Hollywood agent drops names, spills secrets in one-woman gabfest

Deb Colvin-Tener in Short North Stage’s production of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Deb Colvin-Tener in Short North Stage’s production of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

Do you like to dish? Do you love show business? Are you crazy about Bette Midler?

If you answered “yes” to all three questions, you’ll probably enjoy I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.

Midler starred in the one-woman play on Broadway, and Short North Stage’s production never lets you forget it. If Deb Colvin-Tener’s portrayal doesn’t remind you of the Divine Miss M, you must be suffering from either extreme youth or a serious case of amnesia.

Mengers (1932-2011) fled Nazi Germany as a girl and grew up to be a successful Hollywood agent. John Logan’s script reveals how she did it, then imparts juicy bits of gossip about her famed clients and other Tinseltown bigwigs she scuffled with while promoting those clients.

It leaves us with the feeling that Mengers could be an invaluable friend and a formidable adversary.

In one of her most fascinating stories, she talks about her campaign to persuade a reluctant William Friedkin to hire an obscure actor named Gene Hackman to star in The French Connection (1971). She pursued this partly by blocking the director’s driveway with her Bentley, but mostly by delivering a soundly reasoned explanation of just what Hackman would bring to the role.

When you hear who they were thinking of hiring in his place, you realize just how much we all owe her.

Mengers could be described as a force of nature—except that it would have to be an immobile force of nature. “Exercise has not played a big part in my life,” she announces, and she proves it by spending the entire play lounging on her couch. So averse is she to unnecessary exertion that she calls on an audience member for help when she needs something that’s on the other side of her plush, Michael S. Brewer-designed living room.

Directed by Jonathan Putnam, one of Central Ohio’s leading experts on comedy, Colvin-Tener makes the most of curmudgeonly lines like “I just don’t get the appeal of children.” It would have been nice to see a little more Colvin-Tener mixed in with the Midler-inspired gestures and intonations, but Midler fans won’t mind in the least.

Besides being funny, Colvin-Tener communicates the forced bravado that shows not everything is right with Mengers’s world.

We learn early on that she’s been fired by Barbra Streisand, one of her first and favorite clients, and is expecting the personal call that will make it official. Mengers’s career seems to be in trouble, but she’s determined to tough it out with her usual swagger, fueled by whatever courage she can gain from alcohol and marijuana.

With the Academy Awards presentation less than a week away, this is a particularly appropriate time to catch I’ll Eat You Last. After seeing it, you begin to understand the crucial role Mengers and her colleagues played in shaping the industry it celebrates.

Short North Stage will present I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers through March 1 in the Green Room of the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (no show Feb. 27) and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $25-$30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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‘Master Class,’ like fact-based flicks, revises history

Maria Callas (Ilona Dulaski, center) gives a lesson to Sharon Graham (Sara Pardo) with help from her Accompanist (Quinton Jones) in Master Class (photo by Ben Sostrom)
Maria Callas (Ilona Dulaski, center) gives a lesson to Sharon Graham (Sara Pardo) with help from her Accompanist (Quinton Jones) in Master Class (photo by Ben Sostrom)

By Richard Ades

Several recent movies have been suspected of bending historical reality to suit their dramatic needs.

Was LBJ really as hostile to civil rights as he’s portrayed in Selma? Was World War II code breaker Alan Turing as socially inept as he seems in The Imitation Game? And what about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle? Was he depicted with warts-and-all accuracy in American Sniper?

The answer to such questions is nearly always “no.” For better or worse, scriptwriters often reshape real-life personalities and events for the sake of a good storyline.

Playwrights are no different. It’s been suggested, for example, that the title king in Shakespeare’s Richard III wasn’t nearly as villainous in real life. History has its place, but the plot must be served.

Which brings me to Terrence McNally’s Master Class, now being revived by CATCO. Based on an actual series of workshops Maria Callas led at Julliard in 1971-72, it portrays the former opera star as so wrapped up in her ego and her painful past that she fails to realize the effect her brutal critiques are having on her vulnerable students.

When I first saw a touring production starring Faye Dunaway in 1997, I wondered why McNally would portray a singer he’d long admired in such an unflattering light. After reading a 2011 piece by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, I wondered even more. Transcripts of the actual Julliard classes, according to Tommasini, prove the real-life Callas was demanding but far more supportive and sensitive than McNally’s fictional version.

The only explanation for the makeover is that McNally felt Callas would be a better dramatic character if she were preoccupied by memories of her former stardom and failed relationships, especially with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. To me, though, the play’s brief flashbacks to her glory days are less satisfying than her best moments in the “present.”

These mainly involve two students who show up in the second act and manage to pull valuable advice from Callas and incorporate it into their renditions of dramatic arias. In director Joe Bishara’s CATCO production, Daniel A. Lopez is personable as tenor Tony Candolino, while Sara Pardo delivers the night’s most glorious operatic performance as soprano Sharon Graham.

Act 1, which is dominated by Callas’s diva-like introductory remarks and a lengthy teaching session with soprano Sophie DePalma, is less compelling. Ilona Dulaski is haughtily cranky as Callas, but she’s isn’t quite regal enough to carry off the diva-hood routine, while Alexandra Kassouf’s Sophie is an unconvincing caricature of meekness when she isn’t displaying her lovely singing voice.

It should be noted that those comments are based on Thursday night’s preview performance, when Act 1 was hampered by minor stumbles and an overall lack of energy. It’s very possible that things will improve in subsequent performances.

Serving as an effective sounding board for Callas when he’s not tinkling away on a grand piano is Quinton Jones as the Accompanist, while Andrew Protopapas makes a few brief appearances as the surly Stagehand.

The serviceable wood-paneled scenery is designed by Edith Wadkins. Marcia Hain designed the costumes, including the fancy gown worn by Sharon and belittled by Callas.

Besides the fine singing by Pardo’s Sharon and the other students, Master Class is at its best when Callas shares her philosophy on what it takes to be an operatic artist. It’s hard work, she stresses, requiring much more than mere musical technique.

These moments, at least, seem faithful to the world-renowned singer who inspired McNally’s play.

CATCO will present Master Class through March 1 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

 

Depression-era musical is far from depressing

Emma Stratton (center, lower deck) shows off her dance moves with other members of the company of Anything Goes (photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Emma Stratton (center, lower deck) shows off her dance moves with other members of the company of Anything Goes (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

Watching Anything Goes is like taking a trans-Atlantic voyage while simultaneously time-traveling back to the 1930s.

The seagoing musical has been tweaked since it opened on Broadway in 1934, but the basic show remains intact. As a result, you feel like you’re enjoying the same kind of entertainment that helped to take our ancestors’ minds off the Great Depression.

What does the show tell us about our forebears? That they laughed at silly and sometimes naughty humor. And, mostly, that they had great taste in music.

The musical’s main claim to immortality is its collection of classic Cole Porter tunes such as You’re the Top and the title song, among many others. In the current touring show, all are wonderfully delivered by the cast and a brassy, jazz-savvy band conducted by Robbie Cowan.

Complementing the songs are some truly awesome dance numbers choreographed by director Kathleen Marshall. For tap-dancing fans, the highlight is the Act 1 capper set to the title tune. For those with a taste for something a little more provocative, Act 2’s Blow, Gabriel, Blow is equally fun.

The story centers on a young stockbroker named Billy Crocker (Brian Krinsky) and his attempt to woo engaged-to-be-married heiress Hope Harcourt (Rachelle Rose Clark). However, the show’s real star is neither Krinsky nor Clark.

Instead, it’s Emma Stratton, who plays nightclub performer Reno Sweeney. In the first scene, Reno declares her affection for Billy (I Get a Kick Out of You), only to learn that he’s fallen for Hope. A trooper if there ever was one, Reno then joins Billy’s campaign to win Hope away from her stuffy British fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Richard Lindenfelzer).

Reno is such an engaging character that you may root for Billy to choose her over the mousey Hope, even though you realize it’s a long shot. Meanwhile, you get to enjoy Stratton showing off her pipes and her equally impressive dance prowess in a bevy of tunes and production numbers.

Several other notable characters also figure in the plot. They include Billy’s alcoholic boss, Elisha Whitney (Michael R. Douglass); small-time gangster Moonface Martin (Dennis Setteducati); and Moonface’s free-loving girlfriend, Erma (Mychal Phillips). All have tuneful and reasonably funny moments.

Strangely, though, the funniest moment of all comes from an unlikely source. Lindenfelzer’s Lord Evelyn spends much of his time trying to master American slang, which produces chuckles at best, but the real comic gem is his attempt to locate The Gypsy in Me in an Act 2 dance duet with Reno.

The set, originally designed by Derek McLane and coordinated by James Kronzer, is clever depiction of ocean-liner interiors and exteriors.

Anything Goes is best known for its amazing collection of Porter tunes. Besides those already mentioned, the familiar solos and duets include Easy to Love (Billy), It’s De-Lovely (Billy and Hope) and Friendship (Moonface and Reno).

But thanks to the efforts of director/choreographer Marshall and her talented cast, crew and band, the show is much more than a few excerpts from the American Songbook. It’s a silly, sexy and footloose return trip to 1930s Broadway.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Anything Goes through Sunday (Feb. 8) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $28-$98. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.