By Myra Chanin
The final Friday night of November marked the peak of 2019’s entertainment year for me! It’s when Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway and his More than Ready for Primetime Players vanish like Brigadoon, fortunately only for 63 days, not a century. His delightful monthly musical extravaganza may sound formulaic, but is a shockingly unique mishmash concocted by Ricky and his inspired director, Jay Rogers. A few were newcomers to the series, most were regulars and always better than ever.
The Maestro looked particularly splendid in a handsome dark gray suit and a maroon dress shirt. The musicals Ricky selected for this year’s end dissection were Irene, Pipe Dreams and Mary Poppins and he had plenty to report on every one.
In 1919, Irene established a new long-running Broadway performance record, gave birth to 17 touring companies, one silent film, one talkie before returning to Broadway in 1940 and 1971. 1919’s Irene was an ambitious, hard-working immigrant, who co-owned a music shop and was hired to tune a Long Island tycoon’s Steinway and found, surprise, surprise, that opposites attract. The tycoon’s ne’er-do-well cousin needed the tycoon to finance business for Madame Lucy, a flamboyant male artiste passing as a famous French couturier. The tycoon did, Irene modeled Madam Lucy’s dresses and the venture was a great success until Irene and the tycoon had a falling out. In Act II, we learn O’Dare mere is brokenhearted over the loss of the love her life, Liam O’Dougherty. Wait a minute! Did she meet Liam before, during, while or after she became a widow. Google won’t answer but Wikipedia does. Madame Lucy is actually Liam O’Dougherty. Irene and her tycoon reconcile. Kissing, joy and singing abound!
The 1971 production had lots of tsouris. The producer, hoping to hit the nostalgia jackpot, hired Debbie Reynolds, to make her Broadway debut. He also (gasp!) hired John Gielgud, a Royal Shakespearean known for his silver-voice and his impressive Hamlet and King Lear to direct . Debbie became voiceless in Toronto and instead of issuing refunds, audiences watched Debbie mime her lines while Gielgud declaimed them from the wings. Audiences were outraged. A new director, Gower Champion, and a script doctor, Joe Stein, were hired in Philadelphia. Broadway was put on hold and instead Irene went to DC where President Nixon called the show a hit. NY critics had higher standards. Only Clive Barnes declared that 1971’s Irene was “the best 1919 musical in town.”
Ricky’s Broadway series always contain a single manifestation of cabaret icon Sidney Myer, who’s run Ricky’s gamut from Dolly Levi to Captain Hook to Norma Desmond to Nicky Arnstein and even Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel. But this night was different from all other nights because Sidney performed as three different unique characters in black slacks, a maroon dress shirt and matching tie, and a Prince Valiant wig. First As Madame Lucy he energetically proclaimed, “The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue!” actually Ninth, only a stone’s throw away. Later, Sidney reappeared wig topped by a manly brown fedora and pranced around as the fake famous French couturier in “They go Wild, Simply Wild, over me!”- and we did. Finally, as Irene, with Ricky as Mom, they sang “Mother, Angel, Darling.” In between Sally Darling and her debutante, Aaron Morishita, warbled about their Family Tree, Tara Martinez wistfully recalled her sweet little “Alice Blue Gown.” Aaron Morishita revealed “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and Marcia Roney led a sing-along of “You Made Me Love You,” and everyone knew the lyrics!
Pipe Dream was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 7th musical. After six hits, they thought they’d never go wrong and they were wrong. Never heard of it? Neither did most Broadway aficionados. Based on John Steinbeck’s short novel Sweet Thursday, a sequel to Cannery Row, it’s the tale of a romance between Doc, a marine biologist, and Suzy, a prostitute. The madam was Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel. Try saying no to her! Everybody wanted Henry Fonda to play Doc, but after six months of lessons Fonda said he “still couldn’t sing for shit.” They cast Judy Tylor, the former Howdy-Doody show Princess Summerfall Winterspring as the hooker. As rehearsals proceeded, the show was emasculated. It opened with the largest advance ticket sale in Broadway history ($1,200,000) but few subsequent sales thanks to comments by critics, like “The emptiest musical two geniuses ever wrote.” “The lyrics of “Thinkin’ ” needed to be rethunk.” Tommy J. Dose, all gussied up in a dark grey suit and vest, clean shaven and fresh from his barber, looked and sounded irresistible. His song “All Kinds of People,” was an anthem to starfish set to a leftover tune from Bali Hai. Tara Martinez knocked “Everybody’s Got a Home But Me,” out of the park in a tune that implied her home was in Oklahoma. Andrea Axelrod filled “Sweet Thursday” with as much feeling as it was able to retain.
Everybody knows the story of Mary Poppins, but the story of the conflict between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers, the author, was just revealed to the world in Saving Mr. Banks, a film loosely based on their deeply antagonistic collaboration between two very strong-willed artists. Disney-Shmisney, the Disney music is terrific and P.L. succeeded in keeping it out of the Broadway show until she died. Then, sigh, she died. And it flew in. Jeffrey Parizotto not only sang like an inspired chimney sweep he had a right lithe body for squirming around soot. Deborah Zecher was a perfect Mary Poppins, smart, good and upright, Elaine Breyer formidably did “Feed the Birds,” but Alison Nusbaum stole the show as the pre-Poppins typically mean Nanny, full of “Brimstone and Treacle,” which sounds much less tasty than cheesecake.
Ricky will be back on January 31, 2020 at Don’t Tell Mama at 7 PM. One of the three shows he said he’d be including is God Only Knows. It’s one of my favorites. See you then.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto