On the Road Again

With an ad in the New York Times that reads "Never out of style ... but heading out of town," Full Gallop is just one of the Big Apple's current hits now packing its trunk for a road tour that will include a stop in South Florida. During a recent trip to New York City, I spoke with principals from Full Gallop, Tap Dogs, and Rent, all coming our way as part of the MasterCard Broadway Series.

Actress Mary Louise Wilson is enjoying a wild ride with Full Gallop, her one-woman show about the life of this century's preeminent arbiter of fashion, the late Diana Vreeland (editor of Harper's Bazaar from 1937 to 1962, then editor in chief of Vogue until 1971). Since creating Full Gallop in 1989 with her coauthor Mark Hampton, Wilson has starred in two regional productions (at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego), and then in 1995 opened in New York, where it has enjoyed rabid success at two different venues. Having grabbed a 1996 Obie Award for her portrayal of Vreeland, Wilson is now preparing to bring her sophisticated show to Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse and Palm Beach's Royal Poinciana Playhouse.

Set in the editor's famous red-on-red Park Avenue apartment, Full Gallop unveils a catty, chatty Vreeland who dishes famous friends and offers wry observations such as "I'm a great believer in vulgarity. We all need a splash of bad taste. No taste is what I'm against." While tastes differ, Wilson believes that style -- typified in both Vreeland's work and her approach to life -- has universal appeal, a fact that compensates for some theatergoers' unfamiliarity with the fashion doyenne. "We did this show in San Diego," she notes from a seat in the Westside Theatre an hour before a recent performance, "where they're not as sophisticated as in New York, and they got it. I've had people ask 'What the hell is this play?' but I've never had an audience remain blank until the end.

"We didn't want to do a historical document, because she didn't save the nation or make the first flag," Wilson continues. "We wanted to use her as a sort of model for a character. Our first obligation was to make a play. She really was good friends with Cole Porter, Jackie Onassis, Andy Warhol, Elsa Maxwell, and the Duchess of Windsor. It was heartbreaking to us the stuff we couldn't put in, because after a while it would just become storytelling and it must always have a flow."

Much of the production's dramatic pulse comes from the chummy rapport Wilson shares with the audience. "I don't pretend to be alone, and I talk to them," the actress explains. "To me, they are guests who arrived early. I've talked to the audience when a phone has gone off, or if someone sneezes, I'll say, 'Bless you.' I mean, you have to. There was one famous night where I was pausing and we heard, 'This is getting boring.' It was very distinct, and the whole audience went ooooh," Wilson says with a great intake of breath. "I sat there for a minute and then said, 'Well, you can always leave.' And later I thought, Oh, why didn't I say, 'Why didn't you go see Cats?'"

A snappy comeback to be sure, but I shudder to think what the real Vreeland would have made of Tap Dogs, in which six guys from Down Under tap-dance in work boots while strutting their stuff in shorts, ripped jeans, and T-shirts -- and in some instances no shirts. During the course of the plot-free performance, the tappers construct a set of tin, steel, and aluminum on which they pound out their technopop routines. After causing a sensation in Australia, Tap Dogs went on to win the Olivier Award in London for best choreography and an Obie in New York for unique theatrical experience.

Tap Dog Ben Read, who has been with the show since its premiere at Australia's Sydney Theatre Festival in 1995 right through to its current incarnation at off-Broadway's Union Square Theater, took a break from rehearsing with members of two different North American touring companies to talk about his upcoming return to Miami. Ten years ago Read won the Fred Astaire Performing Arts Association Championship here. "I was twelve and I went for a dance competition," he recalls in his Australian lilt. "I think it was the year Astaire died. I thought maybe I was going to get to meet him, but it didn't turn out to be."

Back home in the steel town of Newcastle, located just north of Sydney, Read continued his tap lessons and eventually hooked up with Dein Perry, the creative force behind Tap Dogs. "I knew his brother. We all kind of knew each other," Read explains. "When I was talking to Dein before it all started, [we thought] it wasn't something that was going to last. We figured we had the money to do the Sydney Festival and then maybe we'd tour. It would last maybe sixteen to eighteen weeks. Lookit, basically we're six blokes in jeans tap-dancing on metal, making a lot of noise."

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