PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Ritz — Chubby-Chasing the Blues Away

By Harry Haun
12 Oct 2007

PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Ritz — Chubby-Chasing the Blues Away

The rains came, along with The Ritz, to Studio 54 on Oct. 11, producing a bummer crop of soggy first-nighters who plopped down in a collective funk to wait for the fun to begin.

They didn't wait long. When the curtain rose on the Roundabout revival of Terrence McNally's 1975 naughty-but-still-nice bathhouse farce, it mirrored the wet reality we found ourselves in: characters checked in, disgruntled and disheveled, taking shelter from just such a torrential storm. Mother Nature had provided a perfect mood-setter for it all.

First to drop anchor in the elaborate gay bathhouse on stage is the big fish-out-of-water (Kevin Chamberlin), a Cleveland heterosexual hiding out from his murderously vengeful brother-in-law (Lenny Venito), who naturally—"naturally," in the farcical sense—turns out to be the guy across the hall. The house is further haunted by an unfulfilled but determined chubby-chaser out of the past (Patrick Kerr) and a one-man welcome-wagon eagerly, if eternally, up for grabs (the effortlessly hilarious Brooks Ashmanskas). Stir in some eye-candy with scrub-board abs and a few trolls-in-towels, and you're off and running with frenetic Marx Bros. abandon to a by-gone era gone bye-bye. Scott Pask's three-tiered set provides plenty of doors to slam, and the races often spill off stage into the aisles of the theatre.

The holocaust just around the corner, a mere half-decade away—AIDS—keeps the play resolutely a period piece. There have been a few nips and tucks here and there, but there has been no attempt to update or foreshadow. The only soprano on the premises is a manly detective cursed with a falsetto voice (Terrence Riordan), but the white flowing robes favored by the clientele here echo Tony Soprano's lounging attire, and the mob's cover occupation is "waste management," just like that of the latter-day HBO hoodlums.

Puttin' on The Ritz in 2007 was a heavy-weighed decision because of the shadow that separates the then and the now. At the afterparty at Planet Hollywood, McNally said he thought the time had come to look back in joy. "I'm celebrating a happy time in my life—in the city's life," he said. "I think it's time to look back and remember that time."



There is another reason he never expected the return of The Ritz: "I was surprised because it's such a big undertaking. Broadway is not too friendly with shows requiring a cast of 30, so I believed I'd never see it again. It's only a play that could be done on a big stage. It's not an Off-Broadway play, and I thought it was pretty good for a play 32 years old."

The nicely graying Joe Mantello, a frequent director of McNally (their Tony-winning teamwork was Love! Valour! Compassion!), has been trying to get this play revived for eight years. Rosie Perez, who made her Broadway debut with him replacing Edie Falco in McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune in 2002, was in the original reading and is now top-starred, playing that shameless shambles of a chanteuse, Googie Gomez (in its original state, the role won Rita Moreno the Supporting Actress Tony).

"This is the hardest thing I've ever done," Mantello admitted, "but Roundabout was so generous with us. Todd Haimes let us rehearse on the set. We did one week in the rehearsal room, two weeks on the set before tech, then about a week-and-a-half of tech."

With all that door-slamming and wild tearing-about—to say nothing of Googie's big production number—Mantello enlisted the aid of choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who here indulged in some creative slumming before he takes on Sunday in the Park with George (Feb. 21, 2008, Roundabout's next attraction at Studio 54) and then South Pacific.

"I love it, I love it," Gattelli rejoiced. "It's such a challenge for me to make someone that talented look bad, to strip it all away and figure out what will make her look bad."

Perez did a deep bow to Gattelli for giving her all the wrong moves and another bow to fellow actor Seth Rudetsky for assembling the show-tune medley that she decimates ("Peoples / Peoples who need peoples"). "Googie's act is the highlight for me," she said.

"Seth arranged that whole number. I learned from him I could sing, so the challenge was actually to sing badly. Seth was really supportive. I hope he gets the credit he deserves."

Rudetsky has, happily, a moment of his own that will be long remembered—a Fosse take-off via Stephen Schwartz's "Magic to Do" from Pippin: dressed in your basic Marcel Marceau black, he creates the illusion of a whole chorus line of white-gloved hands.  Continued...