Tags

Related Posts

Share This

Seesaw Shines at Spotlight

The Cast of Seesaw

 

By Ron Fassler

 

When Seesaw opened on Broadway forty-seven years ago, the theatre was experiencing a dearth at the box office. In fact, the 1974 Tony Awards would include just a paltry three nominees—two of which were based on plays from the 1950s (Two for the Seesaw and A Raisin in the Sun) and one, a tribute to 1940s wartime swing music (Over Here). Hardly a time for originality. This was shortly before the boldness and creativity of A Chorus Line would change everything, courtesy of then-twenty-nine-year-old Michael Bennett, its director/choreographer. But in the winter of 1973, and before he gave birth to that one singular sensation, Bennett was called upon to come to the aid of Seesaw, a musical floundering in Detroit en route to a Broadway opening at the Uris Theatre (now the Gerswhin).

Bennett flew in and took the job offered to him as the new director under the stipulation that he have complete artistic control to do whatever he deemed necessary to improve things for the better. So out went scenery and costumes and ten members of the cast, including replacing the show’s leading lady, Lanie Kazan, with Michelle Lee. He also brought in his friend Tommy Tune to take on a newly created role tailored to his specific talents that ended up happily bringing him the first of his ten Tony Awards. Bennett himself would take home his first Tony as choreographer for Seesaw (one of an eventual seven Tonys), and he managed the impossible: it got respectable reviews offered a full year’s employment to its company (sadly though, not returning anything to its investors).

During all the tumult of the out of town run, the original librettist Michael Stewart withdrew, leaving no one as the book writer. Bennett had Neil Simon come in (and you can easily tell just about every one of his lines due to his unmistakable New York-Jewish humor), though Simon refused to put his name to it. That’s why Michael Bennett has the unlikely credit all to himself.

 

 

All of this is a precursor to Seesaw’s most welcome return to New York (“My City” as one of its songs goes) by way of the new J2 Spotlight Musical Theatre Company, currently ensconced on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street. The brainchild of co-founders Jim Jimirro and Robert W. Schneider, their mission is “dedicated to revivals of beloved and worthy Broadway musicals”-  Seesaw is a perfect opener as it is both beloved and worthy—and benefits greatly in a reduced fashion. It’s a show I have a particular affection for, ever since I saw the original Broadway production as a sixteen-year-old. Though it’s messy (so many of the out-of-town problems were never really fixed, just cosmetically cleaned up), there’s still a vitality to it that this slim-lined version has captured beautifully. It also boasts some terrific songs (music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, her last Broadway credit out of so many great ones, extending back to Blackbirds of 1928).

Based on William Gibson’s two-character play Two for the Seesaw, a hit in 1958 that made a star out of Anne Bancroft in her Broadway debut as Gittel Mosca (winning the first of her two Tonys for it). Playing opposite Omaha’s own Henry Fonda (perfectly cast as Jerry Ryan, a fish-out-of-water Nebraskan who’s come to New York to find himself after his marriage has dissolved), the unlikely bittersweet tale of two opposites attracting offered audiences a quirky and intimate romance. Perhaps it was never meant to be a musical, in that, at its heart, it’s still a two-character play. The 1973 Seesaw had a cast of thirty-five (!), so it being pared down to nine for Spotlight greatly improves its story telling. Gittel, Jerry and the Tommy Tune character of David are really the only ones given characters to play in this version, though they are backed by a mighty chorus of six (all terrific) that need to be  mentioned individually by name for their excellent work: Kyle Caress, Chaz Alexander Coffin, Katie Griffth, Caleb Grochalski, Morgan Hecker and Halle Mastroberardino.

 

As Gittel, Stephanie Israelson has the lion’s share of the stage time and she is a ball of fire. It’s a difficult role, in that it has a mass of clichés to overcome. But with the requisite charm and lovely chemistry between she and Andy Tighe’s Jerry (blessed with a strong baritone), the necessary rooting for their making it as a couple is on display throughout. And when Act II kicks in, J Savage gets the chance to make it understandable how Tommy Tune won a Tony for basically performing two numbers. His “Chapter 54, Number 1909” and “It’s Not Where You Start It’s Where You Finish” were wonderfully staged and danced (on the teeny-tiny stage of Theatre Two on Theatre Row). Savage is a talent that has it all: good looks, great comic energy and is as strong a singer and dancer as you might find. Accompanied by a nicely arranged three-piece band (musical direction by Grant Strom), it’s important to also single out Robert W. Schneider’s sensitive direction and Caitlin Belcik’s robust choreography.

Seesaw is the first of three productions opening back-to-back-to-back. It runs thru February 23.

Next up is 1962’s No Strings, Richard Rodgers one and only solo effort (both music and lyrics), then 2000’s Ed Kleban musical A Class Act (he of the lyrics to A Chorus Line fame).

 

Check out the dates and tickets available at https://www.j2spotlightnyc.com.

Share