Volume 74, Number 20 | September 22 - 28 , 2004

Music

Howlin’ At The Moon
A country/rock musical
Sept 23 to Oct 10
The Club at La MaMa
74A East 4th Street
212-475-7710.

Madison Mason brings his country musical to La MaMa, where he first worked three decades ago. Founder Ellen Stewart said, “Honey, you come here to mama. I remember 30 years ago you said you would someday bring a country musical to New York.”

Returning to La MaMa with a country musical

By JERRY TALLMER

The last time Madison Mason was at La MaMa E.T.C. it was 1974 and the show was “Horse Opera,” a musical adapted by John Braden from a play by Leonard Melfi.

“We did it on a raked stage that was supposed to be the desert around Las Vegas. Running across it was a miniature train that kept falling off the track on the curves. We were riding around on saw horses, yelling “Yippee! Yippee!” and stopping every few seconds to pick up the train and put it back.”

The director was the redoubtable, imaginative Wilford Leach.

“I walked in one day,” says Mason,” and he was moving a light. He looked at me and said: ‘Don’t just stand there. Do something! This isn’t one of those actor-stand-around theaters.’

“I now understand that,” says back-from-Hollywood Madison Mason, book writer, song writer, director of “Howlin’ at the Moon,” his country/rock musical that’s at The Club at La MaMa from September 23 through October 18.

E.T.C. stands for Experimental Theater Club, and the mama of La MaMa, is and has always been, from its cradle, Miss Ellen Stewart, whom Mason sums up in one word — well, three — “She’s a hero.”

A year ago last March he flew here from California to tell Ellen about his “Howlin’ ” idea — “not a good-time country musical but a gritty story about a country rock star just out of prison because he made a mistake and is now trying to start all over again with his ragtag band. It’s a show about aging, sexual dysfunction, family dysfunction, love, hate, jealousy, everything.”

He wanted it to have its world premiere at La MaMa.

“I hadn’t seen Ellen in 30 years. How many people have been through La MaMa in all those years. She not only remembered me, she remembered things about me that I had forgotten.

“She said: ‘Honey, you come here to mama. I remember 30 years ago you said you would someday bring a country musical to New York.”

Mason is glad it’s going into the space that’s called The Club because he wanted the atmosphere of a saloon.

“We go up in 13 days,” he said, sitting on a bench out behind Cooper Union. “I’ve spent the last month cutting it down to a real tight one-act of about an hour forty-five.” The star is Scott Wakefield as washed-up Sonny Ray Buck, whose own guiding star, somewhere Out There, is Elvis you-know-who. In support as Sonny’s lovers and other strangers, black, brown, white, or whatever, are Trudi Posey, Mandi Gosling, Soraya Butler, Bi Jean Ngo, and Robert Zahne.

One song of which Mason is especially proud is the interwoven black and Jewish “Minority Blues” — “my homage to Lenny Bruce.”

Madison Palmer Mason III, born in Virginia like James Madison, fourth president of the United States, came to New York from Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1962. He appeared at the old Gate Theater, Second Avenue and 10th Street, in Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist,” opposite Roy Scheider and John Heffernan. At the Trinity in Providence, Rhode Island, he did “Midsummer Night’s Dream” opposite Blythe Danner.

Thirty years ago he took himself off to La-La Land.

“Didn’t want to go,” says the tall, strong-profiled, blue-eyed, brush-cut, white-haired Mason who really looks like the generals, admirals, Navy secretaries, and undersecretaries he’s played in a whole batch of films, “but I got coerced into going by my then wife. Then she left me. Stuck me out there with two kids while she found herself.”

Sticking to him, with him, for 27 years now is Linda Bertenstein.

The two kids are now three — two grown daughters and 15-year-old son Jordan. “He’s a basketball player and my pride and joy. I told him: ‘I could help you out if you want to be an actor.’ The kid said: ‘Dad, I could think of a thousand better ways to be poor.’ ”

Mason’s face is familiar to televiewers from commercials over the years for Listerine and Shell Oil, as well as dozens of acting roles; with all that, he has also just completed a novel about Beowulf.

“Howlin’ at the Moon” will be his first accomplishment as a stage director. “The warm, fuzzy feeling I’ve got here,” says Madison Mason, “does not in any way alter the fact that I wake up in icy panic, sheer terror.”

Hang in there, Sonny Ray. Saint Elvis won’t — wouldn’t — let you down.

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