Sunday, September 18, 2016

Marie and Rosetta



My third biographical play of last week, the world premiere of George Brant’s Marie and Rosetta, was another involving afternoon in the theatre thanks to the powerhouse voices of Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones and Brant’s witty and ultimately poignant script. The Atlantic Theatre Company production, under the direction of Neil Pepe, offers a visit with the late gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Lewis) as she prepares for a performance and tour in 1946 Mississippi.

“You’ve got to know what your gifts are worth,” she tells Marie Knight (Jones), the 23-year-old singer she has just plucked out of backup work to be her performing partner.

Lewis’s Rosetta knows her worth, and she shares her singing techniques and life lessons with Marie as the two prepare in a funeral home, the only place Rosetta says is open to black entertainers in the Deep South. This will not only be where they rehearse; they are to sleep there that night as well. Marie is spooked (pun intended) by the caskets, but Rosetta assures her “they’re nothing but a bunch of souls gone to glory.”

Their stage that evening will be in a warehouse. “We ain’t playing no Carnegie Hall tonight,” Rosetta says with resigned acceptance. By that time she was a big star, a contemporary of Mahalia Jackson, “Saint Mahalia,” she sarcastically calls her rival for her “high church” singing. Rosetta prefers to add some “swinging hips” to her performances.

During the 90 minutes with no intermission, Rosetta wins over Marie, who at first is horrified by the older singer’s attempts to get her to drop her own high church singing and put some swing into her gospel. “Your joy has hips,” Marie says reproachfully.

But Rosetta is determined to loosen up her protégé, in her piano accompaniment as well as her singing. “Your piano’s an old maid with a gray tabby on her lap,” she scolds.

Rosetta makes her a deal. “You swing it for me and I’ll church it up for you. It’s hips or the highway.”

In real life the two women were a hugely successful performing duo. Rosetta had already achieved fame in the 1930s and 40s, singing with the likes of Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. She was also considered the queen of “race records” and was admired for her guitar playing and electric guitar playing as well as her singing. Elvis and Jimi Hendrix credited her as inspiring their careers.

I first heard Lewis (right in photo) when she sang with the Paul Winter Consort. She nearly blew the dome off of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the world’s largest cathedral. After she finished singing "His Eye is on the Sparrow," Winter said he didn’t know anything on land that could compete with that so he followed with a recording of whales. That was nearly 30 years ago and she’s still got the pipes. As does Jones. They treated us to about a half dozen gospel and blues numbers — I really loved “I Want a Tall, Skinny Papa” as well as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” I felt I was one of the souls gone to glory. Although they are the only two characters, their voices have the effect of a mighty chorus of gospel voices.

Marie and Rosetta features some mean piano and guitar playing. Although the actresses do a good job of faking it, at least for the piano, the real musicians are revealed at the curtain call — Deah Harriott on piano and Felicia Collins on guitar.

The show also features scenic design by Riccardo Hernández, costumes by Dede Ayite, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy and music direction by Jason Michael Webb.

The other two biographical shows I saw last week were Maestro, about Leonard Bernstein, and Fiorello!, about the former mayor of New York. I recommend all three.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fiorello!




Whatever character flaws Fiorella LaGuardia had, you won’t find them in Fiorello!, the Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, George Abbott and Jerome Weidman’s musical about New York’s pint-sized former mayor. But you will find lots of heart and fun in The Berkshire Theatre Group’s revival of this Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical, now at The East 13th Street Theater.

Directed by Bob Moss, this is the first full-scale New York City and Off-Broadway revival of the hit musical, which was last seen on Broadway in 1959. Its enthusiastic cast, headed by Austin Scott Lombardi (photo, center), tells the story of a son of Italian immigrants, the man known as the “Little Flower” (his first name in Italian), a lawyer who fought for the poor and disenfranchised, “working on the side of the angels.” He became a Congressman from New York who bravely took on the corruption of Tammany Hall, then was a distinguished soldier in World War I and, after an initial defeat, the city’s mayor.

The show is two and a half hours but, with its spirit of an old-time musical and the energy of the young cast, it never drags. Carl Sprague has designed a set made up largely of cutouts of famous NYC buildings and a few tables and chairs, all of which can be pushed on an off stage easily, and replicas of old newspapers cover the stage floor.

David Murin’s costumes are a delight, especially when we move into the 1920s — love those black and rhinestone flapper dresses.

Michael Callahan has choreographed lively dancing that fills the small stage. I especially liked the ballroom dancing for “Till Tomorrow,” a moving number marking Fiorello’s departure for the war.

The singing is strong and clear. Rebecca Brudner, playing Fiorello’s first wife, Thea (in photo with Lombardi), gives an exquisite performance of “When Did I Fall in Love,” probably the show’s best-known song, where she reveals her surprise at how deeply she has fallen in love with her husband over the years.

I also appreciated Chelsea Cree Groen who plays Dora, a striking factory worker Fiorello helps early in his career. She has a beautiful voice and good comic timing.

Music director Evan Zavada has arranged the score for two pianos and a violin, and this simplicity works just fine.

It’s a treat to go to a show about a good guy who stays good, with cheery music and actors who break into song and dance without a moment’s notice. As I said, a truly old-fashioned musical. In this season of vile politics with not a good guy to be seen, it’s refreshing to have this fantasy.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Leonard Bernstein lives in Hershey Felder's 'Maestro'


    

He entered from the back of the theatre, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. Then Hershey Felder turned to the audience at 59E59 Theaters and for the next hour and 45 minutes straight brought Leonard Bernstein’s life and talent to life in his one-man biographical play with music Maestro, which opened yesterday and runs through Oct. 16.

Felder brought such passion to his performance that it was easy to think we were actually being addressed by the great conductor and composer himself. The show, directed by Joel Zwick with a book by Felder, brings together brilliant storytelling and piano performances of the music of Bernstein and others.

From Francois-Pierre Couture’s set consisting of little more than a grand piano, Felder takes on— often comically — the roles of Bernstein’s Russian immigrant father and the artists who inspired him, and he tells stories about his family’s background, his wife, Felicia Montealegre, and his numerous homosexual relationships. Classical compositions and singing, especially songs from Bernstein’s Broadway shows like West Side Story and On the Town, accent the storytelling.

We learn that Bernstein met his fate when he was about 10 and his aunt gave her upright piano to his family. As soon as he put his fingers to the ivories he was enchanted.

“I went over to touch a note, and a second and a third, and somehow, by some miracle, I managed to find a chord, and I feel in love.”

He was able to play by ear songs he heard at school, much to the dismay of his father who thought he should use his hands to make money so they wouldn't have to “live like poor immigrants, chasing away from bill collectors.”

Leonard pursued his music anyway, taking $1 piano lessons from a neighbor with money he earned “with these little jobs I had for myself.” After a year, though. she told him she had taught him all she could and recommended he study at the New England Conservatory. But his father refused to pay the $3 per lesson, saying such a bright boy should grow up to be a rabbi, not a klezmer. Leonard earned the money this time by teaching piano to neighborhood children. His father later would discover how well this paid off.

After years of study and gaining recognition, a 25-year-old Bernstein, hungover from late night partying, received a 9 a.m. call that would change his life. Now an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he was to be a last-minute substitute for guest conducer Bruno Walter that afternoon at 3 — for a live national broadcast.

“Such a thing hadn’t happened before in anyone’s memory at the New York Philharmonic if it ever happened at all,” he says. “I was backstage, just before the performance, pacing like a madman, can you imagine? Twenty-five years old — the pressure — the whole nation and not even one rehearsal.”

A recording of the Schumann Manfred Overture plays and Felder conducts. I felt I was in a concert hall, one of the many times I was transported during this show.

“After Schumann’s Manfred Overture came Strauss’ ‘Don Quixote’ and I blew the roof off of Carnegie Hall. The next morning, the story calling me a ‘genius’, a natural, the first-ever born, bred, educated, all-American conductor, appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was picked up all over the world. . . a 25-year-old skinny Jewish kid from Lawrence, Massachusetts, conducting one of the greatest ensembles in the world.”

Over the years international success followed, although not in his personal life. In the end, though, Felder’s Bernstein rages that his legacy is to be known as a great conductor and not a composer. He lists his achievements, which include creating a symphony orchestra for the State of Israel and conducting the entire of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from the fall of the Berlin Wall in a globally televised broadcast, plus hundreds and hundreds of concerts all over the world, dozens upon dozens of recordings, and composition after composition.

“But you know what? No one gives a God-damn about conductors. The only ones they care about are composers. All of them have serious pieces, at least one serious work that every single one of you know, that each of you can sing the theme of . . . ‘ta-da-da-da.” He challenges the audience to a group sing of something from an opera or sonata of his or his Mass. The lack of response makes his point. He ends as he began, singing “Somewhere” from West Side Story.

Whatever regrets Bernstein may have had, I would hope if he saw Felder’s portrayal of him he would understand he was a great gift to the world. As is Felder in this production. I want to see more of his solo shows, which include George Gershwin Alone, Monsieur Chopin and Beethoven.

After his curtain call Felder returned to the stage and, in honor of yesterday’s 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, paid tribute to another great American composer, Irving Berlin, leading the audience in singing “God Bless America.” It was a beautiful end to a beautiful afternoon.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Name Three




     Can you name three African-American women who lived before 1865?  Valerie M. Joyce asks this question to people young and old and rarely finds anyone who can meet the challenge.

     “That’s 250 years of women in this country,” she notes.  “Why can’t we name more of them?”

   Joyce, an associate professor in Villanova University’s theatre department, first asked herself this question five years ago while doing historical research in an unrelated field.  Reading a book of laws, she came upon a reference to an indentured servant in the Virginia Colony in 1649 who was forced to stand in a white shroud and recite a psalm of repentance for having fornicated with a white man.

    In a moment of inspiration, she pictured her graduate acting student Kimberly S. Fairbanks bringing that woman and her public shaming to life.  Although she is white and had never written a play, Joyce felt called to tell the story of that long ago black woman in dramatic form. Through extensive research of slave narratives, memoirs, diaries, court records, poems, public addresses and newspaper advertisements she fashioned “I Will Speak for Myself,” a play giving voice to the stories of 16 women who were nurses, slaves, educators and activists in America from the Colonial days to the Civil War.  Fairbanks portrays them all.

     “This had nothing to do with my education or dissertation,” Joyce said.  “I had no African-American history.  I saw a vision of Kimberly wrapped in that white sheet and I didn't look back.”

    Joyce and Fairbanks sat at the empty bar in 59E59 Theaters where “I Will Speak for Myself” was being presented before heading to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe [Note: It is Festival Fringe rather than fringe festival], the world’s largest arts festival, where it will be performed Aug. 22 through 27.

     “These were real women I did not know and I feel honored and blessed and that they are speaking through me,” Fairbanks said.  “As an actress I don’t often get to research people and allow them to be heard.  I feel them before I go out and I say, ‘Please be with me.’”

     The show presented in New York had been pared to 45 minutes from 81 to meet the requirements for Edinburgh. Five women’s stories had to be sacrificed and others shortened. The staging, under Joyce’s direction, is simple, just a few props for Fairbanks to use.  Projections of old photos showing little girls in party dresses and elderly women with weary faces effectively set the scene before the show begins and provide the name, date and location for each new woman portrayed. 

     Joyce used the women’s own words when available and chose whom to portray based on “if I could imagine a moment of dramatic conflict in their life, a very specify actable moment.”

     Some of the women express their faith, although Joyce says this wasn’t planned.

     “It is there, the deep faith and spirituality just came.  It was not an agenda.”

     Fairbanks thinks this is to be expected.

     “How else could they survive?  They had to have faith.”

     Joyce and Fairbanks say they each have “a lot of faith,” although they aren’t part of any congregation.  Joyce calls herself “a believing Catholic” who attended Villanova for graduate and undergraduate school and “ran back as fast as I could to be a professor there.”  Fairbanks says she “a believing Episcopalian” who grew up in that tradition in Wallingford, PA.  “Before every performance I thank God and my angels,” she said.

     It was actually the misuse of religion that gave birth to the play.  Joyce was struck by the injustice of making the young indentured servant, Mary, do public penance for something she had no control over.  She would have been forcefully brought to a country that wasn’t her own, abused by her master, then made to speak with everyone looking at her in a language that wasn’t hers and profess in a faith that wasn’t hers.

     She portrays this by showing Mary in her white robe, holding a rod and standing in front of a chapel beside the Elizabeth River in Virginia Colony. “Have mercy upon me, o God, according to thy loving kindness: according to the multitude of thy compassions put away mine iniquities. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”

     The prayer continues in a recording of Mary’s voice while the angry words of her heart are expressed simultaneously, with an African drum beating insistently. “Master Cornelius, you made me forsake my gods and baptized me in the Church of England. Your wife taught me this psalm of penitence.  You know William Watts is not my lover. Our ‘filth sin” was not of my desire. You know he comes into the barn at night and forces me to comply.  With a knife at my throat so I don’t make a sound.”

   Both voices come together again to conclude: “The sacrifices of God are a contrite spirit: a contrite & a broken heart, o God, thou wilt not despise.” 

     The racial hatred of the characters’ era is not as extreme now, but it is still quite present, Fairbanks says.  

     “We’re able to see it now,” she said, mentioning the influence of social media.  “There’s still a fear of someone else.  It’s been learned, the thought that someone else is not worthy.  Now you can see it.”

     She said she was “not surprised at all” that the Ku Klux Klan became a factor in the presidential race.  “Racism needs to stop.  We’re too educated to hold onto those beliefs.” 

     Perhaps, though, we are not educated enough in some areas.  When Joyce asks her “Can you name . . .” question, some people mention Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, but are hard pressed to think of a third black woman from the era.

     “I’m fascinated that we can’t name more,” she says.  “We can all name the white men but never the black women.  There’s a complete blind spot in our education. They’re not in the textbooks. No one was writing about them and they couldn’t write for themselves.  I hope people will come away with knowing 11 more now.”

Monday, August 8, 2016

Alice in Black and White



     From what I have read about her, the Victorian era photographer Alice Austen was a fascinating woman.  Unfortunately, as presented in Robin Rice’s disjointed play Alice in Black and White, which opened last night at 59E59 Theaters, she comes off as rather bland and frivolous.

   Rice introduces us to Alice as an 11 year old in 1876 living an upper middle class life in the family home, Clear Comfort Farm, on Staten Island with her transcendentalist grandfather (Ted Lesley) and her mother (Shannon Woolley Allison), an angry woman who has been abandoned by her husband, Alice’s father.  Jennifer Thalman Kepler (left in photo), under the direction of Kathi E.B. Ellis, bounces around trying unsuccessfully to look and sound like a child.  This is the first of many misdirections by Ellis.  

     It is at this age that Alice develops her interest in photography, an interest that would lead into a life as a bold street photographer, something unheard of for a woman of her time.  Rather than focusing on her career — and her love affair with Gertrude Tate (Laura Ellis, right), a woman who would become her life partner — Rice dilutes Alice’s story with secondary plots that keep intruding.

     In the one, set in 1951, that most often overtakes Alice’s story, Rice gives us Oliver Jensen (Joseph Hatfield), the historian who searched for her negatives to publish them.  This might have worked if it were less obtrusively developed, but Rice blows this plot line into a battle of the sexes as Oliver spars with the prim Historical Society receptionist Sally Lally (Trina Fischer). Their unconvincing story interprets Alice’s repeatedly.

     The play won the StageWrite Women's Theatre Initiative Award and received its world premiere in Louisville, produced by Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, which revived its production for the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Alice's birth.  I’m sorry to say that as staged at 59E59, the writing, direction and acting all come off as an amateur production. 

  Too bad for Austen, who deserves a better presentation.   Photography was an exotic enterprise when when she began pursuing it.  Her life spanned two centuries — from 1866 to 1952 — and in that time she lived on her terms, capturing more than 8,000 images.   Thirty-five hundred of these are known to exist today.  They include family portraits and documentary-style shots of workers in New York.  She also spent years at quarantine stations photographing immigrants.  I got no sense of this depth from Rice’s offering, although scenic designer Christé Lunsford makes nice use of Austen’s photos in projections around the stage.

     The most involved I felt in Alice’s life was at the end of the play when she is destitute and disabled, living in a home for the indigent.  Kepler speaks no words, but conveys Alice’s humanity in her silent dignity sitting alone in her wheelchair. This is a relief after all the busyness of the production.

     At the start of the play Rice has Alice define her life’s purpose.  I hope one day this will be better dramatized. 

     “I’m a preservationist,” she says.  “My photographs might find their way to an historical museum some day, but they’re history, not art.  That vase was brought from Germany wrapped in this quilt over 100 years ago by Granpa’s sister.  The story is what matters, not what the vase could bring at auction.  Preserving the past, that’s what matters. Money comes, money goes.  A dollar today will be a penny tomorrow, but that vase has intrinsic value.  I won’t waste time on stupid stuff.”


     Austen’s childhood home on Staten Island has been turned into a museum, the Alice Austen House, devoted to her life and work.  I’d like to visit it, then I would like to see Austen’s life done as a one-woman play.  Secondary characters could be conveyed by a change in voice, but the story would remain centered on this strong woman who lived against the grain in her choice of career and life partner.  

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Suddenly, A Knock at the Door




“I can’t do it like this!” protests the writer EITAN KATZEN to the BEARDED MAN, the SURVEY TAKER and the PIZZA DELIVERY woman who have come knocking at his door. Brandishing weapons, they make the stakes clear: a story or your life! So the writer held hostage to these three strange muses begins to weave his tales, played out on the stage by the same characters that are holding him captive. 

Based on eight stories from the latest anthology by award-winning Israeli author and filmmaker Etgar Keret, Suddenly, A Knock at the Door is a celebration of storytelling and the magic of art—an ensemble piece written for six actors and two musicians playing more than 30 different roles. It is a comic drama of a modern writer weaving extra-ordinary tales in the middle of Tel Aviv. Here stories are the currency, a matter of life and death. Here, stories make us real and teach us (with a nod to Scheherazade) how to face the difficulties of life—from the absurd to the unbearable—without resorting to violence or abusing your power.

Suddenly, A Knock at the Door, written by Robin Goldfin and directed by David L. Carson, will be presented by Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., June 2 through 19.  It will feature live music composed by Oren Neiman and performed by Oren Neiman and Gilad Ben-Zvi. 

Visit TheaterForTheNewCity.net or call SmartTix at 212-868-4444.


THE CAST
Jeffrey Swan Jones*
Antonio Minino
Alyssa Simon*
Kenneth Talberth*
Stephen Thornton
Elanna White

Playwright Robin Goldfin writes: “Etgar Keret is one of Israel’s most celebrated writers. He is the author of six collections of stories that have been translated into more than thirty languages, and most recently the memoir THE SEVEN GOOD YEARS, published first in English. In the U.S., his work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Harper's Magazine and The Paris Review. He has also been a frequent contributor on NPR's This American Life. What a pleasure it has been to adapt the stories of this master storyteller to make a new play!" Visit Etgar Keret's official website here.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Jesse Tyler Ferguson is fully engaged in 'Fully Committed'



I really enjoyed the first half hour of Fully Committed, Becky Mode’s one-man play featuring Jess Tyler Ferguson as Sam Callaghan, an actor working as a reservations manager at “a world-renowned, ridiculously red-hot Manhattan restaurant.” It was the remaining hour that bored me as the same jokes were repeated over and over in what is really a long “Saturday Night Live” type skit than a play.

Under the direction of Jason Moore, Ferguson, a theatre veteran well known now for his role on “Modern Family,” plays more than 40 characters, mostly callers desperately trying to get reservations or others who work at the restaurant where dinner prices range between $250 and $350 a person and which bills its food as “molecular gastronomy.” Among the offering for one night are “crispy deer lichen atop a slowly deflating scent-filled pillow, dusted with edible dirt, smoked cuttlefish risotto in a cloud of dry ice infused with pipe tobacco and nitro-frozen shaved foie gras enshrouded in a liquid chicken-filled orb.”

Sam works nonstop, pushing buttons to answer the phone, listening to desperate pleadings, putting callers on hold, checking computerized schedules and darting across the room to deal with the diva chef on another line. Ferguson handles the part with the right level of intensity and humor. I only wish he had had a more developed play with which to work.

One of the funniest callers was Bryce, Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal assistant, whom Ferguson portrays in an extremely gay voice (actually many of his characters sound a bit like gay men, even a southern woman). Paltrow strikes me as one of the more self-involved of the Hollywood set, and Bryce’s requests reflect that. He says Gwyneth wants to come in this weekend — the restaurant is always booked three months in advance, hence the title fully committed — and wants a “round, freestanding table,” no legumes, a male-only waitstaff, “an all-vegan tasting menu that’s a locally-sourced, no-fat, no-salt, no-dairy, no-sugar, no-chicken, no-meat, no-fish, no-soy, no- rice, no-foam, no-corn tasting menu for 15, okay?”

This is in Bryce’s first call. Several more with Paltrow’s queenly demands are made and are funny in their narcissistic precision. Bryce calls back later to say, “When Gwyneth was in last time, she found the lighting a little harsh, so if table 17 is too close to the sconce, rather than change tables, what she’d like to do is change bulbs, from whatever it is you’re using to something a little softer, which we would be more than happy to supply. . . Sam, don’t worry! I’ll send my assistant over and we’ll take care of it. . . His name is Tasha and I’ll have him run over with some Edison bulbs at like 5:00.”

It’s a delightful mocking of today’s shallow celebrities. Among the other A-listers with reservations or hoping to get them are Malcolm Gladwell, Helen Mirren and Diane Sawyer.

As if his job isn’t miserable enough with all its stress, Sam’s working environment is dismal, a basement office with exposed pipes, ancient filing cabinets and a metal table holding the ever-ringing phone. Derek McLane’s set is appropriately unappealing, making Sam’s “day job” seem even more like hell.

Fully Committed was first produced Off-Broadway in 1999. Mode, who based the play on her experience working in the high-end restaurant world, updated the script to reflect today’s foodie (I detest that word and all it stands for) culture and obsession with off-beat cuisine and status restaurants. It plays the Lyceum Theatre through July 24.