Thursday, February 18, 2010

Me, Shirley Feeney and The Big Ragu

Last year at this time I was in Auburn Hills, Michigan, or, as I like to refer to it, the Frozen Tundra, directing my play KONG'S NIGHT OUT at the Meadow Brook Theatre. (Actually, it wasn't that cold. Unless you consider 6 below cold.)

I was invited out there to direct the play and I was very excited because the great folks at Meadow Brook had arranged for TV's Cindy Williams--Shirley of LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY--to star in the show. And, what's more, Cindy talked her old friend and former TV co-star, Eddie Mekka ("The Big Ragu" on L&S) to perform in the show as well. It would be my first time directing TV stars, and I was a little anxious about it. Excited, but anxious.

Plus, Christos Savalas, son of TV's KOJAK, Telly Savalas, was going to play the gangster "Little Willie" in the show, and Kady Zadora, daughter of Pia Zadora, was going to play "Daisy," the innocent from Buffalo who gets mixed up in all kinds of jams.

KONG'S NIGHT OUT is a showbiz comedy about what I thought might have happened in the room NEXT TO the room where King Kong whisks Faye Wray out of the bedroom in the classic 1933 film. Folks have described it as a farce, and, yes, there are many doors slamming often in the play, but I think of it more as a screwball comedy. In any case, it requires comedians who know what they're doing out there. Cindy and Eddie certainly filled that bill, as did the rest of the cast.

Christos, however, had never set foot onstage in a play before. And he was acting in a very important part. He turned out to be the nicest young man in the history of show business and worked mightily to learn the set-ups and deliveries of all the jokes, and the dialect of the character, and he was terrific. Kady had had some experience and her "Daisy" was funny and charming.

Cindy and Eddie were a revelation.

First of all, Cindy is very reserved and quiet offstage. She shows up at rehearsal and finds her little corner and opens her script and goes to work. Eddie's a little more gregarious, but no less diligent about getting the job done. Time and again, as I'd be working with some of the other actors in the rehearsal room, I'd see Cindy and Eddie off on their own in another part of the room, going over and over a piece of business or dialogue to make sure it was honed to perfection. What a pleasure to watch professionals taking their artistic responsibility so seriously. And the work paid off.

When it came time to stage Cindy's entrance, I managed to set it up so that she would enter alone and have a moment to be seen by the audience. I assumed there'd be entrance applause. And there would have been. Except Cindy, very rightly, determined that it was not appropriate at that moment in the play for it to stop cold. So we worked the scene without a pause and, though the audience always tried to start applauding when she entered, it was never a full reaction, because Cindy just kept going!

Eddie Mekka is a dancer and a gymnast, and his producer character, Sig Higginbottom, in this production, ended up doing all kinds of stage flips and dives and pratfalls. I never anticipated that for the character, but all the bits worked beautifully.

When it came time to stage the curtain call, I had Cindy bowing last. She demurred, letting me know that the final bow should be taken by the actor playing her son, and she was right--but we ended up with Cindy bowing last anyway. Sometimes you just have to go with tradition and with what the audience expects.

The show ran for four weeks. I had to leave after the first weekend, but I continued to get reports that all was well. I'm still in touch with Cindy and Eddie and, in fact, I've just written a play I hope they'll do some day.

Just wanted to let you know what Shirley and The Big Ragu have been up to.

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