Theatre

The way we were, at centre stage

David McCaughna November 19 1979
Theatre

The way we were, at centre stage

David McCaughna November 19 1979

The way we were, at centre stage

Theatre

David McCaughna

In Broadway’s biggest hit this season there’s a dog act, a tribute to fandancer Sally Rand and doves that fly into the outstretched arms of a pretty girl. The songs are old standbys and the skits are the same ones that charmed audiences of burlesque 65 years ago. Broadway has discovered nostalgia, kicking off the season with a flurry of these shows and promising another half-dozen before it’s out; the golden oldies rule centre stage, breathing new life into any gimmick that recaptures the past. This year audiences are going into the theatres humming the tunes, strains of Chattanooga Choo Choo and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy wafting through the night air.

Which seems to be just what the doctor ordered, for both patrons and producers. “Audiences like shows that are familiar,” says Terry Lilley, a veteran Broadway observer. “During a time of economic instability they want entertainment that is reassuring and full of self-confidence.” And that’s exactly what they’re getting in a season of wellmade “safe” shows, many of them revivals of musical classics. Investors, impressed by the successful return of Yul Brynner in The King and I and burned by the loss of millions of dollars sunk into new musicals, are placing their bets on the tried and true. The message is clear—stick to the past.

Some of the happiest faces in the crowd are those with money in Sugar Babies. It’s one of the biggest hits in years with ticket sales well into 1981 and touring productions already in the works. All the fuss is over a plotless and slickly produced reincarnation of a genuine burlesque show—burlesque, that is, before girls started taking it all off. An academic, poking through archives, came up with the idea when he discovered a wealth of material waiting to be dusted off. His suggestion has blossomed into a gaudy, lavish production with kitschy musical numbers and coy chorus girls, a liberal dose of double entendre and jokes that positively creak. (Why do humming birds hum? Because they forgot the words.) And topping off all this schtick is a dollop of vintage show biz: Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney.

Both walking tributes to nostalgia, they play off one another with ease, Rooney’s funny man to Miller’s straight lady. At nearly 60, Rooney resembles a pudgy chipmunk, the Andy Hardy boyishness matured to a leer. He loves to clown and he’s the expert, donning a fluffy wig and a tight dress for a drag act, playing a randy judge or making sly references to his exhaustive marital record. And Miller is a perfect foil, radiating the allure of an MGM movie queen as she makes her entrance wrapped in a feather boa, blowing kisses to the crowd. Out of her skirt in a

flash, she starts tippy-tapping just as she did in all those movies in the ’40s and ’50s. There’s a lot of kick left: Miller still manages to come close to her record of 500 taps per minute. In the patriotic grand finale it is no surprise to find her decked out as the Statue of Liberty. Sugar Babies is burlesque inflated to extravaganza, two hours of hokey, mindless entertainment. But it’s produced with warmth and precision, and it’s bound to run for years.

As family entertainment there are few musicals with a stronger tradition than Peter Pan. Most adults trotting youngsters off to see the current Broadway production of this classic grew up watching the annual telecast of

Mary Martin playing the boy who “won’t grow up”to Cyril Ritchard’s Captain Hook; they will find that not much has changed. With the father and the beastly Hook traditionally played by the same actor, the play could be turned easily into a dark spectacle. But this production steers clear of Freudian hijinks, and its only nod to modernity is in casting a laser beam as Tinkerbell. The charm of the story is perfectly intact as the children zoom from their London nursery off to Never Never Land, meeting Hook, a ticking crocodile, the Lost Boys and the rest of James Barrie’s quirky lineup. The production has a homey, colorfully Victorian flavor, accented by spritely dancing, but some of the drama is buried in an effort to keep everything lively. Sandy Duncan’s Peter Pan does have an overload of cheer and energy and kids know her from television. But Duncan doesn’t erase memories of Martin; she hasn’t the same sharp personality, and her voice is too shrill. The real star of this show is the flying. From the moment the nursery windows swing open and a wired Duncan swoops in, until she takes her curtain call flying out over the audience, every levitation is magical and draws squeals of delight.

The 19Jf0s Radio Hour skips a generation or two in its appeal, bringing smiles of Recollection to those who sat

through hours of wartime radio entertainment. On a snowy December night in 1942 a group of performers gather in a New York studio to broadcast a live radio show. That’s all there is to this skimpy show, but the production is cleverly fleshed out with period touches and snappy characterizations. It summons up radio’s golden age with ridiculous commercials (“Buy the car that’s built like a bridge—Nash is here to stay”), a version of A Christmas Carol that’s a guided tour through sound effects and an applause sign that rarely turns off. It adds up to an agile, pleasant little show, full of affection and parody that, nonetheless, fades quickly from memory.

And all this is only a taste of what is to come. Pure nostalgia vehicles such as The Big Broadcast of 19H, a tribute to the bands called swing, are scheduled to open in the new year, and the producers of Sugar Babies are considering restaging the Ziegfeld Follies. From the roster of old musicals will come revivals of Oklahoma, Can-Can, West Side Story and The Music Man. And the stars are coming back too. Richard Burton will return in Camelot next year and Rex Harrison is booked to play Henry Higgins one more time. For an emotion often thought to be cheap, nostalgia is worth its weight in gold under the lights on Broadway.«^