Thursday, May 9, 2013
"The Lusty Month of May," a free musical theater performance by The PhilHallmonics of songs celebrating the reawakening of sex, love and desire, will be performed at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza (65th Street and Amsterdam Avenue), at 6 p.m. Monday, May 13th.
The concert features songs of passion from America’s great songwriters, including Stephen Sondheim, Harold Arlen and Vernon Duke, with favorites such as “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” “It’s A Good Day,” “The Kind Of Man A Woman Needs” and a delicious rendition of “Triplets” made famous in the film “Bandwagon.”
The PhilHallmonics, led by Broadway conductor and composer Phil Hall, showcases professional Broadway, cabaret and classical singers including Karen Arlington, Lynette Baiocco, Mary Lou Barber, Mandy Brown, Dolly Ellen Friedman, Lenore Fuerstman, Alyson Reim, Diana Silva, Laurie Sondermeyer, and Becca Yuré under the staging direction of Broadway choreographer Sharon Halley.
"The Lusty Month Of May" is a free concert, with tickets distributed on a first-come basis. Because The PhilHallmonics’ performances fill up quickly, it is strongly advised to be in line at least an hour before the performance time.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
I wrote this feature for the May 10, 2013 issue of National Catholic Reporter. When the Tony Awards were announced yesterday, playwright Colm Toibin was nominated for best new play, but actress Fiona Shaw and director Deborah Warner were ignored so the show is closing Sunday. I am sorry to hear this because it was the most moving and powerful theatre I’ve seen in a long, long time. I walked out of the theatre dazed. I didn't know what century I was in, or where I was or which way to turn. Other women have told me they felt this same way.
For centuries, she has appeared on medals, in paintings, been sculpted into statues, sung about and worshiped in prayer, making her the most iconic woman of all time. Now, in what must be her most unlikely appearance yet, Mary, traditionally considered to be the mother of God, is the star of a Broadway show.
“I was trying to bring the audience with me and see where it would go,” says Irish novelist Colm Toibin, creator of this latest vision of Mary. “It’s not mockery. I’m serious. What I was trying to do was capture someone real.”
This real Mary of Broadway, in the world-premiere stage adaptation of Toibin’s 2012 novella, The Testament of Mary, does not believe her offspring was the son of God or that he performed miracles, calls his followers misfits -- “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers” -- and was not at the foot of the cross at his death, having fled for her life after watching at a distance. Decades after the crucifixion, living in Ephesus under the guardianship of the disciples, she wants her side of the story to be heard, and she tells it for 90 minutes with fierceness, anger, sarcasm and humor, making for the most powerful theatre on the Great White Way this season, or any other in recent memory.
Two weeks into preview performances, with tweaking taking place daily before the April 22 opening, Toibin and director Deborah Warner spoke in separate phone interviews about developing this piece, a one-woman play starring Fiona Shaw, the irish actress acclaimed for her work on British and New York stages who recently has appeared as Petunia Dursley, Harry Potter’s annoying aunt, and Marnie Stoenbrook in HBO’s “True Blood.” The show is scheduled for a 12-week engagement through June 16 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
“We were able to develop it when we saw it as storytelling,” Warner said, describing the awesome task of turning a work that was in the form of a novel rather than a play, with one character -- a revered and historical one at that -- into an evening of theater on a vast stage in a Broadway house. “People love having stories told to them. It goes back to Sunday school. That aspect absolutely plays to the child in us in the hands of a great storyteller. We really give ourselves over.”
Not that Testament is a story for children. Shaw’s portrayal of Mary’s guilt and her agonized memories of watching her son’s suffering as he was nailed to the cross are raw. She draws the audience in, leaving them transfixed.
“Everybody in the theater is silent,” Warner says. “The density of silence is everybody working through their understanding of the story. It’s an extraordinary thing happening at the same time, their parallel experiences of the story. It’s different for everybody.”
Bringing this realism to life was an excruciating journey for Toibin, a self-described lapsed Irish Catholic who no longer believes in God. While creating the passages of Mary’s memory of the crucifixion he only wrote when other people were in the house and always kept the door open. One particularly vivid image is that after his first arm is nailed to the cross and he roars in agony, he fights so hard to hold his other arm on his chest that other men have to come pry it off to nail it.
“I had to imagine it to the fullest,” Toibin said. “I couldn’t just write it. I had to almost see it.”
When he emerged one day after writing, a friend looked at his face and asked with concerned, “Are you all right?”
Toibin, who lives part of the year in New York while teaching English literature at Columbia University, was inspired to give Mary a voice by two paintings he had seen in Venice -- Tittian’s “The Assumption” and a Tintoretto painting of the crucifixion. As a child, kneeling daily with his family to pray the rosary, Mary had not only been the Queen of Heaven, but the Queen of Ireland as well. He realized that other than the Magnificat, “a literary convention,” she had for the most part been silent throughout the gospels.
The trick was to find the right voice. She had to live in a real house, “but not the house next door.” She would have to have grandeur in her tone, as well as deep fragility, with nothing in between.
“She’s not a housewife,” he said. “I couldn’t bring her down, she’s not someone you see in the store. That regal thing had to be there.”
For this reason, she had to be alone onstage. She recounts her arguments with the disciples -- they are trying to get her to verify their accounts of her son’s life so they can start a new movement and she refuses -- but no ordinariness of somebody making tea and moving about could disrupt her story.
This presented a challenge to the actor and director. Warner meets it by allowing the audience to take the place of other characters. Before the show they are encouraged to go onstage, walk around the set and handle the props. This device brings to life the sense of restlessness and ferment described in the book as surrounding the crucifixion. The lines of people waiting to go onstage remind Warner of people on a pilgrimage.
“The audience is in partnership. They have a relationship with her before she appears,” she says, adding that people had had a relationship with Mary’s son that caused crowds to follow him. “The challenge is to surprise people to be more open to listen and hear. He had been a success, people flooded to where he was. That’s harder to get with just one of you onstage.”
Sound designer Mel Mercier enhances this feeling of a Middle Eastern landscape with original music and the sounds of movement and animals and marketplace noises.
Interestingly, as in the novella, Jesus’ name is never mention. Mary refers to him as “my son” or “the one who was here.” Toibin had two specific reasons for this.
“First of all, I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” he said. “That was moving into space I didn’t want to go to. I didn’t want to make the name ordinary.”
Secondly, he was struck by something he discovered while research his book Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush. As he read the papers of this great patron of the theatre in Ireland at the New York Public Library, he noticed that after her son, Robert, had been shot down over Italy in 1918 during World War I she never mentioned his name again in her letters. Toibin realized it must have been too painful for her.
And the Mary Toibin has created shares this pain, although in far greater measure because of her guilt at not stay until her son died, at not having done anything to stop his public preaching, which she found annoying -- “his voice all false and his tone all stilted” -- and her rage at the disciples for trying to make of his death something it was not. No one will listen to her memories because they don’t confirm the story the followers are preparing to spread, so she roams her home alone reliving the truth for herself.
“It is what really happened that is unimaginable, and it is what really happened that I must face now in these months before I go into my grave or else something that happened will become a sweet story that will grow poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees,” she says. “I do not know why it matters that I should tell the truth to myself at night, why it should matter that the truth should be spoken at least once in the world.”
By the end of the show, she turns this rage on the disciples. “I was there,” she told them. “I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”
Although Toibin is no longer a believing Catholic, he is grateful for his upbringing in the tradition and sees no negative influences.
“The iconography and language and experience stays with you and can be summoned up easily,” he says. “It gave you an extraordinarily rich way of perceiving beauty in the world.”
When asked how he wanted people to see Mary, he paused before saying he’s not a theologian, that he used his imagination and is not trying to convince anyone.
“I’m just a poor fiction writer. All I was trying to do was find a voice I thought would be credible during that time at the theatre. I am in the business of creating images which are fictional. That’s powerful.”
He says he has received no hate mail, only a few e-mails, which were divided between people who were upset or who wanted to debate. The responses on Amazon were angrier, he added. About 50 protesters organized by the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, a conservative Catholic organization based in Pennsylvania, gathered in front of the theatre before the first preview. An earlier version of the show was performed in Dublin without protest.
While director Warner has collaborated theatrically with Shaw for a quarter century, this is the first of their efforts to premiere in the United States. She says the journey from deciding to do this project and getting to Broadway has been an endurance test.
“We spent many nights in the desert. We were often in agony, asking ourselves, ‘Why do we do this?’”
Having grown up as a Quaker in England, her only association with Mary was “mostly through 2,000 years of art history.”
“There’s something about the guise of the story that’s right,” she said. “It’s contemplative and a jolly good story at the same time. It’s not a traditional Broadway show, but great storytelling is part of the Broadway tradition.”
Toibin hopes audiences will experience the show in their nervous systems, bypassing their intellect.
“I want them to have an experience in the theatre that will matter to them.”
Monday, April 22, 2013
If Motown: the Musical, the latest jukebox show to hit Broadway, had had a good book, instead of the anemic and self-serving one written by Berry Gordy, it would be a powerhouse. Still, thanks to that music, which to me is among the greatest of all time, Motown is one immensely entertaining evening that sent me out of the Lunt-Fontanne filled with joy and memories.
The show, directed with little imagination by Charles Randolph-Wright, is drawn from Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, the Memories of Motown, about the creation of his pioneering music labels, most notably Motown. Gordy presents himself in a far kinder and milder light than that of Curtis, the Gordy figure in in the far better written -- and by all accounts except Gordy’s, more accurate -- Dreamgirls. (Gordy is also one of Motown’s producers.)
That’s one of the biggest problems of the show -- no conflict. At 29, after being a failure at every job he’s had, Gordy (Brandon Victor Dixon) borrows money from his family to start a recording company, which becomes the empire known as Motown (a name derived from Motor City, the nickname for Detroit, his hometown) and would launch the careers of some of the best singers and groups of the 20th century -- Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, to name a few.
Act One shows this unfurling with nearly miraculous ease -- Gordy discovers talent after talent, records are turned out rapidly and all become hits that are accepted on white radio stations as well as black. It’s all too simple and courteous. Dreamgirls (book and lyrics by Tom Eyen) brought out the ruthlessness of the record mogul and the back-stabbing behind the “girl group” he founded, which was based on the Supremes. It portrayed the fight for acceptance, the dirty dealing of other groups in stealing songs and the betrayal of love in that high-stakes showbiz environment.
Gordy also could have taken lessons from Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice on how to write a strong book for a jukebox musical about real people. Their Jersey Boys tells an involving story about the lives and career struggles and successes of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. So it can be done.
The trouble is, Gordy seemed to want to take on the whole Motown history. Even in a show that is two hours and 40 minutes long, that’s not enough time to do more than give a passing nod -- if that -- to the stories of these performers. With more than 50 songs, Motown seems more like a Greatest Hits concert than a Broadway musical.
By the second act, though, I no longer cared about knowing the full story behind the songs because the songs were the story. That’s the music I grew up with in the 1960s and 70s, starting in elementary school when we used to line dance to the Temptations. I carried my transistor radio with me everywhere -- out with friends, to the swim club, the beach, baby-sitting and into my bedroom at night. I listened every waking moment I could.
That’s why Motown was so appealing to me, because it was the soundtrack of my youth, the way the songs of the Hit Parade were for my mother. Music that is so interwoven into our lives will always touch a deep cord. I remember being on the Underground in London in 1984 and seeing a headline on a tabloid across the aisle announcing that Marvin Gaye, a Motown genius, had been fatally shot by his father. I was devastated.
I felt an emotional response in the show when the young Michael Jackson (Raymond Luke Jr. in a standout performance) was introduced to Gordy. It was sad to remember what a fireball of talent he was then, and remained right up through “Thriller” in 1982, but what a pathetic -- and sick -- figure he became.
Motown only goes as far as 1983, using the framing device of the 25th anniversary TV tribute to the company, its founder and its artists. At the start, Gordy refuses to go, bitter is he that so many of the stars he discovered have moved on and his company is in steep decline, unable to compete with the mega-million dollar contracts conglomerates like RCA can offer. By the end, after recounting what here seems like a breezy road to success over two decades, Gordy relents and joins his superstars on stage for the happy ending.
I liked Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross. Her speaking voice sounds amazingly close to Ross’ breathy, little girl voice, and I especially liked her “Reach Out and Touch” number that had her singing with volunteers from the audience and ended with all of us holding raised hands with our neighbors, swaying and singing along.
Charl Brown as Robinson and Bryan Terrell Clark as Gaye were also strong, even if their characters seem more like bit players in this musical that is trying to fit in so much. The ensemble members were good as they came and went quickly, dancing the steps made famous decades ago by the likes of the Temptations and now choreographed by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams. Esosa did a smashing job with costumes, David Korins needed more pizzaz in his sets.
I’m not alone in liking Motown, flaws and all. It is one of the top-grossing Broadway productions of the season, playing to sold-out houses, and, according to Playbill.com, grossing upwards of $1 million weekly for all four weeks of its preview period – a record for any Broadway show to arrive in New York without an out-of-town tryout.
(Photo, by Joan Marcus, of the Temptations, played by Jesse Nager, Donald Webber ,Jr., Julius Thomas III, Ephraim M. Sykes and Jawan M. Jackson.)
Thursday, April 18, 2013
I am pleased to announce the curtain will rise for the 16th annual Broadway Blessing on Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. at its new home, The Church of the Transfiguration, commonly known as The Little Church Around the Corner, on 29th between Fifth and Madison This free interfaith service of song, dance and story, which yours truly, Retta Blaney, founded in 1997 and has produced ever since will be supported by the church and the Episcopal Actors’ Guild, which is celebrating 90th anniversary.
I will be lining up performers for this year’s Blessing in the months to come, so check this blog for updates. Among those who have participated in the past are Lynn Redgrave, Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen, Boyd Gaines, Edward Herrmann, KT Sullivan, James Barbour, Three Mo’ Tenors and Broadway Inspirational Voices.
This is Act Three for Broadway Blessing, which began in midtown with congregations from St. Malachy’s/The Actors’ Chapel, The Actors’ Temple, St. Clement’s Episcopal Church and St. Luke’s Lutheran before moving in 2006 to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for a six-year run. The Actors’ Temple and St. Clement’s have remained a part of Broadway Blessing from the beginning and will be part of this year’s event at The Little Church.
The Broadway Blessing Choir, now under the direction of Claudia Dumschat, The Little Church’s music director, will return and -- it is hoped -- Project Dance as well.
It’s appropriate now for the Blessing to continue at Transfiguration, which celebrates its 165th anniversary this year. This historic Episcopal parish has a long history of ministering to those in need, having sheltered escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad and African-American families during the Draft Riots of the Civil War.
What makes it a particularly apt new home for Broadway Blessing, though, is its tradition of welcoming members of the theater profession, something not common in the churches years ago. Transfiguration’s welcoming attitude toward actors earned the church its nickname, The Little Church Around the Corner, a name that dates back to 1870 when Joseph Jefferson, famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle onstage, had requested a funeral at another church for his fellow actor and friend, George Holland. Upon learning that the deceased had been an actor, the priest refused. At that time many considered actors to be unworthy of Christian burial. After some prodding by Jefferson, the priest commented, “There is a little church around the corner where it might be done.” Jefferson responded, “Then I say to you, sir, ‘God bless the little church around the corner.’”
The church has maintained its close ties to the theater, serving as the national headquarters of the Episcopal Actors' Guild since its founding in 1923. The facility itself was designated a United States Landmark for Church and Theater in 1973.
The mission of the Episcopal Actors’ Guild is to provide emergency aid and support to professional performers of all faiths undergoing financial crisis. It is also dedicated to helping emerging artists advance their careers through scholarships, awards, and performance opportunities. It was founded in 1923 and incorporated as a 501 (c) (3) charity in 1926.
The primary program of the Guild is its Emergency Aid & Relief Program (EARP), giving grants to performing artists in financial crisis regardless of faith, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical ability or language. More than 95 percent of all performers helped by the Guild live in one of the five boroughs of New York City. The Guild addresses such crucial issues as eviction, housing court stipulations, utilities shutoffs, emergency medical and dental costs, and sustenance needs (including food and transportation).
It prides itself on being one of the only agencies able to provide immediate emergency financial assistance, when necessary. When a qualified applicant contacts the Guild in crisis, they can receive a vendorized check the same day.
Thursday, April 11, 2013
With so many strong parts it’s a shame the sum is such a tedious whole in director Mark Brokaw’s Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella at the Broadway Theatre. I found myself longing for it to end.
My expectations were partly to blame. I had loving memories of watching the 1965 TV version with Lesley Ann Warren as a child, but this version, the first to be staged on Broadway, has been so reworked by book writer Douglas Carter Beane that the title should have been rewritten as well. In Act Two of his version Cinderella turns into a champion of the poor, introducing needy villagers to the prince who instantly promises to reside over a reformed kingdom. What was wrong with the original, which began as a 1957 television film starring Julie Andrews (which I saw and enjoyed on DCD)?
Equally as important in sinking this production, if not more so, are the performances of the fairy tale leads, Laura Osnes as Cinderella and Santino Fontana as her Prince, whose name is Topher, short for Christopher. (Once again, change is not always better. Topher?) Charming he is not, nor is she. It’s like watching two attractive people with lovely voices but who are there in body only. They lack heart and soul. Listening to their mechanical duets of “Ten Minutes Ago” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” was like hearing a Musak version of a beloved song. So even one of the greatest strengths of the show, the music, which incorporates songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue as well as from the original television version, was tarnished.
Their disengagement had caused another song I loved as a child, “It’s Possible,” to fall flat. Cinderella sings this as she’s getting into her pumpkin-turned-coach, but in Osnes’ handling with none of the enchantment of a girl who has just witnessed this magic, is wearing a beautiful white gown and glass slippers whipped up moments before by her fairy godmother and who is heading to a ball to meet the prince. She transmits no sense of excitement or wonder. She appeared to be going through the blocking in her head -- first I step into the carriage, then turn to look back at the forest, etc., while her voice sings the song for her.
Harriet Harris, Marla Mindelle and Ann Harada had some comic moments as the wicked stepmother, Madame, and her daughters Gabrielle and Charlotte, but the great talent of Victoria Clark as Marie, the fairy godmother, is wasted in a silly creature who flies above the stage on behalf of Cinderella.
William Ivey Long’s costumes are terrific -- loved the quick change pieces he created for Cinderella’s transformations -- Josh Rhodes stirs up some lively choreography, nicely blending ballet with ballroom dancing and Anna Louizos’ sets create an appropriately fairy tale-like forest -- with furry animals popping out of the trees, Cinderella’s home and the castle.
And, of course, the score is a winner. Maybe it will come off better on the cast recording. It’s lost in mediocrity here.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
I wrote this feature for the April 12, 2013, issue of National Catholic Reporter.
Voices cry out in the quiet church, pleading for the priest to alleviate physical and spiritual suffering. They are filled with anguish coupled with hope. “Say a prayer for me, Father . . .”
As if responding to their call, the man these beseechers have put their faith in enters slowly from the back. Wearing a black Victorian cassock and wire framed glasses, he takes his place before the altar and the voices are stilled. The priest who will heal these troubles has arrived.
With this simple yet powerful beginning, actor and playwright Casey Groves brought his new one-man play, Seelos: Doctor of Souls, to Manhattan’s St. Paul the Apostle Church. The 90-minute work, which Groves developed over a year and a half, features 28 characters and tells the story of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos (1819 - 1867), the Bavarian-born Redemptorist priest renown for his power to heal body and spirit.
“My intention in writing it was that it would have a healing impact on the audience,” said Groves, sipping coffee and eating a giant chocolate chip cookie one February afternoon in midtown Manhattan. Groves, 42, had come north from his home in New Orleans to do 10 performances in 10 days in four states. “I want everyone to find something in Fr. Seelos’ life to touch something in them.”
Fr. Seelos, who died of yellow fever in New Orleans at the age of 48, was proclaimed blessed by Pope John Paul II in 2000. The miracle that earned him this distinction was the healing of Angela Boudreaux, a mother of five in southeast Louisiana with a liver cancer the size of a grapefruit. In the 1960s she prayed for intercession to Fr. Seelos and lived for another 35 years.
Being alone in the spotlight for 90 minutes, bringing to life 28 characters, would be a challenge for any actor, but Groves has been preparing for this new role, whether he knew it or not, since he was a student at De La Salle High School in New Orleans where he first performed Damien, Aldyth Morris’ one-man play about another real-life priest, Father Damien, the Belgium-born cleric who ministered to the lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. He has since performed that play more than 150 times.
His parents were the impetus behind this latest endeavor. They learned about Fr. Seelos at St. Mary's Assumption Church and Blessed Seelos Shrine, the church where Fr. Seelos served in the Irish Channel in New Orleans from 1866 to 1867 and where his remains are kept. They encouraged their son to write a play about this fascinating man. Although Groves had grown up in the city, and had 17 years of Catholic education, he had never heard of Fr. Seelos and, living in New Jersey at the time and acting in theatre and on TV, he wondered if people outside of the Louisiana area would be interested.
But when he moved back with his wife, Rachel, in the fall of 2010 to explore the movie and TV opportunities that had opened in post-Katrina New Orleans, he reconsidered his parents’ prompting and went online to look into Fr. Seelos’ life. He was impressed to learn that people waited for up to two hours to find spiritual healing with Fr. Seelos in confession, where the priest encouraged penitents to share their stories and through his attentive listening put them at ease and brought peace to their troubled hearts
With all that he had read conjuring up dramatic possibilities in his mind, Groves sent a proposal for a play to the National Shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos in New Orleans and received a “creative loan” for 150 hours of research, time to write, learn lines, and rehearse and collaborate over a 10-day period in New York with his director, the Rev. George Drance, S.J. In return, Groves gives back $50 from every performance to the National Shrine.
In creating the play, for which his main source was the Rev. Michael J. Curley, C.Ss.R,’s book The Cheerful Ascetic: The Life of Francis Xavier Seelos., Groves came up with the device of a train ride, with Fr. Seelos traveling from Chicago to New Orleans. He divided the play into seven sections, each one based on a sacrament and relating to different phases of Fr. Seelos’ life. As the priest gazes out the train window, something he sees reminds him of a time in his past and he addresses the audience to tell his story.
“The train is sort of a labyrinth journey and the images along the way are the sacraments,” Groves says.
The recorded petitionary prayers bring the audience into the play and Groves then dramatizes them being answered. Drance came up with the idea of ending with a recording of the same voices thanking Fr. Seelos and God for their answered prayers, an effective framing touch.
Once he had completed the initial script, Groves worked with the Rev. Byron Miller, C.Ss.R., director of the National Shrine, who suggested changes to between one third and one half of the piece. Together they shaped the final product, with Miller promoting simplicity and Groves safeguarding the dramatic complexity of the play and the uniformity of the metaphors. Groves says that while Fr. Seelos was remarkable in the way he could connect someone’s suffering to God’s healing power, he also was known for his affability and the play makes this clear as well.
Although Groves didn’t choose an ordained life, he nonetheless shares Fr. Seelos’ sense of mission.
“I see acting as a sacred art,” he says. “Actors have the capacity to be healers, to intrepidly go where no one else wants to go, to explore the dark. It’s a vocation for me. I want the work I do to look deeply into the stuff that’s working and not working and find a way to make it work.”
In November, he got to see just how much his work with the Seelos play is a sacred art. After a performance at St. Alphonsus Church in Wexford, PA, near Pittsburgh, Groves found one woman with an intimate connection to Simon Sell, one of the petitioners at the start of the play and one whose voice of gratitude is heard at the conclusion. At the last minute in developing the work, Groves decided to bring Sell into the action as a character, a man who had fallen from a scaffold in Cumberland, MD, and because of his internal injuries had not been expected to live out the day. He had six children and Groves portrays him expressing his fear to Fr. Seelos that they would be homeless without him to provide for them. Then, as Fr. Seelos, he kneels beside the gravely injured man and reassures him he will not die, that he won’t be rich, but that his family will always have a home. Sell was healed of his injuries and lived for another nine years.
After the the performance, a middle-aged woman introduced herself as Sell’s great granddaughter.
“If Fr. Seelos hadn’t healed him I wouldn’t be here,” she told Groves, who is still in awe of that experience. “It was a basherte moment,” he said, using a Yiddish word for something that is meant to be. “Who else could his woman tell this story to for it to have so much meaning?”
(Related web site: seelosdoctorofsouls.com.)
Monday, April 8, 2013
Sometimes when I go to a new Broadway musical it is so bad I don’t even know where to start in reviewing it. (This season’s Hands on a Hardbody comes to mind.) So I was thrilled to find just the opposite with Kinky Boots, the Cyndi Lauper-scored adaptation of the 2005 film with its deliciously fun performances, music, choreography, costumes and every other aspect to boot. The audience at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre was bursting with joy and laughter.
This story of Charlie (Stark Sands, left in photo), a small town British shoe manufacturer struggling to keep his family’s factory open, and Lola (Billy Porter, right), a drag queen he meets one night on a London street, was a charming, fact-based movie. I was concerned its simplicity would be overcome by too much Broadway commercialism, but no worries. Under Jerry Mitchell’s direction (and choreography), the new version is a high spirited, old time musical with just enough camp to make it shine for today.
Porter is both riotous and vulnerable as Lola, a cross-dressing nightclub singer disowned by his boxer father because he’s gay. Charlie also has father issues -- his didn’t think Charlie would be able to run the business and had planned to sell the building to a condominium developer, something Charlie finds out after his father dies unexpectedly shortly after the play begins.
Both young men have settled in London, Lola to a showbiz life of escape where “the world looked brighter six inches off the ground,” as she sings in “I’m Not My Father’s Son.” Charlie’s foray to London is less intentional and less committed; he has been coerced by his fiancee, Nicola (Celina Carvajal), who can’t get away fast enough from Northampton, their small midlands factory town.
The two are brought together one night when Lola is harassed by several men and Charlie, thinking she’s a woman, comes to her rescue. In the scuffle, Lola ends up smashing Charlie in the face with her high-heeled boot; it turns out she had been trained as a fighter by her father before being disowned and is quite capable of defending herself. She takes Charlie back to her nightclub dressing room to clean up his face and the two have a bit of a chat before parting.
That basherte encounter proves providential to both. Having learned a bit about a drag queen’s travails, that the largest size of women’s shoes don’t last long under a man’s weight, Charlie heads home to try to deal with the possibility of closing the factory that has been in his family for four generations but whose products are no longer in demand.
Then Charlie has an epiphany. Following the prompting of his sassy assistant, Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford, center), he realizes if he wants to keep the factory open and save the jobs of all the longtime employees, he’s got to create a product geared to a contemporary market, not the one being churned out since the business was founded in 1890. In an ah ha moment he remembers Lola and dares to envision a future in drag. If he can just convince Lola to relocate to the midlands for awhile to help design the new line.
Not an easy task, but once accomplished the two find they have more in common than they would have expected. This is nicely portrayed as “I’m Not My Father’s Son” becomes a duet, with Charlie sharing his sadness at not being the reflection his father wanted to see.
Naturally a story line (book by Harvey Fierstein) like this is expected to spur some splashy dance numbers and Mitchell as choreographer provides them. Porter belts and sashays around that stage, giving it the full diva. And who knew he had such killer showgirl legs? With the help of the Angels’, Lola’s backup singers from her nightclub act -- chorus boys in drag -- the designing of Price and Son’s latest line is an exuberant presentation to shake the foundation of the old company, with Lola and the Angels strutting their stuff and singing “Sex is in the Heel” and, volia, a thigh-high shiny red stiletto boot is now the future of this venerable company. No more wing-tipped men’s business shoes; it’s now “irresistible tubular sex appeal.”
Act One closes with the new product gliding down the assembly line. David Rockwell’s set enhances the festivities, looking more like a fairy tale workplace than an actual industrial site. Factory workers dance their way across those conveyor belts to celebrate and gleefully sing “Everybody Say Yeah.” It’s delightful.
Of course, if you’ve seen much old-style musical theatre, you know the happy ending of Act One will be shaken and tested in Act Two. Lola’s sexuality is challenged not just by the Neanderthal mentality of the factory workers, represented most forcefully by Don (Daniel Stewart Sherman), but finally in a confrontation between Charlie and Lola that threatens the company’s revival. Fierstein’s writing here makes it clear lessons are to be learn, but I didn’t feel preached at. The pace is too quick and the acting too strong.
No good musical comedy is complete without the happy-ever-after love angle. I’m not giving anything away in saying that will be found between Charlie and Lauren, who even though he is engaged to Nicola, sings of her love for him in a heartfelt Act One lament, “The History of Wrong Guys.”
A musical this rollicking wouldn’t be possible without spectacular lighting (Kenneth Posner), hair design (Josh Marquette) and make-up (Randy Houston Mercer). And last but far from least are the costumes by Gregg Barnes, which are a play land of leather and glitter and COLOR. And that’s just the clothes. Wait until you see those boots prance down the Milan runway at the end as Price and Son takes the fashion world by storm. Charlie and Lola are reconciled, Charlie and Lauren together, and the audience clapping along with the pulsing beat of “Raise You Up/Just Be.” I left the theatre and walked home with the words to that song -- “When you hit the dust, let me lift you up” -- singing in my ear.