Reversal Hall

On opening night of Phoenix Theatre's production of Chapter Two, when its star Kathy Fitzgerald took her final bows, she received what could only be called conventional first-night applause. One could be excused for having expected a rafter-shaking ovation. This was, after all, Fitzgerald's first new role since she returned from Broadway, after her phenomenally successful run there last year in Swinging on a Star: The Johnny Burke Musical.

Meanwhile, about a mile down the road in Herberger Theater's Center Stage, the crowd stood and cheered for Sally Jo Bannow's curtain call at the end of Swinging on a Star, Arizona Theatre Company's production of the show that had provided Fitzgerald with her big break.

Technically, Fitzgerald had returned to the local stage a couple of months ago, in a quick remount of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner comedy she starred in here several seasons ago and which remains Fitzgerald's biggest local hit. In that revival, she seemed bored and a little embarrassed to be retracing her steps after making a splash on Broadway. One wonders how she feels now, playing the lead in a tired, 20-year-old Neil Simon comedy while Bannow, who arrived in Phoenix about the time Fitzgerald left, is getting great buzz and rave reviews in the role Fitzgerald originated in New York.

The Burke revue is a gem, a big, splashy celebration of a talented pop craftsman. Its 37 musical numbers are eloquently arranged by the show's writer/director, Michael Leeds, into seven segments and five different eras, each with its own characters and story line. We move from a Roaring Twenties speakeasy to a Depression-era bowery and eventually end up in a supper club in the present, where the cast (which features locals Bannow, Bob Sorenson and Renee Morgan Brooks) sings several of Burke's signature tunes. Throughout the evening, a splendid six-piece orchestra slides on and off stage and a staggering stack of set pieces appears magically from the flies while we're distracted by Kathleen Marshall's suave choreography (re-created here by Joe Joyce).

Despite the show's mammoth production values, I left humming Burke's tunes, not marveling at all the pageantry that surrounded them. In fact, the best thing about this show is its score; this is the kind of revue that has its audience asking, "He wrote that?" I'd forgotten how many swell numbers Burke contributed to films, stage musicals and the Top 40 until I heard this collection.

The gods of casting have shone on this production: Each of the ensemble delivers his and her solo turns with great style. I thought I'd never hear a rendition of "What's New" I liked better than Eydie Gorme's, but Paige Price made me reconsider. And Matthew Shepard's take on Der Bingle singing "Going My Way" is a hoot. Still, I couldn't take my eyes off Bannow, who clowns and cries and straddles a giant plaster camel, all the while singing in a big, clear voice a lot of really great songs we'd forgotten we liked. Bannow's numbers provide the widest range--from the goofball comedy of "His Rocking Horse Ran Away" to the soft schmaltz of "Here's That Rainy Day"--and she delivers each with equal aplomb.

The show isn't without its flaws. The first comedy number, "When Stanislaus Got Married," is a grind that engages the audience in a silly sing-along with Sorenson. And both the audio montage of famous singers lauding Burke's talent and the giant swings that appear at the show's finale are a little goofy. But all in all, Swinging on a Star is a grand, showy pile of songs that will probably turn out to be the biggest hit of the season.

Chapter Two, on the other hand, is a comedy with as much charm as boiled meat. This tired tour of Simon's romance with and marriage to actress Marsha Mason epitomizes the sort of self-absorbed '70s sitcoms that ruined stage comedy for a decade. Although this production is set in the present, the play--like most all of Simon's works, even those written in the '90s--is as contemporary as a mood ring. No one writes stories in which people "meet cute" anymore.

Nor should any actor of merit be caught playing in one. But here is Fitzgerald, in a role that she might have played 20 years ago, pacing and mugging and wasting her talent on a show that will do nothing for her career or for the audiences who attend this tepid dramedy. My only laugh of the evening came from the septuagenarians on my left, one of whom whispered to the other, "What time is it? It feels like we've been here six hours!"

In Search for Signs, Fitzgerald played several scenes set in the '70s, assaying Cosmo girls and women in comfortable shoes who ran nurseries and attended est seminars. These delightfully acerbic flashbacks made audiences squirm with laughter over ERA-era slogans and pop-psych posturings. In contrast, watching her spout straightforward comedy from the same period just made me squirm. Her big speech--in which she announces in Simon's earnest Me Generation style that she has finally learned to like herself--plays like Tomlin's retro flashbacks, except that in this case it's meant as revelation and not a campy memorial. Where was Fitzgerald's agent when she agreed to do this show?

Both Fitzgerald and Roger Michelson, her leading man and real-life boyfriend, do what they can with this hackneyed stuff. Michelson, in fact, was born to play Simon. He has the sort of facile demeanor and doofy stage presence that distinguishes most of Simon's neurotic male leads. And Fitzgerald provides the only real spark in several dreary scenes with the show's supporting players. But Simon's foolproof material is intended for actors with half her range, and it's a shame to see her waste her talent on this tripe.

By way of explanation for this elegant slumming, Fitzgerald has told every paper in town that she didn't take the Burke revue when it was offered to her because she couldn't bear to sing the score after the recent death of her friend and Swinging co-star, Alvaleta Guess. Stories making the rounds of the theater community suggest otherwise. Whatever the reason, she passed up a most appropriate vehicle for her return to Phoenix and the opportunity for local audiences to see her in the show that made her a Broadway contender and which, it appears, has made Sally Jo Bannow the one to watch.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of Swinging on a Star: The Johnny Burke Musical continues through Sunday, January 19, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

Chapter Two continues through Sunday, January 26, at Phoenix Theatre, Central and McDowell.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela