By Myra Chanin
Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway, now in its Fourth Consecutive Award-Winning Year at Don’t Tell Mama is a totally unique, frequently poignant, relentlessly hilarious and tenaciously outrageous, once-a-month One Night Stand. Its vitality and verve grow out of the heavenly – or Satanic – alliance between the madcap, irrepressible, musical volcano, Ricky Ritzel, and his subtle, sensitive, frugal and ferocious director/choreographer Jay Rogers, who on the last Friday of most months, delightfully de- and re-construct three Broadway musicals, be they hits, flops or also rans.
Maestro Ritzel at the Steinway, throupling as orchestra, chorus and vocalist, and his world-class repertory company, The More Than Ready for Prime-Time Players, immortalize the most significant musical moments from each of that night’s three selections as well as noteworthy songs that may have been unfortunately discarded on the out-of-town tryout superhighway. Ricky also shares historically accurate facts and deliciously inappropriate gossip, reveals statistics about attendance records and whether a show made it to opening night before being declared DOA and consigned to Broadway’s musical morgue.
October’s program began with the perpetually-performed-somewhere Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof; Bob Merrill’s put-out-of-its-misery-during-previews Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the eternally lush, romantic, poetic and magnificently melodic Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II’s Showboat, the first musical in which song, dance, humor and production were merged into and dependent on plot.
Fiddler won nine Tony awards and set attendance records which lasted for 10 years … until oy gevalt! Grease triumphed over schmaltz! Relocating Tevye et al on the great white way was hardly smooth sailing. Investors feared the show was too insular, i.e., Jewish, an illusion dispelled when Japanese audiences expressed amazement that such a totally Japanese show had such international appeal. Walter Matthau, Eli Wallach, Rod Steiger, Tom Bosley, Jack Gilford, Danny Thomas and Alan King turned down the leading role, as did Mostel initially. The most significant decision was made by Hal Prince who followed Stephen Sondheim’s suggestion to hire Jerome Robbins to direct. Robbins’ choreography made Anatevka spring to life.
I have seen almost every Tevye from the original overweight meshuganer to the current Yiddish virile hunk and have witnessed how each one inserts his own humanity into the role. Ricky’s Tevye, Warren Schein, is as good as it gets. His plaintive understated impish digressions and improvised contemporary wisecracks won over the audience who were equally moved by his musings on wealth in “If I Were A Rich Man,” connubial love in “Do You Love Me?” and reservations about the return of the Messiah in a tune cut for being too lugubrious or having a point of view that might offend true believers. Another delicate ballad that didn’t make it to Manhattan was tenderly warbled by Eadie Scott – an anthem to a used Singer sewing machine Tevye’s son-in-law managed to buy to help support his growing brood. Tara Martinez and Jon Satrom brought Tevye’s daughter Hodel and her revolutionary husband Perchek to passionate life in “Now I Have Everything.”
The 11 o’clock number erupted at 7:15 pm when Tevye’s three oldest daughters invaded the dais. Talk about diversity! Jay Rogers (a Gentile) as Hodel and Aaron Morishita (an Asian) as Chava, their living on borrowed time tresses stuffed under shmattas, fantasized about their bridegrooms-to-be until their older sister Sidney Myer (Jewish) as Tzeitel, in a curly black wig that belonged in “Golden Earrings,” set everyone straight. Sidney Myer is to Ricky Ritzel what Fanny Brice was to Flo Ziegfield. Sidney may be even more versatile than she was, having portrayed Norma Desmond, Captain Hook, Dolly Levi, Phil from Baltimore, Stripper Tessie Tura, even Gamblin’ Nicky Arnstein, Brice’s second and tallest husband in a previous RRBs. Sidney was responsible for the icing that appeared on Tevye’s strudel when his caveats penetrated his younger sisters’ brains and caused Hodel to modify the opening consonant of the verb in this line of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” – I could get stuck for good – so it sounded totally 46th Street.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s resulted joining the Mile-High verbal intercourse club on a flight on which producer David Merrick and composer Bob Merrill were seated cheek to cheek. Merrick noticed a fellow traveler reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s and asked Merrill if he’d write a score for a musical based on that book. Merrill replied that he’d rather compose a score for Casablanca. By the time they landed, commerce had triumphed over art. The casting was right out of Springtime for Hitler: two former TV stars sans stagecraft – Mary Tyler Moore aka Laura Petrie/Mrs. Dick Van Dyke and Richard Chamberlain formerly Dr. Kildaire, who left the OR a bit too soon. The very funny Abe Burrows wrote the book and directed … initially.
Holly Golightly opened in DC where audiences liked it more than critics did. Next stop? Downhill. Philly critics were murderous and audiences booed. In Boston, Merrick replaced Burrows with Edward Albee. Why? “We were drowning in two feet of water, I thought why not swim out and take our chances.” The gamble failed. Two NY previews later, Merrick shut the show down “rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.”
Marnie Klar and Jon Satrom gave their all to three boring ballads. Janet Fanale fortunately managed to wrap her tonsils around some amusing lyrics describing “The Home for Wayward Girls,” which sound like they came from Burrows before he quit:
Why should we become dejected
when we know someday we’ll be corrected
and we’ll be loved and tubbed and disinfected
Showboat arrived at Ricky’s dock full steam ahead, packed, one after another, with Kern’s gorgeous melodies and Hammerstein’s poetic lyrics! Jon Satrom and Laura Pavles sang “Make Believe” and OMG “You are Love,” with such crafted passion I expected to be invited to their wedding before I left. Cabaret Darling, Dawn Derow was obviously created to sing Kern’s music and delicately convinced everyone that she “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” named “Bill.” Anna Anderson struck several comic chords in “Queenie’s Ballyhoo,” and “I Still Suits Me,” her duet with Aaron Lee Battle, whose mighty “Ol’ Man River” filled every heart with anguish and glory!
They just don’t write musicals like Showboat anymore! Why? Blame it on the internet.
November 27, 2019 at 7 pm at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th Street, Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway will give you something to be thankful for when he highlights Irene, Mary Poppins and Pipe Dreams.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto