End Your ‘Misery.’
Get ‘On Your Feet’
with ‘Dames at Sea’
by TONY VELLELA
Don’t you wanna just disgorge when you read a column or commentary that purports to connect three separate items with some tenuous, credibility-stretching theme? Some they-have-it-in-common element? Some I’m-so-clever observation? This is one of those.
Feet. All three shows herein explored have ‘feet’ as an organizing factor. Best to start with the most appropriate, which would be the new bio-musical about the life and career of Cuban pop singer Gloria Estefan: “On Your Feet!”
For those of you who may have spent the better part of the ’80s sequestered under a rock, the pulse-racing, blood-stirring beat of the musical group the Miami Sound Machine achieved record-breaking success when it accomplished the almost cliche-labeled feat [f-e-A-t] of crossing over. This refers to any performer or group who manages to capture the attention and sustained following of an audience outside their original home base – think Dolly Parton skyrocketing herself out of the country music universe of Nashville, for instance. For the Estefans, it’s a even more noteworthy achievement, because their original home base speaks, sings and dances in Spanish. There are credible comparisons to the “Dreamgirls” saga – a ‘sound’ that defines the emotions of a particular culture, refined to its best level, and then promoted and marketed with super-human energies, until it begins to find a niche in the larger world of recorded music.
Most rags-to-riches stories have common chapters along the way to their ultimate, victorious conclusion, and in that respect, this one is no different. When Emilio Estefan, the band’s organizer and Gloria’s husband, faces off with a reluctant record producer who is not convinced the Estafans will appeal to a wider [translation: whiter] following, Estefan goes nose-to-nose with him, stating with complete conviction: “You should look very closely at my face, because whether you know it or not . . . this is what an American looks like.” This line needs no ‘Applause’ sign to trigger a riotous response from the house. Gloria’s mother supplies the requisite opposition to the idea of having her daughter strike out as a singer, in part because her own dream was squashed by her mother. When Gloria’s mother was a little girl in Cuba, her singing talents propelled her to the point where Hollywood came calling, to lure them to the movie capital of the world where she would become the Latin-dubbed voice of megastar Shirley Temple. Her mama said ‘no,’ and now, she’s doing the same.
It is Gloria’s father, back from serving in Vietnam, and crippled with MS, who lets his daughter’s dream have a chance. Despite a lack of any kind of formal training, Gloria’s talent convinces Emilio that she has the voice and the chemistry to front his MSM plans. Their chart-topping hits, such as “Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “1-2-3,” “Reach,” and this show’s title hit “Get On Your Feet,” have sold more than 100 million records and earned two dozen Grammy Awards.
Like most bio-musicals of this genre, there is/was a major setback. While on tour, the bus carrying Gloria, Emilio and the band, overturned on an ice-slicked highway in the Poconos. Gloria suffered multiple injuries, among them a broken back and a broken voice. Her fierce determination to regain all her abilities paid off, and sooner than doctors, family and friends expected or counseled. She recovered fully, and resumed her dazzling career. While the tale of an artist or athlete recovering so completely from a major accident is not unique, it is rare, and in this instance, even more compelling, since her health dictated whether all the people around her, professionally, could also continue to work. [A similar occurrence, but without the added dimension of affecting so many careers, happened seventy + years ago, when major singing star Jane Froman survived a plane crash in 1943, and most people in and out of show business wrote off her career. With legendary fortitude, Froman fought her way back to health, and despite a leg amputation that left her permanently confined to a wheelchair, capped off her comeback when she starred in the Broadway revue “Artists and Models.” Her life story also received the bio-musical treatment – it was a movie, titled “With a Song in My Heart,” after one of her biggest hits, with Susan Hayward playing the lead. Froman dubbed the singing.]
“On Your Feet!” benefits from deliberate production decisions that enhance the entire experience. It would be easy to let the show ‘ride’ on the music alone, but this musical also features valuable design work, most critically, from SCK Sound Design, which means we can hear the lyrics! This show also provides choreographer Sergio Trujillo his best chance yet to display his versatility. And the by-now Broadway veteran, director Jerry Mitchell, keeps the pact clipping along, to match the forward-moving pace of the music.
Most significantly, like the producers of the Carole King bio-musical “Beautiful,” who struck gold by casting Jesse Meuller in the title role, this production also hit the jackpot, finding the multi-talented, energy-to-spare Ana Villafane to portray Gloria. It’s hard to side-step the usual adjectives that describe young Latina performers: spicy, firecracker, fiery, hot, etcetcetc. But . . . they all fit! She’s all those, and much much more, because her talent, like the woman she portrays, extends beyond the musical. Villafane, making a stunning Broadway debut, brings out the emotional roller-coaster this young woman underwent, escaping her mother’s negativity, growing from her father’s watchful gaze, and the adoring attention of millions.
When romance novelist Paul Sheldon opens his eyes, he finds himself confined to bed in a homey little room in a modest little house, tucked away on a quiet little road, in the Colorado hills. Victim of a serious auto accident that left him incapacitated, his fate rests in the caring hands of a quirky middle-aged former nurse, who describes herself as his ‘biggest fan.’ The serial heroine in Paul’s pot-boiler best-sellers is named Misery, and this mostly two-hander from William Goldman, who adapted it from the Stephen King thriller, also titled “Misery,” is so named as well. More than a quarter century ago, James Caan and Kathy Bates starred in the feature film version, which earned Bates her Oscar. Now, in residence at the Broadhurst Theatre, is Goldman’s stage adaptation, starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf in the lead roles.
To succeed as a thriller, on stage, a script must keep delivering unpredictable swerves, and quicksilver ricochets. A listing of the better ones would include “Wait Until Dark,” “Deathtrap” and “Ten Little Indians.” Sadly, that list will not include this “Misery.” And why . . . ? Simply put, not enough thrills.
Every good cat-and-mouse tale relies an equal pairing of participants. If one is stronger, smarter, quicker or even more sympathetic than the other, the balance is tilted. No contest. In a brief description, and I’m told, in the novel, Paul and his ‘keeper,’ Annie, may appear to be evenly-matched. He’s a worldly, able-bodied [until now], clever male; she’s an agile, thoughtful, single-minded, obsessive female. What one lacks the other can benefit from. In this case, the man’s obvious physical advantage is compromised because he’s bed-ridden. And it soon becomes obvious that Annie ain’t about to let him recover, and return to the wider world. She can hardly believe her luck – the one person she admires more than anyone, the person who created a fictional heroine who Annie dotes on, is confined to her care. And as soon as it becomes clear that he plans to kill off the hapless Misery, the hapless Annie springs into action, resorting finally to a gruesome, brutal act that involved an axe and an action that renders useless Paul’s feet.
So, you say – isn’t that thriller material? Could be. What’s missing, is that balance. And the inequality here lies in the acting. Whether you like or don’t like Willis on the big screen, he can count himself among the group of cinema stars who haven’t been able to adjust to the rigors, the challenges, the nuances, the demands of stage acting. The slightest flicker of emotion can be picked up by the camera. On stage, that flicker is lost to all but those fortunate few in the first three rows, center. And more than any other genre, the thriller banks on feeling, along with the protagonist, the sense of dread, of fear, of pending doom. Willis’s performance at its best merely acknowledges these feelings, instead of making them real.
On the other hand, Laurie Metcalf’s Annie bristles with life. Metcalf is saddled with the burden of being identified always with the Emmy-winning role of Jackie in the television sitcom “Roseanne,” despite numerous other instances that prove her versatility and skill. Hers is a career that I’ve followed since Metcalf first took to the stage, with fellow Steppenwolf players, in Chicago. She once told me her introduction to theatre came as a kind of lark, when, as an office worker, she accompanied a friend to the early try-outs that John Malkovich, Gary Sinese and a few friends decided to form a theatre company, and performed in a converted bowling alley space. Hers is a natural, visceral talent, one that instinctively finds the meter and rhythm in the writing, the humor in the situation, the heartbeat in the character. Here, she manages one of the most difficult undertakings for any actor – re-visiting a character whose previous incarnation was so vivid, it could be capable of wiping any subsequent interpretation off the map, in this case, that of Bates as Annie. However, Metcalf locates other life-giving moments in her Annie. The problem lies with an audience that can’t shake the ‘funny lady’ association Metcalf created on television, which results in laughter at some critical plot points. Even when she succeeds in drawing out the menace in Annie’s care-giving, her acting partner lets her down. Another case of ‘cast a famous screen name, and they will come.’ Well, I suppose they will. And it’s possible her efforts will result in a Tony nomination. Where are the adventurous producers who will locate a vehicle for her that doesn’t rely on the stunt casting for other roles, to boost box office? How about a revival of William Inge’s “Dark at the Top of the Stairs?” Imagine Metcalf as Rosemary in “Picnic,” another Inge classic. Or Josie in O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten.”
It may have been a miscalculation to entrust the adaptation chores to screenwriter William Goldman, because a theatre audience does not have the benefit of seeing a character in peril, in close-up. Perhaps director Will Frears wasn’t able to master the challenge of presenting what is, in essence, a ‘small’ story in the cavernous Broadhurst Theatre, seating capacity 1,186, which was built in 1917 to accommodate both dramas and musicals. In hindsight, it’s ironic that the character Willis portrays tells Annie ‘You have saved me.” If only . . .
And finally, the happiest feet of all, the ones tap, tap, tapping away on the boards at the Helen Hayes Theatre, in service to “Dames at Sea.” When this spunky little rhinestone first glistened downtown at the legendary Cafe Cino fifty years ago, the concept was fresh: marry the send-up style that takes aim at the gee-whiz movie musicals of the thirties, and the can-do-without spirit of summer stock. Result: a six-person cast, a reinforced cardboard set, pastel-based costumes, and eight musicians in the pit. And the book? It’s about the girl [one of the ‘another hundred who got off of the train’] who wowed ’em back home in her high school revue, and zeroed in on the closest theatre in Times Square, the minute her time-stepping tootsies hit the pavement. And as luck [or in this case, a gob named Lucky] would have it, our heroine Ruby [monikered in a tribute to Ruby Keeler], crosses paths with a couple of honest-to-goodness sailors, one of whom is Ruby’s love at first sight gag.
When Jim Wise [music] and the writing team of George Haimsohn and Robin Miller [book and lyrics] created “Dames at Sea,” the practice of milking Hollywood oldies was still new. Today, it’s de rigueur for any collection of ambitious musicals-inclined group of kids with a piano, a barn and three summer months to play around in. And some of the songs the show introduced have taken up permanent residence in the repertoires of songsters of a certain age, including “Broadway Baby,” “It’s You” and “That Mister Man of Mine.”
And when the show Ruby has been tapped to step into loses its lease on a theatre, Act Two finds the undaunted troupe on the deck of those sailors’ battleship, giving it all they’ve got, and then some. All six cast members – John Bolton, Mara Davi, Danny Gardner, Eloise Kropp, Lesli Margherita and Cary Tedder – are proof that there is an ample supply of exceptional musical talent to be seen and heard within the eight square blocks around Times Square. Visiting “Dames at Sea” may not offer any surprises, but, hey! That’s the value, every now and again, of turning back the clock and settling in to a pastiche from the past. These happy feet will put a smile on your face.
Switching gears to elite feet, ’tis the season to bask in the collective glories of Tschaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Ballet.” A filmed presentation of the George Balanchine interpretation will be screened in 27 metro-area movie houses on 12/5 (12:55 pm) and 12/10 (7 pm). Visit LincolnCenterAtTheMovies.org for details. And to see the New York city Ballet’s live production, which has begun its run, visit nycballet.com for details. . . . the 8Players theatre experience kicks off a limited engagement, now through January 23rd, at undisclosed locations in the Village and downtown Brooklyn. This immersive, interactive adventure immerses only eight audience members per show, as ever-changing plots challenge even the most veteran of theatre-goers, in scenarios such as ‘Girls Boarding School Melodrama’ and ‘Erotic Thrillers from the ’80s.’ If you are up to being stimulated, shocked and generally mind-tossed, visit www.8players.com to find out the whys and wherefores . . . and a gentle reminder to readers coming to Town during the holidays: many shows have expanded or altered performing schedules through January 1st. To find out about the weekly schedules for all shows, check out www.broadway.org.
To soak in all the atmosphere, antics and big-chorus production numbers of the ’30s that “Dames at Sea” cheerfully celebrates, here are three books that will let you peek behind those curtains. Start with the easy, breezy memoirs of P.G.Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, two writers whose names graced numerous Great White Way playbills, such as “Sally” and “Very Good Eddie.” It’s titled “Bring On The Girls! – The Improbable Story of Our Life in Musical Comedy, with Pictures to Prove It,” from the publisher Limelight . . . for the big, big, bigger chronicle, Stanley Green’s comprehensive “Broadway Musicals of the 30s,” a Da Capo large edition paperback, with an introduction by Brooks Atkinson, features dozens and dozens of production stills, rehearsal shots, posters, playbill covers and stories galore . . . and tracking the musicals that made their way West, the massive [but every page a treasure] Ted Sennett tome “Hollywood Musicals,” from Abrams Publishing, is hefty enough to replace rather than simply grace the coffee table. You’ll get lost in its pages, and come out singing . . . and to take a closer look at the plays of William Inge mentioned as great properties for Laurie Metcalf, pick up “William Inge – Four Plays,” a Grove Press collection. “Inge reveals the powerful mysteries in our lives.” That’s Tennessee Williams talking.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’ His play “Admissions” won the Best Play award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts. His play ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge. He has written about the performing arts in Parade, Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor an dozens of other publications. He currently teaches theatre sessions at the 92nd St. Y. His new play “Labor Days” is in pre-production.
CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk. Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com or 212 – 666 – 6666.