Saturday, May 13, 2017

Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives



     I took Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives with me on a women’s retreat last month and it proved to be the perfect companion.  I’ve not finished it because I like savoring the stories one at a time whenever my spirits need a boost or my mind needs to journey.  I don’t want to rush it.

  Edited by Shayne Moore and Margaret Ann Philbrick, Everbloom is a collect of women’s voices sharing 40 stories of politics, faith, journeys and growth. The authors are part of the Women of Rosebud Writers Guild, authors, lawyers, pastors and doctors with stories to share. Whether global, such as a trip to Kenya to learn more about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, or intimately personal, the stories remind us that God’s grace can redeem anything in our lives and in this world. 

     The Rosebud Writers Guild is a group of Christian women who create in community to influence culture and faith, striving to “change the word with words.”  The editors express this well in their dedication: “Dedicated to all women who have yet to find freedom in Christ in order to embrace their story and share it with the world.  We believe in you, and we pray this book will help you ‘walk right up to him and get what he is ready to give.

     “‘ Take the mercy, accept the help.’”

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Downtown Experience



    I ran into George Washington Thursday afternoon in front of Federal Hall. At least it was easy to pretend I did during The Downtown Experience, the most creative tour of lower Manhattan I have ever taken. For 90 minutes, through expert storytelling and modern day virtual reality, history came to life as we navigated the streets in a bus specially equipped with theatre seating and floor through ceiling windows.

     “Downtown is special because it’s where history and the present come together,” Devin, our tour guide/storyteller, told us. “It’s where innovation met commerce.”

    The Downtown Experience nicely combines history and the present, with virtual reality (VR) headsets featuring 360 degree “views” used a half dozen times, just enough to help transport passengers from the present day world they are seeing into the former times they are learning about, starting with Manhattan island’s early days with the Native Americans and their domed huts by the river, thought the coming of the Dutch and English, right up to today. 

     We experienced the arrival of Irish immigrants on ships as they stand in awe of the Statue of Liberty through VR, then met up with a real-life rapper on the street who sang a tribute to the events of 9/11 while “America” played on the bus’s stereo system.  It was respectful and appropriate before we again put on headsets to journey to the top of the new World Trade Center.

     At Wall Street, we traveled back in time with our headsets to get a feeling for that fateful day in 1929 when the stock market crashed and not just lower Manhattan but the entire country felt the effect.  This was especially moving.  

     I’ve taken several downtown walking tours that covered the same territory and history, but this addition of VR makes the experience more vivid.  Beginning at 200 Water St. overlooking New York Harbor, we traveled the historic blocks of the Seaport and lower Manhattan, the streets where not just New York began but where a free America was launched. It’s a fun brush up on history for Americans and would be a good intro for foreigners. My three visitors from Maryland enjoyed it, and so did I as a longtime New Yorker.  This tour may also be the only way people with trouble walking could cover so much space in comfort.  An elderly woman with a cane was helped on and off the bus by our friendly driver.  

     The Downtown Experience was conceived, written and directed by Richard Humphrey, CEO and CCO of The Ride, LLC, an interactive tour of midtown that was nominated for a Drama Desk Unique Theatrical Experience Award in 2013.  Humphrey, who has developed original work on and off Broadway, has more than three decades of experience bridging the performing arts, entertainment and business communities. 

     Plans to develop similar experiences are underway in Boston, Dubai, Dublin, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Paris, San Francisco and Tokyo.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

All-Night Vigil



     Reverent is a word that comes to mind as I listen to “All-Night Vigil, Op. 37,” the latest recording from my favorite performers of sacred choral music, Gloriae Dei Cantores. Conducted by Peter Jermihov, an internationally recognized specialist in Russian and Orthodox liturgical music, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s deeply spiritual hymns, canticles and ancient chants achieve a level of beauty and mysticism that comforts and restores my soul, as the music of this choir as done for more than a decade.     

     “All-Night Vigil,” created from two divine services — vespers and matins — was first performed in 1915, two years before the composer fled his beloved Russia in the wake of the revolution. One hundred years later it has been given glorious new life by singers for whom Christian life is a daily practice, and that faith is heard, and felt, in every word.
    
     Jermihov describes in program notes what makes this choir so different. “The key element in the search for authenticity is direct empathy with the word, not merely by accomplished professionals but by believing Christians. The word, imbibed through the mind and heart, leads the singer to find suitable tone and emotional underpinning. This process requires not only full comprehension of but also direct empathy with each word and phrase.”
    
   “All-Night Vigil” is produced by Gloriae Dei Cantores’s director Richard K. Pugsley and was recorded in the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA.  I have been gifted with many of this Cape Cod-based choir’s recordings over the years and was fortunate to hear them during a New York tour. I have always been touched by this spiritual quality.  For this new recording they have been joined by The St. Romanos Cappella, The Patriarch Tikhon Choir and The Washington Master Chorale.  Seventy-seven singers take part in this collaboration, including soloists Dmitry Ivanchenko and Mariya Berezovska of the National Opera of Ukraine in Kiev.

     I like to listen to this recording before bed.  It calms me and makes me feel I am praying the the choirs.  What a blessing. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Halleluiah



Everyone should be born into this world happy
and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Halleluiah, anyway I'm not where I started!

And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years.

Halleluiah, I'm sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.

~ Mary Oliver ~

Friday, April 28, 2017

Bette Midler sparkles in 'Hello, Dolly!' revival



     Even the costumes receive applause in director Jerry Zaks spectacular revival of Hello, Dolly!, starring Bette Midler, who more than lives up to her reputation as The Divine One.  This Dolly certainly was looking swell, and so was every element of this production at the Shubert Theatre. It’s so glitteringly joy-filled it’s almost overwhelming.

     Midler is definitely back where she belongs, dancing, singing and vamping her way through the roll of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a resourceful widow scraping out a living as a matchmaker and any other occupation for which she encounters a need in 19th century New York.  All of this talent went unused in Midler’s last Broadway turn in the 2013 play I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers. Playing that high-powered Hollywood agent, she spent the time propped up on a sofa eating, drinking, smoking pot and talking about her celebrity cliental. The character was an unlikeable bore and a waste of Midler’s pizzazz. 

     But she’s in her glory now, giving us a show we need more than ever.  Some great cosmic scheduler must have foreseen the 2016 election results. This spring has brought us especially uplifting shows that include Come From Away, the inspiring true story of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, who welcomed nearly 7,000 strangers from around the world when their planes were diverted there following the 2001 terrorist attacks, and Groundhog Day: The Musical with its message that we don’t have to get stuck in our lives because we have the power to do something new everyday. 

     In contrast to Midler’s exuberant Dolly is David Hyde Pierce’s comically dour Horace Vandergelder, the “half-millionaire” cheapskate widower who hires Dolly to find him a new wife.  Dolly has someone in mind — herself — but she distracts him from her scheming with other possibilities, one of whom is Irene Molloy, a widowed hat maker play by the charming Kate Baldwin, who is underused in this minor role. Gavin Creel is winning as Cornelius Hackl, a clerk in Vandergelder’s Yonker’s hay and feed store who become Mrs. Molloy’s unexpected love interest. 

     With a cast of more than two dozen, Jerry Herman’s wonderful songs ring out, combining smoothly with Michael Stewart’s book, adapted from Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker. 

  Warren Carlyle’s choreography pays tribute to Gower Champion’s original choreography and direction and fills the stage with high spirit, enhanced by Santo Loquasto’s sets and his costumes in vivid Easter egg colors.  

     Song, dance and costume — vibrant red for Dolly — ignite a show-stopping standing ovation for that most famous number, “Hello, Dolly!” when Dolly returns to the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant.  Midler is in her glory ascending from the top of a flight of stairs to dance with a chorus of waiters.  This is traditional musical theatre at its best. Director Zaks has won four Tony Awards.  Number five could well be on the way.

     For some reason, this is the first new production of this classic show since it opened on Broadway more than 50 years ago.  That’s probably why I had never seen it.  I read the play in high school but never even saw the movie.  What a great introduction to Dolly I had last night.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'Church and State' play aims to stir up conversation about guns




     The U.S. Senator from North Carolina is an unquestioning supporter of all things red, especially in relationship to God and guns.  His convictions are challenged, though, after a shooting at his sons’ elementary school leaves 29 dead. Following the funeral for one of the victims, he admits in response to a blogger’s question that the killings are enough to make him doubt God’s existence.

     He is running for a third term and his comments go viral.  Three days before the election.  

   Jason Odell Williams, 42, was inspired to write his latest play, Church and State, after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, but he had been thinking about gun violence since at least 2007 with the mass killings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, a football rival of his alma mater, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

   “I watched the news and saw a candlelight vigil in Charlottesville and it struck a cord with me,” he said during a telephone interview from his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  “I had been a student there not that long before.  It really shook me.”

  That incident had been followed by the shooting outside a Tucson supermarket in which Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 16 others were shot, six of them fatally.  

     “I thought, ‘What if it had been a man and he had been a Republican,” Williams said. “That’s a really dark and twisted thought, but when tragedy strikes, our thoughts become dark and twisted.”

     Sandy Hook’s tragedy prompted him to put his thoughts on paper. His first draft of Church and State was “like a well-written Facebook rant with a very one-sided liberal New Yorker view.”

    He sent it to Ralph Meranto, artistic director of JCC CenterStage in Rochester, NY, who had produced his first play, Handle With Care.  Meranto “asked smart questions” and offered suggestions to make the characters — the Senator; his wife, a conservative Christian; and his campaign manager, a liberal Jew from New York — more three dimensional and to present the issue of gun control more even-handedly.  He also thought it would be fun to have the Senator’s remarks be tweeted to spread quicker.  Meranto didn’t know his 2014 suggestion would be so timely in 2017 with the election of America’s Tweeter in Chief.

     The show had a successful run in Rochester before moving to Los Angeles where the Huffington Post called it “powerful, humorous and highly contemporary,” naming it one of the Top Ten L.A. Theatre Productions of 2016. It is now at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, with tickets on sale through Sept. 3.

     Talkbacks have been a part of Church and State’s runs.  In New York they were held after three performances in April featuring representatives from Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Fund; Everytown For Gun Safety, with an appearance by actress Julianne Moore; and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. During the Virginia Tech event, a woman identifying herself as a Donald Trump voter said she thought the play had done a good job of presenting both sides and later told Williams in the lobby that she hopes the play will be presented in red states.  That would be fine with him.

     “My goal was to get it to New York and then across the country.  I’d love to see it in all the purple states.  That’s my ultimate goal.”

     He is in talks with theatre producers in North Carolina, rural Virginia, Florida, Washington, D.C. and Alaska about possible productions there.

     “I want to stir up some controversy and start conversations.”

  He sees areas for compromises, such as universal background checks. He created an open-ended finish to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions.

     “We’re so divided now.  Maybe the rubber band will break and we’ll all come back to the middle.”

   Williams is adamant that he does not want his play to be thought of as disrespectful to people of faith or Southerners, and makes it clear he doesn't see conservative Christians as the enemy in gun control talks.  He saves his wrath for one target alone.

     “To me it’s the NRA.  They’re only thinking about profit.  Nothing about their agenda is reasonable.  Living without fear is more important than somebody’s gun collection.”

     Although he has had no personal experience with the issue, he thinks “we’re all less than six degrees of separation now from gun violence.”

     “There’s stuff in the newspapers everyday,” he said.

  Just then, Williams, in almost unbelievable timing, was interrupted by a text from Rob Nagle, the actor playing the Senator. The text informed him about a shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school that had just left two adults and one child dead, with another child injured. 

     “It’s crazy.  It just keeps happening.  People are afraid to go to the mall, the movies, church, places that are supposed to be safe.” 

     Williams, who was nominated for an Emmy Award as a writer for National Geographic Channel’s TV series “Brain Games,” has never worked in politics and says the only thing that could lure him into it is that in the unlikely event Nagle would run for office, Williams would like to be his speechwriter. 

     He also is not a person of faith although his mother is Catholic and father Protestant and he was baptized but not confirmed.  And his first two Off-Broadway plays centered around God and faith.

     “I don’t know where I stand, which is why I keep writing about it,” he said, adding that his wife grew up Orthodox Jewish in Israel and turned from her religion when she moved to America.  After the birth of their daughter, Imogen, now 11, they began worshipping at a synagogue and sending her to Hebrew school.  He has no plans to convert.

     “It’s nice to have a sense of community, of coming together,” he said.  “I’m always examining what it is and what it means.” 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Come From Away




     On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 7,000 strangers were sidetracked to a tiny town on the coast of Newfoundland, nearly doubling the population in a matter of hours.  For the next five days the people of Gander fed, housed and befriended these refugees of the terrorist attacks in an inspiring example of hospitality.  Their stories are now being told in Come From Away, the new Broadway musical that has left audiences in tears and critics singing its praise. 

     “You couldn’t make it up.  No one would believe it,” said Irene Sankoff who, with her husband, David Hein, wrote the music, lyrics and book for the show, which takes its name from a Gander term for people who come from elsewhere.

   It was a normal day in Gander, a former refueling stop for international flights before aviation improvements made these pit stops unnecessary, but shortly after the devastation of the four hijacked jets was known, the Federal Aviation Administration suspended all air travel.  Gander residents who were going about their morning routines learned that 38 planes bearing 6,579 frightened and angry passengers  from around the world were coming to town. For how long, no one knew.  

     The couple emphasize this in not a Sept. 11 story — it’s a Sept. 12 story, of passengers from a multitude of countries, cultures, religions and languages who were welcomed by people living “on an island in between there and here.” The terrorist attacks aren’t even in the show.

     “It’s not necessary to further traumatize anyone,” Sankoff said, adding that even young people who weren’t born or conscious of the events at the time know what happened. “Everyone’s seen the images.  They don’t need to see it.  It’s part of our history.  It wouldn’t have helped the storytelling.”

     The lesser known stories are those of the townspeople who from the beginning began anticipating every need — pharmacies were ready to fill prescriptions, storeowners emptied their shelves to donate supplies, landlines were set up in that era before mass cell phone usage, sidelined air traffic controllers made vats of chili, striking school bus drivers transported passengers to schools, halls and all the shelters that were being readied as quickly as possible.  And the SPCA representative didn’t forget that animals were likely to be onboard some of the planes. She rescued and then cared for eight dogs, nine cats and two rare Bonobo chimpanzees, one of which was pregnant, while they were in quarantine in an airport hangar. 

     “We’ve been working on it for nearly seven years and it’s still amazing to me everyday,” Sankoff said. 

     Sankoff and Hein spoke about their journey to Broadway by phone from an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, their temporary residence.  Toronto is their home, although they haven’t seen a lot of it in recent years.  Their involvement with the Gander experience began in 2011 when Canadian producer Michael Rubinoff invited them out for a drink to discuss making a musical of the events that had happened a decade before.  Rubinoff had seen the couple’s only previous musical theatre production, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. He had pursued several more experienced songwriting teams and been turned down.  

     As Canadians, Sankoff and Hein “knew through osmosis” of the Gander story.  They said yes to Rubinoff, began researching and found out a 10th anniversary commemoration of the experience was being planned for September. With the help of a grant from the Canadian government, they spent a month in the town interviewing  residents and the passengers who returned.  They relied on Skype to reach others internationally.

     The modest Gander folk thought this was all much ado about nothing. One said to the couple, “You’re going to make a musical about people making sandwiches?  Good luck with that.”

     But the residents had a different opinion this past October when the entire cast and crew of the Broadway-bound Come From Away flew into town to present two benefit concert versions of the show to raise money for local charities. The Gander Hockey Arena was transformed as many people experienced their first Broadway musical, one that just happened to be about them.

     “It was a life-changing experience for all of us,” Hein said.  “Almost all of Gander came to see the show.  We watched 5,000 people’s expressions as they watched themselves, feeling honored and celebrated.  Ten minutes before the Finale they all stood up and kept applauding through the last 10 minutes.  We were all sobbing.”

     Sankoff and Hein were grateful for that stamp of approval.  They had worked hard since their previous trip to Gander when they had done “tons and tons and tons of interviews” and heard so many stories that their first draft of the show was five hours long. From that they edited and refined, ferreting out stories that worked all the way through, as well as unique ones, and making composites of characters.  The show now runs about 100 minutes and features 12 actors playing multiple parts and singing more than a dozen original songs. 

     The heroism of the townspeople is portrayed, as is the fear and anxiety of the “plane people,” who hadn't heard about the terrorist attacks and had no idea why they were grounded to such a remote place.  Some had been onboard for 28 hours. Because of concern about bombs, authorities would not allow the passengers to claim their luggage.  All they could take were their carry-ons.  In a short time, they had all become refugees.

     Because these people were so traumatized, the library stayed open, offering a quiet place for people of all faiths to pray.  

    In one particularly moving scene, a bus filled with Africans pulls up to a Salvation Army camp. Seeing the people in uniforms, the passengers are filled with fear of soldiers and militia and, unable to understand English, they refuse to get off the bus. Then the driver, spotting a Bible in a woman’s hand, imagines a key to connect. He finds Philippians 4:6 and points to the words he can't read but doesn't need to — “Be anxious for nothing.  Be anxious for nothing.”  The people leave peacefully.

   “They used the Bible text written in a different language to communicate with each other,” Hein said. “That’s amazing.” 

     Another important element of the show is the music.  Hein had grown up listening to Newfoundland music, which has Celtic roots from Ireland and England. The eight members of the band play multiple instruments as a way of “layering on” the different musical traditions of the foreigners and townspeople.

     “We’re greater together than apart,” Hein said.  “The passengers came from all over the world and they changed Newfoundland and were changed themselves.”

     The music has audience members on their feet, clapping along at the end.

     “That happens every time,” Hein said, explaining with a laugh that he had planned the ending music as a way to transition people out of the theatre.  “No one leaves.  It’s the worst exit music ever.”

   The stories and music have had this effect wherever the show has run. Following sold-out, record-breaking, critically acclaimed engagements at La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. and Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, Come From Away landed on the “Best Theater of the Year” lists in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and papers around the country and in Canada.  

  Writing about the Gander stories has been a profound experience for Sankoff and Hein, who have turned over the keys to their Toronto home and car to 10 people, friends or friends of friends, over these last years while they traveled with the show’s development.  All they asked was that the people feed the two cats and give them love, and shovel the snow if necessary.

    “Our whole lives have been changed,” Hein said. “It makes us look at our lives and want to be better people, open to stories from around the world, and to be more open to reaching out to people.”

     Asked if this is an especially important time to tell a story about when many Americans were in the unfamiliar position of being refugees, Hein said it would be important any time.


     “We have our politics but the show bridges that.  It’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness.”