By Andrew Gans
30 Apr 2002
One of the most acclaimed shows of the season has one prop (a chair), one costume (a white shirt over black stockings) and one performer (Elaine Stritch). That show, Elaine Stritch At Liberty — a stunning tour de force from the veteran stage actress — took Broadway by storm after an acclaimed run at Off-Broadway's Public Theater.
It seemed to be the season of the solo show, with no less than six one person evenings gracing The Great White Way.
Elaine Stritch's show — which celebrates her hard-won sobriety as much as it does her successful career on stages around the world — garnered, perhaps, the most adulation of the season, with critics exclaiming, "Ms. Stritch turns this production into the season's one indispensable ticket for fans of musical comedy, a one-woman testimony to the vitality that once made the Broadway musical the liveliest of the American arts." Constructed by John Lahr (and reconstructed by Stritch) and featuring direction by George C. Wolfe, Stritch's hilarious, often-moving evening features songs that she has sung in theatre productions — "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Who Do the Wrong People Travel?," "Broadway Baby," "Zip" — as well as other show stoppers like "I'm Still Here." The 76-year-old actress also recalls her career in a stunningly theatrical manner including a lengthy monologue about the time she understudied Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam while appearing in an out-of-town tryout of Pal Joey. Stritch relives the frenzied experience onstage, and by the time she jokingly asks, “And you wonder why I drank?,” the audience is completely seduced by her charms.
Bea Arthur's evening, Bea Arthur: Just Between Friends, arrived on Broadway after a lengthy national tour that brought the stage and television actress to several cities across the country. Backed only by friend Billy Goldenberg on piano, Arthur's intermissionless and sometimes bawdy act featured her favorite songs — including "Pirate Jenny," "It Never Was You," "I Happen To Like New York" and "Some People — as well as anecdotes and jokes the Emmy-winning actress had collected over the years. The former star of "Maude" and "The Golden Girls" opened her evening reciting a Julia Childs recipe for leg of lamb, and along the way she recollected working with Lotte Lenya, Angela Lansbury, Jerome Robbins and Tony Curtis. As an encore, she offered "The Man in the Moon," a tune from Mame, the Jerry Herman musical that brought the actress a 1966 Tony Award.
It had been 30 years since Barbara Cook performed on the stage of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, and she related this fact by way of reciting part of John Simon’s review of her performance in Gorky’s Enemies, which intimated that because Cook could “no longer sing,” she has decided to act. Well, Cook certainly had the last laugh this season, drawing rave reviews and sold-out crowds to her evening, which was simply titled Barbara Cook in Mostly Sondheim and which will return to the Beaumont for another run beginning in June. The evening was dubbed Mostly Sondheim because a good portion of the evening featured songs that the American composer wished he had written, including a handful of Harold Arlen tunes as well as works by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine (“The Trolley Song”) and Irving Berlin (“I Got Lost in His Arms”). There were many magical moments in the show but, perhaps, none more moving than her encore, which the chanteuse performed without a microphone. Standing centerstage, with only her accompanist Wally Harper playing behind her, Cook delivered a simple, heartfelt version of the title song from Sondheim’s "Anyone Can Whistle."
Film star Kevin Bacon also went the solo route via Heather McDonald's An Almost Holy Picture, which played the American Airlines Theatre earlier this season. Directed by Michael Mayer, Bacon starred as Samuel Gentle, a church groundskeeper who has trouble comprehending God's mysteries. During his poignant journey to understanding, Gentle must wrestle with the memory of a horrible school bus accident as well as the fact that his daughter is afflicted with a rare endocrine disease. Bacon — who is known for his work in such films as "JFK," "The River Wild," "A Few Good Men," "Apollo 13" and "Sleepers" — received good notices for his performance.
Drama Desk and Obie Award winner John Leguizamo returned to Broadway this season with his latest comic rant, Sexaholix, which was filmed for a recent HBO broadcast. Like his previous theatre engagements Mambo Mouth, Spic-O Rama and Freak, Leguizamo's new show employed his no-holds-barred, in-your-face comedic style in which he openly discussed his public and private life. His new act focused on relationships and sex, and in a Playbill interview, the "Moulin Rouge" co star commented, "When I did Freak, I was playing 16 in a 35-year old body. What I like about this show is I'm playing my age. Sexaholix is about breakup sex, makeup sex, relationships. I always wanted to do a show about relationships."
Simon Callow's solo vehicle — The Mystery of Charles Dickens — arrived on Broadway by way of London, where it enjoyed successful runs at the Comedy Theatre in both 2000 and 2002. Callow, no stranger to one man shows, performed at London's Savoy Theatre in a work about playwright Oscar Wilde. In Peter Ackroyd's Dickens, now at the Belasco Theatre, Callow portrays the popular Victorian author as well as 49 of his most famous characters including literary figures from "David Copperfield" (Mr. Micawber) and "Oliver Twist" (Bill Sikes).