Tuesday, March 27, 2012


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.


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?


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.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wrestling with the story

This essay is by the Rev. Buddy Stallings, priest-in-charge at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan.

Lauren Winner's non-memoir memoir, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, is a delicious treat during these waning days of Lent. At one point she writes, "Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze." Reading the entire book Sunday on my cross-country flight, I found it to be charming, a description I hope Ms. Winner won't find objectionable, for it is much more than that. Its poignant gentleness is just what I needed as we near the end of an intense Lent of teaching and preaching.

My class Operating Instructions: A Series about Life  has been particularly exciting and draining. We 'cut to the chase' in this class with very little preliminary work, daring to engage a mutual adventure -- going closer to the margins of our faith than most of us may have suspected at the outset. The experience is a great testimony to the power of honesty, to speaking as clearly as possible, relying on as little insider church talk as we can -- an exercise in trust, deep trust that our most honest thoughts and wildest ponderings when measured, tweaked and argued in community, will not lead us astray. While we can be (and no doubt have been) honestly wrong, the speaking of what is as honest for us as we know how to be at any given moment is never wrong; it simply is; and is it quite different from that which we fabricate as truth even for good reasons.

Near the end of Winner's book, she tells a story about her friend Julian. When it came time for Julian to be confirmed, she told her father, who happened to be the parish priest, that she was not sure she believed enough to be confirmed and was certainly not prepared to proclaim before the whole church -- his church -- that she was ready to believe it always. The wise priest and father said to his young daughter, "What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that this is the story you will wrestle with forever."

Of all the Operating Instructions we have considered in this course, this simple statement may say it best for me: we will wrestle with the story forever! In my heart of hearts, I KNOW that wrestling with God is always holy; and though we may on occasion limp away from the match, we leave with the mark of God, a transforming and life-giving experience that changes us forever.

Monday, March 19, 2012


If I had but two loaves of bread,
I would sell one and buy hyacinths,
for they would feed my soul.

I don’t know the author of this charming verse, but I’ve always loved it. Hyacinths definitely feed my soul. I buy them every spring and always stop to smell them as I pass florists or the Korean grocery stores that sell them all around the city. They’re such a welcome sign of spring, which I am always more than ready for. I was born on the first day of spring, so I feel a special connection to this time of year.

Happy Spring!

Sunday, March 18, 2012


You said, take a few dry
sticks, cut the ends slantwise
to let in water, stick them
in the old silver cup on the
dresser in the spare room and
wait for the touch of Easter.
But a cold wave protected the
snow, and the sap’s pulse beat
so low underground I felt no
answer in myself except silence.
You said, winter breaks out in
flowers for the faithful and
today when I opened the door
the dry sticks spoke in little
yellow stars and I thought
of you.

--James Hearst


Monday, March 5, 2012

Tina Howe Still Shimmers

I wrote this feature for today's Theatermania.com.

Two hallmarks that have made Tina Howe such a beloved playwright, especially to women, are her humor and her shimmering endings. Both are onstage again in the first New York revival of Painting Churches, Howe’s 1983 breakthrough play about a family facing past resentments and a darkening future. This story of love and forgiveness, produced by the Keen Company, opens March 6 at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row under the direction of Carl Forsman.

The day before previews were to begin, Howe sat in the sunny living room of her Upper West Side apartment and talked about this most autobiographical, and vulnerable, of her works in which Mags, a young artist -- the Tina character (played by Kate Turnbull) -- returns to her parents gracious Boston townhouse determined to paint their portrait and finally win their approval. But Fanny and Gardner Church (Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham) have their own needs -- dealing with the decline in their lives as age and finances force them from their Brahmin world to a small cottage on Cape Cod. Set in the living room amid boxes in various stages of packing, old grievances give way to fresh understandings, with Howe’s zany sense of comedy lighting the way.

“The characters are very close to the household I grew up in, with echoes of the drama, the eccentricities, I heard constantly growing up,” she says.

Howe’s father was journalist Quincy Howe, who broadcast the evening news for years on CBS radio and moderated the final Kennedy/Nixon debate. One of her grandfathers and an uncle were Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, as is Gardner in the play.

“I grew up hearing the news in my father’s voice,” she said. “I knew what it felt like to grow up with a famous father.”

In Mags, she comes to terms with the feelings of inadequacy and need for attention that marked her early life. Reviewing the original production, New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote: “What Painting Churches has really revealed is the time and pain it costs us all to make that complete and honest parental portrait at last come into view.”

“It’s all true but none of it happened,” Howe says.

The play’s ending, though, is far removed from her parent’s leave-taking.

“The actual portrait, and the play, is a wish, a fantasy,” she says. “We all know life does not end that way. My parents’ ending was much more harrowing. I was painting a portrait of how we wish to see our parents at the end of life. That’s why audiences have loved it. It gives them a beautiful alternative, which I think is the function of theatre.

“I see Fanny and Gardner as tremendously brave and valiant. Fanny is aware Gardner is losing it but she soldiers on, creates an illusion that everything is all right. Their valor gets me. That’s very New England. They’re not into self-pity.”

She thinks of her endings as epiphanies.

“I believe in transformation. All my plays end in characters who are transformed and rise to a new level.”

Her plays also offer a decidedly female point of view, from The Nest, which deals with husband hunting, to Birth and After Birth’s portrayal of frazzled young motherhood, then menopause in Approaching Zanzibar and finally old age in Chasing Manet.

She is pleased that Painting Churches is one of three major revivals of the work of women playwrights this season, along with Margaret Edson’s Wit and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. For her, it’s still too few.

“Women’s work is still not at the top of artistic directors’ lists, yet we’re the ones buying the tickets.”

Painting Churches was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, losing to Glengarry Glen Ross. Pride’s Crossing, her play about the first woman to swim from English to France, also was a finalist in a year the Pulitzer committee chose not to offer an award for drama.

Next up, Howe is shopping around her latest work, which she will identify only as “apocalyptic play set on ocean liner,” and is working on a musical and a TV pilot, the details of which she declines to disclose. And she is passionate about developing new writers in her role as playwright in residence at Hunter College’s MFA program.

“I’m a hopeless optimist. It’s so easy to go to the dark side, weeping and tearing of flesh. It’s much harder to find grace. That’s always my goal.”

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Surviving a career in the arts

This Lenten reflection on Mark 8:31-38 was written by Brian Hampton, Marble Collegiate Church’s director of arts ministry and children, youth, and families ministry.

"He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'" (Mark 8:34).

Many creative people in the arts come to church for a very specific reason—to strengthen their faith. It keeps them going. Careers in the arts are some of the most difficult professions out there, and faith in God and in God's will for them is essential to artists' work.

To be in the arts means that you have to have a "thick skin"; at least, according to the old adage. "I hope you have a thick skin," was what people told me when I decided to move to New York City from Virginia to become an actor and a playwright.

They were right. But it's not really about the box of rejection letters, the countless auditions, or the unanswered calls. It's about putting your point of view and faith out there to be judged and seen by others. It's tough. Just like telling others about your faith in God, it's exposing, personal, and there will always be critics.

Peter is the critic in this story. He rebukes Jesus, but Jesus says to him, "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (verse 33).

That's what you have to listen to and hold on to when you are in the arts. When you put words to page, acting to dialogue, paint to canvas, movement to music, or notes to a melody, you have to keep in mind the divine message, the ministry it gives to you, and what you, in turn, give to your audience. You can't think of those who will reject you—you think of those whose spirits you'll be healing and what you'll be inspiring in people as a result.

As Jesus says to the crowd, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow him. It won't be an easy road, but if you hold on to God, God will pull you through to see your creative work come alive and touch people's lives.

So go and create, and discover, and minister in your own creative way! As Jesus says in this passage, "Get behind me, Satan!" That's what you need to say when that voice inside critiques you and holds you back. Push it behind you, because you and your talent belong out there in the front.

God, as we walk through the season of Lent, remind us that even though the road is not always an easy one, with you walking beside us, our faith reminds us that you are the greatest guide, on the greatest path, to the greatest glory. Amen.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ballroom Ghosts: Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 at the New York City Ballet

By Mary Sheeran
Women with long, unbound hair sweep through a dark, otherwise deserted ballroom partially hidden by mist. A young man kneels in a pose of grief and loss. One of these ghostly women knows him; their dancing evokes grief and passion. Is she dead? Is he? Are they beloved ghosts the ballroom remembers?
            So begins George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3, a four-movement piece with lush Romantic music, a flood of strings, and long phrases with emotional peaks. This New York City Ballet favorite, performed at the company's Feb. 25 matinee and throughout the concluding performances of its winter season, has an interesting history underlying its unique structure. In 1947, Balanchine created a ballet called Theme and Variations for Ballet Theater (now American Ballet Theater) to the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s score. A thrilling showcase of bravura classical technique, it demanded the best from the best of dancers. Consequently, Theme and Variations quickly became a popular staple in the repertory of most ballet companies. Then, in 1970, with his own company firmly established inside the vast New York State Theater, Balanchine added Tchaikovksy’s other three movements, making the “T&V” section the fourth movement of the ballet that Balanchine typically (for him in 1970) named after the music’s score, “Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3.”
            Those first three sections take place in the darkened ballroom, perhaps after the dancing has ended and the ghosts take over, the women in long, romantic blue skirts. For Theme and Variations, the stage is transformed to a brilliantly lit ballroom, and the dancers shimmer in classical ballet attire.
            The first three sections and “T&V” can feel like two different ballets. Part of the audience’s task is to link these disparate sections – or not. All four movements do, after all, come from the same piece of music, and that may be enough. Or one can see the entire piece as showing how ballet grew here. In 1947, Theme and Variations showed pure classical style to American audiences new to ballet, but by 1970, this was no longer necessary with Balanchine’s audiences. One can also see the ballet in psychological terms, as what is happening beneath the surface of those radiant ballroom figures – or as a foreshadowing of their sad future. Or Balanchine could also be referencing other ballets: For instance, is the first movement, “Élégie,” a variation of a memory from the classic ballet Giselle, where the heroine tries to prevent her spirit companions from harming her grieving lover? (This theme from Giselle inevitably points to Orpheus, one of Balanchine’s signature ballets, whose lyre is the NYCB’s symbol.)
            Or you can just sit back and enjoy it all sweeping over you!
            Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette delivered technically excellent but otherwise chilly performances Saturday in the Theme and Variations movement. I was taken aback by Bouder’s simpering smile, which shocked me more than the stage’s brilliance when the chandeliers dramatically lit up at the beginning of the movement. For his part, Veyette was precision itself and a careful, if distant, partner. Bouder didn’t seem to notice him, alas. The “invisible partner idea” is certainly a Balanchine theme, as well as a motif in classic ballet, but it’s out of place in this glowing ballroom! The classical heritage of the “T&V” section comes from court dance, where one should at least politely acknowledge one’s partner. Bouder’s overall attitude not only influenced the incomplete phrasing of her dancing, but it also diluted the impact of the first three sections, excellently and movingly danced by Teresa Reichlin, Ask La Cour, Rebecca Krohn, Jared Angle, Erica Pereira, and the ever excellent Daniel Ulbricht.
            Balanchine enjoyed making dances to Tchaikovsky’s music. Of Allegro Brillante, the short ballet that opened Saturday’s program, Balanchine said, “It contains everything I know about the classical ballet in thirteen minutes.” Its beginning is a smile from Balanchine - “first the music” and then, after a few moments of our “just” listening, the curtain goes up, and we see eight women circling on a stage that is all for them, along with the backdrop of Balanchine’s blue sky kingdom, the location of so many of his ballets. In a magnificent debut, Sara Mearns once again demonstrated her musicality by the intelligent and sensitive way she listens with her whole body. Want to study phrasing? Watch Sara! Her very nerve fibers must listen. She’s terrific in Allegro Brillante’s final cadenza with her fleet light turns and precise footwork. Every so often, she’d return to her partner (dependable Jared Angle), as if remembering he was there before whirling off again.
            Saturday’s program also included Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free. The best thing about Fancy Free is what it became – the Broadway and film musicals of On the Town – but so much of Fancy Free is dated now. Those three sailors ganging up against a lone woman and mischievously grabbing her purse – even if it’s all just a lark -- fails to elicit the genuine laughter that scene might have elicited in 1944. But, well, Fancy Free stamped the word “American” on ballet, it gave us Jerome Robbins, and the cast was marvelous, with the engaging Sean Suozzi, Robert Fairchild, and Adam Hendrickson. The strong, intelligent performances by Stephanie Chrosniak and Sterling Hyltin helped to ward off some of the egregious, boys will be boys chauvinism.
            As an appetizer to these full-course ballets on Saturday, Peter Martins’ Zakouski proved a delightful showcase for Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz. “Zakouski” means “hors d’oevures” in Russian, and we were treated to tasty selections by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky that the charming dancers enjoyed as much as the audience did.
            The afternoon was a splendid program as NYCB concluded a strong winter season at Lincoln Center. And I would be amiss not to call out the New York City Ballet Orchestra’s excellence and the tiny, fiery Clotilde Otranto, who conducted the Tchaikovsky suite with a joyful intensity.
Allegro Brillante. Music by Peter Tchaikovsky (Piano Concerto No. 3, Opus 75). Choreography by George Balanchine. Costumes by Karinska. Lighting by Mark Stanley. Piano Solo: Elaine Chelton. With Sara Mearns, Jared Angle. Premiere: March 1, 1956, City Center of Music and Drama.
Zakouski. Music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Peter Tchaikovsky. Choreography by Peter Martins. Costumes by Barbara Matera. Lighting by Mark Stanley. Violin: Arturo Delmoni; Piano: Nancy McDill. With Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz. Premiere: Nov. 17, 1992, New York State Theater.
Fancy Free. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Choreography by Jerome Robbins. Scenery by Oliver Smith. Costumes by Kermit Love. Lighting by Ronald Bates. With Robert Fairchild, Adam Hendrickson, Sean Suozzi, Stephanie Chrosniak, Sterling Hyltin, Amanda Hankes. Premiere: April 18, 1944, Ballet Theater, Metropolitan Opera House. NYCB premiere: Jan. 31, 1980, New York State Theater.
Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3. Music by Peter Tschaikovsky. Choreography by George Balanchine. Scenery and Costumes by Nicolas Benois. Original Lighting by Ronald Bates. Lighting by Mark Stanley. With Teresa Reichlen, Ask La Cour, Rebecca Krohn, Jared Angle, Erica Pereira, Daniel Ulbricht, Ashley Bouder, Andrew Veyette. Premiere: Dec. 3, 1970, New York State Theater.
Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era, concerning the effect of the mining on the native tribes. Her CD, "Through the Years," is available on CD Baby.