Thursday, January 31, 2008

St. Theresa's Prayer

Thought you could use this today:

May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.... May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Come Back, Little Sheba

If it hadn’t been for a lead-footed taxi driver, I would have arrived at the theatre so late my press tickets would have already been turned in at the box office. I’m so used to 3 p.m. curtains on Sunday that I forgot this one was for 2. At 1:25 I was casually chatting on the phone with my cousin in Baltimore about how nice our surprise party for my mother’s 90th birthday had been the day before. I hung up and all of a sudden realized the show was at 2. I threw on some clothes, grabbed my pocketbook and jumped in a taxi. I asked the driver to go as fast as he could and he did; when we hit traffic in the theatre district I got out and ran. And I made it! Fortunately this revival of “Come Back, Little Sheba” was worth all the rushing.

The play, as you probably know, is rather depressing, but the experience of seeing it is enlivening because the performances are all so outstanding. S. Epatha Merkerson’s portrayal of Lola, a lonely housewife in a loveless marriage, shows a woman desperately trying to keep her pain from overwhelming her. Merkerson makes her so achingly real I wanted to go to Lola and give her some praise and encouragement, to help her see she has value. Her life with Doc, a repressed alcoholic chiropractor (Kevin Anderson), has not turned out the way she had expected when she was young and pretty.

Doc’s life hasn’t gone according to expectation either. He had planned to become a doctor, but that goal was abandoned years earlier after Lola became pregnant before they were married. They wed hastily, but the baby died and Lola couldn’t have more children. Lola and Doc have been going through the motions of a marriage ever since.

Moments break through when it seems Doc still loves Lola, which makes it all the sadder when he inevitably falls off the wagon and lashes out at her with all the rage he’s been burying for so many years. Anderson plays it just right. This scene could be disastrous with a less gifted actor, but Anderson strikes just the right balance for a man full of despair and disillusionment who has finally reached the breaking point. It’s good to see this actor back on Broadway in a solid dramatic role. He was the best Biff I’ve ever seen when he did “Death of a Salesman” in the late 1990s, but the last time I saw him on stage was in a dreadful musical call “Brooklyn,” which was a real waste of his talent. I also loved him as Father Ray in the short-lived, too-good-for-television series “Nothing Sacred.”

Scenic designer James Noone should be commended for creating a set that matches the mood of despair and decline. I felt the tightness of the shabby little house, with its dining room rented out for extra cash. A backdrop of other houses and buildings close by added to the feel of being penned in and suffocating.

The Little Sheba of the title was a dog Lola loved and still dreams about. Although it’s been awhile since the dog disappeared, Lola continues to stand out front in the evening and call for her: “Come back, Little Sheba.” It’s just one more indication of Lola’s refusal to accept reality, and it’s one of the eeriest. Her voice is so full of longing and the struggle to hang on. Of course Little Sheba isn’t coming back anymore than Lola’s youth or happiness or desirability.

Shirley Booth won a Tony when she played Lola in the 1950 original production. (She also won an Oscar for her movie portrayal.) I don’t know who will win the best actress Tony this year, but I do know Merkerson will be in the running. She’s wonderful. Her performance will be remembered for a long, long time.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Little Mermaid

I try to be a positive person. I firmly believe this leads to positive experiences. But there are limits, and I encountered a big one last night. No amount of positive attitude could ever make sitting through “The Little Mermaid” a good experience.

In more than four decades of going to musicals I have never seen an uglier show. Scenic designer George Tsypin chose the most garish shades of green, orange, purple and blue imaginable, and Natasha Katz’s glaring lighting made sure we didn’t miss an inch of it. By the middle of the first act I was actually beginning to feel sick. Then I wondered, was this what Tsypin had in mind? Was he trying to make the audience so nauseous that we would really feel we were at sea? If so, it worked.

And the plastic! The waves weren’t just at the bottom of the sea, they came in sideways from stage right and left. The poor actors must have felt they were suffocating. I felt that way in the sixth row center. This is one show where a balcony seat would be an advantage, and the lobby or sideway would be even better. Earlier in the day I had been reading an article about the health danger of exposure to plastic in “O, the Oprah Magazine.” These performers will be filing some heavy duty liability claims one day.

The sets aren’t the only thing that makes this production hard to watch. Stephen Mear’s choreography looks like a class is aerobic skating. To simulate swimming, he has all the sea critters whizzing back and forth on those shoe skates children wear now, the ones that are sending them to emergency rooms in large numbers. The stage looks like a giant underwater roller rink. Doesn’t Mear know a skating show, “Xanadu,” is already being done, just two blocks away at the Helen Hayes Theatre? Far more enjoyably, I might add.

Toward the end of the first act the curtain descended right during one of the grating song and dance numbers, the house lights came up and we were informed that the show was being stopped for a technical difficulty. Who would have known? They could have kept going. No one would have noticed because the whole show is one big difficulty.

In thinking about it later from a distance -- could there ever be enough distance from this show? -- I did come up with a positive use for this production. The producers of this $15 million atrocity should market it to blind or seeing-impaired audiences. The story, after all, based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, is sweet, the music is pleasant and the singing is worthy. If one could be spared the hideous sets and unimaginative choreography, it wouldn’t be a bad experience. Maybe they could just turn it into a radio play so no one would have to endure the visuals.

The only times the staging was good was when Prince Eric fell from his ship, slowly plunging to the bottom of the sea, and later when Ariel, the Little Mermaid, swam up through the water to the surface. Entirely different set and lighting designers must have been involved with those scenes. The colors were subdued and the light was subtle. Those scenes were the simplest in appearance, and yet the most cinematic. The rest, with all those gaudy colors, were ghastly.

I felt sorry for the actors. Sean Palmer as Prince Eric and Sierra Boggess as Ariel were fine and should have been presenting this tale in a simpler production, something like “The Fantasticks,” which portrays a lovely story with beautiful music and no frills. I don’t know if it was my imagination -- was I just projecting my own misery? -- or if I was sensing something, but the actors looked uncomfortable. I really think they seemed embarrassed by the whole spectacle. Dear Tituss Burgess kept a big smile on his face the whole time. God only knows how he did it.

Tituss, John Treacy Egan, who had a nice scene playing a wacky chef, and Norm Lewis, who played Triton, the king of the sea, have all blessed my life personally, and bless many lives through their big hearts. Tituss sang last year at Broadway Blessing and wowed us with his gorgeous voice. He had spent time during the summer in India with Mary-Mitchell Campbell and her wonderful organization ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty). They worked with orphans and performed for the villagers.

John sang for us the year before after Mark McVey had to cancel at the last minute. Even though he was starring in the demanding role of Max Bialystock in “The Producers” eight times a week, John learned the song, “Ordinary Miracles,” and sang it on his one night off for Broadway Blessing’s 10th anniversary celebration.

And then there’s Norm, who came up to the South Bronx several years ago to talk to children I was working with in an after-school program. His schedule changed after he had agreed to be there and he ended up needing to be in downtown Manhattan around the same time. I would certainly have understood if he hadn’t come, but he did. Even though he knew he could only make the very end of the gathering, he took car service all the way up there and was wonderful with the children -- and the staff, who were in love with him for his hunky role on “All My Children.” These three giving and talented actors deserve better. Actually most actors deserve better.

As they were all on stage for the final applause, I said quietly to them from my seat, “Don’t worry. You’ll get better shows.”

They sure couldn’t do much worse.

Juliet: A Dialogue about Love

Just heard from Melissa Hawkins that she’s doing her beautiful one-woman play, Juliet, at 6 p.m. Feb. 10 at Christ Church in Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago. The address is 625 Hillside Ave. DONATIONS ONLY. Talk-back session after the show. For information, call (708) 209-0183.

Here’s the review I wrote after seeing it last summer at the Fringe Festival.

Melissa Hawkins’s performance in the involving story of one woman’s faith, courage and love should not be missed. For 90 minutes, alone on a nearly bare stage, she brings to life the story of Juliet Visky who spent five years in a prison camp in the Danube delta following the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Her crime? Being the wife of a Hungarian Reformed pastor in what had become a Communist country. He was arrested and sentenced to 22 years in prison. She and their seven children were deported to a Romanian gulag 1,000 kilometers from their home.

This play was written by her seventh son, Andras, in one week of 18-hour days after a year of writer’s block. He then never changed a word. A program note describes it this way: “The play is an aggressive confrontation with an inactive God. The conversation follows her stream of consciousness, piling together the mosaic of her life to solve her current abandonment.”

Because of Hawkins’s powerful acting, I had no trouble following the play, in spite of its leaps in time. Her giftedness brings to life not only Juliet but her children, husband, the jailers and events of her life before imprisonment. She creates a Juliet who has a sense of humor -- when she sees her new lodging has no roof, she dryly comments that they have no need of a skylight -- a Juliet who talks and prays to God lovingly and who can also be angry with God.

Scenic designer Terrence McClellan enforces the gloom of Juliet’s plight with his nearly empty stage and lighting designers Ryan Breneisen and Andrew Dunning enhance the mood with their shadings of light and dark.

The only thing I would suggest changing would be to cut the work to 75 minutes. Tightening it would strengthen the tension. It is remarkable, though, that Hawkins could sustain such intensity for the full, uninterrupted 90 minutes. She never once slipped from her character or that world.

Only two more performances remain of “Juliet” in its current run at the New York International Fringe Festival. For information of these and on booking a performance, visit

Thursday, January 24, 2008


“When, one day in mid-life, one comes to doubt oneself, and all one’s relationships and commitments, and when the pain and anxiety of this dragging away of . . . energy from all that formerly was so life-giving begins to overwhelm, there surfaces the depth question: Why bother? Lucky the one who lets that question stand. . . That question is a prayer.”
-- Janice Brewi and Anne Brennan Mid-life

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wounded Warriors find healing

I wrote this feature for the Jan. 25 issue of NCR. Hope you enjoy it.

Linda Ysewyn didn’t realize she needed healing. A minor jaw injury sustained while she was in the army was now just “a nagging injury” and she had moved on into a life as a middle school math teacher. But when she saw a tiny press release in The Army Times for a theatre school’s writing program for vets, something inside her knew that’s exactly what she needed.

She had been trained to fight as part of the 101st division in Desert Shield/Storm, but that hadn’t prepared her for the “spirit of death” she faced during her 10 months in the Middle East.

“All of a sudden something happens,” she said during a telephone interview from her home in Fairfax, VA. “It’s the reality that you’re killing people or are part of that chain that’s killing people. In the military you’re told that you’re defending democracy, but then we realize you’re pursuing other humans or, as the military likes to say, ‘targets’. You’re not necessarily mentally prepared for that to happen.”

Helping to heal those psychological wounds is what the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped’s Writers’ Program for Wounded Warriors is all about. Jesuit Brother Rick Curry, NTWH founder and artistic director, decided four years ago he wanted to use his theatre program to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and psychological wounds, but he didn’t know how. It was while meeting with vets who were recent amputees that Brother Curry, 64, who was born without a right forearm, found his way.

“As went around, I found each one was desperate to tell their story,” he said during a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he is finishing his studies for the priesthood. “I realized we could teach them to write, to get them up in Maine with other disabled people. It’s the communal aspect that’s important.”

Belfast, Maine, is the site of NTWH’s summer arts program; its base is in Manhattan. It was in Maine that Major Ysewyn learned to share her story through writing and then present it to an audience.

“You go there as you are and are offered an opportunity to use theatre and narrative to explore or act it out,” she said. “When you leave, you’re a little more whole. The whole aspect of the arts makes people alive again. They (NTWH) start the healing process from the inside and work out.”

The program costs $5,000 for the 10-day session; each veteran attends on complete scholarship, including air travel. Next summer three workshops with 20 people in each will be held. So far between 30 and 40 vets have completed the program.

“They need new tools of communication and to see there is a possibility of joy after disability, there is a life they can share and contribute to instead of being perpetual victims,” Brother Curry says. “If we don’t stress the life of the spirit we’re going to have another Vietnam, a lost generation.”

Major Ysewyn had studied percussion and played in her high school band, but at that time it was a social outlet, not an emotional one. She found her way into the military while at Bryant College in Smithfield, RI. Needing an elective and wanting to avoid 8 a.m. or Friday classes, she signed up for military science. She then took other electives in the field and heard military personnel talk about the benefits of their career.

“Before I knew it, I was entrenched in the military program,” she said. “It was almost a fluke of needing an elective. It seemed whimsical at the time, a way to depart college and not work in a little cubicle from nine to five.”

She decided to leave the army before she could be redeployed and possibly injured physically. She got a graduate degree in education and was going on with her life when she saw the notice about the writing program, which she has attended twice.

“It sounded like an opportunity to open up and express myself,” she said. “It’s the first time I personally stumbled into the arts as an emotional tool or outlet.”

The process involves having students write their stories during the 10 days, guided by students from prestigious writing programs at Columbia and N. Y. U. At the end of that time they read their narratives from the school’s stage to an audience eager to listen; realizing they have a story and then finding someone to listen to it is crucial, Brother Curry says.

Major Ysewyn said every aspect of the program was healing, from the relaxed mealtimes with others students and the staff, to the structured days of classes.

“I don’t know how they do it,” she says. “Within 10 days it’s ‘Hi, welcome aboard’ to ‘Hi here’s our show.’”

She hadn’t expected to find any commonality with her former life.

“In the military there’s such discipline, anything in the arts seems 180 degrees out of it, but then you find work in the arts is discipline. That’s why there’s such success and loyalty from the folks who go there.”

Having developed skills from that discipline, Ysewyn is now working on a play about her parents.

“What NTWH helps people do is stop and think about what they’ve done and more or less accept it. It let’s the person know that one day they’ll be on top of their life again. You have to go through the grieving process and the program really helps.”

Related web site
National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped

Monday, January 21, 2008

Tina Howe

I am so excited that Tina Howe will have a new play premiering next year. I’ve interviewed her several times, did my second master's thesis on her and her work and taught her plays one summer at Brooklyn College. It’s been a long time since she’s had a new work on stage here in New York, not since “Pride’s Crossing” in the late 90s. Last season we were lucky to have “Birth and Afterbirth,” a very old play that I had read but never seen because it had never been staged in New York. Now a whole new play. It’s about time!

I have so much respect for Tina as a writer and a person. She is down-to-earth and accessible, and her plays are SO funny, and moving at the same time. I’m really looking forward to “Chasing Manet,” which will star Jane Alexander, a friend of Tina’s since their college days. Primary Stages describes the play this way: "A rebellious painter from a distinguished family in Boston and an ebullient Jewish woman with a huge, adoring family form an unlikely bond. Inside the confining walls of Mount Airy Nursing Home, the two plot an escape to Paris aboard the QE2. But can they possibly pull it off amidst the chaos of their surroundings? The tension and comedy grow as they struggle to take wing for the last time."

That’s interesting considering Tina and Jane spent a year together in Paris after they graduated from college. It was there Tina fell in love with the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett, which would go on to influence much of her work.

The way I happened to teach her plays came from some advice from another professor at Brooklyn College. I was going to be teaching the dreaded required course in research paper writing. I was told to mold the course around something that interested me and so I chose theatre, with the emphasis being on Tina Howe’s plays. The students had never heard of Tina and some had never even read or seen a play. Tina, as you might know, is a WASP who writes about that world; the students were mostly immigrants and minorities. Not only were plays foreign to them, so was the subject matter of the ones they would be reading all summer.

It turned out, though, to be a perfect fit. A common theme in Tina’s plays is failure to communicate, with characters talking at cross purposes and growing increasingly frustrated at not being listened to. My students could understand that. They “got it” right away. We used Coastal Disturbances, the anthology that included that play as well as “Museum,” “The Art of Dining” and “Painting Churches.” I never had any trouble getting them to volunteer to read out loud in class, taking the parts of characters whose lives on the surface were so different from theirs. I loved listening to them, the Russian, Dominican, Polish and other assorted accents melding together into a wonderful -- transformational -- experience of theatre. I arranged for them to see an off, off-Broadway production of “Museum,” so some had their first experience of live theatre. Tina lent me her copy of the PBS recording of “Painting Churches,” the play that put her on my radar screen when I saw it at Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE in the mid-80s, and we watched that together over two classes.

To put Tina’s plays in context, I also had them read the Arts & Leisure section of the NYT each week (and taught them how to look for the Ninas in the Hirschfeld drawings). When they read an article about Beckett one week and learned that he was an absurdist, they said: “Like Tina.” I told that to Tina and she laughed. Beckett was her inspiration, but to them he was like Tina. She had become their point of reference for all theatre.

It had been a long, hot summer in an unair conditioned classroom on the top floor under the roof -- extra hot -- and they actually did have to write a research paper, and I had to teach that dry stuff, but they were so involved in the subject matter they didn’t mind. They made intelligent comments and comparisons of Tina’s plays. I told them they were now Tina Howe scholars, that not many people knew as much about her as they did. They seemed really proud about being scholars of something.

On the last day of class they told me how much they loved the course and how much they had been dreading it beforehand. I confessed I felt the same way. It turned out to be a good summer, and the most enjoyable teaching experience I ever had. All because of that little bit of advice, to choose something I liked.

I definitely do like Tina Howe plays, and I look forward to this new one.

The 39 Steps

This is one of the zaniest, funniest shows I’ve ever seen. I laughed and laughed and came out of there feeling uplifted and about 25 years younger. Go see this show!

“The 39 Steps” is a wacky spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie of that name, and many other of his films as well. Four actors -- Charles Edwards, Jennifer Ferrin, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders -- take on all the characters -- more than 40! -- involved in this whodunit, which is part espionage thriller and part slapstick comedy. While it’s not unusual for actors to play more than one role in a show, Burton and Saunders often play more than one part at a time, quickly switching hats or employing other gimmicks to transform from one character to another, at one time playing nearly 10 characters in just a couple of minutes. I haven’t been so impressed by actors doing multiple duties since a Pearl Theatre Company production many years ago in which six actors played all the characters in Dickens’ “Hard Times.”

The show begins as Richard Hannay (Edwards) is lured into a world of intrigue by a mysterious woman claiming to be a spy. When she winds up dead in his flat, he flees London with the police hot on his trail. The four actors turn this into a hilarious escapade, making great use of a few props and their amazing -- often quite physical -- talents.

Maria Aitken, who directed of a hit London production, also stages this one. Patrick Barlow is responsible for the brilliantly comic stage adaptation, based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and the novel by John Buchan in 1915.

"The 39 Steps," which won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy for its London production, is scheduled to run through March 23 at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit for details.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

What God is doing

“The assumption of spirituality is that ALWAYS God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it.”
-- Eugene Petersen

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Accepting grace

“The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
-- Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

David Pomeranz in New York

He sang his own songs, accompanied himself on piano and guitar and even beat out rhythm on top of the piano to backup his lyrics for one number. When David Pomeranz gives a one-man show, he brings many men and they’re all David and they’re all fantastic. Playing to a nearly full house, David brought “His Hits, His Musicals and More” to the Metropolitan Room last night.

My only experience of hearing David live before was for Broadway Blessing 2005 when he sang “Half a Dream,” a song he composed for Kathie Lee Gifford’s lyrics for the delightful musical “Under the Bridge.” But many in the audience proved they go way back with this singer/songwriter, holding up albums of his recording from decades ago.

His fans were happy to see him, and he returned their adoration by giving a high-energy, exciting 90-minute concert of new and old music. He shared stories behind some of the songs, like how he tried to change lyrics to a song of his Barry Manilow was scheduled to record, “Up, Down, Trying to Get the Feeling Again.” David thought his rewrite was better, but Manilow believed in the original and recorded it, to huge success. Still thinking the second version was better, David recorded it himself. The verdict -- “Barry was right.”

The evening took a serious and deeply moving tone when David sang selections from his musical about Charlie Chaplin. I hadn’t known anything about Chaplin’s background, but I got so involved in David’s musical biography that I wanted to hear more and more. David will be touring with this show, beginning in Florida in April. I very much hope it comes here.

One show of his that I did see, and gave a rave review, was “Under the Bridge” when it played Off-Broadway a few years ago. I was hoping he’d sing “Half a Dream,” but instead he sang “He Is With You,” a poignant little song Mireli, an older gypsy woman, sings to Madame Calcet, a woman whose husband has recently died, leaving her homeless with three young children. As it turns out, it was quite a contrast to what he had been planning to sing from “Bridge.” When I stopped by Kathie Lee Gifford’s table after the show to say hi, she told me he rehearsed “Paris,” the jaunty opening number sung by Armand, an old hobo who is the hero of the story. She said David changed at the last minute, singing “He Is With You” as a tribute to her father, with whom she was close. She also told me some exciting news about “Bridge” that I can’t disclose yet, but it makes me so happy to know this show has a bright future. Based on the children’s book The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson, it’s a beautiful story of love, family and the search for a real home. The book is a blessing. I recommend that you read it, and stay tuned here for more details about the musical’s future.

David had begun his show with an inspiring song about reaching up and he ended with "It's in Every One of Us." Written more than 25 years ago, this song has been sung each week for the last two decades by thousands of worshipers around the world as part of services of the Church of Religious Science, Agape and Science of Mind churches. It was featured in the score for "Time," a musical that ran on London's West End for two years in the 1980s, in two American movies, "Big" and "Patty Hearst," and in an episode of the TV series "Fame." Most people in the audience knew it well as David led them in a sing-along.

It was a truly uplifting evening. I hope I can get David to join us again for Broadway Blessing, hopefully to sing a selection from the Chaplin show.

For more about David and his music, visit

Monday, January 14, 2008

God's hug

God hugs you.
You are encircled
by the arms
of the mystery of God.

-- Hildegard of Bingen

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Why God Never Received Tenure at Any University

1. He had only one publication.

2. It was in Hebrew.

3. It had no references.

4. It wasn’t published in an academic journal.

5. Some doubt he wrote it himself.

6. He may have created the world, but what has he done since?

7. The scientific community can’t replicate his results.

8. He never got permission from the ethics board to use human subjects.

9. When one experiment went awry, he tried to cover it up by drowning the subjects.

10. He rarely came to class and just told students: “Read the book.”

11. Some say he had his son teach the class.

12. He expelled his first two students.

13. His office hours were irregular and sometimes held on a mountaintop.

14. Although there were only 10 requirements, most students failed.

I don’t know who wrote this, but I love it. Having taught on the graduate and undergraduate level for many years, I could definitely relate to the silliness of academia this addresses, which is one of the reasons I no longer want to teach and why I call that world acanemia -- because it’s so anemic!

Who Have the Power

Today is my friend Mary Sheeran's birthday. Tomorrow she goes into the studio to begin recording her first CD. Besides being a fabulous cabaret singer here in New York, she's also a terrific novelist. Check out Who Have the Power. It's a really involving book, and I would say that even if she weren't my friend. I loved the interweaving themes of feminism, mysticism and the soul of an artist in the story of Elisabeth Barclay, a young musician and suffragist in 1866 whose life is radically changed when she finds out she is part Indian and must leave her privileged life in a New England boarding school to live in the primitive west of that era. I kept thinking what a great movie it would make.

Reviewers have called the book “fascinating,” “poetic,” and “magical” and I agree. I was taken by the character of Elisabeth, touched by the sadness of lost history and ultimately cheered by the persistent power of the imaginative life. This would be a good read for a cold winter night.

Happy Birthday, Mary!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

When the Heart Waits

During discussion with my centering prayer group today at St. Bart's I mentioned how helpful When the Heart Waits was for me. Another woman shared my enthusiasm. This really is a healing book, which is why I'm moving up this previous posting. I highly recommend this book.

What does a theatre critic do during a Broadway shutdown? She reads a lot more, for one thing.

I want to let you know about a book I’ve started reading. “When the Heart Waits” is a nonfiction book by Sue Monk Kidd whose novel “The Secret Life of Bees” is one of my favorite books. The subtitle of this one is “Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions,” and it was written before “Bees” and all its success.

“Heart” is a healing book for those of us facing the challenges and joys of middle age. Maya Angelou said the 50s are when we become who we were meant to be and I believe it.

But it’s not always easy, which is why this book is so helpful. Kidd writes about waiting as being the “missing link in the transformation process” and defines waiting as “the passionate and contemplative crucible in which new life and spiritual wholeness can be birthed.” In this “deep and beautiful work of soulmaking,” she shows us how to wait actively. I love that idea.

She describes the impetus for her midlife spiritual journey as “a growing darkness and cacophony, as if something in my depths were crying out. A whole chorus of voices. Orphaned voices. They seemed to speak for all the unlived parts of me . . . I know now that they were the clamor of a new self struggling to be born.”

I’ve read a lot about this time of life, the idea that the years up until we’re 40 or 50 are about establishing ourselves out there in the world, and the years following are about connecting to our inner selves. Kidd says this is when “one is summoned to inner transformation, to a crossing over from one identity to another.” But “rarely do significant shifts come without a sense of being lost in dark woods.”

She quotes Jung that “every midlife crisis is a spiritual crisis, that we are called to die to the old self (ego), the fruit of the first half of life and liberate the new man or woman within us.” And from Jung’s “Stages of Life:” “we take this step with the false presuppositions that our truths and ideas will serve as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the progromme of life’s morning.”

Jung divided life into these two phases -- the morning in which we relate to the world and develop our ego and the afternoon when we connect to the inner world and develop our full and true selves. He likened the midlife transition to a difficult birth.

“In our youth we set up inner myths and stories to live by, but around the midlife juncture these patterns begin to crumble,” Kidd writes. “It feels like a collapsing of all that is, but it’s holy quaking.” She says we must find the courage to say yes to this new self aching to be born.

And this requires waiting. “I wondered if waiting was the ‘missing link’ in spiritual evolution, the lost and forgotten experience crucial to becoming fully human, fully Christian, fully ourselves.” She reminds us that when important times of transition came for Jesus, he “entered enclosures of waiting -- the wilderness, a garden, the tomb.”

She describes waiting as being “passive and passionate.” “It means descending into self, into God, into the deeper labyrinths of prayer. It involves listening to disinherited voices within, facing the wounded holes in the soul, the denied and undiscovered, the places one lives falsely.” Then we can hear “the sheer eloquence of life’s ability to speak to us.” It is “the experience of incubating what needs to be born.”

The journey from old self to new requires patience. “We have to let go and tap our creative stillness,” Kidd writes. “Most of all we have to trust that our scarred hearts really do have wings.”

On a weekend retreat I attended close to a decade ago called “Jung and Christianity: Shadow and Conversion,” the leader told us that we cannot have a spiritual life without waiting, and Kidd makes this clear too. “Waiting seemed the rawest kind of agony. I wanted God to simply whisk away the masks I had spent most of my life fashioning, to hoist up from my repressed well the lost and neglected parts of myself, to solve my problems, heal my wounds, and alleviate the inexplicable sense of discontent and pain I was feeling.”

We need to learn to “dwell in the unknowing, to live inside a question and coexist with the tensions of uncertainty. . . they are the seedbed of creativity and growth.”

She quotes Duke Divinity Professor John H. Westerhoff about the dangers of failing to appreciate this need to look for continual conversion: “No aspect of thinking on conversion is more foreign to the American evangelical experience than this stress on conversion as a process. . . Evangelicals emphasize emotion and an initial movement. This moment is celebrated, recalled, and when the experience fades, recaptured. But Christian tradition does not agree. . . Conversion is a continuous and lifelong process.”

This idea was emphasized in that wonderful Jung and Christianity retreat, that each time we go through a conversion we are strengthen for the next one. Kidd says: “Whenever you undo a false pattern of believing, God seems to come with fresh insights and images that unleash new energy and enable you to move ahead. . . To create newness you have to cover the soul and let grace rise. You must come to the place where there’s nothing to do but brood, as God brooded over the deep, and pray and be still and trust that the holiness that ferments the galaxies is working in you too. . . Waiting is the yeasting of the human soul. Jungian analyst James Hillman says that our ‘soul is the patient part of us.’ Only as we go inward and get in touch with it will we be able to authentically wait.”

I look forward to journeying with the rest of this book, and hope these thoughts help you find grace in the waiting, and joy in discovering your true selves. God bless!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rich Swingle acts out his ministry

I just booked Rich to perform a scene from "Beyond the Chariots" at this year’s Broadway Blessing, Sept. 8. He’s planning to take the play to Beijing this summer during the Olympics. Please keep him in your prayers.

After years of feeling called to ministry, Rich Swingle entered Massachusetts’ Gordon-Conwell Seminary, one of the country’s top five evangelical seminaries. He left after a year and began an itinerant ministry, which last year took him to 17 states and four countries. Like most preachers, his aim is to offer prayers and praise. Unlike most ministers, though, his pulpit comes complete with footlights and his preaching text has stage directions. Creating and performing one-man plays with religious themes, Mr. Swingle has carved out a ministry that allows him to combine his decades-long interest in acting and his love for God.

“I went to seminary knowing I had a calling to ministry, but I thought it would be as a pastor or a missionary,” he said while relaxing in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

But as he studied, his mind returned to the memory of two actors, Roger Nelson and Curt Cloninger, whom he had seen perform one-man, religiously based plays.

“I said to myself, ‘I can do that,’ ” he said. “Frankly, I never considered I could make a living at it.”

He went to seminary thinking that as a pastor he could perform occasionally. But acting was in his blood, dating back to the time he played Mr. Beaver in a fourth-grade production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in Phoenix, Ore., a town of about 2,000 people 24 miles north of the California border. He began to understand he did not have to give up one love for the other.

“I knew God was calling me to minister through theater,” he said.

His repertoire now includes nearly a dozen plays, from “Big Fish Little Worm,” his first and most popular, which is a 20-minute work about Jonah he developed while in seminary and has since revised, to “The Revelation,” “The Acts” and his latest, “Beyond the Chariots.” With this new one he combined another longtime passion, running, which he had been doing competitively since high school. “Beyond the Chariots” tells the story of what happened to Eric Liddell, the Christian runner portrayed in the 1981 Oscar-winning movie “Chariots of Fire,” after he won the 1924 Olympic gold medal and went to China as a missionary. Mr. Liddell died there in a concentration camp in 1945 of a massive brain tumor at the age of 43.

“My grandparents were missionaries in Kenya and I grew up hearing their stories. A lot drew me to that story,” Mr. Swingle said.

Before seeing “Chariots of Fire,” Mr. Swingle, 37, had never heard of Mr. Liddell but the movie became one of his favorites. While on a trip to Edinburgh in 2000 with his wife, Joyce, he began interviewing family members and others about Mr. Liddell, who had been born in China to Scottish-born missionaries and educated in England. Mr. Liddell lived in Scotland after graduating from college and before returning to China, which is why he is associated with Scotland and represented the country in the Olympics. One person who was helpful in the development of the play is Mr. Liddell’s middle daughter, Heather Ingham, who was only 2 when her father died.

“Everything I read and everyone I talked to talked about what a friendly fellow he was,” Mr. Swingle said. “He was good to everyone around him.”

This presented the dramatist with a challenge.

“Eric’s too good a guy to be dramatically interesting,” he said.

To get around this, Mr. Swingle gave Eric Liddell a relatively small role in the play and created a half dozen major characters who tell his story by relating their experiences with him. The main character is a student who hates Liddell for being a Christian and a Westerner and is the one who provides the dramatic tension as he tries to resist Liddell’s gentle persuasion. Mr. Swingle plays all the characters, slipping from one to another by altering his voice and accent.

While doing the show in Hong Kong last year, Mr. Swingle met Cheng Hon-Kwan, who was a student and admirer of Mr. Liddell. Mr. Swingle asked Mr. Cheng what he learned from Mr. Liddell.

“Without any hesitancy, he said, ‘Christianity,’ ” Mr. Swingle said.

When Mr. Swingle was asked this same question earlier in the interview, he did hesitate but only briefly.

“He encourages me to be disciplined and to make good choices to persevere,” Mr. Swingle said.

Rich’s Web site is (See the side of this blog under Related links.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Work-Life Balance: A Conspiracy of Optimism

I always love receiving Kenny Moore’s quarterly essays. Hope you enjoy this as much as I do. You can visit his web site at

Work-Life Balance: A Conspiracy of Optimism
By Kenny Moore

Work-Life balance is, at best, a fabrication. At worst, a cruel hoax.

It's time to stop believing all the hype. As adults, we well understand that it's never been a question of balance. It's always been a question of choice. As the Spanish proverb reminds us: "Take what you want, says God, just pay for it."

Living with the Consequences

Sharon Edelstein has a young daughter named Rebecca. Sharon came home from work one day and found her jumping on the bed and told her to stop - she was going to get hurt. "I won't get hurt" Rebecca said, and continued bouncing. Her mother repeated the warning and added that she might also break the bed. "No, I won't," Rebecca insisted. Her mother gave up. "Fine," she said. "Do what you want. You'll just have to live with the consequences." Rebecca immediately stopped bouncing. "I don't want to go and live with them, Mommy," she said. "I don't even know who the Consequences are."

As the ancient seers stated so well, we don't get to do everything in a single lifetime. We merely get to make choices. Not all choices. Only some. And we pay a price for the ones we choose. Sort of like being at a buffet luncheon without your cardiologist. You can eat anything that's available; you have only to deal with the aftereffects.

Growing old gracefully provides more than ample opportunity to get clear about what we consider important and then make our decisions accordingly. In this journey called life, we're all free to do whatever we want. And like Rebecca, we need only live with the consequences.

But don't expect to get balance. What we'll get is stress: that dynamic tension of trying to creatively live out our lives in a less-than-perfect world. And we're required to do it all as frail, flawed and frightened mortals.

Want a high-flying business career? Go for it.

Might you desire to get married, raise a family and live in conjugal bliss? Good for you.

Maybe you'd prefer to use your artistic talents and create a world of new possibilities? God bless.

Perhaps you'd want to be independent and care free? I'm envious.

But if you expect to have it all, get ready to play center stage in your own exciting Greek Tragedy.

Finding Help in Unusual Places

I've got a wife who works full time and two teen age boys who are experts at disrupting the status quo. I spend most of my days behind a desk in a corporate job. I haven't yet found any balance. Mostly, I've found chaos. But alas, on a good day, some insight.

I no longer look to Jack Welch or Oprah Winfrey to give much help in discerning life's mystery. Rather, I look to the poets. Freud got a few things right and he was certainly on to something when he said: "Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me."

Making choices and living out the inherent tension it creates requires a focus on "being" rather than "doing." The ability to be silent, ponder the deeper possibilities and creatively craft a life-response are aspects of maturity more closely akin to the work of a Poet than a CEO.

Fostering this poetic outlook requires a personal discipline that may not be to everyone's liking. For those not yet ready to embrace it but prefer an addiction to cell phones, e-mails and non-stop meetings, e. e. cummings offers some practical words of advice:

Poetry is being, not doing.
If you would follow,
Even at a distance,
The poet's calling,
You've got to come out of the

Measurable doing universe
Into the immeasurable house of being.

Nobody can be alive for you.
Nor can you be alive for anyone else.

If you can take it, take it and be,
If you can't, cheer up and go about
Other people's business, and do and undo
Until you drop.

Wasting Time: a Portal to the Divine

There's been a spate of books about Atheism surfacing of late on the New York Time's Best Seller list, but I don't think it's gaining broad acceptance. For most people, it's not a practical choice. It seems Henny Youngman's experience continues to hold sway: "I thought about becoming an atheist, but I gave it up. There were no Holidays."

The real threat for modern folks is not a lack of belief. It's a lack of time. We're so busy being productive and trying to get balance in our lives that we're in danger of missing the Divine when He shows up.

Being busy may work wonders for our Professional life, but it wreaks havoc on our Interior one.

If we want to find some semblance of sanity and advance in our Spiritual Journey, we may need to slow down, risk being less productive and indulge in the ancient rite of "Wasting Time."

In my earlier days, I spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. I remember once reading about "The Good Samaritan Experiment" with 40 seminarians at Princeton Theological Seminary. After waxing eloquently about their dedication to God and all His people, they were asked to deliver a sermon on the parable of The Good Samaritan. For those lacking the rigors of monastic studies, it's the story told by Jesus about a man who was set upon by robbers, beaten and left on the side of the road. A priest walks by and offers no help. Neither does a Levite, another religious leader of the era. It's a lone man from Samaria, hated by the local gentry, who goes out of his way to offer assistance - hence the title: Good Samaritan.

In the Princeton experiment, when the seminarians had their homily prepared, they were asked to walk to another part of the campus and deliver their sermon to waiting students. Half were told to hurry, because they were running late. The others were informed there was no rush, they had plenty of time.

As they journeyed across campus, the experimenters arranged to have an actor slumped as a "victim" strategically positioned along their route so that the seminarians were forced to step over or around the man.

So, who stopped to help ... and who didn't? They were all budding "men of the cloth" on their way to deliver a sermon on just such a situation.

What the experiment revealed was that those who were in a hurry passed the "victim" by. Those with time to spare, stopped and helped. It seems altruism and our commitment to our fellow man is less connected to our religious beliefs and more closely aligned with having some free time.

When the Divine shows up, most of us are busy being too productive to even notice His presence. Maybe God doesn't care whether we go to church, temple or mosque. Maybe He's already out in the world waiting to meet us, but we keep passing Him by because we're in such a hurry.

Paying a Price for Living our Lives

Since leaving the monastery, I'd had two near-death experiences. The first was with "incurable" cancer. The second, a heart attack. Both were not-so-subtle reminders that my time's running short.

We're not going to be around forever, and we're not able to have it all. Acknowledging this will generate more than ample disappointment and regret. And we'll pay a price for it: Guilt.

But don't be dismayed. Guilt doesn't necessarily mean that we've done something wrong. It's more an indication that we have said "no" to some larger authority: parent, teacher, boss. Guilt's an indication that we've chosen to live our own lives and not someone else's.

Stop trying to achieve balance and start learning to enjoy chaos. Discovering and relishing one's imperfect life sooner rather than later is what's available.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said that most of us go to our graves with our music still inside. So, forget about work-life balance and let go of the need to please everybody. Rather, get out there and make some choices and let your music resonate.

The guilt won't kill you and you'll do just fine if some folks don't like you.

And you certainly don't need to have it all. For as Steven Wright reminds us: even if you did, where would you put it?

Kenny Moore is the author of The CEO and the Monk: One Company's Journey to Profit and Purpose.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically is now available on the Kindle Reader, Amazon's New Wireless Reading Device.

This interview appears in the Dec. 28 issue of “National Catholic Reporter.”

Sometimes it’s hard enough just dealing with one biblical command, such as to love our neighbors. Writer A.J. Jacobs took it quite a bit further. For one year he tried to follow all of the Bible’s commands, including stoning sinners. He chronicles his experiences in the funny and informative new book “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.”

“I went into it with an open mind to find out what, if anything, I was missing in not having had a religious background,” he said during a telephone interview from Philadelphia, one stop on a 20-city book tour.

Jacobs, 39, an editor at “Esquire Magazine,” grew up in a non-religious Jewish household. He writes that he had never prayed. For his biblical year, though, he had to pray several times a day. It was strange at first -- he jokes that he had never said Lord, except when followed by "of the Flies" and never said God unless preceded by "Oh my."

Having never read more than bits and pieces of the Bible, he began by spending five hours a day for a month reading different versions in their entirety. He had experience with such marathon reading, having for a previous book, “The Know-It-All,” read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, all 44 million words, from cover to cover.

But this time, “the more I read, the more I absorbed the fact that the Bible isn’t just another book,” he writes. “I love my encyclopedia, but the encyclopedia hasn’t spawned thousands of communities based on its words. It hasn’t shaped the actions, values, deaths, love lives, warfare and fashion sense of millions of people over three millennia. No one has ever been executed for translating the encyclopedia into another language . . . No president has been sworn in with the encyclopedia. It’s intimidating, to say the least.”

From the bibles, he typed up a list of more than 700 commandments, focusing on one each day, “while keeping the others in my peripheral vision.” He followed not just the big, well-known rules like the Ten Commandments, but ones like not wearing mixed fibers (Lev. 19:19); he had his clothes tested by an Orthodox Jew who makes house calls to do this. He quickly learned no aspect of his life would be unaffected -- not the way he ate, dressed, talked, or touched his wife. He visited communities where the Bible is taken literally, the Amish country and Orthodox Jews in Israel, and consulted with a variety of Jewish and Christian authorities.

The first thing to change was his appearance. He grew a full beard, in keeping with Lev. 19:27. Then his actions. He began censoring 20 percent of his sentences before they left his mouth because of the Bible’s rigorous language laws. “Is it a lie,” he asked himself. “Is it a boast? Is it a curse? Is it gossip?”

He blew a ram’s horn to mark the start of each month, participated in a service of animal sacrifice in Brooklyn, herded sheep in Israel and found solace in prayer. For one of his funniest practices, he found a way to fulfill the law to stone a Sabbath violator -- he got tiny pebbles from Central Park and, pretending to stumble, dropped them on the shoes of a man at his neighborhood Avis office who had worked both Saturday and Sunday. In that way he kept a biblical law, but it left him with questions that would follow him throughout the year: “How can the Bible be so wise in some places and so barbaric in others? And why should we put any faith in a book that includes such brutality?”

Illustrating that duality was another of his motives for the project. He writes that he wanted to “take legalism to its extreme and show that it leads to religious idiocy. What better way to demonstrate the absurdity of Jewish and Christian fundamentalism? If you actually follow all the rules, you’ll spend your days acting like a crazy person.”

But showing this in the extreme has opened him up to accusations that he was acting as a stunt journalist. A New York Times’ review criticized the book as being a “reality-show version of living by the rules set forth in the Bible,” while another said he was “keeping the joke alive for 365 days.”

Jacobs maintains the opposite is true.

“It was a genuine spiritual journey that changed me in significant ways. Ironically, most religious people see it that way and are happy I took it seriously.”

What attempting to follow the arbitrary laws points out, he says, is that everyone, even the fundamentalists, actually practice cafeteria religion.

“I came to the conclusion you have to do some picking and choosing,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with the cafeteria approach. I've had some delicious meals in cafeterias. It’s all about choosing the right parts, the ones about compassion and helping others instead of the parts that lead to exclusion. If you engage the Bible that way it can be incredibly relevant and important.”

He says he hasn’t heard any complaints from either fundamentalist Jews or Christians, although he has received some e-mails from people praying he will convert to Christianity. In fact, the book has been so well received it hit the New York Times best seller list within weeks of its release last month and Paramount has optioned the film rights.

“My behavior and thoughts have changed in a much more profound way that I had expected,” he says, mentioning cursing -- “I don’t do as much,” gossiping, which he does less of -- “or at least I feel guilty” and coveting -- “I’ve definitely cut down.”

He also joined a temple and enrolled his son Jasper in Hebrew school.

And while the beard is gone, saved now in a plastic bag under the kitchen sink, and he’s stopped stoning sabbath violators and gone back to wearing mixed fibers, he will tithe eight percent of the book’s profits and he continues to pray.

“The idea of thankfulness was a huge change in my perspective. I try to be thankful for the hundreds of things that go right all day instead of concentrating on the few that go wrong.”

Kristin Chenoweth

I've been listening to Kristin's CD, As I Am, again lately. It's so uplifing. Here are some comments from when I interviewed her.

I’d like to tell you about some great CDs that have been sent to me by friends or people I’ve interviewed. I’ll be telling you about recording by J. Mark McVey, Phil Hall and Michelle LeBlanc, but first, let’s start with Kristin Chenoweth’s “As I Am.”

I met Kristin several years ago when I interviewed her for my book “Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors.” In my one hour with her she shared with me enough wisdom to land her in six of the 10 chapters! Three years ago with “As I Am,” she put her faith and talent together in a whole new way and I had the pleasure of interviewing her again. She told me she was unsure how this CD of Christian songs would be received.

“My agents and managers said, ‘You’re going to take hits. You have to decide what you believe,’ and I said ‘I know what I believe.’ I’m an actress and a singer and I’m also a Christian. We’re not all crazy right-wingers. I just want to be like Jesus, forgiving and loving and nonjudgmental, accepting of everyone even if they don’t agree.”

The CD’s 12 selections offer a variety of arrangements, from country for “It Will Be Me,” pop/rock for “Word of God Speak,” blues for “Poor, Wayfaring Stranger” and classical for “Joyful, Joyful.” Her voice ranges from vulnerable in “Abide in Me” to electrifying in “Upon this Rock,” where it soars into the stratosphere, ending on a high E.

After I got this CD I went through a cancer scare and two surgeries. This recording was so comforting to me. I listened to it everyday at least once. I still listen often; when I drive to Baltimore for the day to visit my mother it always goes with me, and even though I take a huge stack of CDs, I usually end up listening to this one twice -- on the ride down and then again coming back.

One song that stands out with its energized rock setting is “Power.” It has the comforting effect on me that the very different “There is a Balm in Gilead” (not on this CD) has. In “Balm” the line “Sometimes I feel discouraged/And think my work’s in vain./But then the Holy Spirit/Revives my soul again” is so assuring, like the verse from Psalm 138: “The Lord will make good his purpose for me.” We all need that reminder from time to time.

In “Power,” the line is “trust in me/cuz you have power/of mine invested in you.” I was feeling really disappointed about the pace of my life and work one day when I was listening to that and it lifted me up and reenergized me. I realized that of course everything would be fine. God had invested a great deal of power in me and God hadn’t made that investment carelessly. I love the chorus too: “You have my power./You have my strength./You have my holiness within./Go out and share what I’ve given you./Don’t be afraid./Don’t be dismayed./I’ll light the way, my friend.”

Those are real commissioning words. In her CD notes, Kristin says she has memories of riding in her brother’s car with the windows down listening to this song. That would be fun. I know I really crank up the volume when I listen to it.

I don’t just listen to this CD when I’m down, but when I am, it lifts me every time.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Today is the feast day of Mother Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity of New York, of which I am blessed to be an associate member. I have loved Mother Seton since I was a child and have visited her shrine in Emmitsburg, MD, often. She was a courageous woman who responded to God’s call to her and started the first congregation of religious women in America and began the Catholic school system in this country. Her faith was so strong. I love the way she told her 19th century Sisters to “meet your grace” and to “keep to what you believe to be the grace of the moment . . do your best . . and leave the rest to our dear God.” Those are words for us to live by today. I am happy to be one of her spiritual daughters. Google her to read more about her and visit to learn more about the Sisters.

I leave you with this quote from Mother Seton: “God who sits above smiles at the anxious, calculating heart, and makes everything easy to the simple and confiding.”

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Three Mo' Tenors

  The Tenors’ latest is not just fabulously entertaining, but it’s spiritually uplifting as well. It has been nearly two years since I saw one of their shows -- way too long. I could see them every two months!

As usual the show includes their amazing range of opera, Broadway, jazz, gospel, soul, spirituals and blues, to name seven of their 10 different musical styles. It begins with Verdi, and soon the music of Motown, Ray Charles and Usher has the tenors grooving on stage, and the rest of us in the audience.

I was especially moved by what they did with “Bring Him Home,” the prayerful hit from “Les Miz.” This song always touches me, and two Broadway Jean Valjeans -- J. Mark McVey and Dudu Fisher -- told me it touched them every time they sang it, even through eight shows a week for years. What the Tenors did that was special is that while James N. Berger Jr. sang lyrics like “bring him home,” Sean T. Miller harmonized with “bring her home” or “bring them home.” Mr. Berger had prefaced the song by saying this is a time for prayers, and hearing the inclusion of her and them gave a deeper poignancy to the song. It wasn’t just a lovely Broadway show tune, it was a reminder of all those who are now risking their lives in the Middle East conflicts. It was a very special moment in the show.

I also was touched by the new spiritual medley, which was a strong reminder of God’s love and our call to praise him with our lives. It was just what I needed to hear last night. I left the theatre feeling healed. The Tenors’ singing isn’t just soulful, it’s soul-filled.

“Three Mo’ Tenors” was conceived, directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey. Because of the extraordinary vocal demands, the show features six tenors, who rotate three at a time in alternating performances. Duane A. Moody rounded out the trio last night. Kenneth D. Alston Jr. Ramone Diggs and Phumzile Sojola sang at Broadway Blessing.

It didn’t surprise me that the evening was special. It’s true these men are exceptional singers, but they are backed up by Willette Murphy Klausner, a producer with the highest of standards. I was fortunate to interview her for “The Jewish Week” in early 2006 and felt I was talking to a warm woman with much character. When I told her how much I enjoyed the Tenors and would love to have them perform at Broadway Blessing, she worked hard to get them to us, succeeding last September when they wowed our audience with their singing and their style. Franny Sternhagen was sitting next to me and I asked her if she had ever heard them before. She said yes, adding that she not only loved their show, she loved their name as well.

The name is, of course, a play on “The Three Tenors” concerts that featured Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. The mission of “Three Mo’ Tenors” is “to have an African-American tenor at the top of the opera world” within a decade, Ms, Klausner says.

“A black tenor goes to school and learns, despite the fact there’s no future for him,” she told me during the “Jewish Week” interview. “There are lots of black tenors who have never been heard of. We want to shine a spotlight on these gifted young men.”

Since the tenor is the lead in an opera, pairing a black singer with a white woman is something directors have been reluctant to do. “It’s as much visual as anything,” Ms. Klausner said. “The tenor is the rarest of all voices. As the star, he must get the girl. Our tenors are rarely heard in opera. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

For this reason, the theme of the show is “Make Them Hear You,” the powerful song by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty from the musical “Ragtime.” When the Tenors sing it, you’re ready to go out and tell the world.

So now I’ve told you. Go out and see this show. For information, visit

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Devil's Disciple

With three degrees in English -- one undergrad and two grad -- I was surprised to find a Shaw play I didn’t know about. Tony Walton directs this strange little play in which Shaw mocks the popular melodramas of his time.

“The Devil’s Disciple” is an early play and quite different from what we expect in later works -- no Super Woman here. Instead we have Judith Anderson (Jenny Fellner), the prissy, sniveling young wife of an older minister. Set during the American Revolution, the play takes aim at self-important religiosity and political conceit.

The best scenes involve Dick Dudgeon, played with charm and rakish swagger by Lorenzo Pisoni, as he gleefully goes about shocking his family and neighbors in that Puritan society.

In his 1900 preface to “Three Plays for Puritans” Shaw wrote of his motivation for writing this play: “At the end of the nineteenth century there was never a play more certain to be written than ‘The Devil’s Disciple.’ The age was visibly pregnant with it. A generation that is thoroughly moralized and patriotized, that conceives virtuous indignation as spiritually nutritious, that murders the murderer and robs the thief, that grovels before all sorts of ideals, social, military, ecclesiastical, royal and divine, may be, from my point of view, steeped in error; but it need not want for as good plays as the hand of man can produce.”

It seems things haven’t changed much, which is why “The Devil’s Disciple” is as timely as ever. It runs at the Irish Rep through Jan. 27.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Park Avenue Whirl

This is the second time I’ve stumbled on this enchanting little end of the year cabaret show at 59E59 Theaters. The first time was two or three years ago when a big band played romantic music of the 40s, those good old songs from “The Hit Parade.” This year’s show featured Rita Gardner in the first act and Penny Fuller in the second, both singing show tunes and sharing stories of their years on -- and back -- stage.

Even though the two acts had similar themes -- singing songs from the shows they were in and sharing their experiences with the audience -- the personalities of the these two musical theatre veterans made a great contrast, and complement, to each other. Ms. Gardner, the original Girl in the original cast of “The Fantasticks,” must be in her 70s but she’s got the heart of an ingenue, charming us with her optimism and buoyant spirit in her segment called “Try to Remember,” which featured music from Off-Broadway, or shows that at least started Off-Broadway. Ms. Fuller, for her part entitled “Friends in Deed,” was the woman who’s been around, a bit world weary but still fighting, singing songs by composers she knew. It was like going from the girl next door to the “sadder but wiser girl.” I loved both.

The accompanists deserve mentioning. Ms. Gardner’s pianist, Alex Rybeck, joined her for an occasional duet and Ms. Fuller was well served by Paul Greenwood on piano and Louis Tucci on bass and guitar.

It was an afternoon of glamor and fun, and made me determined to be at “The Park Avenue Whirl” every year from now on. It’s a refreshing break from the standard holiday fare. I get sick of Christmas carols after awhile, but I never get tired of show music. Performers like Ms. Gardner and Ms. Fuller prove there really is no business like show business. What a great way to end the holiday season, and begin a new year.