Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"When shall we three meet again?"

Recently, Solange on Theater (SOT) asked the 16-year-old offspring and her best guy friend what show they would like to see for Christmas.

SOT had envisioned her childhood - perhaps the New York City Ballet's ever-wondrous Nutcracker or the power and joy of Handel's Messiah. If the ballet seemed too juvenile and the oratorio too classical, then possibly a Broadway show, preceded by an elegant dinner and a stroll through Rockefeller Center to take in the tree and the lights.


Little did she realize she would be plunged into a world of blood and madness as the high schoolers said they would like to go to Sleep No More, the two-year-old interactive theater performance based on Macbeth.

Ballet and song of a different kind.

Instead of Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, the three of us headed toward a former warehouse on West 27th Street and Tenth Avenue. Sleep No More is a production of Britain's Punchdrunk company, which has been devising immersive theater experiences since 2000 in environments that aren't traditional theaters, a concept called site-specific.

The converted warehouse is called the McKittrick Hotel, supposedly a luxury hotel that was shuttered in the 1930s and re-opened for this show. We lined up briefly under the streetlights, outside the black entrance door, as a bouncer marked with an X the hands of our underage non-drinkers.

Upon entering, down a dimly-lit hallway, we are told to check coats and bags ($4 charge), given a playing card as a ticket and ushered into a red-lit bar/lounge called Manderley (not so much a nod to Macbeth as to the Gothic novel and film Rebecca).

Our guides are rather arch in manner. We are given white masks (see photo above), told to wear them at all times and that there is to be no talking during the performance. It's a film noir atmosphere stirred with a touch of unease.

We are guided onto an elevator, told to explore and that "fortune favors the bold." Once off the elevator, I began letting my eyes adjust to the dim light as eerie music filled the air. Feeling my way down the hallways felt like a haunted house set and the sounds added to the sense of foreboding, but I knew there would be nothing as trite as ghoulies jumping out of the shadows.

There are four floors and dozens of rooms decorated in time-warp, hallucinatory fashion. The first room I entered had a double row of clawfoot bathtubs and resembled a 1920s hospital. A young woman in a gray nurse's uniform was washing a couple of shirts in one of the tubs and we masked voyeurs gathered to watch. Our pale uniform faces rinsed away all expression and identification. We were not tempted to look at each other.

She moved quickly out of the room and we followed, but I went down another corridor. Our group had been split up and one of the hints about the show is that it is best to explore alone. Each person has a unique experience. I wandered through many rooms - a bedroom where a woman was writing a letter, a tailor's shop where a man was meticulously sewing tags on a piece of clothing. The letter-writing woman entered and they danced. He wrapped her in a bolt of cloth, then unwrapped her.

However, I seemed to be wandering through a lot of rooms with much furniture and decor but no people and after the first half hour, was looking at my watch. Then things got active. Themes of blood and water - washing away blood -- recurred as a couple (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth) in a bedroom tried to sluice away guilt and murder. There was some nudity but somehow, behind our masks, we were each individually watching and there was no creepy crowd feeling, although there were at least two dozen people there. It was almost sacred.

"Out, out damn spot." 
Then the couple began a wild dance - on the huge bed with its brown sheets, along the piled-up suitcases and brown dressers against the wall. They flung each other down and around, even up against the walls. The lines from Macbeth ran through my head -"Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!/Macbeth doth murder sleep.'" I saw two tortured people, demons wakefully haunted by bloody deeds, trapped in a hellish storm of their own devising, and I was brought to tears.

"Still it cried 'Sleep no more!' to all the house."
Following crowds and characters, I came upon a large room with low stone walls and trees. Here amid flashes of strobe lighting was a witches' sabbath of desperate eroticism as Macbeth and the three witches communed with the dark forces of the supernatural. All the symbolism of the scenes in Macbeth was there -- the bloody child (a baby doll, of course), a naked man wearing a donkey's head, the trees of Birnam Wood -- astonishing, sensual, brilliant.

As time wound toward 10 p.m., black-masked guides took up positions on the stairs, forcing us to go down to the main floor and a large open room where a stage was set with a banquet scene. Macbeth was at the head of the table and his male and female guests were arraying along it, almost dancing in place to music. And there was the ghost of Banquo, the last bloody-faced man, haunting the host at what becomes his last meal.

The evening ended at the Manderley Bar and our group of three reunited, although I had run into the two others along the way. All the way home, we compared notes and impressions, describing the personal, individual drama we had witnessed. It wasn't the usual Christmas show, but distinct and memorable nonetheless.

Note: this blog post is in memory of Pam Leven, a writer friend taken from us suddenly and too soon just five days ago. Now her story is ended, but while she lived she wrote it with verve, great humor and style. I'll always remember our adventures, Pam. It is so hard to say "farewell."



Friday, December 6, 2013

A grim, sordid little tale

Solange on Theater (which I now realize acronizes - if that is a word - to SOT) resumes, after a restful hiatus, with a trip to the Metropolitan Opera for Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto.

When it comes to the two Italian opera composer heavyweights, SOT (I'm starting to like this) is more of a Puccinella than Verdista, opting for lyric beauty over chest-heaving dramatics.

However, the prospect of an imaginative re-thinking of one of the repertoire war horses drew me to Lincoln Center and it's one of the few times that I bought a ticket mostly due to a photograph of the set:

Act I of Rigoletto.
Not to slight the cast, it was attractive too: tenor Matthew Polenzani (whom I'd seen in the HD broadcast of L'Elisir d'Amore) as the slimy Duke and Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto.

Director Michael Mayer has set the story in 1960 Las Vegas - apparently not a good idea, according to each of the ladies of a certain age who flanked me in my grand tier seat. "I guess I'm traditional," said the lady to my left. I begged to differ! Translating the atmosphere of court corruption to the anything-goes glitter and neon of Rat Pack Vegas seemed brilliant to me.

The Duke, casing the casino action in his white dinner jacket, opens with "Questa o quella" as a lounge act, flipping the mic cord like Dean Martin. The theater choreographer Steven Hoggett (who seems to be everywhere these days) created moves for the gamblers and showgirls, timed to the pulses of the music. I was enthralled.

Christine Jones' set, a neon riot of pleasure, was mesmerizing as the background to the immoral goings-on.

I was delighted by some of the free lyric translations on the little seatback screen in front of me, i.e. "Say, your movie star looks really light up the joint." I'm not sure librettist Francesco Maria Piave really wrote that in 1850.

Rigoletto is the nightclub comedian and not so hunchbacked, just sort of bulky around the shoulders and clad in an argyle sweater and slacks, which I thought a little odd among costume designer Susan Hilferty's dinner jackets and cocktail gowns. I thought it looked almost too casual, but I'd be hard put to suggest an alternative, and obviously the designer wanted to distinguish the character from the sea of more-formal wear.

Count Monterone, who wants to avenge the dishonoring of his daughter by the Duke, has become a wealthy Arab in this production - and the overtones of Muslim "honor killings" are ripe.

Polenzani and Hvorostovsky were expertly negotiating their roles when bass Štefan Kocán as the assassin, I mean hit man, Sparafucile, garnered a round of applause by holding a final note for what seemed like 30 seconds.

The voices of Hvorostovsky and soprano Sonya Yoncheva beautifully melded like coffee and cream on the duets between Rigoletto and his ill-fated daughter, Gilda.

The grand tier ladies and I agreed that Gilda wasn't the brightest bulb in the box since she fell for the Duke's masquerade as a "poor young student." (See, this is where Verdi's operas fall apart for me. He had no sense of plot. Have you ever tried to make sense of Il Trovatore?)

However, the music is ravishing. I still have "Caro nome" in my head and Yoncheva added lovely vocal embellishments to that song of longing.

Act II opened in a lounge outside the Duke's penthouse apartment, with a striking statue/neon centerpiece - another set winner by Jones - and his henchmen all drunk and passed out.

Act II of Rigoletto.
Apparently the Duke is actually smitten with Gilda - or cynically thrilled with the chase -- and Polenzani memorably spun out the last note of his aria. The henchmen have kidnapped Gilda as a prank, believing her to be Rigoletto's mistress, but the jester/comedian arrives and reveals she's his daughter. Hvorostovsky was heartbreaking as he pleaded on his knees that his daughter be returned to him.

The act ended with another stunning duet as Rigoletto vows revenge on the Duke and Gilda pleads for him (see what I mean - a little dim). In addition to the well-known arias, with the most famous coming in Act III, the glory of this opera is in the duets -- two people expressing sometimes-conflicting emotions, raising the dramatic stakes to fascinating heights.

In Act III, we're really entering the world of sleaze outside Sparafucile's seedy club and director Mayer thoughtfully provides a topless pole dancer to wake up the husbands in the audience. The grand tier ladies clucked with disapproval.

Act III of Rigoletto - from left, the Duke, Maddalena, Rigoletto, Gilda.
The "hit single" of this opera – “La donna è mobile” - comes toward the beginning of the act and it seemed to me that Polenzani sort of tossed it off without much oomph. The duke is singing about how women are fickle - oh the irony - and maybe he was trying to give it a suave, casual reading but for me, it came across as a little too laid-back.

The duets give way to the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” sung by the Duke, Gilda, Rigoletto and the Duke’s mistress Maddalena over music that is also laden with foreboding.

Tragedy inexorably marches toward a grimy climax.  The music is at its darkest here, rumbling as a storm descends, and the set lit up with neon flashes of lightning. Gilda makes her final mistake and Rigoletto realizes his thirst for vengeance has turned to strike at the very heart of his life.

Mindful of train times, I couldn’t stay for the curtain calls and bade a quick farewell to the grand tier ladies, who like their opera served up with traditional cutlery. As for me, spin the roulette wheel, fire up the neon, bring on the showgirls and bourbon and let Verdi soar over the Nevada desert.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Music theater in the mountains

I spent the early July holiday weekend in a place new to me, at a music theater camp of which I had never heard, experiencing a theater work I'd never seen. It was quite exhilarating.

Jane Austen said that everything important happens at parties and Margaret Visser wrote a book called Much Depends On Dinner, but for my money the coffee hour after a Sunday church service is equally serendipitous. At one of these encounters several months ago at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Mamaroneck, N.Y., I chanced into a conversation with a fellow parishioner named Ann, who told me she is involved with the Seagle Music Colony in the town of Schroon Lake, N.Y.

The Seagle Colony is the oldest summer residential training program for young opera singers. Founded in 1915 by baritone Oscar Seagle, it regularly gets more than 400 applications for some 30 places. I like summer theater, music and dance, so I filed the information away, along with Ann's invitation to join her at her summer house in Schroon Lake, which is about 250 miles north of New York City in the Adirondack Mountains.

The Oscar Seagle Memorial Theater
Over the next few months, the stars fell into place and on July 5, we arrived. The town of Schroon Lake and its nine-mile-long lake is a classic summer tourist destination, with dozens of seasonal homes, cottages and motels. We enjoyed a walk along the town park, beach and main street featuring restaurants, stores, an old movie theater called The Strand and a gas station. The vibe isn't commercial, but relaxed, outdoorsy and genuine.

Ann has been involved with Seagle Colony for years, as a supporter, board member, volunteer grant writer and host to some of the young singers who arrive for two months of classes, coaching and performance. Although the students and faculty are housed in cabins on the 20-acre campus in the woods, each singer is paired with a sponsor who can "tell them how wonderful they are," in Ann's phrase. In other words, a local "mom" or "dad" who can be their contact point, take them out to dinner, be a sympathetic ear - even help with laundry.

We went to see the first offering of the season: Street Scene, the 1946 musical with music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Langston Hughes and book by Elmer Rice, on whose play of the same name the work is based. This year, Seagle is also presenting Albert Herring, Eugene Onegin and 42nd Street, along with a children's opera called Three Little Pigs and a couple of concert evenings.

We attended a lively pre-show lecture by director of productions Richard Kagey, who also directed Street Scene. The story concerns the residents of an East Side Manhattan brownstone apartment building and takes place in 1946 over a sweltering summer evening and morning. It's an unusual musical - Weill described it various ways, including "American opera" - with a very large cast. Kagey said that more than 50 roles had been whittled down or doubled for the 30 or so singers. It's also one reason Street Scene is usually revived these days only by opera companies. It's too expensive to produce commercially.

Weill intended it to be a microcosm of the city and so we see the man whose wife is about to give birth, the elderly Jewish leftist, the stoop-lounging gossip and her friends, the violent husband and the unfaithful wife, the young couple in love, the kids underfoot -- just to name a few of the characters.

Two excellent pianists, one of them Music Director Richard Williams, provided the accompaniment, but I found the score, on this initial encounter, difficult to take, full of dissonance and minor chords. In addition, Weill, Rice and Hughes chose to focus on the sad, tumultuous relationship of Anna and Frank Maurrant, which ends rather predictably.

At the lecture, one questioner asked who were the main characters and Kagey mentioned the young lovers, Rose Maurrant (daughter of Anna and Frank) and Sam Kaplan (son of Abe, the radical), but these characters don't have a significant scene until an hour into the show. Like Tony and Maria in West Side Story, they sing about how they would love to get out of the brutal city ("We'll Go Away Together"), but in the end, Rose goes off without Sam and that's about it.

Other characters are introduced with delightful songs - Mr. Buchanan in "When a Woman Has a Baby" sings about how difficult it is for the man in these circumstances and Italian immigrant Lippo Fiorentino extols the wonders of ice cream in "Ice Cream Sextet" - but we don't see much more of them as the panorama of the streets rolls on. It seemed to me that since Rice was intent on presenting a broad swath of city characters, he didn't go very deeply. None of the characters, perhaps with the exception of Rose, develop or change much throughout the drama. In addition, the show's tempo - entrances, exits, stage movement - could have been quicker.

Realizing that Seagle is a training center, I noticed that acting skills ranged upward from basic. Strong standouts in character roles were Eric Ferring as Mr. Buchanan, Jack Swanson as Lippo Fiorentino and William Hearn as Abe Kaplan. Anna Laurenzo, as gossipy stoop-sitter Emma Jones, acts as a Greek chorus, but I wish the authors had varied the emotions of the character more.

Meghan Garvin as Anna Maurrant expresses a most affecting sense of melancholy and despair, while Maren Weinberger as daughter Rose depicts a young woman wise beyond her years who has had to grow up fast in the tenements. Andrew Surrena matches her with a sweet yet passionate Sam Kaplan. I look forward to seeing Christopher Filipowicz, who played Frank Maurrant, develop his acting further.    

Although the creators of Street Scene didn't listen, figuratively, to Alfred Hitchcock, who is reputed to have said, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out," I was very glad to make the show's acquaintance and add it to my theatrical collection.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

If actors ran an annual meeting ...

... it would look very much like the recent official yearly business session of the Episcopal Actors Guild, held in the theater (where else?) of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan.
Sam Waterston

EAG President Elowyn Castle (can't you just see that name on a marquee?) gaveled the meeting to order, noting that the gavel itself was a donation from Sam Waterston (ever seen Law and Order?), a longtime supporter of the guild.

The guild is celebrating its 90th year and Executive Director Karen Lehman opened with a story about the early years in the 1920s. "A brother and sister dance act needed money to go to Hollywood for a screen test. The guild gave them $500 each to go. They were Fred and Adele Astaire and every year for the rest of his life, Fred Astaire wrote a check for $500 to the guild," she said, to a delighted reaction from the audience.
Adele and Fred Astaire, 1920s

In addition to stories, annual meetings run by actors feature excellent vocal projection (which came in handy since the mic battery died), appropriate physical movement (up/down arm gestures from treasurer Scott Glascock that helped us visualize the components of the financial report), free expression of emotion and applause (more on that later).

The EAG is quite a unique group that attracts and holds all of us who love theater. Its home is a hall adjacent to the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration at Fifth Avenue at 29th Street. It's also known as the Little Church Around the Corner. As the story goes, in 1870, actor Joseph Jefferson – famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle – had requested a funeral at a tony social Fifth Avenue church for fellow actor George Holland.  Upon learning that the deceased had trod the boards, the priest refused. Actors were considered by some to be unworthy of Christian burial. The priest suggested “there is a little church around the corner where it might be done.”  Jefferson responded, “Then I say to you, sir, God bless the little church around the corner.”

There was a book sale.
 I don't need more books.
I bought a biography of Ethel Barrymore.
Ever since, the "Little Church" has been associated with the theater profession. It is the home of the "Broadway Blessing," an interfaith service of song, dance and story. The EAG -- founded by the church's third rector, Randolph Ray -- stages various types of benefit evenings at Guild Hall, including a reading of a play about George Bernard Shaw and Lord Alfred Douglas, subject of an earlier blog post here.

I directed a staged reading of the radio play, War of the Worlds, at Guild Hall. It is typical of the Guild that a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre, which produced the original, is a member of the Guild - Arthur Andersen, who is in his 90s.
Guild President
Elowyn Castle
makes an eloquent

But EAG is far more than a theatrical social club. As with the Astaires, EAG helps performers in need and it does so quickly and efficiently. On the scale of charities, it is tiny, but its impact in the lives of its clients is huge. We at the annual meeting heard that the Guild distributed a total of about $68,000 in the last fiscal year in grants, including $12,000 through its HIV/AIDS section.

If an actor has a medical crisis, or a personal or professional setback, the Guild is there to help. Among the letters the Guild has received: "The ability to pay for my physical therapy each week is a constant stress, and it was such a blessing to have a break from the financial strain." "Thank you for your financial support in helping me pay my rent. Now I can breathe, hold my head up high and move forward!"

Sam Waterston and Fred Astaire aren't the only well-known names associated with the Guild. Others are Rex Harrison and Barnard Hughes. Charlton Heston served as president in the 1970s. Jean Stapleton, who recently passed away, was on the advisory board, as are Elizabeth Ashley, Zoe Caldwell, Angela Lansbury and Richard Thomas.

The Guild has managed to keep its head above water through the financial crisis, but Treasurer Glascock's report revealed a difficult situation. The current fiscal year saw a significant shortfall. Expenses were also down, but the Guild had to draw on its endowment.

Although the Guild does pursue corporate and foundation support, it also simply needs more members and more members need to step up their support. So I am announcing in this post that I am upgrading my yearly $30 professional member status to life member status and I will do it at the highest level - $500. Membership levels are going up on July 1 to these rates: young professional $25/year, professional $35/year and patron $55/year. Life memberships are going up as of July 1 to $250, $350 and $550.

I am doing this not just because it's a "good thing," but because of the special warm, joyful feeling I get from Guild membership and the deep care with which the Guild regards the theater profession and its legacy.

The annual meeting opened and ended with prayers from Bishop Andrew St. John (I want to see that name on a marquee, too), current rector of the Little Church and Warden of the Guild. But just before the closing blessing, longtime member William Shust read the annual list of Guild members who no longer grace our earthly stage but have journeyed to "the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveler returns," as Hamlet says.

He read the names slowly, deliberately, with great articulation, and when he finished, the audience rose and gave them their final standing ovation.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Straight to the heart

Sometimes on this blog I alternate between theater and music and the subject of this post are a pair of musicians who are making music in a genre that's hard to define. I love artists who can't be pigeonholed. Peter Ustinov - actor? Playwright? Noel Coward - playwright? Composer? Actor?

Rebecca Haviland and Chris Anderson are the heart of Whiskey Heart, which plays alt-country, or country-blues, or Americana, or adult contemporary - in other words, darn good music that whatever's left of the music industry can't label.

From left, Kenny Shaw, Rebecca Haviland, Chris Anderson and  Todd Caldwell 
I love their sound and the daring artistry that makes a country cover out of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog." If you know the song well enough to hear Robert Plant's vocals in your head ("Hey, hey mama, said the way you move/gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove"), then you know it's the ultimate stompin' blues-air guitar-head banger. You've gotta click here and listen to what Haviland and the boys make of it.

I interviewed Rebecca and Chris over lunch at the Hash-O-Nash Middle Eastern restaurant in Mamaroneck, N.Y. For the story, including where you might see Whiskey Heart on tour this spring and summer, click here to go to the All About Armonk (N.Y.) website.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Taking a flyer on Broadway

Yesterday, I interviewed Jed Canaan, a theater man who is a resident of Armonk, N.Y., which is in Westchester County, just north of New York City. He and his wife, Bronna, run Theater Extras, which "papers the house" (gives away tickets) for producers who have seats to fill.

(An aside: when producers do this, it doesn't necessarily mean the show's a loser. It could also mean the producer really believes in it and wants to boost word of mouth. Or a celebrity or critic is coming and a full house creates a better atmosphere. It's often a win-win for the producer *and* the ticketholder.)

Are these happy producers, or what? Jed and Bronna Canaan contemplate the opening of Matilda the Musical.
With their latest venture, they would seem to have both ends of the producing equation covered, as they will be making their debut as producers at the very top - a major Broadway musical.

I waxed a little nostalgic about my time as one of the 700 producers of Godspell -- this blog entry wrapped up the whole experience -- and wish them a heartfelt "break a leg." 

The story first appeared at AllAboutArmonk:

When Matilda The Musical opens on Broadway on April 11, Jed and Bronna Canaan will mark their first time as Broadway producers, first Broadway opening night -- and the first time they've seen the show.

Isn't it a little unusual for producers not to have seen some version of the show that's eating their hard-earned cash? "It's highly unusual!" said Jed Canaan in an interview.

However, it's also a measure of the faith the couple has in a musical version of Roald Dahl's much-beloved book of the same name, featuring an irresistible story about a precociously intelligent girl who uses her wits and telekinetic powers to triumph over the idiotic adults in her life.

Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company (which has co-produced musicals since "Les Misérables" 25 years ago) bought the rights in 2009. Musician and comedian Tim Minchin wrote the music, playwright Dennis Kelly crafted the book and Matthew Warchus (Tony winner for "God of Carnage") was hired to direct. When the musical opened in London in November, 2011, Canaan took notice.

"I had read the book many years ago. My wife and I loved it. I wrote to the RSC and said if they ever brought it to New York, I'd like to raise money to produce it," he said.
The Canaans may be new to Broadway producing, but they aren't theater novices. Their decade-old company, Theater Extras, makes free show tickets available to a paid membership when producers are seeking to fill unsold seats.

Their producing arm is called North Castle Theatricals. They and their two daughters, who are 13 and 10, have been based in Armonk for six years, "love it" and have seen local theater such as the Armonk Players.
Canaan's instincts about "Matilda" were spot-on, as the British say. The show was a huge hit in London, winning seven Olivier Awards (including Best New Musical) and moving to a larger theater to accommodate demand.

Capitalizing the New York production at $16 million, the producers -- now including long-time Broadway players The Dodgers -- received a number of expressions of interest from producing groups. The Canaans were among those chosen to be co-producers, contingent upon raising funds from other investors.

Putting in some of their own money, the Canaans "picked up the phone," calling people they knew with the means to invest a minimum of $25,000 and understand the risks of Broadway, where eight in 10 shows lose money.

"I had to reach out to some heavy hitters. Basically, you sell the show a lot and beg just a little. But you have to believe in the project. One of the guys who invested saw the show in London and loved it, and that helped," said Canaan.

They reached their target and next Thursday, Jed, Bronna and seven couples will walk the red carpet at the Shubert Theatre and celebrate at the opening-night party.
However, the Canaans are already looking further ahead. "We're considering [investing in] 'Tuck Everlasting,' which opens in Boston this summer, and 'Diner'  from the movie," said Canaan.

Break a leg, Jed and Bronna.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Westchester theater's risk pays off

John Fanelli and his Standing Ovation Studios in Armonk, N.Y. have scored a huge hit with In the Heights at Westchester Broadway Theatre - a gritty, urban show that was thought to be a stretch for the suburban dinner venue. The musical is sold out for the original five-week run and has been extended to April 7.

Kudos to Fanelli for producing and directing the first local production since the show's 2008-2011 Broadway run and to WBT for varying their lineup of classic musicals (Guys and Dolls, The Sound of Music) with a story set among the residents of Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, spun to the beats of salsa, hip-hop and pop.

In the Heights, with music, lyrics and concept by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, won four 2008 Tony awards, including Best Musical. WBT's cast includes members of the Broadway cast and the just-completed national tour.

In The Heights at Westchester Broadway Theatre
The winning Arielle Jacobs plays Nina, who has returned home with a lonely secret - she's dropped out of Stanford due to money woes. Perry Young (who is a dead ringer for Miranda) is the neighborhood's anchor -- good-natured bodega owner Usnavi who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic.

Christina Aranda looks as if she is easily playing 40 years beyond her actual age as Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood's loving matriarch. Nicole Paloma Sarro and Benjamin Perez play Nina's parents, Camila and Kevin. Perez makes the most of "Inutil" ("Useless"), a song expressing a father's pain at feeling helpless when his daughter is in distress, and Sarro seeks to stop their arguing in "Enough."

Special mention must go to Westchester-trained FaTye, who plays Benny, an employee of Kevin's car service. As an African-American, Benny feels odd man out among the Latinos and FaTye skillfully negotiates his emotions from genial to resentful to loving suitor of Nina.

Nina's quandary over what to do about her college dreams is paralled by hairdresser Vanessa's desire to get out of the neighborhood and afford an apartment downtown. Gizel Jimenez dynamically expresses Vanessa's desperation and attraction to Usnavi.

Sparkling Latin dance numbers, originally choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler and reproduced by Morgan Marcell, punctuate the characters' emotions. But for all of their desires to get out of the barrio, they realize that, as Camila sings, "When you have a problem, you come home."

Steve Loftus' set design, with the silhouette of the George Washington Bridge in the distance, beautifully evokes the street scene and Andrew Gmoser's lighting design creates attractive patterns and textures. However, the show's sound issues, which earlier reviews have mentioned, seem to continue as several patrons last night remarked that Usnavi's intricate rap lyrics were hard to hear.

Overall, the "In the Heights" adventure has been a success for WBT. Patrons Seth Segall and Sue Mirialakis, attending last night from White Plains, said it was their first visit to WBT. "We just recently started discovering local theater. I was not familiar with this show, but I'm interested in new theater," said Segall.

This story first appeared at www.allaboutarmonk.com.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Raw courage

Imagine you are a teenager (or try to remember it).

Sometimes you feel like a thumb-sucking little kid; other times you glean flashes of wisdom with the mind of an adult.You're not sure what to do with your changing body and voice, even as society wants to tell you in order to sell you something. You're trying to negotiate your own moral compass, buffeted by the storms of hormones and peer pressure.

Now imagine you have to pretend to be somebody else, to move with grace and purpose. You have to memorize hundreds of words, repeating them over and over again for weeks. Then you have to go to a school you don't know, get up in front of some of your friends and perform for an adult you don't know who is noting and judging your performance right in front of you.

This takes raw courage, friends, and it's what I saw when I served recently for the first time as a judge for the Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey's Secondary School Theatre Competition in association with the New Jersey Governor's Awards in Arts Education.

The competition was held at Rutgers University. My section was "dramatic pairs" -- scenes for two people that are dramatic rather than comedic -- and took place in a classroom.

The Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey's logo

We were to judge acting skill rather than choice of material, but the choices were quite varied. No Shakespeare - indeed, nothing earlier than the 19th century -- but the play excerpts included Agnes of God, A View From the Bridge, Uncle Vanya, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Doubt and Proof. I wasn't familiar with some of the other works, including Juvenilia and Water Babies. 

Skill level varied, of course, but all 13 pairs were uniformly good in at least one area - memorization. My most recent acting foray came during my educational theater master's program at NYU in which five of us performed three scenes from Measure for Measure. It was about 30 minutes and I had about 100 lines to memorize. Our group rehearsed obsessively for weeks (I ran lines at dinner, in the car, on walks and once woke up in the middle of the night with the text running through my head) and nailed the performance. 

These students were doing scenes that had to be ten minutes or less, still a decent amount of work. No one "went up" on their lines (prompting was strictly prohibited), no one had to delay or stop the scene, even momentarily. God, they must have been nervous, but the pairs who introduced their scenes did so with poise and confidence.

Only my top two pairs went on to the finals in the afternoon. There was a clear #1 - two girls who performed a riveting scene from Agnes of God - and my #2 was a boy and girl who played a scene from Before It Hits Home, in which an African-American family is riven by a son's news that he has AIDS. Unfortunately, the second pair went so badly over time I had to disqualify them and I hated to do it. I wish they had timed their piece better because a wider audience should have seen them, but they got encouraging comments on the judging sheet.

If there had been a prize for Most Delightful Surprise, it would have gone to the boy and girl who did a scene from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with consistent melodramatic style. How wonderful to get a break from naturalism!

Afterwards, one judge mused on whether any of the contestants would have professional careers on the stage. I thought about this remark and realized the concept had not crossed my mind the whole day. 

The point, I think, for these students is in the doing and the developing. Simply taking part in theater - even acting at a very basic level - brings you out of yourself in the attempt to inhabit and understand another person. It's actually a profoundly weird and profoundly human thing to do. It broadens your outlook. You realize you may not be alone. What an important experience that is for young people at a stage in life where you often think you're the only one who's ever gone through a particular emotional storm.

After the taking part - then the hard work begins. Training body and voice, learning how to work with a partner and a team, taking direction, maintaining concentration and at least the outward appearance of confidence - what great skills for life theater teaches! And at this point, we haven't even yet gotten into literary and dramatic research required for a role, acting and movement techniques, using costumes and makeup, considering the influence of music. 

When I was looking for images to illustrate this blog post, I entered "Rutgers" into Google Images. Apart from a few campus pictures, all the images that appeared had something to do with football - logos or photos. No pictures of theater groups, unless you use the term "Rutgers Theater."

Now, playing sports is a wonderful thing and teaches excellent life skills, also. But there's a high school in Rye Neck, near my town of Mamaroneck, N.Y., where the drama teacher somehow gets members of the sports teams to take part in the school musical. Last year, they did Beauty and the Beast and I was blown away by the quality of the show - and by the discipline and style of the entire cast, not just the leads.

Football players learning how to sing and dance. Now that's a well-rounded education.   

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Aw shucks, thanks

I "liked" the website www.ticketprinting.com on Facebook and voila, won $500 in printing products which I know I can put to good use. Ticketprinting.com's blog writer, Monica Friedman, subsequently called me, conducted a very engaging interview and published this story. Let's hear it for the arts, education and the power of a beautiful ticket in the hand!

Contest Winner: Solange De Santis

Solange De Santis published Life on the Line in 2000.
Journalist and Theater Critic Praises the Power of Arts and Education
Let it not be said that Solange De Santis fears getting her hands dirty, plunging into a story, or taking a risk for a cause in which she believes. She may be a writer by trade, but her love of knowledge and education marks her as a modern Renaissance woman. An accomplished journalist and theater critic who once took a job to assembling cars in a doomed GM factory in order to learn, first-hand, the plight of the blue-collar worker, she is also a dedicated educational booster, volunteering her time to support the arts in schools.
“The arts are my passion,” De Santis explains. In addition to directing and running sound for community and school theater, “I play the piano, I sing in the choir at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Mamaroneck, I’m a judge in the Theatre Startsplaywriting competition in Ontario, Canada, I am doing communications consulting for Westchester’s St. Thomas Orchestra.” Plus, she finds time to help organize dances and other arts-related activities atHommocks Middle School in Mamaroneck, New York.
Arts, Communication, Education, and Tickets
A firm believer in the power of education, De Santis attributes her accomplishments to formal schooling: “I explored the worlds of literature and drama in my undergraduate study at Barnard College and journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Much later in life, I went to NYU for an M.A. in educational theater, graduating in May 2011.” Communication, she believes, is the key to success, and the arts are the most profound way to communicate. True communication, she feels, “leads to understanding and that means a lot less conflict in the world.”
In the past, De Santis has used TicketPrinting.com to produce tickets for Hommocks’ 8thgrade dance and “found the service to be fairly easy to use…and very reasonably priced.” Rather than choosing “small, flimsy raffle tickets you can get for $11 in a roll,” which had been used in the past, she “was able to design a much larger ticket with a raffle stub and heavier-weight cardboard with wording customized for our event” for about $80. She found the numbering made “management of the ticket list and the raffle…a breeze. It was an excellent solution.”
Solange De Santis, 2007, with award for Best Sound Design from the Association of Community Theaters-Central Ontario
$500 in Free Printing and a Warm Emotional Glow
Having recently won $500 in free printing from TicketPrinting.com, De Santis is exploring her options and will most likely dedicate the prize to St. Thomas Orchestra’s May concert. Since the orchestra does “not yet have a digital purchase option,” she is also considering Ticket River’s online box office as a solution for Internet sales. She likes the idea of “total solutions,” offered in Event Kits “such as the tickets-poster-flyer package in the classical music section” and finds the service “so useful for schools or amateur/community organizations with limited budgets and people like myself who are not necessarily ticket management professionals.”
In spreading a love of art and music, ticketing options become an important part of creating access. De Santis recognizes how all the details come together create results, and sees that, “the easier the process, the better you can focus on the event itself and [the] better your relations are with your audience.” To her, “a ticket is an essential print product that is part of the overall communications environment.” It’s not merely a way to count heads or push an audience through a gate, but rather, a “little representation of your event,” that can be held in the hand. “Ticket stubs are often saved as souvenirs, pasted into scrapbooks…even in the digital age,” she reminds us, and, “A nice-looking ticket creates a warm emotional glow.”