It looked shaky for a bit, but the musical Rollin' on the T.O.B.A. is rollin' smoothly to its opening night, March 24 at the Kit Kat Klub at Henry Miller's Theatre. After the 6:45 PM curtain, not one but two cast parties will ensue, one for the cast, guests and celebs (at 9 PM) and another (at 11 PM), wherein cast-members of other Broadway shows are also invited.
According to a spokesperson at the Judy Jacksina press office, among notables expected at the opening are Al Sharpton, Clive Davis and actor/director Eric LaSalle.
T.O.B.A., a revue about the early days of black vaudeville previously played at the 47th Street Theatre before moving to the larger Kit Kat venue. In its move to the Kit Kat Klub, the three-person show has added drums, bass saxophone and trumpet to the original piano accompaniment. Also added was a larger set (by designer Larry W. Brown). The cast -- Sandra Reaves Phillips, Rudy Roberson and co-creator Ronald "Smokey" Stevens -- remains the same.
Sounds like a simple enough transfer, right? Not quite. The Off-Broadway sleeper had planned to start previews at the Klub March 17 but ran into snags when the building's landlord and tenant renewed their long-standing dispute.
T.O.B.A. postponed its March 17 and 18 performances, not because of any financing problems with the production, but because the Durst Organization, owners of Henry Miller's Theatre, are having a row with the people leasing the Kit Kat Klub within the building. Durst, upset at not being asked permission for the Kit Kat Klub to book T.O.B.A., asked for a court injunction to keep the show from starting previews on the 17th. A New York Supreme Court judge granted the temporary injunction. According to lawyer Gary Rosenberg, a partner in Rosenberg & Estis (which represents the Durst Organization), the next two days saw Durst and the T.O.B.A.'s producers come to a mutual understanding (involving an escrow account) allowing the show to continue. However, the Kit Kat Klub owners didn't agree to the deal. Late in the afternoon March 19, all three sides did agree to the deal, and the show began previews that night.
The war between Durst and the Klub owners first exploded during the run of the Roundabout Theatre's production of Cabaret. Though both Durst and the Klub wanted Cabaret as a tenant, relations between the Roundabout Theatre and the Klub soured late in the run, with the Roundabout ultimately declining to renew its lease.
Rosenberg told PBOL, "At that point, we wanted the bad guys out. We have owned this property for many years, with a specific lease clause in our contract for the past 15 years. The clause says that if we want to put on live theatre, we're entitled to cancel a lease with 90 days notice. We have this clause because the Dursts work with a fair number of theatre groups, so if we bring in a production, more than likely it would be a `Durst family' choice of productions. In the summer, when Cabaret could no longer deal with the Klub and moved to Studio 54, we gave notice to the tenants [the Klub] that we were terminating the lease. We have requests from three or four different producers to put on short-run plays there -- we wanted to do short runs, because the long term plan is to demolish the building and construct a new theatre, a real theatre rather than a nightclub, on the premises."
Continued Rosenberg, "We didn't want an open run show, especially with all this fighting going on. But the Klub signed a deal with T.O.B.A. without apparently even telling him [producer Springer] there's all this litigation. Springer claims he unknowingly signed the agreement, and we're inclined to believe that. That's one reason we're doing everything we can to get the show back in and operating. While we'd prefer to have our own production in, we have no desire to hurt the company. We told T.O.B.A. we recognize their dilemma, and if we get control of the space, we won't throw them out immediately. They're shooting for a Tony. If they're successful, they'll move. If not, they'll likely close. We're fine with making sure they can get through the Tonys with time to move afterwards.
"For us," added Rosenberg, "this isn't about money. It's always about gaining control of our theatre. But the Klub won't go along with it. They don't care who gets hurt; they want money. We say let the court decide next week."
According to producer Ashton Springer, the show was originally mounted for $200,000, with an extra quarter million added for the move. The break even point, not counting advertising, will be $70,000 per week.
To help promote the show, several nights will be hosted by celebrities. According to a Jacksina spokesperson, comedian Chris Rock has already expressed interest in hosting a night.
Conceived by Stevens and Jaye Stewart, T.O.B.A. is subtitled "A Tribute to the Last Days of Black Vaudeville" and offers segments devoted to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Bert Williams and Butterbeans & Suzie. Several pieces are taken from Langston Hughes' "The Simple Stories."
T.O.B.A. is an acronym Theatre Owners' Booking Association, but performers had a different phrase for it: "Tough On Black Asses." No deals have yet been made regarding recording the show for CD release.
Stevens and Leslie Dockery direct the show, which features musical direction and arrangements by David Alan Bunn and additional material by Irvin S. Bauer. Jon Kusner (lighting), Michele Reisch (costumes) and Shabach Audio (sound) are the designers.
Springer, John Grimaldi and Frenchmen Productions, Inc. produced both the 47th Street Theatre engagement and the move.
T.O.B.A. first opened Off-Broadway Jan. 28 after starting previews Jan. 20.
For tickets to Rollin' On The T.O.B.A. at Henry Miller's Theatre, call Tele-charge at (212) 239-6200.