By Myra Chanin
Once upon a time there lived senior-ita, known for her veneration of mid-to-high culture, who acquired an Art Deco-ish abode with a view of a pond populated by perpetually quacking ducks in the land where boredoms – note the plural – reign supreme. The tale has a happy ending. I am she who flew north in the iron bird because I couldn’t bear more than 30 days without a current production of Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway under my belt.
Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway appears fully cast, costumed, and more or less fully rehearsed at 7 pm on the final Friday of each month at Don’t Tell Mama, the iconic 46 Street cabaret multiplex. Its eminence grise, Ricky Ritzel, during the past 3 years, has garnered three subsequent MAC bests and has been deemed the 2019 Bistro Award-Winner for his inimitable monthly tributes to Broadway Musicals. Be they hits, flops or also rans, they receive whoops and cheers from aficionados always delighted to pack the room. Ricky Ritzel is a pianist, arranger, director, producer who for many years received kudos as one half of the infamous retro-satirist duo, the Lounge-o-Leers. Singer/percussionist Aaron “Hot Rod” Morishita, his lounge leering other half, helped Ricky raise the bar for kitschy, inspired renditions of everything from “Stairway to Heaven” to “Wannabe.” Morishita is currently the prima coloratura of Ritzel’s Repertory Company, the “More Than Ready for Prime-Time Players,” and also helps Ricky stage his monthly extravaganzas.
This month’s Ricky dissections/deconstructions first befell Thoroughly Modern Millie with a mishmash plot based on a 1967 film of the same name which was based on a 1956 British musical. To wit, Millie, a small-town girl in 1922, moves to New York to marry for money rather than love. She’s aided by Charleston-y tunes by Jeanine Tesori and a complicated plot and clever lyrics by Dick Scanlan. Erika Lustig, a killer-diller flapper dressed to the Capital T’s in a cloche and matching plaid coat tears up her return ticket to Kansas in “Not For the Life of Me,” and strips down to a blazing scarlet beaded fringed frock for Thoroughly Modern Millie, brought down the house. She has astonishingly long legs. She’s one of the handful of dancers on whom a skirt that ends mid-thigh delivers a happy ending. Alison Nusbaum as Mrs. Meers, a white slaver, proved she understood that the show must go on by arriving directly at DTM from the ICU where she’d spent the prior days. My guest, a fashion-conscious Broadway Producer, felt “the boys” were a bit of a letdown because (alas) both of them looked schleppy, proof that the white slaves heading for Asia lacked the laundry skills which might have kept them respectfully employed downtown rather misspending their youths in Hong Kong opium dens.
Top Banana starred Phil Silvers as the comedian Jerry Biffle, a character based on Television Star Uncle Miltie with music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Silver was friendly with Berle and when Berle asked Silver what the play was about, Silver replied, “It’s about an unscrupulous comedian who would kill his friends and sell his mother for a laugh.” Berle replied, “You know, I know guys like that.”
Kristine Zbornik opened the segment with the 11 O’clock Number, “I Fought Every Step of the Way.” Mercer attempted to add “My Mama Thinks I’m a Star,” which he originally wrote for Betty Hutton to sing in a film but was cut to Top Banana but it was dropped there also. “A Word a Day” mis-defined the meaning of every suggested word and seemed dated. Kristine Zbornick did her best, but three sets of complicated lyrics were impossible even for her to get up to snuff on such short notice.
Seesaw was another difficult and unlucky play with problems. The music wasn’t Cy Coleman’s greatest score. Michael Bennett was brought in to save it and almost did. Based on Two for the Seesaw’s romance between an unconventional dancer and a conventional lawyer, need I tell you both the romance and the production were doomed. It was financed at the end by Uncle Sam; i.e., the producers were paying bills with bucks that had been withheld from payroll taxes, at least until the Feds arrived and went home with all the money in the till. Tanya Moberly, an excellent singer and a super-excellent actress belted out “Welcome to Holiday Inn” and the very touching finale that made you laugh and tugged at your heart. Sidney Myer gave his usual all to “It’s Not Where You Start,” and when he blew a line of lyric continued to connect with the audience until the words returned to his lips and got his usual standing ovation.
Several performers read the lyrics instead of memorizing them, which always upsets me. Singing from a song sheet is different than singing to an audience. The audience was very forgiving. They love Ricky Ritzel and always feel that his players can do no wrong, but a slightly longer rehearsal time for more complicated productions couldn’t hurt.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto