By Ron Fassler
It’s hard to believe that Joanna Gleason made her Broadway debut forty-two years ago as a member of the original cast of Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s I Love My Wife. As Monica, the sexually curious girl-next-door, she displayed a strong singing voice and unique comic timing. A few years later, she succeeded Christine Baranski in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (directed by Mike Nichols), which resulted in Nichols casting her shortly thereafter in Andrew Bergman’s comedy Social Security. Then came the 1985 revival of Peter Nichols’ Joe Egg, which earned Gleason her first Tony Award nomination, and secured her status as a Broadway regular.
But it was with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods that Gleason scored big time and earned the Best Actress in a Musical Tony. Though it can be said that actors leave an indelible mark on roles they create in beloved shows, in Gleason’s case, no one in subsequent productions has ever surpassed her performance as the Baker’s Wife. Seriously, if you took a poll of people who have seen as many Into the Woods productions over the years as I have, you would find this common consensus. Then again, whenever she is seen on stage, film and TV, she is always craftily comic, endearing as all get out, and with talent to burn. That’s Joanna Gleason.
And for those lucky enough to have caught her during her three-night engagement this week at Feinstein’s/54 Below, they got the chance to see her in an intimate setting, telling personal stories that thoroughly engaged her audience with enough wit, wisdom and passion (not to mention a sweet singing voice), to charm the birds out of the trees. She was joined by Jeffrey Klitz as musical director and arranger; the Moontones, a three-person harmonic vocal group, and a terrific band cranking out great sounds by way of guitar, banjo, autoharp, cello, percussion and piano.
A sequel to a previous show (“Into the Light”), that Gleason performed at Feinstein’s/54 Below five years ago, this one moves forward to her recent past and through a very difficult time. A rare solar eclipse fell right between two major events in Gleason’s life: that of losing both her parents within a few weeks of each other. Out of that experience has come “Out of the Eclipse” that she wrote, which rather than dwelling on pain, is more about looking back with tremendous love and affection over her parents’ seventy-year marriage. After all, she was blessed to have had Marilyn and Monty Hall until the ages of ninety and ninety-six, both of whom led long, jam-packed lives of celebrity and philanthropy. And yes, Joanna Hall is the daughter of Monty Hall, who was familiar on and off the air for thirty years as host of Let’s Make a Deal, the classic game show he also co-created.
Wonderfully written and performed, Gleason expertly weaves her stories throughout with bits of songs, perfectly punctuating highs and lows, allowing the tone of the evening to always be in service to those stories. When she did perform songs in full, highlights included James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “Lost in the Stars” and “We’ll Meet Again,” the World War II standard by Hughie Charles and Ross Parker.
Chris Sarandon, Gleason’s husband whom she met on the 1991 Broadway musical Nick & Nora, made a brief appearance, and together they sang Cole Porter’s “True Love,” which served as a beautiful testament to their twenty-nine-year marriage.
All in all, an entrancing mix of an emotional and funny evening, leaving no doubt that with Joanna Gleason as your tour guide, any journey she offers will always be worth the trip.
Photos: Melissa Griegel www.melissagriegel.zenfolio.com