Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Category: Musical Theater Page 2 of 4

Leonard Bernstein conducting. Photo Paul de Heuck, courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Review | Maestro | Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein | 59E59 Theatres

… doing it all …

In a 90 minute fest of music, wit and insight, the multi-talented Hershey Felder sings, talks, and plays the piano through the life and art of Leonard Bernstein.

Leonard Bernstein as pianist. Photo courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc

Leonard Bernstein as pianist. Photo courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc

I liked that Felder doesn’t impersonate Bernstein but evokes him, as he switches from narration to being Bernstein, in a tale that takes us from Bernstein’s boyhood to the end of his life.  The importance of Bernstein being Jewish is one strong theme that emerges as we see and hear him escape the expectations of his domineering, Talmud-immersed father, and fight his way through to his great vocation and a life of music.   As you read these written words about MAESTRO, hear music!  Felder plays Bernstein’s biography with tremendous verve and excitement, and sings it with great range and passion.

Leonard Bernstein composing. Photo courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Leonard Bernstein composing. Photo courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

But in what form was that life of music to take?  Pianist?  Composer?  Conductor?  Bernstein, who early on attracted attention playing the piano, wanted to be a composer – the next great American composer after Copeland, with whom he was close – but, assertive as he was, the world opened up to him as a conductor.  From Harvard on (his father proud he was in Harvard but sorry it was in the Music Department!) he was serially taken under the wing of great conductors of the day, Mitropooulos, Reiner and Koussevitzky and nudged, partly through intimate love, toward conducting.

Ultimately he did it all: played, composed, conducted and more – he was an outstanding impresario, took great pride in bringing classical music to a broad audience through television where he commented, taught, and not least of it conducted the nine Beethoven symphonies.  He founded the Symphony Orchestra of Israel.  He composed music in the classical tradition and he composed West Side Story with which he and the other creators – book by Sondheim, choreography by Robbins – took pride in bringing what they felt was a new kind of musical theater to America.

Leonard Bernstein conducting. Photo Paul de Heuck, courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Leonard Bernstein conducting. Photo Paul de Heuck, courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Which brings up another theme.  And irony.  By any account Bernstein was as successful in his chosen field as one can be, earning surpassing recognition, acclaim, fame, influence, and wealth.  But in Felder’s vision. Bernstein never reached the pinnacle of success as a great composer he yearned for. People remember him best by West Side Story and one song in it:  Maria, the musical theme of that song his sound-recognition equivalent of the first chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – and they don’t quit stand up to Beethoven!  This view that he did not reach the greatness as a composer he sought is evidently one that nagged at Bernstein as his own, independent of the opinion of others one way or the other.  Though I knew that Bernstein had composed for Candide, Peter Pan, and other shows, I now know that he wrote the music for On The Waterfront — now I have to see that great movie — yet again!

Felder creates this musical biography with a grand piano and modest-sized stage, and with the help of large photograph projections, wonderful close-ups for the most part of those who figured importantly in Bernstein’s, including his wife, Felicia, and of Bernstein himself, from the remarkably handsome youthful impresario to the end of his life.

There are a few blanks.  We don’t hear about his siblings, or much about his mother.  And the blank that caught my breath as one of Bernstein’s great triumphs, in 1944, was being described:  why wasn’t he in the war?  I now know that he was exempted because of chronic asthma but one needed to hear more about it:  how did World War II affect Bernstein? – the war isn’t so much as mentioned.

Felder goes beyond his own musical virtuosity in bringing us an intelligent and thoughtful interpretation of a major figure in music – in whichever mode! – of the 20th Century.  In MAESTRO the ideas are rich and the music compelling and joyous.

MAESTRO, directed by Joel Zwick, plays at 59E59 Theater in midtown Manhattan through October 23, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

My Fair Lady playing at Bay Street in Sag Harbor, L. I.

Review | My Fair Lady | Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner | Music by Frederick Loewe | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

… great ….

This My Fair Lady is so good it made me feel that this wonderful show was even more marvelous than I thought.  I saw new things in it!  It’s thrilling!

Pygmalion and Galatea - Jean-Leon Gerome

Jean-Leon Gerome, French, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1890, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum, NYC,  photo commons.wikimedia.org {{PD-1923}}

My Fair Lady originates in the ancient myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who could never find the right woman to love. Finally he carved a sculpture of a woman so beautiful that, having created her form, he was filled with passionate desire and kissed her.  With his kiss – and thanks to intervention from the goddess Aphrodite — he felt the lips of the ivory image grow warm as the cheeks become rosy and the image took on the hues and feel of human flesh (I love the way this happens from top to bottom in the painting by Gerome  at left).  His ideal was transformed into a living woman. In terms of sexism, this lovely story is on a par with that one about Adam’s rib, though, unlike Adam and Eve, Pygmalion and his bride lived happily ever after.

With some transformations of his own, George Bernard Shaw took up the myth in his delightful play, Pygmalion, moving the story to early 20th century London, turning the sculptor into persnickety Henry Higgins, an expert on the English language, and turning the sculptor’s created beloved into Eliza Doolittle, a low-class girl with cockney speech eking out a living selling flowers whom Higgins’ transforms through his teaching into an elegant woman with upper class speech and elegance, whereupon he falls in love with her.

My Fair Lady, by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (composer) is based on Shaw’s Pygmalion.  The authors draw upon Shaw’s characters and dialog, and create brilliant transpositions of scenes, new wit, and songs that capture the characters, their situations and their emotions with breathtaking aptness, humor and beauty.  The whole is directed with refreshing vivacity and dramatic truth by Michael Ardens.

Selling flowers around Covent Garden Theater, Eliza Doolittle lets out a howl when her flowers are toppled by the careless rich, bringing her – and her “dreadful” cockney vowels, to the notice of Professor Henry Higgins, the expert on English language.  Higgins (Paul Alexander Noland), disdainful at how most of the English speak (that song:  “Why Can’t The English learn to speak.  These verbal class distinctions by now should be extinct”), remarks to Colonel Pickering (Howard McGillin) that with training, he could transform even this wretched girl’s speech into upper class English.  No fool Eliza:  she arrives at his house the next day wanting lessons so she can sell flowers in a shop instead of on the street. Higgins bets with Pickering that with his training he’ll be able to pass her off as a duchess.  Thus begins Eliza’s training in “proper English.”

My Fair Lady playing at Bay Street in Sag Harbor, L. I.

My Fair Lady playing at Bay Street in Sag Harbor, L. I.

The enjoyable scene couldn’t be done better.  Kelli Barrett is an enchanting Eliza with a beautiful singing voice (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”) and piquant acting.  Nolan is an appealing stuffed shirt with a fine voice as Higgins.   Pickering (McGillin) is the perfect straight-backed tweedy Englishman.   And it’s our good luck that John O’Creagh as Eliza’s boozing “amoral” father (“With A Little Bit Of Luck”) couldn’t be better.  Farther along in the show, his rendition of “Get Me To The Church On Time” is so ebullient, so charmingly reprobate, so set off by an alluring large man’s shuffle-dance, that one cannot ask for more delight in this world.

The show continues pitch-perfect, delicious, all one wants. Higgins pushes Eliza to the extremes of endurance and Eliza has the gumption and determination to keep trying, to keep working.  Pickering, and Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Karen Murphy) attempt to moderate the strain on her but Higgins isn’t about to soften his regime.   Anyhow, they’re two of a pair, aren’t they? – both unstoppable, working through the night.   Until that marvelous moment comes when Eliza gets it!

It’s all about vowels.  She finally in a sort of flash (hard-won flash) gets them right (“The Rain In Spain”), they are thrilled and so are we by the celebratory explosion of joy, they are in love – he may not know it but she pretty well does (“I Could Have Danced All Night”) and they try her new speech and ladylike poise at the tony horse races at Ascot in one of the funniest and most moving scenes in all musical theater.

Is the elegant, beautifully speaking Eliza taken for royalty at the ball?  Guess.  But the course of true love never runs smooth (in contrast with the myth), and Shaw introduced a clever and telling bump in the road.  It has to do with how when success finally arrives, the self-centered Higgins and Pickering congratulate themselves (“You Did It”) without it occurring  to them for a minute to congratulate the hard-working, hard-studying Eliza.  And Eliza is no sculptor’s passive ideal – she’s furious.

The cast, including the entire ensemble of singer-dancer-actors, is superlative.  Kelli Barrett is an even more wonderful Eliza Doolittle than Julie Andrews, I thought listening to the original cast recording a couple of days ago.   Barrett is lovelier and more sympathetic.  She adds to her beautiful voice, and dramatic strength an outstanding comic talent — what an expressive face!  She makes the brilliantly humorous scenes, such as that at the Ascot races, exquisitely funny.  As in, You’ve just gotta see this!

Paul Alexander Nolan as Henry Higgins also has his own hard act to follow since Rex Harrison, with his star power and unbeatable male maturity, created an iconic performance that’s hard to leave go.  Nolan succeeds in creating a more youthful, and energetic — if every bit as amusingly obtuse — Henry Higgins.  Not only that, Nolan’s strong singing voice brings out the full emotion dwelling in the great songs that chart the remarkable romance of Henry and Eliza — a huge bonus since Harrison wasn’t a singer.

As the love-lorn Freddy, Eynsford-Hill fills the theater with his beautiful voice singing “On The Street Where You Live.”  Carol Shelley as Henry Higgins mother  —  aristocrat through and through, and wise realist — has an arresting and charming stage presence.

The versatile, multi-level set enables some very effect interplay between what’s taking place front and center and what’s imagined.  When Henry Higgins, back  in his own sitting room, describes Hungarian rival in the science of phonetics, Zoltan Karpathy,  horning in on Eliza at the ball, Ryan Fitzgerald, zooming in from above as Karpathy does a gymnastic histrionic rendition of how he did it that’s as funny as anything in the show –and that’s saying a lot!

The only false note in this production comes at the very end, where the play has been revised to fit a contemporary feminist mode.  It’s a real let-down, as I felt, and heard on all sides as I left the theater.  A revision of this sort was totally unnecessary —  My Fair Lady is already feminist! And it has an ending that emerges organically from the vivid characters and the development of their relationship.  The show is much about making fun of the obtuse chauvinism of Higgins and Pickering and, when all is said and done, feisty and accomplished Eliza is the hero of My Fair Lady.

For the rest, this production of My Fair Lady is a gift of wit, joy, and great art.  Pure and simple, don’t miss it!

My Fair Lady plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, NY through September 4, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Dance of Life with Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch in FringeNYC 2016. Photo: James Jim

Press Release | Fringe NYC | New York’s Festival Of New And Independent Theater | August 2016

Contact: Ron Lasko @ 212-505-1700 / ron@spincyclenyc.com


Returns for 20th Anniversary Season
August 12-28, 2016

Review | Angel Reapers | By Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry | Signature Theatre

Directed and Choreographed by Martha Clarke

Here again Martha Clarke has given us a lovely new creation of her unique vision, a theatrical union of dance, music and narrative.  Although Angel Reapers, about repression and ecstasy among the Shakers, is a smaller, less commanding theater piece than Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights and her staging of  Threepenny Opera, it has her mark.

The Shakers religious sect is known for celibacy and ecstatic prayer and in Angel Reapers these are two sides of the same coin.  Repression finds an outlet in wildness, sanctioned and controlled by rigid dogma and social control.

While awaiting the performance — and the prayer meeting — the audience sits on two sides of the austere meeting house, near to becoming part of the congregation. We are in the original Shaker foundation in the United States, a group headed by Mother Ann Lee who came here with a small circle fellow Shakers, including her brother William, in the late 18th century .

I’ll never forget the beginning of this play: men and women uniformly dressed by gender, silently, in a choreographed but natural seeming entry, take seats opposite one another in the unadorned, white washed meeting house. And after a notably long silence (in which you think you’ve figured out that this is going to be all about repression) they break into laughter.

It’s life-affirming, and conveys quickly the tension between straight-faced discipline and irrepressible human emotions that the play is all about.

And then they break into song.

In a beautiful pattern of emerging, we get to know driving aspects of each character’s  emotional history. Through mime, song, dance and speech, we encounter the heartaches, spiritual conflicts, suffered abuses, thwarted passions, religious yearnings, and idealistic visions that thrust the characters toward the tightly structured Shaker life.  Beneath the cloak of conformity, suffering and pleasure are personal

At prayer meetings, as in revival meetings, ecstatic dance and song pull individuals from communal obedience to private gyrations, spastic movements, seizures, rolling on the floor, these movements signifying loss of control choreographed to beauty by Clarke.

But ecstatic release in song and dance doesn’t erase the effects of sexual repression and its heavy burden of guilt: within this small, tight knit community, homosexual yearnings are barely concealed. Incestuous love is conveyed in a delicate scene in which Brother Lee tenderly washes the feet of his sister, Mother Ann Lee who – what an irony – makes the rules here.  The passionate, anarchic love affair between a young man and woman, followed to its outcome, creates something of a plot. The essential narrative, however, is the emerging of characters from communal to specific.

Clarke’s previous extravaganzas have filled the eyes with luscious color. Here she takes a turn to tones of gray and white.  The women wear modest grey dresses and white coifs and the production, with costumes by Donna Zakowska and scene design by Marsha Ginsberg, takes its cues from those colors.  Color is like that: placing a Rembrandt next to a Rubens, the muted colors more than hold their own.

The cast that sings, dances, mimes and speaks is excellent. The dancing of the men in particular, with their powerful stomping, whirling movements, all right near you in the small theater, is vibrant and exciting.

While enjoying Clarke’s sumptuous theatricality, one senses that the underlying script is thin.  Also there is a toward the end there’s some awkward speechifying —  the authors seem to be trying to make sure we know what to think about what we’ve seen — which is unnecessary and interrupts the wholeness of the production.  In spite of a tailing off at the end, one leaves still in the thrall of Martha Clarke’s vision.

Music direction and arrangements are by Arthur Solari who also worked with Samuel Crawford on Sound design.  Lighting design, which brings out the beauty of the greys and whites almost as if you’re seeing through a delicate filter, is by Christopher Akerland, .

Angel Reapers plays at Signature Theatre on Manhattan’s West 42nd Street through March 20th.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Songbird | Based on Chekhov’s The Seagull | Written by Michael Kimmel | Songs by Lauren Pritchard | Directed by JV Mercanti

… a terrific new musical is born …

Here is a really amazing idea – Songbird  is a country music musical based in Chekhov’s The Seagull.  While it stays quite close to the plot of the symbolist and heavily psychological end-of-the-19th century Russian drama, it soars on its own life-affirming wings. This exciting production with its all star-quality cast of singer-musician-actors, is set in Jason Sherwood’s stunningly beautiful interpretation of a honky-tonk bar, topped by gorgeously illuminated whiskey bottles in multi colors.

After a meteoric rise to fame, country music singer Tammy Trip, marvelously played, sung and danced by Kate Baldwin, returns to her roots near Nashville and the son she left behind who has been cared for by her best friend, Pauline.  Tammy brings in tow her lover, the famous commercial songwriter Beck (Eric William Morris).  Although she’s only a local, doing her singing in church, Pauline, played by Erin Dilly, is as terrific a country music singer as Tammy.  This show is absolutely filled with music!

When her aspiring and clearly nervous song-writer son, Dean (Adam Cochran) and his girlfriend, Mia (Ephie Aardema), sing his new song, a mournful melody without pep, bulldozer Tammy is openly amused, bored and disruptive, humiliating him in front of everyone, a hard scene to watch, though beautifully played.

In despair, Dean goes off alone while most everyone else including Beck, Tammy’s brother Soren (Bob Stillman), Pauline and her husband Samuel Andy Taylor) , Pauline’s lover Doc (Drew McVety) and her daughter, Missy (Kacie Sheik) who loves Dean but eventually — in contrast to those characters in the play who, with varying results, refuse to settle — “settles” in her marriage with Rip (Don Guillory). Everybody’s family here, and everybody is completely musical, picking up guitars off the wall to accompany the singing – or the violin, tambourine, ukulele, mandolin and cello.

And where’s the seagull?  A bluebird (of happiness) Dean hits with his truck stands in for the seagull but Mia – standing in for Chekhov’s ingénue Nina — has no patience with his grief, caught up with the glamour of the big-time visitors, envisioning a country music singing career for herself, and infatuated with the famous songwriter, Beck, with results that parallel those in Chekhov.

For all the connections with Chekhov, and all the story’s rich complexities of pure art and commerce, new forms and convention, love and jealousy, betrayal and death, the tone of SONGBIRD lifts off from the moody symbolism of Chekhov’s play into its own joy, rising on the wings of songs wonderful at the time they’re heard, though hard to remember after, and a clever, witty book.  I have to think that – once he caught on to the idea — Chekhov would have loved SONGBIRD.

SONGBIRD plays at 59E59 Theaters through November 29, 2015, extended to December 6th, 2015, and I’m sure that’s just the beginning for this terrific show — it doesn’t seem like a work in progress – it’s already all there.   For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | An American In Paris | Book by Craig Lucas | Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin | Directed and Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon | Palace Theatre

Inspired by the film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron

This new Broadway musical, American in Paris , has absolutely spectacular dancing and choreography, magnificent scenes and scene changes, and wonderful Gershwin songs.   The story, well, it’s a little weak but never mind.  American in Paris will fill you with joie de vivre.

And if you know the movie — though not always in the same ways this is every bit as good!

The show starts on a vibrant note:  the liberation of Paris – August 25, 1944, World War II is ended and the GI’s are going home.  But one GI, Jerry Mulligan, caught up in the wild euphoria and equivocal events of the game-changing moment, decides to stay on.  He tears up his government-issued ticket to return to the States and enters into a fall-in-love with the city and fall-in-love with the girl adventure.

The girl, Lise, is gamine – tiny, a bit hungry looking, with big eyes and bobbed boyish hair curling around her cheeks — Leslie Caron played the part in the movie.  And Jerry’s not the only one to love her – so does the wry seen-it-all club pianist, Adam who’s also an  American in Paris, and Henri, the rich and mysterious scion of an aristocratic French family, Lise’s unspoken fiancé who has some special hold on her.

Who will get the girl?  Adam’s out of the running, she falls for Jerry, but it’s intimated that she’s somehow beholden to Henri.  This is the heart of the story that unfolds with wonderful Gershwin songs, imaginative and virtuoso dance, all taking place against a gloriously designed and ever-changing backdrop of Paris with its eternally appealing sites.

Woody Allen must have been  thinking of this aspect of the movie when he made Midnight in Paris. Only this isn’t movie-Paris, photographed: it’s Paris created through the artistic wizardry of the designers and, believe it or not, it’s just as good.

There’s also an astounding quick trip to Radio City Music Hall — complete with the Rockettes.

The show is an absolute feast of great dancing.  Jerry is played by Robert Fairchild, a Principal Dancer with the New York City Ballet.  Simply said, he’s great.  His acting also is intense and passionate, and although he’s a finer dancer than singer he puts across songs like “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and “Fidgety Feet” effectively.  In the extended ballet that ends the show, he’s breathtaking.  In and of itself, this famous sequence is reason enough to see the show – and there’s much more!

Leanne Cope, who plays Lise, is an exciting dance partner for Fairchild, free and lithe.  She’s less of a singer, and as an actress, her expressions are obvious and repetitive — she “does gamine” but she isn’t the character.

Brandon Uranowitz plays the self-deprecating Adam pro forma, though the audience appreciated the intensity he brought to singing “But Not For Me.”  As Henri, Max von Essen’s rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” is disappointing … for that, see Georges Guetary in the film.  In general, the producers needed singer-dancers but got better dancers than singers.

But among the singers, Jill Paice is a notable exception, a true song stylist, who delivers songs like “Shall We Dance,” and “But Not For Me” the way we need to hear them.  As Milo, a rich, predatory American woman who wants Jerry for herself, she goes beyond cliché to suggest Milo’s loneliness and vulnerability – but with high style.

Whether broad Parisian backdrops or intimate indoor scenes, the sets are eye-filling.  Particularly spectacular and evocative is Jerry and Lise’s favorite rendezvous spot, the Seine river quay, complete with moving water.  People around me gasped—me, too —  at the realization of what the designers had achieved.

The visuals throughout are sharp, clever, and stunning – and never obvious.  Art is in the details, the cubist portrait of Milo, who runs an art gallery, “looks like” Jill Paice, but not overtly – in its sly way, it captures the essence of the character.  The costumes are enchanting — both witty and of the time.

The choreography is varied, original, unexpected — and a triumph for Christopher Wheeldon.  It’s an ample show with lots of dancers – all superb at ballet, jazz, and through all the original steps, leaps and turns Wheeldon’s invented for them.  The design, by Bob Crowley, is gorgeous.

This is the Paris we all want to see, captured at a high moment.  Is that Paris still there?  Well, I dunno … nobody whirled me dancing in the streets when I was there recently but …   See American in Paris – you’ll leave on a high note!

An American in Paris plays at the Palace Theater on Broadway in NYC.

Noted on May 5, 2016 — While American in Paris is no longer playing in NYC,  the producers have announced the show is coming to the Dominion Theatre in London.  For more information and and tickets for the London production, click here:

Review | The Nomad | World Premiere | Book and Lyrics by Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney | Composed and Directed by Elizabeth Swados | Choreographer Ani Taj | Flea Theater

… nothing missed …

Teri Madonna and Friend Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Teri Madonna and Friend Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

The opening afternoon of The Nomad was a cold winter Sunday: we made it from the subway to The Flea as falling snow cloaked everything in all-over veils of white to gray … and then the show began.  What a burst of color, brightness, and music, what delicious vibrance, as the play carries you to North Africa and its hot deserts.

With insistent percussive music saturated with North African overtones, theatrical effects to delight and astonish, and the superb performance of Teri Madonna in the lead role, it tells the story of Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), a well-educated Swiss woman who left Europe to immerse herself in North Africa culture and the Sahara desert.  She dressed as a man for the freedom it afforded her, converted to Islam, married an Algerian, wrote about North Africa, and died in a flash flood and died at the age of 27.

The play, in a brief, intense time, takes us through the major episodes of Isabelle’s life.  Sydney Blaxill beautifully plays and sings Young Isabelle, breaking out of the cocoon of her life in Switzerland:  the Young Isabelle and the grown Isabelle are often on-stage together, the way our young selves are present in our adult lives.   We see Isabelle the overcoming the hazards of travel by ship, dazzled on her arrival in North Africa as we are through the vibrance of the scenes, and surviving the death and ceremonial burial of her mother who accompanied her.

Now alone, she finds a desert horse, her first friend in the new world, and her beloved companion – I loved him too as I think everyone in the audience did.  This comforting, nuzzling horse she rides is an open-work construction of what look like birth branches, moved choreographically by the ensemble.  Talk about suspended disbelief, this horse is a  real – or put it this way, he’s as real as the unforgettable horse in War Horse, and a full match in tenderness, strength and character.

L-R Ryan Neal Green, Glenna Grant, Teri Madonna, Ben Schrager Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

L-R Ryan Neal Green, Glenna Grant, Teri Madonna, Ben Schrager Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Isabelle’s life purpose is to miss nothing – nothing in Algeria anyhow.  Through a series of episodes, we visit celebrations, funerals, murderous attempts, romantic love, brutality, tender moments, Colonial suppression, hookah parlors, and the flash flood in which Isabelle dies – an exotic panoply of North African culture and terrain.

Each episode is a distinct creation of free-flowing visual, musical and dramatic imagination.  There’s no blurring.  For each there’s different music and a different song – and that makes a remarkable twenty-two songs tracing the stages of Isabelle’s life, each a joyous pleasure.  And — what takes it far beyond a series of postcards — each episode brings us deeper into the central character of Isabelle.  What a bounty of imagination, brilliant theatricality and strong central character this show is!  What density!  What a gift!

Neil Redfield and Teri Madonna Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Neil Redfield and Teri Madonna Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Madonna is fascinating in the role of Isabelle, bringing a kind of rough toughness to the songs and characterization.  In addition to Sydney Blaxill as young Isabelle, Madonna is ably supported by a cast that includes Glenna Grant as her mother, Neil Redfield as Slimene, Ryan Stinnet as Vava, and a lavish, talented ensemble of fine singer-dancer-actors.

The Nomad is thought provoking, theatrically stunning, and introduces a compelling new character into the world of our collective imagination.

The Nomad plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through April 6, 2015.

Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

Opera Review | Slow Dusk and Markheim by Carlisle Floyd | New Chamber Arrangements by Inessa Zaretsky and Raymond J. Lustig | Little Opera Theatre of NY | 59E59 Theaters

What a wonderful evening of theater.  Two short American operas, narratives set to dramatic music, superbly performed.  One leaves thrilled and elated.

L-R Jennifer Roderer, Sarah Beckham-Turner, Alexander Charles Boyd in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

L-R Jennifer Roderer, Sarah Beckham-Turner, Alexander Charles Boyd in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

Slow Dusk takes us from commonplace to ecstatic, to tragedy, from afternoon to dusk.  Aunt Sue is shelling peas on the porch of a farmhouse in the Carolinas when Jess comes in from the fields, we learn of their concern about their niece, Sadie, who’s seeing to much of Micah — his family belong to the Truelights and they belong to the Disciples, and anyhow she’s smart and he never finished eighth grade.  They’re wild for one another and agree to marry but — not family as in Romeo and Juliet — accident intervenes, as fast as it can in life.

This is Carlisle Floyd’s first opera based on his own short story:  the language is at times over simple but the

Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

music is bold, strong, apt, and intensifies the drama, and the characterizations are both archetypal and realistic.  (I thought, Eugene O’Neil’s Desire Under the Elms could use Carlisle Floyd’s music.)

The voices might not have carried to the last rows of the Metropolitan Opera house but in this medium sized theater they were overwhelming and very moving.  The acting, direction, costuming and setting are superb.  The impact is powerful.

Wow, am I glad I’m here!  I thought, almost dazed — what’s next?

Next came one of the most impactful performances I’ve ever seen.  Again it’s short, a lot happens , and you’re left breathless and elated.  Markheim, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, takes you to London 1880, and

L-R Scott Six and Jeremy Milner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

L-R Scott Six and Jeremy Milner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

Christmas Eve, when an elegant man, Markheim,  who has squandered his family fortune enters a pawn shop to raise cash — drug dealers will kill him if he doesn’t pay up.

Here, again, characterizations, narrative and music form a gripping whole.  A confrontation between the pawn dealer and Markheim doesn’t end well as Markheim, who’s spent his life digging himself into a hole goes in deeper.  A mysterious Stranger in evening clothes enters.  Now, I’ve seen some wonderful Devils in theater, from Don Juan in Hell to Faust:  this

L-R Jeremy Milner and Marc Schreiner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

L-R Jeremy Milner and Marc Schreiner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

is the Devil whose Hell I’d really consider.  He’s sly, smart, sophisticated, articulate and choreographically active.  With a Devil likethis, redemption’s a tough sell, though there is a kind of redemption …. with an awful lot of collateral damage.

The night I attended Marc Schreiner played the Stranger and he was so seductively charismatic I’d be reluctant to see anybody else in the part — what sheer fun! — and that goes for all the cast of both operas.   Yet, at the same time I’d like to see the other cast since every aspect of this production is so completely fulfilled I imagine they are equally outstanding.

Because there are two casts, I’m listing here the cast the night I attended:  Slow Dusk:  Aunt Sadie was mezzo-soprana Jennifer Roderer, Jess was baritone Alexander Charles Boyd, Sadie was soprana Sarah Beckham-Turner and Micah was tenor Bray Wilkins.  Markheim:  Josiah Creach (the pawnbroker) was tenor Scott Six, Markheim was bass-baritone Jeremy Milner, Tess (the shop girl) was soprano Marie Masters and A Stranger was tenor Marc Schreiner.  There are ensemble Christmas carolers.

Richard Cordova conducted the lavish fifteen-piece orchestra:  the richly inventive and dramatic music heightened the emotional content and filled the theater with beauty.

The human scale, the authenticity in the costumes and ambiance as well as in the acting, the set and lighting create an extraordinary “you can’t get enough of it” visual appeal.

Just listing the performers brings back their vivid characterizations and the joy of the entire production – the joy of excellence.  These operas and others of this Carlisle Floyd’s works are available on audio media but I haven’t located any videos of them.  I’d sure like to see as well as hear his two-act opera Susannah.

Slow Dusk and Markheim play at 59E59 Theater, in midtown Manhattan (yes, that’s the address) in a limited run through December 14, 2014.

Review | Found: A New Musical | Directed by Lee Overtree | Based on the Found Books and Magazines by Davy Rothbart | Music and Original Lyrics by Eli Bolin | Book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree | Atlantic Theater Company

… found objects … 

Found is a charming, touching musical with lots of big laughs, beautifully performed.

It turns out there’s really a magazine, Found, that collects bits and pieces and scraps of writing — “love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, receipts, doodles”  — and now there’s a totally delightful musical based on them.

A couple of original and independent-minded young people in need of jobs — but ones with meaning — come up with the idea of creating the magazine based on what turns out to be powerful emotional flotsam and jetsam.  Davy first recognizes the impact of these notes.  His is the original bright idea and his buddies Mikey D and Denise are in on getting the magazine going, encouraging him and doing a lot of the work — Denise quits her job to help him create the magazine — FOUND.  Success is followed by temptation in the form of an aspiring press agent from the West Coast, glamorous Kate beckoning with a plan for big money to be made with a FOUND TV program.  But the TV offer comes with strings attached, challenging the idealism – the purity — of the original vision.  How will this play out?

It plays out on a marvelously conceived set by David Korins, a wallpaper created out of the various pieces of paper, lined and unlined, ad hoc and fancy, intact and torn — an agglutinative compendium of heartbreak and hope.  The show is rich with delightful songs that trace the story of creation of the magazine, the looming compromises that follow success, and the outcome, and — in a parallel that strengthens an otherwise cliche love triangle — the personal stories of creative and hedonistic Davy, earnest, independent Denise and glamorous  and fiscally motivated Kate.  Words from the notes filter in at emotional junctures and morph into the songs, startling and touching the heart.

Like the radiance discovered in the diverse notes, the performers, headed by Nick Blaemire as Davy, Barret Wilbert Weed as Denise, Betsy Morgan as Kate and Daniel Everidge as Mikey D, are varied in size, shape, gender and color, and are radiantly expressive and alluring.

The music is lovely if not overwhelming, the performers are excellent, the set is a work of art and the show’s hilariously funny.  And what underlies the show and gives it strength and meaning — and what I think is really its ticket to the list of American musicals that will be with us for a long time — is the revelatory power of the notes, and the respect and appreciation the show leads us to feel for these things that have been thrown away, these authentic expressions — as specific as they can be, and at the same time universal.

Found plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through November 9, 2014.

Review | My Life Is A Musical by Adam Overett | World Premiere | Directed and Choreographed by Marlo Hunter | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

It feels exciting and even uplifting to attend the first performance of a new show.  This one, My Life Is A Musical, has a cute idea, some amusing moments, and some fine performances from its principals and excellent ensemble players.  On the other hand, the characters are thin, the story loose with predictable outcomes, and the music uninventive.

What’s the cute idea?  Parker, who’s otherwise an uptight accountant, has a peculiar and lyrical trait:  he hears ordinary conversation as singing as in musicals, a quirk he hides because it makes him feel weird.  Like Jim Carrey in Liar Liar who can’t help telling the truth, Parker is mechanically locked in to a quirk he can’t help, leading to unavoidable — and potentially amusing — misunderstandings in his dealings with others.

Roped in to being the accountant for a touring rock group, Parker encounters JT, the bouncy girl who’s group manager and Zach, its main singer. Since Parker is introverted and inexperienced with girls, and is used to hiding the truth about himself, he doesn’t confess his love to JT.  Meanwhile, with his special gift for hearing songs everywhere, he’s feeding Zach songs based on everything from fragments of overheard conversations to the words in his own heart about his growing love for JT.  Sure, Zach’s great at putting a song across but he has no soul within to write one himself (an unkind satire of rock musicians that I take in with skepticism).  Anyhow, Cyrano de Bergerac–like, JT falls in love with Zach who’s singing Parker’s love songs

And Zach, played by Justin Matthew Sargent, is great at putting a song across and some of the most enjoyable moments of the show are when he’s playing and singing.  The songs and styles are spoofs on famous singers:  “I’m just an ordinary dog,” sings the gyrating Zach.

As Zach and the group rise to success because of Parker’s terrific songs (if only they were terrific, but they’re not), Randy, a music blogger who senses there’s something funny about the group’s sudden improvement, comes sneaking around in the guise of a suspicious detective to find out “the truth” about Parker and the group.  Randy, a spoof on “detectives you have known” from Sherlock Holmes to The Pink Panther and others in between, sings the song “What Have You Got To Hide” in the “Hernando’s Hideaway” style of covert excitement that’s enlivened many shows before.  Robert Cuccioli is theatrically commanding and archly funny as Randy, and the character lends itself to some engaging second act farce.

That’s a big improvement over what goes for humor in the first act:  I wish someone would explain to me why the phrase “It sucks” (variants he sucks, shethey…) used about eight times early in the show, gets a laugh out of the audience every time.  Why?

Howie Michael Smith as Parker who comes out of his shell in the course of the show has a couple of introspective songs that come near to poignant but since he’s the only even partly genuine character, the others being amusing but campy caricatures (Randy, Zach) or cliché (JT), the songs spin off into nowhere.  Generally the songs, though energetically performed, tend to blend in to one another.  Put another way, “one doesn’t leave humming.”  The singers are miked, which should be unnecessary for professionals, all the more in a small theater.

Early on Parker confesses his quirk of hearing conversation as music — too bad because, he says, “I don’t like musicals.”  In spite of a laugh or two, I don’t think this one would have changed his mind.

My Life Is A Musical plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, NY through August 31.

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