Sunday, September 9, 2018

Separate and Equal

          Choreographer Lawrence M. Jackson scores the highest points in the New York premiere of Seth Panitch’s Separate and Equal, which opened this afternoon at 59E59 Theaters.  In this play about a racially charged basketball game in Birmingham, AL, in 1951, the three black and three white teenage players flow back and forth across the performance space in what appears to be a slow motion modern dance.  No ball is used; the moves are all pantomimed.  Jackson is given a nice assist by Tom Wolfe who composed original jazz to set the mood and intensify the action.

     Unfortunately the player in this creative effort who is responsible for the greatest foul is Panitch.  His 85-minute script, which he directs, is more a sketch than a developed play, and he manages to slam-dunk every racial stereotype of the south in that era.  You’ll hear the expected name calling, like nigger and cracker, see the standard characters like the long-suffering black mother who works as a maid for the superior -acting white lady, and an elderly black man who is called Uncle by the bigoted white police officer.  Those elements were part of the segregated South, of course, but they are overplayed in this short work, which was inspired by testimonials from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  Attempts to fill out the story come from flashbacks, during which the non-involved characters lie on the floor while the action is spotlighted.  The one involving a lynching is nicely stylized, but all of these efforts fall short of real plot development. The show felt much, much longer than 85 minutes.  

     Production designer Matthew Reynolds has made good use of the small Theater B, with seating surrounding the performance space to form a rectangle and give a gym-like sense.  Two blank “backboards” are at opposite ends of the “court” and media designer Maya Champion makes good use of them, starting with the signs that greet the audience before the play — on one a drinking fountain with the word COLORED and the other an identical fountain with the word WHITE.  The division is established from the start.  When video is added, nets appear, with a white hand or black sinking a shot.  It’s easy to feel a game is being played.  In this case, the game just happens to be illegal because whites and blacks were forbidden to play on the same court. 

     The cast manages to give good performances in spite of the weak script.  I checked the program to see how many of the players were dancers and didn’t see dance in any of their bios.  They have the fluidity and timing of pros.  Their game sequences were the highlight of the show. 

     Separate and Equal is produced by the University of Alabama in partnership with the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and the Birmingham Metro NAACP.  It plays a limited engagement through Sept. 30.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Chad Kimball to headline 21st annual Broadway Blessing

Broadway veteran actor/singer Chad Kimball will headline the 21st annual Broadway Blessing, the interfaith service of song, dance and story that brings the theatre community together every September to celebrate the spirit of the new season. Join us for this free event at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17 at St. Malachy's Church/The Actors' Chapel on 49th Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway. No reservations are necessary.

I founded Broadway Blessing and produced it for the first 16 years. Last year Kathryn Fisher, a longtime member of the Broadway Blessing Choir, took over as producer and filled the house at St. Malachy’s for a joyful 20th anniversary celebration.

Under the direction of Stephen Fraser, the event will include favorite music from new and classic shows as well as an appearance by Kimball, who is currently charming packed houses in the Broadway smash Come From Away. That musical tells the true stories of the kindness of the citizens of tiny Gander, Newfoundland, to the nearly 7,000 people from around the world who landed in their town unexpectedly on Sept. 11, 2001, after the Federal Aviation Administration stopped all air traffic over the United States following the terrorist attacks. Among the characters Kimball plays is Kevin Tuerff, one of the stranded passengers. Tueff will appear with Kimball.

The entertainment continues as the cast of Desperate Measures offers a peek at this rollicking, good-fun Off-Broadway musical.

The evening will include surprises and participation by Fr. John Fraser, St. Malachy’s pastor, and Rabbi Jill Hausman from the Actors' Temple.

Fr. George Drance, SJ, artistic director of Magis Theatre Company and artist-in-residence at Fordham University, will serve as emcee for the evening. He and Ashley Griffin will share a few moments from Griffin's play Trial, which is directed by Lori Petty.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

5K Race for Freedom

LifeWay Network joins the global movement against human trafficking​ by providing safe housing for women survivors and offering education about trafficking to the general public. Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery and impacts more than 20 million people worldwide, including women and children in New York City.

We are one of only two organizations in the New York Metro area providing safe housing specifically for women survivors of human trafficking and we have served more than 85 women. Our Safe Housing Program goes beyond offering shelter by welcoming each woman into a supportive environment that helps them recover from their trauma, regain their sense of self-worth and enables them to move from isolation towards reclaiming their independence.

The Education Program raises public awareness about this crime that should have no place in the 21st century. To date, Lifeway Network has reached more than13,000 people.

We invite you to join us in ending modern-day slavery by supporting the 5K Race for Freedom on Saturday, Sept. 29 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, NY.

Please consider ​sponsoring the 5K Race for Freedom.​ A $1000 sponsorship includes public recognition at the event and logo on the race shirt. A $2500 sponsorship includes website acknowledgement, public recognition at the event, and logo on the race shirt. Sponsorships must be confirmed and logos received by September 12th for race shirts. There are also opportunities to underwrite expenses or donate in-kind items and receive public recognition at the race.

You may also want to ​form a team to volunteer at the Race or participate as runners / walkers​. This is a great way to offer employees, alumni groups or friends a chance to give back to the community and have fun together. Race registration to run or walk is $40 per person, and teams receive a discount of $5 per person.

LifeWay Network is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and your contribution is tax-deductible as allowed by law. For more information, please contact me ​​ or visit our website w​​.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

God Needed a Puppy

     When I was in elementary school my puppy, Kerry, died unexpectedly.  I sat on my bed and cried inconsolably.  She had been there when I left for school and then she was gone.  That’s how it felt, that she no longer existed because I couldn’t see her.

     My experience of loss would have been greatly helped if I had had a copy of God Needed a Puppy, Emmy Award-winning TV journalist John Gray’s newly released book that helps children (and adults) see their pet’s death in a different light.  A wise owl named Edgar reveals the healing idea that the pet was needed by another child in heaven and that those two are now playing together and happy.  If I had been able to think of Kerry this way I could have pictured her everyday in her new life and she would have lived on for me.

     Gray was prompted to write God Needed a Puppy after he experienced the unexpected death of his six-month-old puppy named Samuel.  He teamed up with Shanna Brickell who created lovely colored illustrations of woodland critters, domestic pets and their worlds.  They lend a gentle, comforting feel to the book.

     At first Gray envisioned the project as a modest venture that he would self-publish.  He held an event in an Albany, NY, mall and 850 people waited in line to buy copies.  Eventually he sold 14,500 copies before signing with Paraclete Press, which releases the book today.

     A portion of the proceeds will go to animal shelters around the country.  Gray says everyone has a purpose.

     “Maybe Samuel’s purpose is this book.”  

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Smokey Joe's Cafe

     Stage 42 was swinging with song and dance Thursday night with the revival of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the jukebox musical showcasing the work of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, songs that over the years were hits for Elvis, The Coasters, Ben E. King, The Drifters and many others.  Director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s excellent ensemble cast had audience members clapping to the beat and even dancing in the aisles at the end.

     This is a far cry from the scene when I saw the original, which opened on Broadway in 1995 and ran for nearly five years.  That production was Broadway’s longest-running musical revue but the producers allowed it to continue too long so that by the time I saw it only about two dozen people were scattered throughout the vastness of the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson).  The cast was good then too — I remember only Brenda Braxton, who I was there to interview — and the songs, including such hits as “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “On Broadway” and “Spanish Harlem” — were just as catchy, but the theatre felt like a ghost town.  Lively it was not.

     It was much more fun to be surrounded by people in a full house at Off-Broadway’s Stage 42, which I believe is only one seat short of the number required to qualify for Broadway status.  Beowulf Boritt has designed a set to look like a welcoming local saloon, complete with neon beer signs on the walls.  It seems natural for the full company to gather there for the opening number, “Neighborhood.”  

     The 37 musical numbers are presented with choreography, as comic skits or ballads over 90 intermission-less minutes.  No attempt has been made to connect them into a story, which is a relief because the stories conjured for these kinds of shows are usually annoyingly contrived.  The most recent example of this is Escape to Margaritaville, which would have been much better if the actors had just sung the Jimmy Buffett songs and left it at that.

     For Smokey Joe’s, The Cafe Band’s eight musicians are just off stage left except for when their platform glides onto center stage, most gloriously for “Dueling Pianos.”

     I also loved the nod to The Temptation, with Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker and Jelani Remy decked out in red jackets with black glitter lapels, black pants and black shirts to sing “On Broadway.”  They had the smooth rhythms and vocals of that beloved Motown group.  Nice costumes throughout by Alejo Vietti.

     The cast also includes Emma Degerstedt, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Max Sangerman and Alysha Umphress. 

     While I appreciated not having to sit through another jukebox musical with a stupid storyline, my attention did wander toward the end.  Thirty-seven songs plus three reprises in 90 minutes is a lot.  I was happy when I saw chairs being put on top of the table and heard the first notes of “Stand By Me,” indicating the end.  It was a nice way to conclude, bringing out the entire cast to come full circle with the idea of friends together in the local tavern. 

     For the encore, “Saved,” they spread out into the theatre for a love fest with the audience.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Comic Tribute to 14th-century Mystic

     Sixty-two years ago as a student at Yale University, John Wulp was chatting with professor and literary critic Paul Pickrel at an Elizabethan tea.  Pickrel mentioned that he had just read The Book of Margery Kempe and found it hilarious.

     Wulp, who had no religious background, couldn’t imagine how an autobiography by a 14th century English mystic could be that funny but he read it and agreed.

     “I felt it was what you make comedy of, a person who has ambitions that exceed their ability, so I decided to write a play about her,” Wulp said.

     That play, The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, is now being revived at Off-Broadway’s The Duke Theatre, 59 years after it last graced a New York stage — or any other.

     In all the years between productions, the play’s author has traveled a long and varied road, just as the real life Margery Kempe did.  Born in 1373 in Norfolk, England, Kempe never learned to read or write, so she dictated her story, which is considered the earliest known autobiography of an English person.

     And what an autobiography it is.  Among the highlights of her life are: marriage at 20, a vision of Christ seen during a spell of madness following the birth of the first of her 14 children, failure of a brewery she bought and tried to run and a quest for a spiritual life that often prompted in her loud weeping and cries that unnerved many fellow travelers on her pilgrimages throughout England, Europe and the Holy Land.  

     Wulp saw in her “a universal comic figure” and liken her to his idol, Charlie Chaplin.

     “He was a little man who had these big ambitions.

     Although he had never written a play and had no money, Wulp saw a way around this in the looming Korean War.

     “I decided to enlist and somehow get two years in which to write a play.  I wrote Margery Kempe.”

     Wulp shared much of his life story one Monday afternoon in late June while the production was in rehearsals.  His home for more than three decades is on Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine, but in preparation for the show, for which he designed the sets, he was camped out — fold-out bed open in the living room, an unmade bed in the bedroom — in a furnished corporate apartment on the outskirts of the theatre district.  About a half dozen prescription bottles surrounded him on the counter where he sat in front of the kitchenette.  A walker with wheels and a seat was nearby.  He is, after all, 90.  But he has a recall for dates, names, dialogue and the book’s passages that can rival that of any college student.  

     Here’s the story of behind Saintliness, which draws heavily for plot and dialogue from the original source.  While he was still in the Marine Corp Wulp sent an almost finished copy of the play to folks in New York to see if there was any interest.  There was.  While on guard duty one day he got a message that theatrical producer Irene Selznick was thinking of doing it. 

     That didn’t pan out, and neither did the option taken by Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, which wanted Jose Quintero to direct and Alice Ghostley to star.  

     With persistence Margery Kempe herself could appreciate, Wulp spent time trying to persuade Robert Whitehead, one of New York’s most successful producers at the time, to stage the show after Whitehead expressed interest.  This effort also failed.

     Wulp’s break came after Whitehead’s secretary sent a copy to the managing director of the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

     “Within a day they agreed to do the play.  It was an enormous success.”

    The play got great reviews and earned Wulp a Rockefeller Grant.  That was in 1958.

     The following year it was produced Off-Broadway with vastly different results.  He was living with a man “who fancied himself a director” and who encouraged Wulp to “rewrite it out of existence.”

     “It was a total disaster,” Wulp said, even though it starred Frances Sternhagen, who would go on in later years to win two Tony Awards, and Gene Hackman, who went on to be a famous movie star.  

     “It was so awful it was unbearable so I put it in a box in the attic and tried to forget about it, but I never really did.”

     The play remained tucked away all that time until two years ago when Wulp was approached by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, which wanted to buy all of his theatre and dance photographs.  In addition to playwriting, his career has included photography, painting, Tony Award-winning producing, directing and award-winning scenic design.  When he went to the attic to look for the negatives he found the four plays he had written as a young man.

     As he reread them he had a strong sense that Margery Kempe was a good play and could be revived successfully if he could persuade Austin Pendleton to direct it.  Through a connection, he sent it to Pendleton, a highly respected director, actor and writer, who said yes.

     “I read it about a year ago and really loved it,” Pendleton said in a telephone interview.  “It’s not like any other play.  I thought it was funny and I was kind of moved by it.  A story of someone who tries to find themselves no matter how outlandish they are is always moving if it’s well written.”

     In that aspect, Pendleton sees Kempe as a woman of our day.

     “In that period of time it was not a quest a lot of people took on.  They weren’t allowed, especially women.” 

     The production features nine cast members taking on all the parts, with Andrus Nichols in the lead.  Cynthia Nixon, who is now running for governor of New York, played Kempe in a reading last fall.  Her mother had been in the previous production all those decades ago. 

     Wulp said audience members who love the book “probably take Margery very seriously,” but hopes they’ll have a good time and learn that “life is funny.”  He says he heard no objections from book fans in the past productions.

     “Nobody writes plays for women anymore, so the possibility of finding a women’s play is odd, in a way,” he said.  “It’s about what’s going on now.  As soon as she sets up in business, people mistake her reasons and think she’s out for sex and harass her.

     “I feel it somehow affirms life, all that energy going into being something special.  We all think we’re the center of the universe.  It keeps us alive.”

     Asked what he imagines Kempe would think of her stage portrayal, he says she’d be delighted.

     “It’s what she wanted to do, to be famous.”

Photo, by Carol Rosegg, of Andrus Nichols and Jason O'Connell (foreground) with Pippa Pearthree