THE LEADING MEN: Grin & Barrett

News   THE LEADING MEN: Grin & Barrett No one could accuse this month’s "Leading Men" of being "corny as Kansas in August," and they are Brent Barrett (Chicago), Daniel Letterle ("Camp"), Larry Ching ("Forbidden City") and Rod (Avenue Q).

Brent Barrett
Brent Barrett (Photo by Ben Strothmann)

HE’S IN LIKE FLYNN
One of the real reasons that the Broadway revival of Chicago hasn’t lost its razzle-dazzle is Brent Barrett. With his matinee-idol charisma, he plays Billy Flynn with "lots of flash in it," and the audience reaction is always passionate, especially after he holds a G for an eternity near the end of "We Both Reached for the Gun."

In his three years of playing the slick lawyer off and on, his roll call of ravishing Roxies has included Charlotte D’Amboise, Sandy Duncan and Karen Ziemba. But to give the show a shot of celebrity ("that means somebody everyone knows"), Chicago recently teamed him up with a lovely, hard-"Working Girl" named Melanie Griffith.

Luckily for her, she’s working with a star — one whose many credits include Annie Get Your Gun, Camelot and Kiss Me, Kate. This rich, robust baritone from Quinter, KS, also has released two stellar CDs, "The Kander and Ebb Album" and "The Alan Jay Lerner Album," featuring Christopher Denny’s dazzling arrangements. In fact, Denny will accompany Barrett, 46, when he does a rare cabaret show on Aug. 3 at the Bradstan Country Inn in White Lake, N.Y. Away from the stage, the 6-foot-2 actor says he’s dating and enjoys planting petunias in his garden terrace apartment.

Question: Congratulations on being the best Billy Flynn I’ve ever seen!
Brent Barrett: Thanks. Everyone wants to be him. He’s totally in charge and so sure of himself. And as nasty as he can be, that’s why the audience loves him.

Q: What did you think of Rob Marshall’s film of "Chicago"?
Barrett: I loved it. Robby and I went to Carnegie-Mellon together. Anyway, he did a beautiful job of opening it up. And I thought Richard Gere was great as Billy. Q: Speaking of movie stars, how’s it working with Melanie?
Barrett: Melanie is a doll. She is so sweet. She’s never been onstage before, so this is incredibly brave of her. Some weeks ago, she was emceeing the "Broadway Under the Stars" concert. At the end, we went out for the curtain call and she said, "That was my first curtain call!" Omigod. I can’t even fathom that. I’d be terrified.

Q: So what was it like at her first performance of Chicago?
Barrett: We were all on the edge of our seats. Everyone was rooting for her so much that we were exhausted by the end of the show. But she did it. She’s so excited to be on Broadway. Audiences really respond to her. She’s so vulnerable and gorgeous.

Q: Let me name another movie star: Lauren Bacall. You two recorded a beautiful medley of "You Haven’t Changed" (The Day Before Spring) and "I Remember It Well (Gigi) for your Lerner CD. And she sounds wonderful!
Barrett: Betty has a limited range, but she is very musical. Actually, I wanted to do "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" so we could use the line, "They whistle," because her [signature] line was "You know how to whistle, don’t you?" But we decided not to.

Q: You are the king of revivals, but I’d love to see you in a new show.
Barrett: Me, too! But I’ve done readings of some new musicals, like Andrew Lippa’s A Little Princess. It’s like Secret Garden meets Annie. Great stuff. And there’s a new David Zippel-Cy Coleman show, Pamela’s First Musical, that Wendy Wasserstein wrote. Very sweet. I played the father in both.

Q: Would you like to be a father in real life?
Barrett: Never. Even when I was five, I said I don’t want kids. I certainly respect my friends who have them. But I have nieces and nephews, which is wonderful.

Q: Back to new musicals, you once did one by Charles Strouse and Lerner called Dance a Little Closer. What do you remember about that?
Barrett: It was an updated version of Idiot’s Delight , and Jeff Keller and I played two gay airline stewards who want to get married. This was 1983. It was very advanced for its time. So Len Cariou and Liz Robertson ask a minister to bless our union, and they sing "Anyone Who Loves," which is on my Lerner CD. Jeff and I also had a number ["Why Can’t the World Go and Leave Us Alone?"] where we had to ice-skate in the Alps, hold hands, do some tricks and sing the entire time! Well, the reviews were deadly. We closed in one night. It’s too bad. It’s got a beautiful score.

Q: Have you ever wanted to be in a play for a change?
Barrett: After doing Kiss Me, Kate, [I thought] I’d love to do some Shakespeare. Hamlet is too daunting, but Much Ado About Nothing would be fun.

Whether Barrett is doing the Bard or Billy Flynn, you can be sure he’ll "give ’em a show that’s so splendiferous, row after row will grow vociferous."

For more info, visit www.brentbarrett.com.

’CAMP’ STAR: WOULDN’T IT BE LETTERLE?
Daniel Letterle is one happy "Camp"-er these days. The 24-year-old actor from Northfield, OH, is making his movie debut in Todd Graff’s affectionate, feel-good film based on Stagedoor Manor, a summer theatre retreat for kids in upstate New York. In it, the 5-foot-9 blond stars as Vlad, the hot, all-American hunk who leaves all the gals and guys swooning. Letterle is also featured on the "Camp" soundtrack (Decca/UMG) sweetly crooning a beautiful tune by Lynn Ahrens and Michael Gore; it’s called "I Sing for You," but moviegoers will soon be singing for him. He has a sexy smile and disarming charm that’s sunnier than a tanning salon in the Sahara.

"When I first read the script," Letterle says, "I thought Vlad was gay. But he’s really a people-pleaser. He has to be everyone’s golden boy or he shrivels up. I think that’s why he wants to be an actor. Like a lot of us, we want attention and need to be loved."

Until his big break in "Camp," his career highlight was playing Gee-Tar in West Side Story at La Scala in Milan, Italy, in 2000. Starring as Tony was David Miller, one of the Rodolfos in Baz Luhrmann’s La Boheme on Broadway. Letterle says, "David was the object of many girls’ attention, and I think I was, too, because we were [about] the only straight boys [in the cast], so it was sort of like ‘Camp’ in that sense. We went to bars every night, as if we didn’t need any sleep. And we still performed well. The cast would stand in the wings just to listen to David sing ‘Maria.’ He was brilliant!"

SFX and the Bernsteins came to see this revival, so there was talk this West Side Story would dance its way to Broadway, but "nothing happened. I lived in a closet in Queens for two years and had all these odd jobs. I built sets at the Metropolitan Opera. And I sold tires at a truck rental place in Queens. But my all-time worst job was performing in costume at kids’ parties. I was Luke Skywalker at a bar mitzvah, and another time I did 'One' from A Chorus Line, dressed as a gorilla in a top hat. And one time I was a lion, and my manager kept yelling, 'Go around and scare the kids!' I remember just crying and wondering: Is this what my career has come to?"

Meantime, Letterle went to open calls. Auditioning for Aida wasn’t his strongest suit, and Oklahoma! didn’t give him the okay. But he answered the call of Doody and did Grease in Germany, where he met Kelli Brisbane, his beautiful fiancée. "Soon as I saw her, I fell in love," he says. "She’s not just a wonderful actress. She’s got a great spirit. Even when I have hard times, I come home to Kelli and I’m a winner."

What’s next? "Todd’s working on a film for me about the USO, back in the Vietnam days. It’s a musical, too. We’re hoping to start soon, and I’m so fortunate to work with Todd. He’s a great director. Meantime, I want to surf this movie [‘Camp’] out as long as I can." But with the splash Letterle has made, he’ll be making more waves soon.

For more info, visit www.campthemovie.com.

WE’RE JUST WILD ABOUT LARRY
When it comes to unsung singers, Larry Ching was one of the classiest crooners of his era. Stars like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington all came to see him headline at Forbidden City, the legendary all-Asian-American nightclub in San Francisco, in the 1940's and 1950's. The Kauai, Hawaiian-born heartthrob was billed as "The Chinese Sinatra," but The San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen once quipped that Ol’ Blue Eyes should’ve been dubbed "The Italian Larry Ching" instead.

In truth, Ching’s no Sinatra soundalike or vice versa. This singer has his own singular sound and to prove it, Ching has just released his first CD of standards, "Till the End of Time," at age 82! Though his pipes are a teeny tarnished, the vocal artistry is ageless. Just listen to how he swings "All of Me"; his phrasing is fun and freewheeling. But to really experience Ching in his prime, the CD features four tracks from the 1940's, recorded on acetate, and it’s amazing to hear his lilting, light tenor soar on "Too Young."

So how did it all begin? Ching was 18 and a Merchant Marine, and he got up and sang in a San Francisco bar, egged on by his buddies. He was such a hit that one of the bar owners offered him "$35 a week to sing and all the liquor," so Ching said, "That’s the job for me!" And that’s how he became the first singing bartender in Chinatown. By 1942, Charlie Low hired the young man to headline at Forbidden City, which was to Asian-American entertainers what the Cotton Club was to African-Americans.

Though it was great crooning tunes for a living, he still had to face racism in the club: "Sometimes, customers would call us ‘slant eyes’ and we had to take it, but I had a few scuffles. I pushed a guy downstairs for calling me a ‘Chink.’ And I pounded the hell out of some guy who said my wife was 'a Chinese whore.'" Ching also couldn’t get society gigs or bookings in the Caucasian clubs. One bandleader told him, "You sing a lot better than the guys I know, but I can’t hire you because you’re Oriental."

Business was booming at Forbidden City in the 1940's, and it was even the model for the nightclub in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, but TV and the changing times took their toll in the 1950's. Ching says, "It broke my heart." The place closed around 1961 and with nowhere to sing, he became a truck driver for the S.F. Chronicle and retired in 1985. He occasionally sang at weddings and senior centers.

Then in 1989, the Oscar-nominated moviemaker Arthur Dong made an amazing documentary called "Forbidden City," featuring Ching and many of his nightclub colleagues like Jadin Wong and Toy Yat Mar. Finally, these long-forgotten Asian-American singers and dancers were rediscovered and praised as pioneers.

One of the film’s biggest fans was Ben Fong-Torres, the famed and former Rolling Stone journalist and author ("The Rice Room"). He was determined to make a permanent record of Ching’s singing for posterity, so this past February, Fong-Torres, along with engineer John Barsotti, produced "Till the End of Time" as a labor of love. On June 28, the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco celebrated the release of the album, and Mayor Willie Brown declared it "Larry Ching Day."

Sadly, Ching died only a week later on July 5, after suffering a brain aneurysm. Fong-Torres says, "Larry went out in a blaze of glory." Ching is survived by his widow, Jane Seid Ching, two sons, four stepsons, eleven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. But he isn’t really gone. You can see him on the recently released DVD of "Forbidden City" or hear him on his one and only CD. Thanks to the tireless dedication of Dong and Fong-Torres, Ching’s vibrant voice will live on "Till the End of Time." For info about the CD or the DVD, visit www.larryching.com. Plus, the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas is presenting the exhibit "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance: Performing Chinese America" through Aug. 10 in New York City: www.moca-nyc.org.

LET’S HAVE A HAND FOR THE PUPPETS
If you’ve seen Avenue Q, which just opened to rave reviews at the Golden, you know there’s a fine, fine mind behind this wildly fun puppets and-people musical. Actually, three of them — the writers: Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty. And there’s a dynamite director (Jason Moore) and an incredible cast that includes John Tartaglia, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Rick Lyon and Ann Harada. But let’s talk to Rod, the show's gay Republican puppet. He's making his Broadway debut at a theatre that opened in 1927 with a play called Puppets of Passion. We reached Rod through the multitasking Tartaglia, who also acts as his handler and right-hand man.

Question: Congrats, Rod! Your favorite book is "Broadway Musicals of the 1940s," so how’s it feel to be actually on the Great White Way?
Rod: Overwhelming. I love Broadway. I’ve just seen Gypsy 400 times now. Bernadette Peters is my idol, and she’s been in every performance. And I have a friend in The Lion King: Daniel. He’s one of the cheetahs.

Q: Speaking of puppet shows, did you see Puppetry of the Penis?
Rod: No, I thought it would hurt to watch that.

Q: Yeah, me, too. Anyway, lots of actors unwind by watching TV. Have you caught "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"?
Rod: Yes, those guys are amazing! I also watch "Will & Grace" and I love "Queer as Folk," but I have to close my eyes during some of the [sex] scenes.

Q: By the way, what did you think of the Supreme Court ruling?
Rod: You mean the one that allows us all to wear pastels?

Q: No, the one that outlaws sodomy laws.
Rod: I don’t know that word "sodomy." Can we move on?

Q: Do you believe in gay marriage?
Rod: I believe two people should be able to express their happiness in any way they like. And I hope that extends to puppets or people with no lower extremities.

Q: Finally, you know Bert and Ernie. What’s the real story?
Rod: They’re just friends. Trust me. Just friends.

For more info about Rod and the gang, visit www.avenueq.com.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York: Congrats to Seth Rudetsky! He deserves our "Leading Men" laurels for Rhapsody in Seth, his riotous, one-man show about showbiz, at the Actors’ Playhouse (212 239-6200). Seth is wrapping up his sassy, six-month run this weekend (Aug. 1-4), so if you still haven’t seen it, you gotta go! . . . Steven Lutvak and Amanda Green kick off Barbara and Scott Siegel’s marvelous monthly series, "The Best Cabaret CDs of Our Time," Aug. 3 at 7 PM at Dillon’s (212-946-9797). . . . Multi-MAC Award winner Phillip Officer salutes Burton Lane (Finian’s Rainbow) Mondays in August at 7 PM and Billy Stritch sings and swings Aug. 4 and 25 at 8:30 PM at the King Kong Room (212-921-1904). … And, finally, Marc Kudisch stars in The Thing About Men, a new musical by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change). Kudisch plays an adulterous ad exec who’ll do anything to win back his wife’s affections, and his co-stars include Ron Bohmer and Daniel Reichard. Previews begin Aug. 6 and then this musical affair opens Aug. 27 at the Promenade (212-239-6200).

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com.

Until next month, let’s hear it for the "boys"!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for the New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for the San Francisco Examiner, a writer for the Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

(L-R) Daniel Letterle (''Camp''), Rod and John Tartaglia (<i>Avenue Q</i>) and Larry Ching (Forbidden City).
(L-R) Daniel Letterle (''Camp''), Rod and John Tartaglia (Avenue Q) and Larry Ching (Forbidden City). (Photo by Wayman Wong and Natalie Schrik)