at the Wellington Theater

Don’t let the title mislead you: “Fiddler on the Hoof” this isn’t. The closest Izzy Birnbaum, the rabbi of the title, gets to the frontier is a seat at a Tom Mix movie. He’s a wannabe cowboy, the hero of his own fantasies.

Just as unreal is Theda Bara, the star Izzy likes even better than Tom Mix. Proclaimed by her studio as an Arab born in the shadow of the Sphinx and destined to lure hundreds of men to their doom, Theda is really Theodosia Goodman, a Jewish tailor’s daughter from the suburbs of Cincinnati. The silent-screen siren Bette Davis called “divinely, hysterically, insanely malevolent” is just a nice girl playing a part: “Before I was a star,” Theodosia wistfully recalls, “I used to be an actress.” Now what she’d really like to be is herself.

The meeting and mating of these two is the subject of this nutty, ingratiating, and often hilarious new musical written by librettist Jeff Hochhauser and composer Bob Johnston and directed by Vivian Matalon. Part fable, part fantasy, and all farce, Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi is a refreshingly oddball entertainment whose influences range from Jewish comedian Allan (“My Son the Folksinger”) Sherman to the movies of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner to Jay Ward’s old Fractured Flickers TV series to film-lore historian Kenneth Anger’s scandalmongering Hollywood Babylon, which inspired this loony blend of fact, conjecture, and make-believe.

Theda, of course, was a real person–the movies’ first vamp, who enjoyed a half decade of stardom in the World War I era with such films as When a Woman Sins and When Men Desire before giving it all up to get married. (At one point, Bara and cutesy-pie Mary Pickford were the only movie actresses known by name to the general public–the movie industry’s madonna-whore syndrome was active even then.)

Izzy, on the other hand, is an invention of the authors–he moves from Brooklyn to California to take a position at a temple whose congregation happens to include Theda’s cinematographer. When he’s discovered watching a Theda Bara movie, Izzy feels forced to sermonize against the “Arab succubus” in order to preserve his rabbinical image. Meanwhile Izzy’s sister Rachel, a makeup artist at the Fox studio, wants to set him up with a girl from work; in reality it’s Theodosia–rhymes with “kosha” in at least one lyric–whom the star-struck Rachel dreams of having for her “vamp-in-law.” But when Izzy’s moralistic sermon propels him into the spotlight, he’s recruited to head the censorious National Board of Review by the same hucksters who’ve twisted Theodosia into Theda–Izzy’s hypocrisy and repressed sexuality make him the perfect choice for the job.

Though set in 1917 (during the filming of Bara’s Cleopatra), Theda Bara wackily evokes a wide range of show-biz styles: a marvelous three-man chorus assume personas ranging from singing cowboys to tap-dancing redcaps, while their female counterparts adopt the roles of cabalistic spirits who dress like figures from a Martha Graham dance and sing like the Andrews Sisters. The script, meanwhile, is packed with Jewish jokes–rabbi gags, cantor gags, gefilte fish gags, and Jewish-cowboy gags (including a menorah-shaped cactus). Besides acknowledging the lingering legacy of vaudevillian humor, these prove tellingly relevant to the show’s theme of finding one’s true identity.

Such absurdist contrasts cleverly complement a love story that is sweetly endearing as well as ridiculous in the superb performances of pop singer Rachel Sweet as Theda and Broadway veteran Jason Graae as Izzy. The diminutive Sweet, who’s a powerhouse vocalist, also proves an able comedienne with a sure stage presence, while Graae offers a model of precisely focused musical-comedy characterization. The fine supporting cast includes Ellen Margulies as Izzy’s earthy matchmaker of a sister, Stuart Zagnit in a vaudevillian turn as movie producer Selwyn Farp (whose old-country Yiddish inflections clash crazily with his assimilationist ambitions), and Christopher Coucill as a rangy John Huston-style director. The remarkable chorus–Robin Irwin, Carol Kuykendall, Sheila Savage, Jonathan Brody, Joe Joyce, and hefty but athletic Blake Hammond–are equally adept at executing Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s witty choreography and singing Johnston’s cleverly contrapuntal music, which always sounds fresh though it consciously borrows from ragtime, disco, and sacred Hebrew music.

There are significant flaws in the show at this point. Loren Sherman’s set is clunky and drab, though David Loveless’s hilarious costumes and Michael Rourke’s subtly shaded lighting provide a visual lift. Johnston’s score is inventive and listenable but lacks a clear hit–its complexity works against it–and Hochhauser’s script gets bogged down in a confusing, irrelevant second-act subplot involving Izzy’s cantor. Rewrites and cuts will surely be made during the production’s Chicago run; meanwhile, even with its problems, its unorthodox brand of comedy makes Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi a delightful and diverting show.


Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre

Like Theda Bara, Annie Warbucks is a period piece; though its nominal source is Harold Gray’s classic comic strip Little Orphan Annie, the show’s real inspiration is the 1930s movie musical. And just as the Depression hovered over films like Forty-second Street, so the recession of the 1990s hovers over Annie Warbucks. Appropriately, where the upbeat theme song of the 1977 Broadway hit Annie proclaimed that “the sun will come out tomorrow,” this sequel gives Annie a less confident, more rueful sentiment to belt out: “Nothing is certain but change.” And the score’s other most memorable lyric, sung by a Tennessee Valley black couple who befriend Annie when she runs away from her New York home, makes a fine election-year anthem: “Somebody’s gotta do somethin’ before it’s too late.”

Yet Annie Warbucks’s main purpose is escapism, not relevance. The plot’s most pressing problem is made-up. A New York City child welfare commissioner has informed multimillionaire industrialist Daddy Warbucks that in order to adopt little orphan Annie he must be married, so Daddy sets out to find “a good mother for Annie and a wife I could be happy with a couple of hours a week.” In reality, the commissioner is a crook who’s plotting to get Daddy hitched to her own sleazy daughter so they can murder him for his money; meanwhile, Daddy seems oblivious to the true love offered him by his devoted secretary Grace.

To tell this lightweight story, script-writer Thomas Meehan has churned out some funny lines obviously meant to evoke the screwball-comedy films of the 1930s, and composer Charles Strouse delivers a likable pastiche of 30s dance tunes buoyed by the plunking banjo rhythms and tinny trumpet lines of David Siegel’s arrangements. Director and lyricist Martin Charnin coaches especially canny performances out of Broadway and movie veteran Harve Presnell as Daddy–as lovable a capitalist pig as you’d ever hope to see–and Alene Robertson, who offers a gangbuster caricature as the butch and brassy commissioner. Though Lauren Gaffney as Annie lacked warmth on opening night, she’s a highly competent performer with a knockout voice; Jennifer Nees and Mary Ernster deliver able support as the good and bad girls competing for Daddy’s heart; Don Forston is droll as a haughty butler; and Kingsley Leggs nicely evokes Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s dance duet with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel when he partners Gaffney in a soft-shoe at FDR’s White House.

For more than a decade now Charnin, Strouse, and Meehan, who collaborated on the original Annie, have been trying to figure out how to replicate the earlier show’s smash success. The answer, they’ve decided in the wake of their disastrous earlier attempt Annie 2, is orphans. Certainly the most enjoyable moments in this show (which like Theda Bara is using Chicago-area audiences as a sounding board for a New York-bound production) come from the chorus of little girls whom Annie visits at the orphanage. Simultaneously sweet and sarcastic enough to win over child lovers and child loathers alike, the subteen sextet–played by Debbie Wittenberg, Andrea Costa, Raegen Kotz, Betsy Morgan, Ali Pesche, and Natalie Berg–bring down the house as they flirt and flap their way through several raucous songs. If the authors can find a way to integrate the kids into the story instead of just using them as window dressing, Annie Warbucks might develop the spark of real life it needs. That could happen given the considerable rewrites the show continues to undergo; Gaffney could easily be referring to her own job when she sings “Nothing is certain but change.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.