Filling Bernadette's Shoes

BY DAVID NOH | Jenna Russell, who gorgeously resembles Princess Diana, but with real talent, truly shines in her double role in “Sunday in the Park with George.” Less iconically the star than Bernadette Peters was, and far more human, she breaks your heart in the crucial lovers' argument, “We Do Not Belong, Together.” Real tears welling in her eyes at the March 12 performance I saw.

After the show, she joined co-star Daniel Evans for a spirited talk-back session with the audience (including a class of sixth graders, all enthralled by this decidedly sophisticated work) that was broadcast on Talk Radio XM28.

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Russell confessed that she'd loved the show since she was 16 and “would play the original cast recording and sing the younger part of Dot in my family's front room. I'd always fast-forward through [the older] Marie bits — who wants to be that old lady? But now, being the older lady that I am, I find it's such a surprise — I love Marie! And 'Children and Art' is one of the most perfect songs ever written. It's a joy to sing that every night.

“A lot of my preparation for the part came from wearing the costume, the corsets, and the bustle as Dot, and sitting in that chair as Marie — I wanted to look as frail as I could yet still convey this strong, ballsy woman, who's still laser-sharp despite the doddering.

“In rehearsal, my voice was lower when I spoke and very high and reedy when I sang, which presented some problems. Then Stephen Sondheim gave me a note: 'When I write songs, I write them the way the characters speak. If you bring your talking voice up to the way you sing, you'll find it,' and of course he was right.

“Sondheim and James Lapine came every day to our rehearsals for our West End opening and went over the entire thing with us. It was such an honor to have living writers in the room to say, 'That's lovely, but there's a typo in the lyric which no one ever bothered to change.' The music is so brilliant to perform, which is why every actor wants to do it, as difficult as it is. But once you learn it, it's like Shakespeare. You must obey the iambic pentameter but it's wonderful in that it supports you.

“Even if you're ill or tired, it looks after you because it's so much about the thought process and it lets you breathe when you need to. If you take away the music the lines have the same rhythm and breaking into a song out of the dialogue is like a plane taking off. You're almost not aware of it, but there's not one wrong thing in there.”

There was some debate over what kind of accents to use, and, after trying American throughout and Pepe LePew French in the first act, it was decided to stick with Russell's British tones: “I have a typical London accent which can sound very aggressive and hard. So, for Dot, I used a North Country accent, which is famous for its earthiness, but there's also a softness and lyrical quality there. I'm so interesting, aren't I?” This last was said with typical Brit actor modesty.

Like the upcoming “South Pacific,” this production of “Sunday” is the first Broadway revival since the show's original run (in 1984), and the prospect of filling the shoes of Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin was daunting for the actors, who had to ban themselves from listening to the cast albums so as not to be unduly influenced: “Bernadette and Mandy both came and were very nice. [Patinkin sat way in the back row of the mezzanine, which actually is one of the best views of the show.] I talked to Bernadette and we both agreed that the end is so healing. Both Dot and Marie go through difficult things, like a rollercoaster, but then you have this beautiful ending, which makes you feel all gorgeous!”

Handsome Alexander Gemignani brings his considerable talent to the role of The Boatman, a figure in Seurat's famous painting, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” whom he uncannily resembles. He was also a highlight of Scott Siegel's “Broadway by the Year: 1947” at Town Hall (March 3), delightfully lending his soaring tenor to “Bonnie Jean” from “Brigadoon.”

The guys really sparked this particular edition of “Broadway by the Year” — Howard McGillin sang the haunting “Lonely House” from “Street Scene;” Marc Kudisch did “The Balalaika Serenade” from “Music in My Heart,” with a melody by Tchaikovsky, and he admirably refrained from easy camping; Eddie Korbich's “There But for You Go I,” again from “Brigadoon,” proved the evening's most touching moment; and Noah Racey and Jeffrey Denman did a snazzy dance routine to the wonderful “Necessity,” from “Finian's Rainbow,” which may just contain my favorite Broadway score of all time.

Tovah Feldshuh brought an entire gallery of characters to her act at Feinstein's at the Regency (March 5), displaying jaw-dropping histrionic range as a rapping hip-hopper (surely a first for Feinstein's); an Hispanic Miss Subways; a fine Sophie Tucker; Sylvia Chronic, an angst-ridden radio talk show host; and her own wonderfully feisty Grandma Ada. As a blue-collar widower, of all things, doing Craig Carnelia's “Joe,” Feldshuh brought a real tear to my eye and she impressively paid tribute to George Gershwin and the Hebrew music roots that informed so many of his classic songs. “This is what I do!” she cried exuberantly after the show, adding, “I love my gay fans and would be nothing without them!”

I've rarely laughed as hard as I did at “Celebrity Autobiography: In Their Own Words” (March 10 at Triad). The brainchild of Eugene Pack, who discovered that celeb autobiographies are the richest source of entertainment, especially when performed completely out of context, this edition had a star-studded lineup of mirth-makers.

Rachel Dratch did a hilariously plastic Joan Lunden, being ever so serious as she described her working day, stacking up her on-air outfit in the order in which she'll don the garments – panties first – reminding me of the time I attended a preview of “Dick Tracy,” before which Lunden went up to her little daughter and friends in the first row to officiously say, “I just want to brief you all before the film starts…”

Kristen Johnston brought heavenly absurdity as Mr. T; Richard Kind did similar tomfoolery as Vanna White, revealing the rigors of letter-turning, and Matthew Broderick has never been funnier, reading excerpts from David Cassidy's 1994 autobiography, “C'mon Get Happy: Fear and Loathing on the Partridge Family Bus,” in which he debated having sex with co-star Susan Dey (“My dick was hard. It felt so right and yet so wrong– she's my sister!”)

The genius of Pack's concept really kicked in when he fused bios together to form he-said, she-said scenarios, as with the courtship and breakup of Loni Anderson (Johnston) and Burt Reynolds (Broderick), as witnessed by Reynolds' obsequious assistant Elaine Blake Hall (Dratch), who penned her own memoir, “Burt and Me: My Days and Nights with Burt Reynolds.”

Pack did likewise to the immortal saga of Elizabeth Taylor (a surprisingly funny Sherri Shepherd, proving that La Liz really is a Southern black woman), Mike Todd (Kind), Eddie Fisher (Pack), and Richard Burton (Broderick, Welsh to a fault), reminding us once more of a pre-Britney/Brangelina time when real giants walked the celebrity earth, the kind of giants who inspired inter-generational palaver in every family, not just snarky adolescent web postings. Upcoming guests on March 24: Alan Cumming, Cheyenne Jackson, Judy Gold, and Jackie Hoffman. (Visit www.smarttix.com).

Renee Fleming may be the Met house diva, opening its 2008-9 season with an evening of three different operatic scenes, all starring her, and Anna Netrebko may be, as she's billed, the “Audrey Hepburn of opera” (whatever the hell that means), but Dolora Zajick is undoubtedly the people's diva, as proved by the thunderous ovation she received after singing “O Mio Fernando” at the celebration of Eve Queler's 100th conducting stint at Carnegie Hall with her Opera Orchestra of New York.

But you really had to wonder about Bernard Holland's review of the concert in The Times which stated that she sang a “Norma” duet with Aprile Milo. Uh, no, she didn't, and it took the Gray Lady two tries in the corrections section to finally get it right. Was Holland even at the concert? And where was Milo during the final “Libiamo” audience send-off with the entire cast onstage, including Zajick, Fleming, Marcello Giordani, and Renata Scotto? Did she pull a diva no-show in protest over her final aria, which was to have closed the program, being omitted?

Naoko Ogigami's “Megane” (i.e., “Glasses”) is a definite highlight of this year's New Directors/New Films festival (March 26-April 6). I doubt that I'll see a more sweetly enchanting movie this year than this tale of a primly elegant career woman who takes a holiday on a Japanese beach at a most unusual inn. Exquisitely deadpan in tone and marvelously acted by a wholly winning cast, the film offers surprise and an unstressed, highly salubrious spirituality which is like taking a lovely little vacation in itself. It's blessed with a magnificent musical score and possibly the happiest ending in cinema history.

For lovers of adolescent lesbian angst, there's Celine Sciamma's “Water Lilies,” which explores Sapphic tensions among the — yes — synchronized swimming set in a Parisian suburb. Quiveringly sensitive, if somewhat overlong, it boasts a real star presence in Adele Haenel, who incarnates the knowing, angel-faced sensuality of generations of young actresses, which France seems to produce with ridiculous prodigality.

I wish I liked “Munyurangabo,” directed by 28-year-old Korean Lee Isaac Chung, better. It's an extremely earnest account of an orphan of the genocide in Rwanda on a quest for justice, and puts a personal face on the internecine horror going on there. It has its undeniably moving moments but Chung's inexperience as a filmmaker reveals itself all too clearly in the static — sometimes aimless — quality of his scenes and utter lack of filmic rhythm.

Not in the festival, but highly recommended is “Priceless,” a French farce (screening at the French Institute on March 21 and opening March 28 at City Cinema 1,2,3, Third Avenue at 59th Street, and the Regal UnionSquare) that should soothe any craving for a delicious Ernst Lubitsch-style romp in elevated environs. Rare indeed are modern films which have anything amounting to real elegance or style, so André Salvadori's divertissement of a gorgeous Riviera hustler (Audrey Tautou, swathed in Azzaro) and the poor lug of a waiter (Gad Elmaleh) besotted by her is real cause for a toast. Sleepy-eyed Elmaleh has an appeal which sneaks up on you and then clobbers you, while Tatou — who has always struck me as way too gamine for her own good — redeems herself with a ravishingly teasing turn.

 

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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