Thursday, December 29, 2016

At the end of the day everybody needs a little help

For 16-month-old Layla, the colorful Red Boxes piled high around the Queens Temple were just perfect for climbing. But for the 200 families and individuals who came to The Salvation Army’s center in Jackson Heights on December 22, the boxes had more meaning. They held all the nonperishable meal fixings to go along with the ham they received, plus some warm clothing. Nearby tables overflowed with two new toys for every child and, for the boys, Mets/Fox Sports backpacks containing a baseball mitt, T-shirt, toy car and a cap.

 “For them, it’s like ‘someone cares about us,’” said Captain Arlene DiCaterina, adding that this is the first year the center has offered full meals. In the past, only pantry items were given out.

 It’s no wonder Layla was attracted to the boxes. Volunteers had stacked them into a high pyramid, creating a Red Boxes Christmas tree beside the more traditional tree.

 Captain Guillermo DiCaterina said this distribution day was important beyond giving people a good Christmas dinner. The neighborhood is made up of 90 percent immigrants, he said, and most are unfamiliar with The Salvation Army. He wants to introduce them to all the reasons they should return, such as music and dance programs for their children and, of course, worship.

 “They don’t know we’re a church,” he said. “For many of them, this will be their first impression of The Salvation Army.”

Nelsito was one of these first-timers. He heard about the Red Box distribution through a friend.

 “I’m happy and thankful,” he said. “At the end of the day everybody needs a little help. It lets us know we’re not alone. There’s a community out here.”

Some already knew this. Gamelin, a young mother sitting with her children in the chapel, said she’s a regular shopper in the Temple’s flea market where she finds quality clothes for her little ones. She says she can’t afford clothes in the stores.

 “The staff here makes you welcome,” she said. “It’s so lovely.”

 While the Red Boxes of food are distributed during the holidays, the Red Box Campaign continues throughout the year, supporting the vast network of programs and services The Salvation Army provides to boys, girls, men, and women. To learn more or to make a contribution, please contact Sharon Smith-Ibello at (212) 337-7345 or

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Turkey for the grandchildren

   Lieutenant Chaka Watch greeted guests, helped load their carts and even danced in front of the Christmas tree as 250 families and individuals received Red Boxes filled with nonperishable food and clothing at The Salvation Army’s Harlem Temple December 20.  Guests also received Perdue chickens and bags of toys for their children and grandchildren.
     “This is where we are making a difference in people’s lives,” Lieutenant Chaka said.  “The Bible says, don’t preach the gospel if people are hungry.  Feed them first.”
     On this day, the feeding also included a little reception with chocolate chip cookies, coffee and tea that Lieutenant Chaka and his wife, Lieutenant Emeline Watch, had provided for their guests.
     “We’re speaking to the people through our actions,” Lieutenant Chaka said. “They’re coming into an environment where they feel loved and appreciated.  They are a part of us and our community.  Army officers are not sent to buildings.  We’re sent to people.”
     Assisting with the distribution and offering their warmth and cheer were Lieutenant Grace Cho, Envoy Ken Burton and Cadets Peranda Fils-Aime and Olguens Fils-Aime, as well as volunteers from Gap, Inc.
     The festive giving was enhanced by Christmas carols played by Kenon Ward, an instructor for The Salvation Army’s Phil Ramone Orchestra, who played on a keyboard set up in the gym, which had been decorated with a large, brightly lit tree, a wreath and the Red Boxes piled high on either side.
     The efforts were much appreciated.
     “It means I can help my grandchildren.  I love them to death,” said Evangeline, who was enjoying the carols and conversation while she waited.  “It’s a blessing to get a turkey for the kids.”
     Desiree echoed that gratitude.
     “I’m very thankful for the things they give us.  I don’t know where we’d be without The Salvation Army.”
     While the Red Boxes of food are distributed during the holidays, the Red Box campaign continues throughout the year, supporting the vast network of programs and services The Salvation Army provides to boys, girls, men, and women.  To learn more or to make a contribution, please contact Sharon Smith-Ibello at (212) 337-7345 or

Friday, December 23, 2016

Nativity: New musical comedy tells 'The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby'

     When playwright Chris Cragin Day decided to write a Christmas play, she thought at first about adapting a Hans Christian Andersen tale, but then she went further back, all the way to the original Christmas story. She just knew the nativity would make a good musical comedy.

     She wasn’t the only one who saw the humor in the event.  She had no trouble convincing Don Chaffer to write the music and lyrics for her script.  Together they birthed an unlikely play based on an unlikely birth, The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby, which had a critically praised run in the New York International Fringe Festival in August and will be produced by Knoxville’s River & Rail Theatre Company in December.

     “It’s situation comedy at its finest,” Cragin Day says.  “You’d have to work hard to avoid the humor.”

     Cragin Day is a practicing Presbyterian and Chaffer a practicing Anglican, and both believe the Christmas story literally. But as an experienced playwright and an experienced songwriter, they could see the comedic advantages in the story of Jesus’ birth. Chaffer summed it up in their application for admission into the Fringe Festival, where their show was labeled a “must see”:

   “Every December, a bunch of people celebrate a baby, more specifically, a first-century Jewish refugee virgin’s baby. When people assemble their little nativities every year, they always also include a figurine of Mary’s Jewish refugee fiance, Joseph, who marries Mary even though she’s pregnant with someone else’s baby. While the laws of their time and religion would have had her stoned to death, Joseph opts for matrimony. Why? Because one night he has a dream “from God,” who explains the situation to him through an angel. Yep. And things just get crazier from there.”

     Cragin Day and Chaffer were so inspired by their idea that they wrote the show’s first draft in nine days. While they enjoyed the humorous undertones, they wanted to emphasis the human side of the story by imagining what Mary and Joseph’s marriage would have been like. The Christmas story is always told from the omniscient perspective, God’s perspective.  

      As a dramatist, Cragin Day was interested in what Mary wanted, since in dramatic structure the protagonist’s want determines the plot. She turned to her uncle, Daniel Hays, a biblical scholar whose scriptural interpretations are popular in evangelical colleges and universities.  She also mined the book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life by Lynn H. Cohick to learn about the standing of Jewish women at the time. Since little is known about Mary and Joseph’s marriage, she wanted to create one for them onstage that would be historically possible and show the everyday of life between the divine moments.  

     The two co-creators talked about their latest collaboration — their first musical together was Son of a Gun in 2012 — in Cragin Day’s office at The King’s College, a liberal arts evangelical Christian college in Manhattan’s financial district where she is an assistant professor of English and theatre. Climbing one wall were oversized colorful hand-written sticky notes on their next show, The Zombie Family Musical, an existential comedy about a dysfunctional family that all become zombies on the way to family time. 

     “I think the biggest challenge, and I’m still considering whether we nailed it or not, is that we wanted to be true to the divine moments of the story, but we also wanted it to feel like a human story,” she said.  “We don’t want the divine moments to not feel universally human.”

     This is Cragin Day’s second play to be staged this year.  Her Martin Luther on Trial had its world premiere to strong reviews in May in Washington, D.C.  It is being performed now through Jan. 27 at New York's Pearl Theatre.

     Chaffer is a recording artist, music director and producer and the co-band leader of Waterdeep, which he founded with his wife, Lori.  For Mary and Joseph’s Baby he wrote the music and lyrics, using a folk style, and adapted the Magnificat.

     Theatre is Easy critic Keith Paul Medelis was won over.  “The songs never reach anything preachy, rather we get a personal and careful look at the life of a couple coming to terms with this virgin birth and the enormity of their new, important place as impoverished people,” he wrote. “It’s enough for this godless pessimist to crack several smiles and even, impossibly, tap my feet. This folks, is one of Fringe’s best. It’s smart, it’s polished, it’s honest, and it has a bright future ahead of it.”

     Emphasizing the impoverished people angle Medelis mentioned was important to the co-creators because of what Cragin Day’s Uncle Dan had explained to them.  He said the word builder, as in a builder of houses, had long ago been translated as carpenter, but Joseph would have been a construction worker, and that is how he is portrayed.  The idea of Joseph as a middle-class carpentry shop owner is false, Hays said. The Jews weren’t middle-class; they were poor and oppressed.  Hearing that, the two creators knew they had found their story.

     “It was the biggest eye-opening moment for us,” Cragin Day says. “God gave his child to poor people. I hope the audience will see the beauty in the story, that the baby was given to the lowliest and what it means that he trusted them with that story.”

    Besides setting the record straight about Joseph’s profession and poking gentle humor at Mary and Joseph’s situation, the writers also wanted to show these two people of faith and their encounters with God. They used their imaginations and the Bible.  The Magnificat was a window into how Mary thinks of God, Chaffer says.  She believes God lifts up people.

     “It’s the most insight we have into her,” he said, explaining how the Bible offers only the highlights of the story, not “the days of feeling bored or uninspired.”  

     “The story is about faith, absolutely, but that doesn’t obscure the everyday doubts.  It was finding a way to tell the big human questions that emerge in the story.  It’s about human choice and human action.”

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Negro Ensemble Company celebrates its 50th anniversary with 'Day of Absence' revival

    I was thrilled when I learned the Negro Ensemble Company was reviving Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence, the play that launched this esteemed group 50 years ago. I have been thinking since the W. administration, with its anti-immigrant leanings, that this brilliant satire about a mid-20th century southern town that falls into ruin after one day in which all of its "nigras" have disappeared would make a nice reflection of what our country, especially New York City, would be like if all of our immigrants, and their labors, vanished.

   I never could have imagined a Donald Trump presidency then, but with his racist comments and large racist following, as well as his anti-immigrant rants, Day of Absence is as timely as ever. What a great shame the production at Theatre 80 St. Mark's, which opened Sunday under Arthur French's direction, plays like a show in early rehearsals rather than an audience-ready performance.

   In more than a half century of theatergoing, I have never seen an actor less prepared than Charles Weldon who plays the Mayor, the play's most crucial role. Not only did he drop lines throughout, he skipped one part of the script by telling a fellow actor he wanted to "move on."  I was shocked and left the theatre deeply disappointed.

     The next day I asked the press agent, Jonathan Slaff, if Weldon had been a last minute replacement.  "Not last minute," he said. "Just a big, difficult part to memorize within the rehearsal time that Equity allows, which is sometimes insufficient."

   I have never experienced such a shoddy performance in any other Off-Broadway productions, with presumably the same rehearsal time.  If Weldon, who is NEC’s artistic director, wasn't ready he should have been on book or the opening delayed so this extraordinary play could be appreciated by a new audience. I am grateful I got to see it in the powerful production it deserved at Baltimore's CenterStage in the 1990s.

    The play is a brilliant piece of satire.  With a twist on the old minstrel shows that featured white actors with black faces, Day of Absence features a black cast in whiteface.  In the speeded up nature of satire, the play shows a town decline into chaos by midnight on the day the white residents, who aren’t used to lifting a finger for themselves, wake to discover all the black residents have mysteriously vanished.  Not even “a little black dog” can be found.  Babies wail because their mothers have no idea how to change or care for them, garbage piles up uncollected, public restrooms are filthy and stink, old people are dying with no one to care for them and 75 percent of all productivity has been paralyzed. The town is on the verge of hysteria and turns to the Mayor to solve the problem.

     At first the Mayor feels confident in his power, ordering an extensive search.  When that turns up empty, he tries to borrow some nigras from surrounding towns, but those residents refuse, claiming they don’t have enough for themselves.  He then tries a television appeal, telling any of his black citizens who are listening that “the South has always been glued together by its relationship with its darkies” and that they should remember all the good times shared “singing those old coon songs” and come home because everyone misses “your cheerful, grinning, happy-go-lucky faces.” 

     By the end, he is on his knees desperately begging for them to return, promising to kiss the feet of the first nigra to come back.

     When this is well done, it’s a thrilling piece of theatre.  Even reading this part was life-changing for actor Charles S. Dutton, who told me his story when I interviewed him nearly a decade ago.  He said he discovered the play by accident while serving time in solitary confinement in a Baltimore prison. Known as “the hole,” solitary was a room with no furniture or windows, no sink or toilet – just a drain in the middle of the floor on which the confined person slept.

     Prisoners were allowed to take one book with them, although the only light came from the slit between the door and the floor. Dutton had wanted to take a book about revolution, a book to keep him angry, but in his haste when the guards came for him, his finger grabbed a book of one-act plays his girlfriend had given him. He didn’t realize his mistake until he was in solitary.  He had never read or seen a play and wasn’t at all interested in them, but with several long days and nights to kill, he started reading.  The Mayor’s monologue blew him away, so much so that he felt called to perform it at the prison talent show.

     He asked permission but was refused because a high school degree or equivalency was required.  So he worked to get his GED, memorized the monologue and, with no acting experience, delivered it to a room full of really rough men.  As they warmed to him, they began laughing and picking up on the satiric message.  He told me he realized he had them in the palm of his hand and he felt that power.  He realized if he didn’t follow up on this gift he would spend the rest of his life incarcerated.  So he went around to all of his gangs and told them he wouldn’t fight anymore and he worked to get his associates degree. 

     In two years he was released and completed his college degree in acting at Towson State University. In yet another amazing event in his life, he was awarded a scholarship to the Yale School of Drama, thus going from jail to Yale in two years.  When he graduated he earned a role in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  The New York Times called it the most unusual debut in Broadway history.

    So Dutton’s life was turned around because of Douglas Turner Ward’s play. Ward was one of the founders, in 1967, of the Negro Ensemble Company, which nurtured many of our great actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Denzel Washington, Adolph Ceasar, Louis Gossett Jr., Sherman Hemsley, and Phylicia Rashad.

     Day of Absence was first produced at the St. Mark's Playhouse in 1965. It was directed by the author, ran for 504 performances and won the Drama Desk Award for Playwriting in 1966. Scholars now consider the play an example of the best non-musical satire of its period.

     My personal experience with Ward dates back to the early 70s when I was in high school and ushered at CenterStage.  Ward was the first Willy Loman I ever saw when that theatre presented the first all-black production of Death of a Salesman, several decades before Broadway would mount its first all-black production of an American classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in 2008. Arthur Miller came for the opening.  Having not yet read the play, so not knowing the story, I was deeply moved by Willy’s death and couldn't stop thinking about the play. It was the first time I had been that touched by a theatrical experience.

     In the years that followed, whenever I read Death of a Salesman I always pictured that Baltimore cast and set.  It wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn in 1985 to get my MFA in playwriting and read it again and discovered, Oh, these are Brooklyn Jews. It’s only the speech patterns that make them that way. Otherwise they are American characters regardless of race or religion. 

     I’m glad I have my CenterStage memories to overcome Sunday’s experience at Theatre 80 St. Mark’s, and I hope Day of Absence will have a worthy revival soon.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Harry Smith is just wild about The Salvation Army

     Our Salvation Army Gala at the Marriott Marquis was lovely last night, and we raised more than $1.1 million.  Emily Ann Roberts, a sweet 18-year-old former finalist on “The Voice,” sang Christmas songs, accompanying herself on guitar and with our Army band and choir.  

     The highlight of the evening of me, though, was when host Harry Smith went off script to talk about his experiences with The Salvation Army. Shortly after he had been asked to come to New York to join CBS 35 years ago, he was taken to 21 and was excited to be in such a big-time celebrity hot spot. While he was eating, some Salvation Army choir members came in and began singing Christmas carols. Since the words were well-known, people joined in.  He saw titans of industry and entertainment singing along with tears in their eyes.  He was told the Army choir did that every year so he decided to have them on his show. He also happened to play tuba so he played on air with the Army band. Last night he joined them onstage to play for us as well.  What a good sport.

    He then said how for 40 years as a journalist whenever he was covering a disaster, he would arrive with his crew and they would travel down some dirt road and see destruction and people wandering around dazed and there to the side would be a Salvation Army truck handing out sandwiches and coffee.  He saw this too at the World Trade Center where the Army had set up a half dozen sites and maintained them throughout the long months of clean up, giving out coffee and sandwiches to all the workers.

     Hearing those testimonies made me all the prouder to work for The SA at this time each year.  I am truly blessed and duly grateful. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Master Harold" . . . and the Boys

     “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys is the most painful of Athol Fugard’s plays for me to journey through. One of our former priests at St. Bart’s who used to say, “Hurt people, hurt people” and that is certainly manifest in this play and the powerful revival it is receiving at The Pershing Square Signature Center, through Dec. 11.

     The playwright directs his 1982 story of Hally, a lonely young white boy, and his friendship with Sam, a black man, in mid-20th century apartheid South Africa. The performances are heartbreakingly real, making the grief all the stronger when the friendship is abruptly ruptured, perhaps beyond repair.

     Fugard is a white Southern African playwright, actor and director whose work is revered in his country (now), ours and England. He has used his playwriting gifts for more than half a century to highlight the injustices of the apartheid that ruled his country for so long.

     The unjust system is given a human face in his plays, in this one especially touchingly. Hally (Noah Robbins) is a prep school boy of 17 when the play opens in 1950. His friendship with Sam (Leon Addison Brown) goes back to his short pants days when, living in a boarding house with his mother and drunken, invalid father, he used to find refuge in the small room Sam shared with Willie (Sahr Ngaujah), who also is black and in his 40s like Sam.

     “Life felt right-sized in there,” Hally says wistfully one rainy afternoon as he reminisces with Sam in the St. George’s Park Tea Room, which is owned by his mother. (Scenic design by Christopher H. Barreca; lighting by Stephen Strawbridge). Sam works there as a waiter and Willie cleans the floors, when he’s not joking around with Sam or complaining about his girlfriend, whom he beats regularly. The feeling is of three people whose bond goes way back and who are comfortable together without racial division.

     Through the years Hally has been educating Sam from his own schoolwork, teaching him geography and vocabulary. Sam is a willing recipient of this learning. It becomes clear, though, as the two talk that Sam’s main role in Hally’s life has been father figure. One particularly lovely memory the two share is of the day years earlier when Sam had made a kite for Hally and taught him how to fly it. It was a happy day for both, but it is only in the present that we learn why Sam had chosen to make the kite at that time. Hally’s father had passed out drunk in a bar and the boy was called upon to come get him. Hally had to ask permission for Sam to enter the bar, after which Sam carried the father home over his shoulder with the shamed child following behind. The father had soiled his pants and Sam and Hally had had to clean him and put him in bed. After that, Hally walked around with his eyes cast downward for days. Sam decide to make a kite so Hally could focus his eyes skyward. That is the kindness and love Hally had received from Sam, but in the present day Hally’s anger at his father causes him to turn on Sam in unbearable cruelness at the play’s climax.

     All the performances are first rate. Hally and Sam commune with a natural ease, but when the tide turns, the tension is so deep the entire audience seemed to collectively hold its breath. The change in Hally’s mood is triggered by a call he receives from his mother saying she is bringing his father, who has been in the hospital, home. She then put his father on the phone and Hally tries to put up a jovial front. Robbins portrays a Hally transformed. He crumbles to the floor, anguish stiffening his face, as he tries to assure his father, “chum,” that he is looking forward to his return. He looks hollow, ghostly.

     When Hally betrays Sam, Brown is a man wounded to his soul. I’ve never been as affected by that scene as I was seeing it performed by these two fine actors. The name of the play comes from Hally’s insistence that Sam now call him “Master Harold.” “You’re only a servant here and don’t you forget it,” he says. Cruel. Soul-cuttingly cruel.

     Just before the conflict reaches this point, Sam implores Hally to “stop before it’s too late. Someone’s going to get hurt.”

     “It’s not going to be me,” Hally says smugly.

     “Don’t be too sure,” Sam replies.

     Both are hurt. Fugard leaves the door open as to whether they will ever heal together.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Lynn Nottage's 'Sweat'

     A flicker of humanity flashes at the end of Lynn Nottage’s latest play, Sweat, directed by Kate Whoriskey at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater. Hope is a hallmark of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and it is needed after the two and a half hours of economic hardship, tattered friendships and thwarted dreams among the workers in a steel-tubing factory in Reading, PA, as they face the closing of the plant that has employed generations of their families.

     “Started in `74, walked in straight outta high school. First and only job,” says Tracey (Johanna Day, left in photo) whose friendship and working relationship with Cynthia (Michelle Wilson, right) and Jessie (Miriam Shor) goes back for decades.  All are in their 40s at the start of the play in 2000 when rumors of layoffs  begin. Time alternates with 2008 when the plant has closed.

    After work the women hang out together at a local bar managed by Stan (James Colby), who worked at the plant for 28 years before injuring his leg in a machine accident at the plant. (Set designer John Lee Beatty has created a bar so real-looking I felt I could walk right in and order a beer.) The four of them have the camaraderie of people who have shared lives for years. This unity is marred, though, when Cynthia, the African American member of the group, is promoted to management. Tracey, who also had applied for the job, says Cynthia was chosen because of her race. Her resentment drives a wedge between them. In the end they will all be unemployed, but without the strength of the friendship that had sustained them.

     While this might sound bleak, and it is, Nottage is skilled at creating people we care about and cheer for. These characters are based on her many visits to Reading over the years where she got to know the citizens, from the mayor to those who sleep in the woods because they lost their homes.  The city was ranked as the country’s most economically depressed in 2011.

  The playwright’s empathy for her characters is another hallmark of her work. In Ruined, for which she won her Pulitzer in 2009, we feel for the young women in the bar and pool room run by Mama Nadi in a small town in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The girls must provide more than food and drink to the soldiers and miners who arrive daily, and while it seems Mama is pimping them, which she is, she also is providing them a home and family life together and protection from the gang rapes and homelessness they would face on the outside.  

   My favorite Nottage work is Intimate Apparel (NCR 4/30/04). I cared deeply for its heroine, Esther, who was played movingly by Viola Davis Off-Broadway in 2004.  Esther was a 35-year-old hard-working seamstress living in a boarding house whose longing for love led her to be charmed out of her life’s savings by a man she met through the son of her church’s deacon. I loved her no-nonsense attitude and humor and I wanted her to be happy.

     In this latest work by Nottage, I could relate to the women because I’ve had times of being unable to find work and I know the fear and demoralizing sense of that experience. The Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, explained in a program note why the play is timely.

   “The decline of unionism, the weakening of the federal government, loss of legitimacy of the idea of collective action and the increasing power of the market to monetize everything have helped return us to a level of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age,” he wrote.

    He praised Nottage for tackling the subject “on the ground,” in the lives of individuals who were being overwhelmed by huge historical shifts.  “She writes, not from the airy tower of an intellectual, but from the lived experience of working people.

     “However, she also does what a great writer does, and makes these idiosyncratic, terribly specific individuals representatives of us all. They are working class everywoman and everyman, reflecting back to ourselves the truth of our country and our times.” 

     The play’s portrayal of the decline of factory jobs in the rust belt was also a topic in the presidential race, with both candidates appealing to those voters.

     Sweat was commissioned and first produced by Bill Rauch and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  It then traveled to Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The New York premiere continues through December 18.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Holiday Inn: The New Irving Berlin Musical

The recently opened Holiday Inn has a subtitle, The New Irving Berlin Musical. Using the word new is a bit of a stretch — the songs are classics and the story was first told in an Oscar-winning 1942 movie. This lack of originality didn’t bother me at all, however, because the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production at Studio 54 is such a shimmering delight. I was happy to sit back and enjoy the old-fashioned entertainment.

Besides featuring some of the best music of the 20th century — close to two dozen Berlin songs, including “Blue Skies,” “Heat Wave,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “White Christmas” — it’s a visual delight as well, with Denis Jones’ intricate choreography (lots of tap!) and Alejo Vietti’s glittering costumes. Director Gordon Greenberg brings them together in a fast-paced journey into the kind of “putting on a show” musical of yesteryear.

Greenberg and Chad Hodge penned the witty, though predictable, book, which tells the story of Jim Hardy, a likable Bryce Pinkham taking on the Bing Crosby role, who chooses to forsake show business for life on a farm in Connecticut. In doing so he loses his fiancé, Lila Dixon (Megan Sikora), who craves stardom, and for whom one visit to the farm is enough. “I can live with a lot of things,” she tells him, “but I can’t live out here with all these vegetable.”

Before she leaves, though, we do have a fun scene of her being pushed around in a wheel barrow while she, Jim and Louise (Megan Lawrence), the dependable farmhand, sing “It’s a Lovely Day Today.”

Lila’s departure from his life opens the door for Jim to find his true love in a local girl, Linda Mason, played with charm and gorgeous voice by Lora Lee Gayer. The broken-down farmhouse Jim bought had belonged to Linda’s family, but as an unmarried elementary school teacher she could no longer keep it.

Even with his zeal for country life, which he sings about in “Blue Skies,” Jim finds he has no gift for it. His first choice for a crop was bananas. But when his New York friends come to visit he is inspired to combine worlds and he and Linda, a singer who had given up on show business, see an opportunity to turn the farmhouse into an inn where shows are performed for all holidays, which is when his friends are free. Anna Louizos’ sets make beautiful transitions from Thanksgiving, to Christmas, to Easter and the Fourth of July.

As the inn evolves, the dance numbers heat up. With the place decorated for Christmas, Louise and the ensemble sing “Shaking the Blues Away” while tapping up a storm and jumping rope with strands of garland. This is definitely a feel-good musical.

The jokes are cute too. When Jim announces to his agent, Danny (Lee Wilkof), that he’s moving to Connecticut, Danny warns him he’ll “end up wearing plaid and repressing your feelings.” Visiting the farm doesn’t change his mind. “I’m feeling out of place out here,” he tells Jim. “I think I just got stung by a wasp.”

The state is the butt of another joke, this time from Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu), Jim’s old showbiz partner. When Ted wakes up at the farm hungover and is told of his disgraceful behavior the night before, he is horrified — to learn he’s in Connecticut.

Holiday Inn is a simple story told in rich detail of song, dance and costumes. Its run has been extended until Jan. 15, but I wish it could be longer. I would like to go again.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Marie and Rosetta

My third biographical play of last week, the world premiere of George Brant’s Marie and Rosetta, was another involving afternoon in the theatre thanks to the powerhouse voices of Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones and Brant’s witty and ultimately poignant script. The Atlantic Theatre Company production, under the direction of Neil Pepe, offers a visit with the late gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Lewis) as she prepares for a performance and tour in 1946 Mississippi.

“You’ve got to know what your gifts are worth,” she tells Marie Knight (Jones), the 23-year-old singer she has just plucked out of backup work to be her performing partner.

Lewis’s Rosetta knows her worth, and she shares her singing techniques and life lessons with Marie as the two prepare in a funeral home, the only place Rosetta says is open to black entertainers in the Deep South. This will not only be where they rehearse; they are to sleep there that night as well. Marie is spooked (pun intended) by the caskets, but Rosetta assures her “they’re nothing but a bunch of souls gone to glory.”

Their stage that evening will be in a warehouse. “We ain’t playing no Carnegie Hall tonight,” Rosetta says with resigned acceptance. By that time she was a big star, a contemporary of Mahalia Jackson, “Saint Mahalia,” she sarcastically calls her rival for her “high church” singing. Rosetta prefers to add some “swinging hips” to her performances.

During the 90 minutes with no intermission, Rosetta wins over Marie, who at first is horrified by the older singer’s attempts to get her to drop her own high church singing and put some swing into her gospel. “Your joy has hips,” Marie says reproachfully.

But Rosetta is determined to loosen up her protégé, in her piano accompaniment as well as her singing. “Your piano’s an old maid with a gray tabby on her lap,” she scolds.

Rosetta makes her a deal. “You swing it for me and I’ll church it up for you. It’s hips or the highway.”

In real life the two women were a hugely successful performing duo. Rosetta had already achieved fame in the 1930s and 40s, singing with the likes of Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. She was also considered the queen of “race records” and was admired for her guitar playing and electric guitar playing as well as her singing. Elvis and Jimi Hendrix credited her as inspiring their careers.

I first heard Lewis (right in photo) when she sang with the Paul Winter Consort. She nearly blew the dome off of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the world’s largest cathedral. After she finished singing "His Eye is on the Sparrow," Winter said he didn’t know anything on land that could compete with that so he followed with a recording of whales. That was nearly 30 years ago and she’s still got the pipes. As does Jones. They treated us to about a half dozen gospel and blues numbers — I really loved “I Want a Tall, Skinny Papa” as well as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” I felt I was one of the souls gone to glory. Although they are the only two characters, their voices have the effect of a mighty chorus of gospel voices.

Marie and Rosetta features some mean piano and guitar playing. Although the actresses do a good job of faking it, at least for the piano, the real musicians are revealed at the curtain call — Deah Harriott on piano and Felicia Collins on guitar.

The show also features scenic design by Riccardo Hernández, costumes by Dede Ayite, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy and music direction by Jason Michael Webb.

The other two biographical shows I saw last week were Maestro, about Leonard Bernstein, and Fiorello!, about the former mayor of New York. I recommend all three.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


Whatever character flaws Fiorella LaGuardia had, you won’t find them in Fiorello!, the Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, George Abbott and Jerome Weidman’s musical about New York’s pint-sized former mayor. But you will find lots of heart and fun in The Berkshire Theatre Group’s revival of this Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical, now at The East 13th Street Theater.

Directed by Bob Moss, this is the first full-scale New York City and Off-Broadway revival of the hit musical, which was last seen on Broadway in 1959. Its enthusiastic cast, headed by Austin Scott Lombardi (photo, center), tells the story of a son of Italian immigrants, the man known as the “Little Flower” (his first name in Italian), a lawyer who fought for the poor and disenfranchised, “working on the side of the angels.” He became a Congressman from New York who bravely took on the corruption of Tammany Hall, then was a distinguished soldier in World War I and, after an initial defeat, the city’s mayor.

The show is two and a half hours but, with its spirit of an old-time musical and the energy of the young cast, it never drags. Carl Sprague has designed a set made up largely of cutouts of famous NYC buildings and a few tables and chairs, all of which can be pushed on an off stage easily, and replicas of old newspapers cover the stage floor.

David Murin’s costumes are a delight, especially when we move into the 1920s — love those black and rhinestone flapper dresses.

Michael Callahan has choreographed lively dancing that fills the small stage. I especially liked the ballroom dancing for “Till Tomorrow,” a moving number marking Fiorello’s departure for the war.

The singing is strong and clear. Rebecca Brudner, playing Fiorello’s first wife, Thea (in photo with Lombardi), gives an exquisite performance of “When Did I Fall in Love,” probably the show’s best-known song, where she reveals her surprise at how deeply she has fallen in love with her husband over the years.

I also appreciated Chelsea Cree Groen who plays Dora, a striking factory worker Fiorello helps early in his career. She has a beautiful voice and good comic timing.

Music director Evan Zavada has arranged the score for two pianos and a violin, and this simplicity works just fine.

It’s a treat to go to a show about a good guy who stays good, with cheery music and actors who break into song and dance without a moment’s notice. As I said, a truly old-fashioned musical. In this season of vile politics with not a good guy to be seen, it’s refreshing to have this fantasy.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Leonard Bernstein lives in Hershey Felder's 'Maestro'


He entered from the back of the theatre, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. Then Hershey Felder turned to the audience at 59E59 Theaters and for the next hour and 45 minutes straight brought Leonard Bernstein’s life and talent to life in his one-man biographical play with music Maestro, which opened yesterday and runs through Oct. 16.

Felder brought such passion to his performance that it was easy to think we were actually being addressed by the great conductor and composer himself. The show, directed by Joel Zwick with a book by Felder, brings together brilliant storytelling and piano performances of the music of Bernstein and others.

From Francois-Pierre Couture’s set consisting of little more than a grand piano, Felder takes on— often comically — the roles of Bernstein’s Russian immigrant father and the artists who inspired him, and he tells stories about his family’s background, his wife, Felicia Montealegre, and his numerous homosexual relationships. Classical compositions and singing, especially songs from Bernstein’s Broadway shows like West Side Story and On the Town, accent the storytelling.

We learn that Bernstein met his fate when he was about 10 and his aunt gave her upright piano to his family. As soon as he put his fingers to the ivories he was enchanted.

“I went over to touch a note, and a second and a third, and somehow, by some miracle, I managed to find a chord, and I feel in love.”

He was able to play by ear songs he heard at school, much to the dismay of his father who thought he should use his hands to make money so they wouldn't have to “live like poor immigrants, chasing away from bill collectors.”

Leonard pursued his music anyway, taking $1 piano lessons from a neighbor with money he earned “with these little jobs I had for myself.” After a year, though. she told him she had taught him all she could and recommended he study at the New England Conservatory. But his father refused to pay the $3 per lesson, saying such a bright boy should grow up to be a rabbi, not a klezmer. Leonard earned the money this time by teaching piano to neighborhood children. His father later would discover how well this paid off.

After years of study and gaining recognition, a 25-year-old Bernstein, hungover from late night partying, received a 9 a.m. call that would change his life. Now an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he was to be a last-minute substitute for guest conducer Bruno Walter that afternoon at 3 — for a live national broadcast.

“Such a thing hadn’t happened before in anyone’s memory at the New York Philharmonic if it ever happened at all,” he says. “I was backstage, just before the performance, pacing like a madman, can you imagine? Twenty-five years old — the pressure — the whole nation and not even one rehearsal.”

A recording of the Schumann Manfred Overture plays and Felder conducts. I felt I was in a concert hall, one of the many times I was transported during this show.

“After Schumann’s Manfred Overture came Strauss’ ‘Don Quixote’ and I blew the roof off of Carnegie Hall. The next morning, the story calling me a ‘genius’, a natural, the first-ever born, bred, educated, all-American conductor, appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was picked up all over the world. . . a 25-year-old skinny Jewish kid from Lawrence, Massachusetts, conducting one of the greatest ensembles in the world.”

Over the years international success followed, although not in his personal life. In the end, though, Felder’s Bernstein rages that his legacy is to be known as a great conductor and not a composer. He lists his achievements, which include creating a symphony orchestra for the State of Israel and conducting the entire of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from the fall of the Berlin Wall in a globally televised broadcast, plus hundreds and hundreds of concerts all over the world, dozens upon dozens of recordings, and composition after composition.

“But you know what? No one gives a God-damn about conductors. The only ones they care about are composers. All of them have serious pieces, at least one serious work that every single one of you know, that each of you can sing the theme of . . . ‘ta-da-da-da.” He challenges the audience to a group sing of something from an opera or sonata of his or his Mass. The lack of response makes his point. He ends as he began, singing “Somewhere” from West Side Story.

Whatever regrets Bernstein may have had, I would hope if he saw Felder’s portrayal of him he would understand he was a great gift to the world. As is Felder in this production. I want to see more of his solo shows, which include George Gershwin Alone, Monsieur Chopin and Beethoven.

After his curtain call Felder returned to the stage and, in honor of yesterday’s 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, paid tribute to another great American composer, Irving Berlin, leading the audience in singing “God Bless America.” It was a beautiful end to a beautiful afternoon.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Name Three

     Can you name three African-American women who lived before 1865?  Valerie M. Joyce asks this question to people young and old and rarely finds anyone who can meet the challenge.

     “That’s 250 years of women in this country,” she notes.  “Why can’t we name more of them?”

   Joyce, an associate professor in Villanova University’s theatre department, first asked herself this question five years ago while doing historical research in an unrelated field.  Reading a book of laws, she came upon a reference to an indentured servant in the Virginia Colony in 1649 who was forced to stand in a white shroud and recite a psalm of repentance for having fornicated with a white man.

    In a moment of inspiration, she pictured her graduate acting student Kimberly S. Fairbanks bringing that woman and her public shaming to life.  Although she is white and had never written a play, Joyce felt called to tell the story of that long ago black woman in dramatic form. Through extensive research of slave narratives, memoirs, diaries, court records, poems, public addresses and newspaper advertisements she fashioned “I Will Speak for Myself,” a play giving voice to the stories of 16 women who were nurses, slaves, educators and activists in America from the Colonial days to the Civil War.  Fairbanks portrays them all.

     “This had nothing to do with my education or dissertation,” Joyce said.  “I had no African-American history.  I saw a vision of Kimberly wrapped in that white sheet and I didn't look back.”

    Joyce and Fairbanks sat at the empty bar in 59E59 Theaters where “I Will Speak for Myself” was being presented before heading to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe [Note: It is Festival Fringe rather than fringe festival], the world’s largest arts festival, where it will be performed Aug. 22 through 27.

     “These were real women I did not know and I feel honored and blessed and that they are speaking through me,” Fairbanks said.  “As an actress I don’t often get to research people and allow them to be heard.  I feel them before I go out and I say, ‘Please be with me.’”

     The show presented in New York had been pared to 45 minutes from 81 to meet the requirements for Edinburgh. Five women’s stories had to be sacrificed and others shortened. The staging, under Joyce’s direction, is simple, just a few props for Fairbanks to use.  Projections of old photos showing little girls in party dresses and elderly women with weary faces effectively set the scene before the show begins and provide the name, date and location for each new woman portrayed. 

     Joyce used the women’s own words when available and chose whom to portray based on “if I could imagine a moment of dramatic conflict in their life, a very specify actable moment.”

     Some of the women express their faith, although Joyce says this wasn’t planned.

     “It is there, the deep faith and spirituality just came.  It was not an agenda.”

     Fairbanks thinks this is to be expected.

     “How else could they survive?  They had to have faith.”

     Joyce and Fairbanks say they each have “a lot of faith,” although they aren’t part of any congregation.  Joyce calls herself “a believing Catholic” who attended Villanova for graduate and undergraduate school and “ran back as fast as I could to be a professor there.”  Fairbanks says she “a believing Episcopalian” who grew up in that tradition in Wallingford, PA.  “Before every performance I thank God and my angels,” she said.

     It was actually the misuse of religion that gave birth to the play.  Joyce was struck by the injustice of making the young indentured servant, Mary, do public penance for something she had no control over.  She would have been forcefully brought to a country that wasn’t her own, abused by her master, then made to speak with everyone looking at her in a language that wasn’t hers and profess in a faith that wasn’t hers.

     She portrays this by showing Mary in her white robe, holding a rod and standing in front of a chapel beside the Elizabeth River in Virginia Colony. “Have mercy upon me, o God, according to thy loving kindness: according to the multitude of thy compassions put away mine iniquities. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”

     The prayer continues in a recording of Mary’s voice while the angry words of her heart are expressed simultaneously, with an African drum beating insistently. “Master Cornelius, you made me forsake my gods and baptized me in the Church of England. Your wife taught me this psalm of penitence.  You know William Watts is not my lover. Our ‘filth sin” was not of my desire. You know he comes into the barn at night and forces me to comply.  With a knife at my throat so I don’t make a sound.”

   Both voices come together again to conclude: “The sacrifices of God are a contrite spirit: a contrite & a broken heart, o God, thou wilt not despise.” 

     The racial hatred of the characters’ era is not as extreme now, but it is still quite present, Fairbanks says.  

     “We’re able to see it now,” she said, mentioning the influence of social media.  “There’s still a fear of someone else.  It’s been learned, the thought that someone else is not worthy.  Now you can see it.”

     She said she was “not surprised at all” that the Ku Klux Klan became a factor in the presidential race.  “Racism needs to stop.  We’re too educated to hold onto those beliefs.” 

     Perhaps, though, we are not educated enough in some areas.  When Joyce asks her “Can you name . . .” question, some people mention Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, but are hard pressed to think of a third black woman from the era.

     “I’m fascinated that we can’t name more,” she says.  “We can all name the white men but never the black women.  There’s a complete blind spot in our education. They’re not in the textbooks. No one was writing about them and they couldn’t write for themselves.  I hope people will come away with knowing 11 more now.”

Monday, August 8, 2016

Alice in Black and White

     From what I have read about her, the Victorian era photographer Alice Austen was a fascinating woman.  Unfortunately, as presented in Robin Rice’s disjointed play Alice in Black and White, which opened last night at 59E59 Theaters, she comes off as rather bland and frivolous.

   Rice introduces us to Alice as an 11 year old in 1876 living an upper middle class life in the family home, Clear Comfort Farm, on Staten Island with her transcendentalist grandfather (Ted Lesley) and her mother (Shannon Woolley Allison), an angry woman who has been abandoned by her husband, Alice’s father.  Jennifer Thalman Kepler (left in photo), under the direction of Kathi E.B. Ellis, bounces around trying unsuccessfully to look and sound like a child.  This is the first of many misdirections by Ellis.  

     It is at this age that Alice develops her interest in photography, an interest that would lead into a life as a bold street photographer, something unheard of for a woman of her time.  Rather than focusing on her career — and her love affair with Gertrude Tate (Laura Ellis, right), a woman who would become her life partner — Rice dilutes Alice’s story with secondary plots that keep intruding.

     In the one, set in 1951, that most often overtakes Alice’s story, Rice gives us Oliver Jensen (Joseph Hatfield), the historian who searched for her negatives to publish them.  This might have worked if it were less obtrusively developed, but Rice blows this plot line into a battle of the sexes as Oliver spars with the prim Historical Society receptionist Sally Lally (Trina Fischer). Their unconvincing story interprets Alice’s repeatedly.

     The play won the StageWrite Women's Theatre Initiative Award and received its world premiere in Louisville, produced by Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, which revived its production for the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Alice's birth.  I’m sorry to say that as staged at 59E59, the writing, direction and acting all come off as an amateur production. 

  Too bad for Austen, who deserves a better presentation.   Photography was an exotic enterprise when when she began pursuing it.  Her life spanned two centuries — from 1866 to 1952 — and in that time she lived on her terms, capturing more than 8,000 images.   Thirty-five hundred of these are known to exist today.  They include family portraits and documentary-style shots of workers in New York.  She also spent years at quarantine stations photographing immigrants.  I got no sense of this depth from Rice’s offering, although scenic designer Christé Lunsford makes nice use of Austen’s photos in projections around the stage.

     The most involved I felt in Alice’s life was at the end of the play when she is destitute and disabled, living in a home for the indigent.  Kepler speaks no words, but conveys Alice’s humanity in her silent dignity sitting alone in her wheelchair. This is a relief after all the busyness of the production.

     At the start of the play Rice has Alice define her life’s purpose.  I hope one day this will be better dramatized. 

     “I’m a preservationist,” she says.  “My photographs might find their way to an historical museum some day, but they’re history, not art.  That vase was brought from Germany wrapped in this quilt over 100 years ago by Granpa’s sister.  The story is what matters, not what the vase could bring at auction.  Preserving the past, that’s what matters. Money comes, money goes.  A dollar today will be a penny tomorrow, but that vase has intrinsic value.  I won’t waste time on stupid stuff.”

     Austen’s childhood home on Staten Island has been turned into a museum, the Alice Austen House, devoted to her life and work.  I’d like to visit it, then I would like to see Austen’s life done as a one-woman play.  Secondary characters could be conveyed by a change in voice, but the story would remain centered on this strong woman who lived against the grain in her choice of career and life partner.  

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

“I can’t do it like this!” protests the writer EITAN KATZEN to the BEARDED MAN, the SURVEY TAKER and the PIZZA DELIVERY woman who have come knocking at his door. Brandishing weapons, they make the stakes clear: a story or your life! So the writer held hostage to these three strange muses begins to weave his tales, played out on the stage by the same characters that are holding him captive. 

Based on eight stories from the latest anthology by award-winning Israeli author and filmmaker Etgar Keret, Suddenly, A Knock at the Door is a celebration of storytelling and the magic of art—an ensemble piece written for six actors and two musicians playing more than 30 different roles. It is a comic drama of a modern writer weaving extra-ordinary tales in the middle of Tel Aviv. Here stories are the currency, a matter of life and death. Here, stories make us real and teach us (with a nod to Scheherazade) how to face the difficulties of life—from the absurd to the unbearable—without resorting to violence or abusing your power.

Suddenly, A Knock at the Door, written by Robin Goldfin and directed by David L. Carson, will be presented by Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., June 2 through 19.  It will feature live music composed by Oren Neiman and performed by Oren Neiman and Gilad Ben-Zvi. 

Visit or call SmartTix at 212-868-4444.

Jeffrey Swan Jones*
Antonio Minino
Alyssa Simon*
Kenneth Talberth*
Stephen Thornton
Elanna White

Playwright Robin Goldfin writes: “Etgar Keret is one of Israel’s most celebrated writers. He is the author of six collections of stories that have been translated into more than thirty languages, and most recently the memoir THE SEVEN GOOD YEARS, published first in English. In the U.S., his work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Harper's Magazine and The Paris Review. He has also been a frequent contributor on NPR's This American Life. What a pleasure it has been to adapt the stories of this master storyteller to make a new play!" Visit Etgar Keret's official website here.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Jesse Tyler Ferguson is fully engaged in 'Fully Committed'

I really enjoyed the first half hour of Fully Committed, Becky Mode’s one-man play featuring Jess Tyler Ferguson as Sam Callaghan, an actor working as a reservations manager at “a world-renowned, ridiculously red-hot Manhattan restaurant.” It was the remaining hour that bored me as the same jokes were repeated over and over in what is really a long “Saturday Night Live” type skit than a play.

Under the direction of Jason Moore, Ferguson, a theatre veteran well known now for his role on “Modern Family,” plays more than 40 characters, mostly callers desperately trying to get reservations or others who work at the restaurant where dinner prices range between $250 and $350 a person and which bills its food as “molecular gastronomy.” Among the offering for one night are “crispy deer lichen atop a slowly deflating scent-filled pillow, dusted with edible dirt, smoked cuttlefish risotto in a cloud of dry ice infused with pipe tobacco and nitro-frozen shaved foie gras enshrouded in a liquid chicken-filled orb.”

Sam works nonstop, pushing buttons to answer the phone, listening to desperate pleadings, putting callers on hold, checking computerized schedules and darting across the room to deal with the diva chef on another line. Ferguson handles the part with the right level of intensity and humor. I only wish he had had a more developed play with which to work.

One of the funniest callers was Bryce, Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal assistant, whom Ferguson portrays in an extremely gay voice (actually many of his characters sound a bit like gay men, even a southern woman). Paltrow strikes me as one of the more self-involved of the Hollywood set, and Bryce’s requests reflect that. He says Gwyneth wants to come in this weekend — the restaurant is always booked three months in advance, hence the title fully committed — and wants a “round, freestanding table,” no legumes, a male-only waitstaff, “an all-vegan tasting menu that’s a locally-sourced, no-fat, no-salt, no-dairy, no-sugar, no-chicken, no-meat, no-fish, no-soy, no- rice, no-foam, no-corn tasting menu for 15, okay?”

This is in Bryce’s first call. Several more with Paltrow’s queenly demands are made and are funny in their narcissistic precision. Bryce calls back later to say, “When Gwyneth was in last time, she found the lighting a little harsh, so if table 17 is too close to the sconce, rather than change tables, what she’d like to do is change bulbs, from whatever it is you’re using to something a little softer, which we would be more than happy to supply. . . Sam, don’t worry! I’ll send my assistant over and we’ll take care of it. . . His name is Tasha and I’ll have him run over with some Edison bulbs at like 5:00.”

It’s a delightful mocking of today’s shallow celebrities. Among the other A-listers with reservations or hoping to get them are Malcolm Gladwell, Helen Mirren and Diane Sawyer.

As if his job isn’t miserable enough with all its stress, Sam’s working environment is dismal, a basement office with exposed pipes, ancient filing cabinets and a metal table holding the ever-ringing phone. Derek McLane’s set is appropriately unappealing, making Sam’s “day job” seem even more like hell.

Fully Committed was first produced Off-Broadway in 1999. Mode, who based the play on her experience working in the high-end restaurant world, updated the script to reflect today’s foodie (I detest that word and all it stands for) culture and obsession with off-beat cuisine and status restaurants. It plays the Lyceum Theatre through July 24.