PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Don't Dress for Dinner and Leap of Faith — Just Add Water
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters of Broadway's Leap of Faith and Don't Dress for Dinner. Both shows opened April 26, officially ending the 2011-12 Broadway season.
Two sets of first-nighters dressed for rain that never quite came on April 26, the last night of the 2011-2012 Broadway season. 'Tis a pity because both shows could stand a little H20 to keep their plots churning along — Leap of Faith at the St. James Theatre and Don't Dress for Dinner at the American Airlines Theatre.
Leap of Faith is based on the 20-year-old Steve Martin movie of the same name and plays like "Elmer Gantry The Rainmaker," a conflation of two Burt Lancaster flicks.
A charming charlatan evangelist finds himself and his traveling tent show stranded on the sun-parched plains of Kansas — Sweetwater, where there ain't any — so he hoists a tent and gets busy fleecing the gullible, irritable natives 'til the town widow and her wheelchair-using son help him see the way, the truth and the rain. Amen.
Don't Dress for Dinner is a French farce originally titled (more to the point) Pyjamas Pour Six that has been Anglicized, Melbourne-ized, Jersey-ized and Chicago-ized in the 20 years it has taken to get to Broadway. Whenever the action gets too hot 'n' heavy, somebody grabs a seltzer bottle like a fire extinguisher and squirts the randy rampager in the crotch, dampening his passion and necessitating a change of clothes. Soon, everybody's slinking around in "something more comfortable." Ahem.
Aside from all that water over the damned, the two premieres have something else in common. They constitute dueling one-night-stands of William Ivey Long, who designed witty, ingenious, jingle-jangling outfits for both, running a dizzy gamut from a coat of glittery glass blocks for preacher-man Raúl Esparza to a sleeveless, cuffs-only maid uniform that barely contains Jennifer Tilly.
"Well, look at the actors I'm working with," Long said, giving credit to those souls game enough to get into his get-ups. "You start with the play, and then you start with the direction of the director, and then you go — guess where? — to the performer, and then it all just goes here and there and here and there, and it's real exciting.
"I think of myself like an enabler. I enable all their creativity and their wackiness and their ideas, and I always ask them, 'What occurs to you?' So it's really a group effort."
In less than 20 years on Broadway, Long has scored five Tonys (Nine, Crazy for You, The Producers, Hairspray and Grey Gardens) out of 11 nominations, and he'd be advised to make room for more.
"I had a lot of fun on this one," he whispered about Don't Dress for Dinner (an ironic title for a Long field day). "I'm sorta loving The Play With Six People. "
Both shows broke about the same time, and first-nighters scattered to their party of choice. A by-now-grousing press contingent stomped leadenly to the Copacabana for the fourth opening-night party there this week (quick! alert The Guinness Book of Records), this for Leap of Faith. The Roundabout people opted for their regular after-party site (refreshing under the circumstances) — Planet Hollywood — to celebrate the launching of Don't Dress for Dinner. ROXX vodka provided two specialty cocktails for opening night: "Suzanne" with orange juice; "Suzette" with cranberry juice. They were not to be mixed or confused, although the characters they're named after often are in the sex-farce's machinations.
Tilly is the Suzanne of the evening, a mistress of the married man on the premises and pretending to be the cook Suzette (Spencer Kayden, an Outer Critics Circle nominee for this, like Long). "At my age," cracked Tilly in her chirpy way, "I never expected to be running around the stage in frilly lingerie, smooching all my co-stars. I thought, 'This is the kind of part I used to get all the time.' So, 'Hello, old friend.'
"Comedy is fun, and farce is fun because you get the immediate feedback from the audience. If you do something funny, they laugh. It's part of instant gratification.
"I did The Women at the Roundabout Theatre 11 years ago. That was an amazing production, too. The Roundabout Theatre treats everybody like family. When they called and they offered me this, I think that was the tipping point — that it was Roundabout Theatre. I thought I would love to do another show there. They do everything first-class — the costumes are William Ivey Long and Paul Huntley did the wigs, and then they get the greatest actors to work with."
A stage-debuting Isaac Mizrahi whipped up some bizarrely amusing frocks for Tilly and the rest of The Women — notably, a not-always-flattering curtain call in lingerie — and they were nominated for a Drama Desk Award (over the objections of the female nominators) and wound up winning the award. Fun wins!
At this rate, Tilly could turn into the lucky star for award-courting designers. "First Isaac Mizrahi, and now William Ivey Long!" she squealed. "When Patricia Kalember went to have her fitting, she came back, looked at me and said, 'I came from my fitting. You're going to be very, very, very happy.' He really knows how to make women look like women. If he wins an award for his costumes, it's got to be Spencer's outfit, where they take off the shirt and the cuffs, pull up the skirt, and all of a sudden she's got this fabulous evening gown on. It's so clever and delightful, that moment. I sit offstage every night, and I just watch. It's my favorite moment in the play — when they convert her maid's outfit into an evening dress."
Kalember, who, like Kayden, did the Chicago pre-Broadway engagement, didn't hesitate about the main difference in the two gigs. "We didn't have William Ivey Long — even though the designer in Chicago was amazing. It was set in the '80s there, and so we decided to set it in the '60s, and William got ahold of the costumes."
She was surprised to hear her character of the faithless wife, Jacqueline, has a history of infidelity, having been one of three stewardess' circulating around the city-mouse roué, Bernard, and country-mouse rube, Robert, in an earlier and more famous play by Marc Camoletti, Boeing-Boeing. Jacqueline actually bagged Bernard, but their marriage obviously hasn't cured them of cheating on each other. (The 1965 Broadway production of Boeing-Boeing indicates a "Jacqueline"; she was renamed in the recent hit revival.)
"We messed around with the accents in Chicago," Kalember recalled. "Jeffrey Donovan played Robert as an American, and Spencer's husband, Mark Harelik, played Bernard as a Brit. For a while, Suzette was Swedish."
French farce is about as far away as Kayden can get from her previous Broadway outing — Urinetown's blunt-talking, teenage waif, Little Sally. She plainly is having a blast: "I think my favorite thing is that you would never suspect what will be demanded of her and what she will pull off," the actress crowed. "She has no idea when she walks through the door what she will be asked to do. She looks a little dowdy, maybe a little homely, and all the transformations I get to make are immensely fun for me. She rises to the occasion and comes out on top."
The two leading men are Brits, making their second New York stage appearances. Adam James, who plays Bernard, was last seen Off-Broadway in three roles in the heavy-duty drama, The Pride, and Ben Daniels — in "the Mark Rylance role" of Robert — did Broadway in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for Roundabout. "That's the kind of thing Ben and I usually do — strong drama," noted James. "Farce is something new to both of us. It's more fatiguing physically, but the drama really drains you emotionally."
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses was quite a different play than this," Daniels understated, "but I'm obviously at the same theatre with the same theatre company which is a treat. I love it there. It's always kinda nice to go back to an old haunt, really. It's sorta has your kind of ghosts in it as well as everyone else's. Openings here are insane, aren't they? In London, you go for a quiet drink somewhere. You've three previews and one press night when all the press come on the same night."
The role is rather new to him as well. "Normally, I play very alpha males, and Robert's such a wide-eyed, innocent and slightly slow sort of guy — until he has had a few drinks, and then he's like a light bulb, and suddenly it can all kind of kick into place.
"I read somewhere that they said this is a sequel, but the plays were written 26 years apart. Camoletti wrote five plays with Bernard and Robert as characters in them."
Meanwhile, back at the Copa, Esparza made his entrance sans the palm leaves he richly deserved as Jonas Nightingale, the show's unfailing, constantly-charging engine. "Sometimes, there are parts that you feel like there's so much that you can use of yourself in it, and something clicks!" he advanced.
"Doing research for this, I got to see a real revival, which was extraordinary. We based a lot of stuff on that. And I also grew up going to a Jesuit school, but it's not just the religious thing. It's a whole series of things — Jonas' charm, Jonah's sense of humor, Jonas' sex appeal, Jonas' relationship to his past — and then the religious side where, if you go to Catholic school, of course, you wrestle with the devil.
"I've been a part of it since I did a reading of it while I was doing Company. It's been just extraordinary, but it's one of those shows that takes the time it takes to put it together. I've done so much in the meantime and always come back to this."
Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater have rewarded him with a Rose's Turn at the end called "Jonas' Soliloquy." It allows him to sing out a new self-image. "The first time I learned that number, it shocked me. But it's great writing from Alan and from Glenn."
"We have nobody on Broadway like Raúl Esparza," opined Jim Dale, a sincere fan since they co-starred in the 2003 Off-Broadway revival of Comedians. "He's proven himself over the years to be one of the most talented and brilliant actors — not only as an actor but as a song-and-dance man as well — and, with this particular show, I think it will at last give him a chance to win some of those major awards that have eluded him for the last few years. He should get the Tony, and I'll be the first one to stand up and cheer if he does."
Even the youngest in the cast could second that, and 13-year-old Talon Ackerman, the believer in the wheelchair, did just that: "Raúl Esparza is the best. He's so professional. There's no word that can explain Raúl Esparza. He's a little bit of everything. It's such a pleasure to share the stage with him every night."
Ackerman made his acting debut at age four as Chip in a community-theatre Beauty and the Beast (a Menken show, please note). It pleased him no end to learn that Nick Jonas played the part on Broadway. "Really?" he bug-eyed. "Well, let's hope we have the same career then."
His "mom" and Esparza's lady-sheriff love interest, Jessica Phillips, arrived, direct from Mount Olympus it seemed, in a white, free-flowing ethereal creation from Marc Bouwer. "It was a thrill for me," the actress said of the evening. "In a piece that's been this long in the making, it's been really exciting to come into it in the 11th hour and know that I'm a part of helping this show take shape. I came in last November during the workshop in New York. I like that this character is so vulnerable and that she uses her caretaking to motivate her through her grief. I like that she's fragile and tough all at the same time."
Leslie Odom, Jr. is glad to be on board and on Broadway (like Christian Borle, his "Smash" lover, during the series' hiatus). "I fought to get in this room. It conflicted a bit with 'Smash,' but I knew roles like this don't come along much."
He plays a seminary-trained addition to the gospel show. "It's a dream come true. Working with friends — it doesn't get any better than this. I love Raul's soliloquy — his 11-o'clock number, and I love the stand-off between me and him. It's great fun."
Kecia Lewis-Evans, his mother in the show, gives a large-lunged rendering to her songs. "What I love about Ida Mae is that she's somebody who has a deep faith but she has made some choices that are maybe not so honorable. She's justifying them, but she's willing to listen to other points of view that primarily come from her son."
A friend of the court, Marc Kudisch weighed in with a positive vote: "I thought every one was incredible. I thought the work that they did from L.A. to New York was incredible because I saw it in L.A., as well. It's more personal, and that's what I really enjoyed about it. It wasn't just about a show. There was the show, and then there was that really personal side that I thought made it hugely effective."
Warren Leight, a Tony-winning playwright of Side Man, who here shares book credit with the original screenwriter Janus Cercone, is holding down two jobs these days. "I'm still show-running 'SVU' by day. I'd go to the set from 7 AM to 1 PM, I'd come here from 1 to 5, I'd go back to the set from 6 to 8, and then I was here from 8 PM to 1 AM every night in the month. It was tough time.
"This is my first big, gas-guzzling Broadway musical ever. Mayor was a sweet, cute, nine-person show with an orchestra of six. It opened at the Village Gate and moved to the now-defunct Princess Theatre, and that was half my lifetime ago. That implies that I have, at most, one musical left. Oddly enough, Alan and I did work on a musical ten years ago that didn't go. It was a Damon Runyon musical. [The short story was called 'Little Pinks'; the 1942 movie, with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, was called 'The Big Street.']. It's a mystery what goes and what doesn't.
"They'd been going for nine years [developing Leap of Faith], so my job was to come in and bring fresh eyes to it. I think at some point Glenn and Alan had written over 80 songs. Nine years in, you don't know right from wrong so I came in fresh. I loved the original movie, and I saw great things in what had been done. The way I approached it was: What is really working? And where does it need to go? There were beautiful songs that I thought were maybe revealing too much about a character too early so I helped reposition them. In the Los Angeles production, Marla, the love interest, was a waitress at the café, and there was a sheriff who was an antagonist. I made Marla this sheriff. It gave her more purpose. I just wanted to make sure everyone had something to do."
All of director Christopher Ashley's ships seemed to be coming in this week. Nice Work If You Can Get It, which docked a few days ago, is something he did in its first incarnation, when it was called They All Laughed. (It's now helmed by Kathleen Marshall.)
As a producer, he's bracing for his first preview of the Doug Wright-Amanda Green-Trey Anastasio musical, Hands on a Hardbody, at his La Jolla Playhouse. "We open in two weeks, and it's going to be extraordinary," he promised.
"And then I'm doing a movie that Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote called Lucky Stiff , based on their show of the same name. We're casting it now. Jason Alexander we just cast today as Vinnie, the optometrist's brother. It goes before the camera June 15th in L.A. and San Diego."
Leap of Faith was something he took over and took on. "I took it over from Rob Ashford, whom I love. Remaking a musical in Broadway previews is an exciting prospect," he deadpanned. (And whom do you wish it on, Mr. Ashley?)
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