UPDATE, Friday AM: Tributes are raining down like tears in memory of B.B. King, the all-time greatest of cats, who departed from Las Vegas to the Heaviside Layer yesterday at the age of 89. I expect an especially emotional gathering at King’s Times Square outpost, B.B. King Blues Club & Grill and the Lucille Café. The 42nd Street spot holds a special place in the hearts of Broadway-theater folk, having been the site of many a musical-related event (Broadway Bares! comes to mind) and theater-related shows like the one just a month ago, “Classic Songs From The Best Broadway Rock Musicals Performed Live!” — reminding us that it’s all of a piece.
Which provides a nice segue, speaking of Broadway outposts and late greats, to the invaluable 54 Below, hangout of choice for so many Broadway denizens. Last weekend the club hosted an exuberant, touching, funny tribute to that dame there was nothing like, Julie Wilson. Even at a club-tradition-stretching 1 hour and 45 minutes, there wasn’t enough time for all the cabaret guys and dolls who wanted to get in on the act, so there’s a reprise tomorrow, with a different cast of chantoosies. Don’t forget your gardenia and your feather boa….
EXCLUSIVE: Spring is bustin’ out all over Times Square (literally, if you count the body-painted double-breasted Guaranteed-Female-Students-Working-Their-Way-Through-College slinking around Mickey, Minnie, Cinderella, Sheriff Woody, Miss Liberty, Elmo and the other marauding fuzzy photo-ops who’ve displaced pickpockets trying to earn an honest living). This is the time of year when two events converge near 42nd and Broadway: Fleet Week brings hordes of sailors looking to buy a good time, and the annual Spring Road Conference of the Broadway League brings hordes of show presenters also looking to buy a good time. At least, the kind they can book for Mom and Dad’s “Broadway Comes To [insert hometown name here] Club” friends. Hundreds of them line up at buffets before scintillating seminars all day long and crowd into shows at night. Did I mention they also comprise the biggest bloc of Tony Awards voters?
Naturally, Broadway producers see this as a primo chance to hawk their wares (unlike the Star Spangled Girls, though, they get to keep their clothes on while losing their shirts). At Tuesday’s session, producer Kevin McCollum had the company of Something Rotten! perform that Tony-contending musical’s opening number for the gathering. Instead of “Welcome To The Renaissance,” it became “Welcome To The Road Conference” (so clever, those producers) and instead of referencing cultural deities of the 17th century, they name-checked many a mogul and mini-mogul in the audience. I was amused to hear that Shubert Organization (and League) president Robert Wankel came in for a tuneful ribbing (except it was below the rib line):
He’s the prez, the head of the League
A man of mystery and much intrigue
He’s incredible, unforgettable
He’s just so frickin’ awesome…
Sternly told that it’s Wank-el, the chorus paid further tribute, adding “Not a wanker! Not a wanker!” Wankel famously (and allegedly in good nature) also takes it on the chin every night in Hedwig And The Angry Inch, the Tony-winning revival running at the Shubert-owned Belasco Theatre. So the next time Big Bard asks, “What’s in a name?” — tell ’em to go ask Bob.
On Thursday, the fine nonprofit New Dramatists threw its annual gala. The honoree was Brian Stokes Mitchell, not only a legendarily talented and well-loved star but also a do-gooder of the first rank (chief among the God’s work he does, he’s in his tenth year as chairman of the Actors’ Fund). So this was one affair, maybe the only theater affair I’ve ever attended, where there seemed to be zero mixed feelings in evidence among the groundlings. So so great for a columnist, but so be it. No one secretly wanted to do anything bad to Stokes. On the contrary, the likes of Christine Baranski, George C. Wolfe, Victoria Clarke, Kelli O’Hara, Tony friendly rivals Michael Cerveris and Brian d’Arcy James, Andre De Shields, David Hyde Pierce, Laura Michelle Kelly and other triple-namers too numerous to list, all these and more spoke up and sang his praises.
“Stokes is the definition of a leading man,” said Stephanie D’Abruzzo, after serenading him with “Love Makes The World Go Round,” from Carnival (David Merrick wouldn’t pay up for the rights to the movie’s “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo”), which she had performed at an Encores! revival in which he was the star. D’Abruzzo got a baritonial assist up there from Horrible Henry, the grumpy end of her right hand in Avenue Q. She recalled that the Encores! event had earned her Equity card and added that every new actor should be so blessed as to work with him in his or her first show. Agreed!
Signature Theatre founding artistic director James Houghton will receive a special Obie for Sustained Achievement during Monday’s 60th Annual OBIE Awards ceremony at Webster Hall, awards co-sponsors the American Theatre Wing (yeah, the Broadway-only Tony peeps) and the Village Voice announced Thursday. Roger that: Houghton, who moonlights as head of the drama division of the Juilliard School, established the country’s first nonprofit theater company devoted to seasons producing the work of a single living playwright. He also spearheaded the building of the Frank Gehry-designed Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street, which in a very short time has become an essential, vital and most inviting fixture in the city’s cultural landscape.