Friday, October 26, 2007

Which doctor will be in the house?

One of the thrills of seeing a live performance is the knowledge that anything can happen. That's also one of the drawbacks. I have my ticket to see the new Mel Brooks musical "Young Frankenstein" on Nov. 5, four days before opening night, and I have no idea who will be in the title role.

Roger Bart, probably best known for playing George the murderous pharmacist on "Desperate Housewives" a couple seasons ago, had been Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (that's pronounced Frohn-kun-steen) from the tryout in Seattle this summer through the early Broadway previews. But he's been out all week with a back injury. Broadway newcomer Matthew LaBanca has been filling in.

The New York Post's Michael Riedel says that Bart has a herniated disc. One scenario "has his doctor pumping him with cortisone so he can play the critics' performances and opening night, then take time off to heal." Riedel says word is going around that the producers may have to look for a temporary replacement.

I guess there's no chance that 74-year-old Gene Wilder will be asked to try on Bart's top hat and tails temporarily. Mel Brooks reportedly turned down Cloris Leachman, who wanted to reprise her role as Frau Blucher, because he felt that at 81, she was too old for the job.

The whole understudy thing is a tough one. I went to see "A Moon for the Misbegotten" twice in three days as an insurance policy, in the unlikely event Kevin Spacey missed a performance. I needn't have have worried. He didn't. Still, if he had I would have been extremely disappointed. And I'm not alone in going to a Broadway show to see a specific performer. I saw a long line of fans waiting to get refunds when Fantasia was out of "The Color Purple."

As a big fan of the movie version of "Young Frankenstein," I'm more interested in seeing it translated to the stage, with more singing and dancing and every scene and joke intact. I'm not saying the cast is beside the point, but I'd be excited about seeing this show no matter who was in it. In this case, I think, the show is the star vehicle.

I've seen enough Broadway shows now to know that a little uncertainty goes with the territory. You hope that everyone you want to see will be on stage, but there are no guarantees. That's the flip side of a live performance. Plus, I've had pretty good luck with understudies so far, and I'm favor of always giving a performer a chance to entertain and amaze me.

Saycon Sengbloh was wonderful in "The Color Purple." I was so moved by her portrayal of Celie, watching her grow from an abused, unloved girl into a confident, successful woman, that I was in tears at the end. This is a show that definitely doesn't need a "star" in the starring role.

I was really looking forward to seeing Stephen Spinella, who plays all of the adult male roles in "Spring Awakening." But Spinella, who won a Tony award for "Angels in America," was out at the matinee I attended. Still, I thought his understudy, Ken Marks, was fine, all of the young actors who play the students were there, and I absolutely loved the show's energy, emotion and rock 'n' roll score.

And while Kevin Spacey never missed a performance of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," Colm Meaney was out the second time I saw the play, creating a theatrical chain reaction that gave recent Juilliard graduate Nick Westrate his Broadway debut. When he becomes a big star someday, I'll be able to say I saw him first.

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