antonio makes it easier to do that."

Concludes Chita, "We need stuff like 'Johnny and the Sprites' to make our hearts happy. I can't tell you how much fun I had working with Johnny. I truly respect him — and everyone involved with the show."

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VARIOUS AND SUNDRY

Last month I wrote about the TV-movie of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun", which Craig Zadan and Neil Meron produced. It deservedly got great reviews and ratings (ABC, Feb. 25)...To save time come awards season, Emmys and Golden Globes should be engraved starting now...The DVD release (May 6) has audio commentary by director Kenny Leon, and a featurette: "Dreams Worthwhile: The Journey of 'A Raisin in the Sun'."

Exquisite Barbara Cook just began a six-week engagement at the Café Carlyle. Highlights include Peter Allen's "Harbour," Irving Berlin's "I Got Lost in His Arms" and a song introduced by Fanny Brice: "Cookin' Breakfast for the One I Love"...I'd loved to have seen the 1967 summer tour of Funny Girl, in which Cook portrayed Brice, opposite the Nicky Arnstein of George Hamilton (who, Cook told me, "was very good").

Isn't it great that the May 8 performance of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, directed by Lonny Price, will be telecast "Live from Lincoln Center"? It plays five performances, with the New York Philharmonic, at Avery Fisher Hall. "In short, there's simply not/ A more congenial spot/ For happily-ever-aftering than here/ In Camelot."

Alex Hurt (son of William) and Raul S. Julia (the late actor's son) — two second-generation actors — have formed a theatre company (Half Assiduity Arts), and are starring in The Gay Barber's Apartment, for a limited engagement (that began March 5) at Manhattan's Sanford Meisner Theatre.

Fred Allen, the vaudeville-radio-TV-movie comedian (1894-1956), once observed: "You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood — stuff it in a flea's navel, and still have room for three caraway seeds, and an agent's heart."

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Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between artists who cross freely between theatre, film and television. Michael Buckley has written this column since 2002. He may be contacted at stagetoscreens@aol.com.

Chita Rivera and John Tartaglia in "Johnny and the Sprites."
Chita Rivera and John Tartaglia in "Johnny and the Sprites."
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