Saturday, July 28, 2018

Smokey Joe's Cafe

     Stage 42 was swinging with song and dance Thursday night with the revival of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the jukebox musical showcasing the work of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, songs that over the years were hits for Elvis, The Coasters, Ben E. King, The Drifters and many others.  Director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s excellent ensemble cast had audience members clapping to the beat and even dancing in the aisles at the end.

     This is a far cry from the scene when I saw the original, which opened on Broadway in 1995 and ran for nearly five years.  That production was Broadway’s longest-running musical revue but the producers allowed it to continue too long so that by the time I saw it only about two dozen people were scattered throughout the vastness of the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson).  The cast was good then too — I remember only Brenda Braxton, who I was there to interview — and the songs, including such hits as “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “On Broadway” and “Spanish Harlem” — were just as catchy, but the theatre felt like a ghost town.  Lively it was not.

     It was much more fun to be surrounded by people in a full house at Off-Broadway’s Stage 42, which I believe is only one seat short of the number required to qualify for Broadway status.  Beowulf Boritt has designed a set to look like a welcoming local saloon, complete with neon beer signs on the walls.  It seems natural for the full company to gather there for the opening number, “Neighborhood.”  

     The 37 musical numbers are presented with choreography, as comic skits or ballads over 90 intermission-less minutes.  No attempt has been made to connect them into a story, which is a relief because the stories conjured for these kinds of shows are usually annoyingly contrived.  The most recent example of this is Escape to Margaritaville, which would have been much better if the actors had just sung the Jimmy Buffett songs and left it at that.

     For Smokey Joe’s, The Cafe Band’s eight musicians are just off stage left except for when their platform glides onto center stage, most gloriously for “Dueling Pianos.”

     I also loved the nod to The Temptation, with Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker and Jelani Remy decked out in red jackets with black glitter lapels, black pants and black shirts to sing “On Broadway.”  They had the smooth rhythms and vocals of that beloved Motown group.  Nice costumes throughout by Alejo Vietti.

     The cast also includes Emma Degerstedt, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Max Sangerman and Alysha Umphress. 

     While I appreciated not having to sit through another jukebox musical with a stupid storyline, my attention did wander toward the end.  Thirty-seven songs plus three reprises in 90 minutes is a lot.  I was happy when I saw chairs being put on top of the table and heard the first notes of “Stand By Me,” indicating the end.  It was a nice way to conclude, bringing out the entire cast to come full circle with the idea of friends together in the local tavern. 

     For the encore, “Saved,” they spread out into the theatre for a love fest with the audience.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Comic Tribute to 14th-century Mystic

     Sixty-two years ago as a student at Yale University, John Wulp was chatting with professor and literary critic Paul Pickrel at an Elizabethan tea.  Pickrel mentioned that he had just read The Book of Margery Kempe and found it hilarious.

     Wulp, who had no religious background, couldn’t imagine how an autobiography by a 14th century English mystic could be that funny but he read it and agreed.

     “I felt it was what you make comedy of, a person who has ambitions that exceed their ability, so I decided to write a play about her,” Wulp said.

     That play, The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, is now being revived at Off-Broadway’s The Duke Theatre, 59 years after it last graced a New York stage — or any other.

     In all the years between productions, the play’s author has traveled a long and varied road, just as the real life Margery Kempe did.  Born in 1373 in Norfolk, England, Kempe never learned to read or write, so she dictated her story, which is considered the earliest known autobiography of an English person.

     And what an autobiography it is.  Among the highlights of her life are: marriage at 20, a vision of Christ seen during a spell of madness following the birth of the first of her 14 children, failure of a brewery she bought and tried to run and a quest for a spiritual life that often prompted in her loud weeping and cries that unnerved many fellow travelers on her pilgrimages throughout England, Europe and the Holy Land.  

     Wulp saw in her “a universal comic figure” and liken her to his idol, Charlie Chaplin.

     “He was a little man who had these big ambitions.

     Although he had never written a play and had no money, Wulp saw a way around this in the looming Korean War.

     “I decided to enlist and somehow get two years in which to write a play.  I wrote Margery Kempe.”

     Wulp shared much of his life story one Monday afternoon in late June while the production was in rehearsals.  His home for more than three decades is on Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine, but in preparation for the show, for which he designed the sets, he was camped out — fold-out bed open in the living room, an unmade bed in the bedroom — in a furnished corporate apartment on the outskirts of the theatre district.  About a half dozen prescription bottles surrounded him on the counter where he sat in front of the kitchenette.  A walker with wheels and a seat was nearby.  He is, after all, 90.  But he has a recall for dates, names, dialogue and the book’s passages that can rival that of any college student.  

     Here’s the story of behind Saintliness, which draws heavily for plot and dialogue from the original source.  While he was still in the Marine Corp Wulp sent an almost finished copy of the play to folks in New York to see if there was any interest.  There was.  While on guard duty one day he got a message that theatrical producer Irene Selznick was thinking of doing it. 

     That didn’t pan out, and neither did the option taken by Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, which wanted Jose Quintero to direct and Alice Ghostley to star.  

     With persistence Margery Kempe herself could appreciate, Wulp spent time trying to persuade Robert Whitehead, one of New York’s most successful producers at the time, to stage the show after Whitehead expressed interest.  This effort also failed.

     Wulp’s break came after Whitehead’s secretary sent a copy to the managing director of the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

     “Within a day they agreed to do the play.  It was an enormous success.”

    The play got great reviews and earned Wulp a Rockefeller Grant.  That was in 1958.

     The following year it was produced Off-Broadway with vastly different results.  He was living with a man “who fancied himself a director” and who encouraged Wulp to “rewrite it out of existence.”

     “It was a total disaster,” Wulp said, even though it starred Frances Sternhagen, who would go on in later years to win two Tony Awards, and Gene Hackman, who went on to be a famous movie star.  

     “It was so awful it was unbearable so I put it in a box in the attic and tried to forget about it, but I never really did.”

     The play remained tucked away all that time until two years ago when Wulp was approached by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, which wanted to buy all of his theatre and dance photographs.  In addition to playwriting, his career has included photography, painting, Tony Award-winning producing, directing and award-winning scenic design.  When he went to the attic to look for the negatives he found the four plays he had written as a young man.

     As he reread them he had a strong sense that Margery Kempe was a good play and could be revived successfully if he could persuade Austin Pendleton to direct it.  Through a connection, he sent it to Pendleton, a highly respected director, actor and writer, who said yes.

     “I read it about a year ago and really loved it,” Pendleton said in a telephone interview.  “It’s not like any other play.  I thought it was funny and I was kind of moved by it.  A story of someone who tries to find themselves no matter how outlandish they are is always moving if it’s well written.”

     In that aspect, Pendleton sees Kempe as a woman of our day.

     “In that period of time it was not a quest a lot of people took on.  They weren’t allowed, especially women.” 

     The production features nine cast members taking on all the parts, with Andrus Nichols in the lead.  Cynthia Nixon, who is now running for governor of New York, played Kempe in a reading last fall.  Her mother had been in the previous production all those decades ago. 

     Wulp said audience members who love the book “probably take Margery very seriously,” but hopes they’ll have a good time and learn that “life is funny.”  He says he heard no objections from book fans in the past productions.

     “Nobody writes plays for women anymore, so the possibility of finding a women’s play is odd, in a way,” he said.  “It’s about what’s going on now.  As soon as she sets up in business, people mistake her reasons and think she’s out for sex and harass her.

     “I feel it somehow affirms life, all that energy going into being something special.  We all think we’re the center of the universe.  It keeps us alive.”

     Asked what he imagines Kempe would think of her stage portrayal, he says she’d be delighted.

     “It’s what she wanted to do, to be famous.”

Photo, by Carol Rosegg, of Andrus Nichols and Jason O'Connell (foreground) with Pippa Pearthree