Some Like It Not

If bad acting were a federal crime, Tony Curtis would be locked up in Leavenworth. In the much-ballyhooed, hooey-filled Some Like It Hot, now finishing its run at the Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park, Curtis does it all. Which is to say, he can't do any of it. Can't act, can't dance, can't sing even a little. Can't even memorize his few lines.

As the horny old tycoon Osgood Fielding III (the Joe E. Brown role in the classic 1959 Billy Wilder film), Curtis, bewigged and befuddled, recites his dialogue and croaks out his song lyrics with the help of two large prompt screens located downstage right and left. Having to read his lines kills any timing of the jokes (lame though they are). And since he can't sing, he tries to Rex Harrison the lyrics, with little success.

Curtis is the star pony of a rotten acting rodeo. Director-choreographer Dan Siretta allows Arthur Hanket and Timothy Gulan, as "Josephine" and "Daphne," the guys-in-drag (played brilliantly by Curtis and Jack Lemmon in the movie), to get away with half-baked Bosom Buddies double takes and a staggering amount of awful mugging. When Hanket has to pretend he's Osgood, he uses an accent that's half Tony Curtis-doing-Cary Grant and half Crocodile Hunter.

Jodi Carmeli as Sugar could win a Marilyn Monroe sound-alike contest but is too petite and hard-bodied to qualify as a blond bombshell of Monroe's generous proportions (the script describes her as "Jell-O on springs"). She also lacks the great sex symbol's flair for comedy. Carmeli can sing--she belts a big boring number toward the end of the show--but as Sugar, she's too saccharine.

Only William Ryall as Spats, the Chicago mob boss trying to rub out murder witnesses Joe and Gerry (Hanket and Gulan), gets it right. The lanky, comically menacing Ryall rat-a-tats in tap steps instead of machine gun bullets. He's a phenomenal dancer with stage presence to spare.

Good new musicals have been made from old movie comedies, The Producers and 42nd Street, to name two. Promises, Promises, a Broadway hit in the late '60s, was adapted from the film The Apartment, also directed by Some Like It Hot's Billy Wilder (and also co-written with I.A.L. Diamond). Wilder, long recognized as a genius of film comedy, allowed Hot to come to the stage once before in the '70s, retitled Sugar and set to music by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. The new version, back to its original title for a yearlong road tour, uses some of Styne and Cahn's tunes from the '70s, some of the movie's songs ("Runnin' Wild" included) and some terribly schlocky newer stuff by Styne and Cahn.

In this show you get rhymes like "quandary/laundry," "slays 'em/gymnasium" and "One was a gypsy on the Q.T./One was a partridge in a pear tree."

And you get Tony Curtis, pretending to dance while he's being danced around and trussed into a short, double-breasted tux jacket that makes him look like an overfed organ grinder's monkey.

It's almost too easy to think of ways to slam this terrible show. Some like it not!

If Wilder were alive today, seeing what they've done to his wonderful movie would kill him.

Tennessee Williams would have dug Oz. His Not About Nightingales, now onstage at Plano Repertory Theatre, is as shocking, as savagely poetic and avant-garde as HBO's great prison drama series. But Williams got his version down in 1938, when topics such as institutionalized torture and man-rape weren't fit subject matter for a New York stage, much less anywhere else.

Williams, who died in 1983 at the age of 71, was only 27 when he penned this brave three-act play, based on actual events at a Philadelphia prison where a sadistic warden routinely starved prisoners and buried them alive in a secret torture cell called "Klondike." The playwright submitted Nightingales to a contest at the famously earthy Group Theater (home of Clifford Odets), which rejected the work. Williams tossed it aside, but kept writing plays. His first big success would come with The Glass Menagerie in 1945. Nightingales was never produced in his lifetime.

The script was rediscovered only a few years ago by actress Vanessa Redgrave, combing through the Tennessee Williams archives at the University of Texas while researching another Williams play. She took it to her brother Corin, who subsequently starred in its successful world premiere in London in 1998. The play since has been produced at Houston's Alley Theatre and on Broadway and just now is starting to make its way onto regional stages. The Plano production is the first in this area.

Unfortunately, Plano Rep's efforts fall short in everything but running time. The performance goes on so long, the audience starts applying for early parole (bolting in droves during the second intermission). On opening night, a few depended on the kindness of strangers to find the exit door during the third act.

Plano Rep's draggy, weakly acted, stiffly staged production just isn't up to the demands of a great play. Written in 22 tense episodes, each depicting some aspect of prison life, Nightingales surges with quick-cut cinematic pacing, building to a final sequence of a prison riot and its aftermath that should be brutal, haunting and yet full of hope that reforms will be made. The writing calls for a loose, natural style of acting (which the Group Theater introduced to the American stage), but the cast here never achieves it.

Under the direction of artistic director Mark D. Fleischer, the actors at Plano Rep never rev up any momentum. They start slow and stay that way. The pivotal scene inside Klondike, with four prisoners gasping for air as steam vents roast them alive, is saved only by the performance of Bradley Campbell as hard-timer Butch O'Fallon. Campbell's controlled, sweaty rage recalls George Kennedy's fine moments as the grizzled con in Cool Hand Luke.

Except for Campbell and a few others (notably John Davies, sexy-scary as the warden, Boss Whalen), most of the actors in Nightingales simply need to do another long stretch or two in acting class. As "Canary Jim," the warden's troubled trusty who edits the prison newspaper and yearns to be a writer (it's Jim who invokes the Keats poem alluded to in the title), David Stroh is too soft around the edges to be a leading man yet. He's a one-note actor cast in a major role that calls for greater range.

Opposite Stroh in the play's key scenes is his real-life wife, Melanie, playing the warden's secretary, Eva, who takes the job thinking she's been hired by a "model institution" only to find out too quickly that it's a chamber of horrors. Eva and Canary Jim fall in love and imagine life together outside prison walls. Their stolen moments are written as feverish escapes from tedium, but, oddly, the Strohs don't manage to convey any convincing chemistry together.

Annoying in the extreme is actress Kelly Grandjean, who plays two roles (both badly) in Nightingales. She's not at all credible wearing a gray wig and a ridiculous bustle as an elderly mother of a prisoner who's gone "stir-bugs" from torture. She's even less believable as "Goldie," a sexy vamp who appears in the imaginary dream life of Butch. Grandjean's thick, phlegmy, sometimes crackly voice brings to mind nails and chalkboards.

There's only one minority actor in this production's large cast. He's Nicholas Cormier III as Ollie, a well-liked prisoner sent to his death in Klondike. If it was the director's decision to have Ollie speak in a chitlin' accent, it was a bad one.

Too bad Plano Rep didn't do better by Tennessee Williams. Not About Nightingales is a gem, full of angry agitprop tirades about tyranny (at a time in history that saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, both mentioned in the play). But it's also laced with Williams' sly homoeroticism and dark wit. "I'm what they call an agnostic," one prisoner tells another. "Oh," says his pal, "you mean Episcopalian?"

There are also hints at themes that will recur in later Williams plays, what one critic writing about Nightingales' London production called the playwright's obsession with "charged inevitability." In the prison play, it's Butch, finally getting a face-off with Boss Whalen, the warden he hates. "It's been you and me a long time," Butch tells the Boss. In A Streetcar Named Desire, written nine years later, Stanley will utter those same words to a terrified Blanche DuBois. In both plays, they're a cue for unspeakable acts.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner