Thursday, April 26, 2018

'Feeding the Dragon' -- a season highlight

    I was transported to a world of childhood innocence and awakening in early 1970s New York in Sharon Washington's funny and moving one-woman autobiographical play, Feeding the Dragon, a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre through tomorrow.

     Actress and writer Washington is a gifted purveyor of the special story she has to share, that a child growing up with her parents, maternal Gramma Ma and dog, Brownie, in a three-bedroom apartment on top of the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library on the Upper West Side from 1969 to 1973. “A typical American family.  Living in a not-so-typical place,” as she says. 

     Before furnaces were regulated automatically, a caretaker had to shovel coal into them 24/7 to keep the heat and hot water going.  Washington's father was that man in the library at 444 Amsterdam Avenue.

     "It was like a fairy tale of the little girl who lived in the library," Washington begins.  "Once upon a time . . ."

     For the next 90 minutes I lived that world through the child's eyes as well as through the adult's interpretation.  Under Maria Mileaf’s direction, Washington unfolds her story lovingly, even as she relates the “flip side" of her fairy tale, the discovery that her father is an alcoholic who falls off the wagon one day after becoming weary of the demands of his job.

     Until that day her world has indeed seemed like a fairy tale.  When the library closed for the day, and on Sunday, the three floors below her apartment were hers to explore.  She read voraciously and also launched her acting career with the melodramas she and a friend performed.  Washington had me laughing out loud as she throws herself on the floor for an especially dramatic dying scene. 

     That little girl was creative, and she was also smart.  Sharon received a scholarship to the exclusive Dalton School on the Upper East Side, joining a world of white privilege that was new to her.  This gives Washington a chance to comment on black life in New York at the time, with far more fondness than bitterness, especially when talking about her family's heavy involvement with their church. 

     Faith was a guiding star, and Washington portrays this well in the second of two parallel scenes.  The Dragon of the play's title lives in the basement, which is lit with only a single bulb hanging from the ceiling.  The slanted vents in the giant silver furnace look like eyes to the little girl and its big metal grate “could definitely pass for teeth.”

     “I loved watching my Daddy work.  He was like a knight from my Blue Fairy book — St. George and The Dragon. He stood between the terrible beast and me and I wasn’t afraid.”

     Washington mimes her father's motions of digging into the pile of coal, lifting the heavy shovelful and turning to hurl it into the furnace.  She supplies the “CRUNCH . . . SWOOSH” sounds she remembers so well.  It's a sweet scene of a little girl who loves to be with her father.

     The contrasting scene again finds Sharon in the basement for the feeding of The Dragon, but this time she is with her mother who has awaken her and told her to put on her robe and shoes and come to help.  Her father's alcoholism has incapacitated him and the library is cold and needs to build heat before opening.  Her mother summons all her strength and faith for the task.  

     Washington acts out that memory of her mother looking into the darkness of The Dragon’s belly, pressing imaginary bellows in hopes of stirring a spark and beginning her urgent and intensifying recitation of Psalm 91, "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”  

     She continues to press the bellows, interspersed with verses of the Psalm.  Finally a spark becomes a tiny flame.  She drags the tall metal shovel to the coal pile and Sharon grabs the handle to help, adding her voice to her mother’s.  “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him.”

     After much work, her prayer is answered as the coals catch fire.  “With long life will I satisfy him, and shew  him my salvation.”  It's a powerful scene, beautifully and tightly enacted.  No props are needed.  I could see it all in my mind.  

     The sense of The Dragon’s flickering resuscitation is enhanced by Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting as she slowly takes the stage from darkness to light. Her lighting allows Tony Ferrieri’s simple single set to transform easily from its cozy library feeling — three book-lined steps, an old oak table, big paned windows and a shiny wooden floor — to the basement and a few other locations of Sharon’s world.  Small stacks of real books allow Washington to read from the authors who were important to her — among them Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

     The world of the little girl who lives in the library is so well created that I wish Washington had limited her tale to just that.  The spell was temporarily broken for me when she recounts Sharon’s time with her aunt and uncle in Queens, with whom she spends three weeks following her father’s setback, and later her road trip with her father to visit her paternal relatives in Charleston, SC.  She portrays all the new characters nicely, just as she has her immediate family and neighbors, but that time weakened the focus of the story.

     But it wasn’t enough to spoil the experience for me.  By the time Washington concluded with the words “I am the story” I was teary.

     I saw the matinee on Sunday and the charm of the performance is still with me.  Feeding the Dragon is Washington’s debut as a playwright.  As an actress for three decades she has established herself across mediums, having appeared on Broadway in The Scottsboro Boys, numerous Off-Broadway and regional productions, as well as film and television.  Seeing her in Dragon has been a highlight of my 2017-2018 season. 

(Photo: James Leynse) 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Carousel -- Dance: 10, Leading Lady and Man . .

     Carousel already has one guaranteed advantage even before any new production is staged — Rodgers and Hammerstein's gorgeous score.  “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are staples in cabaret acts to this day and always will be because of their emotional impact, and the beauty of “The Carousel Waltz” plays in one’s head long after leaving the theatre.

     The power of the dances, well choreographed, also ensures a great theatrical experience.  What has challenged the total effect of this 1945 musical over time, and now more than ever, is the problematic leading characters, carnival barker Billy Bigelow, a loser who beats his wife, and millhand Julie Jordan, the recipient of that abuse who steadfastly defends him and continues to love him.  It also contains one of the most offensive lines in American musical theatre.

     Acceptance of these two characters has always been hard for me, but in director Jack O’Brien’s current revival at the Imperial Theatre, connecting to these weak creatures was impossible because of the performances of the actors who play them, Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller.  Not only were they unconvincing as a couple, they were unconvincing individually as the characters. 

     In the case of Henry, his performance appeared all head and no heart.  In the Act One closer, “Soliloquy,” when he was singing about becoming a father, I could almost see his thought-process — raise right arm, step left, face forward.  He was so stiff.  If only he had brought to this role the passion he had in The Scottsboro Boys.  

     And if only Mueller had been able to capture Julie the way she did for her Tony-winning role as Carole King in Beautiful.  Instead, she seemed faded, like a minor character.  Lindsay Mendez as her best friend, Carrie Pipperidge, had much more presence, although she’s too silly and insipid in the first act.  This is the second time I’ve been disappointed in Mueller as a leading lady.  I had a similar reaction to her in Waitress

     But this revival still has much to admire.  Justin Peck’s choreography is stunning.  As the Resident Choreographer for the New York City Ballet, he has created more than 300 new works, and the influence of that world blesses what he has created here, starting with the Prelude’s, “The Carousel Waltz.”  Santo Loquasto’s simple scenic design lowers just a carousel top and the dancers perform a ballet at the bottom, swirling around as the orchestra plays.  Brian MacDevitt’s lighting gives an aura of olden times.  It’s a beautiful start, and that grace carries through all of the dance numbers, right down to “Ballet” with Julie and Billy’s 15-year-old daughter, Louise, danced exquisitely by Brittany Pollack, a soloist with the City Ballet.

    The City Ballet is also well represented by Amar Ramasar, a principal member who plays Jigger Craigin.  He didn’t for a minute convince me that he was a murderous thug who would kill for money, but I didn’t need realism.  Watching him dance “Blow High, Blow Low” was enough.

     As for visitors from another world, opera superstar Renee Fleming makes her Broadway musical debut as Nettie Fowler, Julie’s aunt.  She sounded like a veteran of the form, rather than an opera singer on a different stage as she sang “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and her show-stopping “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and joined the company in “A Real Nice Clambake” and Julie in “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?”

     Fleming appeared in a nonmusical role on Broadway in the 2015 screwball comedy Living on Love where she proved her comic chops.  

     What is missing in this production — thank you, Jack O’Brien — is the cringe-provoking line when Julie declares that if you love someone it doesn’t hurt when he hits you.  The 1994 Lincoln Center revival kept the line.  If you will remember — I do, quite well — that was the year Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered. Newspapers and TV accounts were filled with photos of her bruised face from beatings she had received over the years from her husband, O.J. Simpson, who stood trial for her murder but was acquitted.  I doubt Nicole, or any other battered woman, would have said it didn’t hurt.  That line was like a punch in the face then.  Now, in the midst of the Me Too Movement, it would be even more unacceptable.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Tina Fey's 'Mean Girls' lights up Broadway

     New musicals drawn from prior sources are a staple of Broadway now.  Two of these are represented this season with contrasting results.  

     The jukebox musical features songs from a popular artist or group and builds a story around them.  One of the all-time worst examples of this is Escape to Margaritaville, which offers a lame plot contrived to present Jimmy Buffett songs.  The other unoriginal form of new shows is the film-to-stage musical.  Luckily a winner in that genre opened at the August Wilson Theatre this month with Mean Girls, a splashy evening of fun based on actor/writer Tina Fey’s screenplay for the 2004 film.

     Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw helms a colorful production in every aspect, from Finn Ross and Adam Young’s video designs that fill nearly every scene with vivid projections, to Scott Pask’s sets, Gregg Barnes’s costumes and Nickolaw’s own lively choreography.  

     The show’s book, by Fey, follows her screenplay, the story of a formerly home-schooled girl who grew up in Kenya with her scientist parents as she now adjusts to a midwestern high school.  Nell Benjamin’s lyrics contribute to the storytelling and Jeff Richmond’s music is exceedingly upbeat, if a bit repetitive.  The songs aren’t memorable enough that I came out singing them, but they engage while they are being presented.

     What worked best for me and made the show a true delight was the fresh cast, all of whom were new to my awareness except for the always delectable Kerry Butler who brings her wacky comic skills to three roles, including the math teacher, Ms. Norbury, played by Fey in the movie.  In what can only be a homage to Fey, Butler looks just like her with her petite frame, brown pixie wig and black nerd/cool glasses.

     Heading the cast is Erika Henningsen who plays Cady Heron with shiny wholesomeness and sparkle.  She looks as if she is having the time of her life as the new girl navigating the treacherous waters of high school.  Actually all the cast members, from the leads to the energetic ensemble, seem to be having a ball.  That spirit pours out into the audience and is infectious.  

     The most dangerous predator in Cady’s new jungle is Regina George, a deliciously vane Queen Bee played by Taylor Louderman who struts her sexy body and glittery clothes through the halls of North Shore High School, her loyal sycophants Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell) trailing behind.  They are known as The Plastics, and they revel in their superficiality.  

     On her first day, Cady is befriended by Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson) who introduce her to the different animals in this kingdom in “Where Do You Belong?  They point out the Geeks the Freaks, math lovers who are to be avoided at all costs, even though Cady is a math genius, the Jocks, the Rich Stoners, the Strivers and Survivors, and on through the chain of high school types up to the pinnacle: 

     “We call them The Plastics/ They’re shiny, fake and hard./They play their little mind games/ all around the school yard.”

     This number, set in the cafeteria, has the ensemble dancing up a storm and beating out rhythms with their bright red lunch trays.  In only the third number, Mean Girls establishes itself as a musical about high schoolers that even adults can enjoy.

     Underneath the happy surface, though, lies the hurt that can result in such clannishness.  Park gives a great comic turn portraying Gretchen’s extreme need to be accepted by Regina, but when she allows her mask to slip, she reveals her insecurity and pain in ”What’s Wrong with Me?”  

     “What’s wrong with me?/ What can I do?/ What’s wrong with me?/ Could it be you?/ It’s prob’ly me/ See that?  You see?/ What’s wrong with me?/ Hmmm.”

     The lure of that hierarchal world also sucks in Cady when she is befriended by The Plastics.  Encouraged by Janis and Damian, she agrees to join their circle as a spy to learn the secrets of the inner ring, but as her popularity rises, with the help of a makeover by Regina, she turns into a mean girl herself.  Then claws come out when Cady falls for Regina’s old boyfriend, Aaron Samuels (Kyle Selig).

     Since it doesn’t take long in a show like this to establish characters and plot, the first act began to drag for me.  It features 11 songs and I started looking forward to intermission. 

     But I was quite willing to return for the second act, which offers no surprises but it doesn’t need to.  You always know where this kind of show is going to end.  The pleasure is in getting there.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Mastering Ministry

    Michael W. DeLashmutt remembers the first time he was to lead evensong as the new vice president and dean of academic affairs at General Seminary.  Anxiety was getting the best of him until one of his colleagues told him not to worry.  If he dropped the liturgical ball, one of them would pick it up for him.

     “That’s what liturgy does for us,” he said. “It catches us when we stumble.”

     That story illustrates two key elements in DeLashmutt’s life, a respect for the tradition of a common liturgy and the power of community to sustain us on the Christian journey.  They are the strength of the Episcopal tradition for him and the foundation of the seminary’s education. To that core he has added what he saw as a missing ingredient in ministerial preparation — practical leadership training.  With that in mind, he create a new Master of Arts in Ministry degree for people interested in being leaders in the church but who don’t necessarily feel called to ordination.  It is the first new degree program in 20 years at the nearly 200-year-old seminary and it welcomed four students to its inaugural semester in September.

     “It responds to a real deficit in Christian education across the mainline churches,” DeLashmutt said. “It reflects a truer vision of what seminary education should be, to prepare people — all God’s people — for service.”

   DeLashmutt discussed this new master’s degree in the seminary’s dining hall where students and faculty share a daily meal. He had just finished teaching the last class for the semester of his Introduction to Christian Theology course during which students gave presentations on topics ranging from a feminist analysis of the doctrine of original sin to the study of the theology of trauma. For DeLashmutt, class and lunch go hand-in-hand.

     “We’re engaged in reconciling relationships,” he said.  “We’re reflecting the eucharistic table.  You can't talk about theology without engaging in practices of reconciliation.  That’s what this is.”

   So Christian education happens in the classroom and it continues over a meal of turkey and gravy, roasted potatoes, root vegetable and cream of broccoli soup.  What General has added to the mix with the new degree program is leadership training to take spiritual values into the workplace.

     “Spiritual habits transfer to people wherever they’re headed,” DeLashmutt says. “At an NGO or in nonprofit leadership, all of these for a Christian would require a different context. Your leadership would be different if you believe the gospel is true.  In youth work, it would be with an eye toward the spiritual formation of the individual.”

     With the seminary’s educational history as its base, the Master of Ministry program includes a Harvard Business School-type component to create a degree that offers the same quality of education as that of the training for the priesthood.

    “There’s wisdom out there to be evaluated in light of the gospel,” DeLashmutt says. “Augustine gave us permission to look at these and evaluate where truth might be useful.”

     DeLashmutt, who is a lay person with a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Glasgow, says the church is changing significantly and that fewer full-time positions are available for clergy in the Episcopal tradition, making it important to prepare lay people for ministry “in a structured, thought-out way.”

     The seminary has long been open to anyone seeking religious education, but the focus was on ordination. The Master of Ministry is the second “professional MA,” with the first being the Master of Arts in Spiritual Direction.

    "To respond to the church of the future, there will be  increasing and often parallel opportunities for lay people to do ministry alongside the ordained,” says the Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, 13th dean and president. “Education and formation are essential whether one is ordained or not. For those who feel so called to lead the church without the anticipation of being ordained, it seems like the church should work to equally prepare these folks.
The MA in Ministry directly and practically affirms our commitment of educating and forming both lay leaders and ordained leaders for the church in a changing world."

   The seminary’s core remains the same.

    “We are profoundly Episcopal,” DeLashmutt said.  “We’re not changing that, but we feel we have something to share.  We’re a residential seminary in an urban context.  We want to make that available to as many people as possible.”

     While lay people have been studying theology together for decades in Education for Ministry (EFM), a four-year distant learning certificate program, General’s program is an accredited master’s degree.

     “Walking away with graduate credits is always a good thing,” DeLashmutt says.  “EFM can be theologically rich but it’s not engineered specifically for vocational training.”

     The seminary’s Master’s can “respond to trends in a very short time,” DeLashmutt says, adding that if several students wanted to pursue careers in youth ministry, “in six months we could spin up a curriculum.  We have the resources.  We have thousands of dollars worth of books and the faculty is up for it.”

     Similarly, if students are interested in Christian education, prison ministry or social work, “we could quickly develop a curriculum to meet the changing needs of the student.”

     In the case of David Gungor, who is a professional musician, this approach was applied to his summative project.  Rather than writing a paper for his final project, he composed and recorded several songs that responded to themes in Pannenberg systematic theology. In addition to the music, he wrote a small paper that described his process and spelled out the academic dimension of the creative work.

     “We are teaching with a ministry horizon in mind, so that the future vocational goals of our students inform everything that we do,” DeLashmutt says.   “As a small school, this allows us to work closely with students, to design everything from whole courses to individual assignments that help integrate theological studies and ministry development.”

     The Rev. Canon C.K. Robertson, canon to the Presiding Bishop for Ministry Beyond the Episcopal Church, said we are at a time when it is important for seminaries to “think outside the box” and that General’s new master’s, the only one of its kind in the Episcopal tradition, is a good example.

     “There’s a great need in the church to be more serious about leadership,” he said, citing St. Paul as someone whose ministry was successful because he combined the theological with the practical.  “We’re at a time when we need to remember or imagine what ministry was like in the past.”

     Robertson teaches a course each semester at General in the Master of Divinity program, alternating between traditional subjects such as the New Testament and courses in congregational development and conflict resolution.

     “Always the goal is how to join the theological with the practical,” he said.  “That’s crucial.”      

     Accreditation for the new master’s was completed in April, leaving the school little time to advertise before fall admissions needed to be decided.  DeLashmutt says this is good because with only four students the seminary can readily meet their vocational needs as it builds the new program.  Two students heard of it through word of mouth and two were already students who transferred into the new master’s.

    Gungor is one of the word-of-mouth newbies. An assistant pastor at Trinity Grace, a nondenominational church in lower Manhattan, he is also a songwriter, singer and musician and has found what he’s learned in just one semester to be of great benefit to his work.

     “I’m an artist and I work at a church that’s not Episcopal,” he said.  “It’s a beautiful stepping stone to a more sacramental view of artistry.  It’s good for my church and it’s good for my art.  It’s practical to what I do.”

     Gungor, 31, spoke from the living room of the apartment he shares with his wife, Kate, a student in the Master of Spiritual Direction program, and their four children.  Windows look onto the lawn of the Close and the surrounding 19th century buildings. It is into that picturesque world that he allows his children out to play, knowing they will be safe, with the kind of freedom he enjoyed growing up in the mid-west.

     “We fell in love with the campus,” he said.  “It’s such a family-friendly place. We feel like we have our own lawn.”

  The son of an evangelical pastor, Gungor is not an Episcopalian.  The new Master’s is open to all Christians.

     “The Episcopal Church really is a beautiful expression of faith for where I am,” he said, adding that the Master’s could be a track to see if he wants to be ordained. “The program seemed welcoming to me as an outsider. The Episcopal Church is welcoming to diverse thought.  It’s not afraid to question and to wrangle.  I feel like I’m able to learn from and contribute ideas that are different in class.”

     This is exactly what the program’s creator had in mind.  DeLashmutt says models of traditional seminary education were inherited from the Berlin school, with students being trained to be “the intellectual leaders of the community.” It was highly philosophical and “practical ministry education of any sort was marginalized.” 

     That DeLashmutt has found a home in the Episcopal church is a reflection of the same welcoming nature that Gungor found.  His background is eclectic — Methodist then Baptist then Pentecostal, until an incident when he was 19 turned him off from that tradition and he more or less abandoned going to church.  He did, though, continue to respond to a call he first felt at 16, a desire for a career in some kind of ministry.  Wanting a theological education led him to Fuller Theological Seminary Northwest and to what turned out to be a life-changing experience when a friend invited him to a Presbyterian service in Seattle. For the first time he experienced clergy wearing vestments and an order of service that began with a deacon offering a confession and absolution.

     “I just felt something in me break.  I had a profound sense of gratitude and acceptance.”

     That was the beginning of his transition to mainline churches.  He found his way to the Anglican communion while living in the United Kingdom and was confirmed at Easter Vigil in 2011.

     “Liturgy is that thing that carries you,” he says.  “It’s almost like a net of grace that holds you when you can’t stand on your own.  The prayers are from scripture, to pray back to God.  God gives us the words when we don’t have the words. Liturgical spirit, to me, is one way of providing deep meaning in the midst of life.”

     DeLashmutt sees the seminary’s education as providing that net of grace. He thinks of the disorientation he felt before his first evensong at General because it helps him relate to how new students can feel.  

     “We set a culture of forgiveness,” he says.  “Students can feel free to make mistakes because they have a structure in place.”

Monday, April 2, 2018

Patrice Djerejian’s latest album, You Are My Song

Patrice Djerejian has released her latest CD, You Are My Song, available on iTunes, Amazon and CD Baby.  Broadway Blessing attendees may remember the year she sang “I Sing for You” as Project Dance performed.  Her gorgeous voice filled the great space at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine with its power and spiritual presence. 

An internationally renowned recording artist, performer, songwriter, and philanthropist, Djerejian wrote all the words and lyrics to the songs on You Are My Song, combining the sounds of Big Band, jazz, pop (retro) and pop (Disney).  

The uplifting lyrics are full of joy and hope, empowering the listener to “transform their thoughts to happy!”. Her hit single, “Magic Butterflies,” showcases her eclectic talents in multiple languages and various music styles. With bright, rich vocals backed by a colorful big band, this collection’s positive message is up-lifting. 

You Are My Song was recorded in Nashville with Grammy-nominated producer Tom Gauger.  Djerejian has performed at Carnegie Hall, with London’s English Chamber Orchestra and with the esteemed American Composer’s Orchestra.