Monday, August 31, 2009

Mae West: Dutch Ducked

MAE WEST's pal Texas Guinan got on the wrong side of Arthur Flegenheimer, better known as "Dutch Schultz" [6 August 1902 — 24 October 1935], the NYC-born mobster slaughtered at age 33 by a rival's gunmen in Newark, New Jersey. Briefly, during the 1920s, all three were regularly in the same premises on West 54th.
• • Indeed some New Yorkers still recall meeting Dutch Schultz. Nevertheless, if they were to read a script about the gangster, it might be startling how little it resembles memory. But, after all, fiction and plays are concerned with other things — — such as conflict, tension, balance, and how most women must wobble and wiggle to live, wearing youth and beauty as a suit of armor for close fighting.
• • Born during the month of August, Dutch Schultz pops up in a well-financed play set during the lawless decade. His enemy Texas Guinan is not in it. However, actress Jennifer Swiderski portrays Mae West in the critically razzed "Scandalous People: A Sizzling Jazzical," a musical that got on the wrong side of a number of New York reviewers, who lodged complaints about being forced to sit through a lavishly produced but poorly written two hour mess at this year's Fringe Fest. [Heck, no wonder so many call this annual noise-making "The Cringe."]
• • Created for a cast of 21 actors/ dancers, and set in an era juicy with mayhem and dramatic potential, this show found enough Benjamins to float on. Reviewer Matthew Murray offered this detailed autopsy of the slaughter he witnessed onstage in Minetta Lane that left ticket-bearers with post-dramatic stress disorder.
• • "Low-impact theatre of the most disappointing kind" • •
• • Lamenting the misfired sparkplugs in this limousine of a spectacle, Matthew Murray writes: When a musical has everything going for it except spark, you may find yourself wishing it were instead a colossal flop — — that way, you could at least delight in its destiny of nowhere. Unfortunately, no such reassurance is possible with Scandalous People: A Sizzling Jazzical. This show at the Minetta Lane Theatre, by Benny Russell (music) and Myla Churchill (libretto), must be one of the most professional, elaborately realized, and luxuriously appointed musicals ever seen at the New York International Fringe Festival. But its terrific cast and exquisite trappings cannot disguise the fact that it is low-impact theatre of the most disappointing kind.
• • According to Matthew Murray: Churchill's story follows the progression of Prohibition-era Harlem performing artists to legit stages in the run up to the Great Depression. Dewey Demarkov (Eugene Fleming) is the Ziegfeld-lite impresario behind the Do Drop Inn, an uptown speakeasy whose floor acts are filled with attractive chorus girls (that Dewey has personally, uh, hand-picked); two sisters, Desiree (Nicole Hill) and Cindy (Nirine S. Brown), the former a smoky vocalist and Dewey's wife, the latter a lithe and gifted hoofer who has long loved Dewey from afar; and enough talent and variety to attract the come-hither regular Mae West (Jennifer Swiderski). So popular is the club that it's also attracted the notice of a Bronx gangster, Dutch (Ryan Clardy), who wants to move the whole show to Broadway — — with, of course, a few small changes.
• • Matthew Murray observes: This is a premise rife with possibilities, and Russell and Churchill bypass none. Scandal, adultery, and depression play key roles in the characters' lives. The harsh realities of show business, both devastating and elevating, with individualism and working together both of paramount importance, receive their just due. The ensemble women are appropriately eye-popping, all frantic legs and perpetual shimmy as they pound through Obediah Wright's remarkable choreography, which cannily demonstrates the fusion of black (tap) and white (ballet) styles that was soon to revolutionize mainstream American musical theatre.
• • Topping the 21-person cast is a roaring nine-piece band. . . .
• • "A desperate, educational feel that prevents any part of it from catching fire" • •
• • Matthew Murray concludes: But despite everyone's best efforts, the show is plagued by a desperate, educational feel that prevents any part of it from catching fire for more than 10 consecutive seconds. It seems that Russell and Churchill were more interested in capturing the look, the sound, and the politics of the era than they were in bringing it to life theatrically. The inclusion of so many identifying features of 1929, from a Jolson-style blackface specialty to police raids for not just alcohol but also mixed-race dancing onstage to even Mae West's presence, does not so much immerse you in the time as ham-handedly point at it. That the songs — — sometimes torchy, sometimes steamy, sometimes vaudevillian, but always evanescently pleasant — — recall a raft of period styles without providing much originality of their own, also does not help.
• • If Russell and Churchill are looking for a model, they could examine Michael John LaChiusa's version of "The Wild Party," which is set around the same time and treats roughly the same subject, if from a very different perspective. In that show, LaChiusa melded the sounds of the late 1920s with his own distinct musical aesthetic, creating a score that sounded as fresh as it did familiar. When Russell and Churchill similarly learn that way they bring to their examination of pre-Depression black entertainment is every bit as important as what it did for America, chances are they'll find a way to grant "Scandalous People" the scorch its subtitle promises.
• • Right now, however, it is too chilly to cause anyone but the hard-working dancers to even break a sweat.
• • Scandalous People — — part of The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)
— — Source: — —
• • Review: "Scandalous People"
• • BY: Matthew Murray | Theatre Critic
• • Published in: Talking — —
• • Published in: August 2009
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