STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Around the World in Eight Plays in Eight Days

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Around the World in Eight Plays in Eight Days I've done it again. I've gone around the world in eight plays in eight days.

I've done it again. I've gone around the world in eight plays in eight days.

Well, not literally. But one of the best aspects of theatregoing is that you can visit different lands and times. And so, my travels first took me last week to a land where Yiddish is the Mamaloshen (that means Mother Tongue). While there, I decided that Mandy Patinkin, not Lon Chaney nor James Cagney, is the real Man of a Thousand Faces. That might even be a conservative estimate, what with all the emoting he did during his impressive presentation.

Then I was off to Victorian London, thanks to Redhead at the Goodspeed Opera House. Sure. it's a long ride, but it's better than going to Mexico.

Mexico? Well, I'm only being slightly ironic. But there was a time when catching Redhead in Spanish was easier than seeing it in English. La Pelliroja opened in Mexico City on February 23, 1960, with a 20 year-old Virma Gonzalez heading a company of 77. It stayed until May 8, returned its $36,800 budget, then went on a national tour -- meaning such Mexican cities as Monterey, San Luis Potosi, and Guadalajara. And La Pelliroja's Spanish affinity didn't end there: later that year, the production moved to Madrid, where it played the Teatro Sasuela before embarking on another national tour, lasting eight months in various Spanish cities. Most interesting was that the choreographer was Kevin Carlisle, who'd later receive a Tony nomination for his Hallelujah, Baby! dances.

Wish he'd done the Goodspeed production. And I was really looking forward to this. After all, it was the one and only Tony-winning musical that I'd never seen on stage. But after catching Stephen Terrell's choreography, I still feel as if I haven't seen Redhead, and never will, because Bob Fosse isn't around to redo the show that won the Tony. I regret to say I didn't think much of the musical, which is particularly bothersome, given that I did the liner notes for RCA's CD re-release. (That's right: When it comes to Redhead, I wrote the booklet.) But I must remember that whenever a revival fails, too many people blame the show and not the production (it happened to such good musicals as Li'l Abner and Once upon a Mattress in recent seasons). Whatever the case, Eddie Korbich, a fabulous song 'n' dance man, was Redhead's best asset.

Off to France during the Revolution, courtesy of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Here's where I realized that a guillotine chopping off a head at the end of a song is the ultimate "button" on a number.

Back to London in the '50s and '60s, courtesy of Alexander H. Cohen: Star Billing at the Fairbanks. That's because the impressive impresario imported a number of British productions during those years -- and he's happy to tell you about them in a charming 90-minute lecture.

Cohen is as frank as a surgeon general's warning on a pack of Luckies: "A lot of what you hear is going to be apocryphal," he tells you up front. But you can tell he's sincere when he says, "I was born at 16 -- at a matinee."

The show was Hellzapoppin', and Cohen notes that the 50 cents he spent to see it eventually escalated into a $2 million loss on two editions of the show that he produced, first at Montreal's Expo '67, then 10 years later in a highly touted Broadway-bound production that shuttered in Boston in 1977, with Jerry Lewis -- whom Cohen calls "the worst mistake I ever made."

He tells a funny story involving "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Another that refutes the long-held notion that Maurice Chevalier was a penny pincher. How he got Dietrich not to speak to him for three weeks. How he got David Merrick to pay him $50,000. How he helped Manhattan Plaza to happen. How the Secret Service made him nervous, when President Kennedy attended both his Beyond The Fringe and The School For Scandal. Speaking of JFK, he has a particularly good "Where were you when he died" story.

Find out the answers to these questions: Why did Elizabeth Taylor write the Pope? What happened when Cohen and wife Hildy Parks took in Richard Burton when he was rehearsing Equus? Sure, I would have liked stories about Baker Street, Dear World, and A Time for Singing, none of which he mentions at all. But this evening is a must see.

The next stop on my world tour (do you think I should have T-shirts printed?) was "somewhere in the heartland of America in the recent past," thanks to Footloose. Here's a musical that's taken a lot of lumps, but I don't think it should be so quickly dismissed. For one thing, I think the character of Reverend Moore is well-established through a tiny but telling gesture. There he is, preaching in church, when he suddenly notices that one teenager has fallen asleep during the service. Now wouldn't you expect that the character who's the villain would rudely awaken the kid and humiliate him in front of the congregation?
Not at all. Reverend Moore softly goes over to him, and, with a big, understanding smile, tousles the boy's hair, and gently awakens him, making sure the first thing the boy sees is a smile. Any man who takes that approach is basically good. That's what Footloose did right: It showed Reverend Moore not as a bad man, but a good man to whom a bad thing had happened (his son was killed in a car crash), and he's displaced his hostility by blaming everything connected with the school dance the boy had just left. Later, when he soliloquized that he had to protect his daughter because he "didn't want to fail her," I knew he was sincere.

Yes, a town's having banned dancing because of one accident seems absurd. True, the story that's most interesting is what happened when the ordinance was first suggested five years earlier. (Didn't any kid step forward then to protest?) But you have to admire how the creative staff circumvented this choreographic impossibility for a first-act-closing production number: It went to a gym, and had kids do calisthenics, the next best thing to dancing.

Footloose also interested me because it's the great-grandchild of a George Abbott musical. When Ariel, the minister's daughter meets Ren, our anti-hero destined to restore dance, she's immediately smitten, which causes her three girlfriends to tease her. Ariel did everything but sing "I'm Not At All In Love." And the famous "Let's Hear It for the Boys" took place in a show setting not unlike those second-act production-number-slash time-killers for which Abbott always found room.

Off to Chicago. Finally! I'd been meaning to see Karen Ziemba for months. She didn't disappoint me and won't disappoint you. Watch how she makes her body go thoroughly limp when lover Fred Casely caresses her. How she puts on a commedia dell'arte face when she's the ventriloquist's dummy.

What's best is how she understands Bob Fosse's style. I'm not surprised; Ziemba is an old soul when it comes to musicals. So she climbs the stairs, back to us, lifting and angling out her legs. She climbs a ladder, and lets her leg swing like a pendulum. She struts during "Me and My Baby." And when she splays her high-heeled feet, she does it as well as -- dare I say it? -- Gwen Verdon did.

By the time Ziemba gets to the lyric, "And the audience loves me for loving them," you may think, "No, they love you because you're so good." Change that "Roxie Rocks Chicago" headline to read, "Karen K.O.'s Show."

Ute Lemper? Fabulous. Her Playbill bio says she's the mother of two, but can that be with that gloriously trim figure? And what she does on the last note of "All That Jazz"!

Sure, I miss the original set, and the costumes could fit in one laundry bag. (Maybe that's not such a bad thing.) But Chicago is still the best show in town.

Then I went to the fourth rock from the sun, thanks to a fascinating new musical called The First (and Last) Musical on Mars. Composer lyricist George Zarr was commissioned to write this by The Seeing Ear, the Internet radio theatre that's showcased on the Sci-Fi Channel Web Site (www.scifi.com). Call it up and give the show a listen when you have 90 minutes to spare.

Zarr has a real old-world musical comedy sensibility (that's a compliment) and an imagination that won't quit. His advice on how to remember the order of the nine planets? Why, a mnemonic device, which he demonstrates in the score's strongest song. If you learn the sentence, "Missing veal, Edward manufactured jumbo stews using noodle pate," you'll always know the running order.

After this intergalactic experience, it was back to France, albeit in the late '40s, to Jean Anouilh's comedy, Ring Round the Moon. You may know that, in the early '70s, Sondheim wanted to musicalize this play. When he couldn't get the rights, he instead turned his attention to Smiles of a Summer Night, which, of course, became A Little Night Music.

I'll admit it: I went to the show mounted by Bare Stage at the Theatre Row Theatre -- just to muse on what might have attracted Sondheim. How fascinating to see the parallels to Night Music. "Dear Frederick," says one character. "Isn't he domineering?" says another. "This evening's a comedy" says a third. Midnight is a significant symbol. A gunshot figures in the action. There's a dinner party. Much appreciation of the country. There's a sweet virgin, and grandmama -- in a wheelchair, yet -- who tells about at least one liaison.

And that was just the first act. I can't tell you about the second, for the moment intermission occurred -- an hour and fifty minutes after the show started -- fare thee well, Anouilh. Sad to say, this was a showcase that showed a woefully inadequate cast.

So, if truth be told, I really went around the world in seven-and- a-half plays in eight days. But seven-and-a-half plays surely is a helluva lot.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com