Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Right Girl In The Right Place At The Right Time

Many a woman has relied on her physical assets to weaken a man's resolve. Helen of Troy was famously credited as having "the facing that launched a thousand ships." In 1955's Damn Yankees, Gwen Verdon played one of the Devil's leading temptresses. Well aware of how to handle a man, her character never doubted that "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets."

Others have been equally brazen about their sexual allure. In Kander & Ebb's 1997 musical, Steel Pier, Debra Monk brought the house down with her raunchy rendition of "Everybody's Girl."

Known to television audiences in comedy roles, popular singer/dancer/actress Jane Krakowski brought her musical talents to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco with the roster of songs from her CD, The Laziest Gal In Town. With numbers ranging from “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Let’s Face The Music and Dance,” and Lola’s “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” to such novelties as a hip hop version of "Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend" and a reworking of the famous “Zip” number from Pal Joey (with new lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman for “Tweet”), she charmed the audience from start to finish.

In 1989, Krakowski lit up Broadway as Flaemmchen in Tommy Tune's production of Grand Hotel. Playing a young typist with enormous sex appeal, her dancing and acting captivated audiences.  Subsequent roles as the libidinous receptionist, Elaine Vassal, on Ally McBeal, and Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock solidified her reputation as an actress who knows how to tease, vamp, and flirt like the great sex kittens of the silver screen. Although she may be much more subdued in real life, Krakowski makes no bones about the fact that she got cast in such roles because, even though other women had declined to do so, "I'll go there......."

During her concert, Krakowski paid tribute to Ann-Margaret with a rousing rendition of “13 Men” and had her band blowing bubbles for a deliciously sexy encore of “Rubber Duckie.” The strangest part of the program was a medley of “When I Get Low I Get High” and “Wacky Dust,” which she concluded with the comment "I'll bet I'm the first person to sing a medley about snorting cocaine on the stage of the Jewish Community Center!" Though barely 75 minutes long, Krakowski's act was one of the most satisfying I’ve encountered in recent years.

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While sex kittens are notorious for driving men crazy -- and schemers like Dolly Gallagher Levi are famous for manipulating men to do their bidding -- there is also a kind of woman who finds herself in the right place at the right time.  Somehow or other, amazing things keep happening to her.

Following his huge success with Auntie Mame:An Irreverent Escapade and Around The World With Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis set out to spoof the celebrity memoir genre with Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of that Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television: Belle Poitrine.  Born with the unappealing name of Maybelle Schlumfert, his heroine grew up to become Belle Poitrine (which, roughly translated from the French, means "pretty chest"). Her lover's name in the book was Letch Feely.

Cover art for Little Me

Like many young men who were starting to embrace their homosexuality, I derived intense pleasure from one of the pictures near the back of the book in which an aging Belle Poitrine (Jeri Archer) looks up at the packed crotch of some faceless stud clad a Speedo.

Producers Cy Feuer and Ernest H. Martin (who had originally produced such hits as Where's Charley? (1948), Guys and Dolls (1950), Can-Can (1953), The Boy Friend (1954), Silk Stockings (1955), were working on 1961's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying when they purchased the stage rights to Little Me before the book had even been published. They assembled a crack creative team for the show, with music by Cy Coleman, book by Neil Simon, and choreography by Bob Fosse  (who reunited in 1966 for Sweet Charity).

Simon rewrote the book substantially, creating seven roles for Sid Caesar (his star when he was a writer for television's Your Show of Shows). Virginia Martin (who had created the role of the bombshell secretary, Hedy LaRue, in How to Succeed was cast as Belle Poitrine). Since then, the show has undergone numerous revisions. In an ill-fated 1982 revival, the male roles were split between Victor Garber and James Coco. In the 1998 revival that starred Martin Short, Faith Prince played both the younger and older versions of Belle Poitrine.

In the following clip, Martin Short performs Val du Val's famous "Boom-Boom" number at the Tony Awards.

Here's Short performing the Prince Cherney's "Goodbye" number on The Rosie O'Donnell Show.

I hadn't had an opportunity to see a revival of the show in the 50 years since I saw its original Broadway cast. That all changed this weekend when 42nd Street Moon presented Little Me in its original form with Jason Graae stepping into the roles previously inhabited by two of the most versatile entertainers in Broadway and Hollywood history. Those who have seen Graae's cabaret act know that he is a performer with boundless energy and a staggering level of comedic talent.

Jason Graae as Prince Cherny, Val du Val,
Noble Eggleston, and Fred Poitrine in Little Me
(Photo by: David Allen)

On opening night, Graae's quick wit (he's a master at ad libbing onstage) came in handy when a fake moustache started to take on a life of its own. Although he had performed Little Me in concert form in Los Angeles, this was Graae's first outing in a fully-staged production. As expected, he was absolutely hilarious. This show fits him like a glove -- one can only hope that he gets more opportunities to star in Little regional theatres.

Because the show was built around Sid Caesar's talents as a master of sketch comedy, it's all too easy to forget that the show's plot revolves around Belle's endless misfortunes encountered as she aims to achieve wealth, culture, and a high standing in society. As the older Belle dictating her memoirs to Patrick Dennis (Caleb Haven Draper), Teressa Byrne oozed fake modesty and practical sexuality.  As the younger Belle, Sharon Rietkerk was a tall, sexy siren with a big heart. A familiar talent on Bay area stages, Rietkerk has a solid set of vocal chops backed by strong comedic instincts.

Older Belle (Teressa Byrne) and Young Belle (Sharon Rietkerk)
in 42nd Street Moon's production of Little Me
(Photo by: David Allen)

Directed at a madcap pace by Eric Inman (with choreography by Staci Arriaga), this production had some inspired casting 42nd Street Moon's beloved Darlene Popovic doubled as Belle's mother as well as vaudeville agent, Bernie Buchsbaum, Stewart Kramar appeared in drag as Mrs. Eggleston, David Visini as Mr. Pinchley's nephew and Zack Thomas Wilde as Belle's childhood friend, George Musgrove.

42nd Street Moon's productions have come a long way since the early days of open-book readings. With sets by Hector Zavala and costumes by Stephanie Suarez, In a way, it seems terribly unfair that a score with such appealing songs as "The Other Side of the Tracks," "I've Got Your Number," "Real Live Girl," "Poor Little Hollywood Star," and "Here's To Us" should have fallen into obscurity.  Thanks to Jason Graae, Sharon Rietkerk, and Teressa Byrne, this long overdue revival of Little Me is an absolute delight!

Belle Poitrine (Sharon Rietkerk) gets wooed by numerous men
(all portrayed by Jason Graae) in Little Me
(Photo by: David Allen)

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In addition to his work on shows like Damn Yankees, Bells Are RingingNew Girl in Town, and Redhead, Bob Fosse had an uncanny knack for choreographing production numbers that mocked certain kinds of haughtiness.  From the "Rich Kids Rag" in Little Me to the "Rich Man's Frug" in Sweet Charity, his dancers communicated the essence of adolescent snottiness as well as the sleekness of sophisticated snobbery.

One of his most inspired numbers was created on short notice for 1961's How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

There was a time when women became secretaries with the goal of earning a living or finding a husband. One woman, however, landed the job that was the envy of secretaries around the world. A Liverpool music fan who used to hang out at The Cavern Club, 17-year-old Freda Kelly was hired by Brian Epstein to become the secretary for The Beatles and manage their fan club's newsletter.

Deliciously directed by Ryan White, Good Ol' Freda takes a devoted British grandmother who is still working as a legal secretary and revisits her life in the 1960s when John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were simply "the lads" and their fame was just beginning to take hold in Britain.

Freda Kelly with Paul McCartney

Still shy after all these years, Freda cooperated on the film so that her grandchildren would be able to know more about how she witnessed history in the making. Because she is normally quite tight-lipped about the past, her daughter is constantly amazed at stories that have come from fans who were so grateful to Freda for answering the letters they had written to The Beatles.

In many ways, Good Ol' Freda is like sitting down with the extended family of The Beatles and hearing what the men were like as they grew increasingly popular.  The movie is a total delight, filled with great pictures and clips that will warm the heart of any Beatles fan. You can get a sense of Freda's personality from this video for the film's Kickstarter campaign.

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