Friday, December 30, 2016

Debbie Reynolds in Irene

It was late summer 1974 and Debbie Reynolds was returning to the musical Irene for a brief stint before taking it on the road. (Jane Powell had been her replacement.) My friend R and I decided that we had to see it again, and this time in good seats.

I think this was the very first time I paid full price for a good seat. We usually sat in the cheap seats or wherever the TKTS booth or twofers put us. While it seems laughable now, spending $9 was a big deal. After all, I was making less than $2/hour in my part-time job as a cashier at Mays Department Store.

As I remember it, and it was a long time ago, so take this all with a grain of salt, R picked up the tickets. This involved actually going to the theatre, which was an hour and a half each way by bus and train. But he shlepped in--and he got us first-row-center seats! My first first-row-center seats.

What I didn't initially realize was that the tickets were for Labor Day. At department stores, this was a big sale day when everyone was supposed to work--and my boss could be a crabby pain in the ass. I became riddled with anxiety, practicing my day-off request over and over in my head. I must have been radiating angst by the time I spoke to her, because she actually laughed while telling me that "of course" I could have the day off. (I also had to give up a day of time-and-a-half, but that was okay. It was Debbie Reynolds in Irene, after all.)

When the day came, we left plenty of extra time to get to the city. We probably ate lunch at one of the little Japanese food counters that were starting to pop up in midtown. Or, since it was a special occasion, we might have gone to Howard Johnson's, which cost much more and required that we leave a tip.

Time Square would have been crowded, but it probably would seem empty compared with the current hordes. The crowd would have been better dressed, and we were all thinner. I'm sure there were guys hawking Three-Card Monte and other guys playing steel drums. There would have been the usual smells of greasy fried food and the standard cacophony of New York at full speed.

Knowing us, after lunch we probably still had time to kill before curtain, and I would guess that we browsed in one of the bookstores that used to exist amidst the arcades and sex emporia.

And, finally, showtime. And there she was. "Oh, the world must be bigger than an avenue," she sang. How could I begin to describe the thrill? In those days, just being in a theatre still felt miraculous, and we were in first-row-center seats, and here was this woman I had seen on screen and on TV a zillion times, and she was a star, and we could practically reach out and touch her.

And, damn, she was good. There was no sense that this was her first performance back after months. I was particularly impressed that she could dance so well at her age (hey, I was 18). She filled the theatre with excitement and joy and sheer star power. She was somehow a regular gal and larger than life at the same time.

Periodically Debbie would dance downstage and give the conductor instructions. I particularly remember, "Pick it up, dearie, pick it up." It was an only-in-live-theatre moment, and we cherished it.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
and many other people in Irene

Was it a great show? No. Was it even a good show? I doubt it. But I do know that the cast sang and danced and acted the heck out of it. It was polished and exciting and worth way more than the nine whole dollars I had spent.

I don't remember if I knew that Carrie Fisher was in the show. I imagine I did, because R was a huge Debbie Reynolds fan and knew everything about her, so he probably told me. But I do remember one bit she had--a bit that caused me a great deal of worry the first time I saw the show. In a chorus number, the women all had parasols, which they opened in unison. But hers didn't open! I knew it was probably part of the show, but what if it wasn't? What if she was freaking out up there, as she kept trying to get it open? She was finally able to open it, right on the button of the song. Oh, so it was on purpose. Whew.

The wonderful George S. Irving, who we also lost this week, was also in the cast. As always, he was terrific.

But mostly it was Debbie, Debbie, and Debbie, with her fabulous dancing and wonderful singing and magical glow.

Decades later, that performance of Irene still rates as one of my all-time favorites. Debbie Reynolds and the entire cast knew how to bring joy.


Anonymous said...

Nice memory. I saw IRENE when it played the now-defunct Shubert in Los Angeles's Century
City. While it was hardly an Important Show, it was entertaining, professionally
produced and performed, and HAD A GENUINE STAR IN THE LEAD. (By the way, Debbie's
featured players were hardly "small potatos" -Ruth Warrick, Hans Conreid, Ron Husmann).
But it was -as it should have been -Debbie's evening. What a pro! What a STAR!

Wendy Caster said...

Thanks so much for your comment. Who do you suppose could have that star power today? I was thinking, Bette Midler and Hugh Jackman. People like Meryl Streep are stars, yes, but they don't have that larger-than-life effect, like Reynolds, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, etc. I'm not in anyway putting down today's performers. I'd match Marin Mazzie against any performer ever, as just one example. But that particular form of star power is waning, I think. I'm grateful I'm old enough to have witnessed it.