Finally, the theatrical famine that plagued South Florida this year at Yuletide 0.is ending, and new shows are actually opening again. Barry Steinman, president of the Theatre League of South Florida, told me he isn't sure why so many houses went dark over these holiday months (unlike last year and the one before that), nor am I, but both of us are trying to find out. Finances probably figure into the picture to a large extent, because companies can no longer support rising production costs with reduced ticket sales .
Personally, I was growing tired of writing critical essays instead of reviews; I suspected my next commentary might be reduced to "why glow tape works in the dark." But, fortunately I am saved, and have not one but two new shows to discuss. The only problem is that I'm not quite sure either one qualifies as theater. I do know, however, that both provide solid entertainment.
To me, musical revues always seem to belong more on a Las Vegas stage or on a cruise ship than in a legitimate venue for musical comedy and drama. However, over the years, several major hits have bucked that concept and won Tony Awards for theatrical excellence when they actually were simple revues, Will Rogers Follies being the most recent example. While I still naturally crave a dramatic presentation with an actual plot, I am happy that the "shows" (I can term them nothing else) I recently saw boasted tremendous talent and genuine excitement.
Before attending, I did not think much of the idea behind La cage aux folles Variety Revue. Drag queens dressed up as Madonna, Streisand, Midler, and other females who already look like drag queens, lip-synching to the divas' hit songs. Sounded more like something I would have attended twenty years ago, very late at night with a few friends when we all had had too much to drink.
But thanks to the talent on view at this revue, I was continuously amused and surprised. Although the concept of the show is very much as I just described it, the whole effort works much better on stage than when described on the page. The dancing is exquisite (some of the best I've seen anywhere since I left New York), the costumes divine (and truly expensive), and the impersonators themselves display so much skilled movement and often come so frighteningly close to the original, you almost gasp.
However, a few members of the cast look like grotesque caricatures and don't lip-synch very well: Anthony Edwards (playing Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler) and Joe Perotta as Liza Minnelli are sometimes embarrassing to watch. Their huge bodies, broad shoulders, and painfully exaggerated movements are more amateurish than amusing. Perotta as Cher, on the other hand, is pretty good, but that might be due to the fact that Cher is huge, broad-shouldered, and exaggerated. At the very least it's amazing that Perotta's body looks as good as it does in Cher's famous almost-nude leather getup. David Allen as Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall isn't annoying or convincing; rather, he's bereft of charisma, so neither character comes through.
Then there are the rewarding performances, and they are special enough to warrant the price of a seat. Timothy Murphy plays a lethal Joan Rivers (who emcees the revue); he may be even funnier and nastier than the lady herself. He works the crowd like a well-seasoned professional, and his impersonations are as witty and acute as his jokes.
J. Folia is Madonna -- you truly wonder if the real thing hasn't dropped by to visit when he first appears. He's so similar to Ms. Ciccone and actually lovelier (even more petite) that I'm sure a lot of guys could be fooled. Besides his looks, Folia is an excellent mimic and dancer, as is the remarkable Joby Rogers as Michael Jackson. Rogers could give depositions in court for Jackson, and no one would ever know the difference, except for the fact that Rogers's face looks smoother and more human. His dancing skills would definitely give the gloved one some room for pause.
As created by Lou Paciocco, the spectacle -- complete with lovely and gifted real female dancers -- moves quickly and seamlessly. You have to be in the mood for this ultimate offering in camp entertainment, but if you are, I wouldn't miss it.
You also have to be in a certain mellow mood to enjoy some of the rather dated but still lovely music of Leonard Bernstein in New Theatre's tribute to the great composer and conductor, Lenny. Again, if this suits your tastes, you'll love the show. Taking selections from Bernstein's major Broadway hits and other musical achievements, from On the Town and Peter Pan to West Side Story and Mass, four singers pay great homage to this master musician's complex melodies. In particular, the male voices of David Alt and Aaron Cimadevilla seem to perfectly suit the majority of Bernstein's music, although Kimberly Daniel and Sally Cummings sing beautifully, as well. Again, the evening never grows tedious, and you do get some information about Bernstein's career. The show is mostly music though, and as played by pianist Alan Mason and vocalized by the cast, you couldn't ask for finer sounds.
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And while listening to these songs, I couldn't help but long for a time when composers (such as Bernstein) and lyricists (such as Stephen Sondheim, Alan Jay Lerner, and Stephen Schwartz, all represented in the revue) showed off erudition, intellect, and exceptional talent. That stands in marked contrast to today, when even show songs seem composed of a sweet little melody and a few lines that rhyme.
By the way, the Coconut Grove Playhouse is presenting another musical revue as its next show, opening January 25 A Sweet & Hot -- celebrating the songs of Harold Arlen, such as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Stormy Weather." We obviously have to wait a little longer before a majority of theaters present drama on their stages. Until then, we have no other choice than to sing along with the greats and those who are costumed as greats.
Juan Cejas of ACME Acting Company wanted to straighten out the impression that his company was not producing shows because they are in financial trouble, so he called me up to emphasize the point. He said that ACME was actually debt-free and that grosses from The Elephant Man were their highest since their last hit at the Colony Theater, Prelude to a Kiss. "We budgeted so that we needed only 50 to 75 people per night to cover our costs. However, if someone came into the Colony and there were only 75 people there, it may have looked empty."
Cejas says that ACME cannot pay high Miami Beach rents "of 20 to 30 dollars a square foot" for a permanent space, partly because there is little corporate support. Also, the Colony Theater, which they can afford, is heavily booked this year. According to Cejas, these were his main reasons for cancelling Death of a Salesman, scheduled to open New Year's Eve. "Our number-one priority is to stay open," he says, "we would have only had ten or twelve performances of the show and so we needed 300 people every night, which is not doable." Cejas does promise a new ACME production to grace the Colony in July of this year, with plays to follow in October 1994, and in January and March 1995. "For the first time in seven years, we're becoming smart, responsible business people," explains Cejas, saying that he will raise the funds first and produce the shows once ACME's foundation is even more rock solid. Good thinking.