Regional Reviews: New Jersey
New Jersey Premieres for Two FringeNYC Successes
Four actors (and, at the piano, Mark T. Evans, who is supposed to be an untypically silent Leonard Bernstein) reenact the life of the exceptionally brainy Judy Holliday in the form of a nightclub musical revue in the manner in which The Revuers ostensively might have written and performed it when they spectacularly burst upon the New York entertainment scene at the Village Vanguard in 1938. Within this format, The Judy Holliday Story flashes forward and back in time with seemingly little purpose while making it increasingly difficult to place events in proper chronological order as the story progresses.
The extensive series of events are portrayed with remarkable accuracy. Hollywood was really interested only in Holliday and 20th Century-Fox reluctantly contracted the other Revuers in order to retain the services of the loyal Holliday who would not break up the group to go there. They were all reduced to "extras" in the release print of the film musical Greenwich Village. Comden and Green thereafter returned to New York where they were soon recruited by their friend Leonard Bernstein to collaborate on On the Town. According to playwright Bob Sloan, Holliday was annoyed that she was not invited to be part of that collaboration.
Holliday had a longer contract than the others and remained in Hollywood for a couple of additional films before being dropped by Fox herself. Returning to New York, Holliday received favorable attention for a featured role in a Broadway comedy (Kiss Them For Me). Six months later, in 1945, when Jean Arthur ran into difficulties out of town with a Garson Kanin play, Holliday was tapped to replace her as the iconic Billy Dawn in Born Yesterday. Eventually, Holliday won the 1950 Academy Award after Harry Cohn, apparently with a great deal of reluctance, cast her to recreate the role on film. She only beat out Bette Davis (All About Eve) and Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard).
Harry Cohn gave Holliday the one film a year contract that she wanted, and he continued to produce films for her during an extended period when she was unfairly denied television work because of the disgracefully unfair un-American activities of political opportunists and (dare I say, anti-Semitic) blacklisters.
Also depicted are Holliday's complicated relationship with her mother (her parents divorced when Holliday was six), her growing attachment to her son, her triumphant return to Broadway as (let's say it together) Ella Peterson in Bells Are Ringing, the incredibly sad, ill-fated attempt to return to Broadway in a play based on the life of Laurette Taylor (Laurette), and more, culminating with her succumbing to cancer in 1965 at the age of 43.
Surprisingly, Holliday's close and extended relationship with jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan after the collapse of her marriage is not depicted here (although a brief, unhappy fling with Nicholas Ray during her first sojourn in Hollywood is). Holliday wrote songs with Mulligan which were later recorded, and they collaborated on songs for a musical based on Anita Loos' play Happy Birthday which had a posthumous regional production. This is odd given the extensiveness of the play's range, the fact that much is made of the notion that Holliday was unhappy performing and wanted to be a writer ("acting is a very limited form of expression and those who take it seriously are very limited people"), and that she is shown to be at her happiest when writing songs for her son.
The original music (credited to Nate Sloan) seems to largely consist of material for The Revuers' scenes which bridge events here and there. Although there is no program credit for any catalogue songs, none of these resemble the very zany and witty Revuers songs which Comden and Green sang and recorded through the years (although Rin Tin Tin shows up in one as he does in the Styne-Comden and Green "Drop That Name from Bells Are Ringing). There are a couple of other songs over the course of the production, the only one of which that I recognized was Bells' "The Party's Over," which is beautifully sung by Pheonix Vaughn as Holliday. Pheonix Vaughn is a very human and likeable, three-dimensional Holliday, and is particularly funny in re-creating Billy Dawn. However, it is not the striking and brilliant star performance which for which a star vehicle such as this cries out.
With the exception of Judy's mother, all of the dozens of other roles are adeptly played by the evening's Comden and Green, Catherine LeFrere and Adam Harrington, reprising the roles that they played at the Fringe. Both give supple and amusing performances with a reasonable amount of verisimilitude to well known celebrities. In addition to Adolph Green, among those portrayed by Harrington are John Houseman, Orson Welles (Holliday worked as a secretary for the Mercury Theatre), Nicholas Ray, Garson Kanin, Harry Cohn, Tallulah Bankhead and Judy's musician husband Jonathan, among others too numerous to mention. In addition to Betty Comden, LeFrere characterizations include Katherine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis. However, they are rarely if ever the brilliant satirists Comden and Green playing the others.
Bonnie Black is fine as Judy's mother, Helen. However, author Bob Sloan seems ambivalent about this loving and helpful hanger-on of a mother who means well, but is also too emotionally demanding. This may well reflect the actual ambivalence of her daughter and others around them. However, the audience needs a firmer hold on Helen than Bob Sloan has thus far permitted us.
SuzAnne Barabas has directed with pace and verve, and elicited solid performances. However, there are obvious and serious problems with the play which there is no sign that there has been any attempt to correct. Possibly in his role as assistant director, author Bob Sloan has not given Barabas the freedom to shape the production with more consistency. Beyond the bewildering and pointless fractured time frames and the failure to make it clear that we are watching the brilliant Betty and Adolph portraying all of the multiple roles, problems include the inconsistent and mundane employment of the framing device of a Revuers performance, the inclusion of too many characters whose presence add little or nothing to the proceedings (even if the "What's My Line?" television crew of Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, and John Daly were wittily and accurately capturedand they are notthey would be too peripheral to justify their stage time). If The Judy Holliday Story wants to be an incisively satiric cabaret show about the brilliant, vibrant, star-crossed Holliday, it needs to be more consistent, sharper, wittier, clearer and deeper. If it is to be a biographic comedy-drama about her, then the cabaret frame should be ditched.
Much work remains to be done for The Judy Holliday Story to live up to its potential. For those of us who saw Judy Holliday on stage (and likely those who saw her films when they were first released), it hardly seems possible that 46 years have passed since the death of this endearing stage and screen personality. Such individuals likely account for Holliday bringing about the biggest box office rush in the history of NJ Rep. It is also likely that they will enjoy this fast and breezy show.
The Judy Holliday Story continues performances (Evenings: Thursday/Friday/Saturday 8 pm; Matinees Saturday 3 pm, Sunday 2 pm) through August 14, 2011, at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.
The Judy Holliday Story by Bob Sloan; directed by SuzAnne Barabas
The Theater Project informs us that its one act, seventy-five-minute, pocket parody Penny Penniworth, in which four actors play fourteen roles, "is Charles Dickens' 'lost' epic as mounted by a short staffed Theatre troupe with Royal Shakespeare Company aspirations."
Satirizing the novels of Charles Dickens and other Victorian popular sentimental novelists as well as the performances of "distinguished" "Masterpiece Theatre" style stage and screen adaptations, Penny Penniworth relates the story of the well-born Penny, whose father, Hapless Penniworth, loses the family fortune as his mansion sinks into the bog. He then dies as a result of choking on his "spotted dick" (pudding), leaving his widow and daughter destitute. The penniless Penny is badly put upon by an obnoxious suitor who announces himself as "Rupert Stryfe of the House of Stryfe." Her true love is the hapless, humble blacksmith Hotchkiss Spit. Spit is forced to leave town after almost killing Rupert. Spit is later presumed to have been lost at sea. Penny finds refuge as general assistant and companion to the reclusive, mournful Mrs. Havasnort. Thus, it is Dickens' "Great Expectations" of which Penniworth most puts us in mind.
Four terrific comic actors, all veterans of Theatre Project, give outstanding performances abetted by director Mark Spina's exuberant, and inventive direction. Flashing back and forth among roles and between genders, shamelessly mugging, and employing knockabout physical comedy and demented accents, the cast performs author Chris Weikel's puny, literate, low-brow high-brow send-up for all it's worth.
The contrasts displayed by each actor provide much delight. Rick Delaney is a graceful Mrs. Penniworth and also clambers about most amusingly as her daughter's preferred suitor Hotchkiss. In one scene, Jenelle Sosa as our heroine Penny, also plays opposite herself with demented brilliance in the role of the besotted hunchback Malodorous Dump. Harry Patrick Christian, the snobby, supercilious Rupert Stryfe, is also the speech-challenged, spitting coachman, Mr. Pinchnose. Terri Sturtevant is the melancholy Mrs. Havasnort as well as the brisk law firm solicitor ("Mr. Bunting is dead. I am Mr. Bunting".).
Its success at FringeNYC 2008, and its other productions Off and Off-Off Broadway, and its literate and literary humor notwithstanding, Penny Penniworth is a precious, specialized, small scale entertainment which will most delight audiences in tune with its style and subject matter.
P.S. There is a gender bending, twist ending for the "it is past time to stop judging others" generation that concludes the play with the evening's wittiest and most delightful moment.
Penny Penniworth continues performances (Thursday/Friday/Saturday 8 PM; Sun 3 PM) through August 7 at the New Jersey Arts Incubator at Essex Green, 495 Prospect Avenue, West Orange 07052, Box Office:1-800-838-3006; online: www.thetheaterproject.org.
Penny Penniworth by Chris Weikel; directed by Mark Spina