70, Girls, 70

Encores at NY City Center - April 2006

Review by John Kenrick

Imagine a party where the guest list consisted of one Academy Award winning actress and twenty-three other performers who's credits cover the history of musical theatre for the last six decades. Well, that's exactly what the Encores concert version of 70, Girls, 70 turned out be, and those of us who packed the closing performance of this four day run had an uproarious time.

You might not believe 70, Girls, 70 was such fun if all you heard were the rumblings on the Internet chat rooms. There is a small group of small minded theatre lovers who make a point of catching first performances. That's one thing when a show opens after six weeks of rehearsals and (with luck) a brief run out of town, but its crazy to catch the first night of a concert production that only gets ten days of rehearsal. Of course these fans wind up disappointed! In my experience, it is a far better idea to catch concert stagings late in the run. That way, you tend to see these productions at their best.

I could easily believe that a demanding piece like 70, Girls, 70 was rough on its opening night. John Kander's tunes and Fred Ebb's lyrics give this score more than its share of killer showpieces, and the plethora of characters in Norman L. Martin's book (co-authored by Ebb) requires an awful lot of sorting out. The story is a bit unlikely, but very amusing. When a seedy hotel for senior citizens goes up for sale (there used to be such places in Manhattan, back in the day), the residents ban together and start stealing furs, hoping to buy the place with the proceeds of their crimes.

As the ringleader of these elderly shoplifters, Olympia Dukakis made a rather shaky musical stage debut. While her singing was uncertain at times, she gets points for sheer guts, and she certainly had all the charisma and drive the role demands. Her co-stars were all seasoned musical stage veterans, and each had opportunities to strut their stuff with style. One must suppose that Anita Gillette has a rather fascinating portrait in her attic -- she looks several decades younger than her calendar age, and is still a comic delight. She shared the sly "Do We?" with Bob Dishy, whose command of stagecraft makes high comedy seem effortless. Tony winner George S. Irving handled the deadly patter song "The Caper," and even made a rare but hilarious appearance in drag -- no minor accomplishment for a man well over six feet in height and entering his mid-eighties!

Mary Jo Catlett and  Tina Fabrique were delightful as waitresses bemoaning "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," Carole Cook delivered withering wisecracks and sang gleefully about the saga of Emma Finch, and the wonderful Charlotte Rae literally stopped the show when she joined handsome hoofer Mark Price in admonishing everyone to "Go Visit Your Grandmother." If all this wasn't enough, the ensemble included a who's who of musical theatre and film -- Carleton Carpenter, Harvey Evans, Ronn Carroll, Patti Karr, Gerri Vichi, Robert Fitch and Bob Freschi, to name only a few. All of them dazzled, and one mega-cabaret star in the audience (who shall go nameless) had good reason to tell me, with his eyes glistening, "I am in a musical-lovers pig heaven!"

Musical director Paul Gemignani, who rates as a legend in his own right, led a smaller than usual band (as required by the original orchestration), and kept things percolating -- and by the way, anyone who goes to Encores and leaves while the exit music is paying invariably misses one of the highlights of the evening. This time around, Gemignani and his musicians closed out the evening with a nifty jam session that left the more dedicated showtune lovers crowding round the stage with one final bit of magic to savor. Brian Ronan's sound design was a model of taste and audibility. Director Kathleen Marshall kept the action clear, and her choreography included a few rabble rousing moments -- particularly a dance off between Harvey Evans and Bob Fitch that had hardcore buffs peeling the paint off the walls.

And while we're on the subject, isn't some corporation out there willing to donate a million or so to City Center so the old house can get a paint job? The interior of this ravishing Moroccan auditorium is peeling so badly that I can't help wondering when chunks of the ceiling are going to start landing in people's laps.

Overall, 70, Girls, 70 was a treat, and a great opportunity to see some beloved talents get together and kick their heels on Broadway one more time. The crime reveled by this production was not the lifting of a few fictional furs -- it was that Broadway makes so little use of its gifted elder performers. Bless 'em all for giving a few thousand fans a night to remember.

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