BUT THE CAT CAME BACK… 1965 BROADWAY MUSICAL DRAT! THE CAT

Drat_The_Cat

 

Sleuths and private detectives seeking long-lost gems from Broadway’s past, stolen away by time and the fates and proven-wrong theories and assumptions that befall shows that failed on Broadway, need look no further thanGreenwich Village.  There on the stage of The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is just that: Drat! The Cat! This is a 45-year-old musical that happens to be about the search for stolen gems and the thief who is not the usual suspect just wants to give you some smiles that are broad via humor that is pretty broad, a Broadway short-lived resident that’s very much worth dusting off to find that much still shines.  

My review in three words: HOORAY!!!   GO!!! ENJOY!!! The production is highly recommended to anyone who has a sweet tooth for a good, old-fashioned musical comedy romp performed with flair.

The dedicated Bistro Award-winning group, Opening Doors Theatre Company, with their Closing Notice Series, makes opening your heart and closing out pesky logic that would get in the way of acceptance for this kind of thing easy.  This is a sweetly delicious cupcake of a show.  PlaybillThe tale of New York City troubled by an elusive cat burglar –thus the tile --- is silly and often blatantly unrealistic, but it wears that style proudly with a grin.  So, I gave in.  Directed with zest and affection by a fan of the appealing score, Jeremy Gold Kronenberg, the 10-member cast bubbles with energy and good spirits.  They dive into the daffy doings and keeping the audience’s attention.  No one will likely consider it a groundbreaking piece of musical theatre or the ultimate cream of crowded crop.  It has little agenda beyond fun and frolic and chuckles, chock full of moments antic, frantic and romantic, and some marvelous songs well served here. The melodies have brio and, balancing the wacky plot, rhapsodic and charm-drenched, lovestruck songs like "She's Roses" in the great tradition of shall-I-compare-thee-to-a-summer's-day, an enthused, never-listless "list song" with metaphors spun by Ira Levin.  He was, of course, better known for plays like the currently London-revived Deathtrap and the thriller novel Rosemary's Baby, among others, but did impressive wordsmithing for this score and book.  Without being self-consciously showy, there's cleverness and splash.

Playbill_credits_pageThe heart of this production is an immensely endearing, calibrated performance by its leading man, Mark Emerson, as the guy leading the hunt (he hopes) to find -- the thief. Dutifully and modestly. whenever anyone refers to him as Detective, he points out that he has just been named "Acting Detective."  Well, the acting by the guy acting as the Acting Detective, is consistently humorous and entertaining: hesitant or prideful line readings, well-timed reactions, tripping on his tongue or the furniture, ever eager, loyal  towards his detective duty --sorry Acting Detective duty.  Recently seen to good advantage in this company's Is There Life After High School? and getting a showcase to be a kind of offbeat, low-key teddy bear among ranting radicals in the NY Fringe Festival's Viva Los Bastardinos!, he is a delight here: consistently humorous with variations on a theme, that goofy, awkward grin. His portrayal of the character's nerdy self-consciousness and kindly manner recall the actor Bill Daily, who played neighbor Howard Borden on TV's original Bob Newhart Show and Major Healy on I Dream of Jeannie. He brings more sunshine and goodwill, however, and a real child-like innocence that is cuddly instead of annoying. On-the-mark Emerson comfortably stays in character while singing without shortchanging the musical values of the songs.

His self-conscious ways are exacerbated by his falling in love with the key character of the far less sympathetic, brittle Alice, rich but restless, selfish and sly -- and integrity-challenged.  Emily Jenda struts and sashays her way through the role, showing some good timing of her own.  She displays a conniving manner while being underwhelmed by the attentions of what is to her, a clearly unsuitable suitor; her strong suit is singing and she moves well. Their pairing up as would-be investigators, like a more elementary "Holmes and Watson," is a sprightly duet, especially with him being so generally clueless.  The audience needs no magnifying glass to spot what might be coming, but that's OK.  There are some surprises. She_Touched_Me_Eddie_Foy_Jr Reinforcing the image of police semi-competence, with a bit of Keystone Cops nuttiness, Nick Reynolds as Police Superintendent and Edward Juvier as Chief of Detectives bring satisfyingly slapstick moments with their physical comedy and bluster.  The cartoonish nature of some other characters who might be toned down is not as appealing or sharp, sometimes feeling a bit easy or desperate, but the ensemble work is generally good with some fine vocal work.  Ted Kociolek on piano is the sole musician, and his playing is so full of verve and color that it doesn't seem thin. The very small stage, with a good part of its space taken up by the piano, is used well, rarely feeling like a clutter of claustrophobia.  Choreographer Christine Schwalenberg, returning for her fourth assignment with the company, again magically makes the space work even in group numbers, using smaller movements and poses, with humor galore to match and embellish the tone, succeeds again.  The farce-like chase moments of criminal pursuit and the masquerade ball change-partners sequence for "Dancing with Alice" are standouts. The show is admirably produced by Billie Di Stefano, executive-produced by the company's co-Artistic Director, Suzanne Adams (cabaret followers are also very familiar with co-Artistic Director of the company, Hector Coris.)  Lisa Moss, also a Bistro winner, brought ideal, real theatricality with her lighting and the sound was great: I didn't miss a word.  I wouldn't want to.

Finale_weddingOh, drat! You'd better hurry.  Drat! The Cat! only plays through Friday, November 12.  Meanwhile, I asked Nick Levin to see what he might have in the family files and to check the files of memory on his computer  and to call upon the brain cells of his memory of talks about the show with his late father (this week actually marks the third anniversary of his passing at age 78).  Despite its good points and good songs, and some good comments, the musical lasted for only 11 previews and 8 performances on Broadway, but I'd read about the circumstances in several books and have heard the score preserved on two different albums.  And I'd always greatly admired the recordings by Barbra Streisand of two of the romantic songs, with slight lyric changes: "He Touched Me" (in the show as "She Touched Me" for the male lead which was played by her then-husband, Elliott Gould) and "I Like Him."  On two sides of a 45-rpm single record, they were meant to help promote the show as it was coming out, with the hope of a healthy run.  "She Touched Me" became a Streisand hit, Herman_Levin_Cat_and_Mousecontinuing on to her Greatest Hits album and live concerts, including the legendary one in 1967 in Central Park, preserved on album and video/DVD, and in more recent concerts.  The show's leading lady was Lesley Ann Warren (who, a month before that Central Park Happening happened to marry Jon Peters who, in the next decade,  became Streisand's longtime romantic partner/producer after their respective marriage break-ups).  Before Gould and Warren were signed to the musical, Joey Heatherton and Eddie Foy, Jr. were announced as the stars and title was Cat and Mouse and the producer was to be another theatre man named Levin: Herman Levin, who'd produced My Fair Lady. But let's get back to the Levin at hand who had memorabilia in hand and was among those giving the show a hand at The Duplex.

Joey_HeathertonSome readers may know Nick from songs of his own, following in his father's Drat! The Cat!'s "paw prints" as a lyricist who can spin words that are touching or witty or both at the same time  -- as well as being a gifted composer, with songs in shows, at open mics where he has been the accompanist for himself or other singers, etc.  He's kept busy looking after his late father's interests and has a strong interest in musical theatre.  He began by addressing the original show's short run: "It's always puzzled me that much of what's been written about Drat!''s early demise seems to understate what I've always taken to be the key contributing factor, based on the comments of 'those who were there' ---- that the show had the bad luck of opening during a newspaper strike, leaving it with essentially no means of advertising itself."  The show and its songs live on, notably this week -- in a production that will likely inspire others to give it another look and listen.  This Cat may well have nine lives.

One can't cavalierly and sincerely dismiss it as a -- excuse the F word ---Broadway flop.  Indeed, Nick is quick to say, "Far from being a 'flop,' Drat! is, of course, a charming, tuneful, and deceptively insightful --- I feel, good-natured show that's always struck me --- and certainly my father ---- as being ripe for a full-tilt staging in the here-and-now."  Nick attended the second performance at The Duplex where things tilted pretty strongly towards the positive.  He also points out that "among the show's admirers have been Walter Kerr, The New York Herald Tribune's theatre critic at the time of its opening --- and closing."  He also notes that in Not Since Carrie, the must-read book touring the carcasses of shows that failed on Broadway, ranging from laments over the dearly departed shouldabeen-couldabeens with many pluses to the head-shaking over misguided, mis-directed mistakes of the what-were-they-thinking category, its author, Ken Mandelbaum, gave the musical high praise.  Diamond_in_the_mouthAn official cast album was not released at the time, but a live tape was pressed onto vinyl and had limited distribution, revealing the songs' assets and I happily procured one.  In 1997, with far better sound quality, a studio cast album produced by Bruce Kimmel came onto the market, featuring Susan Egan and Jason Graae in the leads.  Nick also notes two kinds of notable notes involved: It has "excellent liner notes by Peter Filichia," and hearing the CD prompted a note from Stephen Sondheim praising his  'expert and charming' lyrics. He kept that note." He states firmly that it's a recording that his father "was thrilled with on all counts."

Elliot_GouldAnd Nick was rather pleased himself with the current production. After seeing the Tuesday performance, he called me to discuss it and sent this comment by e-mail: "The two leads were truly charming, and the entire cast exuded a sense of genuine enjoyment and bonhomie that I'd like to think had something to do with the show's own genial nature and good humor. Opening Doors' production showed that even without a set, and with only minimal props and costumes, the show still sparkles."  I'd have to agree.

Opening Doors' Closing Notice Series is not by any means the only group to mount the show.  Nick adds that it "is still frequently performed by colleges, small regional theaters, and the like."  There was a small 1974 production of Drat! The Cat! staged by The Octagon Theatre Club in New York where cabaret singer Audrey Lavine played one of the mothers.  Its musical director was Donald Oliver. "He became my first piano teacher.  Damone_Goulet_PhillyI was nine at the time."  Decades later, coincidentally, they were both hired among several composers to contribute to the holiday revue That Time of the Year which, like Drat!, has had two cast albums, not to mention a DVD and productions such as annual ones at Manhattan's enclave of musicals, The York Theatre.

Nick tells me: "Songs from its score continue to show up in everything from karaoke tracks in Asia, to live performances in locales as remote as Helsinki, according to statements we receive about such things." When he gets out from under that ever-mounting paperwork to work behind the keyboard in various jobs as an accompanist, songs from this score occasionally pop up.  Perhaps because Levin is a fairly common name and because Nick is not one to boast of his heritage, singers don't usually make the connection between the Levin named on the sheet music and the Levin playing from it --- which I suspect he may not really need.  As he paints it, "When wearing my pianist hat at performance classes and show auditions, what a strange experience it is to have a singer thrust a copy of "S/He Touched Me," "I Like Him," "Wild & Reckless," et al. into my hands, unaware that my dad wrote the words they're about to sing. It's almost like he walked into the room with them. Like 'The Cat,' though, I stay incognito."

And for more on his famous father, see the current and soon-to-be-expanded website, www.iralevin.org

And for more on the company putting on this show and others, see www.ODTConline.org

And for more on Duplex doings, see www.TheDuplex.com

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