Thursday, November 29, 2007

That Girl

I’ve watched the first three seasons of “That Girl” on DVD and am looking forward to the release of the final two. I LOVED that show as a child. I was about 10 or 11 when it came on and watching it was like being struck by lightening. I thought, “That’s what I want!” I don’t know if I had ever even heard of New York much less visited, but it looked so glamorous and romantic and exciting I intuitively know I needed to be there. When I shared this at a dinner party recently one of the male guests said he had had the same reaction growing up in Kentucky.

During the second season my mother brought me up for a visit and I felt at home for the first time in my life. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is where I’m supposed to be.” I had always felt like a fish out of water in Baltimore, but didn’t know there was any other way to feel. (You know the saying, a fish doesn’t know it’s in water. Well, it was a similar idea.) From that first visit I knew I had to live in New York, and from then on I felt I was just biding my time in Baltimore.

I didn’t know then that “That Girl” was a groundbreaking show, that never before had a single woman been shown living on her own and pursuing a career. Women had always been someone’s wife, or mother, or daughter, never their own person. Years before “That Girl” came on, when my friends talked about how much they loved “Lucy,” I didn’t, budding little feminist that I was. I used to say, “It’s a battle of the sexes and Lucy always loses.” I didn’t know the word sexism then, but I recognized it.

Marlo Thomas was my ideal. When I found out she was appearing at a theatre in downtown Baltimore, my friend Terry Hagan and I took the bus down to look for her. We must have been about 12 or 13. I didn’t know how theatre worked then; I thought because her play was running that she would always be at the theatre, so Terry and I went there to meet her. We tried the doors but they were locked because, of course, it wasn’t anywhere near show time. That didn’t stop me. I led Terry up to the roof, found an open door and in we went. We crept down from the heights of the empty building, found the theatre space and went in. And there she was!!! The hero of my life was sitting on the stage talking to a man. As I think about it now, it might have been a consult with the director because there wouldn’t have been a reason for her to be there otherwise. But it seemed perfectly natural to me at the time.

Terry and I crawled down the aisle so no one would see us and went into a row and peeked our heads over the seats to gaze at “Ann Marie.” My heart was bursting with excitement. I wanted to talk to her, but was afraid at the same time. She meant so much to me, it was scary to come face to face with her. Finally we got up the courage and headed up the steps that led backstage. A stagehand saw us and asked what we were doing. I told him we wanted to say hi to Miss Thomas. He said she was busy and that we had to leave. I didn’t argue because, as I said, I was a little afraid to meet her. I’ve often wondered how she would have received us.

Watching “That Girl” every Thursday was an archetypal awakening, and it never left me. Usually as we get older we turn away from what we wanted as children because we realize it was just a childish desire. I never wavered from wanting what I saw on “That Girl.” Even as an adult, I didn’t want to get married and have children; I wanted to have my own apartment in New York and a career.

Well, here I am four decades later. I made it! New York has been all I ever could have asked for and more. A friend and former boss said in his Christmas card last year, “You’ve made good use of New York.” Yes, I have.

I’ve heard so often the idea that people come to New York and remake themselves, but I’ve never agreed. People come to New York so they can become themselves, their true selves, away from narrow and conformist worlds that stifle the individual.

I’m too old now to be That Girl, but I’m This Woman, living happily ever after in New York City. Thank you, Marlo Thomas!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Piano Teacher

This is a disturbing play. I say that as a warning, not an advisement not to go. Playwright Julia Cho begins by creating what seems like a story of Mrs. K, a friendly but lonely retired piano teacher, but in time chillingly reveals the darkness that Mrs. K has been trying to ignore for 36 years.

Elizabeth Franz is wonderful as Mrs. K, which is no surprise. When is Elizabeth Franz not wonderful? I last saw her in her Tony-winning performance as Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman” opposite Brian Dennehy. In this play she breaks the fourth wall right from the start, addressing the audience as if we were her guests, even leaving the stage with a plate of cookies to offer people in the first rows. She chattily shares how she came to be a piano teacher and other details of her life and marriage. Soon, though, her sunny way fades and we see her loneliness, prompting her to call her former students to ask them to visit. The visits, however, will not be jolly. The students know the secret Mrs. K has been repressing and they want to confront her with it.

Unfortunately not all of the acting contributes to the unraveling. I won’t name the actress who plays Mary Fields, the first of the students to arrive, because I have nothing good to say about her performance. It’s as if someone from the audience had been given the script and asked on the spur of the moment to get up and read the part. She showed no connection to the character, to Mrs. K or the space. I don’t know what director Kate Whoriskey was thinking in keeping this woman in the cast.

John Boyd (in photo with Franz) does a better job as Michael, the other student, although he falls into overacting after awhile.

The set, by Derek McLane, adds to the dark atmosphere. The wallpaper is a dreary gray print, paper that might have been stately decades ago but is now depressing. A lone armchair sits in front of a small TV where Mrs. K spends her days. The piano is at back, covered in part by a printed cloth, but clearly no longer a major player in the life of this house. David Weiner’s lighting is effectively dim.

I feel about his play the way I felt about “Blackbird” (May 6 posting). It’s not a pleasant play, but dramatically it’s arresting, and Franz is unforgettable.

“The Piano Teacher” has been extended for two weeks at the VINEYARD THEATRE, playing until Dec. 23. Visit

Friday, November 23, 2007

Michele LaRue

Just heard from Michele LaRue with two exciting bits of news. She’s started a web site -- -- and signed with an agent -- Agents for the Arts (AFA), Carole Russo, 203 W. 23rd St., New York, NY  10011; 212-229-2562

Michele and I go back more than a dozen years, to our days toiling away at “Back Stage,” the performing arts weekly. She always was an actress, playing the part of a journalist for awhile (doing it well, of course, because she’s a good actress), but now she’s full time doing what she’s supposed to be doing. She’s developed quite a few excellent one-woman shows:

The Yellow Wallpaper
Someone Must Wash the Dishes: An Anti-Suffrage Monologue
Eve's Diary
The Rib Speaks Out
Places, Please, Act One: Poems around and about theatres
Tales Well Told: turn-of-the-century American short stories

Check out her site, and try to get to some of her performances.

Break a leg, Michele!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Amazing Grace update

I know a lot of people are interested in the new musical “Amazing Grace: The True Story.” (Oct. 17 posting). Here’s an update:

Laurie Gayle Stephenson has been hired as a new cast member for the recording. She starred for two years as Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, played opposite Michael Crawford for three years in “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber” and was in the original Broadway cast of the “The Secret Garden.” 
She will be Mrs. Catlett, mother of Mary, the woman John Newton loves. Christopher Smith, who has written the book, music and lyrics for the show, is writing a new song for her with a female ensemble; the female ensemble will take a more prominent role with an additional scene. Chris has changed the nature of Mrs. Catlett and Mary's relationship to give their disagreement added pathos and therefore a more satisfying denouement. (Mrs. Catlett doesn’t approve of Newton and wants Mary to marry another man.) 
Adam Jacobs and David Michael Felty, who performed in the concert I wrote about, are confirmed for the recording.  The CD with full orchestra and the Broadway veterans will be released in the spring of 2008. It will likely be recorded with a symphony in London or Seattle and some musicians from Bucks County, PA, as well. 
Chris and his producers are in negotiations with potential venues for a world premiere in early 2009. (Sneak previews would begin at a university in late 2008.) The world premiere will have a complete staging: a full-sized ship,battles, storms, lightning and other effects. The producers have begun negotiations with corporate sponsors and private investors who will fund the production on about the same level as a Broadway national tour (between $8 and $12 million). They are still seeking more so if anyone is interested they should reach out and Chris will get them to a backers’ audition (or bring one to them if there are several supporters in one area.)  The web site is
God willing, the show will then begin its own national tour after the initial run is established. This will include all of the same theatres Broadway tours go to and a few they don't.  

I am so excited about this musical and believe that it will be a big success. I’ve invited them to do a number from the show at next year’s Broadway Blessing, so mark your calendars for Sept. 8 and come to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to catch a glimpse of this powerful show before it takes off big time. And stay tuned to this site for more updates.

(In photo: Karen Burgman, assistant composer, Christopher Smith, concept, music, lyrics and libretto, and Greggory Brandt, director)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Young Frankenstein

The sets and the special effects are spectacular -- they should be, they cost a reported $20 million. But the most important thing, the humor, isn’t there. The book and lyrics just aren’t funny. Line after line and lyric after lyric just hang there. It’s a musical comedy without the comedy.

What a shame that this production is on while truly lovely shows like “Cyrano” and a fabulous musical like “Legally Blonde” are darkened by the strike. “Young Frankenstein” shouldn’t just be dark, it should never have seen the light of day.

The lyrics to a song from the much funnier Mel Brooks musical “The Producers” come to mind: “We are still in shock/Who produced this shlock?”

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Overwhelming

This interview with J. T. Rogers appears in the Nov. 16, 2007 issue of "National Catholic Reporter." My review of the play is posted on Oct. 23.

I don’t know when I’ve seen a new drama as compelling as “The Overwhelming.” I was riveted for the entire two hours and 20 minutes of this story centered around an American family, newly arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994 as the genocide is ready to explode. Thanks to a cast that is excellent across the board, it is the most theatrically satisfying evening I have spent in a long time.

Playwright J.T. Rogers, 39, has done an extraordinary job of conveying the confusion and terror of that place and time. He did this without ever having been to east Africa or talking to any Rwandans. But he had followed the events there closely at the time, or as closely as he could.

“There was never any clear explanation in the newspapers for why this came about so suddenly,” he said during a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn. “It was like, ‘these people do this. It will be over in awhile,’ which was troubling. Being a playwright, I know people don’t just do something like that all of a sudden. It’s not, ‘dominoes this morning or kill my neighbor?’”

The question stayed with him for a decade. He then spent a year researching the country and the massacres and thought, “What would I do if I were in a situation where all the choices lead to monstrous ends?”

Realizing it could be perceived “as un-PC as you can get” for a white man who had never even been there to write about such an unfathomable event, the murder of 800,000 people in 100 days, he uses an American family to do it. They are a college professor, Jack Exley, his African-American second wife who is a nonfiction writer and his teenage son with whom he has a distant relationship. Jack is writing a book about ordinary people who make a difference in the world and wants to interview his college roommate, an African man running a clinic that treats children with AIDS. He also naively expects this time in Africa to be an enriching experience for his son the way his college semester abroad in Sweden had been for him. “I don’t want to raise another American who doesn’t question,” he says, mentioning his students and their sense of entitlement.

“This isn’t Sweden,” a U.S. embassy official tells him dryly.

Because the information and political situation were so dense and would be foreign to many people in the audience, Rogers sought a familiar structure, crafting the play “like an intellectual thriller.” The college roommate has disappeared and the Exley family soon finds out few people in Rwanda in those dangerous times can be trusted. A UN official warns Jack, “You’re seeking answers in a country you don’t know without a language to understand it.”

The final scene is an appropriately terrifying result of the clash of naiveté in the face of hatred and violence. I was breathless.

The play premiered last year at the National Theatre in London. Rogers and director Max Stafford-Clark visited Rwanda prior to that production. “I was terrified I’d get there and start shredding the play,” Rogers says. But except for minor tweaking, the play stayed the same, even after he interviewed many survivors there. “I myself was personally touched,” he said.

What did come into being after the trip was Tim Shortall’s set, which was fashioned from a collage of photos Rogers took. What stands out as one enters the Laura Pels Theatre and what is the final spotlighted image is a statue of the Madonna and Child. It was inspired by one Rogers saw splattered with blood in a Catholic church where dozens of people had been killed.

“It’s an arresting image and it speaks to the complexities and ambiguities,” he says. “Many, many people in the first week were murdered in churches. The churches had always been safe havens.”

But in a country where few people in authority could be trusted, even many priests participated in the genocide. “That people of God could be able to carry out such ungodly deeds are the contradictions that are interesting in any play,” he says.

The realization that people were killing people they knew struck him during his visit to that country, which is the size of Maryland.

“You have to be there to understand how claustrophobic the country is. Everyone knew someone on the list. It’s astonishing.” He said a journalist told him, “Nobody kills a stranger here.”

Audience reaction to “The Overwhelming” has been extremely positive, even at the conservative, subscriber-based Off-Broadway house where it is playing through Dec. 23. Rogers says the run may be extended and that regional theatres have expressed interest in productions of their own. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has just published it, with an interview with Rogers and excerpts of some of his Rwandan interviews.

When I asked him why so few playwrights take on political subjects, Rogers was passionate in his reply.

“There’s a profound hostility to political theatre in this country, especially in this city. The critical establishment is very hostile to anything that smacks of intellectual or political ideas. They get written off as unemotional or preachy. Those are code words. There isn’t any real political discourse in our country.”

For that reason, Rogers thought the play probably would never get produced, but felt he had to write it anyway.

“I’m a playwright, not an essayist. What’s most interesting to me are subjects that are morally complex and don’t have answers.”

Related web site
Roundabout Theatre Company

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Destructive Emotions: Facing Up to Guilt, Fear and Anger

Working through the chapters in this book is like being instructed by an insightful spiritual director or a scripture-based psychologist. I recognized so much of what I had been taught, and learned many new approaches as well, in this workbook by psychologist Florence MacKenzie. It offers a combination of practical examples, solid mental health advice and Christian guidance to help people overcome the toxicity of guilt, fear, worry, anxiety and anger.

Part One sets the ball rolling by dealing with mind renewal, showing us how important it is to control our thoughts and reminding us that we have the power to overcome destructive emotions -- most of which come from wrong thinking or negative past experiences -- through the working of the Holy Spirit within us. MacKenize illustrates all her points through liberal uses of scripture; in fact, each chapter begins and ends with a “memory verse.” To fortify us for the journey of change, she uses 2 Pet. 1:3: “His divine power gives us everything we need for living a godly life.”

MacKenzie knows this is not easy because many people have been hurt deeply and destructive emotions are now ingrained. “Many Christians are living in defeat and not enjoying all God has for them because they don’t know who they are,” she writes. “Perhaps negative events in their pasts have eroded any sense of self-worth they might have had.” For this reason, she uses the first few chapters to make it clear that our foundation is in Christ, and repeats throughout the mantra that “what we believe determines the way we think, which influences how we feel and subsequently act.” But she doesn’t just quote scripture, she offers practical solutions to overcoming our destructive emotions.

The workbook format gives readers space to work out their responses to questions and scriptural references. I like this approach, as opposed to just offering textbook advice, because it focuses our thinking into personal examination. She makes it clear, through quoting Romans 12:2, how changing our thought patterns and emotions will come about: “Let God transform you by changing the way you think.” Each chapter offers a prayer to help in this.

MacKenzie, who studied psychology at Edinburgh University, has been on staff in the School of Psychology at Aberdeen University in Scotland since 1996, lecturing to classes of more than 600 students and teaching psychology in small group settings. She is cofounder of the internet-based Christian ministry, Equipped for Living.

“Destructive Emotions” reflects this strong rootedness in psychology, as well as her faith. “It’s important to recognize that how we perceive and interpret a situation or the way we think or talk to ourselves will determine our emotional response,” she writes. We can’t always control our circumstances, but it is essential that we develop the habit of critically examining our thinking. There are shelves of books devoted to this important idea in Barnes & Noble, but few if any of those are faith-based.

“To become the people God wants us to be by dealing effectively with our destructive emotions is a process, not a one-off event; it’s ongoing, not sudden and immediate,” she writes. And she gives us a promise from 2 Cor. 3:18b that it will all be worth the effort: “And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him and reflect his glory even more.”

To order this wonderful book, visit

Monday, November 12, 2007

Rick Costa

What a nice surprise. I just heard from Rick Costa, an actor I met when I interviewed him for my book, “Working on the Inside.” He’s really been busy for the last three years:
August 2005 to January 2007 -- 30th anniversary tour of "Annie," as an ensemble member, plus understudy for "Rooster". 

January 2007 to August 2007 -- "Spamalot" at the Wynn Hotel in Vegas, ensemble and understudy for "King Arthur" and "Bedevere".  

Recently he launched his new web site and other job venture with "CostaDigitalEditing" - editing demo reels, films, VHS to DVD transfers etc. Being a terrific and highly experienced actor, he brings a trained theatrical eye to this venture. Check out his site at

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Glorious Ones

I just could not get into this show, at least not until the very end and then I thought, Oh, that was sweet. This is because it isn’t until the end that I could feel any emotional involvement with the characters. Up until then the emphasis had been on the slapstick performances of this 16th century comedy troupe. And that, actually, is another reason I wanted to leave early -- and would have if I had been on the aisle or there had been an intermission. I don’t like slapstick.

This is the first time I haven’t liked, or loved, a musical with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. I am a huge fan of theirs. The morning after I saw “Ragtime” I bought the cast recording and have played it often through the years. I LOVED “A Man of No Importance” and gave it a rave in NCR, as I did “Dessa Rose.” I also liked “Seussical” and “Once on this Island.” While I still enjoyed most of Flaherty’s lyrical music in “Glorious,” Ahrens’ lyrics failed for the most part to reach me, except for “I Was Here” at the close, which finally provided the heart the story needed, reflecting as it does the ephemeral nature of an actor’s work and the artistic desire to leave something behind to be remembered by. “The Comedy of Love” upfront was cute and “Rise and Fall” is nice, but out of nearly two dozen songs, that’s not enough to sustain a musical.

The cast, headed by Marc Kudisch, holds no responsibility for my disappointment. They were excellent on both fronts -- lovely voices and skillful timing for all that low comedy.

It’s a shame that the characters weren’t more dimensional throughout, because the idea behind this musical should have appeal to anyone interested in show business. Based on the novel by Francine Prose, "The Glorious Ones" is a backstage musical about the lives, loves, ambitions, and art of the itinerant street performers in a commedia dell’arte troupe in Italy in the late Renaissance.   It tells how the troupe, which specialized in improvisation, came to
be and how it captured the public’s adoration, before scripted plays came into fashion and pushed out their form of entertainment.  Its seven archetypal characters are – the leading man (Kudisch), the harlequin (Jeremy Webb), the “dottore” (John Kassir), the miser (David Patrick Kelly), the leading lady (Natalie Venetia Belcon), the dwarf (Julyana Soelistyo), and the moon woman (Erin Davie).

In the final scene, the characters are looking down from heaven at 20th century comedians in films and on TV and recognize what they used to do and know that it lives on, and that was touching. I just wish it hadn’t taken 90 minutes -- and death -- for them to stop being stock characters and to become human.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The sacred stage

“I write plays because the most powerful form of human communication is a story, and incarnating the text on stage is the strongest way to tell one. For me, seeing life breathed into words is an act of faith that proclaims somehow, in a profound and mysterious way, the Ultimate Word also became flesh.”
--George Halitzka in the Fall 2006 issue of “Christianity & Theatre”

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cyrano de Bergerac

Oh, I LOVE this play! I first saw “Cyrano” in 1980 at Baltimore’s CenterStage with F. Murray Abraham. I was so charmed I went back twice. I then saw a production in 1983 or 84 at Syracuse Stage. I don’t know who the Cyrano was then, but he was moving enough for me love the play all over again, although I didn’t care for the rather modern sets; CenterStage’s (by Hugh Landwehr) had been traditional and rich in detail -- just gorgeous.

In the mid-80s I saw the play again, this time at the Kennedy Center with Derek Jacobi, and again the modish set. But still I was entranced by this story of missed love.

So with all these great memories, I went yesterday to see Kevin Kline’s portrayal of the romantic poet and swordsman with the huge nose and white plumed hat, hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed. I wasn’t. I didn’t think I was going to be, but after Kline’s rather c’est la vie approach to Lear last season, I wasn’t sure. But here he plays Cyrano just the way I fell in love with him, the romantic soul grieving for Roxanne and the love he assumes he can never have. He is Cyrano in all his facets -- his bravery, arrogance, insecurity and his passionate, poetic speaking.

All of the other actors are fine, including Jennifer Garner making her Broadway debut. Tom Pye’s set is functional but uninteresting; the flights of stairs that scale the back wall of the stage are often distracting. I kept thinking that if the actors hadn’t gotten to the gym that day it would be all right -- they were getting quite a workout running up and down throughout the show. (I never read the play so I don’t know if stairs factor into it, but the Syracuse Stage and Kennedy Center sets also used lots of steps. I don’t remember that at CenterStage.)

But the set actually doesn’t matter much and in some ways the other actors need only be serviceable. It’s Cyrano and his beautiful language that are so mesmerizing, or they should be and are with the right actor, which Kevin Kline is. I wish I could go back to this production two more times. Or even more. I floated home on air and am still high on the experience. I really only need one word to sum up my feelings -- GO!