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A CurtainUp Review
Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road

All I need is a little room,
A place that is fine and free,
A room where I can think to myself,
Where nobdy's needing me.

And then I'll find my way again
And I will sing my song

—Gretchen Cryer,
I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road is the sharp and spirited insightful musical comedy groundbreaker that opened in 1978 as the feminist movement was gaining steam. Women demanded equality for both genders and now, 35 years later, they have come a long way. Or have they? This is prime time for another look at Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford's musical stamp on the '70's, now at City Center as the final presentation of Encores! Off-Center in the 2013 season.

When Gretchen Cryer was 33, a divorced mother of two and writer/lyricist with a raised consciousness, she set down her experiences for a new show about women. With Nancy Ford's music, the show revolves around Cryer's alter-ego, Heather Jones (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a struggling pop singer. Heather wants to break out, follow her own path, and create a show reflecting her personal songs and stories.

Directed by Kathleen Marshall, this fab revisit retains the distinctive look and sound of the period and keeps an effective intimacy. It is Heather's 39th birthday and she's about to launch her new act in a New York cabaret with two backup singers Alice (Christine Sajous) and Cheryl (Jennifer Sanchez) and a four-piece Liberated Man's Band. They are waiting to show the act to her long time manager and friend, Joe Epstein (Frederick Weller), who has been out of town.

When Joe arrives, however, he is less than enthusiastic. What happened to her hair (now a natural Afro)? Why does she have to tell her age, or talk about growing up in the 1950's? It will limit her appeal. Hearing her opener, "Natural High," with the lyrics, "But tomorrow I hit the road. . .Music is my one salvation," Joe thinks the chorus should end more optimistically instead of whimsically, as she wants.

Heather is patient, but when he urges her to return to her old songbook like the romantic, "In a Simple Way I Love You," she balks. "This song doesn't mean anything to me anymore. I wrote it a long time ago, in another life. It's Jello." The two, now sparring on opposite sides of the ring, prove to be compelling opponents, both landing effective punches.

Renee Elise Goldsberry ( The Color Purple, The Good Wife ), a versatile actor and singer, mines the strength and vulnerability grounding Heather's material. The anecdotes lead smoothly into the music. Power songs show her considerable vocal potency, in "Strong Women Number," for example, exploding with self-assurance. With ballads like "Dear Tom," a letter to her ex-husband, she brings a wide-eyed sincerity, admitting how she had often blamed him unfairly. Deftly, she finds the good girl-good wife image she had grown up with and pairs it with a new maturity. "Smile for Daddy," is plainly out there with the line, "I always tried to please."

Heather relates the difficulty women have offsetting their need for independence with a meaningful relationship. Noteworthy is "Old Friend," a song she wrote about her relationship with Joe. Sitting together alone on a step, the song poignantly illustrates the balancing act ("we sit in a bar and talk 'til two/ about life and love as old friends do/and tell each other what we've been through").

Frederick Weller persuasively plays Joe as a fusion of numerous men. Joe is a threatening, and threatened, man of the '70's, a victim of his time, confused about the needs and desires of women and wondering what more they want. He warns Heather that a great deal of her material is going to offend the men in the audience. Reacting on a deeper, more disturbing layer, he finds Heather's music an uncomfortable reminder of his relationship with his own troubled wife who acts out in desperation.

Derek McLane created an evocative cabaret setting with batik hangings as a backdrop and a faint whiff of incense while costume designer Clint Ramos uses the look of floppy hats and high-waited pants of the '70's.

Originally produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1978, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road ran for 1,165 performances in 1978. Most critics hated it back then, but Papp kept it going and audiences kept coming and eventually the show went on the road with companies around the world.

Cryer and Ford may not have provided answers to all the problems but they provided the feminist movement with a spirited soundtrack. Renée Elise Goldsberry and Encores! sensitive new look still has much to say and deserves a longer run in New York. We know we haven't come far enough, Baby.
Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road
Book and lyrics by Gretchen Cryer and music by Nancy Ford
Directed and Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

Cast: Renee Elise Goldsberry, Jason Rabinowitz, Christina Sajous, Jennifer Sanchez, Frederick Weller
Music Direction: Chris Fenwick
Musicians: Damien Bassman, Alec Berlin, George Farmer, Chris Fenwick
Orchestrations: Scott Berry, Bob George, Lee Grayson, Don Scardino, Dean Swenson, Nancy Ford. "Strong Women Number" by Eliot Weiss
Set Design: Derek McLaine
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Mark Burton
Sound design: Leon Rothenberg
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Running Time: 90 minutes. No intermission.
City Center, West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Performances: Wed., Thurs. at 7:30pm; Fri. at 8pm; Saturday at 2pm and 8pm.
Opens: 7/24/13. Closes: 7/26/13
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 7/25/13
Musical Numbers:
Natural High - Heather, Alice, Cheryl and the Liberated Man's Band
Smile - Heather, Jake, Cheryl, Alice and Band
In a Simple Way I Love You - Heather and the Band
Miss America - Heather, Alice and Cheryl and band
5. Strong Woman Number - Alice, Heather and Cheryl
Old Friend - Heather
In a Simple Way I Love You (Reprise) - Jake
If Only Things Were Different - Jake
Feel the Love - Company
Lonely Lady - Heather
Happy Birthday - Heather and Company Natural High (Reprise) - The Company
Slings & Arrows  cover of  new Blu-Ray cover
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Our review of the show

©Copyright 2013, Elyse Sommer.
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