Sunday, September 9, 2018

Separate and Equal

          Choreographer Lawrence M. Jackson scores the highest points in the New York premiere of Seth Panitch’s Separate and Equal, which opened this afternoon at 59E59 Theaters.  In this play about a racially charged basketball game in Birmingham, AL, in 1951, the three black and three white teenage players flow back and forth across the performance space in what appears to be a slow motion modern dance.  No ball is used; the moves are all pantomimed.  Jackson is given a nice assist by Tom Wolfe who composed original jazz to set the mood and intensify the action.

     Unfortunately the player in this creative effort who is responsible for the greatest foul is Panitch.  His 85-minute script, which he directs, is more a sketch than a developed play, and he manages to slam-dunk every racial stereotype of the south in that era.  You’ll hear the expected name calling, like nigger and cracker, see the standard characters like the long-suffering black mother who works as a maid for the superior -acting white lady, and an elderly black man who is called Uncle by the bigoted white police officer.  Those elements were part of the segregated South, of course, but they are overplayed in this short work, which was inspired by testimonials from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  Attempts to fill out the story come from flashbacks, during which the non-involved characters lie on the floor while the action is spotlighted.  The one involving a lynching is nicely stylized, but all of these efforts fall short of real plot development. The show felt much, much longer than 85 minutes.  

     Production designer Matthew Reynolds has made good use of the small Theater B, with seating surrounding the performance space to form a rectangle and give a gym-like sense.  Two blank “backboards” are at opposite ends of the “court” and media designer Maya Champion makes good use of them, starting with the signs that greet the audience before the play — on one a drinking fountain with the word COLORED and the other an identical fountain with the word WHITE.  The division is established from the start.  When video is added, nets appear, with a white hand or black sinking a shot.  It’s easy to feel a game is being played.  In this case, the game just happens to be illegal because whites and blacks were forbidden to play on the same court. 

     The cast manages to give good performances in spite of the weak script.  I checked the program to see how many of the players were dancers and didn’t see dance in any of their bios.  They have the fluidity and timing of pros.  Their game sequences were the highlight of the show. 

     Separate and Equal is produced by the University of Alabama in partnership with the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and the Birmingham Metro NAACP.  It plays a limited engagement through Sept. 30.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Chad Kimball to headline 21st annual Broadway Blessing

Broadway veteran actor/singer Chad Kimball will headline the 21st annual Broadway Blessing, the interfaith service of song, dance and story that brings the theatre community together every September to celebrate the spirit of the new season. Join us for this free event at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17 at St. Malachy's Church/The Actors' Chapel on 49th Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway. No reservations are necessary.

I founded Broadway Blessing and produced it for the first 16 years. Last year Kathryn Fisher, a longtime member of the Broadway Blessing Choir, took over as producer and filled the house at St. Malachy’s for a joyful 20th anniversary celebration.

Under the direction of Stephen Fraser, the event will include favorite music from new and classic shows as well as an appearance by Kimball, who is currently charming packed houses in the Broadway smash Come From Away. That musical tells the true stories of the kindness of the citizens of tiny Gander, Newfoundland, to the nearly 7,000 people from around the world who landed in their town unexpectedly on Sept. 11, 2001, after the Federal Aviation Administration stopped all air traffic over the United States following the terrorist attacks. Among the characters Kimball plays is Kevin Tuerff, one of the stranded passengers. Tueff will appear with Kimball.

The entertainment continues as the cast of Desperate Measures offers a peek at this rollicking, good-fun Off-Broadway musical.

The evening will include surprises and participation by Fr. John Fraser, St. Malachy’s pastor, and Rabbi Jill Hausman from the Actors' Temple.

Fr. George Drance, SJ, artistic director of Magis Theatre Company and artist-in-residence at Fordham University, will serve as emcee for the evening. He and Ashley Griffin will share a few moments from Griffin's play Trial, which is directed by Lori Petty.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

5K Race for Freedom

LifeWay Network joins the global movement against human trafficking​ by providing safe housing for women survivors and offering education about trafficking to the general public. Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery and impacts more than 20 million people worldwide, including women and children in New York City.

We are one of only two organizations in the New York Metro area providing safe housing specifically for women survivors of human trafficking and we have served more than 85 women. Our Safe Housing Program goes beyond offering shelter by welcoming each woman into a supportive environment that helps them recover from their trauma, regain their sense of self-worth and enables them to move from isolation towards reclaiming their independence.

The Education Program raises public awareness about this crime that should have no place in the 21st century. To date, Lifeway Network has reached more than13,000 people.

We invite you to join us in ending modern-day slavery by supporting the 5K Race for Freedom on Saturday, Sept. 29 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, NY.

Please consider ​sponsoring the 5K Race for Freedom.​ A $1000 sponsorship includes public recognition at the event and logo on the race shirt. A $2500 sponsorship includes website acknowledgement, public recognition at the event, and logo on the race shirt. Sponsorships must be confirmed and logos received by September 12th for race shirts. There are also opportunities to underwrite expenses or donate in-kind items and receive public recognition at the race.

You may also want to ​form a team to volunteer at the Race or participate as runners / walkers​. This is a great way to offer employees, alumni groups or friends a chance to give back to the community and have fun together. Race registration to run or walk is $40 per person, and teams receive a discount of $5 per person.

LifeWay Network is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and your contribution is tax-deductible as allowed by law. For more information, please contact me ​​ or visit our website w​​.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

God Needed a Puppy

     When I was in elementary school my puppy, Kerry, died unexpectedly.  I sat on my bed and cried inconsolably.  She had been there when I left for school and then she was gone.  That’s how it felt, that she no longer existed because I couldn’t see her.

     My experience of loss would have been greatly helped if I had had a copy of God Needed a Puppy, Emmy Award-winning TV journalist John Gray’s newly released book that helps children (and adults) see their pet’s death in a different light.  A wise owl named Edgar reveals the healing idea that the pet was needed by another child in heaven and that those two are now playing together and happy.  If I had been able to think of Kerry this way I could have pictured her everyday in her new life and she would have lived on for me.

     Gray was prompted to write God Needed a Puppy after he experienced the unexpected death of his six-month-old puppy named Samuel.  He teamed up with Shanna Brickell who created lovely colored illustrations of woodland critters, domestic pets and their worlds.  They lend a gentle, comforting feel to the book.

     At first Gray envisioned the project as a modest venture that he would self-publish.  He held an event in an Albany, NY, mall and 850 people waited in line to buy copies.  Eventually he sold 14,500 copies before signing with Paraclete Press, which releases the book today.

     A portion of the proceeds will go to animal shelters around the country.  Gray says everyone has a purpose.

     “Maybe Samuel’s purpose is this book.”  

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Smokey Joe's Cafe

     Stage 42 was swinging with song and dance Thursday night with the revival of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the jukebox musical showcasing the work of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, songs that over the years were hits for Elvis, The Coasters, Ben E. King, The Drifters and many others.  Director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s excellent ensemble cast had audience members clapping to the beat and even dancing in the aisles at the end.

     This is a far cry from the scene when I saw the original, which opened on Broadway in 1995 and ran for nearly five years.  That production was Broadway’s longest-running musical revue but the producers allowed it to continue too long so that by the time I saw it only about two dozen people were scattered throughout the vastness of the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson).  The cast was good then too — I remember only Brenda Braxton, who I was there to interview — and the songs, including such hits as “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “On Broadway” and “Spanish Harlem” — were just as catchy, but the theatre felt like a ghost town.  Lively it was not.

     It was much more fun to be surrounded by people in a full house at Off-Broadway’s Stage 42, which I believe is only one seat short of the number required to qualify for Broadway status.  Beowulf Boritt has designed a set to look like a welcoming local saloon, complete with neon beer signs on the walls.  It seems natural for the full company to gather there for the opening number, “Neighborhood.”  

     The 37 musical numbers are presented with choreography, as comic skits or ballads over 90 intermission-less minutes.  No attempt has been made to connect them into a story, which is a relief because the stories conjured for these kinds of shows are usually annoyingly contrived.  The most recent example of this is Escape to Margaritaville, which would have been much better if the actors had just sung the Jimmy Buffett songs and left it at that.

     For Smokey Joe’s, The Cafe Band’s eight musicians are just off stage left except for when their platform glides onto center stage, most gloriously for “Dueling Pianos.”

     I also loved the nod to The Temptation, with Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker and Jelani Remy decked out in red jackets with black glitter lapels, black pants and black shirts to sing “On Broadway.”  They had the smooth rhythms and vocals of that beloved Motown group.  Nice costumes throughout by Alejo Vietti.

     The cast also includes Emma Degerstedt, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Max Sangerman and Alysha Umphress. 

     While I appreciated not having to sit through another jukebox musical with a stupid storyline, my attention did wander toward the end.  Thirty-seven songs plus three reprises in 90 minutes is a lot.  I was happy when I saw chairs being put on top of the table and heard the first notes of “Stand By Me,” indicating the end.  It was a nice way to conclude, bringing out the entire cast to come full circle with the idea of friends together in the local tavern. 

     For the encore, “Saved,” they spread out into the theatre for a love fest with the audience.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Comic Tribute to 14th-century Mystic

     Sixty-two years ago as a student at Yale University, John Wulp was chatting with professor and literary critic Paul Pickrel at an Elizabethan tea.  Pickrel mentioned that he had just read The Book of Margery Kempe and found it hilarious.

     Wulp, who had no religious background, couldn’t imagine how an autobiography by a 14th century English mystic could be that funny but he read it and agreed.

     “I felt it was what you make comedy of, a person who has ambitions that exceed their ability, so I decided to write a play about her,” Wulp said.

     That play, The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, is now being revived at Off-Broadway’s The Duke Theatre, 59 years after it last graced a New York stage — or any other.

     In all the years between productions, the play’s author has traveled a long and varied road, just as the real life Margery Kempe did.  Born in 1373 in Norfolk, England, Kempe never learned to read or write, so she dictated her story, which is considered the earliest known autobiography of an English person.

     And what an autobiography it is.  Among the highlights of her life are: marriage at 20, a vision of Christ seen during a spell of madness following the birth of the first of her 14 children, failure of a brewery she bought and tried to run and a quest for a spiritual life that often prompted in her loud weeping and cries that unnerved many fellow travelers on her pilgrimages throughout England, Europe and the Holy Land.  

     Wulp saw in her “a universal comic figure” and liken her to his idol, Charlie Chaplin.

     “He was a little man who had these big ambitions.

     Although he had never written a play and had no money, Wulp saw a way around this in the looming Korean War.

     “I decided to enlist and somehow get two years in which to write a play.  I wrote Margery Kempe.”

     Wulp shared much of his life story one Monday afternoon in late June while the production was in rehearsals.  His home for more than three decades is on Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine, but in preparation for the show, for which he designed the sets, he was camped out — fold-out bed open in the living room, an unmade bed in the bedroom — in a furnished corporate apartment on the outskirts of the theatre district.  About a half dozen prescription bottles surrounded him on the counter where he sat in front of the kitchenette.  A walker with wheels and a seat was nearby.  He is, after all, 90.  But he has a recall for dates, names, dialogue and the book’s passages that can rival that of any college student.  

     Here’s the story of behind Saintliness, which draws heavily for plot and dialogue from the original source.  While he was still in the Marine Corp Wulp sent an almost finished copy of the play to folks in New York to see if there was any interest.  There was.  While on guard duty one day he got a message that theatrical producer Irene Selznick was thinking of doing it. 

     That didn’t pan out, and neither did the option taken by Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, which wanted Jose Quintero to direct and Alice Ghostley to star.  

     With persistence Margery Kempe herself could appreciate, Wulp spent time trying to persuade Robert Whitehead, one of New York’s most successful producers at the time, to stage the show after Whitehead expressed interest.  This effort also failed.

     Wulp’s break came after Whitehead’s secretary sent a copy to the managing director of the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

     “Within a day they agreed to do the play.  It was an enormous success.”

    The play got great reviews and earned Wulp a Rockefeller Grant.  That was in 1958.

     The following year it was produced Off-Broadway with vastly different results.  He was living with a man “who fancied himself a director” and who encouraged Wulp to “rewrite it out of existence.”

     “It was a total disaster,” Wulp said, even though it starred Frances Sternhagen, who would go on in later years to win two Tony Awards, and Gene Hackman, who went on to be a famous movie star.  

     “It was so awful it was unbearable so I put it in a box in the attic and tried to forget about it, but I never really did.”

     The play remained tucked away all that time until two years ago when Wulp was approached by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, which wanted to buy all of his theatre and dance photographs.  In addition to playwriting, his career has included photography, painting, Tony Award-winning producing, directing and award-winning scenic design.  When he went to the attic to look for the negatives he found the four plays he had written as a young man.

     As he reread them he had a strong sense that Margery Kempe was a good play and could be revived successfully if he could persuade Austin Pendleton to direct it.  Through a connection, he sent it to Pendleton, a highly respected director, actor and writer, who said yes.

     “I read it about a year ago and really loved it,” Pendleton said in a telephone interview.  “It’s not like any other play.  I thought it was funny and I was kind of moved by it.  A story of someone who tries to find themselves no matter how outlandish they are is always moving if it’s well written.”

     In that aspect, Pendleton sees Kempe as a woman of our day.

     “In that period of time it was not a quest a lot of people took on.  They weren’t allowed, especially women.” 

     The production features nine cast members taking on all the parts, with Andrus Nichols in the lead.  Cynthia Nixon, who is now running for governor of New York, played Kempe in a reading last fall.  Her mother had been in the previous production all those decades ago. 

     Wulp said audience members who love the book “probably take Margery very seriously,” but hopes they’ll have a good time and learn that “life is funny.”  He says he heard no objections from book fans in the past productions.

     “Nobody writes plays for women anymore, so the possibility of finding a women’s play is odd, in a way,” he said.  “It’s about what’s going on now.  As soon as she sets up in business, people mistake her reasons and think she’s out for sex and harass her.

     “I feel it somehow affirms life, all that energy going into being something special.  We all think we’re the center of the universe.  It keeps us alive.”

     Asked what he imagines Kempe would think of her stage portrayal, he says she’d be delighted.

     “It’s what she wanted to do, to be famous.”

Photo, by Carol Rosegg, of Andrus Nichols and Jason O'Connell (foreground) with Pippa Pearthree

Saturday, June 16, 2018

'Pedro Pan' brings Cuban experience to musical stage

      As a child, Rebecca Aparicio was fascinated by one particular piece of her mother’s jewelry.  The gold stud earrings were uneven, not perfectly round, representing the story of a life being broken apart and remade.  

     Those small objects symbolized a traumatic event in her family’s history.  What Aparicio didn’t know is how much her family’s plight was connected to that of thousands of other families.  It wasn’t until 2013 when she was searching for a topic for a children’s musical she had been commissioned to write that she began to see the larger picture. 

     Now she is bringing together the personal and the historic in Pedro Pan, a musical about immigration and family that will be presented in this summer’s New York Musical Festival (NYMF).  She wrote the show’s book and her husband, Stephen Anthony Elkins, wrote the music and lyrics. 

     “Regardless of one’s immigration status, these are human stories,” Aparicio said.  “The show has taken on a shape we couldn’t have imagined.” 

     The couple, who had celebrated their 10th anniversary the day before, talked about their upcoming production in a 42nd Street deli a block from the Acorn Theatre where Pedro Pan will have its five-show run July 10 through 14. The musical tells the story of one fictional Cuban boy, Pedro, and how he becomes Peter in America, using the historical backdrop of Operación Pedro Pan, one of the world’s largest political exoduses of children.  Between 1960 and 1962, more than 14,000 children were sent unaccompanied from Cuba by parents who feared for their futures under the new government of Fidel Castro. 
    A Cuban-American who was born in Miami, Aparicio had never heard of Operación Pedro Pan until she was commissioned to write a hispanic-themed children’s musical and was told to incorporate her Cuban culture and fairy tales.  In her research she found many of the fairy tales not to her liking.

     “There were a lot about cockroaches,” she said. “That’s not what I’m interested in.”

     When she discovered the historical immigration story she knew she had found her plot line.

     “I understood that because it was my parents’ story.”

     While her parents weren’t part of Operación Pedro Pan, both had to leave Cuba when they were 8 or 9 — during that time and for the same reasons — with one parent left behind.  An uncle came by himself in 1965.  None knew if the families would ever be reunited.  

     Aparicio grew up hearing their stories, such as the one about  the earrings, which had been a gold chain her mother received from her grandmother when she was born. Because nothing of value could be taken out of Cuba, Aparicio’s Abuela, grandmother, had the beloved 24K gold chain melted into earrings so that a treasure from Cuba could be taken to the new life. 

     “The story of my mom getting on a plane and how she’d had these earrings made for her so that she could take it with her and being scared that the guards would notice their value and take them away, these were our bedtime stories,” Aparicio said.  “Her earrings were just one of the many tiny connections we had to the birthplace of my parents that we could not visit.”

    When she discovered Operación Pedro Pan, Aparicio could incorporate that movement and her parents’ experience into the larger theme of immigrant children. 

       Over the five years Aparicio and Elkins have been developing Pedro Pan it has evolved from a short children’s musical to a full-length show for a general audience.  The core has centered around Pedro’s experience of being put on a plane by himself so he could live with an aunt in Brooklyn.  Among the adjustments they have made is deepening the role of the adult characters, especially creating a more difficult adjustment for Pedro and his aunt, a single woman suddenly charged with caring for a child for an undetermined time period. 

     “It resonated with adults because of the subject,” Elkins said.  “We realized there was a lot more of the story asking to be told.”

     The Pedro Pan movement was new to Elkins, as was all of Cuban culture until 2004 when he met Aparicio at Alabama’s University of Montevallo and they started working on musicals together.

    “I wouldn’t say outside culture was a part of the Alabama experience,” he said with a smile, referring to his home state.  

     But over the years they have been together he “fell in love with the music.” He started learning it informally with the help of more than two dozen CDs Aparicio’s father gave him.

     “When this project came around, I used this influence I had been studying for the last 10 years or so,” he said, explaining that  the music he wrote for the show is a mix of classic musical theatre with Cuban music from the Pedro Pan era, drawing from traditional Cuban music like the bolero and the son, which feature the acoustic sounds of piano, percussion, trumpet, and bass.

     Although Catholicism is not central to the musical, it was a major force behind Operación Pedro Pan.  With Catholic schools shut down in Cuba and priests and nuns being expelled, the church became a major player behind the movement to get the children out.  Under the guardianship of the Catholic Diocese of Miami, Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, who ran the Catholic Welfare Bureau, arranged visas and helped find homes for the children around the country and in church-run camps in southern Florida. 

Aparicio grew up Roman Catholic and the couple was married in that tradition but they now worship at Christ Church Bay Ridge, an Episcopal parish in Brooklyn where Elkins in the music director. 

     Pedro Pan received a NYMF reading last summer and the couple has been helped by the feedback they received.  They also were honored with a NYMF Reading Series Award, guaranteeing them a slot in this year’s full-production lineup, along with a $5,000 subsidy.

     From the show’s initial production at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2015, it has touched people emotionally.  Over the years the political theme has struck audiences more as well.

     “The message has gotten more and more important,” Aparicio said.  “There wasn’t the animosity toward immigrants as there is now.  It’s grown and grown and is getting scarier.  For children who are immigrants this is a difficult time.”  

     But the writers’ intent is not to push a cause.

     “It’s not a political agenda,” she says.  “It’s a human agenda.”

     Aparicio longs to go to Cuba to see where her parents lived and went to school.  Her grandparents have described that world to her “street by street” over the years.  But she is making no plans.

     “I will not go until my parents go and they will not go until communism is completely eradicated.” 

Shifting the Sun

When your father dies, say the Irish, 
you lose your umbrella against bad weather. 
May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh, 
you sink a foot deeper into the earth. 
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians. 

When your father dies, say the Canadians, 
you run out of excuses. 
May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians. 

When your father dies, say the French, 
you become your own father. 
May you stand up in his light, say the Armenians. 

When you father dies, say the Indians, 
he comes back as the thunder. 
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians. 

When your father dies, say the Russians, 
he takes your childhood with him. 
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians. 

When your father dies, say the English, 
you join his club you vowed you wouldn't. 
May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians. 

When your father dies, say the Armenians, 
your sun shifts forever. 
And you walk in his light. 

Diana Der-Hovanessian ~

Thursday, May 3, 2018

'Summer: The Donna Summer Musical'

     Summer: The Donna Summer Musical lacks one of the major elements that made that singer a superstar — heat.  Her interpretation of songs was hot, but as performed by the three actresses who play her, and as directed by Des McAnuff, they are only lukewarm, making her more the Queen of Easy Listening than the Queen of Disco.  Nothing even begins to sizzle until about a third of the way in when she sings “MacArthur Park,” a song that wasn’t even one of her hits.

     An equally major problem for a show that is supposed to be biographical is the weak book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and McAnuff, which offers highlights of Summer’s troubled life without much development, sort of like headlines appearing one after the other on a news ticker but with no story to fill them out.  I knew nothing about Summer before I went in and I left feeling I had only vaguely encountered her.  But then how much can you develop a show with two dozen musical numbers— and tell a life story — in only 100 minutes?

     Adding to the list of flaws are choreographer Sergio Trujillo’s sexless dance numbers that seem more like a cardio-dance class at the gym — for middle-aged people.

     Biographical jukebox musicals like Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and to a lesser degree On Your Feet about Gloria Estefan, might not offer original songs the way new musicals used to, but they tell good stories about the lives of people we’ve been listening to for years.  

     That should have been the case with Summer, now at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.  Certainly enough happened in her life to make an involving plot — she was sexually abused for five years by her pastor as a child, she experienced, at 18, being “the only black woman in Munich” while touring Europe with Hair, had a failed marriage, recorded 20 albums and became wildly successful, turned religious and died of lung cancer at 63.  After all, it was the events of her life that inspired her to write all those hit songs.

     When I had read that three actresses would be portraying Summer at different stages, I expected a developed life.  LaChanze, as Diva Donna, Ariana DeBose as Disco Donna and Storm Lever as Duckling Donna all sing and act well, but they are held back by the weak script.

     They do get to wear beautiful costumes designed by Paul Tazewell, but he goes overboard in being true to Summer’s signature color — blue.  I like that color but I got sick of seeing it in scene after scene, on all three actresses.  It’s a relief when Summer has a rare change of look in a black dress for a funeral and later a striking white pants suit with silver sequins for her “Last Dance” number.

     But about that funeral, which was for her former producer and early supporter whom she had abandoned for a new recording label.  While I was relieved to see her in something other than blue, the scene is the weakest by that point.  (Another to come was even worse.)  The lighting, by Howell Binkley, is low.  Summer is center stage surrounded by mourners farther behind her.  They were holding something I couldn’t quite see and I thought, Oh, God, are they lilies?  As they moved forward, I saw that they were.  How cheesy.

     It gets even worse, though, when Summer slowly and mournfully sings one of her greatest disco hit, “Dim All the Lights,” turning that great dance song into a funeral hymn.  Question for McAnuff and Ron Melrose (music supervision and arrangements), What were you thinking

     Now for the rock bottom:  Summer, feeling she needs to get back to the religion of her childhood, has a come-to-Jesus scene that finds her singing “I Believe in Jesus,” ending with her hand raised in an evangelical praise salute.  It is awful.

     The show concludes with her at Studio 54 singing “Last Dance.”  Reflecting on her life she says, “I wasn’t just at the party, I was the party.”  If her party — career — had been a dud like this we’d never know her name because she wouldn’t have gotten far.  

     Fortunately she didn’t live to see this memorialization.  Before her death she had been developing an auto-biographical musical, Ordinary Girl, in which she planned to star.  That work became the basis of Summer.  If only she had lived, we might have had a show worthy of her life and talent.  

Thursday, April 26, 2018

'Feeding the Dragon' -- a season highlight

    I was transported to a world of childhood innocence and awakening in early 1970s New York in Sharon Washington's funny and moving one-woman autobiographical play, Feeding the Dragon, a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre through tomorrow.

     Actress and writer Washington is a gifted purveyor of the special story she has to share, that a child growing up with her parents, maternal Gramma Ma and dog, Brownie, in a three-bedroom apartment on top of the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library on the Upper West Side from 1969 to 1973. “A typical American family.  Living in a not-so-typical place,” as she says. 

     Before furnaces were regulated automatically, a caretaker had to shovel coal into them 24/7 to keep the heat and hot water going.  Washington's father was that man in the library at 444 Amsterdam Avenue.

     "It was like a fairy tale of the little girl who lived in the library," Washington begins.  "Once upon a time . . ."

     For the next 90 minutes I lived that world through the child's eyes as well as through the adult's interpretation.  Under Maria Mileaf’s direction, Washington unfolds her story lovingly, even as she relates the “flip side" of her fairy tale, the discovery that her father is an alcoholic who falls off the wagon one day after becoming weary of the demands of his job.

     Until that day her world has indeed seemed like a fairy tale.  When the library closed for the day, and on Sunday, the three floors below her apartment were hers to explore.  She read voraciously and also launched her acting career with the melodramas she and a friend performed.  Washington had me laughing out loud as she throws herself on the floor for an especially dramatic dying scene. 

     That little girl was creative, and she was also smart.  Sharon received a scholarship to the exclusive Dalton School on the Upper East Side, joining a world of white privilege that was new to her.  This gives Washington a chance to comment on black life in New York at the time, with far more fondness than bitterness, especially when talking about her family's heavy involvement with their church. 

     Faith was a guiding star, and Washington portrays this well in the second of two parallel scenes.  The Dragon of the play's title lives in the basement, which is lit with only a single bulb hanging from the ceiling.  The slanted vents in the giant silver furnace look like eyes to the little girl and its big metal grate “could definitely pass for teeth.”

     “I loved watching my Daddy work.  He was like a knight from my Blue Fairy book — St. George and The Dragon. He stood between the terrible beast and me and I wasn’t afraid.”

     Washington mimes her father's motions of digging into the pile of coal, lifting the heavy shovelful and turning to hurl it into the furnace.  She supplies the “CRUNCH . . . SWOOSH” sounds she remembers so well.  It's a sweet scene of a little girl who loves to be with her father.

     The contrasting scene again finds Sharon in the basement for the feeding of The Dragon, but this time she is with her mother who has awaken her and told her to put on her robe and shoes and come to help.  Her father's alcoholism has incapacitated him and the library is cold and needs to build heat before opening.  Her mother summons all her strength and faith for the task.  

     Washington acts out that memory of her mother looking into the darkness of The Dragon’s belly, pressing imaginary bellows in hopes of stirring a spark and beginning her urgent and intensifying recitation of Psalm 91, "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”  

     She continues to press the bellows, interspersed with verses of the Psalm.  Finally a spark becomes a tiny flame.  She drags the tall metal shovel to the coal pile and Sharon grabs the handle to help, adding her voice to her mother’s.  “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him.”

     After much work, her prayer is answered as the coals catch fire.  “With long life will I satisfy him, and shew  him my salvation.”  It's a powerful scene, beautifully and tightly enacted.  No props are needed.  I could see it all in my mind.  

     The sense of The Dragon’s flickering resuscitation is enhanced by Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting as she slowly takes the stage from darkness to light. Her lighting allows Tony Ferrieri’s simple single set to transform easily from its cozy library feeling — three book-lined steps, an old oak table, big paned windows and a shiny wooden floor — to the basement and a few other locations of Sharon’s world.  Small stacks of real books allow Washington to read from the authors who were important to her — among them Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

     The world of the little girl who lives in the library is so well created that I wish Washington had limited her tale to just that.  The spell was temporarily broken for me when she recounts Sharon’s time with her aunt and uncle in Queens, with whom she spends three weeks following her father’s setback, and later her road trip with her father to visit her paternal relatives in Charleston, SC.  She portrays all the new characters nicely, just as she has her immediate family and neighbors, but that time weakened the focus of the story.

     But it wasn’t enough to spoil the experience for me.  By the time Washington concluded with the words “I am the story” I was teary.

     I saw the matinee on Sunday and the charm of the performance is still with me.  Feeding the Dragon is Washington’s debut as a playwright.  As an actress for three decades she has established herself across mediums, having appeared on Broadway in The Scottsboro Boys, numerous Off-Broadway and regional productions, as well as film and television.  Seeing her in Dragon has been a highlight of my 2017-2018 season. 

(Photo: James Leynse) 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Carousel -- Dance: 10, Leading Lady and Man . .

     Carousel already has one guaranteed advantage even before any new production is staged — Rodgers and Hammerstein's gorgeous score.  “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are staples in cabaret acts to this day and always will be because of their emotional impact, and the beauty of “The Carousel Waltz” plays in one’s head long after leaving the theatre.

     The power of the dances, well choreographed, also ensures a great theatrical experience.  What has challenged the total effect of this 1945 musical over time, and now more than ever, is the problematic leading characters, carnival barker Billy Bigelow, a loser who beats his wife, and millhand Julie Jordan, the recipient of that abuse who steadfastly defends him and continues to love him.  It also contains one of the most offensive lines in American musical theatre.

     Acceptance of these two characters has always been hard for me, but in director Jack O’Brien’s current revival at the Imperial Theatre, connecting to these weak creatures was impossible because of the performances of the actors who play them, Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller.  Not only were they unconvincing as a couple, they were unconvincing individually as the characters. 

     In the case of Henry, his performance appeared all head and no heart.  In the Act One closer, “Soliloquy,” when he was singing about becoming a father, I could almost see his thought-process — raise right arm, step left, face forward.  He was so stiff.  If only he had brought to this role the passion he had in The Scottsboro Boys.  

     And if only Mueller had been able to capture Julie the way she did for her Tony-winning role as Carole King in Beautiful.  Instead, she seemed faded, like a minor character.  Lindsay Mendez as her best friend, Carrie Pipperidge, had much more presence, although she’s too silly and insipid in the first act.  This is the second time I’ve been disappointed in Mueller as a leading lady.  I had a similar reaction to her in Waitress

     But this revival still has much to admire.  Justin Peck’s choreography is stunning.  As the Resident Choreographer for the New York City Ballet, he has created more than 300 new works, and the influence of that world blesses what he has created here, starting with the Prelude’s, “The Carousel Waltz.”  Santo Loquasto’s simple scenic design lowers just a carousel top and the dancers perform a ballet at the bottom, swirling around as the orchestra plays.  Brian MacDevitt’s lighting gives an aura of olden times.  It’s a beautiful start, and that grace carries through all of the dance numbers, right down to “Ballet” with Julie and Billy’s 15-year-old daughter, Louise, danced exquisitely by Brittany Pollack, a soloist with the City Ballet.

    The City Ballet is also well represented by Amar Ramasar, a principal member who plays Jigger Craigin.  He didn’t for a minute convince me that he was a murderous thug who would kill for money, but I didn’t need realism.  Watching him dance “Blow High, Blow Low” was enough.

     As for visitors from another world, opera superstar Renee Fleming makes her Broadway musical debut as Nettie Fowler, Julie’s aunt.  She sounded like a veteran of the form, rather than an opera singer on a different stage as she sang “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and her show-stopping “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and joined the company in “A Real Nice Clambake” and Julie in “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?”

     Fleming appeared in a nonmusical role on Broadway in the 2015 screwball comedy Living on Love where she proved her comic chops.  

     What is missing in this production — thank you, Jack O’Brien — is the cringe-provoking line when Julie declares that if you love someone it doesn’t hurt when he hits you.  The 1994 Lincoln Center revival kept the line.  If you will remember — I do, quite well — that was the year Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered. Newspapers and TV accounts were filled with photos of her bruised face from beatings she had received over the years from her husband, O.J. Simpson, who stood trial for her murder but was acquitted.  I doubt Nicole, or any other battered woman, would have said it didn’t hurt.  That line was like a punch in the face then.  Now, in the midst of the Me Too Movement, it would be even more unacceptable.