Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Lady and the Champ" - Not Always a Knockout, but Lands a Few Good Punches

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Michael Weintraub

Lady and the Champ, now at the Richmond Shepard Theatre off-Broadway, offers a chance to see a true living legend: Jake LaMotta - former middleweight champion of the world, bar owner, writer, and all-around raconteur. Unfortunately, much of what is presented on stage doesn't quite live up to the pre-show publicity hype.

Taking place in a sort of nightclub setting, the plot, such as it is, has a reporter from a boxing magazine meeting LaMotta by chance and, after getting over his astonishment that the man is still alive, conducts an interview with him. LaMotta answers all of the queries with a combination of honesty, bemusement and wry sense of humor. In these question and answer sessions, spread out over three segments during the course of the show, LaMotta talks about his childhood in the Bronx, where he and fellow future boxer Rocky Graziano used to steal things beginning with the letter "A", (i.e. "a car, a fur coat"). LaMotta also elaborates on his specific boxing style and why he switched from being a lefty to righty. He also recalls his fights with Sugar Ray Robinson and gives his opinion of actor Robert De Niro, who portrayed LaMotta in the 1980 film "Raging Bull", the title also being LaMotta's nickname. He also makes an interesting comment or two about some of his former wives. LaMotta has been down the aisle six times so far, and has been engaged to Denise Baker for 17 years; a woman who he lovingly refers to as future wife "lucky #7". Baker is also a part of the show, singing various musical numbers and talking about the two's first meeting, as well as offering some information about her own brief career in theatre; in the short-lived 1976 Broadway musical revue Let My People Come. Baker also handles the directing chores for Lady and the Champ.

For a quiet looking, elderly man of few syllables, LaMotta certainly has a lot to say, filling his somewhat brief responses not only with passion, but also recreating to a degree the atmosphere and era his words describe. A fascinating subject, the show also includes film clips from his various fights, showing what a power he was in the ring. LaMotta also explains how he got the nickname "Bull", (first "Bronx", then "Raging"), due to the fact that he never backed down during a fight. He even gives a shadowboxing demonstration of his pugilistic style and shows that he still has the moves to carry it off.

Sadly, what's missing from the production is a fully well-rounded look at LaMotta and his life. It would have been nice, for example, to see more of what happened later on with him after he retired from boxing. There is also no mention of his current legal battle with MGM, the studio that made the De Niro film and who is trying to stop the filming of "Raging Bull II", based on LaMotta's memoir of the same name, citing unfair competition to the 1980 movie.

Additionally, while the affection between LaMotta and Baker is quite evident and touching to watch, Baker's song interludes take the focus away from the main portion of the show, which is LaMotta and what he has to say. Also, one is sorry to point out, Baker's singing voice is not really all that good and the numbers she performs, while not painful to hear in any sense of the word, really don't connect emotionally. The two do however have a nice time with "Lady and The Champ", a variation of Sinatra's "Lady and the Tramp", which features the couple doing a nice dance routine together.

Musical accompaniment is fine and Baker's direction is okay; though the bit with the reporter really isn't needed, as it would have been fine had LaMotta simply told his stories sitting in front of the audience. Still and all, Lady and The Champ is a rare chance to see and hear a figure from a time almost gone and one who, at the tender young age of 90, still has a fountain of information to impart to a new generation, and who does so with a great care, love and respect for what has gone before.

Jake LaMotta and Denise Baker in "Lady and the Champ"

Lady and the Champ

Starring: Jake LaMotta & Denise Baker
With: Carl Shimkin & Patrick Jude
Guitar: Mark Bosch
Written by Bonnie Lee Sanders & Denise Baker
Directed by Denise Baker
Music Direction by Joel Diamond
Set Design & Production Stage Management: Mark Spada

Richmond Shepard Theatre
301 East 26th Street (at 2nd Avenue)
Running Time: 65 minutes, no intermission
Closed: July 29, 2012

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