Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pitch Perfect: What pitching the only perfect game in World Series history taught me.

This essay by Don Larsen, which appeared in Guideposts magazine, is a lovely look at another World Series

On October 8, 1956, I pitched the most famous game in baseball — a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series.

Twenty-seven batters up, twenty-seven down, the only perfect game in Series history.

What few people realize is, just my pitching that game was a miracle.

Five days earlier I had started Game 2 of the World Series and gotten pounded. My New York Yankees teammates had staked me to a 6-0 lead, and in less than two innings I squandered most of it. I thought Yankees manager Casey Stengel would never trust me with the ball again.

It was my turn to pitch, but I was so certain he’d go with someone else that I didn’t even prepare like I normally did. I could hardly believe it when I entered the clubhouse and saw a crisp, clean baseball sitting in a baseball shoe in my locker. That was Stengel’s way of letting me know I’d be pitching after all.

Right from the start, I knew this game was going to be special. That day I had the kind of control pitchers dream about, better than I’d ever had before. Catcher Yogi Berra would signal for a fastball low on the outside corner, and I’d put it right on the mark, like I was handing him the ball.

I still can’t explain it. It was just one of those days. I believe everyone is entitled to a good day, and the Man Upstairs decided this was mine.

For most of the game, I wasn’t even thinking of throwing a no-hitter. I was just trying to win. Sal Maglie, the Dodgers pitcher, was throwing almost as well as me. He didn’t allow a hit till the fourth inning, when Mickey Mantle clubbed a solo home run. We scored just once more.

Three times my no-hitter almost slipped away. In the second inning, Jackie Robinson hit a liner that ricocheted off third baseman Andy Carey’s glove directly to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw Robinson out at first base.

In the fifth inning Gil Hodges lashed a ball to the left-centerfield gap. Mantle sprinted after the ball. I held my breath. He made a great backhanded catch. “Saved me again,” I thought. Three innings later Dodgers leftfielder Sandy Amoros drove a ball out of the park—just foul.

The first time I allowed myself to think about a no-hitter was the seventh inning, as I walked off the field after retiring the side. Mantle jogged past me. “Hey, Mick,” I said, turning to the scoreboard. “Wouldn’t it be something if I could do it?” Mantle didn’t say a word.

Mantle’s reaction wasn’t surprising. Ballplayers are superstitious, especially about no-hitters. Nobody wants to cast a jinx. I took my seat in the dugout. No one would sit near me. No one said a word. It made me so nervous I walked to the tunnel leading from the dugout to the clubhouse and had a smoke, hoping it would calm me. It didn’t.

By the ninth inning, the tension was almost too much. I got the Dodgers’ first batter, Carl Furillo, to fly out to left. The next batter, Roy Campanella, grounded out to second.

I took a deep breath. “One out to go.” Pinch hitter Dale Mitchell stepped to the plate. Mitchell, a good hitter, rarely struck out. Trying to gather myself, I turned and stared out at centerfield. “Oh Lord, get me through one more,” I prayed.

My first pitch to Mitchell was a fastball. Low. Ball one. I fired two strikes, then another ball. Mitchell fouled off the next pitch. With the count 2-2, Yogi signaled for another fastball. I threw it high in the strike zone. Mitchell took a half swing—and the ump called him out.

I remember thinking, “Thanks, Lord, you got me through it.” Then Yogi raced from behind the plate and jumped in my arms. My mind went blank after that.

At that point I didn’t realize I’d thrown a perfect game. In the clubhouse afterward, a reporter approached Stengel. “Is that the best game Larsen has pitched?” he asked. “So far,” Casey answered.

I never had that kind of magical game again. But those nine innings changed my life. It gave me my identity. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder, “Why me?” because in my career I lost more major league games than I won.

But over the years, this is what I’ve come to believe: If you try your hardest, if you never give up, if you live an honorable and humble life, sometimes the Lord lets you exceed your wildest dreams.   

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

After Miss Julie

Take August Strindberg’s 1888 one-act play Miss Julie, subtract the sexual tension that made it such a controversial work at the time, and you’ll have After Miss Julie, director Mark Brokaw’s dull staging of playwright Patrick Marber's three-character take on that classic tale of sex and class conflict.

Whether seriously miscast or misdirected -- or both -- Sienna Miller and Jonny Lee Miller woodenly walk and talk their way through what should be an erotically charged game of cat and mouse. Ms. Miller’s Julie is stiff, not the sexy, rich young aristocrat who controls men with her beauty and sensuality that she should be. Mr. Miller’s John, valet to Julie’s father, is even further off the mark, completely lacking in the earthy, raw sexuality that the will entice Julie and lead to her downfall.

The essential Miss Julie story is still present, though Marber has reset it in an English country house on July 26, 1945, on the night the British Labour Party won its landslide victory over Churchill’s Conservative Party, promising radical changes and reforms. It is the shifting of the old guard, represented by Miss Julie and her father, and the rising to power of the working class, represented by John and his fiancee, Christine (Marin Ireland).

As in Strindberg’s play, which was set in Norway, Miss Julie lords her status over John, but after seducing him their roles are reversed by the sexual act and John then holds the power. Neither really knows how to adjust to the new expectations and, if you know the end of Miss Julie, you know the end of this one.

Allen Moyer’s single set of the manor house kitchen looks right out of Country Living and Michael Krass’s costumes, in the case of Miss Julie, could have been taken from the pages of 1940s Vogue. It’s a visually attractive play, as is its leading lady, from whom I expected more. I saw her as Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick in the film “Factory Girl” and was really impressed. She was heartbreakingly lovely and self-destructive. If only she could have brought some of that spirit to this play. Although this is her Broadway debut, she has appeared Off-Broadway and in theatres in London, and she didn’t seem uncomfortable on stage here. She just didn’t get the character, unless I shouldn’t compare her to the original. But it’s impossible not to see this as a retelling of Strindberg’s play, so Miss Julie needs to be passionate. Ms. Miller, who has a major tabloid reputation for her passionate nature, should have tried a little more method acting here.

After Miss Julie was first staged in 2003 at London's highly regarded Donmar Warehouse, under the direction of Michael Grandage.

Miss Julie’s first performance was in 1889, the year after it was written. A small-cast Swedish language play is thought to have had its first Broadway performance in 1913, and in all these years the play has only been staged three times on Broadway, and only for short runs.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of After Miss Julie plays through Dec. 6 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. Tickets are available at the box office, by calling Roundabout Ticket Services at (212)719-1300, or online at

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

Kristin Chenoweth -- She's Coming Back!

It’s official! Next spring Kristin Chenoweth will be back where she belongs -- on Broadway -- in a revival of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David-Neil Simon musical Promises, Promises. I know she just won an Emmy for “Pushing Daisies,” but to me she was born to do musical theatre.

Joined by "Will & Grace" star Sean Hayes, Kristin will play Fran Kubelik in this musical adaptation of Billy Wilder's popular film, "The Apartment," about a sleazy, ambitious corporate hack who earns promotions by lending his flat out to executives for sexual flings. Things heat up even more when he falls for Fran, one of the office women who is invited to the apartment by an exec.

I love music from the show, delightful songs like "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and "Promises, Promises," both of which I have on a recording by Dionne Warwick. I can just hear Kristin singing them. She’ll be perfect!

The original Promises, Promises ran for 1,281 performances and was one of the first mainstream Broadway musicals to offer a commercial pop sound in its score.


I don’t remember having such a good time at a musical since I saw Hair last spring. Memphis offers great music, terrific dancing and a story with surprising depth. It also features a leading man whose performance is so dynamic he could easily walk away with the Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award in June.

Memphis is the story of Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball, in photo, center), a young man with lots of energy and creativity who doesn’t always know where to direct it. He never finished ninth grade and gets fired from every mediocre job he attempts. He’s also a white man who loves black music in racist and segregated 1950s Tennessee. (His character was inspired by Dewey Phillips, a pioneering disc jockey who helped open the door to rock and roll by being the first to play a record by Elvis Presley.)

Like many people with high energy and creativity, Huey is ahead of his time. He abhors the bland Eisenhower-era music played on the radio, preferring the soulful sounds performed in the black music joints he frequents on Beale Street. Along with a passion for the music, he falls in love with one of the singers, Felicia Farrell, engagingly played by Montego Glover.

Ever the boundary pusher, Huey sneaks into an all-white radio station control room when the DJ steps out for a break. He locks himself in, yanks the syrupy record off the turntable, pops on some black music and begins talking to the audience. The station manager has a fit, fearing listeners will be offended by the “race music.” Instead, the phones begin ringing with white teenagers calling to say how much they love it. Huey is given a probationary trial run, during which he takes the ratings from number five to number one.

The South being what it was at the time meant this transition wouldn’t be easy, though. The Act 1 closer, “Say a Prayer,” is a plea for change. But not every one is ready for change and Act 2 portrays the toll taken on Huey and Felicia, who are not legally able to marry even though they both want to, and the challenges of staying on top in the fickle music industry. Act 2 is even more moving and involving than the highly enjoyable first act.

Under director Christopher Ashley’s careful attention to detail the shows is a fast-paced ball of entertainment. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo, familiar with this time period from his work on Jersey Boys and All Shook Up, creates dance scenes that are alive and thrilling. David Bryan’s music pulses with rhythm and energy (he’s Bon Jovi’s keyboardist) and his and Joe DiPietro’s lyrics enhance the story. (DiPietro also wrote the book.) The effort is supported by David Gallo’s atmospheric sets, by Paul Tazewell’s colorful period costumes and Howell Binkley’s expert lighting.

The stellar supporting cast gives it all they’re got and are letter perfect in every way. Among the notables are J. Bernard Calloway as Delray, Felicia’s brother and manager; James Monroe Iglehart as Bobby, a janitor at the radio station; Cass Morgan as Gladys Calhoun, Huey’s less-than-encouraging mother; and Derrick Baskin as Gator, the bartender.

The final number, “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll,” with Huey, Felicia and the company will have you dancing your way home and wanting more. I want to go back!

Tickets for Memphis are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or visiting Telecharge the Shubert Theatre box office, 225 W. 44th St. For more details, visit MemphistheMusical.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

There is nothing noble in being superior to some other person. True nobility is in being superior to your previous self.
-- Hindu Proverb

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Life Lifter

By Norman Vincent Peale

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. - Psalm 8

Listen to what the psalmist says: "You made me a little lower than yourself, and you have crowned us with glory and honor. You let us rule everything your hands have made. And you put all of it under our power." Does this mean dominion over other people? Not at all. It means dominion over your own weaknesses, your fears, your sins, dominion over your grief, your frustrations and disappointments.

Are you letting your circumstances define you? Do you allow yourself to be a victim of everything and everybody? Here are some steps to help take control of your cirmcumstances:

1. Develop a clear picture of yourself becoming strong. Then hold that positive concept firmly in consciousness.

2. Practice this powerful creative thought: I can if I think I can.

3. Turn to God. He will give you rest. If the strain and burden of life may make you tired. Perhaps you are carrying life too heavily. It is our minds, not our muscles that become overtired.

4. See possibilities. No matter how dark things seem or actually are, raise your sights and see the possibilities—always see
them, for they're always there.

5. Remember: what you think you will become. Train your thoughts and become a conquerer of circumstance. Practice being a positive thinker.

6. Pray this prayer: "Lord, give me a high opinion of myself." Believe it. Know it. You are, if you allow yourself to be, a truly wonderful person. Realize and become the best that is within you.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion

Back in my days of full-time reporting on daily newspapers, the religion beat was considered the bottom of the barrel, where editors stuck someone they wanted to get rid of but couldn’t fire because of the union. After reading Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, I can see little has changed.

Edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Roberta Green Ahmanson, the book is a collection of essays that illustrate the scant attention American newspapers and broadcasts pay to covering religion, and the danger of that neglect.

“A journalism that ignores or dismisses the role of religion in our common life misses the greatest stories of our time,” writes Michael J. Gerson in the Foreword. The danger, he writes, is that “a journalist with secular blinders will not be able to see some of the most important historical trends of our time. Many of those trends, of course, concern Islam -- its nature and future. . . . High quality journalism on Islam is not an option but a requirement in the modern world.”

Blind Spot considers a variety of ways religion and journalism intersect -- from Islam, to human rights, to Mel Gibson. “Taken together, these essays make an important case: The more sophisticated our knowledge of religion, the more sophisticated our knowledge of the world,” Gerson says.

Yet most newspapers tend to keep a hands-off approach to religion, as if it were a private matter and not a subject to be covered objectively.

“We need journalists who can treat religion with empathy and also skepticism, quote people accurately, show respect for the lives of their sources, and stop mangling the technical, yet often poetic, language of religious life,” writes Terry Mattingly in the essay “Getting Religion in the Newsroom.” “Part of the problem is that many senior editors reach their posts by excelling as political reporters. They see church disputes and try to turn them into political stories. They see stories about the growth of new congregations and movements and turn them into stories about polls, statistics and trends.”

Mattingly says many newsroom managers, afraid that reporters for whom religion is important in their personal lives will try to proselytize for their beliefs, want reporters who are not only not religious, but who know little about the subject. He gives a shocking example about The Washington Post when it posted a notice for a religion reporter, seeking applicants from within the newsroom. It said the “ideal candidate” is “not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.”

“It’s hard to imagine Post editors seeking a Supreme Court reporter and posting a notice saying the ‘ideal candidate’ is one who is ‘not necessarily an expert on legal issues,’ or similar notices seeking reporters to cover professional sports. opera, science, film and politics,” Mattingly writes.

It would be wonderful if news managers would take these essays to heart and start treating religion as seriously as other beats. As John J. DiIulio Jr. writes in the Afterward, “Every one of America’s Founding Fathers understood about religion what too many educated elites, both secular and religious, in our day do not: religion, whether organized or not, whether old time or New Age, is a powerful and persistent force in moving people and nations, and is uniquely important when it comes to producing individual beneficence and individual brutality, social cooperation and social strife, civil harmony and civil war.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths."
—Proverbs 3:5, 6

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie

With its large cast and youthful characters, Bye Bye Birdie has been a natural for high school staging since it first appeared on Broadway in 1960. Unfortunately, it feels as if one of those productions has now landed on the Great White Way. The Roundabout Theatre Company revival, the first on Broadway in the half century since the original, is painfully flat and lacking the joy this sweet little musical deserves.

The evening is not a total loss, though, because one bright star shines out. Allie Trimm as Kim MacAfee sparkles with energy and talent. I predict this will be her breakout role and that she’ll have a great career in musical theatre. She seems to be having the time of her life, as opposed to the other leading players who look as if they can’t wait for the final curtain.

The “teenagers,” chosen from more than 1,400 who auditioned, also are full of life and fun to watch. It’s the adults who are lifeless and, in the case of the two leads, John Stamos and Gina Gershon, completely miscast.

Stamos, whose credits include “General Hospital,” “ER” and touring with the Beach Boys, is TV star handsome, but doesn’t have what it takes to sing and dance his way across a Broadway stage. His Albert Peterson would definitely make a better English teacher than a talent agent in show business.

As Rose Alvarez, Albert’s secretary and long-suffering girlfriend, Gershon lacks sizzle and seems to be walking through the role rather than living it. She was good last season in Boeing-Boeing, but straight comedy is far different than musical theatre and she lacks the magnetism needed. She does, at least, seem appropriate to be an English teacher’s wife.

Another disappointment is Nolan Gerard Funk as Conrad Birdie, the teen heartthrob, Elvis-like singer who has just been drafted into the Army and who journeys to Sweet Apple, Ohio, to give one last kiss to the president of his fan club -- Kim -- in a publicity gimmick dreamed up by Rose and Albert. Although his role is actually rather small, he gets to sing one of the show’s most famous songs, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.” When he sang “You’re alive, so come on and show it,” I wished he had taken his own advice.

What a shame, because the songs -- music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams -- are charming, as is the book by Michael Stewart, all evoking a sunny, late 1950s small town America. I’ve always loved “Put on a Happy Face,” but Stamos and the Fan Club Girls are so weighed down by director Robert Longbottom’s awkward choreography that they all look uncomfortable rather than happy.

Luckily Kim gets to sing two of the other delightful tunes -- “How Lovely to Be a Woman” and “One Boy” -- and Trimm fills them with warmth and humor. I also enjoyed “The Telephone Hour,” although Longbottom’s choreography was a little strange here too. The teenagers are supposed to be at home, tying up their families’ telephone lines, but here they’re in brightly colored phone booths, with which they do a commendable job of singing and dancing. (Brightly colored is the way to describe most of the rest of Andrew Jackness’s sets.)

Others in the cast are Jayne Houdyshell as Albert’s overbearing mother, Mae, and Bill Irwin as Kim’s uptight father. Both of these characters are so over-the-top that they become annoying in most productions, but here it's at least impressive to watch Irwin wind his elastic body around the stage. Matt Doyle as Hugo Peabody, Kim’s boyfriend, Dee Hoty as her mother and Jake Evan Schwencke as her little brother, Randolph, are all fine.

The ensemble features Catherine Blades, Deanna Cipolla, Paula Leggett Chase, Riley Costello, John Treacy Egan, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Todd Gearhart, Patty Goble, Suzanne Grodner, Robert Hager, Nina Hennessey, Natalie Hill, Julia Knitel, Jess Le Protto, David McDonald, JC Montgomery, Jillian Mueller, Paul Pilcz, Daniel Quadrino, Emma Rowley, Tim Shew, Kevin Shotwell, Allison Strong, Jim Walton, Brynn Williams and Branch Woodman.

Bye Bye Birdie, which received the 1961 Tony Award for Best Musical and earned Tonys for the writers, is considered the first musical to introduce rock 'n' roll to Broadway, although it’s an extremely mild version. Later shows, like Godspell, Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, would really earn the title of rock musicals. With this production’s brightly colored sets and costumes (by Gregg Barnes), I thought of more recent shows like Hairspray and Cry-Baby.

Tickets for Birdie, which plays through Jan. 10, are available online at, by phone at (212) 239-6200 or at the box office of the Henry Miller Theatre, on 43rd Street east of Times Square.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

We Receive What We Send Out

I heard a story about a man and his small son who were hiking up a mountain. Suddenly the little boy slid about 30 yards down the mountainside, getting caught in some brush.

Unhurt but frightened, he called out, “Somebody, help me!”

A voice called back, “Somebody help me!”

The youngster looked surprised and confused. He asked, “Who are you?”

The boy began to get aggravated. “You’re a coward!” he yelled.

The voice shouted back, “You’re a coward!”

The boy shot back, “You’re a fool.”

The voice repeated, “You’re a fool.”

By then, the boy’s father had reached him and helped extricate his son from the brush. The boy looked up and said, “Dad, who is that?”

The father chuckled and said, “Son that’s called an echo, but it’s also called life.” He said, “Son, let me show you something”.

The dad shouted out, “You’ve got what it takes.”

The voice boomed, “You’ve got what it takes.”

The dad shouted, “You can make it.”

The voice shouted back, “You can make it.”

“Son, that’s exactly how it s in life,” the father explained.

“Whatever you send out always comes back to you.”

Let me ask: What messages are you sending out about yourself?

~Joel Osteen, Success From Home Magazine

Thursday, October 15, 2009


This is a play about a really nice nuclear family who live in Kansas City, KS, and who all love and enjoy each other. While the actors playing them happen to be black, the themes are not. Broke-ology has the comfy feel of a 1950s TV series about family life. It’s pleasant, and completely predictable.

Unpleasant things do happen. The mother dies after the first scene and the father is dying of multiple sclerosis for the rest of the two hours, finally succumbing at the end. In between the brothers quarrel about his care. That may sound like a lot is happening, but at the end I had a So what? feeling. This is because the dying is expected from the get-go and the arguing is done without any intense anger. If Ozzie and Harriet had died on their show, this is probably how it would have been done.

Playwright Nathan Louis Jackson, making his New York debut with Broke-ology, drew a bit of the story from his own life -- he grew up in Kansas and his father died of MS. He has created a likable, hardworking father in William King, played by Wendell Pierce (in photo, center). William loves his wife, Sonia (Crystal A. Dickinson), whose spirit continues to visit him after she dies. Older son Ennis (Francois Battiste, left in photo) is the joking wise guy who stayed in town, fathered a child and is working in a cheap food joint. Second son Malcolm (Alano Miller, right) is recently graduated with a master’s from the University of Connecticut and has been offered a teaching job there. They are all good in their parts and seem like a real family, thanks in part ot Jackson’s natural-sounding dialogue.

The title, Broke-ology, comes from a term coined by Ennis, who likes using “ology,” meaning the study of, and applies it to his current situation, which is broke.

The play is directed by In the Heights director Thomas Kail and plays at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through Nov. 22. It premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2008.

Donyale Werle has designed a single atmospheric set, a cluttered little living room connected to the kitchen. Emily Rebholz designed the appropriate costumes and Jason Lyons the lighting.

Jackson, a Juilliard graduate, is the recipient of two Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Awards, the Mark Twain Playwrighting Award and the Kennedy Center's Gold Medallion.

For tickets visit

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


This show should do wonders for the cause of online education. David Mamet's two-character play, at the Golden Theatre, is a study in sexual and class conflict that pits a self-involvement male college professor against an insecure, possibly psychotic, female undergrad who ends up accusing him of sexual harassment.

I know that world of higher education well on both levels. I’ve got two masters and I taught for many years -- on the graduate level at New York University and undergraduate at Brooklyn College. From those experiences I found Bill Pullman’s John a completely believable character. Pompous types like him abounded at N.Y.U., and were part of the reason I left the doctoral program there.

Julia Stiles’s Carol was more problematic for me. I’ve encountered plenty of students like her who had to work hard to afford college, but couldn’t accept her extreme sensitivity to John and his attitude that higher education is “prolonged systematic hazing.” She’s an upperclassman, so she should be used to prigs like that by now. The academic world is full of them, which is why I call it aca-nee-mia, because it’s so anemic.

As Carol grows more and more hostile, she refers to her “group” as backing her. I didn’t know at first whether she was referring to a group of students or her group therapy. It turns out to be the former but could just as easily have been the latter. If anyone ever needed psychotherapy it’s Carol.

It’s interesting to watch the power shift from professor to student. Carol goes from worrying about her grade to the heady thrill of knowing she controls whether John’s tenure, all but assured at the start of the play, will be given, which will determine whether he gets the mortgage he’s seeking, and that outcome will filter down to his family life. It’s a reversal of the Miss Julie story, which makes me even more eager to see After Miss Julie later this month.

Oleanna, only 80 minutes long, comes to Broadway following an acclaimed run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles last summer. Tony Award-winning director Doug Hughes, currently on Broadway as director of The Royal Family, directed both productions. The show had an Off-Broadway debut in 1992 just as Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and Anita Hill’s testimony brought the issue of sexual harassment to public consciousness.

Neil Patel designed the single set, a functional-looking office with a row of red brick 19th century buildings seen through the windows. For some reason Hughes has the automated Venetian blinds screech annoyingly up and down to mark the passing of scenes. Donald Holder’s lighting alone could have done that quite well.

Stiles, making her Broadway debut in Oleanna, was praised for her performance in a previous production of the play in London's West End in 2004 opposite Aaron Eckhart, directed by Harold Pinter. Mamet directed his screenplay for the 1994 film that featured Debra Eisenstadt opposite William H. Macy.

For tickets to Broadway’s Oleanna visit the box office, 252 W. 45th Street, or call (212) 239-6200.

A post-show talk-back forum is held after some performances. Visit for information.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Royal Family

The Royal Family is a good old-fashion Broadway comedy, a bit dated now, but lots of fun. George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 play about an American acting family who live, breathe, eat and sleep the the-a-tah has been lovingly revived by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

From the rising of the curtain to reveal John Lee Beatty’s sumptuous set -- the Cavendishes’ palatial Park Avenue duplex -- to its setting about two hours and 45 minutes later, The Royal Family bounces along in high spirits and craziness, a spoof of a theatrical clan patterned after the Barrymores. The ensemble cast is excellent, headed by Rosemary Harris (right in photo) as aging matriarch Fanny Cavendish and the delightfully looney Jan Maxwell (left in photo) as her daughter, Julie. Throw in ne'-er-do-well son Tony (Reg Rogers), ingenue granddaughter Gwen (Kelli Barrett, center), their longtime devoted manager Oscar Wolfe (Anthony Newfield at the performance I saw), and mix with a few loyal servants and you’ve got a regular Grand Central Station of showbiz fun.

The “plot” thickens when the Cavendishes’ cozy insular world is threatened two outsiders, Julie’s former lover Gilbert Marshall (Larry Pine) and Gwen’s boyfriend, Perry Stewart (Freddy Arsenault), non-thespians offering the escape of a quiet married life far from the footlights. The bloodline and its traditions are at stake for Fanny who considers marriage an “incident,” not a way of life.

Under Doug Hughes’ careful direction, the zaniness remains lively but avoids going over the top. Maybe he is drawing a bit from his own experience, having grown up in a theatrical family himself. He's the son of actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg.

The cast also features John Glover as Fanny's brother, Herbert Dean, a faded star; his ambitious, but untalented wife, Kitty, (Ana Gasteyer); Caroline Stefanie Clay as Della, the maid; and David Greenspan as Jo, the butler.

Tony Roberts opened Thursday night in the role of Oscar, but by Sunday afternoon when I was there was out for rest. He had become ill one week earlier during the Sunday matinee, which was then canceled, with what is being described as a minor seizure. His understudy, my Episcopal Actors’ Guild friend Tony Newfield, has been performing in Roberts’ absence. And he is perfect!

Casting this play wasn’t always easy. Harris said in a recent interview that the Barrymores were too revered in 1927 when it first appeared and matriarch Ethel apparently was not pleased. “Actors didn't want to be in it, because they didn't want to upset the Barrymore family,” Harris told “A season or two before the play, all three of them were playing on Broadway simultaneously, the sister and two brothers."

Catherine Zuber’s Jazz-era costumes are luscious, Kenneth Posner’s lighting, sparkling and Tom Watson’s hair and wig design are just right. Maury Yeston has created playful, period-appropriate incidental music to introduce each of the three acts and for characters to play festively at the family’s living room piano.

A musical version of The Royal Family, written by Tony Award-winner William Finn (Falsettos), has never had a full production. Too bad. If ever there was a family ripe for bursting into song it’s the Cavendishes. These are people who love to be center stage, and they don’t just go from room to room, they make grand entrances and flourishing exits -- in their own home.

The Royal Family continues through Dec. 13 at the Friedman, 261 W. 47th St. For tickets, visit the box office, or call (212) 239-6200.

Monday, October 12, 2009


I had never liked the character of Hamlet before, but Jude Law gives him such depth and strength that I was mesmerized. The rest of the cast blurs in my mind but Law stands out as the noble prince Shakespeare meant Hamlet to be, not the indecisive, immature youth he can too easily be perceived as. What a nice discovery to find that this sexy Hollywood actor can master The Bard with the best of them.

Hamlet is an especially challenging role because his great soliloquies are so well known they can sound like clich├ęs. It must be hard to make “To be, or not to be” sound new, but Law did. It was as if I were hearing the lines for first time. And his “What a piece of work is a man” was a theatrical moment to remember, for his verbal delivery as well as his facial expressions, gestures and movement of his body. He is intensely focused and so Hamlet is fully realized.

Director Michael Grandage has staged the production, a transfer from London’s Donmar Warehouse, in a way that particularly shines attention on Hamlet. The stage is stark and bleak (set and costume design by Christopher Oram), the lighting (designed by Neil Austin) dark and ominous, a fitting way to present a play that begins with the ghost of the King of Denmark roaming the land, wanting to make it known he had been murdered by his brother, who then hastily married his wife. Perfect atmosphere for his grief-stricken son, Hamlet, to ponder how he will avenge his father’s death.

The New York production, at the Broadhurst Theatre through Dec. 6, follows sold-out engagements of 12 weeks in London, where the play was first seen in about 1600, and six performances in Kronberg Castle in Elsinore, the town in eastern Denmark where the play is set. The Broadway cast includes members of both productions.

Law, a film star known for his roles in "Alfie" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," starred in both previous runs. He has been on Broadway once before, in 1995, when he earned a Tony nomination at 22 for his role in Indiscretions.

This production of Hamlet is so vastly superior to the train wreck of a show I saw last summer at the Delacorte that it’s as if they were two entirely different plays. Law and Grandage deserve most of the credit for this. The other cast members range from serviceable to weak.

Tickets for Hamlet are available at the Broadhurst Theatre box office, 235 W. 44th St., by calling (212) 239-6200 or visiting More than 100 tickets priced at $25 will be available at every performance through and the Broadhurst Theatre box office. Visit for more information.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Deanna Witkowski

This interview I did with Deanna Witkowski appears in the Oct. 11, 2009 issue of The Living Church Magazine.

Mary Magdalene has meant different things to people throughout the ages. For Deanna Witkowski, she was the inspiration for the title track of her new CD of sacred jazz, “From This Place.”

Scheduled to perform for Easter vespers two years ago at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, commonly known as “the jazz church,” in midtown Manhattan, Witkowski wanted to write an original piece appropriate for the service. She meditated on the assigned scripture passage about Mary Magdalene going to Jesus’ tomb and finding it empty, trying to put herself in the story and imagining more.

“She probably has all these other things she wants to say,” and so Witkowski let her say them.

Early, I wake in the gloom, shell-shocked dreaming awake,” to go to the tomb, only to find it empty with two angels who ask her why she weeps. “And I wonder if they want to hear the story of my life. The darkness that I carried before I met this Christ.”

In scripture Mary says little, but in Witkowski’s song she is heard.

“Performing it I feel I go on a journey with Mary,” she says. “It’s something to do with finding joy, coming to the place for Christ to speak my name, something to dwell on.”

Witkowski recalled her own journey one humid Sunday afternoon sitting in the choir room at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side before leading the young adult choir for the evening Mass. With her long honey-blond curls piled up on the back of her head and wearing no make-up, she looks at least a decade younger than her 37 years.

Baptized into the Episcopal tradition, she went from church to church as she moved with her family 11 times as a child. Many of the congregations were evangelical, nondenominational or whatever was closest if her mother didn’t have a car. Later, when it was up to her as a student at Wheaton College, a Christian school 30 miles west of Chicago where she majored in classical jazz performance, she chose Episcopal churches, first the Church of the Resurrection in west Chicago and later St. Mark’s in Geneva, IL.

After graduation, the Episcopal tradition was to come to her again and have a large impact on her life. In the late 1990s she took a job in New York as music director of All Angels’ Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. One of the appealing thing about this church was its practice of having its MDs compose Masses of their own. Witkowski, a singer, pianist and composer, took to the high church liturgical music. More than a third of the works on the new CD are from this time, including the “Kyrie,” “Gloria,” Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei” she reimagined and arranged for the church’s gospel choir, which was made up largely of homeless people.

As with the Mary Magdalene song, she had tried to relate to the ancient hymns of the Mass; for the “Kyrie” she made a list of things she wanted God to have mercy on, both for herself and the world. “Doing that work helped me be in the text more.”

All of the hymn resetting (“Take My Life,’ “I Heard the Voice,” “Pass Me Not”) were written for All Angels' services. “Take My Life” was originally written as a duet for her and Tyrone Flowers, her gospel choir co-director who did a lot of work backing up gospel singers, Cece Winans among them.

The All Angels’ job was followed by one at the Church of the Redeemer, a bilingual (English/Spanish) Episcopal church in Astoria, NY, where she was writing bilingual prayer responses, children's choir music and arranging hymns so that they had salsa, reggae, or bolero feels. The English language service had a small congregation, only about 25 people, while the service in Spanish had more than 200. Witkowski focused on developing a repertoire that could be used at both services.

While much of the music on the new CD has its roots in All Angels, some comes from Witkowski’s work with the Rev. Bill Carter, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Clarks Summit, PA, and founder and pianist with the Presbybop Quartet. He met Witkowski in 2002 when he was working on a jazz hymnal with some grant money from Calvin College. The hymnal was called "Swing a New Song to the Lord," and Carter wanted to compile fresh settings of congregational music in a jazz vein. A quick web search revealed Witkowski's name as a possible contributor to the project. She was invited to meet with the project committee in a retreat center just north of New York City.

“Her talent overwhelmed us, and we were delighted to commission her to compose a couple of the tunes,” Carter said. “She is the real deal: a gifted jazz musician who is a person of profound Christian faith. We are delighted that she continues to cultivate her abilities, and that she integrates them so joyfully in her life and work.”

“From This Place,” her fourth CD, features Witkowski as vocalist and pianist, with Donny McCaslin (saxes), John Patitucci (bass), Scott Latzky (drums) and guest vocalists Laila Biali, Kate McGarry and Peter Elderidge. It is also available as sheet music from her web site,

“Music can be one big unifying factor in the church,” she says. And she expects it to be with the CD, with the Catholics and Episcopalians at home with the music from the Mass and Protestants relating to the 19th century hymns like “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” “Pass Me Not” and “Take My Life and Let It Be.”

Beside going in a new direction musically, her faith journey also was changing course as she began reading books on contemplative prayer -- “to sit and enjoy God’s presence and not have to have it be all that talking” -- and delved into reading mystics like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. “I realized all these people were Catholic.” And so she made the decision to join them; at Easter Vigil this year she was received into the Catholic tradition at St. Paul’s.

Although based in New York, Witkowski has toured extensively, performing in such far-flung spots as Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, at the Tel Aviv Opera House and three times at the Kennedy Center. With “From This Place,” she is presenting herself in a new way.

“One really interesting thing in terms of all the different kinds of interviews I’ve been doing is it’s forcing me to think about how I present my faith,” she said. “With this CD, I hope if people don’t identify themselves as Christians they can find something that gives them hope or touches them in some way.”

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Prayers for Lynn Redgrave

Please keep Lynn Redgrave in your prayers. It has just been announced that she is suffering from an undisclosed illness that requires immediate medical treatment. Trooper that she is, she is still going forth with her Off-Broadway play Nightingale, which starts previews Thursday at Manhattan Theatre Club, but will performs with script in hand.

I met Lynn last month when she spoke at Broadway Blessing and was struck by her warmth and generosity. I’m sure all who heard her were touched by her personal reflections about her life in the theatre, her bout with breast cancer and the faith that sustains. Her recitation of Psalm 23 was unforgettable.

She’s a strong woman. While she was going through chemotherapy for the breast cancer she also was performing Off-Broadway in Talking Heads, not letting that arduous treatment keep her off the stage.

The current condition was diagnosed this week and requires immediate treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Side effects of the treatment will make it necessary to rely on the script for performances throughout the run. Her spokesman said she had not had a recurrence of cancer.

Nightingale is a one-woman play she wrote and performs about her maternal grandmother. It opens Nov. 3 and runs through Dec. 13.

Please keep Lynn in your prayers.

(Photo, by Lauren Yarger, is of me, Lynn and Karen Lehman, executive director of the Episcopal Actors’ Guild.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Wishful Drinking

My friend Mary and I don’t remember when we’ve laughed so hard at a Broadway play as we did at Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher's darkly comic one-woman memoir show, now at Studio 54. Covering a large span of her 52 years, Fisher recounts her bizarre youth as a child of Hollywood (Mom -- actress Debbie Reynolds, Dad -- crooner Eddie Fisher), her marriages, motherhood and her well-publicized experiences with substance abuse and mental illness.

Doesn’t exactly sound like fodder for a fun evening, does it? Usually these kinds of celebrity vehicles, with the star on stage alone talking to the audience, strike me as ego trips or desperate attempts to grab some attention. But I was impressed by Wishful Drinking beyond the fact that it’s laugh-out-loud funny. My hat goes off to the way Fisher has been able to step back and look at the totality of her life and present it without bitterness or anger. She has obviously spent a great deal of time working on herself, not just to get off the drugs and alcohol, which would be an accomplishment in and of itself, but to be able to develop such a sense of humor -- and of the absurd -- about events that would have left most people feeling victimized well into adulthood if not for life.

This spirit is on display right from the start as she begins the show singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” and sprinkling glitter, which is already all over her, on the audience. Behind her are huge projections of tabloid headlines about her troubled life, mostly the many trips to rehab.

“If my life wasn’t so funny, it would just be true,” she says.

Thank heavens she’s made it both. One of my favorite parts was her course on Hollywood Inbreeding 101. Standing before a large blackboard full of glossy head shots, she uses a pointer to show how interconnected all the lives would become. Much of it is well known, including her father leaving her mother for Elizabeth Taylor, but trying to keep track of all the relationships that follow is a riot.

Her pace throughout the two hours and 15 minutes is rapid fire. She is quite heavy and looks at least a decade older than her 52 years, but even about that she keeps her wry sense of humor. “Along with everything else I’m a failed anorexic,” she says.

Tony Taccone directs this Roundabout Theatre Company production, which has been developed before audiences at regional theatres since 2006. Alexander V. Nichols provides scenic, lighting and projection design.

A published memoir under the same title came out during the regional life of the play. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 14 weeks, and will be available in paperback from Simon & Schuster this fall.

Fisher also has become a respected speaker, with audiences appreciating her candid sharing of her experiences with addiction and bipolar disorder.

The sermon last Sunday at Marble Collegiate Church was about making lemonade out of lemons. It could have been written for Carrie Fisher. She sure knows how to make one delicious pitcher of lemonade.

Wishful Drinking tickets are available through Roundabout Ticket Services, (212) 719-1300, and online at This limited engagement runs through Jan. 3.

Lynn Redgrave to be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame

I was so pleased to learn that Lynn will be one of the 2009 Theater Hall of Fame inductees, along with actors Jim Dale and John McMartin; producers Roger Berlind and Ted Mann; composers Stephen Schwartz and Andrew Lloyd Webber; and, posthumously, the late playwright/actor Charles Ludlum. Lynn took part in this year’s Broadway Blessing and was really a blessing to all who heard her talk about her life in the theatre. She deserves this honor and I am very happy for her.

Congratulations, Lynn!

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Tony replaces a Tony

I was sorry to hear that Tony Roberts became ill during yesterday’s afternoon performance of the Broadway revival of The Royal Family. I’ve never met him, but he lives in my neighborhood and I’ve passed him many times over the years walking the streets of the Upper East Side. I like him as an actor onstage and have loved him in Woody Allen’s movies.

Shortly after making his entrance -- to enthusiastic audience applause -- Roberts, who plays Oscar Wolfe, began babbling incoherently and appeared disoriented, according to this morning’s New York Times. The curtain was brought down and an announcement made asking for a doctor -- several responded. Roberts was taken to St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, and the matinee was canceled. The Times reports that hospital spokesperson Jeff Jacomowitz said Roberts is in stable condition.

In the Fortune’s Wheel of show business, Roberts’ misfortune was a break for my Episcopal Actors’ Guild friend Tony Newfield (in photo), who is Roberts’ understudy. Tony went on last night. The show is scheduled to open Thursday night. As much as I don’t want Roberts to be sick, I’d love it if Tony could open.

The George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber show, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, is in previews at the Friedman Theatre. MTC describes the show this way: "Follow a famous family of stage stars as they go about the drama of the day: choosing scripts, dashing off to performances, stealing kisses from handsome beaus. But what’s this business about the youngest diva wanting to quit the stage for domestic bliss? Never, darling!"

Newfield, originally from Northern California, is now based in New York City. His appearances on stage, film, and television have taken him from New York to California to Ireland and Russia. Broadway credits include Tartuffe and Waiting for Godot. For his work in the play Bent, he won Florida’s Carbonell Award for Best Supporting Actor. In 2002, he created his one-man show, Steinbeck and the Land, and performed it in New York and in Salinas, California, at the Steinbeck Festival. Since then, he has created new pieces for the Festival, including The Dog Ate My Manuscript: Of Mice and Men Onstage, A Box of Glory… An Armful of Garbage, and Tortilla Flat: How Danny and His Friends Found Their Way from the Page to the Stage. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and earned an MFA in Acting from Carnegie Mellon University in conjunction with the Moscow Art Theatre.

Roberts received Tony Award nominations for his performances in Play It Again Sam and How Now, Dow Jones. His other theatrical credits include Xanadu, Victor/Victoria, Barefoot in the Park, Don't Drink the Water, Sugar, Absurd Person Singular, Arsenic and Old Lace, They're Playing Our Song, Jerome Robbins' Broadway and The Sisters Rosensweig. He won the London's Critics Poll Award for his performance in the West End mounting of Promises, Promises, and his many screen credits include "Annie Hall," "Play It Again, Sam" and "Serpico."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Stick to it

I like this essay by Rick Hamlin that appeared in Guideposts magazine.

Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees.
Isaiah 35:3

Six years ago when I first started going to the gym, I turned to a couple of exercise magazines for guidance. They spelled out different routines for every week. Okay, I’ll give this a go, I thought. Three sets on that machine, a few reps on this one. Crunches, push-ups, pullups. I went to the high bar to try the latter. “Two sets of ten,” the magazine said. I grabbed the cold bar and dangled from it like a monkey. “One, two, three . . .” I grunted and groaned. After three and a half, I had to give up, dropping from the bar in defeat. “I can’t do it!” I barked at the magazine with its glossy photos of incredibly sleek and impossibly toned models doing what I couldn’t do.

I stayed away from pull-ups after that. But every once in a while I’d try to do just a few. And then maybe some more. On my jog through the park, I ran past a high bar in the playground. Do a couple of pull-ups at the end of each loop, I challenged myself. And even though I was older and not apparently in any better shape, I got in the practice of doing two sets of pull-ups every time I jogged. Somehow over the years the number of pullups in each set increased. Four, five, six, seven, eight. Finally it dawned on me that I could do eight pull-ups at once! Count ’em, eight of those impossible-to-do, don’t-ask-me-to-try pull-ups. It makes me wonder how many other things I’ve told myself I simply can’t do that I might be able to . . . even at my age.

I’ll let you know when I get to 10.

Lord, give me the persistence and determination to reach goals I never knew I could reach.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Steady Rain

I don’t usually like police dramas, but Hugh Jackman’s performance in A Steady Rain is so magnetic I was drawn in for most of the show’s 90 minutes. He has transformed himself into Denny, a racist Chicago cop who cheats on his wife, physically abuses his young son and shakes down prostitutes on his beat for extra cash. He’s even got a flawless working-class Chicago accent -- not a hint of his usual Aussie speech. I can definitely imagine him picking up his second Tony in June. (His first was for his only other time on Broadway, playing Peter Allen -- becoming Peter Allen -- in the otherwise lackluster musical The Boy from Oz.)

Daniel Craig (in photo, left) costars in this two-character drama by Keith Huff, giving a strong performance as Joey, Denny’s lifelong friend and partner on the police force. He is the easy-going foil to the hotheaded Denny.

Directed by John Crowley, the story unfolds largely through overlapping monologues. The men sit on straight chairs facing the audience, often rising when it is their turn to pace the stage and tell of their personal travails and the violence of their work, in accounts that begin to differ greatly. The lighthearted tone at the start gives way to darkness as more and more of Denny’s story is revealed and the friendship begins to frazzle.

The intensity is enhanced by Scott Pask’s sparse set, which is usually just the men and their chairs, with occasional glimpses of bleak tenement buildings looming large in blurry, somewhat impressionistic eeriness, and by Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, which highlights the speaker while leaving most of the stage a threatening black. Mark Bennett created the effective original music.

A Steady Rain had its professional world premiere in 2007 at Chicago Dramatists and was remounted in February 2008 at Chicago's Royal George Theatre, winning Jefferson Awards for Best New Work and Best Production.

It marks the Broadway debut of Craig, who is popularly known as the latest James Bond. It is also the Broadway debut for Huff, who says he has written about 60 plays, many of which have been produced, but who has supported himself as managing editor of Orthopedic Knowledge Online. A Steady Rain is the first in a trilogy of Chicago cop plays that includes The Detective's Wife and Tell Us of the Night.

A Steady Rain, whose box office sales are already in the multimillions, will play a strictly limited 12-week engagement through Dec. 6. at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. For more information visit