Saturday, June 16, 2007

It's DeLaughable

It's a special kind of show-tune fan—the hardcore kind—who goes to the York Theater's Musicals in Mufti. The series debuted in 1994, the same year as Encores!, and has a similar goal: to revive forgotten musicals in concert versions and for very limited runs (usually a weekend each). But whereas Encores! takes place at the cavernous City Center and puts on increasingly lavish productions (some of which even transfer to Broadway) involving costumes, choreography and a large orchestra, Musicals in Mufti takes place in a church basement in front of a couple hundred people, and the singers, wearing street clothes, are backed by tiny ensembles.

And yet there's something undeniably fun about the Muftis. First of all, the shows tend to be obscure nuggets, often with stellar credits: Jule Styne and Yip Harburg's Darling of the Day (1968), Duke Ellington and John La Touche's Beggar's Holiday (1946) or Carolyn Leigh and Elmer Bernstein's How Now, Dow Jones (1967). Second, the casts are often quite good and you can test their mettle: When they can't fall back on amplification or intricate staging, you see what actors are really made of. I still remember a blisteringly funny performance by the then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth in Comden and Green's Billion Dollar Baby in 1998 for instance.

This weekend's Mufti, playing until tomorrow evening, is a doozy from 1966: Charles Strouse and Lee Adams's It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman. The show's vibe is very much along the campy, self-parodic lines of the Batman TV series, and even with a band consisting only of piano and drums, you could tell some of the songs are quite catchy. The cast gave its all—special mentions to Cheyenne Jackson as Supes, Shoshana Bean (in a part created by Linda Lavin) and Max Mencken (very funny as a blowhard columnist)—but I will focus on the one truly awful performance: Lea DeLaria's, which was mannered, incompetent and obnoxious all at the same time. It's actually rare to see something so howlingly wrong on stage.

DeLaria was given the plum role of the villain, Dr. Abner Segwick. Except the character's sex was changed and so DeLaria played a female doctor named CZ Sedgwick (couldn't figure out what the initials stood for—Catherine Zeta?). This made very little sense, especially since it wasn't immediately apparent that DeLaria was playing a woman—I thought this was a bit of blind casting, similar to the time she played Eddie in The Rocky Horror Show. But no, Dr. Sedgwick was meant to be a woman—which ended up not making any difference since DeLaria hammed it up in ways that made no sense, no matter the character's gender. (She pulled a similar stunt playing one of the sisters in Cinderella at City Opera.)

While almost all the actors flubbed some lines (Muftis are rehearsed for only a week and are performed book in hand), she made more mistakes than the others put together. But the worst part is that everytime she screwed up, she turned toward the rest of the cast, searching for…what? Sympathy? Approval? Connection? DeLaria played to her fellow actors, not to the audience. Not only was she selfishly—and ineptly—trying to hog the spotlight, constantly mugging when someone else was speaking or singing, but she kept breaking out of character and behaving as if she wasn't in front of a paying audience but at rehearsal, goofing off with her buddies. (When Jackson and Bean got caught in a giggling fit, they gamely tried to hide it, which made the crowd love them even more.) DeLaria gave a master class in what not to do as an actor, and became unwittingly interesting—if you like car crashes, that is.

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