Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Rev. Garrison's revival meeting

What tall white man from Minnesota could possibly keep 65 virtuoso musicians waiting as he rambled on about his high school girlfriend?

Garrison Keillor, of course, whose appearance last night with the New York Philharmonic turned Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall into an extension of the studio where he's hosted National Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion for almost four decades.
Garrison Keillor

The format of the program, a benefit for the Philharmonic's pension fund, was quite intriguing and nothing like Prairie Home's country-tinged variety show. Along with conductor/pianist Rob Fisher, pianist Richard Dworsky and soprano Christine DiGiallonardo, Keillor loosely organized the program on the theme of music that has influenced his life.

That music includes hymns and with the perspective of a man who has turned 70, matters of the soul were also addressed, resulting in what amounted to a gently-led revival meeting in the heart of secular New York City.

Fisher and the orchestra opened the program with Emil von Reznicek's Overture to Donna Diana, a speedy work that was, in part, used as the theme to the old radio and TV shows featuring Sgt. Preston of the Yukon (and his "trusty dog," King).

Keillor then ambled out, dressed in suit, red bow tie and signature red sneakers. He has a stage presence like few others. Six feet, three inches tall, he seldom looks at the audience, in fact often turns his back, apparently addressing the orchestra. Possibly he is overcome by Lutheran shyness - the desire not to make a spectacle of oneself. He is not a graceful figure, at times resembling a man whose joints have been glued into one position.

Keillor noted that Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow will be retiring shortly and mused on the indignities of age - "people take your elbow." He recited seven sonnets, mostly on love, some on existential themes. (Addressing God - "When I die like other folks/I don't want to find out you're a hoax.") Who else would rhyme "Zhivago" with "Chicago" in an ode to Julie Christie?

The world of faith has always been a thread in Keillor's work and another poem lauded "Episcopalian/saving my love for you." Raised a member of the Plymouth Brethren in rural Minnesota, Keillor has outlined the foibles of Scandinavian and German Lutherans and currently attends an Episcopal church.

The orchestra interspersed various pieces, such as the Trepak from The Nutcracker and opened the second half with Stravinsky's Circus Polka.

Keillor continued his thoughts on age in an improvisatory section called "Over & Over & Ever Again." I was reminded that whenever I think I could hear the same ramblings from somebody's uncle in a living room, this extraordinary writer will create an image of surpassing beauty. And this was it: as you age, "the water that passes you by is full of music."

Proving the point, he and DiGiallonardo sang the hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," which contains the lyrics "Tune my heart to sing thy grace/Streams of mercy never ceasing/Call for songs of loudest praise." Keillor's surprisingly supple baritone and intelligent harmonizing melded beautifully with DiGiallonardo's crystalline tone.

Here's Mumford and Sons' version of this ardent, lovely song:

Keillor then expressed what I think is about the profoundest, simplest expression of a man engaging faith in the modern world that I've ever heard. He recalled that his mother, as she was dying, "believed she would walk into the arms of Jesus." Then he said: "I have believed it from time to time. Not right at this moment. But maybe tomorrow."

In the entire audience of New Yorkers primed to hear a humorist, in a world where the sophisticated view is to laugh at mention of religion, absolutely no one laughed.

Oh, there was plenty of humor as Keillor and the musicians ranged over a landscape that segued from "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" into Tchaikovsky's Serenade into the Erie Canal song into the Texaco jingle into the Coke jingle into Amazing Grace into the Oscar Meyer weiner jingle. (Although I have to say that having the New York Philharmonic play ad jingles is like having Shakespeare write your office memo.)

At 2 1/2 hours, the program could have been half an hour shorter, but it ended with "Come Thou Fount" again. Our hearts were in tune and the waters of forgiveness and blessing flowed over all.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Public Theater shines its house

Attending the Public Theater's Oct. 4 celebration of its newly renovated Astor Place home in lower Manhattan, I had to marvel "who woulda thought it if you were there at the beginning?"

Joseph Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival (which became the Public Theater) in 1954 on almost nothing and in the early years of the festival fought municipal power broker Robert Moses over whether he could offer Shakespeare for free in Central Park. (Papp won and the Public has been producing free Shakespeare ever since.)

Today, the $40 million revitalization of the 158-year-old Astor Library was cheered by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of cultural officials from a municipality that put up a heroic $28 million of the total cost. Bloomberg noted that in 1967, the city rented the dilapidated building to Papp for $1 per year and "we have been richly repaid."

In addition, Ford Foundation president Luis Ubinas not only represented a major funding organization, but told a poignant memory of visiting the place as a young man and encountering Papp, who told him he was too early for curtain time but to stick around because he was welcome.

In its 58 years of existence, the influence of the Public Theater can't be overestimated, from the idea that great theater belongs to everyone (the Public's mobile unit takes Shakespeare to New York neighborhoods and such institutions as prisons); to the development of plays and musicals that speak to the times (Hair, Sticks and Bones, The Normal Heart); to the nurturing of African-American, Asian, female playwrights; to pioneering the workshop model of play development (A Chorus Line).  

The Public Theater's newly-renovated lobby with artist Ben Rubin's "Shakespeare Machine" - a chandelier with lighted digital blades that will be programmed with quotes from the Bard.

The building now houses four theaters and the successful cabaret venue Joe's Pub. Remarkably, the theaters remained open during the four-year renovation. Last spring, when I saw Gatz (click HERE for that blog post), I walked on planks and stepped around construction equipment.

Ubinas recalled that the Public's current artistic director, Oskar Eustis, in fine Pappian spirit, started the ball rolling by saying, "I have this impossible-to-renovate old building. There are no [original architectural] plans. The building could fall in for all we know once we open it up."

What's resulted under the leadership of Ennead Architects is a spectacular re-thinking of the lobby and exterior. On the sidewalk, the main entrance now embraces the street with a glass canopy and wide granite steps and ramps. Historic preservation work restored the brick work and decoration on the facade.

The lobby gleams with a unified box office, "library" area and balcony on the mezzanine, restoration of historic moldings and a digital chandelier that will run quotes from Shakespeare in unique patterns. The Public has brought in some excellent chefs, starting with Joe's Pub, to create unique menus but it doesn't quite seem in the egalitarian spirit to serve $14 cocktails.

Work done in the theaters themselves involved heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades, addition of fire sprinklers and electrical upgrades. I was a little disappointed to see that the pathetically uncomfortable seats in the Newman Theater which I encountered at Gatz are apparently remaining in place.

But Eustis said the space is truly "open to the public," and you can walk into the lobby "go to that fountain and get a drink." The spirit of Papp was present as Eustis said "the greatest art belong to everybody and it is made greater if it belongs to everybody." The Public has always been founded on that idea of communication and community, that theater isn't just a one-way street.

Vanessa Redgrave reciting Shakespeare as Oskar Eustis looks on. 
In a heartfelt directorial stroke, performance was part of the celebration and Vanessa Redgrave, Mandy Patinkin, Liev Schreiber, playwrights David Henry Hwang and Suzan-Lori Parks, Bloomberg and Papp's widow Gail, among others, took turns reading appropriate excerpts from Shakespeare:

"I have lived to see inherited my very wishes and the buildings of my fancy." Coriolanus

"There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple." The Tempest

When we mean to build/We first survey the plot." Henry IV 1

And Eustis wrapped with "I can no other answer make but thanks/And thanks; and ever thanks. (Twelfth Night)

And to leave us with a rousing song, the young cast of the recent Broadway revival of Hair sang "Let the Sun Shine In" from the mezzanine. It was a fitting sendoff for another half century, at least.

The cast of Hair 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Definitely not Sesame Street

Mamaroneck, N.Y.'s Westchester Sandbox Theatre continues to score the premiere regional runs of major Broadway musicals. As I was able to catch up with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (see blog post here) several months ago, having missed it in Manhattan, I was similarly able a few days ago to see Avenue Q, the puppet drama that is decidedly not Sesame Street.

It's the same idea -- a group of characters hanging out in and around an urban apartment building -- but with a decidedly adult twist. You really haven't lived until you've seen two "naked" puppets having sex.

The story begins with naive young Princeton (Todd Ritch), who sings the witty opening song, "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" which is as resonant now as it was ten years ago when Avenue Q opened. He is, of course, looking for an apartment -- the eternal Manhattan quest -- and finds one at a building where the janitor is Gary Coleman (Kenney M. Green), "the" Gary Coleman formerly of TV fame.

The other residents are unemployed (this really is relevant today!) Brian (Jeremy Geller), giving voice to his circumstances in "It Sucks to Be Me." But it doesn't wholly suck to be Brian, as he has a fantastic Asian wife (Alanna Chuyan) named, inexplicably, Christmas Eve.

Princeton meets an insecure teacher's assistant, Kate (Triona O'Callaghan) and two guys who are roommates, Nicky (Jake Mills) and Rod (also Ritch). An odd fuzzy fellow named Trekkie Monster (with a passing resemblance to Sesame Street's Cookie Monster and also played by Mills) lives upstairs.

The original concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (also responsible for the book and lyrics, respectively) cleverly included a video screen with various animated scenes commenting on the action. One can also see why Lopez was chosen to work on Book of Mormon, as characters that recall the squeaky-clean puppets of Sesame Street live in today's f-bomb reality.

Trekkie Monster enthusiastically sings about how "The Internet Is For Porn." Rod is so far into denial of his sexuality that the realization that he's gay is liberating. Nicky may or may not be gay (we all did wonder about Bert and Ernie, didn't we?).

There's a youth-TV type of social lesson - the "monsters" (Kate is one) are discriminated against and Kate forms a special school (the "Monsterssori School") for them.

The scenic design by Bob Butterley makes the most of a simple apartment block facade. I liked lighting designer Nathan Gray's choice of shadows for the opening. Stephen Ferri's small band was tight and bright and Bryan McPartlan and Jon Hatton's sound design able supported the players.

Overall, the songs and Jeff Whitty's book are so jaunty and good-natured that where I found Book of Mormon to be leering and not particularly amusing, I was perfectly willing to go where Avenue Q's troupe wanted to lead. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sandbox in the garden

Theater companies need to keep moving - like sharks in the deep ocean - in order to live. By that I don't mean change for change's sake, but movement that is a logical outgrowth of what's gone before.

The Westchester Sandbox Theatre, coming up on the fourth anniversary of its founding in November 2008, last weekend produced its first outdoor show in its home base of Mamaroneck, N.Y. - a production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

This follows by a few months the theater group's first partnership with the town's primary theatrical venue, the Emelin Theatre, on a production of Smokey Joe's Cafe (see that blog post here).

The Sandbox is primarily a youth theater, but also produces adult shows (such as Smokey Joe). Executive director Dan Ferrante, partnering with the Village of Mamaroneck Arts Council, staged the show in Columbus Park, a venue next to the Mamaroneck Metro-North train station, but separated from it by a river and trees that buffer the train noise. That's the 19th-century station in the photo below, now a restaurant called Club Car.  

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown in Mamaroneck, N.Y.'s Columbus Park featuring, from left, Ben DeMarco (Schroeder), Andi Rella (Lucy), Ross DeMarco (Linus), Hanna Lankler (Sally), Keith Pagnani (Charlie) and Brian Craft (Snoopy). 
Although stagehands were still hammering the set together at the scheduled start time of 3 pm on a gorgeously mild Saturday afternoon, things got rolling shortly thereafter and this free community show became an experience of pure pleasure.

The young cast (see above) brought to charming life the stories of characters in the Peanuts comic strip: hapless but hopeful Charlie Brown, classical pianist Schroeder, bossy Lucy, blanket-hugging Linus, bouncy Sally and everyone's favorite beagle, Snoopy (that's his red dog house on the right).

They were all fine singers and exhibited a brisk level of professionalism that was really tested when a gust of wind blew over Lucy's blue "the doctor is in" stand (she gives psychological advice). The cast vamped and supported the stand until a couple of helpers ran over and got behind it to hold it up.  

Ferrante and a drummer (there was no program) ably provided the musical accompaniment, the body mics worked and lyrics were clearly heard (often a problem with an outdoor gig). Since the weather was cooperating, families brought folding chairs, blankets and snacks.

Little girls dancing during Charlie Brown.
These little girls (see photo at right) never stopped dancing during the hour-long show and I greeted several friends and neighbors, including a couple who had brought their one-year-old daughter.

However, the performers onstage were doing their jobs so well that they held the attention of an audience potentially distracted by sunlight, afternoon bustle, kids and rustling chip bags.

This was a beautiful and logical development of the Sandbox Theatre's youth and community mission and I hope it becomes an annual event.    

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Play that Ragtime

Although I don't think Ragtime is a great musical, you couldn't find a better production that the one playing now through October 14 at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, directed by the festival's artistic director, Jackie Maxwell.

The festival, currently celebrating its 50th year, began by focusing on the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, then expanded to include contemporary works set within the timespan of Shaw's life. Good thing he lived to age 94 (1856-1950)!

Ragtime, set in the first decade of the 20th century and based on E.L. Doctorow's novel, premiered in Toronto in 1996 under the banner of producer Garth Drabinsky's Live Entertainment Company. I remember interviewing Drabinsky for a story in the Wall Street Journal, where I was a staff reporter at the time. It was at rehearsal and Brian Stokes Mitchell was onstage. "He's going to be a major star," I remarked and Drabinsky replied, "Yes, and I've got him."

Thom Allison as Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime at the Shaw Festival
Not only did Stokes Mitchell create a huge impression, but so did Audra McDonald and Marin Mazzie. The production even featured a ten-year-old Lea Michele, later to star in Glee.

Doctorow - and the show - set out to create a sweeping sense of American life at the start of a turbulent era.

Fictional characters included a white family in the New York suburb of New Rochelle; a Harlem ragtime piano player and a Jewish immigrant. Historical figures also crowded the action - Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman.

That's been my problem with this show. It's always felt like a preachy history lesson where the human stories are presented in frames - "now look at this" - rather than developing organically. However, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' music and lyrics find the passion and beauty of the stories: the New Rochelle family's Mother (as she is called) finds an abandoned baby and takes in him and his desperate mother, a black woman named Sarah; the baby's father is a ragtime pianist named Coalhouse Walker who eventually seeks justice through violence; and the immigrant, Tateh, tries to survive the poverty of the Lower East Side and make a better life for his daughter.

The dazzling score, featuring such wonderful melodies as "Ragtime," and "Wheels of a Dream," receives heartfelt interpretations from the magnetic Thom Allison as Coalhouse, sensitive Patty Jamieson as Mother, Jay Turvey as optimistic Tateh, stalwart Benedict Campbell as Father. Alana Hibbert as Sarah can't quite match the vocal power of McDonald (and it's probably not fair to compare anyone to McDonald), but brought out a fragile quality in the character.
Thom Allison (right) and the ensemble in Ragtime
Special mention should also go to featured player Nichola Lawrence who has an electrifying bluesy turn in the role of Sarah's Friend.

Sue LePage's scaffold-like set provides number of satisfying levels as Morgan, Ford, Goldman and Booker T. Washington all need to declaim at some point. Alan Brodie's lighting design, coupled with Ben Chiasson's and Beth Kates' projections (one that really impressed me was an impressionistic video of life in the tenements), really lift the show into heaven.

Maxwell's staging is so interesting - such as two wheeled frames representing ships, one of which is carrying Father to explore the North Pole with Admiral Peary - and the cast performs with such consistent style. But Ragtime, at two hours, 45 minutes, has always been too long. For instance, the song "What A Game" (about baseball) doesn't move the action forward and could be dropped. However, as I was thinking those thoughts during the song, I was simultaneously enjoying Campbell trying to tell his son about the game while shielding him from the raucous elements in the crowd.

I'm glad to see that Ragtime is a hit for Shaw, which hasn't done many musicals, as this luminous production certainly deserves to be one.

A couple of personal notes: in 1996, long before I came to live in Mamaroneck, N.Y., just a few miles north of New Rochelle, I took no notice of a line in the show spoken by a train conductor: "All aboard for Mamaroneck!" This time, it produced a moment of delight for me and my companion, teacher and director Ron Cameron-Lewis, a visitor to Mamaroneck this year.

A friend in the cast, Stewart Adam McKensy, continues to be one of the most talented tap dancers, singers and actors I've seen and ably anchors the ensemble (that's him in the center of the photo above). The Shaw audience will really appreciate Stewart's talents when he performs as Coalhouse for several shows this fall. Break legs, Stewart.      

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bad boys and books at Stratford

A recent day at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario showed that Captain Jack Sparrow wasn't the first pirate ill-suited for plundering and that age can sweeten, not diminish, acting brilliance.

The festival is celebrating - like Queen Elizabeth II - its 60th season, in this case of an unlikely quest to bring Shakespeare to Ontario farm country. Like the venerable monarch, it has weathered a few crises through the years, but is now world-renowned and much-loved.

I have only been visiting Stratford since 1986, which makes me a mere pup among those with memories of a large tent in 1953 and Alec Guinness as Richard III - "Now is the winter of our discontent …"

There was no Shakespeare on this particular visit, which featured Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance and Christopher Plummer's one-man show, A Word or Two.

As Pirates opens, we are backstage at a Victorian theater, behind the asbestos curtain and the stage scaffolding that's crowned by a clock with exposed gears. During the overture, the actors stretch; when the curtain rises, they stride forward, turn - and we are there. Director Ethan McSweeny and set designer Anna Louizos have primed us for fun.

At the beginning, Thomas the Pirate King (Sean Arbuckle) meets an unusual problem - his apprentice, Frederic (Kyle Blair), is about to turn 21 and once free of his indenture (apprentice obligation), intends to become a policeman and pursue his former companions.

As Thomas, Arbuckle's swash and buckle is delightfully mannered though not quite a foppish as Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow. These don't seem to be really tough pirates anyway, as they drink to Frederic's health with sherry. Also, he reminds them that, since they are all orphans and it is well-known they have a soft spot for other orphans, everyone they capture claims to be an orphan and goes scot-free.
Gabrielle Jones as Ruth, Kyle Blair as Frederic and Sean Arbuckle as Thomas, the Pirate King in  The Pirates of Penzance at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario 
Frederic, played by Blair with wide-eyed earnestness, leaves his faithful nurse Ruth (the wonderfully vigorous Gabrielle Jones) and goes in search of the female companionship he's never known, having sailed with the pirates since he was a boy. He finds a lovely girl, Mabel  (Amy Wallis), in among a plethora of sisters lovingly looked after by their father, pompous but endearing Major-General Stanley (C. David Johnson).

Penzance contains some of Gilbert and Sullivan's best-known songs. Johnson (a handsome man nearly unrecognizable under grey mutton chop whiskers, mustache and eyebrows) nimbly skips through "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," with a verse interpolated that sings of Stratford's 60th.

I was surprised to realize that the tune "Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here" was originally in Pirates as part of the song "With Cat-Like Tread," where the pirates attempt to sneak up on a comical gang of policemen, making more noise than an army of cats. The song that stayed with me was the ravishingly beautiful love song, "Ah Leave Me Not to Pine."

All the voices in this Pirates are very strong, especially Willis' delicate soprano, with appropriate Victorian vibrato, and Blair's sturdy tenor. Paul Tazewell's costumes, layered intricacy channeling the steampunk modern Victorian ethic, are a marvel save for a misstep at the end featuring the girls in short wedding dresses. Marcos Santana's joy-filled choreography also deserves mention. McSweeny has created a Pirates for today, full of comic dash and wit, and we are the richer for it.

Riches of a literary sort are the subject of Christopher Plummer's homage to the books, plays and poetry that  have shaped his aesthetic, his dreams, his outlook on life. This 82-year-old master, who has played everything there is to play, from Hamlet to Prospero to a certain Sound of Music, was there at Stratford's start and is still going strong

Christopher Plummer
The set features a twisting stack of books, a couple of chairs and a lectern, but Plummer has memorized most of the material, as he had when I saw him last year in a program of excerpts from Henry V with music from the film played by the New York Philharmonic.

It is a charming and eclectic walk through a life in love with words, from his childhood in Montreal surrounded by women - his mother and aunts - to a great stage and screen career. Director Des McAnuff (also Stratford's outgoing artistic director) weaves in a bit of music and some video projections, but mostly the show is vintage Plummer. 

His boyhood companions were A.A. Milne and Lewis Carroll. The Bible surprised him, being "alive and rich in adventure" and containing such sensuous prose as the Song of Solomon -- "comfort me with apples."

Plummer has particular affection for poet W.H. Auden and recites with a southern accent Auden's version of Herod learning of the birth of Jesus. Just when I thought things were getting a little too campy, Plummer exclaimed, "Why am I doing this in a southern accent?" and getting a huge laugh, but the program also allowed him to show off his mastery of accents - American, British, Welsh, French.

The 90-minute show's energy seemed to flag a little around the one-hour point, though Plummer was never less than a charming host, companion and raconteur. His memories resonated with me, since I make sense of the world through words. My mother read to me and my brother, as Plummer's mother did to him.

The last words he gives to Emily Dickinson:

He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Children of all ages

Is there anyone whose heart doesn't beat a little faster upon hearing the classic circus ringmaster greeting -- "Ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages!"

Circus is perhaps the most distinctive form of theater, where story lies at the service of movement and the outcome is always known but always fresh - an uplifting sense of wonder and delight. Circus resembles the non-narrative drama of a magic act, exploring danger and the fear of death but - one hopes - brings us all home safely with a huge sigh of relief.

Circus Renaissance travels the Netherlands and recently pitched its one-ring red tent, trailers and animals in a neighborhood of Amsterdam for a week. One of the performers, 15-year-old Michael Betrian is a friend of a friend of my daughter Flo, so we set out for Amsterdam during a trip to the Netherlands to meet him and see his show.

Michael Betrian, center, with young friends
A remarkably poised and handsome young man, compact in the way of gymnasts, greeted us in costume - neat black pants and nifty short jacket with gold braid decorations and buttons - showed us around the yard and introduced his boss, the circus manager and ringmaster. His swashbuckling outfit - gold and black striped pants tucked into boots and big white shirt - completed an impression made by his over-six-foot height, iron grey hair and commanding manner.

Solange and the circus boss
In a minute, we were inside the tent, where maybe 50 people were scattered among 600-odd seats and which was a sauna on this hot afternoon, and the eternal "The Circus Song" began over the loudspeakers.

The strongman balanced a 100-kilo anvil on his forehead.

The tightrope man, walking about 20 feet off the ground, hopped through hoops, jumped rope and rode a unicycle. He lay back on an upholstered chair, balanced a ladder on his feet and a female acrobat climbed it to perform various balancing poses at the top. (I could only imagine how hot it was up there and felt for the performers in their long velvet pants, shirts and jackets.)

The pirate couple and their bird act
There was no trapeze act - difficult in the one-ring format - but some of my favorites were small, intimate acts that you wouldn't necessarily see in the three-ring Ringling Bros. extravaganzas. A couple dressed in pirate costume had six beautifully-trained parakeets, adorably fluttering from their crossed-swords perch to a table, perky and ready to go down a little slide and move balls along a track like the cheerful professionals they were.

The clown on stilts, his puppet and the pretty lady
A clown on stilts had a human marionette whose movements coordinated with his "master's" string-pulling. They had a little story. The master maneuvered the "marionette" so the puppet could present a flower to a lovely lady. When the master put the puppet back in his box, the marionette cut his strings and ran off with the lady. Enchanting!

(There were a number of families with small children at this 3 p.m. show and one boy near us paid less attention to the ring than he did to running up and down the aisle steps. Flo's comment: "Give a kid a circus and he'll play with the stairs.")

At intermission, we went across the yard to the refreshment tent, where the balance man was selling fiber-optic light wands and the strongman was serving frites. I had to tell them how much I liked their performances and they nodded. I felt for them.

After intermission, Michael Betrian was introduced by the ringmaster as the youngest performer, who is "away from his mother." He bounded out to a fast soundtrack, juggling hourglass-shaped diabolos using two handles connected by a rope. With an acrobat's intensity, he joyfully made the diabolos dance and fly. Although his rope got a little tangled at one point and a couple of soaring diabolos hit the sawdust, you could see that Michael's act will only get better and better and his speed was truly amazing. From what age has this young man been practicing?

Michael Betrian and his flying diabolos
The portly animal trainer efficiently put six beautiful tigers - including a white one - through their paces. They looked healthy and well-cared-for, but the single elephant to me looked a little sad or possibly I am anthropomorphizing.

The elephant
The most surprising animal act for me was six trained cows, who moved in unison, danced a little (I am really not kidding) and struck a pose with their hooves on a small ledge. (I had noticed the cows in the yard and wondered why the circus traveled with their own milk machines.)

There were lovely female acrobats, including one who used a huge fabric sail, and a quick change artist named Rama who took about five seconds to emerge from a little booth in a new costume.

I mused on the hard nature of this work - two shows a day with a day or two off - the need to maintain intense concentration and training, the close quarters. We met Michael afterwards and he explained that he travels with the circus in the summer while during the school year he lives with his parents in Neimegen and joins the circus on weekends. I am in awe of such discipline. Flo made a short video of Michael saying hello to his Dutch friend in the U.S., then he had to go to supper.

Flo, Sem and I walked down the road, heading toward a dinner at a cool cafe called the Walvis (whale), but Michael had another show to do. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Timon of Wall Street

In London for a week-long pre-Olympic sojourn, I caught the first preview of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at the National Theatre and thought the production, directed by the National's chief executive, Nicholas Hytner, was quite brilliant.

Simon Russell Beale
Simon Russell Beale plays the title character in this strange and modern tale, a collaboration between Shakespeare and playwright Thomas Middleton.

The scene, in the National's cavernous Olivier theatre, opens upon a scattered tent encampment and a few young people hanging about, reminiscent of the Occupy movements, especially the one that sprang up around St. Paul's Cathedral for a few months.

Designer Tim Hatley's wondrous set begins with a gray wall across center stage, two doorways, a huge painting of Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple and projected letters reading "The Timon Room."

Timon, a wealthy patron of the arts, is enjoying the adulation of the cocktail party crowd, who seem to turn like a shoal of fish whenever he comes into view. Everyone's jockeying for this tycoon's favor - a painter who wants to give him a painting, an author who has a new book, etc., and for good reason. Timon really is generous to a fault, lavishing money beyond reason on his friends.

At a subsequent dinner party at his house (the painting has disappeared and in its frame, dancers entertain the guests on Timon's invitation), he rejoices in his life. However, it seemed that through Hytner's blocking and Bruno Poet's lighting design, Timon often seemed alone. Beale, a roundish man, exudes geniality and good humor with a little desperation behind it. He seems to have his values straight as he toasts his guests: "I am wealthy in my friends." But the local philosopher, Apemantus (the forceful Hilton McRae) scorns the whole scene.

Timon's loyal steward, Flavia (Deborah Findley) tries to get him to rein in his spending, but to no avail. Her master seems addicted to the attention his money brings him. When it runs out (the giant set window now shows a view of London's financial center from the Lucullan Capital office), Timon's friends are terribly, terribly sorry, but it's just a bad time ... they have other priorities ... they just can't help, so sorry.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters march between a couple of scenes and in Act II, Timon is among them, homeless, shabby and pushing a shopping cart through cement pillars crowned by rebar, possibly a bridge construction site. He finds a mysterious cache of gold under an iron door in the street, but the Occupy protestors are no more noble than his friends, corrupted by the gold coins he flings among them.

"I am sick of this false world," cries Timon as Christopher Shutt's subtle sound design layers faint eerie metallic sounds under the scenes under the bridge. Timon rails against mankind and dies -- offstage. It's not an easy play but Hytner has made the most of it and the first preview certainly didn't seem like any kinks were being worked out and got rousing applause.

The last production of this play I saw was about six or seven years ago at the Stratford Festival in Canada with the late Peter Donaldson in the title role and he was just riveting. Beale, a highly experienced Shakespearean actor, for me was most convincing in the early scenes but both he and Findlay tended to declaim and my mind wandered sometimes. Bernard Hopkins, who played the steward in Stratford, made him a poignant loyal servant with a heart, but Findley seems like she's just nagging and exasperated. (It's written as a male role, but I like the significant use of middle-aged female actors in this production.)

Among Timon's friends, Nick Sampson as a egotistical poet, Penny Layden as a painter, Jo Dockery as a jeweller and Ciaran McMenamin as an actor, Paul Bentall as Lucullus and Tom Robertson as Ventidius (a drawling, amusing portrait) all stood out.

Besides the scenic design, Hatley and Hytner made the most use of the Olivier's turntable, with the two dinner party scenes gliding on and off to beautiful effect. Poet's lighting design made use of a fair bit of side lighting, throwing long shadows, which I didn't really care for, but his lighting of the gold hoard in the ground that Timon finds was extraordinary.

Although Timon ends on an ambiguous note, leading some to think the play was not finished, and its text doesn't reach the poetic heights of the great plays, it proves once again that Shakespeare wrote for all time.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Geniuses of rock and roll

As I left Mamaroneck's Emelin Theatre after Smokey Joe's Cafe, a revue of songs by rock and roll pioneers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, I had to check my right ankle to see if it was significantly more muscular than the left, as I had been vigorously tapping my foot for two hours.

The show, which ran for five years after premiering on Broadway in 1995, showcases the amazing depth and range of this songwriting and record producing team whose collaboration began in 1950 when they were both 17 and ended with Lieber's death in 2011.

The audience was mostly north of age forty, but that's to be expected when Lieber and Stoller's greatest hits mostly came in the 1950s and 60s. Any list has to start with such classics as "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy," "Charlie Brown," "Stand by Me," "Jailhouse Rock," "Love Potion No. 9," "On Broadway," "Spanish Harlem," "There Goes My Baby." Elvis alone recorded 20 of their songs.

An engaging nine-member cast put across about 40 of the duo's songs with class and sizzling choreography by director Kenney M. Green in a production by Westchester Sandbox Theatre, subject of this blog post from a couple of weeks ago. Kevin Rees' set in blue and beige featured two staircases flanking open-side boxes for the band and sliding panels to create different spaces.

It's the first time that the Sandbox, which operates out of a 100-seat storefront venue nearby, has partnered with the 285-seat Emelin, Mamaroneck's main live theater venue, which ironically hasn't produced much theater since its play season collapsed about four years ago with the departure of an artistic director. Since then, the Emelin has presented music and dance performances and rented its space for school performances. Later this month, however, it will present several performances by the Missoula Children's Theater.

For Smokey Joe, Green has assembled nine pros -- Steven Charles, Kate Cherichello, Paula Galloway, Brandon Lavon Hightower, Keva Moolenaar, Jennifer Pace, Steven C. Rich, Derrian Tolden and Randy Taylor -- but without cast photos in the program or a listing of songs and who was singing them, it was impossible to tell who was whom.

However, further Internet research, which I hope is accurate, turned up some clues. Green used the actor/singers in various combinations, but seemed most inspired in Motown-style choreography and staging with the quartet of African-American actors Steven Charles, Brandon Lavon Hightower, Steven C. Rich and Derrian Tolden. They do fine work, but it seemed to unbalance the show a little when other actors didn't get such interesting movements.

Of the women, I thought Keva Moolenaar and Paula Galloway had the strongest voices, with Galloway doing a Jennifer Hudson-like emotional belt on "Brand New Fool." However, Green overloads the emotion toward the end of the show with this number and Tolden going too far over the top with "I Who Have Nothing." Tolden provides a nice comic focus on a couple of songs, most effectively on "D.W. Washburn" and "Treat Me Nice."

For this viewer, it was a revelation to realize that Lieber and Stoller also wrote cabaret songs that were as good as anything Kurt Weill turned out. Jennifer Pace, whom I thought was best doing intimate songs rather than belting, got my attention with "Pearl's A Singer." Moolenaar vamped a feather boa and a chair doing a surprisingly modern "Don Juan," where the refrain goes "your money's gone," and the sexy "Some Cats Know," a ballad about taking it slow in intimate moments.

Randy Taylor energetically led "Jailhouse Rock," but that song and "Hound Dog" (sung with the original lyrics), indelibly linked with Elvis, weren't given enough of an original spin and wouldn't compete with anyone's memory of the King.

Steven C. Rich tossed a very amusing tantrum on "There Goes My Baby," with three-fourths of the quartet backing him. Steven Charles seemed smoothly to channel Nat King Cole (in my book, a huge compliment) on "Loving You." The ensemble finale fittingly brought the show to a satisfying close with a rousing "Stand by Me."

Adam Tilford was listed as musical director and conductor, so I assume that was him conducting from behind the keyboard and keeping an excellent five-piece band on track, but the musicians were not identified in the program. Green could have called upon the band to provide graceful musical segues for a couple of awkward silent scene changes.

Westchester Sandbox's artistic director, Dan Ferrante, in a conversation at intermission, mentioned some of the technical challenges the company was working through at the Emelin and from the viewpoint of an audience member, sound quality is a big one.

The sound system seemed to lend a coarse quality to the voices sometimes, basically failing at the essential function of a sound system - showcasing the voices on stage like a diamond setting. I would also think sound designer Howard Fredrics will be working further on balancing volume levels, as the instruments often overwhelmed the voices.

Carla Linton's lighting design was a tad too frenetic during "On Broadway" and it seemed that a couple of cues were missed, leaving performers momentarily in shadows, but overall, it successfully reflected the songs' various moods.

There is a huge amount of potential for Westchester Sandbox and the Emelin and I hope both continue to explore it. What a joy it would be to welcome back plays and musicals on a consistent basis to Mamaroneck's local theater. Westchester Sandbox, which produces theater by and for young people as well as adults, has a stream of productions, an energetic and sharp artistic director and a vision.

Smokey Joe's Cafe had the audience clapping and cheering - and if there had been a dance floor, they wouldn't have been sitting.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

God speed, Godspell

This blog started in April 2011 with "call me Maxine Bialystok" and the start of my adventure as a Broadway producer, investing $1,000 along with 700 other folks in the revival of Godspell. Today, a chapter closes as Godspell plays its last show - even as I write this - at the Circle in the Square Theatre on 50th Street, just west of Broadway.

For me, and I would venture to say for a goodly number of those 700, this has been a theater experience unlike any other. The opportunity to get so close to the creation and running of a Broadway musical for a relatively small amount of money, the community created by lead producer Ken Davenport and his staff, the sense of intimate involvement, the unique qualities of this show, the visionary ideas on marketing and investment ... not only do I find it hard to be objective about it, but I'm having a tough time even processing the whole thing.

On an important level in terms of an investment, Godspell has been a disappointment. The Broadway run will not repay its investors. I received $50 back from my original investment since the producers did not spend the entire amount raised (and clearly were not from the Max Bialystok school of producing), but it looks like I'm out $950. There has been a national tour announced and I'm not sure if us POGs (we were dubbed People of Godspell) get a piece of that, but this is the situation right now.

Director Danny Goldstein and Solange De Santis at intermission at Godspell

It played 30 previews and 264 performances since opening last November. Reviews were mixed. Some found the show's high-octane style joyful, others frenetic and childish.

Although I loved the cast for the most part, especially the supremely talented Telly Leung (of Glee), Wallace Smith and Uzo Aduba, I thought Miranda Hoffman's ragbag of costumes were a weak point. I like the staging in the round at Circle in the Square's lower level theater and thought the placement under the main theater where Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz's Wicked is running forever, was particularly apt.

However, I think there were a couple of reasons the show wasn't nominated for any Tony awards, a development from which it couldn't recover although Ken managed to get a number from the show on the awards telecast. No question the show was warm and embracing and word of mouth from those who did see it (some 154,000) was extraordinarily good. But it wasn't glamorous like our other Jesus across town, Jesus Christ Superstar.

I also felt it never really answered the question, "why Godspell now?" Ken's answer was "because our society and our politics is more divided than ever," and it's a great answer. Maybe the audiences on tour will find that answer. But Godspell is so familiar from the last four decades of school, church and community performances that it wasn't able to make a compelling case for itself given the intense competition of Broadway. Once people saw it, they were glad they went, but it wasn't at the top of enough theatergoers' lists.

I went to see the show twice, the preview before it opened on Nov. 7 and Hunter Parrish's second-to-last performance as Jesus on April 15. I hadn't intended to go a second time - had a "been there, done that" feeling - but my friend unexpectedly had an extra ticket. Although I was a little reluctant, Godspell worked its unique magic on me - and I was really glad I went (same reaction as the rest of the audiences, right?)! I was particularly interested to see how Hunter had deepened a character interpretation that seemed to me to be a little bland at the beginning.

Here is Hunter singing "Beautiful City" with all his soul:

So, the $64,000 (or $950) question - was it worth it? Well, you could put on one side of the ledger the "free" things I received - a glass of wine at the investors' gathering at Sardi's, a Godspell t-shirt for our Times Square flash mob, a poster with all the investors' names, food and drink at a holiday party and an "appreciation" party - and I suppose it would add up to another $75.

But how do you put a price on intangibles, on the things that the Master Card commercial says are "priceless?" What would it cost me to get a Broadway producer to listen to me and return my e-mails, as Ken does without fail? What would it take to be part of a "flash mob" rehearsing in a Broadway studio, then dancing in Times Square to "Day by Day?" Why are my eyes tearing up right now, thinking of the eager faces and intense conversations among the People of Godspell at our shareholders' meetings and gatherings?

Maybe the next to last word should go to my Toronto theater friends Scott White and Peter Fenton, who sent me a e-mail reading, in part: "A note of thanks for getting theatre onto the boards by being a producer of Godspell ... 90% of Broadway investors never make their money back, but they help put important work on stage that employs actors, directors, choreographers, stage managers, crews, theatre staff and ushers AND brings joy to thousands of people ... the theatre community at large thanks you."

No, I don't have $900 to throw around every day but the at the final reckoning - yes, priceless.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Why "Once?" This is why ...

On a Tony Awards ceremony that seemed more entertaining than last year's, the musical Once cleaned up eight times: best musical, musical director, actor, scene, sound and lighting design, orchestrations and book.

Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti
I saw the show in early April and was enchanted. From the first moment, director John Tiffany had created a complete and satisfying work of dramatic art where all the elements were consistent and true to a delicate and affecting story.

You don't want to slide into the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre at 7:58 pm for this show; the pub set features real beer taps and the audience is invited to go on stage and buy a pint. Cast members are playing and singing, just like a Sunday night "session" in a Dublin pub.

The story unfolds gracefully after the house lights dim and the audience returns to its rightful place. Based on the 2006 film of the same name, Once is the story of a Dublin musician hurting over a girl that got away and a young Czech woman who inspires, goads and encourages him to play again.

Cristin Milioti (center, at piano) and Steve Kazee (r) in Once
Played by Steve Kazee (who gave a very affecting Tony Awards acceptance speech), the generically-identified Guy works in his dad's vacuum cleaner repair shop and is a bit stuck, emotionally. He dreams of making a record but is doing too much talking rather than doing; he pines for his girl but can't decide whether to go to New York after her.

Into his fog walks Girl (I'm not sure whether I like this dramatic convention; it always seems a bit precious), a small, thin, very intense young woman (Cristin Milioti) whose response to Guy's comment on her demeanor is - "I am always serious. I am Czech."

They seem like oil and water -- the laid-back Irishman and the emotional Eastern European -- but music links their souls. She plays piano, he guitar and they begin to connect. She brings a vacuum cleaner "that needs fixing" and of course it's not the only thing that needs fixing around there. But this love story, like life, isn't simple and he discovers that Girl lives with her daughter, and her mother, and that there is a husband back home.

Her unwavering commitment gives him the courage to seek a bank loan in order to make a recording of his music and the scene with the bank officer (Andy Taylor), also an amateur musician, is charmingly funny. David Patrick Kelly, as Guy's father, and Anne L. Nathan as Girl's mother, Baruska (how come other characters get names?) also make strong impressions. Playwright Enda Walsh's book makes a character like Girl endearing rather than annoying.

However, the reason Once won all those awards is that it expands the film's story into a brilliant piece of theater. All cast members play musical instruments and Steven Hoggett, the movement genius behind Black Watch and American Idiot, has choreographed stylized actions for scene changes and songs.

The songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, including the Academy Award-winning "Falling Slowly," forge a similar style, but these lyrical, soulful ballads explore depths of feeling without becoming tedious. Tony winner (and double nominee) Natasha Katz' lighting design casts a subtle atmosphere of gold and amber and Clive Goodwin's Tony-winning sound design strikes a balance between pub sound and theater sound.      

Despite all the awards, not everyone cares for the show. A friend said she was bored; others think it moves too slowly. But I think it creates an unusual magic.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bloody 'ell!

Wow! Who knew that the tousled-haired middle-aged guy on the $20 bill -- our seventh president, Andrew Jackson -- was a rootin' tootin' hottie in tight black jeans, kohl eyeliner, spiky haircut, muscle shirt and boots?

As conceived in the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which I just caught at the end of its two-weekend run at Westchester Sandbox Theatre in Mamaroneck, N.Y., politics in the early 19th century featured a resentful populist movement, a tight group of East Coast politicians and a charismatic Western leader, all set to a bitchin' emo-rock score.

In other words, more than a few similarities to today, with echoes of the Bush years. OK, maybe they didn't have emo (emotional hardcore) rock punctuating the 1828 election, which resulted in Jackson's first term as president and the founding of the Democratic Party. But they sure did have emotion, as a young United States of America - just half a century old - was still struggling to find its feet after two wars with Britain.

Bloody Bloody was a sensation in 2010 at the Public Theater off-Broadway but didn't find its audience on Broadway, closing after four months. This was the first New York regional production of the show and a really fine affair it was.

The four-year-old Westchester Sandbox produces both mainstage adult shows and theatre for and with young people in a 100-seat storefront venue. Bloody Bloody was staged by the three-year-old Little Radical Theatrics company, whose mandate is to provide an outlet for 20-something theater artists who are out of high school, possibly in college and possibly heading for professional careers or community theater.

The cast, as directed by Michael J. Mirra, hit just the right note of intense deadpan attitude, as creators Alex Timbers (book and the original production's director) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) urge in their notes for licensed productions.

Jackson and his rag-tag followers - cast members play various politicians (Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, John Quincy Adams), Indians, citizens - defiantly stake their territory in the opening number, "Populism, Yea, Yea!" as they accuse the educated elite of Massachusetts and Virginia of ignoring the people of the expanding frontier.

The show's charm comes from its skillful layering of modern idioms and styles on a quite serious look at a young nation where a boy from rural Tennessee can rise to be a military hero and president - and a major slave owner and persecutor of the native population. It also skewers an eternally adolescent streak in American politics: deep down, we want our president to be a rock star.

Jackson's rough childhood, during which he was orphaned at 14, joined the military and was captured by the British, is summed up succinctly with the phrase, "Life sucks, and my life sucks in particular." Enraged by Indian attacks on his family and French, Spanish and British control of various territories, Jackson longs for a leader ("I'm Not That Guy") then realizes he will take action ("I'm So That Guy").

The "bloody" of the title was well earned as Jackson took on the British at the Battle of New Orleans, headed up a militia that drove Indian tribes out of the Southeast ("Ten Little Indians") and cleared Spanish and French forces from Florida.

But the minute you think you've got Jackson pegged as more Hitler than hero, the show illuminates his complex personality. The same man who signed the Indian Removal Act, forcibly relocating tribes west of the Mississippi, also adopted a native boy whose parents had been killed in battle. His relationship with his wife, Rachel, was passionately loving and her death - incredibly on the eve of his inauguration - devastated him.

The magnetic BJ Markus, with a fine singing voice, rivetingly played Jackson with more sexy snarl than the handsome Benjamin Walker in the original productions. The entire cast did great work, but particular mention should go to Dany Rousseau's portrait of the strong yet wistful Rachel.

Markus and Mirra are credited with the very effective scenic design - a stage framed with portraits and objects from what look like America's attic. Ricky Romano's five-piece band provided tight accompaniment. However, Mirra's lighting design occasionally left some performers in unfortunate shadows.

Jackson's legacy is controversial even today, but this show, and Green Day's American Idiot, are modern classics that use rock music to make profound comments on American politics and society. Little Radical Theatrics' production brilliantly conveyed the spirit of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Music theater on film - "Arlington"

Music videos have been around since MTV first cracked the airwaves in 1981 and reviewing one might be seen as a stretch for a theater blog, but a short film called Arlington dramatizes a deeply-felt piece of music by well-known singer/guitarist Lisa Nemzo (click here for her website) and I call it music theater on film.

The CD cover for "Arlington," by Lisa Nemzo

It was inspired by the story of Theresa Arciola, mother of Private First Class Michael Arciola, killed in Iraq in 2005, who visited her son's grave at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. five times a year so he "wouldn't be forgotten." (For the film's website - click here)

The film and the lyrics in one stanza contrast the capital's lovely blooming cherry blossoms with a horse-drawn casket borne to the plain grass field and small white tombstones of the "saddest acre in our nation."

As the song so truthfully says, it's "never a destination," and that phrase caused me to have a new image of the national resting place for our warriors - an ironically beautiful place, but a place you may not want to visit, unless you must. And for the warriors themselves? The unwished-for conclusion to their individual journeys.

The film's images are profoundly simple - the mother, played by Nemzo, looking at the model airplanes in her son's former bedroom - scenes of military comradeship - flowers at a grave. The most emotional image, for me, and a brilliant piece of theatrical expressiveness, was a fade in of the rows of stones, then a person in uniform behind each one, the living embodiment of sacrifice, then a fade out to the plain stones.

No surprise that the film won Best Merit Award for Best Music Video at the Accolade Film Festival this year in La Jolla, Calif. Well-deserved praise for director Mary Ann Skweres, cinematographer Rachel Wyn Dunn and co-editor Bob Bayless.
Lisa Nemzo

Lisa Nemzo will be playing Arlington  at the Mamapalooza Festival (click here for more information) on Sunday, May 20 in New York City.

The song and film were created to benefit the David Lynch Foundation (click here), which supports Transcendental Meditation training for vets and at-risk students, among others, and the Global Stress Initiative (click here).

Arlington writes an essential chapter in the American book of music and creates a poignant, thoughtful, gentle space in which to meditate upon heroes, warriors and those who love them.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Play from Tedium

Signature Theatre's production of Edward Albee's The Lady from Dubuque demonstrates the company's mandate - representing the range of a playwright's work.

This 1978 play was written in the years between two great plays - Seascape (1974) and Three Tall Women (1991), both Pulitzer Prize winners. Not that Albee was exactly idle during these years; there were five other plays, but none of them reached the heights of Seascape or Women, or earlier work like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

Dubuque seems to start off in Virginia Woolf territory, only it's three couples instead of two having a late-night drink-up and cage match. Long-legged, elegant Jo (Laila Robins) is mistress of the caustic quip and launches zingers from an Eames chair as she sizes up the weaknesses of the others. Husband Sam (Michael Hayden) seems to be playing a role as genial host and master of the suburban house.

Pugnacious Fred (C.J. Wilson) is a bully with a much-younger girlfriend Carol (Tricia Paoluccio) who is apparently a hapless airhead. Conventional Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) accompanies hand-wringing, neurotic doormat Lucinda (Catherine Curtin). 

Again, like Woolf, there is games-playing going on. As the curtain rises, Sam is starting "Twenty Questions" with the fraught query, "Who am I?" But the apparently sociable evening immediately heads off the rails as Jo addresses the audience with the frank admission that she is dying. Since the atmosphere is one of games-playing, one has some doubt at first as to whether she actually is dying.

As the evening progresses, a second game takes place when Carol, who's not as clueless as she first seems, and Sam pretend he assaulted her in another room - but it's just a put-on to get a reaction out of the others. Pretty soon, Jo leaves no doubt that she is dying, doubled up and screaming in pain.

In the second act, the morning after, Sam descends the winding stair of John Arnone's gorgeous set to find yet another couple in his living room - the elegant, white-haired Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) and Oscar (Peter Francis James). Sam opens the act with the question, "Who are you?"

They are Death, of course, come to take Jo and you can see it coming a mile away. With not much surprise left in the text and much screaming from the dying Jo and several of the other characters, the play visits the house of tedium. Albee's nihilistic view sees no particular peace in death, certainly no religious victory, and not much wisdom. So what is left? "Nothing is retained. Nothing," Oscar says. "There is only one thing that matters: Who am I?" Sam says.

All right, if finding truth in identity is what matters, then what has Jo found? Not much but witty, savage assaults on the existential inevitable. While Virginia Woolf inhabits equally bleak territory, wondering how the characters in that play are going to live proves to be more interesting than considering how one in Dubuque is going to die. Nevertheless, seeing this play provides a deeper understanding of this great writer's body of work. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Vulnerable boats against the current

Scott Shepherd as the reader in Gatz - and Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby
"In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since." -- "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Those are the first and last sentences of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's deathless 1925 novel about money and desire and the dark side of America's "pursuit of happiness."

They are also the first and last lines of Gatz, a "staged reading" unlike any I have ever seen. Over the course of eight hours -- 2 pm to 10 pm, with two short intermissions and a dinner break -- the entire 49,000-word text of the novel is read aloud, and it pushes the bounds of theater by making us fall in love with prose.

New York City's 21-year-old Elevator Repair Service, which specializes in unusual theater, approaches the drama of the book by not dramatizing it - in other words, by not creating a play out of the plot.

Director and company founder John Collins realizes that the narration of the story by the character Nick Carraway and Fitzgerald's ravishing prose are the drama. But this is three-dimensional theater and visual must be served.

So the glamorous world of Gatsby's Long Island mansions, "blue lawns," white flannels and champagne parties takes place - most improbably - in a shabby office in an unidentified downtown. Time? Apparently the 90s, judging from the clunky cordless phones and computers.

One of the beaten-down workers (Scott Shepherd) can't get his computer to work and it's taken away. Goofing off, he slides a book out of a Rolodex case and begins to read. "In my younger and more vulnerable years ..."

As Fitzgerald's classic tale of romantic obsession unfolds, the workers take the parts: brutal philandering Tom Buchanan, (Gary Wilmes, recently so effective in Chinglish - see blog post here) feckless wife Daisy (Victoria Vazquez), jaunty friend Jordan Baker (Susie Sokol) and intense Myrtle Wilson (Laurena Allan).

As Carraway, Shepherd (also, amazingly, appearing in Blood Knot further uptown at Signature Theatre) mostly reads the text with a medium-weight voice and a touch of the Midwest. It's a most attractive voice to listen to, not flamboyant, but very clear and possessed of a distinct though modest personality.

Apart from Shepherd, the most effective cast member for me was Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby, deep of voice and dangerous of manner. The cast also has a couple of unusual participants: Gatsby's father, who appears toward the end, bewildered by his son's death, is played very effectively by Dr. Ross Fletcher, chief of staff of Washington D.C.'s VA Medical Center. The playbill says he has played the role since 2005.

Sokol is a second-grade teacher at a school in Brooklyn. For me, Vazquez was miscast as Daisy. A tall, elegant woman with dark hair, she hardly embodies Daisy's fragility.

The actors' movements are also subtly deliberate and graceful, so the swirl of 1920s party dresses somehow both meshes and contrasts with a woman carrying a stack of papers through an office.

Sometimes the emphasis on the visual distracts from such sentences as this: "The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life."

One scene in particular, a drunken party in a New York hotel room attended by Carraway, Tom Buchanan and his lover Myrtle, isn't enhanced by the characters/office workers tossing papers into the air, symbolizing the chaos of the moment. It smacks of an actorly exercise.    

These are small points, however. The day married a book I've loved for more than three decades and my great love of theater and gave me a single masterpiece.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A strangely muted Porgy and Bess

It's seldom that a show has to fight for respect before it even opens on Broadway but the current version of Porgy and Bess at the Richard Rodgers Theater isn't the usual show. Originally mounted in Boston at American Repertory Theater by artistic director Diane Paulus, this version of the classic 1935 opera by George and Ira Gershwin and Dorothy and DuBose Heyward was sanctioned by the Gershwin estate and has been re-dubbed The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, rather aggressive "re-branding" since "the Gershwins" weren't the only creators.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray adapted the show and word of the changes they were considering -- a more upbeat ending, a cane for Porgy instead of his traditional goat cart, a more "fleshed-out" part for Bess -- reached New York, where musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim wrote a blistering letter to the New York Times which can be found here.

The idea was to create a 2 1/2-hour version more suited to the Broadway and touring stage than the original 3 1/2-hour opera. While I agreed with just about all of Sondheim's points, I was also a bit uncomfortable with his lack of artistic courtesy toward the three-woman team, all established artists, and recalled that he has apparently been more comfortable with male collaborators.
Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy
As the house lights dimmed, I was delighted to hear a proper pit orchestra (22 musicians) play the overture, a rare occasion in today's theater. However, upon curtain rise, I was dismayed to see that the vibrant Charleston, South Carolina neighborhood of Catfish Row had become a dozen or so large plain panels punctuated with a couple of random shutters and window frames. Riccardo Hernandez' set design brought a minimalist sense to a story that is in a real, colorful place and as the show progressed, the blank background dampened the atmosphere and added nothing beyond being a canvas for some subtle lighting.

Then, the delicate notes that lead into "Summertime," a lullaby sung by a young woman named Clara to her baby. Has there ever been a more ravishingly lovely-poignant-sweet-sad song to open a musical? Nikki Renee Daniels did quite nicely, although she seemed to be singing it in a bit lower range than is usually done. Clara's husband, Jake, joined her for the last couple of verses and the actor playing him seemed a little vocally uncertain, or perhaps had been directed to sing in half-voice? I searched my Playbill and was surprised to realize it was Joshua Henry, late of The Scottsboro Boys and whom I had seen in a very strong performance as the soldier in American Idiot.

He came into his own during "A Woman Is A Sometime Thing," jauntily staged by Paulus as a rivalry between the men and women of Catfish Row. Norm Lewis as Porgy drags a twisted leg and walks with a cane, rather than using the traditional goat cart, but apart from some unnecessary new dialogue that has him telling his neighbors he's saving for a leg brace, I didn't mind too much.

But the show wasn't soaring. New orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke simply weren't hitting emotional peaks and the singers performed as if the director had said, "Don't use your opera voice." And then Audra McDonald as Bess entered with her brutish lover, Crown (the awesomely effective Phillip Boykin). Beautiful, damaged Bess sings "Leaving for the Promised Land" and the wondrous golden soprano of Audra McDonald fills the theater - and it's clear that Porgy and Bess is an opera. Dazed with pleasure, I would follow that voice off a cliff.

Paulus' "this isn't an opera" approach worked nicely with Porgy's statement of life, "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" or "Plenty of Nothing" as this program primly has it. I've not seen anyone segue from speech into song as smoothly and naturally as Lewis did, and in his hands I heard the song for the first time as a profoundly positive philosophy, not as happy and self-satisfied.

Liftoff finally arrived with one of the two great duets, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," then, in Act II, "I Loves You, Porgy." McDonald's voice is stronger, but both she and Lewis explored all the paths of love - tenderness, doubt, reluctance, forgiveness, acceptance and finally, pure triumphant joy. But this production also highlights Crown and Bess' powerful sexual attraction and the self-doubt that keeps her in his power.

The Act II set design was even more unfortunate - a big cloth drop lit in blue to suggest Kittiwah Island, where the townspeople gather for a picnic. It looked like a giant artist decided to cover up a piece of furniture and all the little people were performing in front of it.    
David Alan Grier made the most of Sportin' Life, though at this performance (Feb. 3), he bobbled one of the best lyrics in "It Ain't Necessarily So," saying "if no man would give in" instead of "if no gal would give in," when singing about Methuselah's 900 years. But he has a big personality and made me realize how Sportin' Life, while being the devil to Porgy's saint, is also some much-needed comic relief.
I must note that a wonderful actor and singer, Christopher Innvar, whom I saw star with McDonald in 110 In the Shade, has taken a thankless role here of the police detective who barges into Catfish Row to investigate two murders. I can only think he wanted to be part of this experience as he has many more talents.

In terms of Paulus' directing, I was particularly taken with her talent for blocking, filling the stage space with imaginative, graceful action and movement. When Bess returns from Kittiwah, exhausted and sick, Porgy and the women gather her up and there is a beautiful moment where she is a pieta in their arms.

One of Sondheim's criticisms seems to have taken hold - the ending is as Gershwin wrote it. Porgy calls for his "stick" (his goat in earlier incarnations), takes up a sack and heads for New York to find Bess, who has been lured away by Sportin' Life. His unquenchable spirit sings "I'm On My Way" and he turns directly upstage, hobbling away from us. The set lifts and he moves into the unknown dark.


Besides the merits of the show, the theatergoing experience at the Richard Rodgers Theater (formerly the 46th Street Theater), managed by the Nederlander organization, was the most unpleasant that I can remember at a Broadway house.

It began in the lobby. I was waiting for my companion outside in the cold and she was delayed. I stepped into the lobby for a few minutes to warm up, only to find the doorman next to me saying, "You can't wait in the lobby." I was stunned. "But that's what a lobby is for," I replied, thinking I hadn't heard correctly. "It's the theater's policy. You can't stay in here," he said. I have been going to Broadway shows for 50 years-- yes, since I was seven -- and this is the first time I have been kicked out of a theater.

At that very moment, there were people on line at the box office. In the lobby. Apparently it was all right to be in the lobby to give the Nederlander management your $100, but then you had to get out until the inner doors to the theater opened. "I am a ticketholder," I explained to the doorman. Perhaps he had mistaken me for a homeless person.

At that point, a middle aged couple stepped into the lobby, only to be told to leave by the doorman. The husband did not take this kindly and complained to the person in the box office. "You can go wait in the hotel across the street," she informed him, and not in a friendly manner. We all asked to see the manager.

An amiable fellow, he met with us on the cold sidewalk and informed us that the lobby was too small to allow people to wait in it. Nederlander management, please - people have common sense. If a space gets too crowded, then folks don't go in there and they wait outside. To tell your over-age-50, $100-paying patrons to get out of your space is astonishing. The middle-aged couple walked off, fuming.

When my friend and I returned, we moved through the lobby toward the inner doors with our fellow theatergoers, as the ushers yelled at us, "Step along! Have your tickets out and separated!" And here I thought going to the theater was different from being in a cattle chute.

When we arrived at the rear of the orchestra, a patron next to me reached toward a stack of Playbills when the usher snapped "those are only for people in this section!" The patron responded in a measured tone, "I am in this section." This particular usher showed us to our row, said, "Number 16 and 18, enjoy the show" and left.

The seat numbers are on one arm of each seat, not the backs, so it's easy to be confused. As patrons arrived, the usher would yell down the row, "OK, everybody move down one!" "Everybody move this way one!" Behind us, people had to do this a couple of times and were getting justifiably annoyed. Perhaps ushers could tell patrons, "the seat number is on your right (or left) as you look at the stage."

Just to add to the stadium atmosphere, ushers then came down the aisles, calling out that they were available for drink orders, which "you can bring to your seats." I personally disagree with this messy policy, but it's taking hold at other theaters, also. It also was obvious they wanted to squeeze even more money out of us.

Nederlander management and the staff of the Richard Rodgers Theater (what a travesty in a building that bears that name) need to attend a boot camp in customer service. Going to a Broadway theater should be a special, welcoming, glamorous event, not one that leaves you in cold awe at how this particular entertainment option came to believe it could treat customers with such arrogance.