Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Arsenic and Old Lace at the Court Square Theater, Springfield, Mass.

“Aresnic and Old Lace” toured New England in 1941, and played two nights and a Wednesday matinee on November 25th and 26th. Featured in the cast was Laura Hope Crews (center, above), who returned to the stage after several film roles, among them the fretful and childlike Aunt Pittypat Hamilton in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). “Arsenic was one of Laura Hope Crews’ last roles before her death the following November in 1942.

Miss Crews and Effie Shannon, who was originally from Cambridge, Mass., played the sweetly sinister sisters Brewster. Forrest Orr, last seen here on tour with “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” played the bombastic and childlike “Teddy” Brewster who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt.

The unique, if, much parodied Hollywood legend Erich von Stroheim played the evil Jonathan Brewster. Mr. Stroheim, actor, writer, and director, must have made an entertaining evil brother Jonathan (the role was originated on Broadway that January by Boris Karloff).

Directed by Joseph Kesslring, the show would become a film vehicle for James Stewart in 1944 (last seen here getting bawled out by Jane Cowl in Boston), and would become for decades to come the favorite chestnut of community theater groups around the country. One wonders if this show is always playing sometime, somewhere, though surely Halloween must be its high season.

This local newspaper ad tells us the tickets went from $1.10 up to $2.75 for orchestra seats, though you could get cheap seats at the matinee for 55 cents.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Upcoming plays for December:

At the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut: “Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter” December 5th through January 3, 2010.

“As Christmas approaches the world of Frogtown Hollow, Emmet Otter and his Ma can only dream of buying each other gifts. So when a Christmas Eve talent contest is announced, both secretly enter, hoping to win the prize money. In a heartwarming twist on "The Gift of the Magi," Emmet and Ma risk all they have and end up with the greatest grand prize of all. Based on director Jim Henson's television feature, this new theatrical adaptation features a lovable mix of actors and puppet characters from The Jim Henson Company and a toe-tapping score. It's a classic holiday musical for all ages!”

Music and Lyrics by Paul Williams, book by Timothy A. McDonald and Christopher Gattelli. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli

At the Majectic Theater in West Springfield, Mass. “Piecemeal - The Frankenstein Musical” running through December 6th. Written by Howard Odentz, this “is the imaginative, dark, and very funny spin on Mary Shelley’s classic novel by re-telling the strange events that lead to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. Igor, the hunchbacked undertaker’s son, yearns to be a doctor. By chance he meets the young Victor Frankenstein, who is destined to follow in his family’s medical footstep, but whose heart is set instead on a fashion career. He and Igor swap identities. Victor heads off to France to pursue his passion while Igor takes his new name and Victor’s pre-paid admission papers to the University. There he becomes the prized pupil of Professor Krempe, who’s been secretly working on reanimation. Add in a love triangle with Victor’s betrothed, the beautiful Elizabeth Lavenza, and you have “PIECEMEAL.”

At the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Mass., the regional premiere of “Heroes” by Gerald Sibleyras, adapted by Tom Stoppard opens tomorrow, November 19th and runs through December 13th. “Henri, Gustave and Philippe survived World War I. Forty years later, as residents in a veterans’ home and armed only with what is left of their wits and a 200-pound stone dog, they battle old age, nagging war injuries, and a masochistic nun. A heartwarming tale of camaraderie and a moving portrait of the frustrations inherent in growing older.”

At the Portland Stage, Portland, Maine, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens runs from November 27th through December 24th. “Travel back in time to Victorian England where ghosts, time travel, and memories help a cold and lonely old miser regain his heart. Our adaptation remains remarkably true to Dickens' original book. Dickens' story seems best told in his words, allowing audiences to hear the richness of his language, and to experience the story of Scrooge's encounters with the spirits of past, present, and yet-to-come in the way that the author intended.”

The Shubert Theatre of New Haven, Connecticut, which opened on December 11, 1914, is celebrating its 95th anniversary with a special event December 11th, and continue on Sunday, December 13th.

Schedule of Anniversary Events:

Friday, December 11
Guided Tours of the Shubert Theater and Backstage: 12:30, 1:30, 2:30, 3:30
Rededication Program: 7:00pm
Followed by screening of "Shubert Moments" and feature film "The Sound of Music"

“The day-long 95th Anniversary Celebratory Events begins on Friday, December 11 with free tours of the theater and backstage areas including the famous “Graffiti Walls” featuring murals of past shows and cast signatures. Tours will run on the hour from 12:30–3:30pm. A rededication ceremony on the Shubert Stage hosted by Shubert staff and City of New Haven officials begins at 7pm, followed by a screening of “Shubert Moments,” a short film highlighting the Shubert’s rich theatrical history, and the feature film, “The Sound of Music.” This film was selected because of the show’s original association with the Shubert Theater – the original stage production of “The Sound of Music” made its World Premiere on the Shubert stage in October, 1959. Having recently marked the 50th Anniversary of its Shubert stage premiere, it is particularly appropriate to include the film version of this beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein classic as part of the Shubert’s Anniversary events.

The celebration continues on Sunday, December 13 with a Free Family Fun Day from 11am–3pm. Kid-friendly events including holiday arts & crafts projects and face painting and refreshments will be available throughout the day in the Shubert lobby. Participants will be entertained with Holiday Carols performed by New Haven youth choirs and a special visit by Santa Claus! Patrons will also be treated to a series of holiday-themed film shorts in the Shubert Theater.”

At The Bushnell in Hartford, Connecticut. “Amahl and the Night Visitors” with The Mostly Baroque Players - David Ole Hartman, Conductor and John Tedeschi, Stage Director/King Melchior - present a fully staged performance of the one act Christmas themed opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti. “The story concerns an unannounced visit by the Three Kings to a poor, crippled, shepherd boy and his widowed mother on their way to venerate the Christ Child in Bethlehem.” Starring Toby Newman as the Mother, Johan Hartman as Amahl, Wayne Rivera as King Kaspar, Stewart Battle as King Balthazar and Christopher Stone as the Page.

At Boston’s The Huntington, “A Civil War Christmas” by Paula Vogel will run until December 13th. “It's Christmas Eve 1864. In the White House, President and Mrs. Lincoln plot their gift-giving. On the Potomac, a young rebel soldier challenges a Union blacksmith's mercy. In the streets, a fugitive from slavery searches for her daughter on the night she finds freedom. In this new play with music from Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, these stories and more are woven into an American tapestry, showing us that the gladness of one's heart is the greatest gift of all. This production includes beloved holiday music and will be enhanced by local choirs caroling before each performance.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Armistice Day - Tremont Theater, Boston

On this day in 1918, the World War ended by armistice and mutual exhaustion. At Boston’s Tremont Theater, “Tiger Rose”, a melodrama by Willard Mack, produced by David Belasco played to audiences whose number we can only guess.

In late August, early September, a few cases of the mysterious influenza were noted among servicemen at the Chelsea Naval Hospital. Soon, civilians began catching the influenza, and dying. All aspects of daily life were suddenly overburdened with the inability to cope with the sickness. Educators, health care providers, the clergy, the police and fire departments suffered the loss of scores of workers, so that in the end, citizens were told to just quarantine themselves as a best measure of fighting the epidemic. In the last four months of that year, the end of the war, an event hoped and prayed for, seemed secondary to the 22,000 deaths in Massachusetts from the influenza.

One wonders how the theatre was able to cope when schools and churches were closed and the city seemingly locked itself down. The Tremont boasted itself The Safest Theatre in Boston, “Equipped with the celebrated Regan Water Curtains which are positive in their action. Also an Asbestos Curtain” so a program from that era proclaimed. Safe from fire, the theatre’s traditional enemy, but not from the flu.

“Tiger Rose” was about a French-Canadian spitfire, loved by all, particularly the villain of the piece, a Mountie played by the play’s author, Willard Mack. Lenore Ulric, who played Rose, later went on to star in the 1921 silent film.

Willard Mack eventually gave up acting to concentrate on his writing career. In another play he wrote, called “The Noose” in 1926, Willard Mack is perhaps best remembered for plucking a girl out of the chorus called Ruby Stevens. So impressed with her natural talent, he rewrote parts of the play to expand her role, and convinced her to change her name. So, Ruby Stevens became Barbara Stanwyck, and Barbara Stanwyck became a star, first on Broadway in “The Noose”, and then for the rest of her long career in film.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Meltdown in Boston: Jane Cowl vs. James Stewart

Jane Cowl, one of the most famous stage actresses of the early 20th century, was a Boston native who, while appearing in Boston, may have inadvertently aided the future film career of her bumbling stage manager.

The play was “Camille”, and the bumbling stage manager was James Stewart. The year was 1933, that awful financial and emotional trench we’ve come to recognize as the depths of the Great Depression.

James Stewart had begun his fledging acting career with the University Players on the Cape the year before in 1932 upon his college graduation. After the University Players had a seven-week run with “Carrie Nation” in New York, and then broke up, Stewart managed to catch favorable reviews for minor roles in a few other similarly frustratingly short-lived plays. Needing to feed himself between roles, a common problem for actors it seems, Mr. Stewart accepted a job in Boston as the stage manager of “Camille.”

It might have been a slight detour in his quest to be an actor, but any job in a company with Jane Cowl in it was valuable. Miss Cowl, with only a handful of film credits spread out over many years, made her real home the stage where she not only acted, but wrote plays and also directed.

She was perhaps most famous for playing Juliet. In 1933, between her Broadway stints of engagements of doing the romance “A Thousand Summers” ending in 1932 and the comedy “Rain From Heaven” which went up in 1934, Jane Cowl found herself in the city of her birth to sink her scenery-chewing teeth into one of the most famous diva roles ever written.

During her final, famous, frenzied death scene where she coughs her farewell to her sobbing lover, Miss Cowl’s young stage manager became distracted, and left off following the script.

Stewart, fumbling with his cue book, had heard noises out in the alley. He went to investigate and found a drunk amusing himself by lobbing rocks at the theater building, either at the wall or trying to land them on the roof. Stewart went outside to get rid of him.

Then, realizing in a panic that he had left his post at a crucial moment, ran back to his place in the wings, only to mess up the final curtain. We have at least two versions to consider: in “Jimmy Stewart” by Marc Elliot (Harmony, 2006), Stewart is said to have missed the cue to drop the final curtain just as Jane Cowl dies of tuberculosis, leaving her there hanging. Dead. So to speak.

In “James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life” by Lawrence J. Quirk (Applause Books, NY 1997), we are given the further picture of Stewart panicking, rushing back to his post, and ringing down curtain before her death scene was completely over. Jane Cowl, being Jane Cowl, might have taken a rather long time to die.

Cowl was furious, screamed at him, that he had ruined her scene, and had him fired.

James Stewart headed dejectedly back to his shared digs with pal Henry Fonda in New York City, still stinging from his blunder and his return to joblessness. But the darker days of the Depression were coming to a close for Mr. Stewart. He went back to acting, which unlike stage managing does not require one to pay attention every single second, and the following year, to Broadway in “Yellow Jack”, a performance which earned him a screen test with MGM.

Jane Cowl also eventually left Boston and went back to Broadway, where among other roles (as a bit of trivia) she originated the role of Dolly Levi on Broadway in 1938, when Dolly was a minor character in Thornton Wilder's "The Merchant of Yonkers."