nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 15, 2013
A scene from The Hat
The Hat referred to in the title of this one-act play by Melissa R. Randel is the sparkling gold topper she wore and danced with in the musical A Chorus Line. At the very beginning of The Hat, Randel executes the now-iconic choreography that Michael Bennett created for his actors and their hats, describing the steps as she seamlessly moves through them until she triumphantly cocks her head back—as she puts it, "left cheek to God."
Randel tells us in a note in the show's program that she "spent five years of my life performing A Chorus Line—on Broadway, on tour with the International and National Companies, and on the road with the Bus and Truck." I checked and it turns out that I actually saw Randel on Broadway in 1983, the first time I saw A Chorus Line (and several of her co-stars from that year were in the audience at the performance I attended at FringeNYC). There's no doubt that this experience was the peak of Randel's professional career, and the glimpses we get of what her life was like working on that show—humorous stories about being in the wrong place for auditions and at rehearsals, tales of hasty match-ups on the road, her first meeting with Michael Bennett—are fascinating and tantalizing. (My top moment: learning that the shoes she wore were designed specifically for her feet. Several pairs of said shoes are in evidence on stage at The Hat.)
But The Hat wants to be more than a simple reminiscence. Most of the hour-long show is devoted to portrayals of the sad marriage of Randel's parents. Her mother was a chorus dancer and her father was a trombonist with Woody Herman's band. They met and fell instantly in love, marrying after just a few weeks together. But the fairy tale romance dissipated quickly. He was interested only in his music and, soon, his drinking. She became hard and bitter. "I don't know what they were for or against," Randel tells us, evoking a famous line from "At the Ballet" in A Chorus Line. Her father was distant and cruel. Her mother was unhappy and mean. It's obvious that young Randel (who calls herself "Ruth" in The Hat) sought the same escape as most of the characters in A Chorus Line. But unfortunately, instead of confiding in us about her own feelings, her focus is squarely on her parents, especially her dad. She winds up covering ground that's been covered in countless books and films and plays (Side Man comes right to mind).
I kept wishing for the story only she knows: the one about why she left home, how she found her way into the (then) most successful musical of all time, what that experience did to her. The FringeNYC program guide blurb gives away the piece's climactic event, which is that her father dies while she is performing in the show for the 87th time. This obviously affected Randel; but she went on to do more than 2,000 more performances after he died: I wanted to know how she got through them and what she'd learned (or failed to learn). We don't ever get a sense of her relationship to her craft here (though she's in full command of her body and dances flawlessly throughout the piece). I kept wondering: What did Randel do for love?
If they continue to develop this piece, I hope that director Sergio Castillo and Randel will think about the unique story she has to share with audiences and shift their focus to it.
I should add that Randel is accompanied throughout by trombonist David Gibson, who also plays her father and other men in the story. I suspect that the storytelling might be cleaner if she were the only one onstage.