I took me a busman’s holiday from September 20 to 30, 2016, by joining Playbill on its seventh cruise featuring Broadway stars and Broadway “Ambassadors” who are on board to mix, mingle and entertain some 290 ardent fans who have signed on for this unusual concept cruise. We had two nights in Rome on our own, to sightsee and brush up our Italian for the week of festivities ahead.
Our first night out, en route from Rome to Sorrento, the star attraction was Andréa Burns, on a short leave from Broadway’s On Your Feet! Her 90-minute act in the Silver Wind’s comfortable playhouse was of a caliber worthy of the Palace in New York.
Ms. Burns has been delivering smart and original performances as a variety of colorful characters in Guys and Dolls (Miss Adelaide), In the Heights (Daniela), The Full Monty (Vicki Nichols), The Nance (Carmen) and in her currently running show On Your Feet! (Gloria Fajardo). This attractive actress/singer with a voice that can extract magic from the shimmering beauty of Stephen Schwartz’s “Meadowlark,” to the teenage exuberance of “I Feel Pretty,” which she turned into a one act play covering the many years in which she’s intermittently played Maria several times. It’s funny and musically elegant. She is one soprano who makes every lyric land. Her take on Googie Gomez, a not very talented Latina from The Ritz is hilarious as she slithers and shakes, capturing every tacky moment in that second-rate tomato’s repertoire.
Seth Rudetsky’s stunning piano accompaniment added immeasurably. Andréa Burns – a star talent in need of an original starring role. She opened the cruise’s seven nights of entertainment with a bang.
Next day sunshine all over Sorrento. We took a tender to shore, hopped onto a bus to the top of the lava cliffed town, marveled at its bold beauty, but found ourselves surrounded by mobs of travelers from a much larger ship, so we turned right around and tendered our way back to our beautiful Sea Wind to prepare for a 5:30 dialogue between guest playwrights Douglas Carter Beane and Charles Busch, two distinctly different writers, each blessed with comically wise and witty tongues. We were treated to a conversation revealing how they found their ways to writing plays. A delightful hour, much more rewarding than fighting the mob on shore.
Laura Osnes provided the second night’s entertainment. Again backed by Seth Rudetsky’s deft ways with a piano, this leading lady brought her fresh charm to songs from Cinderella, Bonnie and Clyde, Anything Goes, and The Bandstand, which is being groomed for Broadway. Pert and perky, she has control over her lyrical voice, which she uses well. Hers is not so much a musical act as it is a spoonful of sweets to add to the ingredients of the week’s festivities.
It was raining in Taormina, so we sailed in, then scooted slowly on to Valetta, Malta. As the Taormina tours were canceled, Seth instantly arranged Seth and his Friends, a 90-minute variety show packed with the likes of Faith Prince, Lindsay Mendez, Charles Busch, and Jennifer Simard, who were merely “Ambassadors” on this cruise. But each delivered showstoppers.
This project, rehearsed and arranged in about two hours, could have opened on Broadway merely by adding costumes, lights, and scenery. With talents like these, who needs rehearsal? That was 5:30 to 7:00 on Wednesday afternoon. At 9:30, Adam Pascal took center stage to prove that he’s ripe for a role of his own to create. He’s first-rate and has star quality to spare. He did an exciting 90 minutes with Seth making his piano sound orchestral.
Adam is a likely lad, a Long Island city kid who looks like a Viking. He sang bits of “Music in the Night,” Radames’ aria from Aida (he played the role on Broadway), an eleven o’clock number as the lead Huey Calhoun in Memphis. This dashing leading man has created roles in some of his shows, but replaced in Phantom, Cabaret, Memphis, and Chicago so he’s not as well-known as some, but his recent appearance in a musical comedy (Disaster!) put him front and center on the list of leading men for the future. His looks and personality should make him eminently castable. His roles have shown him to be able to deliver classical, debonair, comical, cynical and rural characters with equal accuracy.
Monday night brought us Lindsay Mendez, unknown to me, but she already has under her belt a stint as Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway, and a well received performance in straight play Significant Other for the Roundabout. Lindsay is one of those rare performers who came to New York from Los Angeles; the traffic is usually the other way round. She made her Broadway debut as Jan in the 2007 revival of Grease, directed by Kathleen Marshall. She received an Outer Critics Circle Nomination and a Drama League nomination as Outstanding Actress in a Musical for her performance as Rose Fenny in off/Broadway’s Dogfight. Ms. Mendez, a talent with a very bright future.
Then it was gorgeous Kate Baldwin‘s turn to take center stage. She’d received a Drama Desk nomination for John and Jen, she’d led the cast in Can Can at the Paper Mill Playhouse, she starred in Big Fish on Broadway and again won award nominations for playing the Liz Taylor role in Giant at the Public Theatre. Dressed in a body hugging short skirt that looked a bit like armor with spangles, she and Rudetsky offered us a varied program, always well sung. On our fourth night at sea, she featured her fluid and powerful voice in “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. She tore into it with passion in the sexual sections, but returned to quiet resignation when needed for the lines that follow those in the title.
If all that weren’t enough for a jolly weekend, Philip Birsh, the owner of Playbill, arranged a Conversation with Charles Busch, and Douglas Carter Beane, and another with Andréa Burns and Brenda Blaxton. They all offered revealing talk about the path theatre artists take to sustain careers over a lifetime. The facts alone are fascinating, but these four, under Rudetsky’s excellent moderation, were able to spontaneously spout short cuts and insights into what really goes into sustaining and surviving in treacherous waters. Very useful talk, very entertaining.
Next morning I was slightly poorer, as I’d spent a difficult hour at the one blackjack table. All of us were wiped out, as the lady dealer was either very lucky or this was just a bad night for our side of the table. However, the Casino was tastefully designed, and cozy. I’m certain someone wins now and then, but if you visit, be careful.
Thursday was the final night of official performances, and it was properly reserved for the one called “legendary”– the incomparable Chita Rivera. This consummate artist has learned, in a 60 year career, to show us what is really big time and distinctive. Beginning in the 1950s as an ensemble dancer in Can Can, she moved to small principal roles in Mr. Wonderful and Seventh Heaven, she sidetracked into understudying Eartha Kitt in Archie and Mehitabel, and finally found a role that established her in West Side Story. Thus began her journey to Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, Velma Kelly in Chicago, Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Liliane LaFleur in Nine (in which in her 70s she was still able to raise one leg to rest on Banderas’ shoulder!) and finally to Claire Zachannassian in The Visit, along with an international tour of Can Can, a national tour as Sweet Charity and two triumphant years in London with Bye Bye Birdie and West Side Story.
But at 82, she lives as she always has, devoted to the work that allows her to adapt to all ages, to adjust to each one by accepting all that comes attached. If her voice has grown huskier, she now chooses material that considers that an advantage. Her breathtaking agility and power as a dancer has been diminished but she’s totally able to express a wide range of emotions with a wiggle, a suggested high kick, even a walk. Her powerful emotional range pulls out all the stops on “Love and Love Alone” from her most recent outing in Kander and Ebb’s The Visit. Even her chit chat with Conductor/Host Rudettsky was filled with high humor and honesty. I’ve known her since the very start of her illustrious career and she’s nourished our connection through all of these 60 years. Her final night on this very special cruise did what all eleven o’clock numbers should do — it stopped the show several times and ended in cheers.
Final day in Corsica, an equally amazing end of our island hopping Superbly organized by Producer Philip Birsh of Playbill and supervised by Musical Director Rudetsky, a final extravaganza put to work Ms. Burns’ son Hudson Flynn, his dad Peter Flynn, the glorious Brenda Braxton, Faith Prince, Charles Busch, and Douglas Carter Beane, Seth Rudetsky’s husband and daughter in roles added to the luster of stars that sent us to bed each night hoping we can join up soon again for one of Playbill’s next adventures at sea. I hear there’s one planned to cover towns along the Rhine River. I think we should all start saving our pennies.