By: Alix Cohen
July 20, 2023: Wunderkind Charles Kirsch, whose smart theater interview podcasts now number over 150, brought the second iteration of his live show to 54Below Monday night. Kirsch, an enthusiastic, unintimidated host, garners a story from each guest, then steps back (he duets one song) as the artist sings something he/she originated. Shows include the familiar and obscure, some having not made it in, one currently being reconstructed.
The evening was fascinating, entertaining and something of a revelation. Many of these thespians haven’t been seen (at least in New York) for some time. Voices are vibrant, characterizations vivid. As usual, Michael Lavine adapted to/accompanied everyone with skill.
In keeping with Kirsch’s theme of nostalgia, the evening begins with Karen Mason performing “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” (Sunset Boulevard-Andrew Lloyd Webber/Don Black and Christopher Hampton) Mason auditioned for the role “innocently thinking I had a chance,” then acted as standby through three Norma Desmonds. “The first time I went on, I took 20 minutes off running time. When I came off stage, the stage manager said, ‘now breathe.’” As if she hears a silent click, the room disappears and Mason is suddenly Norma. “I’ve come hooooome (the note arcs) at last,” she sings evoking chills, epitomizing ambition, now driven by fear. Visual is silent film cinematic.
Kirsch likes to go spelunking through musical theater. Three songs are offered from the obscure Chu Chen (Mitch Leigh/Jim Haines and Jack Wohl), which apparently theorized the lost tribes of Israel were Chinese. One is performed by Tom Sesma who was in the revival. “It was really the last gasp of theater that doesn’t exist anymore, thank God, with White people in Yellow Face…but the collaborators went on to write Man of La Mancha.” “Love is an eager star that lingers/between the frozen fingers of the dawn…” he sings. Vocal comes from deep within the artist’s chest. One can feel it rise. Vibrato is tender.
Tom Sesma; Teri Ralston
From the original cast of Stephen Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife, Teri Ralston sings “Chanson.” She tells us the show had a plagued out of town tryout of eight months and never made it to Broadway. (A crying shame.) Called to consult, Gower Champion suggested the piece needed a different opening. (Effecting this change in On the Way to the Forummade all the difference.) “Give that girl a solo…” he’d said. “Thankfully I was that girl,” Ralston tells us, “though it didn’t save the show.” Vocal is warm, the performer, a storyteller, shares. Tremulous, then expansive, lyrics take us there and then.
Josie de Guzman
Josie de Guzman had very few rehearsals for the revival of Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls before being thrown in at the deep end. After 600 performances, came an evening when she blanked on the title “If I Had a Bell” and sang “cha-cha-cha-cha cha.” We see as much innocent delight this time around as she likely purveyed then.
Loni Ackerman and Charles KIrsch
So Long 174th Street (Stan Daniels) is the musicalization of Joseph Stein’s Enter laughing. Loni Ackerman was suffering claustrophobia being sawed in half in The Magic Show when she auditioned. “By the third callback I thought I had a chance, especially when Bobby Morse jumped on stage and ran around like a clown.” The waltzy “Being With You” arrives partially in counterpoint duet with Kirsch. “I wish it would go on and on/Until there are no more stars to wish upon…” It’s utterly charming.
Christine Andreas repeatedly turned down On Your Toes (Richard Rodgers/ Lorenz Hart) because it was another ingénue role and she was ready to play leads. When she went backstage at the show to see friend/mentor Dina Merrill, she was convinced to step in for someone not passing muster and then glad she did. “It’s Got to Be Love,” though not innocent, lands tickled. “Glad to Be Unhappy”, now with experience behind it, is sophisticated, jaded, just right. Oh, the control of that voice!
Stephen Skybell; Michelle McConnell
Stephen Skybell and Michelle McConnell perform “Being Me” from the incomplete score of The Great Ostrovsky (Cy Coleman/Avery Corman) about impresarios of Yiddish theater in New York. The show is now being finished by tonight’s guest MD/pianist Mark York and Corman. Skybell delivers heartrending characterization. McConnell adds confident soprano with latent tear. Just beautiful. Makes one want to hear/see the show.
Judy Kaye quips about the affecting successes and failures of musicals. One painful closing in her life was Oh, Brother! (Michael Valenti/Donald Driver) which lasted only three Broadway performances and six weeks at The Kennedy Center. “It was set in a country not unlike Iran going through a revolution – prime fodder for a musical comedy. I was in full burqa…the poster was fantastic.” From the minute Kaye hits the stage, she’s quick and funny. We all parrot the vamp to “A Loud and Funny Song.” “What do you sing when you’re feelin’ bad/Just been dumped, just been had…” Facial expression is priceless, timing pitch perfect. Even her “la, las” evoke laughter.
Lori Tan Chinn; Ken Jennings
Half Time (Matthew Sklar/Nell Benjamin) was about a group of seniors competing in a dance competition. Lori Tann Chin played an 80 year old. “The Waters Rose” is about her husband’s dementia. Wonderful song. And touching. Ken Jennings, the original Toby in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” also tells a story about forgetting lyrics – apparently unnoticed by his doting mother. ‘Utterly fragile.
The original Petra in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little NIght Music, D’Jamin Bartlett traveled with it on the Guber/Gross circuit. Her anecdote is also about forgetting lyrics. At one performance, a woman shouted, “She’sthe person who did it on Broadway!” When Bartlett replaced what she’d forgotten with sounds, the woman shouted, “And now she sings in Swedish!” Tonight’s rendition is powerful, from winking fantasy to the sweep and whoosh of trying to will it. Vocal blankets the room.
Like Kirsch, Jim Brochu had important theater mentors growing up. “They saw me as a link of their history to the next generation, and thisyoung man…” he says, referring to Kirsch, “Carries on the tradition.” Gracious and true. Brochu performs “The Butler’s Song” (So Long 174thStreet) wherein protagonist David Kolowitz imagines being the most sought after actor in 30s Hollywood. His butler puts off Greta Garbo because the master “is screwing Dolores del Rio and may not be disturbed till he’s through.” In fact, every popular actress in Tinsel Town is scheduled back to back. Brochu, with deft gesticulating and exaggerated pronunciation personifies the butler to a well honed T.
MD Pianist- Michael Lavine
A marvelous show.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Charles Kirsch Backstage Babble Live! II
Hosted by Charles Kirsch
Michael Lavine MD/Piano
Guest Pianist Mark York
NEXT: Backstage Babble III August 28, 2023
54Below 254 West 54th St.