Right Cross Rhapsody
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 18, 2010
If the memory of Carol Burnett walking down a staircase wearing a dress with a curtain rod in it brings an involuntary smile to your lips, then Right Cross Rhapsody is for you. This latest comic masterpiece from Todd Michael is so apt a parody that it actually feels like a 1930s movie that Warner Brothers or Columbia forgot to make. Everything about this production, which is directed to perfection by Walter J. Hoffman, seems like it could have been in one of those glorious old flicks (and probably was); it's all just twisted ever so slightly askew so that it's hilarious without ever going over the top and without ever losing the affection for the form that makes the whole thing tick.
As the title may suggest, the primary source material for Right Cross Rhapsody is Golden Boy, the 1939 classic about an Italian kid named Joe Bonaparte who wants to be a violinist but boxes to survive the Depression Era mean streets of the Lower East Side. Michael turns Golden Boy on its/his ear: Right Cross Rhapsody is about a Polish kid named Johnnie Wilensky who wants to be a musical theatre composer but boxes to survive the Depression Era mean streets of the Lower East Side. Johnnie has a manager named Maxie Fergson who is deep in debt with a gangster called Fitz Grogan; he has a tough but loving sister named Peggy and a weak but loving father and a talkative silly neighbor, Mr. Toresca, who seems to live in their kitchen trading wisecracks with the family even though, apparently, no one knows his first name. Johnnie also has the Irish-est trainer ever, "Skeets" McGillis.
Well, one day, Johnnie's dream comes true: Broadway impresario Dwight Penbrook calls, wanting to buy one of Johnnie's songs for his new musical show, which stars temperamental diva Rita Vance. Rita and Johnnie make like Beatrice and Benedick from the get-go, but we know (and they soon come to understand) that they're really Meant For Each Other. Johnnie's composing career is about to take off, but...what's this: Maxie needs his boy to fight one more time, or else Grogan is going to consign him to a watery grave on account of those 10 G's he owes. Will Johnnie fight? Will Rita swallow her pride and watch him at Madison Square Garden? Will Johnnie ever be able to compose again? These and other completely predictable questions will all be answered before Right Cross Rhapsody arrives at its very satisfying final fadeout.
And I mean fadeout: Hoffman stages the play—and Michael has written it—as if it were a black and white film; there's even a cheesy movie theatre owner on hand to introduce it (and I half expected a "Mickey Mouse," as one of the characters quaintly dubs the ubiquitous cartoons that accompanied feature films back then, to turn up on a screen somewhere before the evening was over). Hoffman and Michael and their A-1 cast keep everything authentic and real...well, as authentic and real as a hoary melodrama like this can accommodate, anyway. The actors play with the conviction that the Garfields, Holdens, Stanwycks, Cobbs, and Menjous played with back then; the designers (David L. Zwiers on costumes, Joemca on sound, and Hoffman on lights) make sure everything looks like something that would be in a studio film of the period.
Jason Griffith, as Johnnie, is the very definition of a stage-struck palooka. Jeff Auer (Maxie), Brian Hopson (Grogan), Joel Haberli (Pop Wilensky), Jessica Luck (Peggy), Matt Garner ("Skeets" and Penbrook) and Courtney Cook (Blossom, Maxie's fiancee) all deliver terrific performances, while Ryan Stadler is seemingly everywhere at once in a variety of characterizations that are broad enough to feel archetypal but not so broad that they push beyond their innate silliness into something mean-spirited or gross. Michael, in drag, plays heroine Rita Vance in his own inimitable unassuming style; the creations that Zwiers has provided for Michael are fantastic, in the truest sense of that word. Seeing Michael in the get-up that Rita is wearing when she shows up at the Wilenskys' Delancey Street apartment is worth twice the price of admission all by itself.
In short: Right Cross Rhapsody is a delicious treat for those who love and revere Hollywood's Golden Age—especially if you don't love and revere it so much that you can't take a joke or two at its expense. At once a delightful trip down memory lane and a laugh-out-loud lovefest for the hokum and hooey that made American movies great, Right Cross Rhapsody is, in its modest and endearing way, a real triumph for Michael and his collaborators.