'Backstage,' Sundays at 54 Below. What used to be the VIP room at Studio 54 has been given a loving overhaul by a crack team of theater people ? set designer John Lee Beatty and lighting wizard Ken Billington, both Tony winners, are among them. It's an absolutely gorgeous room ? instantly among the finest cabaret venues in Manhattan, right out of the gate ? and it opened June 5 with headliner Patti LuPone, who naturally got raves. News came this past Sunday that Andrea Martin, scheduled to play this week, had fallen ill, and that LuPone would extend. She's there tonight through the 23rd, if you're feeling lucky.
The comic Jackie Hoffman is playing a gig there, too, through the end of July, and talk about a bracingly mouthy lady. She's on Sunday evenings; expect plenty of self-deprecating cracks about working down to her level (it is an underground venue) and the quantity of bodily fluids that had to be steam-cleaned out of the floors. (Not really, I hope.)
There are other headliners lined up for the coming months, but the best thing happening at 54 Below right now might just be the weekly "Backstage" open-mic that kicked off Sunday afternoon. Hosted by Avenue Q star Ann Harada and Hairspray's ridiculously funny Susie Mosher, the first outing drew performers from on Broadway and off.
Encores! regular Jessica Vosk introduced me to a heartbreaking Maury Yeston ballad from a song-cycle I'd never heard of; Leenya Rideout, who's in War Horse at Lincoln Center, busted out an agonized version of Sondheim's "I Remember" that I guarantee I'll never forget. (If anybody filmed it, please hit us up with a link in the comments.)
Trent Armand Kendall, who was in the Off Broadway cult hit Bat Boy back in the day, tore through Feelin' Good, which too many people think is a Nina Simone tune. (It's actually from Broadway's The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.) And Jim Brochu, who won a Drama Desk award for his Off Broadway solo show about Zero Mostel, got the crowd bouncing with an exuberant run through Music Man's "Trouble In River City."
There was lots more ? most of it, by the way, with no rehearsal. Some performers brought their own accompanists, or played for themselves, but most just walked up and handed their sheet music to pianist Brad Simmons, who's clearly The Man.
And the best thing about this? No cover charge. No food-and-beverage minimum. No reservations required. Sundays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and for the price of a theoretical Diet Coke, you wander in after your matinee lets out and get two feel-good hours among New York's theater people, who seem like they're having a really fine time. Can't recommend it highly enough.
Benefits Big, Benefits Small. Later that same Sunday, a few friends got together and raised $1.25 million for charity. The venue: Roseland Ballroom. The occasion: Broadway Bares, an annual burlesque that pulls in better than 200 performers from all over New York ? and thousands of attendees from all over the country ? to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
This year's theme was "Happy Endings," and yes, it was a notably adult update on some of your favorite fairy tales. (Pinocchio's nose wasn't where the most wood was in evidence (video, and NSFW), and you don't wanna know what those three bears had in mind for Goldilocks.)
Jennifer Tilly played an evil-stepmom sort; Judith Light, who'd just won her first Tony for Other Desert Cities, showed up to put the capstone on an evening that had also featured no less legendary a performer than The Lady Bunny.
It was a blast, of course, but it wasn't the only fundraiser one actor acquaintance worked on that week. Brian Spitulnik, who's in Chicago (you may remember him as Actor A from an earlier dispatch), has been writing a diary series called The Chorus Boy Chronicles at McSweeneys, and he turned up in Bares' Pinocchio number wearing a pair of harlequin pants and not much else.
But earlier last week, Spitulnik rounded up a few folks for a somewhat less showy affair: a reading of some Chorus Boy Chronicles excerpts, to benefit The Trevor Project. Among the performers were Ann Harada (again), Jan Maxwell (Tony-nominated for this year's Follies) and Jason Tam, who was in this year's Lysistrata Jones and the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line.
It was the furthest thing from a sweaty spectacle like Broadway Bares ? a few people gathered in the back room of a SoHo art gallery ? but Spitulnik reports that it raised about a thousand bucks.
And like Bares ? like the easy camaraderie on display at "Backstage," for that matter ? the reading was a reminder that although we get away with a lot of jokes about actors and vanity and ego, they can be a pretty generous bunch, with their time and their talents both.
So make a note for your next New York trip. Broadway Bares will be back around this time next year ? keep an eye out, too, for BC/EFA's Easter Bonnet Contest, plus Broadway Bears and Broadway Backwards, all of which are good fun ? and Spitulnick says he's planning another night of readings sometime in the fall.
The Book of Mormon. Yes, it's been a little hyped. And yes, the tickets are both scarce and ridiculously priced. But I've gotta say, now that I've finally seen the thing, it's every bit the riot it's billed as. Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells ? the two original leads ? recently left the production, but replacements Jared Gertner and Nic Rouleau are holding down the mission nicely, and the show is a tight, fast-moving machine of a comedy.