Saturday, December 22, 2012

Flipside: The Patti Page Story

Flipside: The Patti Page Story, which opened last night at 59E59 Theaters, is misnamed. It should be called Patti Page Songs because precious little personal story is told in this show, written and directed by Greg White, that is more a revue of 28 of the songs she made famous.

This latest of what have come to be called jukebox musicals is mostly all jukebox, lacking the drama or comedy that would make it theatrical enough to be called a musical. The most interesting details of Page’s life are recounted in the closing address to the audience, and then they’re mostly just career facts.

We do learn she had adopted two children. So what did this mean in her life? Had she wanted to have children of her own but couldn’t? Was there any heartache about that?

She had two failed marriages. Could we see some of the romance of the courting and drama of the breakups? Neither the husbands nor the children are in The Patti Page Story. How could they be left out of someone’s story?

From what we hear at the end -- that she had 111 hits on the Billboard charts and sold more than 100 million records -- we know she had a wildly successful career, but from what we see onstage her life would seem to be the most placid in show business history. The piece is only 95 minutes long but I was bored well before it was over -- too many novelty songs like “Doggie in the Window” and “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.”

White uses a familiar devise to unveil what he does of Page’s life -- the older star looking back. Clara Ann Fowler (Haley Jane Pierce, left in photo), a short, bespeckled woman with light brown hair in a drab brown suit and tan sweater, returns to the radio station in Tulsa, OK, where she got her start and begins to reflect on her swift assent to fame as Patti Page (Lindsie VanWinkle). In fabulous full-skirted 50s style dresses and glamorous gowns (costumes by Corey Martin), a platinum-haired VanWinkle sings hits accompanied by an eight-piece onstage orchestra in scenes of Page’s nightclub days as “The Singing Rage.” Pierce sings as well; I particularly liked her “Tennessee Waltz.”

But the flashbacks should be more than just a song. We need conflict and interactions. Page hints at some dissatisfaction with fame, describing a celebrity as not a human being but “the combination of a human -- and the audience that observers her.” But then she goes on to pile one success on top of another.

One of her career highlights has become one of her legacies. On New Year’s Eve 1947, unable to hire back-up singers, Page became the first to “sing a duet with herself” when she recorded “Confess,” singing the main vocals first and then recording the back-up, a trick that was her idea. This earned her lots of publicity and set her apart from the other “Girl Singers.”

“We didn’t know we were doin’ somethin’ innovative,” Clara Ann says, addressing the audience. “Makin’ recordin’ history. We just wanted to record a good song. But that night, there at Mercury studios in Chicago, I was the first singer to ever double her own voice on a recordin’. Overdubbing they called it. Nobody had ever done it before!”

At the end, VanWinkle lets us know her eight-decade career is still humming.

“Today Patti Page is 84 years old,” she says. “She continues to record and perform on a regular basis. Her heart belongs to her audiences who have given her so much love over the years.”

All’s well that ends well, it would seem.

The cast also includes Willy Welch, Justin Larman, Jenny Rottmayer and Kassie Carroll. Conductor and music director Sandra Thompson leads the orchestra.

 Flipside premiered in Page’s home state of Oklahoma and toured to Washington, D.C. for the Kennedy Center Theater Festival, where it won several awards, including Outstanding Production of a Musical.  Its New York run closes Dec. 30.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Natalie Toro Sings "Just in Time for Christmas"

Congratulations to Natalie Toro on the release of her new single, “Just in Time for Christmas.” She brings light, energy and joy to this song made famous by Nancy LaMott on her 1994 Christmas CD.

Toro has been developing her rich voice since she was 5 years old and made her debut at the Apollo Theater. I first encountered her as Madame DeFarge in Broadway’s A Tale of Two Cities several years ago, and most recently this past summer in the New York Theatre Festival’s Zapata! The Musical.  In between I was delighted to have her sing “Where Is It Written?" from her Natalie Toro CD at Broadway Blessing 2011.

Take a listen to her latest and view the video at natalietoro.com.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Don't own your challenges

"Commune with your successes, not your failures. Don't own your challenges. They've only come for a season and one that will add to your growth, so pass through it and keep moving. Don't keep company with your challenges, since anything you dwell on will take over. I don't know any successful people who got where they are without overcoming some serious challenge."
 -- Mikki Taylor

Monday, December 3, 2012

Peter Strauss and Michael Learned Star in The Outgoing Tide

Playwright Bruce Graham creates a moral quandary for his character Peg that sucked me in and left me questioning what I would do after seeing the New York premiere of his powerful play The Outgoing Tide at 59E59 Theaters.

Peg (Michael Learned) is worn out at the start. In retirement she and her husband of 50 years, Gunner (a superb Peter Strauss), have moved from South Philly to their summer cabin on the Chesapeake Bay (nice set by Dirk Durossette). Gunner’s pronounced mental decline has prompted her to consider yet another move -- to an assisted living community, something that in his lucid moments Gunner opposes vehemently, picturing a future lying in bed, wearing diapers and not knowing who or where he is. He has other ideas for his future.

The Delaware Theatre Company's production, under the direction of Bud Martin, also stars Ian Lithgow as their adult son, Jack. We get to know each of them through their current end-of-life trauma and in flashbacks, both enhanced by James Leitner’s lighting.

The subject matter is bleak, especially for someone like me whose mother ended her life in bed, wearing diapers and not knowing who or where she was. Luckily Graham presents the situation with sensitivity and plenty of sharp wit. And sound designer David O'Connor keeps it authentic with his sounds of migrating geese and the tide, at least according to my friend Karen Jensen who lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and found much that was familiar in the two-hour drama.

Act One dragged a bit for me, but at the end when we learn what Gunner has in mind, I was eager to learn what would happen. Realizing that his life insurance policy would be worth twice as much if he died by accident, Gunner plans to stage an accidental fall from his boat, after downed a $250 bottle of booze to enhance the believability. He is perfectly at peace with this escape from old-age senility, but the challenge for Peg is that he will not do it without her approval.

The tension mounts in Act Two as we wonder if Peg will give her blessing -- he pleads passionately and makes a strong case -- and if he will go through with it with or without her consent. Both being Irish Catholics, they know the consequences. When Peg points out that suicide is a mortal sin and he will go to hell, Gunner counters that he’ll have plenty of good company with all the pedophile priests.

Graham makes Peg and Gunner and their situation real, so I cared about them and was moved by the conclusion. The Outgoing Tide, which runs through Dec. 16, is well worth seeing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The 7 Joys of Life

I am honored to be one of the 19 contributors from six countries, across four continents, to Brand Management authority Dr. Amit Nagpal’s new book, The 7 Joys of Life, which combines both practical and spiritual wisdom on how to find joy in all aspects of life. My offering is on “The Joy of Arts and Theatre.”

Nagpal makes it clear that self-knowledge in some form or other is essential for living a joyful life.

With a Foreword by Alan Jacobs, a retired professional life coach based in England and author of six books, Nagpal’s likable, easy-to-read, contagiously encouraging book draws on seven major joys of life -- knowing yourself, connecting with self, discovering deepest passion, making decisions with wisdom, relating with people, rejuvenating ourselves and pampering ourselves.

The book starts with a prologue discussing, “What is joy after all?” and ends with an epilogue on the joy of giving and contributing back to society. It is only after creating joy in our own lives that we can spread it around.

Designed to be a holistic guide to living joyfully, the book is not only a life manual in some ways, but also intends to create a paradigm shift in our attitudes. Some of these intended shifts include:
Money is not the only source of joy
Personal Growth can be a source of joy
Primary reason for meditation should not be to reduce stress but to add joy
Pampering oneself need not be accompanied by guilt.

The book also includes major barriers to joy, such as office politics and emotional baggage. One must learn to handle these barriers with the right attitude or they can sap all of one’s energy. The 7 Joys of Life, published by ‘The Publisher’, is targeted for people who may have lost their vision for the future, and who thirst for joy and a sense of fulfillment. It is available through Nagpal’s web site: http://www.dramitnagpal.com.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Canterbury Jazz Mass

I wrote this cover story  for the Oct. 7, 2012 issue of The Living Church magazine.


One Sunday morning this past June, seven American revolutionaries staged an assault on the sensibilities of some 800 worshipers gathered at Canterbury Cathedral for the 11 a.m. service, causing them to react in a most un-British way.

They applauded. For several minutes. And Dean Robert Willis was gobsmacked.

“English people don’t clap in church,” Willis declared, calling the service “an absolute triumph” and thanking the young Americans for “loosing up the whole church.”

Those rebels who shook up centuries of Anglican tradition were the seven musicians who make up the Theodicy Jazz Collective. They were in England to offer the world premiere of their commissioned work, “Canterbury Jazz Mass,” a five-movement Latin Mass, for which they were joined by the Cathedral’s choir.

“It’s a really neat way to put brush stokes on prayers, to bring them to life in a really cool way, a blending of ancient and modern.,” says Andy Barnett, Theodicy’s 28-year-old founder and band leader. “Jazz brings freedom into structure so there’s room for the spirit to move. It’s finding a middle path between freedom and structure. That’s an Anglican idea.”

That spirit will be moving again this fall when “Canterbury Jazz Mass: Tradition, Innovation and Christian Discipleship” has its American premiere Oct. 24 at Yale Divinity School, accompanied by the choir of the “super Anglo-Catholic” Christ Church of New Haven. “I hadn’t really thought of jazz as a middle way,” Barnett says. “I really stumbled into it, but now I see it has potential for Christian community.”

During an 80-minute phone interview from his home in the Berkshires town of New Lebanon, NY., Barnett, who is an Episcopal priest, as well as a music director and environmental science teacher at the Darrow School, a private boarding school, and worship developer at Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield, MA., shared how he was drawn, seemingly by accident, into this calling, which he now sees as “the evangelism of the 21st century.”

Raised Episcopalian at St. Luke’s Church in Minneapolis, he had little experience with jazz until, as a student at Oberlin College, he was asked to start an evening service for students at Christ Episcopal Church. An organist who also played in a Christian rock band, Barnett considered those the only two forms that represented church music. He reached out to Sarah Politz, a classmate who played the trombone, and they began to flavor the liturgy with the rhythms and the blues of jazz.

It worked so well they were asked to play at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. Over two years this “morphed into a jazz service” that combined the Anglican eucharist with jazz improvisation. While the congregation said the prayers they knew, the musicians -- on trombone, bass, drums, piano and a singer -- backed them up with appropriate rhythms. In the case of the Psalm, for instance, everyone sang the eight measure antiphon, then while the congregation read the verses the musicians improvised the music.

“A big part of that was we were not just playing at them, we went out of our way to include them in singing with us,” Barnett says. “We want mystery, spice in our life for beauty that connects us with the holy. Jazz is a good way to do that.”

And that was how Barnett began see jazz as evangelism.

“People just started coming. It really took off, especially with young families. It was uninhibited joy, and it was consistent with the gospel. It was an important seed, that service.”

The seed continued to bear fruit when Barnett went to the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and brought his jazz evangelism to the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James in New Haven, where he served as music director through his last two years of school. During that time, he says, attendance nearly doubled and giving nearly tripled.

“It became a robust, hearty community and everybody there sort of felt the joy with the music or the mood of the blues,” he said. “It was a deep call for action. It empowered people to keep on following Jesus.”

He began hearing comments from parishioners about how the service carried them through the week. 

“It kept me going too. It reminded me this music is so packed with liberation and filled with joy you almost can’t help but move, and that gives people the will to keep going, and the church too. It was in trouble.”

Barnett’s next outreach of jazz evangelism seemed as much a “stumble into” as his others. Each year Berkeley students made a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Barnett had no way of knowing just how much this experience would change his life when it was his turn to go.

“When I heard the first note from the choir they had me,” he said.

Wanting to hear more, he asked David Flood, the organist and master of choristers, if he could attend a rehearsal. Flood said yes, and Barnett invited him out for a drink afterwards. The setting was as appropriately ancient and new as what was to come out of that meeting -- a dimly lit 400-year-old pub with a man at an upright piano playing Abba and other songs from the 1970s. Flood and Barnett escaped to the back room and Barnett played a recording of some of Theodicy’s liturgical jazz, then took a bold leap and asked if the group could play at Canterbury.

“It was such a ridiculous thing to do,” he said. “They’re the mother church of the Anglican communion. They don’t mess around.”

But Flood recognized that Theodicy was onto something, and so it was arranged that the group would return in a year with a commissioned work. From that time Barnett and sax player Will Cleary, whom Barnett credits with being the major force behind the Jazz Mass, “composed completely from scratch” music to accompany the ancient Latin prayers of the church -- Kyrie, Gloria, Doxology, Sanctus and Benedictus.

Ann Phelps, the group’s singer, planned the 10-day trip, which grew to include offerings at Sheffield Cathedral, two other churches and the seminaries at Oxford and Cambridge. The tour ran on a $15,449 budget. Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Yale Institute of Sacred Music, Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church, and Canterbury Cathedral were major sponsors.   The tour was also sponsored (in smaller part) by donations from St. Mary's Primrose Hill, Sheffield Cathedral, Oxford University, and Cambridge University, and Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham.

In preparation and as a way to refine their work, the ensemble, which also includes David Chevan, Charlie Dye and Jonathan Parker, played 98 times between September 2011 and June of this year. 

“The group really came into its own,” Barnett said. “We played jazz in church every Sunday. The project was accidental but it was filled with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit wasn’t the only member of the Trinity associated with the music. While on tour the group played for a confirmation service at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Great Missenden. Bishop Wilson sensed the tension from the congregants upon learning that they’d be hearing jazz in church. 

“Jazz is a great metaphor for what Jesus is calling the church to be,” he assured them. “joyful, free, trusting and ready to move.”

The tour was so successful that many of the venues have expressed hope that Theodicy will return. The group will also offer "Rhythm, Blues, and Proclamation: Jazz as a Resource for Church" in February 2013 at Sewanee: The University of the South.

 “It’s evangelism for the 21st century because it’s so multicultural -- rhythm of Africa, instrumentation and harmony from Europe,” Barnett says. “It’s God’s people’s yearning for liberation. I hope it will be a model of progressive evangelism and send people out to be the hands and feet of God.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it is about learning to dance in the rain.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My friend Loraine Heller, who is teaching English in China for a year, shared this popular saying in that country: The road to success is always under construction.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Chaplin

Chaplin is a new Broadway musical about the life of screen legend Charlie Chaplin that is largely lifeless. What’s more, this show about a man who made millions of people roar with laughter is sorely lacking in humor.

I learned about Chaplin’s life in this large (24 people) show at the Barrymore Theatre-- his traumatic childhood with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother, his start in show business as a child in the slums of London, singing in music halls with his mother, his rapid rise to success once he moved to Hollywood and the controversy that ended his film career. But I never felt any emotional connection to the character, portrayed by Rob McClure, or, at least in the first act, to the show, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle.

The first act portrays Chaplin’s genius at unearthing and growing the character that was to become the Little Tramp and make him a fortune, eventually with his own movie studio. But McClure doesn’t have the comic flare to capture that comic craziness.

His funniest moment occurs in act two (most of the best moments occur in act two) when he’s watching a news reel of Hitler and starts parodying him because “the son of a bitch stole my mustache.” Out of this came yet another successful movie, “The Great Dictator.”

But the world, and the movie business, changed sharply in the 30s. Chaplin resists moving into talkies, but is more than willing to talk out about his sympathies toward Russia, which eventually alienates his fans and leads to the dissolution of his career.

“I miss the days when you didn’t speak,” his friend Alf Reeves (Jim Borstelmann).

The show ends as Chaplin returns to Hollywood from Switzerland where he has been living for decades with his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill (Erin Mackey), and their eight children to receive an honorary Oscar. The ghosts of people from all stages of his life filter in to sing “This Man,” which was nice, but once again I didn’t feel any engagement between McClure and his character.

I did like the show’s atmosphere. Set designer Beowulf Beritt and costume designers Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz do a great job of creating the word of old movies by using shadings of black, gray and white almost exclusively. Even Angelina Avallone’s make-up carries out the gray theme.

Christopher Curtis’s music is sweet but his lyrics are pretty much forgettable even while they’re being sung, with the exception of two songs, “What’ cha Gonna Do (When It All Falls Down)?” and “The Life That You Wished For.” Curtis also wrote the book with Thomas Meehan.

Zachary Unger is excellent as young Charlie, appearing throughout the show in flashbacks, and Christiane Noll is moving as Charlie’s mother. Wayne Alan Wilcox is good as Charlie’s older brother, Sydney, who becomes his manager. The relationship between them is the strongest one in the show.

Chaplin comes to Broadway following a successful run two years ago at the La Jolla Playhouse where it received its world premiere under the title Limelight and won McClure a Craig Noel Award for Outstanding Lead Performance in a Musical and was voted Outstanding New Musical.

For more on the Broadway production, visit ChaplinBroadway.com.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

SURPRISE! Happy Birthday, Dear Phil


If he wasn’t surprised, he sure did a good job of acting as if he were. When Phil Hall walked into the second floor dining room at Sardi’s Sunday and the close to 30 of us luck enough to call him friend shouted “Surprise,” tears welled in his eyes. It was a great start to a lively celebration of his 60th birthday, which actually won’t occur until Friday, when he will be in Paris.

Nobody deserves these good times more than Phil, a gifted composer, playwright and singer. We met in 2007 when I interviewed him about his play with music, Matthew Passion. We’ve been friends ever since. The room was full of people with similar stories. To meet Phil is to become his friend. He’s one of the kindest-hearted people I know.

Karen Arlington, a friend and performer in the singing group he founded and directs, The Philhallmonics, arranged most of the gathering, plotting for two months with the assistance of actor Jeremy Michael and fellow Philhallmonic singer Rachael Robbins.

For an especially appropriate touch, considering we were celebrating in Sardi’s, Rachael had commissioned the artist Age to draw a caricature of Phil, which during the time of the brunch hung on a pillar at the famed showbiz restaurant before heading home to Phil’s apartment.

Theatre folk came and went. Broadway favorite Melissa Errico, a voice student of Phil’s, arrived midway through the festivities with her 3 1/2-year-old twins, Diana and Juliette McEnroe, and joined the guest of honor table, at which I was fortunate to be sitting. (That’s me in the black dress clapping behind Phil in the photo.)

This being a Sunday afternoon in the theatre district, others left early to make their matinees performances-- Tommar Wilson and Michael James Scott headed for The Book of Mormon and George Dvorsky to Closer Than Ever.

Jazz pianist Dan Furman played throughout the afternoon. After brunch he was joined by the voices of some of the women in Phil’s life. Melissa sang “a nice little Irish song by two Jewish intellectuals,” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” She asked the twins to be her backup singers but they declined, being more interested in the chicken fingers and fries the waiter had brought them since they arrived after brunch was served.

“They’re going to go to bed because I sing this at night,” she joked.

Several Philhallmonics serenaded the birthday guy as well. Mary Anne Prevost sang “I Wake Up in the Morning Feeling Fine,” Linda Sue Moshier sang “The Music That Makes Me Dance ,” Dolly Ellen Friedman presented “Razzle Dazzle,” Rachael Robbins “Roxie” and Arlington “Love Is Here to Stay,”

Two Philhallmonics wrote their own words to hits. Lenore Fuerstman’s contribution was a rewriting of “Mame,” to which we chimed in with Phil’s name replacing Mame’s. It was fun. Here’s a sampling:


“You mention stars, who’s played with a few?
“Phi-il.
“Phyllis, Nanette, and Angela, too!
“Phi-il.
“From humble roots in Durham, amazing what a worldly life you’ve led!
“Hand-holding countless ladies has put a couple gray hairs on your head!
“So now we celebrate your big day,
“Phi-il.
“We’re here cause Karen said she would pay,
“Phi-il.
“Your smile, your sense of humor, your talent and your sweetness and your heart,
“These are the things we love in you,
“There isn’t much that you can’t do,
“We’re all your fans you know it’s true,
“Phi-il.
 “Your music’s inspirational
“Your coaching’s educational,
“We think you’re just sensational,
 “Phi-il, Phi-il, Phi-il, Phi-il, Phi-il!”


Diana Silva gave her spin to “Second Hand Rose” with “Happy Birthday, Phil Hall:”



“So Happy Birthday, Phil Hall.
“We love you, Phil,
“There’s no one else like you,
“Unsurpassed in your skill,
“Even when you play your ol’ piana,
“You’re the best of our songbook Americana.
“We sing from our hearts,
“Thanks to you, Maestro Phil.
“You teach us how to belt perfectly,
“Singing from my belly, I’m now deeper than before.
“Just like Franco Corelli I can access my core.
“Phil, you’re a wiz.
“Yes, you’re the best in the biz.
“So Happy Birthday Phil to you,
“Phil from Seventh Avenue ….Nu?”


Diana is one of my favorite Philhallmonics. I’ve seen her in three of the group’s concerts and she always stands out with the intensity of her presence and the emotional rendering of each song she solos. I got to meet her before Phil arrived and tell her that.

“As soon as I spoke to him on the phone I knew I would like him,” she said, explaining that he had been recommended to her when she was looking for a vocal teacher to guide her from the Early Music she was used to singing into popular music. “He helps you get out something that is deeper. You feel very vulnerable and that’s the place to be. He’s so encouraging. He gives you 300 percent.”

And on Sunday, we got to give a little of that encouragement and love back to him. Happy Birthday, Phil!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

“You were made and set here to give voice to this: your own astonishment.”
 —Annie Dillard

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bill Clinton and Thousands of Others Say Farewell to Marvin Hamlisch

So many tender moments during Marvin Hamlisch’s 90-minute funeral today. His numerous awards -- Pulitzer, Tony, Oscars, etc. -- were mentioned frequently, but what speaker after speaker, including former President Bill Clinton, remembered the composer for most was his big heart. He was, as Clinton said, the “people’s composer” and the humanitarian who couldn’t say no to any request for help. 

Hamlisch’s farewell drew a full house -- close to 2,000 people at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, among them Liza Minnelli, Richard Gere, Bette Midler, Kelli O’Hara, Diane Sawyer and Bernadette Peters. The choir of 600 included his Broadway friends singer/actress Lucie Arnez, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. Beginning with “The Way We Were,” they sang Hamlisch’s songs from stage and film. We in the audience rose to join them for “What I Did for Love.”

But the most moving tribute was from his wife, Terre, who started out bravely but ended in tears. It was just last week that she lost her partner of 26 years when he dropped dead unexpectedly at the age of 68 after a brief illness.

She remembered the large man with the big smile who lived by the rule “if you can’t say something good about someone, then don’t say anything.” When she was feeling down, he would pull out all the stops to restore her spirits, such as the morning he woke her -- far earlier than she would have liked -- by jumping onto the bed and singing and playing all the parts of a musical (she didn’t say which one), complete with choreography, for the whole show.

And he kept that enthusiasm to the end. She told how it had yet to be announced that he was to take over this fall as director of the Philadelphia Pops. Another friend shared Hamlisch’s pride in the reviews of his latest musical, The Nutty Professor, based on the Jerry Lewis movie. That show, for which Hamlisch wrote the music and which Lewis is directing, is playing in Nashville.

After finishing her remarks, Terre Hamlisch walked over to her husband’s coffin, draped in yellow flowers, for a moment, reaching out to touch it before returning to her seat. It was painful to see her grief, and then again as she walked down the center aisle behind that coffin, tears streaming down her face.

Rest in peace, Marvin Hamlisch. From all that was said, it is clear you were indeed one singular sensation.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Zapata! The Musical

Revolution continues to ferment in musical theatre, at least as engaging subject matter. First came Les Miz, then A Tale of Two Cities, and now Zapata! the Musical, a promising new show which just completed its world premiere at the Pershing Square Signature Center as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Inspired by the life of Emiliano Zapata (1877–1919), hero of the Mexican revolution, the two-hour show offers a fight for justice, a love story, colorful costumes, lively dancing and songs that capture the soul of each scene.

Director Elizabeth Lucas and choreographer Luis Salgado had to work hard to fit it all on the off-Broadway stage. Even with no scenery except projections and a few props, the 17-member cast, plus the larger-than life story, seemed crowded in the space. I like small musicals, but this isn’t one of them. It needs a Broadway theatre and I hope it gets one.

The strong (for the most part) cast is headed by Enrique Acevedo (third from left in photo) as Zapata, with standout performances by Maria Eberline (second from left) as Josefa, his girlfriend and then wife, and Natalie Toro (left) as his mother-in-law, Senora Espejo. (Zapata! is Toro’s second recent theatrical revolution; several years ago she took command of a Broadway stage as Madame DeFarge in A Tale of Two Cities.)

I found Zapata’s story compelling, but was thrown off by the modern day story of a young Occupy Wall Street member (Andrew Call, fourth from left) that frames it. The young man travels back in time to participate in Zapata’s movement, but if I hadn’t read the press release I’m not sure I would have understood what that was all about. It doesn’t fit well with the rest of the drama, which is certainly strong enough to play on its own.

(Interestingly, this is at least the second time Zapata has found his way into musical theatre. At the end of Ragtime, as Edgar is recounting what has happened to his family members, he mentions that Younger Brother fled south to join “the great peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.”)

This Zapata! features music and lyrics by Peter Edwards and a book by Peter Edwards and Ana Edwards. The songs are rousing or festive, depending on the scene, and Emiliano and Josefa have a couple lovely duets. I was startled several times, though, to hear strains of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita in the score, almost to the point of what sounded law suit provoking.

While the music was appealing, the sound was not. The show was horribly overly amplified, which was unnecessary in that small theatre and with belters like Toro. This really detracted from the quality of the production. Jesse Vargas provided musical arrangements and orchestrations. Kenneth Gartman was the musical director for the onstage (but unseen) band of eight musicians.

Visually, though, all was well. Asa Benally’s colorful costumes were delightful and Herrick Goldman’s lighting excellent. The show is off to a good start with this production, and I really do hope to be seeing it again on Broadway. It was a high-quality production for the bargain basement New York Musical Theatre Festival rate of $25.

Now in its ninth year, the Festival is the largest annual musical theatre event in America and is widely regarded as the essential source for new material and talent discovery, earning it the name the "Sundance of Musical Theatre."

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The 7 Joys of Life

I am proud to be a part of this new book with my contribution, "The Joy of Arts and Theatre."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth. "
 — Thich Nhat Hanh

Friday, July 13, 2012

"Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little."
 ~Edmund Burke

Saturday, June 30, 2012

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”
-- Mary Oliver

Friday, June 22, 2012

Harvey

It’s unusual for a show, especially a straight play, to open on Broadway in the summer. New Yorkers are away and tourists flock to blockbuster musicals. But a hot summer night couldn’t be a more perfect time to see the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Harvey, Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy about a man whose best friend is a 6-foot-3 1/2-inch tall invisible white rabbit.

Aside from resurrecting Jimmy Stewart to play the lead as he did in the original 1944 Broadway production (taking over for Frank Fay who opened the run), probably no one could better bring to life the human end of the friendship than Jim Parsons, a two-time Emmy winner for "The Big Bang Theory," who charms the living daylights out of this sweet little show.

I had never seen the movie, also starring Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, because I didn’t think it would appeal to me, but I got it out of the library this spring to watch before seeing the Broadway production at Studio 54, which is directed by Scott Ellis. My senses had been right. I was bored to death and only got through about 40 minutes, and I’m a Jimmy Stewart fan. It seemed corny and dated, although I know many people have loved it through the years. And they certainly loved the original stage production, which ran for four years and is ranked the sixth longest running play in Broadway history. (Another interesting fact -- it beat out The Glass Menagerie for the Pulitzer. Cute though the play is, I don’t agree with that choice.)

Seeing it live changed the story for me completely. At two hours and 15 minutes it still drags at times, especially in the scenes at the sanatorium where Veta, Elwood’s sister (Jessica Hecht), is attempting to have her brother committed because his relationship with his imaginary friend is threatening her social standing -- and that of her husband-hunting daughter, Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo). She can be laugh-out-loud funny at times, but over-the-top at others for my taste.

But I was never bored when Parsons, as the lovably eccentric Elwood, was onstage. His sense of timing and gosh-by-golly friendliness bring what could be a silly comedy to shimmering life. He’s a harmless bloke who likes to spend his days chatting up folks at the local pub and introducing them to Harvey.

And he made me a believer. (Consequently, Hecht’s best scenes are when she believes in Harvey too.) The few special effects nicely sprinkled in to let us know Harvey is very much with us are just enough and perfectly done.
In a Playbill interview, Parsons described Elwood’s appeal. There's something "about this man's relationship to the world around him, and everybody else's reaction to that relationship, that feels timely," he said. "There's a real connectedness Elwood seems to have to the literal world around him that everybody else seems to be viewing as disconnectedness. Everyone else seems to feel he's missing the boat. I think that in many ways Elwood is…captain of his boat. He very much feels the waters of these seas."
Parsons really does seem to understand Elwood. In fact, he is Elwood. He was as real a person for me as Harvey is real to Elwood.

The company also includes Charles Kimbrough, Larry Bryggman, Peter Benson, Holley Fain, Angela Paton, Rich Sommer, Morgan Spector and a hilarious Carol Kane.
Jane Greenwood’s 1940s costumes reflect the period without making the show feel dated, and David Rockwell’s sets do the same; his wood-paneled library at Elwood’s house drew applause when the curtain rose.
 I’m sure the show will receive multiple Tony nominations. Maybe even one for Harvey as best actor!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming--"Wow! What a Ride!""
-- Author: unknown

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"If you can't fly, run; if you can't run, walk; if you can't walk, crawl. But by all means keep moving forward."
-- Martin Luther King Jr.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Wisdom from Liam Neeson, Vanessa Williams and other A-list actors

I enjoyed being interviewed Tuesday evening by Joanne Mathis for her blog radio program, “Artists, Designers, and Things Oh My!” We talked about the wisdom Liam Neeson, Vanessa Williams, Kristin Chenoweth, Phylicia Rashad, Edward Herrmann and other actors shared with me for my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.

 Click here to listen any time you like.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Play writing

"A playwright's days are spent making up things that no one said to be spoken by people who do not exist for an audience that may not come."
-- Herb Gardner

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Waiting

"When the time for silence comes, I ask you to take up your position for prayer, and then, having asked the help of the Holy Spirit, to be content and wait patiently, expectantly, lovingly, longingly. Try to realize that this is all you can do for yourself. God must do the rest. See yourself as the parched ground looking upwards waiting patiently for the rain to fall. You can only wait."

-- Fr Roger Schultz of Taize

Monday, May 21, 2012

Adversity

“The monks used to say that adversity introduces us to ourselves. It’s often in the midst of turmoil and defeat that we come to appreciate who we truly are. As we age, we discover that we spend the first part of our lives 'growing up' and the second part 'growing down' – i.e., strengthening our interior life, gaining wisdom, depth and compassion.

“’Growing up’ is often public and pleasant. ‘Growing down’ is usually private and painful. While the interior journey required of our adult years may be difficult, it’s a price worth paying and a responsibility we have to ourselves and the world.”

-- Kenny Moore

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Vanessa Williams' You Have No Idea

The first time I became aware of Vanessa Williams was at Mass on Sunday morning, Sept. 18, 1983. I was a reporter at the Syracuse Post-Standard then and used to worship at the Newman Center at S.U. Father Charles, the celebrant, started the service by saying: “Congratulations, Miss America comes from among you” and students around me applauded and cheered.

I didn’t have a television and wouldn’t have been watching the pageant if I had, so it took me a minute to understand that a Syracuse University musical theatre major had been crowned the night before. Even though I wasn’t a student, I sat a little taller and felt proud.  When I got back to my apartment I read the New York Times coverage of this historic win -- the first black Miss America.

 Then I forgot about it until the next day when I got to work and the features staff was excitedly talking about Vanessa’s victory. It turns out she had done some modeling for the paper and the writers remembered her as being not just pretty, but a pleasure to be around and willing to do whatever they asked. They loved working with her and were thrilled about her win.

Following those two encounters, with just the mention of her name, I have always felt a connection to Vanessa Williams and have followed her career, cheering her successes and praying for her during the troublesome times. Both of these Vanessas from my early awareness -- the high-achieving superstar and the down-to-earth woman -- can be found in lively detail in her new book, You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other). The book, published by Gotham Books, is co-written by her mother, Helen, along with journalist and author Irene Zutell.

Vanessa and Helen hold nothing back, producing many surprise disclosures about the beauty queen/singer/dancer/actor who has been in the public eye for nearly three decades. Some revelations are sad, such as the one about Vanessa being molested at 10 by an 18-year-old girl whose family she was visiting in California. Others are gutsy, such as admitting that as a senior in high school -- and a Catholic -- she had an abortion. The ones about her family, marriages and children are moving. And those about her faith, which are my favorites, are inspiring.  I liked Vanessa before I read this book and I like her even more now. What’s more, I now like her mom as well.

Vanessa grew up with her younger brother, Chris, in the tiny Westchester County town of Millwood, about an hour outside of New York City. Her parents, Milton and Helen, were music teachers in the public school system.

From an early age Vanessa showed promise of a musical career. And, also from an early age, a rebellious streak. “Vanessa always learns the hard way,” Helen tells us in the Introduction. “She’d do what she wanted, knowing she’d pay for it later. (Usually with interest.) Vanessa didn’t make it easy for me. She did not and she does not.”

I admire the honesty of both women. The nude photos scandal that toppled Vanessa’s reign as Miss America is well presented -- from both perspectives -- but so are incidents they might have preferred to keep behind closed doors, such as the time in senior year of high school Vanessa skipped school and went back to her house with her boyfriend, which just happened to be the very day Helen decided to do something she never did, go home for lunch. When Mom walked in she heard the stereo blasting and found the couple making love on the pullout sofa in the family room. Enraged, Helen called her husband, who came home and punched the boyfriend in the face.

What I like so much about this book is that it goes beyond juicy celebrity tell-all stories like that to show the other side of Vanessa, the one with the deep character to handle all of her misfortunes, many of which were self-generated. When she learned, six weeks before her Miss America year was to end, that Penthouse was going to publish the photos, she called her lawyer and “prayed for guidance.”

And she continues to pray nightly, often on her knees, as her father taught her:

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. May love guard me through the night and wake me with the morning light. Help me do the things we should, to be to others kind and good. In all we do and all we say, to grow more loving every day.”

Her faith also allows her to believe (rightly) in a loving God who forgives, even an abortion. “I’m still a practicing Catholic,” she writes. “Yes, I did confess, and I’m grateful for the opportunity of forgiveness. I go to church almost every Sunday and pray before I go to bed every night (like my dad taught me). I even have loving priest friends who have guided and helped me through many struggles in life.”

In contrast to the abortion experience, she writes about being pregnant many years later with her first child, when she was married, and seeing what looked like “a pulsating grain of rice,” which was the baby’s heart, on the ultrasound. “I watched the image and listened to the swish-swish sound of my baby’s heartbeat. I could see life at eight weeks. It was clear -- in black and white -- that this would be my child. Thank God, he gave me another chance!”

Although she remains pro-choice, each time she goes by the building in White Plains where she had the abortion “it always takes me back to that cold January day years and years ago. I still get a twinge in the pit of my stomach.”

Besides faith, it’s clear family is central in her life, both the one she was raised in and the one she has created. She has four children, three with Ramon Hervey, the L.A. publicist (13 years her senior) who helped her navigate the press once the word of the nude photos got out, and one with former L.A. Lakers forward Rick Fox (six years her junior). The marriages failed, but she maintains close relationships with both men, who have even developed a bond between themselves that had them taking the children on a vacation together while Vanessa worked.

I especially like the stories of family life during the holidays. Christmas Eve sounds fun -- 5:15 Mass, then back to Vanessa’s for her homemade lasagna, afterwards the children are allowed to open one present. “Being with her children is when Vanessa’s the happiest,” Helen writes. “Being on the Broadway stage takes a pretty close second.”

The homey stories are nicely balanced by plenty of glamorous ones. The month after she was crowned Miss America, she attended a state dinner in Ronald Reagan’s White House. (Reagan had called her in Atlantic City right after her win: “Hello, Vanessa? This is President Reagan. Congratulations. This is a great thing for our nation.”)

Pretty exciting for a 20-year-old. So was the White House. “I was on my own -- and nervous,” she writes. “In the receiving line before me was the legendary designer Halston and two of my dancing idols, Martha Graham and Ginger Rogers.” In time, she would go on to meet both President Bushes, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, the Clintons, who are now her neighbors in Chappaqua, NY, not far from where she grew up, and Barack Obama.

The book also has painful episodes -- the breakup of both marriages and the yearlong estrangement from her beloved father, which had only begun to heal at the time of his unexpected death of acute pancreatitis in January 2006.

“I’d gone through two divorces, I’d known the pain of lost love, the agony of rejection,” Vanessa writes. “I thought I understood what it was like to be heartbroken. The moment I saw my dad’s lifeless body, I realized I had no idea.”

And, of course, the book serves up lots of career stories, from recovering from the scandal and becoming a successful recording artist, to achieving her ultimate goal -- starring on Broadway -- and the movies and TV shows she’s graced.

“For years and years I’d walk into an audition or meeting and I could feel the judgment,” she writes. “They thought I was a beauty queen devoid of talent and intellect. Actually, not only a beauty queen -- I was a scandalous Miss America. I was Vanessa the Undressa. [That’s what the tabloids had called her at the time.]

From the career anecdotes one of my favorites was about that moment she had wanted since high school --where her yearbook inscription was “See you on Broadway” -- when she replaced Tony-winner Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman and got fabulous reviews, drew standing-room-only crowds and had her run extended for three months and then another three months.

Getting to Broadway as soon as possible had always been her goal. She entered her first pageant, Miss Greater Syracuse, to earn money for her junior year studying theatre in London, something she had to give up once that win led her to Atlantic City and the ultimate beauty pageant victory. The recording career also hadn’t been on her agenda, but her notoriety kept her from getting theatre work right away 

The most shocking story of that discrimination was after a successful audition for a part in a Mike Nichols directed production of My One and Only, a musical based on George and Ira Gershwin’s “Funny Face.” Ira’s widow stopped that cold, saying, “I just want to be clear: I don’t want that whore in my play.”

Vanessa was stunned, but not stopped.

“I knew it would be tough, but I never doubted I would succeed,” she writes. “When you know this, you don’t have dark days, you don’t hit rock bottom.”

Her confidence and focus will offer motivation for recent college graduates or anyone looking for work.

Realizing “this Miss America thing is going to be a huge, huge obstacle,” she put Broadway on hold and began working on her first recording. When she did make it to the Great White Way, she brought with her a gold album and positive name recognition.

Other career passages I loved were those about playing the much-feared fashion magazine creative director Wilhelmina Slater on “Ugly Betty.” Helen partly inspired that character, with Vanessa recreating what she used to refer to as The Look, the hyper disapproving stare her mother focused on her all too often. And also her mother’s high standards and impatience.

“Mom’s exasperation is exactly what I channeled into “Ugly Betty.” Wilhelmina, my character, was always annoyed by everyone’s inadequacies. Her attitude was, ‘Get it together, people! UGH! Do I have to do everything?’

“ That’s exactly my mother.”

And a bit of Vanessa as well, at least in her determination to be the best. No one was going to stop her. No matter what was said about her in those early post-scandal years, she forged forward. “I silently thought, ’You have no idea who I am and what I can do. One day the dust will settle and you’ll see what I am made of. You’ll accept me for who I really am.’”

We’ve know for a long time what Vanessa can do, and how well. And now with this book we get to see even more of what she’s made of and who she really is. I can add another personal note here that speaks to Vanessa’s quality as a person. At the end of my interview with her for my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, she told me that if I needed anything more I could call her. I was impressed by her empathy and graciousness. She put herself in my place, anticipated my need and offered to make herself available to me, again. No attitude of “I’m a big star, you’ve had your hour, that’s it.” Nope, she was willing to be helpful, just as she had been all those years before when she modeled for our paper. And that is the mark of a true star.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ghost the Musical

Every time a nice moment surfaces in Ghost the Musical at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, it is quickly pushed aside by a tidal wave of swirling video projections and frenetic movement posing as dance numbers, with all tenderness overwhelmed in this loud, busy, high-tech adaptation of the popular 1990 movie.

 Director Matthew Warchus has pummeled the production with unrelenting special effects and choreographer Ashley Wallen with robotic dance sequences that serve no purpose in the story; in fact they harm it. I suppose the idea was to portray a fast-paced, impersonal New York, but Molly and Sam, the young lovers, get lost with images of stock market tickers, swirling cityscapes and expressionless, rhythm-less dancers. They disappear like ghosts, as do all the pop/rock songs (lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin and music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard) as soon as they are sung. The only song that stayed with me was the classic one associated so closely with the movie, “Unchained Melody.” That was going through my head for days, which was OK because I like it.

 Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman are fine as Molly Jensen and Sam Wheat. The story, when we can pick up on it (book by Rubin, who won an Oscar for his original screenplay for the film), is the same as in the movie -- Molly, a sculptor, and Sam, a banker, are sharing a loft. Sam is murdered one night in front of their home in what initially seems like a random killing during a mugging. Sam, as a ghost (now bathed in blue light), discovers the truth and must get a message to Molly that she is in danger.

 And that’s where the con-artist psychic comes in. Da’vine Joy Randolph is Oda Mae Brown, the character Whoopi Goldberg played in the movie and for which she won an Oscar. Sam uses her to communicate with Molly because it turns out she has more power than she thought when she turns out to be the only one who can hear Sam. Randolph’s scenes provide some laughs, but often her performance seems forced. Maybe she feels the strain of competing with all of those special effects.

Some of which are good. I especially liked seeing Sam as a ghost first realizing he can put his hand through the door. Paul Kieve's illusions are fun, but the use of Jon Driscoll's video and projection designs, played over Rob Howell's set, should be reduced by half at least.

 I also was impressed with the body switches. Thanks to Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and some seamless moves by the actors, a dummy corpse is slipped unseen onto the floor while the character, now a ghost, looks as if he is rising out of the dead body to stand and observe himself. That had a cinematic quality to it.

 But then, we don’t go to Broadway musicals to be reminded of movies, or at least we didn’t before so many shows were being adapted from films. In the case of Ghost the Musical, you’d be better off renting the movie and staying home, and saving your money for a new original musical romance like Nice Work If You Can Get It. And listening for “Unchained Melody” on oldies stations, where it’s still popular even all of these years after the Righteous Brothers made it a hit in 1965. “And time goes by so slowly/ And time can do so much,/ Are you still mine?”

 Bet I just planted that in your head for the rest of the day!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Clybourne Park


I wish I could share the enthusiasm of the multitudes for Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s play about race and resistance to change, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The Pulitzer committee appreciated it enough to award it the prize for drama last year. Audiences loved it so much when it was staged in 2010 at Playwrights Horizons (then and now directed by Pam MacKinnon) that it moved to Broadway this spring where theatre buzz has it winning the Tony for best new play. This would be a repeat of the London run, where it was acclaimed by critics and applauded by audiences and went on to win the Olivier Award for best play.

 The idea is definitely a creative one. Act One is set in 1959 in the Clybourne Park area of Chicago. A white couple, played by Christina Kirk and Frank Wood, are selling their house to a black family (whom we don’t meet) who will be the first in the neighborhood. Cleverly on Norris’s part, they are the Youngers, the black family of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun that was moving to Clybourne Park at the end of that play.

 Norris twists this devise in Act Two by having a white yuppie couple, played by Annie Parisse and Jeremy Shamos, buy this same house 50 years later, in 2009. Integration has become gentrification as white professionals, wanting to avoid long commutes to their downtown jobs, reclaim the neighborhoods their parents had fled.

 The only white character in Raisin, Karl Lindner, appears in Norris’s Act One, played by Shamos. (All of the actors appear in each act as different characters.) His mission is the same in both plays. As the head of the Clybourne Park neighborhood association, he attempts to prevent the integration of his community. In Hansberry’s play we see how this affects the black family after he visits them and tries to pay them off to stay out of his world. In Norris’s, we see his attempts to do the same with the white family.

 In Act Two, a black couple, played by Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton, represent the neighborhood association in an area now largely Africa-American. They are worried that the yuppies’ plans to tear down the house and build a larger one will destroy the “historical value” of the community.

 That historical value was black ownership of a sturdy house in a decent neighborhood. As Lena Younger, the family matriarch in A Raisin in the Sun, explains it to her son, “It’s just a plain little old house, but it’s made good and solid, and it will be ours. Walter Lee, it makes a difference in a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him.”

 The 2009 house holds special memories for a new Lena, representing the current community association, because it was her great aunt who who bought it a half century before. Now she is the one who doesn’t want Clybourne Park to change. “It happens one house at a time,” she says, echoing a comment made by Karl in Act One, as well as in Raisin when he explained his reasons for not disrupting the racial balance. “It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.”

 Prophetically, it is the daughter of the first Younger family, in Raisin, who sums up what seems to the at the philosophical crux of Norris’s play. “An end to misery,” she asks. “To stupidity! Don’t you see there isn’t any real progress, there is only one large circle that we march in, around and around, each of us with our own little picture in front of us, our own little image that we think is the future.”

 That’s the kind of dialogue I missed in Norris’s play. I know he wanted to satirize the misunderstandings and mistrust between the races from one generation to the next, but his characters, and especially their conversations, seemed forced, more like talking points for a discussion of race than people interacting, however poorly. I felt only mildly involved on an intellectual level, and not at all on an emotional one. I guess I’m just not ready to welcome this newcomer into Hansberry’s artistic neighborhood.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Ah, I like a Gershwin tune. In January I was in tears at the end of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Just three months later, I was nearly dancing out of the theatre after seeing Nice Work If You Can Get It, a new Broadway musical featuring George and Ira’s greatest hits, along with several unknown gems. Being a critic is definitely nice work, and in the case of these two standout shows this season, I’m glad I’ve got it.

And as if all that clever and romantic music (21 songs under the musical supervision of David Chase) weren’t enough, the show stars one of my favorite Broadway performers, Kelli O’Hara, lighting up the stage at the Imperial Theatre with her full triple threat singing, dancing and acting radiance. Throw in the nebbishy, deadpan charm of her costar, Matthew Broderick, the exhilarating choreography of director Kathleen Marshall, a hilarious supporting cast and a megawatt chorus that definitely has rhythm and you’ve got the kind of good old-fashioned romantic musical comedy of yesteryear. S Wonderful!

The madcap story (book by Memphis book and lyric writer Joe DiPietro) centers around Billie Bendix (O’Hara), a bootlegger in 1927 New York and Jimmy Winter (Broderick) the “plastered playboy” she meets by chance on the eve of his fourth wedding. Her only concern at first is where to conceal her latest shipment of illegal booze. When Jimmy passes out after mentioning his Long Island mansion that he never uses, Billie steals his wallet, looks at the address and figures that the basement of that unused house will be the ideal hiding place.

This little plan hits a major snag the next day when a sober Jimmy shows up at the house that is going to be very much used that day -- for his wedding. As his fiancé, family and guests arrive, mayhem has its jolly reign as Billie and her cohorts try to keep their stash secret. Along the way, as you might guest, Billie and Jimmy just happen to fall in love.

O’Hara holds nothing back, unleashing her talent for screwball comedy, most especially in her “Treat Me Rough” number when she tries to seduce Jimmy in his bedroom. Judy Kaye, as the Prohibitionist Duchess Estonia Dulworth, also has a wacky high point when, crocked on spiked lemonade, she ends up swinging from the chandelier and singing “Looking for a Boy.” Michael McGrath is great as Cookie McGee, one of Billie’s bootlegging friends posing as Jimmy’s butler.

It’s hard to single out only a few wacky scenes in this show, which has so many. I also loved Jimmy’s fiancĂ©, Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson), in a big very pink tub in a very pink bathroom (great larger-than-life sets by Derek McLane) singing “Delishious.” A chorus of Bubble Girls pop up out of the water and dance around the tub, followed by Bubble Boys ballet dancing in their wake. Yes, indeed, it is delishious.

But then, what’s a romantic comedy without the romance? That was best served up when Billie and Jimmy dance their way around the living room and atop the furniture singing “S Wonderful.” That is was.

And it all came together in the closing number with the entire cast -- in their glittery, colorful costumes by Martin Pakledinaz (I adore those flapper dresses) onstage singing “Nice Work.” If you see this show, you won’t just like a Gershwin tune, you’ll love a Gershwin tune. And all that goes with it.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

“Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it.” -- Horace

Thursday, April 12, 2012

PERFECT CRIME, THE LONGEST-RUNNING PLAY IN NYC HISTORY, CELEBRATES 25TH ANNIVERSARY


PERFECT CRIME, Warren Manzi’s long-running funny, romantic thriller, will celebrate its 25th anniversary Off Broadway on Wednesday, April 18, with performance number 10,233. PERFECT CRIME is the longest-running play in the history of New York theater.

The celebration will include a 7 p.m. performance followed by a 9:15 p.m. anniversary party at the Snapple Theater Center, 210 W. 50th St. at Broadway. The entire audience for that evening’s performance is invited to the party, which features dinner and an open bar.
 
“We’ve had such terrific audiences over the past 25 years,” said Catherine Russell (in photo), the play’s leading lady and general manager. “They figure out the clues, laugh along at the jokes and have helped make the show a New York institution.”
 
Russell has starred in the play since its first performance and has never taken a sick day or vacation day, a feat which landed her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Since PERFECT CRIME opened in 1987, Russell has spent more than two years of her life (nearly 17,000 hours) onstage performing the role of psychiatrist and potential murderer Margaret Thorne Brent.
 
During PERFECT CRIME’s historic run, Russell has shot 89 different men and kissed 57 others. Over 83,000 bullets have been fired onstage and more than 5,000 prop coffee cakes have been eaten, and 237 have performed its 25-year existence.
 
The show has been modernized through the years to keep up with pop culture and technology. An on-set television was upgraded to a flat screen, and references to “The Phil Donahue Show” were changed to “Oprah” and then “the morning shows”. A character’s net worth was increased from $1 million to $50 million, and then increased again to $600 million.
 
PERFECT CRIME, New York’s answer to The Mousetrap, was optioned for Broadway in 1980 while author Warren Manzi was playing Mozart in the Broadway production of Amadeus.  At the time, Manzi was the youngest American to have a play optioned for Broadway.  After he refused prospective producer Morton Gottlieb's request to change the title to Guilty Hands and star Mary Tyler Moore or Elaine Stritch, Manzi went to Hollywood and wrote several screenplays, including two versions of “Clue” for John Landis.
 
The script sat in Manzi's drawer for seven years until he became the artistic director of a theater company that produced the play.  Initially opening as an Equity Showcase on April 18, 1987 for a four-week limited run at The Courtyard Playhouse, PERFECT CRIME has since become what New York Times critic Jason Zinoman called “an urban legend” thanks to its incredible staying power.
 
The cast of PERFECT CRIME also includes John Hillner, George McDaniel, Patrick Robustelli and Richard Shoberg.  Jeffrey Hyatt is the director.
 
For more information, visit WWW.PERFECT-CRIME.COM

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Donna Murphy To Play The Witch In INTO THE WOODS


 Tony Award-winner Donna Murphy has been cast as The Witch in the Public Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s beloved musical INTO THE WOODS, directed by Timothy Sheader with co-direction by Liam Steel. Murphy last performed at the Delacorte in the Shakepeare in the Park production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1985. INTO THE WOODS will begin previews at the Delacorte on Monday, July 23 and continue for five weeks through Saturday, Aug. 25.
 
As previously announced, the cast will also include Amy Adams (The Baker’s Wife), Jack Broderick (Narrator), Gideon Glick (Jack), Cooper Grodin (Rapunzel’s Prince), Ivan Hernandez (Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf), Tina Johnson (Granny), Josh Lamon (Steward), Jessie Mueller (Cinderella), Laura Shoop (Cinderella’s Mother), and Tess Soltau (Rapunzel). 
 
AS YOU LIKE IT, directed by Daniel Sullivan, will kick off the 50th Anniversary season of free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte in June with a cast that includes MacIntyre Dixon (Adam), David Furr (Orlando), Renee Elise Goldsberry (Celia), Robert Joy (Le Beau, Lord), Omar Metwally (Oliver), Oliver Platt (Touchstone), Lily Rabe (Rosalind), and Stephen Spinella (Jaques).  AS YOU LIKE IT will begin previews on Tuesday, June 5 and continue for four weeks through Saturday, June 30.
 
Grammy® and Emmy winning actor/comedian/musician and bestselling author Steve Martin will compose original music for AS YOU LIKE IT which will feature a live Bluegrass band. AS YOU LIKE IT is Shakespeare's most musical play, containing more songs than any other. Sullivan will set the play's famous Forest of Arden in the rural American South, circa 1840, where folk and roots music perfectly capture the mood of the time.
 
Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers’ latest album “Rare Bi”rd Alert debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Chart and at #43 on the Billboard Top 200.  The album was nominated for a Grammy® for “Best Bluegrass Album” and features 13 new Martin-penned tracks, including a live version of “King Tut,” and special guest vocals by Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks.  His debut album “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo” won “Best Bluegrass Album” in 2009.  Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers were also named ‘Entertainer of the Year’ at the 2011 International Bluegrass Association Awards.
 
AS YOU LIKE IT features scenic design by John Lee Beatty; costume design by Jane Greenwood; lighting design by Natasha Katz; and sound design by Acme Sound Partners.

INTO THE WOODS features scenic design by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour; costume design by Emily Rebholz; movement direction by Liam Steel; sound design by Acme Sound Partners, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; and musical direction by Paul Gemignani.
 
In AS YOU LIKE IT, Rosalind, Shakespeare’s most breathtaking heroine, and her boyfriend Orlando find themselves in the enchanted Forest of Arden, where all the world’s a stage, and where sudden infatuation is as confusing as it is beautiful.  Along with other “country copulatives,” they discover that nothing transforms, redeems, or enriches experience quite as powerfully as love.  AS YOU LIKE IT has everything we adore about Shakespearean comedy: mistaken identity, cross-dressing, madness, mayhem, rage, lust, laughter, and of course plenty of romance, both heartbreaking and joyous. 

In INTO THE WOODS, a witch’s curse condemns the Baker and his Wife to a life without children. They embark on a quest to find the four items required to break the spell: the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold. Will they succeed?  And what happens after “happily ever after?” A Tony Award-winning masterpiece by musical theater giants Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, INTO THE WOODS is a witty and irreverent reimagining of beloved classic fairytales: Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella.
 
INTO THE WOODS opened on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on Nov. 5, 1987 and played 764 performances. It earned three Tony Awards, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical and a Grammy Award.  Directed by James Lapine, the original Broadway production featured a cast that included Bernadette Peters as The Witch and Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife. James Lapine also directed the Broadway revival that opened on April 30, 2002 at the Broadhurst Theatre and starred Vanessa Williams as The Witch and Laura Benanti as Cinderella.
 
 
Tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are FREE and are distributed, two per person, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park the day of the show. The Public Theater will again offer free tickets through our Virtual Ticketing lottery at www.shakespeareinthepark.org on the day of the show.
 
In honor of five decades at the Delacorte, The Public Theater launched the 50th Anniversary Fellows Program this year to help support free Shakespeare in the Park for years to come.  For more information on the Fellows Program, please call 212-967-7555 or visit www.shakespeareinthepark.org.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

End of the Rainbow


I am left with two dominant thoughts after seeing End of the Rainbow, which opened last night at the Belasco Theatre. One is that British actress/singer Tracie Bennett will win the Tony Award for best actress for her portrayal of Judy Garland at the end of her life. On a less positive note, I couldn’t help but feel that playwright Peter Quilter is just the latest in a long line of people trying to make money off of a woman who was magnificently talented but whose drug and alcohol addictions were far beyond her ability to cope. This is quite often a painful show to watch.

The play, directed by Terry Johnson, comes to Broadway following a successful West End run. It dramatizes the weeks in December 1968 that a financially broke Garland spent at the Ritz Hotel in London while performing her last “comeback” concerts at the Talk of the Town nightclub. It’s definitely powerful theatre, but I wonder what is the purpose of watching such a sick woman spewing obscenities while in constant motion either from her high on drugs or her withdraw from them, twitching her way from one side of the room to the other or rolling on the floor, half dressed, with her makeup smeared.

The pain of witnessing someone disintegrate before your eyes is relieved by interspersed scenes of brilliance as the back wall of the suite (gorgeous sets and costumes by William Dudley) lifts and a six-man onstage orchestra recreates the elegance of Garland’s concerts, with the diva now all glittery, gowned and energized (well, high), dazzling her audience with some of the songs she helped make famous, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Just in Time,” “You Made Me Love You,” “The Trolley Song.” Bennett amazed me with her ability to capture both sides of Garland’s world, and her singing is breathtaking. We saw her at Saturday’s matinee and she was holding nothing back for the evening performance. I can’t imagine how she does that eight times a week. She even returns post-curtain call to sing “By Myself.” This is her Broadway debut; she earned an Olivier Award nomination for her performance in the London production. I hope we will see much more of her.

Her costars also are in excellent form. Michael Cumpsty (in photo) plays Anthony, Garland’s devoted accompanist, so convincingly that my friend Brenda and I were speculating at intermission over whether he was really playing the piano. I thought he was and Brenda was uncertain, but by the end we were both convinced he was. His hands and feet are in all the right places at the right times, but nope, he’s just a good actor.

In the other major role, Tom Pelphrey is Garland’s young soon-to-be fifth husband, Mickey Deans. Jay Russell plays several lesser roles.

While Anthony seems to genuinely care about Garland, Mickey is more concerned with the money she can make from the concert engagement. It is harrowing to watch him force-feed a hung over Judy Ritalin to ensure she goes on that night.

Which leaves me with the question why. The play offers no new insight into Garland’s life. No transformative ending awaits -- Garland died of a massive overdose six months later at the age of 47, so down and out that Frank Sinatra paid for her funeral. Why do we need to watch her degrading final act on display in such excruciating detail? It’s time to let her be remembered for her gifts rather than her demons. They did far too much damage to her in her lifetime.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Welcome to My World"


This blog posting by Dr. Michael Brown, senior minister at Marble Collegiate Church, appears on the church's web site.

“Welcome to my world!” It’s a phrase we often use when someone complains about something we live with on a regular basis. “I can’t believe how much it costs to rent one space in a parking garage!,” or “I am so disappointed my alma mater lost in the NCAAs!,” or “It’s incredible how much I pay in taxes!,” or “I have to be so careful about my weight that I’ve given up everything that tastes good!,” or “Sometimes my arthritis is so painful I hardly get any sleep at all!,” and we respond, “Welcome to my world.” It simply means we understand, we know what they’re going through, we’ve lived where they are living.

When the crowds cried out “Hosanna!” on the first Palm Sunday, to an extent they were saying to Jesus, “Welcome to my world!” “Welcome to Jerusalem where we are overworked and underpaid, where we are oppressed by the government and also by the religious hierarchy, where we struggle to make it from one day to the next, and where we live in constant fear that our burdens will increase and our liberties will be all the more restricted.” They did not make a “Welcome” carpet of palm branches to invite Jesus to a party. Instead, they laid down those branches hoping that He would become their Deliverer. “Welcome to my world. I hope you can redeem it.”

It was, of course, a two-edged sword. “Hosanna” has its costs. Whenever we invite Jesus to enter our world, it becomes incumbent on us to create an environment where He will feel at home. If my spiritual house is furnished with anger or bitterness, with negativism or prejudice, with narrow-mindedness or exclusivity, with a denial of hope or a paucity of love, He cannot possibility feel welcome there. If I invite Jesus into my world, it is important to tidy my world up a bit. On Palm Sunday He entered the Temple and began to throw out whatever things dishonored God and demeaned people. If my world contains things that do either, then those things need to be cleaned out to make room for Him.

By the same token, if my world contains pain, fear, loneliness, brokenness, guilt, sickness, self-doubt, despair, or a host of other issues that make life more burden than blessing, then Jesus lovingly follows the palm branches into my own personal Jerusalem. Where human hurt resides, so does He reside – with unfettered love for those in pain, with comfort for those who lean upon Him, and with the power to cleanse our temples of whatever things diminish us. He comes with love for you and me and all. And all we have to do is whisper, “Hosannah! Welcome to my world!,” and He is there.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Carrie


If I had to describe the newly revised Off-Broadway revival of Carrie in one word I’d call it sweet, but not in a condescending way. That’s an odd word for a musical based on a horror novel by Stephen King that ends in so much violence and death, but this MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre has a simple, old-fashioned feel to it that had my friend Maureen and me hooked right from the start.

We had not expected to like it. After all, the original 1988 Broadway production, which I didn’t see, was a laughing stock and one of the biggest flops in musical theatre history. It cost $7 million to mount and ran for only 16 previews and five performances. But here director Stafford Arima handles the story (book by Lawrence D. Cohen) of teen bullying and dramatic revenge with just the right touch of sympathy and gore, toning down the original excesses. It’s a quick, involving two hours.

All of the elements worked for me, but the three standouts are Arima’s creative direction, Molly Ranson’s magnetic performance as Carrie White and Kevin Adams’ transformative lighting.

Everything about Ranson’s performance paints of portrait of Carrie’s past as the only child of a mentally ill, fundamentalist Christian single mother (excellently played by Broadway veteran Marin Mazzie, left in photo). She wears a drab ankle-length full skirt and long-sleeved sweater (costumes by Emily Rebnolz), with her hair in a bun and no make-up. Her posture conveys her shyness and fear as she seems absolutely recoiled into herself. I wanted to go onstage and hug her.

David Zinn’s minimalistic set -- only a few straight chairs and tables -- are transformed into the Whites’ house and school gym thanks to Adams’ highly effective lighting, which, with Matt Williams’ choreography and Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s musical direction and arrangements, powerfully create the cataclysmic revenge scene with little in terms of props and much in terms of drama. I was riveted.

Maybe I should stop here to recap the story for anyone who hasn’t read the book (I haven’t) or didn’t see the wildly popular 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek. (I saw it on video years later.) Carrie’s father has abandoned the family long ago and she lives with her unstable mother, who has brought her up with extreme ideas of sin and little knowledge of reality.

One day after gym class Carrie gets her period for the first time -- at 17 -- in the shower and runs out to the other girls, terrified that she is dying. For years they have called her Scary Carrie behind her back, but have otherwise not paid much attention to her. This incident is too much for them, though, and they laugh at her and pummel her with sanitary products.

Seeing how terrified and uninformed Carrie is, one of the students, Sue Snell (nicely played by Christy Altomare), regrets her unkindness and sets forth from then on to make amends. But Chris Hargensen (played with relish by Jeanna De Waal), the meanest of the mean girls, plans a public humiliation for Carrie that will make the shower incident seem mild.

Carrie, however, is no longer defenseless. The trauma of the shower episode unleashed something in her of which she had been unaware -- her telekinetic gift, the ability to move objects though the power of her mind. The Act One closer is a delightful turn when Carrie puts her mother in her place. She will do the same later with her classmates, with much more deadly results.

A word of caution if you saw the movie. Undoubtedly you have never forgotten that final scene because you -- and everyone around you including the guys -- screamed in fright. That scene isn’t in the play. I know I wasn’t the only one expecting it because a woman near me said: “Is that the end?” when the lights dimmed. I was waiting for it and wish they had used it, although it would have been hard to stage.

Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire production. All of the members of the cast are good, but then this musical has a history of attracting strong actors. Barbara Cook played the mother in the London premiere and Betty Buckley took over the role when the show opened on Broadway. Piper Laurie played Mrs. White in the film.

The songs (Michael Gore’s music and Dean Pitchford’s lyrics) served more to move the plot along than stand out on their own. I liked that. It made for a nice, tight piece of theatre. Maureen was shocked when we came out to learn that two hours had gone by.

Unfortunately a show about bullying is as timely today as ever. But Carrie’s run is not timeless; it will end April 8, two weeks prior its previously announced extension. If you can’t make it to the theatre, though, you may have another chance to see the show.

"MCC, the authors, and the director achieved what we all set out to do – to rescue Carrie from oblivion and to give her new life,” MCC artistic directors Robert LuPone, Bernard Telsey and William Cantler said in a press statement. “Plans are underway to preserve this production for Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, so it may live on in the memories of the thousands of theatergoers who saw and loved it."

A $20 rush ticket is available for theatregoers under 30. Arrive two hours before the performance with valid identification. Visit mcctheater.org for more information.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Game


This blog post by Dr. Michael Brown, senior minister at Marble Collegiate Church, appears on the church's web site.

Imagine that you had won the following prize in a contest: Each morning your bank would deposit $86,400.00 in your private account for your use. However, this prize has specific rules, just as any game has certain rules.

Rules:

1) Everything that you didn't spend during each day would be taken away from you.

2) You may not simply transfer money into some other account.
3) You may only spend it.

4) Each morning upon awakening, the balance in your account would be exactly $86,400.00 for that day only.

5) The bank can end the game without warning; at any time it can say, the game is over! It can close the account and you will not receive a new one.

What would you personally do? You would buy anything and everything you wanted, right? Not only for yourself, but for all the people you love, right? Even for people you don't know, because you couldn't possibly spend it all on yourself, right? You would try to spend every cent, use it all, right?

Actually, THIS GAME IS REALITY!

Each of us is in possession of such a magical bank. We just can't seem to see it. The magical bank is TIME!

Each morning we awaken to receive 86,400 seconds as a gift of life, and when we go to sleep at night, any remaining time is not credited to us. What we haven't lived up that day is forever lost. Yesterday is forever gone.

Each morning the account is refilled, but the bank can dissolve your account at any time.

So, what will you do with your 86,400 seconds? Those seconds are worth so much more than the same amount in dollars. Therefore, enjoy every second of your life, because time races by so much more quickly than you think.

So take care of yourself, be happy, love deeply, and enjoy life!

Here's wishing you a beautiful day.

Start spending.