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"We didn't want to do a historical document, because she didn't save the nation or make the first flag," Wilson continues.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."

The version that will land feet first in Broward this January, then travel to Dade in May, is more polished than the scrappy production that seemed without a future. "In one bit we used to come off the stage and dance on tables where people had their drinks," he laughs, recounting the show's early days. "One of the original guys was real big [strikes bodybuilder pose], and he'd go through the tables."

The current look and content of Tap Dogs evolved during the rehearsal process. "We went into rehearsal, and Nigel [director Nigel Triffitt] came in with this little model of the set," remembers Read. "It looked like popsicle sticks and bits of string. We couldn't believe it. Then every day in rehearsal another piece would be added. We'd muck about with it and say, 'What are we going to do with this?' It came together in parts."

One thing Read hopes never changes is the troupe's interaction with the audience. In fact, a sign posted at the Union Square Theatre tells jaded New Yorkers that the cast meets with fans at the stage door after each performance, a practice Read says started in Australia. "Yeah, we're happy to talk. We used to do that. Then here we'd be coming out of the theater and we saw people weren't sticking around. We said, 'Hey, put the sign up.'"

Sighting a Tap Dog as one exits a theater is one thing. Distinguishing the cast from the crowds when the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent pulls into the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts in late April will be something else again. Based on Puccini's masterpiece La Boheme, about ill-fated love among artists in Paris, this rock and roll update may be set in Manhattan's SoHo but it could pass for SoBe. Rent's modern bohemians include rock composers, drag queens, exotic dancers, performance artists, filmmakers, people with AIDS, junkies, and other downtown denizens, all of whom fight for life, love, and a kind of success that doesn't require selling out.

Over lunch in a SoHo restaurant not too far from the musical's purported setting, choreographer Marlies Yearby agrees that Lincoln Road regulars would seem at home on the Rent set; in fact, several months ago the producers held an open casting call in Miami, but no one was hired. "We cast looking for a look," she explains. "In every company there's a person who has had no theater experience or very little theater experience."

Nominated for a Tony Award for her ability to take scruffy young people and make them act and move on-stage like scruffy young people, Yearby alters her choreography for each new actor. "So much of my work evolves out of a gesture or movement," she observes. "Angel [the show's outrageous drag queen] jumping up on the table came out of the way he [actor Wilson Jermaine Heredia] was in rehearsals: He'd always jump up on the table with the script. And I said, 'Put on these heels and jump up there.' It came out of who he was. Each cast has its own character and its own choreography. You could see a different company and see a different show." Then, with tired though good-natured resignation, she adds, "I'm always in re-create mode. If I had to regurgitate shows, I'd probably slit my wrists."

While the 37-year-old choreographer collaborates with her hip young cast, the show's 32-year-old producer, Jeffrey Seller, refines strategies for turning Gen X-ers into ticket buyers. Sitting in his theater district office, with the Tony Award he received when Rent was named Best Musical of 1996 on the shelf behind him, Seller relates, "The ad campaign in general was very rock and roll and aimed at the people that went to rock concerts. People would see pictures of the cast and think, 'This is about people like me.' Rent speaks to our generation of theatergoers."

Building on the show's appeal to twentysomethings, tickets for the first two rows of TOPA will be sold to students for $20 on the day of the show. According to two people I met at a Sunday evening performance, that's a deal -- they paid $20 just to stand and watch the musical from the back of Broadway's Nederlander Theatre.

Jennifer Mayhew, a 23-year-old from New Jersey, was seeing Rent for the seventh time -- after having also seen that same day's matinee performance. "I connect with the characters," she remarks, unwittingly echoing Seller's words. "The play deals with things people our age deal with." She has already purchased tickets for another performance. Ditto the woman standing next to her, 22-year-old Shana Jones from Chicago, who saw Rent on tour in St. Paul and Boston, and who on this Sunday is seeing the Broadway company's production for the fourth time. "I like the energy; it's a different feeling," she all but testifies. "Every time I see it, it makes me feel better about my life."

Before meeting each other in person at the theater, Mayhew and Jones became acquainted through postings they made to the Rent message boards found in the Playbill area of America Online. They are just two of a growing number of fans who leave theaters only to continue applauding on the Internet. And their enthusiasm isn't confined to message boards: When the producers of Big shut down their home page, they left a link to an unofficial site run by Paul R. McCaffrey, a devoted follower of the show. Thanks to McCaffrey, if you can't wait until the David Shire/Richard Maltby, Jr., musical version of the hit 1988 Tom Hanks movie arrives at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in January, you can surf over to members.aol.com/HiReeds/big.html and find out how the huge piano the cast dances on really works or read about how Big was rated in the ultrasecret Tony nominating meeting.

On the other hand, if you're more intrigued by comedian Steve Martin's play about an imaginary meeting between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso (Picasso at the Lapin Agile, scheduled for the Parker Playhouse and Royal Poinciana Playhouse in February and March), then set your server to www.webcom.com/ shownet/ tots/ picasso.html. Once there, you can read articles about the wild-and-crazy playwright or link to a 1940 FBI interview with Einstein regarding anti-bomb nuclear physicist Leo Szilard. You can even visit a cyber museum of Picasso's masterpieces.

The well-named Rent Website (www.siteforrent.com) offers two options. A self-proclaimed "low rent" area for people with antiquated computers like mine features cast biographies and reviews, while a state-of-the-art site boasts taped performances and downloadable songs. If virtual reality isn't enough, you can apply for an internship on Tap Dogs at www.tapdogs.com.

The above-named sites, as well as home pages for most of the other entries in the Broadway Series slate, can be accessed through www.theatre-central.com. Run by Playbill, this site offers links to most regional, Broadway, and London companies and includes current production listings and ways to order tickets. With just one click of your mouse you can shop for coffee mugs, order that elusive script, download snippets of the newest cast recordings, check Broadway's weekly grosses, take a theater quiz, or look for an acting or theater management job. All the global village is a stage, and now it's coming to a theater or computer near you.

For information about the MasterCard Broadway Series, call 800-939-8587.

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