An Amusement Column
by Harry Haun
KENNY LEON AND ON AND ON: A young man from Atlanta if there ever was one (he still uses a 404 area-code phone), director Kenny Leon is hitting New York stages these days like a one-man ant farm, spinning theatrical plates all over the place. . . . Exhibit A is The Underlying Chris, world-premiering Nov. 21 at the Tony Kiser Theater. Second Stage has produced and cast what practically constitutes that rarest of birds, A Will Eno Epic. Some name-brand players (among them, Danielle Brooks, Michael Countryman, Lizbeth MacKay, Charles Turner, Hannah Cabell and Howard Overshown) play various aspects of Eno’s Chris, from bassinette to burial—young and old, male and female, black and white–we’re all the same ball of human wax, Eno is saying. “It’s a great ensemble piece,” insists Leon. “Everybody has threads of each other in their performances, and I’ve got 11 people who understand that. If you just have one scene that’s off, it doesn’t make sense. It’s the most sensitive play I’ve worked on in years.” . . . Exhibit B is the modern-dress, soul-sounding Much Ado About Nothing, which he staged in the park last summer and which PBS taped for a Great Performances airing Nov. 22. It just won him the 2019 Joe A. Callaway Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF). . . . Exhibit C is American Son, which he directed on Broadway last season. The cinematic adaptation of Christopher Demos-Brown’s racial drama just started making the Netflix rounds this month. “I told the playwright on Day One when we started working on the play would make a really good film,” recalls Leon. “Then, about a month into it, Netflix asked about the possibility of shooting it as a film. I told them I didn’t want to shoot it at the Booth as a play. I wanted to shoot it as a film so we built a set in Brooklyn. I kept the original Broadway cast [Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan and Eugene Lee], and it turned out really well. It’s given me the idea for future projects. When theater and film go into projects together from the beginning, I think it’s a win-win for everyone. Maybe that’s the way we should start doing it.” . . . Just for instance is Exhibit D: Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winner, A Soldier’s Story, which he’ll start previewing Dec. 27 for a Jan. 21 opening at the American Airlines Theater. It was originally done Off-Broadway in 1981 by the Negro Ensemble Company (with actors like Adolph Caesar, Peter Friedman, Charles Brown, Denzel Washington, Larry B. Riley and Samuel L. Jackson). The cast Leon has corralled includes Blair Underwood, David Alan Grier and Jerry O’Connell. . . . Exhibit E is barely showing on the horizon. Leon has Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (First Date, Secondhand Lions) working on the songs, and Tom Lennon and Robert Grant working on the book, for a musical Trading Places, the hit 1983 film comedy in which an upper-class commodities broker (Dan Aykroyd) switched roles with a homeless conman (Eddie Murphy).
SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE: A quarter of a century (and some change) has elapsed since Beauty and the Beast bowed on Broadway, and it was followed by eight other Disney musicals, including the current triumvirate (Aladdin, Frozen and The Lion King). To mark the milestone properly, Disney on Broadway has artfully finagled its own category on Jeopardy! for Nov. 20. Now, why didn’t The Shuberts or Jujamcyn think of that decades ago? . . . Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec is celebrating Toulouse-Lautrec Nov. 22 on his 155th birthday with special performances (at 6:30 and 8) added to its immersive, environmental production, currently held over for the umpteenth time at Madame X waaay Off-Broadway on Houston Street. Sean Hinckle is its poster boy of the title, strolling through the bohemian world of the Belle Epoque. If you come at 5, there’s complimentary birthday cake and wine.
PIECES OF CAKE: The most overstuffed clown car since Mel Brooks cast The Producers will pull up to Carnegie Hall Nov. 21, and out will bound Bryce Pinkham, Kevin Chamberlin, David Pittu, Chuck Cooper and Fred Applegate to continue roles they originated there two years ago for MasterVoices’ Of Thee I Sing, Two new funny-faces, Christopher Fitzgerald and Lewis J. Stadlen, will be joining them for the MasterVoices 2019-20 curtain-raiser–a concert staging of that show’s sequel, Let ‘Em Eat Cake. A famously forgotten musical, this is the first time it’s been seen in New York in 32 years! Ted Sperling will direct and conduct. . . . In 1931, Of Thee I Sing became the first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, inspiring its creators—George Gershwin (music), Ira Gershwin (lyrics), and George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (book)—to go for seconds. Let ‘Em Eat Cake was the sequel that emerged two years later in a much darker due than the original political satire. The protagonist of the first show, a populist U.S. president (Pinkham), is voted out of office, fires the Supreme Court, stages a military coup—and, in a reach for radicalism, paints the White House blue. . . . In 90 days, the show itself was history and has never been revived. Indeed, the book and score were thought lost for years—until the composer’s handwritten notes popped up in 1978 in the Library of Congress. From these, music historian John McGlinn reconstructed the detailed vocal score, and Russell Warner then orchestrated that, drawing on the memories of those actually involved in the original production. Quite an archeological dig!
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: If you can get beyond the set filling 59East59’s Theater B from Nov. 29 to Dec. 29 (see photo), you could have a good time with writer-director Joshua Ravetch’s One November Yankee. Harry Hamlin and Stefanie Powers, recruited for their Off-Broadway debuts from TV (him from L.A. Law, her from Hart to Hart), ought to help. Their characters are dealing with the emotional fallout brought on by—well, look at the picture. The producers can thank their lucky stars the play is close to a sell-out. . . . Better hurry if you want to see the most bizarre love triangle to occupy a New York stage in many a moon. Migdalia Cruz’s Fur closes Nov. 24 at The Fourth Street Theater (Next Door at New York Theater Workshop). It mixes together a pet-shop owner (Danny Bolero), his food-gathering assistant (Ashley Marie Ortiz) and an Amazonian clump of wild unruly black hair they keep in a cage—not a gilded cage, either (Monica Steuer). Should you be so moved to wait around at the stage door to compliment Steuer on her performance—and you should because she brings definition and authority to what basically is an unplayable part—be advised that the actress, in reality, is a blonde.
MISSING MILES: “Would you tell this young man that I’ve done something since Midnight Cowboy?” was the first thing Sylvia Miles ever said to me. She said it frostily, via her escort-for-the-evening, when I rushed up to her at a party, puppy-like, and praised that performance. At the time she was perched on a bar stool, but from that altitude she managed a certain movie-star aloofness. In time, she came to realize I was aware of her skills beyond those six classic, Oscar-nominated minutes as the hooker who gives a Texas hustler a ride for his money. . . . For one thing, I knew when she lingered two minutes more over a performance she won her other Oscar nomination, playing a forgotten ex-showgirl who fatally swapped detective clues for a bottle of bourbon in Farewell, My Lovely. How many other performers have made the Oscar running twice for 14 minutes work? None. It’s called Sylvia Concentrate! . . . From noon to 2 p.m. on Nov. 21, at the Walter Reade Theater, a memorial service will be held for Sylvia Miles, who died June 12 somewhere between the ages of 86 and 94. (Once, when she was in her 80’s, she was incensed that AARP Magazine had listed her in a roundup of 70-year-olds.) Sylvia picked the place for the memorial as well as—you’d better believe it!—the picture on the memorial invite. . . . It’s hard to say goodbye to a friend who never said hello. On the phone, in lieu of hello, she’d announce, “It’s me, Sylvia,” then cackle like a Macbeth witch. That was her signature–and the title of her one-woman musical-revue biography. The WNET documentary on her life called itself I Was Always Sylvia. . . . And she was, always—but there was a character actress beyond the character. If you peeled back her very public and thick persona of Omnipresent Partygoer, you’d find a consummate performer, one seriously trained at the Actors Studio. She made her 1954 Off-Broadway debut in Harold Robbins’ A Stone for Danny Fisher with Zero Mostel, but Carolyn Jones got the movie role when it turned into Elvis’ King Creole. She was a sassy comedy writer on the pilot of The Dick Van Dyke Show–until Carl Reiner recast the role with Rose Marie. She was one of the floozies frequenting Harry Hope’s bar in the famous 1957 revival of The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards. She was one of Troy Donahue’s tobacco sharecroppers in Parrish and, off-camera she winked, “Troy’s toy.” She was a German zombie lesbian ballet dancer in The Sentinel. She was Andy Warhol’s idea of Norma Desmond and had Joe Delesandro for her Joe Gillis, in Heat, an R-rated riff on Sunset Boulevard. Her last appearance on Broadway was as the blousy innkeeper in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, opposite Dorothy McGuire and Richard Chamberlain. . . . Incredibly—the mind boggles—she had James Mason for a husband in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun and Meryl Streep for a daughter in She-Devil. . . . She let her eccentricities show, guesting on Sex in the City as a lunch-counter kook who laces her chocolate ice cream with lithium. . . . She had a whole scene all to herself as Charlie Sheen’s fast-talking real estate agent in Wall Street, and Oliver Stone liked her work so much he had her back for the 2010 sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. . . . You can see from the boldfaces above what an eclectic career it was. And it was never over for Sylvia Miles, who carried her press clippings around with her, Saran-wrapped in her purse. A job was always just around the corner. Last year she told me a Provincetown director got permission from The Tennessee Williams Estate to play one of his characters in a wheelchair (a necessity by then). When she died, the Post said she was “set to appear in director Eric Rivas’ Japanese Borscht,” and IMDB wrote it up as real. Relax, Sylvia. The party’s over.