‘Raisin’ Money For Good Causes

‘Raisin’ Money For Good Causes

Friends with Benefits; Melissa Modulates; Icon Irons

Mondays are always big benefit nights and battling events took place on October 25.

At the John Houseman Theatre, Amas Musical Theatre presented “Raisin,” the 1973 Tony Award-winning musical, in concert before an audience of African-American theater luminaries, which included this year’s honorees, Geoffrey Holder, Carmen de Lavallade, Maurice Hines, Mary Alice and several members of “Raisin”’s original cast and production, as well as Elizabeth Wilson.

William Foster McDaniel led the six-man orchestra brilliantly and from the moment Judd Woldin’s percussive, jazz-tinged overture started, one longed to see and hear this work given a full-scale revival. Norm Lewis gave marvelous full voice to the role of Walter Lee, and Venda Evans made lovely work of “A Whole Lotta Sunlight.”

I spoke with the great Mary Alice, who forthrightly told me she was currently not working.

“I just don’t feel like playing another tired mother/grandma role,” she confided. “Somebody has to write something fresh and new for me to be interested.”

We reminisced about Ntozake Shange’s 1979 “Spell #7” at the Public Theatre, in which she delivered a memorable monologue about proudly wearing as much gold as she could.

“Did you know Denzel Washington was an understudy in that?” she asked. “He actually had to go on once, and was so nervous and scared. You would never have known what he was gonna go on to do.”

I reluctantly had to leave to attend “Show Stoppers!,” the Gay Men’s Health Crisis benefit at Avery Fisher Hall, but that turned out to be quite the musical queen’s idea of nirvana. A packed house roared their approval of stars like Andrea McArdle, Carol Lawrence, Robert Morse, Jerry Orbach, Alice Playten and, especially, Chita Rivera, recreating the numbers that have made them Broadway immortals. Brian Stokes Mitchell once more redeemed that schlock anthem “The Impossible Dream” with his impossibly gorgeous, fervent voice, and Ellen Greene performed a pinpoint recreation of her “Little Shop of Horrors” turn.

Greene told me she stopped singing after a Bottom Line benefit concert for Peter Allen more than a decade ago.

“Liza Minnelli and Bernadette Peters were there,” she said, “but I was onstage. My friend Don Palladino was in the audience. I knew he wouldn’t be around much longer and I was singing ‘Love Don’t Need a Reason,’ and my heart really broke. I thought, I can’t do this anymore. I can sing in a show as a character, but that’s it. And then I met Christian Klikovits at my gym. We had looked at each other for a year and half and finally spoke. And the result is my new album ‘Torch.’ Now I feel good about singing, but you can’t do it until you’re ready. I believe in growing as an artist and Christian is a great teacher, he gets me and we really collaborate together.

“Bob Billig, who conducted tonight’s event, I have known longer than anyone else in New York. He played my first audition for ‘George M.,’ and then he played for the original ‘Little Shop.’ It was so exciting singing tonight, I haven’t had that dress on since my last performance in 1984; I actually had to take it in. It was nice to put that dress on and have Audrey live. Also, this benefit reminded me so much of the people I have lost. On my album there’s an honor page: Lenny Baker, John Candy, Raul Julia, Peter Allen, Howard Ashman, Greg Gill, Woody Shelp, who designed hats for Barbara Matera, Lillian Rothman, John S. Wilson, Arthur Bell, Joe Papp, Anita Morris. These people I loved, and I give homage to them.”

Greene said she is starting work on a new movie for Hallmark Hall of Fame with Huey Lewis and added, “People write me all the time on my Web site, and I always answer right back, so have people write me.”

If any performer in ‘Showstoppers!’ lived up to the show’s title, it was Christine Pedi, who killed with her hilarious impressions of every Broadway diva—an emphysemic Bernadette Peters, slightly curdled Julie Andrews, bombastically mush-mouthed Patti LuPone and, quite amazingly, Angela Lansbury, all of them performing—against type—decidedly the wrong songs (like Andrews doing Kander & Ebb).

Afterwards, an exuberant Pedi extolled gay audiences like the one that had just died for her.

“They’re so comfortable and easy,” she said. “Everyone wants to find joy in the jokes and you guys don’t just get it, you pay attention and that clearly shows a willingness to embrace the performer. There were no parody lyrics at all tonight, all the real words, and that’s what I love, when people can see the nonsense and implausibility of someone singing something that’s oh-so-very-wrong for them and making it into a wonderful joke. It points out the excess that we love about these performers. I’ve just done two gay cruises and every time I leave one I have to decompress, because it’s an impossible act to follow. I did Atlantis, and of 2,000 passengers, I think two of us were straight—me and someone’s mother. You must not be offended by a constant, 24-hour throbbing disco beat. Even if you’re not at the party, it can always be heard somewhere and I can’t wait to go back on my next one!”

I told Pedi that Ethel Merman singing Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” would be great, too, and she said, “That’s brilliant! That’s next on my list. That was my thought for the next ‘Forbidden Broadway,’ to have Ethel singing ‘Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies/and the king and the queen of the prom!’ Or Patti Lupone doing the Beach Boys, Carol Channing singing Elvis. I never did impressions until ‘Forbidden Broadway’ auditions. They asked if I could do impressions and I said, ‘Well, my Italian grandmother,’ and they said, ‘Can you do Carol Channing?’ Anybody can, so they hired me on the basis of those two.”

“Midnight Blue” is one of the great, all-time makeout songs and was probably playing in the background as half a generation was conceived. At Feinstein’s at the Regency, Melissa Manchester performed a seductive samba-inflected rendition that was one of the highlights of a soothing set, which made you pleasurably feel like you were sitting in some marina, with sunburned shoulders and some yummy girlie drink on the way. Her voice has a powerful range and, backed by a skilled combo, she definitely provided the kind of connoisseur’s pleasure that a true singer-songwriter can give.

For years, Franco Zeffirelli has rather pompously claimed Maria Callas as something of his own personal property, decrying all outside attempts to capture her essence. In my estimation, his “Callas Forever,” does this opera legend a disservice, presenting her in a very Norma Desmond light, reclusive and prone to swallowing pills and lurching about her Avenue Georges Mandel apartment in Paris, forever listening to her old records

Chatting recently with Jeremy Irons, however, I congratulated him on not making his character, a Zeffirelli-esque role of a gay impresario, bent on staging Callas’ comeback via a filmed record of “Carmen” either a p.c. paragon or a shrieking stereotype. He responded, “Obviously I have gay friends and love is love, basically, and I’m glad that, to you, it seemed real. Wasn’t Jay Rodan [as his young lover] good, too? We suffered from the same problems that often heterosexuals do; a man completely tied up with his work who doesn’t spend enough time nurturing his own relationship.”

The actor really beamed when I told him how wonderful he and Juliet Stevenson were in City Opera’s “A Little Night Music” last year: “I loved doing it. We had such fun for that relatively short period and working with Juliet was a great joy for me. To work on that score, which I found very difficult, and to get back into theater for the first time in twelve years was tremendously stretching. It makes me long to get back to the theatre in something equally difficult. Neither of us were the world’s greatest singers, but my feeling about Sondheim is that because he is so intricate, and because he writes such bang-on characters and storylines, that if you can hold a tune—which I think we just about got away with—and can give the intricacy demanded in the characters’ portrayal, I think it helps his work. Because he’s a musician, he tends to always cast actors with great voices because he wants to hear his music at its best. I think we let him down with some of the noises we made, but I’m glad to hear that you were moved by it. Glenn Close wants to do it on Broadway, directed by Trevor Nunn, and I must say that I would adore the chance to reprise it, and play it nightly to really hone the performance.”

I asked Irons about working with John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier and he said, “It was an enormous honor to work with the giants of the generation before you. And what you learn is you never become secure and feel you can do it. With Gielgud, I saw him worry about the continuity: which hand his fish fork was in, what bone he picked up. With Olivier, I saw him watching me rehearse and thinking, ‘What’s this young Turk going to do and how can I better it?’ And I was so glad that that competitiveness, that fight, never dies in the great actors. I never worked with Ralph Richardson, although, strangely enough, he was always my favorite because of the way he hung onto the child in him.”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com .

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