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A CurtainUp Review
Play It Cool

You know how hard it is to keep this place open? Paying off cops. The threat of raids. Getting the crap kicked outta you every time you walk down the street. Kid, the state puts people like her – like you – like me – they put us in frigging mental institutions! She’s kept this club open for years. So people have a place to go. Will…for an hour, maybe a whole night, you can come here and know who you are!. . ..Just – play it cool.
Henry to Will about Mary’s Hideaway.
Play It Cool
Sally Mayes and Robyn Hurder
(Photo by Joan Marcus )
“It begins, as these stories always do, with a dame,” says Henry, a vice cop played by Michael F. McGuirk, who collects protection money on the side. It is 1953 in Mary's Hideaway, a jazz club just off Sunset in Hollywood. The “dame” is a bodacious blonde canary, Lena Starling (Robyn Hurder). Lena has a special relationship with tough, butch Mary (Sally Mayes), owner of the club and a primo jazz singer who no longer sings in public after a harrowing attack. Although passions are sizzling, society says, Play It Cool, even in the fantasy of Movieland.

A Martin Casella and Larry Dean Harris jazz musical is wrapped up in noir-toned smoke and cool syncopation at Mary's Hideaway where the gay underground of Hollywood could gather although there were rules. Men could not dance together and women could not tend bar, but they could hear some great jazz and make personal connections.

While the play highlights five characters with their secret struggles and passionate ambitions, the music and singer/actress Sally Mayes runs away with the show. Enlivening the story are Phillip Swann tunes and Mark Winkler’s lyrics. Eight other songwriters provide additional music. They paint a moody, harsh portrait of a hidden society brightened only by the cool California sound of the day. The music is played by an on-stage rhythm trio -- drummer (Dan Gross), bassist (Dan Fabricatore) and Mary’s longtime buddy, pianist, Smokey (David Libby).

Into the club comes Eddie (Chris Hoch), a closeted manipulator. With him is Will, a hayseed runaway from Spartanburg, South Carolina. They met in a men‘s room after Will stepped off the bus, Eddie pouncing on the 17-year-old with fanciful tales of his tinseltown A-list connections.

Will knows his own sexual proclivities but does not realize how dangerous this can be in Hollywood. He hopes to impress Mary enough to give him a singing job, but what he delivers is choir, not jazz. Singing “Jazz Is a Special Taste,” Mary stresses that in jazz you take the rules and bend them. Eventually, Will starts to get it, though never at her high level.

Songs like “Club Life/Welcome,” “Like Jazz,” and “Play It Cool” are as snappy as the dialogue. However, only a few are compellingly character-driven. One exception is Mary’s self-portrait “In My Drag” which makes her feel confident and cocky “like a dapper Dan.”

Lena and Mary share a love but they want different things and Lena is seduced when Eddie offers hints of movie stardom. Reluctantly she decides to abandon Mary, illustrated with a poignant, “In a Lonely Place,” where Lena sings, “What once felt so alive is now a memory” and Mary admits “I fooled myself into loving you.”

Henry, the detective, has a tender moment where he reveals his attraction for Will and the fact that he has been living a lie. He wonders, “How Do I Go Home tonight?”

Underneath Casella and Harris’s individual character sketches and the cast’s swinging scat, the insistent repressiveness of the day overrides the balance of romance and humor. The lines are fast and witty, but the cruel sharpness of society lends an uneven heaviness.

The black/white mood is enhanced by Deb Sullivan’s lighting on a small club set by Thomas W. Walsh. Sharon Rosen keeps her grip on the point of view, gathering momentum and tying together people and secrets in a script that is just this side of campy but often repetitive.

Marc Kimelman has designed fluid dances reminiscent of movie musicals of the day, and Therese Bruck’s tuxedo for Mary and eye-catching costumes for Lena’s curvaceous figure are on the nose. Also fitting is Eddie’s pin-striped suit and Henry, the cop in brown.

Robyn Hurder has the blonde bombshell look of a 1950’s starlet and portrays a persuasive Lena. She has a playfully sexy segment in a short skirt and a baseball bat singing “Baby’s on Third.” McGuirk’s Henry first appears with a trench coat, hat, and cigarette in a cloud of smoke. He retains the private eye flash yet the toughness softens as he faces his own secrets. Chris Hoch is appropriately squirrelly as Eddie but although Michael Buchanan plays naďve Will with stars in his eyes, the character does not emerge as a convincing new Rock or Tab.

Sally Mayes is a compelling jazz singer and and provides a firm characterization of Mary. She sings with easy musicianship, scatting and soaring with abandon. She rules the stage. She snaps out her orders like a truck driver, insults Lena and then turns on her heel to cajole her. She is indeed the confident, intelligent, cocky dapper Dan who bends the rules but sadly, she never could break them enough to enjoy the career her music deserved.

Play It Cool
Conceived by Larry Dean Harris
Book by Martin Casella and Larry Dean Harris
Directed by Sharon Rosen
Cast: Sally Mayes, Michael Buchanan, Chris Hoch, Robyn Hurder, Michael F. McGuirk
Lyrics: Mark Winkler
Music: Philip Swann. Additional music by Jim Andron, Michael Cruz, Marilyn Harris, Emilio Palame, Larry Steelman
Music Director and Arrangements: Joseph A. Baker
Choreography: Marc Kimelman
Set Design: Thomas H. Walsh
Costume Design: Therese Bruck
Hair/wig design: Josh Schwartz.
Production Stage Manager: Jane Pole
Lighting Design: Deb Sullivan
Sound Design: Carl Casella and Peter Fitzgerald
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 min. including intermission
Theater: Acorn Theater, 410 W. 42 Street. Between 9 and 10 Ave.
Tickets: $65. Theatre Row Box Office or through TeleCharge (212) 239-6200 or online at
Performances: Tues. at 7 PM. Wed. 2PM and 8PM. Thurs.,Fri. at 8PM. Sat. at 2PM, 8PM. Sun. at 3PM, 7PM.
Previews, 9/2/11. Opens 9/14/11. Open run.
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 9/9/11

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