When María Irene Fornés died last October at the age of 88, the many theatergoers who knew nothing about her suddenly learned how pioneering , prolific and influential a theater artist she had been; how beloved by critics, scholars, her downtown colleagues and her many students; and how fascinating the life of this Cuban immigrant, one-time lover of Susan Sontag, who was a painter until she saw the original production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in Paris, and although it was in French, a language she didn’t know, it convinced her to become a playwright and a director.
It took nine months after her death for us to see just how gloriously entertaining Fornes work could be, when her 1965 musical “Promenade” was presented at City Center this past week for just two nights, as part of the Encores Off-Center summer concert series.
“Promenade” was launched in 1965 at Judson Poets Theater, which was one of the four founding theaters of the Off-Off Broadway movement, housed in Judson Memorial Church, and presided over by the Rev. Al Carmines, one of the church’s pastors and a talented composer. Carmines (who died in 2005 at the age of 69) is another theater artist who should be better known. He supplied the remarkable, wide-ranging score for “Promenade,” while Fornes wrote the book and the lyrics. Unlike most Off-Off Broadway fare, the show was such a popular mainstream success that it moved Off-Broadway a few years later, with a cast that included future celebrated comic actress Madeline Kahn, to a new theater named after the show. (The Promenade Theater on 76th Street lasted for 36 years.) The Times critic gave it a rave review: “It is a joy from start to finish.”
And so too was the production of it at City Center, thanks to director Laurie Woolery, the design team, the seven-member orchestra led by Greg Jarrett, and a uniformly superlative cast .
One can pretend that “Promenade” has a plot, involving the peregrinations of two honest men who happen to be prisoners, known only as inmate numbers 105 and 106, (James T. Lane and Kent Overshown), until they escape from jail and start searching New York City for “the appearance of sin.” They are soon accompanied by an embittered servant (Bryonha Marie Parham), chased by a Keystone-like cop (Mark Bedard) and berated by an incompetent, narcissistic politician, the Mayor (Becca Blackwell.)
But the show is really a collage of song and sketch that are vivid and vaudevillian in their presentation, but edged with sharp commentary on the gap between rich and poor.
The cast enters as if….well….promenading, in fur coats and glitter – costumes by Clint Ramos that simultaneously suggest pimp and runway, disco and derelict; later, Bonnie Milligan dressed in flouncy pink jumps out of a cake.
We are taken to (as the placards above each scene make clear) The Banquet, The Street, The Battlefield. There is an almost continuous flow of music, the 32 songs f in almost as many different styles — in turn, 20s burlesque, 30s big band, Noel Coward, Broadway, bluesy, even operatic (a stand-out moment: Carmen Ruby Floyd singing “A Flower”)
The music slows down to a sad tinkle at one point as an old woman, listed in the program as Mother (Saundra Santiago), asks “Have you seen my babies? No?” The moment is memorable, reflecting Fornes and Carmines ability to move and amuse and suddenly sting: “He said he would kill for me,” Soara-Joye Ross sings in The Moment Has Passed. “And I said, ‘Like, for instance who?’ And he said, ‘Like, for instance you.’”
At the end of this surreal and memorable show, 105 and 106 wind up back in jail, singing “All Is Well in the City” – and making clear they don’t believe it, and neither should we.