Sunday, August 17, 2014

New York Shakespeare Exchange's Sonnet Project will film The Bard’s love poems on locations throughout the five boroughs

New York Shakespeare Exchange is thrilled to announce its on-going, ambitious Sonnet Project has been selected as the only North American organization to partner with Shakespeare's Globe in London (the company that brought Mark Rylance's Twelfth Night and Richard III to Broadway) on an upcoming digital project. The project, to be announced by Shakespeare's Globe in the coming weeks, will further New York Shakespeare Exchange's mission of providing access to Shakespeare for people around the world.

The Sonnet Project is an ambitious undertaking. After raising $47,000 on Kickstarter in 2012, the company embarked on a mission to film all 154 of Shakespeare's love poems with 154 actors in 154 locations around the five boroughs. This simple premise created a tapestry of cinematic art that infuses the verbal poetry of Shakespeare with the visual poetry of New York City.  

To date, 77 films are available for download online at and via the free Sonnet Project mobile app. Recent films include Sonnet 46 performed by 12-year-old Sydney Lucas (Obie for the Public Theater’s Broadway-bound Fun Home) and Lynn Cohen (“Sex & The City,” “The Hunger Games”) and her husband Ron Cohen in a ravishing interpretation of Sonnet 22. 

"We have already reached over 47,000 views of our films, and the Sonnet Project mobile app has been downloaded in more than 65 countries,” Ross Williams, artistic director of New York Shakespeare Exchange, said. “We are already reaching an incredible global audience. This partnership, with one of the most respected Shakespeare companies in the world, will expand our potential exponentially."

New York Shakespeare Exchange offers innovative theatrical programming that explores what happens when contemporary culture is infused with Shakespearean poetry and themes in unexpected ways. Providing fresh points of entry to the work so that modern audiences will be exposed to the intrinsic power of Shakespeare, their goal is to encourage an enthusiastic appreciation of classical theater and to expand the reach of the art form within new and existing audiences. New York Shakespeare Exchange projects include The Sonnet Project; ShakesBEER, NYC's original Shakespearean pub crawl; as well as contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare's plays.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Karen Akers to headline Broadway Blessing 2014

It won’t be long now until the curtain rises for the 17th annual Broadway Blessing on Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. at The Church of the Transfiguration, commonly known as The Little Church Around the Corner, on 29th between Fifth and Madison.  This free interfaith service of song, dance and story, which Retta Blaney founded in 1997 and has produced ever since, will be produced this year by the church and the Episcopal Actors’ Guild.

“I’m pleased to be turning over the producing responsibility — and privilege — to the Guild and The Little Church,” Blaney said. “Producing it for 16 years has been a gift in my life, but I am ready to step aside.”

Karen Akers, cabaret singer and film (“The Purple Rose of Cairo”) and Broadway (original companies of Nine and Grand Hotel) actor will offer this year’s theatre reflection and Jennifer Fouche (Sistas the Musical) will sing.

The Broadway Blessing Choir, under the direction of Claudia Dumschat, The Little Church’s music director, will return as well as crowd-favorite Project Dance. Rabbi Jill Hausman of the Actors’ Temple will once again take part in the annual candle lighting ceremony with the Right Rev. Andrew St. John, rector of Transfiguration.

Among those who have participated in Broadway Blessing in the past are Lynn Redgrave, Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen, Boyd Gaines, Edward Herrmann, Melissa Errico, Christiane Noll, James Barbour, Three Mo’ Tenors and Broadway Inspirational Voices.

Transfiguration is an historic Episcopal parish with a long history of ministering to those in need, having sheltered escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad and African-American families during the Draft Riots of the Civil War. It also has a long tradition of welcoming members of the theater profession, something not common in churches years ago.

The church’s welcoming attitude toward actors earned it its nickname, The Little Church Around the Corner, a name that dates back to 1870 when Joseph Jefferson, famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle onstage, had requested a funeral at another church for his fellow actor and friend, George Holland. Upon learning that the deceased had been an actor, the priest refused. At that time many considered actors to be unworthy of Christian burial. After some prodding by Jefferson, the priest commented, “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.’”

The church has maintained its close ties to the theater, serving as the national headquarters of the Episcopal Actors' Guild since its founding in 1923. The facility itself was designated a United States Landmark for Church and Theater in 1973.

The mission of the Episcopal Actors’ Guild is to provide emergency aid and support to professional performers of all faiths undergoing financial crisis by addressing such crucial issues as eviction, housing court stipulations, utilities shutoffs, emergency medical and dental costs, and sustenance needs (including food and transportation).  It prides itself on being one of the only agencies able to provide immediate emergency financial assistance.  When a qualified applicant contacts the Guild in crisis, she or he can receive a vendorized check the same day.

The Guild also is dedicated to helping emerging artists advance their careers through scholarships, awards, and performance opportunities.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bel Kaufman, tangoing now in heaven

We lost another beloved Dutch Treat Club member, Bel Kaufman, who died at her home Thursday at the age of 103. Bel was the author of the best seller Up the Down Staircase and a ball of fire almost to the end.

I loved her 100th birthday celebration on May 10, 2011. We all stood as she walked into our dining room at the National Arts Club and sang “Happy Birthday.” We saluted her with champagne and KT Sullivan, cabaret superstar and DTC president at the time, led us in singing “Young at Heart.”

Bel was the speaker that day. (Each week our Dutch Treat Club luncheons feature a singer and a speaker.)  Bel stood at the podium for about 45 minutes talking about her remarkable life. Her mind was as sharp as could be. It had to be — she was also teaching a college literature class.

Her body was sharp as well. She was taking tango lessons — at 100.

She continued coming to lunches at 101. God bless you, Bel. I hope you find a good tango partner in that great beyond.

And please, God, don’t take anymore DTC members for awhile. Three in one week is too many. First Kay Arnold on Tuesday, then Peggy Burton and now Bel. Leave us alone for awhile, OK?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kay Arnold dies -- she will be greatly missed

One great big shining star left our showbiz world on Tuesday, singer and actor Kay Arnold. It is a shock to all of us who loved her. She had to have been the happiest person I ever met. I always headed straight to her when I saw her in the room.

I knew Kay through the Dutch Treat Club and the Episcopal Actors’ Guild and loved spending time with her. She had an infectious laugh and always seemed to be having fun. I never saw her act and she never achieved the fame of her nephew Tom (although she had a recurring role on his then wife's TV show as Roesanne’s father’s girlfriend), but I heard her sing at the DTC holiday galas and EAG events. She had a personality that just wouldn’t quit, as you can see in this photo at the National Arts Club where she was entertaining us DTC-ers.

Details of her passing are few and no memorial has been finalized. Please keep her in your prayers.

I will miss you, Kay. You were a joy to be around. God bless you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Pianist of Willesden Lane

I think I have just seen the highlight of the 2014-2015 theatre season. I can’t imagine I will be as touched by any show between now and May as I was by The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which opened last night at 59E59 Theaters.

For most of the hour and 45 intermissionless-minutes I was unaware of even being in a theatre, so immersed was I in the story and the music and the performer who brought them to life. I was transported to Nazi-occupied Vienna and war-ravaged London, experiencing that world with a cast of characters who were as real to me as if I had known them.

Mona Golabek is not an actor, but she doesn’t need to be. Her passion for her story is nothing that could be learned. It has been lived by her family, most especially her mother, concert pianist Lisa Jura.

Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, this one-woman play begins in 1938 Vienna where 14-year-old Lisa lives for her Friday afternoon piano lesson with her master teacher. She has inherited her love for music from her mother, also a pianist.

I admire Golabek for sharing their story. Solo plays are always hard, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to portray so much trauma from her family’s history, night after night. Wisely, she steers clear of heightened emotions, avoiding expression of anger, judgment or sentimentality. The story holds all the emotion one needs and she serves it well by her straightforward, gentle telling. I was not the only one crying at end. I could hear people sniffling and blowing their nose all around the theatre.

Alone onstage with only a Steinway grand, Golabek assumes the voice of her mother to tell the story. Young Lisa dreams of making her concert debut playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto at Vienna's storied Musikverein concert hall as she makes her way by streetcar to her beloved piano teacher. But she learns that her lessons are to be no more; he sadly tells her that because of new ordinances under the Nazi regime, teaching a Jewish child is now forbidden. Assuming the voice of the professor, Golabek recounts his regret that he is “not a brave man” as he bids his student farewell.

“You have a remarkable gift, and no matter what happens in your life, please never forget that. Good luck, Lisa. And Lisa, go with God.”

Shortly after, Lisa’s parents make the difficult decision to send her to England with the one Kindertransport ticket her father has been able to secure. Her older and younger sisters will remain. It is because of her musical gift that she is chosen. At the train station, her mother imprints on her the reason to live.

“Lisa, you must make me a promise. Never stop playing and hold on to your music, and I will be with you every step of the way. With every note, with every beat, with every phrase. I will be with you always.”

This charge propels Lisa to leave the grand English country estate where she is sent as a seamstress after she is forbidden to play the owner’s piano. She takes a train to London, finds her way to the organizers of the Kindertransport at Bloomsbury House and secures a two-week stay at a hostel run by a kindly woman named Mrs. Cohen.

The hostel is overflowing with refugee children, but Lisa is barely inside the door when she spots a piano and knows she has found her home. She goes over and begins to play the second movement of the Grieg concerto.

“Mrs. Cohen sat down in a chair, in disbelief. Through the living room window, I could see the neighbors outside. They put down their gardening tools and listened as the music drifted toward them.

"And one by one, the children came out of their rooms. There were dozens of them. They stool on the staircase in silence, listening.”

Lisa did indeed find a home there, and family with Mrs. Cohen and the children. She worked long hours sewing in a factory and playing the piano at night, even staying behind alone to play as the others fled to bomb shelters during the Blitz. Golabek brings all of these characters to life vividly. 

Throughout the recounting of her mother’s life, Golabek plays appropriate works from Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach and, of course, Grieg. And she tells an affirming story of life and love and beauty that Lisa found through her music in spite of all the pain and loss that surrounded her.

I won’t give away the ending of what happened to Lisa’s parents and sisters, but will say that thanks to the encouragement and support of Mrs. Cohen and the hostel children, Lisa earned a scholarship to the London Royal Academy of Music and became the concert pianist she had dreamed of becoming as a child in Vienna.

Golabek has followed in her footsteps, having performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center and the Royal Festival Hall. Standing ovations are automatic on Broadway these days, and rarely merited, but as the stage darkened after The Pianist of Willesden Lane, I was one of the first to rise for Golabek.

 This limited engagement at 59E59 Theaters, through Aug. 24, marks the show’s New York City premiere, following critically acclaimed, sold-out runs in Chicago, Boston, Berkeley, and Los Angeles. As I walked home up Park Avenue, I considered myself blessed to have seen it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Pat Kirkwood is Angry

For the first half of Pat Kirkwood is Angry, a new play with songs that opened last night at 59E59 Theaters, I was baffled by the title. As performed solo by Jessica Walker, who also wrote the script, I would have thought perky was a more appropriate adjective than angry, even though she recounts — breezily — much about which the late British performer could have been angry. But in the second half Walker shifts tone and the show becomes more compelling.

Through monologue and song, Walker, accompanied by Joseph Atkins on piano and direct by Lee Blakeley, tells the story of Kirkwood, a popular stage and screen star in World War II England. Her voice is gorgeous and always finds the appropriate interpretation, even when her narration sounds more like cheery cabaret patter than dramatic storytelling.

Kirkwood began performing at 15, overseen by her domineering mother, and built a name for herself as a singer and actress, a name that was sullied after a youthful fling with Prince Philip. Although she swore to the end of her life that it was never sexual, it tarnished her reputation and kept her from receiving the recognition she thought she deserved in later years.

As she approaches 60, unhappily married to her fourth husband, she looks back on what she had so playfully been recounting, and finally lets the anger pour forth.

“I felt I wasn’t first choice anymore; that I’d used to be first choice and I’d let it slip through my fingers,” she says with resentment. “Made bad choices — with jobs, with liaisons, and with husbands — apart from Sparky.” He was her second husband, the only one she deeply loved and who died in his mid-40s two years after they were married and only a month after her father had died.

“I’d only done what I thought I could do perfectly, and turned down the rest, only to watch others not do them any better than I could have. They’d all kept going and overtaken me; all been honored, too, which I never could be because of the whole damn business with Prince Philip. Dame Vera Lyn, Dame Edith Evans, Dame Thora Hird, Dame practically everyone, but never Dame Pat Kirkwood. Three royal command performances, Hollywood, shows written for me by Noel Coward, Cole Porter at my feet, Desert Island Discs, my own TV series; nothing — not even so much as a CBE. And even June piggin’ Whitfield has a CBE.”  (A CBE is an order of chivalry, the most junior and populous Order of the British Empire.)

But angry or sunny, Walker knows how to deliver a song with the right emotion, from her soaring “Sail Away,” to her dramatic “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and her soulful “Begin the Beguine.”

While I enjoyed every song she sang — her voice is exquisite — the parts of the show that affected me most were the ones when she tells of her personal losses, starting with her father’s death and her regrets that she had hardly known him, touring with her mother in tow as she had.

“Sometimes years passed without me going home to dad, but whenever we were reunited, he was always kind to me, and not hurtful, as mother frequently was.”

Her father had shown up at her home unexpectedly the Christmas she was 33. He fell ill that evening, worsening quickly and died two days later. “I was with him when he went. I heard the death rattle as I held his hand, telling him it was going to be all right.”

This is followed immediately by another quietly and powerfully told story.

“I’d not seen death before. Only a month later, on January 29th, 1954, mother and I were sitting in the front room and Sparky was standing, leaning against the mantelpiece. . . Before I could blink, he was slumped down in front of us, his head in the fireplace. ‘The fire!’ I shouted, because you see I was worried that his face was near the flames, but never thinking for a minute that he was . . . well, not thinking at all because you don’t. I pulled him round away from the grate, and it was only then, as I turned his face towards me, that I saw his eyes, staring blankly, and I knew he was gone. I knew it because I’d seen exactly the same look on my father’s face only a few weeks earlier. I knew it, but I didn’t believe it. He still had his suntan. He looked so well.”

This memory leads her into a sorrowful “So Little Time.”

She also handles the show’s ending beautifully as she portrays Kirkwood’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and her death in 2007. Telling the audience she never forgot the words to her songs, she stands to sing “For All We Know” before placing the microphone on her stool and slowly walking off the stage. It was a lovely fade out, moving without being morbid or melodramatic.

Pat Kirkwood is Angry is part of 59E59 Theater’s Brits Off Broadway series, playing a limited engagement through June 29. Learning about Kirkwood’s life is interesting, but listening to Walker, who has sung roles across Europe, is even better. She offers rarities from Noel Coward as well as songs from revues Kirkwood starred in, which have not been heard since the 1940s. Other musical numbers include songs from Pal Joey and Wonderful Town, in which Kirkwood starred in London. 

Walker is a first-rate entertainer. I'm sure Kirkwood is pleased at last.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Just Jim Dale

And should this sunlit world, grow dark one day, the colors of my life, will leave a shining light, to show the way...”*

The lean and lanky 78-year-old man standing center stage at the Laura Pels Theatre has a story to tell. No playwright could have written a more colorful one. For 100 enchanting minutes, Just Jim Dale is a tour through the Tony-winning actor’s amazing life, told with humor and unbounded energy in this Roundabout production that opened last night for a limited engagement through Aug. 10.

The son of an iron foundry worker and shoe factory employee from the tiny English town of Rothwell - “the dead center of England in every way” — shared stories, jokes, songs and dances in his one-man show, directed by Richard Maltby Jr., with musical direction by Aaron Gandy.

Dale is a marvelous storyteller, recalling his teenage start as a comic in British music halls — “the principle entertainment for working class Brits” —, then pop singer and songwriter turned Academy Award-nominated lyricist for “Georgy Girl”, the title song from the 1966 film starring Lynn Redgrave that sold 10 million records. His portrayals of his difficulties at staying still for his recent Grammy-winning gigs as audio-book reader of the Harry Potter series, for which he created original voices for more than 200 characters, are hilarious . The colors of his life have, indeed, been "bountiful and bold."*

Young Jim Smith was 6 when he was seized by the showbiz call while watching a local variety show. The following year his father took him to London to see Me and My Girl and he declared that’s what he wanted to do. “It was electrifying. The hairs stood up on the back on my neck.”

It’s one thing to declare as a child that “that’s what I want to do,” while it’s another to actually do it, but “40 years almost to the day” later, Dale starred in the play’s revival on Broadway.

But let’s not jump ahead -- back to childhood. His father, with amazing understanding for a laboring man, told him if musical theatre work was what he wanted, “you have to learn how to move.” So he was enrolled in tap, ballroom and “the dreaded ballet” lessons for six years. “I was the Billy Eliot of our town.”

With a black and white projection of an old time music hall behind him (set by Anna Louizos), his stories are enlivened by blown-up black and white photos of himself projected behind him — the lad in black pants and white dress shirt was a dark-haired, chubbier version of the lean, gray-haired man he is today. From the beginning of his show he proves he not only learned to move back then, he also developed impeccable timing for story and joke telling and, of course, cultivated that golden voice. 

Along the way he took up the name Dale after it appeared by mistake on one of his contracts. England already had another performer named Jim Smith, and Jim Dale is nothing if not an original, so it seems right that he should have a showbiz name to himself.

No Jim Dale show would be complete without songs from his hit Broadway shows, Me and My Girl and Barnum, and he did not disappoint. His offering of the title song from the first show was enchanting, as was his “The Lambeth Walk.”

From Barnum, he not only sang “The Colors of My Life” as a tribute to his wife, Julie Schafler, and “There’s a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute,” but also gave a breakdown of all the thrills his carnival-promoting P.T. Barnum had to offer in “Museum Song”. First he had pianist Mark York play the music slowly so we could hear each enticement, a few of which are: “Armadillas, clever caterpillas, reproductions of the Cyclops' ret'na, crystal blowing, automatic sewing, Venus on a shell and other works of art.” Then he let them fly RAPIDLY, just the way they sound on my 1980 cast album. Whew! What a joy.

"No quiet browns and grays" for this performer. He’s taken his days "and filled them till they overflow, with rose and cherry reds . . ."*

 *"The Colors of My Life" from Barnum. Lyrics by Michael Stewart Music by Cy Coleman.