PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Ghost and The Lyons — Death Be Not Loud
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at The Lyons and Ghost The Musical, which opened on Broadway on the same night.
Not only did Death not take a holiday April 23, it took a double-decker bus to Broadway, applying its lethal touch to a sentimental pop-rock romance — Ghost at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre — as well as to a savage domestic comedy — The Lyons at the Cort Theatre. It's a great leveler, all right.
When the curtain rises on the latter, Rita Lyons (Linda Lavin) is not actually doing a gleeful rain-dance around the hospital death-bed of her husband, Ben (Dick Latessa). In fact, she's the picture of composure, legs crossed, leafing lazily through a copy of House Beautiful, lost in the gloss of renovations that befit a merry widow, dog-earring pages for future reference. Maybe those who are attuned to dog-whistles can pick up on her unbridled merriment.
Occasionally, she will return to Planet Earth and ask Ben for his opinion of Early American and then go back into her redecorating trance. "I'm dying!" the cranky nearly-departed reminds her. "I know," she responds archly, having made her peace with that growing possibility, "but you don't have to be so negative about it."
The beautiful thing about the belated Broadway arrival of playwright Nicky Silver is that his savage sense of comedy is still intact, not remotely mellow or forgiving, and he has the perfect spokesperson in Lavin, who doesn't always have to speak to get his point across. Sometimes, the lifting of an eyebrow or a pinkie will do the trick. Her comic timing is so subtle, so advanced, that she leaves the distinct impression she is playing to you and only to you. (She's not. Look around.) Linda Lavin must be the best Swiss watch that Broadway has had since Nancy Walker.
And give Latessa points as well for snarling back with mortal vulgarities and nastiness, stupidly unaware that Silver/Lavin have produced The Super Pit Bull.
The young Lyons are about what you might expect from such a miserable marriage that has gone so many extra innings. Lisa Lyons (Kate Jennings Grant) is a backsliding alky looking for love in all the wrong places — AA meetings; Curtis Lyons (Michael Esper) is a numbingly alone timid soul who invents his lovers. "Considerately," Rita spared them the news of their dad's dying until the 11th hour.
Ghost The Musical, another tale of a modern-day Manhattan marriage torn asunder, is from "Ghost" the movie, circa 1990. Here, it is a young couple with everything to live for, brought to an abrupt halt by what seems to be a senseless mugging-gone-amok but isn't. The mortally wounded husband lingers around for one last embrace, which is achieved through the machinations of a spiritualist.
"Ghost" the movie made stars of Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze and Tony Goldwyn, and no doubt Caissie Levy, Richard Fleeshman and Bryce Pinkham, who've inherited those roles for the musical, harbor hopes of lightning striking twice. The movie also made Oscar winners of Whoopi Goldberg as the medium in spite of herself and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, who has stuck around to write the book for the musical version.
Glen Ballard, who wrote Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," and Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics, provided the score — but the big hit of the show hails from the second of Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch's three films, 1955's "Unchained."
The 1956 Oscar-nominated "Unchained Melody" — it lost, or was drowned out, by "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" — was written by lyricist Hy Zaret (1907-2007) and composer Alex North (1910-1991). The song is heard several times in the musical (we never hear the famous Righteous Brothers recording from the stage).
It's North's big year on Broadway. Mike Nichols is re-spinning his stage score for the current Death of a Salesman. Were Emily Mann only so wise to reuse North's stage score for A Streetcar Named Desire for her revival.
Fleeshman and Levy, the original leads in London, were brought over to repeat the tasks here. He found it decidedly "bizarre" to be, at 22, suddenly a Broadway actor, "but I love everything about this show. Every night it's a helluvah challenge. I'm so lucky to get the opportunity to do it — both in London and, now, here."
He was especially happy to meet Lisa Niemi, Swayze's widow who came up for the event from Texas. "She's lovely," he said, "and she really seems to enjoy the show. It's all we could ask for, and it means the world to us that she was here."
Niemi was indeed dazzled by the nonstop, wall-to-wall projections of Manhattan that overwhelmed the show, but she had to laugh at how the musical couldn't even begin to approximate the pottery-wheel erotica that the movie memorably had. On stage, Fleeshman and Levy seemed to be just getting their hands dirty in gray gook.
This is the fourth Broadway show for Levy, who turned 21 on April 15, having run from Hairspray to Hair with a little Wicked in the middle. "We're so thrilled to be on Broadway only a year after we started in London. The London opening was very swanky as well, but now the show has grown even more so we're celebrating even larger this time around.
"My favorite song is probably 'Nothing Stops Another Day' in the second act, but I also love singing 'With You,' which is a song that people really respond to. I can hear the crying in the audience sometimes. It's just one of those songs that hits people on a core level, and I'm honored that I get to sing it every night."
Pinkham, who Broadway-bowed as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson's best friend, is feigning that part here as Flesshman's business associate. He remarked, "My favorite question — and the first one I ask myself — is: 'What do I like about this guy?' I think I like his drive. I can understand what it feels like to be within reach of somebody who has just a little more than you. You just want to catch up to him. His best friend has the job, has the girl, has the car — and that's the guy I want to defend. On some level, I can understand him, and it's a challenge I enjoy taking on."
More menace is projected into the musical by Michael Balderrama. "What's great about this character is that it gets me a chance to play someone who's really removed from my personality. It's my first time, ever, playing a villain. It allows that dark side of you that you can tap into and really have an avenue to let it out. I've enjoyed finding the dark places and the things you don't usually get to bring on stage."
The play's director, Matthew Warchus, took the entire American cast to London to see the show the week before rehearsals started. Balderrama said, "He made it very clear: He wanted us to find our version of these characters and not try to shoehorn into something that was predetermined. It was really smart idea."
Decked out in a nicely tailored suit and tennis shoes, Warchus maintained his British cool throughout a dizzying run of interviews. "I have a very fortunate career in that I can honestly say I've never directed anything that I didn't feel very passionate about and love. It's absolutely true of Ghost. The same kind of rigor has gone into putting Ghost on as Matilda or any of my work. I'm very proud of it."
The stateside version of Matilda, which set the record for Olivier Award wins (7) on April 15, is indeed on the way. "We're going to go into rehearsals, I think, in January and open March-April next year," he said. What theatre it will land at is about two or three weeks away from confirming, and it hasn't been decided if any or all of the British cast will be making the trek to Broadway. (Kids grow taller, it turns out.)
Writer Rubin is, frankly, not surprised that the "Ghost" he created has such mass appeal: "The fact is that every human being has this universal desire to have one last moment with someone they love. That is so strong and it is so well dramatized in this movie and in the play that people flock to it over and over because it affirms this possibility of endless life, of endless connection, of having a love that goes on forever. 'The love inside you — you take it with you' — it's the very last line in the play now."
Da'Vine Joy Randolph, who whoops it up in Whoopi's role and virtually steals the show, made her Star Entrance very late — too late for some reporters to stick around when they had other fish to fry. The after-party for Ghost was held in a spooky, desolate, taxi-free, eminently muggable part of town — 12th Avenue and 28th Street — at Tunnel.
Meanwhile, back at Sardi's — where the opening-night party was born and was, for years, the only game in town — somebody must have thrown another log on the fire, because it was a good, old-fashioned opening night all over again, replete with The Lyons Press Representative (Sam Rudy) standing tall, reading The Gospel According to Ben Brantley to Lavin, Latessa and the rest of the elated elite.
"Everyone was clapping and telling jokes and yelling out, 'Read on, read on,'" reported Sean Ricketts, the on-duty grandson of Vincent Sardi Jr. "It was great!"
"I felt like I was in a 1940s film about the theatre," admitted Douglas Aibel, the Vineyard's artistic director, "like, we were having our opening night at Sardi's and the press agent got up on the table and read the review. It was really lovely."
The Brantley buzz lasted the rest of the evening and elevated the party, some of which spilled upstairs where the cast eventually drifted for a private toast.
Lavin and hubby, Steve Bakunas, were among the last to leave. She seemed to be holding onto every second of happiness Rita Lyons had just brought. "I like everything about her," the actress trumpeted. "I like her courage. I identify with her, and I like playing a woman who is so much fun to play — to tap into her sadness and her repressed feelings, her anger, her expressions of all those feelings, her liveliness, her vitality and the hope of her. I love the way Nicky writes. He writes comedy, but it's a very dark, deeply felt, profound, life-filled, true, true-to-life comedy. And it's wonderful to play, very satisfying to play, because she's a real human being."
Another thoroughgoing pro and Tony winner, Latessa returns Lavin's serve with the greatest of ease, fearlessly unintimidated. Their scenes are like a close-order drill. "We get along great," he conceded happily. "She's a masterpiece of timing, and I do my best to keep up with her." Silver has helped by handing him some live ammo to hurl back at Lavin. "I like the guy's obscenities," Latessa allowed. "I like that he says exactly what he's feeling, and he doesn't hold anything back. Not anything."
Talk about intimidation, think of the poor director. Piece of cake, Mark Brokaw shrugged. "Both Linda and Dick are consummate pros. It was like taking a master's class in comic precision. They're at the top of their game. In fact, I think all the performances have grown. They really seem like a family now after all this."
Brokaw's next project will be the stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's only TV musical, Cinderella. It will have Laura Osnes in the title role, Santino Fontana for Prince Charming, Peter Bartlett as his prime minister, Harriet Harris as the wicked stepmother and Victoria Clark as the fairy godmother. It also has, said Brokaw, "songs from the trunk, like 'Me? Who Am I?' They're all songs that have been cut from other shows and never ended up anywhere so you wouldn't know them."
Grant, who glided through the party in a long red gown, was fielding a lot of compliments about how her character had grown, even though her second-act monologue fell by the wayside during previews. "Everybody's saying the character seems deeper now," she said. "I hope that's the case. That's what you want, y'know. You don't want it to go all down the toilet when you come back to Broadway."
Esper was also acknowledging a spurt of character growth. "I feel like it's grown, and I'm happier. I worked on it some more, I thought it some more, we've gotten to play some more together." Even more beneficial, he felt, was the break between Off-Broadway and Broadway when he got to work on other plays before coming back to this one. "It was an amazing way to work. Sometimes it can be tricky coming back after you've set the way for something. A lot of companies work that way regularly. They'll get together and work on a piece and then step away from it for a time.
"I have a lot of feeling for Curtis. I love how afraid he is. I love everything he does in spite of how afraid he is. I love what's difficult about him. And I love what he's able to do at the end of the play. I think it's very beautiful and stirring, for me personally."
So, does Lavin pitch him the ball the same way every evening? "No, oh no. It's always the same story, the same form, but she's an improviser. She's absolutely improvising with you on stage every night, which is what is so extraordinary about her."
Esper's other big scene is with Gregory Wooddell, riveting but removed from family chaos. It's another kingdom of chaos, and, in Wooddell's view, "one of the best acting experience I've had — 20-minute scene in an empty apartment with one other actor — and you've got nothing else so, as an acting exercise, it's kinda the best you get. And the roller-coast of it all! I go in there, needing to sell an apartment, and I get to go for a ride with this other guy and I get surprised." (He sure does!)
The first to line up for The Lyons opening was the serious, play-loving crowd: Ronald H. Shechtman and wife Lynne Meadow, artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club, where Lavin has done Tony-nominated work (Collected Stories and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife); Charles Busch, author of the latter and Off-Broadway's Judith of Bethulia, 'til April 28; Patricia Conolly; WOR's shrink-in-residence Dr. Joy Browne, debuting on the press line and mugging to the max (inside the theatre, she had her work cut out for her); Stacy Keach and Matthew Risch from another dysfunctional Broadway family, Other Desert Cities; Phyllis Newman; Sarah Paulson with Amanda Peet; Celia Weston; Tony-winning twosome Julie White and Cady Huffman; Danny Aiello; Julie Halston, fresh (relatively) from her dog-show announcing at the "Easter Bonnet" competition.
Also: Julia Murney; Lysistrata Jones' Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn; Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas; Judy Kuhn; Tony Roberts and Penny Fuller, a Broadway twosome since the original Barefoot in the Park; Edward Hibbert; very "in season" with the city-wide Noel Coward celebrations; Bill Pullman; director Michael Mayer with Camryn Manheim.
Stars in dark-on-Monday shows were relaxing in other people's shows: The Best Man's Eric McCormack with his producer, Jeffrey Richards, and his campaign manager, Michael McKean with wife Annette O'Toole; Memphis' long-running Tony nominee Montego Glover; Anita Gillette, Lortel Award contender for Off-Broadway's excellent The Big Meal; Emily Swanson; and Jesus Christ Superstar's Josh Young (is this perfect show for Judas' night off, or what?).
As usual, playwright Silver — the man of the hour — spent much of the evening on the street, puffing away on cigarettes just outside Sardi's, but regaling friends and passers-by.
"What is it like to work with Linda Lavin?" everyone wanted to know. "It's a frigging miracle. The other night, there was a big mishap on stage, and she played through it. You would expect, like most actresses, she would be yelling at someone. No. She is so full of joy to be on stage that you cannot find an ugly side to her, no matter how hard you try. She's a miracle. She's a genius and a joy."
A major noise and laughing sound Off-Broadway, Silver has been at it 19 — almost 20 years — starting with Pterodactyls at Ye Olde Vineyard in October of 1993.
What does he feel about debuting at long last on Broadway with one of his plays? "Relief. That's all I feel, is relief. Opening a play — for anyone who hasn't done it, even re-opening a play — is as nerve-racking as open-heart surgery. No matter when you get raves or when you get pans, you're still relieved when they're over."
Ever the gentleman, Silver lightly and politely took his leave with "Thank you very much. I have to go apologize to some people now." And thank you, Nicky!
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