While Joan Rivers and Don Rickles (and Courtney Act’s career) applaud from the afterlife, RuPaul’s Drag Race season six winner Bianca Del Rio continues to be the funniest motormouth on the planet. On May 22, she will be one of the people roasting me to benefit the Callen-Lorde clinic. (Rosie O’Donnell, Bruce Vilanch, Jinkx Monsoon, Countess LuAnn and a host of others will also be there to skewer or celebrate me. Tickets at broadwayroast.com. I’m scared).
And before that date, Bianca’s taking her trashtastic rants all over the place. I just saw the irrepressibly bitchy diva do her Not Today, Satan show at the Space in Westbury, Long Island, and it turns out her magical array of venomous views slays ‘em in the suburbs too. Whether ragging on the other Drag Race girls or doing a Kathy Griffin and picking apart guilty pleasure reality shows, Bianca was on fire, bristling with distaste for everyone from Barbra Streisand (“She’s like, ‘Hillary, Democrat, Hillary, Democrat’ and you’re thinking, ‘Shut up, Jew, and sing ‘People’”) to the disabled (“I told the crippled bitch, ‘I’m not kicking you, I’m showing you what you can’t do.’ Someone in a wheelchair later complained about that joke and I said, ‘Who you gonna run and tell?’”)
In the course of the nearly two-hour explosion of verbal diarrhea—which was lapped up by a crowd of many sexualities (if not that many colors)—Bianca went after Drag Race judges like Ross Matthews (“She’s only there for the craft services”) and Carson Kressley (“She’s an ugly fag, gurl. The best you can tell a fag like that is, ‘On a good day, you look like Ellen.’”) The controversial contestant Phi Phi O’Hara also drew Bianca’s ire, as the comic spat out, “Nobody liked your ass 5 years ago and they don’t like your ass now. If you’re an asshole in real life, you’re gonna be an asshole on fucking TV. That’s how it fucking works.” But other than that, she adores Phi Phi.
Bianca paused at one point to sip tea and explain that these are all jokes—however, if you happen to be an ugly person, she’s your mirror, and if you’re a fat girl, you will cry. And then she went on.
She opened the floor to questions from the audience, like, “Which Golden Girl are you?” “Sophia,” Bianca said, “because I’m usually not part of the story. I come in, be a cunt, and walk out.”
At this point, Courtney Act joined the story by coming onstage out of drag and singing “Happy Birthday” to a 20-year-old girl from the crowd, thereby providing my career-death joke. Someone else sardonically wondered if Bianca would ever let Donald Trump grab her pussy. “I would,” she replied, “and I’d say, ‘You know what, motherfucker? This is the primest piece of real estate you ever had your hands on!’” But Bianca herself has had her hands on even pricier merch. As she contended, “I had to suck RuPaul’s freckly, ashen dick for money!”
I love this appalling, hilarious, offensive, and fearless Mexican-American twat. And I’m thrilled she climbed over that wall, heels and all.
IT’S “DÉJÀ VU” ALL OVER AGAIN
And now, onto someone way sweeter: Last week, I was privileged to be at the first New York showcase performance of Cheyenne Elliott, who debuted her brilliant show “I’m Here” at the Duplex, directed by Susan Campanaro and with musical direction by Rick Jensen. The charismatic Cheyenne—who happens to be famed singer Dionne Warwick’s granddaughter—has a pretty and pliable voice that can range from a whisper to a serious belt, surprising you with its versatility. She’s a wonderfully assured performer, but she also shows flashes of vulnerability and realness, and it was sweet when she cried at one point over her joy at sharing her stylings to the worshipful crowd. Among the highlights were a potent (and never cutesy) “Somewhere That’s Green” and everything form a Wicked song to a Gershwin standard to an original tune about personal evolution. Best of all, Cheyenne said “This is for grammy” and sang Dionne’s haunting 1979 hit “Déjà Vu.” By the end of the show, I was convinced that I had just witnessed a future superstar who—with the right guidance—could conquer Broadway, music, or any field she chose. As the crowd (including Get Out magazine’s Mike Todd and Eileen Shapiro) cheered and applauded, I had only one complaint—she didn’t come back for an encore!
THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS
Some stars of today—and of yesterday—sign autographs at Chiller Theatre, the bi-annual happening at the Parsipanny, New Jersey Hilton, which is one of my favorite events celebrating celebrity. On Saturday, Denis O’Hare (American Horror Story) told me he’d found himself in an elevator there with Alige Krige and was excited (“She was a borg on Star Trek!”). I personally was thrilled to see Denis—and also Peter Riegert (who was Herbie to Bette Midler’s Mama Rose on TV back in 1993). Peter told me he’s on upcoming Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episodes, playing a Whole-Foods type store operator who’s trying to gentrify the neighborhood, to the chagrin of a woman played by Carol Kane. I was also delighted to reconnect with Amanda Bearse, the groundbreaking actor who was openly lesbian when she appeared on Married with Children. “And you did great,” I said. “I’m OK,” she smiled. “I’ve been behind the camera as a director for 26 years.” Samantha Mathis told me people most ask her about Super Mario Bros. (“Though I don't think it’s my finest moment”) and American Psycho (“It’s a great film, but I’m always a little wary when I meet a guy who’s so fascinated by it. I think, ‘What was it about butchering women that fascinated you?” She laughed).
A real lady killer, the eternally studly Fred Williamson, talked to me about Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, the 1970 Liza Minnelli movie he was in, directed by the scarily demanding Otto Preminger. Related Fred, “I told Otto, ‘I’m not afraid of you, you bald motherfucker’ and so we became buddies.” Carol Lynley (Harlow, The Poseidon Adventure) told me that she wasn’t afraid of Preminger either when he directed her in the 1965 disappearance drama Bunny Lake is Missing (with Noel Coward as a kinky landlord). “I knew what I was doing, so we didn’t have a problem,” said Carol, sensibly. And finally, I chatted with Chris Sarandon, who memorably played a trans character in the 1975 bank robbery thriller Dog Day Afternoon, based on a true story. Chris said at the time, everyone told him his assignment was daring and racy, but he didn’t think so because the relationship with the Al Pacino character was so interesting. “But in retrospect, certainly,” he added. “There weren’t any gay characters in film then.”
WOW, WOW, WOW, FELLAS!
Yes, it’s everything it’s been cracked up to be. The Jerry Zaks-directed revival of Hello, Dolly!—the classic 1964 musical based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, about an amusingly manipulative woman working her magic in 1880s Yonkers and NYC—is pure entertainment of the most delicious kind. With peppy choreography by Warren Carlyle and candy colored sets and costumes courtesy of Santo Loquasto, the show is an eyeful, and with performers like Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin aboard, it’s an earful too, with rich readings of Jerry Herman’s standards like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “Ribbons Down My Back”, amidst all the shtick and mayhem.
The approach is pretty straightforward, but under Zaks, the performances make the characters even more emphatic and wacky. The cheap and friendless “half a millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde Pierce) is gruffer and almost frightening; milliner Irene Molloy (Baldwin), who once found love and now is only seeking some fun, comes off more forceful than usual; and shop worker Cornelius (Creel) is extra in love with life, and Molloy. They’re all terrific, and so is Taylor Trensch as the dim-witted but likeable Barnaby and Jennifer Simard as the hopeless mess Ernestina, who’s Horace’s wildly eccentric date at the Harmonia Gardens.
Speaking of that fabled eatery, the title song that’s set there—with waiters singing and prancing around the stage—is so smile-inducing it gets a standing ovation, and a lot of love also goes out to the soaring “Before The Parade Passes By.” (“Penny in My Pocket,” a cut “story song” for Vandergelder, has been restored, and it’s no classic, but Hyde Pierce almost sells it).
Did I mention that Bette Midler happens to play the card carrying, fourth-wall-breaking matchmaker Dolly? The second that was announced last year, tickets became scarcer than a doctor on a United flight, since the pairing of star and role seemed like a perfect love match. And it turned out to hit the mark, since Bette has long been a master at deftly intertwining sassy and sweet. When it’s called for, she lays on the sarcasm (She makes a three act opera out of the line “ripple, ripple, ripple”), as well as the warmth and vulnerability, playing Dolly like someone who is truly tired of living hand to mouth, but who’ll melt (a little) for the right guy. The Act Two eating shtick—as with the legendary original Dolly, Carol Channing—is priceless (even if you think, “The Lucy Show”). And throughout, Bette seems to be having a high time, even adding some of her personal vocal phrasings, along with quirky pronunciations (“par-ahd”).
In fact, she does so well on “Before The Parade Passes By” that I wish they’d let her finish that song alone rather than with the chorus. (They could skip the brief reprise). With that one change, there’d be another standing ovation guaranteed. (Bette should also be encouraged to let out a few salty, Pearl Baileyish ad libs during the title song, while keeping them in character). But that’s nitpicking—and Jerry Herman’s not going to alter a note, I’m sure. Oh, but one more thing: Cornelius and Barnaby sing that they won’t return from New York “until we’ve kissed a girl,” but Barnaby never kisses Minnie Fay (played here by the pudgy Beanie Feldstein, far from the movie’s lithe blonde). Having them smooch would have made sense in every way.
Ah, who cares? I was too busy grinning to care. The night I attended, the Act One technical problem that led to a short break was forgotten instantly—“It only takes a moment.” With this respectful and funny version, it’s so nice to have “Dolly” back where I belong—in the fourth row, thank you.
A sort of Yiddish Shuffle Along, Indecent was jokingly described by a Jewish friend of mine as “Kvetch Along.” But that’s not what it is at all. The play by Paula Vogel (Pulitzer winner for How I Learned To Drive) evocatively starts with the obligatory fiddler and proceeds to tell the story of Polish Jew Sholem Asch’s 1907 play God of Vengeance, which dealt with then-scandalous topics like prostitution and lesbianism. Scenes about the play are interpolated with scenes from the play, and we interestingly see the author and cast charged with obscenity when the work moves to Broadway, Vogel also following the line-blurring idea that an actress wanted her same-sex stage kiss to go on well after the curtain.
There are musical numbers along the way, helpful subtitles pop up behind the actors, and the intermissionless 100 minutes are impeccably staged by Rebecca Taichman (who’s credited with co-creating the piece with Vogel), with award caliber lighting by Christopher Akerlind, which is always changing and reflecting the mood. Ashes fall out of the cast’s sleeves toward the beginning and that hauntingly happens again near the end, when the holocaust rears it hideous head. (The Trump administration should be forced to watch this play over and over, to try and learn some history and also find out about the courage of creative artists to carry on in the face of oppression). At times, Indecent feels like an earnest evening that’s good for you, but stop your kvetching and stay till the final rain scene.
SPRINKLE IT WITH DEW
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—Broadway’s version of the 1964 Roal Dahl story, immortalized in the 1971 film (and Tim Burton remake)—wants very badly to be loved. It restores some elements that were in the original story, while updating it to the present and adding references to hiphop and tweeting. It has a new score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, but includes four songs well known from the movie. Diversity is added, so Violet Beauregarde is black and Veruka Salt is Russian. Except for Charlie Bucket, who escapes unscathed, the kids are played by more mature humans, so their sliming at the hands of wacky chocolatier Willy Wonka won’t seem as cruel, I guess. And the Oompa Loompas aren’t played by little people, but by grownup puppeteers, with a lot of cleverness (though little people could have used the jobs). This is also the first show I’ve seen where entrance applause is built into an arrangement. (As Wonka, who reopens his factory to golden-ticket-holding kids, Christian Borle sings, “Who can take a sunrise…? [Pause] Sprinkle it with dew.” There’s also animation, large squirrels, and lots of funny business in Act Two, when Borle lets loose with his wryly witty taunting antics. (Feud’s Jackie Hoffman is also a riot as Mike Teavee’s controling mom). The show has a lot of hard sell, but some rewards, as it lampoons gluttony at Broadway prices.
THE SUN’LL COME OUT TOMORROW
I saw Groundhog Day The Musical the night an announcement came towards the end of the show telling the actors to clear the stage and asking for a doctor in the house because an injury had taken place. “They’ll probably start the whole show over again,” quipped my friend, seeing as this musical is based on the 1993 movie about a weatherman who groaningly faces the same day over and over again. But they didn’t. Fifteen minutes later, star Andy Karl came out, hobbling on a walking stick, and bravely finished the show, in one of those legendary Ethel Merman-type moments! He moved as little as possible and there were various ad libs about his condition (like “Don’t go anywhere, Phil. Just stay there”)—and extra applause for lyrics like “I’m OK”—but he finished it, by God! (When he did so, I called Karl’s wife, Orfeh, who’s a friend, and assured her that, though she might have heard buzz—and she had—this was nothing life threatening, especially to the indestructible Andy).
The show—with a score by Tim Minchin and direction by Matthew Warchus, (the creators of Matilda the Musical)—was written by Danny Rubin, who scripted the movie, though this team doesn’t slavishly recreate the film, they imaginatively rework it. Karl plays Phil Connors, a smug, sexually objectifying weatherman who loathes small-town America, but finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, covering the earth-shaking story of the groundhog (named Phil) seeing his own shadow. Life in this place is so simple and repetitive that he finds the same day greeting him every morning, as if in some horrific real-life nightmare. This Twilight Zone situation deeply disturbs him, though he then realizes he can get away with anything and still wake up fine. But after that, he becomes so disillusioned with the dead end he’s stuck in that he tries to off himself, though nothing seems to change what the next day brings. Until he learns how to treat his associate TV producer, Rita Hanson—as well as everyone else around him—with respect while learning a true musical comedy lesson.
This would seem like an impossible project to musicalize (even Sondheim decided against trying at one point), but they’ve managed it with humor and charm. The numbers are cleverly done, there’s lots of well-staged physical action and stagecraft (the miniature vehicles are a treat), and there’s even a gay character who gets a funny moment (though it turns out Rita once kissed a girl and DIDN’T like it). Act One is better than Act Two—the long-simmering romance becomes a bit strained—and there are a couple of songs by minor characters that don’t gel, but the show is novel and Karl is not only nervy, he’s a delightful leading man. Incidentally, he took the next day off, then opened the following Monday—as planned—to raves.
HELLMAN’S—MADE WITH QUALITY INGREDIENTS
A declining Southern clan’s internal machinations and backstabbing might sound like an extended Mama’s Family episode, but under playwright Lillian Hellman’s hands, the work—first on Broadway in 1939—has always been a shimmering exploration into greed, set in a 1900 Alabama house of mirthlessness. In the new revival directed by Daniel Sullivan, it’s the two lead actresses who might be called greedy—they alternate roles, getting to play two juicy parts—with results that prove to be expectedly rewarding.
First, I saw Laura Linney as the scheming matriarch Regina Giddens, who outsmarts everyone around her with a cutting precision. Linney is very good, exuding fake charm when needing to, and pretending to be happy her heart-diseased banker husband Horace (Richard Thomas) is back from an extended hospital stay, even though her joy radiates from the fact that she manipulated him home to enact some elaborate deviousness. As Regina grows in calculating glee while battling other family members who’ve tried to swindle some bonds, Linney appealingly lays on the Cruella de Vil-ainy. The scene where Horace is in physical agony and Linney’s Regina simply crosses her legs and looks blank is priceless. On his return, Horace has emerged as one of the few sympathetic characters in the house, along with his and Regina’s daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), whose eyes become inexorably opened, and the servants (Caroline Stefanie Clay and Phil McGlaston), who are touched by all the too occasional attempts to serve them some humanity. And of course there’s Regina’s sister-in-law Birdie (Cynthia Nixon), who is a fluttery, chatty alcoholic who admits she thought her husband liked her, but came to discern that he was just after her family’s cotton mills. All smiles and trying to please, Nixon is extremely touching, especially in her Act Three scene where she explodes with realizations and truths. She is brilliant here. Sullivan’s production is a strong, conventional version of a sturdy work, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes are a splendidly memorable part of it.
Two nights later, I returned to the same show to see the actresses switch roles. Linney was an absolutely superb Birdie, not as dithery as she’s usually played, but just as plagued by regrets and sorrow underneath the perky exterior. When Birdie admits that she doesn’t like her own slimy son, Leo (Michael Benz), who the family is trying to ease into an arranged marriage with Alexandra, you have to agree with her. As Regina, Nixon has to fight against her natural good naturedness and girlish voice—this is not a perfect fit—though to her credit, she doesn’t go for strained theatrics, she organically tries to locate the character’s cunning. The men—including Thomas, Michael McKean, and Darren Goldstein—are uniformly good. And so, Broadway brings us an experimental casting chance worth taking. And both times, you find yourself actually rooting for Regina to undo the evil mens’ smarmy plans, until you remember that she’s a piece of work herself; that’s how labyrinthine the play’s layers of ickiness are.