October 13, 2007
Reminiscing with "The Ritz"
I moved from New York to San Francisco in 1975, the same week that the original production of The Ritz opened on Broadway. It was a wild and wonderful time to be in that city, particularly if you were a young gay man (which I was not) or had friends who were (which I did). Legions of guys in plaid shirts and tight jeans (and fellow travelers like me) roamed the Castro district and danced and hooked up at bars and discos into the wee hours of every night. Many offices throughout the city actually closed early on Halloween so that employees could get ready for the night's big gay parade; one of my most vivid memories is of watching a guy dressed as a bag of McDonald’s french fries, Styrofoam fries stitched to his shoulder pads and a little red beret on his head serving as the ketchup, rollerblade down my block on his way to the staging area. In my memories, it was a sweet and innocent time.
1975 was also just the right moment—post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS—for a farce about a gay bathhouse to strut its stuff on Broadway and find a wide audience—recently liberated gays and increasingly liberal-minded straights—to revel in its good-hearted lunacy. Eight years later, a 1983 revival, opening in the darkest days of the crisis, closed after just one night. But on Thursday night a new Roundabout revival opened, appropriately, at Studio 54, and, with AIDS now a treatable disease, the timing seems right—even if just for the sake of nostalgia.
Director Joe Mantello's new production isn't perfect—nostalgia seldom is—but it's still good fun. The plot, if you don't know it, revolves around a straight nebbish who, fleeing from the mob-connected brother-in-law who wants to kill him, hides out in what he thinks is a Jack LaLanne-style health club but is actually a gay bathhouse called The Ritz. There he runs into a variety of gay archetypes and a ditzy Latina chanteuse named Googie Gomez, who is looking for her big break in show biz despite her small talent. Misunderstandings, misidentifications, and general hysteria ensue.
Brooks Ashmanskas is warm and funny as Chris, the queeniest of the Ritz patrons, a role originally created by—of all people—F. Murray Abraham, now playing a macho tough-guy in Mauritius. Rosie Perez steps into the high heels of Rita Moreno, for whom Terrence McNally wrote the role of Googie, and proves herself an equally delightful comedienne. Only Kevin Chamberlin disappoints, not quite able to capture the bewilderment and pathos that Jack Weston brought to the role of the nebbish, both on stage and in the 1976 movie, and not fulfilling his promise as the heir apparent to Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane as Broadway’s next great fat funnyman.
But looking at Scott Pask's witty set and listening to the savvy "soundtrack" that musical director Seth Rudetsky and sound designer Tony Meola put together transported me back to that sweet time 30 years ago, including my one pre-San Francisco visit to the Continental Baths to attend a performance by Morgana King, the jazz singer who also played Marlon Brando's wife in "The Godfather." During the Ritz intermission, my friend Ann and I traded stories about our disco days and we laughed at the antics on stage. But watching the show also reminded me of the scores of talented young gay men that Broadway lost to AIDS in the years that would come after. Not just the big names like Michael Bennett and Howard Ashman, but those whose names we never got to know, whose shows we never got to see.