Saturday, September 12, 2015

Family drama

The theater is not like the movies. The stage version of The Lion King notwithstanding, theater doesn't need vast landscapes and special effects to create drama. A simple living room with a couch and two chairs can be a setting for high emotion, as seen in The Danaid by Thomas Michael Quinn, produced recently in downtown Manhattan's Thespis Theatre Festival and directed by Quinn.

The play's title and poster (see below) indicate an intriguing merger of mythology and theme. The Danaid is a sculpture by Rodin that shows a daughter of Danaos collapsing in despair over her impossible task -- filling up a bottomless barrel with water in punishment for killing her husband on their wedding night.

The rest of the poster? A spilled drink over a birth certificate, which in this case belongs to a girl given up for adoption. There's a secret involved and the two sisters squaring off at the center of the play -- tall, blond, self-assured Joan (Karen Forte) and meek, sweater-wearing Claire (Phyllis Lindy) -- hold pieces of it.

It seems that the baby given up years ago -- Sarah (Lauren Tyrrell) -- is now a young woman and will shortly be coming to call, since Claire has contacted her.

This is a premise ripe with potential, but it's not fully realized in The Danaid. As Joan, Forte stalks the stage like a long-legged lioness, spitting anger, bullying her sister,
Karen Forte
spurning Sarah and lashing out at her husband, Tim (James Reed). Although we're given some insight into why she's a ball of rage, it seems out of proportion. Her character also doesn't develop; she begins at a high emotional temperature and stays there - a tiring experience for an audience.

As for Lindy's Claire, you want to walk up onstage and give this woman a hug but eventually you also want her to show a little backbone. Again, the play also keeps her on one level - meek and scared.
Phyllis Lindy

Tyrrell's Sarah early on shows promising signs of what's called a character arc. She arrives intent on proving she's is an extremely well-adjusted young woman, polite and accommodating, then takes an interesting turn as she stands up to Joan and matches her blow by verbal blow. In the end, however, the language could be more varied to hold our interest.

Reed and Odera Adimorah, who plays Sarah's boyfriend Mark, ably portray two decent guys with varying reactions to a three-way female boxing match, but director Quinn hasn't given them much to do in the way of blocking (stage movement). A couple of times, actors seem to just walk offstage without making a definitive exit.

There was no question about one thing in this production, however -- the heartfelt commitment of the cast  to Quinn's script and director Quinn's smooth work with actors and text. Here's hoping The Danaid has a longer life.  


Friday, July 10, 2015

Salt Lake on the Hudson

Planning for my first trip to Salt Lake City in late June, I decided to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, only to discover they were on tour and would be at Carnegie Hall in the following week.

So, ironically, I saw them at home - my home, that is. Since I sing in an Episcopal church choir, I am interested in choral music and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has become one of those American monuments, like the Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore, that is both a must-do and an apparent cliche.

I don't know what I thought I would encounter -- a fine choral group singing a few hymns, I suppose. However, the thing about monuments is that their familiarity may create a false sense of complacency and this certainly turned out to be the case with the singing Mormons.

A surreptitious photo snapped at Carnegie Hall. Chorus is seated behind orchestra. I'm not sure why there was a video projection of what seem to be cloud patterns on the stage wall.

What I discovered was a program of astonishing sophistication, with the musical intelligence of Music Director Mack Wilberg clearly evident. For example, throughout the first half of the program, Wilberg wove various arrangements of sections of the familiar hymn "Old Hundreth." Here's how it goes:

My photo from Temple Square: dominated by a magnificent Aeolian Skinner organ, vintage 1948, the interior of the Salt Lake Tabernacle - due to the building's shape - somewhat resembles an arena. The acoustics, however, are impeccable.

The choir sang the haunting "Requiem aeternam" from Wilberg's own Requiem. They used no books throughout the concert, exhibiting memorization of an impressive amount of music, and also played handbells on Pritchard's hymn "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling." Their sound is pure and clear, with about 200 voices onstage at Carnegie singing with remarkable diction, accompanied by the excellent 50-piece Orchestra at Temple Square.

The first half contained "Hymn Tune Settings of the Masters," featuring Mendelssohn's "Von Himmel hoch" and Holst's "Psalm 148," plus "19th Century Sacred Song" with Gounod's "Unfold, Ye Portals" and Rossini's "Cum Sancto Spiritu from Petite messe solennelle.

Ending the first half with "Old Hundredth," the choir drew out the final "Amen" with a long, long diminuendo that floated in the air like a single bell-like breath. "Now, Mr. Wilberg," I thought, "you're just showing off. That was amazing."

The program's second half was even more exciting, as this group of 99% white people sang a Russian song ("Glory!") by Rimsky-Korsakov, a Sephardic wedding song arranged by Wilberg and the American folk hymn "Pilgrim Song."

You never heard so many white folks sound so African as when the Mo-Tab swung into the Nigerian carol "Betelehemu," swaying from side to side with the rhythm, accompanied by African percussion and soloist Laurent Neu.

The choir's mastery of styles continued with two African-American spirituals - "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" and "I'm Runnin' On." Soloist Alex Boye brought intense expressiveness and nearly-James Brown moves to his performance. You can see him here:

At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Mamaroneck, N.Y., we've sung "Old Hundredth," "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" and most especially the Mormons' finale - the Wilhousky setting of "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Wilberg gets to shape this number with an orchestra and an army of throats, but we produced a mighty sound with just 16 voices and our magnificent music director, Noel Hart, on the pipe organ.

At Carnegie Hall, it was just the last of many goosebump moments, courtesy of one of America's natural wonders. Enjoy:

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Poem for a jazzman

Rainy night in Manhattan
Old music school auditorium
Jammed with the faithful.

Concert shiva eulogy celebration
Funeral for a jazzman.

Lew Soloff
Don't the words just roll off
The tongue of the trumpeter.

Legendary horn
Born to crumble walls
Within music and without.

Spinning Wheel solo
Poured Blood, Sweat and Tears
Over rock and jazz together.

From the back of the house
Wynton Marsalis leads
A New Orleans brass band.

Paul Shaffer leading the orchestra
 at the Lew Soloff memorial.
Jazz fame walks mournful steps
Down the side of the hall,
Just A Closer Walk With Thee.

Then, the turn at the stage,
Didn't He Ramble?
Playing out the joy.

Almost met him.
A promise made
To an orchestra in Westchester -
He would play classical chops in
Shostakovich No. 5.

Then the terrible news
On the eve of the first rehearsal.
We were left only with the ashes
Of a concert program dedication.

At the show,
Emotions flow
And sometimes they use words.

Improvised solos, big band, classical,
Even a young cello protege.

Asian singer Grace Kelly
Bears lightly a famous name
And the future face of jazz.

Grief stalks the room
Like a living thing.
Bravely, their music
Rages against the dark.

Yet Lew is alive in every soul,
As music always lives.
Farewell, brass man.
Show the Angel Gabriel
How to blow.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Celebrating a theater legacy

Emotions were high both onstage and off as Byram Hills High School in Armonk, N.Y. on April 13 staged a performance of the musical Next to Normal with Broadway actors to benefit the school’s theater program and honor retiring teacher Joy Varley.

Her 28 years at the school (out of a 36-year career) were commemorated by a surprise announcement from Principal Christopher Borsari that each year’s theater troupe would be renamed the Varley Players. “In the life of an institution, the people who shape it should never be forgotten,” Borsari told a sold-out audience of parents, friends and alumni in the BHHS auditorium.

In addition, the performance’s music director, BHHS alumnus Jason Loffredo, premiered a song composed for the occasion and sung by the cast, called “Song to Joy.” He prefaced it by saying, “I would not be where I am in my life were it not for Joy Varley.” Loffredo is a well-known theatrical music director, pianist, composer and arranger.

Joy Varley
Both tributes were a surprise to Varley, who responded, “Thank you all for everything. This school district will be in my heart forever.” Before the performance, she noted the powerful impact of the arts and theater in particular on young lives, saying “the people who will create the future of our culture are standing on a high school stage today.” She announced that the benefit had so far raised $24,000.

The Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning show’s composer, Tom Kitt, returned to his old high school as keynote speaker for the evening, observing that “it feels like no time has gone by, then it feels like years and years.” (He graduated in 1992.) “To come back was a no-brainer to raise money for this wonderful program,” he said.

Participating in BHHS theater “changed my life,” he said, remembering a production of Into the Woods that powerfully influenced him. That Stephen Sondheim show uses fairy tales to tell stories of real people and he said he “started to go after theater that told more of those stories. The seeds of Next to Normal began there.”

 He spoke of theater’s ability to change lives, noting that the subject of Next to Normal, a family coping with the mother’s mental illness, was discussed at two school assemblies on the day of the performance. “Art is the great savior. It talks about issues that might be scary,” he said.

Talking about Next to Normal’s journey, he said it took 11 years for he and lyricist Brian Yorkey to bring the musical to Broadway, starting with a 10-minute version as part of a musical theatre development workshop. He also called his welcome at BHHS “quite overwhelming.”

As reported earlier on, alumni of BHHS who are professional actors and musicians gave up several Mondays off to rehearse and perform for the benefit. The semi-staged performance featured a seven-piece orchestra, including Loffredo conducting from the piano.

Lauryn Ciardullo (BHHS graduate 2004) brought a fragile and brittle edge to the character of Diana, a mother whose bipolar disorder haunts her family. As her husband Dan, BHHS Theater Director John Anthony Lopez conveyed the desperation of a man realizing his love for his wife may not be enough to hold the family together.

Jared Weiss (BHHS 2003) played the family’s compelling son Gabe with charm and an undertone of mischief. As daughter Natalie, Katerina Papacostas (BHHS 2006) portrayed a young woman longing for her mother’s love and attention and trying to understand she might only get crumbs. Guest artist Johnny Stellard played Natalie’s boyfriend Henry as a decent, caring person who in his way might be as steadfast as Dan.

As Dr. Madden, Jonah Piali (BHHS Assistant Theater Director) served up medical platitudes with compassion and also the right amount of bland professional attitude.
Orchestra members included J.J. Clarke (BHHS 1995) on drums and percussion, Craig Magnano on guitar, Kathy Shelhart (H.C. Crittenden Middle School Orchestra Director) on cello, Alan Lounsbury (BHHS Stage Conductor) on bass, Lori Horowitz (BHHS alumni parent) on violin and Robert DelGaudio on synthesizer.

The technical crew included BHHS Production Assistant Jim Gulick (production assistant), BHHS Tech Director Jamie LaJoie (sound design) and BHHS 1993 alumnus Mike Cummings (lighting design).

Ticket holders were invited to pre- and post-show receptions where alumni, parents and friends mingled with Varley, Kitt and the cast and crew.

This article originally appeared at

Monday, March 2, 2015

A somber parade

Jason Robert Brown's musical Parade, which received a revelatory one-night concert production at Lincoln Center on Feb. 16, proves (as did Sweeney Todd) that you can make a show out of just about any material.

Parade is the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta who was convicted in 1913 of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old worker. Anti-Semitism, corrupt local politics and crowd hysteria influenced his conviction and when his sentence in 1915 was commuted from death to life imprisonment, he was kidnapped from jail by a mob and lynched.

I had not seen the show when it premiered at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1998. It got mixed reviews ("solemn," said Ben Brantley in the NY Times) and closed just two months later.

Lincoln Center seems to be its natural home, as this concert production 16 years later was in Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic.

It was the third concert production of a Broadway musical recently staged by Manhattan Concert Productions (MCP), which also puts together music programs at Carnegie Hall and other venues.

MCP maintains a 30-member house orchestra, the New York City Chamber Orchestra, which proved to be a most impressive ensemble.

Composer (and lyricist) Brown conducted choir and orchestra with skilled assurance, showcasing his remarkable score to its best advantage. I was fortunate enough to see the original 2002 production of Brown's first musical, The Last Five Years, with Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, and completely adored his most recent show, The Bridges of Madison CountyWith Parade, I'm a confirmed Jason Robert Brown admirer.

The story opens with the sunniest of American small-town traditions - a parade, in this case, the Confederate Memorial Day parade in Marietta, Ga., where a Civil War veteran sings "The Old Red Hills of Home," a skillful homage by Brown to Southern folk songs.

Quickly, however, alienation arrives as Frank, clearly uncomfortable as a Jewish northern transplant, sings "How Can I Call This Home?" and tell his wife that "I can't see how God created you Jewish and Southern at the same time."

Gary Griffin's direction and Brown's musical direction kept up the tension as Frank is arrested and local law enforcement and politicians whip up a frenzy designed to railroad him. However, the limitations of a semi-staged production and a balky sound system meant that sometimes it was hard to keep track of the characters.
Laura Benanti as Lucille Frank and Jeremy Jordan as Leo Frank 
Broadway stars Jeremy Jordan (also seen in the TV show Smash) and Laura Benanti traced the journey of Leo and Lucille Frank, from uncertainty through strain to love and support. Benanti particularly shone in the ballad "You Don't Know This Man," describing how the man she loves isn't the one portrayed as a murderer.

Jordan affectingly transmitted Leo's loneliness-in-a-crowd unease and he and Benanti climaxed the show with the duet "All the Wasted Time" as Lucille crusades for justice for him.

Joshua Henry, last seen in Violet, here brings down the house as a factory janitor and suspect in Phagan's murder, pointing the finger at Frank in "That'sWhat he Said."  

My connection at this show was to Ron Cameron-Lewis, an emeritus faculty member of Sheridan College's top-notch music theater degree program. The Mississauga, Ontario-based college mounted a production of Parade last year and composer/lyricist Brown invited 35 students to join the 200-voice choir that would be performing in the concert. (Sheridan also hosted a pre-show reception that brought back alumni starring in such Broadway shows as Beautiful and The Book of Mormon.)

Chorus members also came from ten other schools and from community choirs, selling out Avery Fisher Hall with friends and family, who were quite vocal in their enthusiasm and reactions to the show.

Given the subject matter, I'm not sure I'd be playing the CD of Parade regularly, but then again, Sweeney Todd is a favorite. I do know that I'm very glad to have made the acquaintance of this haunting show and to have filled out my knowledge of Jason Robert Brown's musicals.