Sunday, April 14, 2013

Struttin' For Hutton.

I should have written this column a week ago, but I was weak and backsliding. (Who was sliding me about on my back? Never you mind. Besides, if he didn't say his name to me, how could I tell it to you? Be logical!) Little Dougie took me to the theater in North Hollywood last week, Broadway being too far from the L.A. MTA Orange Line for him to get to. The show was Diane Vincent's mini-musical, Nuttin' But Hutton: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Betty Hutton, and it was great fun. Live humans singing and dancing to live music provided by live musicians. It's like a 3-D movie you don't need special glasses to watch. (Well, Dougie did.)

Diane Vincent sings, Nathan Holland grins, and my darling Vincent Price observes from the Diversions and Delights poster in the background. If they come in to do the show and that poster is missing, they'll know Dougie has broken into the theater and stolen it because he covets the poster. Dougie's weird.
The show is a nearly plotless excuse for Diane to sing a number (26) of songs Betty performed in movies 60 years and more back. Okay, there's not much book, but look at the songwriters whose work is included: Jay Livingston, Ray Evans, Frank Loesser, Jimmy McHugh, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen, Hoagy Carmichael, Vic Mizzy, Victor Young, Ned Washington, Rogers & Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, Gus Kahn, and Irving Berlin. And that's not even all of them!

Diane Vincent in red and green.
So who is Diane Vincent, some of you ask? Well, she's a singer, an actress and a comic dynamo. She spends her days playing "Lucy Ricardo" at Universal Studios Hollywood, which is not in Hollywood but in Universal City, over the hill (like so many of us) from Hollywood. These days, her evenings are spent singing Betty Hutton songs and clowning onstage. (There's no way to do most of these songs without clowning. They were written for a superb muscal clown, and are now being performed again by another superb musical clown.)

But Little Dougie is prejudiced in her favor, which is why imparital little old me is writing this review instead of Dougie. Because Diane Vincent is one of the children of Larry  "Seymour" Vincent, Little Dougie's friend, mentor and employer, who passed away far, far too young, way the heck back in 1975. Larry was a pretty damn funny guy, especially with a song, himself. How funny was Larry? Well let me put it this way: he could take a script Dougie had written and even make that funny. Here, hear for yourself. Here is Larry Vincent singing The Freckle Song, and if it doesn't make you smile and laugh, then there's something seriously wrong with you.

So Dougie takes an interest, on behalf of his old friend, as it were, in Diane's career. Fortunately, that involves seeing fun shows. Thank heaven Larry didn't have untalented kids.

Larry Vincent and Little Dougie a mere 40 years ago. These days, Larry looks better than Dougie does, and Larry's been dead for 38 years.
So what is this show? Well, it's a celebration of the special material songs written for and performed by Miss Betty Hutton during her movie career back in the 1940s and '50s.

Betty Hutton as Judy Garland as Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley.
For a while, Betty was Paramount's number one box office star. She was a knockabout slapstick comedienne with a flare for music. She was high energy, with an aggressive comedy style. At her best, she could be riotously funny, but she could also caress a ballad with real warmth. She was NOT subtle. She was a forceful figure who could barge into scenes and run riot. And the comedy songs written for her tended to be wild and wacky.

Betty makes the cover of Time about a month before Dougie was born.
Her best-remembered films include Annie Get Your Gun (Unavailable for decades because Irving Berlin loathed it, these days it is easily seen on DVD), DeMille's gigantic and grotesque The Greatest Show on Earth, which won the Oscar for Best Picture though it's actually laughably awful (The Academy seems to have taken its title at face value without seeing the silly circus melodrama that follows the title), with a spectacular train wreck scene that looks like it was shot on a really expensive home electric train set (But Betty is not among what's wrong with this movie), and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, an amazingly risque comic masterpiece from the genius Preston Sturges.

Annie Get Your Gun, which was released 12 days before Little Dougie was born, was a rare MGM film for Betty, as she was a last-minute replacement for Judy Garland in a role written for Ethel Merman on Broadway. Though three songs from its familiar score are in Nuttin' But Hutton, unlike the other material in the show, those songs were not written for, nor tailered to, Betty. They were written for Ethel Merman, though they fit Betty like a glove. Both women were, after all, known for broad comedy and LOUD singing. (My chum Dame Edna likes to say: "That dress fits you like a glove; it sticks out in five places.")

DeMille has Betty throw over gorgeous, charming Cornel Wilde for that untalented block of granite, Charlton Heston. Completely insane. And that's not the nuttiest plotline in the film. It has Jimmy Stewart as a murderer (a NICE murderer) hiding out from the police in the circus as a clown by NEVER TAKING HIS CLOWN MAKE UP OFF, 24 HOURS A DAY! Yeah, that wouldn't make anyone suspicious. Stewart has one of the most bone-headed lines of dialogue ever written. Accounting for his weird behavior (Like never taking off his clown make up) to Betty, he says, sans any trace of comic irony: "Well, you know, clowns are funny people."

The best film she was ever in, ironically enough, is not represented in Nuttin' But Hutton, but The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was not a musical. It is an incredible knockabout comedy about a woman who can't remember who knocked her up. That might be a common theme in films now, but in 1944, it was shocking, and Sturges ladeled on the innuendo by naming Betty's character "Trudy Kockenlocker." The dirty joke winking inside that name was wholly intentional. (The closest to the name of the man who impregnated her with quintuplets that Trudy can recall was "Ratskiwatski." Apparently, she was knocked up by the recently-deposed Pope, back when he was Private Ratskiwatski in Hitler's army.)

Note the joke "Who kissed the boys goodbye, regiment by regiment." In my own memoir, My Lush Life, I mention that during the war, I raised the doughboys' morale "unit by unit." Writing almost 60 years later, I was able to use the more-clearly dirty joke. Also, it says "The True Story of Trudy Kockenlocker." She's a fictional character; it's not a true story. That's just a flat-out lie.

Nuttin' But Hutton tells you something of Betty's life, like mentioning the four husbands (A piker. Dougie has established that I've had a MINIMUM of 10 husbands, possibly several more. He chronicles a newly rediscovered husband of mine in our new book, Tallyho, Tallulah!), and Betty's life's bizarre third act, where she spent years scrubbing floors and serving food and whatnot at a rectory, as a desciple of a Catholic priest. She'd always allowed men to control her, as did many women of her generation (though far from all of them), but at least studio heads employed her as a movie star and paid her handsomely. "Father Maguire" felt floor scrubbing and cooking was the best way to employ her talents. She had hard times, rehabs (A close friend of mine saw her onstage at Melodyland Theater in the 1960s in Annie Get Your Gun and said she had massive problems remembering her lines), and politcally she was a big ole Republican who worshipped at the alter of Ronald Reagan. But the show isn't really that much about her. It's an excuse for Diane Vincent to tear into Betty's comedy songs and knock them out of the park.

No, these are not the Village People. The chorus guys ranged across this photo are the "Doctor, Lawyer, and Indian Chief." I was amused when seeing the show to note that the "Doctor" is wearing rubber dishwashing gloves, not latex surgical gloves.
Wisely, Diane makes no attempt whatever to impersonate Betty Hutton. There's really more Lucy Ricardo in her renditions than Betty Hutton, though a Lucy who can sing, which all survivors of Mame screenings know was not among Miss Ball's many, many talents. Diane is the real deal. She's not imitating comedy up there, she is a genuine comedy talent. And the energy! She sings more than 20 numbers, not little excerpts or medlies, full out, full-length, singing, dancing, clowning renditions of legendary brassy comedy songs like Rumble, Rumble, Rumble and Hamlet. The choreography is excellent, and on the nose right for the songs' periods. The chorus guys are not likely to draw much attention away from her, but they execute the choreography perfectly, and in the rare song without Diane, while she's off changing her outfits (Which she does at least once onstage) or just, I would think, collapsing with exhaustion, their vocal blend is delicious to hear. And little Justin Jones (The "Indian" above) does a cute ventriloquist bit that is very funny. The vocal work, dancing, and music playing in the show is all top-notch professional work. The pit band (actually they're on a balcony above the stage) is led by the show's co-writer, Diane's husband, Sam Kriger, and he's done a first-rate job of whipping this show into shape musically, and seeing that all its techncial i's are dotted and t's are crossed.

But we waited until halfway through the run to see it, and then I was too lazy to get this review up sooner. There's only two weeks left. It closes on April 28. So off your butts. Go see Diane's take on Betty's songs. You'll have a grand time. You can get tickets here.

Oh hell, here's another Larry Vincent comedy song, just because we love and miss him:

Cheers, darlings. (Buy my new book!)

I barge up onstage to "help out" only to find the liquor onstage was only cold tea. I detest show busness sham!