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A harvest of cocoanuts, (dancetheater by choreographer Richard Sabellico)

The small, oddly shaped playing areas of some Off- and Off Off-Broadway theaters call for particularly inventive staging. When George S. Kaufman and Irving Berlin's The Cocoanuts, the Marx Brothers's first musical comedy vehicle, was revived at the American Jewish Theater in downtown Manhattan, its director and choreographer Richard Sabellico had to summon all his ingenuity to offset a postage-stamp-sized stage, pillars that blocked some audience views, and the lack of conventional wings from which actors could enter and exit. The show, a comedy about a Florida real estate boom in the 1920s, proved an obstacle course, even for a director who has staged shows in spaces as diverse as the intimate AJT, into which he crammed The Yiddish Trojan Women, and the echoing expanse of the New York State Theater, which he used for Wonderful Town.

Says Sabellico, "For limited space you have to create an isolated playing area. It's all in the angle, just like arranging furniture or shooting pool. You have to have an eye, be able to see from all sides. You're constantly moving the focus. Because I've acted and danced in so many musicals, I believe I have a natural ability to understand the physicality of space-like some people can take off the backs of computers or TV sets and know instinctively what they're all about." When the successful musical transferred to the 350-seat American Place Theatre "it was a luxury because you could create a focal point and have the audience follow it around."

Native-born New Yorker Sabellico, a graduate of the school of hard knocks, grew up on Mulberry Street in the heart of Little Italy. Taken to his first show--Gypsy with Ethel Merman--at age nine, he was stagestruck. "I wouldn't leave the theater until the ghost light was brought on. `I want to be an actor!' I yelled. Said Mom, `I'll throw you out the window first.' I've done everything imaginable in show business since I was a teenager. At thirteen I was a runner for a theater ticket agency. I operated the elevator backstage at the Alvin Theatre. I studied singing and dancing and started going to auditions."

At sixteen, without any experience, he auditioned for Michael Bennett, who told him that he had talent but should study at various studios. "I had an ability for tap, coming to it naturally. I also took ballet and jazz. But I had no patience. I wanted it all right then!"

Thirty-six years later, with many productions of Gypsy and other musicals behind him as a performer, choreographer, or director, Sabellico retains a refreshingly undictatorial approach. "It's important to work with your greatest resource, the actors," he says. "For Cocoanuts, written as a vehicle for the Marx Brothers before they were famous, I wanted dancing, musical numbers, but in the right style. As Groucho, Michael McGrath is so inventive, I knew he would have many suggestions, and, indeed, all the cast did."

For an uproarious tango sequence where McGrath, a wisecracking wonder in the role of a zany hotel manager, attempts to enamor a grande dame played by Celia Tackaberry (a Margaret Dumont look-alike), Sabellico, working with an assistant, "laid down a framework--a very loose ground plan" and little by little the routines evolved. Explains Sabellico, "McGrath would say, `Why don't we change this? I'd be more comfortable with ft.' Or I'd say, `Let's try it this way.' " Says Laurie Gamache, who plays a villainous vamp, "We all collaborated, but as I'd really never tapped much before, I contributed rather less than the others. My dance background's in ballet and modern. Richard was infinitely patient in helping me get the style and now, for this show, I tap dance--although sometimes I think I have too much turnout." Since "Shaking the Blues Away," her madly whirling routine with Michael Berresse, stole the dance honors, she needn't have worried. The three Marx Brothers look-alikes, brilliantly played by McGrath, Peter Slutsker (Chico), and Robert Sapoff (Harpo), the snappy staging, and the songs--including "Always" and three other Berlin songs not originally in the show--ensure success.

Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly a popular Off-Broadway revue staged in the modest dimensions of the Douglas Fairbanks Theater, also exploits the choreographic talent of its director, Mark Waldrop, his assistant, Phillip George, and Keith Cromwell, understudy for the five actors. Crabtree died of AIDS shortly before Pigs opened. He had made a name as a designer with his revue Whoop-Dee-Doo! and his stage-filling costumes for Pigs are the "stars" of the show--for example, panniered skirts that turn into dressing tables for a number entitled "Wear Your Vanity with Pride." Early on, however, he was a ballet dancer in Toronto and later a Broadway gypsy in La Cage aux Folles.

The Pigs costumes are certainly inventive, but one can also enjoy the witty lyrics, the amiable if camp humor, and the dance routines, particularly for "Light in the Loafers," with David Pevsner and John Treacy Egan tapping away with flashlights on their shoes. The show is smartly choreographed in every sense from start to finish.

Other Off-Broadway shows that prospered during a summer when Broadway quietly strove to maintain its status quo included the boisterous Cowgirls, with its cheerful country-and-western twang and a cast of six women of strong musical talents, and the brightly paced I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, a revue dwelling on the fits, misfits, and sometimes outfits of two yuppie couples. With their small casts and relatively low-cost production values, any of these shows could appear at a little theater near you.

Hilary Ostlere, who writes on theater and dance for many publications, is a Dance Magazine senior editor.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Dance Magazine, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ostler, Hilary
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Words:941
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