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by Michael Portantiere

Parties at Sardi's

  • Danny Burstein; photo by Michael Portantiere


    I've known Danny Burstein since he was 15 or 16, when he played Og the leprechaun in an amateur production of Finian's Rainbow as I ran the follow spot. I'd be lying if I told you that I jumped up and shouted, "That kid is going to be a star!" But I sure could see that Danny was exceptionally talented -- and I would have probably bet that, with any luck at all, he'd have a fine career as a professional actor.

    Fast forward about 30 years. Danny is now acknowledged as one of the New York theater's most valuable players. Among his copious credits, he received two Tony Award nominations two years apart for his hilarious portrayal of the ridiculous Aldolfo in The Drowsy Chaperone and his pitch-perfect performance as Luther Billis in Lincoln Center Theater's magical revival of South Pacific.

    Having been there with him on the ground floor, as it were, I was thrilled to be present at Sardi's on Tuesday, February 3 as Danny was presented with a portrait of him that will now join the restaurant's fabled collection of visages of showbiz celebs. For the event, he was joined by his gorgeous wife, Rebecca Luker -- a Broadwaystar in her own right -- plus several of his castmates from South Pacific and his past shows.

    "I was still going to the High School of the Performing Arts when I did Finian's Rainbow," Danny reminisced after I brought up that long-ago performance. "The show was part of something called The Great Irish Fair in Brooklyn, and we did it in a tent under the bridge. It was produced by a priest, Father Funaro. I'll never forget him standing outside that tent, trying to drum up an audience, when Joe Papp came walking by. Joe took one look inside the tent, turned on his heel, and headed in the other direction."

    Steven Reineke and Kelli O'Hara; photo by Michael Portantiere

    Also at Sardi's: The theater district landmark was host to yet another happy event earlier in the day on Feb. 3, as Stephen Reineke, music director designate of The New York Pops, met the press. Perhaps taking a cue from the Boston Pops, the NYC counterpart has hired a youngish, handsome fella to lead the band. But Reineke is no newbie; he has been associated with the Cincinnati Pops for 13 years and he's also principal pops conductor of the Long Beach Symphony and the Modesto Symphony, in addition to having guest-conducted major orchestras in L.A., Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, Baltimore, and Edmonton.

    "I am thrilled beyond words to be the new music director of the esteemed New York Pops," Reineke stated. "It is my goal to build upon the wonderful tradition that Skitch Henderson created and lead the orchestra to new heights. The Great American Songbook is alive and well and growing every day, and I look forward to exploring new music, artists, and programming ideas to entertain the people of New York City and beyond."

    The orchestra's upcoming season -- its first with Reineke at the helm -- sure sounds enticing. On October 9, Wayne Brady will headline a tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sam Cooke. On November 20, Ann Hampton Callaway will appear in A Johnny Mercer Centennial Concert. On December 18 and 19, Sandi Patty will help the Pops celebrate the holidays (John Morris Russell is set to guest-conduct this concert). On March 12, Ronan Tynan and Méav will lead a Saint Patrick's Day celebration filled with Celtic music. And on April 16 -- be still my heart! -- South Pacific stars Kelli O'Hara (pictured here with Reineke) and Paulo Szot will lend their gorgeous voices to The Best of Lerner and Loewe. My suggestion? Subscribe!


    Charles Busch, Jonathan Walker, and Kathleen Turner in THE THIRD STORY; photo by Joan Marcus


    Whenever the irreplaceable author/drag performer Charles Busch writes or stars in a play, attention must be paid. When he stars in a play of his own creation, even closer attention must be paid. And when he co-stars in a new play of his own creation alongside one of the fiercest biologically-female divas of the stage and screen -- well, color me there!

    Busch's The Third Story is now receiving its New York premiere at MCC Theater after a run at the La Jolla Playhouse. And the big news about this production, in case you haven't heard, is that Kathleen Turner has joined the cast. "The play tells three stories in three diferent theatrical styles," say the author. "One of the stories is about a mother/son screenwriting team in the '40s, played by Kathleen and Jonathan Walker. Intercut with their story are scenes from the movie they ultimately will write, about a queen of the mob and her son. I play the queen of the mob. The third story is a fairy tale that the screenwriter had told her son when he was a kid. In that one, I play an old witch in a forest.

    "I've never had the experience of doing a play out of town first," says Busch. "With my last couple of plays, after they were over, I would do post-mortems and think about changes I might have made if I'd had more time. My agent put out feelers to some of the regional theaters, and the La Jolla Playhouse bit; they commissioned me to write this play. I've done extensive rewrites since we opened there, and the design scheme for the New York production is completely different from what people saw in La Jolla."

    So, how did Miss Turner become involved in the project? "The role of the woman screenwriter was originally based on my aunt," Busch tells me. "Mary Beth Peil played the part in La Jolla, and she was perfect for it as written. But then I started to rethink the role as a more garrulous, hard-drinking broad -- which is Kathleen Turner, not Mary Beth Peil! From what I understand, Kathleen had called Bernie Telsey at MCC about an idea she had for another project, and he asked her, 'Would you consider doing a play Off-Broadway?' She read my play and then she asked to meet with me and Carl Andress, our director. We went to her apartment and she said, 'Fellas, I'm intrigued, but not hooked.' But we talked for awhile, and she signed on the next day. We're so glad to have her."


    Lynn Redgrave, Zoë Winters, and Jeffrey Carlson in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST; photo by Gerry Goodstein


    To see The Importance of Being Earnest at the Paper Mill Playhouse on Super Bowl Sunday, with only about half the seats in the large theater filled, might not sound like theatrical heaven. But if this intimate, witty comedy can make an effect under such circumstances, as it did this past weekend, it's a sure indication that those involved are doing something -- or many things -- right.

    A great deal of credit for the production's success goes to David Schwizer; he has directed the play in a broadly comedic style that would probably not have gone over well in a smaller venue but is just right for the capacious Paper Mill, which is much better suited to big, splashy musicals. Alexander Dodge's sets and David Murin's costumes take a similar approach; bold, black and white prints on every surface of Algernon's London flat yield to colorful, almost impressionistic designs for the scenes in a country garden.

    The cast follows suit, contributing highly entertaining performances that sometimes threaten to go over the top but never do. Jeffrey Carlson gives us perhaps the most foppish Algernon in history -- and it works. Handsome Wayne Wilcox plays John Worthing as a gangly nerd, complete with brilliantined hair. Annika Boras is a feistier Gwendolyn than the usual; Zoë Winters is adorably annoying as Cecily; and the always wondeful Lynn Redgrave potrays Lady Bracknell as a still vital woman of a certain age, rather than a brittle old crone. To them all, I say "bravo!" (or "brava!", as the case may be).




    Not long ago, I hailed the digital "cinecaste" of Rent that was seen in movie theaters throughout the country, and I predicted that this groundbreaking event -- plus the upcoming release of the program on DVD -- might be a milestone in terms of the preservation and dissemination of Broadway's most popular shows. I still think the DVD -- officially released on February 3 and featuring the final Broadway company of Jonathan Larson's immortal rock musical -- has the potential to be a phenomenal seller, even though the people at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment actually seem to be working against its success.

    First of all, I can't vouch for the quality of the DVD experience because the press screener I received is technically inadequate. (I'll spare you the boring details.) But there's a much bigger issue: Having seen the final package, though not the disc itself, I'm dismayed to report that the performers are identified nowhere on the DVD case. This of course has led to much confusion, with consumers asking retailers if the show's original cast is featured and, if not, who is? Even if you go to buy the DVD on Amazon.com, you'll see only a few of the actors' names listed, without their roles specified.

    Can you even imagine a DVD release of a Hollywood film in which the actors' names are only to be found in the end credits? I can only assume that this lack of information is not having a positive impact on sales of Rent. For the record, the company seen and heard on the DVD is headed by Will Chase as Roger, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Mimi, Adam Kantor as Mark, Tracie Thoms as Joanne, Eden Espinosa as Maureen, and Michael McElroy as Collins, and Justin Johnston as Angel. All give superlative performances, so it's a damn shame that Sony has not given them the credit they deserve.




    If one of your responses to the scary economic situation is to go out less (and stay in more), you'll want to be aware of several newish theater-related CDs that you can enjoy while sitting home and NOT spending money.

    Liza's at the Palace (Hybrid Recordings) is a two-CD studio recording of the show that Ms. Minnelli recently performed to acclaim. If her voice ain't what it used to be, her energy and showmanship are amazing as ever. And it's great to have an aural document of the program -- especially Liza's tribute to her godmother, the one-and-only Kay Thompson.

    Liza's mom, the great Judy Garland, is in fine vocal fettle on a new CD compilation of performances drawn from the soundtrack of her legendary 1960s TV series. This Savoy Jazz disc is title Judy Garland: Love Songs, and eight of its 12 tracks -- including "Old Devil Moon," "I Am Loved," and something called "Island in the West Indies" -- are hereby making their CD debut.

    Sutton Foster's youthful, crystal-clear, non abrasive Broadway belt voice has endeared her to thousands of theatergoers, but the most interesting thing about this super-talented young woman's solo album debut is that we get to hear more of her lovely soprano register than ever before. Titled Wish, the Ghostlight Records release includes a few musical theater gems ("Warm All Over" from The Most Happy Fella, "Once Upon a Time" from All American) along with great non-show songs by everyone from Duke Ellington to Craig Carnelia to Jeff Blumenkrantz.

    Ann Hampton Callaway's At Last (Telarc) is a wonderful mix of such songs as "Lazy Afternoon," "Over the Rainbow," "On My Way to You," and "What Is This Thing Called Love?" All of these and more sound divine as delivered through the medium of AHC's amazing voice, and there's a terrific nice-piece band on hand for good measure(s). Finally, check out hottie Tony DeSare's neato, retro Radio Show (also from Telarc), which is highlighted by his jazzy performances of "Get Happy," "All or Nothing at All," and "Lazy River."

    Published on Tuesday, February 3, 2009

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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