Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Pilgrim's Progress by Ralph Vaughan Williams



     The comfort of House Beautiful. The Arming of Pilgrim. The sheer terror of war and battle. Temptations of riches, lust, and power. Denial. Hope. Struggle. Victory. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece, The Pilgrims Progress, delivers them all.

     Gloriæ Dei Cantores and Elements Theatre Company will present The Pilgrim’s Progress fully staged for the first time in 12 years since they presented the New England premiere of the work in 2005. The opera will draw audience members from across the country and abroad into a timeless story portraying the universal journey of humanity’s search for spiritual redemption.

     The opera was written as the culmination of 45 years of Vaughan Williams’s musical journey. It’s the ultimate expression of the wide variety of his musical style, exhibiting fabulous transparency of orchestration and a luminous sound.

     Set at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA, this rarely performed opera will come to life amid frescoes, mosaics, bronze, glasswork, and stone carvings depicting the story of salvation from Genesis to Revelation.

     The opera requires a 40-person main cast, a 60-person chorus, and a full orchestra — nearly a 1 to 1 ratio with the audience seating. It features almost 300 original costumes and thousands of rehearsal hours. 

     The statistics alone are staggering,” Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe said

    The opera is set against abstract projections -- cutting-edge theatre technology designed by Michael Counts, Inc. The main cast features highly acclaimed artists including Richard K. Pugsley, Andrew Nolen, Paul Scholten, Eleni Calenos, Martha Guth, Kathryn Leemhuis, Aaron Sheehan and John Orduña.

     The Pilgrim’s Progress is the featured event of an international symposium on Arts and Ecumenism commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Sponsored in part by the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust of London, it will be the first fully staged performance of the opera worldwide since it was performed in London in 2012.

     The Pilgrim’s Progress will be performed at the Church of the Transfiguration, Cape Cod, MA, on Oct. 27 and 28, and Nov. 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. Call 508-240-2400 for reservations. Ticket availability is limited. Learn more at pilgrimsprogress2017.org.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Broadway Blessing -- 20th Anniversary Celebration



    Two decades ago I had a dream of creating an event that would bring the theatre community together every September to ask God’s blessing on the new season.  With the help of many people that dream became Broadway Blessing, an interfaith service of song, dance, and story that will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year.  I produced it for the first 16 years and now am happy to turn that role over to Kathryn Fisher who has put together an exciting program.  

     Please join us at 7 p.m. Sept. 18 at St. Malachy’s/The Actors’ Chapel (49th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue) for an evening that will include David Beach (Something Rotten, Mama Mia, Urinetown) and Catherine Russell, who is in Guinness World Records for most performances in the same show. She's been in The Perfect Crime Off-Broadway for 30 years.

   Project Dance, a beloved part of Broadway Blessing for the last decade, will perform and the Rev. George Drance, S.J., artistic director of Magis Theatre Company, will offer a short piece from his play *mark and serve as emcee. 

     As in the past, the service will feature its popular candle lighting ceremony and the Broadway Blessing Choir, under the direction of Stephen Fraser, will sing show tunes and lead the audience in a sing-a-long of a Broadway song at the end.  The program will be followed by a reception in the church’s West Chapel.  

     Reservations are not need. The event, which is free but contributions are welcome, is sponsored by St. Malachy’s and will feature area clergy and congregations, including from The Actors’ Temple.  

      Broadway Blessing began in 1997 after I interviewed Msgr. Michael C. Crimmins and the Rev. Joseph A. Kelly, S.J., priests at St. Malachy’s, for a profile for a Catholic magazine and they mentioned similar congregations representing Episcopal (St. Clement’s), Lutheran (St. Luke’s) and Jewish (The Actors’ Temple) members.  As a freelance writer, I saw potential for more features and ended up doing profiles of those congregations for several publications.

  In the weeks that followed I began thinking about their similarities -- especially congregants who face much rejection and therefore need to find acceptance and approval. I started envisioning a service that would bring them all together to offer comfort and strengthen faith.  I pictured it on a Monday night, when theatres are dark, that it would be free, there wouldn’t be any reserved seats for special people -- everyone would be together -- and that performers from Broadway would take part. 

     I wrote to the clergy of the four congregations and told them my idea.  Very quickly my phone began ringing and they one after the other excitedly told me how much they loved the idea. “No one’s ever thought of this,” Crimmins said.  But no one else was in the position I was in -- a journalist who goes from person to person and because of that can see connections others can’t.  

   That first Blessing attracted nearly 200 people and thanks to  Kelly, who talked up the event and was given a donation, we had a nice reception.  What touched me the most was a young woman who came up to me in tears at the end and said she was an actress and couldn’t get work and had been so down that evening she was thinking of quitting the business and going home. She told me she now felt so uplifted she would keep going. I have thought of her many times over the years when the producing got tough.  

     Broadway Blessing has been presented at St. Malachy’s, St. Luke’s, St. Clement’s, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration. We’ve featured Lynn Redgrave talking about the importance of theatre in her life, four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines reading a speech by Althol Fugard, Marian Seldes and Frances Sternhagen reading from Tennessee Williams and others, and Edward Herrmann doing a dramatic reading of the final scene of Our Town, taking on all the parts.

   Among others who have participated are Melissa Errico, Christiane Noll, James Barbour, Three Mo’ Tenors, Billy Porter, KT Sullivan, Anna Manahan, Tituss Burgess, Adam Jacobs, J. Mark McVey, Carol Hall, Ken Prymus, Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Richard Maltby Jr, Natalie Toro, Kathleen Chalfant and Broadway Inspirational Voices.

     We’ve also been blessed with original songs composed for past anniversaries by Bob Ost for our fifth, Elizabeth Swados for our 10th and Phil Hall for our 15th.

       I like to think the participants enjoy taking part as much as we love having them.  Seldes and Prymus appeared three times. This is what the late Ed Herrmann had to say before making his second Broadway Blessing appearance: 

     “It’s reassuring to know there are so many people out there you know that believe in God and want to take that part of their life and dedicate it to the theatre because theatre is a very spiritual endeavor. 

     “They come from every conceivable denomination, which I kind of like. It’s like a study in architecture of all these different buildings. They come from all kinds of disciplines and it’s just great to be among them. It’s an annual event, like with spring comes the first buds, now it’s fall and we’re here to bless our endeavors for the rest of the year and maybe some luck will come out of it, whether that’s internal or external.”

Monday, September 4, 2017

Song of the Builders



Song of the Builders
 
On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God -
 
a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside
 
this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope
 
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.
 
~ Mary Oliver ~
 
(Why I Wake Early)

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Peculiar Patriot



     When Liza Jessie Peterson tried to get her play The Peculiar Patriot produced in 2003, she met with rejection from every Off, Off-Broadway theatre she approached. No one would touch it. Her frustration became so great it eventually landed her in jail, where she found a captive audience. 

     She remained in the criminal justice system until last October.  In those 14 years much changed and now her play is having its world premiere at Harlem’s National Black Theatre

    Peterson wasn’t an inmate all those years.  She was an actress  and poet working, as she had since 1998, as a teacher and counselor at Rikers Island, New York City’s largest jail that is ranked one of the 10 worst in the country according to a 2013 report by Mother Jones. From those experiences she shaped her one-woman, 90-minute play, which is being co-produced by HI-ARTS (formerly known as the Hip-Hop Festival). It runs through Oct. 1.  

     “No one back then was talking about prisons the way they are now,” Peterson says.  “It wasn’t a subject that interested people.  It might have been a little too edgy.  The term mass incarceration was not in the language.”

    So when the New York theatre community wouldn’t receive her, she knew one that would.

    “That was the reason why I took it on the prison tour.  I took the script and took it to audiences that appreciated it.  They received me and I am grateful.  They saw me and I saw them.”

    The play is set in the waiting room of an upstate New York prison where Betsy is visiting her best friend, Joann, filling her in on the neighborhood gossip and launching into scathing indictments, laced with humor, against racism in the criminal justice system. 

    Peterson, who is in her 40s, talked about her work in the quiet black box theatre at HI-ARTS, which is one of many arts groups sharing space in a creatively converted former public school in East Harlem. Wearing a black I AM THE TEMPLE T-shirt, black jeans, large gold hoop earrings with an additional longer feathered one in her right ear, several rings of varying sizes and with her brown hair piled on her head, Peterson is a commanding figure at 6’ 1”.  Even at the end of the third day of “intense” rehearsals with director Talvin Wilks, she is eloquent and passionate about her subject, which she calls slavery revisited.

   “Our country is rooted in the system of slavery.  The 13th Amendment declares slavery is illegal except for the punishment of a crime.  Prisoners are allowed to be slaves.  They’re not protected by the abolition of slavery.”

     The play’s title comes from a “sanitized” term used during the time of slavery, The Peculiar Institution. Peterson, who calls herself an artivist, says mass incarceration is peculiar, and anyone who supports the war against racism and poverty is a patriot.

   Among her acting roles, Peterson appeared in the Oscar-nominated documentary “The 13th.”  And she was a consultant to Billy Moyers for his documentary “RIKERS: An American Jail.”  It was at Rikers, a seven-jail complex in the East River, that Peterson began touring her play, eventually appearing in 33 facilities around the country.

     Over time the zeitgeist changed, she said, citing especially the 2012 publication of Michelle Alexander and Cornel West’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which “opened up the narrative.” Her play has changed structurally over the years with the help of performance residencies and a dramaturg.  She’s added current information and multi-media features to make it more theatrical.

    “I believe everything happens for a reason,” Peterson says.  “When I first wrote it, society wasn’t ready to receive it. I wanted to do it in a theatre but I disappeared into the rabbit hole of prison. It was divine timing. I didn’t plan or orchestrate it. All the frustration and creation lined things up for now.  I couldn’t have planned any better.  It was nothing short of orchestrated by God.”

     The format she chose, one character, worked well through all of that touring and will do so again now that she has signed with a touring agent.  She used a black woman “because our voices are rarely heard.”

     Betsy, whose real name is LaQuanda, makes her voice heard during the play.  She was given her nickname years before in juvie by a counselor because her last name is Ross and she was making a quilt.  Just get her going on the racism of the system, especially the profit motivation.

    “Soon as you hear the handcuffs go ka-klink, you hear the cash register go cha-ching,” she says. “We straight cash money crops.”

     And the beneficiaries, Betsy explains, are the rural white towns where prisons are built, bringing jobs in construction and eventually at the facility, not to mention the spinoff enrichment of the manufacturers of jumpsuits and other prison wares, the commissary, the phone company, diners, rest stops, strip malls and the bus companies that transport loved ones.

     “The whole community gets a facelift,” Betsy says.  “Yes, crime does pay, for certain people and certain communities.” 

     Peterson says the privatization of prisons creates the financial drive and motivation for profit.  

     “There’s a financial reward for increasing the number of people behind bars.  Are they being incarcerated for crimes or to maintain profit margins? It’s slavery created for profit. It’s the same dynamic with the racial disparity, with those predominantly black and brown working literally on plantations for corporations.

     “It’s white supremacy, about an economic and socio-economic system created to maintain the power of a specific group through the exploitation of another group.  It’s about looking at dismantling white supremacy if you really want to get at the root of it.”

   Prisons are built largely in white rural areas that have lost industries because they bring salaries, benefits and pensions, Peterson says. 

   “Why wouldn’t they want a job there, but why is prison the only solution?  We need to reimagine a society that doesn’t need to rely on prisons for economic sustenance. If we’re one of the wealthiest nations in the world, why do rural white communities have only prisons to rely on to feed their families?”

     Peterson says black and brown youths are much more likely to be incarcerated for minor crimes like selling firecrackers or fighting in school than white youths. 

   “The numbers tell it.  I’ve worked there 18 years and I could count on one hand the number of white kids and have fingers left over.”

   From her work with adolescents at Rikers, and from her experience being in a relationship with someone who was incarcerated, she knows the toll it takes on everyone.  For those on the outside, it could mean up to five hours travel one way for a couple hours of visiting with a loved one they often can’t even touch.

     “It’s a financial, emotional and psychological strain,” she says.  “That person is not there.  You can’t pick up the phone and call them.  Everything is regulated and monitored.  It takes a toll on the spirit.  You’re worried when you leave but there’s nothing you can do.  You can’t pop up and visit when you want.”

   Peterson left Rikers in October to promote first book, All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island.  She said it was difficult to turn off what she heard and experienced there.  

   “As a human being and an artist I’m wired to be compassionate.  It’s hard to witness suffering and hear people’s traumas and not carry that with you, the multiple stories from multiple children created a floodgate.”

    And she carries with her the reactions her play drew during talkbacks from those at Rikers and the other prisons where she performed.

    “They always asked me, they implored me, to take it to the outside world so they will know we’re here.  I thought it was so powerful and touching. They wanted to make sure people get the message outside so they won’t remain forgotten, to make their voice visible and heard, to put a human face on a statistic.”

Monday, August 7, 2017

Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical



   Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical is a collection of aspirational songs in search of a plot.  And character development. This New York Musical Festival offering is a far too safe telling of such an important chapter in American history.

     In an effort to break the segregation of interstate buses in the South in the 1960s, groups of blacks and whites rode together to force the issue. In Freedom Riders the brutality these people experienced is more suggested than portrayed.  The performance I attended Friday at the Acorn Theatre had several rows of middle schoolers, who were mostly African-American.  Before the show started I worried that such young theatergoers would be loud, but the opposite was true.  There wasn’t a peep out of them.  Had the subject been more forcefully presented, they would have been gasping and calling out about the injustice. Young people are usually unrestrained in expressing their feelings in the theater.   

     Richard Allen’s book needs more depth and the music and lyrics he wrote with Taran Gray need more variety.  I also wonder how clear it was to those young people in the audience that the show was portraying historical characters. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Guy Lockard) I certainly hope they recognized, but I don’t know that they would have learned much about John Lewis (Anthony Chatmon II, right in photo) or Diane Nash (Brynn Williams). 

     The two-hour show features 16 songs, some of which are reprised, giving a feeling of song after song strung together by a bit of narration, especially in the first act.  And the songs more or less sound alike because they follow that I-will-succeed genre of American musical theatre, the ones where people belt out about climbing every mountain, finding their corners of the sky, and trusting that tomorrow is only a day away. One of those songs in a show is rousing, but a whole show of them is too much.  I began questioning if I hadn’t already heard that song each time a new one began.  We go from having lives that collide but finding hope inside, to not letting anybody hold you down, to keeping your head up to be first in line when your time comes, to getting there step by step with stars in your eyes after dreams take flight, and on and on. Under Whitney White’s direction, nobody seems to get discouraged no matter whether they are beaten or thrown in jail.  

     Nonviolence was always a part of the mission, but I would like to see the struggle the riders faced in keeping to this pledge.  When asked if it was hard to resist the blows delivered by racist white man at a bus terminal (Michael Nigro, photo left) Lewis replies, “It was actually easier than I thought.”

     While the riders at times discuss whether to continue, I never felt much of a sense of the terror I’ve read about from the real life civil rights workers in the South.  In one scene in a church some apprehension is expressed but I was shocked when I learned a mob of 3,000 was surrounding it.  I didn’t feel any of the fear that should have provoked.  It was supposedly such a tense situation because King was inside that the National Guard had to be called in.

    When Freedom Riders was presented last summer at NYMF as a workshop it earned a Beta Award. This year’s offering is considered a full production but it still resembles a workshop offering.  The cast members all have strong voices but the book is in need of much development.

     And the generic songs should be more representative of the era.  Musically the 60s was a rich time as what was considered “race” music crossed over thanks to Motown and we had some of the best written and performed music ever.  Give these songs some soul.  Make them sound like black music of the 60s. 

    I hope the creators of this show will work hard on it.  The subject is ripe for a powerful musical.  And it’s certainly possible now that it’s had this developmental experience. New York Musical Festival was created to nurture new musicals by giving them an affordable platform to test their work among theatre professionals.  Now in its 14th year, NYMF has launched more than 90 shows into productions Off-Broadway, in regional theatres in all 50 states and 24 countries worldwide.  Alumni have won many awards, including a Tony and Pulitzer. My organization, Drama Desk, gave it an award in 2013 for its work “creating and nurturing new musical theatre, ensuring the future of this essential art form.”

   I will be watching for future performances of a reworked Freedom Riders.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tina Howe's new play, 'Singing Beach,' is a delight



   The deteriorating effects of climate change on the environment and the deteriorating effects of aging on the body are the subjects of Tina Howe’s new play, Singing Beach, which had its world premiere opening Sunday at HERE Mainstage in SoHo. In characteristic Howe fashion, these heavy topics are presented, and then transformed into a vision of hope.  I loved it.

     Under the direction of Ari Laura Kreith, the cast of seven glide easily from reality to fantasy in the July of a not-too-distant future in Manchester, MA. A family of four — parents Merrie (Erin Beirnard) and Owen (John P. Keller) and their children, 10-year-old Piper (Elodie Lucinda Morss) and 12-year-old Tyler (Jackson Demott Hill) — are faced with two decisions, whether to evacuate their beachside town as Hurricane Cassandra approaches with 150-mile-an-hour winds and whether to commit Merrie’s father, Ashton Sleeper (Tuck Milligan), to a nursing home now that a stroke has left him unable to care for himself. He had been a famous poet but now is without words.

     Piper is the focal point of the play and Morss portrays her to perfection.  This little girl must overcome the torments of her big brother, who annoyingly calls her Sniper instead of Piper, and her feelings of inadequacy.  “I’m just a narrow person in a quiet room,” she says, borrowing from the title of one of her mother’s successful novels. 

   But the life force is strong in Piper and she envisions a brighter world for herself and her grandfather that features escaping on a luxury liner and ice skating on the ocean in mid-July.  These flights of fancy are a hallmark of Howe’s plays, as are her shimmering endings.  

     Howe loves extravagance, which often makes staging her work challenging — and expensive.  The Broadway production of Coastal Disturbance, another seaside play, featured six tons of sand that had to be doused with 20 gallons of water before each performance.  It was a joy to walk into Circle in the Square on a cold winter night and have a beach experience, with the lighting conveying the warmth of a day at the seashore.

    That kind of staging is impossible for a small Off-Broadway company like Theatre 167 at HERE, but it doesn’t matter.  Scenic designer Jen Price Fick has created a multi-leveled stage of pale wood on which the beach, ship, sick room and everything else play out, with a minimum of props.  Matthew J. Fick’s lighting enhances the bleached out, colorless feeling of beachside quiet before the storm.  With the good script, good direction and good cast, which includes Naren Weiss and Devin Haqq, we have all we need for a transporting experience, with characters lying on the deck of an imaginary ship making angels in the imaginary July snow and skating without skates on an imaginary frozen ocean. 

   Piper reminded me of another of my favorite Tina Howe characters, Pony from 1989’s Approaching Zanzibar.  Pony also feels inferior in her family and must relate to an elderly character, her great aunt Olivia who is dying of cancer.  She’s fearful at first but she also has the imagination and high spirit to transform her world.  And both girls have their moment to fly, one of the many lovely visual treats Howe gives us in both plays.

     Another Howe play I was reminded of was Chasing Manet, her 2009 work that brought together two elderly women in a nursing home who plot their escape to Paris on the QEII.  

     And I thought of Painting Churches, Howe’s breakout play from 1983, in which an elderly couple must sell their large Boston townhouse for a move to a cottage on Cape Cod.  Gardner Church had been a famous writer, just as Ashton Sleeper in Singing Beach was, but dementia and incontinence leave him as a mere remembrance of his old self.  Both plays present painful scenes of going though a lifetime of belongs with the task of deciding what to take and what to give away. These are sad experiences, ones that I went through with my mother.  I never leave a Tina Howe play sad, though.  I leave with a sense of joy because of her playful plot twists and those resurrection endings she creates.

     When I first interviewed her, in 1990 for my second Master’s thesis that was on her work, I asked her about her mastery of dynamic closings. They are a major focus of her work and, she said, usually surprise her as much as her audiences.

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

     She has done it again.  You will be won over by Piper and the delicious world she creates, the one created for her by Tina Howe, a playwright of epiphanies. 

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.