Monday, July 17, 2017

Celebrating Ella Fitzgerald in 'Me & Ella'



      Andrea Frierson is an enthusiastic performer with a golden voice.  What she needs now for her one-woman play, Me & Ella, which opened last night as part of the York Theatre Company’s New2NY Series, is some heavy-duty editing and rewriting.  

     With a love for Ella Fitzgerald that began when she was a child and first saw the great singer on TV, Frierson tells Fitzgerald’’s story paralleled with her own.  

     “I was too young to understand what the words were saying, but I felt them,” she says.

     The idea is good but the execution is not.  Although only 80 minutes, the show began to drag for me two-thirds of the way through. I always loved Frierson’s singing, but her personal story was filled with too many details about the lives of her parents, both of whom struggled for singing careers, making it seem she was presenting two separate plays at she same time.  The show is co-directed by the Tony Award-winning team of Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel.

     Frierson, who has appeared in several Broadway productions including The Lion King and Once on This Island, has the range to interpret Fitzgerald well. Her “How High the Moon” is jazzy, her “A Tisket and Tasket” is playful, “I’ve Got It Bad” is soulful, “I’m Old Fashioned” is romantic and her “Lady Be Good” is swinging.  She even looks a bit like Fitzgerald, only shorter.        

     It’s clear Frierson has a passion for her project and I hope she can develop it further. That is the purpose of York’s New2NY Series, which focuses on new musicals, giving them a place to grow between developmental lab and full production.  In Transit, which opened last season on Broadway, was part of an earlier Series.  Me & Ella was featured last season as part of the York's Developmental Reading Series and commemorates the centennial of the legendary First Lady of Song.

   The informality of the Series allows performers and creative teams to concentrate on the show without the trappings of a full production.  Frierson was on-book and dressed casually in black slacks, a large white shirt and black flats.

     One thing I hope Frierson will retain as she moves forward is her outstanding band —  Richie Goods on bass, Rex Benincasa on percussion and on piano, Ron Abel, who also is the music director/arranger.

     I was fortunate to hear Ella Fitzgerald in concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1980s on a pier at the city's Inner Harbor.  She was fabulous, and graciously continued singing after the Orchestra, governed by union rules on time, had stopped playing. They sat in their places and she sang on.  It was a wonderful evening that I have never forgotten. 

    Me & Ella will play through July 23 at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's (619 Lexington Ave., entrance on East 54th Street).

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Each of us



Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless --
Each of us with his or her
right upon the earth,
Each of us allow'd
the eternal purports
of the earth,
Each of us here
as divinely as any is here.

~ Walt Whitman ~

(Leaves of Grass)

Monday, June 26, 2017

Caretake This Moment


 
Caretake this moment.
Immerse yourself in its particulars.
Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed.
 
Quit the evasions.
Stop giving yourself needless trouble.
It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now.
You are not some disinterested bystander.
Exert yourself.
 
Respect your partnership with providence.
Ask yourself often, How may I perform this particular deed
such that it would be consistent with and acceptable to the divine will?
Heed the answer and get to work.
 
When your doors are shut and your room is dark you are not alone.
The will of nature is within you as your natural genius is within.
Listen to its importunings.
Follow its directives.
 
As concerns the art of living, the material is your own life.
No great thing is created suddenly.
There must be time.
 
Give your best and always be kind.
 
~ Epictetus ~
 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie



     Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie at the Irish Repertory Theatre is a delightful two hours of music and storytelling that is particularly timely. Guthrie (1912-1967) wrote his songs to protest the injustice of the poor and workers in an America he thought was ignoring them at best and oppressing them at worst. He would be writing overtime if her were alive today.

     Featuring more than three dozen of the singer’s songs, and with no props other than a stool or two, the play recalls Guthrie’s determined survival of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the Great Depression to become one of the country’s greatest folk singers. He not only overcame the collective hardships of his time, but personal ones as well. The recounting of his 4-year-old daughter’s death in a fire is especially moving.  

     As Woody, David M. Lutken is spirited and likable, extremely likable. So are his fellow cast members, Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Tierstein who play a variety of characters.  All sing and play numerous instruments. Lutken, Russell and Tierstein devised the show along with Darcie Deaville and Nick Corley, who directs. Lutken is the music director.

     Their spirit flows into the house.  You won’t have to hold back when you hear familiar songs like “This Train is Bound for Glory,” “Union Maid” and “This Land is Your Land.” The audience is encouraged to sing along. The intimacy of the Irish Rep is the perfect place for this show, which began in August in 2007 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The production maintains the simplicity of a fringe show and, amazingly after a decade, the freshness. 

     Guthrie would have liked this.  In a program note he is quoted as saying he hated songs that made people feel they were born to lose:  “I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.  And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just like you.”

     In the play, he describes his songs as being for “people who can’t afford a radio or a house to set it in.”  He discovered his calling after leaving his wife and two children to hitch across the country to look for work, living and singing in Hoovervilles in California. “I knew that here was my voice,” he says. Written on his guitar was his mission: “This machine kills fascists.” 

   A delicious moment links nicely to present political sentiments, at least those of the Democratic variety.  Guthrie, while performing with the Corncob Quartet, announces they will “do a song for old Mr. Herbert Hoover.” His bandmates respond “and all them Republicans” before launching into “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.”  The audience loved it. 

     Anger inspired Guthrie to write, but he kept his humility and humor, describing an artist as “somebody out of work so long they learn to do something else.”  He sang on the radio and he sang in the fields for the workers. 

      Before he died in 1967 of Huntington’s disease at 55, he had been an author, poet, painter and essayist as well as a singer/songwriter.  An exhibit in the theatre’s upstairs gallery features extensive biographical information, photos and much more.

     Woody Sez runs through Sept.10 at the Irish Repertory Theatre. 

In photo by Carol Rosegg: Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell, David M. Lutken and Andy Tierstein.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives



     I took Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives with me on a women’s retreat last month and it proved to be the perfect companion.  I’ve not finished it because I like savoring the stories one at a time whenever my spirits need a boost or my mind needs to journey.  I don’t want to rush it.

  Edited by Shayne Moore and Margaret Ann Philbrick, Everbloom is a collect of women’s voices sharing 40 stories of politics, faith, journeys and growth. The authors are part of the Women of Rosebud Writers Guild, authors, lawyers, pastors and doctors with stories to share. Whether global, such as a trip to Kenya to learn more about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, or intimately personal, the stories remind us that God’s grace can redeem anything in our lives and in this world. 

     The Rosebud Writers Guild is a group of Christian women who create in community to influence culture and faith, striving to “change the word with words.”  The editors express this well in their dedication: “Dedicated to all women who have yet to find freedom in Christ in order to embrace their story and share it with the world.  We believe in you, and we pray this book will help you ‘walk right up to him and get what he is ready to give.

     “‘ Take the mercy, accept the help.’”

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Downtown Experience



    I ran into George Washington Thursday afternoon in front of Federal Hall. At least it was easy to pretend I did during The Downtown Experience, the most creative tour of lower Manhattan I have ever taken. For 90 minutes, through expert storytelling and modern day virtual reality, history came to life as we navigated the streets in a bus specially equipped with theatre seating and floor through ceiling windows.

     “Downtown is special because it’s where history and the present come together,” Devin, our tour guide/storyteller, told us. “It’s where innovation met commerce.”

    The Downtown Experience nicely combines history and the present, with virtual reality (VR) headsets featuring 360 degree “views” used a half dozen times, just enough to help transport passengers from the present day world they are seeing into the former times they are learning about, starting with Manhattan island’s early days with the Native Americans and their domed huts by the river, thought the coming of the Dutch and English, right up to today. 

     We experienced the arrival of Irish immigrants on ships as they stand in awe of the Statue of Liberty through VR, then met up with a real-life rapper on the street who sang a tribute to the events of 9/11 while “America” played on the bus’s stereo system.  It was respectful and appropriate before we again put on headsets to journey to the top of the new World Trade Center.

     At Wall Street, we traveled back in time with our headsets to get a feeling for that fateful day in 1929 when the stock market crashed and not just lower Manhattan but the entire country felt the effect.  This was especially moving.  

     I’ve taken several downtown walking tours that covered the same territory and history, but this addition of VR makes the experience more vivid.  Beginning at 200 Water St. overlooking New York Harbor, we traveled the historic blocks of the Seaport and lower Manhattan, the streets where not just New York began but where a free America was launched. It’s a fun brush up on history for Americans and would be a good intro for foreigners. My three visitors from Maryland enjoyed it, and so did I as a longtime New Yorker.  This tour may also be the only way people with trouble walking could cover so much space in comfort.  An elderly woman with a cane was helped on and off the bus by our friendly driver.  

     The Downtown Experience was conceived, written and directed by Richard Humphrey, CEO and CCO of The Ride, LLC, an interactive tour of midtown that was nominated for a Drama Desk Unique Theatrical Experience Award in 2013.  Humphrey, who has developed original work on and off Broadway, has more than three decades of experience bridging the performing arts, entertainment and business communities. 

     Plans to develop similar experiences are underway in Boston, Dubai, Dublin, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Paris, San Francisco and Tokyo.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

All-Night Vigil



     Reverent is a word that comes to mind as I listen to “All-Night Vigil, Op. 37,” the latest recording from my favorite performers of sacred choral music, Gloriae Dei Cantores. Conducted by Peter Jermihov, an internationally recognized specialist in Russian and Orthodox liturgical music, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s deeply spiritual hymns, canticles and ancient chants achieve a level of beauty and mysticism that comforts and restores my soul, as the music of this choir as done for more than a decade.     

     “All-Night Vigil,” created from two divine services — vespers and matins — was first performed in 1915, two years before the composer fled his beloved Russia in the wake of the revolution. One hundred years later it has been given glorious new life by singers for whom Christian life is a daily practice, and that faith is heard, and felt, in every word.
    
     Jermihov describes in program notes what makes this choir so different. “The key element in the search for authenticity is direct empathy with the word, not merely by accomplished professionals but by believing Christians. The word, imbibed through the mind and heart, leads the singer to find suitable tone and emotional underpinning. This process requires not only full comprehension of but also direct empathy with each word and phrase.”
    
   “All-Night Vigil” is produced by Gloriae Dei Cantores’s director Richard K. Pugsley and was recorded in the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA.  I have been gifted with many of this Cape Cod-based choir’s recordings over the years and was fortunate to hear them during a New York tour. I have always been touched by this spiritual quality.  For this new recording they have been joined by The St. Romanos Cappella, The Patriarch Tikhon Choir and The Washington Master Chorale.  Seventy-seven singers take part in this collaboration, including soloists Dmitry Ivanchenko and Mariya Berezovska of the National Opera of Ukraine in Kiev.

     I like to listen to this recording before bed.  It calms me and makes me feel I am praying the the choirs.  What a blessing. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Halleluiah



Everyone should be born into this world happy
and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Halleluiah, anyway I'm not where I started!

And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years.

Halleluiah, I'm sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.

~ Mary Oliver ~

Friday, April 28, 2017

Bette Midler sparkles in 'Hello, Dolly!' revival



     Even the costumes receive applause in director Jerry Zaks spectacular revival of Hello, Dolly!, starring Bette Midler, who more than lives up to her reputation as The Divine One.  This Dolly certainly was looking swell, and so was every element of this production at the Shubert Theatre. It’s so glitteringly joy-filled it’s almost overwhelming.

     Midler is definitely back where she belongs, dancing, singing and vamping her way through the roll of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a resourceful widow scraping out a living as a matchmaker and any other occupation for which she encounters a need in 19th century New York.  All of this talent went unused in Midler’s last Broadway turn in the 2013 play I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers. Playing that high-powered Hollywood agent, she spent the time propped up on a sofa eating, drinking, smoking pot and talking about her celebrity cliental. The character was an unlikeable bore and a waste of Midler’s pizzazz. 

     But she’s in her glory now, giving us a show we need more than ever.  Some great cosmic scheduler must have foreseen the 2016 election results. This spring has brought us especially uplifting shows that include Come From Away, the inspiring true story of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, who welcomed nearly 7,000 strangers from around the world when their planes were diverted there following the 2001 terrorist attacks, and Groundhog Day: The Musical with its message that we don’t have to get stuck in our lives because we have the power to do something new everyday. 

     In contrast to Midler’s exuberant Dolly is David Hyde Pierce’s comically dour Horace Vandergelder, the “half-millionaire” cheapskate widower who hires Dolly to find him a new wife.  Dolly has someone in mind — herself — but she distracts him from her scheming with other possibilities, one of whom is Irene Molloy, a widowed hat maker play by the charming Kate Baldwin, who is underused in this minor role. Gavin Creel is winning as Cornelius Hackl, a clerk in Vandergelder’s Yonker’s hay and feed store who become Mrs. Molloy’s unexpected love interest. 

     With a cast of more than two dozen, Jerry Herman’s wonderful songs ring out, combining smoothly with Michael Stewart’s book, adapted from Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker. 

  Warren Carlyle’s choreography pays tribute to Gower Champion’s original choreography and direction and fills the stage with high spirit, enhanced by Santo Loquasto’s sets and his costumes in vivid Easter egg colors.  

     Song, dance and costume — vibrant red for Dolly — ignite a show-stopping standing ovation for that most famous number, “Hello, Dolly!” when Dolly returns to the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant.  Midler is in her glory ascending from the top of a flight of stairs to dance with a chorus of waiters.  This is traditional musical theatre at its best. Director Zaks has won four Tony Awards.  Number five could well be on the way.

     For some reason, this is the first new production of this classic show since it opened on Broadway more than 50 years ago.  That’s probably why I had never seen it.  I read the play in high school but never even saw the movie.  What a great introduction to Dolly I had last night.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'Church and State' play aims to stir up conversation about guns




     The U.S. Senator from North Carolina is an unquestioning supporter of all things red, especially in relationship to God and guns.  His convictions are challenged, though, after a shooting at his sons’ elementary school leaves 29 dead. Following the funeral for one of the victims, he admits in response to a blogger’s question that the killings are enough to make him doubt God’s existence.

     He is running for a third term and his comments go viral.  Three days before the election.  

   Jason Odell Williams, 42, was inspired to write his latest play, Church and State, after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, but he had been thinking about gun violence since at least 2007 with the mass killings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, a football rival of his alma mater, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

   “I watched the news and saw a candlelight vigil in Charlottesville and it struck a cord with me,” he said during a telephone interview from his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  “I had been a student there not that long before.  It really shook me.”

  That incident had been followed by the shooting outside a Tucson supermarket in which Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 16 others were shot, six of them fatally.  

     “I thought, ‘What if it had been a man and he had been a Republican,” Williams said. “That’s a really dark and twisted thought, but when tragedy strikes, our thoughts become dark and twisted.”

     Sandy Hook’s tragedy prompted him to put his thoughts on paper. His first draft of Church and State was “like a well-written Facebook rant with a very one-sided liberal New Yorker view.”

    He sent it to Ralph Meranto, artistic director of JCC CenterStage in Rochester, NY, who had produced his first play, Handle With Care.  Meranto “asked smart questions” and offered suggestions to make the characters — the Senator; his wife, a conservative Christian; and his campaign manager, a liberal Jew from New York — more three dimensional and to present the issue of gun control more even-handedly.  He also thought it would be fun to have the Senator’s remarks be tweeted to spread quicker.  Meranto didn’t know his 2014 suggestion would be so timely in 2017 with the election of America’s Tweeter in Chief.

     The show had a successful run in Rochester before moving to Los Angeles where the Huffington Post called it “powerful, humorous and highly contemporary,” naming it one of the Top Ten L.A. Theatre Productions of 2016. It is now at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, with tickets on sale through Sept. 3.

     Talkbacks have been a part of Church and State’s runs.  In New York they were held after three performances in April featuring representatives from Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Fund; Everytown For Gun Safety, with an appearance by actress Julianne Moore; and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. During the Virginia Tech event, a woman identifying herself as a Donald Trump voter said she thought the play had done a good job of presenting both sides and later told Williams in the lobby that she hopes the play will be presented in red states.  That would be fine with him.

     “My goal was to get it to New York and then across the country.  I’d love to see it in all the purple states.  That’s my ultimate goal.”

     He is in talks with theatre producers in North Carolina, rural Virginia, Florida, Washington, D.C. and Alaska about possible productions there.

     “I want to stir up some controversy and start conversations.”

  He sees areas for compromises, such as universal background checks. He created an open-ended finish to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions.

     “We’re so divided now.  Maybe the rubber band will break and we’ll all come back to the middle.”

   Williams is adamant that he does not want his play to be thought of as disrespectful to people of faith or Southerners, and makes it clear he doesn't see conservative Christians as the enemy in gun control talks.  He saves his wrath for one target alone.

     “To me it’s the NRA.  They’re only thinking about profit.  Nothing about their agenda is reasonable.  Living without fear is more important than somebody’s gun collection.”

     Although he has had no personal experience with the issue, he thinks “we’re all less than six degrees of separation now from gun violence.”

     “There’s stuff in the newspapers everyday,” he said.

  Just then, Williams, in almost unbelievable timing, was interrupted by a text from Rob Nagle, the actor playing the Senator. The text informed him about a shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school that had just left two adults and one child dead, with another child injured. 

     “It’s crazy.  It just keeps happening.  People are afraid to go to the mall, the movies, church, places that are supposed to be safe.” 

     Williams, who was nominated for an Emmy Award as a writer for National Geographic Channel’s TV series “Brain Games,” has never worked in politics and says the only thing that could lure him into it is that in the unlikely event Nagle would run for office, Williams would like to be his speechwriter. 

     He also is not a person of faith although his mother is Catholic and father Protestant and he was baptized but not confirmed.  And his first two Off-Broadway plays centered around God and faith.

     “I don’t know where I stand, which is why I keep writing about it,” he said, adding that his wife grew up Orthodox Jewish in Israel and turned from her religion when she moved to America.  After the birth of their daughter, Imogen, now 11, they began worshipping at a synagogue and sending her to Hebrew school.  He has no plans to convert.

     “It’s nice to have a sense of community, of coming together,” he said.  “I’m always examining what it is and what it means.” 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Come From Away




     On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 7,000 strangers were sidetracked to a tiny town on the coast of Newfoundland, nearly doubling the population in a matter of hours.  For the next five days the people of Gander fed, housed and befriended these refugees of the terrorist attacks in an inspiring example of hospitality.  Their stories are now being told in Come From Away, the new Broadway musical that has left audiences in tears and critics singing its praise. 

     “You couldn’t make it up.  No one would believe it,” said Irene Sankoff who, with her husband, David Hein, wrote the music, lyrics and book for the show, which takes its name from a Gander term for people who come from elsewhere.

   It was a normal day in Gander, a former refueling stop for international flights before aviation improvements made these pit stops unnecessary, but shortly after the devastation of the four hijacked jets was known, the Federal Aviation Administration suspended all air travel.  Gander residents who were going about their morning routines learned that 38 planes bearing 6,579 frightened and angry passengers  from around the world were coming to town. For how long, no one knew.  

     The couple emphasize this in not a Sept. 11 story — it’s a Sept. 12 story, of passengers from a multitude of countries, cultures, religions and languages who were welcomed by people living “on an island in between there and here.” The terrorist attacks aren’t even in the show.

     “It’s not necessary to further traumatize anyone,” Sankoff said, adding that even young people who weren’t born or conscious of the events at the time know what happened. “Everyone’s seen the images.  They don’t need to see it.  It’s part of our history.  It wouldn’t have helped the storytelling.”

     The lesser known stories are those of the townspeople who from the beginning began anticipating every need — pharmacies were ready to fill prescriptions, storeowners emptied their shelves to donate supplies, landlines were set up in that era before mass cell phone usage, sidelined air traffic controllers made vats of chili, striking school bus drivers transported passengers to schools, halls and all the shelters that were being readied as quickly as possible.  And the SPCA representative didn’t forget that animals were likely to be onboard some of the planes. She rescued and then cared for eight dogs, nine cats and two rare Bonobo chimpanzees, one of which was pregnant, while they were in quarantine in an airport hangar. 

     “We’ve been working on it for nearly seven years and it’s still amazing to me everyday,” Sankoff said. 

     Sankoff and Hein spoke about their journey to Broadway by phone from an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, their temporary residence.  Toronto is their home, although they haven’t seen a lot of it in recent years.  Their involvement with the Gander experience began in 2011 when Canadian producer Michael Rubinoff invited them out for a drink to discuss making a musical of the events that had happened a decade before.  Rubinoff had seen the couple’s only previous musical theatre production, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. He had pursued several more experienced songwriting teams and been turned down.  

     As Canadians, Sankoff and Hein “knew through osmosis” of the Gander story.  They said yes to Rubinoff, began researching and found out a 10th anniversary commemoration of the experience was being planned for September. With the help of a grant from the Canadian government, they spent a month in the town interviewing  residents and the passengers who returned.  They relied on Skype to reach others internationally.

     The modest Gander folk thought this was all much ado about nothing. One said to the couple, “You’re going to make a musical about people making sandwiches?  Good luck with that.”

     But the residents had a different opinion this past October when the entire cast and crew of the Broadway-bound Come From Away flew into town to present two benefit concert versions of the show to raise money for local charities. The Gander Hockey Arena was transformed as many people experienced their first Broadway musical, one that just happened to be about them.

     “It was a life-changing experience for all of us,” Hein said.  “Almost all of Gander came to see the show.  We watched 5,000 people’s expressions as they watched themselves, feeling honored and celebrated.  Ten minutes before the Finale they all stood up and kept applauding through the last 10 minutes.  We were all sobbing.”

     Sankoff and Hein were grateful for that stamp of approval.  They had worked hard since their previous trip to Gander when they had done “tons and tons and tons of interviews” and heard so many stories that their first draft of the show was five hours long. From that they edited and refined, ferreting out stories that worked all the way through, as well as unique ones, and making composites of characters.  The show now runs about 100 minutes and features 12 actors playing multiple parts and singing more than a dozen original songs. 

     The heroism of the townspeople is portrayed, as is the fear and anxiety of the “plane people,” who hadn't heard about the terrorist attacks and had no idea why they were grounded to such a remote place.  Some had been onboard for 28 hours. Because of concern about bombs, authorities would not allow the passengers to claim their luggage.  All they could take were their carry-ons.  In a short time, they had all become refugees.

     Because these people were so traumatized, the library stayed open, offering a quiet place for people of all faiths to pray.  

    In one particularly moving scene, a bus filled with Africans pulls up to a Salvation Army camp. Seeing the people in uniforms, the passengers are filled with fear of soldiers and militia and, unable to understand English, they refuse to get off the bus. Then the driver, spotting a Bible in a woman’s hand, imagines a key to connect. He finds Philippians 4:6 and points to the words he can't read but doesn't need to — “Be anxious for nothing.  Be anxious for nothing.”  The people leave peacefully.

   “They used the Bible text written in a different language to communicate with each other,” Hein said. “That’s amazing.” 

     Another important element of the show is the music.  Hein had grown up listening to Newfoundland music, which has Celtic roots from Ireland and England. The eight members of the band play multiple instruments as a way of “layering on” the different musical traditions of the foreigners and townspeople.

     “We’re greater together than apart,” Hein said.  “The passengers came from all over the world and they changed Newfoundland and were changed themselves.”

     The music has audience members on their feet, clapping along at the end.

     “That happens every time,” Hein said, explaining with a laugh that he had planned the ending music as a way to transition people out of the theatre.  “No one leaves.  It’s the worst exit music ever.”

   The stories and music have had this effect wherever the show has run. Following sold-out, record-breaking, critically acclaimed engagements at La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. and Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, Come From Away landed on the “Best Theater of the Year” lists in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and papers around the country and in Canada.  

  Writing about the Gander stories has been a profound experience for Sankoff and Hein, who have turned over the keys to their Toronto home and car to 10 people, friends or friends of friends, over these last years while they traveled with the show’s development.  All they asked was that the people feed the two cats and give them love, and shovel the snow if necessary.

    “Our whole lives have been changed,” Hein said. “It makes us look at our lives and want to be better people, open to stories from around the world, and to be more open to reaching out to people.”

     Asked if this is an especially important time to tell a story about when many Americans were in the unfamiliar position of being refugees, Hein said it would be important any time.


     “We have our politics but the show bridges that.  It’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness.”

Friday, April 7, 2017

Sally Field stars in latest Broadway revival of 'The Glass Menagerie'




     The new Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie should come with a prohibition: no one unfamiliar with this 1944 Tennessee Williams classic will be allowed in. Director Sam Gold’s unconventional staging should not be anyone’s first experience of this moving, lyrical story of a broken family and its desperate attempts to carry on.

   For someone like me who has loved the play since first reading it as a sophomore in high school, it was good to be at the Belasco Theatre to experience it again. This is the third Broadway production I’ve seen, as well as at least one other, at Baltimore’s CenterStage.  In all of those I never saw Amanda as fully realized as she is portrayed by Sally Field, who takes that aging Southern belle turned abandoned wife and nagging mother into vulnerable human being who I liked and cared about. 

     What I didn’t like, and which is why I don’t think this should be anyone’s introduction to the play, is the casting of a seriously disabled actress, Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy, as Laura, the painfully shy daughter who was the center of the play for me when I first read it. Ferris’ physical disability is so pronounced it is distracting.  Her wheelchair had to be taken up and down stairs a couple of times either by Field or Joe Mantello, who plays her brother, Tom.  This takes time away from the story, as does Gold’s odd decision to have her placed on the kitchen table on her stomach at one point while Tom exercises her legs.

     I don’t understand why Laura would be so re-envisioned.  Her disability is emotional. She is paralyzed by her self-consciousness, not her legs. If she had been physically vulnerable as well it would be understandable why at that time, Depression-era American, she would want to keep to herself and live in her world of little glass figures, her menagerie. Her physical disability is that one leg is slightly shorter than the other, for which she wears a brace.  As Williams wrote, “This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage.” Laura, though, is overly embarrassed about it. “Laura’s separation increases until she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf,” Williams wrote.

   Laura feels different from others at school, and yet they hardly notice her limp. But everyone would notice this Laura of the wheelchair. With all of this Laura’s difficulty in getting around it seems downright sadistic when Amanda sends her out for a stick of butter. As written, Laura’s fragility is far more psychological than physical. That is lost in this production, because of the added physical disability but also because Ferris portrays Laura as self-contained in a positive way.  She seems comfortable with herself and not overly emotionally weak. 

     Another character who feels altered is Jim (Finn Wittrock), the Gentleman Caller, who comes off like an idiot much of the time. I don’t remember that before.  That certainly wasn’t the case in the 2013 Broadway revival when he was portrayed likably by Brian J. Smith. 

    Something else I didn’t remember was this much demonstrated affection between the Wingfields, with Tom at one point pulling Amanda onto his lap as they sit around the kitchen table.  I liked that. 

     As for the staging, it took a bit of time for me to get used to the decision to have the play unfold on the full stage, bare except for a kitchen table on one side and a Victrola and records on the other, with the black brick wall of the theatre as backdrop. (Scenic design by Andrew Lieberman). Since the family is supposed to be living in strained financial conditions in a cramped St. Louis tenement, giving them vast space in which to roam around is strange. It’s like watching a rehearsal.

     The house lights also remain on well into the play, which I didn’t get since the set is supposed to be dimly lit. (Lighting design by Adam Silverman.)

     One element that I did love, and don’t want to give away too much of, is Amanda’s switch from disappointed middle-aged woman to shining Cotillion girl in the flash of an eye.  (Costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic.) Field’s face is radiant as she is transformed to her happy young self, or at least her imagined grandeur of the past. It’s a moment of color and joy in an otherwise sad play.

     But this is not a play about joy, and its sadness is made more pronounced in the way Gold has refigured the “blow out your candles, Laura” ending. The candles symbolize Laura’s soul and Williams has her blowing them out in the last scene. But in this version, Tom rather violently extinguishes them before he too abandons the family.  

     The final change is the last image, a switch from Amanda being seen comforting Laura to the haunting image of Laura sitting at the table with Amanda’s head in her lap, while she comforts her mother.  A bleak ending made even bleaker with both choices. 

     Williams called The Glass Menagerie a “memory play,” and framed it with Tom talking to the audience about the family’s circumstances.  Much of it is autobiographical as the playwright, like Tom, worked in a shoe factory and wrote when he could.  Williams also had a domineering mother and a fragile sister whom he loved.  Both families had moved from southern gentility to St. Louis to try to squeeze out a living. Williams’ father was a traveling salesman, Tom’s “a telephone man who feel in love with long distances.”

     So many good lines in this play, my favorite being “the long delayed but always expected something that we live for.”  I also love “the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” and “Time is the longest distance between two places.”

   Menagerie was Williams’ first successful play, gaining immediate acclaim when it opened on Broadway in 1945.  Later classics include A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.   

Monday, April 3, 2017

Becoming Lewis



     A woman in her early 20s came up to Max McLean after a performance of his latest one-man play, C.S. Lewis On Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert, and said she couldn’t possibly be a Christian.  Sensing her anxiety, McLean told her, “God has you in his net and he’s not going to let you go.”  Her response surprised him.  “What should I do,” she asked.  He told her to read John’s gospel, gave her his card and they arranged a time to talk.

    Such is the intensity of the story McLean has written and is portraying at Off-Broadway’s Acorn Theatre through May 21.  “People have associations that get in the way and they can’t get past them.  Theatre and art have a way of breaking through stigmas,” he said, quoting Lewis’ notion of “stealing past the watchful dragons.”

     “His conversion is a roadmap for people who have given up.”

     Lewis has been important to McLean’s life since he too was in his early 20s.  He grew up Roman Catholic in a military family.  First Communion and Confirmation were meaningful to him, but in his teens he stopped going to church and “fell into atheism, more by anger than anything else.”  He experimented with Eastern religions in college, in keeping with the trend of the 1970s. Then he met the woman who would become his wife. A Christian, she took him to church and introduced him to other Christians, one of whom described Jesus as having been a historical person just like George Washington. This triggered in McLean a sense that Jesus was something more than the “fairy tale” character he had grown up imagining.  

     The first thing he did was read John’s gospel.  His second choice for Christian reading was Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, which he described as “over my head,” followed by Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which he “got immediately.”

     McLean continues to respect the way Lewis opens his readers to the supernatural world, something he thinks the modern church, in its desire to simplify and demystify, is missing.

     “Lewis is my spiritual guide,” McLean said during a telephone interview in late February.  “He helps me understand reality in a way I wouldn’t see or understand. He believed so strongly in how the supernatural world interacts with ours.  He triggers my imagination in a way almost no other writer does.”

    Deciding to portray that spiritual guide onstage was a natural progression for the actor/writer.  He had adapted and performed The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce for the stage.  In doing so, he read extensively works by and about Lewis.  

     “In 2011 the idea came to me to attempt to tell his own story.”  He spent two or thee months working on a first draft, then put it away until a year and a half ago when he began working on it through “a hefty development process” that included labs and workshops before the show premiered in Washington, D.C. last April.  It then played Chicago and had a little midwestern tour before the current New York premiere. About 90 percent of the 80-minute script is Lewis’ words.

     “I’m not as smart as he was,” McLean says.  “My confidence comes from knowing what an extraordinary writer he was.”

     The play, which is performed without an intermission, takes place in Lewis’ Study in Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1950 and tells the story of Lewis’ life from the time of his mother’s death from cancer when he was 10, through his estranged relationship with his father, his World War I experience, his avowed atheism and his conversion.  

     “Conversion stories are inherently dramatic,” McLean says. “It’s something you fight against. The tension is almost like an invasion.  In Christian language, we’re all rebels. The Incarnation is a kind of invasion, taking back enemy territory.”

     He said the play’s title helps attract more than just Lewis fans because it’s intriguing. “A convert means to change and reluctant means to avoid.  That was the guiding principle to the piece.”  He said he needed to set up why Lewis was an atheist — his mother’s death, his relationship with his father and fighting and being wounded in the war.

     “That gave him an extremely pessimistic view of reality.  To turn from that was very challenging.”  McLean identified the fulcrum of the play as the tension between atheism and theism.  “Once I knew how I wanted to go, I knew what to take out and what to put in.”

     With the help of a three-piece suit, pipe and wig of thinning, combed-back hair, McLean transforms into Lewis and tells his story to the audience.  In preparation for the “forest of words to navigate,” he listened to three audio clips he found online.  In one, Lewis sounds “almost Alfred Hitchcockish.”  In the others he is more relaxed.  “He was Irish but he took on an Oxford Don pronunciation that was very erudite and educated.”

     In preparing for and portraying Lewis, McLean says the “Number One thing” he has learned was about Lewis’ “generosity of spirit.

     “He was a strange mixture of being incredibly self-reflective and not taking himself too seriously.  He had self-deprecating humor.  His basic nature was to be very proud and arrogant and he buried that.

     “I feel like I know him.  I feel like he’s my buddy.  With so many writers you get to the bottom of them quickly.  You don’t get to the bottom of Lewis.”

     McLean attributes this to deep insight.

     “He read everything from the Greeks to the moderns and he could remember everything.  He was a chronicler of literature who was able to see how the Christian view of the world best absorbed all the world views he read.”