ON THE RECORD: Susan Watson Sings Jones & Schmidt, Ken Page's Story "Page by Page"

News   ON THE RECORD: Susan Watson Sings Jones & Schmidt, Ken Page's Story "Page by Page"
This week's column discusses "Earthly Paradise," Susan Watson's collection of songs by Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt, and Ken Page in his one-man show Page by Page.


EARTHLY PARADISE: Susan Watson Sings Jones & Schmidt [Nassau 96598]
An hour with Harvey Schmidt, for me, has always been like a day's vacation. His various musicals have been set in locales ranging from Paris to Texas, but in some ways the music always sounds like it comes from Harveyville and I'm ever ready for another visit.

Susan Watson apparently agrees, fortunately so. She sang an evening of Schmidt & Jones songs last summer at the Gardenia in Los Angeles, following which she took them into the recording studio. "Earthly Paradise" is the title of the album, after a song the boys wrote for Colette (the Off-Broadway play that starred Zoe Caldwell, not the musical). A nifty song it is, too; "Earthly Paradise" might well serve as an apt description of the CD itself.

Watson came to New York to attend Juilliard, but was quickly shipped off to London for the 1958 West End premiere of West Side Story; she played Velma, one of the Jet girls, and understudied Maria. Upon her return, she began her longstanding relationship with Schmidt & Jones, doing backers' auditions and the initial one-act version of The Fantasticks in the summer of 1959 at Barnard College. When the show was expanded for Off-Broadway, she was suddenly unavailable — already in her twenties, Watson landed the role of 16-year-old Kim MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie. She followed this as the teenaged Lili in the national company of Carnival (from Birdie's Gower Champion and Michael Stewart), playing the role on Broadway for a while as well.

All along, Watson retained her connection with Schmidt & Jones. (She has twice been Jones' sister-in-law. Elinor Jones, who wrote the Caldwell Colette, was the sister of Watson's husband. Watson's own sister, choreographer Janet Watson, has been Mrs. Jones since 1982.) Watson finally got to play the full version of The Fantasticks when it was telecast as a Hallmark special in October 1964. Ricardo Montalban played El Gallo, John Davidson played Matt, and the unlikely team of Stanley Holloway and Bert Lahr played the fathers. Copies of this are floating around, and Ms. Watson is very good indeed! (The orchestrator, though, smothered Schmidt's distinctive style with formulaic cliché.) That same month, the inbound musical Ben Franklin in Paris fired their ingénue in Philadelphia. In came Watson. (Anyone remember who she replaced? Answer: the 16-year-old Jacqueline Mayro, the original Baby June in Gypsy.) Next came the 1965 New York State Theatre production of Carousel, as Carrie Pipperidge to Reid Shelton's Enoch Snow, with John Raitt recreating his Billy Bigelow. The following year she was once again a tryout replacement, playing a preacher's daughter who falls in love with Raitt as a wandering (and much older) folk singer. A Joyful Noise quickly fizzled, despite the presence of young choreographer Michael Bennett and younger dancer Tommy Tune. The departed ingénue this time? Donna McKechnie. And then it was back to Schmidt & Jones, for workshops and the eventual Broadway production of their experimental Celebration. She played the heroine Angel, as the character was named, with whips and a fig leaf no less.

Just when Watson seemed to be finished with teenaged roles, she received an emergency call to take over the title character in the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette. At 32, she was once again playing a teenager. The production, which was to become a massive hit, was famously troubled. Watson provided the enterprise with a proverbial shot in the arm; it is to her great credit that even though she had developed a reputation as Broadway's "perennial ingénue," there appeared to be nothing resentful about it. Watson played this role — as she had Birdie — with a friendly charm and a sunny disposition that seemed to automatically brighten the show. Following Nanette, Watson headed out west to raise a family, with intermittent appearances along the way — including last summer's stint of Schmidt & Jones at the Gardenia, which resulted in "Earthly Paradise."

Ms. Watson takes us on a fine tour of the songbook. She sings two of her songs from The Fantasticks — "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "They Were You" — naturally enough, and recreates "I'm Glad to See You've Got What You Want" from Celebration. There are several songs from I Do, I Do, including a medley combining three alternate versions of the title song; two selections from 110 in the Shade, including the incredibly tender cut song, "Sweet River"; and two obscurities, "The Middle of the Road" from The Bone Room (which Watson did in 1975) and the uncharacteristically comic "Autumn at the Automat" from a 1961 television special. Colette/Collage is represented with four songs, including an especially moving "The Room Is Filled with You." Watson ends this lovely collection with "Joy," fittingly enough.

Sitting with Ken Page's CD Page by Page on your desk, you're perhaps entitled to wonder just why you should want to listen to a one-man show from Ken Page, and why does he need two CDs? Lena Horne in The Lady and Her Music, yes; Elaine Stritch at Liberty, yes. But why Ken Page? It doesn't take more than five or six tracks, though, before you discover that the man is a fine storyteller with a good story to tell. I did not relish spending a couple of hours with Page, but he soon had me listening closely and wondering what and how and who.

Page is best known as the Fats Waller stand-in in the 1978 musical carnival that goes under the name Ain't Misbehavin'. He followed this with a major role in an even bigger hit, Cats, although it was hard to put much of a stamp on Old Deuteronomy as he was somewhat hidden under mounds of makeup and matting. Page's first Broadway role was far more memorable, although until he started talking about it I hadn't realized that Page of Ain't Misbehavin' was the same fellow who did such a good job rockin' the boat in the ill-advised 1976 revival of Guys and Dolls.

St. Louis-native Page takes us from the ghetto to the projects, circa 1960; describes how he put on some tap shoes — he was a large child — and said, I can do that; brings us into the free seats atop the St. Louis Muny to watch Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway in Hello, Dolly!; stares at Pearlie Mae herself, in a white Cadillac. When the piano player starts playing the "Tradition" vamp, you wonder what on earth is Ken Page doing here? Turns out he starred in his Catholic high school's production of Fiddler on the Roof. Ken Page as a teenaged Tevye in a 1970 Catholic production of Fiddler? Unthinkable, absurd, as Tevye himself might say; but times they were a-changin'. He gets on the bus with his suitcase, arrives at Port Authority, and finds himself in the middle of one of Broadway's driest stretches. By this point in Page by Page, you might well find yourself riveted. So much for wondering why he needs two discs.

This is a live performance — recorded in September 2006 at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts outside San Diego — of the one-man show Page has been working on since 2000, written by Page and directed by Dan Mojica. There's an 11-piece band, too, led by Daryl Archibald. (The band does not sound especially good on the CD, although this might be partially due to the recording equipment.) The narrative begins to lag in the latter portion of the second act, as does the career, but no matter. Page is quite an entertainer, based on the evidence herein. I'm mighty glad I took the time to listen to Page by Page, and I suspect you will be, too.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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