Tuesday, July 30, 2013

'Storyville': Toe-Tapping Revival of Musical About New Orleans Red-Light District

'Storyville' at York Theatre Company

I read somewhere that an early version of Ed Bullins’s Storyville, the ambitious and exuberant musical (music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden) now in revival at the York Theatre Company, clocked in at six hours—though I hasten to add that the running time is now around two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission.

Compression is difficult to master when you have so much to say.  And Storyville does have a lot to say, rather like other works that have attempted with varying degrees of success to take on the majestic sweep of history—shows like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Rags, and Ragtime, to name a few other brave efforts at conquering this particular subgenre of musical theater. 

Storyville relates the events leading up to the forced closing in 1917 of New Orleans’s red-light district and the subsequent spread of jazz music during the era of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the cities of the North. In telling this tale, both the playwright and the composer have had to resort to shorthand and referential nods to the familiar.

Musically, Kayden has written a wide range of songs evocative of the time and place: funeral procession music, blues, ragtime, Dixieland, dance numbers (the Charleston), a Cab Calloway ‘scat’ tune.  Most of these are quite excellent, often toe-tapping winners.  I haven’t been able to find a recording of this show, but someone needs to do one.  

On the other hand, in writing the book, Bullins has had to condense a lot of material in order to capture the particulars. 

He has introduced story elements about the international drug trade, about the world of professional boxing, about the role of voodoo rituals, and about the changing styles of jazz musicianship.  He has looked at racism from the blatant (the subjugation of the African American characters by the white power brokers) to the more subtle (a light-skinned African American prostitute makes a comment on the relative blackness of another).  He has given three of his central characters the names of animals (Cobra, Tigre, and Foxy), as if to tap into the realm of fables or of West African trickster tales. 

There are bits that may remind you of Show Boat (the subject of miscegenation is a plot element) or of Porgy and Bess (will Tigre Savoy give in to the lure of the big city, or will she stay with her man Cobra?). 

But Show Boat had Oscar Hammerstein and Porgy and Bess had DuBose Heyward writing their respective scripts, and they were rather better at it—unless it is the truncating of the story is the source of the mushiness.  I do wonder what the six-hour version looked like. 

The game actors do what they can with the sketchily defined roles, and at least two of them—Debra Walton as the conniving yet naïve Fifi Foxy and Michael Leonard James as the jazz band leader Hot Licks Sam—have done a particularly fine job of embodying their characters. Yet the production itself feels constrained. 

This is a musical that longs to burst out of its confinement, especially during the first act, which is all about atmosphere and style.  Director Bill Castellino and choreographer Mercedes Ellington make effective use of the center aisle from time to time, but most of the staging lacks the sense of the excitement, the hustle and bustle that defines the locale.  While watching, I wondered what Diane Paulus or Baz Luhrmann might have been able to do to lift the production to the level of the rousing score, which is being given an equally rousing accompaniment by the on-stage band, under the fine direction of William Foster McDaniel.

Storyville has seen a number of productions since the first one in 1977, and it is not hard to see the attraction of continuing to tinker with it in search for just the right formula to bring out the show’s full potential. Someone, perhaps, should go back to the original material and restore enough of it to more fully flesh out the plot, and then find just the right creative team to make this rough-cut gemstone sparkle. This might make an interesting project for Encores! to tackle. 

Until then, do plan on a visit to the York Theatre Company to see what is undoubtedly a significant musical, and, especially, to hear Mildred Kayden’s excellent score, well performed by the cast and by the band.  If nothing else, you'll dance your way out of the theater and up to the street. 

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

'Bend in the Road': A Polished Production of A Musical With Heart at NYMF

The story of Anne Shirley, the heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, is a sprawling tale that is difficult to condense into the time constraints of a musical theater production.  So much credit must go to Benita Sheckel and Michael Upward, the creative team behind Bend in the Road, which does just that and gives us the most polished of the productions I’ve seen at this year’s New York Music Theatre Festival (NYMF).

Ms. Scheckel (book and lyrics) and Mr. Upward (music and lyrics) may have had to sacrifice the character development that came out so splendidly in the 1985 film, with its indelible performances by Megan Follows as Anne, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla, and Richard Farnsworth as Matthew.  But they have captured the key plot elements and, more importantly, they have retained the heart of this most emotionally rewarding of stories.

Ms. Scheckel has done a wonderful job of bringing out Anne’s indomitable spirit, and Mr. Upward has written one lovely song after the next, often infused with beautiful choral work.  The best of these include a touching setting of “The Lord’s Prayer;” the ode to friendship titled “Walk Like Sisters” (though it surely should be renamed “Kindred Spirits”); and “One Little Drop,” sung by Matthew as he dances with Anne, looking all grown up in the new dress he has bought for her.   

Though presented with minimal sets (cleverly designed by Lauren Helpern), the production is greatly enhanced by lovely watercolor-hued video projections by Andrew Lazarow, and costumes by David Kaley. 

All of the cast members, under the direction of Benjamin Endsley Klein (Ann on Broadway) give excellent performances, with special nods to Alison Woods as Anne, Whitney Winfield as Anne’s closest friend Diana, and Martin Vidnovic and Anne Kanengeiser as Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, the brother and sister whose lives are so deeply enriched after the error that led Anne to come live with them. 

Bend in the Road is an outstanding entry into the NYMF festival and delightful family fare. It is sure to have a long life and receive a great reception wherever its journey takes it.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

'Castle Walk:' An Intriguing Work-In-Progress That Has Much Going For It

 'Castle Walk' Cast Members

When attending any of the 250 performances that make up the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), it is important to bear in mind the mission of the annual three-week summer marathon of quickly assembled productions:  “[to] discover, nurture, and promote promising musical theatre artists and producers at all stages of development...”  

Another way to put it is, don’t go to NYMF events unless you are prepared to see works-in-progress with sketchy production values and under-rehearsed performances. If you accept this likelihood, you may find yourself quite caught up in the excitement of discovering something very special indeed.  

So, let’s talk about one of the shows I think has “good bones”, but which still needs more work. That would be Castle Walk, a musical that deconstructs events surrounding the making of a 1930s Hollywood biopic about the renowned husband-and-wife ballroom dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle.

The biopic in question is real.  It went by the informative if uninspired title The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, and it starred the very popular and successful movie musical team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 

This much is known. Irene Castle, acting as technical advisor, was on the set during the time of the filming in 1939. She was then in her mid-40s and had been without Vernon since his death in a plane crash some 20 years earlier.  It generally has been reported that she was difficult to work with, and that she fussed over every element of the production.

In developing the musical, Richard Stafford, who directed and choreographed the show and who is credited with coming up with the concept, and Milton Granger, who wrote the book, music and lyrics (with additional materials by Jere Lee Hodgin) have  sought to fill in the blanks by conjecturing on what it might have been like for Irene to watch a version of her life unfolding in the Hollywood studio.  

The creative team shows its strong suit in fleshing out this central component of the show. Irene, as she is portrayed by Lynne Wintersteller (both tough and vulnerable), wants the film to serve as a permanent memorial to her late husband, and she expects everything in it to perfectly match her memories of their lives together.  

It is not hard to imagine (and feel real sympathy for) how it must have felt for Irene as she wandered about the various sets, discomfited and disoriented by seeing things that were representations but not reproductions of what she knew to be true.  In this retelling, she is decidedly not mollified by the explanation offered by the film’s director, H. C. Potter (James Clow), that “It’s Hollywood; of course it’s a lie.”

It is during the second half of Castle Walk, in which Irene’s feelings are examined, that the creative team has been most successful.  A breakthrough moment in the show occurs just about midpoint, with a number called “Nothing Underfoot.”  In it, Irene—who had also been a very successful dance instructor—demonstrates to the dancers in rehearsal exactly what she wants them to do to capture the famous Castle style.  

Everything comes together in this scene.  You fully understand Irene’s desire for the film to get it right, a desire that is underscored in a later song, “Forever,” in which she frets over the fact that mistakes captured on film have a permanence that cannot be undone.  She worries that the reality leading up to the movie is being subsumed by the fiction.  

As long as the musical stays focused on its subject, everything works—from her jealousy over the hyper-fame of Astaire and (especially) Rogers, still in her 20s and at the height of her popularity; to the inner turmoil caused by the roiling up of feelings of loss and longing that she has repressed for many years;  to her indignation that her close friend and confidante, an African American man, is being portrayed by the white actor Walter Brennan in the film. This is all good stuff, and brings out the best in the songs.

But let me offer some unsolicited advice.  The problem lies more with the first half, which focuses on Irene’s flood of memories of her early years with Vernon. It is just a mash-up of the kinds of throwaway tunes that someone like Irving Berlin might have been able to pull off, but which, unfortunately don’t work too well here.  (Though there is one lovely Berlin-like number called “She Dances Like An Angel,” which is reminiscent of the master’s “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing.”) 

I’d say go all the way and find more Berlin tunes to pay tribute to, and present Act I without the presence of the older Irene. Or—if you need a framing device--use projected film of the real Castles or look-alikes and have them played before an audience of Hollywood types who are planning to make the biopic. Irene can be in that audience.  

I'm rooting for Castle Walk. It is just the kind of musical that NYMF is designed to showcase.  It has much going for it, and I hope the creative team will continue to develop it.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

'Volleygirls': A Winning Entry in the Madhouse Known as NYMF

I’m happy to report that, though the title might suggest otherwise, the high-spirited musical Volleygirls offers up not one single ditzy blonde.  

Volleygirls is being presented as part of the whirlwind known as the New York Musical Theatre Festival.  NYMF, as it is generally referred to, is always a mixed bag, with dozens of full productions, readings, and other events presented at various times of the day in multiple venues over the course of three weeks.  With only brief descriptions and word-of-mouth to fuel decision-making, you pays your money (single tickets for full productions are $25 a pop) and you takes your chances.

So let me be the word-of-mouth for Volleygirls, and let you know that this is one winning musical—professional, polished, and well-performed by a strong cast of mostly Equity actors, headed up by Susan Blackwell of [title of show], which famously had its start in NYMF and went on to successful Off Broadway and Broadway runs.

Will Volleygirls follow that same path to Broadway?  Let me say that it definitely could, thanks to a tuneful score (music by Eli Bolin, lyrics by Sam Forman) and a funny, upbeat, and heart-felt  book by Rob Ackerman that mixes the efforts of a woefully performing Catholic girls’ high school volleyball team with the trials and tribulations of adolescent angst.  

Yes, yes, this is definitely a variation on a theme that has been aired many times before.  Fame, Sister Act, and Glee quickly come to mind.  But there is an important difference in that Volleygirls focuses on the lives of girls, and in a way that refreshingly is not about being boy-crazed or striving to fit in with the in-crowd.  The girls in this show deal with real adolescent crises of family problems and figuring out who they are and what they can become.  And for once, the guys are definitely the supporting players (and rather hapless ones, at that). 

Susan Blackwell plays Kim, the English teacher-turned-coach, enlisted to salvage the volleyball team from its unbroken losing streak.  Kim reluctantly takes on the job, even though it is revealed that she herself had been a college volleyball star and an Olympian. It seems that Kim, a perfectionist, choked at the worst possible moment and gained long-lived notoriety in the volleyball world.  Still, she knows it is time to get over it, and in a clever number, she has a long chat with a volleyball she calls “Wilson” (a nod, of course, to the Tom Hanks film Cast Away).  

Even though Kim’s redemption is key to the plot, most of the focus is on the girls on the volleyball team as they struggle to become the winners they scarcely imagine they can be.  

The real strength of Volleygirls lies in its musical numbers. During the course of the musical there are at least four songs that soar, two of which fit in with the theme of girl-empowerment. One of these is the upbeat “I Like Girls,” sung by Marisol (the excellent Gerianne Pérez), who recognizes that her sexual orientation leads her to other girls and is perfectly comfortable with that self-knowledge. The other, also led by Marisol, is called “Jabali,” Spanish for “wild boar,” and serves to describe the attitude of tough confidence the team must exude to become champion players.  

A third strong entry is “I’m In Hell,” in which Katie (Juliane Godfrey) lashes out against her friends, her teacher, and her father (Benjamin Howes), the school’s principal.  The fourth (“Animal In Our Midst”) is a roof-raiser sung by Flo (Jennifer C. Johnson), the angry and vengeful parent of one of the girls who was their coach before Kim took over.  

When was the last time you saw a pop-scored musical where so many numbers stood out?  And while I'm at it, let me give a shout-out to the terrific band:  Mike Pettry, Eric Davis, Brendan O'Grady, and Alex Wyatt, who really tear into that score.  

In addition to the girls on the volleyball team (the others are played by Julia Knitel, Allison Strong, Allison Jill Posner, and Dana Steingold), the cast boasts solid performances by Mr. Howes, whose character is struggling to raise a teenage girl on his own; Charles Karel as the referee; and PJ Adzima as Xavier Ives, the lovestruck game commentator (“Evening, webcast viewers!”), a role Mr. Adzima embraces with sweet and crazy dorkiness.   

Volleygirls, directed by Neil Patrick Stewart and choreographed by Ryan Kasprzak, is being performed at various times through July 27 at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. There are a number of performances remaining before the festival closes at the end of this month.  For schedule, information, and tickets go to www.nymf.org

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

'rogerandtom': Who Says Disorienting Meta-drama Can't Be Fun?

It’s Twilight Zone meets The Matrix, with a passing nod to Pirandello and Sartre, in rogerandtom, the smart, funny, and—in the end—surprisingly touching play by Julien Schwab, now on view at the HERE Arts Center.

A sense of disorientation begins to take hold while we await the start of the play.  We begin to notice something odd and dream-like about the set, very cleverly designed by David Esler.  It is an apartment, but—as in a dream—parts of the set are more-or-less realistic looking, while other parts are barely sketched out. In the kitchen, for example, there is a smallish refrigerator, but instead of a stove and sink, these are merely outlined on the floor.  The bathroom has a sink and toilet, but also an empty frame where a mirror would be.  There is a phone, but its wires dangle, obviously not connected to anything. 

In addition, we are aware that sitting opposite us on the other side of the set is the rest of the audience.  We are not looking over the set, as would be the case with similar layouts at other venues, but through it—which adds to the feeling that something not quite right is going on here.  Then we are plunged into darkness, and bombarded with dissonant music, and the play begins. 

rogerandtom is a like a funhouse full of distorting mirrors, open to multiple perspectives and interpretations, depending on which way you look at it.  As I sat watching this metaphysical tale unfold, I was reminded of something that Professor Dumbledore says to Harry Potter in the final book in J. K. Rowling’s popular series about the young wizard:  “Of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real.” 

The gist of the plot is this:  Roger (Eric T. Miller) has come to see a play that his brother Tom has written.  The brothers have been estranged for five years, and it is at the behest of their sister Penny (Suzy Jane Hunt) that Roger has reluctantly agreed to show up at all.  The third character on the scene is Rich (Richard Thieriot), Penny’s soon-to-be ex-husband. 

Reality and the world of the stage begin to merge almost from the outset, and the confluence of the two never lets up.  The fourth wall is breached so many times, it becomes not just a stage device but a key aspect of the play, adding that Twilight Zone/Matrix element and becoming—to at least one of the characters—a source of sheer terror every time it happens.

But please don’t think of rogerandtom as ponderous or headache-inducing.  It is very accessible, and often quite funny.  While the plot continuously shifts gears, the focus is always on the dramatis personae—the three characters, plus the actors who play them, plus an unseen but often discussed omniscient playwright. 

The play moves along at a fast clip and runs but an hour, thanks to a playwright who is wise enough to know when to stop and a production company, Personal Space Theatrics, that knows not to demand additional material to stretch the evening beyond the play's natural stopping point.  

In the end, we are left with a deeper appreciation for what Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously called “the willing suspension of disbelief” and an understanding that we generally believe what we choose to believe—something we cannot so easily walk away from, as the characters in this play learn. 

Much credit needs to go to the director Nicholas Cotz, and to the splendid cast.  Mr. Thieriot and Ms. Hunt do a wonderful job of shifting constantly between playing actors and playing the characters they portray (“we’re works of art, not artists,” is how Mr. Thierot puts it). And Mr. Miller is excellent as the bemused stand-in for the audience, both disturbed by and caught up in the action. 

All in all, rogerandtom is an original and solid work, and Mr. Schwab shows himself to be a playwright to be reckoned with. 

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Friday, July 12, 2013

‘The Cradle Will Rock:’ Brecht and Weill For The Rest of Us

Encores!, the well-established and popular series of quickie revivals of seldom-seen Broadway musicals, now has a younger sibling.  Called Encores! Off-Center, it hopes to follow in its predecessor’s successful footsteps by offering up semi-staged versions of Off-Broadway shows. 

To judge from its first production at City Center, Marc Blitzstein’s Depression-era musical The Cradle Will Rock, it is still a little wobbly on its feet. 

In a speech before the invited dress rehearsal, artistic director Jeanine Tesori talked nervously about the breakneck speed at which everyone involved put the production together.  But, with all due respect (and I do have tremendous respect for the near-miracles that Encores! has pulled off over the years), if you want to be part of the Encores! family, that’s how they operate. 

So, let’s take a look at this first effort. 

On the plus side, the cast is wonderful, with outstanding performances by Anika Noni Rose, playing both the downtrodden prostitute Moll and the condescending woman-of-wealth Mrs. Mister;  Judy Kuhn as a corrupt newspaper editor; and Danny Burstein as the arrogant and powerful Mr. Mister, owner of the steel mill and pretty much everyone and everything in the town. In smaller but key roles, Raúl Esparza and Da’Vine Joy Randolph give rousing star-turn performances of their respective numbers as well.

However, there are some problems, beginning with the fact that—even though the talented Sam Gold is credited as director—this is a concert production, not even partially staged. In truth, Encores! itself does not always hit a homerun in the staging department, but still…a concert is a concert.  If you go, know that you will be seeing folks dressed in tuxes and gowns sitting on a row of chairs and rising to sing at stand mikes. 

Second, while the performers are nicely accompanied by a 13-piece orchestra, under the sure hand of Chris Fenwick, the orchestrations are not the ones that Mr. Blitzstein wrote; rather, they have been written by Josh Clayton.  Mr. Clayton is a fine orchestrator, but using the originals is kind of a hallmark of Encores! productions and serves its mission well. 

The Cradle Will Rock
 has a famous (indeed, legendary) history surrounding its first performance, which featured Mr. Blitzstein doing solo duties at the piano.  The new orchestrations are cool, but the originals would have been cooler, and having just a piano accompanying the singers would have been coolest.  A couple of years back, I saw a piano-accompanied production by Theater 1010 at the Park Avenue Christian Church.  It was vibrant, very well performed, and strove to capture the feel of the 1937 original.  I was hoping for the same again.

As for the musical itself, The Cradle Will Rock is a solid work, thanks to Mr. Blitzstein’s timeless and always-engaging jazz and pop-infused score.  It certainly owes much to Brecht and Weill—and the Encores! Off-Center production, which has shrunk the show to a taut 90 minutes, plays up the themes of corruption and cynicism, which, for obvious reasons, resonate with today’s audiences.  It even evokes the spirit of the founder of the philosophy of cynicism, Diogenes, though the use of one of his more stinging quotes displayed in large letters on the back wall:  “In the rich man’s house, the only place to spit is in his face.” 

If you’ve never seen a production of The Cradle Will Rock, I do recommend you go.  This initial outing by Encores! Off-Center may disappoint for the reasons I’ve explained, but given the caliber of talent singing into those mikes, it is certainly worth the visit.

By the way, the other two productions for this initial season are the already-sold-out single performance of Jeanine Tesori’s own Violet (starring Sutton Foster), and Nancy Ford’s I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road.  

I wish Encores! Off-Center well.  To have a home like this for Off Broadway musicals is a splendid enterprise.  Some suggestions:  The Secret Life of Walter MittyDames At SeaLittle Mary Sunshine, or even something else by Blitzstein, perhaps No For An Answer, his follow-up to The Cradle Will Rock.  

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