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

By Harry Haun
October 12, 2007

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.

"It was Joe's idea to have hands, and the assistant choreographer Michael Lee Scott came up with the idea of how to execute it," said Rudetsky, passing the credit along.

Schwartz had been prepared slightly for the spoofing. On entering the theatre, he said, "They're doing 'Magic To Do' tonight, but I have no idea what they're doing, and I insisted on being surprised." He was that—delightfully so, reveling gleefully in the bit.

Similarly, Schwartz has no idea—and wants no idea—of what's in store for him when he is saluted Friday at Town Hall. What he does know is he has a new movie coming out: "Alan Menken and I wrote five songs for a movie opening Nov. 21 called 'Enchanted.'"

Meanwhile, back at the race, Chamberlin gets a real workout leading such a merry chase. His breathing was back to normal by the time he reached the party. What's the hardest part of his role? He can get it in two words: "The stairs. I do 140 steps every night. Brutal. Look at me. Am I used to doing a lot of steps? That's my massage therapist over there."

Kerr, the wiry gnat in hot-and-cold running pursuit of Horton the Elephant, seconded that motion: "It's fun, but it is work. It's climbing those stairs. And as everything got tighter, we had to do things tighter."

Without giving away any trade secrets, he confessed that he related to the obsessive eccentric he plays. "I really identify with him. He's so fixated and yet can turn on a dime when there's a new object. He just thinks he's in love. He's in love with the idea of being in love, but he's really not.

"The play," continued Kerr, "is a lark. It's loud and silly, fast and funny, and it doesn't get too deep about anything. We're very silly backstage, and we just carry it on stage."

He said all this as he talks in the play—in an unswervingly straight, unaccented comic voice—but Riordan, who affects the falsetto, drops down to his normal register when the curtain comes down. He insisted he's not breaking anything going for that high pitch—"I actually found a very comfortable area where I can sustain the character and not hurt myself"—and he happily noted the actors that manfully preceded him in the part, Stephen Collins in the play, Treat Williams in the film—"Treat, luckily, didn't have to do it to a 1,000-seat audience. He had to do it for the camera."

Venito was very mindful of the fella who originated his role of the pistol-packing brother-in-law. "Jerry Stiller is a tough act to follow," he allowed, "but it's been a blast. When you get to do a play written by Terrence McNally and directed by Joe Mantello, and it's your Broadway debut, you're doing something right, you know what I'm saying?"

Ashlie Atkinson, who plays Venito's sister and Chamberlin's wife (she shows up for the final round of races), is one of 15 Broadway debuts being made in this production. "I did The 24-Hour Plays on Broadway as a one-night special benefit, but I'm not counting it."

She's scrupulously avoided the movie in which Kaye Ballard re-created the wife role she originated in the play. "From what I know about Kaye Ballard, I could never be her, so I just do what I can do. I've heard such great things about her performance, though."

Playgirl centerfold Ryan Idol, in his Broadway bow, brings some presence and authenticity to the premises as a customer identified only as Crisco Patron. "I was in Playbill for my first Off-Broadway performance—Making Porn—downtown, and now this. I'm euphoric right now. This whole trip uptown is a dream come true for me."

What nudity there is in the show qualifies as flashing (if that) and is executed by the very young. Billy Magnussen, for instance, four months out of North Carolina School of the Arts—Mantello's alma mater, maybe not so incidentally. "I'm one of the boys running out of the steam room naked," he freely confessed. "You get nervous doing it the first time, but after that, it's fun." Otherwise, he's snugly attired in a turquoise Speedo or one of William Ivey Long's industrial–strength towels. "Me and my buddy, Matt[hew] Montelongo, who's the patron in chaps—every day we sat and did probably 200 sit-ups. It just inspired us to keep going to the gym." An actor prepares, as Stanislavski said.

There were plenty of directors in attendance on opening night: Michael Mayer (still idling with The Female of the Species, trying to find another Annette Bening, who doesn't come in bunches), Scott Ellis (starting previews of his Streamers revival at Hartford Stage Oct. 9), Jerry Dixon (preparing Barnstormer for Hartford Stage Nov. 3), Walter Bobbie (readying a new David Ives play for Richard Easton at the Classic Stage Company in January, called New Jerusalem —"it has some humor in it, but it's actually about Spinoza and the Jewish community in Amsterdam"), Kathleen Marshall, Moises Kaufman (who hopes to bring the play he has also written, 33 Variations, to New York next season—it opened a month ago at Arena Stage in Washington D.C.), David Grimsley (whose Pygmalion opens Thursday) and Mark Brokaw.

Raul Esparza arrived with a newly grown beard—and, no, it's not for The Homecoming. "It's called Lazy Summer. I wanted to go as far from Bobby as I could [i.e., his Tony-nominated performance in Company], and I ended up deciding not to shave. I love it." It's too elegant a beard to waste on The Homecoming. Maybe Ivanhoe or Beowulf.

Other first-nighters included Roundabout's founding father Gene Feist, Nathan Lane (bracing to do David Mamet's November for Mantello, beginning the end of . . . November), Side Man author Warren Leight, Mario Cantone (reprising his "Sex and the City" role for the movie cameras, preparing to return to Vancouver for the Anne Heche series, "Men in Trees"), Jason Butler Harner, Jon Robin Baitz, Perry Ojeda ("standing by for all the men—except Charles Busch"—in Die! Mommie, Die!, opening Oct. 21 at New World Stages), Debi Mazar, Doug Wright, Dick Scanlan, choreographer Rob Ashford (bound for La Jolla to do Cry-Baby with Harriet Harris, a new addition to the cast and a good omen for him since they both won Tonys for Thoroughly Modern Millie), Lynn Nottage, producer Sharon Fallon (who's planning Nerds: A Musical Satire—"the musical journey of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs"), Jules Fisher, Heather Randall, SSDC executives Barbara Wolkoff and Sam Bellinger, Stephen Lang, Charles Randolph Wright and a gaggle of Jessicas (Jessica Stone, Jessica Hecht and Jessica Molinsky).

Marian Seldes arrived with her frequent stage husband, Brian Murray, and was, as usual, full of the best theatrical wishes. "I never saw this play before," she admitted almost sheepishly. "I was in Equus when it first ran, and we were on the same schedule. I just want it to go great. I want it to be a wonderful night for Terrence."

I didn't doubt that for a moment. She was in his last play [Deuce]. "Oh, was I?" she replied quickly and dryly. "Was I good?"