Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Elizabeth Swados


Liz and I had a great meeting today with Tom Miller, canon for liturgy and the arts at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Liz is envisioning a new oratorio about spirituality and family that will have its world premiere at the Cathedral in about 18 months. I’ll be serving as a producer, something I’ve done proudly for Liz a couple of times before. If you know Liz’s work from Broadway or Off-Broadway, you know it will be filled with blessings.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mary Stuart


Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Or in this case, the heads. Those jealous queens, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Janet McTeer) and Elizabeth I, Queen of England (Harriet Walter) are alive and raging in the Donmar (London) Warehouse's acclaimed revival of Mary Stuart, now at the Broadhurst Theatre through Aug. 16.

In the case of Mary, of course, her head isn’t just uneasy -- it’s about to come off. Under the direction once again of Phyllida Lloyd, McTeer (right in photo) and Walter (left) re-create their roles as the treacherously competitive cousins who each sees herself as the rightful ruler of England. Peter Oswald's version of Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play may be about 16th century English royalty, but with its behind-the-scenes power plays, intrigue and betrayal, it feels perfectly contemporary.

The show is long -- three hours. While the subject is rich in history and drama, the play is quite talky as most of the story is given through exposition. For this reason, I wish I had read it first. Not because it’s hard to follow, which it isn’t, but because it’s so factually dense and there are so many good lines I wanted to savor. But the powerful performances by McTeer and Walter and the entire supposing cast make the evening as intense and theatrical as any on Broadway.

Among the other cast members are Michael Countryman as Sir Amias Paulet; Adam Greer as O'Kelly; John Benjamin Hickey as Earl of Leicester; Michael Rudko as Count Aubespine/Melvil; Robert Stanton as William Davison; Maria Tucci as Hanna Kennedy; Chandler Williams as Mortimer; Nicholas Woodeson as Lord Burleigh and Brian Murray as Earl of Shrewsbury. The company also features Jacqueline Antaramian, Tony Carlin, Monique Fowler and Guy Paul.

Schiller took some liberties with the truth that make this showdown between queens more dramatic for the theatre. The play's most exciting scene, a meeting between the two, never happened, although the real Mary believed that if she could just talk to her cousin in person she might be able to persuade Elizabeth to spare her life. She begged through intermediaries for this chance, but in reality the two never met each other.

Their meeting in the play is a brilliant sparring match, and is preceded by another theatrically thrilling scene. Mary, whom Elizabeth had kept in prison for years, seeing her as a rebel and threat to her monarchy, has been released from prison temporarily and is grateful to stand outside in the pouring rain. This rain is the best I’ve ever seen onstage. Technical director William Elliot pipes in 400 gallons of tap water purified by ultraviolet light and held in two tanks above the stage, making it truly look like a real rain shower when it comes down. It’s also a nice contrast to the starkness of Anthony Ward’s stark sets, which consist of little more than a piece or two of plain wooden furniture, backed by a black brick wall.

Ward also is responsible for the creative costuming, which has the women in period pieces and the men in contemporary suits and ties, an interesting contrast between the rulers of court and the usual rulers of the business world.

Tickets for Mary Stuart are available at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Norman Conquests


After sitting through Table Manners, one play of of The Norman Conquests trilogy which opened last night at Circle in the Square, I canceled my tickets for the other two, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden. Two and a half hours with those miserable people was more than enough.

Each play of Alan Ayckbourn's 1973 comedy is written to be complete on its own or seen in any order, which should work well if the one I saw is indicative. It never really goes anywhere, just around in circles. The exit in one play becomes the entrance in another.

Directed by Matthew Warchus, The Norman Conquests comes to New York following a successful run last year at The Old Vic in London, which also was directed by Warchus and featured the current cast, Amelia Bullmore (Ruth), Jessica Hynes (Annie), Stephen Mangan (Norman), Ben Miles (Tom), Paul Ritter (Reg) and Amanda Root (Sarah).

The plays take place during a summer weekend in an English country house where family members insult one another, throw food, drink too much, cheat on their spouses and generally behave badly. The Norman of the title is an assistant librarian who calls himself “a giggalo trapped in a cornstalk” who says he wants three women a day. With his mangy hair, beard and blue print pajamas he doesn’t look like someone who could get even one, but he manages to have a wife, be having a fling with her sister and is seducing another sister-in-law.

Ayckbourn (in photo) is a popular -- and prolific -- playwright in England. Among his 70 full-length plays are Absurd Person Singular, Bedroom Farce, Just Between Ourselves, A Chorus of Disapproval, Woman in Mind and House & Garden.

The friend who went with me to Table Manners, Carolyn Hearn, is British. At intermission she was unimpressed, but when the show was over she said she thought it was funny. When I pressed her about that, she said the family dynamics, the drinking of terrible homemade wine and eating of cold toast were very British. This American didn’t find that funny, although I did think two scenes were -- one has the family playing a sort of musical chairs in an attempt to please one controling sister-in-law who has specific ideas about place settings and one in which the hostess is trying to stretch her limited stew -- made by opening every can in the kitchen and tossing the contents together in a saucepan -- and she ends up taking a bowl away from someone who had already begun to eat and shifting part of his portion into another bowl. Other than that, though, unless you like to hear people quarrel, drink homemade wine and eat cold toast, you might want to skip this show.

All three plays will be presented consecutively on Saturdays (as was the case in London) at 11 AM, 3 PM and 8 PM. The limited engagement plays to July 26. For more information, including the performance schedule, visit NormanConquestsOnBroadway.com. Tickets are available through Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, online at www.telecharge.com and at the Circle in the Square box office, 235 W. 50th St.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fight anxiety with faith


"Thoughts tend to reproduce themselves in kind. If a person constantly sends out apprehensive anxiety thoughts, he actually tends to produce accident and misfortune. Conversely, if you surround your loved ones and yourself with faith thoughts, protection thoughts, love thoughts—all of which may be called God thoughts—then you encompass your loved ones and yourself with the most powerful protection in the world.

"Anxiety is likely to produce what you are anxious about; whereas intelligent faith produces protective commonsense results. Anxiety is like a magnet. It draws unhappy results to itself. But so also is faith. Indeed faith is a much more powerful magnet, one that draws incredible blessings."

-- Dr. Norman Vincent Peale

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird


Harper Lee’s moving story still had the power to make me cry, in spite of the poor quality of some of the acting in this stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, performed by the Montana Repertory Theatre Sunday at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College.

The weakest link was Mikel MacDonald as Atticus Finch, the white southern lawyer and widowed father of two young children who defends a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1935 rural Alabama. Director Greg Johnson cast this crucial role with someone who at best sounds as if he’s doing a first read-though. The actor who played Judge Taylor (Jackson Palmer) also was weak, and the effect of these two ineffective performances reduced the whole production to an amateur level, which is a shame because some elements did shine.

Luckily Scout (Marie Fahlgren), Addicus’s tomboyish daughter through whose eyes we see the story, is good, as are her older brother, Jem (Jennifer Fleming-Lovely), and Dill (Heather Schmidt), a little boy visiting relatives in the neighborhood. The strongest performance is by Robert Karma Robinson (in photo) as Tom Robinson, the accused man.

Scenic designer Bill Raoul’s sets, coupled with Mark Dean’s lighting, shift easily and believably from front yard, to jail house to courtroom.

Montana Rep’s production celebrates the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel’s 50th anniversary. The play is good and deserves better performers, especially since it’s hard to watch and not be reminded of the beautiful 1962 movie, with its Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote. Gregory Peck, one of my all-time favorite actors, won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus. The film, which had been nominated for eight Academy Awards, also won for best art direction.
 
Established in 1967, Montana Rep has become a widely recognized touring company.  The Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts’s presentations explore both the classical traditions and the boldest contemporary performances -- embracing the world culture that defines Brooklyn -- and boasts one of the largest arts education programs in the borough, serving schoolchildren from more than 225 schools annually.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pulitzer Prize for Drama


Congratulations to Lynn Nottage for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her powerful play Ruined.

Meditation/Love and Joy


I’ve been meditating twice a day for years, so I really appreciate these comments by Fr. Laurence Freeman about the effects of meditation, not only the increase of spiritual fruits like love and joy, but also the actual changes in our brains. With regular practice, the transformation “builds up like a suntan if you sit in the sun long enough,” he says, and it energizes us. Listen to Fr. Freeman’s free pod cast.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Mayor of Mississauga, Ontario

This woman is a pistol! Check out this video.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Amazing Grace cast changes and free concert


Several cast members from the fabulous new musical Amazing Grace: The True Story will offer a free benefit concert May 1 and 2 in Bensalem, PA. The show tells the story of John Newton, a slave trader who went on to pen one of the world’s most famous songs, Amazing Grace.

I’m thrilled that J. Mark McVey (in photo), award-winning Broadway star of Les Miserables, will now be playing the role of John Newton’s father, a beefy part since the father and son had a troubled relationship that was never resolved. Mark, who replaces Dave Felty, not only has a gorgeous voice, but he’s one of my favorite people in show business.

A new member of the cast whom I haven’t met yet but looking forward to getting to know is Julie Hanson, a Broadway star of The Phantom of The Opera, who replaces Ali Ewoldt as Mary Catlett, the woman John Newton loves. Ali, who was great in the part when I saw a concert version of the show, has been cast as Maria in the international production of West Side Story.

The Bensalem concert will also feature Eric Briarley, from the national tour of Les Miz, who will cover all the John Newton parts because Adam Jacobs, who has been playing the role and is powerful in it, is touring in Mamma Mia!. (Eric was Adam's understudy, in the role of Marius, on the Les Miz tour.)
 
I wish I could be at this concert, but as a Drama Desk voter I’m really swamped this time of year with all the New York openings. Hope you can get there. It will be 8 p.m. at the Christian Life Center, 3100 Galloway Rd, Bensalem, PA; phone (215) 322-LIFE. Doors open at 7:15 p.m. No tickets, but an offering will be accepted. Suggested donation: $10

Amazing Grace: The True Story was written by Bucks County's own Christopher Smith. World Magazine says the show features "a soaring score, moving lyrics, and a powerful plot... A coming-of-age drama backed by a setting of storms, battles and high seas adventure."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Chasing Manet


What a joy it is to have a new play by Tina Howe, my favorite contemporary playwright. Chasing Manet is pure Howe -- quirky, delightful characters and laugh-out-loud humor, combined with revealing glimpses into the valiant struggle of the human spirit. It’s her first new play in New York since Pride’s Crossing in 1997, and it’s a gift to be back in Tina Howe world!

Howe’s plays are great windows into the various stages of life. Young adulthood and its need for recognition shape Painting Churches, her 1983 breakout play about a 20-something artist and her desire for parental approval; Birth and After Birth looks at the strains of motherhood and Approaching Zanzibar deals with the challenges of mid-life, such as menopause and the approaching death of a family member.

In Chasing Manet, directed by Michael Wilson, Howe takes on the final stage, old age. Catherine Sargent (Jane Alexander, in photo right), a noted painter from a prominent Boston WASP family, and Rennie Waltzer, (Lynn Cohen, left), a bubbly Jewish woman with an adoring, involved family, end up sharing a room at the Mount Airy Nursing Home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Watching this unlikely pair evolve into a sisterhood of conspiracy is a treat.

Rennie’s able to keep her cheery spirit because her confused mind allows her to have conversations with her dead husband as if he were in the room, and she doesn’t see herself in a nursing home -- she thinks she’s in the Mt. Airy Four Star Hotel. Upon arrival, when she hears the bing-bong bells that summon a nurse, she smiles happily and says, “Room service.”

Catherine’s mind, on the other hand, is sharp and she resents her son, Royal (Jack Gilpin), for placing her in a nursing home, even though being legally blind she is unable to live alone. Unlike Rennie’s loving relationship with her family, Catherine’s with Royal, an English professor, is bitter. When, on one of his rare visits, Royal tells Rennie’s guests that he is writing a book about Yeats, Catherine says sarcastically, “Still?”

In her all-powering desire to escape from the confines of the home, but with little vision to guide her, Catherine elicits Rennie’s help, even though Rennie needs a wheelchair. Catherine will push and Rennie will guide, a perfect plan only to the desperate, which Catherine is. She books them passage on the QE II and they plot their escape to Paris, “the blind leading the lame,” Catherine's spirit lightened with the thought of seeing Manet’s painting, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, once again at the Louvre. (She has a copy hanging over her bed.)

One of the funniest scenes has the two going through their considerable combined stock of medicines deciding what to take. Catherine can’t read the labels and Rennie, with her perpetual confusion, isn’t sure what anything is. Their deciding factor is how “serious” the pills sound when they shake the bottles. Then Rennie’s mind becomes momentarily crystal clear as she thinks about the one pill she must have. “Stool softener,” she says and both ladies rush for their night stands to grab their bottles. Together they shake them while gleefully singing a little song about there being no softener like stool softener to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” It’s hysterical, and a classic Howe moment.

Alexander plays Catherine just right, capturing her haughtiness and anger, but allowing her free-spirited side to emerge naturally in time, and Cohen is the perfect foil. Julie Halston is hilarious as a senile patient with a salty tongue, a role she quickly, and frequently, exchanges for that of Rennie’s daughter. Rounding out the cast are Vanessa Aspillaga, David Margulies and Rob Riley. Tony Straiges’s sets, David C. Wollard’s costumes and Howell Binkley’s lighting work beautifully together to bring this world to life.

The delicious ending, which I won’t spoil for you, is pure Howe. She knows how to send her audiences out with their hearts high, which you know if you’ve seen The Art of Dining, Painting Churches and Approaching Zanzibar. When I interviewed Howe in 1990 for my second masters thesis, which was on her work, I asked her about her mastery of dynamic closings. They are a major focus of her work and, she said, usually surprise her as much as her audience.

“The ending is everything to me,” she said. “To me the whole point of writing a play is to sculpt that shock, that visual shock. I think that’s my strongest suit in a way. Often the ending is what comes last, but I just know it has to be an epiphany. I do struggle long and hard to try to come up with something strong.”

Well, Tina, you did it again. Thank you for another wonderful evening of theatre, and please don’t make us wait so long the next time.

Chasing Manet, a Primary Stages production, runs through May 2 at 59E59 Theaters (located at 59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets are available at the box office, by calling (212) 279-4200 and online at www.ticketcentral.com. For more information visit primarystages.com.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Blithe Spirit


This revival of Noel Coward’s classic comedy definitely lives up to its name -- it’s joyful and full of life. Every member of the cast, headed by four-time Tony Award winner Angela Lansbury, sparkles with wit and impeccable timing, the set is spectacular and not one second of the show is wasted. It’s a shimmering treat from start to finish.

Lansbury is a hoot as eccentric psychic Madame Arcati, cavorting around the stage in her colorful garb (fabulous costumes by Martin Pakledinaz) and conjuring up the spirit of Elvira (Christine Ebersole), the lovely and a bit naughty late wife of novelist Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett) in whose elegant English country house the “séance” takes place.

The play, perfectly directed by Michael Blakemore, begins as Charles and his older second wife, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson), and their friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Simon Jones and Deborah Rush) sip cocktails, chat and joke about the upcoming séance, which Charles has initiated to observe Madame Arcati as research for a character for one of his mystery novels. He gets more than expected after the aged medium bursts on the scene and begins her conjuring.

Ebersole is a delightfully mischievous ghost who appears after the guests have left. She flitters around the stage tormenting Ruth, who can’t see her, and flirting with Charles, who very much can.

Susan Louise O’Connor is also a treasure as a frighten mouse of a character, the servant Edith, who clatters the dishes loudly and scatters about in a near run.

Peter J. Davison’s set is divine and Brian MacDevitt lighting is effectively cheery or shadowy, as needed.

Blithe Spirit, which premiered in 1941, was one of Coward's biggest successes. The original Broadway production starred Clifton Webb as Charles, Peggy Wood as Ruth and Leonora Corbett as Elvira, with Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati. The play originated in London, with Coward starring as Charles.

See this magnificent new production now at the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St. Tickets are available at the box office, by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Little Bit Wicked


Kristin Chenoweth is one of my favorite Broadway stars, so I looked forward to reading her memoir, A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages. Sadly, after making my way through the 221-page volume, I know little more about this talented performer than I did before.

Part of the problem is to be expected given Ms. Chenoweth’s age -- 40. In writing about human psychological growth, Carl Jung likened the first half of life to morning, a time when we develop our ego as we relate to the world. In the afternoon of our journey, beginning in mid-life, we connect inwardly to become our true and full selves. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father proves that someone under 45 can write a deep, insightful memoir, but generally it would be better, like Jane Fonda in her compelling and introspective My Life So Far, to wait until after a 60th birthday to begin critically examining one’s life.

Adopted at five days old by June and Jerry Chenoweth of Broken Arrow, OK, Ms. Chenoweth was called Kristi Dawn and grew up happy and loved by her extended family. She was told her birth parents were an unmarried fight attendant and a pilot who was married and had other children. She’s had no desire to meet them and is just grateful her mother didn’t use her employee benefits to fly to where abortion was legal in 1968. “She chose to have me instead, and thank you does not begin to cover how I feel. But that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to say to her.”

Ms. Chenoweth’s greatest hero is the mother who raised her and supported her performance pursuits, first ballet, then beauty pageants and finally singing and acting. “She knew nothing about showbiz and cared even less,” Ms. Chenoweth writes. “Instead of pushing me to perform, she taught me to pray, and that made her the perfect mother for me.”

The second most influential woman in Ms. Chenoweth’s life was her voice teacher at Oklahoma City University, Florence Birdwell, who heard in her student “the voice of the decade, the voice of her generation.” She encouraged Ms. Chenoweth to switch her major from musical theatre to opera performance and to stay on for a masters degree. Along the way she transformed her student from “a precocious belter” into “a classically trained coloratura soprano.”

Then she went one step further, persuading Ms. Chenoweth to change her name to Kristin. “You already look like a Kristi Dawn. You already have that to fight against. . . Insist on being taken seriously when you open your mouth to sing.”

Since graduation Ms. Chenoweth has performed in several Broadway shows, winning a Tony in 1999 for her efforts in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. She’s an opera singer, has had her own TV series, “Kristin,” been a regular on others and appeared in a half dozen feature films. She shares anecdotes about these accomplishments, far too much about her beauty pageant days and some really funny tales of her early days in New York migrating from one subletted apartment to another.

She has nothing but praise for most of her former lovers, who include Broadway star Marc Kudisch and “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, but no reflection on why her relationships don’t last, other than to say no man has been able to “handle the complicated logistics of my life.”

What’s lacking is perspective on all of this, an examination of patterns and some insight into who she really is beneath the pretty and talented performer. Ms. Fonda was brutally honest about scrutinizing the choices she had made and considering how they shaped the woman she is today -- and about her relationships and why she was in them. Hers is an extremely vulnerable book, but that’s what makes it so inspiring. Ms. Chenoweth writes that “some things are sacred, other things private and others just none of anyone’s beeswax,” but getting personal is what effective memoir writing is all about. The closest she gets is at the end when she talks about her religion and the heat she drew from conservative Christians over her more liberal view of homosexuality. “I’d never watered down my message of faith for Hollywood, and I wasn’t going to water down my message of acceptance for these folks now,” she writes.

One significant chance for her to go deeper would have been in relating her months caring for her mother following a double mastectomy. I wish co-writer Joni Rodgers had insisted on the basic element of good writing -- show don’t tell. Take us into the room, please. This mother and daughter had always been close. How was this time together different? She says they talked about things they had never talked about before. What? And how did this change their relationship? Ms. Chenoweth devotes a mere five paragraphs to this experience, while her hair problems and adventures with extensions get nearly 40.

A Little Bit Wicked can be entertaining in the way reading People Magazine at the nail salon during a pedicure can be, but it’s more like an extended interview on late night television than an analysis of a life lived large. Ms. Chenoweth has a reputation for being one of the nicest and most professional people in the business, and I've certainly liked her the times I interviewed her. Her life deserves a better accounting. “When I’m a grand old dame of the stage, I might get around to writing a proper ‘tell-all’ autobiography,” she writes. “Right now, I’m offering this completely biased ‘tell-a-little’ slice of life.” This one is Kristi Dawn’s story. I hope she does write that second volume someday because I’d really like to get to know Kristin.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Happiness


This new musical starts out promising, but halfway through the less than two-hour performance time the plot wears thin and I was wishing it would hurry up and be over. This is especially disappointing considering some of the most talented people in musical theatre are involved.

Happiness is supposed to be one of those appreciate-your-life shows. Nine people are trapped in a stalled New York City subway car -- eight of whom find out they have just died -- with a dour conductor, Stanley (Hunter Foster, left in photo), whose job is to guide them into eternity by helping them remember a happy moment from their past so they can “live in the bliss of that moment forever.”

One by one they recall their special time and then they disappear into their reward. The idea is cute initially, but after the first few enacted memories I began counting the riders left and thinking, “Oh, no. Still five more stories to go.”

The always-delightful Joanna Gleason is wasted here playing a right-wing, homophobic radio talk show host whose “moment” reveals a free-spirited hippie past.

Another waste of talent is with director Susan Stroman whose lively choreography is stifled by book writer John Weidman’s meager story line. The same could be said for the song writing team of Michael Korie and Scott Frankel who had so much to work with in their former venture, Grey Gardens, but who have such a skimpy plot here they write far too many songs to try to cover the emptiness.

One of the best moment/memories is that of Helen (Phyllis Somerville) as an elderly demented woman pushed around in a wheelchair by her aide, Hyacinth (Idara Victor). As with all the moments, the subway car recedes to the back of the stage and the memory is enacted in the front. (Thomas Lynch’s set design works well to make this flow.) Helen tells of being young and falling in love at a U.S.O. canteen during World War II. Nice swing music and dancing, even if her story is a cliché. All the others that will follow are too.

I also liked the account of Maurice (Ken Page), an interior decorator, who recalled sitting by the hospital bed of his partner who was dying of AIDS. A deathbed scene may not seem like a high point, but together they remember the good times they shared. “Relationships, like home decor, are in the small details,” Maurice concludes.

The rest, unfortunately, are bland at best. The most obnoxious character is Miguel (Miguel Cervantes), a bicycle messenger and deadbeat dad whose memories largely center around getting blow jobs.

The only one who isn’t dead and who a chance to go back is Zack (Sebastian Arcelus, right in photo), an uptight lawyer who sees the errors of his old ways, with “perfect moments that pass unnoticed,” and vows to live a centered, in-the-moment life if he can get out of the train. It takes two hours to get to this absolutely predictable ending.

By the close you will have one other absolutely predictable impression -- if we are ever asked one day to share our best memory to gain eternity, no one will be recalling this show.

Happiness plays through June 7 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. For tickets and more information visit LCT.org.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hair


Finally a good Broadway musical revival. Actually, a fantastic one! I haven’t had so much fun -- or felt so young -- at a show since Jersey Boys several years ago. If you can only get to one show, this is the one to see. I want to go back!!

Director Diane Paulus and this totally engaged cast put on a spectacle that is bursting with energy. I didn’t feel I was at a show -- I felt I was at a happening, that these people really were hanging out together in Greenwich Village and we were with them.

I had wondered if a “tribal love-rock musical” set in 1967 and very specific to that time would seem dated. Not at all! This show is as fresh as any on Broadway. Choreographer Karole Armitage has the cast pulsating across the stage and into the aisles, singing all those great songs by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot -- remember “Let the Sun Shine In,” “Aquarius,” “Hair” and “Good Morning Starshine”? -- and frolicking in jeans, peasant tops and colorful garb designed by Michael McDonald.

This was my first time to actually see Hair -- I was in elementary school when it premiered in 1967 -- so I didn’t know the story, such as it is. I have had the original cast recording all these years, though, so I felt right at home with the songs.

With Gavin Creel in the pivotal role of Claude, a likable young man torn over whether to burn his draft card, the story is involving for more than just the feel-good pizzazz. I also really liked Caissie Levy as Shelia, the most political and social-conscious of the group.

This production of Hair began as a 40th anniversary concert presentation by the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival at the Central Park's Delacorte Theater in 2007, which I missed. The Public then presented a full production last summer at the Delacorte; I had tickets one night but got rained out. The show I finally got to see Friday night at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre was well worth waiting for.

Unlike that other large-cast revival that opened recently -- West Side Story -- all of the actors in Hair are fully present to their parts. And all deserve mention. Will Swenson is the ultimate counterculture rebel Berger, the other leading members are Allison Case, Kacie Sheik, Sasha Allen, Bryce Ryness, Darius Nichols, Megan Lawrence, Andrew Kober and Steel Burkhardt. The ensemble includes Lauren Elder, Allison Guinn, Anthony Hollock, John Moauro, Ato Blankson-Wood, Brandon Pearson, Paris Remillard, Maya Sharpe, Theo Stockman, Tommar Wilson, Jackie Burns, Kaitlin Kiyan, Nicole Lewis, Megan Reinking and Saycon Sengbloh.

There’s a purity about these hopeful, free-spirited young people in spite of their free love and use of drugs. They stand up against racism and the war in Vietnam and challenge convention. For this reason Hair is really a show for any time, not a look back at a bygone era.

For tickets call (212) 239-6200, visit Telecharge. or go to the Hirschfeld’s box office at 302 W. 45th St. For further information visit HairBroadway.com

Monday, April 6, 2009

Irena's Vow


Accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust are numerous, and they need to be told. Less plentiful are the stories of courage in the face of such evil, and these also must be known. Irena’s Vow, the new play by Dan Gordon, tells one. Tovah Feldshuh powerfully brings to life the true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish-Catholic woman who hid a dozen Jews in a most unlikely place -- the house of her employer, who just happened to be the highest ranking Nazi officer in Poland. Feldshuh is backed by an outstanding ensemble cast of nine in this inspiring play, directed by Michael Parva, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Irena Gut had been forced to work as head housekeeper for Major Rugemer (Thomas Ryan, left in photo) during Germany’s occupation of Poland. Over a two-year period she risked her life to save 12 Jewish refugees in keeping with a vow she made to herself to do all she could to preserve life. She made that vow after witnessing a Nazi soldier smash a Jewish infant’s skull into the ground and then shoot the mother. Feldshuh tells this story in detail, relating it in the play’s way of presenting her as an older woman talking to high school students about her experiences. As the older Irena, Feldshuh addresses the audience directly; as the younger woman she acts out the scenes. This device works well to move the story along, keeping the show a fast-paced 90 minutes, and covering Irena’s life from age 17 to 72.

Irena’s vow is challenged constantly as she tries to keep her conspiracy secret. It is really tested when one of the refugees, Ida Hallar (Maja Wampuszyc), becomes pregnant and she and her husband, Lazar (Gene Silvers), ask Irena to get them the materials so they can perform an abortion rather than jeopardize everyone’s safety. Irena at first refuses because as a Catholic she opposes abortion, but she relents, fearing it would be impossible for the presence of a crying baby in the basement to go undetected. Ultimately, though, the Hallars decide to have the baby and name him Roman, a name that is a variation of Irena.

Miraculously Irena is able to keep the major from finding out about her activities until one day she slips up after witnessing more Nazi brutality. She forgets to lock the front door of the major’s house during the time she allows the refugees to come out for fresh air. The major returns and discovers them. To buy his silence, Irena agrees to become his mistress.

When the Nazis’ fortunes begin to turn and it becomes clear the Germans will be retreating and the Russians taking over Poland, Irena works with the resistance to smuggle her refugees out of the country. As she spirits them to what she hopes will be safety, she never knows if she will see them again.

Unfortunately, her troubles are far from over. The Soviets jail her for being a Nazi collaborator. They don’t know she saved Jews, all they know is that she was the mistress of a German officer.

But then, in yet another twist in this astonishing story, the Hallar help Irena escape and get to a camp for Jewish survivors. Eventually she makes her way to America to start a new life. A poignant moment in the play is when, many years after her heroic acts, a young man introduces himself as her son. She tells him he is mistaken, that she has only one child, a daughter. He tells her he is Roman Hallar, alive and grown -- thanks to her.

Feldshuh and the other cast members, who also include Sandi Carroll, Tracee Chimo, Steven Hauck, Scott Klavan, Peter Reznikoff and John Stanisci (right in photo), all do an excellent job of portraying the suspense of the situation. I never did, however, get the full feeling of the magnitude of Irena’s efforts because only three refugees are portrayed. I know casting all of them would have been too expensive, but every time Irena mentioned something about 12 people I thought, “Oh, that’s right. There were 12.” I never had a sense of more than the three I saw.

Kevin Judge’s stark, multilevel set is effective, as are David Castaneda’s lighting and Astrid Brucker’s costumes. 

Irena’s Vow is a play full of events that seem unlikely, if not impossible. Fortunately for those of us in the audience Thursday night, the amazing stories continued. After taking her bows, Feldshuh introduced Jeannie Opdyke Smith, Irena’s daughter, who with poise and humility answered questions from the audience. Then Smith offered us another surprise, introducing the only other person to call her mother mom -- Roman Hallar.

Smith was asked if her mother, who died at 85 in 2003, had talked to her much about her war years experiences. Her answer was the first of several astounding stories the two shared. In the play, Irena says that when she left Europe after the war she put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on her heart and never spoke of the events again, not until many years later when the hateful rantings and Holocaust denial of a skinhead she heard on TV prompted her personal campaign to speak out. In real life, Smith said, her mother had indeed posted that sign on her heart so that Smith never knew anything about her heroism until a “random” caller phoned one night during dinner when Smith was 14. It was a high school student dialing around to ask people if they thought the Holocaust was a hoax. Opdyke was the one who answered the phone and the question unleashed a lengthy and forceful response in which Opdyke gave her eyewitness account. That’s how Smith learned of her mother’s past, and that was the impetus for Opdyke to begin her outreach to young people. For her efforts, Opdyke is listed next to Oskar Schindler on the wall honoring the Righteous Among Nations in Jerusalem.

When asked if her father knew her mother’s story, Smith shared another extraordinary coincidence. Her mother had told her story to a young American UN worker while she was living in the camp for displaced people just after the war. Years later when she was living in New York she happened to be in a coffee shop near the UN when a young man came up and asked if he could share her table. She said yes and they talked. Then the young man said he knew her, that he had been the one who interviewed her in the camp. They began seeing each other and were married six weeks later.

Smith told of a third remarkable coincidence when asked if her mother had ever seen her family again. Opdyke had found out her parents hadn’t survived the war, but thought it would be impossible to find her four sisters because they surely would have married and changed their names. A young couple heading to Poland offered to search for them for her. Opdyke gave the couple her sisters’ names and they search and searched but could not find them. Just before they were to leave they stopped in a convenience store to buy some goodies for their trip and decided to try one more person. They asked the storeowner, but he didn’t know the women. Then a woman from the back of the store asked to see the list. She pointed to one of the names and said it was hers. Within a week Opdyke received a telegram from all four of her sisters.

Hallar, who is now 64, also had a commanding story to tell. After the war Major Rugemer returned to Germany, but his family wanted nothing to do with him because they knew he had had a mistress in Poland. The town also shunned him so that he ended up penniless and living on the street. The Hallars found out and took him to live with them, and Roman grew up calling this former Nazi grandfather. (The Hallars didn’t know that Irena had resorted to being Rugemer’s mistress to keep him silent.)

Smith attends most performances, but Hallar had just been at the one I attended.

For those of you not fortunate enough to get to New York to see this life-affirming play, the playwright is working on the screen adaptation. As in the original play script, the role of Irena will be played by two actresses, one old and one young. I very much hope Feldshuh will be cast as the older Irena. Much depends, Gordon says, on how compatible she will be in appearance with the younger woman chosen, since that part is being cast first. Scarlett Johansson is said to be a strong contender for the role.

Tickets for Irena’s Vow are available by visiting Telecharge.com, calling (212) 239-6200 or at the Walter Kerr Theatre box office at 219 West 48th Street. For more information visit www.irenasvow.com.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Grace


“I know nothing, except what everyone knows -- if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”
-- W. H. Auden

Friday, April 3, 2009

Theatre and faith


Masterwork Productions Inc. will honor Christians making a difference through their faith in the New York theater community with the first "The Lights are Bright on Broadway" awards.

The awards will recognize individuals or organizations shining God's light on and Off-Broadway. If you'd like to nominate someone or an organization reaching out through the arts to share the love of Christ, send an email to news@masterworkproductions.org with "LIGHTS ARE BRIGHT in the subject line. Tell us whom you'd like to nominate and why (in 100 words or less). Be sure to include your name and address as well. The deadline for nominations is May 31. Recipients will be announced in June.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Extension of the Kingdom


“Only you can limit your creative power, but God wills to release it. . . Do not withhold your gifts to the Sonship, or you withhold yourself from God! Selfishness is of the ego, but Self-fullness is of spirit because that is how God created it.

“Spirit knows that the awareness of all its brothers is included in its own, as it is included in God. . . . Creating is the opposite of loss . . . Being must be extended. . . Spirit yearns to share its being as its Creator did. . . . It does not wish to contain God, but wills to extend His Being.

“The extension of God’s Being is spirit’s only function. Its fullness cannot be contained, any more than can the fullness of its Creator. Fullness is extension. The ego’s whole thought system blocks extension, and thus blocks your only function. It therefore blocks your joy, so that you perceive yourself as unfulfilled. Unless you create you are unfulfilled . . .

“You do not know your joy because you do not know your own Self-fullness.

“The creations of every Son of God are yours, since every creation belongs to everyone, being created for the Sonship as a whole.

“Be confident that you have never lost your Identity and the extensions which maintain It in wholeness and peace. Miracles are an expression of this confidence. They are reflections of both your proper identification with your brothers, and of your awareness that your identification is maintained by extension.”

from A Course in Miracles, published by the Foundation for Inner Peace

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

For a Healthy Heart, Forgive: Letting go of past hurts makes room for love


This essay by Alina Larson appeared in Guideposts magazine.

We all suffer wrongs, big and small, on a daily basis. Another shopper cuts in front of you in the grocery store line. A coworker takes credit for your idea. A friend talks about you behind your back. A parent wasn't there for you. A spouse has an online flirtation. If, as Alexander Pope famously wrote, "To err is human; to forgive is divine," sometimes we're all too human, aren't we?

Depending on the grievance and the person who erred, forgiving can seem not just difficult but impossible. Angry, vulnerable, frustrated. We replay hurtful experiences again and again in our minds, for weeks, months, even years.

While it’s easy to recognize the emotional and spiritual toll, did you know that holding a grudge, can be heartbreaking—literally?

Research over the past decade has proven that rehashing past wrongs can have a negative impact on all of the body’s systems. But the heart is particularly affected. The increase in heart rate and surge in blood pressure can lead to ailments ranging from insomnia to cardiac arrest. Over time—whether you keep reviewing the same wrong, or are constantly stressed by everyday slights—the cardiovascular system is worn down. Each time you get excessively angry, some toxic debris remains.

“Our culture is very anger-based,” says Fred Luskin, author of Forgive for Good. “Like anything, practice makes perfect. So the more often you’re angry, your body settles into the habit of being angry, and it becomes easier to become angry, and harder to experience joy.”

But how do you reclaim your life and heal your heart? You can learn to let go of the past and the pain, and release your conflicted emotions. In short, actively practice forgiveness.

A recent study co-authored by Dr. Robert Enright involved men who had both a heart-related illness and who were also nursing a deep emotional wound. After four months of forgiveness training, the men not only had psychological gains, but the restriction of their arteries had lessened as well.

“One of the most powerful discoveries we’ve made in the 24 years I’ve been studying forgiveness,” says Enright, “is that excessive anger is an enemy of the body, and forgiveness is a major antidote.”

This is not to say you should simply dismiss your pain and ignore what has happened. That, according to clinical psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., author of How Can I Forgive You?, is "cheap forgiveness," an unhealthy approach that is doomed to fail because "it's a desperate attempt to cover up the injury" rather than come to terms with it.

Often people avoid confronting pain, and the offender, out of fear of conflict; of losing a connection, however dysfunctional; of facing up to the possibility of having had a role in the situation. Spring advocates acceptance: You acknowledge fully the wrong that's been done, "clear your head of emotional poison" then move on.
 
You might choose to have no relationship with the other person, or to have a limited one, whatever allows you to remain true to yourself. This works even when the other person is unwilling to make things right. Spring emphasizes that acceptance is a gift to yourself, not to the offender.

Luskin, cofounder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, has a similar take. "Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better," he says. "Forgiveness is for you, and no one else."

Life experiences become grievances because we have what Luskin calls "unenforceable rules," expectations about how someone should act, or how things should happen, when we have no control over either. Luskin learned this the hard way when a close friend rejected him for no apparent reason. He started researching forgiveness because he was distraught and bitter over the loss of the friendship.

"I was operating under the delusion that I owned this friend," he says. "The truth is, you don't own anybody. You can only hope they make good decisions and sometimes they don't."

This month is a good time to begin to practice forgiveness. The key word here is “practice.” A good place to start? Forgive yourself for downing half that gift box of chocolates in a sitting.