Another Redhead Near Universal

Redhead (Theatre West)When you think of Universal City and redheads, you probably think of Lucille Ball. While Lucy is a fixture on the Universal lot (and often played by a talented actress of my acquaintence), she’s not the only redhead of note — at least for one more week. Down Cahuenga Blvd from Universal there is another redhead worth seeing — the musical Redhead, being presented in a lightly staged version by Theatre West (FB) as a benefit for the Betty Garrett Musical Comedy Workshop.

Right now, you’re probably going “Redhead? What’s Redhead? I’ve never heard of it.“. That’s not a surprise. As I implied in my  last post, I have a large collection of cast albums and show information. I’ve had the musical Redhead in my collection for some time, but had never seen it before. When it was on Broadway (in fact, it was running on Broadway when I was born), it was popular. It won 5 Tony Awards in 1959, including Best Musical, Best Lead Actor (Richard Kiley), Best Lead Actress (Gwen Verdon), and Best Choreography (Bob Fosse) [although admittedly it was a weak year]. It marked Fosse’s debut as both director and choreography. Yet since it closed in March 1960, it has never returned to Broadway. In fact, it has had only three productions of note anywhere. Due to its rarety, Theatre West chose to produce it as part of this series, and record it for posterity. I had heard about the production and wanted to see it, and it happened to hit the sweet spot of an open weekend, tickets on Goldstar, and something I wanted to see.

Nowadays, the story of Redhead would be dismissed as something light. It was written by Dorothy Fields, Herbert Fields, Sidney Sheldon, and David Shaw, with music by Albert Hague (Prof. Shorofsky from Fame), and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Here’s the the high level synopsis from MTI: “When a young actress is murdered in 1900s London, the enterprising Simpson Sisters’ Waxworks installs a tableau of the grisly deed. Muscle man Tom Baxter, the actress’ friend, comes to complain, and there he meets Essie Whimple, a plain girl with a hyperactive imagination. Smitten with Tom, Essie pretends to have been attacked by the murderer, as well, and hijinks ensue – complete with cunning disguises, spine-tingling chases, and an ill-fated show at the Odeon Musical Hall!”

Ah, that phrase “hijinks ensue”. It should be a warning sign of a light plot. Alas, there is no longer full detailed synopsis online — MTI only gives three-quarters of Act I. Basically, here’s what happens. In 1890’s London, a young actress is murdered by an unknown killer who strangles her with a purple scarf. After the murder, the Simpson Sisters Wax Museum (run by Maude and Sarah Simpson) installs a tableau of the murder, designed by the niece of the sisters, Essie Wimple. Wimple, 29, has never had a beau, but keeps having visions of the man she will marry. Near the waxworks is the Odean Musical Hall, run by Howard Cavanaugh. Howard and his cockney comedian, Goerge Poppett, attend the opening of the tableau, together with Inspector White, who has never failed to solve a case. When the tableau opens, they are surprised to see the killer has a blank face. In comes Tom Baxter, the newly-highed strongman from America, objecting to the display. He doesn’t want to see the girlfriend of his best friend, Sir Charles Willingham, displayed like that. While they are arguing over the display, the scarf disappears. Essie, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Tom, and schemes to be together with him by lying that she saw the killer. She goes into protective custody at the Odeon, and she and Tom start falling in love (aided by George, who dresses her as a redhead, Tom’s favorite type). This all goes to hell in a handbasket when Tom asks Essie to identify the killer. She goes into a trance and has a vision and identifies a man that looks like Sir Charles. In telling Tom this, the lie is revealed, and Tom stomps out. End of Act I. Act II starts with Tom trying to date other women and failing, and Sir Charles trying to meet with Essie to ask her some questions about the killer. This leads to Essie hiding with some ladies of the evening in a bar, getting arrested, and then coming up with a complicated scheme, suggested by George, to unveal the killer by putting the head she made on the wax tableau. Tom reveals his love and vows to help her, but unbeknownst to both of them, George is the killer dressed up as Sir Charles. When the scheme comes down a slapstick chase ensures, and … well, you can guess the ending… this is a musical, after all.

As I said: a light and silly plot. It wouldn’t pass muster today; it would be dismissed as light entertainment. But with Gwen Verdon as Essie, Richard Kiley as Tom, and direction and choreography from Fosse, it wowed the audiences — beating out Flower Drum Song and Goldilocks (as I said, a light year for competition). But it is still worth seeing — even with the silly plot. There is some clever and energetic music from Hague and Fields; the songs (while not particularly “stick in your head”) are entertaining, and it is a fun diversion. Think about it this way: not all theatre is Sweeny Todd; there is room in the space for the Mamma Mia as well. This is in that latter ilk.

As I noticed, this is lightly staged. In fact, it was advertised as a concert version, but there are minimal props to establish place and light costuming appropriate for the show. The fact that it appears more staged than it really was is a credit to the director and choreographer, Mark Marchillo (FB). Marchillo turned what was primarily a concert into a show — I felt like I was watching a musical production equal to that of any other intimate theatre in Los Angeles. I didn’t miss the set dressing or elaborate props. This is a case where I’ll give the director props for bringing the acting team together to create this illusion in a short time. What do I mean by “a short time?” The lead actress provides the details on her Facebook: there were just 13 rehearsals, folks!

As for the acting team: It was generally wonderful. In the lead position as Essie Wimple was Caitlin Gallogly (“Official” FB)… and I was smitten. This young woman had one of the best voices I’ve heard in ages, a remarkable comic stage presence, and great dancing ability. I’ve heard people go on and on about Verdon (and I saw her back when she was in Chicago in LA, as well as in numerous movies). But she never won me over, and her singing voice was never pure. Gallogly won me over instantly with a personality and enthusiasm that was just remarkable, and an incredibly pure and wonderful singing voice. If anything, her only drawback was that she was too beautiful to be a plain girl that couldn’t get a beau at 29. Suspension of disbelief and all that rot — that’s how great her performance was. She was great in all of her numbers, being they romantic (“The Right Finger of My Left Hand”) or humorous (“Erbie Fitch’s Dilemma”). Playing against her was Michael James Thatcher (FB) as Tom Baxter. Although he didn’t appear that muscular, his set of pushups on stage proved otherwise. More importantly, he had a chemistry with Gallogly that worked quite well, and had a singing voice that was very strong (although not quite Richard Kiley). You could see the talent in his voice in numbers such as “My Girl is Just Enough Woman for Me”. Both were just a joy to watch.

In the second tier, on Essie’s side, were Barbara Mallory (FB) as Sarah Simpson and Linda Rand (FB) as Maude Sympson. Both captured the characters well, and it was interesting to see the difference between the two: Sarah with the sly side that understood what Essie was going through, and Maude as the older and more cautious sister.  The two actresses were able to bring out these aspects well, and were a hoot in their joint number “Behave Yourself”.

Also in the second tier, on Tom’s side, were David Mingrino (FB) as Howard Cavanaugh and John David Wallis (FB) as George Poppett. Mingrino gave off the appropriate air of the theatre owner more concerned with his show than the people, and provided the necessary opening exposition. Wallis was fun to watch as Poppett; throughout most of the play he gave out absolutely no indication of the dark side to come. He sang well in the “Uncle Sam Rag”.

Rounding out the cast in smaller named roles were Anibal Silveyra (FB) (Inspector White), Marjorie Vander Hoff (FB) (May), Kerry Melachouris (Tillie), and Donald Moore (FB) (Sir Charles Willingham). My only complaint here was with Silveyra; his accent was too strong to make him believable as a Scotland Yard Inspector. Vander Hoof and Melachouris were spectacular, together with the rest of the ensemble and Gallogly, in “We Loves Ya, Jimey”.

Rounding out the production was an ensemble consisting of Rebecca Lane (FB), Michael ‘Tuba’ Heatherton (FB), Lee Meriwether (FB), and Janie Steele. There were also four dancers on stage, chosen from this pool of eight from the Los Angeles Ballet Academy credited in the program: Lauren Barette (FB), Paris Bromber/FB, Lauren Galiote/FB, Lee Grubbs/FB, Sarah Miller, Lexi Nitz (FB), and Simone Woodruff/FB. Notable in the ensemble was Heatherton’s performance as the London Bobbie (especially in the Jail Cell tango). The ensemble sang well, although one or two (I’m guessing Janie Steele, from her web page) had very powerful voices. The dancers were good and it was interesting watching them become integrated into the action. This musical was at the end of the era when there were big exclusive dance sequences. There were some slight costuming problems with the dancers, but as this was a short run semi-staged, they get a pass.

Music was provided by Jake Anthony/FB on the piano; Anthony also served as  Musical Director.

Turning to the technical side: there were minimal sets and props. Lighting was by Yancey Dunham (FB) and worked well to establish the mood. Costumes were by Emily Brown Kucera (FB) and worked well, with the exception of the aforementioned problem with the dancers (who need seem straightening on their stockings, and some minor adjustments to keep the visual appearance clean). I particularly enjoyed the costuming of the leads (especially Essie’s costumes), as well as the Simpson Sisters. Roger Kent Cruz (FB) was the stage manager, assisted by Connie Ball. Graphic design was by Doug Haverty (FB). Publicity was by Philip Sokoloff (FB).  Redhead was produced by Jill Jones (FB).

Redhead (the musical) has two more performances at Theatre West (FB): Saturday February 7 @ 8 PM, and Sunday February 8 @ 2 PM. You won’t have the Super Bowl as your excuse next week, so go.  Tickets are available online, by calling the box office at (323) 851-7977. Discount tickets at Goldstar are sold out.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: We have no theatre next week due to a Bat Mitzvah on Saturday, February 7. The next week makes up for it with two shows: “Loch Ness” at the Chance Theatre (FB) on February 14 and “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15. The weekend of February 21 sees us in Burbank for Inside Out at the Grove Theatre Center (FB). February closes with two more Burbank performances: the Good People Theatre Co (FB)’s production of Maltby/Shire’s Closer Than Ever at Hollywood Piano in the afternoon, and “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28. March is equally busy, with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7 (and a Purim Carnival at TAS the next day), “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. Other than the Faire, April is pretty much open (as is May), but I expect that to start changing soon. Those who enjoyed the Marcy/Zina songs should note that there’s a Marcy and Zina concert at Pepperdine on Tuesday, February 3; alas, as it is a weeknight, I probably won’t make it. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.