By John Lyle Belden
Publisher Bob Harrison just wanted to make a magazine that everyone would buy, and everybody would talk about. He got his wish, briefly outselling Reader’s Digest, but what people – especially the famous – had to say was nearly more than he could handle.
This is the true story behind “Mr. Confidential,” the new musical getting its world premiere at Actors Theatre of Indiana. Both the book-of-the-musical and the big, detailed book of the same name are by Samuel Garza Bernstein, whose lyrics are set to music by David Snyder.
Harrison (Don Farrell) has gotten some notoriety around New York for his girlie magazines. No naughty bits are revealed, but frilly undies and bathing suits are enough to get him in trouble in 1952. Still, if visual suggestions of sex and sin can’t get published, what’s to stop printing words about it – especially when everyone privately buzzes about how the squeaky-clean image of Hollywood is a dirty sham.
Harrison gets everyone involved: his sister and business partner Edith Tobias (Cynthia Collins), headstrong niece Marjorie Meade (Shelbi Berry Kamohara), naïve nephew Michael Tobias (Jacob Butler), devoted girlfriend Jeannie Douglas (Diana O’Halloran*), and even legendary broadcast journalist Walter Winchell (John Vessels), who brings in zealous Commie-hunter Howard Rushmore (Tim Fullerton) to manage the magazine and provide provocative political content.
“Confidential” magazine is a hit, and soon Marjorie, tired of being little more than wife to Fred Meade (Kieran Danaan), heads out to Los Angeles to get Hollywood dirt right from the source, with informants including exotic model/actress Francesca de la Pena (Jaddy Ciucci).
Back in New York, Rushmore bristles at there being far more stories about “deviants” than secret Reds, and makes his move. Big Bob counters with an alleged brush with death that captures the nation’s attention, so his now-former managing editor enacts a most public and sensational revenge.
The cast also includes Judy Fitzgerald as Rushmore’s wife, Jason Frierson as the Los Angeles County prosecutor, Alex Coveny as Harrison’s attorney, and Emily Bohannon and Megan Arrington in various roles such as pin-up models and trial witnesses.
Farrell’s charisma and Collins’ no-nonsense approach set the high bar that all meet in their performances. Vessels’ knack for going from serious to silly in a heartbeat, complete with you-gotta-be-kidding-me expression, make him an excellent Winchell (and the judge at trial). Berry Kamohara employs her awesome voice exquisitely, especially when singing the potential classic, “Girl Next Door.” O’Halloran manages to project the air of a trusting woman with her own mind in a role where she could come off as a subservient ditz. Fullerton nimbly carries Rushmore down a path of single-minded obsession reminiscent of Javert in “Les Mis,” and just as self-destructive.
The show is enhanced by numerous projections of genuine headlines, photos, and magazine pages, as well as moments of celebrities declaring their shock at finding such stories about them in print. This, and versatile sets, are courtesy of Willem De Vries, with Baxter Chambers on lighting and Zach Rosing on sound. Kevin Casey is stage manager, assisted by Emma Littau.
Silly journalist that I am, I could be burying a lead here – that work is under way to get “Mr. Confidential” to a New York stage.
Is it ready for Broadway? I’m no expert, merely a long-time observer, so I am not qualified to say “no” (that’s too pessimistic for this blog anyway) but I’m sensing it’s not a “yes” – yet. To borrow from home improvement culture, I’d say this musical has “good bones.” The base story is fascinating, it has good songs, and meaty roles. My guess is that, like many that have gone on to meet Tony, this show will see some revisions and evolution as it makes its way to ever-bigger markets, and perhaps the Big Apple.
So, wouldn’t you like to get in on the ground floor, see what the fuss is about, and meet the guy who alerted eager readers to the possibility that Liberace was not a man’s man in the way they thought?
One weekend remains, performances Friday through Sunday, May 12-14, at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For information and tickets, go to atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org. Bernstein’s book, “Mr. Confidential,” and other merch are also available for sale.
(*The actress was misidentified in the initial posting of this review. We apologize for the error and any confusion.)