THE LAST DAYS OF CLEOPATRA, a newly minted musical by Charlie Barnett, a staged reading
Published on 23 January 2023 | Written by Kathy McAuley | |
SCENE: A rehearsal room somewhere in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
TIME: Early afternoon
Several actors chat quietly as they assemble in a large conference room for a
reading of THE LAST DAYS OF CLEOPATRA, a new musical farce about the making of the storied 1963 movie.
They take their assigned chairs in a large circle occupying half the room.
ACT ONE, SCENE ONE
At one end sits writer-composer CHARLIE BARNETT, focusing intensely on both a laptop and an electronic keyboard. reviewing a score and dabbling out bits of melody.
As the ACTORS prepare to portray various characters in a read-through of the musical, BARNETT readies himself to play and sing the 23 songs he’s written for the show.
CKP director ARA BARLIEB takes the last empty chair. He will read stage directions and perform as EDDIE FISHER and other characters not already assigned.
ARA nods to CHARLIE and the room goes silent.
Thus started a recent afternoon’s adventure in theater, a reading of Barnett’s musical farce about the making of what he delicately terms “one of the biggest film turkeys of all time.”
It was also the most expensive film made to date, and clocking in at nearly four hours, one of the longest. The controversy surrounding the making of the film inspired one critic to describe it as “great” and “infamous” in the same sentence.
After working for years on his heavy-duty Civil Rights musical, “When We Get There,” Barnett says he was relieved to get back to something lighter like “Cleopatra.”
As he wrote in his online Composers Notebook: “Everything about this show speaks to me: farce, the year, the preposterous egos in the film business, and togas…I cannot wait to dig into a real musical comedy.”
In 2017, Easton High School buddies Barlieb and Barnett, each having spent decades in the creative and performance arts, decided to collaborate. Barlieb has produced 94 shows with CKP and Barnett is an accomplished writer and composer of hundreds of theatrical, musical, film, and television projects. Crowded Kitchen first produced Barnett’s “Twelveness” and in 2018 performed “Him and Jim.” Next, they produced an early version of Barnett’s “19:The Musical,” about the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.
So, when he wanted to stage a reading of his new work about the final days of filming “Cleopatra,” Barnett called on CKP to be part of the process.
Readings like this are essential for the fine-tuning of a production, giving the producers a chance to hear words and music, timing and flow.
“Theater is a collaborative art form,” Barnett recently wrote. “Having your music interpreted by people with different experiences and sensibilities can bring out qualities and meaning in the work that you didn’t even know was there.”
On the day of the reading, Barnett emphasized to the cast that the show was still a work in progress. As he posted: “’Finished’ is an expedient word that really means, ‘We’ve stopped changing it — for now.’”
The lesson for the day was: In the theater, there’s always something somebody wants to tweak.
But Barlieb also saw the reading as a chance for Crowded Kitchen Players to try something beyond their non-musical shows that often are built around social issues. (Currently, for example, they are working on Barlieb’s “All You Need to Know,” a “dark comedy” about the intersection of the arts and commerce. It’s set to premiere on Oct. 7 at Bethlehem’s IceHouse.)
“We approached the reading of “Cleopatra” as if it were an actual, live-performance event,” Barlieb said. “It was a highly engaging, wrinkle-free reading that generated laughter throughout the play.”
For the cast, it was also an opportunity to try roles different than their usual type. For example, veteran actor Sharon Ferry read the principal male role of besieged film director Joseph Mankiewicz and was able to exercise her considerable range by playing him as the harried director diplomatically juggling various egos. At one point, an exasperated Mankiewicz sums it up: “How difficult it is to be a man of vision while being led by the blind.”
Trish Cipoletti was assigned the role of the film’s star Elizabeth Taylor, then in her late 20s, whose incendiary affair with Richard Burton is the impetus for nearly everything in the musical plot.
The treat of the day was hearing Barnett perform his songs, mostly very light, funny numbers that tickled the cast and moved the plot almost as much as did the dialog.
Barnett is highly skilled at the keyboard and his performances of the music energized the afternoon.
“The idea of doing a show that no one has ever seen is so empowering,” Cipoletti said. “You can make that character whatever you want, but the music made it much more alive and enjoyable.”
Cipoletti said she felt intimidated playing such a young and famous Hollywood icon as Liz Taylor (She was 29 playing younger in the film.) To prepare, she watched TV documentaries of Liz’s public persona. “I wanted at least to try to figure out her way of thinking as herself, not in a role,” she said.
Though he didn’t take part in the reading, Lehigh Valley actor Don Swan was invited to observe and evaluate the performance based on his experience in decades of Lehigh Valley amateur theater. (He’s says he’s never bothered to count, but thinks he may have performed in nearly 200 shows, 18 of them as part of CKP.)
While acknowledging “Cleopatra” is still a work in progress, Swan said it already compares to popular Broadway farces such as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and others — entertaining, not necessarily deep. “I’d be happy anytime to pay my money and go to the show,” he added.
Overall, the Kitcheneers said they drew some lessons from the experience.
“For one thing, you’re right in the moment.” Sharon Ferry said. “It was all over the top – sort of like a party. I liked the sense of fun; it was so spirited, no subtlety, just flat out fun.”
But she says performing it was also serious work. “You can’t be thinking about something else. You’re learning the play and the characters — and once Charlie started to sing, it informed the whole play.”
Sharon’s brother Dan, who often plays a “heavy” in local productions, says he enjoyed reading as a young swain in an impossible love affair Liz, which provides much of the comedy. “I was a caricature – a 57-year old man reading for a 20-year old.” In the midst of all the portraits of real people, Dan’s role was fictitious and comic. “This was not an attempt at docudrama,” he said, “It was entertainment.”
Barlieb said the experience was great for their troupe. “It was a strong validation of their skills both individually and as members of a seasoned ensemble.” Also reading were Bruce Brown, Madelyn Dundon, Carla Hadley, David “Oz” Oswald, Colleen Popper, and Pamela McLean Wallace,.
ACT TWO: ATTACK OF THE KILLER ASP
The reading is over. Cast and visitors applaud BARNETT. BARNETT and BARLIEB applaud the cast. EVERYONE applauds each other.
The reading has gone well: Those who read major parts had put plenty of dramatic oomph into their roles, and BARNETT had performed his satirical songs with great merriment.
By the end of the afternoon he was delighted.
“Your reading …was a complete joy,” he later texted to the cast. “It gave me a confidence in the show that I was not expecting. This suddenly feels ready for the ‘next step,’ whatever that might be.“
What-will-be is that BARNETT may conduct a few more readings to fine tune even more, and then head out to visit potential investors to see if he can finance a full-fledged performance – perhaps in his home town of Washington, D.C. The show may one day be on its way to Broadway – but that’s a another story.
In the meantime, Sharon Ferry remembered her stage direction as the member of a read-through cast: “Ara told us to just have fun with it.”
And they did.