16 March 2015

Coleman, Comden & Green’s ‘On the Twentieth Century’ Returns to Broadway


Oscar & Lily, Pygmalion & Pygmalia:
Chenoweth & Gallagher.

The Roundabout Theatre’s revival of On the Twentieth Century is just that: a production that gives new life to this musical comedy by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The work is steeped in nostalgia to begin with, not only for the original production that starred Madeline Kahn, but also for the Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century (which, because of the copyright, Comden & Green couldn’t touch), and the play by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur on which the movie was based — and above all for an earlier, grander era of Broadway theater, one dominated by larger-than-life personalities both onstage and back-. Hawks’ film starred no less than John Barrymore as a character modeled on the legendary impresario David Belasco, after all. But 37 years after the first On the Twentieth Century, and 83 years after the Hawks movie, the only people who remember Belasco are opera fans who acknowledge him as the author of the plays that inspired Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West.

What director Scott Ellis has done, quite astonishingly, is to deliver a production that’s faithful to the grand traditions of yore and yet gives them fresh new interpretations for audiences who may not even know that “Twentieth Century” was the name of a train. We see the new approach clearly in David Rockwell’s set design, which echoes Robin Wagner’s Tony-winning original without copying it. It’s still a surprise to see lavish Art Deco staterooms and a looming locomotive steaming right toward us; it’s still a delight to see Rockwell play with the scale of the train, as Wagner did. The designs function much as Wagner’s did, but when you compare them to photos of the originals, then you confirm that Rockwell came up with a look of his own.


Lily Garland makes an entrance: Chenoweth and friends.

It’s a relief to say that Kristin Chenoweth prevails as Lily Garland, a role that nearly destroyed its creator, Madeline Kahn. They’re different performers in many ways, though. Chenoweth is more physical — she dances more confidently, for one thing, and she’s given some elaborate choreography here, especially in the production numbers “Veronique” and “Babbette.” Feistier than elegant, more fireball than grande dame, Chenoweth zips and spins all over the stage, and when co-star Andy Karl uses her body like a barbell to do his biceps curls, she’s game.

Chenoweth’s name came up virtually every time I discussed Twentieth Century in interviews for Madeline’s biography; as Victor Garber put it, “At any given moment, there are maybe five people on earth who can sing that role,” and he cited Judy Kaye (who replaced Madeline in the original production) and Chenoweth as examples. Like Kaye, Chenoweth appears to find no difficulty in singing a strenuously demanding score that Madeline feared would wreck her voice; more comfortable in her chest voice than Madeline ever was, Chenoweth romps throughout the range of Lily’s music.


Romping through “Babbette.”

As her former paramour–Svengali and current nemesis, Oscar Jaffee, Peter Gallagher brings matinée idol looks and a pleasingly affected accent that comes and goes. He’s a strong singer, though his baritone voice is lighter than that of John Cullum, who created the role: he can’t quite reach the vocal bravado that Cullum exploited, and Gallagher’s Oscar is consequently less grandiose. But this chimes with Ellis’ production, showing us glimpses of the real man beneath the bravado, and Oscar’s eleventh-hour scena, “The Legacy,” here gets new lyrics, now a straight-from-the-heart ballad, “Because of Her.” The other characters still treat Oscar as a monstre sacré, and in the twenty-first century, when we’re more likely to watch Barrymore on a hand-held personal device than on a vast silver screen, audiences arguably are more comfortable with a somewhat smaller scale.


“I Rise Again”: Gallagher, McGrath, Linn-Baker.

As the religious fanatic Letitia Primrose, Mary Louise Wilson gives a sly performance with scarcely a clue that “She’s a Nut,” not even attempting to duplicate the demented-pixie quality that the first Primrose, Imogene Coca, brought to almost everything she did. Really, Wilson’s Big Edie in Grey Gardens was nuttier by far, and thus it’s easy to see how Oscar and his cohorts fall for her story. The payoff is tremendous, though, and even the audience may be surprised when the truth comes out and Primrose is chased through the train, affording Wilson a couple of moments I won’t spoil for you — but I’ll treasure them forever.

As Lily’s lunkheaded boyfriend, Karl isn’t quite as acrobatic as enduring legend maintains that his predecessor, Kevin Kline, was — but he’s light on his feet and very funny. In Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath (as Oscar’s sidekicks), and in Jim Walton (the original Frank Shepherd from Merrily We Roll Along, here as Conductor Flanagan), we get the definition of luxury casting, and they’re all marvelous. And the tap-dancing Porters — Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore, and Drew King — raise the roof in every one of their numbers, expertly choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Indeed, on Friday night, the Porters rivaled Chenoweth herself for the title of audience favorite, eliciting enthusiastic responses again and again.


Operatic: A sextet about a contract.
Chenoweth, Gallagher, Wilson (foreground);
Linn-Baker, McGrath, Karl (background).

My own favorites, though, were Ellis** and music director Kevin Stites, who kept the entire show as fizzy, fleet, and fun as it is faithful: I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job with this material. It’s a complex show, after all, at once invoking and spoofing long-ago show-biz traditions, not only Broadway’s. Oscar and Lily over-inflate their petty dramas to grand-operatic proportions, with allusions to everything from Lucia to Faust to Tristan. Coleman’s music both celebrates and mocks their grandiosity, and Comden & Green apply the same mixture of sass and encyclopedic knowledge that elevated their work in collaborations as diverse as Singin’ in the Rain and the Revuers’ operetta parody, “Baroness Bazooka.”

Much of that tradition is lost to modern audiences: the sources of nostalgia in 1978 are relics of ancient history in 2015. Whether they come to this revival of On the Twentieth Century having seen the original production, whether they merely listened to the cast album, or whether they spent seven years immersed in the material as they researched Madeline Kahn’s biography,* they’ll find plenty to please them.

And if On the Twentieth Century is a “classic,” worthy of revival, then it’s got to have meaning today, and the roles can’t belong to any one performer: not Madeline, not Judy Kaye, not Kristin Chenoweth. In that sense, it’s completely unfair to compare the present production and performances to the originals — and you should ignore just about everything I’ve written here.


“Veronique,” a number that brought all Madeline’s anxieties to the fore.

*NOTE: Okay, I may be the only person who came to 42nd Street with that last particular credential. But bear in mind that, before Friday night, I’d never seen this show.

**Ellis also directed Madeline in her last stage appearance, a reading of Jerry Herman’s Dear World at the Roundabout, in 1998.




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01 March 2015

No Federal Court Is Going to Rob Me of My Right to Discriminate Against Pharisees and Sadducees


Vipers, the lot of them.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about special rights for minorities, but one thing gets overlooked: my deeply held personal religious beliefs require me to discriminate against Pharisees and Sadducees. That’s why we need a law to protect my right to refuse to serve Pharisees and Sadducees in my small business, a law that, for the first time in American history, will uphold my freedom of religion.

As a Christian, my beliefs come into conflict with those of the Pharisees and Sadducees in a number of important areas, and I have only Scripture to guide me. For example, I know that, if a Pharisee or Sadducee comes into my family-style restaurant, he may test me by asking me to show a sign. Therefore, I will have to point to the sign that says, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”

Yes, it’s wrong to give in to temptation, but you have to put your foot down, and I know the Lord will forgive me.


Love thy neighbor, except when thy neighbor is of a different demographic group.

Now, say that a Pharisee or Sadducee comes into my bakery to order a cake for a Pharisee or Sadducee wedding. My Lord and Savior has commanded me to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. And just to make things extra clear, He added, “How is it that you do not understand that I was not talking to you about bread?” Obviously, He was talking about cake.

There is no yeast in cake! Everybody knows that! This is another trap set for Christians by the Pharisees and Sadducees! And so, if someone were to come up and say, “Please make me a big yeasty wedding cake for my big yeasty Pharisee or Sadducee wedding,” then I would have to reply, “My religious beliefs require me to call you a viper and tell you to get out of my bake shop. Have a nice day!”

And let’s not even get into the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ conflicting ideas about the purity of spilled water — let’s just agree that my florist shop would be in big trouble if I tried to do business with any of them, no matter how many pieces of silver they offer me.

We know that Pharisees and Sadducees were very important to Jesus, because He talked about them so often. This isn’t one of those things He mentioned only a couple of times, like “Love thy neighbor” or cursing figs; it’s certainly not one of those moral questions that Jesus never even got around to mentioning. I honor my Lord and His agenda.

I realize that my faith-based behavior may cause pain to the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and their adulterous so-called “families,” but I must obey my Lord, who said, “Suffer, the little children.”

The Bible is the word of God, and I must follow it to the letter, excepting where pork, shellfish, and divorce are concerned, of course. I mean, really, Jesus Him Self called the Pharisees and Sadducees “an evil and adulterous kindred.” Can’t you see that to treat them kindly would violate my faith?

I don’t even understand how this Christian nation can have courts, when Jesus was very clear about “Judge not.” Yet federal courts and some legislatures are rapidly moving to the point where I’m going to have to treat everybody equally well. My faith won’t permit that.

After all, Jesus commanded me to cast the first stone, and He didn’t mean for me to cast it willy-nilly. He meant for me to cast it at someone, or possibly at some figs.

Meanwhile, I’m looking up what He said about wedding photography. I’m sure there are some important rules about that, too.


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28 February 2015

Leonard Nimoy


“I have been and always shall be your friend.”

Growing up, my brother and I divided everything, much as Spain and Portugal once divided the globe between them. He got blue, I got red. He got Mickey Mouse, I got Donald Duck. And when we got older, he got Mr. Spock, I got Dr. McCoy. I’m not complaining: Donald and McCoy suited me. And yet since learning yesterday of the death of Leonard Nimoy, I’ve been on the brink of highly illogical tears.

Nimoy’s Spock was a grand creation, “the most human” soul in the universe, as Kirk once said, able to withstand the vagaries of scriptwriting and special effects, rising to the loftiest rank of popular culture. When I was a boy, I saw mostly Spock’s devotion to science — another of my brother’s territories — and his steely resistance to human emotion. I rather liked emotion, and I still do. So I wound up with McCoy.

Yet looking at Spock now, I see something else. Quite a number of people, including the President of the United States, talk about how Spock was different, an alien among earthlings on the Enterprise and a half-human among Vulcans. Yet Spock chose his sides: he held himself to the Vulcan standard. And he failed.


Spock’s failures were glorious to witness. Logic didn’t dictate that he snipe at McCoy, but wasn’t it fun when he did? When spores, or pon farr, or mind control, or some other force broke down his defenses, Spock fell in love or raging lust, he laughed and cried. Emotions were uncomfortable for him, and yet Nimoy made us see that Spock always felt them, that he had to work to keep them down, and that he was terribly lonely as a result.

Somehow he found friends who understood what he felt for them, who recognized what a tremendous gift Spock’s love must be. It took Dr. McCoy longer to realize this — we recall with fondness Bones’ “who, me?” reaction in “Amok Time,” when Spock invites him to be a best man at his wedding. Later, in Star Trek II and the most significant of all mind-melds, we also saw that, in the irascible old country doctor, Spock chose the right vessel for his “most human” soul.

Kirk knew from the beginning that Spock’s deepest feelings were reserved for him alone. It’s not terribly surprising that slash fiction as a genre developed from this relationship, a friendship so loving and so rare that some people can hardly understand it without sexualizing it somehow. That’s a shame.

Star Trek brought my brother and me together at an age when we shared less and less. It also brought us into a circle of friends — oddballs like us, too smart for our own good, too stubborn to fit in with other kids. For earlier viewers of the show, Star Trek presented a vision of a hopeful future, primarily because the Earth hadn’t been destroyed in a nuclear war, and because the bridge was peopled with a black woman, an Asian man, and a resolutely Soviet-style Russian.

For our little gang, though, I believe hope sprang from a different source: the idea that, some day in the future, we would be valued, not bullied, for our intelligence. We would find friends. We would explore the galaxy. We would live out our adventures — as a crew. Just the way we used to pile into a van to attend Star Trek conventions. Maybe we looked silly, but that was only the beginning of our voyages. We were certain of it.

My brother wanted to be so very much like Spock, and in failing, he has succeeded. He feels so deeply that nothing, not science, not logic, not any remedy at all can suppress his emotions — whether he shows them or not. Spock might not approve, but he’d understand.

I might have understood, too, a little sooner, if I’d taken the time to analyze my brother. But teenage boys are not tricorders. It took me years to see that Spock really does live in my brother. There’s beauty in that.

So I’m grieving today. For Spock and the actor who played him. For the boys we are no more, for the timeworn friendships we made and the vanished dreams we shared. For the sense that the future would always be infinite.




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17 February 2015

‘Fifty Shades’ May Lead to Unreasonable Expectations, Experts Say


Heteronormative:
Ceci n’est pas un ménage à trois.

Given Fifty Shades of Grey’s potent surge at the box office over the Valentine’s weekend, many experts now worry about the movie’s influence on younger audiences. Based on a best-selling series of novels by E.L. James, in turn inspired by Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books, Fifty Shades depicts a dominant/submissive relationship between wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and naïve Anastasia “Ana” Steel (Dakota Johnson) that could lead to unreasonable expectations for viewers in their late teens and early 20s.

“Young people really don’t have the experience to process what they’re seeing,” said Dr. Ima Lippbiter, distinguished professor at Starfleet Christian Academy and author of The Pon Farr Diaries. “They don’t have the kinds of relationships with fan fiction to understand that what happens between Christian and Ana is very, very rare, starting with the fact that these characters are heterosexual.”

Edward and Bella, the Twilight characters on whom Christian and Ana are based, are also heterosexual, Lippbiter says, “and the result is that young people watching the films may try to duplicate these kinds of relationships in their own lives. I can’t underscore enough what a danger that is, and what kind of impact it can have on their reading habits of fan fiction.”


Where no man has gone before.

Lippbiter’s principal characters, Kirk and Spock of Star Trek, express their feelings for each other every seven years, when Spock is unable to find a female during his Vulcan mating period, or “pon farr.” “In other circumstances, Kirk and Spock may engage in heterosexual behavior, but that’s really not the norm in fan fiction,” observes Polly Grangerford-Wilks, a fan-fiction author specializing in “Huck/Jim” stories.

Elements of titillation and illicit love play an important role in fan fiction, Grangerford-Wilks says, which is why she finds Fifty Shades so troubling. “A man dominating a woman, you see that all the time in source fiction,” she says, “at least, in the source fiction that has any women characters at all. So where’s the drama? Where’s the taboo-breaking that’s at the heart of erotic fan fiction?”


Also, more paraffin, please.
(I found this picture with the writing already on it, honest.)

If E.L. James had written about a dom/sub relationship between characters based on Edward and Jacob, “that would be worth reading,” Arwen Meriadoc agrees. She bases her work on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and she believes she knows what women readers want. “I mean, if you had Edward stripping Jacob, tying him up, and dripping hot wax across his bare chest, for example, then slowly dripping the wax down the narrow, trembling valley between his clenched abdominal muscles, and then — I’m sorry, I forgot what I was saying.”

“We treat these books and movies as if they’re somehow okay for young people,” says Lippbiter, “as if they’re unlikely to have any effect on their attitudes — at home and for the rest of their lives. But what is the message young people are going to take away from Fifty Shades? If they expect all erotic fan fiction to be like this, they’ll be bitterly disillusioned.”

Lippbiter is now exploring Arthur/Bedivere fiction based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Grangerford-Wilks’ most recent Huck/Finn story, “Call Me Honey, and Pet Me,” is currently ranked at #135,930,0137 on Amazon. Meriadoc’s latest novel, My Precious: The Forbidden Passion of Frodo and Gollum, will be released next month. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, an Atticus/Scout story, is expected in July.


Is that a ring in its pocketses,
or is it just happy to see me?


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12 February 2015

Interview: Ryan Mercy & Christopher Barnes on Unauthorized! The Musical Parody


The (extremely) creative team: Barnes & Mercy

Watching That ’80s Time Travel Movie, the premiere production in the Unauthorized! Musical Parody series at New York’s People’s Improv Theater last fall, I’d never have guessed that the show had been written, cast, rehearsed and produced in barely one month — for one night only. From the polished young cast to the infectious score to the ingenious staging, I had every reason to believe I’d wandered into an Off-Broadway hit that had been running at least three months. Subsequent shows — Steel Petunias and Ghostcatchers, likewise written and produced in just a month each — confirmed my impression. Sure, you gotta get a gimmick, but this wasn’t mere gimmickry. Something special was going on here. Cheering audiences and a sold-out box office obviously agreed with me.

As of last Friday, the Unauthorized! shows have begun playing in repertory at the PIT, with new shows slated to enter the cycle over the next several months. Each will parody a beloved Hollywood movie, each will be assembled in about five weeks, most are expected to feature what’s become an ad-hoc rep company of actors, and all are written by composer Ryan Mercy and lyricist Christopher Barnes, who also directs, and produced by Ronny Pascale.

“We’re calling it musical-theater boot camp,” Mercy says, and Barnes agrees. “We just watched the Sondheim documentary [Six by Sondheim], and he said the way you learn is to write something, then put it up,” Barnes says. With other original material, they’d been through workshops; valuable though those experiences were, they culminated in readings, not fully staged productions. Lacking high-profile connections, Mercy and Barnes had begun to despair of ever getting their big break. Now they’re refining their artistic goals and discovering what does and doesn’t work for an audience.

Because that audience votes on the source material for the next show, Barnes compares the experience to TV’s Project Runway, “because these aren’t shows we would have wanted to write, and yet we’re finding our voices and finding our passion. It’s like, ‘Okay, show writers, this week you have to write Ghostbusters, make it work.’”


All-singing! All-dancing! All-time-traveling!
The cast of That ’80s Time Travel Movie

That said, the team hedges its bets a little by proposing movies they actually like for the audience to vote on. Their affection for the material shows. After That ’80s Time Travel Movie, Barnes remembers, “one compliment we got was that there was nothing mean about what we did. I think it’s because we love the movie. We try to basically take what we love about a movie and put it on the stage.”

Given the extraordinary proliferation of movie-based musicals on New York stages in recent years — when even documentaries like Grey Gardens and Hands on a Hardbody wind up (brilliantly) on Broadway — the practice Mercy and Barnes are getting at the PIT could come in handy, and it was Pascale who suggested they give movie parodies a try. “I don’t think we ever watch a movie without thinking, ‘Oh, that should be a musical,’” Barnes says, and Mercy adds, “I think a painter paints and we write musicals. We’re always thinking in the vocabulary of musical theater. It’s in our blood.”

Each show has posed its own challenges. That ’80s Time Travel Movie not only brings a DeLorean to the stage, it turns the car into a singing, dancing character. Ghostcatchers raised the thorny questions of how to spoof a spoof, and how to make a musical out of a story in which the characters don’t experience emotions “too strong to express in words,” Mercy says. “It was up to us to find moments where there was enough dramatic tension for a song to erupt.”

Steel Magnolias contains one obvious moment for a song: M’Lynn’s emotional breakdown at the funeral of her daughter, Shelby. The scene earned Sally Field an Oscar nomination, but the Unauthorized! team was “terrified that the audience wouldn’t go to that sad place after all that silliness,” Barnes says. They were prepared to cut the number if it didn’t work in performance. But on opening night, there was scarcely a dry eye in an audience that, seconds earlier, had been howling at the catty comedy and Southern-fried parody scenes.

“It’s surprising when people say, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see how you make fun of Sally Field in her breakdown.’ For us, that’s too easy,” Mercy says. “Why would we make fun of that? Why would we be negative about a scene in classic cinema? We want to put our own stamp on it. Without plagiarizing!”


Shelby, drink your juice!
The women of Steel Petunias

Revisiting their scripts in preparation for the repertory revivals, the authors are making improvements. Steel Petunias ran long, and “for the first run, we just threw everything to the wall to see what would stick,” Mercy admits. “We flailed a little bit to figure out song moments for that one, but now I’m very confident that every song in that show is necessary and a good choice.” “I do believe that anybody who saw the first two-and-a-half-hour show, if they were a Steel Magnolias fan, they got a good show,” Barnes says. “But now we’ve got it where anybody can enjoy it.”*

They’re learning that “What makes the show is what’s necessary,” not what they think audiences will expect from a popular film. “We try to basically take what we love about a movie and put it on the stage,” Barnes says, and that approach involves less outright mockery and more “heightening,” as he and Mercy call it. For example, when their Marty McFly realizes that his mother is coming on to him, he’s not merely freaked out, he nearly throws up, ulping steadily for an entire scene. Mercy’s music steers the audience to the right response to a given scene, too, whether it’s Doc Brown’s rap number or M’Lynn’s extended scena.

It helps to have talented actors to put across their material. Barnes and Mercy were bartenders at the PIT, not bigshots, yet when they posted the audition for That ’80s Time Travel Movie, they fielded what Barnes calls “an all-star cast, right from the start,” and many have returned for more than one show. Most have a background in improv and sketch comedy, which proves a boon in several ways. Since most cast members are working on multiple shows simultaneously, rehearsal time is limited and plenary attendance is rare. Quick wits can cover a flubbed line in ways the audience will never notice (one reason I could believe they’d been performing the play for months); and sketch actors can take a line of direction like “stand there,” and “make it look like it makes sense,” Barnes says, “which is crazy.”

The actors are “also calm in a way that’s really nice,” Mercy says. “We’re the ones who freak out about our timeline, and they’re so used to putting on a show in three days that they’re like, ‘Oh, relax, we’ve got plenty of time.’” Moreover, cast member Adrian Sexton marvels, “Everybody likes each other, everybody gets along.”

Let’s hope I’m not jinxing anything by publishing that. It’s a team of champions and I hate to single out anybody — but so far I’ve been especially impressed by the versatility shown in multiple roles by Sexton, Kathleen Armenti, Julie Feltman, Dana Shulman, Jane Kehoe, Brian Hansbury, Aubrey Kyburz, Daniel Yawitz, and Kevin Sean, all of whom seem capable of fielding anything Mercy and Barnes throw their way. Though Matt Rogers, Stephanie Holmes, Pat Swearingen, Rachel Scherer, Jeff Scherer, and Kevin McLean haven’t appeared in quite as many roles, I’ve also found much to admire in their performances.


They fear no ghosts. Not even ghosts of critics.
The cast of Ghostcatchers.

Partners outside as well as inside the theater, Mercy and Barnes have had to learn to collaborate with others and to delegate. “We are control freaks,” Mercy says, “but we’re also on an insanely tight schedule, so it’s hard to outsource.” When Julia Darden offered to build several of the puppets for Ghostcatchers, Barnes “was fully prepared mentally to have to redo those puppets the night before the show,” he says. “But she did it in time, and they looked amazing.” Having proved herself with Steel Petunias, Shongedzai Matangira is “pretty much our go-to costume person now,” and she’s also played a lead role in Ghostcatchers and taken on some publicity duties, as well.

Perhaps their most valued collaborator is Christine Pynn. “Her title is production manager,” Mercy explains. “But really what she does for us is make sure the tech aspects of the show run smoothly.” Despite the limited lighting options, “She can do some amazing stuff from that booth,” Barnes observes, and the actors adore her.

Oh, and about those puppets. They’re part of Barnes’ translations of the movies’ special effects to the stage, using tricks that he calls “cheesy” or “geeky-dorky” but that bespeak his background in magic and are often breathtaking in their imagination. The DeLorean is one example, and the flaming tracks it leaves behind are another. The beloved Slimer of Ghostbusters is here a glorious glob of a slob made out of insulation foam and green paint. Steel Magnolias may not have had special effects, but Steel Petunias does, most notably a 15-foot-tall devil made out of old scripts and packing tape. (See photo below.)

There’s method in that magic. “When we saw Xanadu on Broadway, it was fun,” Barnes says, and like the Unauthorized! shows, Xanadu parodied a movie. “But I thought, ‘Why did I pay Broadway prices and there’s no spectacle, no giant disco ball?’”

“I would say Chris is a new generation P.T. Barnum,” Mercy adds. “I think he’s a showman before anything else. That’s where the magic background plays into it. If we’re going to put you in a room for an hour and a half, we want to give you a show that’s something you’re going to talk about.”

To learn more about Unauthorized! and upcoming performances, check Facebook or Instagram. You can also see the PIT’s complete roster of performances by clicking here.


Satan in the Bible Belt:
A scene from Steel Petunias.

*NOTE: I’m not at all a Steel Magnolias fan, yet I found Steel Petunias perfectly entertaining the first time around — and I’m looking forward to the revival.



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Bob Simon


Strange are the ways of fate, or at least it seems that way when you look at the news these days. Just when everybody is getting excited (or nervous, or worried) about the rediscovery and promised publication of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman and the return of Atticus and Scout — just when the movie Selma reminds us how arduous was the struggle for civil rights — comes State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore to remind us how little progress some Alabamians have made since — well, ever, really.

And just when everybody is talking about Brian Williams’ exaggerated claims about his wartime reporting and their impact on his career, Bob Simon dies.

A longtime CBS News correspondent, Bob didn’t have to lie about the many times he risked his life to report the news — though really his only extended remarks on the subject are contained in Forty Days, his account of captivity in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the first Gulf War. In that case, he explained, capturing the story was his way of getting back at his captors. Beyond that, he didn’t go around trying to impress people.

He didn’t have to. He simply was impressive, just standing there. Easily one of the most cultivated and intelligent people ever to work for CBS News, Bob was “old school” in the best ways, as close to the second coming of Charles Collingwood as we’re likely to get. A fine writer, a tough questioner, an authentically courageous field reporter and a true scholar, and surely the only guy in the newsroom who loved French culture as much as I did. A kind of grace possessed him. You wanted to have dinner with him (something I did on occasion), just to hear what he had to say.

Hard to believe he was 73 — no matter how much experience he crammed into his life. Harder still to believe that, after so many more-perilous scrapes, from Vietnam to Nablus, something as mundane as a car crash could end that life.

It’s 15 years since I worked in television news, and I admit that I don’t watch much TV any more. Yet when I look, I don’t see the like of Bob Simon. I never did. And so, as we fret about the future of American journalism, we have one more thing to worry about. Bob Simon is gone, with no heir in sight.



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11 February 2015

Be Honest. You Really Need Madeline Kahn Valentine Cards, Don’t You?


Throughout her career as an actress, Madeline Kahn explored almost all the many facets of love. That’s one reason I’ve written her biography, Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life, coming May 1 from University Press of Mississippi (available for pre-order from Amazon and Barnes & Noble at an attractive discount price). And it’s also why we recall Madeline so fondly at this time of year, and why I spent, oh, painstaking hours to craft these Valentine’s, at least one of which is sure to be perfect for anybody on your list. Click to enlarge, and all that — and happy Valentine’s Day!










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