Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, coming to you live from Provincetown, MA. I put the newsletter on hiatus while I’m away, but am returning today with a special Provincetown edition.
What I’ve been missing…..
No, I can’t be everywhere, but I am disappointed that I’ve missed the out-of-town try-outs for not one but two new British musicals: The Great British Bake-Off: The Musical (at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre, to August 6) and Identical (at Nottingham Playhouse, to August 14, though I could still catch it at the Lowry in Salford Quays where it runs August 19-September 3 after I get back, pictured below).
While London critics are slow these days to review beyond the capital, it was good to see the three daily print broadsheets sending critics to each of these: The Great British Bake-Off was reviewed by the Daily Mail (four stars), Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Times (three stars each), while Identical was reviewed by Daily Telegraph (5 stars), Daily Mail (also 5 stars), The Guardian (4 stars), and The Times (3 stars).
Also beyond London: both The Guardian (3 stars) and The Observer (5 stars) attended the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre (running to September 10) I hope to see that, too, after I get back, and I am also already booked to see a new production of Jesus Christ Superstar at Frinton-on-Sea in Essex (from August 19 to September 4).
This year’s Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe have also kicked off, at (near enough) full strength again after being entirely cancelled in 2020 and existing as an online/physical hybrid in 2021 (There are some 3,354 shows to choose from on the fringe, playing at 255 different venues, a reduction of 13% over 2019).
I am looking forward to my first Edinburgh return in some years, but I — along with many other festival goers — have significantly reduced the time I’m spending there; I’m only going for three nights (from August 21-24). That’s partly to mitigate the cost of accommodation, but also the general craziness of chasing after too many shows. This way, I am NECESSARILY limited in my choices.
And the good thing about waiting till the third week of the festival to go is that I can let other critics guide me on what to see (and more importantly, what to miss); as much as I was keen to see the great Ian McKellen return to the fringe with a heavily abbreviated version of HAMLET that sees him reciting some of his speeches while a dancer expresses them in movement, I now know that I don’t need to after all. It’s a significant relief!
A little bit of Broadway heaven in Provincetown…..
I am not getting to New York this summer at all — my last trip was in May, when we sold our Manhattan apartment after owning it for ten years — but we are making our first summer trip back to Provincetown in three seasons, having been prohibited from entering the country in 2020 and 2021 thanks to COVID. (We did, however, make our first-ever winter trip there last December, because we were missing it so much).
And one of my favourite things about PTown — apart from the wonderful sense of community and the gorgeous light and weather — is the annual slate of Broadway performers that producer Mark Cortale and host and pianist Seth Rudetsky bring to the town. I’ve previously seen such personal favourites as Audra McDonald, Liz Callaway and Melissa Errico here; this year, Errico had already been and gone by the time I got there, but I did catch the glorious Liz with her sister Ann Hampton Callaway last Saturday, the irrepressible and irreplaceable Donna McKechnie the previous Sunday, and Chita Rivera on the Sunday just gone. And last night I saw Rachel Bay Jones, a Tony winner for playing the mother in DEAR EVAN HANSEN, too.
That’s some line-up of sheer pleasure. By an interesting coincidence, the 81-year-old McKechnie’s most recent Broadway credit was as standby to Chita Rivera — now 89! — in 2015’s musical version of THE VISIT (though Rivera never went off, so McKechnie didn’t actually appear).
But both are a stunning living link to Broadway’s golden age.McKechnie was one of the original stars of A CHORUS LINE (in which she played Cassie, though it wasn’t a character based on her own life), and she related how was exhausted by the end of her signature number, THE MUSIC AND THE MIRROR, yet still had to execute a series of double pirouettes. She wasn’t sure she could sustain it; but her director Michael Bennett told her that was precisely the effect he was trying to create: “That’s what I want. I want the audience to be nervous for you.”
There was no need to be nervous for McKechnie in PTown; she was full of both calm and charm as Rudetsky coaxed her to recall her career highlights, including one of my all-time favourite Broadway numbers in which she features — It’s Turkey-Lurkey Time from PROMISES, PROMISES, which was screened behind them (pictured above) from the 1969 Tony telecast. (It turned out that this amazing performance was especially nerve-wracking that night, as the floor had been newly polished and the dancers were frantic with fear about slipping on that surface, but managed to get through it without incident).
A week later, Chita Rivera took to the stage of Town Hall, again joined by Rudetsky as accompanist and gentle coaxer of stories, to provide a fascinating journey through a career that has stretched across over neary seven decades (and counting) — from the original West Side Story (1957) to The Visit (2015), she has been a headline star for over 65 years!
She was the original Velma Kelly in Kander and Ebb’s CHICAGO (1975), and subsequently created leading roles in several Kander and Ebb scored musicals, including THE RINK, KISS OF THE SPIDER-WOMAN and THE VISIT. I saw her in all of them — though I was too young to see her play Velma Kelly the first time around, she returned to play Roxie Hart during the London run of the revival at the Adelphi in 1999.
That’s also when I first interviewed her, too — and I’ve done so on several subsequently occasions — but I first met her many years earlier, when I happened to spot her in the audience at the National Theatre’s ANIMAL FARM after it transferred from the Cottesloe to the Olivier in 1984; I still have my programme, signed by her and Fred Ebb, who was with her that night!
Of course the voice is not what it once was — but Rivera is the consummate actor through song, knowing just how to control narrative and suspense with perfect diction. Seeing here again was a demonstration in pure class and thrilling craft!
After these living legends, last night I saw Rudetsky bringing his affable energy and forensic knowledge to hosting Rachel Bay Jones — a performer with quite a story to tell. She got her first Broadway job, aged just 19, at her very first Broadway audition (in MEET ME IN ST LOUIS in 1990) — then fled Broadway before attempting to return at 35, but not getting another job till she was 40!
She is bracingly honest about the insecurities of chronic anxiety that held her back; but it’s that very authentic vulnerability that has now made her a star in shows like the 2013 revival of PIPPIN and then DEAR EVAN HANSEN. She’s so real, raw and revealing.
Best of all was an achingly funny story of understudying Patti LuPone in 2010’s WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN and trying to stay out of the Diva’s eyesight and not attract her attention. But the generosity of LuPone’s eventual embrace of her is beautiful, too! (Here is Jones singing “Invisible” from that score on YouTube)
I booked my PTown dates long before I knew what the line-up of the Broadway @ The Arthouse season included, so it was the happiest of coincidences that it also included a two night run for the Callaway sisters, without Rudetsky, presenting their cabaret show BROADWAY THE CALLA-WAY! that I’d previously seen them do at 54 Below in New York.
My connection to these two extraordinary talents, separately and together, goes back a very long way. I first encountered Ann at Pizza on the Park in the early 90s, and in 1998 I was partly responsible for having them appear at the Donmar Warehouse as part of the inaugural DIVAS AT THE DONMAR season, that I helped initiate.
I’ve since become friends of both of them, and can’t wait to see them back in London in the autumn: Ann will be appearing at the Pheasantry on September 20-21 and at Pizza Express Dean Street on September 25-26; while LIz will be reprising her Sondheim tribute (that I previously saw at 54 Below and wrote about here) to Crazy Coqs from October 17-22.
A newer friend is Randy Roberts who in the small-world department I actually met through Donna McKechnie one night when we were all seeing someone at 54 Below. Randy is a staple of the Key West/PTown drag circuit — he lives in the former, but has a residency here this summer in Provincetown at the Post Office Cabaret.
This is vintage, classy drag, featuring spellbindingly accurate impressions of Joan Rivers and Cher, with stunning live vocals. In a fast moving hour, Roberts
provides vivid and hilarious impressions with personal revelation about how they discovered drag and what it means to them. Fierce and moving, this is one of the best live (as opposed to mimed) drag performers I’ve ever seen! Wow!
SEE YOU TODAY WEEK
I’ll be back here on August 17 after I get back from Provincetown. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends