by Sheila Watko
Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre has been home to over thirty shows since it opened its doors almost a century ago, including favorites like Guys & Dolls, Damn Yankees, Chicago, Nine, Raisin, 1776, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, In the Heights and currently, the smash hit Hamilton. On February 10, Feinstein’s/54 Below paid tribute to the beloved theater with a one-night-only performance of 54 Celebrates the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It was a special evening full of guests of honor, tales from behind the scenes and, of course, some of the greatest songs to grace the Richard Rodgers stage. The evening was directed, produced and hosted by Robert W. Schneider, with music direction by Kevin David Thomas and associate production by Benjamin Nissen.
The company flooded the floor and stormed the stage in the upbeat opener, “The Varsity Drag” from Good News, a perfect number to kick off the evening. Mark William crooned a gorgeous rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You” from Right This Way. By far my favorite song of the night came from Eddie Korbich, who, along with the incredibly talented company, brought down the house with “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys & Dolls. Korbich’s energy could have blown the roof off the venue and his Nicely-Nicely Johnson-esque bowtie was a perfect touch.
We were treated to a great surprise when Patty McCormack was welcomed to the stage. The Bad Seed has been one of my all-time favorite movies since I was little, and I had no idea it had been a play on Broadway that also starred McCormack. I was geeking out so hard that I think maybe my guest was embarrassed to be seen with me. McCormack shared stories from working as a child on a Broadway play, including a time when she got too deep into a conversation with the hair and makeup artist and missed her cue.
Ron Hussman talked about his time in Tenderloin, succeeded by his son Andrew singing “Artificial Flowers” (my favorite Bobby Darin song, which I did not know originated in a Broadway show and was happily surprised to hear). Before the show, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this night, but during Hussman’s stories, I realized how special this show was for so many in attendance and I was touched to have had the chance to witness such an important evening celebrating such a monumental theater.
The most interesting moment of the night came from Ed Dixon, who regaled us with an absolutely insane story about Bobby Van and a costar who was drunk and high and messed up their scene to laughter from the critic-filled venue. Van pressed charges, but received a call from the Russian mafia to drop them immediately. After the wild story, Dixon changed his tune and was showered with “awwww”s from the crowd when he told us that he used to find the song “Tea for Two” boring, but as he’s gotten older has grown fond of how sweet it is.
Alan Wiggins and Atiauna Simone duetted “Man Say” from Raisin and David Sabella sang “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago. Ladonna Burns gave one of the strongest vocal performances of the night with “Cleanin’ Women” from Working. Janine Lamanna told us about her time as Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical and about the impact the musical had around the world in middle schools, high schools, local theaters and beyond, before singing “Notice Me, Horton.” When Dan Rosales took the stage for a final In The Heights/Hamilton mashup, I found myself wanting a few more songs mixed in than just one from each show. But, the crowd still loved it.
A lot of heart went into 54 Celebrates the Richard Rodgers Theatre, which was apparent in every performance, every anecdote and every audience member there to honor the legendary theater and the 19 shows that have taken place upon its stage. This all-star evening will not be forgotten anytime soon.
54 Celebrates the Richard Rodgers Theatre took place February 10 at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). www.54below.com
Photos: Sheila Watko