STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Big Star Entrances

News   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Big Star Entrances "Enterrrrrr!!" commands Willie Clark, to Al Lewis' dismay in The Sunshine Boys. But should Mr. Lewis be so upset? After a build-up like that, he could have come in grandly and made a Big Star Entrance.

"Enterrrrrr!!" commands Willie Clark, to Al Lewis' dismay in The Sunshine Boys. But should Mr. Lewis be so upset? After a build-up like that, he could have come in grandly and made a Big Star Entrance.

And that's what it's all about, isn't it? A Big Star Entrance must be the dream of most every performer. Certainly it was important enough to Desiree Armfeldt, or else she wouldn't have thought to make a point of stating, "Making my entrance again, with my usual flair."

So what makes for a Big Star Entrance? Certainly staircases -- partly because they allow performers to get torrents of applause while they trot down the steps. Angela Lansbury sure got a hand in Mame, as did Ruby Keeler in No, No, Nanette, Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie, all those Norma Desmonds in Sunset Boulevard -- not to mention all those beautiful- girls-turned-matrons in Follies.

And yet, the most dramatic staircase entrance came from Donna Murphy as Fosca in Passion. Leave it to Sondheim and Lapine to make it happen in a completely different way. For long before Fosca took her stroll down the stairs, we'd heard her off-stage screams of pain. Who -- or what -- could this woman be?

What's more, when Murphy's Fosca finally did appear at the top of the staircase, she found no burst of applause waiting for her. Not because she wasn't enough of a star, but because she was obscured behind a scrim. The collaborators made sure we wouldn't get a look at Fosca until we absolutely had to. Arriving from a trip has long provided many a Big Star Entrance. Eydie Gorme got her applause after having landed at the airport in Golden Rainbow. Jackie Gleason arrived at a train station in Take Me Along, and got a grand reception from his cronies (and the audience). Nevertheless, he didn't get, from all accounts, the hysterical reaction that Nancy Walker got in Look Ma, I'm Dancin' when she arrived at her train station -- for she had two wolfhounds in tow, each of which was about as tall as this diminutive miss.

Storming down the aisle, of course, makes for a Big Star Entrance that literally makes the audience's heads turn. Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, and Tyne Daly can verify that. Ironically, though the character in Gypsy who gets the real Big Star Entrance is Baby June in her act -- plowing through a paper scrim with her batons ready to twirl.

A twirl of another kind was written for Noble Eggleston's entrance in Little Me: An all-stage encompassing cartwheel. Not that Sid Caesar in '62, Victor Garber in '82, or Martin Short in '98 attempted the difficult maneuver. In each production, an agile chorus boy did the honors, before the real star came out identically dressed to bask in the applause he hadn't earned just then, but had earned before.

Another blueprint for a Big Star Entrance: When characters appear where we don't expect to see them. Such as Robert Morse and Matthew Broderick in How to Succeed, when each was lowered from the top of the stage on his window washing deus ex machina. Keith Carradine got to descend from above, too, in The Will Rogers Follies, though he got to wear a slightly better-looking suit. And Michael Crawford didn't just appear atop the stage in Phantom of the Opera; he did it in Billy, too, the 1974 musical in which he made a parachute jump of an entrance.

On the other hand, Chita Rivera (and later Bebe Neuwirth) took an elevator up in Chicago. Angela Lansbury in Dear World had it a little harder; she had to open a trap door from below the stage, and climb up a set of steps. Then there was Princess Winifred in Once upon a Mattress, thunking her leg over the back castle wall after having swum the moat. That caused Prince Dauntless to immediately fall in love with her. (Who can blame him?)

And yet, some of the most fun-filled Big Star Entrances are the ones in which the performer has been on stage all along, but we haven't noticed. Such as when that man in My Fair Lady leaning against the column of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden with his back to us turns around -- and turns out to be Henry Higgins. Or when the woman who's riding on the horsecar with a newspaper in front of her face pulls it down to show and-tell us that it's "Dolly Levi!" Or that being underneath the wounded Stutz-Bearcat, who's trying hard to get it going, only to come out from under it to show us that she's Wildcat -- and no less than Lucille Ball.

Let's not forget those reporters in Happy Hunting who crowd around that woman with the ornate hat hoping that this Grace Kelly, whom they've been desperate to interview. Then they suddenly break ranks, and there's Ethel Merman proclaiming, "It isn't Kelly under the kelly!"

Still, the one who takes the longest to make his Big Star Entrance is Harold Hill in The Music Man. During the entire "Rock Island" spokesong number, the traveling salesmen are talking about him -- everyone, of course, except that passenger with his back to us. Not until they finish their discourse on him, just as the train is pulling into River City Junction, does Hill stand tall, enjoy admitting who he is, and taking a quick leave.

A transformation makes for a Big Star Entrance, too. Joe Hardy got one in Damn Yankees at the expense of Joe Boyd, as the former comes out of the smoke cloud that obscures the latter's leaving. Mary Martin had a similar Big Star Entrance in One Touch of Venus, when she replaced a mere statue of herself into a living, breathing (and most talented) being. Only this time a performer didn't have to be shunted off into the wings until the end of the show.

Sometimes we get a De Facto Big Star Entrance. It happened when the curtain rose to reveal Gwen Verdon, back to us, posed to perfection in Sweet Charity. Or when the scrim goes up, and there's Mary Martin up a tree in The Sound of Music. Or when a spotlight suddenly pierces the darkness, and there's Mickey Rooney ready to reminisce about burlesque in Sugar Babies.

Another nice one has the curtain rise on a scene where Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia is reading the comics on the radio. He did this, by the way, because the newspapers were on strike and he didn't want the kids to miss them -- not, as you may have inferred, for those kids whose parents only got the Times.

There are Understated Big Star Entrances, too. Barbra Streisand may have slowly come on in Funny Girl, but the audience was quick to applaud. Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza strolled on chatting and laughing in South Pacific. Ethel Merman (notice how her name keeps cropping up?) and now Bernadette Peters sauntered on in Annie Get Your Gun after their off-stage shots felled a bird from a hat.

Going to the opposite extreme, rushing in can provide a Big Star Entrance, too. That's how Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, ready to make herself a meat pie, and Mildred Plotka in On the 20th Century, apologizing for being late to play the piano for Imelda Thornton's audition.

But the best Big Star Entrance of all? You've already thought of it, haven't you? For what can begin to compare to Peter Pan's? Whether it was Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, or Cathy Rigby, Broadway audiences -- especially first-time kiddie theatregoers -- swooned as those window shutters opened and Peter flew in. It's one of the great moments in Broadway history, even if you do see the wires, even if it's one that Ethel Merman would never be invited to perform.

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