By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
How's this as the basis for a cute musical?
A struggling but earnest theater group needs major structural renovations and secures grants from the county Cultural Affairs Council, among others. Things look bright. But just as the construction crews are about to begin, a major weather catastrophe A a hurricane named Andrew A spares almost every theater in the vicinity but this one, which it truly rips apart. Performers and stage hands from all over three counties come to help out, but it takes five months of work, donations, sweat, and corporate support before it can formally reopen to the public. Finally the time arrives and for their first production they attempt one of the most ambitious musicals created, certainly this theater's most elaborate production.
And it's a hit! A happy ending, just the way audiences like it.
Well maybe there's not enough meat for a musical, but it is the true story of The Actors' Playhouse in Kendall, which sustained more than one hundred thousand dollars' worth of Big Wind damage and now unveils the restored A and much improved A theater with a stunning production of Damn Yankees. Despite the fact that the 1955 Broadway show won three Tonys, ran longer than 1000 performances and considerably helped the careers of Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon, it's rarely been done in these parts and is scarcely revived in the rest of the country. Playhouse Artistic Director David Arisco, imagining a connection between the zippy show about baseball and local Marlin fever, secured the rights more than a year ago. Then he found himself battling Broadway moguls who also recently rediscovered this tuneful twist on the Faust legend, and plan a Great White Way revival next season. Arisco fortunately retained the chance to eclipse the big leaguers up North.
Here's my advice to the Broadway producers: Go see Arisco's version. A production can hardly get any better and the lead actor, Gary Marachek, would do just fine in the New York cast.
Marachek finds that perfect acting blend for musical comedy, between dedicated camp and just enough reality in his portrayal of Mr. Applegate (a.k.a. Satan), who drops in one night on a middle age baseball fan named Joe Boyd. And he makes Boyd a hard-to-refuse deal. In exchange for his soul, Applegate will turn Boyd back into a young hard-hitting buck named Joe Hardy, and let him almost single-handedly win the World Series playing for his favorite team, the Washington Senators. Win against the unbeatable A at least in those days A New York Yankees. Boyd packs a bag, leaves behind his beloved wife, and shakes on the deal, but not before hoodwinking the Devil into an escape clause. Although he later becomes a great ball player, Joe misses his wife and tries to renege. But the devil invokes all sorts of dirty tricks, including using the press (won't be the first time) and offering Joe the sexual skills of the ageless but still red hot "little" Lola. Does Joe get back to wife Meg or stay with Lola? Do the Senators win against those Damn Yankees? George Abbott's and Douglass Wallop's book still holds more surprises and moves at a faster pace than any modern TV sitcom or musical. It may not be earthshaking drama, but the tale's a whole lotta fun.
Add to that a delicious score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and you have a hell of a show. Songs like "(You Gotta Have) Heart," "Whatever Lola Wants," and "Two Lost Souls," wind up on your tongue in the shower the next day, no matter how many times you've heard the melodies before. Almost every one sounds like a hit, a batting average few composers today can boast.
To make the evening perfect, Arisco selected a multitalented cast and directed them impeccably. Against an impressive baseball dugout set design by Jeff Quinn, within a much brighter, better-equipped Actors' Playhouse, Marachek's Applegate charms, entertains, amuses, and even sings up a storm. Elizabeth A. Nemeth is most appealing and sympathetic as Meg and even small roles, such as a neighborhood busybody and baseball groupie played by Aimee Garcia provoke enormous delight. Sara-Page Hall as nosy reporter Gloria Thorpe brings nimble toes, a nice voice, and realistic acting to her bit. In the major role of young Joe Hardy, Jeff Staffaroni A who owns an exceptional voice, displayed to the max on such songs as "Goodbye Old Girl," and "A Man Doesn't Know" A and the well-built Chrissi Guastella as Lola act slightly on the stiff side; on the other hand, simply because they're not as exceptional as the rest of the cast and show doesn't mean they don't do a fine job overall.
Damn Yankees requires a large ensemble of players, split-second timing, and powerful talent. Broadway waited all these years to tackle this old jewel, and now Arisco beat them to it, in the process proving that local thespians have enough heart to give those Damn New Yorkers a run for their money.
Best wishes to the 70-year-old Frederick R. Von Langen, previously a member of the marketing department at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, for turning an old Art Deco movie house called the Surf Theater into a venue for live productions. There's every indication he'll succeed, if he keeps choosing shows as perfect for his audience as Sherry Glaser's one-woman quick change comedy, Family Secrets, and the upcoming Cantorial, a major hit last year for Brian C. Smith's Off-Broadway Theatre. Both selections, geared to an older, mainly Jewish audience, should do fine in this upper Collins Avenue location. Glaser's Secrets, which I reviewed when it packed the Coconut Grove Playhouse (prior to the Off-Broadway Theatre run) and did not appreciate, has improved over time. In her portrayal of three different generations of folk from a quirky Jewish family, Glaser's characters now emerge less mannered and more believable, and her comic timing owns a new snap and crackle. Although I still find the show's sentimentality too contrived and the jokes too far apart, the audience certainly enjoyed it on opening night and gave her a standing ovation. For reservations and more information on the Surf Theater (located at 7420 Collins Avenue) or on Family Secrets (which runs through March 14) call 861-1529.
Some applause and encouragement for local stage actors making forays into local film and TV gigs. Juan Cejas of ACME recently shot a role in the film Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, ACME's Pete De Leo will be seen in the first episode of NBC's South Beach series, and AREA stage veteran Allan Poe starts a weird and witty series The Mr. Poe and Mr. Stock Show on Channel 35 Wednesday at 3:00, Thursday at 9:00 p.m., and Friday at 9:30 a.m. Maybe all these newly arrived L.A. producers will do more than just take advantage of Florida's cheap production costs. Maybe they'll hire some local talent, which we certainly have. Stay tuned.
Finally, you should know that the Dade County Cultural Affairs Council, which just three years ago had the third largest statewide budget in the nation A about 19 million bucks A stands on the verge of losing every sou of the $9.9 million in its coffers, courtesy of Tallahassee. Technology's fine, folks, but if the arts are financially dismissed, society might as well replace its soul with a microchip. Honest, it's getting scary out there.