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Musicals Young and Old 

70, Girls, 70 opened on Broadway on April 15, 1971. It closed 36 performances later. Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb wrote this confection after their smash hit Cabaret, but before their smash hit Chicago. The show is currently on the boards in a modest and genial production at the renovated Fine Arts Center.

The "70" in the title refers to age, for the play tells the story of a senior citizens' residence that turns into a den of crime -- lightheartedly, I should add. The denizens of a somewhat dilapidated New York City hotel start heisting furs to fund a series of improvements and renovations -- and, eventually, to provide rent for gray-haired down-and-outers.

70, Girls, 70, despite its a short run on the Great White Way, has proved a perennial on the community theater circuit. Shirl Cieutat, who plays the starring role of Ida, told me she has appeared in the show in every decade since the 1950s. This is, in fact, her fifth time out as the aging, vivacious criminal mastermind. And she is to the manner born -- the "star" manner, that is. As for the "criminal" manner, I can't say. Innocent until proven guilty -- that's the law.

Now, aging actors are not in the same horrible dilemma as aging ballet dancers. Nonetheless, it no doubt galls ever so slightly to go from matinee idol to father of the bride, not to mention, grandfather of the bride. And an equivalent twinge of irritation must pinch the heart of an ex-ingénue who learns she's been cast as the Wicked Witch of the West. The paradoxical result of these mortifications is the palpable spirit of good humor and camaraderie that can awaken in the veteran troupers who gather for 70, Girls, 70.

In the case of the present outing, that spirit is certainly one of the strong points. Director Stocker Fontelieu (who, according to usually reliable sources, is no spring chicken himself) has gathered a distinguished cast, and they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. Among the inmates of this geriatric bedlam, you'll find such noteworthy performers as Abby Lake, Roy Dumont, Walter Bost, Helen Blanke, Adella Gautier, Arvilla Riddick, Adrian Benjamin, Peter Gabb, John Hammons, Nancy Hammons, John Lovett, Pauline Prelutsky and Scott Sauber.

The show, of course, is a musical. Almost every song number is launched with the shout, "Hit it, Lorraine!" -- Lorraine being the piano player (Shirlene Gill). The songs don't tend to be the sort of soaring ballads that one has come to associate with serious storytelling in musical drama. They have more a vaudeville flavor.

I caught 70, Girls, 70 on opening night, and there did seem to be some of the proverbial opening-night confusion, although nothing short of a terrorist attack could throw this cast off its stride. Curiously, the proceeds were donated to NORD Theater. This generous gesture was made in part, because the late Ty Tracy of NORD was quite likely the first community theater director to do the piece, since no arrangements had been made for production rights. Tracy was helped along by lyricist Ebb himself (who was no doubt amazed someone wanted to produce his flop).

This 70, Girls, 70 is not a slick production. Its appeal is more along the lines of an extended party skit. For me, the tone of the play is so light and wholesome (without being particularly inventive) that my interest began to flag. I almost feel like apologizing for such disrespectful sentiments, but there you are. The great majority of the audience obviously had no such problem, however; they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Seniors may be especially pleased with this "gray power" comedy.

Meanwhile, across town at Delgado Community College, director Timothy Baker recently put the younger generation through their paces in a musical play that was also the stepchild of a successful duo. Composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick are remembered for hits like Fiddler on the Roof. But The Apple Tree?

The Apple Tree, which ran for 463 performances on Broadway in 1966, is actually a portmanteau of three one-act musicals. The first, based on a short story by Mark Twain, is about Adam and Eve. Act Two is "The Lady, Or the Tiger?," that cynical romance about justice and jealousy. Act Three is an odd fable by Jules Fieffer about a chimney sweep who is transformed into a movie star. The Apple Tree was an enjoyable, offbeat show with memorable performances by Idella Johnson, Dreux Lawes, Troy Poplous, Lori Christopher, Dana Webb and Kristina Marshall, among others.

click to enlarge Harry (Walter Bost, right) questions Ida (Shirl Cieutat) in 70, Girls, 70, currently on the boards at The Fine Arts Center.
  • Harry (Walter Bost, right) questions Ida (Shirl Cieutat) in 70, Girls, 70, currently on the boards at The Fine Arts Center.
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