My Week with Gemze de Lappe

by Chuck Pennington III

Gemze de Lappe & James Mitchell dance to “Another Autumn” from Paint Your Wagon in this excerpt from “The Gold Rush” broadcast (1958):


“Who are you? What do you want?”

I stumbled over my words as Gemze’s stern directness over the phone took me by surprise. It was immediately clear to me the she tolerated no nonsense or even soft introductions.

“I’m calling because I’m friends with an old co-star of yours from Paint Your…”

“Who? A name.”

“John Schmidt. He was in the chorus and was an assistant stage manager during the Broadway run. Do you remember him?”

A deep sigh.

“I’ve worked with so many people over so, so many years. I can’t… The name doesn’t… Well, it’s possible.” Gemze seemed to be searching for words. I let her lead as it seemed the wisest course of action.

“What’s this all about?”

“Well, I’m working on a project about John’s life, and I was looking to speak with people he performed with on Broadway. He was a champion pole vaulter at Ohio State University before moving to New York for a career on Broadway, and…”

“Oh, he was, was he?” Gemze cut in. “He’s still alive?”

“Yes, he turned ninety-five earlier this year. I believe you two are the same age?” I phrased it as a question as I wasn’t sure my information was correct.

“Yesssss….” Gemze slowly purred, and I felt like she was rolling her eyes on the other end of the line, as if thinking sarcastically, Thanks ever so much for reminding me.

“Do you remember Winkie?” I asked. Winkie was the other reason I was calling. While going through scrapbooks, John pointed out a photo of dancer Virginia Bosler (as she was credited) and asked about “Winkie”, which was her nickname. He was in Brigadoon (1947-1949) and Out of This World (1950-1951) with her on Broadway, but they lost contact more than sixty years before. I could find no information about her beyond the ’50s (we didn’t know her married name), but an acquaintance suggested that I contact Gemze de Lappe, one of choreographer Agnes de Mille’s dancers. Agnes choreographed Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon and directed Out of This World; John was in all three. I was told that Gemze was the go-to person for recreating Agnes’ work and had been staging Oklahoma!, Carousel, Brigadoon, and Paint Your Wagon for various theatre companies for decades. He said that Gemze knew all the de Mille dancers and would be the person to ask about Winkie. It just so happened that Gemze also worked with John in Paint Your Wagon.

“Winkie Bosler?” Her voice perked up. “Of course, I remember Winkie. She’s a beautiful dancer.”

“Would you know how to get in contact with her?”

“Well, I… uh…” She was searching again. “Look, I’m not so good on the phone. Where are you?”

“I’m in Columbus, Ohio.”

“Well, when will you be here, in the city?”

“In a few weeks, yes, I’ll be there in April…”

“Well, come over then. Just call me the day before to remind me. You have my address?”

“Yes, the same guy who gave me your number…”

“Yes, yes, fine. We’ll talk when you’re in town.”

Click.

Gemze de Lappe as Dream Laurey in Oklahoma! (circa 1947)

Shortly after that awkward first call to Gemze, I located Winkie. Virginia Doris, her proper married name, was now ninety years old, a widow for nine years, and living a quiet retirement in Maine. I had started to form a phone relationship with Winkie before I arrived in New York on Tuesday, April 25, 2017. I was going to be in town until the following Monday morning and planned to visit Gemze that first afternoon after my morning flight. We had a long conversation the day before my flight to confirm my plan to visit her the following day. Gemze was very interested in hearing about Winkie and took down her address and phone number. Although she said she wasn’t so good over the phone, I thought Gemze came across extremely well save for when she would frequently pause for a few moments while searching for words.

“You see, I had a stroke a few years ago. Since then, I can’t always come up with the words as quickly as I’d like,” Gemze explained.

“You sound perfectly fine to me.”

“Oh, but you didn’t hear me before!” She laughed. “I was quick! I could bring up the names… And now, I know what I want to say, but I can’t… I have to work at it, to get it out so that it’s right. That’s why I have trouble on this thing,” she said, referring to the phone.

“Is it alright if I stop by tomorrow?”

“What day is that?”

“The 25th.”

“No, no, no, the day of the week.”

“It’s Tuesday.”

“Uh, yes, that should be fine. When… What time does your flight… What time will you be in the city?”

“Oh, by 9am, though I’ll probably want to…”

“Where are you staying?”

“Midtown. 9th Avenue and West 49th, at a friend’s apartment.”

“Good. Just take the 1 uptown to 96th. I’m just a few blocks away. Whenever is fine. Just call beforehand. I’ll be here, probably.”

Click.

Gemze de Lappe headshot (circa 1951)

A brighter person would have at least Googled Gemze de Lappe before meeting her. All I did was ask John about her.

“I think she was one of the showgirls in Paint Your Wagon,” he started, closing his eyes to think back. “I didn’t have much to do with her except for making sure she was on stage when she was supposed to be. I remember one time when she and Agnes went back and forth on some turn, something she wasn’t doing just right, but that’s about it,” he said.

I had only seen a few photos from the original 1951 production of Paint Your Wagon, and none of them showed Gemze. I imagined her as one of the girls brought to town to work at the brothel in the show, nothing more. Probably one of a dozen interchangeable girls, I thought to myself.

After depositing my bags at my friend’s apartment and grabbing some brunch, I made my way up to Gemze’s apartment building on West Ninety-Second. The doorman had me wait in the lobby, all black and white tile with a large circular staircase, while he phoned her. She never picked up. “She don’t hear so good,” he said and shrugged. Then he waved me up.

I rode the rickety elevator up to the seventh floor and knocked on her door, even though I saw that it was slightly ajar. It didn’t take long for her to appear. She was quite petite with curled blonde hair, a green turtleneck, and a cream and black knitted sweater. A large round medallion hung from a gold chain around her neck.

Before I could introduce myself, she started.

“I opened the door a bit when you called because I don’t always hear people knock,” she said, waving me in while I made my formal introduction and shook her hand. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, leading me past a table with some scattered mail and a letter opener, down a hallway that opened to several large rooms to the left. The ceilings were much higher than those in any other New York apartment that I’d been in, and I assumed she must have lived in the apartment for quite some time.

Painting of Gemze

“Is this you?” I asked as we passed a large painting on the right just outside her sitting room. The woman in the painting had a steely gaze, sharp cheekbones, and strawberry-blonde tufts of hair.

“A friend painted that,” she pointed out. “I’m not sure it really looks like me though, but… it’s nice. Look, come sit in here,” she said as she gestured over to a small couch in front of a low coffee table littered with black and white glossies. “I’ve got some photos and things to show you. You want anything to drink or whatever?”

“Oh, no, I’m good. I hope you didn’t go to any trouble.”

“No,” was all she said as she sat next to me, picked up a stack of folders, and began pulling out images from all kinds of productions.

“Now, what’s your friend’s name again?” I told her and she shook her head. “Doesn’t mean anything to me. It was a long time ago.” I pulled out photos of John from his pole vaulting days at OSU and from Brigadoon. “Hmm, maybe,” she said, perusing the images one by one.

“Of course,” I said, “he had a beard in Paint Your Wagon.”

“They all did!” she exclaimed then laughed. “See, I’m right here,” she said, pointing to a striking brunette with hair pulled back in a dotted dress surrounded by other dancers and bearded men. She pulled out a few more photos, several with her and a man dancing all alone. It quickly became apparent that Gemze’s role in Paint Your Wagon was far more significant than I had guessed.

“That was Jimmy… James Mitchell,” Gemze said, pointing out the handsome man in the photos. I recognized him from the photos I’d seen of Brigadoon as well as his appearance as Dream Curly in the film of Oklahoma!

Another photo was a slightly out-of-focus image of Gemze wearing a wide hat and sash, standing outside a stagecoach with a line of men gaping at her. I noticed that one of the men had John’s profile.

“I think this is John,” I said, pointing him out to her. She held the photo close to her face.

“Hmm, okay, I see… It was quite a while back, you know, but I vaguely remember something,” she said before sighing. “I’m just not sure.”

Gemze de Lappe [left] and John V. Schmidt [second from the right] (Paint Your Wagon – 1951)
Gemze proceeded to tell me about her career as she showed me photos featuring her and Richard Rodgers (“He liked me, but there was no funny business! He was known for that, but not with me!”), Vivien Leigh (“I was performing in Oklahoma! in London when she and Larry invited me over for tea. She was either in a play or film at the time of Anna Karenina. They were nice.”), Michael Kidd (“He was in London with Finian’s Rainbow and was helpful to me when I had to cast dancers in Oklahoma! Very nice, sweet man.”), and a group of Japanese women in early 1900s costumes (“I taught them Oklahoma! They were so excited, really appreciative. All-female company. They seem to crave our musical theatre over there.”).

I didn’t learn anything about John, but Gemze went into detail about her life as a dancer; studying with Irma Duncan, one of Isadora Duncan’s adopted daughters, while she was still in grade school; summers dancing for Michael Fokine as a teenager; and her long association with Agnes de Mille. She also spoke about her parents and older sister, how she was born in Virginia, lived in Baltimore, and then settled with her family in New York at around the time she was in second grade. It was terribly interesting to just let her talk, though she didn’t dwell on any topic for long. Her work with Agnes began in the fall of 1943 when Gemze was cast in the road company of Oklahoma!, which stayed in Chicago for a year. After touring with the show, she moved on to perform in the Broadway company and then to the London premiere of the show in 1947. I asked a few questions here and there, usually ones that received only a quick matter-of-fact reply. I began to see the wide span and scope of her career and began to feel a bit naive for not having prepared myself.

After her long tenure with Oklahoma!, Gemze originated the roles of King Simon of Legree in The King and I (also playing it in the 1956 film, but wearing a mask the whole time) and Yvonne in Paint Your Wagon, both on Broadway in 1951. Agnes built the choreography onto Gemze for her role as the dance hall girl who falls in love with a gold miner, played by James Mitchell. The dances between Gemze and James portrayed their meeting, courtship, and ultimately their separation, all silently through dance. Their story was the dramatic counterpoint to the main plot of the show. I was familiar with the film adaptation of Paint Your Wagon, but de Mille’s choreography was not included in it and the story was completely rewritten; it is a different animal from the stage original.

Gemze spoke of recreating Agnes’ choreography at regional theaters across the country and how people often think they can improve on it. She said that what some directors and choreographers fail to realize was that Agnes was involved in crafting the shows when they premiered, her stylized movement designed to convey important aspects of the story through dance. Her work was intrinsic to the storytelling – the music, the lyrics, the book, and the dancing.

Gemze de Lappe (left) and Agnes de Mille (right) on tour with The Agnes De Mille Dance Theatre (1953-1954)

“Now there is just a lot of showing off,” Gemze said about the current use of dance on Broadway, adding that, “They just do a lot of gymnastics, and quickly, but it’s empty. There must be a reason behind all of it. Agnes gave us that reason. She had us act our parts, even though we had no lines. Our gestures represented all kinds of different things. If the audience didn’t know what each move meant, it didn’t matter; the fact that it meant something to Agnes would come across.”

The phone rang in the middle of our afternoon talk. Gemze excused herself, walked over to her land line phone, and I listened to her side of the conversation. It reminded me of when I first called and she was startlingly direct in her tone.

“Hello? Hello? Who are you?” Pause. “Well, what’s that got to do with us? What do you want?” A long pause. “I’m not. Thank you.” I heard the soft, crisp clang of the receiver dropping into position as Gemze chuckled to herself and then walked back into the room.

“I get very angry with people when the first thing they say is, ‘How are you today?'” she said with a solicitous smile. The smile vanished and she held up a finger. “I never answer them. I never give them the sat… That’s why I said, ‘What do you want with me?’ You can get these calls from anywhere asking for money.” She laughed again. I offered to put her on the Do Not Call registry, and she said she’d welcome it.

I checked my phone and saw that I would need to leave soon to meet my friend for dinner and then get to our 7pm performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I thought about the rest of the week and how I’d be attending most of the other shows alone. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose by asking Gemze if she wanted to join me for any, though I made it very clear that she shouldn’t feel obligated at all.

“Oh, I’d love to go!” she exclaimed, and I was shocked. I had grown so accustomed to the many ways people have of saying no that I hadn’t quite prepared myself for a yes.

“Well, do you have any shows that you’d like to see?”

“Oh, any of them.” She must have noticed my eyes open wider in excitement at the possibility as she quickly added, “But just one a day. I can do a matinee or an evening, but just one or the other.” She went to get her planner to check her schedule when the phone rang again. She answered and the change in her tone let me in on the fact that she recognized the caller’s voice. When she returned she said that Friday evening was out as a friend had just called and invited her to the ballet.

“It’s either nothing or a lot at once, you know,” she said, and then shrugged. I told her I’d better map out plans with her before her dance card was full. She really laughed at that, but then turned serious. She said it was very important for her to be around people and have that interaction to keep her speech up. She said that after her stroke a few years prior she didn’t know anything was wrong until a friend came over and she began to talk to him. In her head she thought she was making sense, but all that came out was slurred gibberish. Her friend immediately took her to the hospital. She said that, with the help of her son Peter doing various speech therapy exercises with her, she learned to speak clearly again, but she sometimes still struggled to find the right words.

“If I go too long without talking or whatever, it’s like I start to lose some of it, regress a bit. Talking over the phone doesn’t help; it needs to be that back and forth in person to keep everything going.” She went on to explain the torment of being completely fine mentally but having people talk around her as if she didn’t understand or was somehow deficient.

We planned to see the musical Groundhog Day the next night, Present Laughter with Kevin Kline that Saturday night, and then play things by ear on Sunday afternoon. I knew I could score discounted tickets and she was all for it, lamenting the high cost of Broadway.

“I have only seen one show recently, and I just hated it. I don’t want to see it again. Ham… It’s difficult to see, but I thought it was just loud. The dancing didn’t mean anything. I don’t want to see Ham…” Gemze mumbled and it sounded like she said ham sandwich. I imagined a plot about a deli and the rising cost of commercial real estate in the city.

“What in the world…” I searched my mental list of currently running shows. “Do you mean Hamilton?”

“Yes, that’s it! Hamilton. I didn’t like it at all! I’d be glad to see anything but that.”

I openly laughed. “Well, there’s no way I could get us tickets to that! I saw it last year anyway.”

“Well, what did you think?”

“I liked it a lot, but it isn’t for everyone. The music has reached a different generation, and if it helps bring more people into the theatre, then I’m all for it.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Gemze sighed, adding, “It just isn’t for people like me.”

Gemze de Lappe and Chuck Pennington III (April 25, 2017)

The next day began with luck. I won the online ticket lottery for a deeply discounted ticket to see Glenn Close in Sunset Blvd. at the 2pm matinee. By 5pm, I was headed uptown so we would have plenty of time to talk, have dinner, and get to the show at 8pm. I met Gemze at her apartment (her door was ajar again) and was delighted to find that another pile of photos and programs were waiting on her coffee table for us to go through.

“There may be some things of interest there,” she said as she waved a hand over towards the collection of prints and folders. “I keep a lot back here though,” she continued as I followed behind her like a puppy dog. Gemze walked through her kitchen on the right and stopped at a room just past it with shelves packed with files, boxes, and tapes. This little room seemed to serve as not only her archive but also as a place where cans of food and plastic bags were stored. I spotted slides, two open boxes of custom-made DVDs, quite a few VHS tapes – most labeled, some not – some audio tapes, and a great many tan folders full of what appeared to be notes, photographs, news articles and the like.

“Wow,” escaped from my lips before I could stop it. Gemze giggled.

“Yes, it’s a lot. I need to put things… I know where things…” Gemze was pausing again.

“Well, it would be incredible to go through and organize all of this,” I chimed in. She nodded and then shrugged. “Do you mind if I look through some of it?”

“Sure, whatever,” she said, leaving me behind as she left the room. I gathered up some discs and tapes that seemed promising and then brought them into her sitting room, where she was already seated.

“Maybe we can look at some of these later,” I said, a bit embarrassed that I had grabbed such a large pile of media. Some discs had Post-Its attached to their cases with notes like “good picture – bad sound” or “rough at beginning,” and others weren’t labeled at all.

“I use some of those for when I have to speak somewhere or need to see something,” Gemze said, adding that quite a lot was video of rehearsals as well as performance footage of herself and of productions she staged. There were also incongruous items such as JFK’s inauguration and a 1960s TV special about George Gershwin thrown into the mix. “People give me things all the time,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s for work, and sometimes it’s because they think I might be interested.”

We spent the next hour talking about Agnes de Mille, musicals of the past, and misconceptions about age. I didn’t get a chance to look through the new treasures she found or sample any of the videos at that time.

“I’m a dancer, and we stick around a long time,” Gemze reasoned when I asked if people treated her differently because of her age. “I know people in their hundreds and they are just fine. Aside from the stroke, I’m really pretty good. I still do barre work, not as often as I should – but I do.”

“It seems like show people are made of a different kind of stock than the rest of us,” I added, mentioning how John still drove and lived alone without any help. Gemze seemed impressed by that and added that it was the theatrical training of their generation that made the difference.

I told her that I was annoyed when people would speak to seniors as if they were children in a loud, slow, sing-song way.

“Oh, it’s the worst,” Gemze said and sighed. “But I have some friends who have started to act like what people expect them to act like because of their age. I was out with a friend, who is just around my age, and lately – whenever we pass a stroller or a dog – she starts to coo and babble. I say, ‘Why are you acting like that? Snap out of it.'” We both laughed at that remark. I couldn’t imagine no-nonsense Gemze putting up with any of that.

As I knew nothing of the neighborhood, I relied on Gemze to pick the place where we would eat. For this night, she chose Gennaro, just a few blocks away on Amsterdam. “It’s good, and they don’t overcharge,” she added after confirming that I was okay with Italian food as we entered the elevator.

“Gennaro,” I repeated, “like Peter Gennaro, the choreographer?” I knew the name from hearing Judy Garland announce The Peter Gennaro Dancers on episodes of her variety show. I thought maybe she’d be surprised that I would know of him due to my otherwise limited knowledge of dance, but all she did was nod and then exited the elevator. Gemze waved at the lobby attendant without stopping and only slowed when she came to the steps that would lead out of the building. Once we were outside, she pointed in the direction where we were going and then stuck out her hand.

“Now, I’m slow, but I’m strong,” she said. “I don’t need any help, but just hold my hand to keep me steady.”

Gemze de Lappe (circa 1944)

“We’ll need a cab,” Gemze declared when I suggested we take the subway. I lost track of time back at her apartment and then at dinner, so I knew that we had better get downtown quickly to be nice and settled before the show.

Our cab was an SUV with a sliding door. I opened the door and, figuring that she might need some help getting in, said, “Ladies first.” Gemze pointed for me to get in. I gestured back at her to enter. She pointed again and grunted. I obeyed and climbed in.

As I slid over to make room for Gemze, I saw her lift one leg up into the car, grab hold of one of those straps along the roof, and, with a swift turn and no sign of exertion, leap inside and pull the door closed. I was speechless. She was unfazed.

“Where is the show again?” she asked. I told her that it was at the Virginia Theatre on West 52nd. She looked out the window to see in what direction the driver was headed. “If he knew what he was doing, he’d take us down 9th Avenue,” she said loudly enough for him to hear.


While waiting for Groundhog Day to begin, I filled Gemze in on Andy Karl, the star of the show; how he’d just won an Olivier Award for his performance in the London production, injured his knee during Broadway previews, necessitating the cancellation of some performances, how he had pushed through to perform on opening night, and how he was now alternating performances with an understudy while healing. She seemed very interested in the background.

“Who are we seeing?”

“Well, Andy is scheduled for tonight, but he didn’t do the matinee.” Gemze gave a grunt of recognition. Just before the show started, one of the ushers passed us. He quickly turned back around and asked if we’d like to move down to seats closer to the stage. We were already in good seats, I thought, at the rear of the orchestra on the left.

“I know that we have a few seats closer on this side that are free,” the usher said and smiled. It must be Gemze, I thought to myself. She looked like someone important, and I’m sure I looked like an odd escort for her.

“I’ve never had this happen,” I whispered to Gemze after we were re-seated. “Usually I sneak down to a closer seat once I spot one free.”

“Yes, very good of him,” Gemze agreed. I asked if I could take a photo of us and had my phone up on selfie mode before she could protest. I think she liked that she could see herself on the screen of my phone to judge the angle before I snapped. She smiled, and I gave a goofy grin and caught it. The same kind usher smiled at us, and I leaned in to whisper to Gemze.

“Can I tell him who you are?” Gemze shot me a look like I had just asked her if she’d like to hear me fart the national anthem.

“No….” she quietly hissed as the orchestra began to play.

Gemze de Lappe & Chuck Pennington III at the Virginia Theatre (April 26, 2017)

Andy Karl was indeed in the show that night, and he was terrific; acerbic and swift, wry and jocular – his character slowly learning to be more honest and sincere as he kept reliving the same day over and over.

“See the brace?” I asked Gemze on the first occasion that we saw Andy putting on his dress pants upon getting out of bed, the first of many times he would be in t-shirt and boxers in the show. The brace appeared to be one of those spandex-like types, and was white with his left knee poking out. She gave a slight murmur of agreement. At intermission we remained seated and talked.

“Did you ever have any injuries as a dancer?”

“No, I was fortunate that I was never dropped, but most people twist something or other now and then. I find properly warming up helps to prevent that.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, pointing at the scrim displaying a projection of dozens of clocks in varying sizes and shapes, all showing different times.

“It’s because it doesn’t matter,” Gemze explained. “He goes through things again and again so that time no longer means anything. Whether they are all different or the same, it no longer matters.”

No sooner had she finished her sentence than the clocks became animated and all switched to the same time, 6am. The point was clear. I turned to Gemze and she gave a slight grin, as if to say, See? I told you.

Gemze de Lappe (right) in Paint Your Wagon (1951)

After the show, I asked Gemze if she would mind if I waited at the stage door to see Andy Karl and maybe get a photo or autograph.

“No, go ahead. I’m going home.” The guilt hit me quickly.

“Do you want me to go with you? It’s alright. I can come back another time.”

“No,” she assured me, already walking down the block like a steadfast soldier. “The bus stops right up here. I’ll be fine. Good show. Talk to you tomorrow.” She waved without looking back. I was worried whether she’d be okay, but then I thought that after spending most of her life in the city, Gemze knew precisely what she was doing and needed no coddling.

Gemze de Lappe and James Mitchell in a publicity still for “The Gold Rush” broadcast (1958)

I heaved a sigh of relief when Gemze answered her phone the next morning. “Ah, so you got home okay?”

“Of course,” she replied, as if there existed no possible reason why she wouldn’t have made the trip just fine.

After we had conversed for a bit, I asked if I could stop by that afternoon to view some of the videos in her collection. I was on my way to view some material at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and would just be a few subway stops away.

“Eh, fine, whenever,” was her response, noting that she would be done with lunch by 1pm.

I arrived closer to 2pm at Gemze’s building, and the doorman, having recognized me from the previous two days, just waved me on. I felt like I was now on some special list or something – Gemze approved, I thought to myself.

“What are you doing tonight?” she asked.

“My friend Michael and I are going to a concert of Babes in Toyland at Carnegie Hall. Kelli O’Hara is in it.”

“Good, good,” she said, then asked what was next on the agenda. I reminded her that she was going to the ballet the next night with a friend and that we were going to a show Saturday night. She nodded in agreement, and I told her we could plan on dinner somewhere before the show.

“Leave that to me,” Gemze asserted and then laughed to herself.

Gemze de Lappe and Richard Rodgers (circa 1957)

“What about you?” Gemze asked after our dinner was served at City Diner, which seemed to be one of her regular haunts from the way our waitress and the rest of the staff greeted our entrance. It was Saturday night.

“What about me?” I asked, stupefied that she could possibly care. We had discussed her parents, how they met, and the acrimony between her and her older sister that prevented Gemze from visiting the hospital on the night that their father died. She had mentioned her two sons and pointed out framed black and white photos of them that were on the wall in her bedroom. She had said her husband was a musician but had “never made enough money,” whatever that meant. We had viewed many videos of her dancing and talked about her work. I had nothing to offer in comparison.

“Well,” she said, “I know you like theatre, that you’re working on this project, and that you’re from Columbus. Do you have any people?”

“Don’t remind me,” I groaned. She laughed and then started to eat her dinner as I elaborated. I told her that I was the middle child of three boys, and that I was estranged from both brothers for nearly twenty years. Unlike most people who react with a pitying “such a shame” to that news, Gemze seemed to understand and didn’t ask me to elaborate. I told her that my older brother was from my mother’s first marriage.

“How many times has she been married?”

“Eight.”

“Eight! How does that happen, I wonder,” Gemze said as she took a bite of her meal.

“My guess is it started with someone asking her,” I said offhandedly.

It must’ve tickled Gemze as she started to choke and laugh at the same time. She covered her mouth with her napkin and looked away from me.

“Are you okay?” I asked, my voice full of panic as she continued to cough. This is it, I thought to myself. Now I’ll be known as the person who caused Gemze de Lappe to choke to death.

I started to get up to approach her. I was prepared to do the Heimlich maneuver, but Gemze shot me a look and held up a flat palm to me, as if to say, I’ve got this, kid. With a few more coughs and clearings of the throat, she regained composure.

“See? I’m fine,” she assured me. “Just went down the wrong side is all.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to be funny. It just is funny, not so much ha-ha as peculiar. One guy she married three times. THREE TIMES.”

Gemze held out a hand horizontally at eye-level and then slowly lowered it, as if instructing me to lower my volume without saying a word. Her blue eyes were fixed on mine, and I followed her silent command.

“I’m sorry, I tend to sometimes get loud when taking about my family,” I explained, though Gemze had already returned to her dinner as if nothing had happened.

Agnes de Mille (left) and Gemze de Lappe (right) on tour with The Agnes De Mille Dance Theatre (1953-1954)

We took the bus to the theatre, Gemze’s preferred mode of travel outside of a cab. She said she no longer took the subway because of how fast people moved around her on the stairs. We had three-quarters of an hour before the 8pm curtain, so I figured there was plenty of time. I hadn’t been on the bus in many years; it was nice but extremely slow. We made it to the corner of West 44th just five minutes before the hour.

“What theatre is it at?” Gemze asked as she clasped her right hand in my left and we walked along the sidewalk.

“The St. James.”

“Ah, my old stomping ground,” she said. That made me realize how she must have performed there in the original productions of Oklahoma! and The King and I so many decades ago. I was speechless, or at least I was until tried making a little small talk as we walked slowly towards the theatre.

“You know, you’ve lived in this city through so many phases… ,” I began. “I hear it was so much cleaner and classier in the forties and fifties, and then how it was so dirty and dangerous in the seventies and eighties. I’ve only ever known it to be safe and bright like it is today. When was the time you thought the city was at its worst?”

“NOW,” Gemze roared, without missing a beat.

James Mitchell and Gemze de Lappe in a publicity still for “The Gold Rush” broadcast (1958)

I picked up our tickets at the Will Call window. As I had feared since we were pressed for time, our tickets were in the mezzanine. It was always a crapshoot as far as seat location with these discounted tickets, and I dreaded the slow ascent, as everyone else seemed to already be seated. It was a few minutes past the hour now.

As we began to climb the steps to the mezzanine, Gemze insisted that she was fine. She held tight to the banister and took it a step at a time. I kept pace behind her, just in case she needed any help. As we neared the top, an usher looked at us with a concerned face when she saw Gemze. I could tell that it was the look of someone who knew they were in the presence of someone very old, which also reminded me of how people react when holding newborns if they aren’t used to it, afraid that they might damage them. “Is she alright?” the usher mouthed to me. I nodded that she was. I’m so glad that the usher didn’t ask out loud if we needed any help, or, God forbid, reach out a hand to offer it unsolicited. I had made that mistake earlier in the week with Gemze, only to be shot down with, “If I need help, I’ll ask for it. Or if you see me in trouble you can offer, but only once. I’m not as frail as I may look.” She wasn’t being mean, just direct and to the point. I appreciated it and followed her direction.

The performance of Present Laughter began precisely as we were seated.


“Well, this is very funny, isn’t it?” I asked Gemze at intermission.

“You like it?”

“Yes, but I’m not the type to laugh out loud much. I’m not sure why.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she agreed. “It’s very good, but I also saw it years and years ago with Scott… George C. Scott? It was good then, too. Yes,” she started, then switched gears. “Did you hear the woman to my right? ‘Ha ha ha ha!’ People don’t laugh like that,” Gemze stated. I said that I hadn’t heard her.

“And this woman in front of me playing with her hair and moving about, leaning this way and that, did that bother you any?” I felt ashamed to admit that I didn’t notice it at all, and Gemze shrugged, saying that my height probably had something to do with it.

A few minutes into the second act, the audience rocked with laughter at a witty line. I heard the forced “ha ha ha ha” of the lady to Gemze’s right. I glanced at Gemze and she rolled her eyes back at me.

It wasn’t until the show was over and we remained seated for a bit to allow the audience to disperse that I noticed the women with the poofy blonde hair in the row ahead of us. As she gathered her belongings to leave, she looked back at both of us and smiled, no doubt thinking perhaps I was a grandson taking my grandmother out to a show. I heard Gemze start to speak, and the woman turned to face her.

“Pardon?” the woman asked as she smiled a little wider and leaned in.

“I said that it was very difficult for me to enjoy the show with all of your moving about and playing with your hair. It was very distracting.”

The smile drained from the lady’s face like water going down a drain after a stopper was removed.

“Oh, uh,” the woman stammered, obviously caught off guard. I could do nothing but watch this unfold. “I’m, uh, sorry.”

Gemze seemed satisfied. “Yes, well I thought you should know.” The lady turned and made a hasty getaway. Gemze then turned to me and made a quizzical face.

“That woman looked at me like I was going to give her a compliment. What did I have to compliment her about?” She held her expression for a moment, shook it off, and then extended her hand for me to help her up.

Gemze de Lappe as “the girl who contributed to the delinquency of miners” in Paint Your Wagon – drawing by Doug Anderson (Theatre Arts Magazine, September 1952)

“You want to come up for some tequila?” Gemze asked as we exited the cab that dropped us off in front of her apartment.

“Yes, yes I would,” I said, perhaps a bit trance-like. I’m not sure that I had ever had tequila before, but if there was ever a first time to try it, this was it.

What Gemze referred to as tequila was a fruity margarita mix, which may have had little to no alcohol in it.

“A friend gave me this, and it’s quite refreshing, don’t you think?”

“Yes, I like sweet drinks. This is light.”

“I find just a nip of it helps me sleep,” Gemze said, seating herself across from me as I sat cross-legged on the floor, shuffling through photos. I started asking her questions.

“Well, he liked women too though,” Gemze stated when I asked about one of her famous dancing partners whom I had heard was gay. “Or he seemed to,” she said, then took another sip. “Oh, who knows anyway. Whatever.”

“I heard from John that people in the theatre were known to be gay but it wasn’t discussed. No one made a big deal about it back then.”

“Yes, we knew, but it didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. There are all these people with prejudices…”

“It’s like that song in South Pacific,” I said. “You have to be carefully taught to hate all the people your relatives hate,” I continued, splicing together two lines from different parts of the song, knowing that I was preaching to the choir.

“Well, that’s one thing I can say that my children are not is prejudiced. No. They wouldn’t have dared to be prejudiced around me,” she said and laughed. Then she was quiet for a moment. “They are good people and had a good bringing up.”

“I guess people teach what they know. You taught your sons just like you were taught by your parents and their parents before them.”

“Well, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think my grandparents on either side were that accepting. I credit my parents for breaking the cycle. I think they made an effort to seek out others – different cultures, ethnicities. I remember when I was a little girl in Virginia and then Baltimore that my mother couldn’t stand the small-minded people. I don’t think either of my parents could, and so we moved here. You can’t survive here unless you embrace it all,” Gemze warned.

We chatted a bit more before Gemze said that she was going to go lie down but that I could stay and look at things as long as I liked. I took her up on that and made a pile of tapes and discs that I was interested in borrowing. I asked about the possibility of her lending me some of this material as she walked me to the door, all dressed in her nightgown for bed. I thought I would have to sell harder, but she agreed immediately.

“Oh, sure, no problem. Now we have something tomorrow afternoon too, yes?”

Gemze de Lappe (left) & Vivien Leigh (right) (London – 1947)

On Sunday, I arrived at Gemze’s around noon with my friend Michael, to have lunch with her and then see what last-minute tickets we could score for the matinee. Upon entering the apartment, I could see that Gemze was feeling under the weather, and she sounded congested when she greeted us.

“Maybe it was because of dinner last night,” I said, thinking back to the choking incident.

Michael, who’d had dinner with Gemze and me earlier in the week and remembered how vibrant Gemze appeared, asked her what happened. Gemze pointed at me and smiled as she sniffled.

“Oh, I made a joke while we were eating and Gemze choked on some food. My timing was bad.” Gemze laughed in agreement, but even her laugh sounded a little labored.

“Let’s go have some lunch,” I said, adding that we didn’t need to try to see an afternoon show if she wasn’t feeling up to it. She looked at me as if I had started speaking a different language.

“What? Really? But what…” I could tell she didn’t want to disappoint me.

“We can come back here and talk and watch more of your videos. I have a show tonight at seven, so it’s not like I’m not going to see a show today. We can have all of this time to take it easy and enjoy ourselves.” She could see that I was sincere and smiled back. I know that she would’ve gone on our date whether she felt up to it or not, but she could also see that I honestly meant what I said about just spending the afternoon with her.

“Okay then,” she said as she extended her hand to me.

Gemze de Lappe (left), Agnes de Mille (center) and James Mitchell (right) in a publicity still for “The Gold Rush” broadcast (1958)

After lunch, Gemze, Michael and I returned to her apartment. While we had full meals, Gemze opted for one hard-boiled egg.

“Michael, you need to write down your name and number,” Gemze said. “I like you, and I don’t like many people.” After spending a week with Gemze, I could think of no better compliment. I assured her that I would write his information down for her and said that, now that they knew each other, maybe he could take her to the theater sometime.

“Sure, good,” Gemze said as she excused herself to the bathroom. When she was out of earshot, Michael turned to me and whispered.

“You know when we were walking back and you stopped into that deli and Gemze and I were waiting outside?” Michael asked, referring to when I ran in to get some aloe vera juice for her to try after she had replied that she’d never had it. I figured she would like the taste after the drink she had shared with me the night before.

“Yeah, I’m sorry that took so long,” I apologized.

“No, it isn’t that,” Michael said. “Gemze and I were talking, and then it seemed like she was somewhere else. She looked up at me and said, ‘Weren’t we in a show together?’ I thought she was making a joke, so I laughed, but then she said, ‘I have a photo of us in Paint Your Wagon in my apartment. I’m sure of it.'”

This surprised me, as Gemze had never seemed to have any kind of lapse in all the time that I’d spent with her. Based on my experience with other seniors, I told Michael that sometimes, when they were tired, it could lead to some mild confusion or disorientation.

Michael continued: “I told her gently, ‘I’m not old enough to have been in Paint Your Wagon. I wasn’t even born until five years after it closed.'”

“Well, hell, at least for a moment she saw you as someone who she thought she was in a show with! I’d be thrilled if she mistook me for an usher!” We both laughed at that as Gemze returned. We said our goodbyes to Michael and then retreated to her living room, where there was a television and a VHS/DVD combo player.

“Now I want you to try some of this with me,” I said, holding up the large green plastic bottle.

“What was that again?”

“Aloe vera juice. I can only ever find big bottles of it like this here in the city. It’s delicious.” I didn’t want her to have to get up, so I asked if I could go get us some glasses. She waved me on. I returned and started to pour.

“Just a little, now,” Gemze warned. “I want to see if I like it.”

We toasted, and I waited for her response.

“Oh, this is nice,” she said, seemingly surprised.

“I thought you’d like it,” I gloated, pouring more for her as she held out her glass. “I’m so glad you were open to trying it. I can never get anyone else to taste it.”

“But it’s so refreshing,” Gemze said between sips. “Who wouldn’t like this?”

“People who don’t want to try something with which they aren’t familiar, I guess.”

“Well, I had never tried it, so why not?” Gemze reasoned. If only people half your age felt the same way, I thought to myself.

I was granted permission to play videos in Gemze’s collection. Gemze was silent as she humored me, allowing me to play segments of her performing in De Mille’s A Rose for Miss Emily ballet in 1971, teaching The Duncan Technique in a documentary from 1990, and performing all of the dances from Paint Your Wagon in a 1958 television special. At one point I said to her, “You performed this same dance from Paint Your Wagon on television in 1958, and then you did it again with a different partner in 1980. I would think that it wouldn’t be as good of a performance so many years later, but somehow it’s even better. How is that? Here, let me show them both to you to see what I mean.”

Gemze looked at the television and studied herself dancing nearly sixty and then forty years before. I thought to myself, Ah, this is the moment where she imparts some deep wisdom about dance and performance. I waited with baited breath. As the second performance concluded, Gemze turned to me to speak.

“I was a better actress by then,” she declared, adding nothing more. Next I played a video of the same dance performed by two other people in 2006 at an event honoring Agnes de Mille. The choreography was the same, but something was missing.

“Now,” I said, “they appear to be doing the same dance, but I don’t feel anything watching them like I do when I watch you do it.”

“Yes, I tell them when I teach this piece – all of Agnes’ work – that they need to act!” Gemze exclaimed, moving her hands. “These young dancers… They can physically do so much, are very impressive, but they don’t know how to act! They don’t teach acting in dancing anymore, and that’s sad. It’s when you feel something during a performance that makes the audience feel something. You can say the same lines, walk the same steps – all of that – but if you don’t feel anything, then it’s dead.”

Gemze de Lappe & James Mitchell in a scene from Paint Your Wagon as performed on tour with The Agnes De Mille Dance Theatre (1953-1954)

After another hour or so of viewing and then discussing more material, it was time for me to leave. I had with me a large bag full of various tapes and discs, still awed that Gemze so easily trusted me with this amazing material.

“Now, I should be able to return all of this in a few weeks. I can mail it back to you here and send a hard drive with all the…”

“Yes, yes, that’s fine,” Gemze responded, clearly unconcerned about the details. I looked back at Gemze, told her how much I enjoyed our week and appreciated her putting up with me.

“We need to settle up. How much do I owe you?” she asked, and reached for her purse. “My part of the tickets and our dinners.” I had paid for everything, saying that it was easier that way and we’d settle up later, but I had no intention of taking a cent from her.

“You were my date, and now I have the bragging rights. I get to tell everyone I spent the week taking out an Agnes de Mille dancer.” I smiled. Gemze rolled her eyes at me and shook her head. She clearly thought I was silly. “Look,” I said, “it wasn’t much. You were a cheap date. The show tickets for both of us altogether came to less than one regular priced ticket to a show.”

“Fine.” That satisfied Gemze. It was true though. For me to accept anything would’ve felt blasphemous after how much I surely must have gotten on her nerves that week. At least I also got a few laughs out of her, though.

“Say, there is something you can do for me. That clock there,” Gemze said, pointing at the round clock on the wall above her television. I hadn’t noticed it, as it was partially obscured from where I was sitting by some plaques and small items on top of the entertainment center.

“I keep getting the time wrong, thinking it’s earlier than it is. You see how it is hanging there? See if you can fix that.”

The clock was angled to the left, so that even though it was around 4pm, a quick glance without attention paid to the numbers around the perimeter made it look like 3pm.

“Oh, I’m sure I can fix this,” I said, reaching behind all that was in front of the clock. I didn’t want to move anything as I knew how particular some people could be over the smallest things.

“Move things out of the way,” Gemze said, reading my mind. I obliged. The main plaque – a silver circle encased in glass attached to a black, engraved base – was the one I picked up and moved to the side. I was surprised by its weight, and I did a double take when I read that it was an honorary Tony Award given to Gemze in 2007. I gulped.

After I had pulled the clock it off the wall, I found that the web of string and metal on its back would not allow it to hang properly without some work. “Gems,” I said, shortening her name a bit. “This thing has… Maybe we can prop it up somewhere, because it just won’t…”

“Oh, never mind,” she waved away my effort as I kept trying to adjust the clock on the wall. “It’s a little better anyway.” The improvement was quite small to me. I returned her Tony Award to its proper place with care and reverence.

As we were saying our goodbyes and shared a hug, I looked at her and felt a little funny. She knew something was on my mind and waited.

“There is so much more I want to talk to you about,” I said, lamenting the fact that I wouldn’t be able to return until the fall at the earliest. “But I have a feeling you’ll be around for quite a while.”

“Oh, I do too,” Gemze quickly agreed. She said it with confidence, as if she wasn’t quite sold on the concept of mortality. Maybe she’d consider it in the future, but I got the impression that the idea of death held no interest for her.

James Mitchell & Gemze de Lappe in a scene from Paint Your Wagon as performed on tour with The Agnes De Mille Dance Theatre (1953-1954)

I called Gemze the next three nights. On Monday, it was to let her know that I had arrived home safely. The next two nights, I asked her questions about some of the footage I had started to review. The calls weren’t long or involved, and partly I was inventing reasons to call to check on her. I would never have said that, as I’m sure it would have annoyed her, so I made sure I always had a legitimate question to ask.

I didn’t reach her on Thursday, so I left a message. When her voicemail said it was full on Friday, I feared the worst. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, but who was I? I wasn’t a relative or close friend. Still, I begged Michael to visit her apartment to check on her. When he did, he learned from the doorman that Gemze had had a stroke. Fortunately, she’d had an afternoon appointment on Friday with friends from out of town. When she didn’t arrive and there was no answer to any calls, a neighbor was notified to check on her.

From May to November, Gemze was shuttled between the hospital and a rehab facility. She suffered from paralysis on one side and couldn’t speak at first. Through Michael, who met and exchanged information with some of Gemze’s friends at the hospital, I was able to keep tabs on her. When I had finished compiling all the material that I had borrowed, I supplemented it with as many ballet videos and documentaries as I could find. I loaded up a tablet with it all and sent it to Michael to take to her. He visited Gemze and reported back that they watched some videos together and, though her speech seemed to be limited to “yes” and “because,” she was clearly interested in what they were viewing. He said that she wasn’t able to operate the tablet herself, but we hoped maybe visitors could spend time viewing things with her.

I called every week or two, and the staff was good about taking a cordless phone to Gemze and propping it up so she could hear me and respond. Our conversations might have been awkward as her vocabulary was terribly limited and descended into incoherence when she ventured outside of her limitations, but we were able to communicate. I phrased questions so they could be answered with a yes or no. And Gemze had so many ways of saying yes, each with variations in inflection and tone that said so much. She was mentally completely present but trapped without her words. It was just like how she had described her stroke from several years before, only this time the damage was far more severe. It must’ve been agony, and yet she always sounded alert. I mailed her prints of photos I found on eBay of her dancing with James Mitchell, and I let her know that copies of all the wonderful material she allowed me to organize was sent to The Agnes de Mille Working Group as I knew that so much of it would be important for students of dance to study. That comment resulted in an incredibly emphatic “yes” on her end of the extension.

I was looking forward to visiting Gemze in New York with John and his eldest son Flip the week before Thanksgiving. We were going to be in town to attend a 70th anniversary production of Brigadoon. Five days before we left I received word that Gemze had passed way. I couldn’t quite believe it as, stroke or not, she seemed indestructible. Her obituary appeared a week later and was quite an elaborate item in The New York Times. In accordance with her wishes, there was no funeral service.

Plans were made for a tribute to her in the new year. As luck would have it, I was in the perfect position to edit together a memorial video of Gemze including excerpts from her work and using her voice as well as that of Agnes de Mille from interviews stored on the tapes I had borrowed. It was not my intention when I digitized the material that it would be used for such a purpose, and I’m sure Gemze didn’t give it a thought either at the time, but less than a year later that is what happened.

I knew Gemze’s reach was far and wide, but it was never more apparent than at her tribute in February. So many people spoke of her work and dedication, and then the audience responded with thunderous applause after the tribute video was shown as well as rare vintage footage of Gemze and James Mitchell dancing the “Another Autumn” ballet from Paint Your Wagon. I hope she would’ve approved as the video went through nine drafts while I questioned everything, wondering what Gemze might think. Don’t use that music over the Dance Jubilee footage as people might think it’s from Carousel, I imagined her saying.

I was so happy to see her included in the In Memorium segment on The 72nd Annual Tony Awards broadcast recently, though her credit as choreographer was only one of her titles: teacher, actor, mentor, and dancer were some of the others.

“I’m a dancer,” I remember Gemze saying more than once when I would ask some question about discipline or her stamina, as if that title summed it all up. Maybe it did.

20180600_Tony Awards
Gemze de Lappe from the In Memorium segment on The 72nd Annual Tony Awards broadcast (June 10, 2018)

Here is the video I created for Gemze’s tribute:

Gemze’s bio from The Agnes De Mille Dance Theatre tour program (1953-1954)

CLICK HERE for Gemze de Lappe career highlights

CLICK HERE for Theatre Arts article on Gemze de Lappe (Theatre Arts, September 1952)

BELOW: Tribute announcement and program (February 23, 2018)

20180200_Tribute announcement20180200_Tribute program 0120180200_Tribute program 0220180200_Tribute program 0320180200_Tribute program 04

Advertisements

Marni Nixon at Symphony Space (April 10, 2016)

I was fortunate enough to work on some videos for one of Marni Nixon’s last public appearances at Symphony Space on April 10, 2016. She couldn’t have been more humble or gracious. I told her, “I think it’s wonderful that you’re finally recognized for all of your great work.” “It was such a long time ago,” she added. “But,” I continued, “people will be listening to and enjoying your performances long after everyone in this room – including us – are long gone.” She smiled.

Here is some audio I recorded of the event:

Program cover for the event
Ted Chapin, President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, and theatre historian Michael Portantiere moderated the discussion with Marni.

Here are additional videos created for the event.

Montage of Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and The King and I (1956):

Pop covers of songs from the score of The King and I:

Collage by Jeff Marquis
Marni Nixon & Chuck Pennington III (me)

Bright Star (Cort Theatre – NYC)

 

Sometimes I wish I could suddenly switch directors in the middle of a show. The action will be flowing along at a pretty even clip, and then BOOM something happens so awkward and misguided that members of the audience begin to laugh at what is intended to be a serious moment. That kind of moment occurs in Bright Star, the new Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical playing at the Cort Theatre, at the end of the first act, and the show never quite recovers from it despite a glowing performance by its lead actress and an interesting story.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – A.J. Shively (Billy)
 

Bright Star begins as the story of Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), an aspiring writer from a small town in North Carolina who travels to the big city with the hope of being published by the persnickety but well-respected literary editor, Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack). As Billy is encouraged to continue with his writing, a parallel story unfolds of Alice as a teenager with her boyfriend, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan). How the two stories are connected becomes pretty apparent to anyone paying any attention at all within about thirty minutes (book writer Steve Martin is no Agatha Christie), but there is a lot of joy to be found in the Bluegrass score, standouts being “If You Knew My Story,” “What Could Be Better,” and “Sun is Gonna Shine.” There are the usual requisite annoying supporting characters (someone needs to tell Jeff Blumenkrantz, who plays Alice’s junior editor, Daryl Ames, that the part of Phil Silvers has already been cast), but the real problem is not with the performers, the story, or the score – it’s with the direction by Walter Bobbie. More on that later.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 
One consistent bright light in the show is that which shines from Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy, the girl with a past and a “story to tell” about it. Ms. Cusack is consistently engaging and exciting to watch, and she transitions effortlessly from a teenager in the 1920s to a sophisticated but guarded career woman in the 1940s, aided by beautifully crafted costumes by Jane Greenwood that have the appearance of being lightly faded with delicate hues to help evoke the period. When the truth emerges about a painful period in her character’s past, Ms. Cusack’s reaction is so bare and honest that I defy anyone not to be riveted. Hers is an award-worthy performance, a remarkable Broadway debut.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Paul Alexander Nolan (Jimmy Ray) and Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 
The scene that causes this production to go off the rails closes the first act and involves Michael Mulheren as Mayor Josiah Dobbs, the father of Alice’s beau, Jimmy Ray. Without giving away any spoilers, the scene contains a violent act and an important traveling bag with some precious cargo. Mayor Dobbs is on a train singing the monotonous “A Man’s Gotta Do” (which is basically the same lyric repeated ad nauseam, causing some audience members around me to groan) and then launches this very important bag into the air, at which point it rotates in slow motion across the stage. Everyone around me started laughing. There was something terribly comic about the moment that I firmly believe was unintentional as it involves a willful violent act towards an innocent (I’m trying to be vague as not to spoil the story here). How could a director of Walter Bobbie’s caliber not sense that the scene was not coming across properly and work to adjust it? The derisive chortling picked up in the second act in a poorly-written and acted scene wherein Mayor Dobbs confesses his deed to his son. Mr. Nolan as Jimmy Ray keeps asking things like, “What do you mean?” so much that I began to wonder if his character was suffering from some cognitive processing disability.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Stephen Lee Anderson (Daddy Murphy) and Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 
All hope for any consistent tone is lost for good in a scene in which Stephen Bogardus as Billy’s father recounts a story of when Billy was a newborn. The scene has all the subtlety and depth of a “Hee Haw” segment, and it did elicit laughter but not because it was funny; we laughed because it was ridiculous and made a mockery of the entire piece! As far as I can see, the blame lays at Mr. Bobbie’s feet for taking a work with such potential and alternately steering it directly into oncoming traffic.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 

Bright Star tells an incredible story inspired by a true event (that is how it is stated in the advertising materials), has some good music, and contains one of the most heartfelt performances I’ve seen on Broadway this year by Ms. Cusack; it also has moments that elicit laughter because of their ineptitude. It’s heartbreaking to witness such a mixed bag when it’s apparent a lot of love went into it. Imagine a delicious bag of popcorn that starts out great until you realize only half of the kernels popped; it doesn’t mean the popcorn wasn’t worth getting, it just means you aren’t going to get as much out of it as you would’ve liked. Bright Star is still worth seeing for many reasons, but I can see this work succeeding far more with someone else at the helm. Here’s hoping the show has a future in licensing as I feel it could do very well with the proper guidance.

** 1/4 out of ****

Bright Star continues in the Cort Theatre at 138 West 48th Street in midtown Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://brightstarmusical.com/

School of Rock The Musical (Winter Garden Theatre – NYC)

Popular films being turned into Broadway musicals seems like a modern trend, what with Finding Neverland, Kinky Boots, and An American in Paris being recent examples, but the truth is that musicals have been – and will continue to be – adapted from popular films in the hope of creating a success with a known property in a different medium. I’d wager that the risk doesn’t pay off more often that not, but that won’t stop people from trying. The latest example of a screen to stage transition comes from the 2003 hit Jack Black comedy, The School of Rock, aided and abetted with music by the Andrew Lloyd Webber of The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. It’s hard to ignore a new Mr. Lloyd Webber musical no matter your personal feelings about the man and his impact on musical theatre, and School of Rock The Musical is no exception. Instead of starting in London like other Mr. Lloyd Webber musicals, this show is premiering on Broadway, it’s American flavor probably being the factor most responsible for this difference. I had not seen the film, and I waited to see it until after seeing the Broadway musical; what’s interesting is to see how this stage version has improved upon its source while also introducing some problems of its own.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 


School of Rock The Musical
is about Dewey, who has big dreams of having a career in rock music, the same dreams he has had since high school. He lives with (and mooches off of) his friend Ned until Ned’s girlfriend, Patty, threatens eviction. Dewey needs cash fast, and so he pretends to be Ned to secure a long-term substitute teaching position at prestigious private school Horace Green, figuring that he can fake his way along for a few weeks until the annual “Battle of the Bands” competition. Once Ned realizes how much musical talent his pupils have he organizes them into a band named “School of Rock,” educating them on all ’70s and ’80s rock music and bands, thinking that together they can all compete at the “Battle of the Bands”; that is, if Principal Rosalie doesn’t find out Dewey’s real identity first and show him the door.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Alex Brightman stars as Dewey, managing to out-Black Mr. Jack Black from the film with his exuberance and musical talent. Whereas Mr. Black played the part for comedy alone, Mr. Brightman brings real rock performing chops to the floor while also hitting (and improving upon) every comedic moment retained from the film. Whereas Dewey is an unrealistic dreamer in the film constantly being kicked out of bands, Mr. Brightman plays him more as an undiscovered talent, and it isn’t too hard to believe that he could have some legitimate career if the right opportunity presented itself. Mr. Brightman is a Dewey that you want to succeed and is more likable than his silver screen counterpart; he brings so much heart to the play that is sorely needed to sustain it.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
It is the singing, dancing, musical instrument-playing kids that nearly steal the show from Mr. Brightman, each one of them bringing so much personality to their performances. Some of the standouts among Dewey’s students are Isabella Russo as Summer, the bossy overachiever; Brandon Niederauer as Zack, the guitar prodigy; Ethan Khusidman as Mason, the shy keyboardist; Bobbi MacKenzie as Tomika, the withdrawn girl who reveals her great big, beautiful voice; and Luca Padovan as Billy, the pint-sized fashion designer with sass. It’s interesting to note that curtain is at 7.30pm and not the usual 8pm, perhaps owing to its young cast and the fact that there aren’t rotating casts of children like at some other kid-heavy shows. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is playful and not robotic like what can be found in Matilda, and director Laurence Conner should be congratulated for the riotous but controlled chaos within the show, even if the large production with all of its impressive moving parts aren’t enough to gloss over some of the book’s deficiencies (more on that later).

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Sierra Boggess plays Principal Rosalie in the role originated by Joan Cusack in the movie; you’d be hard pressed to find two more different actresses for the same part. Ms. Boggess has an expanded role in the play as a music teacher, an unnecessary contrivance that allows her to show off her operatic singing ability; she leaves little doubt that she is a leading player in a part more suited to a quirky supporting actress. Still, Ms. Boggess appears to be having a grand time, only really coming alive once her character’s love for Stevie Nicks is exposed, belting out “Where Did the Rock Go?” and endearing herself to the audience. Ms. Boggess comes off as perhaps too quick to fall for a lot of Dewey’s shenanigans, but there is no denying her chemistry with Mr. Brightman; their budding friendship in the show rings true. At least a superfluous love subplot between Dewey and Principal Rosalie wasn’t added as I had feared it would be for the stage musical, but being grateful for changes not made is a dubious honor when other additions that were made are so lackluster.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame has adapted the film written by Mike White by adhering closely to the source material; still, added scenes with the rest of the faculty at Horace Green and Patty’s drive to expose Dewey as an imposter are strikingly dull contrasts to the scenes with Dewey and the kids. I noticed more people checking the time on their phones during these scenes than during any other show I saw on this New York trip, the first time being just twenty-nine minutes into the play! That can’t be a good sign; surely there was a better way to expand the book of this property for the stage. And what was with the scene in the second act when Principal Rosalie enters the classroom stating that she thought she heard music? Sure, it leads into a very funny, improvised song about the joys of math, but didn’t all of the music the kids played during the first act disrupt the other classes? This logic gap is also in the film, though it’s odd that it was retained in the book to the show as well.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Mr. Fellowes makes a few other changes that I find curious, such as a scene where names are suggested for the band. In the film there are two sweet little girls suggesting cutesy names like “The Koala Bears,” then suddenly adding in “Pig Rectum” as an option. That moment is quite funny because of the contrast with their other suggestions; in Mr. Fellowes’ stage adaptation, the line is given to the Streisand-loving, clothing-designing Billy. There was some uneasy laughter at that moment in the theatre as it felt suddenly tasteless to have Billy reference a rectum, as if making the gay kid say the line would make it funnier; it just brought with it a sexual connotation that it didn’t have in the film because of the change in context.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 

School of Rock The Musical doesn’t “sound” like an Andrew Lloyd Webber show (he wrote the music while Glenn Slater handles the lyrics), but perhaps that is the point; I’ve heard criticism that many of his songs could be interpolated into different shows and still sound right (imagine “Memory” moved from Cats to Sunset Boulevard, or “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” transplanted from Jesus Christ Superstar to Evita), but that isn’t the case here. While I may not have left the theatre humming any tunes, the score has its best moments in “You’re in the Band,” “If Only You Would Listen,” “Stick It to the Man,” and the humorous “Math Is a Wonderful Thing.” The score is one that grows on you quickly if you give it a chance, but without songs that overwhelm the storytelling like perhaps we are used to from Mr. Lloyd Webber in the past. I wonder if more actual rock songs should have been included instead of just Jim Steinman’s “Where Did the Rock Go?”

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 

School of Rock The Musical succeeds because of Alex Brightman and all of those talented kids in the cast. No matter how plodding and contrived the rest of the book may be, the scenes between the teacher and his pupils are fantastically entertaining. There is a sense of palpable joy whenever the kids and their teacher are together that make School of Rock The Musical worth seeing; this is one film to stage adaptation that surpasses the quality of its source material.

*** out of ****

School of Rock The Musical is performed at the Winter Garden Theatre at 1634 Broadway (at W. 50th St.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://schoolofrockthemusical.com

  

Noises Off (American Airlines Theatre – NYC)

Andrea Martin is a pistol. Of course I remember her from “SCTV” and many supporting roles in films going back to being a sorority sister (and murder victim) in Black Christmas (1974); it was her Tony Award-winning performance in the 2013 Pippin revival that renewed my interest in her. And now here she is in Roundabout Theatre’s Noises Off, a revival of the 1982 Michael Frayn farce about a troupe of actors attempting to put on a show where mishaps abound. Ms. Martin was my reason for wanting to see this production, but she is but one piece of the puzzle that makes this Noises Off so winning and jaw-droppingly funny.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
 
Noises Off premiered in London in 1982 in a production that would end up running for five years; it premiered on Broadway in 1983 and ran a year and a half; Peter Bogdanovich directed a starry 1992 film version starring Carol Burnett and Michael Caine that was rather half baked; and a 2001 Broadway revival starring Patti LuPone ran for nearly a year. The piece is presented in three acts with an intermission between the first two. For the first hour we see the final tech/dress rehearsal of Nothing On, the play within the play, important for letting us see how the piece should be played while also helping us get acquainted with the characters; the second act has the set turned around so we can witness a perilous matinee performance backstage when a lover’s quarrel in the cast causes all kind of havoc; the final act shows us the piece as the audience is experiencing it at the end of the tour where it has degenerated into an all-out mess. The play runs over two and a half hours, but its overlength can easily be forgiven because of how the time it takes to set everything up is necessary and pays off with big laughs.

Andrea Martin plays Dotty Otley, the older television star who has invested in Nothing On; she is a terrific highlight, as to be expected, playing a British actress who in turn is playing the slummy part of the maid Mrs. Clackett in Nothing On, the switch from her thick cockney speech as the maid to her refined and austere British accent as Dotty quite jarring and funny. Campbell Scott is Lloyd, her stern director; Mr. Scott has the unenviable job as the straight man to his gang of players, the quite serious director fed up with the shenanigans going on around him; it is all the more funny to see him be silly and look foolish when he is brought into the act by the end of the play because of how much he has resisted it. David Furr is Garry, Dotty’s on-again, off-again lover; Mr. Furr is particularly delightful as Garry, the pretentious actor who says a lot of words without really saying anything when he isn’t performing his part in the play. Megan Hilty is Brooke Ashton, a young blonde theatre novice in her first speaking role; Ms. Hilty appears to be having a ball playing Brooke as a bad actress, posing awkwardly, walking with her feet wide apart like a lumberjack, and mouthing the words of her co-stars; she appears to be a perky, pretty blonde, but she sticks strictly to her script even when everything around her falls apart and she should be adjusting to what is going on. Tracee Chimo is enjoyable fragile as Poppy, the harried assistant stage manager and sometime girlfriend of the director; Kate Jennings Grant is Belinda, a team player trying to keep the cast together; Jeremy Shamos is Frederick, a rather dim and slow actor who has spontaneous nosebleeds whenever he is around violence; Rob McClure is Tim, the company and stage manager (as well as electrician, standby, and assuming a host of other duties); and Daniel Davis is Selsdon, the aging and unreliable alcoholic whom everyone tries to keep away from booze.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
 
A humorous touch is the inclusion of a program for Nothing On, the fictitious play being performed within Noises Off, as an insert in the Playbill. Biographies are provided for all of the actors as well as author “Robin Housemonger,” sharing space with a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the bedroom farce genre as well as fun facts about realtors and sardines. So much insight about the characters can be gleaned from these bios, though it isn’t necessary to read them before the show; I read them afterwards and laughed, thinking back to moments in the play.

Director Jeremy Herrin puts his actors through their paces to be sure with a speed that only escalates during the second and third acts. There are so many moments that succeed or fail based on precise timing that I would think the show could be a nightmare to direct; during a post-show talkback Ms. Hilty mentioned that they rehearsed the piece slowly, building up speed as they went along to get to the fever pitch at which they are now performing. With no many slamming doors and props that must find themselves in so many different places, Mr. Herrin and his cast are to be commended for pulling it all off without a hitch; not effortlessly, mind you, as it looks like everyone is working very hard with tremendous focus.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
 
This revival of Noises Off is frighteningly engaging, so much so that I found myself wincing and ducking as characters slipped, narrowly missed being attacked by an ax, and doors were slammed in their faces. This kind of slapstick, comic violence makes me extremely anxious (it brings to mind the 1985 Tom Hanks/Shelly Long film The Money Pit as well as The Three Stooges, neither my cup of tea), but I can recognize the supreme timing and talent it takes to pull off this kind of farce. It’s unfortunate that this Roundabout show is a limited run as I can’t imagine a more lively and gripping production as the dangerously funny one bestowed upon us here.

**** out of ****

Noises Off continues through to March 13th in the American Airlines Theatre at 227 W. 42nd St. (between 7th & 8th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/

 

Spring Awakening (Brooks Atkinson Theatre – NYC)

Everything old, at some point, is new again. Take for example Spring Awakening, which premiered on Broadway in 2006 and made a big splash; it’s a musical adaptation of a 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind about repressed teenagers coming to terms with their sexuality (among other things), with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. Even though the original play was set more than a hundred years ago in Germany, the journey about the loss of innocence that occurs when growing into young adulthood is universal and still very much relevant; sex, abortion, homosexuality, suicide, depression – these issues have not gone away and never will. The score is full of punkish-sounding songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F***ed,” while also containing soulful, moody pieces like “The World of Your Body,” “Touch Me,” and “I Believe.” It’s rock inspiration can be traced to Rent as it has a similar type of sound while also standing out as being wholly original.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus

Spring Awakening ran for over two years on Broadway, won eight Tony Awards, toured, and then became a popular title licensed to non-professional groups. And now, less than seven years since it closed, it is back on Broadway produced by Deaf West Theatre and directed by Michael Arden incorporating American Sign Language (ASL) as well as deaf actors to tell this story in an entirely new way in a format accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
I was skeptical when I heard that Spring Awakening was coming to Broadway as I didn’t feel that the initial production had been gone long enough for us to miss it; I have seen two local productions in my area alone over the past year, so the material was very familiar to me. However, I vividly remember the Deaf West revival of Big River from 2003, so I conceded that perhaps there was a different approach that could be taken with the material. Several friends told me that they preferred this production over the original; while I wouldn’t go that far, I still enjoyed this revival and found many aspects of it worth recommending.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
Standouts in the cast are Austin P. McKenzie playing Melchior, the bright student who has all the answers about sex, the details that the adults want to keep hidden; Sandra Mae Frank is Wendla, the naive girl who succumbs to Melchior’s charms; and Daniel N Durant is Moritz, Melchior’s friend who is suffering as a student and plagued by wet dreams. Mr. McKenzie is cute and appears too cool for school and stylish wearing the same uniform that looks drab on everyone else; his presence is magnetic, and it’s easy to see why is a leader. Ms. Frank and Mr. Durant are deaf and perform their roles using sign language with vocal and guitar accompaniment provided by actors trailing behind them in the shadows. At my performance, Lizzy Cuesta (listed as a swing in the Playbill) spoke and sang for Ms. Frank, and Alex Boniello did the same for Mr. Durant; both Ms. Cuesta and Mr. Boniello are talented performers on their own, and yet here they are proficient in underplaying their presence to remain half of a performance, supporting their deaf co-stars beautifully.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
Ms. Frank and Mr. Durant have a few moments where they speak for themselves that are incredibly effective, their voices full of emotion and raw. An early scene where Mr. Durant is called on to speak and is then ridiculed in class by his professor is especially biting and effective showing the callousness of his teacher. Ms. Frank’s cries at her mother and during her intimate scene with Mr. McKenzie are similarly heartbreaking, bringing the drama of Spring Awakening to another level; their teenage angst and isolation seems like small potatoes when compared with what it must be like to be deaf.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
While I’m glad that this production has sign language and occasional projected subtitles for the deaf, I had issues where I was seated in the front left of the mezzanine with visibility. There are some sequences that are only acted with sign language, and titles are presented for the dialogue; however, the projected words were often partially obscured by elements of the set, and it took me out of the play whenever the mode of communication shifted. I know that isn’t going to be a popular opinion, as I’m pleased that the deaf have a Broadway show accessible to them, but it is sometimes to the detriment of the hearing audience. For scenes with the headmaster, who doesn’t sign, the titles for his dialogue were often ahead of his delivery, a timing mishap that I hope was only at the performance I attended. I don’t recall having such issues with Deaf West’s Big River. If the entire show was open captioned with words visible from every seat (and timed properly) then the shift to sign language only wouldn’t be so jarring.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
One aspect of this production that I found superior to the original is how Hänschen’s (Andy Mientus) seduction of Ernst (Joshua Castille) is handled; in the original production it was played comically for laughs, but here it is sincere. It’s interesting to note that there were some audible guffaws from the audience when the two young men kiss when I saw the original production on tour in Columbus back in 2009; the same sequence, this time played quite earnestly, elicited no such response. Is it that times have changed so much in the past six years that two men kissing onstage is more palatable, or the shift to a straightforward telling of the gay storyline, or the difference in audiences between New York and Columbus that is the reason for the different response? I think it’s a combination of all three factors, but color me pleased with the change.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
I’m glad to have seen this revival of Spring Awakening, but it doesn’t surpass or even meet the merits of the original for me. It’s still good and entertaining, but some of the accessibility alterations inhibited my enjoyment of the show from where I was seated. Perhaps my experience would’ve been better had I been seated elsewhere; our tickets were not marked as being “partial view” but that is essentially what I would call them. A show enhanced for accessibility should consider the vantage point for all of the seats to ensure that pertinent and important elements are not missed. Again, I still enjoyed the show, but with that notable reservation.

*** out of ****

Spring Awakening continues through to January 24th in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre at 256 W. 47th St. (at 8th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.springawakeningthemusical.com/

Clever Little Lies (Westside Theatre – NYC)

I remember hearing Jack Lemmon discuss his part in the classic Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot, divulging that a core ingredient of the best comedies is an element of deceit, some facade just waiting to unravel. The time between when the lie begins and it falls apart is fertile ground for all kinds of funny things to happen, the suspense of waiting for the moment when “the jig is up” adding to the effect. Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies, in its final week at the Westside Theatre after opening last fall, takes infidelity, one of the most tried and true wells for comedy (see the sitcom “Friends” and Ross and Rachel’s “we were on a break!” argument that was a running gag for years), and pairs it with former “That Girl” Marlo Thomas and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” lead Greg Mullavey to mine the rather sordid subject for laughs and uncomfortable situations.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Clever Little Lies begins after a game of tennis between father and son in a locker room where Billy confides to his father Bill about an affair that he is having with a personal trainer. Billy, who is married to Jane and has an infant child, swears his father to secrecy, but it doesn’t take long for Alice, Bill’s wife, to sense that something is wrong. Alice takes it upon herself to invite her son and daughter-in-law over to confront the issue, and what ensues is a night of revelations that leave everyone surprised. It turns out that the “lies” of the title are neither “little” nor “clever” after all.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Marlo Thomas plays Alice with a light touch, enjoyably sneaky as she butts in on problems within her son’s marriage but sly enough to get away with most anything. Ms. Thomas knows how to play this material to land every laugh, and the play comes alive only upon her entrance in the second scene when she grills her husband to extract information about her son, knowing full well that he promised not to say anything. She bypasses this by throwing out all kinds of guesses, quickly followed by, “Don’t say anything if I’m right!” Ms. Thomas turns a character who could be quite a harpy and unlikable into the kind of quick-witted matriarch anyone would be fortunate to have on their team, insidious as she may be.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Greg Mullavey plays her husband Bill, powerless to resist falling under his wife’s control but instilled with a loyalty and understanding that only comes with time. Mr. Mullavey is just as skilled as Ms. Thomas in eliciting laughter from the audience, some of the biggest using his deadpan expression when faced with surprising facts about his wife and son’s secrets. I really bought Mr. Mullavey and Ms. Thomas as a married couple, and it is their chemistry and delivery that makes the piece work.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
I’m not quite sure what to make of George Merrick as the couple’s son, Billy, or Kate Wetherhead as his wife, Jane. Mr. Merrick is quite attractive, but he acts mostly with a scowl and furrowed brow; his intensity works against the comedic qualities of the writing, and his timing is often off in a way that kills lines that would be funny if played differently. Take for example his first scene in the locker room when he confesses his affair to his father; Mr. Merrick rushes into a forced stage cry where he covers his face, his timing so abrupt that at first it appears that he is laughing. It’s hard for me to believe that two people as enjoyable to be around as Ms. Thomas and Mr. Mullavey could have such a jerk as a son, and that’s exactly how Mr. Merrick comes off. Ms. Wetherhead as his wife seems to think going nasal is a part of playing comedy, her voice often pitched higher than expected, though she at least has more to work with once her husband’s indiscretions are revealed; still, I found her only mildly more bearable than her on stage spouse, a most unlikeable couple that deserves each other. It’s almost as if Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead, who have not a thimbleful of chemistry, are from another play or are performing in some acting exercise in which they were carelessly paired up together.

Director David Saint keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, seemingly knowing that it’s his showbiz veterans that will carry the piece, though it’s hard to understand how some glaring flaws in the production appear to have passed by him unchanged. The scene in the car between Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead is startlingly stale, and the vehicle is positioned at an angle on the stage that doesn’t line up with the rear projection footage. Why bother with having the car and the background footage if it is going to be handled so poorly? At least the set of Alice and Bill’s living room designed by Yoshi Tanokura looks inviting, tastefully upscale with a lived in appearance. The majority of the action takes place on this lovely set, which makes the scene in the car and opening scene at the tennis club locker room feel like cheap afterthoughts in comparison.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Still, Clever Little Lies is a cute, compact show with several laugh out loud moments. Though I think it resolves itself a bit too easily at the end and half the cast was not to my liking, it has the feel of a jumbo-sized sitcom, appropriate as it is a great vehicle for its two veteran stars of popular television comedies from the ’60s and ’70s. At just under an hour and a half in length, Clever Little Lies doesn’t outstay its welcome, though it is the crackling chemistry and timing of its stars from yesteryear you’ll remember when it’s all over.

**/ out of ****

Clever Little Lies continues through to January 24th upstairs in the Westside Theatre at 407 W. 43rd St. (at 9th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.cleverlittlelies.com/