Maui Stage sizzles

While working as a volunteer usher twenty-some years ago in San Francisco, I met a woman named Millie Weitz. She was 89 at the time and had starred in the 1937 Broadway production of Harold Rome’s “Pins and Needles.” She shared many stories from the era and showed me a photo of her sitting on FDR’s lap. Millie’s youngest sister was recruited by the real-life Mama Rose of “Gypsy” fame (Rose Hovick) for “Rose Louise and her Hollywood Blondes,” (bottles of peroxide were involved). A few years later, the Broadway tour of “Showboat,” starring Kirby Ward, came to San Francisco’s historical Orpheum Theater. When you factor Mama’s dream “in Mr. Orpheum’s office,” the bright lights of 1930s Broadway, the decline of vaudeville and the phoenix-rise from the ashes by Gypsy Rose Lee, I can’t help but connect these memories with the upcoming weekend of entertainment on Maui.

On Friday, the Historic Iao Theater will host “One Hot Winter’s Night III,” a nostalgic tribute to the glory days of burlesque and vaudeville; and on Sunday, the Maui Arts & Cultural Center will present Maui Pops’ “Broadway Pops,” featuring Joan Hess and Ward, in celebration of 1930s Broadway. What distinguishes these productions from the type of cabaret entertainment you generally find is that both shows will include full, live accompaniment. The Maui Pops will have 40-plus musicians on hand, conducted by James Durham; and the Iao will feature a house jazz band led by Gilbert Emata.

Ward has performed for Queen Elizabeth II, Bob Hope’s 100th birthday celebration, on Broadway and the West End, and has appeared with such theatrical luminaries as Debbie Reynolds, Phyllis Diller and Bill Cosby. In addition, he developed material for Reynolds and Donald O’Conner, and served as choreographer on “For the Boys,” starring Bette Midler and James Caan. Hess has appeared in five Broadway shows, including “Mama Mia,” Crazy For You,” “Bells Are Ringing,” “Kiss Me Kate” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” She also played Lee in “Gypsy,” performed with Julie Andrews on PBS’ “Great Performances” and toured with the national company of “42nd Street.”

Across town at the Iao, which hosted Hope and O’Conner in the 1940s, Violetta Beretta performs in the style of Lee and Sally Rand (who was arrested four times in one day at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair), alongside the Kit Kat Club Cabaret, Charles Cook, Bethany Garboski, Lia Krieg, Kisha Milling, Casey Murphy and many more. In addition to frequent appearances on Maui, Beretta regularly tours the globe to locales such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., London, Paris and Berlin. She calls Rand “sheer inspiration to me – her grace and poise were a delight to behold. She’s well-known for both her ostrich feather fan dance and her dance with a beautiful, gigantic balloon. I’ll be performing an act at the Iao in tribute to Miss Rand, and I hope I can capture even just a little bit of her unparalleled loveliness onstage.”

Beretta is currently writing a book about burlesque in Hawaii. “Sally was a semiregular fixture in the Honolulu nightclub scene in the 1950s,” she said. “I love knowing that one of my Burlesque icons danced across our Hawaii stages not so long ago.”

Hess and Ward’s current project, “Dancing and Romancing,” is a tribute of sorts – not just to the Great American Songbook – but also to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In addition to music, their Sunday show will feature ballroom and tap dancing. Both have appeared in the “modern” Gershwin musical, “Crazy For You,” garnering Ward an Olivier Award nomination (London’s Tony). The production was loosely based on the 1930 Gershwin musical, “Girl Crazy,” a true crossroads moment in American entertainment history. Not only did it mark the Broadway debuts of both Rogers and Ethel Merman, but its legendary orchestra featured Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa, none of whom had started up their own bands at the time. It was also the first time Fred met Ginger, who served and an assistant choreographer on the production. Both started in vaudeville as kids (Fred at age 10 and Ginger at 15) on the Orpheum circuit; but shortly after “Girl Crazy,” they were Hollywood-bound. Rogers was cast in the film version of “42nd Street,” and the two were paired for the first time in the 1933 film, “Flying Down to Rio.”

Between the two, Hess and Ward have performed with the symphonies and orchestras of Hollywood, Hong Kong, Buffalo, Virginia, New Mexico, Atlanta, Maryland, Winnipeg, Houston, North Carolina and Detroit, to name a few. At the Castle Theater, they will be performing such favorites as “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” Begin the Beguine,” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek.” In turn, at the Iao, a different cheek will be in play with Beretta dancing to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sadko – Song of India,” and Garboski sings “Cross Eyed Papa,” popularized by Sophie Tucker, but also sung by her great aunt Gertrude Newman on the vaudeville circuit.

I asked Violetta her thoughts on why this era remains fashionable and timeless. “I think that it was both a beautiful and innovative time,” she said. “Design in all avenues, from clothing to architecture, was well thought out and often revolutionary. I love the glamour and the freedom of that time. The attention to detail in everything made then is incredible!”

The Hovick clan likely crossed paths with Fred and Ginger on the circuit, but in that era, once you played a house of burlesque you could forget Broadway and likely never be booked on a Vaudeville theater again. Of course, Lee and Rand eventually became the toast of Broadway, and Lee’s musical life story has become an American classic. H.L Mencken crafted a word specifically for Lee, an “ecdysiast,” or to molt, as in a snake shedding its skin. She once said: “To be a stripteaser, take a mouthful of marbles and remove one marble a week – once you’ve lost all your marbles, you’re a stripteaser.”

Also this week

Don’t miss “Intergalactic Nemesis Book Two: Robot Planet Rising” at 7:30 tonight in Castle Theater. This live-action graphic novel is a mashup of a 1930s radio play and comic book story, which follows a prize-winning reporter, her bumbling research assistant and a mysterious librarian who travel to Zygon to face robots from outer space. Tickets are $28, with half price available for kids 12 and younger (plus applicable fees). Contact the MACC with details above.