Friday, October 29, 2010

Even You, Oh Princess, in Your Cold Room


Once, while I lay dying, the man standing over me and holding my hand began to tickle me. He was, of course, a Tenor. I was Mimi, taking my last breath in Puccini’s opera La Boheme, and trying to sing my final pathetic notes. That Tenor was always trying something of this ilk during performances, and I must say that when singing “Addio, senza rancor” from Act 3 to the Tenor, it constituted great acting on my part. So do pay attention. I’m going to say something nice about a tenor here.

There. I’ve told you about my conflicts. Being a writer, a sometime critic, and a singer, I looked forward to the play Critical Mass at the Lion Theater, it being the first winning play of the Heiress Production Playwriting Competition, written by Joanne Sydney Lessner. The play is chock full of situations, features two married opera critics trying to conceive a child, a tenor seeking revenge for a destructive review, the tenor’s wife, a few other assorted characters including the tenor’s mother coming and going, the editor of the opera magazine, and a lot of good music (coming from the critics’ CD player and during intermission). All this, with the play being marketed as a discussion about criticism and its effect on performers, and yes, there was plenty of that.

Reader, do you see the problem yet? At the suggestion of one of the characters, I will say that Critical Mass is not a very good play, but it’s not a very bad play, either.

Here’s the premise: Two opera critics (she does opera performances, he does CDs) are married. The wife, Carrie (played by Leigh Williams), is of course the mean critic, with an ego with which she believes herself to be the premiere opera critic of the universe. She works for an Opera News type magazine and everyone wants to know what she says (so there, New York Times). Her tone seems to be that of the coldly nasty theater critic John Simon (remember him?). In her relentless drive for perfection, as she calls it, Carrie rewrites her wimpy husband Norman’s (Zac Hoogendyk) reviews to sound like her own (hard, hard, hard), and they go somewhat merrily along, describing voices with the narrowest measure of technical vocal quality. Carrie seems to not see the whole of a production when she goes to the opera – she seems to care nothing about the history, the interpretation, the music, the acting, anything other than vocal technique. In other words, she’s the Tin Man and although she says she’s not looking for a heart, she is looking to have a kid. What they have is a nice apartment, well designed by Chris Minard, whose set allowed for all the comings and goings as well as the play’s action.

Enter into the apartment The Tenor, Stefano (Aaron Davis), whose life Carrie ruined with one (one!) review. He plants himself in their apartment with promises of Mafia revenge against Norman if they don’t take him in, thus starting a cascade of events sprinkled with a discussion of the critic’s responsibilities that perhaps was too specific for the audience I was in. Lessner is obviously comfortable with the operatic world but who could not translate that into getting the audience excited about it or even interested. The tone mostly sounded like the snippets of conversation you hear when in line to get standing room tickets at the Met. It’s opera reduced to snotty twitter. And if that’s the case, what’s the point? Also, the general audience is not clear on what constitutes bad vocal technique or whether an aria is being mangled. When opera trivia was tossed out, like Cecilia Bartoli’s name used as a punch line, I found myself laughing alone.

Critical Mass is, in several places, a funny and a thoughtful play, but it can’t be both, and it tries so hard to be. The characters behind the married couple point precisely to what the problem is. Carrie hits hard with the repartee, while Norman is more thoughtful, and you wonder how that marriage lasted, rolling as it does from one side of the stylistic bed to the other. The play veers from farce, which, judging from its pace, the director Donald Brennar, intended it to be, but then it steers across the road and pauses over the human situations created by the farce. This naturally then makes the farce unbelievable and the emotions consequently ring untrue.

The pivotal character of Carrie suffers most from this rapid switching of lanes. She’s been loaded up with so much baggage that you wonder if the veering car has rolled over the feminist movement and everything is her fault, her responsibility. She moves from snappy one liners that destroy tenors and her husband’s ego, from “I hate you” to “let’s go to bed” faster than a soap opera. Her husband disappears for months without there being any attempt to find him, while the vehemently scorned/revenge seeking tenor lives with her, writing the husband’s reviews, cooking five-course meals, and fathering the child she wanted because her hormones were surging the moment her husband left. (A little girl, near me leaped up at intermission, crying, “I’m surging!”) What this means for the character of Carrie is that no matter how good she is (and the actress is quite good), her character remains undefined and unreal and, in the end, unfunny and unbelievable.

The play’s unwillingness to find a consistent tone also tires out the audience. We’re not sure if we’re to laugh at the Mafia jokes (speaking of tired) or be concerned for someone’s safety. So the play ends up feeling Wagnerian in length (not quality) even if it is only two hours long, and even if everyone is talking fast and the doorbell keeps ringing up new comings and goings.

The actors held up their end of the bargain, with Zac Hoogenayk as Norman being the most credible (alas, off stage for a good third) with an easygoing casual air that managed to make you like and understand an essentially unbelievable character. Leigh Williams tries hard to reconcile the too pronounced cattiness of Carrie with the warmth the writer tries to sneak in at the end. Shorey Walker and Mark Geller garner as much as they can from thankless parts. (Geller was advertised as a Bette-Davis impersonating editor; he was not, and if he was supposed to be, he wisely toned that down), and Laura Faith’s small role was sweetly delivered, if also caught in the play’s riding a bicycle built for two – or three – or two.

Aaron Davis as Stefano handled the farce aspect well by creating a stereotypical tenor that didn't go too overboard (an impossible balance, really), but then he struggled with the human side. He never sang until the end (except for a parting, “Addio, senza rancor” at one exit, and the audience again seemed clueless at this Boheme reference, while I thought, like any stereotypical soprano, “That’s my line”!).

I would argue that it was cruel to have Mr. Davis talk for two hours and then end the play singing the most gorgeous phrase in the aria, “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. Yet, that was the play’s most successful moment. Everyone had left the stage, it was the first real quiet moment in two hours, and there, in that quiet, Davis brought us (finally!) opera. His voice was sweet and graceful, even if a little weak, and you could sense the audience feeling honest and strong emotion from Davis, even if they did not grasp the words per se. Critical Mass had finally found its voice at the very end – until then failing to even broach the passionate beauty of the art everyone was yakking about so intensely.

I can’t leave this review without pointing out that Heiress Productions, co-founded by the above-mentioned Laura Faith along with Mary Willis White, is a not-for-profit theatre production company that raises awareness and funds for cancer organizations. According to information in the program, Faith and White “wanted to use their acting skill and passion for theatre to make an impact in the battle against cancer.” Incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization in June, 2006, Heiress Productions provides free advertising space in their playbills to charitable cancer organizations, partners with one cancer organization for each production, and donates a portion of the proceeds to their charitable cause. For the program I attended, the company had partnered with the Lustgarten Foundation, which seeks the cure and prevention of pancreatic cancer. A relative of one of the board members, who had fallen victim to the disease, was memorialized on the playbill’s inside front cover, the back cover was an advertisement for Lustgarten, and the program also contained a listing of other non-profit cancer organizations. Bravo.

Critical Mass, a comedy by Joanne Sydney Lessner. With Aaron Davis, Laura Faith, Marc Geller, ZacHoogendyk, Shorey Walker, and Leigh Williams. Directed by Donald Brenner. Scenic design by Chris Minard, costume design by Ashley Rose Horton, lighting design by Melissa Mizell. Stage Manager: Taylor Crampton. Performances continue at the Lion @ Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street) through Sunday, November 7th. Proceeds from Critical Mass will benefit The Lustgarten Foundation, dedicated to funding pancreatic cancer research.

Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s new novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year. She has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 (

Caption: Leigh Williams and Aaron Davis of Critical Mass.

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
- Anais Nin

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Now You May Think That This Is the End (Well, it Is! – of New York City Ballet’s First Fall Season)

By Mary Sheeran

I used to dream up ballets I’d like to see. One of the ballets I imagined reflected the rhythm of the city streets I walked, the offices I worked in, the people who crowded around me always hurrying and yet some who kept lyrical thoughts and dreams of other kinds of walks. Then one day, I went to the New York City Ballet and saw Jerome Robbins’ new ballet (at the time) Glass Pieces, and I realized he’d created the ballet I’d wanted to see.

This later work of Robbins’ (1983) is a masterpiece set to Philip Glass’ music. It’s one of those pieces you understand as soon as the curtain goes up because for one thing, the scene – dancers against a grid – is emotionally recognizable immediately and also because of our relationship with Robbins’ works. You know without being told what he’s doing. And he knows you know.

In the first movement, walkers in colorful rehearsal clothes and unitards charge across the stage with fierce energy. A few of them stomp here and there, changing directions abruptly, and a few of them soar, as if they found in the pulsing music a beauty to grasp.

The second movement is the prize. Women in the shadows move almost as automatons in the background, alternating a few positions as if they form some kind of balletic assembly line.  As they move off the stage, they circle round the back and return on the other side, like a conveyer belt, or perhaps that office or factory we were all running off to. No one says a word, this being ballet, but you know there’s some threat, however subtle. These women are related to Robbins’ Antique Epigraphs, a small 1984 work easily forgotten except that it points its way back to this movement. These women may also be a faint reference to the Wilis in Giselle, women finding themselves with a job to do – and perhaps not liking it but not having much choice.  (Robbins referred most horrifyingly to the Wilis in The Cage [1951], where the women tear apart their male prey.) Well, they are not that dangerous in Glass Pieces. But they are formidable, always there, beautiful and deadly, something like the women who open Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements (1972).

As the women move from position to position, following to the pulse of the strings, Rebecca Krohn and Craig Hall soar in a lyrical pas de deux to the horns. And when the couple broaches that other world of automaton women behind them, the implied threat simply disappears. Finding love and beauty has altered the power of the ballet assembly line and made it less threatening. So simple.

By the third movement, the grid is gone, and a dancer runs around the stage in total freedom. I recall Jock Soto taking the stage by storm years ago. (Don’t you just hate to hear people go on about how they saw it done better years ago?) This was just a nice run by a dancer who didn’t have the pronounced energy. This movement has some of the West Side Story energy, without the tragedy and violence, and for the most part it works, though I always giggle when the women enter daintily to the flutes. Back in 1983, I thought “sexist.” But soon, the corps is following the music, fusing the nervousness of conformity to something more lyrical and welcoming. I did have a nagging thought that the energy was turning into something way too easily lyrical, feet placed gently, an emphasis on a beautiful line rather than emphatic surging force. (This is my feeling about the company’s West Side Story Suite, too.) Even so, Glass Pieces is one stunning ballet. Robbins as the master.

 And speaking of energy, what a treat to see Tarentella again. The sassy attitudes of these two gypsies, Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht, carried the day as they danced with remarkable clarity to Gottschalk’s delightful score (reworked by the underestimated Hershy Kay), even in this dizzy dance. And they played the tambourines well, too! Originally created by Balanchine in 1964 for Edward Villella and Patricia McBride, Tarantella’s roles are demanding, spirited, and good fun.

 Alas, Benjamin Millipied’s new piece, Plainspoken, set to music by David Lang, followed. It’s a shapeless, senseless work that seemed to rip off Glass Pieces and Balanchine's Episodes in places (and not in a good way), but was just a “new combination” of steps. (Some think that’s all ballet is, thanks to a modest understatement by Balanchine that some have taken way too literally.) The dancers, some of NYCB’s best (Tyler Angle, Amar Ramasar, Jennie Somogyi, Janie Taylor, Sebastien Marcovici, Jared Angle), danced just fine. Enough said.

 Speaking of saying things, I finally got the chance to experience that new idea at New York City Ballet, that of dancers who come out in front of the curtain before a performance and talk to the audience. I’ve heard not many kind things about this experiment, which doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, necessarily. Even if the point eludes me. On the last evening of the new fall season, Charles Askegard did the talking. He was relaxed, spoke briefly about each ballet on the program, described the program as American themed (which we could tell from reading the program), mentioned that he wanted to do the Villella role in Tarantella, and that was that. The man next to me muttered, “And what did all that tell me I didn’t already know?” Askegard danced El Capitan in Stars and Stripes at the end of the program. He spun and leaped with flourish, and he was wonderful to watch. If he hadn’t talked, I would have still loved him. Talking about ballet in the theater is – just talk.

Stars and Stripes, again, after Gottschalk (and again orchestrated by Hershy Kay – it was his night!), is again the whimsical side of Balanchine (1958) who infused  Sousa’s music with bravura dancing, high strutting, all with tongue firmly in cheek, especially in El Capitan. Without a word being spoken, I picked up the clues for the words “droll” and “exhuberant,” although, at the end, with Stars and Stripes Forever blaring and a flag with stars and stripes coming up, I couldn’t help thinking the words, “Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s mother…” – words I thought I had forgotten by now, though I half wished the audience would start singing. They do it during Who Cares? – and I heard a little humming nearby. Seriously, this piece is Kitsch at its Highest, and salutes were merited for Askegard’s partner Ashley Bouder, Adam Hendrickson in Thunder and Gladiator, Gwyneth Muller of the Rifle Regiment, and Eric Pereira of the Corcoran Cadets. Just writing out the section names is fun.

Someone had asked Balanchine, Stravinsky’s pal, why he choreographed to Sousa. He said, “Because I like his music.” Okay, so it was a dumb question. But Balanchine said, “The French walk fast, and so do Americans. Why? Because of Sousa!”

Oh, those fast walking, fast dancing Americans! And we’re still doing it!

Glass Pieces: Music by Philip Glass; Choreography by Jerome Robbins; Premiere: March 12, 1983. Tarantella: Music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk; Reconstructed and orchestrated by Hershy Kay; choreography by George Balanchine; Premiere: Jan. 7, 1964. Plainspoken: Music by David Lang (commissioned for New York City Ballet); Choreography by Benjamin Millepied; Premiere: Aug. 6, 2010. Stars and Stripes: Music adapted and orchestrated by Hershy Kay after music by John Philip Sousa; Choreography by George Balanchine; Premiere: Jan. 17, 1958.

Performances of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet begin Nov. 26 and run through Jan. 2, at the Davis H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, followed by a full repertory season from Jan. 18 through Feb. 27. For tickets and information, go to

Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s new novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year. She has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 (

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I am so blessed to have a friend like Angela Treiber who reads practically a book a day and then every couple of weeks leaves a shopping bag full of them with her doorman for me. I start most and if they don’t click I donate them right away to my beloved Webster branch of the library. I might go through a half dozen before I find a gem, but then I always have that wonderful feeling of reading a book I love and can’t wait to get back to.

When I looked at the cover of Huck in the latest batch I almost put in on the pile for the library without even starting it. I saw that absolutely adorable dog and read the subtitle, “The Remarkable True Story of How One Lost Puppy Taught a Family -- and a Whole Town -- About Hope and Happy Endings” and thought, “too hokey.” Let me say I have an extremely high tolerance for hokeyness, but I thought this one would be over the top. Luckily I started it -- and was hooked from page one. The library won’t be getting this one. It’s a keeper.

Author Janet Elder, a senior editor at The New York Times, is too skilled a writer to let Huck become hokey. And she’s such a gifted storyteller that I hated to put the book down, even though I knew from the subtitle what the outcome would be.

Huck, a reddish-brown toy poodle, came into the lives of Elder, her husband, Richard Pinsky, and their son, Michael, following an arduous year the family had spent dealing with Elder’s breast cancer. She had had a sick parent and knew how hard it is on a child to watch a parent suffer through grave illness. Michael had been asking for a dog since he was a tiny child but because they lived in an apartment on the Upper East Side, Janet and Rich had always maintained that a dog would be too much trouble.

Once she was diagnosed with cancer, though, Elder realized that promising Michael a puppy at the end of her treatments would offer just the beacon of hope he needed at such a scary time. She had no way of knowing just what a talisman of hope Huck would become for all of them.

Several months after Huck’s arrival, the family decided to celebrate the end of Elder’s yearlong cancer battle by taking a trip to Florida to see the Yankees at spring training. Huck would stay with Elder’s sister, Barbara, and her family in Ramsey, NJ. They had barely begun their vacation, however, when they received a call from Barbara that Huck had escaped from the yard and was missing. Without hesitation, Rich, Janet and Michael headed home on the first flight they could book. Huck meant too much to all of them by then. He represented the joy and new life that can follow suffering and fear.

Rather than commute back and forth from Manhattan, they settled into a hotel in New Jersey and set out to do what would have sounded like the impossible to most people -- to find a tiny puppy lost in an unfamiliar town, surrounded by dense woods filled with wild animals and birds of prey and streets with fast moving cars.

Working from before sunrise until after dark, even in the rain, they papered Ramsey and nearby Mahwah, Allendale and Wyckoff with posters featuring Huck and offering a $1,000 reward. They knocked on doors, stopped people on the street and drove and walked around for hours calling out Huck’s name. Even after nights of subfreezing temperatures when Janet and Rich secretly wondered if Huck could survive, they kept looking.

And they weren’t alone. They were helped by scores of townspeople who set aside their plans to look for the strangers’ dog, to distribute their posters, to make copies, to offer prayers. Then, early on Sunday morning, several days after Huck had disappeared, thanks to one of these caring townspeople, their miracle came true and Michael once again held Huck in his arms.

“We ate our bagels and watched Huck play on the floor, as though the harrowing adventure of the last few days had not even happened,” Elder writes. “But it did happen. And it had a happy ending. We learned a lot about the heart of a small town and the extraordinary level of concern one stranger can show another. We learned a lot about ourselves, too, about tenacity and grit and our devotion to one another.”

I’m not going to put this book on a shelf with my others. I’m going to prop it up in a prominent place where I will see it many times a day. Not just because I love looking at Huck’s dear face, but because I want the reminder to believe in the possible and to fight for it without giving up hope. And the reminder to ask for help because it can be surrounding me all along without my even knowing it.


The Teabagger gets up at 6:00am to prepare his morning coffee. He fills his pot full of good clean drinking water because some liberal fought for minimum water quality standards.

He takes his daily medication with his first swallow of coffee. His medications are safe to take because some liberal fought to insure their safety and work as advertised. All but $10.00 of his medications are paid for by his employers medical plan because some liberal union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance, now The Teabagger gets it too.

He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs this day. The Teabagger's bacon is safe to eat because some liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry. The Teabagger takes his morning shower reaching for his shampoo; His bottle is properly labeled with every ingredient and the amount of its contents because some liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained.

The Teabagger dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is clean because some tree- hugging liberal fought for laws to stop industries from polluting our air.

The Teabagger begins his work day; he has a good job with excellent pay, medicals benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some liberal union members fought and died for these working standards The Teabagger's employer pays these standards because The Teabagger's employer doesn't want his employees to call the union. If The Teabagger is hurt on the job or becomes unemployed he'll get a worker compensation or unemployment check because some liberal didn't think he should lose his home because of his temporary misfortune.

It's noontime, The Teabagger needs to make a Bank Deposit so he can pay some bills. The Teabagger's deposit is federally insured by the FSLIC because some liberal wanted to protect The Teabagger's money from unscrupulous bankers who ruined the banking system before the depression. The Teabagger has to pay his Fannie Mae underwritten Mortgage and his below market federal student loan because some stupid liberal decided that The Teabagger and the government would be better off if he was educated and earned more money over his lifetime.

The Teabagger is home from work, he plans to visit his father this evening at his farm home in the country. He gets in his car for the drive to dads; his car is among the safest in the world because some liberal fought for car safety standards.

He arrives at his boyhood home. He was the third generation to live in the house financed by Farmers Home Administration because bankers didn't want to make rural loans. The house didn't have electric until some big government liberal stuck his nose where it didn't belong and demanded rural electrification. (Those rural Republicans would still be sitting in the dark)

He is happy to see his dad who is now retired. His dad lives on Social Security and his union pension because some liberal made sure he could take care of himself so The Teabagger wouldn't have to.

After his visit with dad he gets back in his car for the ride home. He turns on a radio talk show, the host keeps saying that liberals are bad and conservatives are good (He doesn't tell The Teabagger that his beloved Republicans have fought against every protection and benefit The Teabagger enjoys throughout his day). The Teabagger agrees, "We don't need those big government liberals ruining our lives.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Phil Hall to write new song for Broadway Blessing's 15th anniversary celebration

I’m so pleased to announce that my dear friend and gifted composer Phil Hall will write a new song for the 15th anniversary celebration of Broadway Blessing next September. Making a good thing even better, it will be sung by the dynamic women in his group The Philhallmonic Society.

It has been a long and often difficult road for me as founder and producer to get Broadway Blessing this far. It never could have happened without all the people like Phil (who has donated his time and talent to two previous Blessings) who have performed throughout the years.

Phil’s song will the the third original song written for BB. For our 10th anniversary celebration, acclaimed composer Elizabeth Swados, who I am also blessed to call friend, created “Double Blessing,” using references to the Old and New Testaments in recognition of BB’s interfaith approach, and bringing with her a choir of young singers. And for our fifth anniversary, friend Bob Ost, founder of Theater Resources Unlimited, wrote “The Broadway Blessing” and rounded up about two dozen Broadway and cabaret performers to sing, including Marc Kudisch, Bryan Batt, Christine Pedi, David Sabella and Ken Prymus (who has sung at three BBs).

Between now and next September I’ll be lining up other talented folks to take part. We’ll also be blessed again with Project Dance and our very own Broadway Blessing Choir. So mark you calendars, 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It will be here before you know it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

La Bête

At the end of David Hirson's La Bête you might find yourself wondering, Is Mark Rylance human? He rarely stops talking -- in verse -- for the entire hour and 45 minutes. It’s exhausting just listening to him as the babbling, spitting, farting buffoon Valere in this revival of the 1991 satire that is supposed to represent a collision of 17th century arts and populism.

Rylance’s performance is really the only reason to see this show, at the Music Box Theatre through Feb. 13. He is sure to receive a Tony nomination and may likely win again; he won in 2008 for Boeing Boeing, another revival with some funny moments surrounded by tedious silliness. David Hyde Pierce (right in photo) also is funny as Elomire, the straight man foil to Valere’s manic persona, but his part is dwarfed by Rylance’s.

The “plot” begins to unfold more than half way into the play -- up until then we have listening to the narcissistic Valere, a street clown, ramble on and on through his opinions on everything and nothing. The conflict of values happens after The Princess (Joanna Lumley, in photo) grows tired of Elomire's royal theatre troupe and proposes the two square off to determine who wins the favor of the court. If you have any doubt as to who will be the victor in a battle of culture against tasteless entertainment you have only to consider the winner in today’s world. As H.L. Mencken once said: No one ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public. Standards apparently weren’t any higher in 17th century France.

Mark Thompson’s set is as strange as the play -- floor to ceiling books on three sides, representing Elomire’s study in 1654 France. (Thompson also did the costumes, which are appropriate period pieces.)

I was chatting with several fellow Back Stage alums after the show and we all agreed La Bête, directed by Matthew Warchus with a script revised from the 1991 original, is a really weird play. If it was supposed to prompt a discussion of high versus low culture it missed the mark with all of us. After such an ear load, we were a bit numbed and all just agreed we need a bit of both.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bewitched, The Songs of Rodgers and Hart

It’s been four days since I saw “Bewitched, The Songs of Rodgers and Hart” at The Triad and the charm of that special evening is still with me. It’s a cabaret show that resounds with talent, triumph and tremendous group spirit. The one-hour show is a joy from start to finish.

The 11 singer are members of The Philhallmonic Society, which was founded and is directed by composer/arranger/playwright Phil Hall. The Broadway, cabaret and classical singers contribute their talents to support humanitarian causes. They sing their hearts out to send a message which is all too often forgotten: it is never too late to follow your passion, and, by doing so, find fulfillment and help others.

Thursday night’s premiere benefit concert was hosted by cabaret superstar KT Sullivan, a giving and witty performer who, like my friend Phil Hall, has participated in two Broadway Blessings. She started the evening off with a laugh when she commented on the group’s publicity shot, “It looks like ‘Sex and the City’ meets ‘Glee.’”

With Phil at the piano, the women filled the stage and flowed into the aisles to sing a zesty opening, “The Lady Is a Tramp.” The voices of Karen Arlington, Dolly Ellen Friedman, Jani Gerard, Wendy Kelly, Valerie Lemon Rendon, Robin Manning, Linda Sue Moshier, Mary Anne Prevost, Rachael Robbins, Amanda Serra and Diana Silva filled the theatre, surrounding the full-house crowd.

Then, what I loved so much, after each woman sang her solo, she gave a warm intro to the singer who followed. As staged by choreographer Mark Santoro, this touch conveyed a sense of family that was moving and is something that can be alien in the competitive world of show business.

Among the highlights were Karen Arlington, backed up by the “Ladies,” as the program calls them, soaring with “Falling in Love,” Wendy Kelly’s smooth and sublime “Bewitched,” Mary Ann Prevost, Linda Sue Moshier and Robin Manning’s sassy “Sing for Your Supper” and Rachel Robbins’s vampy “Zip.” My soul was touched by Diana Silva’s “My Funny Valentine” and “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” and Moshier had us all spellbound by her “Spring Is Here.”

I have most of these songs and more on a two-record Ella Fitzgerald album. It’s lovely to see her torch passed so brightly here. And so it is with a song in my heart that I strongly encourage you to make it to the encore performance at 9 p.m. Friday that will feature Sumayya Ali, Karen Arlington, Mary Lou Barber, Dolly Ellen Friedman, Jani Gerard, Phil Hall, Wendy Kelly, Valerie Lemon Rendon, Robin Manning, Linda Sue Moshier, Mary Anne Prevost, Rachael Robbins, Amanda Serra, Diana Silva and Erika Smith.

With the motto “singing so others can soar,” the women perform for free to benefit various charitable organizations. Past recipients have included The Actors Fund Home and The Salvation Army residence.

The Triad Theatre is at 158 W. 72nd St. Tickets are $20 general admission and $30 for premium seating, with a two-drink minimum; cash only on premises. To purchase tickets visit For more information, visit

Beautiful Tulip Fields

At first glance, it looks like a giant child armed with a box of crayons has been set loose upon the landscape. Vivid stripes of purple, yellow, red, pink, orange and green make up a glorious Technicolor patchwork. Yet far from being a child’s sketchbook, this is, in fact, the northern Netherlands in the middle of the tulip season. With more than 10,000 hectares devoted to the cultivation of these delicate flowers, the Dutch landscape in May is a kaleidoscope of giddy colors as the tulips burst into life. The bulbs were planted in late October and early November, and these colorful creations are now ready to be picked and sold as bunches of cut flowers in florists and supermarkets. More than three billion tulips are grown each year and two-thirds of the vibrant blooms are exported, mostly to the U.S. and Germany.


This October is special.: It has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays all in 1 month. ....This happens once in 823 years.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


By Mary Sheeran

In ballet, there are many lands. For example, there is Ballet Fairy Kingdom, with its swans and spinning wheels and Wilis. And there’s Ballet Story Village, where you’ll find fun, misunderstood romance, and a strange person wandering through who ends up solving all the problems. In the world of choreographer George Balanchine, you can find Black and White Land, where dancers wear rehearsal clothes, as well as his Blue Sky Kingdom, set in the clouds, a taste of the heavens. Three of these lands were in evidence with an early October program at the New York City Ballet.

Balanchine’s Blue Sky Kingdom is almost literally heaven, with Chaconne being perhaps the most heavenly of all. Because the music is from Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice, one must be alert to the Orpheus theme, so important in Balanchine’s repertory, and here, Orpheus is always with his Euridice. In the first glorious pas de deux, so dreamlike and magical, man and woman (Whelen and Marcovici here) scarcely look at the other even as they embrace, turn, touch, and reveal the sensual and yet heavenly love each has for the other. No unhappy endings here, no one’s torn apart – it all concludes in a regal brilliant celebration.

Chaconne is so lovely that it really does not require much more than dancing. I enjoyed listening and watching as one dance phrase would follow the violins and the next an oboe. Stephanie Zungre led a nifty pas de cinq, Marcovici proved a strong partner and a daring, moving dancer. Whelan, however, was too provocative, often breaking the spell with too much in the way of hip shifts or an unmistakable come-on look, which made me cringe. Chaconne doesn’t want that; Chaconne is all in the steps and the dancer’s movement, and the music can’t take that much push. That’s not to say that individuality isn’t vital; it is. But it is the dancer’s own individuality that matters, and that is part of her body and part of her soul. Nothing needs to be added.  Whelan’s earthly dancer affected the balance of the partnership as Marcovici was all present, just as he was, and beautiful. He attended her and loved her but was he didn’t have to be on the make.  This Euridice wasn’t worth going after. She wanted to stay down below.

In the quirky pair of Monumentum Pro Gesualdo/Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Balanchine and his friend Stravinsky first bring us courtly grandeur in black and white. Because in court dance, leg movements are minimal, it mostly relies on arm movements, and Balanchine’s first few moments give us startling and witty ones. The wit continues throughout in particular moments, such as when a row of ballerinas arabesque and flex their feet. Balanchine was having fun; I suspect Gesualdo was, too.  I wanted to laugh all the way through Movements, with its quirky “what’d you say again” music, but I pretended to be properly solemn with the rest of the audience. Conductor Clotilde Otranto seemed to get the joke; she bounced all the way through her conducting, and I don’t think it was just so this tiny woman could see the musicians in the rear. By the way, one effect of the reconstruction of the former New York State Theater is a sense that you’re inside the orchestra. It’s marvelous.

This second time I saw the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, it was still being danced a tad too cautiously.  I enjoyed the lush musical beginning, and the dancers (Ashley Bouder and Joaquin de Luz) were plucky, certainly, but fish dives do imply a dive. She just pretty much carefully lay down, and, after a very long pause, he steered her toward the floor. Well, yes, that’s what should happen, but it looked as if they were just learning it. When you watch, um, Patricia McBride and Mikhail Baryshnikov bring this one on, even on DVD, well, never mind. The audience around me gasped.  They were happy.  So, okay.

Let’s roll back the tape (can we still use that metaphor?) and return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when we believed in the promise of Peter Martins’ choreography, perhaps because we kept applauding. Well, there was a reason. As I mentioned with the Barber Violin Concerto, Martins’ earlier work seemed more open, engaging, and optimistic, less of a classroom exercise. Same here. His Balanchine-requested-work, The Magic Flute, is a lovely piece that Martins set for a School of American Ballet Workshop back in 1981 and brought to the NYCB stage in 1982. It’s not the Mozart music or story; the music is by Riccardo Drigo, but there's a flute and a lot of silly misunderstandings and young lovers with obstacles. For some reason, it’s been out of the repertory for ages.  I remember laughing my head off when I saw it both at SAB and at the NYCB staging (with a young Darci Kistler and Jock Soto). Now, I just smiled. It wasn’t that it seemed trite; it seemed to need a push. It is loaded with so many jokes, but the cast seemed not to be aware of any punch lines to punch up.

It’s true that Martins has a knack for story ballets. His La Sylphide, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty are well done works (and that’s all they are, wishful thinking to the contrary), and The Magic Flute is a sunny addition (his Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty never seem to see the sun), and it is amusing, not taking itself too seriously, which is its chief virtue, that and some excellent dancing.  Martins put his tongue in his cheek and used all those stock characters of Ballet Story Village – peasants, civil authorities, soldiers, and that mysterious magical stranger. What wasn’t in the performance was a ton of personality – more than just the steps. Still, it’s nice to see the kids from the school, and they seemed to be having the fun the piece needed. But it needs a little more push and a little more punch from the adult cast. (Wendy! Over here!) And, you know, I still believe, and I’ll still keep clapping.

Chaconne: Music by Willibald Gluck; choreography by George Balanchine; Premiere: Jan. 22, 1975; Original cast: Peter Martins, Suzanne Farrell. Monumentum pro Gesualdo: Music by Igor Stravinsky; Choreography by George Balanchine; Premiere: Nov. 16, 1960; Original cast: Diana Adams, Conrad Ludlow. Movements for Piano and Orchestra: Music by Igor Stravinsky; Choreography by George Balanchine; Premiere: April 9, 1963; Original cast: Suzanne Farrell, Jacques d’Amboise. Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux./ Music by Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky; Choreography by George Balanchine; Premiere: March 29, 1960; Original cast: Violette Verdy, Conrad Ludlow. The Magic Flute. Music by Riccardo Drigo; Choregoraphy by Peter Martins; Premiere: Jan. 21, 1982; Original cast: Darci Kistler, Jock Soto.

Performances of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet begin Nov. 26 and run through Jan. 2, at the Davis H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, followed by a full repertory season from Jan. 18 through Feb. 27. For tickets and information, go to

Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s new novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this month. She has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 (

Friday, October 15, 2010

Apun my word. . . .

Some puns from my friend Emil Dansker in Cincinnati:

Those who jump off a bridge in Paris are in Seine.

A man's home is his castle, in a manor of speaking.

Practice safe eating—always use condiments.

Shotgun wedding—a case of wife or death.

A man needs a mistress just to break the monogamy.

A hangover is the wrath of grapes.

Reading while sunbathing makes you well red.

When two egotists meet, it's an I for an I.

A bicycle can't stand on its own because it's two tired.

What's the definition of a will? (It's a dead give away).

She was engaged to a boyfriend with a wooden leg but broke it off.

If you don't pay your exorcist, you get repossessed.

The man who fell into an upholstery machine is fully recovered.

A lot of money is tainted—taint yours and taint mine.

He had a photographic memory that was never developed.

Once you've seen one shopping center, you've seen a mall.

Bakers trade bread recipes on a knead-to-know basis.

Santa's helpers are subordinate clauses.

Acupuncture is a jab well done.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Affirming the dignity, equality and inclusion of all people

October 8, 2010

Dear Sisters and Brothers in the Diocese of New York

No doubt you are aware of the recent widely reported incidences of bullying and invasion of privacy that resulted in the suicides of five young people in California, Indiana, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Texas. The tragic story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge last week, may have struck closest to home. But each of these deaths strikes at the body of Christ, and calls us as Christ's disciples to answer cruelty and intolerance with loving compassion.

The Episcopal Church has long affirmed the dignity, equality and inclusion of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. That these latest deaths should occur so near to the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's murder in Wyoming 12 years ago (Oct. 12, 1998) reminds us that there is much work yet to do to instill these values in the communities we serve.

Last month, New York Gov. David Paterson signed the Dignity for All Students Act, which bans harassment and discrimination against students based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, race, religion, disability and other characteristics, and requires the state's school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies.

I urge all institutions to be responsive to calls for help and relief by any and all who are threatened and treated with contempt.

Our faith communities must also do our part to uphold our young people, particularly those most vulnerable to intimidation and threats of violence in their schools and neighborhoods. We can begin by condemning the attitudes of intolerance and acts of aggression that deliver too many youth into despair.

I urge you to remember lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth in your prayers. May Christ comfort and heal the hearts of those most affected by these recent tragedies. And may their memories inspire us to more vocal expressions of justice, compassion and love.

Faithfully yours,

The Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk
Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"When you come to the edge of all the light you know and are about to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things will happen: There will be solid ground to stand on or you will be taught to fly."

Monday, October 11, 2010

If I Forget

"If I forget, yet God remembers! If these hands of mine cease their clinging, yet the hands divine hold me so firmly that I cannot fall. And if sometimes I am too tired to call for God to help me, then God reads the prayer unspoken in my heart, and lifts my care."
-- Robert Browning

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Performing New Lives

Brent Buell sent me an e-mail recently to tell me that a chapter of his is included in a new book about prison theater: Performing New Lives by Jonathan Shailor, published by the Jessica Kingsley Press in England. 
The book tells about 14 prison theater programs across the country, and it is a powerful, heart-touching read.   Brent is included with dedicated professionals from other programs across the country who volunteer their time and knowledge because they care about incarcerated people. 
Brent’s chapter, "Drama in the Big House," chronicles the 10 years he volunteered with Rehabilitation Through the Arts at Sing Sing, teaching acting and directing shows--a process that in its pure form changes lives. 

Congratulations to him for this, as well as the honor of having the editors selected one of his photographs from his play Breakin' the Mummy's Code as the cover of the book.

Some background about this talented and giving man: Brent’s direction has been described as both startling and visionary.  His directorial work includes From Sing Sing to Broadway, which premiered at Playwright’s Horizon on 42nd Street. Goddess Films tapped him to direct “Moses,” a short comedy written by and starring Rosie DeSanctis premiering later this fall. 

For the last 10 years, Brent has volunteered with Rehabilitation Through the Arts, directing theater in New York’s maximum-security prisons. There his productions of plays like John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men have earned praise from critics, including from The New York Times.  His Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code, premiered at Sing Sing and was the subject of a feature article in Esquire by best-selling author, John Richardson. 

As an actor, Brent has appeared in classic roles from Shakespeare and Ibsen to Moliere and Strindberg, and on the big screen in both the hit comedy "Grand Opening" and the soon to be released controversial thriller "Al Qarem."  He also has formed his own production company, Doing Life Productions, and is currently directing and co-producing the New York production of Iyaba Ibo Mandingo’s Self Portrait with Tony Award-winning executive producer, Jane Dubin. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010


1. Chicago Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson on being a role model:
"I wan' all dem kids to do what I do, to look up to me. I wan' all the kids to copulate me."

2. New Orleans Saint RB George Rogers when asked about the upcoming season:
"I want to rush for 1,000 or 1,500 yards, whichever comes first."

3. And, upon hearing Joe Jacobi of the 'Skin's say:
"I'd run over my own mother to win the Super Bowl,"
Matt Millen of the Raiders said: "To win, I'd run over Joe's Mom, too."

4. Torrin Polk, University of Houston receiver, on his coach, John Jenkins:
"He treats us like men. He lets us wear earrings.."

5. Football commentator and former player Joe Theismann:
"Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein."

6. Senior basketball player at the University of Pittsburgh :
"I'm going to graduate on time, no matter how long it takes."
(Now that is beautiful)

7. Bill Peterson, a Florida State football coach:
"You guys line up alphabetically by height.."
And, "You guys pair up in groups of three, and then line up in a circle."

8. Boxing promoter Dan Duva on Mike Tyson (in photo) going to prison:
"Why would anyone expect him to come out smarter? He went to prison for three years, not Princeton ."

9. Stu Grimson, Chicago Blackhawks left wing, explaining why he keeps a color photo of himself above his locker:
"That's so when I forget how to spell my name, I can still find my clothes."

10. Lou Duva, veteran boxing trainer, on the Spartan training regimen of heavyweight Andrew Golota:
"He's a guy who gets up at six o'clock in the morning, regardless of what time it is."

11. Chuck Nevitt , North Carolina State basketball player, explaining to Coach Jim Valvano why he appeared nervous at practice:
"My sister's expecting a baby, and I don't know if I'm going to be an uncle or an aunt."
(I wonder if his IQ ever hit room temperature in January)

12. Frank Layden , Utah Jazz president, on a former player:
"I asked him, 'Son, what is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?'
He said, 'Coach, I don't know and I don't care.'"

13. Shelby Metcalf, basketball coach at Texas A&M, recounting what he told a player who received four F's and one D:
"Son, looks to me like you're spending too much time on one subject."

14. In the words of NC State great Charles Shackelford:
“I can go to my left or right, I am amphibious.”

15. Amarillo High School and Oiler coach Bum Phillips when asked by Bob Costas why he takes his wife on all the road trips,
Phillips responded: "Because she is too ugly to kiss good-bye."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

In Transit

I walked home with a happy heart after seeing Primary Stages’s new a cappella musical In Transit, which opened last night in its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters. This upbeat portrayal of life in New York is loads of fun, plus it packs an important message that we all need reminding of from time to time.

The show features seven actors in a variety of roles, riding the subway and singing about the joys and frustrations of life in the Big Apple. Director Joe Calarco keeps things hopping and music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell has done a superb job of harmonizing the talented cast -- Steve French as Bass, Celisse Henderson as Alto/Regina, Hannah Laird as Soprano/Ali, Chesney Snow as Boxman, Graham Stevens as Baritone/Nate, Denise Summerford as Mezzo/Jane and Tommar Wilson as Tenor/Trent.

The songs (book, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth) tell familiar stories: in “No Dental” an aspiring actress sings about the frustrations of her day job as she auditions repeatedly, continuing to hope for her moment in the spotlight; “Four Days Home” is about a gay man’s difficulty visiting his small hometown in Texas where he has to stay closeted, and his longing to get back to New York.

The stories are framed by the opening number, “Not There Yet,” about all the various agonies straphangers endure trying to get to their destinations, and the closing number, “Getting There,” which offers the message that getting somewhere is just as important as being there. The Boxman, who raps in the subway station and acts as a connector for the other characters, makes the musical point that since most workers spend about two hours a day commuting, it’s better to be in the moment of that time instead of looking at a watch or cursing the train delays. He helps the others appreciate the journeys of their lives and all are transformed in the Finale.

Anna Louizos’s set and Jeff Croiter’s lights do a good job of evoking the look and feel of the subway stations and trains.

Thanks to all involved for taking us on a 90-minute pleasure ride. As my friend Trixy said: “I really enjoyed the show.  It was fresh and fun and very NYC.  Nice to see something that is not sitcom.”

In Transit continues at 59E59 Theaters through Oct. 30. Tickets are available by calling (212) 279-4200 or at the box office, 59 E. 59th St. For more information, visit

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and the Biggest Flop of the Season - 1959 to 2009

Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and the Biggest Flop of the Season - 1959 to 2009 by Peter Filichia is now available. 

It happens every season. Broadway has one, two, or if really lucky a few hit musicals, but there are many, many more flops.  From torturous Philadelphia and disaster Boston tryouts, and to Broadway with award winning composers, bookwriters, lyricists, producers and stars; here's a look at the extreme cases from each season of the past half-century.  100 Shows: The musicals that everyone knew would be hits - The Sound of Music, The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers. Those that sounded terrible from their announcement - Via Galactica, The Civil War, Lestat (and sometimes even worse than expected). The musicals that were destined to succeed - Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Merrily We Roll Along. The shows that there was not much awareness or thought didn't have a chance - Man of La Mancha, 1776, Grease. 

Peter Filichia is a New York-based theater critic for The Star Ledger newspaper in Newark, New Jersey and for television station News 12 New Jersey.  He also writes a regular column three times a week, "Peter Filichia's Diary," for the website Weekly, he writes a column on original cast recordings for Masterworks Broadway.  Filichia is the author of the book Let's Put on a Musical: How to Choose the Right Show for Your School, Community or Professional Theater, currently available through Back Stage Books. He wrote the weekly column entitled "Stagestruck" for Theater Week magazine during its nine-year run and for three years for Playbill On-Line. Then he wrote a daily column, "Theatergoer's Diary," for and

Monday, October 4, 2010

Where the Wind Comes Sweeping Down the Plain: Autumn in New York Now Features The New York City Ballet


After NYCB shuts down and leaves the city in June, drought used to set in until after The Nutcracker had ended its run in January for ballet fans. No more. NYCB instituted a welcome mini-season this autumn. I went with a friend on Sept. 28, and here’s a rundown of the program.

Estancia. I was visiting Yosemite when this piece by Christopher Wheeldon premiered last spring, but I did read the reviews and wondered how awful was this piece going to be when I eventually got around to seeing it. Well, guess what, I liked it, as did the friend who was with me. I’m not going to say it’s a masterpiece, but it is well done. I’m also not going to say there’s a great story here, but it’s definitely something different for NYCB. It’s an old fashioned tale, almost hackneyed (you might have seen this as an episode on "The Big Valley" or "Bonanza" and it could have passed as a country cousin of Oklahoma without Poor Jud), but even so, it is interesting. (I never saw Barbara Stanwyck whirl around the ranch on pointe.) It also works with the gorgeous scenery that was not the dark dark angsty stuff NYCB’s new pieces surrounded themselves with last season. It had a place and a time and took a certain pleasure in its simplicity. I’m sure somebody minded the dancers being horses; my thought was, why not? (Don’t choreographers refer to their dancers as horses sometime? It was fun, like play.) My real only quibble is that the easygoing singer, Thomas Meglioranza, appeared in the beginning and the middle; given the cyclical nature of the piece timewise, it would have seemed fitting for the him to have sung something at the end. Tiler Peck was the energetic country girl, Tyler Angle the greenhorn, and Andrew Veyette had the fun of being the Wild Horse. It’s not Swan Lake, although the explanation in the program was a little pretentious (the company’s program notes are all kind of getting that way. I think they’re trying to impress us. I remember with nostalgia Lincoln Kirstein’s abrupt, six syllable notes). Just relax and enjoy it, people!

Danses Concertantes. This was made for the ballet event I wish I’d gone to: the Stravinsky Festival in June 1972. At the time, George Balanchine said, “I wanted, with the new dancers I was working with, to do something different…Writers think with words; I think with bodies, and the ballets I work on necessarily have a great deal to do with the here and now.” Balanchine had previously set Danses Concertantes in 1941 for the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo at City Center. It’s a colorful, witty production, with lots of dancers, featuring Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar as the golden couple. The whimsical setting suggests a happy Orpheus and a prominent lyre, the company’s symbol. I think I even saw a bit of shuffling tap in there, but it’s all ballet. How’d he do that?

Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette skipped going fully bravado to take some time to enjoy themselves in this delightful miniature that Balanchine set in 1960. They seemed overcautious to me (not that I blame them!). I remember gasping throughout when watching this; this left me all smiles, but with most of my oxygen.

Barber Violin Concerto. This is one of Peter Martins’ most exquisite ballets, done in 1988, back in the day. I haven’t seen this in years, but as soon as the music started (the violinist was the superb Arturo Delmoni) I remembered it almost “verbatim,” so I must have seen a lot of it, back in the day. It is a romantic, witty, gorgeous piece to watch and to listen to. It’s almost sad to see because there is a beauty of dancing relationships in the piece that one sees rarely in Martins’ later works (those seem to pull back from the audience and put up a wall). I could recognize some signature moves from Balanchine pieces, such as Chaconne, but they flew into different directions. Barber Violin Concerto is tempestuous, goes like the wind, and yet it can be reflective as well, while happy in its dancing, and the dancers (Megan Fairchild, Jared Angle, Sara Mearns, and Charles Askegard) were all wonderful. Even its predictable mix of classical and modern styles didn’t make me groan because the approach was still so fresh. I hope they keep this one around.

By the way, at this performance, not one dancer came out to speak to us. That’s the latest thing at NYCB, you know, dancers coming out and talking before the performance. Sometimes you learn things such as that the lead dancers are engaged, which really brings you into the piece, I guess. I don’t know if they’ve already decided against the practice or if they just are running out of dancers willing to face the public and not dance. I was outside the NYCB theater (I refuse to say its new name) at the end of a performance last Sunday, and I heard a few not very kind remarks about whomever the speaker was at that matinee (and they couldn’t hear him in the fourth ring). It seems a little silly since these practices are marketing ploys that both distract from the performance and, if they are aimed at bringing people into the theater, um, the audience is already there.

I have to say that every time I have heard NYCB dancers speak, they have been articulate and charming – and there’s been none of the hems and haws and ums and “likes” and “you knows.” (When I was handing people my manuscript of my book to read, they said that dancers wouldn’t sound so intelligent, but I disagree.) Still, I’m not sure the practice is all that useful on a daily basis, but, que sera sera. Just don’t forget the dancing part.

Estancia: Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon; Music by Albert Ginastera. Libretto and Synopsis by Valeria Luisilli after Albert Ginastera; Premiere: May 29, 2010. Danses Concertantes: Choreography by George Balanchine; Music: Danses Concertantes for Chamber Orchestra (1941-1942) by Igor Stravinsky; Premiere: September 10, 1972, Stravinsky Festival, New York State Theater. Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux: Choreography by George Balanchine; Music: Excerpt from Swan Lake, Op. 20, Act III (1877) by Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky; Premiere: March 29, 1960, New York City Ballet, City Center of Music and Dance. Barber Violin Concerto: Choreography by Peter Martins; Music: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 (1941) by Samuel Barber; Premiere: May 12, 1988, New York City Ballet, American Music Festival, New York State Theater.

New York City Ballet performances run through Oct. 10 at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. Performances of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker begin Nov. 26 and run through Jan. 2, followed by a full repertory season from Jan. 18 through Feb. 27. For tickets and information, go to

Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 ( Her next novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this month. She has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory.

The Pitmen Painters

In The Pitmen Painters, Tony Award winner Lee Hall once again gives us a moving and involving look into the world of miners in the northeast of England, this time basing his play on laborers who became celebrated artists in the 1930s and '40s. Hall had previously brought this profession and its people to stage life as the book writer and lyricist for Billy Elliot: The Musical.

Pitmen, which takes place in Ashington, Northumberland, Newcastle Upon Tyne, London and Edinburgh between 1934 and 1947, offers a great deal of humor in the first act as the men discover art for the first time -- not one had ever even seen a painting and a couple stopped school at 10 or 11 when they started in the mines. Wanting to know “the facts” about art, they’ve hired art historian Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly, far right in photo) to give them an art appreciation course in the evening, but quickly become irritated by his repeatedly asking them how they “feel” about the slides he shows in the first class. They say they don’t feel a thing and only want to know what the paintings mean.

“Art isn’t about answers,” Lyon tries to make them understand. “It’s about asking questions.”

Realizing their background is keeping them from getting what he wants to convey, he tosses aside theory in favor of having them paint their own works based on a given subject. At first they are reluctant, but one by one take a chance and quickly become engaged in the creative process, even journeying together to London for the first time to visit museums. Soon art is the main focus of their lives outside the mines.

Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel, far left in photo), the first to experience the transforming power of art, shows the most promise, but ultimately he is unable or unwilling to leave his old life. When he is offered a stipend to paint full time by a rich art patron (Phillippa Wilson) he at first considers accepting the position but ultimately can’t take the risk and decides to continue laboring with his fellow miners underground.

The least promising -- and funniest -- is Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker, (second from left), a droll little man on whom the beauty of art is lost. The other students are George Brown (Deka Walmsley, center), Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson, second from right) and Ben Nicholson (Brian Lonsdale). The cast also includes Lisa McGrillis as an art student who poses nude for the miners, much to their excitement and/or embarrassment.

The second act is more serious and at times too wordy with its political pronouncements. The play, which runs two hours and 25 minutes, could be tightened here.

Although the real life men achieved recognition in the art world within a few years, becoming friends with avant-garde artists and selling their work for inclusion in prestigious collections, they continued to work nine hours a day hauling coal out of the mines just as they always had, painting when they could in the evening.

This production at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is the American premiere. First staged in 2007 at Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne, it features the original U.K. cast, all of whom are excellent. Max Roberts once again directs. The production features simple, atmospheric scenic and costume design by Gary McCann and lighting by Douglas Kuhrt.

Hall, who won the Best Book Tony Award for Billy Elliot The Musical, which is based on his screenplay, drew inspiration from a book by William Feaver that told the story of the Ashington Group, miners from Northumberland who became celebrated artists. He condensed the 30-member group into the five men in the play.

"It's a piece of lost social history," Hall told, talking about finding Feaver's book in a bookstore. "It was about this group of miners where I'm from in the Northeast of England, who became really accomplished and famous painters of their day. I got in a cab, and I started reading this thing, and, before I finished the first chapter, I rang [director] Max [Roberts], who is a long-term collaborator. I owed him a play, and I said, 'I’m going to cancel the play I was going to write for you because I found this fantastic story.'"

It is a fantastic story, and it’s engagingly told. A touching element is the projection of actual pitmen paintings. It’s heartening to think those uneducated working-class men are being celebrated once again, this time on a Broadway stage. And their work is now permanently housed in a museum created for it in Newcastle.

Roberts told, "I'd actually been to the museum where some of the paintings were being displayed in the Northeast of England. You know, you often buy a book when you go to an exhibition, and you look at the pictures, and you don't quite read it, and then you just put it on your shelf, so when [Lee Hall] rang me from the cab, [I said,] 'Oh, yeah. I've got that. I've seen the paintings.' And I actually pulled it off the shelf, and I read it straightaway and shared Lee's passion that this could indeed be a play."

This is one I definitely encourage you to see. Tickets may be purchased through, by calling (212) 239-6200 or at the box office, 261 W. 47th St.  For more information, visit

Happy World Animal Day

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
-- St. Francis

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Brief Encounter

The special effects are amazing in Brief Encounter, so much so that they overwhelm Noël Coward's story about two married people who meet by chance in a train station tea room in 1940s England, fall in love and part nobly at the end.

Director Emma Rice has a real three ring circus going one in this 90-minute show. I was most fascinated by the black and white film projections into which the stage characters step and become part of that world. I loved the Coward songs ("Mad About the Boy," "A Room With a View," "Go Slow, Johnny," "Any Little Fish"), which secondary characters move away from the action to sing, at times in the aisles. Unfortunately, they also perform a lot of silly comic routines that get tedious. In the midst of all this the romance takes on what seems like a minor character role. It was hard to feel emotionally connected to the lovers, Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock, with all those distractions. (The script is an adaptation of Coward's screenplay (for the 1945 movie by the same name) and his one-act play Still Life.)

My friend Mary shared this reaction, but we are probably in the minority. Earlier productions -- this is the Broadway premiere -- have been hits with critics and the public. It originated in England, then moved to St. Ann's Warehouse last season before touring the United States. Even my cynical friend Carolyn loved it when she saw it in Brooklyn, and Carolyn rarely likes anything. I wish I could have shared the enthusiasm. I had expected to, especially after reading all the buzz on Facebook. I wanted to care more about Laura and Alec, but they were overshadowed.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Brief Encounter continues at Studio 54 through Dec. 5. Tickets are available at (212) 719-1300, online at or at the box office, 254 W. 54th St.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Liberals leaving the U.S.

The Manitoba Herald, Canada, as  reported by Clive Runnels, Aug. 6, 2010

The flood of American liberals sneaking across the border into Canada has intensified in the past week, sparking calls for increased patrols to stop  the illegal immigration. The recent actions of the Tea Party are prompting an exodus among left-leaning citizens who fear they'll soon be required to  hunt, pray, and to agree with Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck.

Canadian  border farmers say it's not uncommon to see dozens of sociology professors, animal-rights activists and Unitarians crossing their fields at night.

"I  went out to milk the cows the other day, and there was a Hollywood producer huddled in the barn,"  said Manitoba farmer Red Greenfield, whose acreage borders North Dakota. "The producer was  cold, exhausted and hungry. He asked me if I could spare a latte and  some free-range chicken. When I said I didn't have any, he left before I  even got a chance to show him my screenplay, eh?"
In an effort to stop the illegal aliens, Greenfield erected higher fences, but the liberals scaled them. He then installed loudspeakers that blared Rush Limbaugh across the fields.

"Not real effective," he said. "The liberals  still got through and Rush annoyed the cows so much that they wouldn't give  any milk."
Canadian hunters are afraid the animal activists may  encounter bears in Canada.

"These people just don't have the normal fear of  bears that Canadians do," said one hunter. "They see them as spokesmen for  responsible campfires, the bears see them as meat."

Officials are  particularly concerned about smugglers who meet liberals near the Canadian  border, pack them into Volvo station wagons and drive them across the  border where they are simply left to fend for themselves.

"A lot of these people are not prepared for our rugged conditions," an Ontario border patrolman said. "I found one  carload without a single bottle of imported drinking water. They did have a nice little Napa Valley Cabernet, though."

When liberals are caught, they're sent back across the border, often wailing loudly that they fear retribution from conservatives. Rumors have been circulating about plans being made to build re-education camps where liberals will be forced to drink domestic beer and watch NASCAR races.

In recent days, liberals  have turned to ingenious ways of crossing the border. Some have been  disguised as senior citizens taking a bus trip to buy cheap Canadian  prescription drugs. After catching a half-dozen young vegans in powdered wig disguises, Canadian immigration authorities began stopping buses and quizzing the supposed senior citizens about Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney to prove that they were alive in the '50s.

"If they can't identify the accordion player on “The Lawrence Welk Show,” we become very suspicious about their age," an  official said.

Canadian citizens have complained that the illegal  immigrants are creating an organic-broccoli shortage and are renting all the Michael Moore movies.

"I really feel sorry for  American liberals, but the Canadian economy just can't support them,"  an Ottawa resident said. "How many  art-history majors does one country need?"