This time Sayles has a pocket dance musical that only the most serious of theater buffs will have heard of: Fingers and Toes. To reassure the wary, however, he has brought in top choreographer David Wanstreet from the Syracuse University Drama Department, and Robert Moss, emeritus from Syracuse Stage and one of the most experienced and beloved directors in these parts. As if that were not enough, Sayles has hired author-composer Logan Medland as music director.
Like one of the nascent shows Sayles is cultivating in his third-level series, The Pitch at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art’s Theater Mack, Fingers and Toes came out of nowhere to become a critical and box office smash at the New York Musical Theatre Festival two years ago. Medland, a former resident of Ontario, relocated to Brooklyn after this success.
As the action is supposed to take place on the Ziegfeld roof (six flights up), the set could be any low-rent space you could find. In Auburn, Sayles has contracted scenic designer Alexander Woodward to build a period sty with lots of thrift-store junk, ladders and a radiator to evoke poverty in 1939, at the end of the Depression, the specific moment of the action. And along with Moss and Wanstreet, he has hired three Equity players, each of whose professionalism is necessary to pull the thing off.
Three-person shows often look as though they might have been written for non-professionals. But even our better community theater companies would be hard-pressed to deliver on Medland’s demands. The character called Fingers, for example, plays the entire score on stage, while in character, as well as acting and projecting emotion and telling jokes. And the character named Toes has to be a first-class tap dancer.
The concept for Fingers and Toes sounds like a more user-friendly version of Jeff Brown and Hunter Bell’s [title of show], post-modernism for fun. It’s a musical about writing the musical that you see, only it’s set in the heyday of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. The Toes of the title, Dustin MacGrath (Danny Gardner) is, yes, a dancer and also a singing and joke-telling performer. When we first see him he taps up a storm with “All I Want to Do is . . . .,” actually written by Medland but sounding very much like something from 1939.
High-spirited, optimistic and cajoling, Toes is begging for the kind of show that will put him back on the stage. Then a stroke of good fortune allows him to spend noontime at the Stork Club where he can put the bite on Mr. Big Time Producer himself. In a moment of heady bravado, he tells Mr. Big that he and his partner are finishing a show that they will present to him in two weeks.
That partner is Fingers, Tristan St. Claire (Ian Lowe), a taciturn piano player and composer. Having just been dumped by his Russian aristocratic wife, Fingers is struggling to finish his piano sonata, which sounds like strangled Rachmaninoff. We in the audience know we’re not going to have an evening’s entertainment unless Fingers can break out of the doldrums, but Lowe puts enough conviction into despair that he has something resembling real conflict, at least for a while. When Fingers consents they come up with “Anyone Can Write a Song,” a smiley little piece of banality allowing everything that follows to sound more sophisticated.
Once Fingers has joined the bet, the duo knows they need a female lead and so send out a casting call. Blessedly, we never see any of the hopeless cretins, only we hear their wailing and groaning from offstage. Following a much-loved cliché of all backstage musicals, the guys are about to quit when the unexpected shows up late. It’s gorgeous brunette Molly Molloy (Deidre Haren), thin as a propeller blade and twice as fast. She auditions with a song she has written herself, “Love You Let Me Down.” A double threat, she can write like Fingers and dance like Toes, except that they take an immediately dislike for each other, as expressed in their duet duel, “You and Me.”
The humor in Fingers and Toes runs along two tracks: the musical, where Medland is more original, and verbal, where he tends toward the facile. One of his most startling musical gags comes just before the first act’s curtain with “Nocturnal Commission” (yes, that’s a pun) in which Toes and Molly dance to the music of Frederic Chopin run at a different tempo. In another Toes and Finger iterate the sins of Mr. Big Time Producer in “Casting Couch Barber Shop,” with the hilariously inappropriate harmonies of barbershop, here only a duet instead of a quartet. In his riskiest, “I’m Just in Love With You,” Medland juxtaposes love lyrics with squabbling, one interrupting the other.
One song, “You Might as Well Laugh,” spoofs the pop culture artifacts of 1939, like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, which the boys could not have known as early as February, before those movies were released. Elsewhere, Medland is in-your-face with anachronisms, like having payphones cost a dime when they were a nickel or playing phonograph records that are LPs, even though 78 rpms dominated until the mid-1950s. These are Bronx cheers to pedants.
The verbal humor runs to musical theater trivia, like having the boys reject ideas for shows that might have become Oklahoma, South Pacific or Singin’ in the Rain. Or such dialogue as, “I’m bewitched, bothered and bewildered because I can’t get started with you.”
Despite the Saturday Night Live-skit affects, Fingers and Toes
is a polished, professional production with Haren, Lowe and Gardner
delivering winning performances. Wanstreet’s dance arrangements evoke
what the late Gower Champion might have suggested, with perhaps more
flair. Costumer Ryan Park makes actress Haren look like a pal of
Rosalind Russell and Irene Dunne. And director Robert Moss, well
remembered for his handling of Morrie Ryskind’s Room Service, knows how to bring alive the flavor of the 1930s, even if she show was written two years ago.
This production runs through Aug. 18. See Times Table for information.