The first time I ever went to the Thee-a-tah (not including a children's performance of The Sound of Music for Monica Schroff's birthday party in second grade -- the little girl playing Gretl got stage fright and we laughed) was to see Annie in fourth grade.
Here's a big surprise: I was obsessed with Annie. (I'd bet my bottom dollar that lots of little red headed girls in the 70's were. Annie and unicorns.) I played the 8-track over and over. I learned how to play "Tomorrow" and "Maybe" on the piano, warbling along with feeling. I envied my parents for being children in The Great Depression. I secretly called our dog, named Spot, Sandy. And when the stage play came to town, things got worse.
I was beside myself with excitement. We were going to San Francisco to see a play (and not just any play), and I was wearing my fanciest dotted swiss dress. We had front row balcony seats, so I could lean over and see the stage perfectly. And when I opened the program, I gasped. I looked just like the little girl playing Annie, Patricia Ann Patts. (Before the transformation to the curly haired, red dressed Annie Warbucks. I looked like the scraggly orphan, despite the dotted swiss.) And I wasn't the only one who thought so -- everyone around me gasped, too, and the usher came and pulled my arm and said, "You shouldn't be here! You should be getting ready!"
I was destined to be a star.
After that, all I wanted to do was star in Annie. For the first time in my life I actually practiced piano, singing along with even more feeling. I was Annie -- complete with one of my mom's old curly wigs -- for Halloween. I made up tap dances in my room, though I had never taken a lesson and we had wall to wall carpeting. I dreamed of the day when an agent -- my own personal Daddy Warbucks -- would discover me and whisk me away to the bright lights of Broadway. I begged my parents to take me to auditions, but they always seemed to have something else going on.
And then I sang "Tomorrow" in the fifth grade camp talent show and I, along with everyone else that I'd been bragging to that I was going to be the best Annie ever, discovered that I didn't really have talent after all. I couldn't just stick out my chin and grin and say that the sun would come out tomorrow. My life was OVER and I was only ten.
But... I was a resilient ten year old. I got over my bitter heartbreak and moved on to "Fur Elise" in piano. I became more obsessed with the soundtrack for the movie Xanadu and teen heart-throb Timothy Hutton than a plucky orphan and her stray dog. I even managed to set foot inside the thee-a-tah again.
For a long time I worked in a bookstore, and one of my customers was Carole Shorenstein Hayes, who essentially runs the theaters in San Francisco. She was very kind to me, and set me up with tickets for all the opening night shows for about four years. I got to see everything from Les Miserables to The Sound of Music starring Marie Osmond to Cats and Phantom of the Opera (both of which I hated). And yes, even Annie. (I still knew all the words, and still felt the flush of embarrassment at the thought of flailing so hard at the fifth grade camp talent show.)
I loved it. I loved going to Will Call and getting the tickets, and then settling down in plush seats and looking at the ornate walls and loges. I loved hearing the sounds of the orchestra warming up, and the moment when the house lights dim and the initial crash of music or the action on the stage. I loved being sucked into the story and falling in love with the actors -- such intimacy, especially up close when you can see them spit and the microphones on their foreheads. (I usually got really good seats.) I loved intermission and seeing all the dressed-up people in the lobby, as I would stand there and marvel at all of it. (One time, Danielle Steele and her brood of a hundred children sat in front of my mom and me -- in Ms. Steele's Chanel suit's pocket was a bottle of Maalox. So glamorous!)
But all good things come to an end -- the bookstore closed and my days of free theater and glamour ended. I hadn't been back for years until I treated myself to a discount ticket to see Grey Gardens on Broadway a few years ago. My God. Talk about HEAVEN and a dream come true. I sat in my slightly obstructed seat in the amazing Walter Kerr theater and had to pinch myself that it was really happening.
But going to the Thee-a-tah is something that I don't normally do. Sure I want to go see Spring Awakening or whatever else I might see a commercial for, but I was so spoiled that I don't even think of buying a ticket and going. Which is stupid, because it's an extraordinary experience.
So when my friend Leslie invited me to go see a production of Jungle Red, a drag parody of the movie The Women from 1939, I jumped at the chance.
Now, let me explain something about The Women. It is, hands down, one of my all time favorite movies. I know that there is a remake out right now starring Meg Ryan, and I probably won't see it. It's not just because it's a remake -- it was remade in the 50's as The Opposite Sex starring June Allyson and Joan Collins -- it's just because the original is so fabulous that I just don't need to see a new movie of it, set in modern day.
For one thing, the cavalcade of stars in the original is perfect. Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford -- I mean, come ON. You can't get any better than that... but it does. The costumes are by Adrian, one of my favorite designers. (He also did The Wizard of Oz, if that helps give any perspective.)
Here is a clip from the movie -- it's utterly surreal. Smack in the middle of the B&W film is a technicolor dream fashion show sequence, all done by Adrian. It's utterly bizarre, and utterly FABULOUS.
But that's not even what makes this movie so great -- it's the writing (such amazing wit and bitchery) and the stars. Rosalind Russell is just outstanding as Mrs. Howard Fowler, the bitchy, gossipy and fabulous Sylvia. Norma Shearer as the jilted Mrs. Steven Haynes is dewy and lovely, as is Joan Bennett as Peggy, the only one who still believes in love. And of course, Joan Crawford as Crystal Allen, the devious "other woman"... divalicious.
So, there would really be no reason for me to see the new movie. But a show starring all men in a parody of a movie that starred only women... well, sign me up!
So Leslie, her father and I took BART into the City where we went to the Victoria Theatre, which, admittedly, is a far cry from the Curran, but fun nonetheless. (AND you can have popcorn and drinks at the Victoria!) The feeling was very excited, and, well, gay in the happy and orientation sense of the word. (Leslie and I joked that we would find a few of my ex boyfriends there.) And I got the same old feeling of anticipation and delight when the orchestra arrived and tuned up and the lights went down, and I settled in my seat.
Let me tell you -- it was fabulous. Only fabulously flamboyant drag queens could convey the style and wit and camp of the original, with cheeky lines and double entendres. But Varla Jean Merman as Crystal Allen (with touches of Joan in Mommie Dearest, which was uproarious and well received with that audience), and especially Katya Smirnoff-Skyy as Sylivia Fowler stole the show. I was mesmerized by the two of them -- the others, though wonderful, just paled in comparison. Katya was SPOT ON Rosalind Russell. Everything -- from the voice inflections to the expressions to the veiling on her hats... let me tell you, I am a tough critic when it comes to my favorites, and after the show I had to go tell her that I loved her. And she was very, very sweet. (And a bonus -- Varla Jean liked my hair. I felt like I had just been crowned honorary queen for a day!)
Varla Jean Merman as Crystal Allen, and Katya Smirnoff-Skyy as Mrs. Howard Fowler
It's true about the thee-a-tah --it is such an personal experience, more so than with movies or TV. You really feel like you've built a relationship with not only the characters but the actors, and feel that since you've seen them work their craft in person, you have an intimate connection. And songs that you would never usually listen to on a regular basis -- you hear them in a production and you LOVE them and want to buy the soundtrack, so you can relive those moments, over and over again. (But, sadly, that doesn't always last very long.)
And best of all, you can say you've gotten culture by attending a thee-a-tah performance. Now, I don't know if a drag show of Jungle Red counts, exactly, as culture, but I like to think so.
Annie's all grown up, and her claws are Jungle Red.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm so inspired I'm going to go practice my tap dancing in my room. I'm still waiting for that agent (or Daddy Warbucks) to discover me.
Fourteen down, 83 to go.