Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Harry Smith is just wild about The Salvation Army




     Our Salvation Army Gala at the Marriott Marquis was lovely last night, and we raised more than $1.1 million.  Emily Ann Roberts, a sweet 18-year-old former finalist on “The Voice,” sang Christmas songs, accompanying herself on guitar and with our Army band and choir.  

     The highlight of the evening of me, though, was when host Harry Smith went off script to talk about his experiences with The Salvation Army. Shortly after he had been asked to come to New York to join CBS 35 years ago, he was taken to 21 and was excited to be in such a big-time celebrity hot spot. While he was eating, some Salvation Army choir members came in and began singing Christmas carols. Since the words were well-known, people joined in.  He saw titans of industry and entertainment singing along with tears in their eyes.  He was told the Army choir did that every year so he decided to have them on his show. He also happened to play tuba so he played on air with the Army band. Last night he joined them onstage to play for us as well.  What a good sport.

    He then said how for 40 years as a journalist whenever he was covering a disaster, he would arrive with his crew and they would travel down some dirt road and see destruction and people wandering around dazed and there to the side would be a Salvation Army truck handing out sandwiches and coffee.  He saw this too at the World Trade Center where the Army had set up a half dozen sites and maintained them throughout the long months of clean up, giving out coffee and sandwiches to all the workers.

     Hearing those testimonies made me all the prouder to work for The SA at this time each year.  I am truly blessed and duly grateful. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Master Harold" . . . and the Boys




     “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys is the most painful of Athol Fugard’s plays for me to journey through. One of our former priests at St. Bart’s who used to say, “Hurt people, hurt people” and that is certainly manifest in this play and the powerful revival it is receiving at The Pershing Square Signature Center, through Dec. 11.

     The playwright directs his 1982 story of Hally, a lonely young white boy, and his friendship with Sam, a black man, in mid-20th century apartheid South Africa. The performances are heartbreakingly real, making the grief all the stronger when the friendship is abruptly ruptured, perhaps beyond repair.

     Fugard is a white Southern African playwright, actor and director whose work is revered in his country (now), ours and England. He has used his playwriting gifts for more than half a century to highlight the injustices of the apartheid that ruled his country for so long.

     The unjust system is given a human face in his plays, in this one especially touchingly. Hally (Noah Robbins) is a prep school boy of 17 when the play opens in 1950. His friendship with Sam (Leon Addison Brown) goes back to his short pants days when, living in a boarding house with his mother and drunken, invalid father, he used to find refuge in the small room Sam shared with Willie (Sahr Ngaujah), who also is black and in his 40s like Sam.

     “Life felt right-sized in there,” Hally says wistfully one rainy afternoon as he reminisces with Sam in the St. George’s Park Tea Room, which is owned by his mother. (Scenic design by Christopher H. Barreca; lighting by Stephen Strawbridge). Sam works there as a waiter and Willie cleans the floors, when he’s not joking around with Sam or complaining about his girlfriend, whom he beats regularly. The feeling is of three people whose bond goes way back and who are comfortable together without racial division.

     Through the years Hally has been educating Sam from his own schoolwork, teaching him geography and vocabulary. Sam is a willing recipient of this learning. It becomes clear, though, as the two talk that Sam’s main role in Hally’s life has been father figure. One particularly lovely memory the two share is of the day years earlier when Sam had made a kite for Hally and taught him how to fly it. It was a happy day for both, but it is only in the present that we learn why Sam had chosen to make the kite at that time. Hally’s father had passed out drunk in a bar and the boy was called upon to come get him. Hally had to ask permission for Sam to enter the bar, after which Sam carried the father home over his shoulder with the shamed child following behind. The father had soiled his pants and Sam and Hally had had to clean him and put him in bed. After that, Hally walked around with his eyes cast downward for days. Sam decide to make a kite so Hally could focus his eyes skyward. That is the kindness and love Hally had received from Sam, but in the present day Hally’s anger at his father causes him to turn on Sam in unbearable cruelness at the play’s climax.

     All the performances are first rate. Hally and Sam commune with a natural ease, but when the tide turns, the tension is so deep the entire audience seemed to collectively hold its breath. The change in Hally’s mood is triggered by a call he receives from his mother saying she is bringing his father, who has been in the hospital, home. She then put his father on the phone and Hally tries to put up a jovial front. Robbins portrays a Hally transformed. He crumbles to the floor, anguish stiffening his face, as he tries to assure his father, “chum,” that he is looking forward to his return. He looks hollow, ghostly.

     When Hally betrays Sam, Brown is a man wounded to his soul. I’ve never been as affected by that scene as I was seeing it performed by these two fine actors. The name of the play comes from Hally’s insistence that Sam now call him “Master Harold.” “You’re only a servant here and don’t you forget it,” he says. Cruel. Soul-cuttingly cruel.

     Just before the conflict reaches this point, Sam implores Hally to “stop before it’s too late. Someone’s going to get hurt.”

     “It’s not going to be me,” Hally says smugly.

     “Don’t be too sure,” Sam replies.

     Both are hurt. Fugard leaves the door open as to whether they will ever heal together.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Lynn Nottage's 'Sweat'




     A flicker of humanity flashes at the end of Lynn Nottage’s latest play, Sweat, directed by Kate Whoriskey at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater. Hope is a hallmark of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and it is needed after the two and a half hours of economic hardship, tattered friendships and thwarted dreams among the workers in a steel-tubing factory in Reading, PA, as they face the closing of the plant that has employed generations of their families.

     “Started in `74, walked in straight outta high school. First and only job,” says Tracey (Johanna Day, left in photo) whose friendship and working relationship with Cynthia (Michelle Wilson, right) and Jessie (Miriam Shor) goes back for decades.  All are in their 40s at the start of the play in 2000 when rumors of layoffs  begin. Time alternates with 2008 when the plant has closed.

    After work the women hang out together at a local bar managed by Stan (James Colby), who worked at the plant for 28 years before injuring his leg in a machine accident at the plant. (Set designer John Lee Beatty has created a bar so real-looking I felt I could walk right in and order a beer.) The four of them have the camaraderie of people who have shared lives for years. This unity is marred, though, when Cynthia, the African American member of the group, is promoted to management. Tracey, who also had applied for the job, says Cynthia was chosen because of her race. Her resentment drives a wedge between them. In the end they will all be unemployed, but without the strength of the friendship that had sustained them.

     While this might sound bleak, and it is, Nottage is skilled at creating people we care about and cheer for. These characters are based on her many visits to Reading over the years where she got to know the citizens, from the mayor to those who sleep in the woods because they lost their homes.  The city was ranked as the country’s most economically depressed in 2011.

  The playwright’s empathy for her characters is another hallmark of her work. In Ruined, for which she won her Pulitzer in 2009, we feel for the young women in the bar and pool room run by Mama Nadi in a small town in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The girls must provide more than food and drink to the soldiers and miners who arrive daily, and while it seems Mama is pimping them, which she is, she also is providing them a home and family life together and protection from the gang rapes and homelessness they would face on the outside.  

   My favorite Nottage work is Intimate Apparel (NCR 4/30/04). I cared deeply for its heroine, Esther, who was played movingly by Viola Davis Off-Broadway in 2004.  Esther was a 35-year-old hard-working seamstress living in a boarding house whose longing for love led her to be charmed out of her life’s savings by a man she met through the son of her church’s deacon. I loved her no-nonsense attitude and humor and I wanted her to be happy.

     In this latest work by Nottage, I could relate to the women because I’ve had times of being unable to find work and I know the fear and demoralizing sense of that experience. The Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, explained in a program note why the play is timely.

   “The decline of unionism, the weakening of the federal government, loss of legitimacy of the idea of collective action and the increasing power of the market to monetize everything have helped return us to a level of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age,” he wrote.

    He praised Nottage for tackling the subject “on the ground,” in the lives of individuals who were being overwhelmed by huge historical shifts.  “She writes, not from the airy tower of an intellectual, but from the lived experience of working people.

     “However, she also does what a great writer does, and makes these idiosyncratic, terribly specific individuals representatives of us all. They are working class everywoman and everyman, reflecting back to ourselves the truth of our country and our times.” 

     The play’s portrayal of the decline of factory jobs in the rust belt was also a topic in the presidential race, with both candidates appealing to those voters.

     Sweat was commissioned and first produced by Bill Rauch and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  It then traveled to Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The New York premiere continues through December 18.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Holiday Inn: The New Irving Berlin Musical



The recently opened Holiday Inn has a subtitle, The New Irving Berlin Musical. Using the word new is a bit of a stretch — the songs are classics and the story was first told in an Oscar-winning 1942 movie. This lack of originality didn’t bother me at all, however, because the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production at Studio 54 is such a shimmering delight. I was happy to sit back and enjoy the old-fashioned entertainment.

Besides featuring some of the best music of the 20th century — close to two dozen Berlin songs, including “Blue Skies,” “Heat Wave,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “White Christmas” — it’s a visual delight as well, with Denis Jones’ intricate choreography (lots of tap!) and Alejo Vietti’s glittering costumes. Director Gordon Greenberg brings them together in a fast-paced journey into the kind of “putting on a show” musical of yesteryear.

Greenberg and Chad Hodge penned the witty, though predictable, book, which tells the story of Jim Hardy, a likable Bryce Pinkham taking on the Bing Crosby role, who chooses to forsake show business for life on a farm in Connecticut. In doing so he loses his fiancé, Lila Dixon (Megan Sikora), who craves stardom, and for whom one visit to the farm is enough. “I can live with a lot of things,” she tells him, “but I can’t live out here with all these vegetable.”

Before she leaves, though, we do have a fun scene of her being pushed around in a wheel barrow while she, Jim and Louise (Megan Lawrence), the dependable farmhand, sing “It’s a Lovely Day Today.”

Lila’s departure from his life opens the door for Jim to find his true love in a local girl, Linda Mason, played with charm and gorgeous voice by Lora Lee Gayer. The broken-down farmhouse Jim bought had belonged to Linda’s family, but as an unmarried elementary school teacher she could no longer keep it.

Even with his zeal for country life, which he sings about in “Blue Skies,” Jim finds he has no gift for it. His first choice for a crop was bananas. But when his New York friends come to visit he is inspired to combine worlds and he and Linda, a singer who had given up on show business, see an opportunity to turn the farmhouse into an inn where shows are performed for all holidays, which is when his friends are free. Anna Louizos’ sets make beautiful transitions from Thanksgiving, to Christmas, to Easter and the Fourth of July.

As the inn evolves, the dance numbers heat up. With the place decorated for Christmas, Louise and the ensemble sing “Shaking the Blues Away” while tapping up a storm and jumping rope with strands of garland. This is definitely a feel-good musical.

The jokes are cute too. When Jim announces to his agent, Danny (Lee Wilkof), that he’s moving to Connecticut, Danny warns him he’ll “end up wearing plaid and repressing your feelings.” Visiting the farm doesn’t change his mind. “I’m feeling out of place out here,” he tells Jim. “I think I just got stung by a wasp.”

The state is the butt of another joke, this time from Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu), Jim’s old showbiz partner. When Ted wakes up at the farm hungover and is told of his disgraceful behavior the night before, he is horrified — to learn he’s in Connecticut.

Holiday Inn is a simple story told in rich detail of song, dance and costumes. Its run has been extended until Jan. 15, but I wish it could be longer. I would like to go again.

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.