PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Coram Boy — Handel With Hair

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03 May 2007

Supplying more subdued villainy is the equally reliable Jan Maxwell as Mrs. Lynch, a sinister housekeeper in cahoots with Gardiner. She admitted she's reveling in this experience: "We're such a close company, and the director is such a wonderful human being and a fascinating person that you can't help but have a joyous experience. We were just talking tonight that I don't think a cross word has been spoken the entire rehearsal process. It was just a lovely, lovely experience. When you have people who are about the work and know what they're doing, it just becomes a fascinating experience."

Those sentiments were echoed throughout the cast. "It's funny, Melly makes you feel like you're still in school working on something," said Fleischer. "That's the way I felt for everything. I actually, truthfully, never got nervous before a performance — mostly because she gives you so much stuff to concentrate on. You're just so busy the whole show in such a great way it takes over everything. Every minor detail she has covered."

His role of Gardiner's son is, arguably, the most emotional in the show. "I can't imagine being lucky enough to get his play, let alone a part like this. It's the heart of the play. You see all the decisions he has to make and what he chooses to do and how he goes about it."

Another who pays a high emotional price for Camp's cruelty is Toby, an eight-year-old black Coram boy. Uzo Aduba begins the part with an innocent buoyancy and then lets the effects of the sexual abuse settle in. "Those first moments when you get into the play, you're so excited for Toby — this opportunity to leave the orphanage to be a servant at this estate — and the next time you see him he's so beaten, so tattered, so dehumanized. You really don't know what it's like if you suffer day-to-day abuse. You don't know who to look to, to seek refuge, so all of it has to be contained inside of you. I don't know many adults who can grapple with that sort of experience, let alone an eight-year-old. At eight, he has to really mature, grow up in a moment's notice and understand this is his reality."

It's a show where everybody is constantly juggling multiple roles. Most actors have to count on there fingers how many characters they play. "I'm not sure how many roles I played," admitted Eaves. "I think I lost count around mule and gargoyle and servant."

Tom Riis Farrell, who lends his portly presence to the proceedings, owned up to "basic everyman, a tree, a slave trader, the governor of the Coram hospital and a Gaddarn thug."

He, too, credited the director with talking him through, and into, all of the above. "Melly is unbelievably enthusiastic," he said. "Her enthusiasm carries over to everyone else. I think she has a really good sense of who's going to be a nice person in the long run.

"Part of the audition was sitting with her and just having a chat. You know, 'What do you think about doing a project like this where, when you're not being used in a scene, you're off learning more Handel? And when you're not doing that, you're doing yoga?' What I said to her at that point was 'So you're going to pay me to get my chops back? Is that correct?' I said, 'That sounds idyllic.' She had that kind of discussion with everyone."

At first, Ivy Vahanian who plays one of the victims-of-the-times, thought there'd be no safety in numbers with a large cast. Remembering names became more of a problem than remembering lines. "There are so many people, then the chorus came on, and we were 'Oh, boy. How do we do this?' But there is such a sense of camaraderie and family it was easy. Honestly, I'd look at people and say, 'I know you. I know I know you.' We all had that experience. Melly did an incredible job of casting the like-minded and like-spirited."

The marvelous Elbrick, who stays an excellent chance of a Tony nomination for her debut, appears to be president of the Melly Still Fan Club. "Very different from any other director, she focuses entirely on the ensemble experience, and it means we have been this strong unit throughout from the very first day. She started immediately, playing ballgames with us, and here we are now. No one moves without someone else following. It's just an incredible unit. She's such a young spirit. I don't think there could be any other director who could find these childish spirits and bring them to the theatre like this and make it happen. She's like an eight-year-old, coming to us in pigtails. She's just a beautiful spirit."

Among the first-nighters were director Jerry Zaks, comedian Robert Klein (a "big time" Handel buff — who knew?), Tommy Tune and Marshall Brickman (arriving separately but cooking up a secret musical project), Ted Sperling ("working on a show that I'm taking to the O'Neill Center this summer called The Red Eye of Love, which I'll be directing. Music is by Jan Warner"), Victoria Clark, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Leonard Foglia, Mark Hampton, attorney Mark Sendroff, Jamie de Roy ("I've seen it three times and cry every time, but then I'm a producer"), Gordon Greenberg (keeping his fingers crossed that he'll be able to plant his Pirates of Penzance at the Paper Mill Playhouse this summer), Kevin Chamberlin, a suddenly svelte Rick McKay ("Barbara Cook sent me to a nutritionist"), Primary Stages' Casey Childs and Signature's James Morrison, Cady Huffman (readying for a reading of Pure Country with Carlin Glynn, Will Chase and Julia Murney), Marge Champion (back from performing her show at the Actors' Home in Englewood, NJ), Rex Reed (back from Bali and Australia — with a pinched nerve. "I can hardly walk. I've got to find somebody who will give me a Cortisone shot"), Frank Wildhorn with Brandi Burkhardt (back from Zurich), Seascape's Elizabeth Marvel (going from lizard to Louisa — she starts filming "The Life and Times of Louisa May Alcott" next week), John Guare, Sutton Foster (not showing off — "I'm just taking a break right now"), Harvey Evans and Barbara Cook (preparing for her 80th birthday concert Nov. 19 at Avery Fisher Hall) and, last but not least, F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar-winning Salieri no doubt enviously checking out Mr. Handel's work.

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