Play It Cool

Katie Campbell, Mark Winkler, Marissa Batt, and, in the background, Andrew Pandaleon, after the show at the Celebration Theatre in Hollywood.

Tonight I went with my lifelong friend Marissa Batt to see “Play It Cool,” a jazz musical comedy set in a secret gay and lesbian bar in Hollywood in 1953. Our friend Mark Winkler wrote the lyrics for all of the songs. I remember Mark from junior high school days, and Marissa was his date for the senior prom at LA High. Mark’s recorded nine CDs of original jazz tunes and written both music and lyrics for some very enthusiastically received musicals, including Naked Boys Singing, Too Old for the Chorus, Bark!, and now Play It Cool, writing lyrics with jazz luminaries including Joe Sample, Wayne Shorter, David Benoit and David Pomeranz. Mark has toured widely, singing his wonderful songs.

I loved every aspect of this show, starting with its newness, and that, therefore, the creators of the show are still changing things from night to night to see how they might work better. That, Mark explained to me, is how all musicals are when they first open. The play, written by Larry Dean Harris and directed by Sharon Rosen, succeeded in bringing to life the denizens of the demimonde with wit, panache and pathos. All five of the singer/dancer/actors (Katie Campbell, Steven Janji, Andrew Pandaleon, Michael Craig Shapiro, and Jessica Sheridan) in the small cast dazzled us, especially through the work of choreographer Marvin Tunney.

A jazz trio (Louis Durra on piano, Al Gruskoff on bass, and Adam Alesi on drums), barely visible in the obscure back of the stage, exquisitely played standards in the style of ‘50’s jazz before and between the acts, and accomplanied the recently composed but 50’s style jazz songs for which Mark wrote the brilliant lyrics. The band did not merely accompany the show, but were characters in the play, since all of the action takes place around their gig. The set’s black on black bar interior surrounded by audience on three sides drew me into the drama, while a swirling mist that looked exactly like cigarette smoke, but wasn’t, completed the mood, fogging the lights.

After the show, Marissa and I and her cousins and friend Patti went out for a late night gourmet meal, gazing into the wild windows of the Design District. No more are gays underground in Hollywood. This is their town, and they make it so bewitchingly beautiful.