Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Abominable Showman, October 23, 2011

La Cattrall (Photo: Hugo Glendenning)

Photo of Louis Negin and Liliane Burnett - by Richard Bunrett

Glamour girls
Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Collins, Kim Cattrall  (and even my mom) on the art of staging a head-turning entrance
By Richard Burnett

I absolutely worship a fabulous diva who owns – no, commands – a stage the moment all eyes are on her. It happened to me again this past week when I decided to check out the still-beautiful Kim Cattrall star in Noel Coward’s Private Lives opposite another Canadian actor, the still-handsome Paul Gross.

“Joan’s an old, old friend and she was in Toronto with her husband – he’s very nice and very young, he’s like 12 years old,” Negin says.

I booted down to Toronto to check out Private Lives at The Royal Alexandra, for my money the most beautiful theatre in Canada, built in 1907. Its stage has hosted performances by such legends as Helen Hayes, John Gielgud, Paul Robeson, the Barrymores, Al Jolson, Peter O’Toole and hundreds more. I even saw Joan Collins co-star with Linda Evans on that stage in an ill-advised remount of the God-awful play Legends! back in 2006, the same time my friend, theatre living legend Louis Negin, hosted a star-studded Toronto party in Collins’ honour.

“Joan’s an old, old friend and she was in Toronto with her husband – he’s very nice and very young, he’s like 12 years old,” Negin says. “But I didn’t tell anyone at the party that she was coming because if she doesn’t come, then everybody’s disappointed. But there were lots of people there she knew and, of course, the doors open, every head turns and she’s Joan Collins.”

Of course Collins herself only travels by jet – she has maintained the title of British Airways’ “Most Frequent Flyer of First Class” for over four decades. 

I, on the other hand, this past week travelled green to the Queen City and  booked a VIA 1 ticket – the only civilized way to travel by train, complete with three-course meal and open bar. I felt as glamourous as Joan Collins in Dynasty or even Kim Cattrall in Sex and the City.

(photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Despite the accolades Cattrall justly received for her work in Sex and the City and, most recently, for her star turn in director Roman Polanski’s 2010 thriller The Ghost Writer (co-starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor), Kim’s acting chops were pretty much summed up by  her roles in such film classics as Porky’s, Mannequin and Police Academy.

But she earned the respect of critics in London’s West End last year when she starred in Private Lives. She and Paul Gross are currently in Toronto warming up for their upcoming Broadway run at NYC’s Music Box Theatre (opening night is November 17). That production – like the Toronto and West End revivals starring Cattrall – is also being directed by Richard Eyre (the Toronto run ends on October 30 and the limited New York engagement is scheduled to run through February 5, 2012).

Like their colleagues in London, Toronto critics are heaping praise on Private Lives. The Globe and Mail’s theatre critic and Charlebois Post contributor J. Kelly Nestruk  wrote, “Cattrall offers up a smart and self-assured Amanda with a deep purr that gradually develops into a growl… Gross, who hasn’t been on a stage since his Hamlet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2000, substitutes a mad masculine energy where we are used to Coward camp in his line readings – and it zings.”

But it is Cattrall who steals the show: People are walking away from the theatre delighted to discover Cattrall really can act!

This revival of Coward’s 1930 comedy boasts superb production values and Gross does fairly well with his best Cary Grant imitation. But it is Cattrall who steals the show: People are walking away from the theatre delighted to discover Cattrall really can act! That she is clearly not out of her league feels like a bonus. In fact, Cattrall is so good I expect her to be nominated for a Tony Award.

Incidentally, Private Lives has been produced seven times on the Great White Way since its 1931 Broadway premiere which co-starred Noel Coward  and Gertrude Lawrence as the two leads, and Laurence Olivier and his then-wife Jill Esmond as Victor and Sybil. The most recent Broadway staging was in 2002, starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan.  But watching Cattrall and Gross in Toronto, I couldn’t help but wonder what Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – who co-starred in a short-lived 1983 Broadway revival – were like playing the same roles almost three decades ago.

In the end it doesn’t matter, really. Today it is Cattrall’s turn to be the still-beautiful glamour girl. Like Joan Collins before her, it is Cattrall’s turn to shine. It doesn’t happen very often, so savour the moment.

Which, of course, brings me back to Joan Collins and Louis Negin. 

Mom and Clo Clo were diva-ed up in black outfits...

I actually brought my mom Liliane and her sister Marie-Claude (whom we call Clo Clo) to the Royal Alexandra Theatre to see Collins star in that train-wreck called Legends!. Mom and Clo Clo were diva-ed up in black outfits, and I was dressed to kill in a black suit, pink shirt and pink tie with bottle-blond hair. We swept in just minutes before the curtain rose and, as heads turned, you could see people asking “Who are they?”

Louis Negan and Liliane Burnett
(photo: Richard Burnett)
Another time, over dinner at Montreal’s famed Schwartz’s delicatessen (owner Hy Diamond and my folks go back some 45 years), an incredulous Joan Rivers told my mom, “You look too young to be Richard’s mother!”

Then when Louis met my mom at the opening night of Schwartz’s: The Musical at the Centaur Theatre in Old Montreal this past April, he was – like Ms. Rivers before him – bowled over. Louis pulled me aside and whispered, “Oh my God, I thought Liliane was your sister! She’s so glamourous!”

If anyone knows a true glamour girl when he sees her, it is Louis.

Like the time he met Marilyn Monroe.

“It was at this Howard Johnson’s in Massachusetts,” Louis told me. “She came in wearing a babushka and no make-up on. She goes into the washroom and 45 minutes later out comes the image. We all talked and I felt like I wanted to protect her. She was very vulnerable. She was really like that. It wasn’t an act.”

Then there’s Marlene Dietrich. 

“A friend of mine was stage-managing her show [in Ottawa] and we were invited to a matinée. So I’m at her hotel in the magazine store and I hear this deep throaty laugh. I look over and it’s this really old lady. ‘Oh my God, it’s Dietrich!’ Then when we saw her on stage she had completely transformed,” Louis recalled. “She was beautiful!”

All these years later, after Dietrich, after Marilyn, after Joan Collins, it is now the turn of Kim Cattrall, who will surely – and deservedly – be the toast of New York when Private Lives opens on Broadway next month.

Private Lives continues at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre until October 30. Click here for full details and tickets. To book tickets for VIA rail, click here.

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