Friday, April 29, 2016

'Waitress' is only half baked



I don’t know if a comparable term to chick flick exists in theatre, but if it does it could be applied to Waitress, the new Broadway musical starring Jessie Mueller. Based on the hit 2007 indie film, the show at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre offers heavy-duty female bonding, along with songs about pregnancy tests, getting knocked-up and online dating, as well as a joke about pap smears.

“I’ve got to get out of here before I die of estrogen asphyxiation,” says Cal (Eric Anderson), boss of the three devoted-to-each-other waitresses at Joe’s Pie Diner.

Besides being the theatrical equivalent of a click flick, Waitress, under the direction of Diane Paulus and with a book by Jessie Nelson, is a theatrical sit-com. Jenna (Mueller) is a waitress who creates heavenly pies with names like Deep Dish Blueberry Bacon, and who is stuck in a loveless marriage to the oafish Earl (Nick Cordero). When she finds herself pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want, along with the husband she no longer wants, her sisterhood of waitresses — Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) — offer advice and support. And she also develops a new dessert — Betrayed By My Eggs Pie.

You’ve met her sidekicks in plenty of TV series — the wise-cracking, plus-size Becky who complains that one of her boobs is sagging lower than the other, making her look “like something Picasso would have created,” and Dawn, the skinny little bespeckled spinster mouse who lives alone and eats frozen dinners until she meets the man of her dreams, a fellow history buff played with zest by Christopher Fitzgerald.

It’s a cute story but with its heavy reliance on sit-com humor and stereotypical characters it doesn’t offer enough to sustain its length of two hours and 35 minutes.

Sara Bareilles’ music is jaunty, but her lyrics are often hard to understand, especially when sung by Mueller. I have talked to quite a few people who also had trouble catching the words. I don’t know if something was wrong with the sound system or with the enunciation from Mueller, who was terrific as Carole King in Beautiful, for which she won a Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award.

Along with its chick flick and sit-com leanings, Waitress is also a rom-com. Jenna and her married OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), have a fling, although it’s certainly not romantic, nor is it convincing. They have no chemistry.

Not convincing, unfortunately, is what I felt about most of Mueller’s performance. She seemed to be going through the motions of Jenna’s life rather than inhabiting her the way she did Carole King. Her pie-making as well as her lovemaking looked mechanical rather than dreamlike or exciting.

But Jenna will triumph as sit-com, rom-com, chick flick character always do. That’s not giving away the ending. You already know the genre.

The dance numbers, choreographed by Lorin Latarro, were bland, but Scott Pask’s set was nice, a cozy southern diner where it would be fun to stop in for a piece of pie and some gossip with the girls. In fact, you might want to head out for pie right after the show because the producers have real pies baking out of sight in the theatre to enhance the mood. At least that was authentic.

Waitress has been nominated as Best Musical of 2015 by Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and the Drama League. It comes to Broadway following a sold-out limited engagement at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA.

In the opening number the staff sings of “days like this we can only do the best we can. . . then we do it again.” That pretty well sums up the spirit of the show, carrying on because it had to but without much spark or creativity. Had this musical opened last season with competition like Hamilton, Something Rotten and An American in Paris I don’t think it would have received many nominations.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Vanessa Williams and Matthew Morrison announce 2016 Drama Desk nominations



Nominations for our 2016 Annual Drama Desk Awards were announced during a continental breakfast this morning at Feinstein's/54 Below by Vanessa Williams and Matthew Morrison.

In keeping with Drama Desk's mission, nominators considered shows that opened on Broadway, Off Broadway, and Off Off Broadway during the 2015-2016 New York theater season.

The Drama Desk nominees will receive their official nomination certificates at our nominees' reception on May 11 at The New York Marriott Marquis.

The 61st Annual Drama Desk Awards, hosted by Michael Urie, will take place on Sunday, June 5 at The Town Hall in Manhattan.


About Drama Desk
Drama Desk was founded in 1949 to explore key issues in the theater and to bring together critics and writers in an organization to support the ongoing development of theater in New York. The organization began presenting its awards in 1955, and it is the only critics' organization to honor achievement in the theater with competition among Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway productions in the same categories.
   
2016 Drama Desk Award Nominations

Outstanding Play
The Christians, Playwrights Horizons
The Humans, Roundabout Theatre Company
John, Signature Theatre
King Charles III
The Royale, Lincoln Center Theater

Outstanding Musical
First Daughter Suite, Public Theater
Daddy Long Legs
School of Rock
Shuffle Along
Waitress

Outstanding Revival of a Play
Cloud Nine, Atlantic Theater Company
Death of a Salesman, New Yiddish Rep
Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse at St. Ann's Warehouse
Long Day's Journey Into Night, Roundabout Theatre Company
A View from the Bridge
Women Without Men, Mint Theater Company

Outstanding Revival of a Musical
The Color Purple
The Golden Bride, National Yiddish Theatre Folkesbiene
Fiddler on the Roof
She Loves Me, Roundabout Theatre Company
Spring Awakening

Outstanding Actor in a Play
Andrew Garman, The Christians, Playwrights Horizons
Avi Hoffman, Death of a Salesman
Frank Langella, The Father, Manhattan Theatre Club
Tim Pigott-Smith, King Charles III
Mark Strong, A View from the Bridge

Outstanding Actress in a Play
Georgia Engel, John, Signature Theatre
Mamie Gummer, Ugly Lies the Bone, Roundabout Undeground
Marin Ireland, Ironbound, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater/Women's Project Theater
Jessica Lange, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Nicola Walker, A View from the Bridge

Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Danny Burstein, Fiddler on the Roof
Robert Creighton, Cagney, York Theatre Company
Michael C. Hall, Lazarus, New York Theatre Workshop
Zachary Levi, She Loves Me
Benjamin Walker, American Psycho

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Laura Benanti, She Loves Me
Carmen Cusack, Bright Star
Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple
Jessie Mueller, Waitress
Annette O'Toole, Southern Comfort, Public Theater

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Bill Camp, The Crucible
David Furr, Noises Off, Roundabout Theatre Company
Matt McGrath, The Legend of Georgia McBride, MCC Theater
Richard Thomas, Incident at Vichy, Signature Theatre
Michael Shannon, Long's Day Journey Into Night

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Brooke Bloom, Cloud Nine
Megan Hilty, Noises Off
Kellie Overbey, Women Without Men
Saycon Sengbloh, Eclipsed, Public Theater
Jeanine Serralles, Gloria, Vineyard Theatre

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
Nicholas Barasch, She Loves Me
Christopher Fitzgerald, Waitress
Baylee Littrell, Disaster!
Paul Alexander Nolan, Bright Star
A.J. Shively, Bright Star

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple
Alison Fraser, First Daughter Suite
Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen, Second Stage
Jane Krakowski, She Loves Me
Mary Testa, First Daughter Suite

Outstanding Director of a Play
Rachel Chavkin, The Royale
Sam Gold, John
Rupert Goold, King Charles III
Joe Mantello, The Humans
Jenn Thompson, Women Without Men
Ivo van Hove, A View from the Bridge

Outstanding Director of a Musical
Michael Arden, Spring Awakening
John Doyle, The Color Purple
Rupert Goold, American Psycho
Bartlett Sher, Fiddler on the Roof
Bryna Wasserman, Motl Didner, The Golden Bride

Outstanding Choreography
Joshua Bergasse, Cagney
Spencer Liff, Spring Awakening
Lynne Page, American Psycho
Randy Skinner, Dames at Sea
Savion Glover, Shuffle Along

Outstanding Music
Sara Bareilles, Waitress
Michael John LaChiusa, First Daughter Suite,
Andrew Lloyd Webber, School of Rock
The Lobbyists, SeaWife, Naked Angels
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Bright Star

Outstanding Lyrics
Sara Bareilles, Waitress
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen
Glenn Slater, School of Rock
Michael John LaChiusa, First Daughter Suite

Outstanding Orchestrations
August Eriksmoen, Bright Star
Larry Hochman, She Loves Me, Roundabout Theatre Company
Joseph Joubert/Catherine Jayes, The Color Purple
Andrew Lloyd Webber, School of Rock
Michael Starobin/Bruce Coughlin, First Daughter Suite

Outstanding Music in a Play
Billie Joe Armstrong, These Paper Bullets!, Atlantic Theatre Company
Estelle Bajou, Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, One Year Lease Theater Company
Shaun Davey, Pericles, Theatre for a New Audience
Philip Glass, The Crucible
Tom Kitt, Cymbeline, New York Shakespeare Festival

Outstanding Set Design for a Play
Riccardo Hernandez, Red Speedo, New York Theatre Workshop
Mimi Lien, John
G. W. Mercier, Head of Passes, Public Theater
Christopher Oram, Hughie
Derek McLane, Fully Committed

Outstanding Set Design for a Musical
Es Devlin, American Psycho
Emily Orling, Matt Saunders, Eric Farber, Futurity, Soho Rep/Ars Nova
David Rockwell, She Loves Me

Outstanding Costume Design for a Play
Jessica Ford, These Paper Bullets!
Martha Hally, Women Without Men
Constance Hoffman, Pericles
William Ivey Long, Shows for Days, Lincoln Center Theater
Anita Yavich, The Legend of Georgia McBride

Outstanding Costume Design for a Musical
Jane Greenwood, Bright Star
Katrina Lindsay, American Psycho
Jeff Mahshie, She Loves Me
Alejo Vietti, Allegiance
Ann Roth, Shuffle Along

Outstanding Lighting Design for a Play
Neil Austin, Hughie
Mark Barton, John
Bradley King, Empanada Loca, Labyrinth Theater Company
Tyler Micoleau, Antlia Pneumatica, Playwrights Horizons
Justin Townsend, The Humans

Outstanding Lighting Design for a Musical
Jane Cox, The Color Purple
Jake DeGroot, SeaWife,
Ben Stanton, Spring Awakening
Justin Townsend, American Psycho
Jules Fisher/Peggy Eisenhauer, Shuffle Along

Outstanding Projection Design 
Nicholas Hussong, These Paper Bullets!
Darrel Maloney, Tappin' Thru Life
Peter Nigrini, Dear Evan Hansen
Finn Ross, American Psycho
Tal Yarden, Lazarus

Outstanding Sound Design in a Play
Fitz Patton, An Act of God
Fitz Patton, The Humans
Miles Polaski, Fulfillment, The Flea Theatre
Bray Poor, John
Ryan Rumery, Empanada Loca

Outstanding Sound Design in a Musical
Mick Potter, School of Rock
Brian Ronan, Lazarus
Nevin Steinberg, Bright Star
Dan Moses Schreier, American Psycho
Scott Lehrer, Shuffle Along

Outstanding Wig and Hair
David Brian Brown, She Loves Me
Jason Hayes, The Legend of Georgia McBride
Robert-Charles Vallance, Women Without Men
Charles G. LaPointe, The School for Scandal, Red Bull Theater
Mia M. Neal, Shuffle Along

Outstanding Solo Performance
Simon Callow, Tuesdays at Tesco's, 59E59
Kathleen Chalfant, Rose, Nora's Playhouse
James Lecesne, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Daphne Rubin-Vega, Empanada Loca
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Fully Committed

Unique Theatrical Experience
ADA/AVA, Manual Cinema/3LD/The Tank/
Antigona - Soledad Barrio/Noche Flamenca
That Physics Show
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show
YOUARENOWHERE - 3LD/The Tank



Special Awards

The Humans - Special Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble
Cassie Beck, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, and Sarah Steele spend a very special Thanksgiving Day together in Stephen Karam's play, reminding us that home is indeed where The Humans are.

The Royale - Special Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble
The heavyweight cast of McKinley Belcher III, Khris Davis, Montego Glover, John Lavelle, and Clarke Peters gels as a unit in bringing Marco Ramirez's story, inspired by Jack Johnson, to unforgettable life, offering a trenchant statement on racism in America.

Sheldon Harnick - Special Drama Desk Award

New productions of Fiddler on the Roof, Rothschild and Sons, and She Loves Me this season remind us that this veteran lyricist's takes on faith, family and community are as resonant as ever.

Camp Broadway - Special Drama Desk Award
For more than 20 years, this indispensable organization has introduced young people to the magic of theater. Camp Broadway plays a crucial role in creating tomorrow's audiences.

Danai Gurira - Sam Norkin Award
Whether writing about women in wartime Liberia in Eclipsed or about an affluent immigrant family from Zimbabwe struggling with assimilation in Familiar, Danai Gurira demonstrates great insight, range, and depth, bringing a fresh new voice to American theater.


64 shows with nominations
33 shows with multiple nominations
31 shows with single nominations

Shows with multiple nominations

She Loves Me - 9
American Psycho - 8
Bright Star - 7
The Color Purple, First Daughter Suite, John, Shuffle Along - 6
School of Rock, Waitress, Women Without Men - 5
The Humans, Spring Awakening, A View from the Bridge - 4
Dear Evan Hansen, Empanada Loca, Fiddler on the Roof, King Charles III, Lazarus, The Legend of Georgia McBride, Long Day's Journey Into Night, These Paper Bullets! - 3
Cagney, The Christians, Cloud Nine, The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, Fully Committed, The Golden Bride, Hughie, Noises Off, Pericles, The Royale, SeaWife - 2

Monday, April 25, 2016

Frank Langella stars in Broadway's 'The Father'



So often when I leave the theatre I ask myself, Why? Why did the playwright write this play, and even more, Why did this company choose to produce it? I asked those questions yesterday as I left the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Florian Zeller’s The Father at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

I also wondered why Christopher Hampton would translate from French this depressing play about a man’s decent into old age and senility. And why three-time Tony Award winner Frank Langella chose to play him.

I admit to a bias against the subject. My mother hadn’t known me for years before she died and I had an uncle who was so distressed about his escalating memory loss that he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, abruptly ending his life as well as his memory. I avoid books, movies and plays about this topic whenever possible.

For most of the 90-minute play, directed by Doug Hughes, we flash from scene to scene with ever-shifting characters and facts as Andre (Langella) tries to make sense of his world. Is he living in his Paris apartment or that of his daughter, Ann, and her husband? Or is his daughter (Kathryn Erle, in photo with Langella) divorced and alone? Or ready to move to London to be with an Englishman she has met?

We really do flash from scene to scene because each transition is marked by blinding lights bordering the stage that are shot into our eyes, followed by blackouts. (Lighting by Donald Holder.)

The device of the confusing scenes works like an absurdist play in which nothing is as it seems, which is fitting for a play about losing one’s grasp on reality. Zeller has describe it as “tragic farce.” I could have gone along with that, although it didn’t involve or interest me, but the final scene in which Andre is reduced to sobbing on the floor of a nursing home in his nursing’s arms while crying for his Mommy was over-the-top. Depressing turned into dreary, which is worse because it left me with disgust at the waste of time and talent.

Scott Pask’s set looks like an employee rest area in a middle-management firm, bland and boring. It’s functional, though, for letting items be removed or added as Andre’s mind grows more confused.

Langella does a good job of portraying that confusion, which isn’t surprising. It’s too bad he doesn’t have a better play for his talents.

The cast also includes Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell and Kathleen McNenny.

The Father was well received in its runs in France and England. I suppose looking at the world through the eyes of the demented is dramatic, but that wasn't enough to compel or move me. Especially with that cheap, melodramatic ending.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

'The Crucible' echoes today's hysteria




I was drained at the end of The Crucible, but not by the nearly three-hour running time. Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s Broadway revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre is the most compelling production of Arthur Miller’s historical drama I have ever seen.

With the barest of staging, van Hove puts full emphasis on Miller’s story of the real-life Salem witch trials of 1690s and the lying and hysteria that turned neighbor against neighbor in a wave of religious judgment. Miller wrote the play, which won the 1953 Tony Award for best new play, as an indictment of the witch trials of his day, the McCarthy anti-communists hearings and black listings.

Scheduled as part of the centennial year celebration of Miller’s birth, the play is once again timely in this political season of hysteria against Muslims in particular but all immigrants as well. That was also the case for the last Broadway revival, in 2002, coming as it did following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The 18-member cast of international film and TV stars includes two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (most recently nominated for her role in “Brooklyn”), Ben Wishaw (“The Danish Girl”), Sophie Okonedo (Tony winner for A Raisin in the Sun and Oscar nominee for “Hotel Rwanda”) and Ciaran Hinds (“Game of Thrones”). They and the rest of the cast give their all, fully embodying those damned and damning Puritans of long ago New England.

Every element of the production adds to its chilling atmosphere and mounting fear. Composer Philip Glass’ original score is ominously haunting, rising in intensity as the indictments mount. Scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld provides a set that looks like a community room in a modern penitentiary, with slate gray brick walls and utilitarian metal tables and chairs. Every scene, from that of the villagers’ homes to the courtroom, takes place there. The minimalism forces all attention to the plot as we see good person after good person jailed by the testimony of a band of lying teenage girls.

Ronan plays Abigail Williams, the leader of the pack, with a steady control that keeps the character believable throughout, from her feelings of rejection as her married lover, farmer John Proctor (Whishaw), turns her aside, to her malicious courtroom dramatics that end in death sentences for so many she claims consorted with the Devil. It is easy for this character to become shrill, but Ronan never lets that happen.

Whishaw and Okonedo as John wife, Elizabeth, also nail their parts beautifully, evolving from a couple in a troubled marriage to one unified in love and commitment in the moving final scene.

I also appreciated Wojciech Dziedzic’s costume design. In their muted-colored pleated skirts, white shirts, knee socks and tights, cardigans and hoodies, the girls look like modern New York prepsters and the women, in wide-legged pants and loose, oversized tops, look right out of the downtown bohemian scene. This further emphasizes the contemporariness of the play’s story. Period costuming would have been distancing.

This production, which continues through July 17, is the second example I’ve seen this season of van Hove’s brilliant reconceptualizing of a classic drama. In the fall he directed Miller’s A View from the Bridge with another stark staging that was gripping. That production was a transfer from London where it also met with acclaim.

These two productions are marvelous birthday presents to Miller, who died in 2005 at 89. One of the American theatre’s most moralistic writers, Miller had an understanding of what impelled the rush to judgment in Salem.

“They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world. We have inherited this belief, and it has helped and hurt us,” he wrote. “When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall be pitied someday. It is still impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.”

Miller wrote that at the time of the original production. In 2016 his words, sadly, still ring true.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Luther in the Dock



     With the feeling he’d about as much like to have dental surgery as go to an Off, Off-Broadway play about Emily Dickinson, producer, writer and actor Max McLean went anyway for the sole reason that he wanted to be supportive of an actor friend in the cast.  As it turned out, the performance that most impressed him was that of the playwright, Chris Cragin-Day.

     He was so wowed, in fact, that he thought she should be the one to write the play he had been envisioning, one about the life of Martin Luther, a man McLean considers “a huge Shakespearean personality.”

     “He was placed in a particular moment in history that sparked a powder keg,” McLean said.  “All this pressure in one man who was clearly gifted yet emotionally unstable. I knew his story was theatrical enough to be told.”

      That thought had been simmering in McLean for about a decade, since he watched an episode of the PBS series “Empire” about Luther. Looming in his mind over the ensuing years was the 500th anniversary in 2017 of Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church by nailing his 95 Thesis to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral.  In 2012 McLean approached Cragin-Day who said she’d do some research on Luther’s life and get back to him.

     “Luther would have his moment in the zeitgeist so it was important to be ahead of the curve,” McLean said.  “I knew we were chewing off something pretty big. Luther brings up so many sacred cows, so many sensitivities — on the Protestant side, the Catholic side and the Jewish side.”

     The dramatist in Cragin-Day saw the great possibility and she began to write.  The result can be seen May 12 - 22  when Martin Luther on Trial has its world premiere at the Lansburgh Theatre in Washington, D.C. Plans for the show, which is being produced by McLean’s company, Fellowship for Performing Arts, include a run in Chicago and then New York in the fall. The two spoke about their collaboration during a conference call in March.

  During the development process Cragin-Day shifted from a naturalistic approach to the freer form of the final product, which has Luther being tried in purgatory with St. Peter as judge, the Devil as prosecutor and Luther’s wife, Katie Von Bora, as the defense. Witnesses include Hitler, Freud, Rabbi Josel, the 16th century advocate for German and Polish Jews living within the Holy Roman Empire, and Pope Francis. Their responses to questions prompt a scene from Luther’s life.

   At the start of the play the audience is given a feel for the magnitude of Luther’s influence.  A stack of books reaching beyond sight rises at the side of the stage, prompting a dialogue between St. Peter and the Devil:

     PETER
That is an impressive stack of books.
     DEVIL
Only six people in all of history have had more written about them.
     PETER
Shakespeare, Jesus, Michael Jackson, Mao Ze Tung, Mohammed,          and the Virgin Mary?
     DEVIL
Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Cervantes, Lincoln, and Dickens.   Jesus is fifty-first.

  Cragin-Day leavened the serious subject matter with humor.  Knowing she was taking a risk in speaking for Pope Francis, the only living character in the play, she read his books and many interviews with him to calculate his thinking. The audience at a laboratory performance at Off-Broadway’s Pearl Theatre in February was engaged in the Pope’s questioning:

     FRANCIS
Papal power, where there was no separation of church and state, was not what Christ wanted.

     KATIE
So then, if you had been Pope in 1517, and read Martin Luther's 95 Theses, how would you have responded?

     FRANCIS
The Medieval Church would have never made me Pope.

     KATIE
But if it had. The you that you are now, not some Medieval version of you…if you were the Medieval pope, and read Martin Luther's theses…

     FRANCIS
I would feel that it was my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which could help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to Christ.

     DEVIL
Well, if nothing else, modern Popes have certainly learned to be more diplomatic.

     FRANCIS
I don't know what I would have done. Luther put God's word in the hands of the people. And the word accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations, my calculations, even Luther’s.

     KATIE
Then you do think that God was in it.

     FRANCIS
God always works to restore balance. And imbalance results when we speak more about law than grace, more about the Church than Christ, more about the Pope than God's word.

     KATIE
Then, you think Luther was right.

     FRANCIS
I think…I  think Luther was right sometimes.

    The Devil, sensing a soften toward Luther, asks Francis how he can be so generous toward the Catholic Church’s greatest enemy. “That would be you,” Francis replies.  It was important to McLean that this be emphasized rather than the unfortunate result of Christian division.

     “That’s the most unifying moment because it defines the common enemy,” he said.

     Neither Cragin-Day nor McLean is Lutheran.  Cragin-Day grew up Baptist and McLean Catholic. Both now worship at Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. 

     McLean had recorded Luther’s “Here I Stand” for a radio special.  He said many accounts of the reformer’s life end there in his “great moment,” but that the whole story of Luther’s life, including his shift to anti-Semitism and depression, needed to be presented.  Cragin-Day did the writing, then sent her work to McLean for editing.

     “We did a lot of talking about what excited us about the reformation and how to portray that to an audience,” she said.

     One way was through her “secret ingredient”  — humor.

  “Humor is one of the only ways you can talk about faith to nonChristians that makes them feel comfortable,” she said. “It does so much to bring people together to talk about things that are hard to talk about.  It’s always my go-to place.”

     The creators hope their play will find commercial appeal, attracting nonbelievers as well as people of faith.

    “Luther has a huge influence now, more than most people realize,” Cragin-Day says.  “The whole concept of the separation of church and state, he had a big part in articulating that.”

     With his emphasis on scripture as the only 100 percent source of truth, he also is a big influence on Protestant evangelical thinking, she said.

     Cragin-Day had not known until the telephone interview that Pope Francis would be taking part in a Lutheran-Catholic service in October in Sweden kicking off a series of events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. She included him as one of her characters because he is so ecumenical and, as McLean pointed out, “he’s also a controversial figure.”

     “I just love him so much,” Cragin-Day said.  “Everything he does I want to stand up and cheer.  I never followed a pope before, except John Paul a little because he was a theatre artist. The Catholic Church was not on my radar growing up.”

     Her family was not anti-Catholic as many Protestants are, she says, adding that she was taught that “Catholics are our Christian brothers and sisters.”

     She knows many people who share her admiration for this pope.

  “He has a heart for unifying a Christian church in a way that Protestants can get onboard.”

     Probably even Luther.

  “I think Luther would love Pope Francis,” she said enthusiastically.  “He’s so passionate about scripture and that’s what Luther was passionate about.  I thing they’d be great friends.” 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

From Broadway to Nairobi: 'Amazing Grace' musical has first student production, in Africa




    Thanks to Christopher Smith, “Amazing Grace,” John Newton’s 18th century hymn of redemption, is now part of the canon of Broadway show tunes. Smith is the creator of the musical by the same name that ran on the Great White Way last year and is being prepared for a North American tour.  With cast and crew members he gathered Monday in the downstairs party room of a bar in midtown Manhattan to celebrate the release of the original cast recording.

     “I was hearing things I never heard before in the big theatre,” Smith said of the recording, which was co-produced and engineered by six-time Grammy Award winner Frank Filipetti and co-produced and arranged by Joseph Church for DMI Soundtracks. “It’s a different sound from a lot of Broadway albums now, more old school and romantic.”

     Smith was a policeman in Bucks County, PA, with no musical theatre training — he didn’t even know how to read music — when he happened upon a young adults’ book about Newton’s journey from slave trader to Anglican priest and abolitionist.  Feeling a call to dramatize such a powerful story,  Smith pursued this quest for 17 years, writing the music, lyrics and, with Arthur Giron, most of the show’s book.

   The musical opened in Chicago in 2014 to mixed-to-good reviews before moving to Broadway last year where critics were less enthusiastic. It closed after four months, but Smith sees a bright future not just in the national tour, the details of which are not available yet, but in colleges and universities around the world.  The musical is set to have its first International (and first post-Broadway) production this month in Nairobi, Kenya, at St. Mary's International School, alma mater of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o.

   “It feels so right to have this story have its first student production in Africa,” Smith said.

    Laiona Michelle (in photo with Smith), who played Nanna, will work with the students and Smith says tribal chiefs from around Nairobi will be attending.

     “They’ve never met anybody from Broadway,” he said, adding that he has no idea how they heard of his musical except that word-of-mouth has been strong.  The show’s script will not be published but will be available for production through private arrangement with Smith or the show’s producer, Carolyn Rossi Copeland. (Smith may be reached through Amazing Grace’s Facebook page.)

    As envisioned by Smith for the stage, Amazing Grace is a tale of romance, rebellion and redemption, following Newton, a willful and musically talented young Englishman, through the age when Britain sits atop an international empire of slavery.  Newton is torn between following in the footsteps of his father – a slave trader – or embracing the more compassionate views of his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett. Accompanied by his slave, Thomas, Newton embarks on a perilous voyage on the high seas. When that journey finds him in his darkest hour, a transformative moment of self-reckoning inspires his blazing anthem of hope.

     Although he won’t be at the Nairobi production, Smith hopes to become an artist in residence at theatre programs that will bring him in to work with their students to develop the show.  In this capacity he also wants to birth his next creation, Island in the Mist, a Celtic epic about a teenage Irish girl who is the daughter of a warrior chieftain. One day her father brings home a young aristocratic boy who has been abducted in a raid in England and who will be their slave. The two develop a friendship and she teases him by calling him Padraig (or “rich-kid"). He will become St. Patrick and she will become the most important woman in Ireland and eventually mother to Ireland's other patron saint, Bridgid.

     By partnering with a university, Smith will gain some financial support as he creates the show and students, who usually work on established musicals, will learn the development process from scratch.

     “I want to involve the students in every aspect,” Smith says.  “Most students only see shows after they’ve been done.  I want them to see every step of what works and what doesn’t and learn to make something commercial.”

   As he works to develop these student/professional partnerships, he has already begun speaking engagements with his talk, “Communicating Faith in a Skeptical World.”

     With plans for the future taking shape, Smith was able to enjoy Monday night’s reunion with his cast and crew to celebrate the CD, which is available on Amazon. The sheet music will be out in four weeks from Hal Leonard Co., the world’s largest music publisher.

     For cast members, Monday was a chance to catch up and reflect on their experience with the show.  Michael Dean Morgan, a member of the ensemble, said he had been in The Lion King, Mary Poppins and other large musicals, but his time with Amazing Grace was different from anything he had done previously.  He especially liked the show’s ending when the audience rose to sing “Amazing Grace” with the cast.

     “There was this moment like everyone was breathing at the exact same time,” he said.  “I’ve never experienced such a group emotion because people came to the play not knowing what to expect.  At the last moment all the pieces come together in the individual experience and the history behind it. People were all singing together, with strangers, because they knew the song.  It was a communal moment in the world we don’t get, an authentic moment with strangers.”

     Allen Kendall, another ensemble member who had been with the show since its early reading stages in 2009, had a similar reaction.

     “It was thrilling to see how the audience responded,” he said.  “The reaction was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  It was incredibly emotional for us.”

Friday, February 26, 2016

Women Without Men




The teachers’ lounge at the Malyn Park Private School looks cozy, with its stuffed armchairs before the fireplace and books filling the shelves that surround the room. But tensions are easily sparked among the women who frequent this refuge in Hazel Ellis’s Women Without Men, which opened last night in its American premiere at New York City Center Stage II.


Beautifully brought to life by the Mint Theater in its ongoing mission to produce the work of forgotten women dramatists, the play, last produced by Ireland’s Gate Theatre in 1938, takes us on a journey into the lives of women who feel trapped in their jobs as teachers with little hope of their situations ever changing.

Under Jenn Thompson’s direction, the pace moves briskly as we get to know each woman and her own personal disappointment at ending up teaching year after year at this girls’ boarding school in 1930s Ireland They have their ways of coping — Miss Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon, right in photo) has developed a resigned acceptance after 18 years at the school; Miss Ruby Ridgeway (Kate Middleton) keeps going by currying attention and favor from the girls and Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey, left) has spent 20 years doggedly working on a history of “beautiful acts” through the ages that she finally feels is ready for publication. (No first name is given to this most dour member of the faculty.) Among the others are a weary, aged French teacher, Mademoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier).

Into the mix comes Miss Jean Wade (Emily Watson, center), an idealistic young teachers (aren’t the new teachers always idealistic and young?). But it isn’t long before the jabs and pettiness of the other teachers dampen her enthusiasm.

“All day, every day, it's bicker, bicker, bicker,” she complains to Marjorie. “Everyone talking maliciously about the others all in turn. There isn't one of them I haven't wanted to murder - except you.”

Marjorie explains her method of coping. “After eighteen years of it, one manages to become detached from one's surroundings.”

She bleakly sums up the reason for the frustration that has turned the women so sour. “Look at us. A small group of women all cooped up together with no release from each other save in the privacy of our bedrooms. Women brought together not by choice, not by liking, but by the necessity of earning our living. No outside interests, no outside friends, nothing to talk about but the pettifogging details of the school and all that therein is. . . dullness, dullness, dullness, and the blighting knowledge that you'll never get any further, that your life will continue for ever in the same old round and the most you can hope for is to save enough to keep you from want in your old age.”

Practicing Marjorie’s detachment proves hardest for Jean in relation to Miss Connor. Almost from the start the two clash. When Jean politely asks Miss Connor about her decades-in-the-making manuscript, she receives yet another putdown: “I’m afraid it will be a bit above your head, Miss Wade. Not, of course that it is difficult to understand, but the sentiments would be so opposed to your own.”

Working on the book and feeling superior to her fellow teachers is what has kept Miss Connor going. “It hardly seems credible,” she says dreamily. “I’ve been working on it all these years, and now my task is nearly completed. People may laugh and sneer at me now. But then they will know - they will hail me as an artist, as one of those who exist to help the sublimity of life, by diffusing the beauty of their very souls. My time is coming - glory and radiance are waiting for me soon.”

Her hope is dashed, though, when her much labored-over manuscript is discovered in shreds. It isn’t long before suspicion widely turns to Jean. As the truth is gradually revealed in the twists and turns of the second act, the characters’ darkest natures are revealed as well.

The women and their world have been captured fully, and often humorously, by the excellent cast, which also includes Joyce Cohen, Shannon Harrington, Aedin Moloney, Alexa Shae Niziak, Beatrice Tulchin and Amelia White. The equally excellent all-female production staff includes Vicki R. Davis for scenic design; Martha Halley, costumes; Traci Klainer Polimeni, lighting and Jane Shaw, sound design.

It’s amazing to me that this engaging play has only been produced once before, and that was 78 years ago in Ireland. Although it was acclaimed at the time, it was never published or revived. We — and Hazel Ellis — have the Mint’s artistic director, Jonathan Bank, to thank for this resurrection. The play’s title caught his eye as he was scanning the catalog of the Dublin Gate Theatre Archives at Northwestern University. After reading the play he knew it needed to be added to the Mint’s list of “extraordinary — but shamefully neglected — female playwrights.”

Ellis’s earlier drama, Portrait in Marble, also had met with great success in 1936, but those two plays were the extent of her playwriting career. She disappeared from the Dublin stage at 30, settling in to the first of her two unhappy marriages. She died of jaundice at the age of 83 in 1986.

But now she has reappeared on West 55th Street in Manhattan. As theatre historian Maya Cantu wrote, “In 2016, Hazel Ellis can be reclaimed not only as a vibrant contributor to Irish theater history and Dublin’s legendary Gate Theatre, but to the expanding repertoire of Irish female playwrights still fighting to be heard in the present.”