What an honor to be asked to write a Rialto column. Since what I was asked to write about was a musical I saw a little over a month ago and have already written about, many of you will have already read much of what follows. However, this piece has been modified and enhanced since it last appeared as a post on "All That Chat" - in the interim I conducted a brief, informal and extremely pleasant interview with the creators of The Fix, Messrs. John Dempsey (book & lyrics) and Dana P. Rowe (music). Aside from being very talented, theses two men are personable, humble and quite forthcoming in their answers to all questions put to them. As for me, I hope this is just the first of many Rialto columns I'm asked to write for Talkin' Broadway. So here goes...
Welcome to my Old World. In my world, everybody eats pretty well, sleeps when they can, and generally enjoys life to the extent their old bodies will allow. We stretch, we kvetch and we (occasionally) get to travel to Washington, D.C.....
It was Friday, and I was loving D.C. Having arrived early Thursday morning, I had already had an amazing behind-the-scenes tour of the State Department (and, no, I didn't get to see Mrs. Albright), strolled from the Einstein Memorial into the Lincoln Memorial and seen the new and wonderful Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial along the Tidal Basin. If you haven't been to D.C. lately or have never been at all, you must include this as a destination on any upcoming trip (the FDR Memorial opened in May '97). Later Thursday night, I joined my friends at a charming eatery close to Dupont Circle called The Mercury Grill where I had a delicious (tender, moist and succulent) Chilean sea bass. A wonderful rice concoction accompanied the fish. Amy (my host's girlfriend) had a different tasty fish and my buddy had some tantalizingly aromatic and wonderful meat dish (sorry, I don't remember what it was - it's now been over a month. Just go there; everything's good!) Since we were going home for cookies and Jerry (Seinfeld, that is), we skipped dessert. Thus, after discussing Amy's departure the following day to Ghana as part of the Presidential advance team, I left The Mercury Grill fat and happy.
The following day was show day. I had called the Signature Theatre on Thursday to secure our tickets and even spoken to JSY (known as "The Other Joseph From NYC" here on the forum) to see if we could hook up. So I was looking forward to finally meeting some of the active East Coast participants of Talkin' Broadway - Siobhan, Anne and Ed, as well as JSY. I got directions to the theatre (Thank God!), and spent the day excited about that night's show - Eric D. Schaeffer's American premiere production of Dempsey & Rowe's The Fix.
I met my friend at the office of the senior Senator from California. We had some business to attend to, then left to see the House and Senate in session. We then took a gander at the Library of Congress - what a spectacular reading room! After that, we were hungry and it started raining, so we hopped in a cab which took us to Chinatown, where we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of dim sum and kung pao chicken. (I'm getting hungry now just thinkin' about it!)
We knocked around a bit after our very late lunch, walked my friend's dog, and, before we knew it, it was time to get to the theatre. Since it was now pouring, we hopped into the first cab we saw. Now the thing about D.C. cabs is that they are allowed to take more than one fare at a time. Since we were on 18th St. and the guy already in the cab was only going to 19th St., we figured it wouldn't be too far out of our way. Well, fifteen minutes in rain and rush-hour traffic later(!), we finally dropped this guy off. Twelve minutes to the 8PM start time, and for this Old Man, everything was NOT hunky-dory!
Anyway, we got to the theatre (somehow) at three minutes before curtain, and took a couple of empty seats in the front row (audience left). My friend liked sitting so close (because he wanted to feel part of the experience) and since the side was practically the middle - the theatre is really pretty small - I went for it. And I'm glad I did.
As the lights dimmed, we were suddenly placed in the realm of national politics - a Presidential candidate (played by Jim Walton), in the throes of an erotic liaison, dies suddenly. He performs a wonderful post-death vaudeville-style song called "Let the Games Begin". This, along with the bright colors and shiny black vinyl costumes, sets the tone of the show. We then meet Cal (Stephen Bienskie, right), who is a guy that everyone can probably relate to on one level or another. He's a college kid who is not looking for political glory - he's just a t-shirt and jeans kinda guy, who suddenly becomes the vessel through which both his mother's (Linda Balgord) and uncle's (Sal Mistretta) ambitions are to be achieved. After an incredible performance in the number "One, Two, Three" we realize that we're in the presence of a new sort of star (I'm telling you that if either Matthew Perry ["Friends"] or Jason Bateman ["George & Leo"] decide to leave their respective shows, they'd better watch out - Mr. Bienski not only could be either one of their brothers, but he certainly has talent, timing and voice to spare).
So, basically, we watch the rise and fall of this political figure, with all of the highlights and lowlights along the way. Dempsey & Rowe, who met while attending college in Ohio, later told me that they had originally set out to write a musical about the Roman era - the days of Claudius and Caligula - but set in modern times. It became quite clear to them that, as politicians are politicians (regardless of the age), there were striking similarities to the leading families of our day. Thus, similarities to the Kennedys, Clintons or other First Families is purely, well, coincidental or perhaps, rather, inevitable. We get to know Cal's mother, the ULTIMATE stage mother (played by a very striking - and I don't mean that in a good way - and fairly abrasive Linda Balgord, who gives a Norma Desmond-ish quality to this character -'cause you KNOW she's really waiting for HER close-up!); and Cal's physically-challenged, ambition-charged uncle (Sal Mistretta, who is deliciously devilish and terrifically over-the-top, but I kept waiting for F. Murray Abraham to jump to the stage and scream, "WAIT! I'M SALIERI! AND WHY ARE YOU RIPPING OFF MY CHARACTER?!") Please bear in mind, of course, that what I saw was merely the third preview, so I'm sure these two immensely talented performers ultimately made the characters their own.
There's the have-to-marry-her, trophy wife (blecch!) played by the blond (nothing more to say about her) Amy McWilliams, only slightly humorous in her caricature role. I also liked the robust family maid (Raquel Hecker), who really seemed to enjoy being on stage and made the most of her part, and a very interesting casting choice for Peter (Anthony Galde), the cool-as-ice Chandler family head of security.
There are lots of others - maids, rednecks, people on the family payroll, mobsters, attorneys, guards, etc., but the true supporting standout is Tina McCoy (Linda Dorsey), the lounge singer who becomes not only Cal's mistress, but his drug supplier and the cause of his ultimate downfall. Though her first song ("Lonely is a Two-Way Street") sort of stops the highly energetic show dead in its tracks (perhaps because of the fast pace of the show, the audience needs a chance to take a breath), there is no denying that Ms. Dorsey can sing. Woo hoo! (Linda Dorsey was replaced due to vocal problems for the show's opening by Natalie Toro, who, from all accounts, is equally captivating in the role).
This is a show that, in spite of its cartoon-like style and the flaws inherent in that choice, really works. When asked how this very American musical was received at its premiere in London, the creators of The Fix replied that it was "very tricky. The tone is very American, very in-your-face." Balgord and Mistretta really work it, to great success. The energy of the company and the dynamic pace of the show keep the level intense. The story is clear and easy to follow, which allows for full enjoyment of the songs (running the gamut from vaudeville to rock to bluegrass to soul and back again), whose lyrics are alternately clever and touching - always intelligent - and for which the music is perfectly suited. (I'll be eagerly awaiting any new Dempsey & Rowe future projects.) The choreography and costumes are a lot of fun. And, as I said, Bienskie is a star - it's just a matter of the right people seeing him. He can sell a song, a joke and a feeling with the best of 'em! And there are some songs in this show that are standouts: "America's Son", "I See the Future", "Simple Words" and "Don't Blame the Prince" are particular favorites.
As I subsequently heard from Mr. Rowe, the reason they wrote this show was "to have a good time". Well, I, for one, certainly did. My only regret is that I didn't get to meet the other TB forumers who were in attendance the night that I was (we didn't seem to recognize each other - I guess we all don't radiate like I thought), but here's my advice. Go to Washington, D.C. See some shows there! In spite of my disappointment with last year's "Whistle Down the Wind" at the National, D.C. has lots of good theatre (including "Ragtime" right now). See the FDR Memorial and meet at least one of your Senators. Eat some fish at The Mercury Grill. Try to get the WEST Wing tour of The White House (it's very cool to see The Oval Office). Always travel with an umbrella. Try to see The Fix - it runs at the Signature until May 10, having been extended until the last possible day before the next show uses the space. Further, I understand from John Dempsey & Dana Rowe that there are currently talks going on with several theatres around the country (possibly even Los Angeles!) which might stage the show (and the show could hit Broadway one day soon). Also, look forward to their new project, a musical adaptation of John Updike's novel, "The Witches of Eastwick" - sounds promising! And, if nothing else, keep your eye out for Stephen Bienskie - he's gonna be BIG!
-- today's guest columnist is Jerry Howard
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