York Gets Captain Dad, Tribeca Gets Evolutionary Son

York Gets Captain Dad, Tribeca Gets Evolutionary Son It's not uncommon for actors and writers to run in the family; just look at the Barrymores, the Brontes and the Fondas. But what about a father and son who both direct?
Father and Son in a Playful Mood
Father and Son in a Playful Mood (Photo by Photo Credit: Starla Smith)

It's not uncommon for actors and writers to run in the family; just look at the Barrymores, the Brontes and the Fondas. But what about a father and son who both direct?

Robert Tolan, who owns up to being "Ssssssssssixty," and his 24 -year-old son, R.J., are both directing musicals in New York -- one uptown, the other downtown; one reviving a vintage musical, one staging a ground-breaking premiere.

Tolan senior is staging a concert version of Oh Captain! Sept.. 27 29 as part of the York Theatre Company's "Musicals In Mufti" series. Tolan the younger stands at the helm of Evolution, a rock musical running Sept. 19-Oct. 27 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center.

Typical of the age gap separating father and son, dad is working on a 1958 musical with a pedigree: the book is by Al Morgan and Jose Ferrer; the music and lyrics are by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. The show, about a stuffy businessman who has a Parisian affair, ran for 192 performances on Broadway and starred Tony Randall and Abbe Lane. R.J.'s musical, on the other hand, was composed June 1995 and comes from the same ethos as Hair in that it's a percussive rock musical of thematically linked vignettes.

Both father AND son were excited about the new musical, however. "It's an amazing sound, just percussion," Robert enthused. "There's nothing like it." Tolan fils elaborated: "We have five drummers, two on acoustic, three on synthetic drum pads. We've got a 7'X7' cage on the stage, and the "Otto," main drummer, is inside, hitting twenty different drum pads inside it. He actually has the most melodic synthesized drum sounds; he kind of carries the melody for the 13 segments."

Steven Guyer wrote the book and score for Evolution and he's the founder of Shadowbox Cabaret in Columbus, Ohio, where young R.J. Serves as Artistic Director.

Papa Tolan is also from Columbus, of course, where he's developed Metro Music Theatre, Ltd. As a means of producing -- and especially reviving -- small-scale musicals his next assignment there will be Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well....

But what of Oh Captain!? "Actually, the idea for Oh Captain happened back when the York was up at the church on East 90th Street. I wanted to do a revival of Robert Alan Arthur and Richard Adler's Kwamina," explains Robert. "It flopped on Broadway because it was before its time -- a musical about colonialism in West Africa. Anyway, the book was too big, and Adler always wanted to work on a rewrite before letting it have another shot. He never even allowed it to be published. The problem was, Robert Alan Arthur DIDN'T want any changes in the book."

The plot thickens: "Well, HE died, and the rights reverted totally to Adler. I tried contacting him when I got the slot at the York, but he was on a cruise. We spoke a week later and he still hadn't done the rewrite -- I mean, there are over 30 characters in it. Arthur must have conceived it as a play with a few songs in it."

Adler and Tolan still talk, but none of this filled the gap in the York schedule until Tolan and James Morgan, Associate Artistic Director of the theatre, both realized how much they liked the score for Oh Captain!. "We only knew it from the cast recording, which is a little like judging a movie by its trailer. You only get the good bits. But we went back and looked at the book and it's a delight. The only cuts we've made were one lyric change, because it was the only 1950's-specific lyric in the piece, and the bump and grind number, "Love Is Hell." That was just a staging decision, because the York can only do a 10-person cast."

Based on the film "The Captain's Paradise," Oh Captain! also featured dancer Alexandra Danilova when it opened Feb. 4, 1958. Songs include "A Very Proper Town," "Give It All You Got," "Femininity" and "Keep It Simple." (Some better-known tunes by composers Jay Livingston and Ray Evans are "Que Sera Sera" and "Mona Lisa." Their previous Broadway collaboration was the flop, Tammy).

Evolution , according to R.J., "explores issues of instinctive behavior versus societal strictures put in place so things can function. Well, that's the high-brow version. Steve [Guyer] and I see it more as `performance rock'."

When theatre is this familial, it's no surprise how many coincidental connections arise when father and son reminisce. R.J. recalls that his very first show was a production of Twelfth Night at Cincinnati's Playhouse In The Park. That production featured an actor named Tom Mardirosian. R.J.'s first Broadway musical was The Magic Show, which at that time also featured Tom Mardirosian. Would you believe that one of the cast members of Oh Captain! is Tom Mardirosian?

"I grew up on theatre," R.J. shrugs.

"It's a monumentally stupid way to make a living," Robert jokes, although he admitted that he manages to do so, and that he didn't encourage or discourage his son from doing the same -- though they have worked together. "R.J. stage managed some of my shows at Actors Theatre in Columbus."

Large-framed Robert takes a bearish pride in his son, thin, blonde Ronald Joseph (never call him that), and why not? Shadow Productions has mounted the $250,000 to $500,000 Evolution without any outside producers. Only three years ago, R.J. was a SUNY Binghamton graduate with a degree in English. "I directed a production of [Eric Bogosian's] Talk Radio and absolutely wrecked it," said the son, smiling.

"Oh, I thought it was pretty good.." interjects papa Robert.

So goes the continuing evolution of father and son, an independent but supportive theatrical team.

-- By David Lefkowitz