Saturday, December 3, 2022

Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust Road is sublime


     By the time I walked out of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road at the Theatre at St. Jeans my spirits had soared to the moon.  This new revue, directed by Susan H. Schulman, is told entirely through Carmichael’s enchanting songs, with hardly a word of dialogue.  Spoken words aren’t needed.  The story is evocatively told through the songs and dances.  Every note and every step is perfection.

     The 90-minute show, produced by The York Theatre Company, was conceived by Schulman, Michael Lichtefeld and Lawrence Yurman and developed with the songwriter’s son, Hoagy Bix Carmichael, who was sitting in front of me the night I went.  

     The seven-member cast is the most talented you could find anywhere.  Together and individually they take us on a journey through four decades in America — the early years of ragtime, jazz and the blues, the romance of New York in the 30s, the years of uncertainty during World War II and the post-war Golden Age of Hollywood.  Lichtefeld’s choreography reflects each period and those actors really own that stage when they dance, just as they do when they sing.

     Alex Allison’s costumes are on the mark, and downright exquisite for the women’s gowns.  Nothing on Broadway could beat them, or anything else about this show.  The York Theatre has outdone itself with this one.

     Yurman provides music supervision and arrangements for the wonderful six-man onstage orchestra.  You will be transported back to a time when the music was revered and not amplified to the point of distortion.  James Morgan and Vincent Gunn have created a set consisting of small round tables, chairs and a bar that transform easily from a neighborhood hangout, to a military canteen and finally a lavish Hollywood nightclub thanks to Jason Kantrowitz’s lighting and a few simple touches.  The scenes change without your even noticing but then, there you are, in a whole new atmosphere and setting. 

     I was wowed by the Fred and Ginger-style ballroom dancing and the full cast numbers, but also touched by simpler scenes, such as the one in the USO Canteen where three lonely servicemen sing of home.  Markcus Blair longs for “Memphis in June.”  For Cory Lingner, it’s “Can’t Get Indiana Off My Mind” and Dion Simmons Grier gives us a soulful “Georgia on My Mind.” 

     A nice contrast is a scene in the Club Heart and Soul in Hollywood.  Danielle Herbert is the height of sophistication in a red gown and glittery jewels as she sings “How Little We Know.”  It could have been a scene in a big studio movie of the era. 

     In that same setting Mike Schwitter gives us a moving “I Get Along Without Very Well” and Sara Esty brings to life the ever-popular “Skylark,” as does Kayla Jenerson for “Stardust.” 

     All together close to 50 songs are sung and danced.  And if you love tap, which I do, Lingner (in photo) is a marvel.  

     The show runs through the matinee on Dec. 31.  It might be the best way to spend New Year’s Eve in all of New York.  It gets my vote.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Jim Parsons is A Man of No Importance


     By the end of A Man of No Importance, Alfie Byrne has been transformed, but it’s not by the theatricals he has devotedly directed in his Dublin church hall.  It is, rather, by opening himself to reality that Alfie is changed. 

     Jim Parsons as Alfie and Mare Winningham as his older, unmarried sister, Lily, head an excellent cast of 13, some of whom also play musical instruments, in director John Doyle’s revival of the 2002 musical, which I saw and loved at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre.  The theatrical gifts of Terrance McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), who collaborated so beautifully on the 1998 Broadway musical version of Ragtime, are the holy trinity behind this musical, which is based on a 1994 movie of the same name starring Albert Finney.  It’s running at CSC through Dec. 4. 

     Set in 1964, A Man of No Importance tells the story of Alfie, a middle-aged bus conductor and closeted homosexual who is devoted to Oscar Wilde.  He lives a quiet life with Lily, getting his great pleasure directing an amateur theatre group, the St. Imelda Players.  His controlled life is shaken, however, after he gets into trouble with church authorities when he plans to stage Wilde’s risqué play Salome, complete with the seductive dance of the seven veils.

     Alfie’s love for Wilde isn’t limited to the plays he directs.  He also reads Wilde’s poetry to his passengers, brightening their dreary, often rainy, mornings.  In the opening number, “A Man of No Importance,” they sing of the “poetry and art in the air” as, thanks to Alfie, “the bus becomes something more than a bus” and “a day is something more than a day.”  A.J. Shively, his co-worker, Robbie, does a nice job as the bus driver with whom Alfie is secretly in love.

     Doyle, who is also the scenic designer, creates this world using  only wooden folding chairs, which are then turned around to circle a table in the back to create the rehearsal hall.  The original production also had a simple setting, which is perfect for the tenderness of this show.  I felt I was on the bus or with the St. Imelda’s Players and their let’s-put-on-a-play enthusiasm.  The humor of the lyrics and the uplifting lilt in the music add to the fun.

     Church members are also lifted out of their world in what Alfie calls “losing yourself in someone else.”  The butcher, Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma), can’t wait to get back onstage, hoping to reprise his role as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest.  Other church hall thespians join him in “Going Up,” a number in which they envision themselves as acclaimed performers. 

     Carney is disappointed to learn the group will be doing a play he’s never heard of, Salome, but is appeased when he leans one of the characters is John the Baptiser, whom he considers “the first Roman Catholic priest, practically.”

     The late Charles Keating played this role in the original with a nice dash of camp, soap star that he was.  He played the villainous Carl Hutchins on “Another World” for many years.  Sesma’s approach is more straightforward.  He has a rich singing voice, which I don’t remember from Keating, but I was a huge fan of Keating and “Another World” so I loved every minute of his interpretation.  The original production also featured Roger Rees as Alfie and Faith Prince as Lily.

     Carney isn’t appeased for long.  After reading the play he is appalled and calls a special Sodality meeting, resulting in its cancellation.  Even before this, though, Alfie has been questioning his life.  In “Man in the Mirror,” he wonders “Why should someone care for you when you care so little for yourself?” and he sees “the dead eyes of a man who doesn’t know who he is.”  He conjures up Wilde (Sesma) for a personal conversation, asking him, “Who is this man with the thickening body riding his bus till his dying days?” 

     His awakening causes him to advise his play’s Salome (Shereen Ahmed), who is pregnant by a man who doesn’t love her, not to hold back, singing, “You just have to love who you love.”

     But when Alfie decides to follow this advice, encouraged by Wilde who tells him, “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” he makes an advance on a young man and gets beaten up.  Only then does he begin to find a life that balances art and reality.

     In the closing song, “Welcome to the World,” Alfie sings of having watched the world roll past for too long.  “Life is clearly something that I can’t rehearse. . .  I am in the world and that should be enough and that’s all I have to say.”  And that’s all he needs to say.  He doesn’t have to be a man of importance.  He’s a man who knows who he is, and that, indeed, is enough.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Sharing the blessings on Manhattan's streets

      Rush hour traffic streams north on Madison Avenue and people hurry up and down the sidewalk on their way to work.  Similar scenes are unfolding all over midtown Manhattan but at 35th Street, with buses stopping noisily just feet away, a priest in white alb and green stole stands quietly waiting in front of the church on the corner.  Few people notice and even fewer stop.  But those who pause and venture over  have an encounter unlike that of any other morning commuter.   They meet the Rev. Adrian Dannhauser, and to meet Dannhauser is to feel God’s presence. 

     “The tradition of my childhood was so much focused on testimony, witness and evangelism,” says this former Southern Baptist.  “That evangelical view is part of what I am.  It’s why I’m out there.  My evangelism is not proselytizing.  It’s just sharing God’s love.”

     Dannhauser, 44, the recently commissioned Priest in Charge at Church of the Incarnation, has been out there on the sidewalk every Tuesday morning from 9 to 9:30 for more than five years.  With the 158-year-old neo-Gothic Episcopal church behind her and an A-frame sign with the chalked message “Ask Me for a Blessing.  God knows you need one” beside her, she is a pastoral presence for people she may never see again, as well as for those who return weekly. 

     The stories of these spiritual encounters can now be widely appreciated through the publication of Dannhauser’s book Ask Me for a Blessing (You Know You Need One), with a title slightly modified from her sign at the suggestion of her editor at Broadleaf Books.  In his Forward, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, compares Dannhauser to Jesus, who started his ministry in a house of worship before taking it to the streets.  “The stories she relates are sometimes humorous and often poignant, and throughout all of them is the thread of human need, heartfelt connection and divine love.” 

     Sidewalk ministry brings with it the unexpected, like the time Dannhauser had an unusual request for a blessing.  A man looked at her and asked, “Why does everyone want to have sex with me?”  This would leave many priests floundering for a way to respond but Dannhauser discerned the hurt behind the question and recognized the need for healing.   

     “Tell me more about that,” she said, which led to a discussion of his feelings of being objectified.  “We had a pretty fruitful conversation about dignity and worth.  My pastoral skills definitely kicked in.”

     Those skills kicked in a half-dozen times on the last Tuesday in July.  At first most people either didn’t notice her or glanced at the sign and kept going.  After about five minutes a man in his 40s who said he had seen her there before made that the day to stop to briefly discuss family matters.  Not wanting the encounter to be too much too soon, Dannhauser blessed him with an air cross rather than on his forehead.

     “You just kind of have to feel it out,” she said after he left.  “It was more of a conversational prayer.”

     Lenore Ritter, a member of the vestry, arrived next for her weekly blessing, followed by Nelson Rosa who works in insurance across the street and stops whenever he sees Dannhauser out there.  

     “You get peace of mind,” he said.  “Anything you can do in this crazy world.  It’s like Mom telling you it will be OK but she’s not here.”

     Another man was on a call but asked Dannhauser when she would be there again and said he’d be back.  In contrast, the next encounter was a long one.  A Jewish man in his 70s asked, “Is this a special holiday,” before questioning her about Christianity and sharing his concern that the number of Jews was diminishing.  Her blessing for him was a prayer that more people would find God through the Jewish religion.  He expressed surprise that she didn’t try to convert him. 

     “He was a talker,” she said later.  “That happens.  I don’t usually take that long but when I get to talk about Christianity I will.”

     Her final petitioner was a woman who hesitated before putting on her mask and waiting for the Jewish man to leave.  She said she needed “God all over in everything.”  Dannhauser prayed that the power of Jesus would be in her life and that whatever she touched would flourish and that God would make her a blessing. 

     In between these up-close encounters a bus driver slowed and waved and Dannhauser made the sign of the cross for him. 

    The evangelical side of Dannhauser that inspires her sidewalk ministry is part of the reason the Rev. J. Douglas Ousley hired her as his associate rector in 2015.

     “We both had an evangelical background,” said Ousley, who retired in December 2019 after 34 years as Incarnation’s rector.  “I felt that gave her an enthusiasm for the gospel, yet she had a modern perspective on social justice.  She just had a personality that bubbled over with joy and enthusiasm.”

     Ousley admits he was skeptical about the blessings but gave the go-ahead because they could be a way to combine “both religion and direct action and we could pray for people.”

     Although he says this ministry should have “a strong, outgoing person,” the introverted rector filled in a few times.  His favorite memory is from one morning when he was with a person while another waited.  “When New Yorkers see a line they think there’s something important.”  So the line began to grow.  When people reached Ousley and found out he was offering a blessing some left but others stayed.  “People told me amazing personal things and asked for prayers.” 

     Interestingly, the evangelical background that Ousley appreciated in Dannhauser almost kept her from becoming a priest.  The Dioceses commission on ministry turned down her candidacy for ordination because she was considered too evangelical.  Bishop Mark S. Sisk overrode the committee and she was ordained in 2013.  She now sits on the commission that rejected her.

     Being a priest in charge of a Manhattan Episcopal church was never on Dannhauser’s radar growing up in Newton, Mississippi, which had only one Episcopal church.  Her mother told her, “Those are the smart people.” 

     She “bounced around” the Methodist and Presbyterian traditions in her 20s while at Duke University and Vanderbilt University Law School.  When  she moved to New York in 2003 with the intention of practicing bankruptcy and financial restructuring law for two years before settling in North Carolina with a small firm, she worshiped at a nondenominational church in Times Square where she loved the praise band but “I would suffer through the sermons.”  Her boyfriend, a non-practicing Catholic, suggested she try Trinity Wall Street, which was near where she lived and worked.

     “I had never even looked at it,” she said.

     As it turns out, her first experience of an Episcopal liturgy wasn’t the usual Sunday service.  It was the day in April 2004 that the Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper was being installed as Trinity’s 17th rector. 

     “It was Handel’s Messiah and all the bells and whistles.”  As she sat reading the prayerbook, “I had tears streaming down my face.”  She was touched by the theology and “how social justice was woven into the fabric at Trinity Church.”

     What ultimately tipped her into the Episcopal court was the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire.

     “I thought, ‘How amazing that you can be gay and that’s not a problem for God.’  That’s probably what drew me in the most.”

     Confirmation, which she told her mother was “like a Pentecostal experience,” followed, leading ultimately to Berkley Divinity School at Yale where she helped start the Episcopal Evangelism Network and began praying for people on the streets of Stamford, CT, with a fellow seminarian.  Her intention was to be a professor of religion and law but “the call to ordination started to creep in” and she entered the discernment process.  

     Among the ways she meets her social justice call now is as chair of the diocese’s Task Force Against Human Trafficking.  This busy life also includes her husband, Jess, the Commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, and their 13-year-old daughter, Callaway.

     All of this has been grist for the mill for Dannhauser’s book, which she calls “a mishmash of anecdotes, biography and sermons.”  (This journalist used it as a devotional, reading a section each morning as inspiration to fuel her day.)

     She offers several definitions of blessing, one of which is God reaching through us to touch another person.

      “This is what my ministry is all about,” she writes, “and why I am blessed in it.  It always feels like a little trinity when someone stops to speak with me: the person, me and the Holy Spirit swirling around us.”

     She also turns personal anecdotes into theological reflection.  An example is the story of an afternoon when she was walking her daughter home from pre-school and the child said she would carry her backpack if her mother would carry her.  “Funny how she thought if she carried her backpack, it would lighten my load.”  Dannhauser relates this to God’s love for us.  “God is the one who carries us while we carry our backpacks.  God doesn’t wear the backpack for us, removing hardship or erasing workload.  But God helps us carry those things because God carries us.  Christ’s yoke is easy, and his burden is light, as Matthew 11:30 reminds us, no matter how many children with backpacks are in his arms.”


Friday, September 9, 2022

Hope, pearls and progress


     Under the elevated train in a North Philadelphia neighborhood known for violent crime, drug dealing and street prostitution, the first floor of a small row house is a refuge where women enslaved in sex trafficking can have a meal or snack, take a shower and leave in clean clothes, seek help from a social worker, enjoy art and yoga classes and relax awhile on the couch watching Netflix.

     “We’re small but we’re mighty,” says Heather LaRocca, LCSW, director of the New Day to Stop Trafficking program for The Salvation Army’s Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware division.

     In East New York, Brooklyn, where street prostitution and the threat of violence are at one of the highest rates in the state, a Salvation Army van arrives one night a month and a dozen or so volunteers and a couple staff members venture out to greet the women and give them navy canvas tote bags containing breakfast (a muffin or sandwich), gloves, scarfs and information about Salvation Army support services.  

     And in western Pennsylvania a staff of three Salvation Army employees built a network of about 350 partners in three years to meet the needs of their trafficked clients.

     These efforts are among the Eastern Territory’s 15 multi-faceted anti-human trafficking programs, which are part of 41 Salvation Army programs across the country.  Together they served a total of 3,620 people in 2020.  

     Helping these victims is very much in keeping with The Salvation Army’s mission, says Major Tawny Cowen-Zanders, MSNMP, CFRE, divisional secretary for Greater Philadelphia,

     “We work with them to help them see how very precious they are.  We don’t see them as the world sees them.  We see them as who they were meant to be and are, a chid of God.”  She said this can only be done by “addressing the hope issue, helping them feel and believe and hope for something better.”

     The barriers to reaching these people are many.  Most have experienced trauma from a very early age and many have substance abuse and mental health disorders and are homeless.  Reaching out to them is important because they are far less likely to seek help than other crime victims, says Arielle Curry, Anti-Human Trafficking Coordinator for the Eastern Territory. 

     “In the Eastern Territory we are working to train all departments in the trauma-informed model known as The Sanctuary Model,” she said, emphasizing the importance of avoiding words like rescue, save, hooker and addict.  “We try to have person-first language.  Instead of a homeless person we would say a person experiencing homelessness.”

     The Salvation Army in England has been involved in anti-human trafficking efforts since the 1800s but efforts in the United States, for the most part, didn’t begin in earnest until more than a century later.  It is now estimated that human trafficking is a $150 billion criminal enterprise worldwide, enslaving 40.3 million people at any time. 

     In Philadelphia the approach is four-part: the New Day Drop-In Center, New Day Home, Anti-Trafficking Task Force and Police Assisted Diversion.  Support for clients is built around the belief that they are the experts on their own lives.  

     “We are working along side them,” LaRocca says.  “We’re not telling them what they need.  They’re not going to make lasting change unless they’re the ones driving the bus.  We hear their story and what goals they want to set.  We build a relationship.”

     The Philadelphia division’s involvement began when the city started exploring anti-trafficking work in 2010.  The Salvation Army and other organizations were part of the discussions.  The New Day Drop-In Center was born as a collaborative effort; the division took it over in 2014.  Close to 60 people come each day now, down from more than 100 before the pandemic.  In addition to being a welcoming haven in a rough neighborhood, diverse services — legal, youth, immigration — are provided through outside partnerships.  And it offers one small thing that touches the women, a log of those who have died.  

     “The women who come in feel so alone,” Cowen-Zanders says.  “They know if something happens to them on the street there will be a place where they will be remembered.” 

     The New Day Home opened in February 2017 as a residence for survivors of sex or labor trafficking.  Stays are for one to three years and include earning a GED if needed, vocational training, trauma and trafficking-informed treatment, activities for behavioral health and daily skills acquisition-building, such as basic cooking and housekeeping.

     Many of the people who move into the New Day Home are experiencing a safe, caring residence for the first time in their lives.  A new residence will open in July, if renovation is on track, that will replace the current one, doubling the number of beds to 16 from eight.

     The Police Assisted Diversion program sprang out of a Philadelphia Police Department effort to channel people arrested for drug offenses and petty crime into support programs rather than have them enter the criminal justice system.  In 2016 they asked the Salvation Army to try a similar approach for people picked up for prostitution.  In 2019 this collaborative effort became a New Day program. 

     The Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force was launched to combat human trafficking with a collaborative approach of federal and local law enforcement agencies and multiple social service organizations.

     Last year New Day served 1,169 trafficking survivors.  The four programs have a total staff of about 35, with eight to 10 volunteers, only a handful now compared to the 20 to 30 pre-Covid.   To keep themselves from burning out, they follow the Sanctuary Model, trauma-informed care that works to understand how trauma affects clients as well as the staff and organization.  This involves using tools like Red Flag Meetings, which are scheduled shortly after a traumatic event, like an overdose, to work together through what has happened.  Leaders check on everyone to make sure they have a self-care plan to help eliminate the need to repair damage later.

     “We as leaders have to genuinely care about the staff,” LaRocca says.  “We’re on a journey together.”

     The Salvation Army’s anti-trafficking program is one of the largest in the city but few people know about it, she says.  

     “People know the visuals, like the Red Kettle and the thrift shops.  They get one thing in their mind.”

     The Salvation Army’s western Pennsylvania division, which encompasses 28 counties, had occasionally been asked by law enforcement to help find food or shelter for the trafficking victims they encountered.  As requests grew the division applied for and received a federal grant in 2018 to start the LIGHT Project to develop a program of comprehensive services, like a giant networking agency, for victims of human trafficking. 

    “We’ve grown a lot quicker and faster than we thought but, unfortunately, the need is great,” said Sarah Medina, MSW, LSW, Anti-Human Trafficking Director for Western Pennsylvania.   

     Since launching out of the division’s main office in west Pittsburgh in 2019, this vast collaboration of community-based partnerships has helped 42 victims.  Through the partnerships they receive therapy, legal help for civil, criminal or immigration matters and much more,  as well as material help of hygiene products, new clothes and housing from The Salvation Army.  Requests from law enforcement to help a victim are met 24/7. 

     “Our clients have so many needs,” Medina says.  “If a new need comes up, we’ll find a partner.”

     The latest of these is a tattoo parlor that will cover up tattoos or brands. 

     The LIGHT Project also has an educational component that has educated 3,000 people about human trafficking red flags.

     If a client can’t get to the office, a staff member will go to them.  Medina said she recently drove two hours to Erie after a call from law enforcement.  Since she wasn’t using a Salvation Army car she sent the woman to a hotel in an Uber and then met her there with personal products and clothes.  

     “We’re looking for the success with each client’s story.  It looks so different with each one.”   


     The Greater New York division has also been growing its anti-trafficking efforts, which began modestly in the 1980s with one officer ministering to street prostitutes in Times Square.  It wasn’t until 2018 that GNY began researching services being offered to women at high risk of human trafficking.  Focusing on the fastest growing hotspots in northeast, they zeroed in on illicit massage businesses in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

     “The fact was that human trafficking is happening in New York City as it is across the country and world,” said Jennifer L. Groff

Corporate & Community Engagement Director, Greater New York Division.  “It was long overdue.”

     Groff’s commitment was sparked in 2017 while she was in graduate school researching and writing a paper about human trafficking and survivors.  She developed relationships with people working in the field.  Realizing “this is where the unmet needs were” and wanting to create awareness in the division, she began working with Major Susan M. Wittenberg, Eastern Territory social justice secretary, to create the first program in New York.  

     P.E.A.R.L. Essence, standing for Purposed, Empowered, Appreciated, Respected and Loved, launched in January 2018 to minister to women working in illicit massage parlors in Sunset Park.  These businesses were made up largely of women emigrating from China who had been defrauded into believing they would have a legitimate job as a masseuse.  The barriers keeping them entrapped are hard to overcome — poverty, the need for shelter, language differences, no work authorization and fear of deportation.  

     Between six and 12 volunteers, along with a couple staff members, set out on foot with a list of the parlors, bleak boarded-up buildings with blackened windows.  They offered gifts of jewelry, lip gloss and a list of Salvation Army services in the city.  They brought cookies to bribe the owners.

     At first the women were extremely guarded.  But Pearl Essence is “a seed-planting mission” and the team persisted.  By the fifth outreach five Mandarin-speaking volunteers had been added.  One young woman, who looked about 16 and had always strongly resisted the team’s efforts, smiled and told them her name.

     “It was a beautiful moment of progress in her,” Groff said.  “Doors began to open.”

     In 2019 the division’s anti-trafficking effort expanded to include the monthly late night/early morning visits to East New York.  Arriving in a Salvation Army van, the team of about 20 go out in threes between 11 p.m. and 3:30 a.m., knowing they are being watched by pimps who “don’t like anyone distracting their business plan for the night,” Groff says.  They always stay in sight of the van and wear team jackets — black with “The Salvation Army P.E.A.R.L. Essence” logo so they are easily  identifiable for the women.

     In encounters that last only about a minute, the volunteers approach about 20 women, most of whom are between 25 and 35, with smiles and questions about how they are.  In time the women “were joyful to see us,” Groff says.  “They liked our attention.  We know we are making a difference for those women.

     “Their situation is dire.  The Salvation Army’s programs are about helping people in destitute poverty.”

     Safeguards were put into the program after a September 2021 showing of HOPE, a full-length documentary produced by Eastern Territorial headquarters about survivors’ day-to-day lives after their trauma recovery.  

     After the showing the Pearl Essence team provided information about the van visits at an information table.  Others who work in the field said this approach was too risky.  Leaders began working with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and the New York Police Department to ensure volunteer teams would be protected.  Now plainclothes detectives are in cars in front of the van and behind at all times. 


     In December 2019 Pearl Essence began offering a seven-day emergency stay program where women who want to leave prostitution receive three meals a day, clothing, a private place to meet with their social worker and respite so they can “get on their feet while the FBI finds them long-term housing.” 

     Pearl Essence is different from other human trafficking programs in the city, Groff says, because it puts the empowerment on the women.  

     “We’re their friend, not a direct service.  We’re just building trust over time.  They are used to people objectifying them and using them for their bodies.  We have an interest in them as a person.  It’s powerful. ”

     Philadelphia’s Cowen-Zanders includes a tour of the rough, violent neighborhoods where the women work when she is introducing a new board member or donor to the work of The Salvation Army.  As she says, people associate pictures of cute children in day care or the comforting environment of a shelter with The Army’s work, not the reality of street prostitution.

     “This isn’t pretty, but it’s precious.  These women are precious to Jesus.  We hold this work in our hands like a precious jewel.  We are honored to be there.”

Thursday, September 1, 2022

'Kinky Boots' returns, as fabulous as ever


     The Kinky Boots revival at Stage 42 is every bit as fun as the original 2013 Broadway hit and Callum Francis’s performance as sassy drag queen Lola is right up there with Billy Porter’s Tony Award-winning portrayal.  With a 25-person cast, it’s a delight from beginning to end.

     Directed and choreographed once again by Jerry Mitchell, the simple story of a dying shoe factory in Northampton, England that is revived after its owner discovers a colorful niche market is never overwhelmed by the high energy singing and dancing that surround it.  The story belongs to Lola and Charlie (Christian Douglas), the heir to Price and Son Shoes, who form an unexpected partnership that changes both their lives.  We are entertained royally with each song and dance number but these two characters come off as real and are not lost.  We care about them, as we do Lauren, a young factory worker endearingly played by Danielle Hope, and the other factory workers and Lola’s Angels, the six backup singers and dancers who make up her cabaret act.  David Rockwell’s minimalist sets contribute to keeping the focus on the story. 

     The original Broadway show, with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein, won the Tony for best new musical.  It was inspired by the 2005 British movie, which it follows closely.  The inspiration for the movie was a documentary about the death of factories making conservative dress shoes for men as society was becoming more and more informal.  One factory reinvented itself by catering to men who wanted women’s shoe styles but with a sturdiness that would support a man’s body.  The movie creators then invented the Lola/Charlie story.  A musical was a natural next step.

     The show begins with Charlie’s father (Ryan Halsaver) indoctrinating his son in the family business, which was established in 1890.  The full company backs this up in “The Most Beautiful Thing,” which in Mr. Price’s eyes is a shoe.

     But adult Charlie has other things in mind.  Much to his father’s dismay, he moves to London with his fiancé, Nicola (Brianna Stoute), to work in marketing.  He isn’t gone long before he receives the call that his father has died and he returns to run the factory so the employees, whom he has known all his life and considers to be friends, won’t lose their jobs.

     One evening, when he has gone back to London to see Nicola, he has a chance encounter with Lola and ends up in her dressing room where she laments that she has broken the heel of yet another pair of thigh-high boots.  Charlie tries to fix it before returning to Northampton to begin what have become inevitable lays offs.  

     Lauren, though, refuses to see closing the factory as an option.  She tells Charlie to find a new market and the lightbulb goes off in his head as he thinks of Lola and all of the other Lolas out there, men who for whatever reason want to wear women’s shoe styles.  He arranges to meet Lola in London to take her foot measurements, promising to return with the boots because he doesn’t want her coming to the factory.  She picks up on this, telling him “I have a terrible habit of doing exactly the opposite of what people ask.”  Her arrival, in a short blue dress with matching blue booties and hat, is a hoot.  Gregg Barnes’s costumes are great all around but spectacular for Lola.  The factory workers have never seen anyone like Lola. 

     Charlie proudly shows her a burgundy boot — after she had demanded red — with a thick heel.  She turns full drama queen, telling him “burgundy is the color of hot water bottles; red is the color of sex.”  She makes this clear in the hilarious “Sex is in the Heel” number, supported by her Angels and the ensemble.  Charlie is convinced, saying they will make "two and a half feet of tubular sex." 

     Determined to make it work, Charlie asks her to stay for three weeks, which horrifies her because she “abandoned the provinces years ago.”  When Charlie says he will make her the designer and they will work in partnership, she’s in and they go about creating boots with the goal of taking them to the upcoming Milan shoe exhibition. 

     The journey to Milan is threaten after Charlie’s harsh words to Lola shatters their relationship but, rest assured, we’ll get to that great closing number, “Raise You Up/Just Be,” with the full company in thigh-high shiny red boots singing and dancing up a storm that will send you out of the theatre in high spirits. 

     Two other numbers that stand out for me are “Step One” and “I’m Not My Father’s Son.”  In “Step” we see Charlie starting to believe in his new venture and enthusiastically singing: “I may be facing the impossible/I may be chasing after miracles./And there may be the steepest/mountain to overcome./But this is step one.

     “It’s not just a factory./This is my family/No one’s gonna shut us down.  Not while Charlie Price is around.”

     “My Father’s Son” is moving.  Lola, dressed in men’s clothes to start her designer job at the factory, tells Charlie that her father was a boxer who hated his son for being gay and trained him as a boxer to try to change him before refusing to have anything to do with him, not even when he was dying of lung cancer.  “The best part of me/is what he wouldn’t see,” she sings.

     “So I jumped in my dreams/and found an escape./Maybe I went to extremes/of leather and lace./But the world seemed brighter/six inches off the ground/and the air seemed lighter./I was profound/And I felt so proud/just to live out loud.

     Charlie joins him at the end: “I’m not my father’s son/I’m not the image of what he dreamed of . . . “

     Then Lola extends her hand to shake and sings: “We’re the same, Charlie boy/You and me.  Charlie from Northampton, meet Simon from Clacton.”  To which Charlie replies: “Let’s make boots!”  And they shake.

     It’s a credit to Mitchell that such a tender moment is preserved.  The movie had tender moments but I’ve seen such scenes destroyed in other musicals, Ghost: The Musical and Bullets Over Broadway come to mind, when the choreographer suffocated them in high-charged dance numbers that ruined all sentiment. 

     The original Kinky Boots ran for six years, closing as recently as April 2019.  I’m happy we didn’t have to wait long for its return. 

Monday, July 25, 2022

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof revival will leave you asking Why?


     No director’s note is included in the Playbill for the Ruth Stage revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which opened last night at Theatre at St. Clement’s.  This is unfortunate because I would love to know Joe Rosario’s thinking behind his choices.  I sat there wondering over and over, Why?

     My biggest and most significant question is why he set this play about the Deep South in the 1950s in the present.  The heart of the play is about Brick’s anguish over his homosexuality and his love for his high school friend, Skipper, which drives him to drink and away from his wife, Maggie.  This is 2022.  Brick and Skipper could be married and living happily ever after.  They could even have their union blessed in many religious traditions.  No guilt.  No alcoholism.  No Maggie.  No story and no moving Tennessee Williams play.

     Another major question is why was Sonoya Mizuno cast as Maggie.  She’s skinny and flat-chested and has zero sex appeal.  We checked the program after the first act and read that she was a ballet dancer before “making the transition to acting.”  That explains the body, which is a beautiful dancer’s body.  It also says this is her New York City stage acting debut.  That could account for her unrecognizable Maggie, with a southern accent that left Williams’ witty and highly charged dialogue incomprehensible a great deal of the time.  No dialect coach is mentioned in the program.  That would have been money well spent for all of the actors.  (Maybe there actually was one who is uncredited in the bios.  The playwright is also not listed in the bios.  Did they forget about him?  He did, after all, win a Pulitzer Prize for the play in 1955.) 

     Another question is why present the show with such a low rent appearance.  Brick (Matt de Rogatis) has tattoos all over his arms and onto his chest.  With her big blond hair, grosely over made-up face and gaudy jewelry, Big Mama (Alison Fraser) looks like Ivana Trump resurrected.  Matthew Imhoff’s set could be depicting a trailer park or cheap motel room.  And Xandra Smith’s costumes look straight out of Target.  Instead of slinking around in a classic white slip like the one made famous by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 movie version of Cat, Mizuno gallops about in an ugly gray glorified teddy.  I was fortunate to see Elizabeth Ashley as Maggie in the 1974 Broadway revival.  What a contrast. She filled that white slip beautifully too.

     The Pollitts are supposed to be wealthy.  Big Daddy (Christian Jules Le Blanc) is a crude, self-made man but the rest of his family, with the exception of Brick, are climbers.  They might be tacky underneath but they should be displaying their wealth on their Mississippi estate. 

     I wonder what Williams would think of this interpretation of the play that was his favorite.  Or his distant cousin the Rev. Sidney Lanier who, as the rector of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, gutted the sanctuary in 1963 and build an Off-Broadway theatre.  The parish and theatre continue to share the building on West 46th Street.  I don’t think either would be pleased. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

A new musical for children -- warmly dressed children


     An unhappy 17-year-old girl finds refuge in reading until one book, a fairytale, changes her life in Between the Lines, the new children’s musical that opened last night at the Tony Kiser Theater.  The two stories collide in the magical way children love but the charm didn’t extend to this adult, or my guest who left at intermission.

     We were in the minority in this regard at Friday’s preview performance.  Few children were there, probably because with an 8 p.m. curtain for a show that runs two hours and 20 minutes, with a long intermission, it would be a late night out for little ones.  The theatre was filled with adults who loved the show from beginning to end, laughing and voicing their enthusiasm throughout, so much so that I wondered if the audience had been packed with family and friends of the cast.  Just as likely, though, they were fans of Jodi Picoult, the best-selling chick-lit author whose book Between the Lines, written with her daughter, Samatha Van Leer, inspired the musical.  

     That appreciative crowd didn’t seem to mind that every character in the real-life plot was stereotypical, something that is just fine with children because they love familiarity.  And they obviously didn’t find the fairytale plot overdone and tedious, as I did.  

     Jeff Calhoun directs the cast of 10.  Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson wrote the music and lyrics for the 20 songs and Timothy Allen McDonald wrote the book.

     Arielle Jacobs is winning in the lead role of Delilah, who has moved with her mother (Julia Murney) to, as the program says, "the kind of town 17 year olds dream of escaping.”  Her world was upended after her father left her mother for a young yoga teacher.  Now her mother cleans the houses of her classmates and goes to school at night, leaving Delilah to fend for herself.  Her days are rough too.  Having transferred into a new school as a junior, she is bullied by the mean girl, Allie (understudy Aubrey Matalon performing for Hillary Fisher) and her friends.  To escape her loneliness Delilah crawls out onto her roof at night to read.

     “Between the lines, there’s a place I feel free,” she sings.  “That’s where I want to go.”

     One night, having already read Dostoevsky, comic books and The Great Gatsby, which she dismisses as “a telenovela for the 1 percent,” Delilah opens a picture book she brought home from the school library and is smitten by the handsome Prince Oliver (Jake David Smith).  He soon speaks to her from the page and they develop a relationship.  Before long, he steps into her world and, eventually, she falls into his. 

     This is the kind of plot young children like but for me, other than Delilah the only interesting character is Jules (Wren Rivera), the nonbinary student who befriends her.  They always have a sharp comment.  “If Allie was on fire and I had a glass of water, I’d drink it,” they say.  And, “Acting like a dick won’t make yours any bigger.”  Unfortunately their role is minimal.  (Gender and sexuality consultant, Celeste Lecesne). 

     Having a nonbinary character was one of the few elements that made this show seem even remotely contemporary.  Picoult’s and Van Leer’s hardcover book was published a decade ago, but much of the play’s dialogue sounds like 1990s Oprah show commentary.  When Delilah is told to “live the story you want if it’s not the story you’re in,” the audience let out the sound of a collective Wow, as if hearing a profound pronouncement.  

     Tobin Ost’s set serves the story well.  Packed bookcases on either side disappear into the heights beyond view and smaller shelves frame a wall where the storybook projections appear.  (Projection designer, Caite Hevner).  A small portion of the floor lifts on a slant to create Delilah’s rooftop getaway and minimal bedroom, living room and school furniture slide on as needed.  

     Gregg Barnes has created costumes ranging from standard high school casual to colorful storybook attire and, loveliest of all, the fairytale gown for Delilah’s transformation.  Neat costume change.   

     Paul McGill’s choreography is unimaginative, although the tap dancing dog (Will Burton) is cute.

     Between the Lines had its world premiere at Kansas City Rep where it broke box office records in the fall of 2017.   A sold-out concert version was performed at 92Y in Manhattan in January 2018.

     A word of warning for all of you who plan to see this show, wear long pants and take a jacket.  The theatre was freezing Friday night.  I thought of the few little girls I saw earlier going into the theatre in their spaghetti strap dresses, their legs bare, and I wondered how many were taken home at intermission.  Their parents should have asked for a refund.  It could almost have been considered a form of child abuse to make them stay there all that time.