by Rob Lester
"As a true musical theatre freak - the kind who treasures every cast recording, the more obscure the better - Whoop-Up has long been a favorite of mine. Not only do I have that fabulous reissued CD, but I also have the original album framed and hanging in my living room." Director David Norman's enthusiasm for the non-smash hits of Broadway is exactly what Opening Doors needed to dust off and resurrect a short-lived musical like this one. In this, their first season, the company has also taken on two with scores by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Bring Back Birdie, their sequel to Bye Bye Birdieand It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman).
There is skill and dedication, but also a true sense of joy and camaraderie, in the zing of their productions. They dig in, have fun and are neither blinded nor daunted about the shows' reputations as troubled. There's no museum quality over-reverence or tentative approach. The shows are done with trimmed-down versions of the scripts with minimal production values. But there's no shortage of talent or enthusiasm.
The company's previous work has been well received (including the warm approval of Charles Strouse who attended), and performances have sold out. Unlike some "concert" presentations, the actors are not tied to scripts and they have real choreography despite the tiny stage area. Opening Doors is run by Suzanne Adams, Hector Coris and Eric Martin, singer-actors who previously worked together in a revue co-written by Hector, What's Your Problem? Eric and Suzanne were in the company of It's a Bird ..., but none of them are in the new show; they are producers and artistic directors of the company instead while also
Hector is producing Whoop-Up, which debuted on Broadway just before Christmas of 1957 and disappeared shortly after the following Ground Hog Day in the shadow of mostly poor reviews. "I have always had a great affinity for the underdog, the forgotten or neglected musicals, and you don't get much more underdog than this one," admits David. "But just because a show was a flop, does that mean it should be buried and forgotten, or worse - sneered at? Over the years Whoop-Up's flop status has grown to such mythic proportions that many today consider it to be the bastard step-child of the musical theatre. My main goal is to change that perception, even if just a little."
David Norman says, "Two things Hector told me at the beginning were that I could only use 11 actors and that the script had to be less than 90 minutes. Cutting it down was actually pretty easy. I had to eliminate a number of lesser characters, but by doing that I was able to boil the show down to its two main plots, keeping it moving swiftly from one song to the next."
The complicated story takes place in Montana and centers on the ups and downs of a bar situated on land that straddles the border of a dry county and one where alcohol can be served (be careful where you put your beer bottle), romances, a car salesman, a Buick and Native Americans (thus the title). "Being offered the chance to direct this show really was one of those impossible dreams," David says. "I had never read the script so I only vaguely knew the plot from the liner notes and from Ken Mandelbaum's Not Since Carrie ... after reading the script, I understood more clearly why the show failed in 1958. The problem was not in the score. Sure there a couple of questionable numbers, but most musicals have one or two of those. And those not-so-great songs are more understandable when they are placed in context with the script. The problem lies in the book and the original source material."
David is puzzled as to why anyone ever thought that the original novel, Stay Away, Joe by Dan Cushman, would make a good musical. "Reading the novel today is not a pleasant experience. It portrays the Native Americans as lazy drunks out to steal from everyone."
Attending the show on opening night, which happens to be her birthday, will be the composer's widow, singer Sandy Stewart. She'll be joined by their son, jazz pianist Bill Charlap. Also in the crowd will be Eddie Lawrence, who wrote Kelly with Moose Charlap.
The company has enjoyed their journey with this show, but it got a rocky start. ""The trouble came when we got the music," recalls David. "The score as a whole doesn't exist any more. Sandy Stewart sent us everything that she had." This included everything that was in the final version of the score, "but they were in varying stages of 'complete.' Some had full accompaniment, some only had vocal lines, and some were original pencil renderings done by Moose himself before the show went into rehearsal. We have had to piece the score together as closely as we could. 'Quarrel-tet,' the best and hardest song in the show, was incomplete and my musical director, Ray Bailey, recreated it from the album." (That original vinyl record and CD reissue with bonus tracks - mostly pop recordings of several songs from the score - were both issued briefly and became collector's items.) Not recorded on the cast album was a song at the end of the show called "She Or Her." They won't be doing that number because the music has not survived, although the lyrics were found.
David sees it this way: "Some flops get second or third - or more - chances to live again and be fixed because people care about them and believe in them enough to go back and try again. In our own small way we are doing that for Whoop-Up now after 50 years." Acknowledging that he is more than a little passionate about old shows, he adds, wryly, "There are thousands of old shows out there that are never done anymore and that is a shame ... Yes, I have seen The Drowsy Chaperone and I found Man In Chair to be a kindred spirit. Is that sad? I'm not sure."
Opening Doors' Whoop-Up is produced by Hector Coris. The production is directed by David Norman with musical direction by Ray Bailey. Music by Moose Charlap, Lyrics by Norman Gimbel. The book is by Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin (the original producers) along with Dan Cushman, who wrote the original novel. Choreography by Dawn Trautman.
The cast includes Matt David, David Demato, Christopher deProphetis, Alison Renee Foster, Nicole Hilliger, Dan Joiner, Gretchen Reinhagen, Michelle Solomon, Rachel Louise Thomas, Brian Walker, and John Weigand.
Tickets are $20 + 2-drink minimum. Members of AEA pay only a $15 + 2-drink minimum. For reservations, call (212) 255-5438 after 4 p.m. daily or anytime through the Opening Doors website: www.ODTConline.org.