Thursday, December 20, 2018

New Book Sheds Light on Stephen Schwartz’s Recent Musicals

Long before Wicked’s composer created songs for characters like Elphaba, Glinda, and the Wizard of Oz, he wrote four shows with religious contexts: Godspell, Bernstein’s Mass, Children of Eden, and the movie The Prince of Egypt that is now being transformed into a stage musical. 
Schwartz biographer Carol de Giere’s newly revised and updated edition of Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked, (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books 2018) adds new stories to this journey. Here are a few questions and answers about the work. 
Life Upon the Sacred Stage: The stage adaptation of The Prince of Egypt film is one of the shows you cover in the second edition of your Schwartz biography. When did the project start? 
Carol de Giere: For many years DreamWorks had received letters from theatre directors wanting to stage a version of the 1998 film The Prince of Egypt. Finally, in 2013, they contacted Stephen about possibilities. Right away he said he’d like the screenwriter for the movie, Philip LaZebnik, to write the book of the musical, even though LaZebnik lives in Denmark and they’d need to do a lot of work remotely.
Sacred Stage: Were you able to get interviews on the musical during its development?
CD: Yes, I was interviewing Stephen anyway for the new edition, and then I met with Philip when he came to New York City for a reading of The Prince of Egypt musical in 2016. I devote eleven pages of the second edition to the show.
Sacred Stage: How do the collaborators begin an adaptation like this?
CD: Musicals for stage or film are usually based on source material like a novel, and in this case the film had been based on a part of the Exodus story. So the writers began by reviewing both the movie and Exodus. The movie focused on the brother story: one was Moses, and the other, in the movie (though unknown historically) was Ramses. 
LaZebnik and Schwartz decided to go further with the story implicit in the movie, that of two brothers who love each other but are forced by character and circumstance to become antagonists. Interestingly enough, the musical Wicked has a similar storyline but for the girls, Elphaba and Glinda. For The Prince of Egypt, LaZebnik and Schwartz have joked that we’re doing “Wicked with boys.”
Sacred Stage: I understand you went to The Prince of Egypt musical world premiere in 2017. Was that helpful for your research?
CD: When TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley staged a full developmental production, I flew out for the opening. It had many powerful moments, including, of course, “When You Believe,” the hit song from the movie. I gathered a group of fans for a discussion with Stephen and Philip the next day. One of the interesting things they talked about is how they always write more than they need. They know they can more easily cut than invent while they are testing something. I look forward to seeing a revised version.
Sacred Stage: Does the second edition of your book also cover Godspell, Bernstein’s Mass, and Children of Eden
CD: All of those shows were vital parts of Stephen Schwartz’s creative career, and so there are stories about how these and others developed from page and piano to stage. Because I wrote another book released in 2014, The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical, I cut back on Godspell in the new edition to make way for newer material. I interviewed Stephen further about his work with Leonard Bernstein on his theatre piece Mass and included that in chapter 6. 
Sacred Stage: What else did you include in the second Edition?
CD: I invited Stephen’s long-time collaborator Alan Menken to write a Foreword. He came up with 10 pages that I was more than happy to include. The book also covers Wicked Worldwide, The Hunchback of Notre Dame stage adaptation, some of Stephen’s newer work in Hollywood, and a catch-all chapter at the end I titled “Always More Magic to Do.” 
For the ending of the book, Stephen let me use the text of a commencement speech he gave in which he explores the necessity of bouncing back after failure and disappointment. That’s inspiration we all can use. 
FOR MORE INFORMATION or to order a copy, visit 

Photo: Stephen Schwartz and Carol de Giere

Monday, December 17, 2018

Kerry Washington is brilliant in 'American Son'

     I felt drained when I left the Booth Theatre after seeing American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown’s emotionally charged drama about race and racism as they play out in relationships, between the police and black male teenagers and between an interracial couple.  I was all in for the intense 85 minutes, directed by Kenny Leon, that present Black Lives Matter themes in the scope of one upper-middle class family in a moment of crisis.

     Kerry Washington gives a powerful performance in every word and gesture as Kendra Ellis-Connor, a mother terrified because it’s 4 a.m. and her 18-year-old son, Jamal, has not returned home and isn’t responding to texts or phone calls.  She’s at a police station in Miami trying to get help from a dim-witted white officer, Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan, in photo with Washington), who reveals his racist feelings in the questions he asks, such as does Jamal have a street name or any visible scars, tattoos or gold teeth.  His image of a black teenager seems to be that of a gang member.  

     Her son goes to a private school where he is one of only three black students.  After she provides Jamal’s physical description she throws in some personality details, such as that he likes Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  Larkin says he likes Emily Dickinson too and quotes, “It is a far, far better thing I do than I’ve ever done . . .”  When Kendra disgustingly tells him that’s Charles Dickens, he’s not sure he believes her.  “I don’t think so,” he says.

     Her son also has a white father, Scott Connor (Brian Avers in the role usually played by Steven Pasquale), who left Kendra four months before for a white woman.  This plays out interestingly as the police respond quite differently to the mother and the father.  But nothing is just black and white in any sense of that term in what both Kendra and Scott come to reveal about how they really think about blackness and their son.  (I was surprised to learn the playwright is white.)

     Besides sending him to a nearly all white school, Kendra, a psychology professor, has been careful to make sure Jamal speaks clear, well-enunciated English.  Her biggest concession to his racial identity is his name, which she accuses Scott of disliking because of its blackness.  Scott refers to his son as J rather than Jamal, defending it as “a male bonding thing.”

     What Kendra doesn’t know is that Larkin is holding out on her, waiting for a senior officer to arrive.  Jamal had been one of three black teens riding in the Lexus his parents gave him, although the registration was in his father’s name. That alone would have been enough to arouse suspicion by the police, but Jamal had recently added a bumpersticker that said SHOOT COPS in large letters and “with your phone whenever they make a bust” in “little bitty font.”  Kendra had seen it as a statement rather than a command.  After all, Scott is an FBI agent.

   Kendra not only allowed him to keep the bumpersticker on, but she also hadn’t bothered to ask who he was going out with that night.  This sparks one of many points of conflict between the parents.  Scott says it would have been all right for Jamal to be in the Lexus with two white teens but not two black teens.  Kendra thinks it shouldn’t mater.  But, of course, it does. 

     It’s not as if she hadn’t had a heightened sense of the dangers of what it is to be a black teenage boy.  She had nixed a motor trip Jamal had planned with some white friends through the Deep South.  Her fear was that he would flirt with a white girl in that territory that isn’t as accepting as Miami, or that the boys might innocently stop at a Klan hangout and Jamal would be a target.

     Unfortunately that protective instinct wasn’t working on this particular night.  All Kendra knows about her missing son is that the police have the car but they won’t answer any of her questions about where Jamal could be.

     That information will be delivered by the senior officer, Lt. John Stokes (Eugene Lee), who is black and who refers to Kendra as “sister,” which makes her furious.  He’s had the answer to her question all along.

     When that question is finally answered for Kendra — and all of us — the impact is as sudden and painful as a gunshot.  It should have been predictable, but the play is so skillfully written and acted that the entire audience seemed to scream out.  In all of my decades of theatergoing I don’t recall ever hearing such a loud and widespread reaction.  Kendra’s shock was our shock and so too was her grief.  

     All the theatrical elements work together to create the mood for this forceful story to unfold.  Peter Kaczorowski’s predawn lighting enhances the blandness of the police station, designed by Derek McLane, complete with steady rain pouring down outside the windows.  I do have to say, though, that unless police stations have changed drastically, this one is far more welcoming than any I ever set foot in during my days as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun.  In my time I visited all eight of the city’s precincts and I can tell you they were dismal places. 

     Reflecting on this play has been a cathartic experience such as I haven’t had in a long time.  It makes me think of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy: “Tragedy is an imitation of an action, that is at once serious, complete, and of certain magnitude, embellished with every kind of literary device, these devices appearing in various parts of the play, told in action, not narration, through pity and fear causing a catharsis of emotions.”

     American Son is just such a play and I can’t imagine anyone bringing it about with such raw power as Washington, whose last Broadway appearance was also her debut, in David Mamet’s Race in 2009.  It will be a tough choice next May when I have to decide between her and Glenn Close as I cast my Drama Desk ballot for Best Actress in a Play because I’m sure both will be nominated.  Both deserve it.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Cher Show

     Another jukebox musical on Broadway.  Ho-hum, I normally would have thought.  I had higher hopes for this latest one, though, because of its subject matter, and I was not disappointed.  I was involved and entertained for the entire two and a half hours of The Cher Show at the Neil Simon Theatre. 

     Three actresses portray Cher at various stages of her life and all are excellent.  Stephanie J. Block plays the mature Cher, referred to in the program as Star; Teal Wicks is Lady, the middle years Cher, and Micaela Diamond is Babe, who begins Cher’s story, playing her as a first grader and on into her teens when she meets Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector).  

     Jason Moore expertly directs the mingling of the three Chers, sometimes bringing two onto the sidelines to comment on or advise the third, or he has all three sing together.  Mostly, though, he lets each develop Cher at the various stages of her life.

     Book writer Rick Elice is a good storyteller, offering a script that moves quickly yet takes the time to develop the singer’s remarkable rise to fame.  What he leaves out, though, is the dark side of her character, whatever it is.  We all have a shadow side but the only character flaw this Cher seems to have is poor judgment.  (More about that later.)

     I like the way the actresses don’t try to imitate their real life subject, although Block sounds quite a lot like Cher in her speaking parts as well as in her vocals.  Trying to present Rich Little-like impersonations would have been tacky.  And they weren’t needed.  When I left the theatre I felt I had spent an evening with Cher.

     The songs are among my favorites from my youth, starting with the 1960s hits, the most beloved of which is probably “I Got You Babe,” right on through to Cher’s hit after hit as a solo recording artist — “Believe,” “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” “Strong Enough.”

     We get all those great songs plus a compelling life story, starting with that little 6-year-old Cherilyn Sarkisian, wearing old shoes kept on with rubber bands, who doesn’t want to go to school because the other children make fun of her dark coloring.  The taunt she hates the most is half-breed, which as we know she later spun into a chart-topping song.  She never knew her father, whom her pretty blond mother, Georgia (Emily Skinner), describes as Armenian.  But she is lucky in that her mother encourages her and promises that one day she will be somebody important.

     Young Cher discovers the key to this prediction when her mother and the beloved stepfather, John (Matthew Hydzik), who has come into her life — briefly — take her to see “Cinderella” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  She comes out singing every song, word-for-word after only that one hearing, and declares she wants to be a singer.   Her parents stage a mock ceremony on the Hollywood Walk of Fame where she can add her handprints and signature to the greats of showbiz.  She signs her name only as Cher, and thus the one-name diva is born.

     Well, not quite then.  It takes meeting Sonny on the Sunset Strip when she is 16 and he is 27.  He finds her work as a back-up singer on such early 60s hits as “Da Doo Ron Ron.”  That doesn’t last long because Cher’s talent won’t let her stay in the background.  During recording sessions she sings as if she’s the star.  Sonny hears and determines to make her one.  Calling themselves Sonny and Cher, they head for London because, as Sonny says, to make it in America you have to come from England.

     A confident Sonny and a very shy Cher appear on “Top of the Pops,” a British TV talent show singing “I Got You Babe” and are an overnight sensation.  After a couple of years of success across the pond, they return to America where they are beloved, selling 50 million records.  Unfortunately, as Cher’s mother says, they spend as if they have $50 million. They are flat broke just as hard rock comes to prominence and pushes their sweet, youthful music off the charts.

     Sonny promises Cher that in two years they’ll be back to top.  He also finally proposes.  His way of fulfilling his promise is to turn them into a comedy act, but first he has to work hard to convince Cher to give it a go.  

     Finally she says she’ll try comedy if he’ll try singing.  And that’s her first great one-liner in what would become their shtick — Sonny being the affable goofball and Cher ribbing him with cutting putdowns.

     They develop a small act, take it to Vegas where they’re a hit and soon they’re headlining on the Strip.  The 1970s hit “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” follows.  Money rolls in, but Sonny has turned into a tyrant.  The TV show isn’t enough for him.  He has Cher doing two shows on Saturday and two on Sunday in Las Vegas.  

     “I know you never got to be a teenager, but you can’t be one now,” he snarls when she protests.  “You’ve got a job to do, so do it."

     Cher’s exhausted, and longing to spend more time with their child, who in the Broadway musical is called Chaz and is referred to in the genderless “my child.”  

     As anyone old enough to have watched “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” knows, their only child, Chastity, used to appear with them from time to time when she was a toddler.  Sonny held her while he and Cher sang, then the three of them would walk off holding hands, exiting through those orange panels covered with the images of hippie Sonny and Cher in bubbles (sets by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis).  

     I loved when Chastity was on, but I felt uneasy for her.  I didn’t know the term exploited, but that’s the feeling I had because the child usually looked sad and a bit frightened.  I also wondered if she’d grow up one day to hate her parents for naming her Chastity.  I don’t know if she hated them, but as an adult she not only changed her name, she transitioned her gender as well and now goes by Chaz.  Probably because Cher is one of the producers, there’s no cute little blond girl in the musical, just an unseen Chaz.  And there’s no mention that in real life Cher had a great deal of trouble accepting this transition. 

     The strain of all that work and Sonny’s domineering control push Cher to the point of wanting a divorce, but she’s afraid their fans will never forgive her for walking out on the partnership.  She turns to Lucille Ball (Skinner) for advice because Lucy knows a thing or two about working on a popular TV show with a mean, manipulative husband.  Lucy tells her to dumped the creep and go solo.  Star Cher tells us “my hand to God” this conversation really took place.

     When Cher files for divorce she learns that Cher Enterprises is owned 95 percent by Sonny and 5 percent by their lawyer.  She has nothing from all those years of working.  See what I mean about poor judgment?  She never thought to check the finances.

     Bouncing back temporarily with “The Cher Show” on TV, she falls for one of her guests, the rocker Gregg Allman (Hydzik), a druggie who more often than not is high.  When Cher finds out she’s pregnant, she marries him.  Poor judgment again.  Sonny hates the guy and calls him Rapunzel, a reference to Gregg’s long blond hair.

     When “The Cher Show” fails, Sonny and Cher try to resurrect their old show — as a threesome with Gregg.  This example of poor judgment has their show canceled in half a season.  Her second marriage is over quickly too, ended after three years and one child, Elijah Blue. 

     But Cher has other worlds to conquer.  It’s on to Hollywood where she earns an Oscar nomination for her first role, in “Silkwood” with Meryl Streep.  She goes on to win one of those statuettes for “Moonstruck.”  If her life were a fictional musical I doubt anyone would find it credible.

     Aside from all of her undeniable talent, Cher is also known for something else over-the-top — her clothes, all those colorful and exotic creations made for her by designer Bob Mackie (Michael Berresse), who also designed the musical’s costumes.  In this I was disappointed.  I love lots of bold colors and her clothes on the TV show were awash in them, but on Broadway the Chers wear mostly black.  Exotic, yes, but I missed the color.  This was a major letdown for me.

     The dances, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, were also a weak spot.  For the most part they seemed unconnected to the show and looked more like a challenging aerobics class. 

     Overall, though, the musical is an engaging bio-musical of a woman who has been part of my consciousness for most of my life.  Other than eating dinner together, watching “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” was the only thing we did as a family.  I have no memory of how that came about.  My father never watched TV and my mother only followed “Perry Mason” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”  I used to fall asleep hearing those themes.  During the summer I was out playing with the neighborhood children until after dark so I wasn’t much of a TV watcher either.  For some reason, though, the three of us sat down together every week to watch Sonny and Cher.  A nice memory.  Glad the Broadway show didn’t spoil it.

Jarrod Spector and Teal Wicks in photo by Joan Marcus 

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Peaceable Hour

St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 W. 46th St., has instituted a weekly lay-conducted meditation time entitled “The Peaceable Hour” on Tuesdays from 6 to 7 p.m. in its Chapel.  The Peaceable Hour consists of an hour of beautiful, gentle music designed to soothe the spirit and restore the heart.  Nothing is asked of those who attend, but simply to be encouraged to come, sit in a peaceful, lovely, safe setting – let go of the concerns of the day, the frantic pace of life in the city, the worries about tomorrow; to be able to reflect and relax for a time to get in touch with one’s spiritual center. One can listen, meditate or just be.  All are invited. 

The Peaceable Hour is a gift from St. Clement’s Episcopal Church to the public. The Peaceable Hour will take place most Tuesdays unless noted otherwise on St. Clement’s webpage, or on St. Clement’s Facebook page.  One can also call 212-246-7277 to confirm.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Glenn Close gives a powerful performance in the New York premiere of 'Mother of the Maid'

     When she was growing up, Jane Anderson had a rather odd role model for a young girl, especially a girl who wasn’t Catholic.  She looked all the way back to the 15th century and found inspiration from a French peasant name Joan who didn’t exactly have an easy life.  In fact, she was burned at the stake for heresy.

     “Always when I was a teenager I looked at Joan of Arc as an iconic character,” Anderson said.  “I wanted to be like that, with freedom, doing dangerous things, leaving home, going out into the world and having outrageous adventures.”

     As an adult she still thought about Joan, but her perspective shifted.

    “When I become a mother I understood what it was like for my mother to have daughter like me, what it’s like to have a young girl who is strange but gifted and a mother who loves her no matter what.”

     Anderson, a playwright and screenwriter, has combined these two focuses of her inspiration into a play, Mother of the Maid, in production through Dec. 23 at Off-Broadway’s The Public Theater with Glenn Close in the role of Isabelle Arc, Joan’s mother.  Close, who was unavailable for an interview, can also currently be seen in “The Wife,” a movie based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel by that name about a woman who questions her life choices as she travels to Stockholm with her self-absorbed husband who is receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Anderson wrote the screenplay.

     “I don’t have a daughter but I have a 23-year-old son,” she said.  “You want your child to be safe but adventurous, to be well-behaved but rebellious.  You hope when your child goes out in the world he will show well.”

     Anderson shared her reflections during a phone interview from the High Line, an elevated park along Manhattan’s Hudson River where she had gone for a walk with her family the day before Mother of the Maid was to open in its New York premiere.

     The play, which has been greatly rewritten since its world premiere in Lenox, MA, in 2015, draws on Anderson’s considerable research for historical context, but employs modern language, with terms like “wonky” and “good to go” and is largely dramatic license.

   “I didn’t want to write a historical play.  It’s a very personal play in the form of historical drama.  It’s not a Shaw play, although Saint Joan is magnificent.  Shaw wanted a play about politics.  I wanted to loosen it up and make it emotional and personal.”

     Ben Brantley, the New York Times’ chief theatre critic, gave the production an unqualified rave, writing “. . . if you want to see a bona fide stage star at the height of her powers, drawing energizing sustenance from an audience’s rapt attention, Mother of the Maid is the ticket for you.  Ms. Anderson’s robustly sentimental play, a take on a saint-in-the-making from a parent’s perspective, provides an old-fashioned showcase for the kind of acting with a capital A that once had Broadway theatergoers queuing around the block for returns. . . .  As for Ms. Close, there’s not a breath or utterance that doesn’t seem both carefully premeditated and absolutely in the moment. . . .  When, in her wrenching final soliloquy Ms. Close’s Isabelle talks about shaking her fists at God, you can’t help feeling that the Almighty had better take cover.”

     The Isabelle Anderson has imagined is rich material for an actress.  She travels a long emotional journey over the play’s two hours.  At the start, she’s a hard-working wife and mother, her full-skirted, faded dress soiled by her farm labors.  Her conversations with Joan run along the lines of contemporary mother/daughter chats.  She wants to know if Joanie is interested in any boys and steers the subject around to sex in an attempt to both educate her daughter and find out what she’s up to in that area.

      When Joanie reveals that she’s been visited by St. Catherine, Isabelle sounds more 21st century than 15th as she asks eagerly, “What does she look like?” and “What was she wearing?”  The effect is to establish an intimacy between the two and create a family life more accessible than a strict historical account would offer.

     When the local priest arrives at their humble home with a letter from the bishop proclaiming that Joan’s visions are authentic, Isabelle slowly moves from skepticism to wonder and finally to pride.  

     “She’s special,” she says in awe to her husband, who is unconvinced by the priest’s assurances.  “Who are we to keep her down?  Our girl has been chosen and we should both be fierce proud.”

     But Isabelle is concerned about her daughter going off to battle with a regiment of men.  Until Joanie comes downstairs with her newly cut hair and masculine tunic.  

     “No one’s going to be bothering you,” Isabelle says dryly.

      Anderson weaves such comic comments throughout the first act, bringing the centuries old story in line with present day family dramas.

     After a while, though, the loss of Joanie begins to weigh heavily on Isabelle, a woman who, true to her day, has never left her tiny village.  She gathers her courage and walks 300 miles in the rain and mud, with blisters and aching knees, to the court where Joan is living before heading out to fight against the occupying English army.  

     She is impressed with the grandeur of her daughter’s new life, but when the tide begins to turn against Joan, Isabelle is faced with a spiritual crisis.

    “Isabelle believes with all her heart what the local pastor told her,” Anderson says.  “She didn’t see the politics of the church manipulating their lives.  Her husband sees it and is afraid their daughter will be manipulated.”

     We see just how fierce Isabelle’s love for her daughter is as she defends her to the lady of the court and all who will listen.  This uneducated peasant is even willing to take on the pope.

     “I want to meet the man in a hat and tell him my daughter is no heretic,” she cries out.  

     But Isabelle is unsuccessful and Anderson creates a heartbreaking scene of her visiting Joan in prison, seeing her daughter thin and dirty, lying on the cold stone floor, chained to a wall, with an unemptied bucket of her waste beside her.  In great anguish, she begins bathing the body of her child before it is to be burned.  This is the scene that most affected the playwright.

     “I was shaking.  It was so awful to imagine.  What an unspeakable thing for a mother to have to do.”

    Anderson has done a lot of rewriting since the 2015 production, most notably eliminating a whole character, St. Catherine, who is now only spoken of as part of Joan’s visions.

   “She was a kind of narrator, funny and irreverent as she guided us through the play,” Anderson said.  “I was being far too clever for my own good.  It took away from the emotion.  Now it’s entirely Isabelle’s point of view.”

     Since the play is presented without a disclaimer in the program stating that it is largely a work of fiction in terms of the family’s life, audience members may come away thinking they have learned new biographical information.  At the end, when we are told that Joan’s father witnessed her execution and it left him blind and that he died in a cart on his way home, many in the theatre gasped.  While her father didn’t live long after her death, he didn’t die that day and was not blind.  

     “This is not a historical play,” Anderson repeated.  “It’s a family drama. I wasn’t interested in sticking to the facts. I wanted to find images that best described the emotional journey that my characters were on.  As I started writing Jacques’s monologue about his being there for his daughter's burning, it only made sense to me that he’d go blind after watching his girl go through such an unspeakably awful thing. It’s poetic license.”

     One line that is factual comes from Isabelle’s testimony from the hearing held in 1455 to clear Joan’s name of heresy, 25 years after she was burned, when Isabelle was in her ’80’s.  Anderson found it “so unbelievably moving”  that she made it last line of the play.  Its simplicity is powerfully dramatic.

     The diminutive actress stands alone in a spot of light and utters the words of pain and loss the mother spoke centuries ago: “I had a daughter once.” 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Celebrating All Saint's Day Through the Lens of Theatre

All Saint’s Day is just around the corner! Actors of Elements Theatre Company (Cape Cod, MA) participated in the creation of an original production in celebration of All Saint’s Day, taking an unvarnished look at those we call saints. These were REAL people with lives, passions, sufferings, and joys. They accepted their humanity and brokenness, and their zeal for God continued to grow—this is what made them a saint. What an example of hope for all of us!

Join in the ecumenical celebration of those we call saints, portrayed through the lens of theatre. Elements Theatre Company and Paraclete Press Inc. present Battered and Bright: Celebrating the Saints on November 2 & 3 at the Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, MA. Meet these revered saints—Peter, Paul, Patrick, Priscilla, Aquila, Catherine of Sienna, and Francis—whose stories will come to life through narratives and choral & movement pieces. Fire-lit basins, background projections, live music, and a large book sets the stage, allowing the audience to step into this world of saints through the ages.

“As actors, we must take on the whole person of the character we are playing.” said Artistic Director, Danielle Dwyer, CJ, when talking about the process and creation of this production. “As we charted the saints’ journeys of spirit, walked through their lives, explored their vibrancy of faith and commitment, we found hope. There is no shame in being human; once we accept this gift, there is actual peace.”

Jon Sweeney, Paraclete Press Editor-in-Chief, will moderate the post-performance discussions with Artistic Director Danielle Dwyer, CJ, and Dramaturg Brad Lussier. Guest speakers include Paraclete Press authors Bert Ghezzi, Susan L. Miller, and Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle; St. Peter’s Lutheran Church pastor Christian Holleck; and others. Meet the cast & panelists

November 2, 7:30 p.m.
November 3, 3:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, MA

For tickets, call 508-240-2400 or purchase online at
(Group discounts available)

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Separate and Equal

          Choreographer Lawrence M. Jackson scores the highest points in the New York premiere of Seth Panitch’s Separate and Equal, which opened this afternoon at 59E59 Theaters.  In this play about a racially charged basketball game in Birmingham, AL, in 1951, the three black and three white teenage players flow back and forth across the performance space in what appears to be a slow motion modern dance.  No ball is used; the moves are all pantomimed.  Jackson is given a nice assist by Tom Wolfe who composed original jazz to set the mood and intensify the action.

     Unfortunately the player in this creative effort who is responsible for the greatest foul is Panitch.  His 85-minute script, which he directs, is more a sketch than a developed play, and he manages to slam-dunk every racial stereotype of the south in that era.  You’ll hear the expected name calling, like nigger and cracker, see the standard characters like the long-suffering black mother who works as a maid for the superior -acting white lady, and an elderly black man who is called Uncle by the bigoted white police officer.  Those elements were part of the segregated South, of course, but they are overplayed in this short work, which was inspired by testimonials from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  Attempts to fill out the story come from flashbacks, during which the non-involved characters lie on the floor while the action is spotlighted.  The one involving a lynching is nicely stylized, but all of these efforts fall short of real plot development. The show felt much, much longer than 85 minutes.  

     Production designer Matthew Reynolds has made good use of the small Theater B, with seating surrounding the performance space to form a rectangle and give a gym-like sense.  Two blank “backboards” are at opposite ends of the “court” and media designer Maya Champion makes good use of them, starting with the signs that greet the audience before the play — on one a drinking fountain with the word COLORED and the other an identical fountain with the word WHITE.  The division is established from the start.  When video is added, nets appear, with a white hand or black sinking a shot.  It’s easy to feel a game is being played.  In this case, the game just happens to be illegal because whites and blacks were forbidden to play on the same court. 

     The cast manages to give good performances in spite of the weak script.  I checked the program to see how many of the players were dancers and didn’t see dance in any of their bios.  They have the fluidity and timing of pros.  Their game sequences were the highlight of the show. 

     Separate and Equal is produced by the University of Alabama in partnership with the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and the Birmingham Metro NAACP.  It plays a limited engagement through Sept. 30.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Chad Kimball to headline 21st annual Broadway Blessing

Broadway veteran actor/singer Chad Kimball will headline the 21st annual Broadway Blessing, the interfaith service of song, dance and story that brings the theatre community together every September to celebrate the spirit of the new season. Join us for this free event at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17 at St. Malachy's Church/The Actors' Chapel on 49th Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway. No reservations are necessary.

I founded Broadway Blessing and produced it for the first 16 years. Last year Kathryn Fisher, a longtime member of the Broadway Blessing Choir, took over as producer and filled the house at St. Malachy’s for a joyful 20th anniversary celebration.

Under the direction of Stephen Fraser, the event will include favorite music from new and classic shows as well as an appearance by Kimball, who is currently charming packed houses in the Broadway smash Come From Away. That musical tells the true stories of the kindness of the citizens of tiny Gander, Newfoundland, to the nearly 7,000 people from around the world who landed in their town unexpectedly on Sept. 11, 2001, after the Federal Aviation Administration stopped all air traffic over the United States following the terrorist attacks. Among the characters Kimball plays is Kevin Tuerff, one of the stranded passengers. Tueff will appear with Kimball.

The entertainment continues as the cast of Desperate Measures offers a peek at this rollicking, good-fun Off-Broadway musical.

The evening will include surprises and participation by Fr. John Fraser, St. Malachy’s pastor, and Rabbi Jill Hausman from the Actors' Temple.

Fr. George Drance, SJ, artistic director of Magis Theatre Company and artist-in-residence at Fordham University, will serve as emcee for the evening. He and Ashley Griffin will share a few moments from Griffin's play Trial, which is directed by Lori Petty.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

5K Race for Freedom

LifeWay Network joins the global movement against human trafficking​ by providing safe housing for women survivors and offering education about trafficking to the general public. Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery and impacts more than 20 million people worldwide, including women and children in New York City.

We are one of only two organizations in the New York Metro area providing safe housing specifically for women survivors of human trafficking and we have served more than 85 women. Our Safe Housing Program goes beyond offering shelter by welcoming each woman into a supportive environment that helps them recover from their trauma, regain their sense of self-worth and enables them to move from isolation towards reclaiming their independence.

The Education Program raises public awareness about this crime that should have no place in the 21st century. To date, Lifeway Network has reached more than13,000 people.

We invite you to join us in ending modern-day slavery by supporting the 5K Race for Freedom on Saturday, Sept. 29 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, NY.

Please consider ​sponsoring the 5K Race for Freedom.​ A $1000 sponsorship includes public recognition at the event and logo on the race shirt. A $2500 sponsorship includes website acknowledgement, public recognition at the event, and logo on the race shirt. Sponsorships must be confirmed and logos received by September 12th for race shirts. There are also opportunities to underwrite expenses or donate in-kind items and receive public recognition at the race.

You may also want to ​form a team to volunteer at the Race or participate as runners / walkers​. This is a great way to offer employees, alumni groups or friends a chance to give back to the community and have fun together. Race registration to run or walk is $40 per person, and teams receive a discount of $5 per person.

LifeWay Network is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and your contribution is tax-deductible as allowed by law. For more information, please contact me ​​ or visit our website w​​.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

God Needed a Puppy

     When I was in elementary school my puppy, Kerry, died unexpectedly.  I sat on my bed and cried inconsolably.  She had been there when I left for school and then she was gone.  That’s how it felt, that she no longer existed because I couldn’t see her.

     My experience of loss would have been greatly helped if I had had a copy of God Needed a Puppy, Emmy Award-winning TV journalist John Gray’s newly released book that helps children (and adults) see their pet’s death in a different light.  A wise owl named Edgar reveals the healing idea that the pet was needed by another child in heaven and that those two are now playing together and happy.  If I had been able to think of Kerry this way I could have pictured her everyday in her new life and she would have lived on for me.

     Gray was prompted to write God Needed a Puppy after he experienced the unexpected death of his six-month-old puppy named Samuel.  He teamed up with Shanna Brickell who created lovely colored illustrations of woodland critters, domestic pets and their worlds.  They lend a gentle, comforting feel to the book.

     At first Gray envisioned the project as a modest venture that he would self-publish.  He held an event in an Albany, NY, mall and 850 people waited in line to buy copies.  Eventually he sold 14,500 copies before signing with Paraclete Press, which releases the book today.

     A portion of the proceeds will go to animal shelters around the country.  Gray says everyone has a purpose.

     “Maybe Samuel’s purpose is this book.”  

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Smokey Joe's Cafe

     Stage 42 was swinging with song and dance Thursday night with the revival of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the jukebox musical showcasing the work of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, songs that over the years were hits for Elvis, The Coasters, Ben E. King, The Drifters and many others.  Director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s excellent ensemble cast had audience members clapping to the beat and even dancing in the aisles at the end.

     This is a far cry from the scene when I saw the original, which opened on Broadway in 1995 and ran for nearly five years.  That production was Broadway’s longest-running musical revue but the producers allowed it to continue too long so that by the time I saw it only about two dozen people were scattered throughout the vastness of the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson).  The cast was good then too — I remember only Brenda Braxton, who I was there to interview — and the songs, including such hits as “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “On Broadway” and “Spanish Harlem” — were just as catchy, but the theatre felt like a ghost town.  Lively it was not.

     It was much more fun to be surrounded by people in a full house at Off-Broadway’s Stage 42, which I believe is only one seat short of the number required to qualify for Broadway status.  Beowulf Boritt has designed a set to look like a welcoming local saloon, complete with neon beer signs on the walls.  It seems natural for the full company to gather there for the opening number, “Neighborhood.”  

     The 37 musical numbers are presented with choreography, as comic skits or ballads over 90 intermission-less minutes.  No attempt has been made to connect them into a story, which is a relief because the stories conjured for these kinds of shows are usually annoyingly contrived.  The most recent example of this is Escape to Margaritaville, which would have been much better if the actors had just sung the Jimmy Buffett songs and left it at that.

     For Smokey Joe’s, The Cafe Band’s eight musicians are just off stage left except for when their platform glides onto center stage, most gloriously for “Dueling Pianos.”

     I also loved the nod to The Temptation, with Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker and Jelani Remy decked out in red jackets with black glitter lapels, black pants and black shirts to sing “On Broadway.”  They had the smooth rhythms and vocals of that beloved Motown group.  Nice costumes throughout by Alejo Vietti.

     The cast also includes Emma Degerstedt, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Max Sangerman and Alysha Umphress. 

     While I appreciated not having to sit through another jukebox musical with a stupid storyline, my attention did wander toward the end.  Thirty-seven songs plus three reprises in 90 minutes is a lot.  I was happy when I saw chairs being put on top of the table and heard the first notes of “Stand By Me,” indicating the end.  It was a nice way to conclude, bringing out the entire cast to come full circle with the idea of friends together in the local tavern. 

     For the encore, “Saved,” they spread out into the theatre for a love fest with the audience.