Monday, July 17, 2017

Celebrating Ella Fitzgerald in 'Me & Ella'



      Andrea Frierson is an enthusiastic performer with a golden voice.  What she needs now for her one-woman play, Me & Ella, which opened last night as part of the York Theatre Company’s New2NY Series, is some heavy-duty editing and rewriting.  

     With a love for Ella Fitzgerald that began when she was a child and first saw the great singer on TV, Frierson tells Fitzgerald’’s story paralleled with her own.  

     “I was too young to understand what the words were saying, but I felt them,” she says.

     The idea is good but the execution is not.  Although only 80 minutes, the show began to drag for me two-thirds of the way through. I always loved Frierson’s singing, but her personal story was filled with too many details about the lives of her parents, both of whom struggled for singing careers, making it seem she was presenting two separate plays at she same time.  The show is co-directed by the Tony Award-winning team of Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel.

     Frierson, who has appeared in several Broadway productions including The Lion King and Once on This Island, has the range to interpret Fitzgerald well. Her “How High the Moon” is jazzy, her “A Tisket and Tasket” is playful, “I’ve Got It Bad” is soulful, “I’m Old Fashioned” is romantic and her “Lady Be Good” is swinging.  She even looks a bit like Fitzgerald, only shorter.        

     It’s clear Frierson has a passion for her project and I hope she can develop it further. That is the purpose of York’s New2NY Series, which focuses on new musicals, giving them a place to grow between developmental lab and full production.  In Transit, which opened last season on Broadway, was part of an earlier Series.  Me & Ella was featured last season as part of the York's Developmental Reading Series and commemorates the centennial of the legendary First Lady of Song.

   The informality of the Series allows performers and creative teams to concentrate on the show without the trappings of a full production.  Frierson was on-book and dressed casually in black slacks, a large white shirt and black flats.

     One thing I hope Frierson will retain as she moves forward is her outstanding band —  Richie Goods on bass, Rex Benincasa on percussion and on piano, Ron Abel, who also is the music director/arranger.

     I was fortunate to hear Ella Fitzgerald in concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1980s on a pier at the city's Inner Harbor.  She was fabulous, and graciously continued singing after the Orchestra, governed by union rules on time, had stopped playing. They sat in their places and she sang on.  It was a wonderful evening that I have never forgotten. 

    Me & Ella will play through July 23 at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's (619 Lexington Ave., entrance on East 54th Street).

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Each of us



Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless --
Each of us with his or her
right upon the earth,
Each of us allow'd
the eternal purports
of the earth,
Each of us here
as divinely as any is here.

~ Walt Whitman ~

(Leaves of Grass)

Monday, June 26, 2017

Caretake This Moment


 
Caretake this moment.
Immerse yourself in its particulars.
Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed.
 
Quit the evasions.
Stop giving yourself needless trouble.
It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now.
You are not some disinterested bystander.
Exert yourself.
 
Respect your partnership with providence.
Ask yourself often, How may I perform this particular deed
such that it would be consistent with and acceptable to the divine will?
Heed the answer and get to work.
 
When your doors are shut and your room is dark you are not alone.
The will of nature is within you as your natural genius is within.
Listen to its importunings.
Follow its directives.
 
As concerns the art of living, the material is your own life.
No great thing is created suddenly.
There must be time.
 
Give your best and always be kind.
 
~ Epictetus ~
 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie



     Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie at the Irish Repertory Theatre is a delightful two hours of music and storytelling that is particularly timely. Guthrie (1912-1967) wrote his songs to protest the injustice of the poor and workers in an America he thought was ignoring them at best and oppressing them at worst. He would be writing overtime if her were alive today.

     Featuring more than three dozen of the singer’s songs, and with no props other than a stool or two, the play recalls Guthrie’s determined survival of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the Great Depression to become one of the country’s greatest folk singers. He not only overcame the collective hardships of his time, but personal ones as well. The recounting of his 4-year-old daughter’s death in a fire is especially moving.  

     As Woody, David M. Lutken is spirited and likable, extremely likable. So are his fellow cast members, Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Tierstein who play a variety of characters.  All sing and play numerous instruments. Lutken, Russell and Tierstein devised the show along with Darcie Deaville and Nick Corley, who directs. Lutken is the music director.

     Their spirit flows into the house.  You won’t have to hold back when you hear familiar songs like “This Train is Bound for Glory,” “Union Maid” and “This Land is Your Land.” The audience is encouraged to sing along. The intimacy of the Irish Rep is the perfect place for this show, which began in August in 2007 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The production maintains the simplicity of a fringe show and, amazingly after a decade, the freshness. 

     Guthrie would have liked this.  In a program note he is quoted as saying he hated songs that made people feel they were born to lose:  “I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.  And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just like you.”

     In the play, he describes his songs as being for “people who can’t afford a radio or a house to set it in.”  He discovered his calling after leaving his wife and two children to hitch across the country to look for work, living and singing in Hoovervilles in California. “I knew that here was my voice,” he says. Written on his guitar was his mission: “This machine kills fascists.” 

   A delicious moment links nicely to present political sentiments, at least those of the Democratic variety.  Guthrie, while performing with the Corncob Quartet, announces they will “do a song for old Mr. Herbert Hoover.” His bandmates respond “and all them Republicans” before launching into “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.”  The audience loved it. 

     Anger inspired Guthrie to write, but he kept his humility and humor, describing an artist as “somebody out of work so long they learn to do something else.”  He sang on the radio and he sang in the fields for the workers. 

      Before he died in 1967 of Huntington’s disease at 55, he had been an author, poet, painter and essayist as well as a singer/songwriter.  An exhibit in the theatre’s upstairs gallery features extensive biographical information, photos and much more.

     Woody Sez runs through Sept.10 at the Irish Repertory Theatre. 

In photo by Carol Rosegg: Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell, David M. Lutken and Andy Tierstein.


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.