What would L.A. musical theater lovers do without MTG? Who else but the musical theater magicians who make up Musical Theatre Guild would give Angelinos the chance to see a production of a rarely produced Broadway semi-hit like 1973’s Seesaw? Who else could do it with a mere 25 hours of rehearsal?  And who else could achieve such overall excellence in a “concert staged reading” that it could easily hold its own against many a “fully staged production” on local stages?

Seesaw has an historic pedigree. Music by Cy Coleman (City Of Angels, Barnum, Will Rogers Follies, etc.) and lyrics by Dorothy Field (Annie Get Your Gun)—their sophomore collaboration (the first having been the twice revived on Broadway Sweet Charity) and Fields’ last. Michael Bennett wrote Seesaw’s book, and directed / choreographed the production, two years prior to doing the same with … A Chorus Line.  Seesaw was based on the Broadway hit play Two For The Seesaw, which starred Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft and then became a hit movie with Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine.  The musical was nominated for seven Tonys and won two (for Bennett’s choreography and Tommy Tune’s supporting performance). And yet this “couldn’t miss” production lasted less than a year on Broadway. How come?

I think the reasons come down to two.  Seesaw’s first act ends, not with a big production number or power ballad, but with a soapy scene in which the hero calls for an ambulance to take the heroine to the hospital for a potentially fatal bleeding ulcer.  Say what, you say?  And Act Two ends with our not so heroic hero leaving our plucky New York City heroine to return to his wife and kids in Nebraska.  Charity Hope Valentine could survive being abandoned by yet another man and still be in a Broadway smash, but not poor Gittel in Seesaw.

All the more reason to rejoice for MTG’s one-night-only revival of Seesaw, because even if the show ended up being a bit too much of a downer to be a Broadway hit, it has more than enough great music and dance and comedy and romance and pizzazz to make it well worth a revisit, especially in the gifted hands of MTG Artists and the company’s equally talented guest performers.

To put on a musical with just the 25 hours of rehearsal time allowed by Actors Equity, you need quick studies under the direction of a master, and Seesaw’s ensemble of 13 has the great good fortune to be directed and choreographed by the sensational Todd Nielsen, who had the chutzpah to undertake this much dancier than usual MTG production and succeed with flying colors.

Eydie Alyson was, as they say, born to play Gittel Mosca, the adorable but self-deprecating Brooklyn girl who loses her heart to a tall blond WASP attorney named Jerry Ryan (Roger Befeler).  Alyson is a petite dynamo, whose stellar turns in MTG’s Do Re Mi and The Mystery Of Edwin Drood were but a preview of the absolutely stunning performance she gives here.  Expert comedienne Alyson excels equally at Seesaw’s many dramatic scenes (crying real tears and inspiring many among the audience) and boy can this woman belt out songs like “Nobody Does It Like Me,” “He’s Good For Me,” “Poor Everybody Else,” and “I’m Way Ahead.”

Befeler has never been better, or better cast, than he is here as good guy/heel Jerry Ryan.  Instantly likeable, Befeler is easily the 6’3” Midwesterner with Sears Catalog looks who could turn a 5’3” Brooklyn pixie’s heart, especially while serenading her to “You’re A Loveable Lunatic” and “We’ve Got It” in his rich tenor pipes. MTG has also reinstated a great Jerry ballad, “If There Were More People Like You,” inexplicably cut from the Broadway run, which makes Jerry a bit less of a cad and gives Befeler a standout solo in Act Two.

Seesaw began its journey as a two character play, and as a musical its focus remains on its two leads, but Bennett’s book adds one major supporting character, who not coincidentally happens to be a gay choreographer. The role of David catapulted Tommy Tune to Broadway stardom, and here gives MTG regular Steven Hack one of his best roles ever, and the chance to sing Seesaw’s most recognizable showstopper, “It’s Not Where You Start.”

Seesaw’s supporting roles pale in comparison to the three main characters, but dazzling star-on-the-rise Lowe Taylor makes the most of best girlfriend Sophie’s several scenes, as does charismatic Danny Bolero leading the bilingual “Spanglish” and mega-Afro-bewigged Ron Christopher Jones belting out the R&B “Ride Out The Storm” with Taylor.

The rest of the ensemble (Melissa Lyons Caldretti, Robyn Cohen, Drew D’Andrea, Heather Hoppus, Lindsay McDonald, Jake Wesley Stewart, and Adam Trent) don’t have much to do dramatically, but boy do these triple-threats get to dance … and dance … and dance. Nielsen has choreographed one production number after another (after all Seesaw won the Tony for its choreography) and only an ensemble as gifted as this one could master the myriad steps required for “My City,” “Spanglish,” and “Ride Out The Storm.”  Even bigger and better is the intricate tap number “Chapter 54, Number 1909” and the smash balloon-filled high-kicking 11th hour “It’s Not Where You Start.” (A very funny Spanish-language Hamlet scene (“El resto es … silencio”) also deserves mention as an enemble highlight.)

Master musical director Dean Mora heads a crackerjack 8-piece band (one of the biggest yet in an MTG production) who make the most of Coleman’s underappreciated score.  Steven Smith’s vocal direction brings out the best in the ensemble.  Effective lighting and several NYC silhouette projections make one almost forget that MTG productions are setless.  Costuming is simple but especially effective here, with the ensemble garbed in rainbow hues.

Seesaw may never merit a fully staged CLO revival, all the more reason to cheer MTG for having given the audience at the Glendale’s historic Alex Theatre a one-night-only chance to experience its many charms and to cheer an award-worthy star turn by Eydie Alyson. A truly awesome achievement and an auspicious beginning to MTG’s 13th season.

Alex Theatre, Glendale.  One performance only.

–Steven Stanley
September 15, 2008
Photos: Kevin McMahon

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