REVIEWS: Goldilocks

The New York Times June 18, 2000
Reviewed by Robin Pogrebin

A show opened on 14th Street last week and will close next week. Most people will never even know it happened. Those who stumble upon it may be disappointed by the lack of scenery, props and costumes or by the fact that the cast members read their lines from scripts.

They may also be bothered by having to follow paper signs up to the second floor and around a corridor to find the 99-seat auditorium in the Sol Goldman YMHA on East 14th Street.

But once they pay $15 for a ticket, settle into chipped metal chairs and open photocopied paper programs, audience members may well be pleasantly surprised by what happens on stage. The new production of the 1958 Jean and Walter Kerr musical, Goldilocks, features the fresh -- and in some cases, slightly weathered -- faces of 14 actors and actresses who can belt a song, sell a dance number and pull of a slapstick sequence or a love scene.

All this, even though their only pay is $3 a day for subway fare and they had only two weeks to rehearse for the production, which ends next Sunday.

The show -- produced by a two-year-old organization called Musicals Tonight, which presents plain pipe-rack concert versions of neglected musicals -- is emblematic of a certain level of theatre happening every might in New York City. It flies below the radar of reviewers. It is unknown to even the most stalwart of theatergoers.

There are four tiers of production laid out by the Actors Equity Association, the actors’ union, defined by a series of economic yardsticks. Musicals Tonight is in Tier 1, the lowest, in which a producer can pay Equity actors nothing for their work, with the exception of car fare, when needed. On any given night in the city, there are 20 to 30 such shows going on in various, often out-of-the-way stages around town.

Mel Miller, the 57-year-old former computer salesman behind Musicals Tonight, said he created his company precisely because he realized that the city was full of talented people, forgotten material, willing audiences and not enough work. So he left his most recent career, moderating focus groups, to create a four-show season of musicals, each with a budget of $15,000. In the last two years, the company has produced shows including Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’! and Dearest Enemy.

Mr. Miller is the company’s entire administrative office: he hauls the few pieces of scenery (like the potted trees in Goldilocks), takes the tickets, arranges for the cookies and crudités for the cast party. And, aside from a few small donations so far, Mr. Miller has been footing the bill from his savings. As a result, every costume rental is a calculation.

For Goldilocks, Mr. Miller sprang for the only bear suit the play required. It was "a function of what I can afford, or how much I feel I can afford to lose," he said. "What’s a laugh worth every night of a 16 night run? Ten dollars? Twenty dollars? If the director thinks he can get a laugh from a costume that costs $16, that’s a dollar a laugh a night. I’m going to spend that. That’s worth it."

And what’s in it for the actors? The opportunity to be seen by casting directors or agents who are invited to the performances, though they don’t usually come. A chance to polish their singing, acting and dancing -- and to play a lead role instead of being cast in the chorus.

They do it because they figure it’s better to be working than not working, even if they are working free.

"It’s not like a corporate ladder -- the next step up, the next step up," said Michael McKenzie, who has the lead role of Goldilocks as a scheming movie director. "You can be on Broadway and then suddenly you’re back in the basement of a church in a corner dressing room with water dripping on your head."

While one might expect just a handful of actors to trickle in for auditions for a show that does not pay any money, there was a steady stream of men and women going into the audition room at Actors Equity studios earlier this month -- six people every 20 minutes -- day after day for five days. They proffered their beaming head shots and lengthy resumes and sang their hearts out. (Most casting calls let people get through only a few bars; Musicals Tonight’s musical director, Mark Hartman, who receives the same car fare wages, as does, the director, lets actors sing the whole song.)

The resumes were revealing. Among the venues the actors listed were the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the Cop Room at the Sands Hotel, Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway and the Disney Cruise Line. Among the "special skills" listed at the bottom of the resumes were "burp on cue," "giving manicures," "lamp repair" and "screaming and playing the piano with toes."

Some of the actors were merely between projects; some were desperate for work. Thomas Mills, who directed Goldilocks, said the difference was immediately clear. "You see it when people walk into an audition if they haven’t worked in a while," Mr. Mills said. "They carry an apology with them."

Mr. Mills, 38, who himself has managed to make a living in the theatre by directing cabaret acts and industrials -- live presentations for companies -- including the recent show celebrating Sony Walkman’s 20th anniversary, said there were also those who came in with palpable confidence. "They walk into a room with the energy of ‘You should watch me,’" he said.

Some people he sees in auditions should be thinking about new careers, he acknowledged, but, he said, he has been struck by the general quality of talent and the numbers of actors eager to sign on for something with no pay. "One of my main competitors is the Census Bureau, which is paying $18.50 an hour," Mr. Miller said. Musicals Tonight may have a leg up on the census by offering actors a forum, he said. But, he added, actors "also want to eat."

Many of those chosen for Goldilocks support themselves with other work. Mr. McKenzie was recently the maitre d’hotel at a restaurant on the Upper West Side. James Patterson, who plays George, the leading lady’s foppish fiancé, has worked the front desk and gift shop at a hotel. Erin Malloy, a member of the ensemble, is a hostess and waitress at a restaurant on Columbus Avenue.

Musicals Tonight rehearses only during the evenings, so that actors can get to their day jobs or go to auditions.

Although Ms. Malloy, who comes form Pennsylvania and will turn 24 next Sunday, stood out in the ensemble on opening night, she said the last six months had been her longest acting dry spell. "I’m just not exactly what people are looking for right now," she said.

Doing a show like Goldilocks, actors say helps to get through droughts, along with taking dance, acting and singing classes. ("Sometimes just going out and eating a big old banana split will do it too," said Jen Celene Little, who plays Lois, who aspires to be a star."

Even though some of the cast members have been on Broadway or toured in big-budget musicals, several said they did not consider a production like Goldilocks beneath them. At least they were working, they said, and not having to leave town to do it.

Georgia Creighton, who plays Bessie, a wisecracking matron in Goldilocks, said that she usually did commercials, but that because of the strike by commercial and television actors, she couldn’t take those jobs. "This was a shot in the arm," Ms. Creighton said. "It was activity. And it was activity that I like."

Even though the road from tryout to opening night lasted little more than two weeks, there were bumps along the way, as there always are with Musicals Tonight -- one actor dropped out because he got a paying part. But no one complained about the cramped studios or the creaky floors at Shetler Studios on Eighth Avenue where signs warn, "Absolutely no rehearsing in the halls." Nor did anyone complain about rehearsing on weekends. The principals never balked at being able to run through songs and scenes only once because big dance numbers needed more of the limited rehearsal time.

Mr. McKenzie, who grew up in Nebraska and Massachusetts and moved to New York City in 1979, has been in an episode of Law and Order. He replaced an original cast member in this season’s Waiting in the Wings on Broadway and will be understudying a role in the upcoming production of The Man Who Came To Dinner, with Nathan Lane.

"I stay at it because the rewards, when they come, are so great," said Mr. McKenzie, who is in his 40’s. "It carries you through the quieter times or the truly frustrating or horrible times."

Even though the actors say they try to control their expectations of who might show up at the performances, it is difficult. Who might be out there? An agent or producer offering a big break? Most of the time, no. People who come to Musicals Tonight performances find out about the shows through listings in The Village Voice, word of mouth, or industry talk. Mr. Miller also send out 15,000 postcard announcements through a mailing list provided by the Theatre Development Fund, a nonprofit group that runs TKTS booth and sponsors theatre support programs. (Musicals Tonight is not listed as a business; people who want information or reservations can call Mr. Miller at (212) 362-5620.)

He said he had about 120 subscribers who pay $60 for the season, not all of who come to every production. Usually, the auditorium is half full.

The first performance of Goldilocks had the excitement of any opening night. A few casting directors like Warren Pincus of the Goodspeed Opera House, a regional theatre in east Haddam, Conn., had reserved tickets for the coming performances. There was even a celebrity in the audience -- Elaine Stritch, who starred in the leading role of Maggie in the original production of Goldilocks on Broadway, came for the first act and went backstage at intermission to offer congratulations. "You remind me of me," she told Cathy Tier, who plays Maggie. "Granted, there are 30,000 years between us."

There have been a few more ups and downs. One performance had to be canceled because Ms. Trien had a conflict: a part in a Chris Rock film.

Kelly Mealia, an ensemble member, was also offered a paying role, but stayed put -- which Mr. Miller said brought tears to his eyes.

Meanwhile, the players are hunkering down and keeping their hopes up, as if trying to heed the flip but trenchant admonition Ms. Stritch left them with opening night: "O.K., kids. Have Fun."

Back Stage June 30th, 2000
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

The Walter and Jean Kerr-Joan-Ford-Leroy Anderson Goldilocks not seen for many years is getting a much-needed revival by Musicals Tonight! Director-choreographer Thomas Mills has staged a delightful musical production with emphasis on the comedy -- which is not to say that he has not done right by Anderson’s ravishing score. In addition to the witty songs from the original 1958 Broadway production are three songs cut out of town that are incidental to the story but beautiful in themselves.

Originally starring Don Ameche, Elaine Stritch, Pat Stanley, Russell Nype and Margaret Hamilton, Goldilocks is a parody of the silent-film era when shyster directors made quickie one-reelers literally overnight while treating actors like props. Here, Maggie Harris is a musical comedy actress retiring from showbusiness in order to marry into society. Producer-director Max Grady arrives to remind her that she has a contract to star his film "Frontier Woman, " and she might prefer not to have a lawsuit threaten her wedding plans. The story of their battles while he keeps extending the filming leads to many slapstick situations.

As both comedienne and singer, Cathy Trien is delightfully spunk playing the blonde turned into the screen’s Goldilocks. As her nemesis, Michael McKenzie’s Max has both the charm and megalomania down fine. In the roles that won Best Supporting Tonys for their originators, James Patterson and Jen Celene Little, bring suavity and perkiness to their respective roles of the rich fiancé and the girl pursuing Grady. Georgia Chreighton as Grady’s landlady promoted to chief-of-all-works almost steals the show with her rendition of "If I Can’t Take It With Me, I’m Gonna Go." At the piano Mark Heartman makes musical magic with Anderson’s eclectic score, which includes operetta, blues, patter songs, and ballads.

Helpless? Not this heroine! Goldilocks
Off-Off Broadway June 2000
Reviewed by David Mackler

When originally produced, Goldilocks was not a resounding flop, but it is unlikely to be found on anyone's list of favorite musicals. After it closed, its book, lyric and music authors never wrote another musical. Musicals Tonight, which presents lesser-known musicals on a smaller scale than Encores, has performed an invaluable public service to musical aficionados by mounting a terrifically polished and quite enjoyable production of this show. They even went so far as to restore three numbers that were not in the Broadway production.

Debits first: the book by Walter and Jean Kerr is, well, slight. In 1913, Maggie, a musical-comedy star (Cathy Trien) who is about to get married and leave show business behind, is forced to honor a previously signed contract to appear in a one-reel silent picture. Max, the film's director (Michael McKenzie), is quite an operator, manipulating money and people with equal aplomb. There's Lois, the untalented ingénue (Jen Celene Little) who is obsessed with the director, and George, the rich bridegroom (James Patterson). The plot, as they say, is obvious from scene 2.

Now the credits: with material this trifling, high-voltage star power is needed to pull it off. And this was provided in spades. Brash without being brassy, Trien landed every joke with a winning smile and glowed as she sang such Elaine Stritch-identified songs as "The Beast in You" and the eleven o'clock number "I Never Know When." McKenzie was smoothly suave and arrogant, and his strong singing voice helped with the difficult task of making an impossible role sympathetic. (Max's manipulation of Maggie is a little distasteful, even though she manages to hold her own.) Patterson, also a strong singer, was kindly and clueless as George, and his gradual awakening to the charms of Lois was exactly right.

And Little was a revelation as Lois. Except in her character's singing debut (the atrociously performed "Pussy Foot"), Little was wisely directed to sing (and act) with her full and clear voice. A terrifically funny comedienne (her incompetence with an unwieldy costume was priceless), she was even better when she sang "My Last Spring," her song of disappointment. A superb song, and it was performed with power and subtlety. It was shocking to discover that this is one of the numbers not in the Broadway version.

The supporting cast was also very strong, and included such delights as Georgia Creighton, who scored a bullseye (even if she only visited the neighborhood of some notes) with the specialty song "If I Can't Take It With Me," another cut-on-Broadway number (what were they thinking?). Matthew Ellison and Jay Gould were terrific as Max's sidekicks, who help him extend the one-reeler into something to rival Intolerance.

Director (and choreographer) Thomas Mills has made the most of the main stage at the 14th Street Y, which is just the right size for the piece -- it would likely get lost and lose its charm in a larger venue. The simplicity of the production, and the fact that the cast holds their scripts, also keeps it in scale and allows it the nostalgic charm it wears so proudly. The uncredited scenery -- flats and some trees - -was elementary but very imaginative, as was the uncredited costuming, mostly basic-black street clothes, but which included a terrific bear suit. Lighting (Lita Riddock) helped the stage seem bigger than it was, and musical director Mark Hartman made his single piano sound like a cloud on which the music and singers could float.

This Goldilocks is only vaguely associated with the eponymous fairytale, songs like "Who's Been Sitting In My Chair" notwithstanding. And while the book lets the characters (and actors) down, the music is good, solid theater music from the "classic" period of the 1950s. This production was blessed with absolute silliness and wild fun in the filmmaking scenes, and a cast without flaw. Producer Mel Miller and Musicals Tonight are to be commended for bringing it to light.