Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Question of Character

We are into our second week of rehearsals out here at the Gateway, whipping "Nice Work If You Can Get It" together in true summer stock style.  I can't deny I am having a ball playing the comic lead, bootlegger-turned-butler Cookie McGee, in this bubble of a musical comedy. The show hearkens back to the classic Broadway farce musicals of the 1920s and 30s and calls to mind the great performers of the stage of that time, many of whom came from vaudeville, and who also found their way into motion pictures.

Being the classic cinema fanatic that I am, when faced with bringing to life a character like the wise cracking Cookie, I go looking at the performances of the great Hollywood character actors.  Since these actors had illustrious Broadway careers, their film performances give a taste of what the style might have been in those early stage musicals.  For Cookie, my two inspirations have been Sam Levene and Victor Moore.

Victor Moore actually played the role of 'Shorty' McGee in the Gershwin musical "Oh, Kay!" upon which "Nice Work If You Can Get It" is based.  He was also the original Moonface Martin in Cole Porter's classic "Anything Goes," and appeared in 21 Broadway shows before embarking on a fruitful silent film career with such directors as Cecil B. DeMille, and then a sound film career that included Astaire/Rogers vehicles like "Swing Time," and perhaps his most memorable film role, that of a lovable hobo in "It Happened on 5th Avenue."  Moore was known for his cuddly but easily riled characters and his strident vocal quality.  There is more than a little of him still alive and well in Shorty McGee's kissing cousin, Cookie.  You can get a taste of Moore's genius in this comedy short he made with Edward Arnold.

Sam Levene is best known as the original Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls," a role with which his name will forever be associated.  It is, in my opinion, a tragedy that he wasn't allowed to recreate his performance in the film (sadly Frank Sinatra was miscast in this great comedic character part); how I wish I could step back in time and see his Nathan!  Nevertheless, he did have a film career, recreating his stage role in "Three Men on a Horse" and going on to play smart talking New York City types like detectives and cab drivers in films like "Shadow of the Thin Man" and "Golden Boy."  To me, he epitomized that street smart, savvy New York Jewish comic type... and his Nathan Detroit crystallized the concept of the lovable comic gangster.  I am even growing a little Sam Levene mustache for Cookie, in tribute.  Levene's persona comes through in this trailer for "Three Men on a Horse."

So, if Nathan Detroit and Moonface Martin had a love child, I think it would be Cookie McGee.  Like Moonface, the low level gangster disguised, absurdly, as a clergyman, Cookie is the low level bootlegger trying to pass himself off as a butler in a Long Island mansion.  This makes for all kinds of fabulous Victor Moore-esque anxiety and befuddlement.  Like Nathan Detroit, Cookie is street smart, a guy who works the angles, and who isn't afraid to express himself with a stinging wisecrack.  But underneath the tough exterior, he's got a heart of gold and is really a big softie.  These influences from yesteryear help me immeasurably to bring authenticity to my performance which I hope will help sweep the audience away into the improbable, fast-paced, Charleston-high-kicking world of "Nice Work If You Can Get It."  

Our show opens at The Gateway on June 10 and plays through June 27, and after a brief hiatus, reopens at Ogunquit Playhouse July 22 and runs through August 15.  I am beyond honored and delighted to be playing opposite television and Broadway star Sally Struthers, who is bringing her brilliant comedic gifts to the role of Temperance crusader Duchess Estonia Dulworth!  We are having a ball together and our duet of "By Strauss" and "Sweet and Lowdown" in the second act is not to be missed.  Grab your tickets now!