Monday, August 7, 2017

LIZ SMITH: The Gospel truth

Lena laid out in "Jamaica."
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

"Jamaica" — a long forgotten gem by "the conscience of Broadway" is revived by the Harlem Repertory Theatre. Also, coming soon — The Chita Rivera Awards.

“YOU got to get your possum, ain't it the truth? While you still in blossom, ain't it the truth?/Cleopatra and Delilah had it way over Ruth. Mmm, them gals did mighty swell, they sure did ring that bell, ain't it the Gospel truth?”

In a bubble bath, Lena Horne sang this delicious little song, “Ain’t It the Truth,” by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen for the 1943 Vincente Minnellli movie, “Cabin in the Sky.” 
However, MGM’s censors, thought that displaying an apparently naked African American woman in a bubble bath was simply too provocative, too sexy, too dangerous to be released.  The song was cut, even though the movie itself would not even been seen in over half the country.  (Bubble baths or not, the South wasn’t ready for a movie with an all black cast.) 

Many years later, audiences had the treat of seeing this bit of history in “That’s Entertainment III.”

But that wasn’t the end of Lena Horne and “Ain’t It The Truth.” In 1957, Harburg, famously known as “Yip” and Arlen resurrected the song for their Broadway show, “Jamaica,” starring Lena and Ricardo Montalban.   
Ricardo Montalban and Lena Horne in the 1957 Broadway musical, "Jamaica."
This show, a satire set in the tropics, tackled issues such as nuclear energy, evolution and the intrusions and allurements of modern city life. (Harburg — who wrote the bittersweet Depression-era anthem, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” — was blacklisted during the Joe McCarthy reign of terror in Hollywood.  He took his progressive ideas to the stage, and became known as “the social conscience of Broadway.”)
Yip.
“Jamaica” ran for a fairly impressive 558 performances, and gave Horne a few more numbers to include in her concert acts — “Push de Button,” “Napoleon,” and “Take it Slow, Joe.” 

Since then, however, “Jamaica” has become something of a forgotten show, a gem dimly recalled. 
But now, that gem glitters anew.  Playing at the Tato Laviera Theater (240 East 123rd Street) until next March, the Harlem Repertory Theatre is presenting a spanking new version of “Jamaica.” 

The musical’s book has been adapted by Art Perlman (he did similar, acclaimed work on the revival of “Finian’s Rainbow.”)  It is directed by Keith Lee Grant.  The energetic young cast includes Taylor-Rey Rivera ... Barbyly Noel ... Corean Robinson ... Dexter Thomas-Payne ... Daniel Fergus Tamulonis ... Derrick Montalvado, and Jason Johnson.
The cast of "Jamaica."
The show’s political, racial and environmental themes are remarkably resonant in 2017.  (Actually, anything historically unpleasant or retrograde is resonant now!)

For tickets visit www.harlemrepertorytheatre.com
SAVE THE DATE:  On September 11th Bebe Neuwirth will host the Chita Rivera Awards at the Al Hirschfeld Theater on West 45th Street.

This night celebrates dance and choreographic excellence.  So far, the entertainment includes performances by The New York City Ballet, Robert Fairchild, and ADM21 (American Dance Machine for the 21st Century.)  Honorees include Tommy Tune, Diane Paulus and Antonio Vendome. 

Lots of awards will be handed out — for Broadway and off-Broadway productions.  There will be a party after at Sardi’s.  It’s going to be one of “those” nights in New York theater. 

Although to be honest, anything involving Chita Rivera is one of “those” nights! 

For ticket info visit: www.ChitaRiveraAwards.com 

I’ll be there, if that is any sort of incentive.
MAIL:  In response to our wondering the other day whatever became of Marlene Dietrich’s cigarette in the movie “Stage Fright” during a tense scene — and wondering if our musing was pointless — we received a note from author/filmmaker Charles Casillo:

“Liz!  In those days women had such dexterity and skill handling a cigarette. I wouldn't be surprised if the coat landed neatly folded and the cigarette ended up in an ashtray with one swift toss. Remember Bette Davis smoking through the veil in her hat in ‘Now Voyager?’
“I think it is marvelous film analysis to wonder what happened to Marlene's cigarette — integral to the plot and necessary in analyzing character.  What I'm always thinking of when watching those movies is, imagine what their wardrobes smelled like? They smoked in furs, ruffles, veils, hats ... not to mention in nightgowns while lying in frilly beds. I saw ‘The Birds’ last night and Tippi Hedren smoked while wearing expensive Edith Head gloves (she couldn't take off the glove to smoke??)

“Nowadays the smoking in old movies is distracting (Smoking while eating dinner or right before kissing.) Back then a cigarette was part of them.   I saw a scene of Dietrich chatting with James Stewart on a plane — from ‘No Highway in the Sky.’ I watched the smoke from her stogie going directly up his nose and I wondered how they both weren't gasping for air as they recited their lines. I think they were nose-blind to cigarette smell.”
P.S.  I too watched “The Birds” the other night on TCM and again I marveled at how perfect Tippi Hedren is in this, and in her second (and last) film with Hitch, the truly twisted “Marnie.”  I don’t know if she was a good actress at that point, but she had a compelling strangeness to her that worked with the deliberate artificiality of both movies — especially “Marnie.”   (Whatever unpleasantness supposedly happened between them, Hedren was Hitch’s last and most unusual “icy blonde.”  Perhaps she had to suffer for it, but she became an iconic figure in cinema.)
And in “The Birds” there are also the famous scenes between dark and earthy Suzanne Pleshette and the fair-haired, airy Miss Hedren. 

Pleshette is supposed to be pining for Rod Taylor (as who wouldn’t?)  But one also senses that the whiskey-voiced Pleshette wouldn’t mind shaking up Hedren’s prissy, primly suited, carefully coiffed façade with a girl’s night in. 

Well, there really wasn’t much excitement in Bodega Bay, before the birds arrived.
 
Contact Liz here.