Saturday, October 27, 2007

She does Channing, Garland, Merman, and LuPone, but remarkably Maggie Graham is no drag queen.

Ain't No Drag

Starring Maggie Graham
The Triad158 W. 72nd St.
Sat. 9 p.m.
Through year-end
$25 plus two drinks
212-868-4444 or
As I was leaving Maggie Graham's entertaining cabaret "Carol Channeling," an elderly audience member turned to her companion and asked, "Was she a drag queen?"
Well, no, she's actually a beautiful and talented young woman with a powerful set of pipes who in her 70- minute act impersonates Carol Channing channeling various living and deceased divas of the Great White Way from Garland through LuPone to Chenowith and Menzel. But she could learn a trick or two from a good drag queen.
Graham has a super voice and can bang out a brassy number with the best of them. Wearing her frowzy ash blond Channing wig and a red sequin drop hem dress with fringe, she plants her legs like fresh saplings on the stage and leans slightly forward in the best ex-chorus gal turned Broadway belter style.
The ridiculous and unnecessary conceit of the show, something about Carol going to the dentist for a loose tooth and suddenly becoming a kind of radio receiver for her musical theater colleagues, is just an excuse for Graham's homage to the ladies who munch scenery and dine out on catchy melodies and zippy lyrics. She obviously loves all these gals and she sings some of their biggest hits straight, with no embellishments or topically changed lyrics. Her voice is all throaty gravel when she does Channing's signature "Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend" and brilliantly captures LuPone's nasal electric syrup tones for "You're the Top." Less effective , or recognizable actually, is her Doris Day doing "I Have a Secret Love" or Angela Lansbury singing "If He Walked Into My Life" from "Mame."

But where the drag queen tutoring could help Graham is in recognizing that impersonation is based on significant and comedic exaggeration, a rule she follows only intermittently. Still, the trio version she does of LuPone (really her most dead-on imitation), Bernadette Peters, and the Merm doing "Rose's Turn" is worth the 25-buck cover and two-drink minimum.
"Carol Channeling" is a really fun evening and Graham has the zest and verve to pull it off, especially in the caring hands of her cutie pie musical director and pianist Aaron Beck. While the framing device and inane patter should just be scraped, what's great about Graham is her real stage presence that shines through the impersonation. I mean it as a compliment that the act made me crazy curious to hear how she would sing, just her, not through the lens of anyone else's style. I'll bet it would be something to see and hear.

©GayCityNews 2007

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Backstage review of Kosher Harry at NY Deaf Theatre

Kosher Harry
October 16, 2007
By Christopher Murray
British writer Nick Grosso's absurdist Kosher Harry is more a collection of bilious racist rants than a play. As such, it would seem an odd choice for the ultra-liberal Nicu's Spoon or the disability- and difference-savvy NY Deaf Theatre. But it turns out that ambition is the calling card of these two collaborating companies. They have much method to their madness in giving this play its U.S. premiere.
Kosher Harry's is the name of a deli catering to the often wealthy, often Jewish residents of swanky nabe St. John's Wood in London. The normal harmonies of regulars chatting up the waitresses while sipping tea or munching cheese knish are sent into discord by the arrival of a genially provocative young man played, as are all four of the play's characters, by two actors, one speaking and one using American Sign Language in a fascinating stereophonic style (Andrew Hutchinson speaking, Kimberly Mecane signing in this case).
It only takes a minute to adjust to the double casting, and one quickly merges the two simultaneous performances, much like the two images in a pair of binoculars meld into one. That the actors occasionally comment on or interact with their doppelgangers is more than just a practical stage device for an audience composed partially of the deaf or hearing-impaired. It becomes a perfect cracking open of the wrenching thematic content about how we split ourselves in two when we indulge in fostering divisions between our experience and that of those we label "other."
A kooky waitress with tortoise-shell glasses and dangling lemon-and-lime-colored earrings (S. Barton-Farcas speaking, Jennifer Giroux signing) starts out flirting with the young man but quickly begins a screed against her unseen fellow server, who emigrated from the former Soviet Union. "All they do is gossip about you," she says hypocritically. "Sowing the seeds of conflict."
But the waitress' sexual jealousies and blatant xenophobia only set the stage for similarly casual arias of attack by a cabbie (Alvaro Sena speaking, Michael DiMartino signing) and his charge, a widowed grand dame supposedly half deaf herself and confined to a wheelchair (Wynne Anders speaking, Shira Grabelsky signing).
The speaking actors appear to have more stage training than their signing counterparts. Anders' old woman is exceedingly touching in her wistful bemusement, and Sena's cabbie makes a kind of ballet out of his foul-mouthed leering and swagger. And while the staging (Barton-Farcas and Aaron Kubey share directing duties) is mostly stagnant, the two-hour barrage of vitriol becomes overwhelming.

The lesson of Kosher Harry is exceedingly timely and apt: hatred is most dangerous when embedded and normalized into the daily rituals and conversations of our lives.
Presented by Nicu's Spoon in association with NY Deaf Theatre at Nicu's Spoon, 38 W. 38th St., 5th floor, NYC. Oct. 12-28. Wed.-Sun., 8 p.m. (212) 352-3103 or

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Two recent reviews for Backstage

October 11, 2007
By Christopher Murray
This past summer, enterprising Stagefarm commissioned 10-minute plays on the theme of vengeance from five talented playwrights as a response to "the heightened climate of retribution in this country and the world today," according to a program note from Artistic Director Alex Kilgore, who also directed the first and last entries, with Ari Edelson taking on the other three.
The quickly written results, which might have benefited from a little additional time to ripen, are nevertheless provocative and impassioned and highly energized by a talented cast of five young actors.
Gina Gionfriddo's Squalor starts the evening with a duo whose job it is to lure supposed pedophiles from chat rooms into law enforcement snares. Marnie (Carrie Shaltz) is all venom and certainty in carrying out her mission, her back arched like a cobra's as she commands her underling, Pete (David Wilson Barnes), to read out the chat room conversations: "You be the perv; I'll be the prey." Pete expresses empathy toward a lonely man (the creepily endearing David Ross) primed for entrapment and in doing so reveals his own isolation and the difficulty inherent in maintaining moral superiority without giving way to viciousness.
In Julian Sheppard's Skin & Bones, Jesse (Lisa Joyce), intent on revenging the murder of her parents, has joined some sort of paramilitary vigilantes, but a crisis of faith in the brutal mechanisms of vengeance leads her to a betrayal of her green-gloved and blood-splattered partner, Alex (Michael Mosley), even as he hacks up the offal of her latest dismembered victims.
Giftbox by Francine Volpe concerns two sisters whose lives have taken markedly different directions, with slacker chick C (Shaltz) coming in crisis to ask for support and money from her as yet unwed and pregnant sister A (Joyce), who has renegotiated many of her goals and dreams.
Ron Fitzgerald's Rats has Ray (Ross) being held hostage by a bathrobe-wearing, pistol-toting dropout of an ad copywriter, Tom (Mosley), who wants him to explain the solicitation letter he wrote for a "Save the Children" campaign.
The last piece, Neena Beber's Specter, imagines the final conversation between weirdo music producer Phil Spector (an inspired Barnes, all stooped and twitchy) and his doomed paramour, Lana Clarkson (Joyce).
Each of the plays exhibits the use of exciting and quirky language to pose engrossing questions about the corrosive cost to the soul of retaliatory rage. Each of the actors shows great facility and charisma in alternating between flat, throwaway affect and high-octane buffo caricature. Barnes and Joyce stand out, however, for the range and depth of their characterizations.
Presented by Stagefarm at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., NYC.Oct. 6-20. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.(212) 868-4444 or by Calleri Casting.
The Revenge of the Space Pandas or Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock
October 08, 2007
By Christopher Murray
David Mamet's charming children's theatre piece is making a reappearance as part of the Atlantic Theater Company's Atlantic for Kids program. The show concerns three friends: 12-year-old budding scientist Binky Rudich (Chris Wendelken), his enthusiastic pal Vivian Mooster (Nicole Pacent), and their slightly stuffy 1920s-golf-outfit-wearing friend Bob the Sheep (Michael Piazza).
A boring lunchtime avoiding Mom's calls to casserole is transformed when Binky's project, a two-speed clock, hurls them 50 light years away from Weekhawken, Ill. The friends must figure out how to get back home while at the same time avoiding the space panda security force of King George Topax (Dave Toomey), who has the ditzy ruler thing down pat. His Royal Retainer (Hannah Miller) calls him "your righteous indignation" and attempts to capture Bob the Sheep so the king can get wool for the letter sweater he wants more than anything else in the world. Sounds stupid? It is. The plot is the loosest of pretexts for puns, high jinks, and reinforcement of the message that friendship and loyalty are as valuable as excitement and adventure.
Among the student actors, Wendelken and Piazza have developed the most comedic confidence to throw lines away and so don't wind up laboring their bits as much as everyone else. But the esprit de corps among the actors is palpable, and because they are having such a good time with Mamet's wonderfully kooky lines — such as "When I grow up, all I want to be is flexible" — so does the audience, kids both little and big.
Presented by Atlantic for Kids
at the Atlantic Theater Company,
336 W. 20th St., NYC.Sept. 29-Oct. 14. Sat. and Sun., 10:30 a.m.
(646) 216-1190 or

The second of two articles on The Ritz on Broadway

(Kevin Chamberlin, starring in The Ritz and William Ivey Long, five time Tony award-winning costume design, inset)
A Cartoon from the '70s

The theater is very gay, they say, but it just doesn't get any gayer than the Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's farce The Ritz opening October 11 at Studio 54. The playwright, the director, the costume designer, the musical director, the lead actor, and much of the cast are all at the top of their field and they are all gayer than geese.
Originally produced in 1975, the play was embraced by straight audiences and became a hit on Broadway. It was subsequently filmed as a movie with its stars Rita Moreno, Jack Warden, and Jerry Stiller, successfully making the leap from the stage to celluloid. The play has languished since then, as its depiction of pre- AIDS sexual hijinks in a fictional Manhattan bathhouse was deemed in poor taste with HIV ravaging the gay community."
It's a celebration of pre-AIDS sexuality," said McNally. "I think we can enjoy that now without minimizing what has been suffered though the AIDS epidemic."
Joe Mantello, Broadway's current hottest director - he helmed the musical "Wicked" which remains the Great White Way's highest grossing show, as well as "Three Days of Rain" with Julia Roberts and "The Odd Couple" with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick - always wanted to bring "The Ritz" back. He suggested the idea to McNally who had worked with actress Rosie Perez on a revival of his play "Frankie and Johnny."

They thought she'd be perfect for the role of Googie Gomez, the bathhouse'sin-house chanteuse who has more ambition than singing talent."She's tremendously hardworking as an actress," said the play's star, out actor Kevin Chamberlin. "
This is the most strenuous play I've ever been in, just physically. With farce, you need to be at the top of your game and Rosie is just terrific."Chamberlin received kudos for his role as Horton the Elephant in "Seussical The Musical" and playing Mae West in drag in "Dirty Blond." "I've been nominated for two Tonys in plays where the fat balding guy gets to be the romantic lead, can you believe it?"
The handsome Chamberlin is highly regarded by his peers for his acting chops and is starring with Lily Taylor in the Lifetime series "State of Mind" that debuted this year. In "The Ritz," he plays a straight, Midwestern schmo who married into a Mafia family and hides in the bathhouse to escape the homicidal wrath of his brother-in-law. "It's really a wonderful ride," Chamberlin said. "Sometimes you do plays and the mood in the cast set by the lead actors is a not so good, but Rosie andI knew we wanted this to be fun and the entire cast is a joy to work with."
That cast is made up of some top talent, including Broadway musical maven Seth Rudetsky, who was a writer for the Rosie O'Donnell show and masterminded the popular Broadway Backwards fundraisers for the LGBTCommunity Center. He has a hilarious moment as one of the bathhouse clientele who enters an amateur talent show and sings "Magic to Do" from the '70s musical "Pippin." Rudetsky pulls double duty as the revival's musical director and put together Googie's '70s montage musical number that brings the house down. The comic actor Brooks Ashmanskas, last seen stealing scenes from Martin Shortin "Fame Become Me," plays the bathhouse's most flamboyant denizen wearing a flowing purple kimono into the steamroom. Eighties porn legend Ryan Idol is also in the cast, adding a big helping of daddy flavor to the group of mostly young actors who make up the mosteye-catching of the bathhouse's patrons.
All the this plays out on the stage of the notorious Studio 54, another survivor from the '70s, on a set that is like a Chinese box of doors, perfect for a farce that is all about entrances and exits. The costumes are designed by William Ivey Long, who has created the outfits for more than 60 Broadway shows and won five Tony awards. Long cites the '70s gay magazine After Dark as a prime source of inspiration for the sidepanel underwear, tight pants, and polyester quiana shirts.
Long recently reminisced about moving to New York in 1975 and living in the Chelsea Hotel at the time that he snuck into the second act of the original production of "The Ritz."Asked how gay men's presentation of self through clothes has changed since then, he said, "Gay men's bodies have changed. They are much more muscular now.The director was very careful with his casting of the patrons of "The Ritz" to not have men be too built up. I was able to use a lot of vintage clothes inthe show, so what you are seeing is straight from the '70s, including that purple kimono that Brooks wears!"
The representation of gay life from that period is very much skin deep in what Chamberlin called the "cartoon" vision presented in a farce like "The Ritz." But both McNally and Ivey, who both lived the New York gay life back at that time,are quick to point out that the piece has evolved into a comic homage to a time more innocent and certainly one full of wonderful sexual celebration for gay men.

©GayCityNews 2007

First of Two Preview Pieces on The Ritz on Broadway

Paean to the Tubs

Kevin Chamberlin, star of the revival of Terrence McNally's "The Ritz," seen with Matthew Montelongo, in chaps, in rehearsal.

Studio 54254 W. 54th St.
Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.,Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m.
In previews, opens Oct. 11 Through Dec. 9 $30-$95; or 212-719-1300

Playwright Terrence McNally sat down in his Village apartment recently to discuss the revival of his play "The Ritz" about a straight garbage company owner hiding from his homicidal Mafia brother-in-law in a notorious gay bathhouse. The farce was a hit when it first appeared and the film version with Jack Weston and Rita Moreno is a cult favorite.With the hottest director on Broadway, Joe Mantello, at the helm, and Rosie Perez and Kevin Chamberlin taking the lead roles, hopes are high for the Roundabout Theatre's production at Studio 54, now in previews and set to open October 11. But is the time right to mount a pre-AIDS play that revels in a spirit of sexual hedonism or have we lost our sense of humor about ourselves in the 32 years since the play first appeared?

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: How did the revival come about?
TERRENCE MCNALLY: Joe Mantello has wanted to do it with Rosie Perez for several years ever since she did my play "Frankie and Johnny." We agreed she'd be wonderful for it. It's taken several years for all of us to be available at the same time and for it to make sense for the Roundabout Theatre to produce. I'm really glad we are doing it at Studio 54. I think it's a great space for it because you are going into a notorious place from the '70s to see a play about a notorious place from the '70s. Then Kevin Chamberlin came along to join us and the time finally seemed right.

CM: How is the time right in terms of our culture?
TM: A good comedy is always welcome and if the play works at all it's as a sex farce and a funny one. You don't need a time in your culture to enjoy a good comedy, but I think it's the right time now to look back at that whole period of liberation that was the story of the '70s. It's very much a pre-AIDS play. At the height of the plague certainly the play couldn't be done, but I think we can look back now and celebrate what was wonderful about the sexual liberation and revolution. We had to wait this long to do it again.

CM: Were there any changes that you made?
TM: No, if people don't get all the references, well, I saw "King Lear" at BAM the other night and I didn't get all the references Shakespeare included but you get the sense of it. The year the play was written New York had like ten competing bathhouses, the Everard, Man's Country, etc., and my fictitious Ritz. But we didn't update any of that since there aren't ten big bathhouses operating in New York any more so that would be inaccurate.

CM: There were a couple little changes made to language that could be interpreted as references to AIDS?
TM: There was a line about wearing slippers because of not wanting to get athlete's foot, and someone says you'd be lucky if that's all you caught. We removed that because it would just make the audience uncomfortable or think of AIDS. I wasn't even thinking of AIDS when I wrote it of course, I was thinking of syphilis or gonorrhea. But that's all we've done.The play was written at the height of "this is great, this is fun" and heterosexuals were doing the same thing. Plato's Retreat was going strong. So it wasn't just a gay phenomenon. A lot was happening in New York in that period and I think it's nice to look back at and celebrate it.

CM: Did you think about how the play might reflect on our new repressive era, like for example the whole dust-up about poor Senator Craig and his toe-tapping in the men's room?
TM: The play is about homophobia and its defeat at the hands of liberation, so that's there, but I didn't rewrite anything to reflect current times, there's not a new line in the play.

CM: Do you think audiences will be thinking about current events like the Senator Craig thing when they see the play now?
TM: Well, there is an entrapment in the play, but it's so comic. There's the dumb, straight arrow detective and the violent homophobe Mafia guy wanting to come up with grounds to kill his brother-in-law but they are such figures of absurdity, which I guess you could say the senator is, too. Those identifications are parallels an audience may make, but I've not done anything to make them. The self-loathing homosexual, like the senator I assume is, is really not addressed in the play. It's about homosexuals who are really happy and comfortable being who they are, including being chubbychasers and all sorts of other things. There's no one in the bathhouse who doesn't want to be, let's put it that way.

CM: In the play, everyone at the Ritz is celebrating their homosexuality in a way that we don't so much now. People in bathhouses and sex venues these days are engaging in very serious performances of their persona now.
TM: To my knowledge there's nothing like the clubs of the '70s now.

CM: I was hoping you would tell me that the whole cast of "The Ritz" had gone on a field trip to a bathhouse during rehearsals.
TM: Maybe they did! That's their business! I don't even know the sexual proclivities of all the cast members. It's a big cast, as many as we had originally. The trick was finding enough bodies that didn't look too perfect as so many gay men today seem to project such physical perfection with abs and all. That wasn't true in those days. It was more the drugs and the sideburns and the Afro you were proud of.Mark Spitz was a body ideal at the time of this play. There was this famous poster of him that everybody owned even if it was inside a closet door. You look at it now and it's this skinny little guy with long hair and he was a sexual fantasy, it shows how much we've changed.

CM: How do you think that the stories that we as gay men need and want to be told have changed since the '70s?
TM: It's nice to be reminded of a time before AIDS. The younger generation doesn't know of that time. It's a celebratory play, not a cautionary play. I think a healthy society can look at itself at any period in its evolution. Some are less enjoyable than others.To pretend AIDS didn't happen would be as irresponsible as pretending the sexual revolution didn't happen and the early days of Stonewall. The play is very much in the same time as Stonewall. I mean Bette Midler sang at the baths with Barry Manilow as her accompanist and she sang after the first Gay Pride Parade in Washington Square.

CM: Where you there?
TM: Yes, it was amazing. She sang "Friends" to thousands just a couple blocks from here. I saw her at the baths, too! Those kinds of performances are where the idea for the Googie Gomez character that Rosie Perez is playing now came from. The entertainment was just at a much higher level than Googie is! I was even at the Continental Baths the notorious night when Eleanor Steber gave an opera recital and Leonard Bernstein and his wife were there! It was the era of radical chic, a crazy time of drugs and a lot of sex and a lot of laughter. People didn't stay home, they went out every night. I went out every night, but that was 30 years ago!

CM: You once called "The Ritz" a subversive play.
TM: I said it was subversive and I was surprised it was on Broadway. I was surprised it ran for a year and that straight audiences would come and enjoy this sex farce. It just says gays can make as much fools of themselves trying to get laid as straight people can.

©GayCityNews 2007