Regular readers will recall that I occasionally attend "straight" plays. (I prefer to call them "non-musicals.) My attendance at these belting-deprived affairs is usually contingent on the presence of some intriguing crossover from the world of musicals. Some of the actors perhaps, or members of the creative staff, might be slumming in between musical gigs.
The recently-ended season presented a fairly decent stock plays with musical-theater resonance. In preparation for the Tony Awards this evening, I'll be engaging in a little desk-clearing with this post, hoping to bring you up to speed on some of the "legitimate" offerings from the spring. (Musicals, as you know, are illegitimate, spawned disgracefully out of the holy bonds of wedlock)
Truth be told, I actually enjoy non-musicals a great deal. I try to focus my trips to New York City on seeing as many of the Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals as I can, but there's often time to add a play here or a dance performance there.
But don't worry, dear reader: my heart remains where it likely will always remain, firmly ensconced in the thoracic cavity of musical theater. (How's that for an overly specific metaphor?)
Casa Valentina has quite few ties with the musical-theater world, starting with author Harvey Fierstein, presenting his first non-musical in more than 20 years. Also present are director Joe Mantello, and a cast that features Patrick Page and John Cullum, certainly no strangers to the musical stage. The play concerns one weekend at a country getaway for heterosexual men who nonetheless like to dress in female clothing. Secrets and shame lurk behind every bush, as it were, and we eventually learn that the titular Casa Valentina is just shy of foreclosure, and desperately needs to form a seemingly unholy alliance just to stay afloat. As is typical in Fierstein's recent work, things get preachy as all hell, and there's a lot of expository speechifying. Nonetheless, Fierstein creates some vivid characterizations and crafts a setup that wrings compelling drama from the scenario. But then, at the end, he drops the ball with a denouement that is both forced and inscrutable. The show is worth seeing mainly because of two standout performances in the otherwise ensemble cast: Mare Winningham as the seemingly understanding wife of one of the men, and genial hostess for the weekend. Winningham really shows her stripes toward the end as the fabric of their little dreamworld begins to unravel. Tony nominee Reed Birney crafts a searing performance as the honored guest who knows everybody's secrets and is not above using them to her advantage.
The women who received Tony nods for Best Actress in a Musical this year can thank the fact that Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is technically a play, not a musical, although it does contain a full complement of Billie Holiday classics. Otherwise, Audra would have picked up her sixth Tony Award in a category with mostly strong competition this season. (Mary Bridget Davies? Puh-Leez.) It almost isn't fair how stunning Audra is onstage, and how versatile she is. So far, her Tonys are in three categories: Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Best actress in a Musical, and Best featured Actress in a Play. If she wins tonight, as I think and hope she will, she will have won in all four acting categories. (Perhaps then, we should take a tip from sports and retire her number, as it were.) Audra crafts a flawless rendition of Billie Holliday, but unlike Davies with her Janis Joplin impersonation, delves deeply into the character to show us her state of mind and spiral downward. The play takes place just months before Holliday's death, and Billie has seen better days. So we see her right before the end, and yet unlike End of the Rainbow, which dredged up a squalid and pathetic Judy Garland, Lady Day allows Holliday her last shreds of dignity.
I had heard mixed reactions going into Act One. Tedious and bloated, some said. Overly long and flat, said others. I, however, was thoroughly charmed, even captivated by author/director James Lapine's loving tribute to Moss Hart, based on Hart's own Act One, considered by many (myself included) to be the finest theatrical memoir ever written. The book and the play concern Hart's early rise into the world of show business, focusing primarily on his impoverished childhood, desperate need to work in the theater, and big break landing George S. Kaufman as a collaborating on his first big hit, Once in a Lifetime. Along the way we meet many colorful characters (many of them played by the always delicious Andrea Martin). I was predisposed to falling in love with these people, partly because I'm such a fan of the book, but also because I consider Moss Hart to be one of the unsung founders of musical theater. Sure, we hear about his Kaufman collaborations, but Hart was also instrumental in bringing greater cohesion, ambition, and social conscience to the American musical, including the shows he wrote himself (Lady in the Dark, As Thousands Cheer, Face the Music) as well as the ones he directed (My Fair Lady, Camelot). Central to making Act One the joy that it is are the two central performers, Santino Fontana as Hart as a young adult (three actors play Hart at various ages) and Tony Shalhoub, who plays Kaufman, among others. These remarkably appealing performers create the emotional center of the production, and Shalhoub is a riot when wrapping his teeth around Kaufman's legendary and infuriating mannerisms.