Welton Jones began writing about theater while a student at Texas A&M, in 1957. He’d been drawn to the arts since childhood, but when he wrote that first review, he’d only seen one play “that I wasn’t in. My theater education came from seeing and doing shows.”
He’s reviewed so many — in San Diego and around the world — the number’s easily five figures. He has first-hand, encyclopedic knowledge of theater.
Personally, he’s been a valued colleague and a darn-good friend. And I’ve always wanted to ask what shows he remembers most vividly.
Here’s the international list in chronological order.
1.) The Visit, by Frederick Durrematt (1958) at the renovated Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne have been called “the greatest acting team in American history.” This was their final appearance on a stage. “He projected power and she, subtlety. I will never forget the contrast between the two of them. They set my initial standards forever after.”
2.) The Threepenny Opera, Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation of the Brecht/Weill “play with musical elements,” Theatre de Lys, off-Broadway (1958), Jerry Orbach, Lotte Lenya. “The famous version, accessible Brecht, an eye-opening delight. The critics loathed it. Eric Bentley couldn’t say enough bad about Blitzstein.”
3.) West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim, staged by Jerome Robbins, Winter Garden Theatre, Broadway (1958). “Unbelievable wallop. Dancers sang and singers danced. Everybody fell in love with Carol Lawrence, Larry Kurt, and Chita Rivera. Bernstein’s score is a masterpiece. Shakespeare’s words were all dumped but his Romeo and Juliet still triumphed.”
4.) La Plume de Ma Tante, Royale Theatre, Broadway (1958). Robert Dhery’s French revue mixed English, French, and mime and satirized manners and disasters on the stage. “It had ballet, raincoats, a horse, and bell-ringing monks who swung over the audience. Mysteriously nonverbal and always at the edge of catastrophe. Exquisite.”
5.) Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin So Sad. Phoenix Theatre, New York (1962). Arthur Kopit packed his “Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition” with man-eating fish, man-eating plants, and man-eating women. Staged like a comic-strip by Jerome Robbins, “it was an absolute knockout that pushed the theater toward the abyss of the mid-60s.”
6.) Baby Want A Kiss (Broadway, Little Theatre, 1964). “Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward play a Hollywood couple visiting an old playwright friend in this mad comedy that can’t possibly be as good as they made it in my memory. Kind of Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow 30 years earlier. Newman and Woodward together, famous actors playing famous actors — and truly funny!”
7.) Hair, James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt McDermott’s “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” (off-Broadway, 1967, Broadway, 1968) was a long-haired, Hamlet-inspired diatribe against the Vietnam War and a cry for social justice. It “changed everything. It had nudity, actors in the audience, no forbidden words, a band on stage – Hair broke many barriers. It may be the single most influential show ever to hit Broadway.”
8.) A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal Shakespeare Company (1970). Director Peter Brook peeled away all traditional stagings. The forest was slinky toys; Titania’s bower, a big red feather, and the cast performed circus tricks: trapeze acts and plates spinning on sticks. “Brook concentrated on the magic, and the show was truly that.”
9.) The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1980). David Edgar’s eight-and-a-half-hour musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, music and lyrics by Stephen Oliver, co-directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “’Nick-Nick,’ as it fondly was known when it came to Broadway the next year, demonstrated truly what the 20th century theater had learned. It was said that any one of the 40-plus actors who endlessly traded the dozens of roles around, during the long rehearsal period, could have done the whole show alone. The triumph of the enterprise was that one believed that.”
10.) The Mahabarata (1985). The original version of Peter Brooks’ eleven-hour adaptation of the great Sanskrit epic at his theater in Paris, Les Bouffes du Nord. “Brook had dragged his troupe around the world for a couple of years, learning how to make the message coherent to any audience. Maybe that didn’t happen but the effort was awe-inspiring.”
Next time: Welton’s favorite local productions.