Saturday, December 30, 2017

Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns

     The first time I put on pianist Deanna Witkowski’s new CD, “Make the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns,” I was busy in my apartment and not really listening. Notes wafted in and out of my consciousness, though, and I would stop because they were so beautiful.  

     The next time I played it was under similar circumstances, except then I found myself singing along, not fully aware I was singing until I realized I know that music.  Witkowski, an award-winning composer following in the paths of Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams, has reimagined 14 classic Christian hymns into her world of jazz for trio arrangements that one can listen to for inspiration by day or for entertainment with a glass of wine by night.  I’ve been enjoying them both ways.

   Makes the Heart to Sing is part of a larger project that includes the publication of a folio of Witkowski's arrangements. 

     "It's an instrumental jazz trio record, but the mission is to get this music played more widely outside of church and to bring these jazz interpretations into circulation inside churches,” she says.  “The album is almost a demo for church music directors, and the arrangements are meant for congregational singing.”

     Joining Witkowski on the recording are Daniel Foose on bass and Scott Latzky on drums.  I love the way they move from a lively “Hyfrydol” (“Loves Divine, All Love Excelling”) to a gentle “There is a Balm in Gilead.”  With Epiphany on the horizon Jan. 6, I’ve especially been enjoying the trio’s swinging interpretation of “We Three Kings.”  It is cabaret room ready!

     This is the second CD of sacred jazz I have from Witkowski, winner of the 2002 Great American Jazz Piano Competition.  I’ve been enjoying From This Place since its release in 2009.

Friday, December 22, 2017



It wasn’t that long ago
that he’d spoken these stars
into being
and this woman’s life
was just a thought in his mind.
He’d smiled down on her birth
and entered her name in his pages
perhaps with an asterisk
denoting plans too sacred to be spoken
but pondered in his heart.
Now, newborn,
in wide-eyed wonder
he gazes up at his creation.
His hand that hurled the world
holds tight his mother’s finger.
Holy light
spills across her face
and she weeps
silent wondering tears
to know she holds the One
who has so long held her.

By Joan Rae Mills
Compiled by Sarah Arthur

Friday, December 15, 2017

Glory Happening

     I like to read from a spiritual book as part of my morning prayer.  Right now I’m enjoying Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Everyday Places by Kaitlin B. Curtice, a Native American Christian author, speaker and worship leader.

     The book has an incarnational spirit, with its stories of everyday life followed by the moving and straightforward prayers Curtice has written.  I’m especially touched by the one that follows her reflection on The Practice of Patience.  She writes, “Hydrate our souls with the kind power of your Mystery.”  I love the idea of asking God to hydrate my soul. I say that now as I walk out my front door each day.  

     The book is divided into eight parts, each with about a half-dozen reflections on her life and how she finds the glory of God in its ordinariness. Sections include Creation, Light, Voice and Kingdom.  A scripture passage begins each reflection.

     "The Kingdom, in this case, is the daily manifestation of shalom," she writes in her Introduction. "The Kingdom is presence, a full alertness of living here and now.  It is living within the reality of peace in every circumstance.  And we move toward Kingdom as we live in glory, in all its manifestations for us.  Like a timeline, like seasons, we experience glory as a process."

     Glory Happening is a reminder to be in the moment because that is where we find God. When we take time to notice, we find that wherever we are, God is. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Never give up on your dreams

The good work of The Salvation Army was celebrated in music and testimony Tuesday night at its 70th Annual Gala held at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square.

Philanthropist, businessman and radio talk-show host John Catsimatidis was presented with The Pinnacle of Achievement Award, The Salvation Army Greater New York Division’s highest honor, for his years of generosity to the organization and to many others.

“John Catsimatidis is younger than The Salvation Army, but he’s incredible because of his spirit and incredible heart,” said Rita Cosby, the Emmy-winning TV host, radio star and bestselling author who hosted the event. She likened his generosity to that of The Salvation Army, citing The Army’s 2,707,097 meals served to the hungry last year in the Greater New York area, as well as the 500,409 nights of shelter and 605,695 days of childcare provided.

“Think about that,” she said.  “These are incredible statistics. Helping people in need – that’s what The Salvation Army is about. Period.”

Throughout the evening, The Salvation Army’s Greater New York Youth Band and Chorus performed, featuring a euphonium solo by Devonte Thompson on “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and Danielle Beckvermit singing a powerful “O Holy Night.” Devonte and Danielle are two young adults from Salvation Army music programs who overcame personal challenges to excel in music.

“You put Carnegie Hall to shame,” Cosby said of all the young musicians.

The Old and the New

In his Invocation, Rabbi Ari Lamm said the work of The Salvation Army followed in the tradition of one of our great Biblical forebears.

“Those gathered here tonight are true children of Abraham,” he said.  “Like Abraham before them, may they be a blessing to all people.”

While tradition was a highlight of the evening, change was also celebrated. Lt. Colonel Ricardo Fernandez stepped into the role of Greater New York Divisional Commander this past summer. Lt. Colonel Ricardo thanked those in attendance for taking time from their busy holiday schedules to be there.

“New York is a busy place during the holidays,” he said.  “The Salvation Army is busy right along with it.”

He spoke of the holiday relief programs that just the week before had served Thanksgiving dinners to thousands of homeless and hungry people throughout the Greater New York area. 

“And we are just getting started,” he said.

“The holidays are not the only season that we are hard at work,” he continued, noting The Salvation Army’s efforts during one of the worst hurricane seasons on record. “In every place the hurricanes struck, from Texas to the U.S. Virgin Islands, The Salvation Army was there, providing an extensive service to hundreds of thousands of victims and first responders.  Joining these operations were members of our own Greater New York Emergency Services team.” 

He praised the Division’s efforts in Puerto Rico, where roughly 10 percent of New Yorkers have roots.

“But what about the day-to-day disasters in our own communities, the kind that don’t make the headlines?  The Salvation Army is there, too, working just as hard. We serve almost a million people a year throughout New York City, Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley.”

How to Be “HIP”

     In his Christmas Message, Pastor A.R. Bernard, founder of the Christian Cultural Center, explained the work of The Salvation Army as being “HIP.” The “H” in that word stands for history, he said.  The “I” represents issues that cause strife, the unresolved history, and the “P” is whether we get involved with these issues or turn away. What makes the difference is when the issues become personal.

     The only way we are going to change what is happening in our world, Pastor Bernard said, “is when we understand we have to take it personally and not feel we’re removed from it. We are our brother’s keeper.”

     He said God showed us an example of this by giving us His son.

     “God looked at the world and He took it personally.”

Here to Help

When it came time to receive his award, John Catsimatidis showed his humility – and his humor.  Looking out over his standing ovation, he joked, “Nobody move.”

He then talked about what was important to him.

“I’m not here to be honored, I’m here to help The Salvation Army,” he said. He also wanted to call attention to the continuing hardship in Puerto Rico, from which his daughter, Andrea, had just returned and shared with him her stories. He called on the government to get involved.

“These are American citizens,” he said.  “For them to be suffering without power, that’s not right.”

He said he was going to double the amount he had planned to give to The Salvation Army.

The evening culminated in a spirited performance by Mike Yung, who had been singing in the New York subways for 37 years until last year when his interpretation of the Righteous Brothers classic hit “Unchained Melody” was recorded and went viral. Within a week he was in L.A. to appear on The Late, Late Show with James Corden. Then it was on to America’s Got Talent where he earned a semifinalist spot on Season 12.  He is now recording a CD.

“Nothing happens to you before God says it’s time,” he said in a video presentation before he sang. “Never give up on your dreams.”

After a knockout performance of “the song that made me famous,” he was joined by the Greater New York Youth Band and Chorus for “The Christmas Song” and a rousing “New York, New York.”

The evening’s closer, the Rev. John C. Lin, had a hard task.

“How do you offer a benediction after this?” he asked, before calling upon God’s grace for all those present and their work. 

Friday, December 1, 2017


The first guest arrived around 8 on the morning of The Salvation Army Greater New York Division’s annual Thanksgiving Day dinner, even though doors to The Army’s 14th Street headquarters in Manhattan wouldn’t open until 11. By the time the servings were finished at 2, more than 600 people had enjoyed turkey dinner with all the trimmings, while taking home gifts of cookies, socks and toiletries.  
This annual Thanksgiving dinner --- The Salvation Army’s largest in the New York City area --- is believed to be the oldest free Thanksgiving dinner in the city, and possibly the entire country. This year’s dinner was once again prepared by world-class caterer Great Performances, and paid for by The Salvation Army.
“It’s become a tradition here,” said Auxiliary Captain Giovanny Guerrero, Commanding Officer of The Salvation Army’s New York Temple Corps Community Center a few doors down. The center hosted a “companion” dinner for guests not able to navigate the stairs at headquarters.  “Our main goal is to get more unity in the community and especially among families.  We want to create a family ambiance so people won’t feel strange or singled out. They will feel they’ve reached home.”
Combined with sit-down dinners offered throughout the holiday week at locations around the Greater New York area, The Salvation Army served Thanksgiving dinners to close to 5,000 people, not counting the thousands of turkeys and chickens distributed to adults and families in need and hundreds of meals delivered to the homebound.
  For the nearly 400 guests at The Salvation Army’s Freeport Corps Community Center on Long Island, dinner included pumpkin cheese cake, a signature dish of The Cheesecake Factory, which sponsored the meals and sent volunteers.

“It means a lot to provide a meal,” said Major Raquel Ramirez, Commanding Officer of the Freeport Corps. “We have people with a lot of disadvantages. We also have a senior center and a good number of the seniors came.  We have low-income people who couldn’t afford a good meal.  The spirit was good and the food was delicious.”

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Could it happen again?

     When Jeanne Sakata saw a documentary about a Japanese-American college student in World War II who fought against the mass incarceration of his people all the way to the Supreme Court, she wanted to know more about this civil rights champion.  Much more.

     “It was shocking to me that I had never heard about Gordon’s story,” she said, referring to Gordon Hirabayashi.  “I come from a Japanese-American family in northern California.  There was a lot of pride in our community at being Japanese-American.”

   Hirabayashi’s story also had personal resonance for her.  Sakata’s father, Tommy, and her aunts and uncles, all born in America to Japanese immigrant parents, had been imprisoned when he was in high school as part of the United States government’s forced removal and mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.

  “I was enthralled,” she said. “I felt like I had discovered a treasure, a great American saga.”

     As an actress, she envisioned this American story being told on an American stage. Saying she became “obsessed” with it in 1997 as she thought about the documentary, she researched all she could find about Hirabayashi’s gradual awakening as a University of Washington student to the racial injustice, leading to  his bold defiance of curfew and exclusion orders, which landed him in jail before he took his cause to the Supreme Court in 1943, where the court ruled against him. Forty years later Hirabayashi v. United States was reopened and he was victorious.

     “The story took over my life,” she said.  “I went to bed thinking about it and I woke up thinking about it.  I have a deep personal, psychic connection to it.  Writing the play was very redemptive for me.”

    Just as this ugly chapter in American history had shaped Hirabayashi’s life — and Sakata’s father’s family’s — it also began to transform Sakata’s. Over the course of a decade, her obsession led her from actress to playwright.  The work that was born, Hold These Truths, has played around the country since its world premiere in 2007 at East West Players in Los Angeles, under its original title, Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi. 

     The one-man play will have its first post-presidential election production at New York’s Sheen Center for Thought & Culture from Dec. 3 to 20 under the direction of Lisa Rothe. Different productions will play at Lyric Stage Company of Boston from Dec. 1 through 31 and at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in the spring.

     Sakata spoke about her journey with this work from her car while parked in a shady residential block of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. She had been helping her husband, a psychotherapist, move his office.  Worried that one piece of wall art would be damaged in the moving truck, she took it in her car and stopped for a 90-minute phone interview.

     Hold These Truths’s Off-Broadway run is a revival of the show that had its New York premiere in 2012 starring Joel de la Fuente, who won a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Solo Performance and who will reprise the role at the Sheen Center.  Even though it was seen in the city just five years ago, Sakata  and de la Fuente think the play has a message that should be heard again.

     “We really do need to see an American story about what it is to be an American and what the Constitution is,” de la Fuente said during a telephone interview from his home in the New York suburbs.  “It’s a profound and living document but only if we fight for it.  If we don’t, it’s only a piece of paper.  So many people like Gordon show it can be more than that, but there’s a price.  You have to not only have faith, but stand up for that faith.”

  De la Fuente, whose parents emigrated from the Philippines, has performed the show more than a half dozen times and is encouraged by responses the show receives during audience talkbacks.

     “Gordon was the kind of person Americans revere,” he said.  “He has strong faith and a code of beliefs and he stands by those beliefs in a climate of tremendous unrest and fear.  When people become afraid and feel threatened, all kinds of crazy things happen. There’s a rush to surrender human rights.  After 9/11 people were even volunteering to surrender those hard fought for and hard won rights we have that make our country what it is.”

     Rothe has been with the project since being asked to direct a reading of it in 2009.  

     “I’m not changing anything at all,” she said during a telephone interview from a diner in midtown Manhattan. “It speaks even louder to what is happening now.  In the cycle of life, we think, ‘Oh, this could happen again.’”

     As she has in the past, Rothe is keeping the staging simple.

     “In a one-person show, portraying 36 different characters, the focus is on the actor less than on the set.  It’s three chairs, one suitcase, some books and Joel and that’s it.”

     De la Fuente transforms the chairs into a courtroom, a car, or whatever the scene calls for. 

     The play opens and closes with Hirabayashi as a retired professor in his mid-60s and goes back in time for him to tell his story.  The political and social forces operating in the 1940s are brought out through Hirabayashi’s conversations with the other characters in his life.  Sakata drew heavily from Hirabayashi’s letters to a friend, which are on file at the University of Washington.  The friend had saved all of them.

     “I don’t know if I could have written the play without them,” Sakata says.  “They gave me the voice of the younger Gordon.  When I met him he was a retired professor in his 70s, of a different time and voice.  In the letters he’s just a young idealistic college student dealing with this travesty. I saw the force of his personality shining through.”

     And she got to experience that force in her two interviews with Hirabayashi, first at his brother’s house in the Bay area of San Francisco and later at his home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where he was a retired sociology professor from the University of Alberta.

     “Gordon was a natural storyteller,” she said.  “He loved people. One of the things that was essential to Gordon was his curiosity.  He never stopped learning.”

   In writing about the World War II racism, Sakata purposefully avoided using the term internment camp, substituting instead mass incarceration or imprisoned. 

     “It’s not really descriptive of what the experience was really like, American citizens incarcerated behind barbed wire.  I use the term mass incarceration because it was a mass incarceration of a whole population of people.”

     Sakata’s father died 20 years ago and so never saw her play.  He rarely spoke about his time of imprisonment, and then only in hushed tones, but she believes the play would have touched him. 

     Hirabayashi, who died in 2012 at 93, also never got to see it.   Sakata had lost touch with him for a couple of years when she was particularly busy with acting. When she got back to working on the play she called Hirabayashi and learned from his wife, Susan, that he had Alzheimer’s Disease. 

     “I think it would have meant a lot to Gordon,” she said.  “He saw his battle as representing all Americans at any point who might have their Constitutional rights threatened.”

     Hirabayashi’s awakening to those rights is a turning point in the play.  One night when he is running across the University of Washington campus to get to his room before the curfew imposed by the government on people of Japanese ancestry, he notices an American flag and stops.

     “Why am I running,” he asks himself.  “I was born here.  Raised here.  I am an American citizen.”  He returns to the library and his civil rights stand begins.

    President Barack Obama awarded Hirabayashi the Presidential Medal of Freedom three months after his death.

     “It’s really a cautionary tale,” Sakata said.  “It seems like daily there are assaults on our freedom.  Gordon’s story is more timely than ever.  I used to be optimist and think that it could never happen again but now I’m not so sure.  It all depends on whether the white supremacists can be stopped.  For some of us, the election of Trump was a shock.  If that could happen, what else could happen?  I’m very uncertain about the future of our country.”     

     Hold These Truths offers hope.  In all the writings of and about Hirabayashi, it was words of his own that Sakata knew should end the play, and so they do:

    “I am somewhat aware of what was, and is.
     I have a glimpse of what ought to be.

     I seek to live as though the ought to be, is.”

Friday, November 10, 2017

Babette's Feast

     Actress Abigail Killeen first heard of the 1988 Danish film “Babette’s Feast” in a sermon at a church in lower Manhattan in the 1990s.  Curious, she watched the movie, which had won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and enjoyed it, but “as a young woman in my 20s at the time I thought it was beautiful but it didn’t pierce my heart the way age does for us.”

     Fast forward to 2007 when the movie was the subject of a sermon at a different Manhattan church. This time Killeen learned that the film was based on a short story by Danish author Isak Dinesen. She read the story and it was then she grasped the message of “overwhelming and scandalous grace.”  And it changed her life.

    For the last decade she has devoted herself to adapting the story for the stage. That mission will be fulfilled in January when the theatrical production of “Babette’s Feast” has its world premiere at Portland Stage Company, Maine’s leading professional theatre.

     “I believe it’s bigger than I and it’s a call that is strong,” she says.  “It’s been my full-time, uncompensated job.  My husband jokes that our third child is named Babette.”

     It hasn’t really been her full-time job for the last decade.   Killeen, 42, spoke about her experience as the play’s conceiver and developer one morning in midtown Manhattan while in the city for the show’s casting. She was on sabbatical from her position as an associate theatre professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME.

    “The story hit me in such a different way than the film.  It’s such a work of beauty.  I thought there’s more to mine with Babette being a political refugee.  That could really get teased out.  The film was so focused on the food and the preparation.  We can’t do that onstage so we’re free to examine the effects of the feast.” 

     In the story and film, Babette is a refugee from 19th century revolutionary Paris. She has seen her husband and son killed, and she herself has participated in the uprisings.  A friend writes to two spinster sisters he knew years ago on the northern most edge of Norway and asks them to take Babette in. They do, and she becomes their housekeeper, living in the cold and dreary town with its austere religious residents.

     After many years, Babette learns she has won a large  sum of money from a lottery a friend had enrolled her in.  Rather than return to Paris and live a comfortable life for the rest of her days, she spends the entire sum on importing rich foods and wines for a grand feast she spends days preparing for the townsfolk, who have spent their lives dining on salted cod and bread and ale soup.  

     In reading the story when she did, Killeen discerned a different focus from the movie she had seen years before. She collaborated with Rose Courtney, a theatre colleague, to develop the script, which incorporates much of the language of Dinesen’s story. Courtney penned the final script.  The play is being helmed by Karin Coonrod, a New York-based experimental director.

     The script has had a thorough development process, including a sold-out workshop production in New York and the support of New York Theatre Workshop, a major developer of new theatrical work in the United States.

     “We’re in a different culture than when the film came out 30 years ago,” Killeen says.  “We’re in the middle of the largest refugee crisis since World War II.  This is a timely story.  It’s classic, but the themes are vital for today.”

     With that in mind, Killeen thought it was important to premiere the show in Portland, which is a refugee resettlement city.   It also influenced her decision to cast a woman of color to play Babette. [This part has not been cast now but if you check with me before going to print I should have a name for you.]  

     “It’s part of paying attention to the moment,” Killeen said.  “This is what a refugee looks like. Our casting has to reflect that.  It’s not a statement but an honest way to tell the truth.”

   The two other major roles will be the sisters, one of whom Killeen will play and the other will be played by Juliana Francis Kelly.  They will be joined by six ensemble members. The show runs under 90 minutes with no intermission.

     Because staging a play eight times a week with a vast amount of food would be not only difficult, but extremely expensive, Killeen has reimagined Babette’s offering.

     “We’ll be communicating in movement and music,” she said.  “There’s no food.”

     Killeen quoted director Coonrod as saying that if people walk away thinking the feast was about food, the production will have failed.

   “The feast is a banquet in a metaphorical sense,”  Killeen said.  “It’s a feast of equality.  The diners don’t understand what they’re eating.  Babette gives them an hour of the millennium, tasting the divine.  God asks us to taste him and see that it is good.  What comes upon them, they can only taste a fraction of and yet it keeps coming.  The grace is that they don’t have to understand.  They don’t have the words, but it’s showered on them in great abundance. That’s what we’re trying to get at with the feast.”

   Gina Leishman has composed original music and Aretha Aoki is the dance consultant. The production will be minimally staged to reflect the ferocity of the rocky Norwegian landscape above the Arctic Circle.  Two-time Tony winner Christopher Akerlind will be scenic and lighting designer.

     “The experience of the triune God happens in this tiny, isolated town through Babette, a complex figure, a mysterious stranger who actively participated in a violent uprising.  She’s a woman who encompasses light and dark and God uses her.”

     And she is a refugee, and her story is being told in a city with a large population of African refugees. The production team, working with Portland’s Catholic Charities and Lindsay Sterling’s Immigrant Kitchens, will offer cooking classes in which the city’s refugees will teach the locals to cook dishes from their country. Over three hours, they will prepare and eat the meals together.

    “Theatre provides a communal experience,” Killeen says.  “It is as close to a feast as any translated art form could be.  Cooking is an artistic act and so is theatre.  Fellowship in a meal is like a memory of a theatrical experience.”

     Killeen’s hope is that the show will have an immediate transfer to Off-Broadway’s Theatre at St. Clement’s after it closes in Maine on Feb. 18.  Julia Beardsley O’Brien is her producing partner in New York.

   Longterm, she dreams of taking the show to the Vatican.  That idea was planted in her by the Rev. Evan Pillbury, the rector of her Anglican church, Light of Christ, who told her the movie was a favorite of Pope Francis.  She wrote two letters to Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley asking him to inform the pontiff of her production but she received no reply.  A call by this reporter to the Cardinal’s office was unreturned. 

   By now Killeen has had her share of rejection connected to the project.  Many people told her she was crazy to pursue it, and still tell her that, just as they told the film’s director, Gabriel Axel, who fought for his ultimately Oscar-winning project long before he found acceptance. 

     “Even as people said no it was always gracious and with great respect,”  Killeen said.  “It renewed my thought that we had something.  I could let it reveal its path to me.  I had to keep shepherding it.”

Thursday, October 5, 2017

When your brain won’t cooperate, you have to get creative

Rhonda Badonda wants to function normally… Her brain has other ideas.

Dive into the shape-shifting landscape of the mind as Rhonda unscrambles a hidden medical mystery and encounters the truth of her baffling and bewildering world.

When your brain won’t cooperate, you have to get creative.

Rhonda Badonda:
The Adventures of a Girl with a Pain in Her Brain
Written & Performed by Rhonda S. Musak & Directed by Gareth Hendee
2 Performances: October 23 & 24

Presented as part of Theaterlab’s TLabShares Program, Rhonda Badonda: The Adventures of a Girl with a Pain in Her Brain (solo show) at Theaterlab, 357 W. 36th Street, 3rd FL (between 8 & 9 Avenues) for 2 performances Monday, October 23, 7:30 PM & Tuesday, October 24, 7:30 PM. Each performance will be followed by a short talkback. Tickets are $21 and can be purchased at

From the time she was a child and far into adulthood, Rhonda was squeaking by. Is she dumb? Or is it something else that is holding her back and making life so challenging? Why does she need so many self-help books and even a dating coach? At the heart of Rhonda Badonda are themes of determination and persistence tied together with a medical mystery. It is an often-hilarious autobiographical story of one woman's journey dealing with the learning disabilities that impact every area of her life—learning disabilities that had gone undiscovered.

Audiences will venture with Rhonda inside her brain, a bizarro-world terrain that shape-shifts continually leaving her lost, confused and ultimately more and more determined to get to the bottom of what's wrong with her.

"Beautiful…a credit to the solo show format. Rhonda Musak…fills the stage with motion and personality. She slips into her many characters with ease…lovingly crafted and portrayed…a story she tells with glowing wit and humor. Rhonda Badonda shines in its expression of the beauty and strangeness of the mind." Plank Magazine

Written & Performed by Rhonda S. Musak (title role of Ondine, voted one of “The Year’s Best” Gay City News), The artistic team includes: Gareth Hendee, Director (Dirty Blond – San Diego, co-directed with James Lapine; Sunday in the Park with George – Chicago, 4 Jeff Citation Awards including Best Director & Best Production of a Musical); Joan Evans, Movement Director (Stella Adler Studio); Michael Growler, Costume Design (Sunday in the Park with George – Chicago, Jeff Citation Award, Best Costume Design); Catherine Mardis, Sound Design (Associate Sound Designer for Gigi, and the Kennedy Center’s production of Little Dancer).

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Pilgrim's Progress by Ralph Vaughan Williams

     The comfort of House Beautiful. The Arming of Pilgrim. The sheer terror of war and battle. Temptations of riches, lust, and power. Denial. Hope. Struggle. Victory. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece, The Pilgrims Progress, delivers them all.

     Gloriæ Dei Cantores and Elements Theatre Company will present The Pilgrim’s Progress fully staged for the first time in 12 years since they presented the New England premiere of the work in 2005. The opera will draw audience members from across the country and abroad into a timeless story portraying the universal journey of humanity’s search for spiritual redemption.

     The opera was written as the culmination of 45 years of Vaughan Williams’s musical journey. It’s the ultimate expression of the wide variety of his musical style, exhibiting fabulous transparency of orchestration and a luminous sound.

     Set at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA, this rarely performed opera will come to life amid frescoes, mosaics, bronze, glasswork, and stone carvings depicting the story of salvation from Genesis to Revelation.

     The opera requires a 40-person main cast, a 60-person chorus, and a full orchestra — nearly a 1 to 1 ratio with the audience seating. It features almost 300 original costumes and thousands of rehearsal hours. 

     The statistics alone are staggering,” Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe said

    The opera is set against abstract projections -- cutting-edge theatre technology designed by Michael Counts, Inc. The main cast features highly acclaimed artists including Richard K. Pugsley, Andrew Nolen, Paul Scholten, Eleni Calenos, Martha Guth, Kathryn Leemhuis, Aaron Sheehan and John Orduña.

     The Pilgrim’s Progress is the featured event of an international symposium on Arts and Ecumenism commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Sponsored in part by the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust of London, it will be the first fully staged performance of the opera worldwide since it was performed in London in 2012.

     The Pilgrim’s Progress will be performed at the Church of the Transfiguration, Cape Cod, MA, on Oct. 27 and 28, and Nov. 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. Call 508-240-2400 for reservations. Ticket availability is limited. Learn more at

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Broadway Blessing -- 20th Anniversary Celebration

    Two decades ago I had a dream of creating an event that would bring the theatre community together every September to ask God’s blessing on the new season.  With the help of many people that dream became Broadway Blessing, an interfaith service of song, dance, and story that will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year.  I produced it for the first 16 years and now am happy to turn that role over to Kathryn Fisher who has put together an exciting program.  

     Please join us at 7 p.m. Sept. 18 at St. Malachy’s/The Actors’ Chapel (49th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue) for an evening that will include David Beach (Something Rotten, Mama Mia, Urinetown) and Catherine Russell, who is in Guinness World Records for most performances in the same show. She's been in The Perfect Crime Off-Broadway for 30 years.

   Project Dance, a beloved part of Broadway Blessing for the last decade, will perform and the Rev. George Drance, S.J., artistic director of Magis Theatre Company, will offer a short piece from his play *mark and serve as emcee. 

     As in the past, the service will feature its popular candle lighting ceremony and the Broadway Blessing Choir, under the direction of Stephen Fraser, will sing show tunes and lead the audience in a sing-a-long of a Broadway song at the end.  The program will be followed by a reception in the church’s West Chapel.  

     Reservations are not need. The event, which is free but contributions are welcome, is sponsored by St. Malachy’s and will feature area clergy and congregations, including from The Actors’ Temple.  

      Broadway Blessing began in 1997 after I interviewed Msgr. Michael C. Crimmins and the Rev. Joseph A. Kelly, S.J., priests at St. Malachy’s, for a profile for a Catholic magazine and they mentioned similar congregations representing Episcopal (St. Clement’s), Lutheran (St. Luke’s) and Jewish (The Actors’ Temple) members.  As a freelance writer, I saw potential for more features and ended up doing profiles of those congregations for several publications.

  In the weeks that followed I began thinking about their similarities -- especially congregants who face much rejection and therefore need to find acceptance and approval. I started envisioning a service that would bring them all together to offer comfort and strengthen faith.  I pictured it on a Monday night, when theatres are dark, that it would be free, there wouldn’t be any reserved seats for special people -- everyone would be together -- and that performers from Broadway would take part. 

     I wrote to the clergy of the four congregations and told them my idea.  Very quickly my phone began ringing and they one after the other excitedly told me how much they loved the idea. “No one’s ever thought of this,” Crimmins said.  But no one else was in the position I was in -- a journalist who goes from person to person and because of that can see connections others can’t.  

   That first Blessing attracted nearly 200 people and thanks to  Kelly, who talked up the event and was given a donation, we had a nice reception.  What touched me the most was a young woman who came up to me in tears at the end and said she was an actress and couldn’t get work and had been so down that evening she was thinking of quitting the business and going home. She told me she now felt so uplifted she would keep going. I have thought of her many times over the years when the producing got tough.  

     Broadway Blessing has been presented at St. Malachy’s, St. Luke’s, St. Clement’s, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration. We’ve featured Lynn Redgrave talking about the importance of theatre in her life, four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines reading a speech by Althol Fugard, Marian Seldes and Frances Sternhagen reading from Tennessee Williams and others, and Edward Herrmann doing a dramatic reading of the final scene of Our Town, taking on all the parts.

   Among others who have participated are Melissa Errico, Christiane Noll, James Barbour, Three Mo’ Tenors, Billy Porter, KT Sullivan, Anna Manahan, Tituss Burgess, Adam Jacobs, J. Mark McVey, Carol Hall, Ken Prymus, Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Richard Maltby Jr, Natalie Toro, Kathleen Chalfant and Broadway Inspirational Voices.

     We’ve also been blessed with original songs composed for past anniversaries by Bob Ost for our fifth, Elizabeth Swados for our 10th and Phil Hall for our 15th.

       I like to think the participants enjoy taking part as much as we love having them.  Seldes and Prymus appeared three times. This is what the late Ed Herrmann had to say before making his second Broadway Blessing appearance: 

     “It’s reassuring to know there are so many people out there you know that believe in God and want to take that part of their life and dedicate it to the theatre because theatre is a very spiritual endeavor. 

     “They come from every conceivable denomination, which I kind of like. It’s like a study in architecture of all these different buildings. They come from all kinds of disciplines and it’s just great to be among them. It’s an annual event, like with spring comes the first buds, now it’s fall and we’re here to bless our endeavors for the rest of the year and maybe some luck will come out of it, whether that’s internal or external.”

Monday, September 4, 2017

Song of the Builders

Song of the Builders
On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God -
a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside
this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.
~ Mary Oliver ~
(Why I Wake Early)