Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Need a little music? Need a little laughter? Need a little singing, ringing through the rafter? Then take that road before you and come see high stepping showgirls at this toe-tapping celebration of mistletoe and holiday madness.

Sit back and enjoy the happy feeling nothing in the world can buy as Santa (like you’ve never seen him before) and his helpers sing songs of the season at this magical show presented by the producer of The PhilHallmonics. There will be two shows on Saturday, Dec. 20 — at 1 and 4 p.m. at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center (entrance at W. 65th Street and Amsterdam Avenue).  Admission is free with general seating.  It is strongly advised to be in line one hour before performance time.

“Under The Mistletoe” is presented by The Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts and directed by conductor and composer Phil Hall and Broadway choreographer Sharon Halley.

Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, you’ll leave feeling like you’ve been kissed Under The Mistletoe by the beautiful Phil Hall arrangements of such songs as: “Merry Christmas Darling”, “Winter World of Love”, “It’s The Holiday Season”, “I Remember It Well”, “The Night They Invented Champagne”, “When Somebody Loved Me” (from "Toy Story"), “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” as well as many more spirited holiday songs.

The cast is comprised of professional Broadway, cabaret and classical singers and dancers. “Under The Mistletoe” will feature Karen Arlington, Lynette Baiocco, Mandy Brown, John DiBartolo, Lenore Fuerstman, Linda Sue Moshier, Conor McGee, Tara Palsha, Bruce Rebold, Elizabeth Saunders and Becca Yuré.

Phil Hall (Musical Director / Vocal Arranger). On Broadway, he conducted “Play Me A Country Song” and was associate conductor for the Broadway revival of “Mame,” starring Angela Lansbury. He conducted the third national tour of “Cats.” He musically directed Side By Side By Sondheim at Michigan Opera Theatre with Nancy Dussault and Ron Raines. He conducted The Wizard Of Oz which starred Phyllis Diller as the Wicked Witch at St. Louis's MUNY. Hall conducted the premiere of “The Prince Of Central Park,” which starred Nanette Fabray. Other musical directing credits include “Some Enchanted Evening” at Kennedy Center. He appeared on stage in Paper Mill's 1989 spring production of Show Boat, which aired on PBS' Great Performances series, playing the role of Jake who accompanies Julie for the song "Bill." Hall appeared in the Mira Sorvino-produced film, Lisa Picard Is Famous as a vocal coach/pianist. He composed the score for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, which was produced at Paper Mill Playhouse (1998). Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, Kansas City Starlight Theatre and North Shore Music Theatre. He vocally arranged “Sophisticated Ellington,” a concert of Duke Ellington's music, which was presented at Carnegie Hall by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra in March of 1999. Hall’s first play with music, “Matthew Passion,” was produced at the American Theatre of Actors' Chernuchin Theatre in New York City, during the Easter season, 2007.

Sharon Halley, (Director / Choreographer) began her career at the world-renowned St. Louis MUNY as a dancer. Turning to choreography, she staged the original New York production of “Jerry’s Girls” and the national tour with Carol Channing, Leslie Uggams and Andrea McArdle. Other New York credits include “The New Moon,” “The Desert Song,” “The Merry Widow” (all at New York City Opera) and “Elizabeth and Essex,” starring Estelle Parsons. She choreographed the national tour of “Carousel” (with Rex Smith) and has staged numerous productions at some of the country’s finest theaters, including Paper Mill Playhouse, Light Opera Theatre of Sacramento, Kansas City Starlight, Theatre Under the Stars, Fifth Avenue Theatre, McCarter Theatre, and the Walnut Street Theater. Also, Halley staged the world premiere of the Rick Hawkins’ “Musical Lunch”. PBS filmed her productions of “Show Boat,” “The Merry Widow” and “The New Moon” for Great Performances. 

Karen Berg, (Producer) is a special events specialist, an international motivational speaker, and an award winning, best selling author. Her latest book,Your Self-Sabotage Survival Guide, will be released by Career Press January, 2015

Call 914 393 0072 for more information.      

Sunday, November 30, 2014

O Come, O Come

A lovely
the ground and
bare branches
with a clean white mantle.
A kind of simple purity,
not of human making.
to adorn
a sullied world.

There is a stillness to it,
a kind of holy breathing,
calm and rhythmic.
A soft sleep
before the world awakens
to rush off
to whatever waits
to claim the day.


for the unexpected

How do you prepare
for the unexpected?
By planning,
Or by
forsaking illusions of control,
and breathing,
like a peaceful night
for a new snow,

a mantle,
pure and simple,
not of human making.

-- Author unknown to me

Thursday, October 9, 2014

After a 17-year journey, Amazing Grace begins previews in Chicago

I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I hope to be. But by the grace of God, I am certainly not what I was.”  — John Newton     

     Christopher Smith had never heard of John Newton when, with a little time to spare and in search of some air conditioning, he casually browsed through the children’s section of a library in Fort Washington, PA, looking for inspiration for his church youth groups.

   The police officer and religious education director had no idea that chance experience of “literally just killing time” would be his life-changing moment, one that would lead him from small town life in Bucks County, PA, to The Great While Way.  As it turned out, he was the one who was inspired.  

     Reading through a book about Newton, Smith was fascinated by the story of the British slave trader, the shipwreck, his enslavement, then his religious conversion and new life as an Anglican cleric and outspoken abolitionist.  Smith was so captivated by the story that he had skipped the Forward and hadn’t realized the man he was reading about had penned one of the world’s most beloved hymns, “Amazing Grace.” It was then that Smith felt the beginning of his own conversion experience.

     Although he didn’t have a theatrical background, unless you count the one semester in college when he was a theatre major before switching to history, and despite the fact that he can’t read a single note of music — he had taught himself to play guitar — he felt called to dramatize Newton’s life.

     “‘I thought, ‘This is epic.  Why haven’t I heard of this guy?’” 

     He sought help from his uncle, an attorney specializing in copyright law, to see if anything had been done. This was before the 2006 movie “Amazing Grace.”  Smith learned that in the 230 years since Newton’s death, no one had dramatized his life.

     “I thought, ‘I’ll give it a try.’ I’m always telling the kids ‘don’t limit yourself.  Don’t put yourself in a box and say, ‘this is what I am.’ You’ve got to transcend.’  I’ve got this in my lap.  I thought, ‘I’ve got to take my own medicine.’”  

     That was in 1997.  Next month Amazing Grace will open in a world-premiere run at the 1,800-seat Bank of America Theatre in Chicago before heading to Broadway next year.  Although the 17 years between that first sense of calling to the actual opening night scheduled for Oct. 19 have been hard at times — writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more, putting together readings, auditioning actors and raising the nearly $15 million needed to mount a show on Broadway — Smith, who admits he is not a patient man, sees now that the timing might be just right.

     “The world seems to be taking a turn to the dark end,” he said, adding that the 1700s of Newton’s day were also filled with violence and cruelty.  “There’s bad news all over the world, not just in one place.  Things seem to be spinning out of control. I’m hoping that all the delays that brought Amazing Grace to this point make it shine brighter at a time when people need to be challenged and empowered and uplifted.”

     Smith, who is married and the father of three, is 45 but could pass for 20 years younger.  He shares his story during a lunch break at the New 42nd Street Studios where Amazing Grace is in rehearsal before heading to Chicago.  This is a rarefied world where those making their living through the Broadway stage spend their days.  Rehearsal rooms with floor to ceiling windows overlook 42nd Street, freight-sized elevators ferry loads of chorus girls and boys up and down, and stars roam the halls freely. This week Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, two of Broadway’s hottest headliners, are rehearsing for their next musical.  Bucks County seems far away.

     But Smith is quick to say that without the support he received from Bucks County, he wouldn’t be sitting here.  Back when a musicalization of Newton’s life was still just an idea Smith was toying with, he mentioned it to Rich Timmons, a member of his church to whom he was giving guitar lessons. Timmons, who owned a marketing firm in town, immediately saw potential in telling a story that had gone untold, at least dramatically, for more than 200 years.  “Amazing Grace” also happened to be his favorite song.

     “He said, ‘If you put it in a form I can use, I will take it to every business owner in town’ and he did,” Smith said.

     Timmons raised a half million dollars in three months, and went on to raise another half.  With that money Smith was able to quit his job and devote full time to writing and fundraising.

     By October 2007 he was ready to gage audience reaction.  For the first public concert/reading, he put together a cast headed by Adam Jacobs as Newton and Ali Ewoldt as his love interest, Mary Catlett. Jacobs and Ewoldt were on Broadway at the time playing Marius and Cosette in the revival of Les Misérables.  They spent Monday, Oct. 15, when their show was dark, at Hilltown Baptist Church in Bucks County rehearsing for that evening’s concert, backed by a 60-member choir of area high school students.

     Smith had hung only two posters, each in an area church, announcing the free concert and “word of mouth just exploded around Bucks County.”  On the night of the event more than 1,200 people showed up, requiring Smith to set up two overflow rooms with speakers and screens.

     At the end of the concert, the actors asked the audience to stand and led them in singing “Amazing Grace.”  It was a powerful experience that left many in tears, but for one woman her tears continued even as she greeted cast members in the receiving line. She told Jacobs she hadn’t known about the concert but had been driving by, saw all the excitement at the church and decided to go in.  She had been told by her doctor that morning that she had cancer and had only three weeks to two months to live.

     “What you have said and done here tonight showed me the things I have to get right in my life and the people I need to get right with,” she told Jacobs, who then began to cry as well.

     Hearing that, Smith realized his play could have an impact in a way he hadn’t considered.

     “People were coming and bringing all their pain and struggles,” he said.  “I thought, ‘I have two and a half hours when our paths will cross.’  I wanted to honor that.  My purpose shifted from just wanting to write a good show to wanting to live up to what we can do in people’s lives.”

     Following the Hilltown success, Smith set his eyes on a commercial run, envisioning his show making the rounds on the Christian circuit in cities like Lancaster, PA, and Branson, MO. But then he hired veteran New York producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland and she determined the show should go to the top.  She raised the rest of the money to fully capitalize the venture.  Now all that stands between opening night on Broadway is having the right size theatre become available.

     Copeland put together an experienced team that includes Gabriel Barre as director and Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli, and brought on Arthur Giron to help shape the show’s book with Smith, who in addition to the book wrote the music and lyrics for the 17 songs, as well as the incidental music.  Three-time Tony winner Eugene Lee creates the sets, which in many cases, such as for the ship and its sinking, will be conceptionalized.  Josh Young plays Newton and Erin Mackey is Catlett, heading a cast of 34.

     Smith developed his script largely from library research because the internet was fairly limited when he started.  While some characters have been consolidated and others invented, the story runs close to Newton’s life and times, he says. Three period consultants have given advice on the manners and gestures of the 1700s, on dialects and provided translation for the African scenes.

     The show “doesn’t pull any punches,” Smith says.  “We’re not afraid to show the depths of the struggle.  We wanted to make sure we never gloss over what slavery was as much as we can onstage.  We couldn’t really portray it because they’d (the audience) be vomiting.”

     But it’s not an “issue musical,” Smith emphasizes.

  “It’s an action/adventure/romance with deep character struggle.  We don’t want to tell the audience what we think they should get out of it.  We want to present the story with honesty and in a forthright way and let the chips fall where they may.”

     The chips have fallen pretty far for Smith.  As the lunch break ends and he heads back into rehearsal, he laughs as he considers the unexpected   — and long — adventure that brought him to that studio.

     “It’s like being on the moon.  I was driving a beat and directing traffic and now I’m walking into the 42nd Street Studios and people know who I am.  It’s surreal.”

(In photo: Fight director David Leong, Christopher Smith, director Gabriel Barre)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.

-- Mary Oliver

Saturday, August 23, 2014

St. Mark at La MaMa, an unlikely combination

I wrote this feature for the Sept. 7, 2014 issue of The Living Church magazine.

 Lights flash in the darkness as a middle-age man in a gray hoodie, jeans torn at the knees and a backpack slung on one shoulder runs into the deserted alley and hides behind a trashcan. When he feels the coast is clear, he walks to the back wall and chalks a fish on the black bricks. Then, with excitement spilling out of him for the good news he wants to share, he throws out his arms and begins to tell the greatest story ever told. 

This street artist is actually actor/director/Jesuit priest George Drance, 51, presenting his latest work, *mark, a performance of St. Mark’s gospel from start to finish at La MaMa, one of New York’s most esteemed Off-Broadway theaters. Although it would seem an unlikely show for the hip Greenwich Village theatre, Drance has received more enthusiastic response for this than from anything else in his fruitful career. Some people have seen it two and three times.

“What they’re saying consistently is it’s like they’re hearing it for the first time,” Drance said. “They’re surprised by the words they thought they knew. Something about the power of a complete narrative allows a connection to be made.”

Sitting on a bench in an outside courtyard on Fordham University’s Manhattan campus, where Drance is an artist-in-residence, he recalled the spark that inspired the 12-performance run this spring. Joanna Dewey of the Episcopal Divinity School was team teaching a course Drance was taking at the Jesuit’s Weston School of Theology in 1993. She stressed that Mark was meant to be recited. The actor in Drance perked up.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be part of that tradition?’”

Contemporary New York is a far different time from when Mark’s gospel was written, an era when followers of “the Way” were brutally prosecuted by Roman Emperor Nero, but Drance thinks the present day has a different need for the message.

“I have to confess a little sadness about how the gospel is made marginalized in contemporary culture. It seems irrelevant to many and at best just quaint.”

A street artist seemed an appropriate representation, Drance says, because they communicate in the same kind of “underground” way in which the gospel was first presented. He wanted to “recapture the danger, yet with hope; the challenge, yet with love.”

A resident artist at La MaMa, Drance had booked space there two years ago to do a show this spring. As the artistic director of Magis Theatre Company, he knew he would have a show ready, just not which one. Magis recently launched the Logos Project, which examines sacred performance in all the world’s traditions, creating seminars, workshops and, with *mark, a first full performance. With La MaMa underwriting most of the major costs and with the support of Magis’s funders, Drance saw the gospel in action.

“The gospel is about community and although it’s a solo show, there’s a huge community behind it.” 

In transforming this gospel — all 13,000+ words of it — as theatre, Drance follows in noble footsteps. The great British actor Alec McCowen won praise around the world for the one-man play he devised, St. Mark’s Gospel, which earned him one of his three Tony Award nominations when he performed it on Broadway.  Drance, who has performed and directed in more than 20 countries on five continents, never saw McCowen’s performance live but has watched some scenes on film.

He began preparing for his version in Advent by listening over and over to Mark’s gospel on an audio file of the New Testament his sister had given him many years ago. Then he began to speak along with the recording before creating his own pastiche of “NASB, NIV, Interlinear and a few other translations that grapple with the Greek.”

In Lent he started working with his director, Luann Purcell Jennings, and on Good Friday went to Union Square Park in Greenwich Village to recite the passion at noon. A few people stayed to listen, others kept their distance but looked on. He opened his 12-show run on Ascension Day.

“The biggest challenge is to get out of the way and trust that the work has already been done and the rest is up to the Spirit.”

Although he met this challenge without a prompter in the wings, he did, in the context of the street artist, have three columns of “hyroglifics” on a side wall with symbols representing the different stories he was recounting. To prepare for each 100-minute performance, he read the text once during the day in the chapel at his West Village residence. When he got to the theatre, he walked through the set and then spent time in quiet and prayer.

He chose to portray the gospel through a street artist because as he thought about the early Christians, the image of their graffiti kept coming up — the crosses and ichthus (fish). He added the six-barred asterisk representing Jesus’s name in Greek, with the I superimposed over the X. The lower case “m” in the title represents Drance’s love of e.e. cummings.

“The asterisk with the ‘mark’ is a play on words. What mark do I leave behind and how am I marked by the gospel story?”

When he first planned to perform the gospel, he hadn’t thought ahead to using music to underscore the action, but when he mentioned his intention to his good friend Elizabeth Swados, an intentionally acclaimed composer and Tony nominee, she said she wanted to write the music. Drance describes her score as having “an ancient soul but with a contemporary voice,” through piano, synthesizer, bass and guitar creating city sounds of cars and machinery using an electronic base, with some light and acoustic variations.

Drance is hoping a producer will take over the show for another run or that he can tour with it. Its message for audiences today is “the ways in which we’re afraid to be light and salt and the ways we’re afraid to tell the good news. This is one way of encouraging people that this is still good news and that there are a million ways of telling it.”

Sunday, August 17, 2014

New York Shakespeare Exchange's Sonnet Project will film The Bard’s love poems on locations throughout the five boroughs

New York Shakespeare Exchange is thrilled to announce its on-going, ambitious Sonnet Project has been selected as the only North American organization to partner with Shakespeare's Globe in London (the company that brought Mark Rylance's Twelfth Night and Richard III to Broadway) on an upcoming digital project. The project, to be announced by Shakespeare's Globe in the coming weeks, will further New York Shakespeare Exchange's mission of providing access to Shakespeare for people around the world.

The Sonnet Project is an ambitious undertaking. After raising $47,000 on Kickstarter in 2012, the company embarked on a mission to film all 154 of Shakespeare's love poems with 154 actors in 154 locations around the five boroughs. This simple premise created a tapestry of cinematic art that infuses the verbal poetry of Shakespeare with the visual poetry of New York City.  

To date, 77 films are available for download online at www.SonnetProjectNYC.com and via the free Sonnet Project mobile app. Recent films include Sonnet 46 performed by 12-year-old Sydney Lucas (Obie for the Public Theater’s Broadway-bound Fun Home) and Lynn Cohen (“Sex & The City,” “The Hunger Games”) and her husband Ron Cohen in a ravishing interpretation of Sonnet 22. 

"We have already reached over 47,000 views of our films, and the Sonnet Project mobile app has been downloaded in more than 65 countries,” Ross Williams, artistic director of New York Shakespeare Exchange, said. “We are already reaching an incredible global audience. This partnership, with one of the most respected Shakespeare companies in the world, will expand our potential exponentially."

New York Shakespeare Exchange offers innovative theatrical programming that explores what happens when contemporary culture is infused with Shakespearean poetry and themes in unexpected ways. Providing fresh points of entry to the work so that modern audiences will be exposed to the intrinsic power of Shakespeare, their goal is to encourage an enthusiastic appreciation of classical theater and to expand the reach of the art form within new and existing audiences. New York Shakespeare Exchange projects include The Sonnet Project; ShakesBEER, NYC's original Shakespearean pub crawl; as well as contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare's plays.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Karen Akers to headline Broadway Blessing 2014

It won’t be long now until the curtain rises for the 17th annual Broadway Blessing on Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. at 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 Retta Blaney founded in 1997 and has produced ever since, will be produced this year by the church and the Episcopal Actors’ Guild.

“I’m pleased to be turning over the producing responsibility — and privilege — to the Guild and The Little Church,” Blaney said. “Producing it for 16 years has been a gift in my life, but I am ready to step aside.”

Karen Akers, cabaret singer and film (“The Purple Rose of Cairo”) and Broadway (original companies of Nine and Grand Hotel) actor will offer this year’s theatre reflection and Jennifer Fouche (Sistas the Musical) will sing.

The Broadway Blessing Choir, under the direction of Claudia Dumschat, The Little Church’s music director, will return as well as crowd-favorite Project Dance. Rabbi Jill Hausman of the Actors’ Temple will once again take part in the annual candle lighting ceremony with the Right Rev. Andrew St. John, rector of Transfiguration.

Among those who have participated in Broadway Blessing in the past are Lynn Redgrave, Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen, Boyd Gaines, Edward Herrmann, Melissa Errico, Christiane Noll, James Barbour, Three Mo’ Tenors and Broadway Inspirational Voices.

Transfiguration is an historic Episcopal parish with 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. It also has a long tradition of welcoming members of the theater profession, something not common in churches years ago.

The church’s welcoming attitude toward actors earned it 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 by addressing 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 a qualified applicant contacts the Guild in crisis, she or he can receive a vendorized check the same day.

The Guild also is dedicated to helping emerging artists advance their careers through scholarships, awards, and performance opportunities.