Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Love, Noel: The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward

     Lord Louis Mountbatten gave a speech at a 70th birthday party honoring his friend Noel Coward in which he said, “There are probably greater painters than Noel, greater novelists than Noel, greater librettists, greater composers of music” and went on to include singers, dancers, comedians, tragedians, stage producers, film directors, cabaret artists, TV stars.  “If there are,” he concluded, “they are 14 different people.”  A great many of these personas are brought to life by cabaret veterans Steve Ross and KT Sullivan in Love, Noel: The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward, the charming play with music devised and written by Barry Day, in production until Sunday at the Irish Repertory Theatre. 

     “I don’t think anyone has ever made a better summary of the man who bestrode the first three-quarters of the last century,”says Sullivan in her role as Woman.  “He did everything and knew everyone, as his letters testify.”

     Under the direction of Charlotte Moore, Ross and Sullivan read many of those letters and sing two dozen of Coward’s songs during the chuck-full 80-minute show.  Coward wrote to his mother weekly when they were apart and she saved every letter for 50 years.  Fortunately many others were saved as well.  

     The letters and supporting material are presented in character — the debonair Ross is a worthy embodiment of the debonair Coward — or in dialogue as Man and Woman.  Many of the famous people who made up Coward’s orbit appear in delightful ways.  Sullivan is hilarious hamming it up as Elaine Stritch singing “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”  She also does delicious takes on Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. 
     At the start of the show I was startled by the stars’ appearances.  The older woman next to me said to her companion, “They’ve aged.”  That was my reaction.  I thought back to the last time I had seen either singer and realize it’s probably been a decade.  I should have expected they would have changed — I don’t even recognize myself in the mirror anymore — but I wasn’t prepared.

     Then when they sang the opening number, “Where Are the Songs We Sung,” it seemed so lifeless I wondered if age had diminished their talent as well.  But not to worry.  In a short time they were lively storytellers and singers.  Sullivan occasionally spoke so fast I didn’t have time to take in all of the wonderful anecdotes she was spinning.  Only at first, though.  

     One thing not affected by time is Sullivan’s gorgeous soprano.   She has the same exquisite voice she has always had.  And Ross can play the piano as powerfully as ever.

     It was nice to see these two together for an entire show.  I’ve seen them join for a song or two at the Dutch Treat Club but never for such an extended project.  They are both well established solo cabaret stars but they play together in Love, Noel as if they’ve been an act for years.  The mark of true professionals and true talent.  

    The creative team also offers talent and professionalism.  James Morgan has created a simple and tasteful set (doesn’t he always?) for the downstairs Studio Stage — a baby grand center stage before a royal blue backdrop and a bust of Coward.  Michael Gottlieb provides appropriate lighting.

     The friend who accompanied me and I are both going through a really rough time but we left the theatre with greatly uplifted hearts.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Broadway Blessing -- 22nd annual celebration


22nd Anniversary Celebration

Monday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m.

Reception follows

St. Malachy’s Church - The Actors’ Chapel, 239 W. 49th St.

Seating is first come, first served

Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Designed as a program of song, dance and story to celebrate the spirit of the new theater season, BROADWAY BLESSING was founded in 1997 by Retta Blaney, who produced the event for the first 16 years. Produced now by Pat Addiss and Kathryn Fisher, BROADWAY BLESSING 2019 promises to be another exciting evening.

Chita Rivera is scheduled to give a special tribute to Hal Prince. Performances by other Broadway and Off-Broadway talent from Ain’t Too Proud, Fiddler on the Roof, Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, Desperate Measures and Hair will also perform, along with the Broadway Blessing Choir and Instrumentalists under the direction of Stephen Fraser. George Drance, SJ (La MaMa, Magis Theatre) will return as emcee. The evening will culminate with a moving candle-lighting ceremony led by clergy from various churches and Rabbi Jill Hausman from the Actors’ Temple.

Always free and open to the public, BROADWAY BLESSING has been graced by many wonderful participants, included Lynn Redgrave, Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen, Edward Herrmann, Kathleen Chalfant, Billy Porter, Tituss Burgess and Chad Kimball, just to name a few.

ST. MALACHY’S was founded in 1902, and THE ACTORS’ CHAPEL was established in 1920. St. Malachy’s Church - The Actors’ Chapel is a spiritual oasis in New York’s heart for Broadway artists and fans alike. Chiming “There’s No Business Like Show Business” every day, a half hour before curtain, the chapel has welcomed such theater greats as George M. Cohen, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino. Florence Henderson, Elaine Stritch, Danny Thomas, Bob and Dolores Hope, Antonio Banderas, Liam Neeson and countless others. Under the leadership of Fr. John Fraser (pastor) and Stephen Fraser (director of music) it continues to offer programming to the Broadway community and develop the talent and work of the next generation of Broadway stars.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Moulin Rouge!

     It's funny that a show about bohemians in 1899 Paris is the most lavish new musical on Broadway, produced for a whopping  $28 million.  The Al Hirschfeld Theatre is ablaze with color -- red! -- neon lights, golden pillars, a giant blue elephant and a windmill for Moulin Rouge!, the theatrical version of Baz Luhrmann's 2001 cult film. I've never seen anything like the number of people crowding the front of the house to snap photo after photo before the show began.  The curtain didn't need to rise for the entertainment to begin.  Derek McLane's nightclub set sees to to that.

    For the most part, the spectacle continues.  I loved the songs.  In the playful spirit of the movie, songs or snippets of them -- more than 70 -- from the 1960s to the present are woven throughout.  The anachronism of hearing a struggling young composer in 19th century Montmartre breaking into "The hills are alive . . ." is a hoot.

     Alex Timbers directs this big bustling show that is one of the hottest tickets in town.  Sonya Tayeh provides the lively choreography, and musical supervision, orchestrations, arrangements and additional lyrics are by Justin Levine. Those vibrant, sensuous costumes -- more than 200 corsets, bustiers, skimpy lingerie, cancan dresses and lush gowns -- are courtesy of Catherine Zuber and the bright lighting -- red! -- is by Justin Townsend.

     All of this razzle-dazzle wasn't enough to keep the show from dragging for me, though.  The oft-told story -- book by John Logan -- doesn’t sustain for 2 hours and 35 minutes. Christian, a young composer nicely played by Aaron Tveit, comes to the Left Bank from Lima, Ohio, to bask in the artistic community and get his show produced.  He falls in love with a dying cabaret courtesan, Satine, played without much sizzle by Karen Olivo.  Satine is the star of the Moulin Rouge.  Or at least she's the onstage star.  The real star is the owner, Harold, delightfully played by Danny Burstein (in photo).  Throw in the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) who sinisterly make it clear he owns both Satine and the nightclub and you can pretty much anticipate what will happen.

     It's the music, credited to 161 writers from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lady Gaga, and the dancing that carry the evening. With all those songs, what was the one that played in my head walking home, and is still playing in my head days later?  "Lady Marmalade" -- "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir."  Luckily I've always loved it.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

'Refuge' tells a little-known story of Albanians offering safe harbor to Jews in WWII

    Members of New York theatre company Blessed Unrest were meeting in the city with their international collaborators, the Kosova theate group Teatri ODA, searching for an idea for a third original play to do together.  They had no way of knowing that what they decided upon in those brainstorming sessions in 2015 would be about as timely as it could be when it opened Off-Broadway in the spring of 2019.  But then, they hadn't foreseen the presidency of Donald J. Trump and his attempts to shutdown the southern border of the United States.  Refuge, their story of the life-saving hospitality of Albanians in World War II, became even more relevant to them.

     "It's important now to tell of this historic humanitarian effort on behalf of strangers as the president of the United States portrays immigrants as dangerous," Matt Opatrny, Blessed Unrest's co-founder and managing director, said.  “Our President lies.  It’s important to show refugees as people under desperate circumstances.  What frightens me is the way refugees are being portrayed. You don’t leave Honduras and walk to Mexico unless you’re desperate.  We have to see these people as human beings who need help.”

     Four members of the production even know first hand how this feels.  They were refugees in the late 1990s in the no-man’s land between Kosova and Macedonia when they were among the one million fleeing the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosova.  Their experiences are part of the compilation of stories that make up the play, which parallels a story of Jews fleeing Poland in the late 1930s and finding refuge in Albania, the only country in Europe to have more Jews after the war than before. 

     Opatrny, 44, discussed Refuge, which had its world premiere in April at Baruch Performing Arts Center, during a telephone interview from his apartment in Manhattan’s Hells Kitchen neighborhood.  He calls himself “the lead playwright” and explained that Blessed Unrest’s productions don’t start in the traditional way with a written script.  Through a “devised process,”   the show is developed with the actors and co-directors.  The script was still changing within weeks of the April 27 opening.

     “I was writing text in response to what was happening in the room,” he said.  “The way we work is physically first.  We keep the script out as long as possible.  We’re building a physical vocabulary before the script.  I’m following the process rather than leading it.”

     The result is a powerful show that combines story with dance, music and song.  Refuge is modern in staging and yet conveys an ancient feeling of human struggle and triumph.  At the beginning, two young women in modern day New York City come together in a hearty embrace.   “I exist because of your family,” says Maya (Becca Schneider) with gratitude and wonder.  She has only recently learned what the Albanian family of Teuta (Ilire Vinca) did for her grandmother and great grandparents in the late 1930s.

     Enacted on a bare stage with few props (set design by Sonya Plenefisch, with lighting by Jay Ryan), the story takes prominence as it journeys back to Poland as the Nazis approach and Miriam (Schneider) and her husband, Yakov (Perri Yaniv) make the decision to escape with their daughter, Adah (Nancy McArthur).  They are rejected by every country they petition for refuge.  Except for one — Albania, whose government was issuing papers to anyone who wanted them. 

     “You are safe here,” the family is told as they arrive at the small house of Bujar (Eshref Durmishi) his wife, Zoja (Vinca) and their daughter, Tana (Daniela Markaj.  “Now we are cousins.  You are Albanian.”

     The characters are composites, based on years of research and first-hand accounts of many, many people who had helped the Jews.  Opatrny said at least 2,000 Jews have been accounted for as being saved, but that anecdotally the number is much larger.  Even though they didn’t share the same language, religion or culture, the Albanians, most of whom were Muslim, brought the Jewish refugees into their homes and gave them Albanian identities.  The refugees lived openly, holding jobs such as tailors and sign painters, even after the Nazi occupation.

    Not a single Jew was taken to a concentration camp from Albania or killed by Nazis in that country, Opatrny says.

     “They were right in front of them, not hiding in basements. They were fully accepted as members of the Albanian community.”

     Teatri ODA’s co-founder and a co-director of Refuge, Florent Mehmeti, knew of the Albanians’ heroism and outstanding generosity during the war and was the one to propose it as a basis for a joint production.

     “Of course, we had never heard of it,” Opatrny said.  “Almost no one we knew had heard of it.”

     Mehmeti also knew the story of how, in the late 1990s, it would be the Albanians who would become refugees because he, along with Vinca, Durmishi and Markaj, was among them.  This crisis is also portrayed by the fictional Albanian characters and their descendants. 

     The dialogue is bilingual.  Opatrny wrote it in English and Mehmeti translated it into Albanian.  The production is enhanced by musicians from Metropolitan Klezmer who play traditional Albanian music and Yiddish songs onstage at various times throughout.

     This unusual partnership seemed appropriate, Opatrny said, because Blessed Unrest has been international in its scope since its founding two decades ago.  In 2005, he and his wife, Jessica Burr, the group’s founding artistic director and a Refuge co-director, went to Albania to look for an international collaborator.  They chose that country because Burr had visited in 1993 as a college student and been overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people, who were extremely poor.

     “The generosity of the people blew her away,” he said.  “She wanted to bring something back to them.  The way she chose to do that was through theatre.”

     Opatrny and Burr discovered Teatri ODA and knew they had found their match. 

     “We artistically fell in love with them,” he said.  “This is something amazing to us.  It’s about reflecting another culture that is often ignored.”

     And, as Opatrny has found, it is a rich culture, and a giving one in spite of all the hardships the people have suffered in being overrun by many occupiers throughout the years and having their religion changed from pagan to Catholic to Muslim as the different powers swept through.

     “It’s an ancient culture.  They’re fiercely proud of who they are.  Circumstances changed but their code of honor, their besa, never did.  Cultural laws supersede government laws.”

    This is portrayed effectively in the play when the Jewish family arrives at the home of the poor Albanians and is given the master bedroom and told that the house is now theirs and no longer the Albanians.

     “It was not unusual that they did this.  It’s a tribal cultural with cultural rules.  It’s hard for Americans to understand.  If a guest arrives at your house, it belongs to them.  If New York were flooded with refugees I can’t imagine seeing it as their apartment and not mine.

     “Their strength is having lived through adversity for thousands of years.”

     The two theatre companies hope to share their story of the Albanians’ magnanimous deeds by raising money to tour Refuge in the Balkans next year.  In the future they’d like to tour Europe and Israel and then return to New York.  

     While some of the Albanians who harbored Jews are honored as The Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashen: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, the scope of their heroism remains little known.  

     Opatrny sees that as indicative of the Albanian people for whom hospitality is second nature.  He let’s Teuta explain it when Maya asks her why the Albanians aren’t recognized in every history book for what they did.

     “ . . . for us Albanians this is not something unusual. People needed help and we helped.  If your guest is thirsty and you offer them water, you don’t write about it in history books.”

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Not a ghost of a chance

     Oscar Hammerstein II was one of the geniuses behind the creation of American musical theatre.  Besides such wonderful songs as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "Some Enchanted Evening," "My Favorite Things" and "You'll Never Walk Alone," he left behind commentary on the inspiration for some of our greatest musicals from the Golden Age of Broadway.  So why in the world would anyone who wanted to develop a theatrical work about the man and his music decide to use a 3D hologram to represent him instead of a dynamic actor?  

     That's what you get in Sincerely, Oscar at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row.  Doreen Taylor wrote the book for the 90-minute show and was the one who envisioned turning Hammerstein into what looks like a creepy ghost onstage.  Even the nearly 30 songs performed by Taylor and Azudi Onyejekwe can't save this ill-conceived work.  

     The hologram -- I refuse to call him Hammerstein -- has a voice recorded by Bob Meenan.  What should have been interesting storytelling is lost in the just plain weird concept of this artificial creature sitting at a desk with a recorded voice telling his tale.  

     Director Dugg McDonough didn't seem to know what to with all of this.  He is not helped by Jason Simms unimaginative set, which is just several platforms that the singers climb as they sing.  The performers look really uncomfortable trying to bring some life into this bland setting.  

     The color in the production comes from the cartoonish projections by Brittany Merenda that accompany the songs.  These feature words like Fringe for that famous song or hearts and lips for "Make Believe."  They look ridiculous. 

     Taylor's "inspiration" for this show followed a benefit concert she was involved with several years ago for the Oscar Hammerstein Museum & Theater Education Center.  After working with all those beautiful songs, she thought it would be great to put the writer himself onstage to talk about them.  Nice idea.  She couldn't have the man himself, of course, but why did she think a hologram of him would be entertaining theatre?

     Adding to the feeling that we were in a theatrical disaster was the fact that the microphones kept malfunctioning, even though the show opened earlier this month following previews.  About an hour into the performance they stopped working yet again and the entire stage went dark.  No one appeared and no announcement was made about what to expect.  It was at that point I turned to my friend to see how she was doing.  She had a headache going into the show and was in misery by that point.  We opted to sneak out, as did others.  The theatre had many, many empty seat even before the show began.  Word of mouth, probably, and, I'm sure, horrible reviews.  (I don't read reviews before I writer mine but I can't imagine they would be favorable.)  

     A press release proclaimed that this show was introducing the first use of holographic technology Off-Broadway.  It might have worked for an imaginary character, but for a flesh and blood master like Oscar Hammerstein, it is a sorry portrayal of a man who deserves so much better.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

'Oklahoma!,' or so the program says

     For days before I saw the current Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, I was singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" in my head.  I certainly wasn't singing when I left the theatre, though.  I had been too bored for three hours by director Daniel Fish's greatly re-imagined staging and disgusted by the violent, blood-splattered ending.  

     This unusual production was a hit during its run Off-Broadway at St. Ann's Warehouse last fall, prompting the move to the Great White Way.  The appeal escapes me.

     I could accept the country-western interpretations of the songs, even though I prefer the lyricism of the traditional versions.  I was also OK with forfeiting a lush orchestra for a seven-piece onstage band, even though the songs never achieved their soaring beauty.  Orchestrator and arranger Daniel Kluger's choice certainly makes the show sound more like pre-statehood Oklahoma.

     But I didn't like having the house lights on the whole time, except for the precious few moments of drama or romance.  (Lighting by Scott Zielinski).   This was probably considered a way to make the audience feel a part of the community, but it was distracting to me. 

     Except for Ali Stroker as Ado Annie, I found the actors lacking.  Their performances were lifeless and their singing voices downright irritating at times.

     Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey was the greatest miscasting. She had none of the girlishness this character should have.  She is way beyond girlhood days.  She's a fully developed woman who looks as if she's seen her fair share of rodeos.  This is problematic because the plot, such as it is, involves the courtship of a young girl who doesn't want to admit she is smitten with Curly (Damon Daunno), the cowboy who is wooing her.

     This could be why their courtship lacks any spark.  The only spark seemed to occur between Curly and Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) in what is always the show's darkest moment.  (In this production, the ending is even darker.)  Curly, threatened by Jud's pursuit of Laurey, suggests he should hang himself so he could achieve in death what he hasn't in life, sympathy and approval from the locals who look down on him.  

     I never liked that scene before, but I found Fish's staging to be intriguing.  The house goes dark and a black and white projection of Jud's face fills the back wall and we witness his facial expression as he considers Curly's horrible suggestion.  It's quite effective until Curly's face appears and shares the screen.  While his words are hateful, the scene feels intimate and it almost seems as if the two men are going to kiss.  Strange.

     Another change is Laurey's dream sequence, which is usually a ballet.  In this production, with choreography by John Heginbotham, a young bald woman, Gabrielle Hamilton, wearing only a thigh-length white sequined T-shirt with the words DREAM BABY DREAM in black letters, performs an explosive modern dance, accompanied by a recording of electric guitars playing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and then other songs from the score in more toned down versions.  I liked this change.

     Set designer Laura Jellinek has turned the Circle in the Square into a small town meeting place, with light wood planks and shotguns on the walls and wood planks on the stage floor.  Green, purple, red, pink and yellow streamers hang from the ceiling and long tables hold ears of corn and red pots for the cooking.  In an especially nice gesture, the audience is invited onstage at intermission for chili and cornbread.  That’s the one part of the show I can definitely give a rave. 

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Josef Gabriel Rheinberger: Motets, Masses and Hymns

          I was blessed last month with the gift of another CD from Gloriae Dei Cantores, the Massachusetts-based choir that has been restoring my soul since I discovered their recordings nearly two decades ago.  “Josef Gabriel Rheinberger: Motets, Masses and Hymns” is having the same effect.  

     The music this choir sings is sacred, as is the way they sing it.  I feel them praying in song.  While I listen to their recordings often, they are my absolute go-to staples when I am troubled or tired.  I feel transported from my apartment or rental car into a monastery or cathedral, and I absorb the music down to my cellular level.  It heals me in the way my twice daily centering prayer does.  

     The 40-member Gloriae Dei Cantores, under the direction of Elizabeth C. Patterson, gifts us in this recording with a repertoire that is largely unavailable elsewhere of music from the 19th century German composer and teacher.  Rheinberger wrote works reminiscent of those of Brahms and Schumann, but with a unique lyricism.  The recording includes his eight-part a cappella “Mass in E-flat Major,” “Mass in F for Male Choir” and “Mass in G Minor for Female Choir,” as well as three of his motets. 

     I was fortunate to hear this choir live when they toured New York many years ago.  I hope they come back soon.  In the meantime, their CDs will lift me when I’m down and remind me that the world is filled with beauty and mystery and, most of all, God