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What a weekend for entertainment! On one day, we saw the musical The Wild Party (LaChiusa version) at  Moonbox Productions in Boston. (Very good.) On another, we attended a flamenco concert in a church.

The flamenco headliner, guitarist Juanito Pascual, was joined by flamenco percussionist and singer José Moreno and singer and dancer Bárbara Martinez. Such exuberant and mournful fun! It reminded us of fado concerts we’ve attended, although that happy-sad tradition is Portuguese and flamenco is Spanish.

The music included pieces that go back centuries plus Pascual’s own compositions, which are a fascinating blend of old and new. Challenging at times, but pretty intriguing. One was dedicated to the person back home in Minnesota “who persuaded my mother to let me take guitar lessons.”

An article in the Concord Journal notes that Pascual,  who is just beginning a 15-city tour to promote his latest CD, “skillfully weaves such influences as Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Bach and many others into his original compositions.” The Journal also quotes Boston Globe critic Steve Morse, who admires how Pascual “combines vivid colors, rich imagination and a yearning, never satisfied mastery of his art.”

Even in pieces without Moreno’s percussion support, Pascual’s virtuoso performance sounded like he was simultaneously playing two guitars and a set of bongos (flamenco involves slapping the wood as well has playing the strings). Very dramatic.

More at the Concord Journal, here. And you can hear samples of the music at all three artists’ websites.

Photo: www.juanitopascual.com

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A musical based on a winning 1950s Mademoiselle college-contest story, Doris Betts’s “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” is playing at the Speakeasy Stage in Boston, and it’s pretty special. My husband and I saw it yesterday.

The Violet of the title is a young woman from North Carolina who has saved up enough money to take a bus to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to beseech a television faith healer to resurrect her face, disfigured by a hatchet accident in childhood.

In spite of being an ornery character, suspicious of ridicule, she is befriended on the bus by two soldiers and an old woman, none of whom believe in the faith healer.

The group splits up, and Violet makes it to the television studio. Having first accosted the faith healer, she enlists her own belief, her carefully chosen Bible verses, and her childhood memories and fears in a dreamlike growth process that resonates on many levels.

The production’s fugue of psychology, American beauty culture, race relations — and musical numbers suggestive of the regions Violet passes through — rises to a crescendo and resolves into a satisfying ending. The show has humorous moments, moving moments, moments of insight, and memorable songs.

One of the most stirring musical numbers, “Raise Me Up,” is performed at the television station by both charlatans and true believers. The professional actors are backed by a series of Boston-area Gospel choirs, filling in at different performances.

What a great idea! I knew when I bought tickets that, if nothing else, I’d like the local choirs. As it happens I liked it all.

Jeanine Tesori wrote the music. The book and lyrics were by Brian Crawley, direction by Paul Daigneault, musical direction by Matthew Stern, and choreography by David Connolly. An earlier version of the show played Off-Broadway in the late 1990s. Speakeasy is presenting the brand-new version as the Boston premier.

Check out the review by Boston Globe critic Don Aucoin, here.

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Our 5-year-old grandson’s friend had been planning to attend an American Repertory Theater musical with her grandmother today at 10 a.m. We decided to go, too.

The show was The Pirate Princess and was loosely (very loosely) based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It was a hoot for me, and the young man in the photo seemed riveted. But whether he could make head or tail of the  convoluted plot, I have my doubts. It will be interesting to see down the road what he remembers — and whether he wants to see more plays.

The plot involves a brother and sister who get separated in a shipwreck (in this case, it’s thanks to a monster called the Kraken) and have separate adventures with characters who later mistake the sister dressed as a boy for the boy and vice versa. (I kept whispering in my grandson’s ear, “The pirate thinks he’s the girl that he thinks is a boy”; “The Queen thinks he’s his sister but doesn’t know his sister is a girl.” My grandson didn’t respond.)

There were songs, musical instruments, fancy costumes, pirates storming up lighted platforms in the middle of the audience, sword fights, and imaginative special effects. I especially like the jellyfish created by glowing umbrellas with streamers, carried along the aisles in the dark. The Kraken with his many legs was pretty great, too.

After the show, we had hot chocolate and cookies at the Darwin on Mt. Auburn Street. I’m not sure what our grandson will be able to tell his parents about the madcap entertainment he witnessed, but bits and pieces will likely emerge over time. I myself saw Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland when I was four, but I didn’t become a theater nut until I was 10.

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Flashback city.

Hershey Felder has been presenting his one-man show on Irving Berlin at the Cutler Majestic. Embodying the great composer-lyricist, Felder takes the audience through an extraordinary life from Berlin’s birth in Belarus to his death in New York at 101.

We get to hear much of the great music, including the backstory of songs we thought we knew. “White Christmas,” for example. We may have known it was written after Pearl Harbor and became beloved of US troops everywhere, but its heartfelt power comes from a loss Berlin and his wife Ellen experienced at Christmas years before.

I liked the way Felder/Berlin first describes the famous characters with whom he interacted and, after a pause, springs their names on us. He describes writing music for one performer whose first audition pegged him as balding and mediocre at acting, singing, dancing. It was Fred Astaire.

Felder does brief and funny imitations of many celebrities: Ethel Merman, George Kaufman, Flo Ziegfeld. There are movie clips featuring people like Al Jolson — and a touching story about the great African American singer Ethel Waters.

But what can catch a person by surprise is an incident or name that hasn’t been thought of in decades. The story about Berlin putting aside “God Bless America” because an adviser thought no one would like it — then pulling it out when a well-known singer wanted something for Armistice Day years later — gave me a jolt. That’s because the well-known singer was Kate Smith, and I had a flashback to a childhood nanny who listened every day to Kate Smith on the old black & white Dumont TV singing “When the moon comes over the mountain” (not a Berlin song).

After a standing ovation, Felder made an announcement that the eldest daughter of Irving Berlin was in the audience, and she came up to the front. And so did a daughter of hers and a son and two grandsons (grandchildren and great-children of the composer.)

Berlin’s daughter spoke a few words of gratitude to Felder for his faithful portrayal, noting in particular her father’s fierce patriotism. It was fun to think that this woman was the baby for whom Berlin wrote “Blue Skies Shining for Me.”

There’s a lot to be said for the out-of-body state induced by watching a good entertainment (or reading an absorbing mystery, or doing tai chi, or playing with a child) that puts your mental tape loop on pause and leaves you refreshed.

More about the production can be found at Arts Emerson.

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Wow, what an awesome job the Concord Players did with this goofy musical by the folks who brought you Monty Python!

Spamalot had so many insane costume changes, extravagant production numbers, and giddy jokes that it never allowed you a minute to think how silly it all is.

We laughed a lot. They say laughing is good for your health, and I can see why it is good for mental health at least — when you are really laughing, you can’t think about anything but the thing that is making you laugh. So you’re really “living in the moment,” as the gurus advise.

Tom was one of the trumpet players (not the one who gets shot by the conductor for playing the wrong trumpet themes in the overture), and Claire gave a party after the matinee. Wisely, she decided not to emphasize Spam for the meal (“No one would have come to the party,” she said) and instead presented a delicious spread with a Cinco de Mayo theme.

Several guests cracked out their smart phones to inform us about what Cinco de Mayo celebrates (the 1862 defeat of the French by Mexicans at Pueblo — not sure I feel much wiser, though).

Spamalot is sold out. But it was sold out today, too, and I saw a few empty seats, so take a chance — maybe a ticket holder won’t show up. The woman next to me was offended by some of the naughtiness and irreverence and left at intermission. So you could always come for the second half.

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Ted-Shen-Second-Chance-at-PublicWe went down to New York this weekend to see my husband’s classmate’s new musical.

Ted Shen wrote the book, lyrics, and music to A Second Chance, a lovely little cameo about a widower and a divorcee. The title refers to new beginnings for two people, but it’s hard for my husband and me not to think of new careers, too, since Shen was an investment banker for 30 years before turning to music so seriously.

At TheaterMania, where a couple of old reviews I wrote are still archived, Shen describes how he began to develop his musical after Stephen Sondheim gave him encouragement.

And he explains his style. “In my role as composer, my preference has been to emphasize the use of ‘action songs’ that show the characters interacting with each other and conversing primarily through lyrics rather than pure spoken dialog, and to limit the use of ‘introspection songs’ that stop the action to express feelings and inner thoughts. I have attempted to create a contemporary musical ‘language’ that is jazz-inflected rather than written in today’s predominant pop-based genre.’ ” More at TheaterMania.

Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, where the show is being performed, says that Shen “has written some of the most elegant and sophisticated music I have heard in theater in many a moon.”

While in New York, we also saw the musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (based on the movie Kind Hearts and Coronets). It was pure Broadway fun, and we laughed a lot. But A Second Chance gave us more to talk about after.

Consider checking out the site for the Shen Family Foundation, here, which “concentrates its grant-making in the area of musical theater through its funding support of works of exceptionally gifted and highly original musical theater composers.”

Photo: Suzanne‘s Dad reconnects with his classmate decades after business school and asks him to sign a Playbill.

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Well, if you aren’t into musicals, it might not be hilarious to you, but I just love that a famous songwriter wrote this number for Great American Soup back in 1970, and a famous Broadway star performed it. Terry Teachout posted it, here, on his theater blog. His blog is called “About Last Night,” and I connect to it through ArtsJournal.

Back when I was reading the Wall Street Journal, I used to enjoy Teachout’s theater reviews. But according to his blog, reviews are just the tip of the iceberg for this Renaissance Man.

“Terry’s first play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, opens off Broadway at the Westside Theatre on Mar. 4. Previews start Feb. 15. The production is directed by Gordon Edelstein, with John Douglas Thompson appearing in the triple role of Louis Armstrong, Joe Glaser, and Miles Davis. It was seen in 2012 at Shakespeare & Company of Lenox, Mass., Long Wharf Theatre of New Haven, Conn., and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater. For more information, go here.

“To see John Douglas Thompson on stage in Satchmo at the Waldorf, go here. To watch a Wall Street Journal-produced video interview with Terry, go here.”

Teachout also writes opera libretti. I always thought it would be fun to do that.

Below: “Great American Soup” commercial, written by Stan Freberg and starring Ann Miller.

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Yesterday a colleague who has been taking a work-related class told me he finally sent in his latest paper. He said that he had kept taking it home, intending to work on it, but just couldn’t. Finally, on the day it was due, he came to work early and wrote the dang thing.

He said, “I always leave this stuff till the last minute. I work better under pressure.”

I said, “There’s a song for you. It’s called ‘A Book Report on Peter Rabbit,’ and it’s from the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

And I went on YouTube and found the song for him. It’s sort of a fugue involving Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, and Charlie Brown. They each have their own way of approaching the task of writing a book report, and I think the four styles pretty much cover the different ways each of us approaches work.

Are you more like Lucy, counting up the words in order to do the bare minimum? More psychologically analytical like Linus? Wildly imaginative like Schroeder, who would rather be writing about Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham?

My friend identifies with Charlie Brown, who sings that there is no point in getting started when he’s “not really rested,” that he works “better under pressure.”

I suspect I’m closest to Linus. Who are you?

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I moonlighted as a theater reviewer for years and loved doing it. But even if I hated a particular show, I worked hard to find some aspect to praise. People had to read between the lines for the criticism. I really felt for the actors.

The critics of yore had no such scruples, and as I laugh out loud, I can’t help being a little jealous of their freedom.

Yesterday my husband dug out some reviews of the 1945 Broadway show Polonaise. He had read an obit about the star, who just died at age 99. As there are few shows he hasn’t heard of, he was stumped and went straight to the “critical quotebook” Opening Night on Broadway.

The show’s creators had decided to use the music of Chopin, a Pole, for a story about another Pole, a man who volunteered in George Washington’s army. The two Poles had nothing else in common.

Reviewer Luis Kroneberger wrote, “The best I can say for the thing as a whole is that it appalled me enough at times to keep me from being bored.”

Burton Rascoe noted, “The playbill says that the Alvin Theatre is perfumed with Prince Matchabelli’s ‘Stradivari.’ There was not enough of it used to overcome the odor of dry-rot and mothballs that emanated from the book, the lyrics, and the production of Polonaise.”

And Willela Waldorf must have been hanging out at the Algonquin with Dorothy Parker too much. She let it rip: “It is about time somebody started a League for the Defense of Dead Composers. It is disturbing that some of Chopin’s finest  works, ‘adapted’ for the occasion, should be carelessly flaunted on the Broadway stage in a futile attempt to add luster to a stupid, inept, often embarrassingly ludicrous spectacle. …  The concert pianist hired to play Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat while the ballet stormed the Royal Palace, not only performed with vigor at the pianoforte but spoke his one line of dialogue clearly and as if he knew what it meant. Maybe what Polonaise needs is a few more concert pianists in some of the other roles.”

Today there is plenty of harsh talk in the media, but I would venture to say it lacks the literary flair of the critics of 1945.

Photo of Chopin: Bisson, c. 1849, via Wikipedia
He looks troubled. Is he foreseeing the future Broadway show
Polonaise?

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When I was a child, circuses still had side shows. I remember standing in a crowd and looking up at “a giant.” My father, who regarded side shows as part of the circus experience, eventually was won over to my mother’s view that side shows were a sad abuse of people who were born different.

We didn’t go again.

Who would ever think of making a musical on the subject?

Answer: Henry Krieger and Bill Russell, two very creative people who saw in the side show a metaphor for the human experience, the longings, the feeling of being a square peg in a round hole, and the difficulties and comforts of closeness.

I saw Side Show several years ago and loved it. So when it came to the Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts, I told my husband we had to go. He ended up loving it, too.

The musical centers on pretty, singing Siamese twins whom a talent scout discovers in a side show among their circus “family”– the bearded lady, the cannibal, the rubber man, the fortune teller, a wide array of misfits.

The story is odd and wonderful at the same time — the sisters’ longing “to be like everyone else” likely to strike a chord with anyone who has ever felt different.

What came across in this production more than in the one I saw at the Lyric Stage, was how completely different the two personalities are. The girls are sensitive to each other and comforting, but one is outgoing, one is shy, and they have very different ideas about what a happy future would look like.

Side Show has wonderful songs, some poignant, some raucous, and the current production features excellent acting from the mainly nonprofessional performers. It was polished and moving (a two hanky event for me), and it runs through Nov. 10.

If you want to to see Side Show with professionals, it looks like it is going to be revived on Broadway. More on that at Playbill, here.

Photo: Playbill.com
Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner in the original production. It’s amazing how quickly you see actresses in this show as conjoined just because they sit close.

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Today I had an amusing back and forth with Fire Islanders past and present. It was about a fund raiser for what we used to call “Group” back when I was a day camper and later a counselor and writer-director of teenage musicals.

The fundraiser is to restore the Ocean Beach Youth Group (“Group”) building below, which was pummeled by Hurricane Sandy. From the first e-mail:

“Food . Beer & Wine . Auction . Guest Bartenders . Tequila Tasting
“Sun., Jan. 6, 2013, 4-7 pm @ Rodeo Bar, 375 Third Avenue, NYC
“$50 cash/check at door, 21+
“$30 for 16-20 For advance tickets or to make a donation, visit http://www.nycharities.org/Events/EventLevels.aspx?ETID=5691 OBYG is a 501(c)3 organization.
“As an added bonus Tony Roberts of Broadway fame and Youth Group Alumnus will be our guest.”

I wrote back that I was in one of Tony Roberts’s teenage plays (back when his name was still Dave) and can sing most of the lyrics to the theme song of his show Like You Like It.

I then indulged in some contradictory reminiscing with my first co-writer/director and with the daughter of playwright Arnold Horwitt, who was an adviser on the first show we wrote.

“Memories can be beautiful and yet” … (Oh, sorry, we used to burst into song a lot.)

But about memories. I know I have the most accurate memories for the shows I worked on, yet friends keep remembering differently. And who can blame Arnold Horwitt’s daughter, for example, if she thinks her father wrote all the lyrics to our “Return of the Native” when he only contributed the song that he had already written for a cruise to fight a bridge, “Everything’s Coming Up Moses”? He was a huge support, and that’s what she gets right.

Want me to sing anything for you?

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A woman in my tai chi chuan class yesterday mentioned that she was taking her son to an “Instrument PettingZoo” this weekend to see if he could find an instrument he’d like to study.

What a great name for the event! With a title like that, no one needs to explain that the idea is to help children learn about different instruments — and have fun at the same time.

This weekend’s Instrument PettingZoo is at Powers Music School.

The school’s website provides some history:

“Powers Music School is a regional, not-for-profit institution established in 1964 to provide superior music instruction and performance opportunities to all interested students. Each year the School also provides musical outreach opportunities in the community through programs such as Belmont Open Sings, the Stein Chamber Music Festival, the Peter Elvins Vocal Competition, and the Mildred P. Freiberg Piano Festival.

“The founding principles, that all students are entitled to high quality musical instruction and that music is an essential part of our lives and belongs in the community, continue to guide the School today. During 2010-2011, the School worked with over 1,000 students who traveled from 50 surrounding communities. In addition, Powers gave over 70 student recitals/community performances.”

I love the school’s dual-meaning slogan, “A great place to play.”

Makes me realize my off-and-on-music education may have left out the playful side of “play.”

Photograph: PowersMusic.org

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A while back I watched the movie The Little Red Truck, a documentary by producer Pam Voth and director Rob Whitehair highlighting the work of the Missoula Children’s Theatre. It was a moving experience.

The Missoula (Montana) Children’s Theatre travels by truck from city to city all over America to put on productions with children in low-income urban and rural areas. The transformation of some of these children in the week it takes to produce a full-scale, one-hour musical is something to see, with many insecure children discovering talents that no one, including the children themselves, knew they had.

For kids who have never seen a play and have no place to rehearse — nor any props or costumes or sets other than what the theater company can pack into the truck —  putting on a production seems unimaginable.

As the movie unfolds, you see how doing the unimaginable builds self-confidence, and generates both laughter and ideas about possible futures. It’s not about growing up to be actors. It’s about seeing that there are options, and starting to think differently.

And in case anyone is more interested in the academic skills boosted through theater, this Education Week article makes that case. Not a bad case to be made, but it’s the magic of Queen Mab that speaks to me.

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We had already bought tickets for the new version of Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theater when Stephen Sondheim weighed in with an angry letter to the NY Times. He had not seen the show, but he apparently resented the tone of an article’s quotes from A.R.T. He may have thought director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks were implying that they were better than the show’s original creators.

After the opening, Ben Brantley of the NY Times raved about Audra McDonald’s Bess while giving a mostly lukewarm review to everything else. Meanwhile, the student D.J. at Emerson College’s radio station kept reading promos for the show and pronouncing Porgy as “Porjy.” (He will always be Porjy to me now).

By the time our matinee rolled around, the day was almost too beautiful to be in a dark theater for three hours, and our initial anticipation had been reduced to mild curiosity.

So I’m happy to say we really liked A.R.T.’s Porgy — pretty much everything about it.

I admit that I am not intimate with the whole score and therefore was not always able to tell when new material had been inserted. (One line, about saving to send the baby to college, did come across with a loud, anachronistic clunk — but now a blog reader tells me it was in the original!) But the beauty of the songs, the dancing, the characters making the best of no-options, the love story! I cried pretty much the whole way through. And I’m still singing.

The only other Porgy and Bess I’d seen was directed by Bobby McFerrin in Minneapolis. It was long and kind of confusing, but I accepted that that’s the way opera often is. The A.R.T. may have presented a rejiggered story that was not true to the original, but it was a story that I could follow.

As I said to my husband on the way out, “Well, it worked for me.”

He said, “Sondheim should rethink his position.”

P.S. Audra McDonald was breathtaking.

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