As One More Thing to Read enters its third year, I’m sharing some of my work in progress. The fictional Kevin Gregory of Moral Ambiguity has returned to his small southern hometown of Burtonville where he has been roped into community theatre. Here is the second installment of A Final Folly.
On the first morning of rehearsal, a bubbly blond who’d agreed to take on the role of stage manager greeted me. Puddin was somewhere in her seventies, but looked younger simply because her hairdo spiraled like vanilla soft-serve on top of her head. Her makeup was applied rather heavily, though the rough texture of her skin didn’t allow for an even application of eye shadow and foundation. Her thick eyelashes had been made in China, and though this was the first day of rehearsal, she was ready to play Elizabeth I in the final act.
Her costume, for her ensemble couldn’t have been seriously considered clothing, appeared to be a floral, fitted bed-sheet, cinched at the waist with a hot-pink rope. The low-cut design exposed a sun-damaged décolletage. A harlequin brooch with eyes of miniature diamonds was pinned at her cleavage as a sort of fastener. I thought the harlequin was a tribute to the theatre, but later heard about her extensive clown collection housed in a converted garage. Puddin clicked back and forth across the stage in Plexiglas high-heels of a staggering height for someone who’d deposited well over 100 Social Security retirement checks. Underneath her flowing bed-sheet, she wore tight Capri pants with nylon stockings several shades darker than her skin.
Puddin called us to order and introduced Andy Mendelbaum once again. We were not a large group, only four, including Andy and Puddin. The other gentleman who’d shown up was Sooty. I’d heard of him, but we’d never met. I’d no sooner taken my place at the piano and opened a folder of the photocopied hits of yesteryear, which Andy had shoved at me, when Sooty, full of indignation, advanced.
“So, you’re going to be musical director this year,” he said in a phlegmy voice. His tone suggested someone who’d been thoughtlessly cast aside after many years of devoted service.
“I suppose I am,” I replied with as much humility as I could muster. I’d not been told that Sooty was to be involved with the production, and I felt as though I’d shoved him out of a job.
“Well, either you are or you aren’t,” he said. “This job’s not for light-weights. There’s a major time commitment here. I don’t see how you can give up your job and your life for the next three weeks and make this many rehearsals. I’m retired, and I wouldn’t have a problem, but I’m not the one in charge here. Not that I ever was! In my day, we had a room full of women here at nine every morning ready to rehearse.” He said this as if it were my fault no one had shown up. “Puddin! I can’t believe this! Nobody cares anymore.”
“These younger women have jobs nowadays,” said Puddin, “and we’re lucky to get them by six or seven in the evening.”
“In my day—” began Sooty.
“Things haven’t changed that much since your day,’’ interrupted Puddin. “This is a rehearsal for the women’s chorus and you should’ve realized you wouldn’t be needed. Why are you here?”
Bed-sheets or not, I suddenly developed some respect for Puddin who could obviously fight her own battles—and mine—in spite of the scatter-brained act she put on for everyone around her. She’d taken Sooty down a notch, but the momentary tension was unbearable. Puddin, frozen in position, awaited a response, and Sooty was speechless for what I imagined was the first time in his life. The skirmish could’ve escalated, but the old man chose to gather his things. He swept past me reeking of stale cigarettes, which explained why they called him Sooty. I still didn’t know why Puddin was Puddin, but figured there was a story behind it.
Andy announced the cancellation of daytime rehearsals, a brilliant decision in light of the turnout. He was concerned about major rewrites, and I was delighted I wouldn’t have to spend my days hacking through songs unsung since Hit Parade. Being classically trained in voice, I was not accustomed, nor was I looking forward to reading smudged melody lines and being forced to devise decent accompaniments from chord symbols for no pay.
While reviewing the songbook, I realized Founders Follies was basically a Vaudeville show. The musical numbers set the mood to break up the lackluster comedy writing. Familiarity with the bon mot of Wilde and Coward were not prerequisites to understanding Follies.
As for the music, there was no particular theme. Randomly selected songs meandered aimlessly through a century’s worth of once popular tunes, beginning in the 1920s. Besides a couple of numbers recorded by Rosemary Clooney and Elvis, I didn’t recognize much of anything at first. Andy made a point of suggesting I take advantage of the free morning to work out accompaniments before the evening rehearsal, which was to begin at “six sharp!”
At 6:30, there were five people meandering around the auditorium, and none of them had come to sing. Joan Henderson James, the recovering stroke victim, and three other women listened as our illustrious New York director was introduced once more. After a round of light applause, he ordered the female quartet into position where they began to block the choreography for Limehouse Blues. Being unfamiliar with the song, I’d found a wonderful jazz recording on the Internet, but Andy informed me this was not to be a jazz number.
“We’re going to use it to open the second act,” he explained in his thespian voice.
“It’s going to be sung by a man, and these women are going to strut around like Vegas showgirls.” To pull it off, Andy’s plan required a dozen women, but since we’d only mustered four, no one could be excluded—especially on our wide stage. Besides the half-paralyzed Joan, the other three showgirls had their own troubles. Andy barked out directions, and whenever he screamed, “Left!” the woman whose hair looked like a straw hat invariably turned to her right. Radio City Music Hall is able to keep its kick-lines full of uniformly shaped women, but Andy soon realized Burtonville was not New York. Local women varied in size, and one of the larger ones possessing the look of a high-fructose corn syrup addict glided across the stage with surprising grace.
“Can you believe that one considers herself showgirl material?” Andy asked me in a loud stage whisper before singling her out: “Each of you showgirls will be holding a fan, and for you we’re going to give you a very large fan. Then you’re going to walk to the back and stand behind the rest. Now don’t worry; you won’t be standing there all the time. At the bridge, you’ll move over to the wings and stay there until the end of the number.” After a failed first attempt, and an even worse second attempt, Andy dismissed the women to a room down the hall so I could work with one of the male soloists.
Reggie boasted that he was a 1958 Burtonville High School graduate who’d never left town, and his laugh exposed him as the love child of Paul Lynde and Phyllis Diller. He was a retired insurance salesman, and claimed to have honed his theatre skills in the past two years. Honed was an overstatement, but two years explained a lot. Aside from his inappropriate sexual innuendo, I was more concerned by his inability to sing in tune. We’d worked together for less than five minutes when he confessed he couldn’t stand as long as he used to, and practically sat on my lap as he collapsed onto the piano bench. “It’ll be so much easier for us to work this way,” he cooed in my right ear.
I hammered out his part, but trying to get him on pitch sounded as though I was using a Civil Defense siren to tune bagpipes. He screeched like a dying eagle, and his southern accent made diphthongs out of one-syllable words. At least he knew when he missed a note. He used these opportunities to body-slam me while giggling maniacally. He stood up when I ended our session, and I suggested he take his music home and practice before our next meeting.
“I don’t read a note of music,” he squealed. “Why don’t I come over to your place and have you go over my part?” I offered to make a recording and bring it to him, but he wasn’t interested in my solution.
“It would be a better use of my time to wait until you’ve received all your solo assignments,” I said. “At that point, I can sit down and record them in one session.”
“Good thinking! I’ll bring some wine and we’ll make a night of it!” Reggie locked me in an intimate embrace from which I could not break free.
To be continued
© 2016 by Patrick Brown
The narrator of A Final Folly is Kevin Gregory from my first book Moral Ambiguity. To learn more about the book and my second book Tossed Off the Edge, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1