Monday, August 7, 2017

Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical



   Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical is a collection of aspirational songs in search of a plot.  And character development. This New York Musical Festival offering is a far too safe telling of such an important chapter in American history.

     In an effort to break the segregation of interstate buses in the South in the 1960s, groups of blacks and whites rode together to force the issue. In Freedom Riders the brutality these people experienced is more suggested than portrayed.  The performance I attended Friday at the Acorn Theatre had several rows of middle schoolers, who were mostly African-American.  Before the show started I worried that such young theatergoers would be loud, but the opposite was true.  There wasn’t a peep out of them.  Had the subject been more forcefully presented, they would have been gasping and calling out about the injustice. Young people are usually unrestrained in expressing their feelings in the theater.   

     Richard Allen’s book needs more depth and the music and lyrics he wrote with Taran Gray need more variety.  I also wonder how clear it was to those young people in the audience that the show was portraying historical characters. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Guy Lockard) I certainly hope they recognized, but I don’t know that they would have learned much about John Lewis (Anthony Chatmon II, right in photo) or Diane Nash (Brynn Williams). 

     The two-hour show features 16 songs, some of which are reprised, giving a feeling of song after song strung together by a bit of narration, especially in the first act.  And the songs more or less sound alike because they follow that I-will-succeed genre of American musical theatre, the ones where people belt out about climbing every mountain, finding their corners of the sky, and trusting that tomorrow is only a day away. One of those songs in a show is rousing, but a whole show of them is too much.  I began questioning if I hadn’t already heard that song each time a new one began.  We go from having lives that collide but finding hope inside, to not letting anybody hold you down, to keeping your head up to be first in line when your time comes, to getting there step by step with stars in your eyes after dreams take flight, and on and on. Under Whitney White’s direction, nobody seems to get discouraged no matter whether they are beaten or thrown in jail.  

     Nonviolence was always a part of the mission, but I would like to see the struggle the riders faced in keeping to this pledge.  When asked if it was hard to resist the blows delivered by racist white man at a bus terminal (Michael Nigro, photo left) Lewis replies, “It was actually easier than I thought.”

     While the riders at times discuss whether to continue, I never felt much of a sense of the terror I’ve read about from the real life civil rights workers in the South.  In one scene in a church some apprehension is expressed but I was shocked when I learned a mob of 3,000 was surrounding it.  I didn’t feel any of the fear that should have provoked.  It was supposedly such a tense situation because King was inside that the National Guard had to be called in.

    When Freedom Riders was presented last summer at NYMF as a workshop it earned a Beta Award. This year’s offering is considered a full production but it still resembles a workshop offering.  The cast members all have strong voices but the book is in need of much development.

     And the generic songs should be more representative of the era.  Musically the 60s was a rich time as what was considered “race” music crossed over thanks to Motown and we had some of the best written and performed music ever.  Give these songs some soul.  Make them sound like black music of the 60s. 

    I hope the creators of this show will work hard on it.  The subject is ripe for a powerful musical.  And it’s certainly possible now that it’s had this developmental experience. New York Musical Festival was created to nurture new musicals by giving them an affordable platform to test their work among theatre professionals.  Now in its 14th year, NYMF has launched more than 90 shows into productions Off-Broadway, in regional theatres in all 50 states and 24 countries worldwide.  Alumni have won many awards, including a Tony and Pulitzer. My organization, Drama Desk, gave it an award in 2013 for its work “creating and nurturing new musical theatre, ensuring the future of this essential art form.”

   I will be watching for future performances of a reworked Freedom Riders.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tina Howe's new play, 'Singing Beach,' is a delight



   The deteriorating effects of climate change on the environment and the deteriorating effects of aging on the body are the subjects of Tina Howe’s new play, Singing Beach, which had its world premiere opening Sunday at HERE Mainstage in SoHo. In characteristic Howe fashion, these heavy topics are presented, and then transformed into a vision of hope.  I loved it.

     Under the direction of Ari Laura Kreith, the cast of seven glide easily from reality to fantasy in the July of a not-too-distant future in Manchester, MA. A family of four — parents Merrie (Erin Beirnard) and Owen (John P. Keller) and their children, 10-year-old Piper (Elodie Lucinda Morss) and 12-year-old Tyler (Jackson Demott Hill) — are faced with two decisions, whether to evacuate their beachside town as Hurricane Cassandra approaches with 150-mile-an-hour winds and whether to commit Merrie’s father, Ashton Sleeper (Tuck Milligan), to a nursing home now that a stroke has left him unable to care for himself. He had been a famous poet but now is without words.

     Piper is the focal point of the play and Morss portrays her to perfection.  This little girl must overcome the torments of her big brother, who annoyingly calls her Sniper instead of Piper, and her feelings of inadequacy.  “I’m just a narrow person in a quiet room,” she says, borrowing from the title of one of her mother’s successful novels. 

   But the life force is strong in Piper and she envisions a brighter world for herself and her grandfather that features escaping on a luxury liner and ice skating on the ocean in mid-July.  These flights of fancy are a hallmark of Howe’s plays, as are her shimmering endings.  

     Howe loves extravagance, which often makes staging her work challenging — and expensive.  The Broadway production of Coastal Disturbance, another seaside play, featured six tons of sand that had to be doused with 20 gallons of water before each performance.  It was a joy to walk into Circle in the Square on a cold winter night and have a beach experience, with the lighting conveying the warmth of a day at the seashore.

    That kind of staging is impossible for a small Off-Broadway company like Theatre 167 at HERE, but it doesn’t matter.  Scenic designer Jen Price Fick has created a multi-leveled stage of pale wood on which the beach, ship, sick room and everything else play out, with a minimum of props.  Matthew J. Fick’s lighting enhances the bleached out, colorless feeling of beachside quiet before the storm.  With the good script, good direction and good cast, which includes Naren Weiss and Devin Haqq, we have all we need for a transporting experience, with characters lying on the deck of an imaginary ship making angels in the imaginary July snow and skating without skates on an imaginary frozen ocean. 

   Piper reminded me of another of my favorite Tina Howe characters, Pony from 1989’s Approaching Zanzibar.  Pony also feels inferior in her family and must relate to an elderly character, her great aunt Olivia who is dying of cancer.  She’s fearful at first but she also has the imagination and high spirit to transform her world.  And both girls have their moment to fly, one of the many lovely visual treats Howe gives us in both plays.

     Another Howe play I was reminded of was Chasing Manet, her 2009 work that brought together two elderly women in a nursing home who plot their escape to Paris on the QEII.  

     And I thought of Painting Churches, Howe’s breakout play from 1983, in which an elderly couple must sell their large Boston townhouse for a move to a cottage on Cape Cod.  Gardner Church had been a famous writer, just as Ashton Sleeper in Singing Beach was, but dementia and incontinence leave him as a mere remembrance of his old self.  Both plays present painful scenes of going though a lifetime of belongs with the task of deciding what to take and what to give away. These are sad experiences, ones that I went through with my mother.  I never leave a Tina Howe play sad, though.  I leave with a sense of joy because of her playful plot twists and those resurrection endings she creates.

     When I first interviewed her, in 1990 for my second Master’s thesis that was on her work, I asked her about her mastery of dynamic closings. They are a major focus of her work and, she said, usually surprise her as much as her audiences.

     “The ending is everything to me,” she said. “To me the whole point of writing a play is to sculpt that shock, that visual shock. I think that’s my strongest suit in a way. Often the ending is what comes last, but I just know it has to be an epiphany. I do struggle long and hard to try to come up with something strong.”

     She has done it again.  You will be won over by Piper and the delicious world she creates, the one created for her by Tina Howe, a playwright of epiphanies. 

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.’”