When was the last time you saw a production of the 1964 Jule Styne-Betty Comden & Adolph Green musical Fade Out – Fade In? Have you ever even heard of Fade – Out Fade In?
I’d venture to guess that most people, even frequent theatergoers, will have answered both questions with a resounding “Never!” Well, perhaps not so resounding, but you get my point. Fade Out – Fade In has (pun intended) faded out … and into the limbo from which L.A.’s Musical Theatre Guild often finds its forgotten Broadway gems.
Unlike some other lesser-known MTG shows, however, Fade Out – Fade In should have become a frequently revived hit. Its Styne-Comden-Green pedigree is about as impeccable as they come, its leading lady was Broadway/TV star Carol Burnett, and according to Peter Filichia’s original cast album liner notes, five out of the six major New York critics gave it their “Seal Of Approval.” Its comedic look back at 1930s Hollywood was already “period” in 1964, meaning that even in 2009, the show shouldn’t come across as dated. Add to that George Abbott helming the original production and choreography by Ernest Flatt and Fade Out – Fade In should have been a long-running hit.
Unfortunately, due to “circumstances beyond its control,” the show closed after less than a year and soon disappeared, not just from Broadway, but from our collective memory as well.
Luckily for musical theater lovers, MTG selected Fade Out – Fade In as part of its 2009-2010 “Season Of Comedy,” and with Broadway and L.A.’s sensational Beth Malone heading an all-around stellar cast and Lewis Wilkenfeld directing, Fade Out – Fade In turned out to be an absolutely delightful, often hilarious, and always tuneful evening of entertainment at Glendale’s Alex Theatre—with one (and only one) Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center performance remaining.
Fade Out – Fade In spins the tale of Hope Springfield (Malone), singled out from a New York chorus line and brought to Hollywood to star in FFF Studios’ latest “masterpiece,” The Fiddler And The Fighter. Though studio chief L.Z. Governor’s handsome nephew Rudolf (Dan Callaway) senses immediately that something is amiss (Hope is hardly his uncle’s “floozy” type), plans for the movie go ahead as scheduled. L.Z. is off in Europe, you see, and unable to explain why he picked gawky, geeky Hope to be his latest protégée.
As for Hope, the East Coast girl simply couldn’t be happier than she is now in Tinseltown. Having spent most of her life in a movie theater watching stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on the silver screen, Hollywood already feels like home to her. Not only is she starring as the concert violinist who wins a prize fighter’s heart, but the man she’s starring opposite is none other than Hollywood’s most gorgeous leading man, Byron Prong (Damon Kirsche). What more could a girl ask?
Unfortunately for Hope, who’s been newly rechristened Lila Tremaine for her movie debut, things do not turn out quite as she had hoped and expected.
Comden and Green’s book is a affectionate, funny, and spot-on look back at the Hollywood of Yesteryear, which should come as no surprise to MGM movie musical buffs. The duo had written the story and screenplay for Singin’ In The Rain twelve years earlier. As for the music, no one in the 1960s wrote catchier, more melodic songs than Jule Styne, and the ones he wrote for Fade Out – Fade In are no exception, though they ended up overshadowed by the many hits which came out of Funny Girl, the megahit which had opened exactly two months prior to Fade Out – Fade In.
Director Wilkenfeld, Artistic Director of Cabrillo Music Theatre, has staged Fade Out – Fade In with verve, panache, and an imaginative awareness that MTG shows are script-in hand, scenery-free “readings.” Ensemble members don’t need to dress up as 1930s stars; they can simply hide their faces with headshots of the rich and famous. Props, like the chain that binds together members of a celluloid chain gang or the telephone chord that accidentally gets wound around a character’s neck can be even funnier than the real thing when left up to the audience’s imagination. Why cast six different actors as L.Z.’s vice-president nephews when one actor can play half of them, and even have conversations with himself? And why even attempt a major dream ballet sequence featuring assorted satyrs and wood nymphs when Actors Equity only allows 25 hours of rehearsal? Get past the ballet with a one-sentence description, the ensemble assuming brief, nymph or satyr-like poses, and move on. (The ballet sounds like the show’s weakest moment anyway.)
Wilkenfeld understands that the key to a great concert staged reading is its performances, and with a cast like the one MTG has assembled, the audience is assured of a superbly performed evening of musical theater. (Only the anachronistic Arnold “Terminator” Governor jokes fell flat for me.)
Casting Broadway/Off-Broadway star Malone as Hope/Lila was a stroke of genius and good fortune. New York has kept the petite powerhouse (and L.A. favorite) far from the West Coast for far too long, and to paraphrase Hope Springfield’s opening number, it’s good to have Malone back home. About as different a “type” from Burnett as imaginable, Malone nonetheless proves the just the right combination of leading lady/comedienne to make Hope Springfield (and Lila Tremaine) come alive. It’s hard to imagine Hope’s physical comedy being performed better or more charmingly than Malone does it. From the quadruple-lengthed pearl necklace she manipulates to comic perfection in “Call Me Savage” to the final Fade Out with Lila Tremaine’s lips stuck to the Grauman’s Chinese Theater cement, Malone milks every laugh-getting moment to its maximum. And oh those pipes coming from such a wee bit of a thing! It’s impossible to imagine the role sung any better than Malone sings it.
A pair of show-stopping supporting performances stand out among the all-around sensational cast. Kirsche, who disappeared into the countrified skin of Curly in CLOSBC’s recent Oklahoma!, returns to his forte—playing handsome, sophisticated characters like movie Apollo Byron Prong. Deliciously full of his own beauty, Kirsche’s Prong makes for a great comic foil to Malone’s Hope, and his delectable rendition of the matinee idol’s “theme song,” “My Fortune Is My Face,” gets one of the evening’s loudest and longest ovations. In a very different role, Jeffrey Polk appears as Lou Williams, an erudite “colored” entertainer forced to conform to the Stepin Fetchit stereotype of the time. His “here we go again” look when once again asked to assume his mumbling, bumbling movie persona is priceless, and a tribute to the forbears of today’s African American superstars. In a second act highlight, Polk plays Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Malone’s Shirley Temple in a priceless “cheer up cause things can only get worse” tap number, wonderfully choreographed by Cheryl Baxter and terrifically performed by the two stars.
Dan Callaway (Rudolf Governor) once again proves himself a musical theater leading man/romantic hero par excellence, Paul Keith (L.Z. Governor) is a nonstop delight as the mentally-blocked studio head, and Michael Kostroff (Ralph Governor) gets laughs aplenty as the VP itching to take over the studio. In fact, the entire cast performs like the consummate pros they are, especially standouts Joe Hart as German psychiatrist Dr. Taurig, Robin De Lano as the beautiful and glamorous but not terribly bright Gloria Currie, and Marsha Kramer as Hollywood gossip columnist Dora Dailey. Completing the cast in impressive fashion are Christopher Carothers, Joe Hart, David Holmes, Carol Kline, and Jeffrey Christopher Todd.
Musical director extraordinaire Dean Mora plays keyboard and conducts the great-sounding ten-piece orchestra (down to three pieces in Thousand Oaks). Shon LeBlanc and Valentino’s costumes give the cast the requisite look of 1930s Hollywood glamor.
Those familiar with the Original Cast CD may mourn the loss of “Oh Those Thirties,” a witty salute to Hollywood’s Golden Age; the bluesy “Go Home, Train,” which would have given Malone another great number to belt out; and the biggest loss of all, “Lila Tremaine,” Comden and Green’s witty salute to Hollywood’s custom of changing its stars names, replaced by the generic Act One closer “A Girl To Remember.” A song called “Notice Me” was added during the Broadway run, and while it’s always a pleasure to hear Callaway sing, the song itself is rather forgettable. I can’t help wishing the song list had been frozen as it was on opening night.
With or without the tweaking that Fade Out – Fade in went through back in 1964, its reappearance in 2009 has made for yet another unforgettable MTG evening.
Alex Theatre, Glendale
November 9, 2009