NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
New Orleans' Nightly Musical Beauty Contest, Pageant, has settled into the
FreeportMacMoRan Theatre in the Contemporary Arts Center for what
should be a protracted stay. It is scheduled to close June 15. Get on the horn immediately and reserve tickets because this one is a winner.
Sticking it to the beauty pageant industry with stiletto-sharp satire, this 90 minute romp by Bill Russell, Frank Kelly, Albert Evans and Robert Longbottom is so right-on. The Krewe of Petronius audience with whom I had the good fortune to experience it, practically tore the theatre down in their giddy, enthusiastic response at show's end.
This reaction had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the emcee for the show, a real lounge lizard named Frankie Cavalier, is played by Queen Petronius XXXV, Wess Hughes, whose oily, pink tuxedoed charm gives the evening's outrageous proceedings the right sleazo-flamboyant tone.
The concept is simple: six male musical comedy actors are called upon to play six female contestants in a pageant sponsored by a Mary Kayesque cosmetics company called "Glamouresse."
Besides the evening wear, swim wear and talent categories, the "girls" must also do a "spokesmodel" turn for various "Glamouresse" products like Lipsnak-Beauty in Calories, a lipstick that comes in such flavors as Poached Salmon and Roast Beef Red; Smooth As Marble Facial Spackle, which covers up holes, scars and enlarged pores; Hair Aware/Air Repair, a spray canister with a spray on both ends-one end dispenses the hair spray; the other end, a chemical that keeps the hair spray from ruining the ozone layer.
The talented cast: Brooks Braselman, Miss Deep South; Russell Hodgkinson, Miss Industrial Northeast; Douglas Park, Miss Bible Belt; Steven Sherman, Miss Texas; Paul Soileau, Miss Industrial Northeast; and, Ken Weatherup, Miss West Coast, is simply perfect. Director Carl Walker has scored a perfect "10" with this cast-all are winners, from Brooks Braselman's incredible Southern ventriloquist act with two "Uncle Wayne" Daigrepont-designed muppets, Russell Hodgkinson's hilariously declaimed poem., Steven Sherman's Texas Cowgirl tap dance, Douglas Park's bell-ringing evangelism, Ken Weatherup's Miss West Coast Valley Girl interpretive dance to Paul Soileau's Peurto Rican Miss Industrial Northeast's turn on roller skates while playing Lady Of Spain on the accordion-pure camp.
Their choral singing has been whipped into Mitch Miller euphony by musical director Michael Howard. The setting (Keith Christopher), lighting (Martin L. Sachs) and the Glarouresse products (Ron Williams) create a pink cotton candy glow. Their costumes are unique and character-defining and their two sets of production number costumes are crisp and tasteful in a well-made tacky way and were designed by Roy Haylock who also delivered them on time.
Mr. Haylock indeed shines in this production. Not only has he supplied his producer, All Kinds of Theatre, with a rich and varied wardrobe, including wigs and makeup, but he also performs a very important, and uncredited role-that of last year's winner-who is responsible for distributing the numbered cards to five audience members who vote for the best. There was a tie for both first and second places. The tie was broken by the audience's applause. In true beauty pageant fashion, the loser of the runner-up position, Miss Texas, was downright rude and struck such wounded attitude the audience was beside itself with delight.
What a cathartic shock it is see ourselves as others see us.
Although the Miss Saigon company will soon pack its theatre magic into 18 40-foot semis and ease on down the road to its next stand, San Antonio, some things remain to be said about my experience with its recent high visibility here in the Big Easy.
Miss Saigon is clearly the result of unbridled expertise and hucksterism from Cameron Mackintosh, its producer and co-owner (with the writers Claude-Michel Shonberg [music & book], Alain Boublil [lyrics & book] & Richard Maltby, Jr., who wrote additional material as well as translating the original French lyrics).
The producer always owns a large portion of the copyright for an agreed upon number of years, at the end of which he must either re-stage a first-class production, or let his part of the copyright lapse to the writers. Mr. Mackintosh is presently reaping the rewards of his collaboration, not only with the writers, but with the original design team as well. He is most assuredly the star of this venture in Technical Theatre.
Each new production of Miss Saigon he mounts, with the same design team: director Nicholas Hytner production designer John Napier, costume designers Andreane Neofitou & Suzy Benzinger, lighting designer David Hersey and sound designer Andrew Bruce, is tweaked and fussed over and improved upon.
For, you see, the technical virtuosity that brings off this feat of theatrical engineering is what gives this show its ultimate cachet-instead of opulent costumes there's a helicopter and a Cadillac. Instead of lush Puccini-like music (this is, after all, an operatic adaptation of Madama Butterfly, one of Puccini's all-time hits-the music should soar and the score should contain at least one "One Fine Day"), we get hard-hitting Europop orchestrations by William David Brohn (let's not forget, unlike Puccini, Shonberg doesn't read or write music, he just hunts and pecks out the tune). Instead of stars we get clones of the original cast-maybe not in looks but in everything else.
Once Mackintosh packs in this show's hydraulic tinker toys for the last time, that'll be curtains for Miss Saigon. For what opera company in the world, the Met included, could afford to mount such an audaciously expensive production of a simple story told so much better by Puccini's librettists (Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica who were themselves adapting from David Belasco's one act Madame Butterfly, which he, in turn, had adapted from the novella by John Luther Long) or would even want to-where would they find the oriental operatic belters for the women's roles?
No, I strongly believe that Miss Saigon does not have a life after CamMac; at least, not for the vast amateur/stock market where all successful musicals and plays bring annuities to their authors and original producers. Like just about anything written by, say, Kander and Ebb.
And what, you may ask, do Kander and Ebb have to do with Miss Saigon? During my stint as producing director of Gallery Circle Theatre here in the French Quarter, I did a couple of Kander and Ebb shows, Cabaret and The Happy Time, a show which required a large chorus of children. The leading character is a teenage son going through puberty. The actor has to sing and dance and pretty much bare his soul. For this role I was very fortunate in casting a youngster from Metairie, Tommy Capps.
Tommy Capps is now Tom Capps the Production Stage Manager of the touring Miss Saigon company and as such he is CamMac's stand-in star-he's been associated with Miss Saigon and Mackintosh for the past seven years, having been the production stage manager for the New York company before stage managing the Broadway production of Moon Over Buffalo. No stranger to the road, he spent another seven years with Yul Brynner's King and I.
Tom(my) and I also shared a mutual and very important mentor in New York City, a producer named Henry Weinstein who hired me as dramaturge of Westport Country Playhouse and got Tom(my) his Equity card by having him cast in a production of Awake And Sing, also at Westport Country Playhouse.
While in New Orleans, a media call was made to come by the theatre on a Tuesday afternoon to be given a tour behind the scenes of Miss Saigon and to witness the weekly testing of the hydraulic devices that activate the helicopter and Cadillac. Unlike other shows, we weren't invited to meet the stars of the show, DeeDee Lynn Magno and Will Chase.
I was dumbfounded at the compact density of the show-the way it has been so cleverly designed to fold into and onto itself, how all floor pieces are stored overhead, the steepness of the raked "deck," or floor (which is too large for the Saenger Theatre, necessitating the move to the larger Theatre Of The Performing Arts-larger in stage space if not seating), the ingenuity of the helicopter with its unique, retractable rotors that are really ropes with a ball on the end, the fiberglass Caddie, cut in two pieces for storage that unfold as it is being lowered to the stage floor by its hydraulic arm, with jets of smoke billowing from underneath to mask its mechanics. Cameron Mackintosh spent $75,000. strenghening the proscenium arch so that it could withstand tons of lighting and sound equipment-his generous gift to New Orleans.
Some of the many statistics about this mammoth undertaking that were ticked off by Mr. Capps: 450 costumes (nothing Mardi Gras giddy-lots of coolie garb), 140 people backstage every night needed to run the show, a cast of 47 that is constantly changing, the vari-lights and intellibeams, the vast percussion section of the orchestra, the fact that Mackintosh insists on hiring sound mixers with a recording studio background (hence, the CD quality sound-a real distancer-can you imagine a miked Met?) The completely covered and blacked out orchestra pit-a mesh of piano wire (to catch the props and/or actors who have been known to roll into the pit due to that steep deck) covered with opaque black cloth to keep the light from interfering with the lighting designer's oh so sensitive work-the orchestra might as well be in another building since every instrument is wired into the mix. The conductor pokes out of a hole much like an opera prompter.
I'm amazed Mr. Capps has kept such a high-pressure job for so many years; but he told me he is presently in negotiations with the producers of a new Tommy Tune musical, Easter Parade, an adaptation of the Fred Astaire, Judy Garland movie musical with songs by Irving Berlin. Songs anyone can sing. Songs like those in The Happy Time, or Cabaret, or Chicago-shows simple, tuneful, charming and funny that don't require mind-numbing technical expertise to mount again and again-shows that show off those on stage instead of those backstage.
We were also informed that this is the last of the megamusicals "in the pipeline" (from London). Even though the third endeavor of the Shonberg/Boublil pop operatic juggernaut, Martin Guerre, of the three (Les Miz being the other), is by far the best. It was not praised to high heaven like Miss Saigon so CamMac is not planning on bringing it to America even though it continues to run in London and will have a total cast replacement in June. Pity. With Martin Guerre, they got it right.
Aside #1: Rarely does one get to enjoy a ritual as much as the dramatis personae did at the recent wedding of "Uncle" Wayne Daigrepont and Rebecca Ann Brenner-the other Becky.
Held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, two blocks from Rivertown Rep, and officiated by Fr. Richard Miles, the ritual began traditionally enough, with Flo Presti, accompanied by Brian Hymel singing songs appropriately sedate. The wedding march brought forth a couple radiantly, even goofily, in love. Becky's dress was spectacular.
After the couple knelt at the altar, Father Miles asked the congregation to sing along with him the couple's favorite song, Zipadee Doo Dah. From there the ritual became an interactive event with heart-touching humor and sincerity, led by a theatre-savvy priest whose timing and delivery were flawless.
After the late morning service, the celebrators second-lined down Minor St. behind a big brass band to a swell reception held at Rivertown Rep.
Good luck, Uncle Wayne and Aunt Becky, your theatre family wishes you the best.