Friday, April 30, 2010


His first name is illuminated in huge letters on the marquee of the Cort Theatre: DENZEL. In much, much smaller form, and probably unnecessarily, is his last name: Washington. When you’ve got an actor with that kind of talent and charisma, plus two Academy Awards, you want to shout it out, and Washington does not disappoint in this first Broadway revival of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning drama, Fences.

His Troy Maxson is a disillusioned former Negro League baseball player who was too old to play by the time the Major League admitted blacks. Now working as a garbage collector, Washington’s Troy is believably vulnerable and human. But an even brighter megawatt star outshines him. Viola Davis gives a searing performance as Rose, Troy’s long-suffering wife. The show is hers as she embodies Rose’s pain, anger, love and, ultimately, strength. She left the audience gasping.

This isn’t surprising to me. Davis first impressed me six years ago when she starred in Lynn Nottage’s touching Off-Broadway drama Intimate Apparel, playing a young seamstress longing for love but strong enough to forge on without it when she is abandoned by the man she was to marry.

Davis impressed me again -- and won a Tony -- in Wilson’s 2001 play King Hedley II where she also stood out against a gifted costar, Brian Stokes Mitchell. And she was a steely force very much holding her own against Meryl Streep in the movie “Doubt,” playing a mother whose son may or may not be being molested by a Roman Catholic priest.

Davis’s performance is the reason I was more involved in Fences than I’ve ever been in an August Wilson play. I usually feel his work is too long and too predictable. This one is no exception in the too long category, clocking in at two and a half hours. The first act drags at times, especially at the beginning when characters gather in Maxson’s front yard to shoot the breeze and slip in some exposition. But in the second act, with the characters established, the plot explodes with developments that allow Davis to bring Rose fully to life as a woman who can take charge and direct her future.

On the other side of the casting scale, I wondered why director Kenny Leon chose Chris Chalk to play Cory, Troy and Rose’s 17-year-old son. Chalk looks to be in his mid-20s, far removed from the football-playing high school boy whose confrontations with his father are an important part of the portrayal of Troy’s flaws.

“The world is changing around you and you can’t see it,” Rose tells Troy when he wants Cory to stick with his part-time job as a grocery store clerk and give up his dream of a football scholarship, citing his own regrets over his aborted athletic career, which he blames on racism. The Cory character needs to look more like a boy, half afraid, half defiant, but here it looks more like two men going at it.

The other members of the cast serve well: Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s longtime friend, Jim Bono; Russell Hornsby as Lyons, his son from a previous relationship; Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Troy’s war-damaged brother; and SaCha Stewart-Coleman alternating with Eden Duncan-Smith in a role I won’t describe for fear of giving away a second act surprise.

The world in which all of these people live and interact has been beautifully created by set designer Santo Loquasto. His brick house, with its worn paint and comfortable front porch and yard made me feel I could step right into that Pittsburgh community in the years from 1957 to 1965 in which the play unfolds.

I also loved the original music composed by Grammy-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis that opens the show and transitions between scenes. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting furthers the mood and Constanza Romero’s costumes round out the look of the decade, one of 10 Wilson captured in his decade-by-decade cycle of plays about the African-American experience in the 20th century.

The original production of Fences, starring James Earl Jones, won four Tony Awards including Best Play, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, three Drama Desk Awards, including Best Play and the NY Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

Washington, who made his Broadway debut in Checkmates in 1988, was last on Broadway as Brutus in Julius Caesar five years ago. He won Oscars for "Training Day" and "Glory" and received nominations for "The Hurricane," "Malcolm X" and "Cry Freedom."

Fences’ 13-week engagement ends July 11. For more information, visit

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Where Do Good Sopranos Go? Sarah Rice in “Screen Gems: Songs of Old Hollywood”


Zing zing zi zi zi zi zing…Yesterday, I found myself humming through Victor Herbert’s Italian Street Song (who needs an iPod?). I hadn’t thought of that song in years, but I’d just been to Sarah Rice’s Bistro-award winning (Best Theme) show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Screen Gems: Songs of Old Hollywood is a well-constructed and shimmeringly performed look at music from, and inspired by (in the case of silent films), movies circa 1919 to 1971, settling mostly in the 1930s. (I have some difficulty with including the late 1960s/early 1970s in a tribute to “Old Hollywood,” or am I being oversensitive?)

While waiting at the West End Café for a friend, a couple came in for dinner. Hearing there was a show, they asked, “Who is Sarah Rice? Is she good?” “She played Johanna in the original Sweeney Todd,” they were told. (See photo) The man’s response was, “Oh, a soprano – and wasn’t that 30 years ago?” and they went in to dinner.

It occurred to me that high soprano voices have largely been in hiding for a generation or more. Well, there is opera and there are choral groups where sopranos can gather and, yeah, there are musical revivals, but in the cultural shift, Broadway went to belting or to the model of Bernadette Peters’ little girl voice. Some musicals use the soprano voice for the young and pure (think Sweeney Todd), or the high soprano voice has been used to spoof the type as the actress descends in a bubble or caricatures a brilliant artist. Even the gentlest vibrato is suspect. Today, the high soprano has to shuffle a deck of vocal skills and might only reveal her lyric lightness in context with other styles in popular entertainment. Perhaps in our cynical, suspicious age, the high soprano voice cannot be taken seriously for its own sake as it was for centuries before us. But I think that there is a longing for it now, and I felt that the other night. Because we heard a beautiful one.

Focusing on early films is exactly what a high soprano can do in a cabaret program because the vocal type was taken very seriously then. Even so, Rice had to negotiate the traps. She did. But I wish she hadn’t had to.

She dedicated Monday’s performance to the late Kathryn Grayson, one of the last of the great film sopranos, who was both beautiful and beautifully trained. My friend didn’t know who Grayson was; I had to remind her of “Kiss Me Kate” and “Show Boat,” the obvious examples but certainly not the only ones. In only a decade after Grayson was making pictures, it would be difficult for a soprano to sing her songs straight, and roles for the soprano practically vanished (right, Julie?)

Rice avoided the high soprano trap in her program by injecting a considerable amount of humor into it, particularly in the first half. She set the scene by name dropping with “At the Moving Picture Ball” (Santly, 1920) and “The Vamp” (Gay, 1910), the latter a tribute to Theda Bara. Rice waved her arms and tried to get us to vamp, with marginal success. She swept through songs with a rich and vibrant voice and dazzling technique (“The Sheik of Araby,” “Hindusatan,” and “Paradise”) and kept punching the humor key, assumedly so we would listen to a voice that hasn’t lost one inch of sheen in the last decades.

We howled when she informed us that Rudolph Valentino had had both a condom and a candy named after him and that the humming in “Paradise” had, in its day (1932), been deemed too erotic for radio play. But when Rice actually sang “Paradise” (and she did so not two inches from me), her eyes took on a magical look and the slight giggling in the audience when she started to hum stopped as she continued singing. The humming was beautiful and no longer erotic or exotic but contained feelings that could not be expressed in words. The fun facts she’d told us so we would listen to the song didn’t interfere with her singing of it and could even have sent us on the wrong path. I am not sure if Rice intended that, but her singing had the effect of lulling us into hearing her seriously, of hearing the ways a soprano can uniquely affect our emotions, a secret that goes back for centuries and that many artists, Mozart for example, knew how to channel. Rice must have felt she should begin with humor (and with good reason) for the complex, now out of our silent planet songs she would sing, but in the process, alas, her singing and patter (both excellent in their own ways) became schizophrenic, and more alas, she managed to dismiss a brilliant period of film history as just a silly time even if her singing did not bear that out.

From those early films she moved to Walt Disney (as opposed to Disney) because, she said, all generations have been touched by his movies. Okay. I was startled because even though her between-songs explanations were intelligent and well researched, yet she said nothing about the importance of “Snow White,” arguably the most important film of 1937, as well as the biggest moneymaker. (And it made Gable cry!) Rice sang a medley with “I’m Wishing” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” beautifully (at the piano, Seth Weinstein sang a lovely echo that held not one bit of ridicule), as they deserved to be sung. I do not know why she felt it necessary to sing “The Age of Not Believing” before the “Snow White” material. For one thing, it’s from “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) which is not “Walt” Disney or early Hollywood. It’s a lovely song, but its loveliness makes us miss the bitterness of its words. Besides that, it had nothing to do with “Snow White” and Rice’s singing told us all we needed to feel in that medley.

Her passionate trio of “Temptation,” “Jalousie” and “Revenge” were hilariously received, and I loved her joke with her castanets (she revealed what we all knew; she was finger synching with percussionist Bobby Sher doing the diligence). But still, these were all strictly for funsies. Not that I don’t like laughing. But either knowingly or not, Rice was setting us up to get used to her voice, which is so lovely that you take it seriously even when you’re laughing at what she’s doing; she put her experience in comedy and drama to use, and she used the first part of her program as a strong shoulder to stand on for the second. For after skipping effortlessly through Victor Herbert’s “Italian Street Song,” every note shimmering and solid, she moved into Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald territory, so often wrongly spoofed. She didn’t spoof. She brought in a wonderful baritone, Mark Watson, for duets (“Wanting You” and “New Moon”). I could have listened for hours. They sang sincerely and beautifully. Then she handed us a brilliant interpretation of Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny,” which by itself deserved an award.

She included a few other songs that were not really “Old Hollywood” (“What Is A Youth” from Zefferelli’s “Romeo and Juliet “and “My White Knight” from the stage production of The Music Man, what the film turned into “Being In Love”) but please forgive her because she mixed the latter with a breathtaking interpretation of “Bill” from “Show Boat.” Her final song, “Love Is Where You Find It,” came from one of those silly MGM toss- offs, 1948’s “The Kissing Bandit” starring Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson, and here she infused the song with more feeling than the original did. Her encore was “Moon River,” set in the context of her father’s dreams, and sung with feeling and care.

Rice was smart enough to work with an expert team, which well figured in the success of this program. Her director was Joanne Yeoman; she shared the stage with the excellent Ritt Henn on bass and the wry Sher on drums. At the keyboard, as noted, was the wonderful Seth Weinstein, whose attention to detail is well known, and there were a few instances during the show when a lesser hand might have completely altered the proceedings, always a danger in those happy times when the singer gets a little too relaxed with the audience or becomes deeply involved in a song’s emotion. My only real quibble: I thought Rice’s targeting the song “He’s So Unusual” at Weinstein was unnecessary, and she didn’t carry the idea through anyway. It might have been an attempt to prove rapport with the pianist, something that’s almost a requirement in any show, but Weinstein proved his rapport by taking complete care of her and the other musicians.

What struck me is how beautiful Rice has kept her voice and how solid technically she was. She even let out a few very gentle, very, very high notes. This takes skill, faith, and talent, and that requires daily, dull homework. Her personality sparkles, and when she stopped the spoofing, she could convey deep, mature experience, and have I mentioned that I wanted to stay and listen for hours? I hope she gets more chances to use her splendid gifts and that she may be encouraged to be even braver in using them.

“Screen Gems—Songs of Old Hollywood” with Sarah Rice. JoAnn Yeoman, Director; Seth Weinstein, Piano; Ritt Henn, Bass; Bobby Sher, Drums. At The Laurie Beechman Theatre at the West End Café, 407 W 42nd Street. April 30 (last show!) at 8 PM. $20 cover. For reservations, call 212-695-6909.

Writer and singer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, song recitals, and cabarets, including several performances of her "Songs From the Balanchine Repertory." Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 after she earned a Master of Divinity degree from New York Theological Seminary. Her novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a 1988 gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The 24th Annual Easter Bonnet Competition

“Life is a blessing and then you die.” That beautiful spin on a gloomy saying was offered by the cast of Memphis yesterday at the 24th annual The Easter Bonnet Competition, the final element in a six-week fundraising effort during which Broadway and Off-Broadway performers raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) and its charitable efforts.

In songs, dance, skits and jokes these show folks filled the Minskoff Theatre with energy, talent and joy, entertaining the audience as well as competing to see which show created the best Easter bonnet. The performances were lively, such as the one led by Jim Brochu, star of the one-man play Zero Hour, in which singers sang “The Bonnet” to the tune of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof and ritualistically passed around their bonnet from person to person. Others were touching, such as the cast of Billy Elliot’s singing “The Stars Look Down . . . in West Virginia” as a memorial to the 29 miners who were killed there earlier this month, adapting this new song from one in their show.

Other shows participating with either a bonnet or performance were Dancers Responding to AIDS, Fela!, In the Heights, La Cage aux Folles, The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, Million Dollar Quartet, Next Fall, The Phantom of the Opera, R.Evolución Latina, and Wicked.

Between numbers a series of hosts offered timely humor, such as Dylan Baker’s announcement that the touring cast of In the Heights had wanted to participate via video link but they had been detained in Arizona for documentation verification, and Michael Urie’s comment that Sarah Palin wasn’t coming -- “although she can see it from her house.” “She’s still pissed that she didn’t get the lead in American Idiot,” he said.

Other rotating hosts included Chard Kimball, Tony Constantine Maroulis, Corbin Bleu, Colman Domingo, Jan Maxwell, Michael Mulheren, Laura Osnes and Loretta Ables Sayre. The poised and adorable children from South Pacific offered insiders jokes under the topic of what they had learned backstage -- you can’t get out of a math test by saying you had mercury poisoning (an allusion to Jeremy Piven’s dropping out of the 2008 Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow using that claim) and “When I grow up everyone will be able to marry,” which drew a huge round of applause.

The diminutive Leslie Jordan made me want to see his show, My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, after he shared a funny and sensitive story from his southern childhood. His father was a high-ranking military man and “I was not the son he had in mind.” Jordan, an excitable child, remembered being taken to a wedding when he was three. He squirmed and fidgeted and wouldn’t sit still until he spotted the bride walking down the aisle and was riveted.

Later, when he was taken to see Santa Claus at the downtown department store, he proclaimed for all to hear that he wanted a bride doll for Christmas. His father was horrified, but his mother assured him that young Leslie would forget about it. When Christmas Eve came around, though, their son was excitedly talking about the bride doll Santa was going to leave for him. His mother said to her husband, “Are you going to explain it to him?” His then father put on his coat, headed out in the rare snowstorm and drove from store to store until he found a bride doll that was almost life-size for his tiny son. The next day, upon spotting the doll under the tree, Jordan said, he squatted down and “peed myself.”

The Easter Bonnet competition is being repeated today, with the winner being announced, as well as which show raised the most money from their post-show pitches during this annual spring fund drive. My friends and I over dinner voted the La Cage aux Folles hat the best, which seems appropriate since the competition began 24 years ago in the basement of the Palace Theatre with the original cast creating a few colorful hats, voting on the best with dollar bills and raising $1,200.

Since then these fundraising efforts, which this year involved more than 50 shows and touring companies, have raised $35,784,000 for BC/EFA, supporting AIDS service organizations around the world. Urie read a moving letter from one of those sponsored organizations in Charleston, SC, where recipients had been astonished to learn that their help was coming from people who work on Broadway.

The evening had begun with an appearance by, and standing ovation for, 106-year-old Doris Eaton Travis, an original Ziegfeld Follies Girl (1918-1920) who looked smashing in white pants and a glittery gold jacket. “I don’t do the things I used to,” she said, before kicking up her legs (with supporters on each arm). “I’m becoming more sedate.”

It concluded with another dynamo, Memphis costar Montego Glover, singing “Help Is On the Way,” the David Friedman song made famous by the late Nancy LaMott as BC/EFA’s anthem. It was a powerful ending, under the musical direction of Mary-Mitchell Campbell, who accompanied Glover on piano.

In a letter printed in the program, BC/EFA executive director Tom Viola wrote about how “amazing” it is that so much money has been raised over the years. “But what is most remarkable is how much more than money that ($36,784,000) figure truly represents. It is made up of tens of thousands of acts of outrageous creativity and extraordinary kindness, incredible generosity of talent, time and energy; hilarious onstage antics and heartfelt, quiet moments of remembrance and loving embrace.

“I truly cannot think of any other industry that for over two decades has put aside all contentions, controversy and competition to come together time and again, season after season in ways large and small, to raise funds collectively and offer support as a community to those facing a now wide-variety of crises and challenges.”

I have certainly experienced this generosity of spirit in the community for many years. Irving Berlin definitely got it right when he said there’s no people like show people. Congratulations and blessings to all involved. It was a wonderful evening!

Monday, April 26, 2010

New York Theatre Ballet: The Best of Time Is Now


“You see handsome young people – girls and boys with a bounding or delicate animal grace…To watch their lightness and harmonious ease, their clarity and boldness of motion, is a pleasure.” So wrote poet and dance writer Edwin Denby (1903-1983) in 1943 of the most basic of pleasures of watching ballet, but I’m sure he must have been prescient enough to mean the New York Theatre Ballet, which I had the pleasure of seeing Saturday evening. This chamber ballet group, now in its 31st season, presented four ballets that were as old as 70 years, but fully ready for inspection with nary of fleck of dust to be seen.

I was really there to see Three Virgins and A Devil, Agnes de Mille’s 1941 work, mostly because of that awe-full ballet word, legacy. The cast of its original Ballet Theater production included – just imagine – Lucia Chase, Eugene Loring, Jerome Robbins, and de Mille herself. (I’d been reminded of Robbins’ extraordinary career just the night before when seeing Sondheim on Sondheim.) Well, I forgot all about THEM while watching the crystal clear performances of Amanda Garrett, Carmella Lauer, and Elena Zahlman, as the Priggish, Greedy, and Lustful Virgins, respectively.

Are those words out of date? Well, not one program note was needed for the audience of all ages in the hall, a credit to the late Sallie Wilson who staged this production. Wilson, one of this country’s finest dramatic ballerinas, was a Ballet Mistress and coach with NYTB for 22 years until her death in 2008. I didn’t even have a chance to reflect that this ballet’s point of view was dated as the characters were so specifically drawn. And if any tale teller lends himself to the three virgins’ bumps and grinds interspersed with prayerful attitudes, it’s Boccaccio (the libretto is by Ramon Reed after a story by Boccaccio. I’m sure the old fellow would have enjoyed seeing his tale enhanced by the striking costumes and set courtesy of American Ballet Theater).

Capriol Suite, Frederick Ashton’s imaginative and delightful musings in 1930 of sixteenth century dance forms, comes to us from the Ballet Rambert family tree. Sixteenth century courtly dance consists of slight movements and gestures that can carry playful or erotic significance, and while this may be difficult for us to fully appreciate on our side of history, Ashton puts that point across in two ways: first, by alternating the courtly dancing with more lively peasant brio and second, by inserting into the dance an amusing rivalry of lovers (Steven Melendez and Stephen Campanella) for their charming partner (Carmella Lauer). Placing this piece in the program, before the de Mille and Limón pieces, also underscores the roots of ballet itself – from popular dance to royal court to ballet forms that continue to evolve. The luscious costumes, loaned by the Rambert Dance Company, were made by Anne Guyon.

José Limón’s Suite from Mazurkas (1958), set to music by Chopin (winningly played by pianist Ferdy Tumakaka) further demonstrated that relationship of popular and classical forms as well as music and dancer. I liked that Limón has the dancers pay ever increasing homage to the pianist, from a bow or a nod to an open flirtation in Rie Ogura’s solo. It’s a wonderful piece, which perhaps inspired Robbins’ own Chopin offerings, particularly Dances at a Gathering (1969). I particularly enjoyed Elena Zahlman’s precise and here-I-go-ready-or-not attitude (she always was) and her partner, Kieran Stoneley’s fine-with-me-let’s-go response. Mazurkas was staged by Sarah Stackhouse, who was a principal dancer and partner to Mr. Limón from 1958 to 1969.

Throughout the evening, the dancers were well served by both pianists, Mariko Miyazaki and Mr. Tumakaka, the latter who also played Debussy’s Valse Romantique as a musical interlude, underlining the importance of music to this company.

I’d purposely not studied the dancers’ names or pictures before sitting down, and I particularly did not pay attention to the notes about the guest artist. I preferred to get acquainted on my own. With NYTB’s chamber group, you can see a dancer in several pieces during the space of two hours; the Florence Gould Hall is intimate enough so you can know a dancer pretty well in that time – and that’s a pleasure, too. I was drawn in particular to one young man whose dancing was both intelligent and fervent, not to mention funny in the Mattachins section of Capriol Suite. His solo in the Mazurkas, in its back and forth of self wrestling and noble fire proved mesmerizing and moving.

Well, it turns out he was the artist I had tried not to know, namely Steven Melendez, who’d begun his training at age 7 in NYTB’s LIFT, their community outreach program that provides scholarships, books, clothing, mentoring, and other help to children from New York City shelters. Melendez is currently a principal artist on leave from The Ballet Company of Yokohama. And while I don’t mean just to single him out solely – there was an awful lot of happiness and intelligence danced on that stage – he distilled it all in his dancing.

The company opened the evening with Antony Tudor’s charming Soiree Musicale (1938), which I would like to see again. This is its first performance in decades and was dedicated to Sallie Wilson’s memory. The company staged this piece from its 1962 Labanotation score (which the cast learned to read). It seemed far from the darker worlds of other Tudor pieces and nicely introduced us to the company’s “bounding animal grace.”

Back to Denby who also noted that “…as you watch, [the dancing] will often evoke in passing an intensely poignant fantasy image of human relations…it is fantasy of the highest imaginative honesty.” Denby was writing about George Balanchine’s works specifically then, but his point can be extended to all ballet, which is always in the present and always with the past, just like the rest of us, be that such fantasy comes alive. Legacy is a difficult word for ballet because it’s – well – difficult when “in the moment” is assumed to be only “in the moment,” and when it’s assumed that audiences are only interested in the new. Nevertheless, forward thinking ballet companies treasure their legacy works as if they are works for today’s audiences, admittedly a daunting task. This company manages that task beautifully. The question, beyond a work’s history is, Do you want to see it again? The answer here is, in this context, is oh, yes.

New York Theatre Ballet will recreate classic ballets by Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton, and José Limón on May 14 and 15 at 7 p.m. at Florence Gould Hall, 55 E. 59th St. Tickets are $25; student tickets are $15 (plus a $1 facility fee). Go to for online reservations or call Ticketmaster at 212-307-4100 or the Box Office at 212-355-6160.

The program features live music and an informal discussion following the performance. Founder and Artistic Director: Diana Byer; Executive Director and Associate Artistic Director, Christina Paolucci; Ballet Master Lance Westergard; Lighting Design, Brett Maughan; Set Design, Gillian Bradshaw-Smith; Costume design: Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan.

Writer and singer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, song recitals, and cabarets, including several performances of her Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 after she earned a Master of Divinity degree from New York Theological Seminary. Her novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a 1988 gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

La Cage aux Folles

Director Terry Johnson’s staging of my beloved La Cage aux Folles didn’t clicked with me in this latest Broadway revival. Maybe it’s because my memories of the last revival, in 2004, are still so strong and loving. I saw that production twice and the original once.

My major problem was that the relationships weren’t convincing. Relationships are the heart of this show -- the love between two men who have raised a child together, and the relationship of that grown young man to his parents and to the woman he wants to marry.

Broadway producers make a bargain with the devil when they cast a TV or movie star with the hope that she or he will help fill the house. In this case it’s Kelsey Grammer (left in photo) in the costarring role of Georges, the owner and master of ceremonies at a St. Tropez drag club. I never for one minute felt he loved Albin (Douglas Hodge, right), the star of his show and his partner for 20 years.

What’s more, he doesn’t belong in a musical. He does OK with a mid-range belt, but talks his way through the higher notes and is often off-key. This is especially disappointing in the tender love song “Song on the Sand” that he sings to Albin. I’ve always loved this scene but here it’s painful, both in terms of the singing and the lack of connection between the two.

Unfortunately, the pain is likely to get even worse because after Grammer has ruined the role of Georges for six months he’s going to switch to playing Albin. That should be an even greater disaster.

I felt that same lack on involvement from Hodge, a classically trained British actor best known in England as a collaborator with Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter. Albin has helped raise Jean-Michel (A.J. Shively), Georges’ son from a one-night stand, his only heterosexual encounter engaged in merely to see what it was like to be with a woman. Albin considers himself Jean-Michel’s mother, yet I didn’t feel one shred of maternal sensibility from him.

I also didn’t detect any of the insecurity Albin should grapple with, leading to his conquering Act One closer, “I Am What I Am.” And I am mystified as to why he often spoke with a cockney accent. They’re all supposed to be French, but accents are up for grabs -- Jacob (Robin De Jesus), the maid, sounds as if he’s channeling Rosie Perez.

The most unconvincing is Shively, who seems to have no passion for anything, his parents or his intended, Anne (Elena Shaddow). Actually this is understandable since they are not people who would inspire much passion. Anne is sweet, but dull, so they should be a good match.

With these lackluster performances, Jerry Herman’s songs that I love so much -- the ones I’ve mentioned, as well as “With Anne on My Arm,” “Look Over There” and “The Best of Times” -- have little emotional impact, so the originals from my cast album kept crowding them out in my mind. (Harvey Fierstein wrote the musical’s book based on the play by Jean Poiret, which also inspired the 1978 French film and the American version, “The Birdcage,” in 1996.)

“The Best of Times” was actually Broadway Blessing’s first sing-along song. I had asked our then music director Darryl Curry if the Choir could sing it and he suggested we have the audience join in. That was the start of what is now our popular closing feature in each year’s Blessing.

The performers who have the most spirit are "the notorious and dangerous Cagelles,” the transvestite chorus boys who perform the dance numbers. Nick Adams, Nicholas Cunningham, Sean Patrick Doyle, Yurel Echezarreta, Terry Lavell and Logan Keslar playfully execute Lynne Page’s unimaginative choreography, which relies heavily on cartwheels. Those guys can really move in high heels and Matthew Wright’s skimpy, gaudy/glittery costumes, camping it up to give the show what little life it has.

I also enjoyed Mme. Dindon (Veanne Cox) as the repressed wife of the ultraconservative traditional values political candidate (Fred Applegate) who wants to shut down establishments like Georges’. The Dindons are Anne’s parents and their visit to meet the family of Anne’s intended is the basis for the farce that is the main action of the play. That’s the comic side; the heart of the play is the fact that love doesn’t have to be traditional to be real and the theme of acceptance, both of others and of self -- “I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses.”

This revival of La Cage is the latest transfer from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, which recently gave us revivals of Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music. Hodge played Albin in there as well, winning the 2009 Olivier Awards Best Actor in a Musical, while the show won for Best Musical Revival. That production transferred to the West End's Playhouse Theatre, where it is still running. I guess the difference in that effort, which is popularly and critically thriving, and the Broadway version is that it doesn’t have Kelsey Grammer!

The original Broadway production ran for 1,761 performances and won six Tony Awards in 1984, including Best Musical, Best Score (Herman) and Best Book (Fierstein). The 2004 revival won Tonys for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Choreography.

Tickets for the current show are available by calling at (212) 239-6200, by visiting or at the Longacre Theatre box office, 220 W. 48th St. Visit for more information and a video introduction from Grammer and the Cagelles.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Marian Seldes to be honored at the Tony Awards

I’m delighted to learn that Marian Seldes will be given the Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre Award at this year’s Tony Awards ceremony. Marian has graced us with her talent at three Broadway Blessings and has told me I can call upon her anytime and she’ll be there if she's free. What a gift to the theatre -- and to us -- she is.

Playwright and director Sir Alan Ayckbourn also will receive the award. Tony Award winning actor David Hyde Pierce will receive the Isabelle Stevenson Award, which recognizes an individual from the theatre community "who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations, regardless of whether such organizations relate to the theatre."

The Alliance of Resident Theatres New York, B.H. Barry and BC/EFA executive director Tom Viola will receive the Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre that were established in 1990 to award institutions, individuals and/or organizations that have "demonstrated extraordinary achievement in theatre, but are not eligible in any of the established Tony Award categories."

The awards will be presented at the 2010 Tony Awards on June 13.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Serpent Tales & Nightingales

I felt right at home listening to Jennifer Grassman’s new CD, Serpent Tales & Nightingales. Its theatrical songs with rock background would be right at home in the Off-Broadway musicals I love.

And just like in an Off-Broadway musical, the songs convey a range of sensibilities, be they dramatic and energetic, as they are in “The Search,” “Praying to the Walls,” “Blackbird” and “The Haunting Avuncular,” mystical as in “Little Bird” and “The Bedroom Door” or romantic, as in “The Promise,” a duet with JJ Worthen.

Grassman’s music has been compared to Sarah Brightman, Loreena McKennitt, Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Danny Elfman. An independent recording artist based in Texas, Grassman wrote and sings all 16 songs on the CD, and plays piano, keyboard and handbells.

“My inspirations are mainly classical and include Chopin, Mendelssohn, Debussy and Bartok,” she wrote in a letter accompanying her CD. “For this particular album I researched Great Depression-era music. I thought it would be an interesting endeavor given the current economic situation to see what kinds of songs people liked during a similar (albeit much worse) situation 70 odd years ago.”

This nostalgic feel also is reflected on the cover, a 1930s Art Deco-style self-portrait.

Grassman seems to be an old soul with a contemporary heart, which is a pretty good combination. Take a listen to the songs. I think you’ll enjoy them too.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Million Dollar Quartet

Take the classic 1950s hit “Great Balls of Fire,” change the name to “Great Balls of Embers” (well, maybe eliminate the word “great”), and you’ll have an idea of what to expect from Million Dollar Quartet, the new Broadway jukebox musical about four rock ‘n’ roll legends and the man who helped launch their careers.

The music is good -- "Blue Suede Shoes," "Fever," "Sixteen Tons," "Who Do You Love?," "Riders in the Sky," "I Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues" "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" -- but it’s wasted in this extraordinarily boring, plotless show. I kept wondering when it was going to liven up, but after 45 minutes I realized it wasn’t so I looked in the program to see how soon until intermission so I could get out of there. To my considerable disappointment, I found there wasn’t one, so then I kept checking to program to see how many more songs were left.

The problem is the actors portraying these men have zilch appeal. Elvis Presley (Eddie Clendening), Johnny Cash (Lance Guest), Jerry Lee Lewis (Levi Kreis) and, to a lesser degree, Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons) turned audiences into a frenzy with their music and their raw, country boy sexuality. Under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, these guys get the country boy part OK, but they don’t have half the personality you’d encounter just listening to the records of the original men. Kreis is the best of the bunch, but still comes off as an annoying, self-involved pest rather than a musical wonder. The worst is Clendening, whose Playbill bio lists impressive credits for him as a vocalist and guitarist but not a single one for acting. If you remember those silly rumors in the 1980s that Elvis was still alive, you won’t have any uncertainty watching Clendening. This Elvis is definitely dead.

The musical’s book is by Colin Escott, an author of rock ‘n’ roll history books, and Floyd Mutrux, who conceived and originally directed the musical but whose experience largely is in film writing and directing. Together they’ve produced nod-inducing dialogue about career ups and downs that fills the spaces between songs but does nothing to reveal the souls of these men.

The show is loosely based on a night in early December 1956 when the four singers happened to be at Sun Records’ studio in Memphis at the same time and began jamming. The session was recorded by Sun’s legendary producer, Sam Phillips, played robotically by Hunter Foster with a sometimes unintelligible southern accent. (Surprisingly the recording made that night wasn’t released until the 1980s.)

This was the only time these four powerhouses recorded together. It’s considered the greatest jam session of all time, but if you want to experience the true thrill of this historic event, you probably would be better off buying the recording and skipping this show.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Addams Family

With its limp songs, unimaginative choreography and threadbare plot, The Addams Family should have been assigned to an early grave. But as H.L. Mencken so rightly observed, No one ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public, and so although it has met with scathing reviews from critics, this new musical is a runway hit with audiences who are making it the hottest ticket in town.

Charles Addams, who created those macabre characters for The New Yorker Magazine, would hardly recognize them here. (He died in 1988 and should feel lucky.) Fans of the 1960s TV show, of which I was one (I even used to collect Addams Family bubble gum cards), are also likely to be disappointed. I was, although when the series’ familiar theme music filled the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre during the overture, “Buh-Da-Da-Dum,” my fingers -- and practically everyone else’s -- knew just what to do -- snap-snap. Unfortunately, that was the most fun part of the evening.

Too bad because the show is filled with gifted Broadway performers, my favorite of whom is the music director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Before the show started my friend Phil and I popped our heads over the railing of the orchestra pit to give her our best wishes. Phil has known Mary-Mitchell for decades, hailing from the same area of North Carolina as she does. I met her several years ago when I interviewed her for NCR about the humanitarian work she does as founder and director of ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty). I liked her instantly -- how could I not with her warmth, humor and down-to-earth personality? -- and respected her immensely as she told of her work helping underprivileged children in India, Africa and Florida find healing and expression through the arts. It was impressive to see her at work, and great that so many other people can as well. A woman conductor on Broadway is a rare bird, and it did my feminist soul good to see her leading the orchestra.

Other Broadway veterans are onstage, looking as if they’d rather be elsewhere but slugging it out, included Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello, Kevin Chamberlin and Jackie Hoffman.

At least they should be able to expect a paycheck for some time to come. The New York Times did a front-page article on Wednesday saying that in spite of the overwhelmingly poor reviews, the show sold $851,000 in tickets last weekend on top of a $15 million sales advance, “huge figures for a new Broadway run, and all but guaranteeing that it will be hard to snag a pair of good orchestra seats until fall.”

I certainly could have sold my press tickets last night if I had wanted to (which I won’t, of course, because it’s strictly against Drama Desk rules). While I was standing in front of the theatre waiting for Phil, a young man with a Scandinavian accent approached me with desperation in his voice and asked it my tickets were for sale. Maybe the NYPD should increase its presence around the theatre. This could get nasty.

All that enthusiasm -- from others -- helped keep me in my seat. Normally I would have been out the door at intermission with a show that banal, but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I also had heard how bad the reviews were (I don’t read them until after I write mine) and didn’t want to miss something that would have been pointed out as especially appalling. For me, The Addams Family was a must-see just to determine how miserable it is.

Pretty miserable, it turns out.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Fantasticks turns 50!

It began with a one-week run at Barnard College. The people who saw it fell in love with the songs, and some of them gave money, as little as $25 or a lot more. A two-act show followed the next year and found a home at the tiny Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, and over the years unknown performers who would one day go on to be A-list actors took the stage to sing of young love tested by suffering.

Those people who had given money were rewarded for their vision, receiving 24,000 percent back on their investment. And now, The Fantasticks, the sweet little Off-Broadway show that grew out of that long ago one-week run, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The songs, as performed by members of the current cast Tuesday afternoon at the National Arts Club, are just as charming as ever.

Lyricist Tom Jones spoke to our Dutch Treat Club luncheon group about creating the show with Harvey Schmidt, who wrote the music.

“We thought we’d let Rodgers and Hammerstein do the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals,” he said with a smile.

In his early 80s, Jones sounded as excited about the show as he must have been a half century ago. And just as he did then, he is once again playing The Old Actor. He brought along three other cast members, Scott Willis, who plays the Narrator, Erik Altemus and Kimberly Whalen (in photo), who play the Boy and the Girl, to sing songs from the show, including that most famous and beloved number, “Try to Remember.” Music director Robert Felstein accompanied them on piano. No wonder this show has lasted so long. What a delight those songs are!

And they have been part of so many show business veterans' bios. This 50th anniversary cast will one day be able to count itself as members of an impressive groups of alums, with such former participants as Liza Minnelli, F. Murray Abraham, Glenn Close, Keith Charles, Kristin Chenoweth, Bert Convy, Eileen Fulton, Lore Noto (the show's longtime producer), Dick Latessa and Martin Vidnovic.

The Fantasticks has become a star itself, a showbiz legend as the world’s longest-running musical. It opened on May 3, 1960 at the Sullivan Street Theatre and didn’t close for 42 years, until Jan. 13, 2002, a record-shattering 17,162 performances later. But that final curtain wouldn’t stay down for long. The current Off-Broadway revival opened in 2006 and is still rolling along at a spot renamed for one of the original cast members, the Jerry Orbach Theater.

I was fortunate enough to have seen the original -- although long after Orbach had left the cast -- and the revival. The first time I saw it I received a pleasant jolt back in time. I had to laugh when the Girl says at the beginning during her “Much More” number, “Please, God, please. Don’t let me be normal.” I remembered how fervently I used to pray those exact words. I hadn’t thought about that since I was the young girl praying them myself. The Fantasticks is a show that understands what it is to be young.

Jones said he based the show loosely on Edmond Rostand’s Les Romanesques, with a bit of Romeo and Juliet mixed in as well. It has been seen in 67 countries, from Afghanistan to Iran to Zimbabwe, to Japan, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, Saudi Arabia and to Israel, and been translated into many languages, including Pashto, Dari, French, German, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Czech, Slovak, Persian, Irish, Italian, Magyar, Thai, and Mandarin. Next month a revival begins previews in London’s West End and opens there June 9.

Reflecting for the Dutch Treat Club on how that original one-week production inspired the seed money to grow such a phenomenon, Jones said simply, “Sometimes you’re rewarded for taking a chance.”

And isn’t that fantastic?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Scottsboro Boys

This story of racism and injustice in 1930s Alabama would seem an unlikely subject for a musical, but as told by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the creators of such classic works as Cabaret and Chicago, it is a mesmerizing evening of theatre, so powerful I was in tears at the end.

Directed and choreographed by Broadway superstar Susan Stroman, the story is portrayed in part as a minstrel show, which is appropriate considering the grotesqueness of the actual case. In 1931 nine black teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white prostitutes and spent the next six years in jail through various trials and appeals.

The 13-member cast, headed by Broadway veteran John Cullum, is excellent, especially Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, the most volatile member of the groups and the one lease able to tolerate the injustice. When he stands alone in a spotlight to sing “Nothin’” he acknowledges the frustration of his situation, that he’s done nothing wrong but is going to die. It’s soulfully moving. In the song “Go Back Home,” another of the straightforward numbers, he sings longingly of his desire for freedom. It’s a beautiful, show-stopping moment in which he is joined by Cody Ryan Wise, who plays Eugene Williams, at 13 the youngest of the accused, and the Scottsboro Boys.

Sean Bradford, Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, Forrest McClendon, Julius Thomas III, Sharon Washington, and Christian Dante White make up the rest of the spot-on ensemble.

Most of the numbers are all-out razzle-dazzle, with singing, dancing, some tambourine playing, tapping and strobe lighting, reflecting the carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the case that attracted national attention and helped spark the civil rights movement. I was reminded of the court scene in Parade, Jason Robert Brown’s 1998 Broadway musical about another southern travesty of justice, the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in 1913 Georgia who was falsely convicted of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl in his employ. In that case it was anti-Semitism that doomed him.

Adding to Scottsboro’s effect is that it’s done in just under two hours with no intermission. This heightens the tension and the drama, as does the sheer simplicity of Beowulf Boritt’s set, which consists only of straight-back silver chairs and a few planks. David Thompson wrote the musical’s book, nicely recounting the facts of the story and developing the characters as people we care deeply about.

Toni-Leslie James created the costumes, Kevin Adams the lighting and Peter Hylenski the sound. David Loud is music director, with orchestrations by Larry Hochman.

The show will be moving to Broadway in the 2010-2011 season, which is where it deserves to be. It definitely has a large wow factor. The final scene is such a quiet, dignified contrast to the larger showbiz effect of the whole that I started to cry. At the curtain call I looked at a fellow Drama Desk voter who was sitting next to me and he looked back with his eyes wide, speechless at first. It really is an amazing show. I’m sorry lyricist Ebb, who died in 2004, didn’t live to see it.

The Scottsboro Boys has been extended to run through Sunday at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St. Tickets may be reserved online at or by calling (212) 353-0303.

Friday, April 9, 2010


I was surprised when I heard that the Broadway play Red was about Mark Rothko being commissioned to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. I hadn’t known about that and couldn’t connect the intellectual abstract-expressionist painter with an expensive, status-symbol dining spot.

As John Logan's fascinating two-character biographical play illustrates, my instincts were right. This fast-paced, 90-minute drama, directed by Michael Grandage and powerfully performed by Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant, Ken, is an examination of art and its worth, and challenges the notion that commercial aspects are always an enemy of creativity.

The year was 1958 and the Seagram Building was a new architectural gem of modernity on Park Avenue. Rothko was paid $35,000 to paint a series of murals for its chic restaurant, Four Seasons. Red imagines that time. Set in the artist’s Manhattan studio as he paints the dark red and black murals that dominate the stage, Rothko tells Ken he will create a chapel-like atmosphere where people sit surrounded by his paintings, leading them to contemplation and reflection.

“But it’s a restaurant,” Ken says.

“No. I will make it a temple,” Rothko responds.

Red is a play of ideas, yet it doesn’t feel talky, thanks to the writing and performing. Molina captures Rothko’s ego and his genius, spewing forth his vast knowledge -- and opinions -- of philosophy, literature and art. Redmayne is the initially idealist assistant, who is himself an aspiring painter. But over two years as the receiver of Rothko’s diatribes and questioning, he becomes increasingly bolder in taking on the master with his own now well-formed thoughts on the future of art.

Red is the latest import from London’s Donmar Warehouse, which recently brought us Frost/Nixon, Mary Stuart and Hamlet. Molina and Redmayne are reprising their Donmar roles, for which Redmayne won an Olivier Award.

Screenwriter-playwright Logan told's Stage to Screens column he was inspired to write the play after seeing the Rothko Seagram murals in London’s Tate Modern. The artist had donated them to the museum a year before committing suicide in 1970.

"When I thought about the way the colors in the paintings vibrate back and forth, I thought it would be a great two-hander because it sorta represents and mirrors his work,” he said. “Once I came up with the idea of Rothko and his assistant, everything fell into place."

Christopher Oram designed the simple set, Neil Austin the atmospheric lighting. Adam Cork was composer and sound designer; the stirring classical music, supposedly being played on Rothko’s record player, is almost another character in the play.

Tickets for Red, which is playing a limited 15-week engagement at the Golden Theatre, are available through, by phone at (212) 239-6200, online at Telecharge or at the box office, 252 W. 45th St. Visit for more details.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art."
-- Oscar Wilde

(I would be happy with either choice!)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pilar Rioja

By Mary Sheeran

I’d never had much enthusiasm for flamenco. My knowledge was limited mostly to television westerns and vague memories of Walt Disney’s "Zorro", a collection of 30-second appearances that probably amounted to an hour out of my whole life. Then one day a few years ago, I was feeling pretty low and a postcard dropped out of my mail box about a performance of Spanish dance near where I live. Well, I had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect the artist I saw, who, simply by moving a toe could create a whole world. The performance was a thrilling theatrical blend of Spanish dancing, ballet, and modern dance with a bow to Martha Graham. I was overwhelmed. And I went back three times that season, bringing people with me each time, and they were overwhelmed.

Pilar Rioja is a life force. She has worked to keep the traditions of Spanish dance alive by both teaching and performing, and she has a loyal and enthusiastic audience in New York at the Repertorio Espanol, where she makes regular appearances each year. Her programs consist of about five or six dances interspersed with performances by the musicians who accompany her, and they take you on a tour of flamenco’s history that proves quite absorbing (it was nothing like "Zorro!"). PIlar Rioja possesses a magnificent control of her art and her body, and she seems to be able to do anything with the subtlest gesture or movement. Her magnificent face lights up with joy or freezes us with forbidding glances. In a space of a few minutes, I thought she looked like a vibrant young girl and an old, sad woman. To see her art is thrilling, and I can guarantee that you’ll be knocked out of the blues.

Last week, once again, I took several friends to see Pilar Rioja, who had never seen her before. What we saw first at the Repertorio Espanol was joy in performance, joy in being sexy, joy in dancing, and an appreciation of the human body as instrument to evoke human emotion. Now, that may not seem so wonderful; artists do that all the time, right? You may think you see that on Broadway. Not like this. Rioja sweeps you along in a way that grabs your soul out of your seat and never by telling you what to think. She brings you into her art, and her palpable respect of both her art and you is what provides the thrill that goes down your spine.

We saw five dances in our program. In the first, “Sevillanas Moriscas,” she stretched out her arms to hold a wide shawl, which she moved seductively, joyfully, and with great power. Sound like nothing? Uh uh. It was something. In “Gaujira,” a gorgeous white gown outlined her strong and beautiful body and enhanced her dramatic stance; she held two large fans, which she moved, her arms moving seductively, her stillness starkly punctuated by strong rhythmic footwork.

In the “Grave assai and Fandango,” she appeared in a ballet length gown of royal purple and glittering silver that brought gasps from the audience. This dance was indeed influenced by ballet, with graceful but light movement and rhythm that built throughout the dance, as did the footwork. In this one instance, the music was not provided by the musicians who always sit upstage but by a tape of music featuring harpsichord and guitar. It was an ideal dance to show the precise art of the castanets, which, as was explained, is more difficult than just clicking back and forth with your fingers. Those castanets are having a conversation with the music. So the fingers are doing different things on each hand, and the feet are doing something else. You try it.

The “Tener La Esperanza Muerta,” a deep song based on a story by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, was my favorite. The story concerned a young engaged girl who is abandoned by her fiancé, and, being in her late twenties, she knows she is doomed to spinsterhood for the rest of her life. At first, Rioja plays the young girl, happily dancing with her wedding veil, but in a flip of that veil, she transforms to a despondent, hard woman.

The last dance program was the jubilant “Tangos Andaluces,” incorporating African/Cuban rhythms and the cajon, the Peruvian box drum. Here was what we generally think of as “flamenco”, and Rioja’s footwork was strong and captivating, and her smile lit her face and ours. The performers were happy, the audience was happy. We left dancing.

Rioja was accompanied by a group of gentlemen who seem remarkably attuned to her dancing: flamenco guitarists Jose Luis Negrete and Arturo Martinez; flamenco singer and cajon (Peruvian drum) performed by Alfonso Cid, and flamenco singer David Castellano. They are partners par excellence, alert to Rioja’s every move, urging her on, and mesmerizing during the music they played while Rioja was changing costumes.

Rioja’s stunning and elegant costumes, by the way, were designed by Guillermo Barclay and executed by Susanna Ortiz and Graciela Castilo. Robert Weber Federico, who delivers his wry, witty, and informative commentary with understated modesty does the same with the lighting design that enhances the mood and celebrates the artist. His commentaries impress on the audience the understanding that Spanish dance has an international legacy. We’re all in there somewhere.

One other layer to the performances of Pilar Rioja: She was born in 1932 in Torreon, Coahulla, where she began dancing on stage and in taverns, and she became a celebrated performer in Mexico City. She continued studying dance in Mexico and in Spain and has for decades been considered one of he world’s pre-eminent Spanish dancers. But you do the math.

In 2005, Rioja began the first of many farewell tours, but that “farewell” language is missing from her publicity now. In this performance, I realized that her use of footwork has diminished -- she seemed to be saving up for the finale; she held back in the show’s beginning but was able to use the rest of her mighty arsenal – hands, stance, and her walk. Gradually, the footwork grew more powerful until the flamboyant last number.

One almost hates to say that her performances now have taken on the added layer of teaching us about aging, about taking on its limitations and using what one has learned to transcend the technique acquired in youth. It is also about art and how it can transform both performer and audience: in the Lorca piece, for example, we can see the young bride, we can feel her joyous dance, and we feel the more powerfully her despair (even though we have left the word “spinster” behind us).

Watching Rioja, you can come to a deeper understanding that art, however it may take us out of ourselves, is nonetheless human and beset by limitations and pain, even if it transcends to beauty and poetry – you suddenly realize that your own possibilities are much greater than you’d perhaps believed. But this is just one layer of watching what is an artistic performance without even considering the artist’s age. Combined with the integration of dance styles and an awareness of the evolution of Spanish dance, the gypsy wailing of the singers, the precise, specific, and powerful movements of hands, torso, and foot, Rioja is a force of nature, and that means that she is a spiritual force, or more accurately, shows us that the art that she and we practice is a spiritual force.

So I would say, go see her now. And if you need a further push, go here:

Pilar Rioja performs through April 11 at Repertorio Espanol, 138 E. 27th St., between Lexington and Third Avenues. Tickets, which start at $25, may be obtained at the box office, by calling (212) 225-9085, or through the theater’s Web site,

Singer/writer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006. Her next novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Come Fly Away

Broadway's’ latest jukebox musical dazzles with Twyla Tharp’s choreography and Frank Sinatra’s voice, yet, as with most of the others in this overdone genre, I was left with my usual question -- Why?

Why contrive a Broadway show around the music of an individual or group? The answer is that it’s probably easier than creating an original, narrative musical, and if this form succeeded before, as it did big time with Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, it will succeed again. This isn’t true, of course, which bombs like Good Vibrations made quite clear.

Come Fly Away, conceived and directed by Tharp, is far better than Good Vibrations -- but then, what could be worse? -- but nowhere near as involving as Jersey Boys. This is because Jersey Boys brings to life the rise to fame and fortune of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. Come Fly Away showcases spectacular dance numbers and Sinatra’s voice accompanied by a dynamic onstage band rendering hit after hit from the American Songbook, but after a short while I began to feel I was watching an Olympic competition -- one amazing feat after another -- but without the soul of a single focus.

Set designer James Youmans has transformed the stage of the Marquis Theatre into a glittering 1940s-era nightclub, with the 19-piece big band, conducted by Russ Kassoff who also plays piano, on a stage of its own at the back, with little cocktail tables and chairs and a dance floor in front. It’s a perfect setting for Sinatra’s songs, or I should say, the songs Frank and many others have sung over the years. But his canned voice always sounded like just that. I preferred it when the sultry looking and sounding Hilary Gardner joined the band to sing. Then it really felt like a nightclub.

Some of the songs, like “Summer Wind,” lend themselves better to being acted out, as Karine Plantadit and Keith Roberts did with this one. Others convey a mood, such as romance with “Body and Soul,” nicely performed by Matthew Stockwell Dibble, John Selya, Holley Farmer and the ensemble.

All of the 15 dancers are first rate, but Plantadit really sizzles. Charlie Neshyba-Hodges also is a standout who seems as if he’d be equally at home in a gymnastics competition or a comedy act.

They all strut out for the lively curtain call, done to “New York, New York,” my theme song.

My friend Phil loved the show. As he said when we were leaving, it’s an evening of great dancing and great music that leaves you feeling good. I agree, but for me the feeling good didn’t last too long after I left the theatre. Come Fly Away is lovely to look at and listen to, but it didn’t give me with any memorable feelings. It was like a sugar high, enjoyable while it lasts, but nothing that will sustain me long term.

Come Fly Away premiered last fall at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, where it was well received. It includes original arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Quincy Jones, as well as some newly created arrangements.

Tharp has been choreographing Sinatra’s songs since the 1970s. (Sinatra died in 1998.) This is her second jukebox musical I’ve seen. The first was her Best Choreography Tony-winning Movin' Out, which featured the music of Billy Joel and was quite possibly the loudest musical in Broadway history. Come Fly Away is overly amplified too, as are most musicals, but nowhere near as atrociously as Movin’ Out. She also choreographed the short-lived production of The Times They Are A Changin' with Bob Dylan’s music.

Come Fly Away tickets are available by phoning (212) 307-4100, or by visiting Ticketmaster. or the Marquis Theatre box office, 1535 Broadway. For more information, visit

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lynn Redgrave's illness progressing

I’ve been told that Lynn is not doing well at all. The cancer which she first battled in 2002 after finding a lump in her breast returned last fall. I’ve been praying for her everyday since meeting her in September when she offered an inspiring theatre meditation at Broadway Blessing. She talked about how her faith, the theatre and her work had sustained her through her illness. I was impressed by how full of life and light she seemed. Please join me in praying for this lovely woman.