REVIEWS: Face The Music
In the matter of old musicals, the downtown Musicals Tonight series is not a low-rent Encores!
Especially now that Encores! seems to be picking its entries for transfer to Broadway, as with the recent Carnival and Pajama Game.
Musicals Tonight emerges as a genuinely scholarly, though entertaining enterprise; producer Mel Miller is truly interested in where the musical came from, in what the elements of its growth were.
Take their current offering, 1932s Face the Music, with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and book by Moss Hart.
The clichéd, unfunny book revisits the theme of putting on a musical; this time, the show is funded by a corrupt cop. But frequently punctuating this tedium is Berlins glorious, kicky score.
The first song is "Lunching at the Automat," a Cole porter-ish survey of the formerly rich reduced to eating popular food; "Lets Have Another Cup of Coffee" sing Kit and Pat, the leads done by Nanne Puritz and Julian Dean. "Two Cheers Instead of Three" is a bitter choral look at the Depression, while Kit wonders "How Can I Change My Luck?"
A hooker (the droll Cynthis Collins) dreams she is a star in the saucy "Torch Song." The second bananas have a sharp "You Must Be Born With It" and a strangely modern-sounding "I Dont Want to Be Married."
There are inevitable moments of political incorrectness: Pat has a mock-Latin number, "On a Roof in Manhattan" and everybody goes up to Harlem to relax with the "Hottentots" in "When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down."
Its a sensational score, full of peppy, witty songs that have almost no contact with the inane plot, brought to life by director/choreographer Thomas Mills.
Mel Miller, who produces the series of musicals-in-concert at the East 14th Street Y called Musicals Tonight, has the faith of a child. Thats a compliment: Millers confidence in the healing, restorative powers of old-style musical comedy is absolute - and he does it all without orchestras, sets, costumes, or crampy Chinese chorus boys singing "Mammy" with supertitles. With one piano, a handful of rehearsals, eager young casts, and a frankly frowzy performing space just outside Alphabet City, he revives musicals that havent been seen in New York in decades (the most recent offering, Harold Romes Thats the Ticket!, never even made it to New York in its original incarnation). Never mind that the books are often silly and/or dated, the scores long forgotten, the original performers irreplaceable; just read the lines and sing the songs as written, Miller believes, and wonderful things will happen. And by God, hes often right.
Millers latest selection, Face the Music, was only a mild hit in 1932, a Moss Hart-Irving Berlin satire that got its thunder stolen by that seasons superior Of Thee I Sing. Hart had recently co-written Once In a Lifetime, but in this, his first big musical comedy, he hewed firmly to the double standard of the time: A straight play had to have three-dimensional characters and a plausible plot but a musical comedy libretto could squeak by on types, ludicrous situations, and gags. So we get a raft of Depression-era, one-liners on the order of "My stockbroker put me on a crash diet" and "I have a cousin in the stock exchange, but we never talk about it." Theres a story, too, of sorts: A down-on-his-luck Broadway producer gets the New York Police Department to back his girly revue, Rhinestones of 1932, promising that it will flop (sound familiar?) and thereby offer a place where all there graft money - the same kind of dough contained in the "little tin boxes" celebrated Fiorello! - can disappear. The show indeed flops but, when an investigation is ordered and the cops need to recover the cash, the producer turns it into a hit by smutting it up; as pointed out in one of Berlins felicitous couplets, "having girls in no apparel/ Is how Carol gets by." (Earl Carrolls Vanities revues were noted for their female nudity.)
So, Urinetown, its not. But, Of Thee I Sing not withstanding, 1932 audiences didnt go to musicals for ingenious statire; they wanted sumptuous productions, brilliant choreography, delightful performers, and great songs. Forgetting the sumptuousness (you wont find it here) and choreography (Thomas Mills dances are mostly limited to kicks and bead twirling), this vest-pocket Face the Music stacks up most satisfyingly. Berlins score, with cut songs restored, boasts two classics ("Soft Lights and Sweet Music" and "Lets Have Another Cup of Coffee") and much more thats lilting, clever, or otherwise intriguing. One real discovery is "Torch Song," a wicked send-up of Helen Morgan weepers, nicely delivered here by Cynthis Collins and ripe for rediscovery by enterprising cabaret singers. "Well of All the Rotten Shows", the Act II opener, has the audience dissing Rhinestones a la the opening number in The Producers; "The Drinking Song" is a boisterous toast to the Volstead Act; "My Beautiful Rhinestone Girl" thumbs its nose at the hoary, here-come-the-girls numbers like Berlins own "A Pretty Little Melody"; and "Manhattan Madness," though it has little to do with the plot, is a brilliant, Gershwinesque distillation of the clamor of the city. But Berlin saves the best for last: "Investigation," a 12-minute opera-comique finale that reprises and restates old themes, introduces new ones, wraps up the plot, and brings in a Threepenny Opera-style deus ex machina to usher in the happy ending. You didnt know he had it in him? Well, the old boy was full of surprises.
Musicals Tonight always comes through in presenting new talent, and I suggest you hurry down to East 14th Street to be knocked out by a young lady named Vanessa Lemonides. Playing "Pickles," the sarcastic half of a moth-eaten song-and-dance team, this dark soubrette with a Louise Brooks bob socks across her comedy lines, dances well, and, best of all, rings out a couple of second-rate Berlin numbers in a mesmerizing and truly weird contralto. (Its a voice quality similar to Helen Gallaghers, but even Gallagher didnt even have this much lung power. And let it be added, to avoid misunderstanding, that second-rate Berlin is equivalent to top-drawer work from just about anyone else.)
The rest of the cast members are capable or better, though the obligatory young lovers, played by Julian Dean and Nanne Puritz, sing smoothly but never look terribly interested in each other. Virginia Seidel, in the Mary Boland/Helen Broderick/ Alice Brady role of a dithering society lady, has a sweet presence and gets to warble a novelty number about a Swedish nudist colony. And Randall Frizado, the Max Bialystock of the piece, proves to have a belt as big as his considerable belt size.
That moldy Hart book does get in the way, and the vintage pop-culture references are many, so you might prepare to Face the Music by boning up on your 1930s history. The Seabury Hearings were a series of Tammany Hall trials, Jane Cowl a fabled stage actress, Julian Eltinge the grandma of all modern female impersonators, and Percy Hammond an unctuous New York theatre critic. Hart has fun taking swipes at these and other personages, and 1932 audiences must have giggled along; present-day theatergoers must settle for some fine songs, fresh faces, and the benevolent, sheerful, laugh-at-your-troubles attitude that once defined musical comedy. If thats not a fine recipe for a late spring evenings entertainment, I dont know what is.
Im sorry to report, however, that my reflections took up so much time that youve all missed dessert, a double pity because it would have confirmed, totally, the feelings weve been sharing here. Dessert, you see, was the first-ever revival of Moss Hart and Irving Berlins Face the Music one of the few successful musicals of the Depression, in a desperately patched-together but nothingless diverting concert staging by Musicals Tonight! Wed better ask if Mel Brooks ever saw this show, which has astounding resemblances to The Producers: Its still Hoovers presidency, you see, so New Yorks gripped by Depression and Prohibition. The only ones with money are crooked cops, who keep it in little tin boxes, for this is also the time of the Seabury Commissions investigation into corruption in our citys government. When the cops have to ditch their surplus cash, they give it to the notoriously lavish loser-producer named Weissman - sorry, Reisman - whom they expect to vanish it for them. Then, naturally, they need their bucks back - to save the city from the Crash, if you please - so they have to turn Reismans folly into a hit, by making it so lewd the anti-vice vigilantes get riled up. Amazing, how relevant it all sounds, and without an ounce of updating.
Though there was, to my regret, some tinkering. Harts book was left to revel in its loose ends and ancient topical jokes (there was even a Julian Eltinge joke), but Berlins score had two film songs of the same era graffed onto it. Thats hardly painful - theres no such thing as too much Irving Berlin - but Face the Musics largely inknown score, which features long "sung-through" numbers, is brilliant enough to deserve close scrutiny without retouching. Its climax, a cartoon trial scene with weird parallels to both Wills Mahagonny and the later Weill-Hart Lady in the Dark, dramatizes whats missing in the sustained sequences of todays musical dramas: wit. Only Sondheim, whose humor is far darker than Berlins, comes anywhere near his comic flair. The young, raw-ish cast of Thomas Mills production didnt come too close to Berlins style, either, but a few of them, notably Vanessa Lemonides and Patrick Boyd as a feisty dance team, had more than youth and brashness to offer.
The Moss Hart/Irving Berlin musical Face the Music, opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on February 17th, 1932 and hasnt had another New York run until Musicals Tonight finally corrected the oversight. Harts book is dated badly, with its topical references to Mayor Jimmy Walker, the Seabury Commission, and the Great Depression. Berlins score, however, proved to be a delightful one, with many syncopated and lilting treasures. Ironically, many of the ideas in this show surfaced later in musicals like Fiorello!, Follies, and The Producers.
Although the original production wowed its audiences with lavish sets and costumes, Stan Pearlmans scenic design was limited to some title cards and chairs. Despite this, director Thomas Mills kept the production fast-paced, and along with musical arranger Mark Hartman, made the most of the scores musical possibilities. This production also restored four cut songs: "Two Cheers Instead of Three," "How Can I Change My Luck?", "The Police of New York," and "The Nudist Colony."
The zany plot concerns the attempt by a broke Broadway producer to get some crooked police to invest their ill-gotten gains in a flop of a show before they are investigated. When the citys financial plights dictates that the show make money, Rhinestones of 1932 is dirtied up to become a smash hit.
Nanne Puritzs Broadway star, Kit, and her boyfriend, Pat (Julian Dean), sang lovely duets of "Lets Have Another Cup of Coffee," "Soft Lights and Sweet Music," and "I Say Its Spinach." Patrick Boyd and Vanessa Lemonides provided the low comedy in such numbers as "You Must Be Born With It" and "I Dont Want to Be Married." In dramatic roles, Virginia Seidel was most amusing as the malaprop Mrs. Meshbesher, and David Beris was suitably blustery as her husband, the chief of police.
If you love old-fashioned musicals, or if you love old-time New York, race right down and Face the Music. This rarely revived chestnut is being presented in a concert-reading by the folks at Musicals Tonight, and the results are positively upbeat.
The backstage musical, from the prolific composer/lyricist Irving Berlin and the equally productive playwright Moss Hart, opened on Broadway in 1932 and ran for 165 performances. It was an optimistic antidote to the Great Depression, and lightheartedly looked at how the upscale Manhattanites and theatre artists tried to cope during those financial hard times.
The precursor to The Producers, the show is basically about a Broadway producer who is deliberately trying to put on a flop. Nobody is investing in the wake of the depressing Depression, so theatre maven Hal Reisman (Randall Frizado) and stunning starlet Kit Baker (Nanne Puritz) turn to the only group they know who has money - crooked cops. Along with Kits boyfriend Pat (Alan Gillespie, valiantly substituting at the last minute for Julian Dean), they convince a groupe of bribe-taking policemen to launder their dirty money by backing a show. The production is Rhinestones of 1932, and its appropriately bad. When the cops need their money back, the only way to salvage the show is to dirty it up with risqué numbers - turning the musical into a hit. Unfortunately, the Vice Commission doesnt think so.
The creative team of director/choreographer Thomas Mills, music director/vocal arranger Mark Hartman, and additional choreographers Vanessa Lemonides and Patrick Boyd have done wonders with the dated material, making it sound fresh and funny again (it didnt hurt that many of the members of the audience were around back in the 1930s). The show is long, but some of the extra songs cut from the original - particularly "The Police of New York" - were worth the added running time.
The cast was accomplished both as actors and singers. Frizado was ready to take on the Nathan Lane role in The Producers after his bravado performance here. Puritz was a delectable delight, and Gillespie held his own in the unfamiliar role. Other standouts included David Beris as an indelibly impossible policeman, Cynthia Collins as a hilarious torch singer, Lemonides and Boyd as a diehard dancing duo, and especially Virginia Seidel, who portrayed the wide-eyed wealthy wife with such an underplayed comic subtlety and timing that she stole every scene she was in.
The rest of the ensemble showed multiple talents in support, and included Larry Brustofski, Mora Edie, Judy Fitzgerald, Tiffany Hampton, Barry James, David Macaluso, T.J. Mannix, Tory Ross, and Stephen Stubbins.
This is a bare-bones production, so sets by Stan Pearlman and costumes from the TDF Costume Collection were simply suggested. Shih-hui Wu was responsible for the minimal lighting requirements.