Monday, December 29, 2014

Beware of Young Girls: Kate Dimbleby Sings the Dory Previn Story

Beware of Young Girls sounds as if it might be a sinister show, but don’t let the title fool you. The subtitle, Kate Dimbleby Sings the Dory Previn Story, lets you know you’re in for a biographical performance, one that just happens to be an engaging 80-minute, two-act journey into the life of a woman who triumphed over mental illness and being dumped by her famous husband for a younger woman, creating a successful career for herself as a songwriter and singer in the 1970s. You will find yourself liking Dory Previn and cheering her on as Dimbleby brings her to life onstage at 59E59 Theaters.

Dimbleby, who created the show with writer Amy Rosenthal, is a marvelous storyteller with a golden voice. A British singer, she had never heard of Dory Previn until several years ago when she discovered “Lady with the Braid” and was so taken with it she included it in a cabaret show, “I’m a Woman,” celebrating women singers. Her UK audiences loved it so much that Dimbleby and her pianist, Naadia Sheriff, began researching the woman who penned it and discovered a wealth of wonderful songs.

She also found a fascinating story of the woman who wrote those songs, a woman who battled schizophrenia and was severely jolted when a certain predatory young girl named Mia Farrow made a play for her husband and won him.

Directed by Cal McCrystal (One Man, Two Guvnors on Broadway), the show also features Sheriff as accompanist on piano, as harmony vocalist and occasional storyteller. Sheriff has a gorgeous voice and playful personality and she and Dimbleby work perfectly together. Excerpts from Dory Previn’s autobiographies, Midnight Baby and Bog Trotter, are included in the show, which has been performed in England and is making its United States premiere at 59E59. A CD by the same name was released in 2012.

At the start of the show, Dimbleby asked how many people knew Dory Previn’s work. Fewer than half the audience members raised their hands. I was not one of them. While we might not have known her name, plenty of the top singers of yesteryear did. Stars such as Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day included Previn’s songs in their repertoire.

 She also recorded her songs, with “Mythical Kings and Iguanas” being her most successful album. That title song is the first of more than 15 Dimbleby sings in the show. The song I was most familiar with, and have always loved, was “Valley of the Dolls,” which she wrote with Andre for the movie, and was a hit for Dionne Warwick.

As Dory, Dimbleby tells the up side of fame for the former Dorothy Langan, who was born in October 1925 to rigidly religious Irish Catholic parents. It was while under contract to MGM that she was assigned to collaborate with a young pianist/composer named Andre Previn.

In creative partnership with Andre, she began to find the success that had eluded her alone. Before they wed, she made a vague reference to having had a nervous breakdown, but when Andre seemed uninterested in the details, she said no more.

“Marriage to a well-known composer would open the high world to me. The tap dancer from New Jersey still had problems getting off the ground. But a peasant wife is able to squat in the shadow of her glorious lord. He spoke three languages. It was thrilling to be distantly related to those beautiful creatures who fly.”

 The couple became an established writing team, receiving several Oscar nominations. But their public and private lives were at odds, with “more crises euphemistically referred to as breakdowns.” Eventually, Dory’s illness was given a name — schizophrenia.

This experience with mental illness became the creative inspiration that propelled Andre and Dory’s writing of the soundtrack for “Valley of the Dolls.”

“Andre wrote a circular melody with a broken-up feeling that mirrors the artificially tranquilized state of mind,” Dimbleby tells us. “Dory complemented it with lyrics. Both gained wisdom through Dory’s illness and addiction to pills, but neither ever mentioned it.”

Dimbleby then sang the title song, conveying all the pain and emotion of the story behind it. The song brought Dory and Andre their dreamed-of million seller, but it was the last song they would write together. A certain young girl saw to that.

Enter Mia Farrow.

“She had come all the way across Hope and Alan Pakula’s patio just to meet us,” Dimbleby as Dory says. “The natural surroundings conspired to enhance the luminous youth. Her delicate hands clung to a square of tapestry. The skin was translucent, as though she were still wrapped in the gauze of her placenta. The voice had been gently buffed by good schools and privilege. She would never need to raise her tone to get something she wanted. She came of a film director father and a movie star mother. No pig-in-the-parlour, she. This was lace-curtain Hollywood. She was second generation MGM. And the newly famed waif wanted to be our friend.”

Of course, she went on the be more than friend to Andre. She became his wife, after becoming pregnant. Andre wrote to Dory asking for a divorce, but expressing his interest in continuing their writing collaboration. She said yes to the divorce but no to the creative partnership.

In what could be a Hollywood ending, she went on to have a successful career on her own and to find love. A friend of Andre’s whom she bumped into in a restaurant many years after her divorce introduced her to the man he was meeting, an artist and one-time Hollywood heartthrob called Joby Baker. The two married in 1984 and lived happily on a farm in New York’s Hudson Valley where she wrote the last volume of her autobiography and he illustrated it. She died on Valentine’s Day nearly three years ago and Baker continued to live at the farm.

I love stories of hardship overcome, triumphant women and happy endings. Beware of Young Girls has all of those. It continues at 59E59 Theaters through Sunday, Jan. 4.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Cafe Society Swing

Cafe Society Swing is a strange show, perfect musically from every singer and musician, but confused in its efforts to place their songs within the context of a story. I felt I was watching a split screen onstage at 59E59 Theaters, with powerhouse entertainers on the left and personified program notes playing out on the right.

Written by Alex Webb and directed by Simon Green, the two-hour show attempts to bring to life Cafe Society, the legendary jazz club that launched the careers of Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Big Joe Turner, Count Basie, Zero Mostel, Sid Caesar and Carol Channing. As the first racially integrated club in New York City (and possibly the United States), it was considered "the wrong place for the right people.” It couldn’t, however, survive the Red Scare of the late 1940s.

All of this would have made Cafe Society Swing a good play, but it’s not a play. It’s a revue, with the club’s history told through narration by Evan Pappas stationed on the right. In the first act he is a reporter investigating the suspected Communist ties of Barney Josephson, the venue’s owner who once described his goal as creating “a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.”

Woven between his accounts, the show’s marvelous singers, Cyrille Aimée (in photo), Allan Harris, Charenee Wade and Pappas, sing the hits made famous by Horne and the like. It’s Dec. 15, 1948, the nightspot’s 10th birthday, and the reporter’s editor wants an attack story, but the more the reporter investigates, the more he is charmed by the club.

When Pappas reappears in the second act dressed as a bartender and working at the club, I laughed because I figured he had lost his reporting job. It took a few minutes for me to realize he was supposed to be a different person. That was a large part of the problem — he wasn’t developed enough to be a character in a play, because this isn’t a play, it’s a revue. To me he was more of a distraction, a narrator giving facts that I would have been much happier to have read in the program. I wanted to get back to the songs, which are wonderfully brought to life by the singers and the eight-piece jazz ensemble onstage.

Even without the singers I could have been happy with just the band — Joe Boga (trumpet), singer Harris doubling on guitar, Mimi Jones (bass), Lucianna Padmore (drums) Camille Thurman (tenor sax), Bill Todd (alto sax and clarinet), writer and musical director Webb on piano and Brent White (trombone).

Many of the songs are well-known, such as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “All of Me,” “Stormy Weather,” “Where or When” and “Lush Life.” Others, like “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’” and “Red Scare,” point to the club’s political slant. I thought of my mother when Aimée sang “Hurry On Down” as Nellie Lutcher. My mother loved Lutcher’s “Fine Brown Frame” and used to put nickel after nickel in jukeboxes to hear it back in her youth. Lutcher’s name hasn’t survived as well as that of Holiday, Vaughan and Horne, so it was nice to have her included. My mother would have been happy!

One of the notable songs, “Strange Fruit,” about lynched black men hanging from trees in the South and made famous by Holiday, was first sung at Cafe Society. Oddly, this song closes the show. While it is powerfully sung by Wade, it is a real downer for sending an audience out of the theatre after a musical afternoon. When Wade finished and the cast came back on stage, I expected an encore of something more upbeat, but no, they took their curtain calls and that was it.

Was this meant to be some kind of statement about the current day killings of black men by white police officers? If so, it is out of place, tacked on like that at the end. I was talking with a fellow critic at the E Bar after the show and he also questioned this ending.

The director, British singer Simon Green, is known to me for his cabaret shows at 59E59, with just himself and an accompanist. These engagements have charmed me over holiday seasons past with his lively themes — “Coward at Christmas,” “Traveling Light” and “So, This Then is Life,” each smoothly integrating songs with his recitals of writers on the subjects. That integration is missing in his directing efforts of Cafe Society Swing, which continues through Jan. 4 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues).

Ease up on the narration and let the music carry the show, which it easily can. Then Cafe Society will really swing again.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Truer gifts

The whole world (it seems)
is soaring into Christmas
meeting the cold with such proper spirit
hanging up pines with bulbs and best wishes,
meaningless to minds set in tradition
and premature weariness for celebrating routine.
(I never understood it either):

Being fond of dolls then
I got a new one every year
packaged in paper and parent-love.
I ripped away wrappings
and months of anticipation
to touch my own just born babies,
more real than any mangered child
mysteriously coming in the very olden days.
 They cried faucet water tears
(not salty but still strong)
I laughed at their damp faces
 No one ever told me that santa made money
by stuffing himself in a red rented suit
or that the cookies I left hot for him
were munched by the dog
as I buried my head in a pillow
white with dreams.

It alway ended too soon:
hopes flickered away as colored lights blinked
into black
brittle needles left trails behind the retreating tree
and the nativity surrendered the TV top to magazines.
Songs fled the streets and people forgot to smile
snow melted
and dolls lay broken on a closet shelf.

I shall make no neat list this year
(carefully itemized from Sears' catalog);
needing nothing in the way of plastic infants
I ask for truer gifts:
that I might glow sharper than any tinseled star
showing God's good love to every innkeeper
and all astonished shepherds.

 -- Lisa Leafstrand

Sunday, November 30, 2014

O Come, O Come

A lovely
the ground and
bare branches
with a clean white mantle.
A kind of simple purity,
not of human making.
to adorn
a sullied world.

There is a stillness to it,
a kind of holy breathing,
calm and rhythmic.
A soft sleep
before the world awakens
to rush off
to whatever waits
to claim the day.


for the unexpected

How do you prepare
for the unexpected?
By planning,
Or by
forsaking illusions of control,
and breathing,
like a peaceful night
for a new snow,

a mantle,
pure and simple,
not of human making.

-- Author unknown to me

Thursday, October 9, 2014

After a 17-year journey, Amazing Grace begins previews in Chicago

I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I hope to be. But by the grace of God, I am certainly not what I was.”  — John Newton     

     Christopher Smith had never heard of John Newton when, with a little time to spare and in search of some air conditioning, he casually browsed through the children’s section of a library in Fort Washington, PA, looking for inspiration for his church youth groups.

   The police officer and religious education director had no idea that chance experience of “literally just killing time” would be his life-changing moment, one that would lead him from small town life in Bucks County, PA, to The Great While Way.  As it turned out, he was the one who was inspired.  

     Reading through a book about Newton, Smith was fascinated by the story of the British slave trader, the shipwreck, his enslavement, then his religious conversion and new life as an Anglican cleric and outspoken abolitionist.  Smith was so captivated by the story that he had skipped the Forward and hadn’t realized the man he was reading about had penned one of the world’s most beloved hymns, “Amazing Grace.” It was then that Smith felt the beginning of his own conversion experience.

     Although he didn’t have a theatrical background, unless you count the one semester in college when he was a theatre major before switching to history, and despite the fact that he can’t read a single note of music — he had taught himself to play guitar — he felt called to dramatize Newton’s life.

     “‘I thought, ‘This is epic.  Why haven’t I heard of this guy?’” 

     He sought help from his uncle, an attorney specializing in copyright law, to see if anything had been done. This was before the 2006 movie “Amazing Grace.”  Smith learned that in the 230 years since Newton’s death, no one had dramatized his life.

     “I thought, ‘I’ll give it a try.’ I’m always telling the kids ‘don’t limit yourself.  Don’t put yourself in a box and say, ‘this is what I am.’ You’ve got to transcend.’  I’ve got this in my lap.  I thought, ‘I’ve got to take my own medicine.’”  

     That was in 1997.  Next month Amazing Grace will open in a world-premiere run at the 1,800-seat Bank of America Theatre in Chicago before heading to Broadway next year.  Although the 17 years between that first sense of calling to the actual opening night scheduled for Oct. 19 have been hard at times — writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more, putting together readings, auditioning actors and raising the nearly $15 million needed to mount a show on Broadway — Smith, who admits he is not a patient man, sees now that the timing might be just right.

     “The world seems to be taking a turn to the dark end,” he said, adding that the 1700s of Newton’s day were also filled with violence and cruelty.  “There’s bad news all over the world, not just in one place.  Things seem to be spinning out of control. I’m hoping that all the delays that brought Amazing Grace to this point make it shine brighter at a time when people need to be challenged and empowered and uplifted.”

     Smith, who is married and the father of three, is 45 but could pass for 20 years younger.  He shares his story during a lunch break at the New 42nd Street Studios where Amazing Grace is in rehearsal before heading to Chicago.  This is a rarefied world where those making their living through the Broadway stage spend their days.  Rehearsal rooms with floor to ceiling windows overlook 42nd Street, freight-sized elevators ferry loads of chorus girls and boys up and down, and stars roam the halls freely. This week Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, two of Broadway’s hottest headliners, are rehearsing for their next musical.  Bucks County seems far away.

     But Smith is quick to say that without the support he received from Bucks County, he wouldn’t be sitting here.  Back when a musicalization of Newton’s life was still just an idea Smith was toying with, he mentioned it to Rich Timmons, a member of his church to whom he was giving guitar lessons. Timmons, who owned a marketing firm in town, immediately saw potential in telling a story that had gone untold, at least dramatically, for more than 200 years.  “Amazing Grace” also happened to be his favorite song.

     “He said, ‘If you put it in a form I can use, I will take it to every business owner in town’ and he did,” Smith said.

     Timmons raised a half million dollars in three months, and went on to raise another half.  With that money Smith was able to quit his job and devote full time to writing and fundraising.

     By October 2007 he was ready to gage audience reaction.  For the first public concert/reading, he put together a cast headed by Adam Jacobs as Newton and Ali Ewoldt as his love interest, Mary Catlett. Jacobs and Ewoldt were on Broadway at the time playing Marius and Cosette in the revival of Les Misérables.  They spent Monday, Oct. 15, when their show was dark, at Hilltown Baptist Church in Bucks County rehearsing for that evening’s concert, backed by a 60-member choir of area high school students.

     Smith had hung only two posters, each in an area church, announcing the free concert and “word of mouth just exploded around Bucks County.”  On the night of the event more than 1,200 people showed up, requiring Smith to set up two overflow rooms with speakers and screens.

     At the end of the concert, the actors asked the audience to stand and led them in singing “Amazing Grace.”  It was a powerful experience that left many in tears, but for one woman her tears continued even as she greeted cast members in the receiving line. She told Jacobs she hadn’t known about the concert but had been driving by, saw all the excitement at the church and decided to go in.  She had been told by her doctor that morning that she had cancer and had only three weeks to two months to live.

     “What you have said and done here tonight showed me the things I have to get right in my life and the people I need to get right with,” she told Jacobs, who then began to cry as well.

     Hearing that, Smith realized his play could have an impact in a way he hadn’t considered.

     “People were coming and bringing all their pain and struggles,” he said.  “I thought, ‘I have two and a half hours when our paths will cross.’  I wanted to honor that.  My purpose shifted from just wanting to write a good show to wanting to live up to what we can do in people’s lives.”

     Following the Hilltown success, Smith set his eyes on a commercial run, envisioning his show making the rounds on the Christian circuit in cities like Lancaster, PA, and Branson, MO. But then he hired veteran New York producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland and she determined the show should go to the top.  She raised the rest of the money to fully capitalize the venture.  Now all that stands between opening night on Broadway is having the right size theatre become available.

     Copeland put together an experienced team that includes Gabriel Barre as director and Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli, and brought on Arthur Giron to help shape the show’s book with Smith, who in addition to the book wrote the music and lyrics for the 17 songs, as well as the incidental music.  Three-time Tony winner Eugene Lee creates the sets, which in many cases, such as for the ship and its sinking, will be conceptionalized.  Josh Young plays Newton and Erin Mackey is Catlett, heading a cast of 34.

     Smith developed his script largely from library research because the internet was fairly limited when he started.  While some characters have been consolidated and others invented, the story runs close to Newton’s life and times, he says. Three period consultants have given advice on the manners and gestures of the 1700s, on dialects and provided translation for the African scenes.

     The show “doesn’t pull any punches,” Smith says.  “We’re not afraid to show the depths of the struggle.  We wanted to make sure we never gloss over what slavery was as much as we can onstage.  We couldn’t really portray it because they’d (the audience) be vomiting.”

     But it’s not an “issue musical,” Smith emphasizes.

  “It’s an action/adventure/romance with deep character struggle.  We don’t want to tell the audience what we think they should get out of it.  We want to present the story with honesty and in a forthright way and let the chips fall where they may.”

     The chips have fallen pretty far for Smith.  As the lunch break ends and he heads back into rehearsal, he laughs as he considers the unexpected   — and long — adventure that brought him to that studio.

     “It’s like being on the moon.  I was driving a beat and directing traffic and now I’m walking into the 42nd Street Studios and people know who I am.  It’s surreal.”

(In photo: Fight director David Leong, Christopher Smith, director Gabriel Barre)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.

-- Mary Oliver

Saturday, August 23, 2014

St. Mark at La MaMa, an unlikely combination

I wrote this feature for the Sept. 7, 2014 issue of The Living Church magazine.

 Lights flash in the darkness as a middle-age man in a gray hoodie, jeans torn at the knees and a backpack slung on one shoulder runs into the deserted alley and hides behind a trashcan. When he feels the coast is clear, he walks to the back wall and chalks a fish on the black bricks. Then, with excitement spilling out of him for the good news he wants to share, he throws out his arms and begins to tell the greatest story ever told. 

This street artist is actually actor/director/Jesuit priest George Drance, 51, presenting his latest work, *mark, a performance of St. Mark’s gospel from start to finish at La MaMa, one of New York’s most esteemed Off-Broadway theaters. Although it would seem an unlikely show for the hip Greenwich Village theatre, Drance has received more enthusiastic response for this than from anything else in his fruitful career. Some people have seen it two and three times.

“What they’re saying consistently is it’s like they’re hearing it for the first time,” Drance said. “They’re surprised by the words they thought they knew. Something about the power of a complete narrative allows a connection to be made.”

Sitting on a bench in an outside courtyard on Fordham University’s Manhattan campus, where Drance is an artist-in-residence, he recalled the spark that inspired the 12-performance run this spring. Joanna Dewey of the Episcopal Divinity School was team teaching a course Drance was taking at the Jesuit’s Weston School of Theology in 1993. She stressed that Mark was meant to be recited. The actor in Drance perked up.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be part of that tradition?’”

Contemporary New York is a far different time from when Mark’s gospel was written, an era when followers of “the Way” were brutally prosecuted by Roman Emperor Nero, but Drance thinks the present day has a different need for the message.

“I have to confess a little sadness about how the gospel is made marginalized in contemporary culture. It seems irrelevant to many and at best just quaint.”

A street artist seemed an appropriate representation, Drance says, because they communicate in the same kind of “underground” way in which the gospel was first presented. He wanted to “recapture the danger, yet with hope; the challenge, yet with love.”

A resident artist at La MaMa, Drance had booked space there two years ago to do a show this spring. As the artistic director of Magis Theatre Company, he knew he would have a show ready, just not which one. Magis recently launched the Logos Project, which examines sacred performance in all the world’s traditions, creating seminars, workshops and, with *mark, a first full performance. With La MaMa underwriting most of the major costs and with the support of Magis’s funders, Drance saw the gospel in action.

“The gospel is about community and although it’s a solo show, there’s a huge community behind it.” 

In transforming this gospel — all 13,000+ words of it — as theatre, Drance follows in noble footsteps. The great British actor Alec McCowen won praise around the world for the one-man play he devised, St. Mark’s Gospel, which earned him one of his three Tony Award nominations when he performed it on Broadway.  Drance, who has performed and directed in more than 20 countries on five continents, never saw McCowen’s performance live but has watched some scenes on film.

He began preparing for his version in Advent by listening over and over to Mark’s gospel on an audio file of the New Testament his sister had given him many years ago. Then he began to speak along with the recording before creating his own pastiche of “NASB, NIV, Interlinear and a few other translations that grapple with the Greek.”

In Lent he started working with his director, Luann Purcell Jennings, and on Good Friday went to Union Square Park in Greenwich Village to recite the passion at noon. A few people stayed to listen, others kept their distance but looked on. He opened his 12-show run on Ascension Day.

“The biggest challenge is to get out of the way and trust that the work has already been done and the rest is up to the Spirit.”

Although he met this challenge without a prompter in the wings, he did, in the context of the street artist, have three columns of “hyroglifics” on a side wall with symbols representing the different stories he was recounting. To prepare for each 100-minute performance, he read the text once during the day in the chapel at his West Village residence. When he got to the theatre, he walked through the set and then spent time in quiet and prayer.

He chose to portray the gospel through a street artist because as he thought about the early Christians, the image of their graffiti kept coming up — the crosses and ichthus (fish). He added the six-barred asterisk representing Jesus’s name in Greek, with the I superimposed over the X. The lower case “m” in the title represents Drance’s love of e.e. cummings.

“The asterisk with the ‘mark’ is a play on words. What mark do I leave behind and how am I marked by the gospel story?”

When he first planned to perform the gospel, he hadn’t thought ahead to using music to underscore the action, but when he mentioned his intention to his good friend Elizabeth Swados, an intentionally acclaimed composer and Tony nominee, she said she wanted to write the music. Drance describes her score as having “an ancient soul but with a contemporary voice,” through piano, synthesizer, bass and guitar creating city sounds of cars and machinery using an electronic base, with some light and acoustic variations.

Drance is hoping a producer will take over the show for another run or that he can tour with it. Its message for audiences today is “the ways in which we’re afraid to be light and salt and the ways we’re afraid to tell the good news. This is one way of encouraging people that this is still good news and that there are a million ways of telling it.”

Sunday, August 17, 2014

New York Shakespeare Exchange's Sonnet Project will film The Bard’s love poems on locations throughout the five boroughs

New York Shakespeare Exchange is thrilled to announce its on-going, ambitious Sonnet Project has been selected as the only North American organization to partner with Shakespeare's Globe in London (the company that brought Mark Rylance's Twelfth Night and Richard III to Broadway) on an upcoming digital project. The project, to be announced by Shakespeare's Globe in the coming weeks, will further New York Shakespeare Exchange's mission of providing access to Shakespeare for people around the world.

The Sonnet Project is an ambitious undertaking. After raising $47,000 on Kickstarter in 2012, the company embarked on a mission to film all 154 of Shakespeare's love poems with 154 actors in 154 locations around the five boroughs. This simple premise created a tapestry of cinematic art that infuses the verbal poetry of Shakespeare with the visual poetry of New York City.  

To date, 77 films are available for download online at and via the free Sonnet Project mobile app. Recent films include Sonnet 46 performed by 12-year-old Sydney Lucas (Obie for the Public Theater’s Broadway-bound Fun Home) and Lynn Cohen (“Sex & The City,” “The Hunger Games”) and her husband Ron Cohen in a ravishing interpretation of Sonnet 22. 

"We have already reached over 47,000 views of our films, and the Sonnet Project mobile app has been downloaded in more than 65 countries,” Ross Williams, artistic director of New York Shakespeare Exchange, said. “We are already reaching an incredible global audience. This partnership, with one of the most respected Shakespeare companies in the world, will expand our potential exponentially."

New York Shakespeare Exchange offers innovative theatrical programming that explores what happens when contemporary culture is infused with Shakespearean poetry and themes in unexpected ways. Providing fresh points of entry to the work so that modern audiences will be exposed to the intrinsic power of Shakespeare, their goal is to encourage an enthusiastic appreciation of classical theater and to expand the reach of the art form within new and existing audiences. New York Shakespeare Exchange projects include The Sonnet Project; ShakesBEER, NYC's original Shakespearean pub crawl; as well as contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare's plays.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Karen Akers to headline Broadway Blessing 2014

It won’t be long now until the curtain rises for the 17th annual Broadway Blessing on Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. at The Church of the Transfiguration, commonly known as The Little Church Around the Corner, on 29th between Fifth and Madison.  This free interfaith service of song, dance and story, which Retta Blaney founded in 1997 and has produced ever since, will be produced this year by the church and the Episcopal Actors’ Guild.

“I’m pleased to be turning over the producing responsibility — and privilege — to the Guild and The Little Church,” Blaney said. “Producing it for 16 years has been a gift in my life, but I am ready to step aside.”

Karen Akers, cabaret singer and film (“The Purple Rose of Cairo”) and Broadway (original companies of Nine and Grand Hotel) actor will offer this year’s theatre reflection and Jennifer Fouche (Sistas the Musical) will sing.

The Broadway Blessing Choir, under the direction of Claudia Dumschat, The Little Church’s music director, will return as well as crowd-favorite Project Dance. Rabbi Jill Hausman of the Actors’ Temple will once again take part in the annual candle lighting ceremony with the Right Rev. Andrew St. John, rector of Transfiguration.

Among those who have participated in Broadway Blessing in the past are Lynn Redgrave, Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen, Boyd Gaines, Edward Herrmann, Melissa Errico, Christiane Noll, James Barbour, Three Mo’ Tenors and Broadway Inspirational Voices.

Transfiguration is an historic Episcopal parish with a long history of ministering to those in need, having sheltered escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad and African-American families during the Draft Riots of the Civil War. It also has a long tradition of welcoming members of the theater profession, something not common in churches years ago.

The church’s welcoming attitude toward actors earned it its nickname, The Little Church Around the Corner, a name that dates back to 1870 when Joseph Jefferson, famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle onstage, had requested a funeral at another church for his fellow actor and friend, George Holland. Upon learning that the deceased had been an actor, the priest refused. At that time many considered actors to be unworthy of Christian burial. After some prodding by Jefferson, the priest commented, “There is a little church around the corner where it might be done.” Jefferson responded, “Then I say to you, sir, ‘God bless the little church around the corner.’”

The church has maintained its close ties to the theater, serving as the national headquarters of the Episcopal Actors' Guild since its founding in 1923. The facility itself was designated a United States Landmark for Church and Theater in 1973.

The mission of the Episcopal Actors’ Guild is to provide emergency aid and support to professional performers of all faiths undergoing financial crisis by addressing such crucial issues as eviction, housing court stipulations, utilities shutoffs, emergency medical and dental costs, and sustenance needs (including food and transportation).  It prides itself on being one of the only agencies able to provide immediate emergency financial assistance.  When a qualified applicant contacts the Guild in crisis, she or he can receive a vendorized check the same day.

The Guild also is dedicated to helping emerging artists advance their careers through scholarships, awards, and performance opportunities.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bel Kaufman, tangoing now in heaven

We lost another beloved Dutch Treat Club member, Bel Kaufman, who died at her home Thursday at the age of 103. Bel was the author of the best seller Up the Down Staircase and a ball of fire almost to the end.

I loved her 100th birthday celebration on May 10, 2011. We all stood as she walked into our dining room at the National Arts Club and sang “Happy Birthday.” We saluted her with champagne and KT Sullivan, cabaret superstar and DTC president at the time, led us in singing “Young at Heart.”

Bel was the speaker that day. (Each week our Dutch Treat Club luncheons feature a singer and a speaker.)  Bel stood at the podium for about 45 minutes talking about her remarkable life. Her mind was as sharp as could be. It had to be — she was also teaching a college literature class.

Her body was sharp as well. She was taking tango lessons — at 100.

She continued coming to lunches at 101. God bless you, Bel. I hope you find a good tango partner in that great beyond.

And please, God, don’t take anymore DTC members for awhile. Three in one week is too many. First Kay Arnold on Tuesday, then Peggy Burton and now Bel. Leave us alone for awhile, OK?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kay Arnold dies -- she will be greatly missed

One great big shining star left our showbiz world on Tuesday, singer and actor Kay Arnold. It is a shock to all of us who loved her. She had to have been the happiest person I ever met. I always headed straight to her when I saw her in the room.

I knew Kay through the Dutch Treat Club and the Episcopal Actors’ Guild and loved spending time with her. She had an infectious laugh and always seemed to be having fun. I never saw her act and she never achieved the fame of her nephew Tom (although she had a recurring role on his then wife's TV show as Roesanne’s father’s girlfriend), but I heard her sing at the DTC holiday galas and EAG events. She had a personality that just wouldn’t quit, as you can see in this photo at the National Arts Club where she was entertaining us DTC-ers.

Details of her passing are few and no memorial has been finalized. Please keep her in your prayers.

I will miss you, Kay. You were a joy to be around. God bless you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Pianist of Willesden Lane

I think I have just seen the highlight of the 2014-2015 theatre season. I can’t imagine I will be as touched by any show between now and May as I was by The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which opened last night at 59E59 Theaters.

For most of the hour and 45 intermissionless-minutes I was unaware of even being in a theatre, so immersed was I in the story and the music and the performer who brought them to life. I was transported to Nazi-occupied Vienna and war-ravaged London, experiencing that world with a cast of characters who were as real to me as if I had known them.

Mona Golabek is not an actor, but she doesn’t need to be. Her passion for her story is nothing that could be learned. It has been lived by her family, most especially her mother, concert pianist Lisa Jura.

Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, this one-woman play begins in 1938 Vienna where 14-year-old Lisa lives for her Friday afternoon piano lesson with her master teacher. She has inherited her love for music from her mother, also a pianist.

I admire Golabek for sharing their story. Solo plays are always hard, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to portray so much trauma from her family’s history, night after night. Wisely, she steers clear of heightened emotions, avoiding expression of anger, judgment or sentimentality. The story holds all the emotion one needs and she serves it well by her straightforward, gentle telling. I was not the only one crying at end. I could hear people sniffling and blowing their nose all around the theatre.

Alone onstage with only a Steinway grand, Golabek assumes the voice of her mother to tell the story. Young Lisa dreams of making her concert debut playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto at Vienna's storied Musikverein concert hall as she makes her way by streetcar to her beloved piano teacher. But she learns that her lessons are to be no more; he sadly tells her that because of new ordinances under the Nazi regime, teaching a Jewish child is now forbidden. Assuming the voice of the professor, Golabek recounts his regret that he is “not a brave man” as he bids his student farewell.

“You have a remarkable gift, and no matter what happens in your life, please never forget that. Good luck, Lisa. And Lisa, go with God.”

Shortly after, Lisa’s parents make the difficult decision to send her to England with the one Kindertransport ticket her father has been able to secure. Her older and younger sisters will remain. It is because of her musical gift that she is chosen. At the train station, her mother imprints on her the reason to live.

“Lisa, you must make me a promise. Never stop playing and hold on to your music, and I will be with you every step of the way. With every note, with every beat, with every phrase. I will be with you always.”

This charge propels Lisa to leave the grand English country estate where she is sent as a seamstress after she is forbidden to play the owner’s piano. She takes a train to London, finds her way to the organizers of the Kindertransport at Bloomsbury House and secures a two-week stay at a hostel run by a kindly woman named Mrs. Cohen.

The hostel is overflowing with refugee children, but Lisa is barely inside the door when she spots a piano and knows she has found her home. She goes over and begins to play the second movement of the Grieg concerto.

“Mrs. Cohen sat down in a chair, in disbelief. Through the living room window, I could see the neighbors outside. They put down their gardening tools and listened as the music drifted toward them.

"And one by one, the children came out of their rooms. There were dozens of them. They stool on the staircase in silence, listening.”

Lisa did indeed find a home there, and family with Mrs. Cohen and the children. She worked long hours sewing in a factory and playing the piano at night, even staying behind alone to play as the others fled to bomb shelters during the Blitz. Golabek brings all of these characters to life vividly. 

Throughout the recounting of her mother’s life, Golabek plays appropriate works from Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach and, of course, Grieg. And she tells an affirming story of life and love and beauty that Lisa found through her music in spite of all the pain and loss that surrounded her.

I won’t give away the ending of what happened to Lisa’s parents and sisters, but will say that thanks to the encouragement and support of Mrs. Cohen and the hostel children, Lisa earned a scholarship to the London Royal Academy of Music and became the concert pianist she had dreamed of becoming as a child in Vienna.

Golabek has followed in her footsteps, having performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center and the Royal Festival Hall. Standing ovations are automatic on Broadway these days, and rarely merited, but as the stage darkened after The Pianist of Willesden Lane, I was one of the first to rise for Golabek.

 This limited engagement at 59E59 Theaters, through Aug. 24, marks the show’s New York City premiere, following critically acclaimed, sold-out runs in Chicago, Boston, Berkeley, and Los Angeles. As I walked home up Park Avenue, I considered myself blessed to have seen it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Pat Kirkwood is Angry

For the first half of Pat Kirkwood is Angry, a new play with songs that opened last night at 59E59 Theaters, I was baffled by the title. As performed solo by Jessica Walker, who also wrote the script, I would have thought perky was a more appropriate adjective than angry, even though she recounts — breezily — much about which the late British performer could have been angry. But in the second half Walker shifts tone and the show becomes more compelling.

Through monologue and song, Walker, accompanied by Joseph Atkins on piano and direct by Lee Blakeley, tells the story of Kirkwood, a popular stage and screen star in World War II England. Her voice is gorgeous and always finds the appropriate interpretation, even when her narration sounds more like cheery cabaret patter than dramatic storytelling.

Kirkwood began performing at 15, overseen by her domineering mother, and built a name for herself as a singer and actress, a name that was sullied after a youthful fling with Prince Philip. Although she swore to the end of her life that it was never sexual, it tarnished her reputation and kept her from receiving the recognition she thought she deserved in later years.

As she approaches 60, unhappily married to her fourth husband, she looks back on what she had so playfully been recounting, and finally lets the anger pour forth.

“I felt I wasn’t first choice anymore; that I’d used to be first choice and I’d let it slip through my fingers,” she says with resentment. “Made bad choices — with jobs, with liaisons, and with husbands — apart from Sparky.” He was her second husband, the only one she deeply loved and who died in his mid-40s two years after they were married and only a month after her father had died.

“I’d only done what I thought I could do perfectly, and turned down the rest, only to watch others not do them any better than I could have. They’d all kept going and overtaken me; all been honored, too, which I never could be because of the whole damn business with Prince Philip. Dame Vera Lyn, Dame Edith Evans, Dame Thora Hird, Dame practically everyone, but never Dame Pat Kirkwood. Three royal command performances, Hollywood, shows written for me by Noel Coward, Cole Porter at my feet, Desert Island Discs, my own TV series; nothing — not even so much as a CBE. And even June piggin’ Whitfield has a CBE.”  (A CBE is an order of chivalry, the most junior and populous Order of the British Empire.)

But angry or sunny, Walker knows how to deliver a song with the right emotion, from her soaring “Sail Away,” to her dramatic “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and her soulful “Begin the Beguine.”

While I enjoyed every song she sang — her voice is exquisite — the parts of the show that affected me most were the ones when she tells of her personal losses, starting with her father’s death and her regrets that she had hardly known him, touring with her mother in tow as she had.

“Sometimes years passed without me going home to dad, but whenever we were reunited, he was always kind to me, and not hurtful, as mother frequently was.”

Her father had shown up at her home unexpectedly the Christmas she was 33. He fell ill that evening, worsening quickly and died two days later. “I was with him when he went. I heard the death rattle as I held his hand, telling him it was going to be all right.”

This is followed immediately by another quietly and powerfully told story.

“I’d not seen death before. Only a month later, on January 29th, 1954, mother and I were sitting in the front room and Sparky was standing, leaning against the mantelpiece. . . Before I could blink, he was slumped down in front of us, his head in the fireplace. ‘The fire!’ I shouted, because you see I was worried that his face was near the flames, but never thinking for a minute that he was . . . well, not thinking at all because you don’t. I pulled him round away from the grate, and it was only then, as I turned his face towards me, that I saw his eyes, staring blankly, and I knew he was gone. I knew it because I’d seen exactly the same look on my father’s face only a few weeks earlier. I knew it, but I didn’t believe it. He still had his suntan. He looked so well.”

This memory leads her into a sorrowful “So Little Time.”

She also handles the show’s ending beautifully as she portrays Kirkwood’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and her death in 2007. Telling the audience she never forgot the words to her songs, she stands to sing “For All We Know” before placing the microphone on her stool and slowly walking off the stage. It was a lovely fade out, moving without being morbid or melodramatic.

Pat Kirkwood is Angry is part of 59E59 Theater’s Brits Off Broadway series, playing a limited engagement through June 29. Learning about Kirkwood’s life is interesting, but listening to Walker, who has sung roles across Europe, is even better. She offers rarities from Noel Coward as well as songs from revues Kirkwood starred in, which have not been heard since the 1940s. Other musical numbers include songs from Pal Joey and Wonderful Town, in which Kirkwood starred in London. 

Walker is a first-rate entertainer. I'm sure Kirkwood is pleased at last.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Just Jim Dale

And should this sunlit world, grow dark one day, the colors of my life, will leave a shining light, to show the way...”*

The lean and lanky 78-year-old man standing center stage at the Laura Pels Theatre has a story to tell. No playwright could have written a more colorful one. For 100 enchanting minutes, Just Jim Dale is a tour through the Tony-winning actor’s amazing life, told with humor and unbounded energy in this Roundabout production that opened last night for a limited engagement through Aug. 10.

The son of an iron foundry worker and shoe factory employee from the tiny English town of Rothwell - “the dead center of England in every way” — shared stories, jokes, songs and dances in his one-man show, directed by Richard Maltby Jr., with musical direction by Aaron Gandy.

Dale is a marvelous storyteller, recalling his teenage start as a comic in British music halls — “the principle entertainment for working class Brits” —, then pop singer and songwriter turned Academy Award-nominated lyricist for “Georgy Girl”, the title song from the 1966 film starring Lynn Redgrave that sold 10 million records. His portrayals of his difficulties at staying still for his recent Grammy-winning gigs as audio-book reader of the Harry Potter series, for which he created original voices for more than 200 characters, are hilarious . The colors of his life have, indeed, been "bountiful and bold."*

Young Jim Smith was 6 when he was seized by the showbiz call while watching a local variety show. The following year his father took him to London to see Me and My Girl and he declared that’s what he wanted to do. “It was electrifying. The hairs stood up on the back on my neck.”

It’s one thing to declare as a child that “that’s what I want to do,” while it’s another to actually do it, but “40 years almost to the day” later, Dale starred in the play’s revival on Broadway.

But let’s not jump ahead -- back to childhood. His father, with amazing understanding for a laboring man, told him if musical theatre work was what he wanted, “you have to learn how to move.” So he was enrolled in tap, ballroom and “the dreaded ballet” lessons for six years. “I was the Billy Eliot of our town.”

With a black and white projection of an old time music hall behind him (set by Anna Louizos), his stories are enlivened by blown-up black and white photos of himself projected behind him — the lad in black pants and white dress shirt was a dark-haired, chubbier version of the lean, gray-haired man he is today. From the beginning of his show he proves he not only learned to move back then, he also developed impeccable timing for story and joke telling and, of course, cultivated that golden voice. 

Along the way he took up the name Dale after it appeared by mistake on one of his contracts. England already had another performer named Jim Smith, and Jim Dale is nothing if not an original, so it seems right that he should have a showbiz name to himself.

No Jim Dale show would be complete without songs from his hit Broadway shows, Me and My Girl and Barnum, and he did not disappoint. His offering of the title song from the first show was enchanting, as was his “The Lambeth Walk.”

From Barnum, he not only sang “The Colors of My Life” as a tribute to his wife, Julie Schafler, and “There’s a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute,” but also gave a breakdown of all the thrills his carnival-promoting P.T. Barnum had to offer in “Museum Song”. First he had pianist Mark York play the music slowly so we could hear each enticement, a few of which are: “Armadillas, clever caterpillas, reproductions of the Cyclops' ret'na, crystal blowing, automatic sewing, Venus on a shell and other works of art.” Then he let them fly RAPIDLY, just the way they sound on my 1980 cast album. Whew! What a joy.

"No quiet browns and grays" for this performer. He’s taken his days "and filled them till they overflow, with rose and cherry reds . . ."*

 *"The Colors of My Life" from Barnum. Lyrics by Michael Stewart Music by Cy Coleman.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Experiencing Broadway up close -- ghost stories and all

I’m still high from Saturday’s Broadway Up Close walking tour of the theatre district. It’s two hours of fun, fascinating stories and in-depth histories of the theatres and the productions and actors who played —and sometimes haunted — them.

Broadway Up Close Walking Tours was started as a germ of an idea four years ago by actor Tim Dolan. While touring the country in a small bus and truck production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Tim was fascinated by the ghost stories and legends told by local stagehands at different vaudeville and touring houses each night.

When he moved back to New York City after the tour, he started to explore the history and legends that have taken place in the current 40 Broadway theatres. He did extensive research about the history of the theatres and Broadway of long ago, and has transformed this information into fascinating stories, making them come alive even more with historical photos from The Museum of the City of New York that he shows on his iPad.

Tim is loaded with personality and a born storyteller. He clearly loves what he does and I could have listened to him all day. He’s unearthed fantastic stories from more than a century ago. With his insider knowledge and experience of theatre life today, he adds to those stories backstage looks into the inner workings of the lives of actors, stage managers and other theatre professionals, creating a comprehensive tour that changes the way even a seasoned theatre writer like myself experiences the theatre district.

His hard work and enthusiasm have paid off. In the past four years Broadway Up Close has expanded from just Tim to a staff of 12 highly passionate tour guides. Their cumulative experience encompasses Broadway, Off-Broadway, national tours, regional theatre, film and television, both onstage as well as behind the scenes. In addition to their work in the theatre each is a licensed by the city of New York as a tour guide.  And Broadway Up Close is now the third highest rated tour of NYC out of 481 activities on

An added bonus at the end of each tour is a group photo Tim takes of everyone with Times Square as a backdrop. It’s a nice visual souvenir of a great time. That’s me in the sunglasses and hat behind David Sheward, with Tim on the left in the kelly T-shirt.

I want to take this tour again, as well as Act II, which moves north from where we stopped at the Belasco on West 44th (we started in front of the Nederlander on West 41st.). This fall Broadway Up Close will launch Act III, which will journey even farther north. I want to be on that one too! For details, check out Broadway Up Close Walking Tours and visit them on Facebook.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Scripture scholar sister's trailblazing journey of teaching, compassion

I wrote this profile for the May 22, 2014 issue of National Catholic Reporter's Global Sisters Report

Carol Perry loved to read as a child growing up in Kingston, NY. One book she didn’t crack, though, was the Bible. Her family didn’t even own one.

She continued to love to read as a Sister of St. Ursula, just not the Bible, even though she taught religion as well as English at John A. Coleman High School in Kingston, which is about 100 miles north of New York City.

That’s an unlikely background for a woman who would one day break new ground as a Resident Bible Scholar in one of the most prominent Protestant churches in America.

“The Protestants had the Bible and the Catholics had the sacraments,” she says. “I was raw material.”

Sitting in her small 10th floor office overlooking Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, Sr. Carol reflected on the journey that brought her to Marble Collegiate Church where her Sunday morning Bible class is standing-room only.

“In the 1950s there was not a university in the world where a Catholic woman could study the Bible,” she said, explaining that the Mothers General bugged the seminary professors, but Rome kept saying no.

Her chance came in 1957 when she joined 60-some other women from 32 countries to study sacred scripture at Regina Mundi in Rome.

“It was a total revelation to me,” she says, still with a trace of awe in her voice. She discovered the book was “dealing with flesh and blood human beings. These are not just words, there are people here. “

With her interest sparked, she went on to receive a Masters of Sacred Science from St. Mary’s at Notre Dame, Indiana, and then shared her love of scripture with her order’s novices and in occasional talks.

As providence would have it, a member of Marble’s congregation heard her at one those talks and mentioned it to one of the church’s ministers at the time, Florence Pert, a determined Alabama native who began to pursue Sr. Carol to teach a Sunday morning, pre-service adult Bible class. Sr. Carol said no -- several times. The class would start at 9 a.m., which meant she would have to spend Saturday night with sisters in the city because Kingston is a two-hour bus ride away. She also thought, “This is a Protestant church and I’m a Catholic nun.”

But Pert was unrelenting. When the convent’s communal phone rang one day, the sister closest to it answered, then approached Sr. Carol. “It’s the woman from the south from that Protestant church again,” she said.

Sr. Carol’s superior overheard and, knowing what the call was about, asked if she’d like to do it. Sr. Carol replied that, yes, actually, she would, so a “little interview” was arranged with the senior minister, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. It was through Peale, who preached there for more than half a century, that the church drew its worldwide recognition. The Catholic nun and the famous Protestant preacher and best-selling author of The Power of Positive Thinking talked and agreed to pray for one another. They finally decided to give it a try for six weeks. That was 34 years ago.

“They were wonderfully open,” Sr. Carol says. “My approach to the Bible is that this is the word of God in the values of real people with real lives and hopes and fears, not the word of God as recorded by people. They are different views with the same end. They were a really hungry audience, which is what any teacher loves.”

In those days the congregation contained few Catholics and Sr. Carol was the first nun most members had ever met. Marble Collegiate is the oldest place of worship of the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Church in New York City, organized in 1628 under the Dutch West India Company. When Sr. Carol began, it was Peale’s congregation, one that had been shaped in the 1930s in the depth of the Depression. He offered “practical Christianity” with a message of hope to a largely business community.

That has changed drastically now, with about 25 percent of the 2,300-member congregation being former Roman Catholics, although it is still described by members as the power-of-positive-thinking church.

Sr. Carol’s role also has changed. In 1997, then-senior minister Arthur Caliandro dreamt of having a full-time Biblical scholar, not just for his congregation, but for people in their places of business around the city. Sr. Carol gave up high school teaching and joined Marble full time, offering several classes at Marble throughout the week, as well as at noontime in rented spots around Manhattan. Her 10 a.m. Sunday class at Marble is viewed live by people around the world through the church’s web site. A gifted storyteller, she makes the ancient people of the Bible seem like relatives remembered from childhood, people we shared Thanksgiving dinner with many years ago. That’s how she sees them.

“They’re our ancestors,” she says.

She thinks these Bible classes are one reason so many Catholics are drawn to Marble, either enough to join or just to partake of the studies and return to their own churches on Sunday.

“People are hungry for it,” she says. “It’s the greatest book ever written, a roadmap of life and adventure. Every soap opera ever written is in Genesis. These are real people.”

She does not, however, read the Bible literally.

“We read nothing literally except the stock market report. That comes from fear. The Bible wasn’t written in English. We’ve translated it through the years.”

The meanings of words change as culture changes, she says, explaining that the word abomination in Hebrew means “a custom that foreigners have that we don’t.”

“That’s not what it means in English. Tattoos at that time were tied into the worship of pagan deities. That’s not true in 21st century New York. You have to be careful with literal versus real.”

Another draw to Marble for Catholics that Sr. Carol sees is what attracts her as well -- the welcoming spirit, with the ministers, staff and congregation regularly referring to themselves as “the Marble family.”

“I’ve found from them the most incredible Christian welcome. It’s so special. For Catholics, we think we have the truth and that is sufficient, but it isn’t because the truth is filtered through people.”

She sees issues of women, the laity and homosexuality as ones that still need addressing in many Catholic churches and she feels hope in Pope Francis, the kind of hope that sprang up after the second Vatican Council. At Marble, support is built-in. Within its large worshiping community, which reaches worldwide thanks to its live web-streaming, Marble supports groups for women, men, committed couples, people in the arts and its GLBT members.

This latter puts it most directly in opposition to Catholic teaching. Marble is quite open in its embrace, setting up a water table under its banner outside the church on Fifth Avenue every June for the Gay Pride Parade, this past year with congregants wearing “Love. Period” T-shirts. Sr. Carol supports this fully, calling equality “the last civil right.”

“I’ve done research on the Biblical texts used to condemn homosexuality and there is not a single Biblical text that has validity today that supports an antigay stance,” she says. “Marble helped me to see the gay and lesbian community with a human face. They were people in my classes, members of the community, some of them the most ardent practicing Christians.”

She remembers being asked to preach to the newly formed group, which in the 1990s was just gay men, 52 of them on that occasion.

“It was one of the most profound religious experiences of my life,” she says. “They were professional men sharing who they were by birth, over which they had no choice, and their intense desire to live Christian lives. It was a total eye-opener to me.”

Ironically, it was Sr. Carol who encountered prejudice at this otherwise accepting church. At a weekend forum for professionals in the late 1970s, a stockbroker sat next to Sr. Carol. After the two had been talking for awhile, the woman confided that she heard Marble had hired a nun to teach scripture and wondered if the nun was present, declaring she would “never sleep under the same roof with a Catholic nun,” and that she would pack her bags and leave immediately if the nun was there. She asked Sr. Carol if she knew what the nun looked like. Sr. Carol said she did. The woman replied: “Point it out to me.”

When Sr. Carol revealed her identity, the woman was gobsmacked. “My goodness,” she said. “You’re perfectly normal.” And she stayed for the entire weekend.

“She came from a background of religious prejudice,” Sr. Carol says. “Nuns were ‘its.’ That’s where interfaith relations were in the 70s. I feel I’ve been on an ecumenical mission for us to get to know each other.”

Many more people will get to know Sr. Carol now that her first book, Waiting for Our Souls to Catch Up, has been published by Asahina and Wallace in May. It’s about the challenge of having a spiritual journey in a technological world. Every chapter starts with a tough question she’s been asked over the years.

“I feel like Grandma Moses starting something new.”

This being open to new experiences has been a part of her life since childhood when among her closest friends were a Jew, a Lutheran and a member of the Greek Orthodox church. Her father, who had just begun operating his own business as a funeral director, died unexpectedly at 30 of what was probably a ruptured appendix when Sr. Carol was a baby. She and her older brother were raised by their mother who sold the business and went to work in a factory making women’s and children’s clothes. The two children shared the chores of washing the dishes and cleaning the ashes out of the furnace.

“In a sense I was a liberated woman without knowing it,” she said, adding that is probably what attracted her to the Sisters of St. Ursula, which she describes as a 400-year-old community that never had a cloister or wore habits and which was dedicated to the education of women.

“They had a spirit of openness and revolution. They were always out there. What could be better than to join them?”

She lives now in an apartment with one other sister and is an active member of St. Colman’s in East Kingston, serving as a lector on Saturday evenings. Tuesday and Wednesday nights she spends in the city with other sisters. She sees no separation between her Catholic life and her Marble life.

“They blend together,” she says. “They’re God’s world and there’s wealth in both. I consider myself one of the richest women in the world.”

Asked what is the most important thing she has learned from the Bible, she readily says, “God loves us, as amazing as that is. God cares about us and God forgives us. From the earliest books of the Bible that forgiveness is prominent. One of the biggest lessons is we’re not to fear God.”

And that’s the message she’s heard preached at Marble for more than three decades.

“It’s not a negative pulpit. We Christians can be hard on ourselves, parsing sin. That’s not what life is about. It’s received love.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

ASTEPsings Around the World

For the last 18 months Artists Striving To End Poverty (ASTEP) has been gathering footage of students and professional musicians from around the world to collaborate on "Where You Lead", an International Music Video featuring Carole King's legendary song. Filming took place in New York City with professional musicians and students from ASTEP's programs with The International Rescue Committee; Deep South Dade Florida with students from enFAMILIA; Quito, Ecuador with students from CRISFE/Project CREO; Bangalore, India with students from The Shanti Bhavan Children's Project; and Pune, India with students from Teach For India.

Featuring Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked, “The West Wing”), Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley (Netflix's “Orange Is the New Black”), Jonathan Groff and Frankie Alvarez (HBO's “Looking”), Tituss Burgess (“30 Rock”), Debra Monk (“Grey's Anatomy,” Chicago), Andrew Lippa (Composer: Addams Family, Wild Party, Big Fish), Julia Murney (Wild Party, Wicked), Lawrence Stallings (The Book of Mormon), Q. Smith (Mary Poppins), Mary-Mitchell Campbell (Broadway Conductor), and The Original Casts of Title of Show and Big Fish, it captures the children celebrating the transforming power of the arts and clearly demonstrates how art crosses all border and unites us.

ASTEP's "Where You Lead" International Music Video was directed by Andrew Cohen. Yazmany Arboleda was the Director of Photography. Produced by Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Abby Gerdts, Andrew Cohen, and Yazmany Arboleda. Watch it — — and make sure you listen to the end for the delightful giggle.

ASTEP connects performing and visual artists with underserved youth in the U.S. and around the world to awaken their imaginations, foster critical thinking, and help them break the cycle of poverty. The music video was shot on location with our partners and students in India, Ecuador, and in the US.

To learn more, volunteer, and donate:

ASTEP's International Music Video partners:

The International Rescue Committee -
Project CREO -
The Shanti Bhavan Children's Project -
Teach For India -

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Friend in the Front Row

This Mysterious Ways essay by Laura Kaye appeared in Guideposts magazine.

 This was the worst seat in the house. Why did I sleep through my alarm? I’d missed Easter Sunday service at my church, and a friend recommended St. Malachy’s instead–just blocks from my apartment in New York City’s theater district.

I’d made it just in time, but the pews, even the aisles were so packed I could barely fit inside. An usher led me and a few others to a spot directly in front of the priest–and the entire congregation. As a former Off-Broadway singer, I was used to the spotlight, but in front of all these strangers I wanted to disappear.

I mumbled my way through the service, trying not to draw attention. When the basket came around for the offertory, I passed it quickly to the woman beside me. She couldn’t quite reach the next person, so she slid it across the floor. “I hope God doesn’t mind!” she whispered, in an impeccable British accent.

“Oh, are you a visitor here too?” I asked, surprised by her accent. She shook her head. “I’m a regular,” she said. “My husband worked at the Neil Simon Theatre before he passed away, and this church has always been very supportive of the arts.”

The Neil Simon Theatre! I’d never performed there, but I had worked at the August Wilson Theatre, right across the street, several years ago. I’d never forget the evening I ducked out early from a performance of Jersey Boys, exiting the Wilson onto a deserted street.

A menacing man approached from the shadows behind me, screaming violently. I braced myself for an attack… when suddenly, someone else shouted, “Stagehands out front!” In seconds, a group of stagehands from across the street surrounded the crazed man and drove him off. Their leader was an older gentleman they called “The Mayor of 52nd Street.” I still thought of him whenever I passed by the two theaters.

“What did your husband do at the Simon?” I asked the woman, just before the service resumed.

“He was a stagehand,” the woman said. “Everyone knew Tommy–he’d always stand in front of the theater and keep an eye on things. People called him the Mayor of 52nd Street.”

Worst seat in the house? Not quite. I’d been seated here for a reason.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Alan Cumming appears to be trying hard to recapture the zest of his Tony-winning magic as the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, but he comes off as a bit tired, as does most of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s anemic revival of Cabaret at Studio 54.

Perhaps it’s because it’s a revival of a revival (Mendes and Marshall recreate their Tony-winning work from 1998) that the show lacks energy, or maybe it’s because I just experienced it that way having a week before seen the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, whose main character, played by a Neil Patrick Harris who pushes the wow factor to the max, is a similarly raunchy singer on the fringes of life and begs comparison to Cabaret’s Emcee.

After winning a Tony for the role 16 years ago, Cumming wasn’t even nominated this year. Neither was Michelle Williams, making her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles, the role that won Natasha Richardson a Tony the last time around. Williams has a nice voice, but her Sally doesn’t possess the young and vulnerable quality she needs to have.

Marshall’s choreography no long seems shocking, with its dominant motif of dancers grabbing their crotches — or someone else’s crotch or ass. It was more interesting 16 years ago. Now it gets tiresome.

What enjoyment the evening does bring comes from the onstage band playing those great Kander and Ebb tunes under the direction of Patrick Vaccariello (the musicians double as chorus members as they did previously) and from Linda Emond as Fraulein Schneider. I have only seen her in straight plays, where she always stands out, and on “The Good Wife” where I love her recurring role as a stone-faced military judge. When she sang “What Would You Do?” I got chills.

Danny Burstein is good too — isn’t he always? — as Herr Schultz.

Studio 54 has been refashioned with cabaret seating as it was in 1998 to give the feel of a pre-World War II night club in Berlin. Robert Brill has returned as set and club designer, as did William Ivey Long for costumes.

The previous revival ran for six years. I will be interested to see how long this one lasts.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical

Lots of gangland shootings take place in director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical, but the most tragic killing of all is her murder of Woody Allen’s hilarious 1994 movie from which this Broadway musical, at the St. James Theatre, has been adapted.

The humor of the movie is too often overwhelmed by the musical numbers, which interrupt this crazy story of an unsuccessful playwright, David Shayne (Zach Braff, left in photo), who gets the backing for a Broadway production of one of his plays from a mob boss, Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore), who insists his dumb-as-a-post girl friend Olive Neal (Helene Yorke), a stripper who aspires to be an actress, be given a part.

I loved the movie and was happy to see it peak through from time to time. But just when I got involved, Stroman, a five-time Tony Award winner, would bring on a flashy dance number, many of which were reminiscent of her choreography in The Producers. (More dancing weiners.) The choreography wasn’t just unoriginal, it was tedious.

I had this same objection to the Broadway version of Ghost. In that case, the musical numbers came barreling on every time a tender moment occurred, thus squashing the charm of the movie.

Set in New York City in 1929, Bullets features songs drawn mainly from the 1920s American Songbook — with adaptations and additional lyrics by Glen Kelly — but I felt two shows were vying with each other — a musical program and a funny play. They didn’t mesh. Included are "Tain't Nobody's Bus'ness," "Running Wild," "Let's Misbehave," "I Found A New Baby.”

The tap dancing gangsters number was the standout of the musical part, largely because it featured Nick Cordero (right in photo) who did the best job of recreating the movie’s humor as Cheech, Olive’s thug of a body guard, who in typical Woody Allen fashion, ends up giving Shayne advice on how to rewrite his play and turns it into a hit.

I also liked Yorke’s Olive, but I did not like Marin Mazzie’s portrayal of the stage diva Helen Sinclair. She has a beautiful voice, but I found her performance to be large without being funny. It would be hard to compare with my memory of Dianne Wiest in her Academy Award-winning role in the film.

Allen wrote the musical’s book, as he had written the movie (with Douglas McGrath).

With 17 Broadway shows opening in these few hectic weeks known as voting season for theatre critics, it stands to reason they aren’t all going to be good, but I was really disappointed in this one, being a huge (for the most part) Woody fan. I would have liked more Woody Allen and less Susan Stroman.

My advice, order the movie and stay home.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Denzel Washington Brings Another Powerful Performance to Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun

What becomes of a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
              -- Langston Hughes

Director Kenny Leon and his strong cast, headed by Denzel Washington, do a first-rate job of presenting the humor as well as drama in the well-paced Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, A Raisin in the Sun, now through June 15 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where the original production opened in 1959. This tale of three generations of a struggling black family, the Youngers, on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, is still timely with its themes of the working class poor, racism, ethnic identity and the redeeming power of family love.

The longest held deferred dream in the play belongs to Lena, the family matriarch played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson. It was her great hope to raise her two children, Walter Lee (Washington, in photo) and Beneatha (an engaging Anika Noni Rose), in a house, but she and her husband could never make enough to get them out of the cramped, shabby two-bedroom, roach-infested apartment where she still lives, now as a widow, with her grown children and Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth (Sophie Okonedo, in photo), and their son, Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins). All share a bathroom with everyone else on the floor of this walk-up tenement. (Sets by Mark Thompson).

Lena sees a chance for her dream to finally be realized thanks to a $10,000 check from Walter senior’s life insurance policy. But she is not the only one with a dream. Walter Lee wants to quit his job as a chauffeur for a white man and open his own liquor store and Beneatha wants to go to medical school.

What will happen to this money is one of the dramas of the play. The other is the racism the family encounters after Lena puts a down payment on a house in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Together these will be the breaking and the making of Walter Lee.

When Raisin premiered in 1959, it was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry died five years later of cancer at the age of 34. Author James Baldwin, who said he had never seen so many black people in the theater, wrote about the play’s importance, that “never in the history of the American theater had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.”

But Hansberry captured the world as they knew it. Lena introduces the deferred dream theme early on, referring to her late husband: “Big Walter used to say, he’d get right wet in his eyes sometimes, lean his head back with the water standing in his eyes and say, ‘Seems like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams, but he did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.'”

Unfortunately, Big Walter “just couldn’t never catch up with his dreams.”

Walter Lee shares this frustration. “Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me, just plain as day. … Just waiting for me, a big, looming blank space, full of nothing. Just waiting for me.”

His obsession worries Lena. “You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too. … Now here come you and Beneatha talking ‘bout things we ain’t never even thought about hardly, me and your daddy. You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don’t have to ride to work on the back of nobody’s streetcar. You my children, but how different we done become.”

The world hasn’t become that different, though. As the family members are packing to move to their new home, they are visited by a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, Karl Lindner (David Cromer), who offers them money to stay away. He assures them “race prejudice simply doesn't enter into it,” but that people there believe “for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.” Somewhat sadly he tells Walter Lee, “You just can’t force people to change their hearts, son.”

But the situations of the play do force Walter Lee to change his heart. Washington is at his best when he portrays a Walter Lee broken by his foolishness in losing most of the insurance money and the pain of his humiliation. The joking and occasional drunk Walter Lee of Act One is gone. Washington shows us a crushed Walter Lee and it is powerful. But he then creates a Walter Lee who rises to the challenge and leaves us cheering for his triumph.

The production also brings us plenty of comic scenes. Two of my favorites involve Ann Roth’s costumes. In one, Beneatha, inspired by her Nigerian friend Joseph Asagai (Sean Patrick Thomas), appears in colorful African dress and dances around the room. Rose is a joy to watch, as is Jackson when she models a gardening hat dripping in fake flowers given to her by Travis. Both actors are a delight in these scenes.

And all of the scenes are heightened by Branford Marsalis’s jazz and blues compositions that provide transition.

Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s husband and literary executor, wrote in 1988 about why plays like Raisin, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, continue to touch people, even if the circumstances portrayed have changed. “For at the deepest level it is not a specific situation but the human condition, human aspiration and human relationships — the persistence of dreams, of the bonds and conflicts between men and women, parents and children, old ways and new, and the endless struggle against human oppression, whatever form it may take, for individual fulfillment, recognition and liberation — that are at the heart of such plays,” he wrote. “It is not surprising therefore that in each generation we recognize ourselves in them anew.”