NEWSNOTES DANCE BLOG
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FROM THE EDITOR
Recognizing the need to promote the personal accomplishments of creative artists and to inform dance audiences, dance professionals, dance supporters, and the general public about news in the dance world, I have established the NewsNotes Dance Blog. It is my goal to collaborate with the dance community, and all arts comunities in this effort. Please direct announcements and press releases for inclusion and coverage to Editor/NewsNotes Dance Blog at MARKKAPL1@aol.com
NEWS IN THE DANCE WORLD
3-27-23 – Kinsun Chan has been appointed the new artistic director of the Semperoper Ballett in Germany beginning with the 2024-2025 season.
3-17-23 – The Boston Ballet has announced the promotions of Chisako Oga to the rank of principal dancer, and Sun Woo Lee to the rank of soloist.
3-4-23 – The National Ballet of Canada has announced the promotion of Spencer Hack to the rank of principal dancer.
3-2-23 – The Paris Opera Ballet has announced that Hannah O’Neill, Marc Moreau, and Guillaume Diop have been promoted to the rank of etoile.
2-14-23 – Oregon Ballet Theatre has announced the appointment of Danielle Rowe as the company’s new artistic director.
1-18-23 – Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has announced the appointment of Adam McKinney as the company’s new artistic director.
10-24-22 – The Oklahoma City Ballet has named Ryan Jolicoeur-Nyel as its new artistic director.
9-15-22 – The Dance Theatre of Harlem has announced that Virginia Johnson will be stepping down as artistic director and will be succeeded by Robert Garland.
8-26-22 – The Nashville Ballet has announced that Nick Mullikin will succeed Paul Vasterling as the company’s artistic director.
8-24-22 – English National Ballet has announced the appointment of Aaron Watkin as the company’s new artistic director.
7-12-22 – American Ballet Theatre has announced that Catherine Hurlin and Roman Zhurbin have been promoted to the rank of principal dancer, and Daniel Camargo will be joining the company as a principal dancer next season. Breanne Granlund, Sung Woo Han, Betsy McBride, Chloe Misseldine, and Sun Mi Park have been promoted to the rank of soloist.
7-4-22 – The LaScala Ballet has announced the promotion of Alice Mariani to the rank of principal dancer.
6-27-22 – The National Ballet of Canada has announced the promotion of Genevieve Penn Nabity to the rank of principal dancer.
6-12-22 – Christopher Wheeldon won the Tony Award for Best Choreography for his work on the Broadway musical, MJ.
5-22-22 – The Royal Ballet has announced that Reece Clarke and William Bracewell have been promoted to the rank of principal dancer.
5-19-22 – Ballet West has announced that Amy Potter and Jordan Viet have been promoted to the rank of principal artist.
5-9-22 – American Ballet Theatre has announced that Susan Jaffe will succeed Kevin McKenzie as artistic director of the company beginning in December 2022.
5-9-22 – The following choreographers have been honored with Tony Award nominations for their work during the 2021-2022 season: Camille A. Brown (for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf), Warren Carlyle (The Music Man), Carrie-Anne Ingrouillle (Six: The Musical), Bill T. Jones (Paradise Square), and Christopher Wheeldon (MJ).
4-22-22 – Macarena Giminez and Maximiliano Iglesias of the Teatro Colon will be joining the Sarasota Ballet as principal dancers beginning with the 2022-2023 season.
4-7-22 – Alejandro Cerrudo has been appointed the new artistic director of the Charlotte Ballet.
3-16-22 – Olga Smirnova and Victor Caixeta have joined the Dutch National Ballet during this current season.
2-22-22 – Jeffrey Cirio will be rejoining the Boston Ballet as a principal dancer beginning with the 2022-2023 season.
2-8-22 – Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell will be joining Houston Ballet as principal dancers beginning with the 2022-2023 season.
1-31-22 – Northern Ballet (UK) has announced the appointment of Federico Bonnelli as the company’s new artistic director.
1-18-22 – The Cincinnati Ballet has announced the appointment of Jodie Gates as its new artistic director.
1-11-22 – The San Francisco Ballet has announced that Tamara Rojo will succeed Helgi Tomasson as the company’s artistic director at the end of 2022.
Works & Process – Ballet West – Les Noces
March 26, 2023
By Mark Kappel
A significant event for balletomanes was a presentation by Works & Process at the Guggenheim on March 26, 2023, which focused on the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces.
For this occasion, which was moderated by Linda Murray, Curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and featured the participation of Ballet West’s artistic director, Adam Sklute, and Lynn Garafola, who has authored a monograph about Nijinska. Also, Ballet West’s dancers performed excerpts from the ballet in preparation for the company’s performances of Les Noces in Salt Lake City, Utah beginning on April 14th, 2023.
Nijinska’s Les Noces was given its world premiere by the Diaghilev Ballet Russes in 1923 with costume and scenery designs by Natalia Goncharova, and choreographed to Igor Stravinsky’s striking and compelling score. Les Noces was also unique because it was a collaboration of a female choreographer and a female designer.
In the past Nijinska’s Les Noces has been performed by the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Joffrey Ballet in New York City, and other significant choreographers, Jerome Robbins and Jiri Kylian, have also re-interpreted Stravinsky’s music for this dance piece.
Ballet West’s production of Nijinska’s Les Noces has been staged by Howard Sayette, who has had vast experience in restaging Nijinska’s dance pieces. The presence of Ballet West’s dancers, Dominic Ballard, Jazz Khai Bynum, Jenna Rae Herrera, Vinicius Lima, Victoria Vassos, Jordan Veit and Ballet West’s acting principal rehearsal director, Jane Wood, proved engaging and demonstrative.
Les Noces is a dance piece in four tableaux which pictures a Russian peasant wedding at the beginning of the Christian era – embracing pagan rituals of the time – with arranged marriages that were part of family traditions.
Ms. Garafola provided a short biography of Nijinska, and in collaboration with Adam Sklute presented video clips from productions of Les Noces combined with live performances by Ballet West’s dancers to present excerpts from each of the four tableaux in Les Noces – noting the logistics of performing this piece with musicians and singers, and a cast of 36 dancers.
Nijinska’s choreography reflects folk dance influences and pointe work which was used in a non-traditional manner. Most important Les Noces was choreographed and conceived from a woman’s point of view.
This presentation focusing on Nijinska’s gem, Les Noces, was informative and welcome for dance aficionados.
American Repertory Ballet
March 25, 2023
By Mark Kappel
American Repertory Ballet, based in Princeton, New Jersey, has performed occasionally in New York City but not often enough. On March 25th, 2023, the company performed a triple bill of new works at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse after many years absence, and notably this New York engagement was the first for the company under the leadership of Ethan Stiefel, former principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre, who was appointed the company’s artistic director in 2021.
For this engagement American Repertory Ballet performed a program of contemporary ballets and dances that the company had premiered in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 2022. The works had a commonality in style, as well as the fact that these choreographers – all of them – were still evolving in finding their choreographic voices.
Choreography is the life blood for any dance company and in this engagement American Repertory Ballet stepped forward in introducing three unfamiliar choreographic voices, and it was intriguing as to what the outcomes would be as these choreographers put their toes in the water as emerging choreographers.
Opening the program was J’ Malik’s Moving to Bach which was choreographed to Bach’s Sonata for Violin No. 6 – in which Malik choreographically expressed the style of Bach’s music. Moving To Bach was almost Balanchinian in its nature and symmetry using an ensemble of dancers in patterns on the stage that also reflected Bach’s music. This dance piece showed craft.
The ensemble cast of Andrea Marini, Aldeir Monteiro, Leandro Olcese, Clara Pevel, and Ryoko Tanaka stepped up to Malik’s challenges.
Following was Caili Quan’s Circadia, with the choreographer employing an eclectic choice of music from the Boban Markovic Orkestar, the Teskey Brothers, Betty Hutton, and Gabriella Smith. Similarly eclectic in her present choreographic signature Quan was expanding beyond the boundaries of classical ballet in combinations that were unexpected.
Dancers Tiziano Cerrato, Shaye Firer, Roland Jones, Aldeir Monteiro, Leandro Olcese, Michelle Quiner, Erikka Reenstierna-Cates, and Ryoko Tanaka were exploited for their strengths by Quan in this dance piece.
Closing the program was Claire Davison’s Time Within A Time which had Davison employing six songs by the band Fleetwood Mac. One male dancer was represented on stage as the loner, who observes rather than participates in the relationships that are represented in Time Within A Time until he is compelled to express his feelings in a solo in this piece.
The cast of Madison Elizabeth Egyud, Annie Johnson, Seth Koffler, Lily Krisko, Andrea Marini, Anthony Pototski, Matanya Solomon, and Nanako Yamamoto enabled Davison’s message to be understood in dance terms although more clarity was needed.
All of these pieces had the similarity of being ensemble pieces with evolving structures but fulfilled what should be the choreographer’s goal to show off the dancers – which all of the pieces successfully accomplished.
The program was an example of Stiefel’s artistic path for the company, and it is always important to have new works created for a company – and also works that showcase the dancers’ abilities and strengths. In these respects, the American Repertory Ballet made an emphatic artistic statement.
March 24, 2023
By Mark Kappel
Over the past few decades there hasn’t been a time when an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was not being performed in a Broadway theatre – and in some instances more than one. Lloyd-Webber latest creation, Bad Cinderella, his 13th musical, opened at the Imperial Theatre, and has his indicative signature.
Collaborating with Emerald Fennell and Alexis Scheer as book writers, and David Zippel writing the lyrics, Bad Cinderella is a re-interpretation of the age-old Cinderella story appropriate for its time and place – the topsy turvy world we are living in the 21st century.
This Cinderella (played by Linedy Genao) has an attitude, and is a bully of sorts, and doesn’t feel the need of a Prince to define her. However, there is the stereotypical, comic, and overbearing stepmother (played by Carolee Carmello) and the madcap Queen of the Realm (played by Grace McLean). There is a Godmother (played by Christina Acosta Robinson) as well, and she is not the garden variety Godmother that we would be familiar with.
The story takes place in the Kingdom of Belleville, voted the most attractive town in France 49 years in a row. This is a town where the people are obsessed with beauty, money, and power, and as often apparent in these fairy tale towns, there is a prince who needs to get married.
But in Belleville, the town’s inhabitants are a collection of unique characters, and putting them together in his version of Cinderella, Lloyd Webber gives the audience a non-stop farce, and parody of the Cinderella story with homages to British Christmas pantomimes.
Belleville’s heir, Prince Charming (played by Cameron Loyal) is believed to be dead. And because of this uncertainty his brother, Prince Sebastian (played by Jordan Dobson), is now recruited take over the family business. He has had a long-existing friendship with Cinderella, and he realizes that their friendship is more than a friendship – at least to him. He realizes this when pressed to choose a bride, a decision made in haste and confusion, and he did not choose Cinderella. Even though, with the help of her Godmother, Cinderella has transformed herself from a tomboyish misfit into a siren with sex appeal that is similar to Marilyn Monroe.
Fortunately for Prince Sebastian, his brother Prince Charming reappears before Prince Sebastian makes a commitment to marriage – and Prince Charming takes over as heir, and surprises all in his choice of a consort. And Prince Sebastian and Cinderella find each other again, and decide to pursue adventures on their own.
As in all of his musicals Lloyd Webber’s gifts the audience with superb melodies including in Bad Cinderella – “Only You, Lonely You”, and “Far Too Late”, and the comic duet of “I Know You”.
Although Laurence Connor’s direction is sometimes unfocused while JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is rousing and appropriately in waltzing style, it is the superb cast of Bad Cinderella that is like cream rising to the top – providing many over the top moments with wit, clowning, and humor.
Genao sketches an unconventional heroine, and commands the stage – her Cinderella is formidable — and Dobson blossoms through the story-telling. Carmello and McLean chew up the scenery in their scenes – but all part of an outstanding cast of musical theater performers.
Sometimes silly as well, but Bad Cinderella is a musical that takes one happily away from one’s troubles – and entertains – and entertains on a joyful note.
It has been stated before that any tale that follows the dramatic arc of Cinderella will be successful, Bad Cinderella doesn’t entirely fulfill that conventional wisdom. However, it is an entertaining and timely re-telling of the story — at a time when many familiar tales and stories are being re-interpreted and influenced through the prism of social and political change.
The Rewards of Being Frank
March 20, 2023
By Mark Kappel
The New York Classical Theatre is presenting Alice Scovell’s The Rewards of Being Frank on stream, and also concurrently being performed at the Mezzanine Theatre at Art/New York Theatres until March 26, 2023.
Scovell’s The Rewards of Being Frank is a sequel to Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, which premiered in 1895, and Scovell looks into the future to allow us to discover what happened to the hapless characters seven years later.
In this sequel Scovell focuses on the female characters in Wilde’s play affording them the opportunity to expand on what they have accomplished in the intervening years — and we see the familiar characters in a similar setting but pursuing their lives trying to cope with the “normal” vicissitudes of marriage, managing a household, and raising children.
Cecily, played by Tora Nogami Alexander, is revealed to be a successful writer, and Gwendolen (played by Kelly Mengelkoch) is revealed as a successful financial investor. Their husbands, Algernon (played by James Evans), and Ernest (played by Jeremy Dubin) seem as confused and hapless as ever – and both facing financial struggles. Lady Bracknell (played by Christine Pedi) is also omnipresent interfering in their lives.
The couples live next door to each other and Bracknell the same, who is not hesitant about giving advice – no matter what the subject – and there are cucumber sandwiches at stake as well.
However, a new character upsets the tranquility of these couples’ lives – and that is Frank (played by Mobuluwaji Ademide Akintilo) who is being interviewed to be a tutor for their children – and he cannot tell a lie. And his focus on being frank has its downside. He flirts with Cecily and flirts with Gwendolen. Who reciprocate initially and it takes long before Ernest and Algernon doubt their wives.
Just as in The Importance of Earnest there are twists and turns that make themselves known by letter, and a surprise romance develops. That’s the big reveal.
Scovell has managed to fashion a sequel with the veneer of a comedy of manners with its wit and surprises. And all is played by an excellent cast whose talent is for a little exaggeration and clockwork comic timing. And also, it is exceptionally entertaining!
City Center Encores – Dear World
March 18, 2023
By Mark Kappel
Opening its 2023 season, City Center Encores is presenting Jerry Herman’s Dear World from March 15-19, 2023. In so doing City Center Encores is revisiting its original mission to present musicals in concert form – focusing on a musical’s score – and also meeting the criteria that a musical may not be viable for commercial reasons.
Dear World had a rocky road to its Broadway premiere in 1969 after going through multiple revisions, and with contributions by three directors. With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, a book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee – and written as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury — Dear World was based on Maurice Valency’s adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, a classic example of the playwright’s style emphasizing wit and absurdity.
Dear World closed after 169 performances but Lansbury won a Tony Award for her performance as Countess Aurelia – and has become a cult musical favorite that is primarily known from its Broadway cast recording. The York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series presented a concert version in 2017 – not all that long ago.
The source play for Dear World goes back to 1945, yet has a forward-looking message. The story can be simply described as being about an old and dotty gentlewoman who saves her home and her neighborhood from greedy oil barons, while also encouraging the relationship of a pair of young lovers. It is also quirky, eccentric, and absurd. However, the story has much more substance while also requiring a suspension of reality. But with those basic themes in mind the City Center Encores’ concert adaption has been cleverly adapted by Sandy Rustin.
Dear World tells an intriguing story. Countess Aurelia (played by Donna Murphy) makes her home in a café in Chaillot – a quaint neighborhood in Paris. Countess Aurelia’s eccentricities are appreciated by the inhabitants along with her obsessions about a lost lover – and her past in general.
Employing a subtle mix of delusion and manipulation Countess Aurelia plots with the locals of Chaillot and her two confidants, Gabrielle (played by Ann Harada) and Constance (played by Andrea Burns) – and the Sewerman (played by Christopher Fitzgerald) — to foil the President’s plot.
A Prospector (played by Stanley Wayne Mathis) randomly searches out water in Paris that might have more meaningful value than just for drinking, and he tries to persuade the President of a corporation (played by Brooks Ashmanskas) that he has found drinking water that is laced with oil at a café in Chaillot. The President, in his greed, makes the decision to seek out ownership of the oil, and the method of doing so is to blow up the café. The President exploits a young executive, Julian, (played by Phillip Johnson Richard) to place a bomb in the café. However, in contemplating the dirty deed, he attempts to commit suicide – but is saved by the frequenters of the café, and he falls in love with the café’s waitress, Nina (played by Samantha Williams).
The strategy in foiling the plan is to lure the corporation’s executives into Paris’ underground sewer system never to be heard from again.
As mentioned during this performance’s post show talk back, the City Center Encore’s concert version of Dear World included an archeological musical search and discovery that harked back to the City Center Encore’s original mission and resulted in bringing Dear World back to life – with its timely message and excellent score.
From the opening number of “Through The Bottom of the Glass” the audience is informed about the special place it has arrived in – intersecting delusion and reality. And there are the contributions of the superb actors who portray and bring to life the array of eccentric characters in this musical.
Herman’s rich score includes “Kiss Her Now”, “I Don’t Want To Know” and the title song, “Dear World” – songs filled with emotion and regret – but also a bit of optimism.
Ashmanskas is suitably comic and obnoxious as the President. Christopher Fitzgerald’s The Sewerman conveys the everyday man, and gives a convincing rendition and re-interpretation of “Have A Little Pity On The Rich”. Samantha Williams gives a compelling interpretation of “I’ve Never Said I Love You”, and the Tea Party Trio was a master class in comic timing as performed by Donna Murphy, Andrea Burns, and Ann Harada.
Certainly, Donna Murphy’s touching and comic performance as Countess Aurelia was a performance for the ages not only for the intensity and drama she brought to “Each Tomorrow Morning”, “I Don’t Want To Know”, “And I Was Beautiful”, and ultimately, “Kiss Her Now”. She is a consummate musical theater artist.
Josh Rhodes, as director and choreographer, who was also at the helm for the City Center Encores’ successful concert version of Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel, has a great sense of Herman’s optimism for life and for the world in his many musicals. That was emphasized in his direction – and also one must note how he cleverly used though the character of Artiste (played by Kody Jauron) to comment on the action with his silence and subtle gesture – and also the choreography for the Artiste which was just as cleverly employed through the second act’s Entr’acte.
Also inspired were the minimal designs by Paul Tate Depoo III inspired by surrealistic paintings.
City Center Encores brought us the fading world of elegance in our world – and disillusion – in its presentation of Dear World, and we are thankful for it. Also, Dear World might give us a sense of optimism!
Paper Mill Playhouse
March 4, 2023
By Mark Kappel
The Paper Mill Playhouse continues its 2022-2023 season with its new stage musical production of Disney’s Hercules, the mythical musical adventure, which is being performed from February 16-March 19, 2023.
Most of Disney’s animated musical films depict a flawed hero or heroine who sets off on a journey to find a direction in life – and also learning life lessons along the way. Hercules is not an exception to this rule.
Featuring a score by Alan Menken and David Zippel with a book by Robert Horn and Kwame Kwei-Armah, Hercules had its stage premiere in 2019 at the Public’s Delacorte Theatre in Central Park in New York City. This interpretation of the familiar and legendary story of Hercules has a timely point of view with a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor, and as directed by Lear deBessonet, Hercules is a spot-on amusing entertainment for the entire family.
Hercules (played by Bradley Gibson), son of the gods Zeus (played by Dennis Stowe) and Hera (played by Kristen Faith Oei) – grows up in the mortal world after his parents abandon him, and Hades (played by Shuler Hensley) banishes him to a life on Earth when only an infant. Hades is not pleased about the arrival of Hercules – and plans revenge.
Hercules is raised on Earth by the kind-hearted and practical Despina (played by Kathryn Allison) who recognizes Hercules’ strength, and other special qualities. However, Hercules proves to be a handful – even as he makes his first appearance carrying a bag of rocks to be sold in the village, and seems to be getting in the way of the villagers to the point that he has become a pariah rather than a god-like hero.
However, upon realizing that his powers may be inherited from the Gods, Hercules seeks to return to Mt. Olympus to rejoin his parents. But he must transform himself into a hero before doing so. He seeks out the help of Phil the Trainer (played by James Monroe Inglehart) who has shown himself to be a father figure, and has discovered and burnished successful method of transforming ordinary people into heroes.
Hercules succeeds in becoming a celebrity and achieves heroic deeds but that does not convince Hera and Zeus to welcome Hercules back to Mt. Olympus. Hades uses his powers to destroy Hercules with the assistance of the hapless pair of Pain (played by Ben Roseberry) and Panic (played by Jeff Blumenkrantz). But in the end Hades exploits his protégé Meg (played by Isabelle McCalla) to take advantage of Hercules’ weaknesses. Hercules ultimately gives up his strength to save Meg from a condemned life under Hades despotic powers – but Hercules rescues her, and his act of heroism proves he really is a hero, and his act of humanity restores his powers.
The question is what and where Hercules does with his life which is part of the journey.
Throughout Hercules’ rite of passage events are commented on and are the driving force in advancing the plot forward by the Muses (played by Anastacia McCleskey, Destinee Rea, Charity Angel Dawson, Tiffany Mann, and Rashidra Scott), who are the scene stealers in this musical.
Alan Menken and David Zippel provide a melodic score – noting “Go The Distance” among them, and Robert Horn and Kwame Kwei-Armah provide the clever jokes and physical comedy. Also much credit should be given to James Ortiz’s puppet designs for the many creatures that Hercules confronts.
Besides the aforementioned chorus of Muses, Bradley Gibson gives a winning performance as the hapless Hercules. James Monroe Inglehart is the showman that he is as Phil – particularly in his tour de force performance of “I’m Back!”, as well as Shuler Hensley as the villainous villain, Hades, and Isabelle McCalla as the self-confident and assertive Meg. This cast all possesses the vocal skills to send the music soaring throughout the theatre but are also adept at bringing out the emotions in the music – and also the comedy.
Hercules, as a musical, is not without its flaws as deBessonet’s direction could use more focus on the comic-timing of the jokes, and there could be more momentum and variety in the dance numbers.
No doubt Hercules is a work in progress during this Paper Mill Playhouse engagement. But even in this state there is to much to be enjoyed – and is a fantastically entertaining musical.
Pictures From Home
February 5, 2023
By Mark Kappel
Sometimes families focus their whole lives on looking back on memories — especially viewing those memories through the photos taken in what seems to be filtered from the perspective of one’s distant youth. These thoughts of looking back are very much in evidence in Sharr White’s Pictures From Home which has recently had its Broadway premiere at Studio 54. And what a welcome addition it is to this Broadway season.
Photographer Larry Sultan, born in Brooklyn, created a photographic memoir of his parents – not only examining their years through photographs but also through audio recordings. These memories were published in a memoir, Pictures From Home (1983-92), in which Sultan examined his parents’ aspirations when they moved their family to Los Angeles in search of a better life after World War II – which also explored aspirations and what they thought was their own personal interpretation and truth of the American Dream – and in addition Sultan’s own self-examination.
This memoir has been adapted by playwright Sharr White for the stage – using Sultan’s photos not only as artwork but also as images that are more typical of America than we may like to think – and an audio diary of Sultan’s parents’ relationship – including the disagreements, the intimacy – and their eccentricities.
Sultan’s photos are used and projected on a screen located at the rear of the stage, and represent the insightful landscape of American life. There are memories of hope and optimism, but also depicted are the characters coming to terms with the reality and inevitability of when you might be facing the last years of one’s life. Sultan himself recognizes all of this and more through his interactions with his parents – coming to terms with his parents, and the fears he has of losing them.
Bittersweet memories and humor permeate Pictures From Home reflecting on the love in the relationship between Sultan’s parents – and ultimately Sultan follows his own journey in figuring out who he is – and his relationship with his own family.
Pictures From Home must be taken with some seriousness but also with a great deal of humor with the principal characters in this 3-hander play often breaking through the fourth wall, and speaking to the audience directly, asking questions – and also asking the audience for answers. The alchemy is that of an involving and touching comic drama.
Pictures From Home’s main assets are Bartlett Sher as director who has shaped Sultan’s memoirs and White’s adaptation into a coherent and effective theatrical experience. All distilled in about 1 hour and 45 minutes – so much is expressed in such a short amount of time.
And there is the superlative cast of actors who are giving a master class in acting – and also gifted with superlative comic timing – where the jokes land and are timed for the greatest effect – and express the emotions in the most touching moments of the play.
Those actors are Zoe Wanamaker as Jean Sultan, and Nathan Lane as Irving Sultan – the parents of Larry Sultan, played by Danny Burstein, who is both the narrator and participant in Pictures From Home. You couldn’t get better story-tellers.
The word “empathy” is an important one in Pictures From Home, and you will feel that empathically when connecting with the Sultan Family as depicted in Pictures From Home. And I can’t say more emphatically what a welcome addition Pictures From Home is to this Broadway season.
Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres
February 4, 2023
By Mark Kappel
The Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, directed by Tisa Chang, launched its 46th season with the world premiere of Livian Yeh’s Memorial at the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T/New York Theatres in New York City.
Memorial focuses on the Chinese American architect, Maya Lin, following her through the process of designing a memorial which commemorated the contributions of Vietnam veterans. Planned to be located in Washington DC’s National Mall, and complicated by a long decision-making process in choosing the design, Memorial contemplates the conflicts between the creator, and other important interested parties in the process – and the memorial itself.
Although Memorial is partially a fictional account of the story, it is a story that should be told, if only to recognize Lin’s contribution to this important memorial but also the complicated process that delayed its completion.
In 1981 Lin, while still an undergraduate student at Yale University, won the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial which was completed and dedicated in 1982.
With dark granite among its components, and a modern design, critics of the memorial felt that it reflected the negatives about the Vietnam War and did not honor the Vietnam veterans in a respectful manner. It was controversial enough that Lin had confrontations with Vietnam veterans, those benefactors who donated money to pay for the memorial, and members of Congress to the point that she had to go to Congress and defend her intentions and her design. A compromise of sorts was reached with the addition of The Three Soldiers, a bronze of Vietnam War soldiers, which was unveiled in 1984, and an American flag which was placed on the side of the memorial.
Described by the United States Department of Defense, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the most visited memorial on the National Mall.
Wolf von Eckhart (played by Robert Meksin), a columnist for the Washington Post, and Colonel James Becker, a Vietnam veteran (played by James Patrick Nelson) were members of the selection committee for the memorial’s design but were at odds about the choice of Lin as a designer. Becker, in particular, felt the Vietnam Veterans were not represented as they should have been in the memorial’s design. The differences degenerated into a public relations war, and racial slurs directed at Lin – particularly that it was inappropriate for a designer of Asian descent to be chosen to envisage how the Vietnam veterans would be honored.
During this controversy, Japanese American architect, Hideo Sasaki (played by Glenn Kubota) offers support and guidance to Lin based on his experiences of having lived in a Japanese internment camp in the 1940’s, and also being the target of anti-Asian prejudice. Also Lin’s protective mother attempts to bring all parties together in the dispute but fails to do so. In the end, all parties agree to disagree for their own reasons.
In his direction of Memorial, Jeff Liu walks the tightrope of making certain that Memorial is not preachy, but Livian Yeh as playwright uses her bully pit to tell this compelling story which is not only of importance but also timely.
The cast of Angel Lin as Maya Lin, Robert Meksin as Wolf von Eckhart, James Patrick Nelson as colonel James Becker, Glenn Kubota as Hideo Sasaki, and Julia Lin, Maya Lin’s mother, played by Rachel Lu, give heartfelt performances – further supported by personal conviction. Nelson as Becker appeared to be the villain of the piece, but all of the actors portrayed their roles with the proper shades of gray.
Memorial is a spell-binding play, telling a story that must be told, with an excellent cast of story-tellers.
February 1, 2023
By Mark Kappel
The Cullberg Ballet, which was founded by Sweden’s foremost choreographer, Birgit Cullberg, in 1967, and based in Stockholm, Sweden, made its New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1982. At that time Cullberg was the most important influence on the company’s artistic vision, and the works performed were those choreographed by her, and her son, Mats Ek, an important choreographic voice as well. The company has also been under the direction of many modern dance luminaries including Carolyn Carlson.
Renamed Cullberg, and now directed by Artistic Director Kristine Slettevold and Managing Director Stina Dahlstrom, this company of 17 dancers continues to evolve within the European contemporary dance scene.
In its Joyce Theater debut Cullberg is presenting a different artistic perspective than what the company presented in New York back in 1982 when it performed Birgit Cullberg’s Miss Julie, and Mats Ek’s Giselle.
The focus of this engagement was the presentation of Horse, the solos, choreographed by American post-modern dance choreographer, Deborah Hay. This collaborative dance piece was created with the Cullberg dancers on site in Stockholm, and Hay at her home in Austin, Texas during the pandemic lockdown, and was premiered in March 2021.
This series of seven solos, choreographed to music composed by Graham Reynolds, has been influenced by Hay’s feelings about climate change but also her theory of what the conception of the piece is as described in Hay’s choreographer’s note in the program, “Horse, the solos, relies on two common attributes of survival, risk and efficiency” – which are instrumental in the choreography of this dance – and the role of the soloist within an ensemble work which is also being questioned.
The work includes subtle movement referencing horses – a solo dancer in a herd – as well as a feeling of improvisation as each solo artist expresses his or her specialized movement – and in spite of being an ensemble work there is a feeling of spontaneity.
Sections of the piece were punctuated by blackouts but it was not clear when the point of this piece had been made – even at the end of Horse’s 1-hour duration. As a result Horse is not as engaging as it might have been.
However the performances of dancers, Adam Schutt, Anand Bolder, Elliott Marmouset, Freddy Houndekindo, Johanna Tengan, Louise Dahl, and Vincent Van Der Plas made a serious commitment to Hay’s style and concept.
During this Joyce Theater engagement Cullberg made a major artistic statement in terms of where its artistic vision is going – in the present and in the future.
My Fair Lady
State Theatre, New Brunswick, New Jersey
January 28, 2023
By Mark Kappel
Continuing its Broadway series the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey is presenting the national touring company of the Lincoln Center Theater revival of My Fair Lady from January 27-29, 2023.
My Fair Lady is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, and in this musical adaptation by composer Frederick Loewe, and lyric/book writer Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady has been described as one of the greats of the golden age of Broadway. My Fair Lady premiered on Broadway in 1956, and has been presented in revivals on Broadway on several occasions.
It has been recounted by writers on the subject, and also by family members, that Lerner and Loewe had found the key to adapting Shaw’s play after having seen Gabriel Pascal’s film adaptation which provided Pygmalion with a happy ending.
This particular production was directed by Bartlett Sher, and in his pursuit of making this musical a bit less misogynist in terms of the plot, there is more than a subtle hint of independence expressed by this musical’s heroine, Eliza Doolittle – and less on the romantic aspects of the musical as Lerner & Loewe intended. Sher’s intentions were also supported by the casting of younger actors to play the principal protagonists.
The story of My Fairy Lady is that of linguist and an expert in the science of speech, Professor Henry Higgins, making a bet with his cohort Colonel Pickering, that he can transform a lowly flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady that would be accepted by Edwardian high society. With the story taking place in London in 1912, Higgins’ theory was that a person’s accent when speaking English can define that person’s class and position in society – at a time when a person’s class made the difference in succeeding or failing in life.
During the course of this “experiment” Higgins shows little restraint in taunting Eliza as he transforms her into the model young woman he wishes to create which makes for a frustrating situation for all concerned. Even so along the way Higgins is developing a romantic attachment to Doolittle. He even shows some respect for her but not overtly – as Higgins’ ego would not allow him to do so. That in spite of his mother’s objections to make his affections known. But Higgins doesn’t have much respect for anyone other than himself much less Eliza Doolittle.
Higgins arranges for Eliza’s “debut” at the Embassy Ball which is a complete success but neither Higgins nor Pickering give Eliza the credit she is due in making it the success that it was. In a confrontation with Higgins, Eliza opines over the fact that the transformation she has been involved in would make it difficult for her to return to her former role as a flower girl – and how she may be imprisoned by the new life that has been created for her.
Higgins thinks that transforming Eliza into a lady in the rarified world of British society is challenging norms – but My Fair Lady is a Cinderella story with a bit of romance – and no matter a director’s vision it is difficult to paint shades of gray in contrast to the creative team’s original intentions. In fact the coup d’état in this production is that Eliza and Higgins have a confrontation about their relationship and future, Eliza still returns to Higgins but walks out of the house to follow a life – without Higgins.
Lerner and Loewe provide a witty book, and a superb score to tell this story with memorable songs such as “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “On The Street Where You Live”, “Show Me”, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”, and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”. These songs can stand on their own but they all contribute to the narrative.
This touring production is enlivened by the young cast which gives My Fair Lady’s plot a slightly different slant. Madeline Powell was a stunning Eliza Doolittle with a voice to match, Jonathan Grunert was a younger Henry Higgins then one normally sees and makes this relationship a bit less misogynist, John Adkinson’s younger Colonel Pickering does the same. They all have commanding stage presence, and seem to have make these characters their own.
Michael Hegarty is a charming rogue as Alfred P. Doolittle – who is also changed by his circumstances, and ultimately feels compelled to conform to British middle-class society. Also outstanding is Becky Saunders as the aristocratic, and acerbic Mrs. Higgins, and Madeline Brennan as Mrs. Pearce, who keeps a lid on the antics and goings-on in the Higgins’ household.
My Fair Lady remains timely, entertaining, and has a stunning musical score – and in important story to tell. It still is magnificent and this national touring company lives up to the adjective of magnificent.
A Beautiful Noise
January 24, 2023
By Mark Kappel
Although A Beautiful Noise had opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in December of last year, this will be a catch-up review as I wasn’t able to attend a performance until January 24, 2023.
A Beautiful Noise celebrates the life and music of one of our great American pop composers, Neil Diamond, who began his songwriting career in the 1960’s, rose to fame in the 1970’s, and had commanded the stage as a composer, singer, and entertainer until recently — now in his 80’s when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
Not only did Diamond write songs for himself but also for others, and one of his earliest hits was “I’m A Believer” which was written for The Monkees for their very successful television series.
Diamond spent a good part of his life as a devotee of psychoanalysis and that is the framework in how his story is told in A Beautiful Noise. As written by Anthony McCarten, this is a memory play as an older Neil Diamond (played by Mark Jacoby) looks back on his life as he is being questioned by his psychoanalyst (played by Linda Powell).
Very quietly A Beautiful Noise opens with the older Diamond sitting opposite his psychoanalyst – initiating Diamond’s journey through life, and seeking out clues in his lyrics as to the why and how Diamond’s emotional life may have been damaged by what became the new persona of Neil Diamond.
Diamond looks back on his younger self (played by Will Swenson) reliving his career, and also trying to dissect the failures of two of his marriages.
Diamond’s songs pour out of him as he looks back on the beginnings of his songwriting career, and his performing career – and his first and second marriages – touring, lots of money but his loneliness comes through in his lyrics – and the music and lyrics speak for themselves.
However through A Beautiful Noise, Diamond’s familiar music is celebrated and performed in musical numbers choreographed by Steven Hoggett. Director Michael Mayer interspersed these musical numbers with biographical information about Diamond in an equally fast-paced manner.
You definitely hear the hits made famous by Diamond including the familiar, “America”, “Brooklyn Roads”, “Love on the Rocks”, “Sweet Caroline”, and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’, and the less familiar, “Crunchy Granola Suite”, and “The Boat That I Row”, and as presented and performed they are surgically inserted to fit in with McCarten’s scenario for A Beautiful Noise.
Will Swenson, as the younger Neil Diamond, doesn’t attempt to create an impersonation of Diamond, but he provides Diamond’s essence in a multi-dimensional performance with Diamond’s signature gravel voice in his singing, and wearing more and more sequined costumes as Diamond’s new persona is crafted. Mark Jacoby also mines Diamond’s essence as the Neil Diamond of the present looking back over the years of his life and career. He spontaneously brings A Beautiful Noise to a cathartic ending with his unique performance of “I Am..I Said”.
Also a highlight of A Beautiful Noise is Robyn Hurder’s apt and sympathetic performance as Diamond’s outgoing and street smart second wife, Marcia Murphey.
There are also other important people in Diamond’s life who appear in A Beautiful Noise – even only briefly – such as songwriter Ellie Greenwich (played by standby Becky Gulsvig), Diamond’s long-suffering first wife Jaye Posner (played by Jessie Fisher), and a tireless ensemble, The Beautiful Noise, who represent a Greek chorus reacting to each plot point in Diamond’s story, and provide back-up for Will Swenson’s performances of Diamond’s hit songs.
Among the many things you will feel after experiencing A Beautiful Noise is energized and also nostalgic – it is definitely worth the journey.
This particular performance of A Beautiful Noise had an added bonus as the cast and audience celebrated Neil Diamond’s birthday.
Osipova – Force of Nature
January 21, 2023
By Mark Kappel
New York has played host to a great many self-curated programs of dance by a great many international ballet stars. Some can be self-indulgent and others are self-revelations in regard to what artistic journeys these stars wish to experience.
Once such program of dance, Natalia Osipova – Force of Nature, was presented at the City Center on January 21, 2023, in which the balance of the content teetered more in the direction of self-indulgence rather than a self-awareness of what her fans would want to see her dance — yet also revealing what her artistic aspirations are at this moment in time. This didn’t mean that Osipova didn’t set a standard of dance that was anything less than what would be of expected of her.
Osipova was a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet and the Mikhailovsky Ballet in Russia before pursuing her career in Western Europe — in 2013 she joined the Royal Ballet as a principal dancer. She has also appeared as a guest artist with many other ballet companies all over the world including American Ballet Theatre in New York City.
Joining Osipova for this evening of dance was dancer/choreographer Jason Kittelberger, formerly of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and Reece Clarke and Marcelino Sambe of the Royal Ballet. In addition to these collaborators were Takumi Miyake and Yeva Hrytsak of the ABT Studio Company.
All told there were nine dance works presented in this program – Osipova dancing in seven of those nine works. Also if there was a guiding artistic style represented in this program it was that of the contemporary and modern dance works that Osipova is now interested in as an artist.
The program opened with the Giselle Act II Pas de Deux danced by Osipova and Sambe with Osipova projecting her own Romantic style, and a vital chemistry with her partner. These were moments in the ballet of regret, emotion and redemption and these moments were very much in the forefront in the performance of this familiar classical excerpt.
Takumi Miyake and Yeva Hrytsak of ABT Studio Company danced a flashy, but precise, performance of Vasily Vainonen’s The Flames of Paris Pas De Deux offering the only classical pyrotechnics on this program.
Osipova then stretched her dramatic skills with a playful performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon Act I Pas De Deux partnered by an ardent Reece Clarke as the equally reckless Des Grieux. Besides the exhibiting the work of a master choreographer it was also quite evident that Osipova and Clarke had mastered what the choreography was stating dramatically even in this excerpt from this full-length ballet.
The first half of the program ended with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Pure, a moody modern dance duet danced by Osipova and Jason Kittelberger, choreographed to equally moody music by Tsubasa Hori and Olga Wojciechowska. Although not particularly distinctive, Cherkaoui showcased the talents of these two distinctive dancers.
A contrasting piece that opened the second part of the program was Frederick Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan – a very appropriate piece for this type of program – with Osipova in a less serious mood recreating Duncan’s essence.
Reece Clarke channeled Anthony Dowell in his interpretation and performance of Ashton’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits – danced with elegance and style.
The premiere on the program was Kittelberger’s Weight of it which featured Kittelberger and Osipova – once again exploring modern dance vocabulary – but the jewel of the piece was Sambe dancing a solo which seemed to be just added on for the occasion.
It was the performance of Alexei Ratmansky’s Valse Triste, choreographed to the music of the same name by Jean Sibelius, a sophisticated neo-classical piece, that showed off Osipova and Clarke well – and played to the dancers’ strengths.
The final piece on the program was Kittelberger’s Ashes, choreographed to music by Nigel Kennedy and the Kroke Band – and danced by Kittelberger and Osipova –which brought the program to an intense and bold end. The focus was the interactions of both dancers with a chair placed on a rug, and reflecting what seemed to be terrifying moments. One could say this was a death-defying moment to end the program with.
Amazing how this diverse repertoire – and the performances of this repertoire – was put together for a program running about two hours. It gave Osipova’s fans a glimpse of how she has developed as an artist over the years.
The Sleeping Beauty
New Jersey Performing Arts
Center (Newark NJ)
January 15, 2023
By Mark Kappel
The State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine had embarked on a short American tour last season and included an engagement at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey, dancing the company‘s production of The Nutcracker. The company, based in Dnipro, Ukraine has a history that goes back to the 1920’s, and is currently directed by Andrey Litvinov.
The State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine returned to perform at NJPAC on January 15, 2023 performing a production of The Sleeping Beauty which had been given its world premiere in Dnipro, Ukraine in 1989.
Based on the story by Perrault, and presented in a prologue and three acts, this production was choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s well-known and beloved music – often described as the best ballet score ever composed. This production’s choreography is credited to Marius Petipa with staging and additional choreography by Tatyana Linnik and Andrey Litvinov.
The original production of The Sleeping Beauty, given its world premiere by the Mariinsky Ballet in 1890, tells the tale of the birth of Aurora, and the blessings and gifts bestowed on her by a bevy of fairies including the Lilac Fairy. The Lilac Fairy intervenes when a distraught and angry Carabosse arrives at Aurora’s christening upset that she not been invited. She subsequently puts a spell on Aurora that upon her 16th birthday she would prick her finger on a spindle and die.
However the Lilac Fairy is able to undermine this spell by informing the King and Queen that Aurora will only go to sleep until a Prince awakens her. That Prince does arrive after seeing Aurora in a vision, and the final act of the ballet celebrates the marriage of Aurora and Prince Desire – which includes dances by the familiar fairy tale characters, Little Red Riding Hood and the Gray Wolf, the White Cats, the Bluebirds and culminating with the Grand Pas de Deux danced by Aurora and Prince Desire.
With reduced resources in terms of dancers and what could be toured, this production of The Sleeping Beauty was performed to recorded music with abrupt changes in the musical score, which also disrupted the flow in telling the story. Cuts had to be made in the ballet in order to reduce the ballet’s running time which was performed in two parts in the time space of two and half hours.
There were cuts in the Act II Hunt and Vision Scenes but as in Act II and other acts of this production of The Sleeping Beauty, the traditional choreography was in evidence. The mime sequences were performed at a slow musical tempi which made those moments easy to understand but slowed down the story-telling. Also there were the appearances of children in some of the set pieces in this ballet including the Garland Waltz which were charming but seemed under-rehearsed.
Although there was elegant dancing by the principal dancers in the main roles of Aurora, Prince Desire, the Lilac Fairy, and even the over-the-top performance of the role of Carabosse, as neither a cast list or an announcement of the cast members were provided, I am unable to mention them by name.
Although the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine presented a production of The Sleeping Beauty that was comparable to other ballet companies with more resources, perhaps more thought should have been part of the process of fashioning a production of one the great 19th century classics with reduced resources and using them more effectively.
Hong Kong Ballet – Romeo + Juliet
January 14, 2023
By Mark Kappel
The Hong Kong Ballet has sporadically appeared in New York City, at the City Center and also at the Joyce Theater – and the last time the company performed in New York City presenting a full-length ballet was in 1997 – dancing Wayne Eagling’s The Last Emperor.
Established in 1979, and now under the artistic direction of choreographer Septime Webre since 2017, the Hong Kong Ballet presented the American premiere of Webre’s new production of Romeo + Juliet at the City Center on January 13 and 14, 2023.
In his version of Romeo and Juliet – which premiered in 2021 — Webre utilizes Sergei Prokofiev’s score. However he has set Shakespeare’s story in Hong Kong during the 1960’s – a tumultuous time in Hong Kong’s history. The libretto has not only been re-fashioned by Webre but was developed in collaboration with dramaturge Yan Pat To.
Webre’s Romeo and Juliet is now set at a time when elite Hong Kong families were at war with each other, and as in Shakespeare’s play these family entanglements and family estrangements are pivotal in how this story is told. Although there are some inconsistencies in transporting Shakespeare’s story to the 1960’s, these revisions still allow for the story to be told with clarity.
The heart of this version of Romeo and Juliet is the premise that Juliet’s father, a Shanghainese tycoon, wishes to marry off his daughter to a wealthy Caucasian, Mr. Parker (danced by Jonathan Spigner) which he believes will strengthen his power and increase his wealth. However the plan is turned upside down when Juliet meets Romeo by chance at a gala dinner.
The story then moves quickly and impetuously as Juliet and Romeo marry. But after triad leader Tai Po, a member of the rival klan that is ruled by Juliet’s father, kills Little Mak, Romeo retaliates in killing Tai Po, and Romeo’s path changes to living the life of a fugitive.
Juliet, still being pressured to marry Mr. Parker, seeks the assistance of Romeo’s Sifu – coming up with the plan for Juliet to drink a potion that would create the illusion of death – Romeo would be informed of this plot – and he would reunite with Juliet after her funeral allowing them to flee Hong Kong. However just as in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo is not informed of this ruse, and Romeo and Juliet meet their tragic death instead.
With this tale re-set in the 1960’s, the characters of Romeo and Juliet are not impetuous lovers but more sophisticated. Yet the story that is told still presents them and their actions as being reckless behavior, and stretching societal, and traditional boundaries.
Webre’s Romeo + Juliet is set against the neon signs, and advertising posters of the busy atmosphere in Hong Kong – its trends in culture and influences from other Asian countries — including those of popular films of the times reflecting what Webre stated in his before performance speech that Hong Kong has been a place where many cultures have been fused together.
This atmosphere was reflected in the flashy and theatrical scenery designs by Ricky Chan – authentic to the time, and place for this newly-interpreted version of Shakespeare’s classic play.
References to Hong Kong’s film industry were cleverly represented in Romeo + Juliet’s Mandolin Dance in which a group of actors are filmed in a slapstick comedy sequence.
Most importantly is that Webre follows the blueprint of the Prokofiev score although the ballet is represented in two acts rather than being spread over three acts, and the tale is told expeditiously. There is nothing extraneous in Webre’s version, and the production’s strengths were in its theatricality, and showing off the talents of the company’s dancers.
Webre’s choreography combines many different dance styles. Putting further emphasis on its Hong Kong origins, the traditional street fights between the warring families was choreographed in Hong Kong-style kung fu.
The pair of star-crossed lovers were guest artist Taras Domitro as Romeo, and Xuan Cheng as Juliet. Cheng is currently making her transition from a principal dancer of the Oregon Ballet Theatre to the Hong Kong Ballet as a principal dancer and balletmistress. They not only brought to life Webre’s choreography and intent, but they made you sympathize with the outpouring of grief that was displayed in the final Funeral Scene. Also notable were Albert Gordon as the comical and precocious Little Mak, Alexander Yap as the commanding and villainous Tai Po, and Yonen Takano’s effective characterization as Juliet’s domineering father.
Most importantly these performances by the Hong Kong Ballet were welcome during this current New York dance season, and in so doing showcasing the company’s dancers – both as dancers and actors – and also as entertainers and fine artists.
A Front Row Seat – Nancy Olson Livingston
By Mark Kappel
A Front Row Seat by Nancy Olson Livingston, published by University Press of Kentucky, is an exhaustive, thoughtful, and absorbing memoir that examines life in Hollywood and Broadway at a time often described as a Golden Age. Subtitled “An Intimate Look at Broadway, Hollywood, and the Age of Glamour”, this is a monograph that gives the reader of today a fascinating perspective of those worlds.
Olson is best known for being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Betty Schaefer in Sunset Boulevard in 1950, and also appearing in such movies as Union Station, Battle Cry, Pollyanna, and The Absent-Minded Professor. Olson also appeared on Broadway in The Tunnel Of Love, Send Me No Flowers, and Mary, Mary.
And she is also known for her marriages to Broadway legend Alan Jay Lerner, and Alan Wendell Livingston, former president of Capitol Records, who worked with notable and legendary recording artists.
Olson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1928 – her mother was a pianist and teacher, and her father was a doctor. Olson pursued an interest in the arts in high school, and a pre-college program in the performing arts at Northwestern University. She then pursued a college degree at the University of Wisconsin but transferred to UCLA. At UCLA while appearing in performances of Molnar’s The Play’s The Thing, Olson was approached to set up a screen test at Paramount Pictures, and was offered a 7-year contract.
Olson’s first film was Canadian Pacific which was quickly followed by Sunset Boulevard. Olson’s analysis of Sunset Boulevard’s plot was incisive as she described all of the characters as being opportunists, and today joins the chorus of movie fans and critics who have lauded Sunset Boulevard as a masterpiece. She mentions that Mae West had been considered for the part of Norma Desmond – a role that was portrayed in the film by Gloria Swanson – and Montgomery Clift had been considered for the part of Joe Gillis – a role that was portrayed in the film by William Holden.
But Olson does not give much background on the why and how she was chosen to play what became a pivotal role in her career. Her association with Sunset Boulevard was very much a part of her life as she was invited to provide a contribution of Directors Guild of America’s tribute to Sunset Boulevard’s director, Billy Wilder, and was invited by Andrew Lloyd Webber to attend the Los Angeles, London, and New York premieres of Webber’s musical version of Sunset Boulevard.
Olson met her first husband, Alan Jay Lerner, in 1949, with one of the Famous Artists’ literary agents, Alain Bernheim, as the go-between. At the time Lerner was in the midst of divorcing his second wife, Marion Bell. Throughout their courtship, and during their marriage Olson met the royalty of composers and lyricists. She ultimately deduced that because Lerner had come from a complicated and destructive background she might be destroyed by such a relationship – and in A Front Row Seat, Olson also described what was her painful marriage to Lerner.
In 1950 married Lerner when Lerner was involved with the film, An American in Paris, which was followed by some of his other significant achievements on the Broadway stage and on film, Paint Your Wagon, Royal Wedding, and My Fair Lady.
There was an immediate strain at the beginning of Olson’s marriage to Lerner when Lerner had an affair with Olga San Juan, star of Paint Your Wagon. Yet the marriage endured. Lerner’s marriage to Olson was the longest of his marriages, and they had two daughters, Liza and Jenny. However their marriage ended when Lerner admitted to an affair with a woman he met in Paris during the filming of Gigi. They were divorced in 1958.
Olson commented and recalled that Frederick Loewe, the composer for many of Lerner’s Broadway successes, resented Lerner when he worked with other collaborators. Lerner’s partnerships with Burton Lane and Arthur Schwartz proved problematic and his relationship with Loewe was often tested.
An interesting quote from Olson included in the book was that:
“I don’t think that Alan (Jay Lerner) acknowledged to himself that he was truly a terrible book writer. He would never be a good playwright: his gift was knowing how to highlight the drama with music and songs, and nobody wrote better lyrics.”
After one of the difficulties in their relationship Lerner and Loewe came together to work on My Fair Lady, and found the key to making Shaw’s Pygmalion work as a musical – which was to focus on the screenplay of the film adaptation, with the happy ending, rather than the play.
Also no casting surprises in regard to My Fair Lady except that Mary Martin was offered the role of Eliza Doolittle and turned down the part not being impressed by the Lerner and Loewe score.
After her divorce from Lerner, Olson returned to making movies in Hollywood. She particularly mentions her positive experiences in making two Walt Disney movies, Pollyanna, and The Absent-Minded Professor – and later, Son of Flubber.
Her last time working on the Broadway stage was as a replacement for Barbara Bel Geddes in Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary.
Olson mentioned that she felt a major snub, when after Alan Jay Lerner’s death, she wasn’t invited to Lerner’s tribute in New York.
A good portion of the book lauded her second husband’s achievements. Olson met her second husband, Alan Livingston, in what was a blind dinner date set-up by one of Olson’s friends. Ultimately, while working on a film in California, Livingston proposed marriage and they were married in 1962.
As an important figure in the entertainment field Livingston rejuvenated the career of Frank Sinatra, transformed Nat King Cole into a legendary solo artist, signed on the Beach Boys and The Beatles to Capitol Records – created the television series Bonanza, and he was President of the Entertainment Group of 20th Century during the making of Star Wars.
Among Livingston’s accomplishments was an interesting oddity as he was involved in the design of the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles to resemble a stack of records and on top of the building was a flashing red light which sent the message of “Hollywood” in Morse code. He also was responsible for recording Judy Garland’s legendary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1961, and he negotiated for Capital Records to release the best of the Russian classical artists on the Melodiya/ Angel Label.
Olson’s most important goals were to support her husband’s business activities and to keep her blended family together. Yet she was offered opportunities to work – especially in television — as she was considered to play the role of Laura Petrie in the Dick Van Dyke Show. But turned down this opportunity and others.
Olson took great pleasure in her achievements when she became Executive President of Blue Ribbon in 1983 which raised money for the Los Angeles Music Center. During her tenure she expanded the Los Angeles Music Center’ educational “Children’s Festival” and after supervising the Los Angeles Music Center’s fundraising events in conjunction with its 25th anniversary, she made efforts to reveal mismanagement by important members of the Los Angeles Music Center’s administration.
With this memoir written when Olson was 93 years-old, A Front Row Seat is filled with fascinating anecdotes about Hollywood, the movers and shakers in the film industry, and the actors who were in the films during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and Broadway’s Golden Age, literally providing the reader with the best seat in the house.
New Jersey Ballet – The Nutcracker
Mayo Performing Arts Center (Morristown NJ)
December 22, 2022
By Mark Kappel
During the restrictions that were imposed because of Covid-19, many ballet companies all over the world turned to livestream performances, and some of them have continued these livestream performances even as restrictions have been lifted. Last year the New Jersey Ballet presented its production of The Nutcracker in a such a performance, and this year the New Jersey Ballet continued this new tradition with a livestreamed performance on December 22, 2022, accompanied by the New Jersey Symphony playing Tchaikovsky’s well-known and beloved music, and providing spirited musical tempi for the dancers to dance to.
Performed at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, New Jersey, the New Jersey Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and represents a choreographic collaboration with contributions by Joseph Carow, George Tomal and David Tamaki. The New Jersey Ballet has been performing The Nutcracker since 1971.
Act I finds us in the home of the Mayor and his family at his Christmas Party. An invited guest, Herr Drosselmeyer (played by Raynor Rubel) brings his magic to the party telling stories – including that of The Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King — and giving gifts to the children including a Nutcracker doll to Clara (danced by Yuiko Honda). Unfortunately Clara’s brother, Fritz, has broken the doll in a scuffle with his friends, but Drosselmeyer , and his nephew manage to repair it.
Throughout Act I the children are suitably amazed and exhibited their spontaneous responses to Drosselmeyer’s stories and magic tricks, and playing with their Christmas toys.
Clara begins her dream with the Christmas tree growing as The Nutcracker Prince (danced by Felipe Valentini) commands the toy soldiers to defeat the Mouse King and his army of mice. The Nutcracker is transformed into a Prince, and after dancing a pas de deux of their own, he and Clara come upon the Snow King (danced by Akira Iida) and the Snow Queen (danced by Ilse Kapteyn), dancing the atmospheric Snow Scene, and then on to the Land of the Sweets where they are entertained by its inhabitants including the Waltz of the Flowers led by Denise Parungao as the sparkling Dew Drop. The divertissements culminate in the Grand Pas de Deux danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier. At the conclusion of the festivities Clara is transported home on a swan boat.
At this performance the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier were danced by New Jersey ballet principal dancer Risa Mochizuki, and guest artist, Daniel Ulbricht, principal dancer of the New York City Ballet. Mochizuki being a letter-perfect and congenial Sugar Plum Fairy, and Ulbricht a perfect cavalier and escort.
The New Jersey Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is faithful to its classical roots and is revealing in its story-telling – and most of all entertaining. And more importantly that the New Jersey Ballet continues to serve its community by making a streamed performance available.
Ohio State Murders
James Earl Jones Theatre
December 15, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders opened on December 8th, 2022 at the newly-renovated James Earl Jones Theatre, marking the auspicious Broadway debut of playwright Adrienne Kennedy – her debut at 91 years of age – and a play that had its world premiere in 1992 – and its off-Broadway debut in 2007. Better late than never as Broadway audiences can now, finally, experience Kennedy’s unique approach to storytelling.
Directed by Kenny Leon and starring Audra McDonald as the writer Suzanne Alexander, Ohio State Murders is an absorbing memory play during which a mystery unravels, memories that traumatize, and reveal a world that one hopes we can think of as being in the past that we have moved on from rather than a past we are holding on to today.
In this production of Ohio State Murders McDonald plays both the younger and older Alexander who is returning to Ohio State University to give a speech focusing on the violent imagery in her stories and plays. Memories come back as she rehearses her speech in a familiar setting where she is surrounded by the stacks of law books in the University’s library, imaginatively designed by Beowulf Boritt.
Taking place in the 1990s, in flashbacks and memories, Alexander relives her undergraduate year at Ohio State University – the school year of 1949-50 – and, in particular, her experiences as being one of a small number of black students attending the University.
One of her significant memories is that of a brief affair with one of her English professors, Robert Hampshire (played by Bryce Pinkham), after they discover a special love for the works of Thomas Hardy. Looking back on what was a relationship that was meant to be would now been seen as a bad choice that eventually requires her to leave the campus, and changes her life forever.
These thoughts and emotions come back during what is a snowy day in Columbus, Ohio – and also forcing Alexander to re-visit the impact of the tragic news of the murder of her twin daughters – and who was the perpetrator.
Ohio State Murders captures Alexander’s journey which reflects a moment in time of American history that is still haunting us today. Within only a bit over an hour many more questions are asked than are answered.
The Broadway premiere of Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders provides Broadway audiences with yet another tour de performance by McDonald as Suzanne Alexander taking an emotional and revelatory journey through Alexander’s personal tragedy.
McDonald is ably supported by Bryce Pinkham as Robert Hampshire, Iris Ann as Abigail Stephenson, David Alexander as Mister Fitzgerald and Val, and in multiple roles played by Lizan Mitchell.
Ohio State Murders is an experience that every avid theater-goer should not miss.
Some Like It Hot
December 14, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Billy Wilder’s film, Some Like It Hot, is a classic. Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe and Joe E. Brown, it was one of the great movie comedies of its era. In 1972 it was transformed into a musical, Sugar, which was written by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, and directed by Gower Champion. Sugar was not considered a success, and has faded into musical comedy history – although it did re-surface in a touring revival in 2002 with Tony Curtis playing the role of the eccentric millionaire, Osgood Fielding.
Some Like It Hot has returned to Broadway in a brand-new version with a new pastiche score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and a new book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, which is based on the classic MGM film. Moving the story from 1929 to 1933 – and taking place in Chicago and California — Some Like It Hot now has a 21st century sensibility of inclusion, but remains a comedy for the ages about people caught up in an impossible predicament, and trying to get out of it – or as Matthew Lopez stated in a television interview, the story of Some Like It Hot is about “idiots in trouble”, which is the universal element that sparks the comedy in this musical.
Two Chicago musicians Joe (played by Christian Borle) and Jerry (played by J. Harrison Ghee) are playing their hearts out in the band of one of Chicago’s speakeasys only to find themselves suddenly unemployed after a police raid. With no job and no money, they choose to be that much more adventurous by seeking jobs at a club owned by the notorious gangster Spats Colombo. Spats (played by Mark Lotito), makes it clear that he does not tolerate any nonsense from any of his “employees” but Joe and Jerry convince him that they will bring in the audiences to see their singing and dancing act.
However Joe and Jerry find themselves in another jam when they are the only witnesses to a mob hit – the murder of Toothpick Charlie.
In an attempt to flee Spats and his henchmen, Joe becomes Josephine, and Jerry becomes Geraldine, and then Daphne, and they play a mean trick on two musicians who were recruited for an all-ladies band – getting the jobs themselves – and they are off by train to California where the band has been engaged to play at the Coronado Hotel in San Diego.
Once Joe arrives in California he pursues a romance with the band’s singer, Sugar (played by Adrianna Hicks), exploiting the persona of Kiplinger Von Der Plotz, an Austrian screenwriter, in order to appeal to Sugar’s ambitions to be a movie star. Jerry, now very comfortable in women’s garb, and is self-assessing his own sexual identity, is romanced by the millionaire Osgood Fielding (played by Kevin Del Aguila), who we find out has had his problems with his own social adjustment as a millionaire, and coming to terms with his Mexican heritage.
Yes, the mob does catch up with the errant musicians, and a mad chase is presented on stage as a brisk-paced and funny farce. The chase scene in Act II, “Tip Tap Trouble”, is one of the highlights of this musical – sheer madness created by director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw – an intricate and farcical tap dance number.
But how it all ends up is for you to discover when you attend a performance of Some Like It Hot yourself. You can enjoy the journey and be surprised by the ending.
The score has many glorious moments, and the team of Shaiman and Wittman are very adept in having composed a pastiche score that suits the times, and the plot twists in Some Like It Hot. Book writers Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin highlight the humor that the characters face as the plot alters into becoming more and more complicated.
Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps this farce, and the magical musical numbers, moving at a quick pace – and what wonderful musical numbers they are. And keeps the surprises coming.
Much of the success of Some Like It Hot can be attributed to the dynamite performances of Christian Borle, Adrianna Hicks, J. Harrison McGhee, and Kevin Del Aguila – the latter is a particular scene stealer.
Adrianna Hicks as Sugar was most impressive singing “A Darker Shade of Blue” and “Ride Out The Storm”. Also notable was Kevin Del Aguila as Osgood in his comic turn in “Fly, Mariposa Fly”. Just as notable were Christian Borle as Joe/Josephine and J. Harrison McGhee as Jerry/Geraldine in “Vamp”, Borle and Hicks singing the dream number sequence, “Dance The World Away”, McGhee as Daphne in “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather”, and Natasha Yvette Williams as Sweet Sue leading the opening number, “What Are You Thirsty For?” and the title number “Some Like It Hot”.
All of the cast members are superb comic actors, singers, and dancers, and they are showcased in the beautiful costumes designed by Gregg Barnes, and the dancing scenery designs by Scott Pask.
Some Like It Hot is a re-thinking and celebration of how marginalized communities are presented on a Broadway stage, and a throwback to Golden Age Broadway musicals. And if you are craving to see a real musical comedy, Some Like It Hot is the ticket for you.
The Sound of Music
Paper Mill Playhouse
December 10, 2022
By Mark Kappel
For its seasonal holiday presentation the Paper Mill Playhouse, in Milburn, New Jersey, is presenting a revival of the Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II classic, The Sound of Music, from December 2, 2022 through January 1, 2023 – and it is a revival that should not be missed.
The Sound of Music has taken its place in musical theatre history and spans generations of audiences since its Broadway premiere in 1959 – winning the Tony Award for Best Musical. This classic musical with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, and a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse has been a popular title for community theaters, high school and college productions. But it has only been given a few professional revivals in New York City. To its credit the Paper Mill Playhouse has revived The Sound of Music on many occasions.
There was a revival produced by the New York City Opera in 1990, and a Broadway revival in 1998. There was also a distinguished London revival of The Sound of Music that starred Petula Clark that had a year-long engagement beginning in 1981. An interesting note about that revival was that June Bronhill, an Australian opera and stage star, played the role of the Mother Abbess, and she had been the original Maria in the first Australian production of The Sound of Music, performing opposite American television star Peter Graves, known for starring in Mission Impossible, as Captain Von Trapp.
In short the Paper Mill Playhouse revival is very welcome and especially so since this revival was under the able direction of Mark Hoebee, the Paper Mill Playhouse’s artistic director. Hoebee has directed this production of The Sound of Music with great respect and reverence, and allowing the music and the story to speak for themselves.
The story of Maria Rainer begins in 1938 just before the German invasion of Austria. A postulant at the Nonnberg Abbey, she is engaged as a governess for the Von Trapp Family children by the patriarch of the family, Captain Georg Von Trapp.
Maria wins the confidence of the Von Trapp children in spite of the fact that she is not confident herself. Even though Captain Von Trapp has intentions of marrying Baroness Elsa Schrader, it becomes evident that Von Trapp has fallen in love with Maria. However what creates the suspense is the Von Trapp Family’s escape from Austria as Captain Von Trapp comes into conflict with the new political authorities in Austria after the Anschluss – a planned escape after performing at the Kaltzberg Festival.
Although the impending horrors of World War II are an important and potent ingredient in The Sound of Music, it is the love story of Maria and Captain von Trapp that dominates the plot of The Sound of Music. And it also has a memorable and winning score that includes the standards “My Favorite Things”, the inspirational “Climb Every Mountain”, “Edelweiss”, and the title song. Also added to revivals of The Sound of Music are the songs, “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” which Richard Rodgers composed for the screen version of The Sound of Music which have found their own place in the score.
Ashley Blanchet as Maria sang a profoundly beautiful rendition of the title song, and added to the humanity and fun in “The Lonely Goatherd”, and Caitlin Burke as the Mother Abbess gave a heart-wrenching performance of “Climb Every Mountain”.
The world represented in The Sound of Music is an innocent world that was about to change – and it is sentimental and nostalgic – but very timely.
Most important is that you fall in love with all of the characters represented in the story of The Sound of Music and those actors who play them – Ashley Blanchet as Maria, Graham Rowat as Captain von Trapp, and Caitlin Burke as the Mother Abbess, as well as Emily Borromeo as Elsa Schraeder, Gavin Lee as Max Detweiler, Analise Scarpaci as Liesl von Trapp, Andrew Alstat as Rolf Gruber, and the precocious Von Trapp children, Coleman Simmons as Friedrich, Jacey Sink as Louisa, Cody Braverman as Kurt, Tara Rajan as Brigitta, Austin Elle Fisher as Marta, and Charlotte Sydney Harrington as Gretl.
The Paper Mill Playhouse production of The Sound of Music is the perfect treat for the holiday season – and bring the children as they will love it.
Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road
Theatre St. Jeans
November 27, 2022
By Mark Kappel
From November 22 through December 31, 2022, the York Theatre Company is presenting a limited engagement of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road, a celebration of the music of Hoagy Carmichael, at the Theatre St. Jeans.
Conceived by Susan H. Schulman, Michael Lichtefeld, and Lawrence Yurman – and developed with Hoagy Carmichael’s son, Hoagy Bix Carmichael — Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road includes Carmichael’s classic songs as well as more than a few undiscovered gems.
Indiana-born Carmichael was a notable tunesmith of the 20th century specializing in popular songs and songs for musical films. Among those songs were “Stardust”, “Georgia On My Mind”, “The Nearness Of You”, “Skylark”, “Heart & Soul”, “Two Sleepy People”, “Lazy River”, and “In The Cool, Cool of the Evening” which won Carmichael an Academy Award in 1951. All of which are included in this tribute to one of America’s best tunesmiths.
As referenced in the title of this musical, there was a collection of Carmichael songs entitled “Stardust Road”, which linked the stories of six friends through Carmichael’s well-known songs.
Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road is divided into five parts taking the audience from the Stardust Roadhouse – somewhere in Indiana – to Club Old Man Harlem – in New York City – to the USO Canteen, to the Club Heart and Soul in Hollywood – and culminating in a reunion/memorial at the Stardust Roadhouse many years later.
Carmichael’s songs are performed by Markcus Blair as Buster, Sara Esty as Clara, Dion Simmons Grier as Max, Danielle Herbert as Bessie, Kayla Jenerson as Gloria, Cory Lingner as Charlie and Mike Schwitter as Wallace in solo turns, duets, and ensembles giving a new context to Carmichael’s songs exposing the emotions and anxieties of these characters, and also playing to each actor’s strengths. Each member of this exceptional and extraordinary cast has a moment to shine on their own, and in Part Five they take the time to celebrate an absent friend, Max, in “Serenade To Gabriel” and “I Walk With Music”.
Among the discovered gems was “Don’t Forget To Say No” which was staged as a playlet unto itself. But all of the songs were successfully presented in rich vocal arrangements – by Lawrence Yurman — and choreography to express the emotions and stories in each of Carmichael’s songs. These songs might not be in fashion now but they should be as they express the innocence and honesty of other simpler times rather than the complicated times we live in.
Director Susan H. Schulman has expertly helmed Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road, and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld has created entertaining musical numbers to show off the multi-talented cast of Markus Blair, Sara Esty, Dion Simmons Grier, Danielle Herbert, Kayla Jenerson, Cory Lingner, and Mike Schwitter.
Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road is a musical journey first and foremost, and how great it is to hear and experience Carmichael’s standards once again in a new context – but there are also gems revealed in this enjoyable and engaging tribute to one of America’s best songwriters.
Circle in the Square
November 17, 2022
By Mark Kappel
KPOP is a music phenomenon that has its roots in South Korea. It is a genre that has fused many different musical styles while also emphasizing fashion and dance – and besides expanding its popularity throughout Asia, it has now become a world-wide success story. And it is now taking another big step in widening its audience in KPOP — a new musical — which opened at the Circle in the Square on November 27, 2022. KPOP, the musical, is about KPOP, KPOP music, and an insightful look behind the scenes in what is the KPOP experience.
With a concept by Woodshed Collective, a score by Helen Park and Max Vernon, and a book by Jason Kim, the premise of KPOP is the behind the scenes look at the preparations for a one-night only concert featuring solo artist MwE, and the boy group, F8, and the girl group, RTMIS.
Seizing this opportunity is Harry (played by Aubie Merrylees) a documentary film maker who dares to use his camera to pull the curtain open to reveal the disagreements between Ruby (played by understudy Marina Rondo) who is a former recording artist in her own right and now runs a record company, and MwE (played by Korean singing and stage star, Luna), for whom Ruby has been a mentor since she was single digits in age, and groomed her to be the big star she has become.
Ruby has not only been MwE’s mentor but also her substitute mother. The issue between Ruby and MwE is that Ruby was exercising too much control over MwE – not only in her professional life but also in her personal life.
Through the course of KPOP the differences between them are expressed by MwE in “Wind-Up Doll”, as well as the revelations of in-fighting and ego-clashing within the boy group F8, and the girl group, RTMIS which Ruby has been fostering.
It is not clear in the book that the disputes and differences have been resolved. However it is in “Phoenix” that MwE rises to the occasion and asserts herself. This is the highpoint of KPOP.
The story that is told in KPOP is told in flashbacks as components of a relatively thin book. However KPOP shines, sparks, and excites in the many musical numbers – highlighted by Jennifer Weber’s choreography – culminating in “Blast Off”.
These elements all combine into a multimedia spectacle – with emphasis on the entertainment value, and the extraordinary talents of KPOP’s young and versatile cast. Director Teddy Berman employs his ability to keep the action moving at a fast pace, and the performances of the musical numbers on a high energy level.
There are standout performances by the entire cast – particularly Luna as MwE — which keeps the momentum up and grabs one’s attention.
What is important is that this aspect of Korean culture is now being represented on Broadway in KPOP, and can be experienced by a wider audience. Take up this opportunity to experience KPOP for yourself.
Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish
November 20, 2022
New World Stages
By Mark Kappel
Are we ready for another revival of Fiddler on the Roof – but most importantly a revival of the very successful production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish – and I would say theatre audiences definitely are. Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish opened its first off-Broadway engagement in 2019 entertaining audiences for nearly a year – all before the Covid-19 lockdowns. This wonderful and engaging revival is back again for a limited engagement at New World Stages until January 1, 2023. In short if you haven’t seen it you should, and if you have seen it you may want to see it again.
Fiddler on the Roof opened its Broadway engagement in 1964, and has been revived on Broadway on a regular basis through the decades. This musical with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and a book by Joseph Stein, speaks to the generations with its universality of how the world around us changes and evolves, how people adapt to that changing world, and how difficult it may be to hold a family together and uphold traditions.
Fiddler on the Roof, based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, was fashioned by Jerome Robbins into a major Broadway hit, and is one of the greatest musicals of Broadway’s Golden Age. However the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene presented a production of Fiddler on the Roof which was unique – it was performed in Yiddish (with a translation by Shraga Friedman) , and it was directed by Broadway veteran, Joel Grey – which added more layers of humor and emotions – and especially so in the present day with new generations of migrants fleeing their homelands.
Fiddler on the Roof focuses on Tevye, a milkman living in a Jewish village in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia in the early part of the 20th century — and the story of the future of his daughters – in marriage, in migration, and breaking traditions. During the course of making his way through a normal day, Tevye regularly has con-versations with God, in the hope that he might receive some guidance as traditions are being challenged. Tevye yields to breaking traditions when it comes to two of his daughters’ marriages – but he cannot yield to one of them when one of his daughters marries outside of his religion.
This account of the daily lives of these people all takes place in the small village of Anatevka, where the Rabbi has a prayer for everything, and even the arrival of a sewing machine in Motl, the tailor’s shop, is a major event. The existence of that village is being challenged on a daily basis ultimately forcing the citizens of Anatevka to migrate and end life-long relationships to seek lives in other parts of the world.
Grey has sympathetically directed this version of Fiddler to accentuate and focus on Tevye’s family and allows Fiddler to tell its story through Stein’s book and the wonderful songs in the score including, “Tradition”, “A Sabbath Prayer”, “Sunrise Sunset”, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”, and “Far From The Home I Love”.
Choreographer Stas Kmiec has paid homage to Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, particularly in the Wedding Bottle Dance which was superbly danced by Jonathan Quigley, Nick Raynor, James Monroe Stevko, and Ron Tal.
This particular production is notable for the dramatic intensity of the book scenes, and also injecting more charm and humor that are part and parcel of Sholem Aleichem stories. Also this Fiddler is favored by having some members of the original cast of the off-Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish with perfect performances by Steven Skybell, exemplary as Tevye, and Jennifer Babiak, sympathetic as Tevye’s wife, Golde, as Tevye and Golde strengthen the bonds of their marriage through the trials and tribulations that they are experiencing – which is underscored with a bit of humor as well.
But this production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish is the sum of its parts and every role is represented with emotion and gusto as represented by the performances of Stephanie Lynne Mason, Rosie Jo Neddy, and Rachel Zatcoff as Tevye’s daughters, Ben Liebert as Motl the Tailor, Drew Seigla as Pertshik, Michael Nigro as Fyedke, Bruce Sabath as Leyzer-Volf, and Lisa Fishman as Yente the Matchmaker.
As this production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish is presented with English Supertitles you don’t need to know a word of Yiddish to appreciate this intimate production of Fiddler with its utmost sincerity, humanity, and joy of life.
Two Jews, Talking
Theatre at St. Clement’s
November 19, 2022
By Mark Kappel
What could happen when two Jews start talking – at any time in history, and in any geographic location? That is explained in Ed. Weinberger’s Two Jews, Talking, which is story-telling at its finest in two short one-act plays, which are being performed at the Theatre at St. Clement’s.
Weinberger wrote for the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, and he is an old hand when it comes to writing situational comedy. In Two Jews, Talking, two short plays are separated not only geographically but also by 3500 years – but somehow the humor is not much different.
The first of the two one-act plays bring together the characters of Lou (Josh Mostel) and Bud (Richard Masur) – who remind one of the comedy team of Abbott and Costello – in a Waiting For Godot moment — as they get together to talk about the past, present, and future in Biblical times – at around 1505 BCE in the desert, late afternoon, on a Tuesday.
Lou is complaining about having to walk in the desert in boots, and he can’t seem to find a pair of sandals in his size – and he is also questioning the word and intentions of God – while Bud takes most of God’s word on faith. Lou and Bud have been following Moses as they have been wandering through the desert, and question as to whether the Promised Land that they are travelling to actually exists, and whether it is worth the trouble – and the big question is why Moses didn’t stop, and ask for directions. Yet they make the decision to continue the quest.
In the second play Phil (Richard Masur) and Marty (Josh Mostel) bring us up to the present in contemporary Long Island – a con-versation on a bench in a cemetery where both Phil and Marty are paying their respects to loved ones — after Marty has been visiting with a dying friend at Mt. Sinai Hospital. These are two strangers who meet at a strange time in their lives, and also in a strange, but appropriate, place.
Besides talking about their history, and their loved ones that they have lost, there seems to be an instant friendship that has been formed. The conversation isn’t maudlin as they connect with jokes, and realize that they might have met at the right time in their lives – they have connected to create a friendship that could be long-lasting.
What both plays have in common is that these two sets of companions are ageing men but who are not ageing in place – and when they are honest with each other they express it with self-deprecating humor.
Under the direction of Dan Wackerman, Josh Mostel and Richard Masur – two skilled comedy actors — perform on stage as if it is their playground. You can laugh at them and with them – and pass 70 minutes very quickly with the sense of fun that they are having.
Stephen Sondheim Theatre
November 12, 2022
By Mark Kappel
There have been more than a handful of Broadway musicals that have been created to ruminate upon, and to discover distinctive points of view of William Shakespeare’s plays, and have reinterpreted them for contemporary audiences. This season Broadway is playing host to &Juliet which takes on a 21st century sheen in re-thinking Shakespeare’s best-known play, Romeo and Juliet – transforming it from a tragedy to an uplifting musical with a surprise happy ending – and appropriately it had to come from the UK – and it has.
&Juliet, which made its Broadway debut at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on November 17, 2022, is a West End import that has re-worked the libretto of Shakespeare’s play into a musical — a musical that ponders a new sensibility of how women can be empowered, and definitely, a sense of the evolvement of women in the 21st century. It just had to be.
David West Read, who is known for writing the successful television series, Schitt’s Creek, has flipped Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and asks the question, what would have happened if Juliet had lived – and what would Juliet’s life be like, her adventures, future romances – with the result turning Romeo and Juliet into a romantic musical comedy that takes unique twists and turns.
That is the alchemy of &Juliet which is musicalized with a catalogue of songs written by Swedish pop composer Max Martin — from which Read ably borrows the first phrase of lyrics from Martin’s songs to incorporate into this new adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet story. And this new interpretation of Romeo and Juliet is further enhanced by the innovative and intuitive direction by Luke Sheppard who ably guides the audience down a new path in experiencing the Romeo and Juliet story being told for the age we are living in.
Raising the hypothetical question of what might have happened if Juliet decided not to take her own life when she found Romeo dead in her family’s crypt, William Shakespeare (played by Stark Sands), and his wife, Anne Hathaway (played by Betsy Wolfe) collaborate in conjuring up Juliet’s fate if she had been able to make such a decision. After all Juliet was a prisoner of her own time, and man’s limited world view.
Upon deciding to choose life, Juliet (played by Lorna Courtney) initially embarks on what seems to be an uneventful adventure with her nurse, Angelique (played by Melanie LaBarrie), her best friend May (played by Justin David Sullivan) – and even Anne Hathaway inserts herself into this adventure as another one of Juliet’s best friends, April.
Their adventure takes them to Paris where they meet Francois (Philippe Arroyo) who creates more drama than anything else – and also wins Juliet’s affections – but ultimately stands his ground in expressing his own real affection for May. Juliet also has a jolt when she finds out that Romeo had many girlfriends before she came along, among the many secrets revealed to her at Romeo’s funeral.
While these plot changes are being inserted because of Anne Hathaway’s influence, Shakespeare makes his own changes in the libretto – taking advantage of Anne Hathaway’s absence while on her adventure with Juliet – including Romeo returning from the dead. And in this A Midsummer Night’s Dream-type comedy, Angelique, the Nurse, rekindles her romance with Lance, Francois’ widowed father.
Martin’s songs are surgically inserted into the libretto, and the styles in which they are performed in hint at the identities of the artists who made these songs famous. This all adds to the satire and comedy that &Juliet spins.
The exemplary cast of &Juliet provides the high energy that lifts this musical into orbit, and blasts the roof off the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. The cast of Lorna Courtney as Juliet, Paulo Szot as Lance (Francois’ father), Betsy Wolfe as Shakespeare’s wife, Anna Hathaway, Stark Sands as Shakespeare himself, Justin David Sullivan as May, Philippe Arroyo as Francois, Melanie LaBarrie as Angelique, Juliet’s Nurse, and understudy Daniel Maldonado as Romeo, not only conveyed this new story of Romeo and Juliet to the audience, but used their comic talents to make &Juliet an ironic and satiric journey – and their vocal performances of Martin’s songs take them to a higher level.
If you wish to take this one of kind, and entertaining journey, be prepared for the energy boost that &Juliet generates.
Bavarian State Opera Ballet – Cinderella
November 13, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Many ballet companies in Europe have been streaming performances for years – even before the Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions. One of the ballet companies that has continued to present livestreams on a world-wide basis has been the Bavarian State Opera Ballet which is based in Munich, Germany.
On November 13, 2022, hosted by the company’s artistic director Laurent Hilaire, the Bavarian State Opera Ballet presented a livestream performance of its production of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella which the company had first performed in 2021.
Wheeldon’s version of Cinderella employs the well-known Sergei Prokofiev score, but differentiates itself with a new libretto by playwright Craig Lucas, and opulent designs by Julian Crouch, and puppetry by Basil Twist.
Wheeldon focuses on Cinderella’s resilient relationship with her mother – which upon her death – finds Cinderella crying at her grave – and her tears allow for the growth of a large tree that is the principal design signature in the ballet.
Cinderella also meets Prince Guillaume at her house when he disguises himself as a poor peasant – Cinderella provides him with food – while the Prince’s companion, Benjamin, is disguised as the Prince. This act of kindness by Cinderella is not, as in other versions of Cinderella, made to a Fairy Godmother. There isn’t a Fairy Godmother in sight in this production. Instead Cinderella’s fate is guided by a group of four male dancers who act as a Greek chorus in observing and guiding Cinderella through her adventures.
Also nerdy stepsister, Clementine, forms an attachment to the Prince’s companion, Benjamin, so it is not only Cinderella who lives happily ever after.
Wheeldon’s choreography is not consistent in quality throughout the ballet – particularly when elements are the story are preceded and end with black-outs. However the story is told in a manner that any audience would be able to understand the themes in Cinderella’s story.
Madison Young portrays Cinderella in an empathetic and touching manner, and Julian MacKay is attentive as Prince Guillaume. However exhibiting the depth of talent in the company there are exceptional performances given by Shale Wegman as Benjamin, Maria Chiara Bono as Hortensia, the formidable stepmother, and Elvina Ibraimova as Edwina, and Bianca Texeira as Clementine, Cinderella’s two step sisters.
I hope that this won’t be the last world-wide livestream performance that the Bavarian State Opera Ballet will be presenting this season.
She Remembers her Amnesia
Arts on Site
November 9, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Versatile modern dance artist Janis Brenner, former soloist of the Murray Louis Dance Company, and artistic director of Janis Brenner and Dancers, is now performing in yet another of her outstanding and informed one-woman shows, She Remembers her Amnesia (based on true stories) on November 9 & 10, 2022 at Arts On Site in New York City.
Described as a personal narrative, a dance-opera-play, and a comic drama, Janis Brenner is responsible for the concept of this piece including direction, choreography, improvisation, text, lyrics, vocals – and most important — performance. Besides Brenner’s contribution to this piece, Jerome Begin’s especially composed vocal narration and original arias have an important place in She Remembers her Amnesia as does the enhancement of Mitchell Bogard’s succinct and expert lighting design.
In the intimate space of Arts on Site Brenner relates her true stories associated with a medical incident that she had experienced — and that in spite of what caused her temporary amnesia — motivated her to look back on the history of connected medical incidents. In fact in the Folk Song section of this piece, Brenner sings of a description of TGA, and the alphabet soup of tests, medical conditions and treatments – and in Concussion Aria connects the dots of the many incidents of minor concussions she experienced in her lifetime – even going back to her childhood. Also depicted was a doctor’s visit which explains what TGA is, what treatment might be suggested – but filled with vagueness – and in all of this chaos Brenner looks upon this with comedy and humor. Definitely, Brenner’s piece is not maudlin.
The fact is that Brenner feels the need to speak, sing and dance about these experiences, reflecting on how dancers are trained to dance through pain and discomfort, and to power through it all in order to make it possible for the show to go on. In fact it is in Brenner’s movement that she cleverly expresses how she feels going through this process and where she is now – and how effectively she tells this involving story.
Brenner’s She Remembers her Amnesia can be described as the link of bizarre incidents or merely fate. But for Brenner it is in the telling of the story and how it makes for an involving entertainment – while also being thought-provoking – that is Brenner’s art and when she is at her best.
State Theatre (New Brunswick, New Jersey)
November 5, 2022
By Mark Kappel
From November 4-6, 2022, the State Theatre’s Broadway Series presented the national touring company of the musical, Tootsie, based on the iconic film, and on a story by Dan McGuire and Larry Gelbart.
In the film version Dustin Hoffman starred as Michael Dorsey, an actor who couldn’t seem to land an acting job. Ultimately he disguised himself as a woman, creating the new persona, Dorothy Michaels, which launched him into super stardom – but also complicated and sabotaged his life by virtue of self-inflicted wounds.
In this musical stage version, Dorsey is also the most difficult actor to work with on earth being scorned by directors, his agent, other actors he was worked with, and creating a muddle of his personal life. It is not clear in this musical stage version how Dorsey comes up with the idea of transforming himself into Dorothy Michaels, but the situation emerges when he is informed about his then girlfriend’s audition for the part of the Nurse in a revised version of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s Nurse, and Dorsey decides to try out for the part – and gets it in his new persona of Dorothy Michaels.
From there the character of Michaels takes over as she battles with the director, writers, actors, and producer of Juliet’s Nurse – ultimately re-fashioning the musical to make sure that she is the star – and possibly being tied up with a major success for years. When Dorsey realizes that he could be trapped in the persona of Michaels for years to come, he begins to evaluate what he has done to his career as an actor and questions the relationships in his personal life.
This set of circumstances creates problems and comedy situations that come up with this success including a new romance that Dorsey is developing with a fellow actor, Julie Nichols. But the comedy is in the journey from the beginning of Dorsey’s scheme and how it unravels.
From the start of Tootsie in “Opening Number” the series of Dorsey’s bad auditions, and run-ins with directors and actors are depicted with Dorsey at his worst. And Dorsey often assesses why he hasn’t achieved his goals in the entertainment profession.
Also, by accident, his transformation into Dorothy Michaels has the unexpected effect of empowering women as Michaels calls the shots in the creative decisions for Juliet’s Nurse.
A lot of the success of this musical stage version of Tootsie can be credited to Robert Horn’s clever, witty, and satiric book including many inside theatre jokes, which also transforms the story of Tootsie into a very funny farce, yet moving as well, as the characters evolve through the course of the flabbergasting twists and turns that come to pass.
David Yazbeck, whose previous Broadway successes include The Band’s Visit, The Full Monty, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, provides the off-beat and comic score for Tootsie. For just as much for its staging the musical number, “Unstoppable” which highlights the transformation of Michael Dorsey into Dorothy Michaels, is one of the memorable songs in Yazbeck’s score.
Director Dave Solomon keeps the comedy apace and Denis Jones provides the choreography that is crafted to link up the narrative.
And Tootsie is a traditional musical comedy in the best sense, and performed by a cast of talented comic actors and singers.
Stealing the show is Drew Becker playing the hapless and confused Michael Dorsey – and offers a cogent, funny, and assertive alter ego as Dorothy Michaels. In fact the quick changes are miraculous as Becker moves between these two characters.
But special mention should also be made of Ashley Alexandra’s funny, and compassionate, performance as Julie Nichols as that character evolves into accepting Michael Dorsey for what he is.
You can’t describe them as supporting players because of their exemplary performances of Payton Reilly as Sandy Lester – Dorsey’s zany girlfriend – who is then attracted to Dorsey’s roommate and would be playwright, Jeff Slater, who is played with savvy and eccentricity by understudy Matt Kurzyniec.
And then were the suitably over-the-top comic turns by Matthew Rella as the reality star Max Van Horne playing Craig, Romeo’s brother in Juliet’s Nurse, Kathy Halenda as Rita Marshall, Juliet’s Nurse’s producer, and Adam Du Plessis as the director/ choreographer of Juliet’s Nurse.
Hard to believe that Tootsie opened on Broadway in the spring of 2019 and closed by January of 2020. Fortunately Tootsie is having an extended life – and also reaching a wider audience – on national tour.
November 4, 2022
By Mark Kappel
For its annual gala presentation the City Center produced a concert version of the musical, Parade, which will be performed from November 1-6, 2022. Parade, a musical exploring the racism and antisemitism in the southern part of the United States in the early years of the 20th century, is as relevant as it was then, and also when Parade was premiered on Broadway a little over 20 years ago. Parade may have found its moment in time with this concert production.
Parade, with a score by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Alfred Uhry, had been given its Broadway premiere at the Lincoln Center Theater in 1998, under the guidance of Harold Prince, and although it had a run of only 84 performances, it won the Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score.
Program notes indicated that Parade has undergone revisions since its premiere, and there was a special note thanking Rob Ashford for his contributions in rewriting and restructuring Parade for its London premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007.
This concert version has grand operatic pretenses in the manner it was directed and staged, but the story that Parade tells is an epic story. This is a story about real people, their difficulties, and their challenges. And it has its horrifying aspects as well.
Guiding this concert version is director Michael Arden, and all performances were under the musical direction of Jason Robert Brown as conductor, and co-orchestrator.
Parade tells the story of the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jewish superintendent of the National Pencil Company factory in Atlanta, Georgia, who found himself accused and convicted of murdering a thirteen-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. Also arrested was the night watchman of the factory, Newt Lee, but he was only used as a corroborating witness to the crime.
Frank had been married to Lucille, portrayed as a Southern Jewish belle, who seemed oblivious of the atmosphere of prejudice and hate in Georgia. The Franks had a quiet domestic life yet Leo Frank was a fish of water and an outsider living in the South.
After Frank was arrested for this crime, his trial achieved celebrity status and was the fodder of a tabloid newspaper – and it was a trial that exacerbated antisemitic feelings in Atlanta and the state of Georgia.
Frank was convicted after what is depicted as a sham trial with witnesses lying about the details of the crime after being placed under the pressure of the prosecutor, and succumbing to the menacing atmosphere that had been created by local law enforcement, and local politicians. Yet the story is told with some humor and a great deal of irony – and is uplifted by a score of soaring songs portraying the dignity of Leo Frank, and the doubts expressed by the many witnesses.
In 1915, after a review of the trial testimony and documents which took place because of the efforts of Lucille Frank, the then Governor of Georgia, John Slaton, commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment – and was transferred to a prison where, unfortunately, a group of men kidnapped him and then hanged him from an oak tree.
In Parade, the likely culprit was the janitor of the factory, Jim Conley, who was also a key witness at Frank’s trial. However, the local officials who contributed to the tragic outcome of Frank’s death were the prosecutor Hugh Dorsey — who later was elected Governor of Georgia – and the antisemitic newspaper publisher, Tom Watson — who also pursued a political career becoming a U.S. Senator.
The intensity of the trial and how Frank’s life evolves and unravels was enhanced by the projections of original photos of the pivotal actors, and witnesses involved in the trial, and explains how the jury reached the verdict that it did.
Although this historic trial is the focus of Parade, Brown and Uhry also portrayed the burgeoning and evolving relationship between Leo Frank (played by Ben Platt) and his wife, Lucille (played by Micaela Diamond) as they are challenged by the uncontrollable events that changed both of their lives. Parade’s content strikes an emotional chord.
Brown provided a listenable and compelling score, and Uhry an equally compelling book, telling this complicated story and attempting to find answers why this historical incident occurred – and why it might manifest itself in the future.
Michael Arden has skillfully used the elements in the book that he had to work with to bring out the details of this adapted version of the facts in what were the darkest of times.
The cast for Parade was an embarrassment of riches down to the small supporting roles. However, the weight of Parade falls upon Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond as the husband and wife coping in this human drama. In particular their performance of “This Is Not Over Yet” is one of the showstoppers in Parade.
Frank was granted a posthumous pardon in 1986, and the investigation was re-opened in 2019 transforming the hundred-year-old story depicted in Parade into a story of our time. However relevant Parade’s story and message was in 1998, Parade is even more relevant today.
The powerful story in Parade is told superbly by a wonderful cast, focused direction, and hearing Jason Robert Brown’s score at its best – and should be seen by all – and perhaps a Broadway transfer should be seriously considered so that more people can see this masterful production of Parade.
Almost Famous – The Musical
Bernard Jacobs Theatre
November 2, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Almost Famous joins an illustrious group of Broadway musicals that have been adapted from successful, and iconic films. Unlike other such adaptations, the writer who wrote the screenplay for the film version of Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe, is heavily involved in this musical stage version, which has opened at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre, and has Crowe’s personal stamp.
Crowe won an Academy Award for his screenplay which was inspired by his exploits as a writer for Rolling Stone in the 1970’s. The 2000 film fixated on 15-year-old William Miller who ingratiates himself enough to be employed by Creem Magazine and for Rolling Stone to write articles on what is his passion, the rock music of the time. He suffers through rejection and embarrassment when security guards prevent him from accessing the rock band he wants to interview, but is assisted in getting backstage by Penny Lane, and her cohorts, the Band-Aids, and fellow groupies and hangers on. However Miller is sidetracked – yet persistent – and persuades the members of the rock-band, Stillwater, to be the focus of his article for Rolling Stone.
Miller winds up touring with Stillwater in spite of his domineering mother’s objections, exploring the relationships of the bandleader Russell Hammond and Penny Lane, as well as coming to terms with his own feelings for Lane, and also his puzzling relationship with Hammond – and conflicting advice from Rolling Stone’s editors and the new “family” that he has recreated around himself.
What is told is a coming-of-age story of its time — at the juncture of political derision, rock music, awkward admiration of celebrities – and a great many other distractions that a 15-year-old might be intrigued by and also confused by. And how to be cool or be described as uncool, and whether he should have no attachments and no boundaries.
In this musical version of Almost Famous Crowe has written the book adaptation, and has written the lyrics, in collaboration with composer Tom Kitt, for new songs which are combined with familiar songs of the 1970’s — including Tiny Dancer, one of the film’s signature songs.
And the theme that is contained in Crowe’s adaptation of Almost Famous is that what is most important is that you follow your dreams.
The story is guided well by director Jeremy Herrin who has focused in on the important elements in Crowe’s story, and providing the pace, and harnessing the vitality that energizes Almost Famous as a musical.
What are the most impressive elements of Almost Famous are the performances by the actors playing the pivotal characters. Casey Likes makes his Broadway debut as William Miller, and fills the stage with his winsome innocence and steadfastness – and also a bit of knowing much more than would be appropriate for someone of his age. Just as winning were Chris Wood as Russell Hammond, Solea Pfeiffer as Penny Lane (particularly in her rendition of “Morocco”), DrewGehling as the Stillwater band’s lead singer, Jeff Bebe, and Rob Colletti as Miller’s confident, Lester Bangs, who provides encouragement and spot-on advice in an acerbic and targeted manner.
Also Anika Larsen gives a standout performance as Miller’s domineering mother, Elaine. She reluctantly allows her young son to pursue his dreams while lamenting that rock stars have kidnapped her son – and she also provides the story’s moral stability.
The energy is measured at a new high in the concert form ending for the curtain calls.
This is not a story for our time but from a time not so long ago – a story that one can relate to and is told in a manner that lights up the stage with the many star performances by the actors in the cast.
Whether you have nostalgia for the 1970’s or if you are interested in an entertaining adventure, Almost Famous is for you!
American Ballet Theatre – Mixed-Bill
David Koch Theater
October 28, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The second mixed-bill, being presented during the final week of American Ballet Theatre’s fall season at the David Koch Theater, defined the word mixed in terms of dance styles, as well as familiar and unfamiliar dance pieces. On October 28, 2022, American Ballet Theatre presented the revival of a major work, and a world premiere.
The major work was Jiri Kylian’s Sinfonietta which had been premiered by Netherlands Dance Theatre in 1978, and was acquired by American Ballet Theatre in 1991 – and sporadically revived. Sinfonietta was choreographed to the music of the same name composed by Czech composer, Leos Janacek, and is an ensemble work – one of Kylian’s best.
With the opening notes of the brass instruments there is the announcement that the audience was not only going to experience a significant dance work, but also the excitement that comes with it. Kylian choreographed Sinfonietta as if he was knitting together the music with fluid movement interwoven with calculated entrances and exits, and danced in the setting of Walter Nobbe’s impressionist backdrop.
Although on its surface Sinfonietta is an ensemble work, the work is the sum of its parts with the excellent cast of Eric Tamm, Jarod Curley, Patrick Frenette, Carlos Gonzalez, Roman Zhurbin, Joao Menegussi, Sung Woo Han, Isadora Loyola, Zhong-Jing Fang, Breanne Granlund, Luciana Paris, Fangqi Li, Katherine Williams, and Catherine Hurlin adding their own artistry to the performance of Kylian’s piece.
Jessica Lang’s Children’s Songs Dance had been created for the ABT Studio Company in 2021, and American Ballet Theatre presented its company premiere of this dance piece in August of this year adding new costume designs by Jillian Lewis. And it should be noted that cast members from the original ABT Studio Company premiere have since joined American Ballet Theatre, and participated in this performance.
Lang has often been engaged to create new works for both the ABT Studio Company and American Ballet Theatre in the past, and knows the dancers well. This was reflected in her choreography set to selections from Chick Corea’s “Children’s Songs” which were played by a solo pianist on the stage.
As the music selected was composed in short vignette form, so was Lang’s choreography — but unfortunately were not linked. But Children’s Songs Dance is dance pieced filled with youthful energy, and impressions of children’s games in the choreography – and dancers in flight.
That energy was expressed by the cast of Sun Mi Park, Yoon Jung Seo, Camila Ferrara, Tristan Brosnan, Cy Doherty, Elwince Magbitang, and Andrew Robare.
The world premiere on this program, Lifted, was choreographed by Christopher Rudd, who chose music composed by Carlos Simon to express his movement choices and the overall visual image of Lifted. Lifted was the collaboration of black artists and was danced by the cast of Erica Lall, Courtney Lavine, Calvin Royal III, Jose Sebastian, and Melvin Lawovi.
The curtain opened with Royal alone on the stage surrounded by movable mirrored walls. The question was whether his movement represented his self-involvement with his image or did he feel imprisoned by the walls – which also gave the impression of many more dancers in the cast even before Lall Lavine, Sebastian and Lawovi appeared on stage, who seemed less interested in their images reflected in the mirrored walls.
Rudd’s choreographic vocabulary was a mixture of classical ballet, contemporary ballet, and modern dance as the dancers interacted with each other – in some instances forming living tableau – however there were many anti-climaxes and false endings to the piece which diminished its impact.
Overall American Ballet Theatre presented a survey of how choreographers have been influenced by modern dance through the past decades and will continue to be in future decades.
American Ballet Theatre – The Dream
David Koch Theater
October 26, 2022
By Mark Kappel
During American Ballet Theatre’s second week of its fall season at the David Koch Theater, the company is performing mixed-bill programs with a wide variety of revivals and premieres.
On October 26, 2022, American Ballet Theatre presented a revival of Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, a ballet that the Royal Ballet premiered in 1964, and was acquired by American Ballet Theatre in 2002 – and a ballet that American Ballet Theatre doesn’t revive often enough.
Ashton’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a distillation of the play’s plot in the course of about 60 minutes, and is choreographed to Felix Mendelssohn’s glorious music – as arranged by John Lanchbery – that had been composed for a theatre production of this beloved comedy by the Bard.
Familiar in the story is how Oberon (danced by Daniel Camargo substituting for Cory Stearns) tricks Titania (danced by Gillian Murphy) into believing that she is in love with Bottom, one of the Rustics, who has magically been transformed into a donkey – while Oberon’s protégé, Puck (danced by Herman Cornejo) must match and unmatch two sets of lovers who have wandered into Oberon’s forest domain.
Ashton cleverly incorporated gesture and mime into the choreography – while also setting the ballet in Victorian England — and David Walker’s scenery designs created a magical and mystical atmosphere. In short, it’s all in the details, and the dancers being in the moment – in particular Gillian Murphy and Daniel Camargo bringing a regality to their characters – and culminating in a beautifully danced penultimate love duet at the end of the ballet.
Ashton’s approach to Shakespeare’s sex comedy is emphasizing light comedy touches, and conductor David LaMarche provided brisk musical tempi which helped to emphasize the comedy in this ballet’s plot.
Closing the program was Alexei Ratmansky’s The Seasons, choreographed to Alexander Glazunov’s music of the name, which had been created as a ballet divertissement depicting the seasons that are reflected in the music. It has found its own place in American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire since its world premiere in 2019.
The Seasons is a high energy romp with the dances choreographed to represent the joyousness of the changing seasons. The ballet appeals to all of the senses with Glazunov’s exquisite music, and the dancers showing off a little with their fluid execution of the complicated choreography – the featured pas de deux in the final section of the ballet – which is the highlight of The Seasons – a divertissement chock full of many styles of dance.
Although it is primarily an ensemble work notable in the principal roles were Joo Won Ahn, Katherine Williams, Chloe Misseldine, Sunmi Park, Luciana Paris, Thomas Forster, Zimmi Coker, Breanne Granlund, Isabella Boylston, Carlos Gonzalez, Catherine Hurlin, and Calvin Royal III.
This mixed-bill program presented by American Ballet Theatre offered an important revival, and showcased the company’s dancers.
Twyla Tharp – In The Upper Room & Nine Sinatra Songs
October 20, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Last season the City Center initiated a relationship with Twyla Tharp in which Tharp created new choreography and revived her earlier works that were danced by an especially hand-picked group of dancers. After that successful collaboration the City Center is renewing this relationship for the 2022-2023 season.
There is no better prism for an audience to experience the work of master choreographers when they are in the process of curating and re-examining their own work.
This program, being presented at the City Center from October 19-23, 2022, has allowed Tharp to take a new look at two works she had created in the 1980’s and also was danced by a group of hand-picked dancers – from American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, the Bavarian State Opera Ballet, the Martha Graham Dance Company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, LA Dance Project, and freelance principal dancers who have danced previously with Miami City Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet.
In The Upper Room, which premiered in 1986 and Nine Sinatra Songs which premiered in 1982 were juxtaposed on this program. In what could be described as traditional programming, Nine Sinatra Songs would be considered an opening dance piece while In The Upper Room would be considered a closing dance piece. Perhaps reflecting on a world turned upside down, Tharp chose to flip these works with In The Upper Room opening this program of dance, and Nine Sinatra Songs chosen to close the program.
In The Upper Room, choreographed to music by Philip Glass, is a non-stop athletic piece of choreography that is enhanced by lighting and other effects that combine both music and dance. Certainly Glass’ pulsating music influenced Tharp’s fast-paced and relentless choreography reflecting energy with the pattern of dancers moving on and off the stage at a blistering pace.
Notable for the female dancers dancing in white sneakers (the stompers) and red pointe shoes, and wearing Norma Kamali’s pajama-like costumes, In The Upper Room still comes across as a bit quaint.
However any performance of In The Upper Room is only as good as its cast. The cast of Jeanette Delgado, Benjamin Freemantle, Jada German, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Daisy Jacobson, Lloyd Knight, Marzia Memoli, Stephanie Petersen, Reed Tankersley, Cassandra Trenary, Daniel Ulbricht, and Richard Villaverde gave their all – energy-wise and being committed to Tharp’s choreographic intent.
In contrast was Nine Sinatra Songs created the primary intent of entertaining an audience and being a laudable tribute to one of America’s great singers. Nine Sinatra Songs has morphed into many versions in which Tharp employed the recordings of crooner Frank Sinatra – a series of songs from the American Song Book, and Sinatra’s hit recordings. Those other versions including Sinatra Suite, and her Broadway revue, Come Fly Away, which has a permanent place in the Royal Danish Ballet’s repertoire, represent how Tharp evolved in approaching her own choreography – and changing its emphasis.
For this City Center presentation, Nine Sinatra Songs is presented in a nightclub/ballroom atmosphere credited to Santo Loquasto. There is a bit of romance, and some tongue and cheek humor but most importantly creating a showcase for individual dancers to shine.
Although the entire cast of Jaquelin Harris, James Gilmer, Marzia Memoli, Richard Villaverde, Stephanie Petersen, Julian MacKay, Daisy Jacobson, Reed Tankersley, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Lloyd Knight, Jeanette Delgado, Daniel Ulbricht, Cassandra Trenary, and Benjamin Freemantle connected with both Tharp’s choreography, and the songs sung by Sinatra, notable were the performances of Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer in “Softly As I Leave You”, Daisy Jacobson and Reed Tankersley in “Somethin’ Stupid”, Kaitlyn Gilliland and Lloyd Knight in “All The Way”, and Jeanette Delgado and Danny Ulbricht in “That’s Life”.
This performance of Nine Sinatra Songs showcased the artistic instincts of the work’s choreographer, the interpretation of songs by one of the singing greats, and the dancers who interpreted and danced the choreography.
With the unique combination of Tharp’s two works a dance audience would be able to appreciate both works from different points of view – and that is what art is all about.
On Your Feet!
Paper Mill Playhouse
October 15, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The Paper Mill Playhouse opened its 2022-2023 season with its own production of On Your Feet!, from October 7-November 6, 2022, the autobiographical story of the recording industry legends Emilio and Gloria Estefan.
With a book by Alexander Dinelaris and the score utilizing the many hits songs that were produced, written and recorded by Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and the Miami Sound Machine, On Your Feet! had its Broadway premiere in 2015.
However the Paper Mill Playhouse is presenting a new production of On Your Feet! which has been directed and choreographed by Alex Sanchez – with a special emphasis on choreography – a bit of camouflage for the musical’s rather disjointed book. All the same it is difficult to remain in your seat during this entertaining and dazzling musical.
The story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan is that of Cuban immigrants who made their new home in Miami, Florida – they fall in love with each other and their music, and also had their struggles as they began their careers. But their vision and musicianship established a unique Latin musical style that received worldwide recognition.
On Your Feet! chronicles the Estefans’ family challenges, their struggles in persuading the powers that be in the recording industry that their “sound” was unique and would have universal appeal – and also the catastrophe of Gloria Estefan’s debilitating injuries in a freak bus accident. In fact the musical ends with Gloria Estefan’s appearance on the American Music Awards which seals the deal on her recovery, and the high esteem she had earned from people in the recording industry and her fans.
Throughout this journey the Estefans’ hit songs are interwoven in what has become a jukebox biographical musical formula. As represented in On Your Feet! included are the familiar hits such as “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”, “Conga”, “1-2-3”, “Get On Your Feet”, and “Coming Out of the Dark” among others – and most importantly it is a celebration of people who followed their dreams.
Linedy Genao plays Gloria Estefan, after understudying this role in the original Broadway cast – and who will be starring in the Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical, Bad Cinderella — and Brandon Espinoza plays Emilio. Genao lights up and commands the stage, and Espinoza, equally commanding on stage, is an empathetic hero in this story. Also notable were Francisca Munoz as Gloria Fajardo, Luis Villabon as Jose ajardo, and Yajaira Paredes as Consuelo.
However the entire cast was made up of powerhouse singers and they had the chance to fly in the On Your Feet! spectacular finale megamix which had the whole audience on its feet.
On Your Feet! has all of the ingredients of what good musical theatre is about, and is as an entertaining a theater experience that any audience could want. This was a splendid musical to open Paper Mill Playhouse’s new season.
City Center Fall for Dance Festival – Program 5
October 2, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The City Center Fall for Dance Festival’s Program 5, the final program of the Festival, as performed on October 2, 2022, exemplified great diversity with three very different dance companies, performing works choreographed in distinct dance styles.
Opening the program was a work that was a collaborative effort of the Chitrasena Dance Company, and the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble dancing in the New York premiere of Surupa Sen’s Poornarati, a work that had its world premiere in 2019. In this piece the two companies joined forces with specialties in different forms and styles of dance from their parts of the world.
Poornarati was an example of how a dance piece can be refined and ritualistic at the same time with the dancers well-rehearsed and in tune with the music. Notable were the performances by the Odissi Dancers of The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble – Pavithra Reddy, Abhinaya Rohan, Anoushka Rahman, and Rohini Banerjee — and the Kandyan Dancers of the Chitrasena Dance Company – Thaji Dias, Amandi Gomez, Kushan Dharmarathna, and Geeth Premachandra – and adding to the performance was choreographer Surupa Sen on stage as the Lead Voice among the musicians.
Overall Poornarati was danced with skill and finesse in an absorbing collaboration by these two dance companies.
Also included in this program was the Dutch National Ballet, which hasn’t performed in New York in several decades. Four dancers from the Dutch National Ballet, which is directed by Ted Brandsen, danced a recent work choreographed by one of Holland’s master choreographers, Hans van Manen, Variations for Two Couples. Having had its world premiere by the Dutch National Ballet in 2012, the San Francisco Ballet also performed this work at the City Center Fall for Dance Festival in 2014.
Van Manen choreographed to the music of an assortment of composers to represent the moods of each section of the piece drawing on the music of Benjamin Britten, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer, and Astor Piazzolla. Also notable were the simple and refined designs by Keso Dekker which included in the background a steel-like half-moon and simply-colored costumes. Van Manen’s choreography was danced with precision and reflecting the different moods of the music – and also a bit of sexual tension between the dancers.
Van Manen is a master of simplicity in his choreography – and a direct response to the music he has chosen to be the platform for his choreography.
A stellar cast danced van Manen’s piece including Maia Makhateli, Constantine Allen, Olga Smirnova, and Jakob Feyerlik – particularly notable for the excellent partnering skills of Allen and Feyerlik. And there was also the surprise appearance of Hans van Manen taking a bow with the dancers during the curtain calls.
Israeli modern dance choreographer, Hofesh Shechter, was represented by his work, CAVE, which had been co-produced by Studio Simkin and the Martha Graham Dance Company, and had been given its premiere earlier this year. For this performance the Martha Graham Dance Company danced CAVE with Daniil Simkin as a guest artist, who had inspired this dance piece.
CAVE duplicates the trendy club culture and dance flash mobs that dominate the dance club scene — in a frenzied dance work with music by Ame and Hofesh Schechter.
Schechter’s work tends to focus on recurring and rhythmic movement executed by groups of dancers, and CAVE was no exception. CAVE opened on a high energy level which never seemed to dissipate – and was notable for the excellent ensemble dancing by the company – it was the perfect closing piece for this program.
Once again the City Center Fall for Dance Festival has shown its resilience and its popularity with audiences.
City Center Fall for Dance Festival
– Program 4
September 29, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The City Center Fall for Dance Festival’s Program 4, presented on September 29, 2022, was another example of the diversity in programming that the Festival is known for – providing a rare performance by a modern dance company based in the Midwest of the United States, and the New York debut of a ballet company that had been based in the Ukraine until recently. And there was local representation from the New York City Ballet – and a former member of the New York City Ballet.
Presented as a virtual premiere at the 2020 City Center Fall for Dance Festival, and now presented in a staged performance, The Two of Us, was choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon for current New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns, and former New York City Ballet principal dancer Robbie Fairchild.
The inspiration for Wheeldon was not only Mearns and Fairchild but the music of Joni Mitchell whose songs are wistful and thought-provoking. The songs, “I Don’t Know Where I Stand”, “Urge for Going”, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” and “Both Sides Now” are unfamiliar and familiar, and they served as a musical foundation for long solos and the final duet. Although the choreography didn’t make references to the lyrics of Mitchell’s songs, the one exception was for the final duet choreographed to “Both Sides Now” which captured the song’s melancholy and regret.
Both Mearns and Fairchild gave strong and thoughtful performances – which made Wheeldon’s choreography resonate.
The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, directed by Debbie Blunden-Diggs, made one of its rare New York appearances dancing Abby Zbikowski’s Indestructible.
Choreographed to music by Death Grips and having its premiere in 2018, this ensemble piece opens to a bare stage – and although there is music Indestructible’s soundscape is dominated by silence or rhythmic counting.
The choreography is focused on street dancing and other vernacular dance styles – with great athleticism – and fittingly in tune with the company’s mission to develop works that reflect the African-American experience.
Much credit goes to the ensemble of Devin Baker, Qarriane Blayr, Alexandra Flewellen, Robert Pulido, Quentin Apollovaughn Sledge, Sadale Warner, and Countess v. Winfrey for their commitment to Zbikowski’s vision.
Closing the program was the Kyiv City Ballet, a ballet company from the Ukraine that was stranded in Paris after the war in Ukraine began, and has now returned to touring. The company was founded in 2012 by its current artistic director Ivan Kozlov.
In its participation in the City Center Fall for Dance Festival, the company performed excerpts from Vladyslav Dobshynskyi’s Thoughts, and Pavel Virsky’s Men of Kyiv.
Thoughts, which had its world premiere in September of this year, is a large ensemble piece with these excerpts choregraphed to music by Nils Frahm. Somber in tone and performed by a large ensemble cast, Thoughts’ focus is on two central figures supported by a large ensemble. Although Frahm’s music dominates, central to the theme of this work was the whispering and loud utterances – of thoughts and secrets – and notable choreographic influences from Maurice Bejart and Jiri Kylian.
In contrast was Pavel Virsky’s Men of Kyiv, performed by an all-male cast costumed in blue and gold t-shirts reflecting the colors of the Ukrainian flag – separated in two groups. The choreography’s core is that of the Gopak, a Ukrainian dance tradition, which in Men of Kyiv is danced in variations to that choreographic tradition in group dances, and each of the male dancers competing in virtuoso solos.
The boisterous and appreciative audience reaction was generated by the performances of this dance piece’s cast of Volodymr Bukliev, Mykola Chebotarov, Vladyslav Dobshynskyi, Nazar Korniichuk, Oleksandr Moroz, Danyil Podhrushko, Yevhenii Sheremet, Mykhailo Shcherbakov, Vladyslav Surdu, and Arno-Stin Tsembenhoi.
In all, the Kyiv City Ballet made an effective New York debut. This was all part of another Fall for Dance Festival program that offered dance pieces that can be appreciated by all segments of the audience.
City Center Fall for Dance Festival
– Program 3
September 28, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The City Center Fall for Dance Festival’s Program 3, presented on September 28, 2022, included a return performance of the San Francisco Ballet at the Festival after a long absence – with a balance dance fare including modern dance and flamenco to lend variety.
Presented as a virtual premiere at the 2020 City Center Fall for Dance Festival, Jamar Roberts’ Morani/Mungu (Black Warrior/Black God) was choreographed to music by The Last Poets, John Coltrane, and Nine Simone. This solo, wonderfully danced by James Gilmer, reflected on the many “black warriors” who fought for their rights during times of oppression. Gilmer in Robert’s piece transforms himself into an activist, advocate and story-teller bringing attention to the political and social issues of the day. The choreographic language was modern dance and intelligible in its aims and interpretation. The third and final section choreographed to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was most poignant.
The San Francisco Ballet performed Jerome Robbins’ In The Night, which the company had performed at the Festival in 2008. Created for the New York City Ballet in 1970 – in a series of ballets that Robbins created to Chopin’s piano music – In The Night represented a strong contrast in mood to Robbins’ Dances At A Gathering which Robbins created for the New York City Ballet only a year before.
In The Night outlines the relationships of three couples which vary in mood and in conflict reflecting the changing themes and moods in Chopin’s music, wonderfully played by pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad.
The San Francisco Ballet was represented by the exemplary cast of Elizabeth Powell, Joseph Walsh, Sasha Mukhamedov, Tiit Helimets, Dores Andre, and Luke Ingham, who danced in costumes designed for this ballet by Anthony Dowell – and brought emotion and passion to Robbins’ choreography.
Closing the program was Tangos & Alegrias, choreographed by Manuel Linan and Maria Moreno, which featured Moreno as a dancer, and Maria Terremoto as a singer telling their stories and expressing their emotions through their art and artistry to communicate in conversation. As would be expected in a flamenco dance piece both commanded the stage, and in particular Moreno presented small details, and explosions of emotions and feelings – employing a dancing technique that was honed for effect but seemed spontaneous.
The City Center Fall for Dance Festival’s Program 3 fit right into the Festival’s mission to present a variety of dance styles – but this program also exhibited excellent dancing and expression by all of the dancers who participated.
City Center Fall for Dance Festival
– Program 1
September 22, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Opening this year’s City Center Fall for Dance Festival, the participants and repertoire presented on Program 1 on September 22, 2022, was an example of the variety of dance styles that are the hallmark of this annual New York dance event.
Compagnie Herve Koubi performed what was the New York premiere of excerpts from Boys Don’t Cry, which was co-choreographed by Herve Koubi and Faycal Hamlat. Compagnie Herve Koubi is a French-based dance company of male dancers adept in martial arts, hip hop and other dance styles, and these were on display in this piece which was choreographed to music by Diana Ross, Stephane Fromentin, Oum, and traditional Eastern and European music, and had been given its premiere in 2018.
Boys Don’t Cry examines the relationships between sons and fathers which contrasts playing soccer to please a father and earning a father’s respect as a dancer. In a combination of dance and spoken word, soccer is portrayed as a game of intimidation, and compares soccer and dance – their differences and what they have in common. These subjects are presented in an entertaining dance piece which some seriousness and some humor.
Compagnie Herve Koubi is comprised of dancers who show off their physicality and expertise in telling their individual stories in these excerpts from Boys Don’t Cry as danced by Mohammed Elhilali, Abdelghani Ferradji, Badr Benr Guibi, Bendehiba Maamar, Nadjib Meherhera, Houssni Mijem, and El Houssaini Zahid.
The second piece on this program was a bit of an anomaly as repertoire from the 19th century classics is rarely performed at the Festival. But on this occasion the Bavarian State Ballet, of Munich, Germany, which is directed by Laurent Hilaire, was represented by its award-winning Portuguese soloists, Margarita Fernandes and Antonio Casalinho in the virtuoso Le Corsaire Pas de Deux, in a staging credited to Maina Gielgud. Fernandes and Casalinho brought a great deal of excitement, and flair to this program in their performance which reflected their sophisticated stage presence at such a young age. Lots of youthful exuberance which exhibited potential which is to be realized with more performance experience.
The Bavarian State Ballet was only represented by a pair of dancers but I hope we might be seeing more of the company in New York. Its one and only New York visit was back in 1993, and they are over due to perform here once again.
Closing the program was the recently organized Gibney Company, directed by Gina Gibney, which presented the North American premiere of Swedish choreographer’s John Inger’s dance piece, Bliss. Such a presentation was a huge step for the Gibney Company in terms of what repertoire the company has been dancing – and at the same time making a big splash in its Festival debut.
Choreographed to music by Keith Jarrett, Bliss had been given its world premiere by Aterballetto in 2016.
The opening sequence of Bliss was focused on the lighting design by Peter Lundin with stars in the midnight sky as dancers walked across the stage in silence before Jarrett’s music went into gear. There was a juxtaposition of Jarrett’s improvisational music and the formalistic choreography that Inger had created. The piece emphasized the theme of people trying to make connections – often with a bit of humor.
In what was a well-rehearsed performance of Bliss the ensemble cast of Alexander Anderson, Scott Autry, Alicia Delgadillo, Miriam Gittens, Zultari (Zui) Gomez, Eddieomar Gonzalez Castillo, Eleni Loving, Jesse Obremski, Kevin Pajarillaga, Jordan Powell, Jie-Hung Connie Shiau, Jacob Thoman, and Jake Tribus did justice to Inger’s concept.
This was only the first program of the City Center Fall for Dance Festival with more to come.
September 20, 2022
By Mark Kappel
To open its 2022-2023 season the Joyce Theater is presenting a unique dance theatre piece that had been premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival earlier this year – Burn, a solo theatre-dance piece created by actor Alan Cumming, and choreographer Steven Hoggett – with Vicki Manderson as co-choreographer. Burn is a collaborative production through the cooperation of the Joyce Theater, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival, and provokes and challenges one’s definition of how dance and theatre can be blended together.
Burn, a 65-minute piece, compresses and presents the highlights of Burns’ life, the 18th century poet and lyricist – who also wrote many musical compositions and collected folk songs.
With the source material being intimate letters and thoughts, Burn depicts the little-known details of the life of Scottish poet, Robert Burns, here played by Cumming, which is enhanced by the music of Anna Meredith setting the moods and atmosphere of this piece.
Burn focuses on Burns’ early life as a farmer as part of a farming family that moved from farm to farm to find work as well as his relationship with Jean Armour – mother of nine of his twelve children – his affair with Mary Campbell and others, poverty, depression, and how his stories were inspired by Scotland itself. Burns poems and compositions were published at an early age as part of a short life as he died at the age of 37.
Burns pursuit of a life as a farmer could have been a destiny that would have led him to poverty, and obscurity. However he did achieve much more even in his brief life.
Burn presents Burns’ life in non-linear form but initially it was the crashing effects of a typical Scottish rain storm that confront the audience as soon as they arrive in the Joyce Theater that established the backdrop for the tale that Cumming and Hoggett were to tell. With only a desk and a chair as the initial props – and later ladies shoes to represent the ladies in his life, Burn delves into Burns’ career ambitions, his complicated love life and family life, dabbling in hypochondria, and anxieties and depression.
Cumming conjures Burns’ life – and his thoughts from his poetry and song lyrics – in spoken word and dance – which was punctuated by video (designed by Andrzej Goulding), sound (designed by Matt Padden) and lighting (designed by Tim Lutkin). Hoggett’s choreography was tailored to Cumming’s abilities and means of expression, and the result was that Burn proved to be more theater than dance.
However Cumming brings Burns to life in both spoken word and movement, and at the end of his curtain calls, he gives a toast and leaves us with a few phrases from Burns’ best-known song, “Auld Lang Syne”. This set the tone for a remarkable and virtuoso performance by Cumming as Burns in Burn.
Kinky Boots – Off-Broadway – A Second Look
September 4, 2022
By Mark Kappel
I was given the chance to return to attend a second performance of the off-Broadway revival of Kinky Boots, at Stage 42, on September 4, 2022, to see Callum Francis in the role of Lola.
It is rare to have such an opportunity to see a play or a musical more than once within a week’s time, and worth the time to have seen how two actors interpret the same character. But also to note that the marvelous cast members in this revival of Kinky Boots never flagged in terms of the energy and electricity that they generate on stage on a performance-to-performance basis. At this performance the energy and electricity level that was generated by the Kinky Boots cast could have lit up New York City.
British-born actor Callum Francis has played the role of Lola in the Broadway, London and Australian productions of Kinky Boots. Clearly he has this role in his bones and bloodstream, and has a great command of the stage whenever he is present. Francis’ Lola is a formidable one. His Lola is brash and confident – although Lola’s vulnerable moments are also well-acted – and there is also Francis’ singing abilities and how well he interprets Lola’s songs in the show.
Francis gives a star performance in tandem with Christian Douglas as Charlie Price, who as characters in Kinky Boots develop a unique friendship as they face their fears, come to terms with their relationships with their fathers – and culminating in a successful plan to save the Price & Son, shoe factory. Francis and Douglas evolve together in their roles through the course of telling the story to the audience which is wrapped up in Harvey Fierstein’s compelling and humor flavored book, Cyndi Lauper’s tuneful and emotion-filled score – and also ramping up the energy level with Jerry Mitchell’s direction and choreography.
Kinky Boots’ story revolves around the ambitions set out for Lola and Charlie by their fathers’ expectations – Lola to have a “normal life” as opposed to a drag entertainer, and Charlie to take over his father’s shoe factory. They form an unbeatable team that surmounts the hurdles placed before them – and also bond with each other, and the people in their lives.
In this performance of Kinky Boots, Danielle Hope, as Lauren, brought the eccentricities and comic humor to “The History of Wrong Guys”, and Christian Douglas as Charlie and Callum Francis as Lola rise to the occasion of the emotional heights in “I’m Not My Father’s Son” – and there is the uplifting finale, “Raise You Up” which brings the audience to its feet.
Also plaudits to Brianna Stoute as Nicola, Marcus Neville as George, and Sean Stelle as Don who add to the pizazz and vitality of this off-Broadway revival of Kinky Boots.
Kinky Boots – Off-Broadway
August 28, 2022
By Mark Kappel
As an antidote to brooding over the end of the summer, an off-Broadway revival of Kinky Boots has opened at Stage 42 giving us an energy boost, a distraction, and a full dose of pizazz.
This revival reacquaints ourselves with the original Broadway production of Kinky Boots that premiered in 2013, and is electrifying a New York stage again as guided by the direction of Jerry Mitchell – and includes his exuberant choreography – and Cyndi Lauper’s signature score filled with uplifting production numbers and heart-tugging ballads. Also to mention Harvey Fierstein’s clever – and timely — book. Kinky Boots is a gift we really needed to have back even though the original Broadway production closed as recently as 2019.
The story told in Kinky Boots focuses on the chance meeting, and flowering relationship, of two very different young men. Set in Northampton, England, the heart of the shoe-making industry in that part of the world, Charlie Price (played by Christian Douglas) has found himself returning to his roots to take over a shoe factory, Price & Son, left to him by his father. Price & Son is a struggling enterprise, and as Charlie Price has established himself in London with his girlfriend Nicola (played by Brianna Stoute), he is ambivalent whether this is where he wants to be.
He has a chance meeting with Lola (played by understudy Ernest Terrelle Williams), a drag entertainer, who seems to have the vision and inspiration that complements Charlie. Both Charlie and Lola have had their own complicated relationships with their fathers – but as a “dream team” Kinky Boots reveals a success story that is told with emotion, empathy, and joy. Charlie and Lola develop a niche product, Kinky Boots, gambling on the success of new product in order to save the shoe factory and the employees their jobs – and also Lola has the chance to become a shoe designer.
Kinky Boots imparts how both Charlie and Lola are being pushed out of their comfort zones, coping with change, and are also evolving themselves. They develop a close friendship that changes both of their lives – and a ripple effect that changes the lives of those around them.
Lauper provides a score that includes a comic song or two – “The History of Wrong Guys” sung with irony by Danielle Hope as Lauren – emotional ballads such as “I’m Not My Father’s Son” sung by Christian Douglas as Charlie and Ernest Terrelle Williams as Lola, and the uplifting “Raise You Up” – and there is Fierstein’s clever and insightful book, and Jerry Mitchell’s sharp direction and entertaining choreography – and it all has a happy ending.
The wonderful cast of Christian Douglas as Charlie, Ernest Terrelle Williams as Lola, Danielle Hope as Lauren, Brianna Stoute as Nicola, Marcus Neville as George, and Sean Stelle as Don are versatile musical theater actors who bring this heart-warming story to life. But they are also supported by an equally as talented supporting cast.
At a time when LGBTQ rights are being challenged, this revival of Kinky Boots, has even more relevance and resonance than when Kinky Boots made its Broadway debut. As stated in Lauper’s lyric, “you change the world when you change your mind”.
Certainly Kinky Boots gives us a needed a boost and a statement about how wonderful the world could be in these difficult and challenging times. We need the joy, the pizazz, and the energy!
Sarasota Ballet Returns To The Joyce Theater
August 16, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The Sarasota Ballet has been a regular visitor to the Joyce Theater, but its last visit had to be cancelled due to the continued Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns. However the Sarasota Ballet has returned to the Joyce Theater from August 16-21, 2022 to close the Joyce Theater’s 2021-2022 dance season.
With Iain Webb as the company’s artistic director, the focus of the company’s repertoire still remains Frederick Ashton’s ballets – well-known ballets and forgotten gems. And for this Joyce Theater engagement the Sarasota Ballet is presenting two Ashton’s works, one of which was specifically created for a special celebration in the Royal Ballet’s history, and another work, a star vehicle, and both being described as apiece d’occasion. Besides the two Ashton works, there is the world premiere of a work by Jessica Lang which appears to be a work that the Sarasota Ballet might describe as a signature work of its own in the future.
First on the program was A Birthday Offering which Ashton choreographed to celebrate the Royal Ballet’s 25th anniversary in 1956. Choreographed to music by Alexander Glazunov – orchestrated by Robert Irving – the music is culled from The Seasons, Concert Waltz No. 1, Scenes de ballet, and Ruses d’Amour – and is a work in the neo-classical style – and also in the grand manner. A Birthday Offering was not only created to celebrate the Royal Ballet for its anniversary but also to celebrate its roster of ballerinas.
But for the Royal Ballet dancing A Birthday Offering during its past New York engagements – most notably the Pas de Deux from A Birthday Offering when it participated in the Lincoln Center Festival’s Ashton tribute in 2004 — the only other recent performances of A Birthday Offering in New York up until now were those performed by American Ballet Theatre which gave its company premiere of the work in 1989. The Sarasota Ballet presented its company premiere of A Birthday Offering, with the ballet’s original designs by Andre Levasseur, in 2013.
Opening A Birthday Offering is a grand entrance danced by the entire cast of seven couples followed by the ladies dancing seven variations – variations that celebrated the specialties of each legendary dancer who danced each variation. These variations are followed by the men dancing the mazurka, the principal couple dancing a pas de deux, and the ballet ends with all of the dancers in a final waltz.
In this performance the pas de deux was elegantly danced by Macarena Gimenez and Ricardo Graziano – Gimenez also dancing Margot Fonteyn’s Solo – with Emelia Perkins dancing the Elaine Fifield Solo, Danielle Brown dancing the Rowena Jackson Solo, Gabriella Schultze dancing the Svetlana Beriosova Solo, Anna Pellegrino dancing the Nadia Nerina Solo, Dominique Jenkins dancing the Violeta Elvin Solo, and Marijana Dominis dancing the Beryl Grey Solo. In support and also dancing the Mazurka were Ricardo Graziano, Thomas Leprohon, Richard House, Maximiliano Iglesias, Daniel Pratt, Josh Fisk, and Samuel Gest. This was a superb cast and a cast to be proud of.
Following A Birthday Offering was the world premiere of Jessica Lang’s Shades of Spring which is a contemporary ballet for seven dancers, and choreographed to piano trios composed by Joseph Haydn.
With the enhancement of Roxane Revon’s visual art and projection designs of flowers – given movement and illumination – Lang created the image of an English country garden presented in vignettes with the dancers participating as assorted invitees to what seemed like a garden party – as friendships and attachments change.
As interpreted by the cast of Ricardo Rhodes, Richard House, Marijana Dominis, Acadian Broad, Yuki Nonaka, Emelia Perkins and Lauren Ostrander, these vignettes, structured in group dances and duets, brought Lang’s vignettes and images to life.
Closing the Sarasota Ballet’s program was the rarity of seeing a performance of Ashton’s Varii Capricci, which was choreographed to William Walton’s music of the same name, as a vehicle for Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell.
Varii Capricci was given its world premiere by the Royal Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1983, and but for later performances by the Royal Ballet in London that same year, Varii Capricci has not been seen since. It was taken into the Sarasota Ballet’s repertoire in 2019.
Ashton focused on what was a carefree holiday in an Italian resort depicting, in a shorthand version, the relationships of its two principal characters, La Capricciosa danced by Danielle Brown and Lo Straniero danced by Ricardo Rhodes – the latter a bit of a lothario – and the former a flirt.
In this short, but effective piece, Ashton’s showed his skill in creating a dance play while also employing musicality in how he created his choreography — which stated so much in a simple gesture. Varii Capricci is more than a bit of fluff. And the cast of Brown and Rhodes brought out the comic flair in Ashton’s dance piece.
It should also be noted that Margaret Barbieri staged A Birthday Offering with care – and a care for detail – with that same care in staging and rehearsing Varii Capricci with Grant Coyle.
If you are interested in experiencing two Ashton rarities and a notable world premiere by Jessica Lang, the Sarasota Ballet is a must see – and a wonderful way to end the Joyce Theater’s 2021-2022 dance season.
The Butcher Boy
Irish Repertory Theatre
July 30, 2022
By Mark Kappel
From July 21 through September 11, 2022, the Irish Repertory Theatre is presenting the world premiere of a new musical, The Butcher Boy, based on Patrick McCabe’s novel which was published in 1992. With book, music and lyrics by Asher Muldoon, and directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, The Butcher Boy marks the world premiere of a new musical by a young, and upcoming musical theater artist.
The story of The Butcher Boy takes place in the village of Clones, Ireland in the 1960’s where Francie Brady (played by Nicholas Barasch) lives in his own fabricated dream world – with his parents, and his best friend Joe Purcell (played by Christian Strange) in what seems to be an idyllic existence.
That idyllic existence is turned upside down when Mrs. Nugent (played by Michele Ragusa) and her son, Phillip (played by Daniel Marconi) arrive in town. Mrs. Nugent targets the Brady family denouncing the family as pigs –bullying Francie and everyone else in the village. As a result of this toxic atmosphere Francie’s life crumbles, and he turns to subterfuge, hostility, and violence to resolve the issues between the feuding villagers.
Francie Brady, with his alcoholic mother (played by Andrea Lynn Green) and despondent father (played by Scott Stangland), has grown up in a troubled home environment which results in Francie retreating into a violent fantasy world which is also inspired by the many 1950’s and 1960’s television series and comic books that Francie has seen and read — from Westerns to science fiction. Brady’s life is filled with fantasies in his head, and day dreams as he lives his daily life. From the moment that Francie steals comic books from Phillip, and he is haunted by a Greek chorus wearing pig’s masks, the story of The Butcher Boy is set into motion.
When betrayed and bullied by Mrs. Nugent, and losing his best friend Joe to Mrs. Nugent’s son, Phillip, Francie’s life falls apart. Running away to Dublin, Francie cons a trusting family to being a substitute for his own dysfunctional family only to be brought back to reality when his father tracks him down in Dublin and informs him that his mother has committed suicide. With Francie out of control, The Butcher Boy culminates in a destructive conclusion. Yet in spite of its disturbing story The Butcher Boy is a dark comedy of contrasts and pipe dreams, and is empathetically musicalized to highlight the ever-changing circumstances and emotional swings in this compelling adaptation of Cabe’s novel.
Nicholas Barasch portraying Francie Brady acts as both the narrator and protagonist in The Butcher Boy’s story, and commands the stage. Also notable are Andrea Lynn Green and Scott Stangland as Francie Brady’s parents, Daniel Marconi as Philip Nugent, Christian Strange as Joe Purcell, and Michele Ragusa as Mrs. Nugent. But this excellent ensemble cast, often playing multiple roles, brings McCabe’s complicated and jarring story to life.
Muldoon’s score was at its best in “Snowdrops” (Francie Brady’s fanciful thoughts on his life), “Those Were The Days” (Francie’s father’s look back at his younger days), and the concluding “The Color of Oranges” (an ensemble of the people and voices from the past and present in Francie’s life).
O’Reilly’s carefully crafted direction brings the diversity of these characters in The Butcher Boy to life. You feel you know them, and their thoughts, and how emotionally complicated their lives are.
The Butcher Boy, as a story, is provocative and disturbing, but is interpreted by a composer/book writer with promise, and an especially talented cast.
Notre Dame de Paris
David Koch Theater
July 17, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Although it seems like the epic sung-through musicals are no longer in fashion on Broadway, they are popular in other parts of the world. Making its New York debut at the David Koch Theater from July 13-24, 2022, is Notre Dame de Paris, an imported production of a musical theater piece based on Victor Hugo’s well-known novel.
Hugo’s novel has inspired adaptations for films, operas, and ballets, and this musical stage adaptation represents the collaboration of Richard Cocciante as composer, and Luc Plamondon as author, which combines musical theatre, dance, and acrobatics. Since having its world premiere in Paris in 1998, Notre Dame de Paris has been presented in major cities all over the world.
Whether you define this version of Notre Dame de Paris as musical theatre or spectacle – it may not be definable – it tells Victor Hugo’s story expeditiously with pop-inspired songs, and also delivers a political point of view through themes that are interwoven into Hugo’s fable of love, betrayal, and jealousy.
This production is performed in French with English supertitles, and is performed by a cast of 30 performers and a live orchestra with direction by Gilles Maheu, and choreography by Martino Muller.
Taking place in Paris – in 1482 – Gringoire – the poet and troubadour – sets the scene singing “Le Temps des cathedrals” – as workers are in the process of building the Notre Dame Cathedral. The stage comes alive with living pictures in a cinematic style.
The story focuses on the gypsy girl Esmeralda (played by Hiba Tawaji), who has several swooning male suitors including Frollo (played by Daniel Lavoie) the villainous archdeacon of Notre Dame, Quasimodo (played by Angelo Del Vecchio), the hunchback, and Phoebus (played by Yvan Pedneault), Esmeralda’s rich suitor, who is also engaged to another woman. Add to the mix is that Gringoire, the observer and narrator of Notre Dame de Paris, is Esmeralda’s husband.
Frollo, Quasimodo, and Phoebus express their conflicted feelings about love in one of the show’s hit songs, “Belle”, with compelling lyrics, and in haunting music that provokes the suitors’ emotions.
The story is told in fleeting episodes that include exposition, and are linked together with acrobatic sequences and dances, conveying the story in split second timing. Although Quasimodo attempts to prevent Esmeralda from meeting her ultimate doom, her other suitors are the ones who control her fate.
And the politics are reflected in the opening song for Act II, “Florence” and through most of Act II, depicting Esmeralda and her followers as outcasts and, in their frustration, the criticism of the leaders in government and in the Catholic Church. There was definitely a questioning about how world problems can be resolved, and fairness as the guiding factor in living our lives. These universal thoughts are relevant to any time in history as well as in the present.
Notre Dame de Paris stars Angelo Del Vecchio as Quasimodo, Hiba Tawaji as Esmeralda, Daniel Lavoie as Frollo, Gian Marco Schiaretti as Gringoire, Yvan Pedneault as Phoebus, Jay as Clopin, and Emma Lepine as Fleur-de-Lys – all of whom have excellent singing voices, and are extraordinary story-tellers. They command the stage during every moment of Notre Dame de Paris. And even in some of the abstracted thoughts in Notre Dame de Paris, they communicate with the audience well.
Notre Dame de Paris has a story to tell that connects with audiences of today, and also does so in a manner and style that is theatrical and spectacular. It is an alternative to how musical theatre is produced on Broadway – and is involving and worthy of an audience’s attention.
American Ballet Theatre – Romeo and Juliet
Metropolitan Opera House
July 13, 2022
By Mark Kappel
For the closing week of its five-week season at the Metropolitan Opera House, American Ballet Theatre is presenting performances of its production of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.
MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet was given its world premiere by the Royal Ballet in 1965, and was frequently performed by the Royal Ballet in New York, until American Ballet Theatre acquired MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, for its company premiere in 1984. With new designs by Nicholas Georgiadis, choreographed to Sergei Prokofiev’s legendary ballet score, and produced in the grand manner, American Ballet Theatre has continued the tradition of presenting performances of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet ever since.
Divided into three acts, the exposition is presented in Act I where the conflicts between the warring families, the Capulets and the Montagues, are revealed which culminates in a sword fight in Verona’s market square. Romeo, a member of the Montague Family crashes a ball at the residence of the Capulets and meets Juliet, a member of the Capulet Family – and it is love at first sight and the recklessness of youth quickly evolves into to a tragedy.
Although Romeo and Juliet meet in secret for the famous Balcony Scene which ends Act I, in Act II, they are secretly married by Friar Laurence. But Romeo is banished from Verona after he kills Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin. When the Capulets confront Juliet with a marriage arrangement with Paris, Juliet and Friar Laurence come up with the scheme for her to drink a sleeping potion which creates the impression of death – and the scheme is for Romeo to be informed about the scheme, finds her when she awakes, and they are to leave Verona to pursue their lives. However Romeo is not informed about the scheme and believing that Juliet is dead, he commits suicide, and upon re-awakening Juliet does the same – hence the unexpected yet inevitable tragedy.
Prokofiev’s moody and somber music underscores and effectively predicts the tragedy that is being revealed.
American Ballet Theatre’s dancers have grown into this production of Romeo and Juliet over the years, and have assimilated into the grand manner of MacMilan’s approach to the story. The stage is populated with the citizens of Verona, the warring families, and many on-lookers. However every cast member is totally involved in the story, and marvels as the story unfolds. The impression is that of animated choreographic pictures capturing each important moment in the story.
In this performance Isabella Boylston as Juliet and guest artist Daniel Camargo as Romeo, portrayed and effectively danced the roles of the doomed lovers. Boylston was suitably effervescent and spirited in representing her youth and impetuousness – and determined, in spite of the hurdles she must face. Camargo with his matinee idol demeanor portrayed Romeo with a little swagger and being a bit of a rogue. This was a romantic relationship and not reckless – a climax of a tragedy – and also representing a great deal of chemistry in the partnership of Boylston and Camargo.
Jonathan Klein was both quirky and charming in the role of Mercutio, and led the Mandolin Dance with aplomb and confidence.
However the effective reflection of the dramatic underpinnings in this performance of Romeo and Juliet were exemplified by the wonderful character dancers who portrayed their roles with their acting and dancing skills – most notably Zhong-Jing Fang as Lady Capulet, John Gardner as Lord Capulet, Carlos Lopez as both Escalus and Friar Laurence, and Nancy Raffa as the Nurse.
Romeo and Juliet marked an important moment during American Ballet Theatre’s Metropolitan Opera House – noting that it holds an important place in New York City’s dance season.
American Ballet Theatre – Single Eye
Metropolitan Opera House
July 7, 2022
By Mark Kappel
During its brief five-week season at the Metropolitan Opera House, American Ballet Theatre is offering only one triple bill program. But the one triple bill program being offered includes an assortment of short dance pieces that would justify a dance aficionado’s interest.
The triple bill opened with one of George Balanchine’s signature works, Theme and Variations, which was created for American Ballet Theatre in 1947 – and these performances mark the 75th anniversary since its world premiere. Choreographed to the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Third Orchestral Suite, Theme and Variations reflects the grandeur of the Imperial Russian Ballet with music that find its roots in Tchaikovsky’s score for The Sleeping Beauty.
This is one of Balanchine’s best neo-classic ballets, and fortunately American Ballet Theatre has performed it on a continuous basis since its premiere.
Balanchine’s choreography requires precision, clarity, and musicality and not all of these elements had been perfectly polished in this performance. The Pas de Deux was elegantly danced by Devon Teuscher and Joo Won Ahn, however, and I hope that Theme and Variations will be performed by American Ballet Theatre on a regular basis – resulting in a finely honed performance.
It was the middle piece on this triple bill program that was of the most interest as it was a New York premiere, and represented a first-time collaboration between the choreographer and American Ballet Theatre’s dancers.
That dance work was Alonzo King’s Single Eye, which was choreographed to music by Jason Moran, with atmospheric costume and scenic designs by Robert Rosenwasser, and had its world premiere earlier this year at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
King’s choreographic style and vocabulary favors contemporary dance, and in Single Eye, King has created an amorphous work that is defined in seven short vignettes reflecting somber moods. King has his own unique approach to moving groups of dancers on a stage and this aspect of King’s signature is evident in every aspect of Single Eye.
King utilizes the attributes of the cast of Isabella Boylston, Thomas Forster, Calvin Royal III, Herman Cornejo, and Skylar Brandt who infused King’s choreography with commitment – creating the images that King had intended.
Closing the program was Jessica Lang’s Zig Zag which is a musical and choreographic tribute to recording artist and singer Tony Bennett. In Zig Zag Lang has choreographed a series of dances to Bennett’s recordings — which also channels the styles of well-known theatrical choreographers – with a décor incorporating Bennett’s own artwork.
The songs from the American Song Book lend themselves to theatrical entertainment – and the enthusiastic cast of Isabella Boylston, Aran Bell, Katherine Williams, Eric Tamm, Catherine Hurlin, and Calvin Royal III wended their way through Zig Zag interpreting Lang’s choreography and the lyrics that Bennett was singing.
American Ballet Theatre’s triple bill program provides a well-balanced variety of works by choreographers who have worked in a diversity of choreographic styles. Variety and entertaining are the words that best describe this program of dance.
American Ballet Theatre Dances Swan Lake
Metropolitan Opera House
June 29, 2022
By Mark Kappel
A feeling of stability has been felt during American Ballet Theatre’s Metropolitan Opera House season – in particular with the company’s performances of Kevin McKenzie’s production of Swan Lake – a production of this classic ballet that has been danced by the company since 2000 – and also has been an important bread and butter 19th century classic that New York ballet audiences have been able to revisit regularly during American Ballet Theatre’s Metropolitan Opera House seasons. This was a welcome return.
McKenzie’s production, opulently designed by Zack Brown, compresses the ballet’s four acts into two parts with only one intermission which moves the narrative forward with dramatic impetus.
Swan Lake’s classic story focuses on Prince Siegfried who is advised by his mother that he must marry – a choice that he is not happy about making. He becomes part of a hunting party and near the lakeside he comes upon a swan who is transformed into a woman in the night time hours. How Princess Odette was condemned to this existence, being put under a spell by the evil sorcerer von Rothbart, is explained in the Prologue of this production of Swan Lake. Prince Siegfried vows eternal love to Odette, and it is hoped that their love will break von Rothbart’s spell.
In this ballet’s ballroom scene Prince Siegfried is introduced to possible brides – rejecting all of them – but sets his sights on a surprise guest, Odile, von Rothbart’s daughter disguised as Odette. Odile manages to fool Prince Siegfried into believing that she is Odette, and encourages him to vow eternal love to her – tricked – Prince Siegfried realizes what he has done. The culmination of the ballet is Prince Siegfried finding Odette and apologizing to her for what he has done. However Odette, condemned to be a swan forever, chooses suicide – as does Prince Siegfried – and ultimately their love breaks von Rothbart’s spell.
Effectively underscoring this story is the symphonic ballet score composed by Tchaikovsky.
Besides the addition of a prologue, this production also divides the role of von Rothbart – the evil sorcerer who appears in the lakeside scenes (portrayed by Roman Zhurbin), and the von Rothbart who appears in the ballroom scene who dances his own dance of seduction – trying to seduce the Queen Mother, and four princesses who are seeking Prince Siegfried’s hand in marriage (portrayed danced by Gabe Stone Shayer) – danced to the usually cut Russian Dance.
There is also new choreography for the ensemble dances in the first act of the ballet, and choreography created to effectualize the transition between the two scenes in the second part of this ballet from the ballroom to return to the lake. There are elements included to give the male dancers in the company more to dance, and ease the transition from one act to another in an effort to reduce the running time of the ballet. All within the discretion of McKenzie’s production.
As in any performance of Swan Lake, the alignment of the music, staging, design and the presentation of the dancers in the principal roles makes or breaks this haunting story.
In this performance Skylar Brandt took on the dual role of Odette/Odile with Herman Cornejo as Prince Siegfried. Cornejo exemplifies his experience being a traditional classicist and providing a traditional interpretation of the role of Prince Siegfried. Brandt was poetic as Odette and fiery as Odile – not a total break with tradition but stretching tradition, and giving her interpretation room to grow.
Also notable were Zimmi Coker, Breanne Granlund, and Patrick Frenette in the Act I Pas de Trois. And American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet meeting the demands of the swan ensembles in Act II and IV.
These performances of American Ballet Theatre’s production of Swan Lake are offering many debuts in the principal roles. All that much more satisfying when experiencing this well-known full-length narrative ballet.
Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition Gala/Awards Ceremony
June 24, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Featuring participants from around the world the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition was held at Symphony Space in New York from June 20-24, 2022.
Participants were judged in two rounds of classical variations, and contemporary dance and choreography, and the Competition culminated with awards bestowed at the Gala/Awards Ceremony on June 24, 2022.
The competitors were judged by the jury of:
Charles Jude (France), President of the Jury
Nina Ananisashvili (Republic of Georgia)
Patricia Aulestia de Alba (Mexico
)Cervilio Amador (USA
)Chan Hon Goh (Canada)
Gladisa Guadalupe (USA)
Olga Guardia De Smoak (Panama)
Sun Hee Kim (South Korea)
Paul McRae (USA)
Christopher Moore (England)
Mikko Nissinen (USA)
Nell Shipman (USA)
Sergei Soloviev (France & Russian Federation)
Charles Jude (France), President of the Jury
Mi Sook Jeon (South Korea)
Virginia Mecene (USA)
Steven Melendez (USA)
David Parsons (USA)
Melanie Person (USA)
Ricardo Scheir (Brazil)
Before the awards were announced the audience was treated to a gala performance which included Valentina Kozlova, who danced in a solo of her own creation, “Et si tu n’existais pas” choreographed to music by Beethoven, and was followed by a guest group of dancers dancing Kozlova’s staging of the Marius Petipa divertissement from Glinka’s opera, Ruslan and Ludmila.
Also among the guests performing were medalists from previous competitions including Nikita Boris (currently with the Cincinnati Ballet) dancing Reverie Interlude, Jillian Schubert dancing a variation from Paquita, and Mari Sugawa and Humberto Teixeira dancing Ricardo Scheir’s Rumai.
But there were also notable performances by participants and medal winners including Sarah Kusek (dancing Rapport), Ekaterina Pichkova (dancing a variation from Paquita), Mary Elsener (dancing Corrida), Liselotte Van Doorn (dancing the Lilac Fairy variation from The Sleeping Beauty), Vitor Braz (dancing the male variation from the Bluebird Pas de Deux), Vitoria Caloni (dancing Walpurgis Nacht), Michaela Fairon (dancing Reverie), Chaewon Lee (dancing Beautiful Beast), Yejin Joo (dancing a variation from Talisman), Min Seo Kim (dancing Act 3 Chapter 3), Clement Guillaume (dancing the male variation from Diana and Acteon), Sadie Weintraub (dancing Fremd), Eunmin Yoon (dancing a variation from The Sleeping Beauty), and the ensemble from Italy (dancing Unison).
These competitors represented the high caliber of ballet and modern dancers who participated in this year’s Competition.
The following are the award winners:
Gold: Ekaterina Pichkova, USA
Silver: Sarah Kusek, Poland
Bronze: Ana Luiza Marquez, Brazil
Silver: Vitor Braz, Brazil
Bronze: Aleksey Kutsenko, USA
Gold: Linzi Huang, USA
Silver: Marina Galon Brunetti, Brazil
Bronze: Liselotte Van Doorn, Aruba & Valerie Sokolenko, USA
Gold: Vitoria Caloni, Brazil & Sadie Weintraub, Ireland
Silver: Michaela Fairon, South Africa, Elodie Lefebvre, Belgium & Emma Tatum, USA
Bronze: Giovanna Gomes, Brazil, Mary Elsener, USA, & Christie Anderson, Great Britain
Gold: Yejin Joo, South Korea & Seo Yeon Kang, South Korea
Silver: Minjin Lee, South Korea
Bronze: Eunmin Yoon, South Korea & Sydney Henson, USA
Gold: Clément Guillaume, France
Silver: JunHyoung Yoon, South Korea & je Jeong Yong, South Korea
Bronze: Chanju Jung, South Korea & Seungkyun Park, South Korea
Division 1 Solo
Gold: Linzi Huang, USA & Ekaterina Pichkova, USA
Silver: Sarah Kusek, Poland
Division 2 Solo Girls
Gold: Michaela Fairon, South Africa
Silver: Sadie Weintraub, Ireland
Bronze: Christie Anderson, United Kingdom
Division 2 Solo Boys
Silver: Victor Sampaio, Brazil
Division 3 Solo Girls
Gold: Riha Kim, South Korea
Division 3 Solo Boys
Gold: MinSeo Kim, South Korea & Chaewon Lee, South Korea
Gold: Barbara Dias, Marcos Silva, Brazil
Bronze: Ensemble USA
Pacific Northwest Ballet Celebrates
Its 50th Anniversary
David Koch Theater
June 25, 2022
By Mark Kappel
In an engagement presented by the Joyce Theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet celebrated its 50th anniversary performing at the David Koch Theater in New York from June 22-26, 2022 – the company’s first New York engagement in six years.
Pacific Northwest Ballet was founded in 1972, and has toured nationally and internationally. Since 2005, Peter Boal, former New York City Ballet principal has been the company’s artistic director, and the programming for this engagement was a reflection of his artistic vision for the company. The triple-bill program presented on June 25, 2022 included the dance works of three contemporary choreographers – one of those works a creation for Pacific Northwest Ballet.
The focal point of the triple bill was Twyla Tharp’s Waiting At The Station which was choreographed to music by Allen Toussaint and had its world premiere by Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2013.
This narrative ballet is set in 1940s New Orleans with a story that follows the adventures of a man, accompanied by his son, coming to terms with his life before he must surrender to the three gilded fates that are pursuing him. Through the course of this narrative dance piece, Father and Son experience and participate in many adventures as they encounter the diverse people in New Orleans – and also to make peace with each other.
Tharp’s style here is signature. However she does channel her experiences working in the Broadway theatre in her choreography, and also in her story-telling. This is a big company piece with elaborate scenery and costume designs by Santo Loquasto. And also big and expressive performances by Ezra Thomson as the Father, and Kuu Sakuragi as the Son.
Waiting At The Station is a dance piece that showed off Pacific Northwest Ballet’s dancers, and amply filled the large David Koch Theater stage.
Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite was represented by Plot Point which was premiered by the Netherlands Dance Theatre in 2010. This dance piece is a post-modern choreographic exploration of the movie score from Psycho – a dance interpretation of film noir — expressing narrative through movement employing still photographs and video clips as scenery – and two sets of dancers – one in white from head to toe – looking like ghost images – in comparison to the more conventionally costumed other set of dancers. In this piece those conventionally clad dancers represent the primary characters in the narrative of this dance piece while the other set of dancers reflect contrasting images of these same primary characters.
Besides Bernard Herrmann’s haunting music, there was also a sound track of voice audio, the sounds of a busy city, with Pite presenting the very thin plot in a linear – and at times – non-linear form. It is a murder mystery which does keep up suspense for a period of time but doesn’t develop towards the climax it should have had.
Plot Point was an ensemble effort, and offered a very different, yet organic, choreographic vocabulary for Paific Northwest Ballet’s dancers to dance.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s resident choreographer – and now artistic director of the Charlotte Ballet – Alejandro Cerrudo – turned to the abstract in his piece, Little mortal jump, which is sourced through its variety of choreographic styles ,and unexpected turns in direction. Unexpected is the word as in Little mortal jump, a male dancer runs through the audience, rips off his mask, jumps on the stage – and ultimately jumps into the orchestra pit. Two dancers are attached to two vertical cubes struggling to remove their clothes, and struggling to get off the cubes – and this dance piece ends with the ensemble pushing the cubes around the stage.
Created for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 2012, Cerrudo has employed the music of Zach Condon, Andrew Bird, Alexandre Desplat, , Philip Glass, Hans Otte, Max Richter and Kathleen Brennan which provides an eclectic soundtrack for his dance piece.
The word eclectic can be overused in describing dances and dance programming but Pacific Northwest Ballet’s triple program was exactly that. The programming provided a window into the company’s style and artistic vision at the moment, but perhaps didn’t show off the company’s dancers in the best light.
However as our domestic ballet companies rarely perform in New York, this was a welcome opportunity to observe for oneself what road Pacific Northwest Ballet has taken in its artistic development.
American Ballet Theatre – Of Love and Rage
Metropolitan Opera House
June 20, 2022
By Mark Kappel
One of the focal points of American Ballet Theatre’s Metropolitan Opera House season is the New York premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s new full-length ballet, Of Love and Rage, which had its world premiere in California in March of 2020. Also to note that Of Love and Rage is a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada and will be reaching a wider audience in the future.
Visiting the Ancient World, Of Love and Rage, is a 2-act narrative ballet based on one of the oldest novels known to history, Callirhoe by Chariton of Aphrodisias, with an adapted libretto by Guillaume Gallienne. The story is set within the opulent designs by Jean-Marie Puissant taking place in various locations including Greece, Italy, and the Middle East.
Ratmansky has set his adaptation of the story by employing the music from the ballet Gayaneh, a score composed by Aram Khachaturian in the 1930’s – as adapted by Philip Feeney. All of these elements would have the ingredients for an intriguing full-length ballet.
This 2000-year-old story takes one on an adventurous journey within the Greek Empire starting in Syracuse (modern-day Sicily), then on to Athens and Babylonia. Callirhoe was a novel written between 1st Century BC and the Second Century AD – but the story is set in 4th Century BC – at the time of Alexander The Great.
Callirhoe is a young noblewoman making her home in Syracuse, Sicily. Her love for Chaereas is intense, and they are married in spite of the objections of their families. Callirhoe’s former suitors persuade Chaereas that Callirrhoe has been unfaithful to him.
Their relationship becomes combustible and tragic when Callirhoe collapses after being con fronted by Chaereas with these accusations and seemingly has died. This pivotal moment in the ballet takes place offstage which decreases the intensity of the moment.
Although Callirhoe is entombed, pirates burst in and abduct her when they realize she is alive. She is sold into slavery to Dionysius, who falls in love with her. Being pregnant with Chaereas’ child and wanting to protect herself and her child, she agrees to marry Dionysius.
Upon finding the tomb empty Chaereas seeks out Callirhoe and upon reuniting in his kingdom, Dionysius encourages Callirhoe to make the choice between him and Chaereas – and she chooses Chaereas who vows to make amends to Callirhoe. However this denouement to Of Love and Rage evolves after Callirhoe is prized and romanced by several suitors including Mithridates, and the King of Babylon.
The plot is filled with quarrels and duplicity – and adventurous journeys – in a plot that is similar to Giselle, Shakespeare’s A Winter Tale and Othello, and other classic tales of jealousy.
Ratmansky’s greatest challenge was to make this complicated plot understandable and clear. Unfortunately Ratmansky doesn’t depict the many plot twists nor the emotions between the characters in a crystal-clear fashion in his choreography. The plot is sketched rather than fully drawn. His interpretation of the story is made even less apparent without mime or narrative choreography.
The choreography reflects tableau that seem to be images from Greek art – with dancing ensembles that intrude on the complicated plot rather than illuminating the plot. Callirhoe is desired by every man she meets – some times even mauled by them – and somehow the battle between Chaereas and Dionysius is epic but also exaggerated and overblown. The end of this 2-act ballet seems anticlimactic. Unfortunately the music didn’t provide dramatic underscoring to heighten the emotions during the numerous important plot points.
In Ratmansky’s choreography and concept for Of Love and Rage, there are a great many references to the familiar full-length ballets in the repertoire of the Bolshoi Ballet, among them Spartacus, and Legend of Love. Of Love and Rage offers a journey into the exotic but seems like familiar territory.
American Ballet Theatre’s dancers rose to the occasion in displaying virtuoso, and bravura dancing even in the ensembles.
Catherine Hurlin does wonders with the thankless title role while Aran Bell is charismatic as Chaereas, and his bravura dancing is one of the highlights of Of Love and Range. However transporting the emotions were the performances of guest artist Daniel Camargo in the role of Dionysius, Jarod Curley as Mithridates, and Roman Zhurbin as the King of Babylon. Katherine Williams makes the best out of the role of the put-upon Queen of Babylon.
However Of Love and Rage needs the representation of greater narrative details – the plot and the characters – that would allow this enigma of a ballet to be communicated to an audience. American Ballet Theatre’s dancers were trying to do just that and came close – but Ratmansky was not close enough — even as provocative as Of Love and Rage is.
Metropolitan Opera House
American Ballet Theatre Returns to the Metropolitan Opera House with Don Quixote
June 15, 2022
By Mark Kappel
There is much to celebrate about American Ballet Theatre’s summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House. Simply the return to the Metropolitan Opera House to perform after what seems to be a long gap in years, and the announcement that Susan Jaffe will be succeeding Kevin McKenzie as the company’s artistic director – and Kevin McKenzie’s tenure as artistic director.
Opening American Ballet Theatre’s Metropolitan Opera House season is a week of performances of Kevin McKenzie’s production of Don Quixote which has been a mainstay in the company’s repertoire. Although not the first American ballet company to acquire Don Quixote for its repertoire, American Ballet Theatre has consistently performed this ballet during its Metropolitan Opera House seasons, and it is a welcome return.
McKenzie’s production is traditional and follows the narrative of an eccentric Spanish aristocrat who seeks out his ideal love, Dulcinea, but in the end is a by-stander as he meddles in a local tavern keeper’s marriage plans for his daughter, Kitri, with one of the local aristocrats, Gamache. Kitri prefers to wed Basilio, a lowly barber, and it is only with a little cunning and trickery that Kitri’s father is persuaded that she would be better matched with Basilio.
Don Quixote has its roots in the Cervantes novel and also in the choreography by Marius Petipa, and then as adapted by Alexander Gorsky. Most of the exposition is presented in Act I, there is a vision scene in Act II, and then the culminating wedding celebration divertissement to end the ballet in Act III. Along the way there is a showcase of comic and classical dancing, but it is left to the dancers dancing the principal roles to set the tone for the performance and create their characters.
In this performance American Ballet Theatre’s dancers took this production of Don Quixote to a much higher level than in years past. The dancers seemed to be enjoying themselves on the Metropolitan Opera House’s stage, felt free to express themselves, and making the entire performance entertaining and fun for the audience.
Catherine Hurlin took on the role of Kitri, partnered by Joo Won Ahn as her Basilio, both making their New York debuts in these roles. Their performances were perfect balances of technique and acting – comic timing and technical virtuosity. Hurlin played the flirtatious Kitri with flair and style. Ahn, an excellent partner, had extraordinary chemistry with Hurlin, and held his own in terms of exhibiting his bravura technique. This was a high energy performance that even culminated in the audience giving them a standing ovation at the end of their Act III Grand Pas de Deux.
Zhong-Jing Fang displayed her outstanding elegant classical dancing as Queen of the Dryads which was contrasted with her street-wise Mercedes. This was a challenging contrast but she pulled it off with ease and confidence. Blaine Hoven was strikingly elegant and vain as Espanda providing an excellent foil for Fang.
Also notable were Cy Doherty as the towering Don Quixote, and John Gardner as the hapless Sancho Panza – also the amusing performance of Gamache by Duncan Lyle. Excellent examples of the talent within the company were reflected in the performances of Chloe Misseldine and Sunmi Park as the Flower Girls, and Erica Lall as Amour.
This was a spirited performance of Don Quixote and a wonderful beginning for American Ballet Theatre’s Metropolitan Opera House summer season.
Boston Ballet – Swan Lake
June 10, 2022
By Mark Kappel
During the 2020-2021 season arts organizations all over the world experimented with the technology of streaming performances in an effort to continue their connections with audiences who were home bound due to Covid-19 restrictions or unable to attend performances in theatrical venues. This expertise enabled these arts organization to reach out to both domestic and international audiences, and many American ballet companies were at the forefront in experimenting with this new technology.
The Boston Ballet was one of those ballet companies, and having achieved a success in those experiments has decided to offer both live performances – now that restrictions on live performances have been removed – and streamed performances to continue to connect with its loyal home-based audience and also reaching out to a much wider audience.
In ending its 2022-2023 season the Boston Ballet revived Mikko Nissinen’s production of Swan Lake which had its world premiere in 2014 boasting new designs by Robert Perdziola. The Boston Ballet is offering a live capture of one of those performances from the Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston, Massachusetts that can be streamed and available from June 9-19, 2022.
Based on the production choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895, Nissinen has provided additional choreography but most notably he has added to his production of Swan Lake a Prologue, during the ballet’s short overture, in which Odette is reading a book while there are activities all around her. She is approached by Von Rothbart who abducts her and places a spell on her – she is then transformed into a swan.
Thereafter the plot points of Swan Lake follow in a traditional manner as Siegfried is imposed upon to marry but upon meeting Odette by the lakeside, he vows his commitment to her in spite of her being under the spell of the evil Von Rothbart. Siegfried meets several prospective brides but is happily surprised by the appearance of Odile, Von Rothbart’s daughter, who is disguised to look like Odette – and successfully fools Siegfried to encourage him to break his vow to Odette. Siegfried seeks out Odette and expresses his sorrow about his decision but ultimately their relationship ends in tragedy.
This story is told with the musical backdrop of one of Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores, and Nissinen has staged a production of Swan Lake that balances both the dancing and the storytelling. Neither gets in the way of each other, and the production is presented in the grand manner with polished classical ballet dancing – and this streamed performance is well filmed and photographed.
The corps de ballet is as much the star of this ballet as the principal dancers, and this is notable in their committed and animated performances in both of the party and ballroom scenes.
Lasha Khozashvili as Siegfried is an accomplished dance actor which is emphasized in his performance of the contemplative solo that ends Act I. However he also matches the poetry in the lakeside scenes and the virtuosity required in the ballroom scene with Victorina Kapitonova in the dual role of Odette/Odile. Kapitonova infuses the poetry one would expect as Odette, and the seductress as Odile. Tigran Mkrtchyan is suitably sinister as Von Rothbart, and Ji Young Chae, Derek Dunn, and Chisako Oga are notable for the clarity in their dancing in the Act I Pas de Trois.
The Boston Ballet is making it possible for a wider audience to see a production of one of the major 19th century classics that the company has in its repertoire – and this opportunity should be taken advantage of during this limited streamed engagement.
English National Ballet Dances Khan’s Giselle
Brooklyn Academy of Music
June 8, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The Brooklyn Academy of Music is currently presenting the English National Ballet in performances of Akram Khan’s personal re-interpretation of the classic 19th century ballet, Giselle, from June 8-11, 2022.
Significant in that the English National Ballet hasn’t performed in New York since 1989 – and now under the directorship of Tamara Rojo, who commissioned this significant work, danced the title role, and by the end of the year will be taking over the artistic direction of the San Francisco Ballet.
Giselle is a quintessential ballet from the Romantic Era of early 19th century ballet, and had its premiere at the Paris Opera. It has survived in the classical repertoire until the present day, and is a staple in the repertoire of most ballet companies.
The ballet is best known from Marius Petipa’s production of this ballet for the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, and over the years there have been adjustments and adaptations in productions of Giselle, including interpretation, and style. However for the most part productions of Giselle are not reinterpreted. It is a ballet about class distinctions and deceit – and revenge – and redemption.
Khan’s Giselle may be haunted by other productions of Giselle that have been presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. During the period from 1982 through 1984, three different dance companies performed versions of Giselle at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – Peter Wright’s production of Giselle for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Heinz Spoerli’s production of Giselle for the Basel Ballet, and a third production of Giselle which is closer to Khan’s Giselle in both spirit and in the deconstruction of Giselle’s libretto.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music presented The Cullberg Ballet in Mats Ek’s deconstructed version of Giselle in 1982. Ek examined the ballet from a 20th century prism using contemporary dance as its medium and by default examining the ballet’s concepts as well. Giselle truly goes mad, and Act II of Ek’s version takes place in an insane asylum.
Akram Khan, whose training has been in Kathak, a dance style of Northern India, has collaborated with dramaturg Ruth Little in creating a new interpretation of Giselle which had its world premiere in 2016.
Commissioning a new score by Vincenzo Lamagna, adapting Adolphe Adam’s original score, with costumes and scenery designed by Tim Yip, and employing a dance vocabulary being drawn on kathak, ballet, contemporary dance – and colloquial gesture – Khan’s Giselle focuses on a Giselle captured in 21st century life rather than life in the 19th century.
In Khan’s version of this dance piece, Giselle is a garment factory worker – one of a group who has organized a camp within the walls that surround an abandoned garment factory where they had previously worked. They comprise a group described as The Outcasts. Albrecht is a man of wealth and is part of the opposition to The Outcasts, a group described as The Landlords. His deceit is that he pretends to be one of The Outcasts. In so doing this production of Giselle retains the themes of betrayal and death from its original libretto – but with more contemporary overtones. Included are the larger economic and political issues that separate The Outcasts and The Landlords.
While Albrecht is insinuating himself with Giselle, Hilarion is a strong rival for Giselle’s affectations as a “fixer” who collaborates with The Landlords, but ultimately locks horns with Albrecht when his deceit is revealed. Albrecht’s fiancée, Bathilde, is a member of The Landlords, the ruling class and overlords over the garment factory workers. Upon meeting Bathilde, Giselle recognizes Bathilde’s dress as a product made at the garment factory.
Bathilde’s father forces Albrecht to keep his promise of marriage to Bathilde after which Giselle is driven mad. Upon the command of The Landlord, The Outcasts encircle Giselle only to disperse to find Giselle’s lifeless body.
The story unfolds at an abandoned factory – Albrecht condemns The Landlords but faces the wrath of the Queen of the Wilis who leads the ghosts of factory workers who seek revenge against The Landlords and other oppressors. Hilarion comes to mourn Giselle and is subsequently killed by the Wilis.
Albrecht and the spirit of Giselle are reunited, and Giselle forgives Albrecht. But having defied The Landlords, Albrecht is now doomed to be an outcast himself.
There are choreographic patterns from traditional productions of Giselle included in Khan’s Giselle. Although Giselle and her female colleagues do not dance in pointe shoes in Act I, notably in Act II, Giselle and the Wilis dance their roles in pointe shoes. It is a contrast that is emphasized in the many ritualistic choreographic images that Khan has created, and also represented in the surrealism that is present in this re-interpretation of Giselle. Unfortunately the characters are not consistently established throughout this dance piece which weakens its impact.
However in this New York debut of Khan’s Giselle, the English National Ballet presented an extraordinarily talented group of dancers to dance and act this dance piece’s principal roles. It was their expressiveness as actors that brought this provocative interpretation alive. The cast was led by Tamara Rojo in the title role, Isaac Hernandez as Albrecht, Jeffrey Cirio as Hilarion, and Stina Quagebeur as Queen of the Wilis.
Khan’s Giselle is a challenge for the English National Ballet’s dancers, and a test for an audience to re-think 19th century classics.
Valentina Kozlova Studio Company
June 4, 2022
By Mark Kappel
On June 4, 2022 Valentina Kozlova’s Studio Company made its debut at Symphony Space in New York. Consistently Valentina Kozlova has provided live performance opportunities for her school’s students, and this showcase was meant to focus on her students’ achievements during this past year of training. At the same time the repertoire also reflected the impact of world events.
Notably there was an historic item that was included in this performance and which was enriched by Valentina Kozlova’s roots with the Bolshoi Ballet. This was the staging of a ballet sequence from Glinka’s second opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila — based on Pushkin’s poem — which had been choreographed by Marius Petipa. Ruslan and Lyudmila had its premiere in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1842.
Led by three female soloists (Jillian Schubert, Aubrey Stevenson, and Katherine St. Jean) with an all-female corps de ballet, this divertissement had choreographic references, and antecedents, to Petipa’s later works – including The Sleeping Beauty. La Bayadere, and his staging of Giselle. The choreography had the usual Petipa musicality and these dancers danced Petipa’s creation with confidence and polish.
Also notable were the performances of Mary Elsener and Albert Davydov in the Act I Pas de Deux from Don Quixote which not only focused on the technical pyrotechnics in the dancing but also in portraying the characters of Kitri and Basilio – and also conveying the comedy. Equally notable were Katherine St. Jean and Clement Guillaume dancing the Classical Graduation Pas de Deux.
Reflecting on recent world events was the performance of Valentina Kozlova’s Overcome, which had been originally created in response to 9/11 – and its emotion is timely. Choreographed to Gospel music and divided into the four sections of “Trouble”, “Trapped”, “Hope”, and “Overcome”, the choreographic vocabulary puts this ensemble cast in pointe shoes but primarily is dancing a pastiche of modern dance and contemporary ballet. The emotions were there and the commitment was there in the performance of Overcome – a fitting work for the times.
This performance by Valentina Kozlova’s Studio Company was welcome in seeing the progress of these students’ training but also a bright spot in being able to see repertoire that had diversity – and relevance.
San Francisco Ballet Celebrates
May 23, 2022
By Mark Kappel
As it seems that the San Francisco Ballet will not be performing in New York before Helgi Tomasson cedes his role of artistic director to his successor, Tamara Rojo, on May 23, 2022, a celebration of Tomasson, sponsored by the San Francisco Ballet, was held at the Chelsea Factory here in New York City.
This event included the premiere of MacKay Productions’ documentary, “Helgi Tomasson: Reaching Harmony”, in which Tomasson told his back story about growing up in Iceland, studying ballet, and pursuing a career in dance in the Untied States at the Joffrey Ballet, the Harkness Ballet, and the New York City Ballet – and his path to becoming artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, where he has been artistic director for 37 years.
Among those providing tributes in this documentary were two former principal dancers of the San Francisco Ballet, Ashley Wheater, now artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, and Mikko Nissinen, now artistic director of the Boston Ballet, representing Tomasson’s legacy to the dance world.
Excerpts from three of Helgi Tomasson’s ballet were presented in live performances danced by six of the San Francisco Ballet’s principal dancers.
Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers, which had premiered in 1999, and was choreographed to music by Handel, was performed here by Frances Chung and Wei Wang.
Misa Kuranaga and Max Cauthorn performed a duet from Harmony, which had premiered in 2022, and was choreographed to music by Jean-Philippe Rameau. This piece is significant as it was the last ballet that Tomasson created on the San Francisco Ballet’s dancers.
The third piece on the program was a duet from The Fifth Season, choreographed to music by Karl Jenkins, and was premiered in 2006 — and was danced by Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets.
All three of these pieces were romantic, and elegant, understated, contemplative and beautifully danced and interpreted by all six dancers.
Concluding this event was Words On Dance, a panel discussion which was moderated by Kay Mazzo, and besides Tomasson also included Edward Villella, and Mark Morris. Tomasson had the opportunity to speak of his own path he took in his dancing career and all participants offered their comments about the responsibilities of directing their own artistic organizations.
Overall this was a thoughtful and appropriate overview of Helgi Tomasson’s career in dance.
Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn
May 21, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Although the official Broadway theatre season has come to an end with the announcement of the Tony Award nominees, one can now turn to off-Broadway to find imaginative and entertaining theater performances. Recently having its opening on May 16th, 2022 at Theater 555, is the comedic gem, and hilarious, Romeo and Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn, a musical comedy spoof of the well-known William Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet – and in this instance turning a tragedy into a frantic farce.
The premise of Romeo and Bernadette begins at the outset when a young Italian-American man is attending the Brooklyn Community Players production of Romeo and Juliet – a date to impress his girlfriend – and he is impatient for the play to an end as both Romeo and Juliet take too long to die.
To further impress his girlfriend the young man volunteers to tell the “more” of this story beginning with the undiscovered fact that Romeo actually took a sleeping potion provided by Friar Laurence, and did not kill himself. Romeo survives and awakes in 1960’s Verona – where quite displaced and bewildered – Romeo comes into contact with Bernadette, the daughter of an Italian-American crime family boss, who Romeo perceives to look like Juliet, but is the exact opposite in terms of personality and attitude. This is where this new interpretation of Romeo and Juliet has a connection with another Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew. Romeo follows the family to Brooklyn, New York, and that is where this musical comedy takes off.
Through music and the dialogue, Romeo and Bernadette transforms itself into a comic opera with the book and lyrics written by Mark Saltzman, who sets his lyrics to familiar Italian songs and melodies – you will probably recognize the melodies composed by Leoncavallo, Rossini and Bellini — and Justin Ross Cohen, as director and choreographer, who sets into motion the boulevard comedy, and the twists and turns in the plot.
The plot focuses on the blossoming romance between Romeo and Bernadette in the midst of warring Italian-American crime families with tempers flaring, lots of surprises, with an excellent group of actor/singers who bring these quirky characters to life.
Nikita Burshteyn, brings the hapless Romeo to life as he tries to fit into 20th century life – and also into the lives of people living in Brooklyn in the 1960’s. Cleverly trying to transform himself from the Renaissance Romeo to the Brooklyn street-wise Romeo is one of the components that makes Romeo and Bernadette the comic farce that it is. Anna Kostakis is the stereotypical spoiled young Italian-American woman who knows what business her family is involved in, and also knows where and when to shop. And there is Bernadette’s fiancé, Tito, who is played with the appropriate arrogance and self-deprecating humor by Zach Schanne.
Also contributing to the comedy are Michael Notardonato (playing the dual role of the Brooklyn Guy, who brings his date to see Romeo and Juliet, and Dino Del Canto, a member of the Del Canto crime family), and Ari Raskin (playing the dual role of the Brooklyn Girl, and Donna Dubachek, who becomes Dino’s girlfriend). Completing this superlative cast is Carlos Lopez as Sal Penza, Judy McLane as Camille Penza, Michael Marotta as Don Del Canto, Viet Vo as the security guard Lips, and Troy Valjean Rucker, who plays multiple roles including a gun-toting dance teacher, who channels Martha Graham, while trying to teach Tito how to dance.
If you want to forget the problems of the day Romeo and Bernadette is the antidote.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
State Theatre New Brunswick New Jersey
May 14, 2022
By Mark Kappel
In what was a bit of magic, and certainly good feeling, that surrounded the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey when it presented the national touring company of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from May 13-15, 2022. A magical and fantastical musical for both children and adults.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is based on Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name which was first published in 1964. Dahl was the author of other children’s books – another one of which was Matilda, which was also adapted into a stage musical.
This stage musical has a score with music composed by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and a book b y David Grieg. In addition to the contributions of Shaiman and Whittman also included in the score are songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley which were composed for the 1971Warner Brothers motion picture. I guess such a musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wouldn’t be the same without such songs as “Pure Imagination” “I’ve Got A Golden Ticket”, and “Candy Man”.
Unfortunately the songs by Shaiman and Wittman, with the exception of “The View From Here”, are not of the same quality but well serve this adaptation of Dahl’s book.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had its premiere in London in 2013, and with new direction by Jack O’Brien, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened on Broadway in 2017. Since, it has been produced all over the world – in particular on national tour in the United States for which Matt Lenz has reproduced Jack O’Brien’s direction, and Alison Solomon has reproduced the choreography based on Joshua Bergasse’s original choreography for the Broadway production.
Setting the scene we find Willie Wonka expressing his boredom for being a chocolatier and his desire to find a protégé and successor. In order to discover that special someone, Wonka creates a contest and marketing scheme for people around the world to buy his chocolate creations, and hope for getting a golden ticket that will include them in a special tour of Wonka’s factory – and perhaps a prize in the end.
This whimsical journey becomes the obsession of Charlie Bucket, who admires Wonka’s genius, although he doesn’t understand Wonka’s eccentricities. With luck he does win one of the golden tickets, and with the encouragement and support of his Grandpa Joe – Charlie follows his dreams, participates in a tour of Wonka chocolate factory, and ultimately receives an unexpected prize.
Charlie goes along for the ride even as competitors are eliminated as they succumb to their own weaknesses – primarily for candy — and he also comes into contact with the mysterious Oompa-Loompas who assist Wonka in putting up hurdles for the competitors to jump over.
In this version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl’s story is enhanced by the designs by Mark Thompson, the projection designs by Jeff Sugg, and the puppet and illusion designs by Basil Twist. This all adds to the fantasy of this familiar story.
Cody Garcia as Willy Wonka is a superb ringmaster of the unexpected, and unexplained events, and illusions that are surrounding him – and also displaying Wonka’s eccentricities with a grain of salt. Kai Edgar as Charlie Bucket is an excellent foil – and their chemistry is appealing. Just as appealing is the endearing performance of Steve McCoy as the crusty and charming Grandpa Joe who has many tall tales to tell.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a timely musical theatre piece that allows the audience to take their minds off the problems of the day and re-visit our inner-child.
City Center Encores – Into The Woods
May 8, 2022
By Mark Kappel
With the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim, his musicals continue to be even more revered, and worth exploring for his intent and inner-meaning.
One of the projects that was planned while Sondheim was still with us was the City Center Encores concert version of Into The Woods, a collaboration of Sondheim and book writer James Lapine – their second of three collaborations – which had its Broadway premiere in 1987.
New York has seen other productions of Into The Woods since its Broadway premiere including a Broadway revival in 2002, in 2012 the presentation of London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre revival at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and the Roundabout Theatre Company presenting the Fiasco Theater’s inventive improvisational production in 2014.
Being presented from May 4-15, 2022, as the last presentation of the City Center Encores current season, this concert production of Into The Woods has been directed by Encores! Artistic Director, Lear de Bessonet with music direction in the capable hands of Rob Berman, and choreography by Lorin Latarrro.
Although a classic and traditional production of the Sondheim/Lapine musical, nevertheless there were distinct moments of new insights into Into The Woods, and to delight in the new interpretations of the characters portrayed by the stellar cast. Certainly this is the best of the three City Center Encores presentations this season, and for good reason.
Into The Woods can be appreciated on many different levels. Its premise fractures familiar children’s fairy tales, but also examines how a community faces crises and threats – and somehow still survives.
In Into The Woods fairytale characters’ stories intertwine and unravel – familiar and unfamiliar. The premise of Into The Woods unfolds with the comic and droll prose spoken by the Narrator (played by David Patrick Kelly) who describes the offer of the Witch (played by Heather Headley) to remove the spell she has placed on the Baker (played by Neil Patrick Harris) and the Baker’s Wife (played by Sara Bareilles) which made their marriage a barren one. In order to cajole the Witch to grant them their wish to have a child, the Baker and his Wife must journey through the scary and dark woods to find the ingredients for the potion that the Witch needs to break the spell – a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.
As the Baker and his Wife set of on this quest their search is both guided and stymied by a Mysterious Man (also played by David Patrick Kelly) — and then there are the fairy tale characters that they meet along the way, con and befriend to fulfill the Witch’s demands. Those characters are also carrying their own emotional baggage. Each character expresses wonderment as they form friendships and empathy, and confront the problems they must face together – and they learn a great deal about themselves in so doing.
Act I fulfills expectations with a happy ending but the second act gets dark in tone as these fairy tale characters collide with unexpected conflicts, realities, and face real and imagined threats as a community. Although dark to begin with there is a glimmer of hope.
The stories presented in Into The Woods are also told within the simply sketched out scenery designs by David Rockwell with tree trunks, moonlit nights – and three doll house miniatures representing the houses of the principal characters.
This concert production of Into The Wood includes a stellar cast of experienced Broadway performers – equally at adept at singing, acting, and dancing – and also masters of comic timing. Their performances are the most significant ingredients that result in the joy of this production of Into The Woods.
Neil Patrick Harris as the Baker beautifully and emphatically captures the dramatic arc of his character as he takes on life’s responsibilities, and Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife expresses the confidence of this character and a bit of this character’s naivete equally and brilliantly. The chemistry and comic timing between them is exemplary.
Heather Headley chews the scenery as the Witch – but she also expresses the mixed emotions she feels as her hopes and dreams fall apart around her.
Harris, Bareilles, and Headley also give their own personal interpretations of these characters which provides a different slant on Sondheim’s and Lapine’s creation.
Also notable in this cast were Denee Benton as Cinderella, Gavin Creel and Jason Forbach as the Princes, Anna Harada as Jack’s Mother, David Patrick Kelly as the Narrator/Mysterious Man, Julia Lester as Little Red Ridinghood, Shereen Pimentel as Rapunzel, Cole Thompson as Jack, and Kennedy Kanagawa as the puppeteer who brings Milky White to life.
Into The Woods is as captivating as ever in this City Center Encores production as Sondheim’s music comes to life, and whether you are a Sondheim aficionado or not, Into The Woods will captivate you.
State Theatre, New Brunswick, New Jersey
April 30, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Continuing with its Broadway series, the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey, had been presenting performances of a touring revival of Hairspray from April 29 through May 1, 2022.
Hairspray is a stage musical adaptation of the offbeat John Waters’ film of the same name, with a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and a book by Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell, which opened on Broadway in 2002. Hairspray has since been adapted for a filmed version, and also for a live television production. However what was presented at the State Theatre was a new national touring company – a revival – which included Jack O’Brien’s original direction and Jerry Mitchell’s original choreography – duplicating the spirit and energy of the Broadway production.
Hairspray chronicles life in Baltimore in the 1960’s, a time of political and social change. Tracy Turnblad (played by Niki Metcalf) is an intense and loyal fan of the local teenage dance show, which is hosted by Corney Collins (played by Billy Dawson), and it is her ambition to – in spite of her size and weight – successfully audition for the show and become a “star”. Besides actually fulfilling that ambition, she also succeeds in breaking down racial barriers which makes it possible for a representative group of teenagers to appear on the show.
Tracy’s nemesis is Velma Von Tussle (played by Addison Garner) who is the television station’s manager and doesn’t approve of Tracy participating in the television show as she might be a rival for her own daughter, Amber Von Tussle (played Kaelee Albretton) This is not to mention that Tracey has a crush on one of the teenagers on the show, Link Larkin (played by Will Savarese), who has ambitions of his own to be a recording star – and then there are Tracy’s supportive parents, Edna Turnblad (played by Andrew Levitt) and Wilbur Turnblad (played by Christopher Swan) who rekindle their own romance as they support their daughter in fulfilling her dreams.
There is also Motormouth Maybelle (played by Sandie Lee) who inspires Tracey’s activism and her friend Penny Pingleton (played by Emery Henderson) who falls for a young black teenager, Seaweed J. Stubbs (played by Jamonte D. Bruten), a relationship that adds more spice to the chaos and enthusiasm that Tracy has inspired.
Shaiman and Wittman have created a score that is a reflection of the style of music of the 1960’s and Meehan and O’Donnell have written a book that allows the audience to participate and be surprised as this Broadway musical unfolds. From “Good Morning Baltimore” to “You Can’t Stop The Beat” this is a great ride.
You can’t help getting involved in the heart of the story, and the spirit of the actors playing the principal roles in Hairspray.
Nikki Metcalf plays Tracey Turnblad in an infectious manner as an outsider trying to fit in, and in becoming her own heroine and exhibiting her fortitude she changes the world – transforming Hairspray into a modern-day Cinderella story. Also Andrew Levitt is a triple threat as a singer, a dancer, and an actor – and certainly not self-conscious in performing the role of Edna Turnblad. But all of the cast members turn in high-powered performances often touching the hearts of audience members preparing them for the uplifting and appealing finale of Hairspray.
Most of all Hairspray is a feel-good musical with a feel-good score – and an off-beat Cinderella story – much needed in these strange times we are living in . And after all you can’t tamp down the enthusiasm and you can’t stop the beat.
Lincoln Center Theater –
The Skin Of Our Teeth
Vivian Beaumont Theater
April 28, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The Lincoln Center Theater is currently presenting an unconventional and provocative play in an unconventional style and manner – that is Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Skin Of Our Teeth, which had its original Broadway production in 1942. The added unconventional aspect of this revival is revealed in the additional material by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and the conception of this revival’s director Lileana Blain-Cruz, who also happens to be Lincoln Center Theater’s resident director. And conveniently this revival also celebrates the 125th anniversary of Thornton Wilder’s birth.
Thornton Wilder was a novelist and playwright best known for his plays, Our Town, and The Matchmaker – the source for the musical, Hello, Dolly! – and The Skin of Our Teeth. In all his writing he had a sense of the American psyche that dominated when he was writing these major plays – and his novels.
The Skin Of Our Teeth is a theatrical allegory about the history of mankind – as seen and heard through the experiences of the Antrobuses, an American family living in the fictional suburban town of Excelsior, New Jersey. The Antrobus Family is the archetypical American family. Mr. Antrobus is the inventor of the wheel and the alphabet, and birthdays and anniversaries are calculated in thousands of years. The Antrobuses have been married for more than 5000 years.
The Antrobus Family are followed as they survive a new ice age, a great flood (before which Mr. Antrobus channels Noah in selecting animals to be saved from the flood), and a war. They even have prehistoric animals as pets. In this revival Blain-Cruz has added an extra layer to the play by the depiction of The Antrobus Family as a black family which gives The Skin Of Our Teeth a different spin.
This epic story is presented with the theatrical convention of allowing the actors to portray themselves as well as the characters they are portraying in The Skin of Our Teeth which allows the audience to play along with the dualities in the play. Some of the characters break the fourth wall and speak to the audience, and also break from their characters as they comment on their surroundings, frustrations, and fellow actors.
Wilder presents this all with influences from the Expressionist theatrical movement, farce, burlesque and satire. Yet another added layer are the Biblical references as Mrs. Antrobus represents Eve, Mr. Antrobus represents Adam, and there are also representations of Lilith and Cain (a reference to Henry Antrobus, one of the Antrobus children, who is really Cain – and who has killed his brother Abel) . Overall the theoretical and philosophical foundations of The Skin of Our Teeth are represented by the survival instincts of the human race – and its sense of community.
Adding to chaos of the Antrobus Family is the character of Sabina, the Maid, who is an ageless vamp, and chameleon, who keeps the extremes of the Antrobus Family in line, and informs the audience where the title of the play evolved from – we came through the Depression by the skin of our teeth.
The first act takes place before the earth is to be facing an ice age during which the Antrobus Family opens its house to the community’s population to provide them with food and shelter, and also protects their prehistoric pets.
In contrast, somewhat in normal circumstances, the second act takes place in Atlantic City where Mr. Antrobus has been elected President of the Order of Mammals, and resolves to save both humankind and the animal kingdom in bringing together all of the inhabitants of the earth in anticipation of a Noah-like flood.
The third act sees Mrs. Antrobus and her daughter Gladys facing the world at the end of a 7-year war – the outpouring of thoughts about the world explained by Mr. Antrobus, and the family conflict created when their son Henry returns home from the war and the truth is faced that Henry had been fighting for the “other side”. The debate is how human beings will be able to start over again from yet another major crisis – to be motivated to do so – and giving people a second chance.
In order to appreciate how timely The Skin Of Our Teeth is – which was before its time and is now timely – one must give in to fantasy, and an imagination gone wild.
This revival’s success definitely rests on the shoulders of the talented group of actors who explore their way in finding the characters they are portraying, and are adept at telling Wilder’s story. The Antrobus Family is made up of James Vincent Meredith as Mr. Antrobus, Roslyn Ruff as Mrs. Antrobus, Paige Gilbert as Gladys Antrobus, and Julian Robertson as Henry Antrobus – and then there is Sabina, superbly played by Gabby Beans, who often steals the show with her disruptive and reality show comments as the Antrobus Family’s maid. In a small but not unimportant role is Priscilla Lopez as the Fortune Teller, who in a monologue, foretells the future for mankind in both words and the physicality of a dancer.
Adam Rigg must be credited for the scenery designs providing these actors with a visually-striking playground to play in.
The Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth may be a once-in-lifetime opportunity to see this imaginative, poignant, and fanciful play – and also providing some moments of escapism and entertainment.
How I Learned To Drive
Samuel Friedman Theatre
April 20, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The Manhattan Theatre Club is offering a unique theatrical event in its revival of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned To Drive which is currently being presented at the Samuel Friedman Theatre.
How I Learned To Drive was premiered at the Vineyard Theatre in 1997, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year. At that time Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse starred in the play and they are repeating those roles in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival which has been directed by its original director, Mark Brokaw.
Taking its place as a Broadway theatre production How I Learned To Drive has put together an A-List creative team to take a look back – and forward – at Vogel’s provocative and intensely relevant play.
How I Learned To Drive is structured as a non-linear memory play in which Li’l Bit (played by Mary-Louise Parker) comes to terms with her unhealthy and complicated relationship with an uncle and father figure, Uncle Peck (played by David Morse). Through the course of the play it is revealed that Uncle Peck has had an impact on Li’l Bit’s past and present, and presumed future life.
The beginnings of How I Learned To Drive take place in suburban Maryland in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and Vogel used the driving lessons that are given by Uncle Peck as a metaphor for how he establishes his relationship with Li’l Bit – with overtones that revolve around power, control, manipulation, and sexual abuse.
This abusive relationship with Li’l Bit’s alcoholic Uncle is enabled through the generations of Li’l Bit’s family – and she develops problems with alcohol herself. Going back and forth through time clues are planted that explain how Uncle Peck established a rapport with Li’l Bit which evolved into a bond between them – a connection that developed with deliberate speed, and in fits and starts.
Often Uncle Peck rationalizes his abusive relationship with Li’l Bit, and putting into simple terms that his drinking problem was being perpetuated by a “fire in his heart”. As their attachment becomes increasingly uncomfortable for Li’l Bit, she ultimately rejects Uncle Peck, and as he deals with his own demons, he drinks himself to death.
How I Learned To Drive chronicles Li’l Bit’s abusive involvement with Uncle Peck, her maternal aunt’s husband from age 11 to her college years – revealing Uncle Peck’s behavior as a predator and manipulator – but then again Li’l Bit has also been a participant in this relationship somewhat as a manipulator herself.
How I Learned To Drive is both haunting and disturbing as the play reveals how destructive sexual abuse is.
In what are acting tour de forces, Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse delineate their characters with detail – and at times understatement – in depicting how complicated the emotional connections are between Lil’ Bit and Uncle Peck. The story-telling is also enhanced by a Greek chorus including Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold, and Chris Myers who play multiple roles, and also comment on the action.
This is an excellent revival of a deliberately disturbing, powerful, and perplexing play that was relevant when it premiered in 1997, and is even more so today.
State Theatre, New Brunswick, New Jersey
April 16, 2022
By Mark Kappel
As part of its Broadway series, the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey presented the national touring company of Waitress from April 14-16, 2022.
Waitress, The Musical, is based on the 2007 independent film of the same name which follows the life of a conflicted waitress at a diner – and her skills at pie-making – but not equally skilled in life.
Waitress was adapted into a musical by composer Sara Bareilles with a book by Jessie Nelson, and was premiered on Broadway in 2016. This touring production recreates the original direction by Diane Paulus, and the choreography by Lorin Latarro. In particular Paulus’s direction is a major contribution to the success of Waitress.
Waitress is the story of Jenna, who is a waitress at Joe’s Pie Diner and is an expert pie maker. Pies, and the ingredients to make them, are metaphors for her life. She is mired in the life of a small town in the American South, and a loveless and abusive marriage with her husband Earl.
A series of life events, including an unexpected pregnancy, gives Jenna the freedom to have an affair with a married man – her doctor, Dr. Jim Pomatter – which counterbalances her ups and down with her husband. Supported by her fellow waitresses, Jenna has her baby, leaves her husband, benefits from winning a county pie-making contest – and upon the passing of the diner’s owner, Jenna now becomes the owner of Joe’s Pie Diner, renaming it Lulu’s Diner after her daughter.
Jenna’s life is conveyed to the audience in a comparable balance of music and dialogue as vignettes – some with stylized movement — which makes those life changing moments more comprehensible and understandable than they might have been otherwise.
Jenna, played by Jisel Soleil Ayon, is a citizen in a community of an eccentric group of characters. The awkward Dr. Pomatter, played by David Socolar, is an inexperienced philanderer with a wife of his own. Jenna’s husband Earl played by Shawn W. Smith, is the stereotypical abusive husband.
And then there is Ogie, played by Brian Lundy, as the even more awkward and introverted love interest of the equally introverted and quirky Dawn, one of Jenna’s co-workers at the diner (played by Gabriella Marzetta), becoming an oddly matched pair. Another one of Jenna’s co-workers, Becky (played by Dominique Kent) has her entanglements as well. There is also Joe, the diner’s owner, played by Michael R. Douglas, who can be sour but underneath is a softy, and it is Joe that supplies one of the big surprises and reveals in this musical.
All of these superb singers and comic actors brought these characters to life and made them relatable with humor, and expert physical comic timing.Bareilles’ score, as Waitress’ heart, embraces a variety of musical styles, character descriptions, and inner monologues – surprising and unconventional – but for a modern-day Broadway musical it works.
Uppermost Waitress is sentimental. and that is reflected in the eleven o’clock number, “She Used To Be Mine” sung in a heartbreaking fashion by Ayon as Jenna.
If life was as simple as making a pie — as in Waitress it seems so – it would be a more sensible and caring world that we could live in. And also a more joyful one. In all, Waitress was an entertaining theatrical experience.
Compania Nacional de Danza
April 13, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Making its Joyce Theater debut, on April 13, 2022, the Compania Nacional de Danza from Spain is performing a week-long engagement of a full-length dance piece, Carmen, choreographed and reimagined by Swedish choreographer, Johan Inger. Inger created his version of Carmen for the Compania Nacional de Danza in 2015.
The Compania Nacional de Danza was founded in 1979, and has been directed by former New York City Ballet principal dancer Joaquin de Luz since 2019. The company dances a repertoire including a range of choreographic styles. However the repertoire leans towards the contemporary and modern dance direction.
In his version of Carmen, Inger has stripped down the narrative to its primary sources and frames the story to be seen through the eyes of a child – through contemporary eyes – and also using plot elements from Prosper Merimee’s novel. The second act takes place in Don Jose’s head elucidating his pent-up emotions as he plans to take his revenge against Carmen – who, in this version, is a woman of power and freedom. This Carmen is choreographed to the often-used arrangement of Georges Bizet’s familiar music from his opera, Carmen, by Rodion Shchedrin, with additional original music by Marc Alvarez.
The atmosphere is an open stage with lighting images creating the time and place – at first a tobacco factory in Seville, and then on to other locations where the plot takes Inger’s interpretation of Carmen. There is also the use of concrete, a mirror, and black materials that also set the scene – with the story, at its end, erupting into violence.
Inger’s approach to Carmen is a psychological examination – culling the plot elements from the familiar 19th century story and transporting those elements to the 21st century. Certainly the constant observation of this dance piece’s action by the boy/child is a striking difference from other dance pieces inspired by Carmen. In addition there is the boy/child’s fantasy that there could be a family unit of himself, Carmen and Don Jose, and watches that dream and illusion dissolve against the striking background of passion and violence.
This Carmen is obsessed with power and control – and ultimately whatever relationships she enters into is dominated by her self-interest. Passions escalate as Don Jose realizes his own relationship with Carmen is never going to succeed – and the frustration of his own jealousy in observing Carmen’s behavior in initiating relationships with other men. Also in the background are ghosts and shadows who are haunting all of the characters – a Greek chorus of sorts – who foresee the tragedy yet to come.
Inger’s choreographic vocabulary derives from many dance styles — from modern dance to postmodern, and simple organic movement – and unexpected symmetry.He also creates effective stage pictures.
However what brings Inger’s Carmen to life is the Compania Nacional de Danza’s dancers. In particular Kayoko Everthart in the title role, Alessandro Riga as Don Jose, Shani Peretz as the Boy, Isaac Montllor as Escamillo, and Toby William Mallitt as Zuniga. Inger’s Carmen is a showcase for the company’s dancers making for an intriguing and welcome Joyce Theater debut for the Compania Nacional de Danza.
Safra Hall Theatre – Museum of Jewish Heritage
April 10, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Safra Hall Theatre, is presenting a long-awaited musical, Harmony: A New Musical, which has been written by the creative team of composer Barry Manilow, and Bruce Sussman, as both lyricist and book writer.
Long-awaited because this musical has had buzz for some years and now it is finally making its New York debut for what is a limited engagement through May 8th.
Harmony is the story of the Comedian Harmonists, a group of six young comedy performers, some Jewish, some of Jewish descent, and also Gentile, who achieved success in Germany first, then in Europe and the United States between 1928-1934 – being one of the most successful musical groups in Europe – with repertoire including folk and classical songs as well as popular songs of the era. They also appeared in more than 20 films.
Harmony opens with the American debut of Comedian Harmonists in 1933 at Carnegie Hall – presented by Sol Hurok – and then the story begins with how the Comedian Harmonists came to be.
Chip Zien plays Rabbi, one of the Comedian Harmonists, looking back on the origins of this extremely talented group of performers – and the individuals who auditioned for and formed the group. Six in all, among them a rabbi, a doctor, a bordello pianist, and opera singers – and not all Germans – and not all Jewish. They sing, they dance, they play instruments, and become known for their keen musicianship and their comic timing.
Comedian Harmonists became famous the world over. They were described as “hot as horse radish”. However they were caught up in the changing political climate that culminated in the emergence of Nazism in Germany, and making the fatal decision to return to Germany after touring abroad. The Nazi regime in Germany prohibited the Comedian Harmonists from performing in public and the group had no choice but to break up. They were not all able to escape Nazi oppression by immigrating to the United States. Some were deported to the countries they came from before their success in Germany. Somehow their story had been lost or forgotten, and now lives again in Harmony.
The older character of Rabbi wrestles with what could have been if he had persuaded the Comedian Harmonists to remain outside of Germany – and as the last survivor of the group and living in the United States he does come to terms with that fatal decision. This all combines to make the story of Harmony both comic – and heartbreaking – and in its own way, a profound backstage musical.
Manilow and Sussman provide Harmony with a solid score including the title song, “This Is Our Time”, “Stars in the Night”, and “Where You Go” all stirring, and emotionally wrenching when required, and broadening and painting the picture of all of the principal characters – and also creating the oppressive atmosphere that hangs over the story of the Comedian Harmonists.
Wonderful and clever dance numbers have been created by Warren Carlyle as choreographer, and pinpoint coming timing and heart as Harmony’s director.
Although Chip Zien as the older Rabbi anchors Harmony, Harmony is enriched by the performances of Blake Roman as Chopin, , Steven Telsey as Lesh, Zal Owen as Harry, Danny Cornfeld as Young Rabbi, and Eric Peters as Erich, and Sean Bell as Bobby, portraying the Comedian Harmonists as well as the heartfelt and well-sung performances of Sierra Boggess as Mary (Young Rabbi’s wife), and Jessie Davidson as Ruth (Chopin’s wife).
Harmony speaks of and to the horrors of the past, and that hopefully, the world will learn from those horrors — and they won’t come back to haunt us in the present and the future. It makes Harmony a provocative musical with a compelling story to tell that will make you laugh and cry at the same time. And will also entertain you.
The Little Prince
April 7, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella, The Little Prince, tells a story that has been embraced by children and adults all over the world. It had been adapted into an unsuccessful Broadway musical back in 1982, but recently opened on Broadway is a production of The Little Prince, premiered in Paris, which presents this story in a “spectacle” form with dance, acrobatics, gymnastics, video technology – also a hint of the circus — which tells the story in a unique fashion. This version of The Little Prince is now being performed at the Broadway Theatre from March 29 through August 14, 2022.
The creative team for this imaginative interpretation of The Little Prince is director and choreographer Anne Tournie, and co-director and librettist Chris Mouron, who also appears in this production as The Narrator.
In her biography Tournie states that contemporary dance is based on energy and emotion – and those elements are in abundance in her choreography for The Little Prince. Her work integrates aerial choreography along with dance, gymnastics, acrobatics – and dance theatre.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, an exiled French author and aviator, wrote and illustrated The Little Prince in 1942 while living in Manhattan and also at the Delater-Bevin Mansion in Long Island. He arrived in New York City just before Europe was on the verge of World War II – and this classic novella was published in the United States in 1943.
The heart of this story is a friendship that is formed between an aviator, who crashes his plane in the desert, and The Little Prince, who is in the midst of exploring the world. The Little Prince (portrayed by Lionel Zalachas) appears in his bare feet and sporting blond hair – walking on a large rubber ball — after travelling from his miniscule asteroid where he tends to a rose that he is enraptured by. He is now exploring the world and his travels take him to his adventures in meeting with an arrogant king, a questionable businessman, and other assorted characters before arriving on Earth. But it is the bond between The Little Prince and the aviator that teaches us about friendship and trust.
Before The Little Prince leaves his asteroid, the relationship between himself and his Rose is represented in a child-like yet rapturous farewell duet which is grounded at times and other times, in the air. The Little Prince also encounters a businessman who is caught up with following the stock market, a lamplighter, a switchman – with a visual design of a busy train station to enhance the dancing and the story on the stage. Then there is The Little Prince’s encounter with the snake – temptation and fear – and perhaps a child-like lack of fear.
When The Little Prince meets the Aviator, he requests that he draw him a picture of sheep – and then they appear. And so the friendship blossoms.
The story is told in choreographic vignettes with decorative details in song and word by the Narrator, Chris Mouron.
Choreography in many different styles is tailored to each unique character in this story, and overall the intent is to create a spell and challenge the audience’s imagination. Composer Terry Truck is noted for promoting chanson and cabaret songs and the score for The Little Prince emphasizes that influence in many of the songs sung by Chris Mouron. Also the video designs by Marie Jumelin and the lighting design by Stephane Fritsch are feasts for the eyes.
The story comes to life through the artistry of this wonderful company of dancer/actors. Besides aforementioned Lionel Zalachas as The Little Prince, also outstanding were Aurelian Bednarek as the Aviator, Laurisse Sulty as the Rose, Adrien Picaut as the Businessman, Marcin Janiak as the Lamplighter, Srilata Ray as the sensuous Snake, Dylan Barone as the cute Fox, and William John Banks as the Switchman.
Yet to enjoy this production of The Little Prince one must suspend adult cynicism and appreciate it all through a child’s eyes in what is a unique and entrancing theatrical adventure.
The Wanderer – A New Musical
Paper Mill Playhouse
April 9, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey is more than halfway through its current season – fully re-opened with vaccination protocols – but re-opened after nearly two years. From March 24-April 24, 2022, the Paper Mill Playhouse is presenting a new musical, The Wanderer, which had been postponed from previous seasons due to the pandemic. And The Wanderer may have pretensions to move on to Broadway in the future.
The Wanderer is a song made famous by one of the significant singing groups that emerged during the 1950’s and 1960’s, Dion & the Belmonts – Dion being Dion DiMucci, Bronx-born, who became a teenage heart-throb during the height of his stardom. He defied the odds and he also had staying power.
This account of Dion’s life is told through songs made famous by Dion and also by his contemporaries in a workman-like and engaging book by Charles Messina, which tells Dion’s story in a frank and no holds barred manner.
The Wanderer focuses on the period from 1958 through 1968 – a decade of political and social change in America – noting that Dion’s musical tastes were very different from those of his family and friends. In fact his biggest musical influence was country singer, Hank Williams.
Dion formed the Belmonts singing group with himself as the lead singer in the late 1950’s and was known for several hit records including The Wanderer, Runaround Sue, Where or When, and A Teenager in Love. In 1960 he began his solo career, and in 1968, he recorded the song he is most remembered for, Abraham Martin & John, which was an emotional response to the changing moods for social change in the 1960’s, and appropriately was the final musical number of The Wanderer.
The story begins reflecting on the essence of Dion’s life growing up under the influence of his parents – his father wanting stardom for his son, and his involvement in managing his son’s career in music – and his private life. However Dion has striking differences with both his father and his manager as to what he wants from his career and the trajectory of his career. Then there is the mysterious and rather ghostly figure of Johnny (played by Joey McIntyre) who exerts both good and bad influences over Dion regarding his personal life and his professional life.
One of Dion’s pivotal ideas was to form a singing group with a few of his neighborhood friends which became Dion and the Belmonts – choosing the name of the Belmonts after Belmont Avenue in the Bronx neighborhood where Dion and his friends lived.
As Dion’s recording career flourished, he had to cope with the problems of what seemed to be instant stardom – and then the major problem of drug addiction – a problem that is exacerbated when Dion doesn’t board a chartered plane with his tour mates, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, who were lost in a fateful plane crash.
Dion also initiates a relationship with a neighborhood girl, Susan (played by Cristy Altomare) and there is a host of other friends who try to influence Dion’s musical career and also help him get over his drug habit. The tragic event of the plane crash haunted Dion for many years after which made his drug habit more difficult to control. Although Dion marries his beloved and understanding Susan, it takes his whole family to support him through his recovery from his drug habit in the end.
In The Wanderer Dion defies the odds and achieves star status – a combination of bad choices, fate, and his persistence to survive.
Director Kenneth Ferrone has fashioned The Wanderer not merely as a jukebox musical relying on nostalgia. The Wander is a biographical musical – about Dion – that is kept in context. Sarah O’Gleby’s choreography is also attuned in style to the times when the story takes place. With Dion’s story set in the Bronx, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt effectively recreated urban life as a living painting.
The aforementioned Christy Altomare and Joey McIntyre give star performances in their roles along with other members of this versatile cast. However Mike Wartella, in particular, gives a masterful and virtuoso performance as Dion.
The Wanderer is both entertaining and engaging, and how wonderful it is to hear the music of the 1950’s and 1960’s performed live in front of an audience – and performed so well by this terrific cast. I trust that if its goal is to make it to Broadway that a few fixes are made to make The Wanderer more than it already is.
Dance Theatre of Harlem
April 8, 2022
By Mark Kappel
During this current dance season there have been many reunions between dance companies and their audiences – embracing them like long lost friends. And it was so with the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s engagement at the City Center – in particular the performance on April 8, 2022, which featured three New York premieres.
Opening the program with an explosion of energy, and spirited music, was the New York premiere of Higher Ground, choreographed by the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s resident choreographer, Robert Garland, which was choreographed to songs made famous by Stevie Wonder – composed by him in collaboration with Gary Byrd, Michael Sembello, and Syretta Wright. Higher Ground was not a nostalgia trip but drawing in the mood of the music that Wonder made famous, and how it is relevant today.
The concept was a search with the energy revving up to the song, HigherGround, which is a celebration. The energy and spirit came from the ensemble cast of Amanda Smith, Daphne Lee, Alexandra Hutchinson, Anthony Santos, Micah Bullard, and Kouadio Davis danced, in this dance piece which had its premiere earlier this year.
Claudia Schreier’s Passage, featuring live music by Jessie Montgomery, was the second of the New York premieres. This work had been commissioned by the Virginia Arts Festival in 2019 and has finally been given its New York premiere. Passage has been influenced and inspired by the enforced travels of African slaves across the Atlantic to the New World in the 17th century. Although there isn’t any narrative in this contemporary ballet piece, the message is very clear.
The patterns in Schreier’s choreography reflect restrictions, ritual and an ultimate celebration. It is only in the final moments of Passage that you do see the symbolic leap to freedom.
The message was convincingly communicated by the cast of Anthony Santos, Derek Brockington, Amanda, Smith, Ingrid Silva, Crystal Serrano, Kamala Saara, Yinet Fernandez, Delaney Washington, Christopher Charles McDaniel, Kuadio Davis, Keenan English, and David Wright.
One of the three weeks on this program was partially familiar as it was an extended version of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Balamouk, which originally had its premiere at one of the City Center Fall for Dance Festival in 2018. This extended version, which premiered in 2019, featured live accompaniment by The Klezmatics playing the music of Rene Aubry, Lisa Gerrard, and Les Yeux Noirs.
Similar to the other dance pieces on the program, Balamouk, is an ensemble piece emphasizing recurring stylized movement but is also celebratory. Balamouk’s momentum was boosted by the performances of the cast of Ingrid Silva, Yinet Fernandez, Crystal Serrano, Daphne Lee, Lindsey Donnell, Dylan Brockington, Keenan English, David Wright, and Christopher Charles McDaniel.
All of the three pieces presented on the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s program reflected positivity and Dance Theatre of Harlem’s statement that it is back – and it’s great that they are back.
York Theatre Company – Penelope
Theatre At St. Jean’s
April 3, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The York Theatre Company is presenting a world premiere musical this spring, Penelope or How The Odyssey Was Really Written, at the Theatre at St. Jean’s from April 2-24, 2022.
Taking place on the Greek island of Ithaca in the Ionian Sea in 1174 BC, Penelope is loosely based on the Greek myth, The Odyssey, and the story is reinterpreted from Penelope’s point of view with a 21st century boldness, and with a bit of a wink and a nod.
The Royals are Penelope (played by Britney Nicole Simpson) who is married to Odysseus (played by Ben Jacoby), the King of Ithaca. Odysseus left Ithaca – and Penelope – to pursue fighting the Trojan Wars. The years have tested Penelope as she has taken on the affairs of state and the government bureaucracy in addition to motherhood, and the wait had been twenty years.
On the assumption that Odysseus will not be returning to his kingdom, suitors have sought Penelope’s hand and have gathered at the palace hoping to marry her and to rule over the kingdom. However Penelope chooses the strategy of not making a decision about her choice of a suitor she wishes to marry. Her deception is that she writes letters to herself pretending they are from Odysseus – the letters are filled with mythical adventures and battles – and in spite of these delays in his return to Ithaca, the letters always declare Odysseus’ wish to make his way home to Penelope soon.
The pretense is that Penelope’s letters are creating the story of The Odyssey – an explanation that is a departure from the source of this Greek myth. The self-involved suitors, who are patiently waiting for Penelope’s decision to accept their proposals, have little else to do but enjoy the amenities at the palace — eating, drinking, enjoying the beach – and they even form an acapella group taking full advantage of the acoustics in the palace’s Great Hall.
Then Telemachus (played by Philippe Aroyo), the King’s and Queen’s son, is beginning to find and assert himself as a future ruler. He becomes enraptured with a farm girl, Daphne (played by Maria Wirries) – who succeeds in supporting Telemachus’ search for his self-esteem and also resolving his fear of blood – a fear no soldier should have.
The suitors Antinous (played by Cooper Howell), Mileter (played by David LaMarr), Bassanio (played by Jacob Alexander Simon), Haius (played by George Slotin), and Barius (played by Sean Thompson) enter into fights among themselves as they become rivals for Penelope’s hand in marriage and also uncover Penelope’s deceit about the mysterious letters. Penelope’s solution to assuaging the suitors, while continuing to put them off, is inventing a contest. The suitor who wins the contest would also win her hand in marriage. This contest is interrupted by Odysseus’ surprise reappearance on the shores of Ithaca. Odysseus and his son Telemachus conceive a scheme to use as a clever deception and their bravery with swords to kill all of the suitors.
Also trying to keep a lid on the hysteria, and deception is Eurycleia, Penelope’s reliable retainer and servant who is a Greek chorus unto herself, and an adept comedienne as played by Leah Hocking, who is trying to explain the ins and outs, and surprises of the schemes as they progress.
There is also a sentimental and conflicting reconciliation between Penelope and Odysseus at the end of Penelope or How The Odyssey Was Really Written. The theme of that reconciliation is that change can sometimes be good.
Peter Kellogg, writing both book and lyrics, and Stephen Weiner composer of the music provide humor and wit in the score (in many musical styles including a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan), and dialogue – with the belief that many authors contributed to The Odyssey. Those liberties are taken in Penelope Or How The Odyssey Was Really Written, and Emily Maltby as director and choreographer enhances it all with physical humor.
All of the cast members are experts at comic timing and in glorious voice –making Penelope an entertainment filled with fun, comedy and wit an appropriate way to bring in the spring!
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
March 31, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The creative team for the new Broadway musical, Paradise Square, is an exceptional one. Moises Kaufman is at the directorial helm, choreography is by Bill T. Jones (with additional choreographic contributions of Irish and Hammerstep dancing by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus), musical staging by Alex Sanchez – conception by Larry Kirwan — with a book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan, music composed by Jason Howland – with additional music by Larry Kirwan inspired in part by the songs of Stephen Foster – and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare — all together collaborating on a provocative new musical being presented at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Paradise Square’s central focus is that of an historical event which is depicted in this thought-provoking and ambitious musical. The time and place is New York City in 1863 while the American Civil War was still raging. The co-existence of Irish Immigrants, who fled Ireland due to the Great Famine, and free-born Black Americans and those who escaped from slavery – arriving by means of the Underground Railroad — co-exist in the Lower Manhattan slum tenement houses of Five Points. The families intermarried, and were described as Amalgamationists.
In uniting the cultures of these communities there were dance contests that took place in bars and dance halls. However racial disharmony evolved in Five Points – pitting the Irish immigrants against the Black population — when the first Federal Draft for the Union Army was implemented fomenting the deadly New York Draft Riots of 1863.
Paradise Square premiered at the Berkeley Rep in 2019 and undoubtedly there have been many revisions made by many hands after that initial engagement. Perhaps that is the reason why this earnest and sprawling musical proves to be as complicated as it is with many sub-plots – enhanced by epic music – and with a story that should be told, but perhaps needed to be more concise and centered.
The heart of Paradise Square’s story is Nelly O’Brien (played by Joaquina Kalukango), who is the owner of the local saloon, Paradise Square, and who is married to an Irish immigrant, Willie O’Brien (played by Matt Bogart) who is fighting on the Union side in the American Civil War. Nelly O’Brien is the matriarch and problem-solver for many of the inhabitants of Five Points.
Also there is the feisty Annie Lewis (played by Kennedy Caughell), who is Nelly O’Brien’s Irish-Catholic sister-in-law, and her Black minister husband, Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (played by Nathaniel Stampley) who is a stationmaster for the Underground Railroad. Integral to the sub-plots is the character of Owen Duignan (played by A.J. Shively) a newly-arrived Irish immigrant and nephew of Annie Lewis, and Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), a runaway slave who has been accused of murdering a plantation owner. The nemesis for all of these characters is Frederic Tiggens (played by John Dossett) who is the local political boss, and then there is Milton Moore (played by Jacob Fishel), a pianist with an ambiguous past, who insinuates himself into being engaged as a pianist at Paradise Square. Moore uses this experience to absorb the music of the regulars at the saloon – whose reveal is pivotal in how these characters’ lives are intertwined.
As the plot of Paradise Square unravels there are moving moments, and educates one about a story of the American past that is even haunting today. Unfortunately our past may be our future.
These thoughts and emotions are expressed in Paradise Square’s score which reflect that when you can’t use words, you must sing. Particularly in Kalukango’s stunning performance of “Let It Burn”.
Unity in Five Points is exemplified in the dance contests between the Irish immigrants and the Black residents in the local watering holes. Bill T. Jones has mixed Hammerstep Irish dancing with African Juba – with the Hammerstep Irish dance choreography contributed by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus – communicating the emotions and aspirations of these two ethnic groups in lively and entertaining dance numbers.
Paradise Square is a musical with an important story to tell created by a team of artists which supports the story-telling in word and song – and is performed by a superlative cast. But Paradise Square could use judicious trimming to emphasize what is already a fulfilling and entertaining evening in the theater to make it an even better one.
By Mark Kappel
La Nijinska – Choreographer of the Modern by Lynn Garafola, published by Oxford University, is an extensive and detailed study of the life and work of the pioneering choreographer, Bronislava Nijinska. A first-time biography of a dancer, dance educator, and choreographer whose artistic legacy has not been lauded as much as it should be.
Bronislava Nijinska had an illustrious career breaking the glass ceiling as a female choreographer, and how she confronted sexism among the decision-makers of dance companies of the early and mid-20th century.
She also lived in the shadow of her legendary brother, Vaslav Nijinsky. As described by Garafola, there was a strong sibling rivalry between Vaslav and Bronislava, and to a degree a rivalry of cruelty, jealousy, and harshness.
Born in Minsk (in Belarus) in 1890, it was when her father left his family in 1897 to pursue a relationship with another woman when Nijinska’s life had its major change. By that time her family was living in St. Petersburg, and both Vaslav and Bronislava began studying at the Imperial Ballet School.
Nijinska joined the Mariinsky Ballet’s corps de ballet in 1908, and in 1911 she joined Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a full-time member. In 1912 she married her first husband, Alexander Kochetovsky, a fellow dancer, who had many of the attributes of Nijinska’s father in that he was a womanizer. After dancing in the works of Mikhail Fokine and her brother’s works, she returned to St. Petersburg in 1914 where she began making dance pieces – and in 1919 she established her own school in Kiev.
Working in the “provinces” Nijinska made her living dancing in and also restaging the Ballets Russes repertoire – and upon pursuing her career in Moscow many opportunities abroad were lost as the Bolshevik Revolution took hold – to the point that she was unable to join her brother in Western Europe. Even upon returning to Kiev she decried the dance establishment in Russia as she searched for new movement forms that were evolving in the avant garde. Her husband accepted an engagement in Odessa while Nijinska adapted to the political changes made by the Soviets.
Ultimately when her school in Kiev was destroyed, she and her immediate family members decided to flee from the Soviet Union making their way to Warsaw.
In 1921 Nijinska returned to the Ballets Russes as a dancer and choreographer in the hope that she could help her brother though his battle with mental illness.
Her first assignment with the Ballets Russes was a revival of The Sleeping Beauty, rechristened The Sleeping Princess, for which Nicholas Sergeyev was engaged to stage –however his expertise and musicianship was questioned, and Diaghilev felt that the production needed to be adapted to appeal to a modern audience with he, himself, editing the score and production. Nijinska’s contributions were in some of the Act III divertissements, the Hunting Dances in Act II, Aurora’s variation in the Vision Scene and the Prologue Fairy/”Finger Variation” which was ultimately taught to Ninette de Valois in 1923, and was included in one of de Valois’ productions of The Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Ballet. Nijinska danced the Lilac Fairy among other roles in The Sleeping Beauty. The Sleeping Princess premiered in London and later it was performed in an abridged version in Paris under the title Aurora’s Wedding. Through Nijinska’s career she restaged Aurora’s Wedding on a regular basis.
This time period was also of consequence as Nijinska’s husband Kochetovsky joined the Ballets Russes for The Sleeping Princess, and Kochetovsky and Nijinska agreed to divorce. Nijinska’s second husband was Nicholas Singaevsky, a pupil of hers from Kiev who danced with the Ballets Russes in 1919, the 1920-21 season in Poznan, and then rejoining the Ballets Russes in 1921 – and he and Nijinska were married in 1924.
It was in this creative period, in 1923, that Nijinska created her best-known work, Les Noces, choreographed to Igor Stravinsky’s music, and in 1924, she created Les Biches. Garafola has devoted individual chapters to these major works – with the works described as theater of action. In Les Noces, which was inspired by Russian folk traditions, and Garafola noted that the power is in the choreography rather than in the scenario – as Nijinska ignored Stravinsky’s song text. Les Noces and Les Biches are detailed in these chapters from their birth, working with the composers, delays in getting them produced, and how Diaghilev brought together the collaborators.
When Nijinska contemplated resigning from the Ballets Russes – and eventually did – one of the main reasons was the heated company politics as Diaghilev played favorites with the male dancers, and as he did with her brother, Vaslav, they were offered choreography projects and her authority was undermined. With George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, and Serge Lifar ready to take over choreographic projects for the Ballets Russes, Nijinska’s opportunities were reduced.
After resigning from the Ballet Russes, she pursued a career as a freelance choreographer and also established her Theatre Choreographique employing dancers from various companies and toured Europe. Diaghilev didn’t appreciate the competition that this company represented and compromised those Ballets Russes’ dancers’ visas if they participated. However Nijinska was invited back to choreograph a short version of Romeo and Juliet for the Ballets Russes.
Because she didn’t get along with her sister-in-law, Romola Nijinsky, it was ironic that Romola became her agent with the pitch being not only being a choreographer but that she was also able to restage Vaslav’s ballets. However that did enable Nijinska to work with some of the major opera houses in Europe.
Nijinska was engaged for two seasons in 1926 and 1927 as choreographic director for the Teatro Colon in Buenos Argentina to which Garafola credits Nijinska for bringing European modernism, new Ballets Russes works, and works of her own to the company’s repertoire, and also employing her talents as an administrator to bring a higher standard of dancing and production to the Teatro Colon.
Just as interesting was Nijinska’s engagement as artistic director of Les Ballets de Madame Ida Rubenstein, the vanity project of Ida Rubenstein with whom Nijinska worked with at the Ballets Russes. Although the company lasted only 15 months due to Rubenstein’s lack of management skills, Nijinska created several dance pieces including Bolero and La Valse which were not only notable for their choreography but also her collaboration with new and noted composers.
From 1930-33 Nijinsky was engaged as the overall director of the Vienna State Opera Ballet with the portfolio of modernizing both the company and the school. Although there were disagreements between herself and the company’s management over intellectual property issues and her juggling many engagements at the same time, she did fulfill a year’s worth of the obligation where she reproduced Ballets Russes ballets and her dance pieces of her own for the company. At the same time she also was engaged by the Opera Russe which was based in Paris, and also juggled a return engagement with Ida Rubenstein.
And in 1934 she returned to Monte Carlo – and attempted to establish Les Ballets Russe de Bronislava Nijinska for which she created her version of Hamlet – a company that was short-lived due to financial problems.
Also in 1934 Nijinska traveled to the United States for the first time, ultimately travelling to Hollywood to choreograph the dance sequences in Max Reinhardt’s screen version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Also confirmed was a contract with Hurok Concerts for an 8-week American tour the Nijinska Ballet during the 1935-36 season and was also engaged for a commission, Les Cent Baisers, by de Basil’s Ballets Russes.
In 1936 Nijinska headed back to the Teatro Colon to curate a Stravinsky Festival, and in 1937 she was engaged by the Markova-Dolin Ballet to restage her ballets and coached the 19th century classics — and then on to Poland to establish a national ballet company to perform in Poland and tour Europe.
In spite of the many commitments Nijinska had in Europe, the continent was in the midst of war and Nijinska decided that she and her family must leave Europe seeking refuge in New York City.
Upon arrival in the United States, she was engaged to stage La Fille Mal Gardee – with music by Peter Hertel based on Lev Ivanov’s choreography – for Ballet Theatre in 1940. It was well received but debt caused the company to suspend operations, and Nijinska headed out to Hollywood to teach. Among her students were Cyd Charisse, and Maria and Marjorie Tallchief. Upon returning to New York she worked with Ballet Theatre, took on local teaching positions – among them teaching at Jacob’s Pillow.
For the 1942-43 season, Nijinsky created The Snow Maiden for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1943 Nijinska attached herself to Ballet International Marquis de Cuevas, and also choreographed for other companies as engagements came up after World War II.
Nijinska returned to the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in 1947, at which time Nijinska restaged two of her works and initiated an up and down relationship that lasted through 1960. Nijinska was unwilling to tour with the company, and there were debts to her which were not resolved until after the company had disbanded.
Nijinska returned to Ballet Theatre in 1951, and created a new work and restaged others – and was also engaged to direct the Ballet Theatre School – a relationship which didn’t last long.
Moving to the 1960’s Nijinska came into conflict with the ambitions of a nemesis from the past, George Balanchine. With the support from the Ford Foundation there were plans formulated to establish professional ballet companies in major American cities. The mechanics of doing so was for Balanchine to bring to these cities teachers, choreographers, dancers, and even technicians – and his ballets. The consensus was that Balanchine’s centralized plans seemed to demean local dance organizations – and in reference to founding a ballet company in Los Angeles – Nijinska described this whole plan as a ”monopolistic dictatorship.”
In a major breakthrough in her career, in 1964 , Frederick Ashton invited her to restage Les Biches and Les Noces for the Royal Ballet which resulted in offers from other European ballet companies to acquire her ballets.
In 1968 she formed an association with the Kathleen Crofton’s Ballet Center of Buffalo (New York) for which she staged her own ballets and Aurora’s Wedding – after getting much attention if not the best reviews, the company was abandoned in 1970 when its patron withdrew financial support.
Nijinska died in 1972 from a heart attack and although her ballets lived beyond her life, they are rarely performed.
It is fortunate that this titan of the ballet world has been remembered and her artistic legacy is chronicled in Garafola’s well researched, well-referenced, and readable book. Bronislava Nijinska deserves an important place in dance history, and La Nijinska confirms that place in dance history.
City Center Encores – The Life
March 19, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The City Center Encores’ second presentation of this season, performed from March 16-20, 2022, was a concert adaptation and reinterpretation of the musical, The Life. City Center Encores’ mission has been radically changed with the new prism being reimagining neglected Broadway musicals in the hope that they might be more relevant to 21st century audiences. The message is primary and the music is secondary.
Premiered on Broadway in 1997, The Life focuses on the lives of prostitutes, drug dealers, drug addicts, and other inhabitants of the Times Square theatre district in the 1980’s before Times Square was redeveloped and rehabilitated – devolved into Disneyfication. This was the seedy side of New York at the time and The Life, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman with a book by David Newman, Gasman and Coleman, depicted this time and place in an effective and self-deprecating manner that is still relevant today.
In engaging Billy Porter as director and adapter, The Life has been given a fusion of contemporary relevance and an effort to see the lives of the characters through a less critical lens, with the plot points that were hinted at in the original production, are now more developed. In a talk back after the performance I attended Porter revealed his association with The Life as an actor who auditioned for the original production – but was not given a role –yet was invited to participate in backers’ auditions. His heartfelt feeling was that the truth of the lives of the people who were depicted in The Life was not presented with dignity and acceptance in the original version of The Life – as well as concerns about social issues which are also concerns of today.
With these apprehensions in mind there were many revisions in The Life from changes in story lines, lyrics, positioning and cutting of songs, adding speeches about social issues, and current political and social references. And there was also the channeling of Bertolt Brecht in transforming The Life from a musical comedy to a musical drama. A point made was that the humor was taken out of The Life as part of the surgical procedure in revising this musical – even a reorchestration of Cy Coleman’s music to reflect the musical styles of the time.
These elements were revealed in the Prologue in which the Older JoJo (played by Destan Owens), as narrator, looks back on his life after having left New York for Los Angeles where he is a press agent in Hollywood. His younger self (played by Mykal Kilgore) is an opportunist who meddles in the lives of pimps and prostitutes for profit — making it a dangerous world to live in.
A drug addicted military veteran Fleetwood (played by Ken Robinson) is trying to make it as a pimp and only has Queen (played by Alexandra Grey) in his stable. He then targets a blonde newcomer to New York City, Mary (played by Erika Olson), to make money – it turns out Mary is not as innocent as she seems to be – and Queen leaves him when she finds out that Fleetwood’s involvement with Mary is not merely business. Then there is Memphis (played by Antwayn Hooper), the controlling pimp who recruits Queen displacing his main squeeze Sonja (played by Ledisi). All of the characters are survivors and also have aspirations to leave this life that they are leading, and as the plot evolves — emotions are high and out of control — it is not going to be a happy ending for them.
Cy Coleman’s score for The Life was his last one for Broadway and was composed with a big band era style. In this reorchestrated version Coleman’s music is more than just obscured, it is overwhelmed – and that’s even with some of the excellent vocal performances given by the cast members.
The showstopper of the performance was Ledisi’s performance of “The Oldest Profession”, which has been moved to the second act. But all of the cast members give well-intentioned and committed performances.
Unfortunately this City Center Encores production of The Life gets bogged down into a nearly 3-hour long piece that is filled with many ideas that are not fulfilled. One can only evaluate this production of The Life as to whether The Life needed to be re-interpreted in this way or not – or if Porter’s intentions might have been better expressed and served in an entirely new musical work.
Unfortunately the net result of the City Center Encores production of The Life is well-intentioned, but baffling.
Royal Winnipeg Ballet – The Sleeping Beauty
February 26, 2022
By Mark Kappel
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet has been facing hurdles in terms of dancing live performances and curtailing its touring due to Covid-19 restrictions. Fortunately the company is presenting a digital presentation of its production of The Sleeping Beauty from February 25 – March 13, 2022 which is accessible to all audiences.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, currently directed by Andre Lewis, has performed its production of The Sleeping Beauty since 2002. It had been staged by Galina Yordanova with additional contributions by Anna-Marie Holmes using Marius Petipa’s blueprint for this classic 19th century ballet.
Choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s ballet score, considered to be the best ballet score composed, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty is rooted in the Russian traditions of this ballet.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty is not a reconstruction or deconstruction, and does not stray from the original fairy tale story. At birth, Princess Aurora, is cursed by the evil fairy Carabosse to sleep for 100 hundred years until a stalwart and brave Prince seeks her out with the assistance and magic of the Lilac Fairy. There are adventures and visions, and many familiar fairy tale characters who are participants in this story.And there is lots of classical ballet and character dancing.
In this production of The Sleeping Beauty the corner stone is the story-telling which is enhanced by the scenery designs by Michael Egan, and the costume designs by Shannon Lovelace and Anne Armit. There is a unity of style in the dancing, and the mime is delivered with the same speed and intensity of real conversations.
Elizabeth Lamont elegantly rules this fairy-tale kingdom as the Lilac Fairy, and Stephan Azulay is suitably evil as Carabosse – this is the battle of good over evil. Alanna McAdie as Aurora and Yue Shi as Desire dance with confidence, and charm. Also notable were Emilie Lewis and Yosuke Mino in the Bluebird Pas de Deux.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty is danced with spirit – also with clarity. This is the way this ballet should be danced and produced with a little understatement in the designs, and focusing on the dancing and the story.
Intimate Apparel – A New American Opera
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
February 11, 2022
By Mark Kappel
One of the Lincoln Center Theater’s presentations, that had been postponed because of the pandemic shutdown of New York City theatres, is not a theatre piece but an opera, Intimate Apparel. This new and involving opera, being performed at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is based on Lynn Nottage’s play (which premiered in 2003). Intimate Apparel is the first opera that has been produced through a collaboration between Lincoln Center Theater and the Metropolitan Opera as part of the Met/LCT New Works Program – dedicated to developing new opera and music theater works.
Lynn Nottage’s play, Intimate Apparel, is inspired by the life of Nottage’s great grandmother, and in this opera adaptation, with a score by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Lynn Nottage, this opera version of the play has a new life as a chamber opera focusing on a slice of New York City life at the beginning of the 20th century which reveals the story of beautifully drawn characters.
Set in 1905 – in New York City – Intimate Apparel tells the story of Esther, a hard-working, lonely and single African-American woman who has earned her reputation for her sewing skills – for making corsets and ladies’ undergarments.
She is surrounded by the upper crust and the ugly elements of New York City society, and through her hard work she is saving her money to open her own beauty salon where she hopes to serve black women on an equal status with her mostly white clientele.
Esther also aspires to a bit of love and romance for herself, although the options that are presented to her are not practical. One of them, the Jewish owner of a fabric store, Mr. Marks, seems like a dream match but for the issues of race and religion getting in the way.
Esther’s landlady, Mrs. Dickson, who has been successful in making matches for her gals, wishes to take on the role of a matchmaker on Esther’s behalf.
Esther receives encouraging letters from George Armstrong, a Barbados-born suitor who is a laborer on the Panama Canal. Armstrong describes himself as a friend of the church deacon’s son.
Being illiterate Esther seeks the help of two of her customers Mrs. Van Buren, a lonely member of New York City society, and Mayme, a prostitute and best friend in reading and interpreting Armstrong’s letters and responding to Armstrong’s letters in a proper manner. Both ladies, who are involved in unhappy relationships of their own, live vicariously through the letters they are writing to Armstrong on Esther’s behalf. And ultimately not only was Esther misrepresenting herself in these letters but Armstrong was doing the same as he had a friend who was “ghost writing” his letters.
Armstrong suggests marriage to Esther, sight unseen, and travels to New York to marry Esther. To Armstrong’s credit, perhaps with some good motives, Armstrong enters into this surprising marriage. However Armstrong gambles away Esther’s savings, and has his affairs. Ultimately this leaves Esther alone when she returns to her life at the boarding house – complicated by her pregnancy.
Ricky Ian Gordon’s music is easily accessible with the inclusion of many musical styles among them syncopated ragtime and other musical forms fashionable and trendy in New York City in the early 20th century. Nottage’s libretto is filled with beautiful poetry and conveys the story coherently.
Director Bartlett Sher focuses in on Intimate Apparel’s dramatic point plots in this opera adaptation which is presented simply on a turntable set which also includes video projections and photos of New York at the turn of the century. The story is told in an intimate manner with only two pianos playing Gordon’s score.
The cast of singers in Intimate Apparel represents this production of the opera’s greatest asset.
Kearstin Piper Brown gives a compelling performance as Esther – expressed with great nobility, dignity, resilience and you feel she is strong enough – in spite of her disappointments – that she will be okay – even though she has been betrayed by all.
Justin Austin gives a formidable performance as Esther’s suitor, George Armstrong – not a likable character in this opera – but his performance portrays well his dramatic arc being a kindhearted suitor to a man who decides to and succeeds in gambling away his future.
The role of Mayme, one of Esther’s best friends, is that of a prostitute, but is a role that has a range from the comic to despair, which proved to be a vehicle for yet another compelling performance. This one coming from Krysty Swann who heightens both the comic moments and dramatic moments in her singing and acting displaying her versatility.
Sympathetic was Arnold Livingston Geis as the Jewish fabric seller Mr. Marks, and the performance of the motherly and experienced landlady Mrs. Dickson by Adrienne Danrich.
Another featured performance of note was that of Naomi Louisa O’Connell as socialite Mrs. Van Buren, another one of Esther’s allies in her search for love, who successfully portrays another indifferent character in a benevolent manner.
Intimate Apparel is a noble effort and for opera lovers and theater lovers it is essential to experience. It is a new American opera with a great story to tell which is told well in this opera’s music, libretto, and its production by the Lincoln Center Theater.
City Center Encores – The Tap Dance Kid
February 3, 2022
By Mark Kappel
It’s back! After two years of hibernation due to Covid-19 lockdown and cancellations, City Center Encores opened its 2022 season with the first of its offerings which had been postponed from a previous season. The opening production is The Tap Dance Kid, a musical that premiered on Broadway in 1983, and is being presented in an energized and highly entertaining concert version from February 2-6, 2022.
The Tap Dance Kid came to be noticed not only because of its Tony nominations but also because several young actors – Alfonso Ribiero and Savion Glover among them – appeared in the role of the young Willie during its Broadway engagement – and many of them have achieved stardom in the entertainment field.
The creative team for The Tap Dance Kid is composer Henry Krieger, lyric writer Robert Lorick with a book by Charles Blackwell based on Louise Fitzhugh’s novel Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change. For this City Center Encores presentation this concert version was adapted by Lydia R. Diamond with new choreography by Jared Grimes and all under the direction of Kenny Leon.
The story takes place in the 1950’s and focuses on Willie (played by Alexander Bello) who wants to become a professional tap dancer like his uncle, Dipsey (played by Trevor Jackson) and his grandfather, Daddy Bates (played by DeWitt Fleming Jr.) who all before him were part of the family legacy. However Willie’s father, William (played by Joshua Henry), a lawyer and civil rights activist, has different plans for his son.
With both William and his wife, Ginnie (played by Adrienne Walker) having to struggle through poverty, William getting his education and succeeding as a lawyer, they didn’t want their children to have that same struggle. This upper middle class black family had its own journey, and in particular, William as an authoritarian father, has specific ideas about how his children will take their places in society. Besides young Willie’s dreams and ambitions, there is also William’s daughter Emma (played by Shahadi Wright Joseph) who finds herself ignored by her father yet she has ambitions to be a lawyer herself following in her father’s footsteps.
The Tap Dance Kid has many thematic threads including racism, a coming-of-age story, how people follow their dreams – and also a highly-charged family drama. The story is told effectively through the Henry Krieger/Robert Lorick score, and the choreography by Jared Grimes which takes the audience through a history of the art of tap dancing.
Every member of the talented cast on stage offers a major contribution to the success of this concert version of The Tap Dance Kid. But, in particular, Alexander Bello as Willie and DeWitt Fleming Jr. as Daddy Bates – Willie’s grandfather – in “Tap Tap”, Trevor Jackson as Dipsey in “Something Better” and “Fabulous Feet”, and Joshua Henry as William in his reading and performance of “William’s Song” in which William comes to terms with not fulfilling his own dreams and his goals for his family – and allows his son, Willie, to shine his own light to pursue his dream of being a professional dancer.
There is also much to say about hearing Harold Wheeler original orchestrations played by the Encores! Orchestra under the guidance of guest music director and conductor, Joseph Joubert, and Kenny Leon’s focused direction.
At the show’s end you can feel the love between the cast and the audience – and although The Tap Dance Kid is not a diamond that has been revealed in this concert version, it is a Broadway musical that deserves attention.
Prayer for the French Republic
Manhattan Theatre Club – Stage I
January 28, 2022
By Mark Kappel
Here we are in 2022 and we are still discussing how the world has not evolved over decades – politically and socially – and Joshua Harmon’s play, Prayer for the French Republic is the thought-provoking play that our times call for. Now being presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club through February 27, 2022, Harmon’s play is truly a saga – as well as an historical survey– which reflects how much has changed but more so how little has changed.
Prayer for the French Republic begins its story-telling in 1944, in France, where a Jewish couple – the Salomon family — anticipates news about their family’s fate. The Nazis are occupying France and the Vichy French Government is weak and powerless, and after that occupation has ended refugees have been scattered all over Europe who are trying to reconnect with family and friends and don’t know where to turn. All that they can hang to is the speculation, fantasizing about good news, and hoping for the best for their children, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, cousins, and parents. A challenging time when so many people’s lives were irrevocably changed by events not in one’s control.
This couple was able to remain in Paris during the occupation by pure luck and were the scions of a family business – making and selling pianos – pianos which were in the homes of families all over France. The wife, a prize-winning pianist, supports her husband in the family business. And the safety of their children and grandchildren are constantly on their minds.
Jumping forward from the past, Prayer for the French Republic picks up again 70 years later when this Jewish couple’s great grandchildren – the Benhamou Family — are facing the same question as to how they fit into French society of the present. At a point in time when being confronted by terrorist and antisemitic acts which are resurfacing in Europe and making it an uncomfortable place to live for ethnic and religious minorities. Where or how do they turn in determining their future life in France.
Harmon takes up this topic in Prayer for the French Republic in family debates in both eras and depicting a similar atmosphere in which these decisions were made and were being debated – with the ghost of past family members haunting present members as they confront the issues of whether they are safe or need to leave for a safe haven in Israel.
Harmon depicts, expresses, and explains both sides of these complicated debates and predicaments for those who have to make life-changing decisions – some in comic dialogues and monologues, and also in similar dialogues and monologues of anxiety and concern. And these debates continue on into eternity.
There are moments that Harmon gets a little preachy – and sometimes the debates become too complicated to comprehend in this nearly three-hour play. However, director David Cromer has skillfully honed and drawn the pictures created by the families in each era, and highlight the inner anxieties of the members of each family.
It is Richard Topol as Patrick Salomon who narrates this compelling story and also often acts as a devil’s advocate and as an advocate for his loyalties to his homeland, France. Topol is part of an excellent and sensitive ensemble of actors, which also includes Betsy Aidem as Marcelle Benhamou, Jeff Seymour as Charles Benhamou, Francis Benhamou as Elodie Benhamou, Yair Ben-Dor as Daniel Benhamou, Pierre Epstein as Pierre Salomon, Nancy Robinette as Irma Salomon, Kenneth Tigar as Adolphe Salomon, Ari Brandt as Lucien Salomon, Peyton Lusk as the Younger Pierre Solomon – and Molly Ranson as Molly, a distant American cousin who acts as a catalyst in the debates focused on by the Benhamou Family.
Sadly, history repeats itself – the question is whether we learn from history or not. That is the crux of Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic – which is applicable in these times that have been described as chaotic. Prayer for the French Republic is a provocative play that is engaging and timely – it is an absorbing and involving theatrical experience not to be missed for all who are seeking answers to these terrifying and thought-provoking questions.
Everything Is Choreography – The Musical Theater of Tommy Tune
By Mark Kappel
Kevin Winkler has written a monograph which is about everything that is Tommy Tune in Everything Is Choreography – The Musical Theater of Tommy Tune, which has been published by Oxford University Press.
Born in Texas, and growing up to be six feet six tall Tune was in a category of his own. At the age of 26 Tune was a seasoned and well-known Broadway performer having won a Tony Award as a Featured Actor in a musical for Seesaw in 1973 — for which he also created choreography.
Preceding that Broadway success, Tune landed the first job he got in New York after auditioning for a summer stock tour of Irma La Douce, and in 1965 he made his Broadway debut in the musical, Baker Street. He then transitioned to be co-director and co-choreographer in 1978 for his first Broadway outing in those roles, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Tune had dual careers as a performer and director/choreographer and also in different mediums. As a performer Tune appeared in two major films, Hello, Dolly, and The Boyfriend, and thereafter television variety shows. Tune also directed two plays off-Broadway, Eve Merriam’s The Club, and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine. He also appeared in a successful national tour of Bye Bye Birdie.
What followed was a string of Broadway successes including Grand Hotel, My One and Only (which he also performed in), A Day In Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, and The Will Rogers Follies.
In addition he also earned a reputation as a show doctor salvaging Broadway musicals that were in trouble.
Winkler describes Tune’s lineage following that of Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett as a director/choreographer. Winkler believes that Tune went a step beyond focusing on spectacle by employing state of the art stage technology with seamless staging effects to accomplish that spectacle – and Tune is still influencing current Broadway director/choreographers. In fact Winkler describes Tune as of the last of the great director/choreographers.
Notable that Tune made the remark that every show he had ever directed had been, in his creative mind, a ballet.
Winkler describes in detail the evolution and development of Tune’s major Broadway successes including The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Nine, My One and Only, and The Will Rogers Follies.
Most interesting to me were the details of the development of My One And Only, based on the Gershwins’ Funny Face, and pioneering the form of a jukebox musical using songs from the Gershwins’ catalogue.
My One and Only evolved originally under the guidance of director Peter Sellars, known for his avant garde and experimental theatre and opera productions – and conflicts began early between creators Sellars and Craig Smith (a frequent Sellars’ collaborator who became a team member to adapt the songs taken from the Gershwins’ catalogue) – being described as the forces of Brecht – and Tune and the forces of The Pajama Game. Sellars was fired before the first public performances of My One And Only at which point Tune was asked to take over the show while starring in it, and it was his vision that was chosen over Sellars’ vision. Tune called in some of his notable theatrical friends including Mike Nichols, and Peter Stone to provide him with help on this musical’s book – and later Michael Bennett was also brought in to make further changes but was fired after making those changes.
My One and Only focused on the relationship of champion swimmer Edith Herbert, played by Twiggy, and aviator Billy Buck Chandler, played by Tune dancing through the Gershwins’ musical catalogue.
I remember seeing a preview of My One And Only and Tune’s pre-performance curtain speech in which he apologized for the fact that newly-built scenery had not yet arrived at the St. James and the performance would be played with what was at hand. In many respects Tune saved the show, made a performance commitment to it, and also appeared in the show on tour – a commitment of nearly five years.
How The Will Rogers Follies evolved seemed to be similar to My One and Only. A collaboration of a familiar team of people and the delegation of aspects of the production to them. The Will Rogers Follies started out with John Denver as its star. Denver was also engaged to compose the score only for him to withdraw from the project. Alternative stars being considered were Gary Busey, Treat Williams, Mac Davis, and Bill Irwin before Keith Carradine was chosen to play Will Rogers. The Will Rogers Follies evolved into a financial success after a successful Broadway run and made back its investment due to its financially lucrative national tour.
Winkler’s detailed analysis of My One and Only and The Will Rogers Follies emphasized how many of Tune’s successful musicals were true collaborations.
However there was a period of time when Tune found himself associated with less successful projects. The sequel to the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas – entitled The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public – which proved to be misguided and hampered by the fact that Tune had made a commitment to supervising a revival of Grease at around the same time period — which was no better received on Broadway than The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, but became a financial success on Broadway and on a national tour.
Tune participated as a performer in a new musical that was headed to Broadway, which had many titles, but which will be referred to here as Busker Alley, a musical adaptation of the film, St. Martin’s Lane, written by the Sherman Brothers. Initially this musical was to be directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun with Tune making contributions. But during a financially unsuccessful out of town tour, which included revisions and changes, Tune broke his foot on tour and Busker Alley’s road to Broadway had ended.
Another ill-fated project was a stage musical of the film, Easter Parade, which Tune was to co-star in with Sandy Duncan , which wound up in development hell due to withdrawals of funding and the stars taking on other projects. Soon after Tune took over revising a stage adaptation of Dr. Doolittle which he also starred in but did not develop to the point where it could be presented on Broadway. It was unfortunate that Tune was involved in a myriad of projects which seemed ill-chosen and mis-directed at this point in his career.
In recent years Tune has returned to performing in cabaret shows and one-man touring shows.
Winkler traces the genealogy of director/choreographers who followed Tune to Broadway and how much they owed to him. Not quite clear if Tune missed Broadway or whether Tune felt that musicals he wished to create were not what Broadway audiences wanted to see.
However Winkler’s book gathers the details of Tune’s many careers in one place and is an absorbing read.
Vienna State Opera Ballet – Liebeslieder
January 15, 2022
By Mark Kappel
During this current season the Vienna State Opera Ballet has had few cancelled performances due to the ongoing pandemic and has continued to present not only live performances but also streamed performances to reach a wider audience. The most recent of these streamed performances was a triple bill of dance pieces with the overall title of Liebeslieder.
This program included a company premiere and revivals which resulted in a varied and entertaining program of dance.
Opening the program was of Jerome Robbins’ Other Dances which premiered in 1976 as a vehicle for Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov – one of several Robbins’ ballets choreographed to music by Frederic Chopin. This was a quiet and auspicious beginning for this program as it was elegantly danced by Hyo-Jung Kang and Davide Dato fully filling the stage space and capturing the folk elements in the choreography – with nuance and speed.
In a contrasting style was the company premiere of Concerto, a ten-minute piece choreographed by an American modernist, Lucinda Childs, and choreographed to music composed by Henryk Gorecki. In spite of the modernist and contemporary choreographic vocabulary, Concerto was conceived with symmetry rather than dissonance or disunity. Included was sharp and delineated angular movement – and to the point.
The ensemble cast of Marie Breuilles, Natalya Butchko, Laura Cislaghi, Sveva Gargiulo, Francois-Eloi Lavignac, Duccio Tariello and Daniel Vizcayo executed Childs’ choreography with exactness and precision.
The third and closing work on this program was a revival of George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer, a work that the Vienna State Opera Ballet has been dancing since 1977 yet a ballet rarely danced around the world.
A salon entertainment is set in a room in an elegant home with Johannes Brahms’ lieder sung by a quartet of singers accompanied by two pianists. The choreographic signature is variations on the waltz and it feels as if one is eavesdropping on each couple’s intimate moments throughout this dance piece.
Liebeslieder Walzer is divided into two parts with the ladies changing from regular shoes to point shoes for the second half – with the second half being somewhat dream-like as the couples are left to their own thoughts as they are listening and interpretating the music.
The cast of Claudine Schoch, Roman Lazik, Elena Bottaro, Denys Cherevychko, Liudmila Konovalova, Zsolt Torok, Maria Yakovleva and Masayu Kimoto gave animated and poetic performances in this ballet’s principal roles.
The Vienna State Opera Ballet’s Liebeslieder, offered a well-balanced and involving program of dance.
Flying Over Sunset
Vivian Beaumont Theater
January 11, 2022
By Mark Kappel
All new musicals that open on Broadway are much anticipated because one, or every one, of them could be an historic moment for the musical theater. One of the new musicals rescheduled for this season, after being postponed due to Covid-19 lockdowns, was the Lincoln Center Theater’s Flying Over Sunset which premiered back in December at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
The creative team has a great track record of past achievements with James Lapine as both director and book writer, and Tom Kitt and Michael Korie writing the score. Then there is the story that is being told.
The audience is transported to Hollywood in the 1950’s where four people are depicted searching through their lives and trying to find answers to questions focusing on political and social issues to problems in their personal lives. Ultimately all of them meet together at a beach house overlooking the Pacific Ocean to experiment with the hallucinatory drug of choice, LSD.
The participants in this fictional meeting are well-known film star Cary Grant, novelist Aldous Huxley (an English writer and philosopher who is best known for Brave New World, a rather scary philosophical tome about the world’s future and the people who live in it), playwright, U.S. Ambassador and politician Clare Booth Luce, who espoused conservative political leanings and would be known to the theatre community for writing the Broadway play, The Women, and Gerald Heard, a British-born American historian and philosopher, who acts as a guide and mentor to them all.
In the 1950’s psychedelic drugs were tools of psychotherapy and a trendy bit of amusement for many in Hollywood.
The stories about these participants are represented in the first act of Flying Over Sunset which primarily is that of exposition. For Huxley, who is going blind, the experience allows him to see colors. For Luce she relives memories about her late daughter and her late mother. And for Cary Grant it is reconciling his experiences as a child, coping with poverty, and his unconventional parents.
At Luce’s invitation, there is a gathering of Huxley, Grant, Heard and herself at her Malibu home where they experiment using LSD – during which memories and emotions are triggered.
There are moments throughout Flying Over Sunset that makes one question if it is a musical or a play with music. But it is definitely an intriguing piece of musical theater.
In Flying Over Sunset you have an example of an enigma wrapped in an enigma as to whether the creative team and the cast achieved the alchemy to make an interesting and involving musical. Some of the alchemy works and some of it doesn’t.
In an exhibition of Michelle Dorrance’s unique approach to tap dancing, and perhaps the most compelling and entertaining moment in Flying Over Sunset, is the scene in a California psychiatrist’s office in Act I when Tony Yazbek as Cary Grant sings and dances with his younger self, Atticus Ware, in “I Have It All” and “Funny Money”. It is a showstopper.
And giving equally compelling performances are Carmen Cusack as Clare Booth Luce, Harry Hadden-Paton as Aldous Huxley, and Robert Sella as Gerald Heard.
Beowulf Boritt’s minimalist scenery design employing video and projections is atmospheric and fills the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s unique stage well.
James Lapine, along with his collaborators Tom Kitt and Michael Korie, has brought to the stage a provocative and hypnotic piece of musical theater, and I would give it a tentative yes in terms of Flying Over Sunset being worth a viewing.
La Scala Ballet – La Bayadere
January 6, 2022
By Mark Kappel
With continuing corona virus surges, cancellations of performances are rampant throughout the world and in Italy there have been no exceptions. A company premiere of Rudolf Nureyev’s production of La Bayadere was to have taken place in December – but only one performance was filmed – and the remaining performances are to take place later in January if restrictions are lifted.
Fortunately the filmed performance of La Bayadere was streamed to enable audiences in Italy and other parts of the world to view it for themselves. This was seen on January 6th, 2022 with Manuel Legris, formerly of the Paris Opera Ballet and now director of La Scala Ballet, and Florence Clerc staging Rudolf Nureyev’s production of La Bayadere.
Nureyev’s staging of La Bayadere is not much different from productions being danced by many Russian ballet companies. Its roots come from the 19th century in which the ballet’s creators imagined about what life might have been like in India without having visited the country. Marius Petipa, and composer Ludwig Minkus created a style and atmosphere that was a pastiche and imagining of what they thought was how people lived in India.
The tale is that of Solor, an Indian Warrior, who is engaged to marry the Rajah’s daughter, Gamzatti, but his affections are directed towards Nikiya, one of the temple dancers. The Brahmin informs the Rajah that Solor and Nikiya have been meeting in secret – which Gamzatti overhears – and efforts are made to persuade Nikiya to release Solor from his commitment to her. Nikiya refuses to do so, and a plot is put into action for Nikiya to be bitten by a poisonous snake in the course of her dancing turn in celebration of the marriage of Gamzatti and Solor. Even though the Brahmin offers an antidote to the poison, Nikiya refuses and her spirit haunts Solor thereafter. What follows is the famous Shades Act in which Nikiya’s spirit appears to Solor and offers most of the dancing in the ballet, and also resolves that although Solor still has a life to lead after Nikiya’s death, he feels remorse about what has transpired.
What makes Nureyev’s production of La Bayadere distinctive is its opulence and grandness which is enhanced by the colorful and extravagant designs by Luisa Spinatelli. These designs emphasize the inherent sense of the spectacular in this production.
Nicoletta Manni dancing the role of Nikiya, Timofej Andrijashenko dancing the role of Solor, and Maria Celeste Losa dancing the role of Gamzatti, all rose to the occasion in their performances along with the formidable performance of La Scala’s corps de ballet in the Shades Act.
Fortunate to have had the opportunity to see La Scala Ballet dance Rudolf Nureyev’s production of La Bayadere and to see how the company put its own stamp on this ballet.
Joburg Ballet – The Nutcracker
December 26, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Streaming technology has now made it possible to view dance and theater performances from all over the world and in the comfort of one’s home. It creates opportunities to see performances that you might not be able to see otherwise.
From December 22, 2021 through January 5, 2022, the Joburg Ballet (based in Johannesburg, South Africa) is presenting video on demand performances of the company’s production of The Nutcracker which had been filmed at the Joburg Theatre on October 13, 2021.
The Joburg Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker was produced and choreographed by the company’s artistic director, Iain MacDonald with the assistance of ballet mistress Lauren Slade, and Nicole Ferreira-Dill, Bruno Miranda, and Thabang Mabaso, who choreographed a sections of the production. The essence of this production of The Nutcracker is less is more, simple in its presentation, and not only includes the company’s dancers but also children from the Joburg Ballet School.
The story, as presented, is traditional with a few minor changes and twists. The audience is able to peak into the Stahlbaum household for its Christmas Eve Party, and Drosselmeyer brings his Columbine and Harlequin mechanical dolls to amuse the children and the party guests. He gives Clara the gift of a Nutcracker and when she falls asleep her dream begins. The slight twist is that Clara also has fallen in love with Drosselmeyer’s son, Karl, and Clara is played by an adult dancer.
In Clara’s dream the Nutcracker defeats the Mouse King and his army of mice, and Drosselmeyer takes Clara on her journey into the Land of Snow where a Snow Cavalier waits to escort her and dance through the Dance of the Snowflakes, and then on to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Kingdom. The Nutcracker is transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier and although the Waltz of the Flowers is not included in this production, many other Act II divertissements are including the Chinese, Spanish, and Arabian Dances – and the Grand Pas de Deux danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
Gabriel Fernandes portrayed Drosselmeyer with the required charisma, Chloe Blair as Clara portrayed Clara’s journey and coming of age experience in both in her acting and dancing, and Raun Galdino was a supportive Snow Cavalier. Nicole Ferreira-Dill as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Armando Barros as Her Cavalier danced the Grand Pas de Deux with assurance and propriety.
Fortunately the Joburg Ballet is presenting hybrid performances both live and streamed, and to gain further support and enlarging its audience, it is important for the company to continue to present its performances in both formats in the future.
Nashville Ballet – The Nutcracker
December 25, 2021
By Mark Kappel
The Nashville Ballet, founded in 1986 and currently directed by Paul Vasterling, has, along with several other American ballet companies, presented a readily available streamed version of The Nutcracker for the holiday season. On December 25, 2021, Vasterling’s production of The Nutcracker was presented through local Nashville television auspices in a made for television version.
The Nashville Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, which premiered in 2008, was inspired by the Tennessee Centennial Exposition which in 1897 celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the state of Tennessee.
Employing this jumping off point Vasterling used moments in Nashville’s history to be highlighted in his production of The Nutcracker. A concept that was enhanced by Campbell Baird’s costumes and Shigera Yaji’s scenery designs.
In keeping with tradition Act I takes place in the Stahlbaum’s family home but prior to the guests arrival, there is a Prologue during which Clara is introduced to the many participants in the exhibitions at the Exposition by Drosselmeyer. These meetings are recorded in sepia still photographs. Among the party guests were the founder of Vanderbilt University, a Hollywood actress, and notable Nashville business men.
Drosselmeyer brings a dancing bear and also a toy doll to the party. But most important he brings Clara the gift of The Nutcracker. In Clara’s dream The Nutcracker comes alive to fight the Mouse King and his mice army, then accompanies Clara through a forest of snow, and then on to the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy. However before arriving in that Kingdom, Clara and the Nutcracker arrive at Nashville’s Parthenon Gardens to participate in the Waltz of the Flowers, and ultimately arrive in the Kingdom to be the audience for the traditional Nutcracker divertissements in Act II of this ballet.
Notably both the Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier dance their variations early in Act II and return at the end of Act II to dance the Adagio and Coda – leading the finale of the ballet.
For this season’s performance, Clara is danced by an adult dancer, Molly Sansone, and the Nutcracker was danced by Noah Miller. Because of their experience, their participation in the Waltz of the Flowers heightened the effect. Lily Saito as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nicholas Scheuer as Her Cavalier danced the variations, adagio, and coda of the Grand Pas de Deux with aplomb. Drosselmeyer, played by Jon Upleger, provided the magic in this production of The Nutcracker with the unique use of colored lights to make that magic.
Fortunate that the Nashville Ballet was not only able to offer live performances of The Nutcracker this year but also presented this made for television version which allowed a larger audience to see it.
New Jersey Ballet – The Nutcracker
December 22, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Although many arts organizations are back to presenting live performances and not relying on stream technology, there are just as many arts organizations that are presenting both live performances and streamed performances for the convenience of its audience and also to make it possible for a wider audience to see their performances. The New Jersey Ballet is one of the ballet companies in the United States that is presenting both live and streamed performances during the current season, and made one of its performances of its production of The Nutcracker available through stream technology.
This streamed performance was hosted by the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, New Jersey, which is one of the New Jersey Ballet’s performing venues. The company is based in Florham Park, New Jersey and has recently announced the appointment of Maria Kowroski, former principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, to be its Acting Artistic Director. This streamed performance of The Nutcracker was presented on December 22, 2021 with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra providing the wonderful live music.
The New Jersey Ballet has been performing The Nutcracker since 1971 and its current production includes choreographic elements by Joseph Carow, George Tomal, and David Tamaki.
The New Jersey Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker begins with a Christmas Party in the home of the Mayor and his family, with one of the guests being Herr Drosselmeyer, who is accompanied by his nephew. Drosselmeyer brings with him a porcelain doll and a soldier doll to entertain the children, and gives Clara the special gift a Nutcracker doll. Unfortunately Clara’s brother, Fritz, grabs the doll and breaks it. However Drosselmeyer’s nephew and Clara manage to save the doll, and tuck the Nutcracker into Clara’s doll bed.
Clara falls asleep and her dream begins with mice appearing as the Christmas tree grows, and the Nutcracker leads the toy soldiers in defeating the Mouse King and his army of mice. The Nutcracker is then transformed into a Prince, and he and Clara travel through the forest where they come upon the King and Queen of Snowflakes, and then on to the Land of Sweets where they are entertained by the kingdom’s inhabitants. The divertissements culminate in the Grand Pas de Deux danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier – and upon conclusion of the festivities, Clara is transported home in a swan boat.
Notably the New Jersey Ballet dancers create a sense of community in the Act I Christmas Party, and Paul McRae as Drosselmeyer provides an animated and naturalistic interpretation of this odd man who brings magic into Clara’s young life.
The Grand Pas de Deux was stunningly danced by Se Hun Jin as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and guest artist Brooklyn Mack as her Cavalier – dancing with elegance and virtuosity. Also in command of the stage were Risa Mochizuki as the Snow Queen and Yuuki Yamamoto as the Snow King. Charming were Yuiko Honda as Clara, and Jacopo Sensoli as the Nutcracker Prince.
This was a welcome return of the New Jersey Ballet’s live performances of The Nutcracker but also providing the rare opportunity to view a performance in one’s living room — if that is what you prefer — to bring in the holiday season.
Dance Conservatory of New York
– Nutcracker Suite
December 18, 2021
By Mark Kappel
This year after nearly two years’ absence, Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York, was back on the Symphony Space’s stage to present its annual performances of Kozlova’s staging of Nutcracker Suite.
Presented on December 18, 2021, the Dance Conservatory of New York’s students collaborated to perform Nutcracker Suite, which in its one-hour length, included variations and ensembles from The Nutcracker among them all of the Act II divertissements, and other solos carved out of the score for the Conservatory’s students.
The performance featured students who have studied at Kozlova’s ballet school in Norwalk, Connecticut, with Kozlova’s staging based on the choreography of the Russian masters including Vassily Vainonen.
The Nutcracker Suite opened with the dance of the Angels from the second act of The Nutcracker with the students in a procession holding candles in the darkness – certainly giving the impression that the candle light was guiding our way to the light and also representing absent friends that have been lost. The audience is then transported to see snow in the forest and to the Land of the Sweets.
The students exemplified style and musicality from Katherine St. Jean as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Shae McGraw as Clara, and Solenne Barclay as the Christmas Star, and the ensemble dancing the Waltz of the Flowers.
This was an occasion to welcome back the students of the Dance Conservatory of New York to the Symphony Space stage, their determination to do so, and that they will continue their training and artistic growth through more performances to come.
State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine –
New Jersey Performing Arts Center
December 11, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Our performance-attending experiences changed when a lockdown and restrictions were put into effect in 2020. We are now in the process of such restrictions being revised or removed. That has allowed for performances to take place – in particular dance performances – and in particular of the annual holiday performances of The Nutcracker.
On December 11, 2021, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey presented the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine in a new production of The Nutcracker, danced to Tchaikovsky’s familiar score, that was staged and adapted by the company’s artistic director Andrey Litvinov. This new production had its premiere in Dnipro, Ukraine in December 2020.
Adapted by Litvinov from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Litvinov has incorporated choreography by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, Alexander Gorsky, Vasili Vainonen, and Anatoly Yemelyanov into the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine’s production as well. In spite of the numerous choreographic contributions to this production of The Nutcracker it is quite traditional in its presentation – including a Christmas tree that grows – and was performed to recorded music.
The libretto still focuses on the toymaker Drosselmeyer (portrayed by Eygenii Kuchvar) who brings his creations to the Silberhaus Family’s home to celebrate Christmas Eve – offering his Columbine and Harlequin mechanical dolls. As in other productions of The Nutcracker Drosselmeyer presents a Nutcracker doll to the Silberhaus’ daughter, Marie, and after falling asleep in an armchair, Marie’s dream begins.
The Mouse King sneaks into the Silberhaus home and lies in waiting for the Nutcracker while Drosselmeyer makes his magic while the Christmas tree grows. Ultimately the Nutcracker defends himself against the Mouse King and his army of mice with the help of the intervention of both Marie and Drosselmeyer.
The Nutcracker is transformed into a Prince and he accompanies Marie in her journey first to a snow-covered land where the Prince and Marie dance a romantic pas de deux to be followed by the dance of the snowflakes – and then on to viewing a series of divertissements from many lands which is hosted by Drosselmeyer. The culminating divertissement is the Grand Pas de Deux danced by Marie and her Prince.
However in the end Marie wakes up from her dream – noting her Nutcracker doll beside her.
This production was notable for having adult dancers dancing the roles of the children at the Silberhaus Family’s Christmas Party, and a young, handsome and energetic dancer portraying the role of Drosselmeyer – with a great deal of charm and flair. The Arabian Dance, which was danced by Iona Baetler and Alexey Churich, had choreography that was infused with gymnastics and acrobatics which tested the dancers’ athletic skills, and the Spanish Dance, danced by Luminita Bivol and Dmitry Sitkevich, had all of the virtuosity of a performance of Don Quixote Pas de Deux. Both were clearly meant to rouse the audience which they did.
The role of Marie was danced by Alina Veretina, and The Nutcracker – transformed into a Prince – was danced by Sergei Zdansky. They both danced the Grand Pas de Deux with classical elegance and finesse.
What is most important is that the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine’s The Nutcracker brought back the joys and of the holiday season which have been missed.
Mrs. Doubtfire – The Musical
Stephen Sondheim Theatre
December 10, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Among the musicals whose openings were put into doubt when New York’s lockdown took place was the musical version of the film, Mrs. Doubtfire. Fortunately Mrs. Doubtfire has survived and re-opened at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre to be part of Broadway’s new season – at last. And it has added a great deal to this Broadway theatre season with a bit of hilarity, heart, and pure family entertainment.
Based on the 1993 film that starred Robin Williams, Mrs. Doubtfire follows the path of Daniel Hillard, an out-of-work actor who loses custody of his three children in a messy divorce. In an effort to remain in his children’s lives he has created an alter ego, Euphegnia Doubtfire, a Scottish nanny, a character which takes on a life of its own and in so doing Hillard becomes the nanny to his own children. Mrs. Doubtfire helps Hillard to re-discover the life he had lost with his family, to take charge of his directionless career as an actor, and most importantly appreciating the children that he loves.
With a score by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, and book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, Mrs. Doubtfire comes to life in song capturing the essence of the film while creating new dimensions of the characters as well. This is the same creative team that gave us, Something Rotten, a very different slant on life on the Renaissance and William Shakespeare as a celebrity of the time.
Mrs. Doubtfire’s opening number, “What’s Wrong With This Picture” sets up the image of the Hillard Family as a family in crisis – dysfunctional and chaotic – with Miranda (played by Jenn Gambatese) and Daniel Hillard (played by Rob McClure) butting heads blow by blow with their three children, Natalie (played by Avery Sell), Christopher (played by Sam Middleton), and Lydia (played by Maria Dalanno) feeling that they are outsiders. The only alternative for some peace in the family is for the Hillards to divorce, and as a consequence Daniel is only given limited visitation with his children.
However when Miranda decides to hire a nanny Daniel’s brother Frank (played by Brad Oscar) and his significant other Andre Mayem (played by J. Harrison Ghee) transform Daniel into “Mrs. Doubtfire” in “Make Me A Woman”, a hilarious take on the disco era and magically styles Daniel into being a Mrs. Doubtfire modeled after Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, and Eleanor Roosevelt – as compared to Cher, Jackie O or Princess Diana. And Mrs. Doubtfire gets the job of the nanny!
During the course of Mrs. Doubtfire, the musical, Daniel learns how to appreciate his children, enjoys them, becomes a better parent – and respects his ex-wife Miranda for all she has contributed to the family. Then there is the big reveal which is executed with the precision of a French farce, in “He Lied To Me” a lament sung by a Flamenco Singer (played with suitable style and comic timing by Alexandra Matteo), and throughout are the inclusions of witty and satiric observations from book writers Karen Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell.
The score also includes witty lyrics and musical numbers that represent a new definition of variety in styles to enhance the comic moments and farce in Mrs. Doubtfire.
Arguably one can say why create a stage musical of Mrs. Doubtfire that wouldn’t include Robin Williams who created the title role in the beloved movie. However in the hands of Rob McClure, in the dual role of Daniel and Mrs. Doubtfire, he gives a tour de force performance, and he has put a personal stamp of his own on this dual role which is enhanced by his own comic talents and those as a singer and dancer. You also feel his transformation and emotions as he realizes how important his children are in his life.
Jenn Gambatese infuses the character of Miranda with emotion – which makes Miranda a more sympathetic character – in “Let Go”.
Also notable are Brad Oscar as Frank, J. Harrison Ghee as Andre, Mark Evans as Stuart Dunmire (Miranda’s new love interest), and even in his brief cameo moments, Peter Bartlett often stops the show as Mr. Jolly.
Recognizing and appreciating new and different relationships as families bring Mrs. Doubtfire to a poignant conclusion with “As Long As There Is Love”.
Jerry Zaks, who is a master of musical comedy and farce, helps to bring this story to life – with lots of humor, and a tug at the heartstrings.
The score itself is a series of numbers and dance sequences which also include a great deal of satire and hilarity made so in the hands of choreographer Lorin Latarro.
Broadway has managed to survive after a very difficult time and as often is the case when audience members are going through difficult times, Broadway comes through with a musical that boosts the spirits as well as being entertaining. Mrs. Doubtfire is that musical!
Anastasia – The Musical
December 4, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Theaters have not only re-opened on Broadway but also in New Jersey. The State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey is once again offering its Broadway series with the State Theatre adhering to Covid-19 protocols.
Among the State Theatre’s many offerings is the national touring company production of Anastasia which is based on the 1997 animated film of the same name. This musical opened on Broadway in a stage version in 2017, and created by the exemplary team of Lynn Ahrens as the writer of the lyrics, Stephen Flaherty as the composer of the music, with a book written by Terrence McNally.
Anastasia focuses on the premise that the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, one of the Czar of Russia’s daughters, escaped execution during the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution. Years later Anya, an orphan who is suffering from amnesia, wishes to reconnect with her family and friends in a pilgrimage that has taken her to St. Petersburg. Rumors abound in St. Petersburg about the Duchess’ survival and two con men, who discover Anya’s likeness to be that of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, persuade Anya to become part of their ruse to obtain a reward for the Duchess’ recovery.
The story begins in 1906 in St. Petersburg where Anastasia is upset about the departure of her grandmother, the Empress, who is leaving for Paris. Eleven years later the Romanovs, the ruling monarchs of Russia, are captured and executed by the Bolsheviks. It was noted by Russians that the common people in Russia experienced the same conditions before and after the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet the ghosts of the Romanov Family haunt the Russian people.
About ten years later two con men, Dmitry and Vlad hear rumors that the Grand Duchess Anastasia may have survived and plan to groom Anya, the orphan they come upon, to impersonate Anastasia in order to extort money from the Dowager Empress.
The villain of the piece, Gleb, a Bolshevik revolutionary intends to arrest Anya for impersonating Anastasia, motivating Anya, Dimitri and Vlad to flee St. Petersburg and escape to Paris.
Adventures in Paris lead to reunions — Vlad with the Dowager’s Lady in Waiting, Countess Lily among them — and the plot moves forward in persuading the Dowager to meet Anya and recognize her as the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Anya’s impression from the Dowager seems like that the Dowager would recognize her as the Grand Duchess. But rather than facing the notoriety and chaos that comes with Anya being recognized as the lost Grand Duchess, Anya decides to give up her quest and realizes that her destiny is with Dmitry.
The score, which tells this story, includes soaring music and comic turns. Highlights are “Once Upon A December” and “Journey To The Past” sung by Anya, the comic turn of “The Countess and The Common Man, sung by Countess Lily and Vlad, and the “Quartet At The Ballet” (which includes excerpts from the ballet, Sawn Lake).
Kyla Stone gave a virtuoso performance as the young Anya displaying her vulnerability, her persistence, and someone in control of her wits.
Also outstanding were Sam McLellan as Dmitry, Bryan Seastrom as Vlad, Madeline Raube in an over the top performance as Countess Lily, and Gerri Weagraff as the regal and noble, Dowager Empress. Brandon Delgado played Gleb, the villain of the piece, with a dramatic arc in which he redeemed himself in the end, and offered his soaring voice in several musical sequences and songs in Anastasia.
Giving the audience the illusion of Anastasia being a theatrical spectacle was the amalgamation of the scenery designs by Alexander Dodge, the costume designs by Linda Cho, and the lighting design by Donald Holder – and projection designs by Aaron Rhyne.
Anastasia is certainly a Cinderella story of sorts — it is a fairy tale that gets its unique spin — but here Anya, an endearing heroine, is able to make her own choices about her future life – and puts her happiness ahead of wealth and power. The story is told in an imaginative and involving way – and what is important is that Anastasia is an uplifting entertainment for the audience.
York Theatre Company Presents Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood
The Theatre at St. Jean’s
November 28, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Performing at its temporary home, The Theatre at Jean’s, the York Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood, a celebration of Irving Berlin’s music from Hollywood films, in a limited engagement from November 24, 2021 through January 2, 2022.
With music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, a book by Barry Kleinbort, with direction and choreography by Randy Skinner, Cheek to Cheek is not only a celebration of Berlin’s music but particularly Berlin’s penchant for composing danceable music which contributed to memorable dance sequences in such well-known Hollywood films as Top Hat, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Holiday Inn, Easter Parade, and White Christmas. Also not surprising was that Berlin’s music was influenced by the dance crazes of the day.
During Berlin’s 60-year career as a songwriter he wrote about 1500 songs among them included in scores for 20 Broadway musicals and 15 Hollywood films – and for his songs, Berlin was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
With Randy Skinner at the helm of Cheek to Cheek as choreographer and director there were many numbers in the show that were choreographed for tap but as Berlin was a composer whose songs were not only meant to be sung but were also utilized as backdrops for dancing in many films, Berlin’s music was appropriate for many dance styles. Skinner showed his ingenuity appropriately in choreographing in a diversity of styles matching Berlin’s musical sensibilities.
As Berlin’s music was composed with singing and dancing in mind Skinner skillfully employed both of those elements in Cheek to Cheek which was also enhanced by Kleinbort’s informative narrative. One gets to know a lot more about Berlin’s personal life than one could have known before.
If Cheek to Cheek has a point of view and focus it was to re-discover the elements of singing and dancing in Berlin’s songs, for his Academy Award nominated songs to be sung, and also to include a few songs that were less well known but worth singing out of the 1500 songs that Berlin composed during his lifetime. The sense of humor and optimism was evident in the way these songs were performed – both sung and danced – and were also left in the hands and feet of a versatile cast. They not only performed the songs but also interpreted them, and danced to them, illuminating Berlin’s intent.
Setting the tone Cheek to Cheek opens with newsreel film of Al Jolson singing Berlin’s Blue Skies in what was among the first musical movies – and then on to the opening number of Let Yourself Go from Follow The Feet performed by the entire cast — and you know you are in for a lively, optimistic, and entertaining performance.
Participants in this celebration are the singer/actor/dancers Phillip Attmore, Jeremy Benton, Victoria Byrd, Kaitlyn Davidson, Joseph Medeiros, Melanie Moore who contributed greatly individually and as an ensemble in Cheek to Cheek.
There were notable ensemble and individual performances of Berlin songs in Cheek to Cheek by this cast. Among them was that of “I Used To Play It By Ear” – circa 1965 – which was re-discovered from Berlin’s last movie musical that never happened – given a wonderful performance by Kaitlyn Davidson and Joseph Medeiros. Also there was Davidson’s moving performance of “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” from Holiday Inn, and the ensemble performance of “I Poured My Heart Into A Song” from Second Fiddle performed by Davidson, Jeremy Benton, Phillip Attmore, and Melanie Moore.
From White Christmas’ score was “Count Your Blessings” (sung and performed by Medeiros and Victoria Byrd), “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” (featuring Benton and Moore), and Davidson singing “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me”. Also Attmore, Benton and Medeiros lent their personalities and dancing skills to “Drum Crazy” from Easter Parade.
Berlin wrote for the actors who would be performing them – customized and tailored to their talents – and Skinner cleverly chose which cast members would be most suited to the Berlin songs presented in Cheek to Cheek.
And all is performed in a jam-packed 80 minutes with energy and charm – an antidote for the winter blues if you have them.
November 20, 2021
By Mark Kappel
From November 17-21, 2021 the City Center is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Twyla Tharp’s choreographic debut on the on the City Center stage. This series of performances is entitled Twyla Now, a significant artistic statement that Tharp remains an important choreographic and artistic voice.
This program of dance included two familiar Tharp pieces, and two world premieres which were danced by members of the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and all of these pieces exhibiting Tharp’s signature on them. The overall artistic character of this program was Tharp reaching into the past and also choreographing new works for the future – and also dancers for the future as she has recruited a group of young dancers to appear as part of one of the world premieres. But most of all it states that Tharp is not only a significant contributor to the art of dance – in the past and present – but she plans to be an active contributor to the art of dance in the future.
The performance also had the added enhancement of live music which was very welcome.
The program was dominated by three duets which represented a survey of Tharp’s work – but also included a world premiere.
Opening the program was Cornbread, danced to music by Carolina Chocolate Drops, and danced by Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia of the New York City Ballet.
The music set the tone of the piece as it was a little bit of country and a little bit of western with banjo instrumentation and vocals – representing different moods – but happy and positive predominating. The intricate choreography which included intricate partnering filled the stage with expansive and playful dancing.
Peck and Mejia danced Cornbread with a bit of swagger and assertiveness, and their performances jumped past the footlights to the audience.
The first of two world premieres was Second Duet which was choreographed to music by Thomas Larcher and Aztec Camera, and was danced by Cassandra Trenary and Aran Bell of American Ballet Theatre. Performed to live music – Stephen Gosling playing a prepared piano and Gabriel Cabezas playing cello – this was modern and post-modern choreography progressing in an erratic manner ranging from comic to despondent – clingy – and often exhausting to watch.
Primarily Bell’s function was to lift and carry Trenary throughout the piece executing pretzel-like shapes wrapping around each other – and a little bit eerie. One has to admire a different direction in Tharp’s choreography and also how the dancers successfully interpreted Tharp’s choreographic thoughts.
The third duet, Pergolesi, was choreographed to music composed by Giovanni Pergolesi, and danced by Sara Mearns of the New York City Ballet, and Robbie Fairchild, formerly of the New York City Ballet.
Tharp choreographed Pergolesi for Mikhail Baryshnikov and herself, and in this version the roles were gender switched — Mearns danced Baryshnikov’s role and Fairchild danced Tharp’s role. In switching these roles Pergolesi was effectively transformed with the humor portrayed with a wink and a nod. The piece is filled with self-deprecating humor and is a conversation in dance. The added sense of intrigue is that the dancers never touch each other.
In this Tharp environment both Mearns and Fairchild brought their personalities into these roles and as Peck and Mejia did in Cornbread, projected their performances beyond the stage’s footlights.
The largest piece on the program – in terms of participating dancers – was the world premiere of All In. Choreographed to music by Johannes Brahms for clarinet and piano, in this dance piece Fairchild, Bell, Mearns, Mejia, Trenary and Peck were joined by Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer, and Tharp’s six young recruits, Brady Farrar, Savannah Kristich, Zoe Leibold, J’Var Martin, Gabrielle Rembert, and William Woodward.
All In came across as a predictable piece of choreography with the mature dancers co-mingling with the young aspirants, who were primarily used in counterpoint to the other dancers on stage. They quickly emerged as being out of place but also reflected the random nature of Tharp’s choreography not only for these young aspirants but also for all of the cast members.
Whether you are a fan of Tharp’s choreographic voice or not, Twyla Now, fills what has been a dance vacuum that has been created by the ongoing pandemic. It’s important to know that Tharp’s work can be appreciated looking back on past creations, and also that she is looking forward into the future.
November 13, 2021
By Mark Kappel
In 2019 Out of the Box Theatrics had presented a unique revival of Baby, a musical which had its premiere on Broadway in 1983. After this revival’s success there were plans to re-open this revival of Baby in 2020. But that revival had to be postponed indefinitely until after the pandemic lockdown. The hiatus caused by the pandemic lockdown has made it possible for Out of the Box Theatrics to work with Baby’s creative team to update this musical to the present. Fortunately Out of the Box Theatrics’ new revival has been re-opened at Theatrelab — from November 5 through December 12, 2021 — giving a wider audience the opportunity to see this revision of Baby and enjoy its story – and relevance to today.
Baby’s book by Sybille Pearson, and the music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. shares the experiences of three couples on a university campus coping with the emotions, conflicts, and rewards of planning to be, wishing to be, and what it is like to be parents. One of the couples is struggling to have children. Another, a young couple, who are coping with an unexpected pregnancy, and a third couple also having to make the choice about having a baby late in life after having raised four children already.
This revival offers the unique perspectives of a what is now a same sex couple, and a younger couple in which the partnership is that of a man with a hearing disability – whose passion is music – and a legally blind woman, which presents a very different slant on how the stories are told.
These couples are now modern couples – based on the lives that couples live in 2021 rather than in 1983 — and their journeys are that much more relevant as presented in this intimate and immediate production which has been skillfully and imaginatively directed by Out of the Box Theatrics’ Associate Artistic Director Ethan Paulini.
Lizzie (played by Elizabeth Flemming) and Danny (played by Danny Link) represent the youngest of the couples with Lizzie having a sight disability, and Danny having a hearing disability, and how they cope in this unconventional relationship with their concerns about parenthood, and having their baby.
Pam (played by Danielle Summons) and Nicki (played by Jamila Sabares-Klemm) are the same-sex couple who have been experimenting with invitro and other methods of having a baby, and after the emotional hills and valleys of going through this process ultimately decide to continue with their efforts to bring a baby into their lives.
Arlene (played by Julia Murney) and Alan (played by Robert H. Fowler) make up the mature couple who had four children during their 20’s, and now this unexpected pregnancy – which unfortunately results in a miscarriage.This emotional tragedy triggers questions that both Arlene and Allan have about the health of their marriage.
David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr. have provided a wonderful score as the foundation for Baby which moves the story forward and also provides insightful thoughts about how each individual character is feeling about what they are living through, and how they are navigating through their emotions during these difficult time periods.
The cast is made of excellent actor/singers and they all give notable and moving performances of every song in Baby’s score. But one must single out the performances of “Patterns” sung by Julia Murney as Arlene, “The Story Goes On” sung by Elizabeth Flemming as Lizzie, “And What If We Had Loved Like That” sung by Murney, and Robert H. Fowler as Alan, and “Fatherhood Blues” sung by the fathers to be.
Baby could be a musical that may only be described as charming and somewhat innocent. However in this version it is also poignant and more involving for the audience. This is especially so in this production that Paulini has directed, and in the intimate theatrical space it is being performed in where every audience member is experiencing what these three couples are feeling and living through their journeys on every emotional level.
Even if you don’t have a child or haven’t thought about parenthood there is much to enjoy in this revival/revisal of Baby.
Trevor: The Musical
November 6, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Based on the Academy Award-winning film, Trevor, Trevor: The Musical has opened off-Broadway at Stage 42 and has come at a time when audiences are searching for entertainment and a story that tries to help us cope and explain our complicated lives. And there is lots to enjoy here as the story told is about the obstacles inherent in the process of coming of age, rites of passage, and other familiar challenges of being an outlier and trying to fit in.
With book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis, Trevor: The Musical tells the story of a 13-year-old teen who has an expansive imagination and has the lofty ambition of making it in show business. Along the way he deals with the changes in life that come when aging into a teenager, fitting into the world around him, and negotiating a truce between himself and his parents.
Portrayed by Holden William Hagelberger, Trevor finds himself in American suburbia in the early 1980’s. He is stage struck, reflects in his own aura, and also has an obsession for Diana Ross – and most importantly — pursuing a career in show business. His hopes are dashed when he is not chosen to participate in Lakeview Junior High School’s talent show, and Trevor comes up with a scheme to get involved which is persuading Pinkie Farraday, the hero athlete at Lakeview, and his football teammates to appear in a song and dance number in the talent show – staged and conceived by Trevor – with the end result to improve his own reputation at school, and fitting in. But the effort is sabotaged by Lakeview’s version of the mean girls.
Trevor’s rite of passage is unique, and he is publicly embarrassed and ridiculed when he is betrayed by Farraday and his teammates, and his charm doesn’t save him. The most serious aspect of Trevor: The Musical is that Trevor attempts suicide because he cannot cope with how he has been victimized by those around him. However in the end his friends, classmates, and his parents accept him, he accepts himself, and he defines for himself a path for his own future.
The score wonderfully reflects Trevor’s ups and downs, and successfully and poignantly reveals Trevor’s inner self – as well as the stories of his friends and classmates. The score also comingles new songs with bits and pieces of Diana Ross’s greatest hits.
The core of Trevor’s success as a musical is not only the compelling story which is so well told, but also the energy level of the young cast.
Newcomer Holden William Hagelberger gives a star performance in the title role as do Sammy Dell as Pinki Faraday – who is Trevor’s crush – Aryan Simihadri as Trevor’s best friend Walter, Isabel Medina as Frannie, who betrays Trevor in order to retain her place in the middle school’s popularity hierarchy, Sally Wilfert as Trevor’s Mom who is obsessed with the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, and Jarrod Zimmerman as Trevor’s perplexed Dad.
Also much credit must be given to director Marc Bruni who has a fix on telling Trevor’s chronicle of his own life – and fairy tale — and choreographer Josh Prince who ups Trevor’s energy level.
What is enjoyable is to take the journey that Trevor is taking – both as a charmer, idealist, and coping with the confusing world around him – and Trevor: The Musical has heart. Not all of the questions are answered, but Trevor provokes us to think about the world the way it is, and what it could be.
Dance Theatre of Harlem – A History
By Mark Kappel
Dance Theatre of Harlem by Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel, published by Kensington Publishing, has a significant subtitle: A History A Movement A Celebration. That subtitle represents the point of view of this book written by Tyrus, a former principal dancer of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Novosel, as the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s assistant archivist.
From the moment that the Dance Theatre of Harlem was established in 1969, with Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook as co-artistic directors — at the height of the American civil rights movement — this was an historic moment. It was also inspired and it was a movement unto itself.
This book provides an all-inclusive history of how Dance Theatre of Harlem was established, the people who planted the seeds for the company initially, and how the company has reinvented itself over the years in order to overcome economic and artistic struggles.
Among those details include those about Mitchell’s career with the New York City Ballet and other companies he danced with – and his dance training – and biographical background about Karel Shook, and his mutual relationships he had with Mitchell before they began their co-artistic directorship of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
An important aspect of the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s story is about how the company’s repertoire evolved. Works by George Balanchine, Geoffrey Holder, Glen Tetley were among those acquired by the company in its early days, and then adding John Taras’ Firebird, Valerie Bettis’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend – and its own version of Giselle staged by Frederic Franklin which revised the ballet’s libretto and set the story in Louisiana. Franklin also staged other 19th century classics for the company and other additions to the company’s repertoire included Mikhail Fokine’s Scheherazade.
One of the more interesting anecdotes in the book was about Arthur Mitchell’s – and the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s – dilemma in acquiring ballets choreographed by George Balanchine after Balanchine’s death. At that time the Dance Theatre of Harlem then needed to negotiate with each ballet’s heir about performing rights – which could be more expensive than anticipated – and also the requirement of engaging a stager to re-stage the work at intervals. After Balanchine’s death when a stager might be restaging a work that Mitchell created a role in, he found himself intervening in regard to the staging when it came to the original choreography which could have put him on the wrong side of whoever was the rights holder for that ballet.
Also important in the company’s history were domestic and international touring engagements – a particularly important international tour was a tour of South Africa but there were many other breakthrough tours to the Soviet Union and China. And of course there were the times of ups and downs when it came to the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s finances which on a few occasions required the company to suspend operations.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem’s most significant hiatus was from 2004 which lasted for six years. In one of the few instances in the book, the authors questioned Arthur Mitchell’s leadership ability before this hiatus and during the hiatus with the focus on a solution being that there had to be a rethinking of how the company was led, its finances, and its general operations in order for the company to return to dancing. The authors contend that what wasn’t thought about was retrenchment, rethinking, and recognizing the changes taking place in the dance world.
When the Dance Theatre of Harlem restored operations in 2011 it was without Arthur Mitchell as the artistic director. Virginia Johnson, one of the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s leading principal dancers, succeeded Mitchell as artistic director. With the company performing again there was a strong sense of survival, and the need to move forward – and constant reinvention and evolving.
In this book the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s history is told with photos, backstage stories, portraits of dancers and staff tracing the important movers and shakers who influenced the company’s visibility and its artistic legacy – and it is all encompassing. Also this story is told in the context of the social and political issues facing Americans during the company’s formative years and beyond.
Written in easy to read prose and thorough in highlighting biographies of artists who influenced Mitchell and Shook, also included are comments by dance critics observing the company’s development.
This book on the birth of the Dance Theatre of Harlem is a guide for establishing and building any arts organization, literally from the ground up.
Boston Ballet – reSTART
November 1, 2021
By Mark Kappel
The Boston Ballet had an online presence last season producing a series of streamed performances which allowed balletomanes all over the world to view the company’s performances. For the 2021-2022 season, the Boston Ballet is presenting a hybrid season of live and streamed performances.
The first of the streamed performances is entitled reSTART being presented from October 28 – November 7, 2021 which is a hybrid unto itself with one work created for the film medium, and other works — new and familiar — that were videoed in versions supervised by Ernesto Galan.
The filmed work is Yin Yue’s A Common Movement which was choreographed to music by Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan and Alice Coltrane, and filmed in outdoor locations in Boston Common in the city of Boston.
Divided into five sections – with the first section danced by a full group of dancers – and following were the sections of Bridge Dancers (danced by Maria Alvarez, Louise Hautfeuille, Lauren Herfindahl, Sangmin Lee, Ao Wang, and Patrick Yocum), Willow Trees (danced by Ji Young Chae, Tyson Clark, Haley Schwan, My’kal Stromile) Bandstand (a large ensemble section), and Swing Pas de Deux Couples (danced by Paul Craig, Sage Humphries, Abigail Merlis, Gearoid Solan, Nikolia Mamalakis, and Schuyler Wijsen).
Seen throughout A Common Movement were groups of dancers on green lawns celebrating the reduction of restrictions, and stating clearly that the Boston Ballet was back.
Following was the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet danced by Soo-Bin Lee and Seokjoo Kim, two Korean dancers now members of the Boston Ballet. This was a balcony scene without a balcony but not lacking in heightened dramatic tension and the dancers reflecting the love between these two characters. Although the choreography was credited as traditional there was the expected ebb and flow in the choreography that was in Prokofiev’s music.
As a preview was an excerpt from Jorma Elo’s Ruth’s Dance, choreographed to Bach’s Widerstehe doch der Sunde as transcribed by Vikingur Olafsson, which was danced by Lasha Khozashvili and Addie Tapp. Piano provided the musical backdrop for Elo’s choreography – an uncomplicated response to Bach’s uncomplicated music and expressed well by the two dancers.
In a staging by Sandra Jennings, the Boston Ballet presented George Balanchine’s Apollo which had been premiered by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1928 – and was the first major collaboration between Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. This ballet has also had an important role in Boston Ballet’s history with a company premiere in 1965. Presented in this streamed performance was Balanchine’s revised version from 1979 without the Birth Scene and the new ending.
In Apollo, the Greek God of Music (danced by Paulo Arrais) interacts with his muses, Terpsichore (danced by Lia Cirio), Calliope (danced by Viktorina Kapitonova), and Polyhymnia (danced by Chyrstyn Fentroy). Through the years of Balanchine’s life, Balanchine made revisions in his choreography for Apollo and also simplified the designs. In this revised version the pure essence of Balanchine’s choreography remains and in this streamed platform, the ballet is presented in an intimate setting which highlights Balanchine’s artistic intention. The spare modernism is emphasized as well as the dignity of Apollo and his muses which were exemplified in the solid performances by the dancers.
This streamed presentation ended with a full company Grand Defile danced to the finale movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.
reSTART has ushered in a new beginning for the Boston Ballet and its audiences – both in live performances in Boston, and streamed performances that can be seen all over the world.
American Ballet Theatre’s Triple Bill
David Koch Theater
October 29, 2021
By Mark Kappel
During the second week of American Ballet Theatre’s fall season at the David Koch Theater the company has been presenting triple bills including a world premiere ballet, and ballets and dance pieces that American Ballet Theatre presented during its online streaming seasons while the company was on hiatus from live performances.
On October 29, 2021 American Ballet Theatre performed what was truly a mixed-bill program which included ballets and dance pieces in different styles but also vintage and new.
Opening the program was Lauren Lovette’s La Follia Variations which had been danced by the ABT Studio Company and seen during American Ballet Theatre’s online streaming season.
Choreographed to music by Francesco Geminiani, and for eight dancers, this piece’s choreography reflected allusions to Balanchine’s ballets, a repertoire that Lovette would be familiar with during her time as principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and also with added influences from Twyla Tharp and William Forsythe. But the predominant style was that of neo-classicism with a twist.
With the men costumed in red and the women in multi-colored costumes La Follia Variations was a bit of a confection. Throughout the piece Lovette responds choreographically to Geminiani’s music and serves as a showcase for its cast members including Kiely Groenewegen, Carlos Gonzalez, Lauren Bonfiglio, Tyler Maloney, Abbey Marrison, Joao Menegussi, Chloe Misseldine, and Jose Sebastian taken from the younger ranks of the company.
The vintage work on this program was Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire, a dance play, which tells the story of Hagar (danced by Devon Teuscher) as she discovers relationships with two different men, A Friend of the Family (danced by Thomas Forster), and the Man From The House Opposite (danced by James Whiteside).
Facing what she believes might be the life of a spinster like her sister, and having experienced her straight-laced and Puritan upbringing, Hagar appears awkward and unsure as she must decide between idolized love and love that she might be fearful of. This story of sexual tension is choreographed to Arnold Schoenberg’s enigmatic music, Transfigured Night, and still has a dramatic punch since its world premiere in 1942.
Serving Tudor’s objective was Teuscher’s intense performance as Hagar in which she also emphasized the dramatic details in the choreography in drawing her character, as well as Thomas Forster’s empathetic performance as the Family Friend, and James Whiteside’s subtle yet macho performance as the Man From the House Opposite.
Closing the program was a world premiere, Jessica Lang’s Zig Zag, a piece choreographed to the recordings of Tony Bennett (with a duet with Lady Gaga) buoyed by Derek McLane’s designs inspired by Bennett’s artwork – paying tribute to Bennett’s own interest in black and white line drawings which included a panorama of New York City landmarks, and portraits of musicians in Bennett’s band – with an overall Broadway inspiration.
Zig Zag, a work for 14 dancers, is very much an ensemble piece inspired by Tony Bennett’s interpretation of song standards and songs from the American Song Book. Although Lang’s Twyla Tharp’s influenced choreography does not always connect with Bennett’s unique renditions of the songs that were chosen, she has used the dancers she has chosen well, and Zig Zag is clearly entertaining – entertaining in a good way.
The large cast was led by Isabella Boylston, Aran Bell, Katherine Williams, Blaine Hoven, Erica Lall, and Calvin Royal III who all had their moments to shine.
These pieces chosen for this triple emphasized variety in choreographic styles and proved to be an excellent display of the dancers dancing in them.
City Center Fall for Dance Festival – Program 5
October 24, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Program 5 of the City Center Fall for Dance Festival included both world and New York premieres choreographed in diverse dance styles and focusing on the talents of particular dancers. Also two of the pieces were given their premieres at the Vail International Dance Festival.
Opening the program was Alexei Ratmansky’s solo Fandango, which was danced by Roman Mejia of the New York City Ballet. Ratmansky choreographed his original version of Fandango as a vehicle for Wendy Whelan while this version was adapted for a performance by a male dancer.
Choreographed to music composed by Luigi Boccherini, there was a romantic feeling reflected in this piece but only a tinge of Spanish dance. However Fandango is a perfect vehicle for a virtuoso dancer – and Mejia is certainly that.
Mejia interacted with the wonderful musicians that were on the stage with him, and exhibited his showmanship and stage presence – and a bit of virtuosity and his performance personality.
Tiler Peck of the New York City Ballet and Herman Cornejo of American Ballet Theatre teamed to dance the New York premiere of Justin Peck’s Bloom. Bloom is choreographed to a commissioned score by Caroline Shaw, and its artistic and choreographic inspiration is George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. In fact you can hear a bit of Tchaikovsky’s music in the solo variations of this pas de deux which is constructed similar to a 19th century classical pas de deux – adagio, variations, and coda.
Also with the musicians on the stage, and the dancers interacting with them, Peck’s choreographic approach was Jerome Robbins-like – breezy and freeing – and virtuoso – and drawing on the best of both dancers.
To close the program was a City Center commission and world premiere, Where We Dwell, choreographed and performed by virtuoso tap dancer, Ayodele Casel, with the amazing cast of Jared Alexander, Amanda Castro, Kurt Csolak, Naomi Funaki, Quynn Johnson, John Manzari, and Dre Torres in support.
Where We Dwell was choreographed to music composed by Crystal Monee Hall – although there were a few familiar tunes by Gershwin among them that could be identified – and with Torya Beard credited for direction and staging.
Casel’s unique approach to tapping was evident in this piece – not only a showcase for her dancing but also of the incredible tappers that surrounded her.
I have used the adjective of virtuoso in describing the dancers participating in this program and it is for emphasis rather than being redundant. This was a fitting final program for this year’s City Center Fall for Dance Festival – creating a feeling of normalcy.
American Ballet Theatre Dances Giselle
David Koch Theater
October 23, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Fall in New York has made it possible for audiences to have reunions with their favorite dance companies which have not been able to set foot on the stages of theatres for the first time in 18 months. We can think about what has been lost or gained – but the conventional description and greeting would be, “Welcome Home!”, after what has been an overly long absence.
American Ballet Theatre opened its fall season at the David Koch Theater performing a full-length 19th century classic that has held a special place in the company’s repertoire, Giselle. A ballet that premiered in Paris in 1841, staged for American Ballet Theatre by Anton Dolin in 1940, and a ballet that American Ballet Theatre has danced in several different productions over the decades since the company’s founding. This was also the first time in decades since American Ballet Theatre performed a full-length ballet at the David Koch Theater.
American Ballet Theatre’s current production of Giselle is credited to Kevin McKenzie, American Ballet Theatre’s current artistic director, and is traditional in nearly every aspect. The story is told clearly, the choreography is familiar, and also the interpretations of the principal roles are traditional and familiar. However there has been additional interest in these performances as there have been many debuts by American Ballet Theatre dancers in Giselle.
Giselle’s story is that of a jilted peasant girl who is taken in by a cad of an aristocrat – Count Albrecht – who has disguised himself as a peasant villager in order to court her. This story of young love falls to pieces as another one of Giselle’s admirers, Hilarion, reveals Albrecht for what he is. This revelation results in Giselle’s death due to a broken heart. In the second half of the story, Albrecht mourns the loss of Giselle and imagines her spirit – that spirit rescues Albrecht from being danced to death by the Wilis who are the spirits of jilted lovers of the past. Although the story does not end well, there is the feeling that Albrechthas shown remorse in how he had treated Giselle.
Also important in any production of Giselle is capturing the romantic style inherent in the ballet’s choreography for the ballerina dancing Giselle – as a human and a spirit – to inhabit both aspects of Giselle as she forgives Albrecht for what he has done to her. There is also a bit of virtuoso dancing but the challenge for the dancers dancing this ballet is that of the adagio dancing in the ballet, and their abilities as actors to tell the story.
For the evening performance of April 23, 2021, American Ballet Theatre presented the debut of Christine Shevchenko in the title role and the New York debut of Aran Bell as Albrecht – with Devon Teuscher dancing the role of Queen of the Wilis.
Shevchenko successfully portrayed Giselle as the delicate and innocent young girl that she is, and was also successful in bifurcating the human Giselle and the spirit of Giselle as a Wili. Aran Bell played Albrecht as the disdainful seducer that he is. He is without shame in betraying Giselle.
Shevchenko and Bell were moving in their dancing and both are excellent dance-actors threading the needle to clarify some of the disparate narrative in this production of Giselle.
Teuscher was suitably imperious and commanding as Myrta, and Betsy McBride and Carlos Gonzalez gave fresh performances in their energetic and classically superb performance in the Peasant Pas de Deux.
An enthusiastic audience welcomed back American Ballet Theatre at this performance – and one looks forward to the remainder of American Ballet Theatre’s fall season.
City Center Fall for Dance Festival – Program 4
October 22, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Although a short program – even with a last minute addition – the City Center Fall for Dance Festival’s Program 4 was another presentation that emphasized different styles of dance and different styles in performing dance.
Opening the program was Philadelphia’s Ballet X with the New York premiere of Matthew Neenan’s Mapping Out A Sky. Neenan, one of the principal choreographers of Ballet X, choreographed this piece to instrumental arrangements of recorded songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park in George by Nico Muhly, Steve Reich, Duncan Sheik, Thomas Newman, and Wynton Marsalis as played by pianist Anthony De Mare. The arrangements of Sondheim’s music reflected more about the arrangers than Sondheim as a composer and the melodies were obscured in the process. Often Sondheim’s music was transformed into pulsing rhythms more to suit Neenan’s contemporary ballet approach to the music.
Premiered earlier this year, Neenan interpreted these songs in a quirky manner which was not a fluid connection between music and choreography. But Neenan’s choreography was well interpreted by the ensemble cast of Shawn Cusseaux, Jonah Delgado, Francesca Forcella, Blake Krapels, Skyler Lubin, Alexandra Policaro, Ashley Simpson, Erik Trope, Pete Leo Walker, and Andrea Yorita.
Lil Buck returned to the City Center stage with his unique approach to dance and dance movement in the New York premiere of his solo piece, 38109, choreographed to music composed by Caroline Shaw and given its world premiere at the Vail International Dance Festival in 2018.
In this short solo Lil Buck was costumed in his signature white sneakers dancing to spoken word, music and sound – climbing and Lil Buck’s signature “walking choreography” as he effortlessly filled the stage space.
The City Center has commissioned several works for this year’s Fall for Dance Festival and on Program 4 of the Festival, the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company presented the world premiere of Lar Lubovitch’s Each In His Own Time, which was danced by Adrian Danchig-Waring and Joseph Gordon of the New York City Ballet.
In this Jerome Robbins-like duet for two male dancers choreographed to piano music composed by Johannes Brahms and played by pianist Susan Walters, Lubovitch matched the rambling and romantic nature of Brahms’ music creating a mood of calm. This was truly a collaboration of a choreographer with the two dancers and the pianist.
An addition to the program was Caleb Teicher & Company dancing an excerpt from Caleb Teicher’s and Nathan Bugh’s Meet Ella – and both Teicher and Bugh were members of the cast along with Evita Arce and Macy Sullivan.
Choreographed to a recording of Ella Fitzgerald’s How High The Moon – an improvisation until itself – this excerpt from Meet Ella was equally an improvisation of choreography, comic movement, and the goal of entertaining the audience. The work not only celebrated the genius of Ella Fitzgerald but also her wit and humor – an unexpected surprise to end this performance.
City Center Fall for Dance Festival – Program 3
October 20, 2021
By Mark Kappel
The City Center Fall for Dance Festival Program 3 was another program included in this year’s festival that reflected diversity – not only in terms of dance styles but also in the manner that the choreographers intended their voices to be heard.
Program 3 included a major American ballet company – the newly renamed Philadelphia Ballet — which danced the New York premiere of Juliano Nunes’ Connection. Choreographed to music by Ezio Bosso and premiering in 2019, Nunes’ choreography focused on fluid movement in response to Bosso’s music – sometimes channeling the styles of Jiri Kylian and Glen Tetley. With heavy partnering elements, manipulation, and constant movement, Connection had a continuous ebb and flow.
Connection was well danced by the cast of Thays Golz, Ashton Roxander, Zecheng Liang, Yuka Iseda, Arian Molina Soca, Lucia Erickson, Nayara Lopes, Jack Thomas, So Jung Shin, and Russell Ducker.
Micaela Taylor’s The TL Collective danced Micaela Taylor’s Drift, choreographed to a mish mash of music by various artists and spoken word, presented at the Festival as its New York premiere. Taylor’s choreographic and movement vocabulary is evocative and highly charged, and enhanced by the dancers often lip-synching the lyrics of the music pieces that Taylor interprets choreographically and in full body movement.
With a cast including Jennifer Lacy, Kaia Makihara, Jessie Lee Thorne, Gianna Todisco, and Taylor herself, these dancers articulated Taylor’s concept and choreography with great intensity.
Step Afrika! was founded by C. Brian Williams in 1994 and is the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of the dance form, stepping – a hybrid of choreography and dance that has been synthesized with many different percussive dance styles. There is also an emphasis on teamwork which was on display in the world premiere of Conrad Kelly II’s The Movement.
In his dance piece Kelly infuses a strong and passionate reaction to racial incidents and issues in the United States with the dance evolving from silence, words from speeches, and the projections of the names of victims.
The Movement never stops and was a high power closer for this program.
Kathryn Posin Dance Company
Gene Frankel Theater
October 19, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Returning to live performances, on October 19, 2021, the Kathryn Posin Dance Company performed at the Gene Frankel Theater in New York City. Making this performance possible was a a City Artist Corps Grant with such grants assisting New York City’s performance arts organizations to continue their operations under the cloud of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a pre-performance curtain speech Posin viewed the purpose of this performance as an opportunity to showcase talent of the current generation of dancers and choreographers, and in that spirit there was much to experience in this less than 1-hour performance that was received by an enthusiastic audience. Like many other New York dance companies, it is great to have them back.
The program opened with Daniel White dancing Gerald Arpino’s solo piece, Touch Me, which Arpino created in 1977 for then Joffrey Ballet principal dancer, Christian Holder. Inspired by the gospel music of James Cleveland and the Charles Fold Singers, Arpino exposed a different dimension in his own choreography at the time he created Touch Me.
Daniel White seemed to be channeling Holder in his energetic and powerful performance – particularly in the manner of how he filled the Gene Frankel Theater’s small stage.
New choreography was showcased in Through You…, a duet that was a collaborative effort by Claire Mazza and Alejandro Ulloa as both choreographers and dancers. Choreographed to the music of Claire Valentine Silvestrov, Dustin O’Halloran, and Ernesto Lecuona, this piece delineated how a relationship can evolve from distant to romantic featuring strong partnering by Ulloa throughout the piece.
Posin’s new, fascinating and enigmatic choreographic contribution to this one-night-only performance, Postlude, was choreographed as a world premiere prelude to an excerpt from her Triple Sextet. Postlude’s choreography clearly depicted the restrictions caused by the pandemic as the dancers attempted to walk up the theatre walls – tools of coping – duly noting White dancing like a strutting peacock – one of many coping mechanisms during these unique times.
From there the dancers, White, Mazza, Ulloa, and Camila Rodrigues, transitioned to the Third Movement from Posin’s Triple Sextet, choreographed to Steve Reich’s rhythmic music, which was joyous – as if to say we made it through this difficult time as a high-note of this performance.
City Center Fall for Dance Festival – Program 2
October 15, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Diversity, again, was the theme for the City Center Fall for Dance Festival’s Program 2 presenting modern dance works and contemporary ballet as components of its performance. Also there was the sense of newness and its entertainment value that inspired the energy of this performance.
Opening the program was the Stephen Petronio Company dancing Petronio’s American Landscapes which had premiered in 2009. Choreographed to the music of Jim Jarmusch and Jozeg Van Wissem, American Landscapes grapples with the innate conflicts regarding political and social issues in the United States. Such problems as climate change, and American symbols were portrayed in striking slide images by Robert Longo which enhanced the debate.
Petronio’s choreography depicted sadness as well as resiliency – but little conflict — with the dancers costumed in neutral colors. This ensemble piece was well danced and articulated by the cast of Larissa Asebedo, Jaqi Medlock, Tess Montoya, Ryan Pliss, Nicholas Sciscione, Mac Twining, Brandon Collwes, Kris Lee, and Tiffany Ogburn.
In contrast was the simple ballet classicism in Stanton Welch’s Sons De L’Ame in its New York premiere. Choreographed to piano pieces composed by Frederic Chopin, the work was given its premiere by the Houston Ballet in Paris in 2013.
Welch’s choreography reflected not only his classicism and fluidity, but an understated response to Chopin’s music in two pas de deux which were excerpts from this longer piece. The two pas de deux were danced with polish and emotion by Houston Ballet principal dancers, Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh.
Closing the program was Ephrat Asherie Dance in Ephrat Asherie’s ODEON: Redux, a work that premiered in 2018 and was choreographed to the music of Ernesto Nazareth.
Asherie’s vim and verve dance played to the audience with street smart, and humorous and clever choreography – with the dancers dancing in sneakers and responding to the Latin rhythms of the music – resulting in an entertaining and high-spirited dance piece that stayed with one after one had left the City Center.
Contributing to the high energy was the cast of dancers, Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie, Manon Bal, Teena Marie Custer, Valerie, “Ms. Vee” Ho, Matthew West, and Omari Wiles.
City Center Fall for Dance Festival – Program 1
October 14, 2021
By Mark Kappel
The City Center Fall for Dance Festival has shown its resiliency in returning to live performances this year. This season’s Festival is focused on domestic performing companies and presentations rather than being inclusive of international dance troupes. It hasn’t prevented the Festival from programming dance presentations that represent its mission as each program will include a variety of dance styles and dance troupes. Besides the announced Covid-19 protocols, the performances are taking place without intermissions.
Program 1, seen on October 14, 2021, opened with the Streb Extreme Action presenting three pieces choreographed by the company’s founder and choreographer, Elizabeth Streb.
Works performed included Molinette, Add/Pole Vaults, and Air – with the music for Air composed by Freshbeatz.
On display was Streb’s signature movement – suspended and unsuspended – featuring dancers working with a horizontal pole (two women and one man turning on the bar in unison, alternating, out of sequence, primarily with their feet firmly attached to the bar) and a trampoline (with the dancer/athletes jumping and diving off in ever-changing dives on to a mat). Apparatus and equipment transformations were presided over by Emcee, Felix Hess, providing suitable banter encouraging the audience’s enthusiasm and audience participation.
In all, this was an entertaining display of athleticism, strength and daring – and no wonder that the dancers’ signature was that of Action Heroes – and those heroes were Cassandre Joseph, Jackie Carlson, Daniel Rysak, Tyler Duboys, Justin Ross, Brigitte Manga, Luciany German, and Loganne Bond.
Also on the program was A.I.M by Kyle Abraham which presented the New York premiere of Kyle Abraham’s Our Indigo: If I Were a Love Song, choreographed to six songs sung by Nina Simone. Abraham’s choreography expressed the raw emotions in these Simone interpretations of familiar and standard songs – good love and love gone wrong – in which Abraham exploited the best of the dancers, Tamisha Guy, Keerati Jinakunwiphat, Claude “CJ” Johnson, Catherine Kirk, Jae Neal, Donovan Reed, and Gianna Theodore, in solos and duets in what was an unchanged and subdued mood throughout the piece.
The closing piece on the program was unveiled under the title of The Verdon Fosse Legacy presenting a City Center commission, Sweet Gwen Suite. This was a world premiere trio of dances originally performed by Gwen Verdon on television – linked together – and was meant to give credit that is due of Verdon being a co-choreographer – with Bob Fosse. These dances were directed and reconstructed by Linda Haberman, who also provided additional choreography.
The first and third trios, and solo in between, were danced to Mexican Shuffle and Cool Hand Luke/Mexican Breakfast, with the dancers reflecting the style of the music wearing sombreros, smoking cigarettes, and a bit of macho. The Fosse signature was obvious in the choreography and these dances were representative of what was seen on television variety series in the 1960’s. The Sweet Gwen Suite was notably danced by Georgina Pazcoguin with Zachary Downer and Tyler Eisenreich.
The City Center Fall for Dance Festival’s Program 1 got the Festival off to a good start.
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
October 7, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Long awaited the new Broadway season opened for me with the Broadway premiere of the new British musical, Six, which I “experienced” at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on October 7, 2021. And what a burst of energy to open the season!
Six originated at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and its Broadway opening was cancelled when Broadway’s bright lights were turned off in March 2020. But after much anticipation and persistence Six has now opened on Broadway at an energy level that would keep the power on all over New York City.
Written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, and directed collaboratively by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage, Six tells the story of Henry VIII’s tragic wives, and in this instance these ex-wives compete to determine whose life was the most tragic. This parable is told in nine songs in the form of a concert, and in 80 minutes Six is a very concise and contentious rivalry among these wives with this 16th century story presented through the prism of the 21st century. Just think of The Real Housewives of Hampton Court Palace presented in a rollicking concert performance.
I, myself, felt I had lived with these intriguing ladies during my university undergraduate and graduate days researching their lives and their stories – viewing their portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London to the point of them almost coming alive again – and their confrontations with Henry VIII and how they influenced the social, religious and political climate of 16th century England. However as Six relates, there was more to tell.
Divorced.Beheaded.Died.Divorced.Beheaded. Survived. put the lives of Henry VIII’s wives in perspective and each presented their defense in the music of styles of different ages – and do they tell them with sass, style, determination, and woman power. Rather than “history” this was “herstory”.
In “No Way” Adrianna Hicks as Catherine of Aragon tells her story about how Henry VIII persuaded her to get a divorce and turned England’s religious and political world upside down. In “Don’t Lose Ur Head”, Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn bemoans her tragedy in not producing a male heir and losing her head. Mallory Maedke as Jane Seymour describes her suffering as she was Henry VIII’s true love but lost her life in producing Henry VIII’s much wanted male heir in “Heart of Stone”, and Brittney Mack as Anna of Cleves comes to terms that her life wasn’t that bad in “Get Down”. Courtney Mack as Katherine Howard confesses her youthful mistakes in “All You Wanna Do”, and Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr pleads that she didn’t need Henry VIII’s love in “I Don’t Need Your Love” – describing her suffering as she was politically sacrificed in having to marry Henry VIII and giving her up her love match after a life of widowhood.
But in the end these diva Queens realize that their identities are primarily linked to their marriages to the same man rather than the achievements in their own right. This is “herstory”.
Besides singing their hearts out, these ladies also move about the stage with equal energy which is due to the excellent and exuberant and well-crafted choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille.
It would be impossible to single out any of these talented ladies who played these distinct royals only to marvel at their talents. It isn’t an overstatement that Six is an entertaining theatre evening with its witty tongue and cheek humor, depicting these tough ladies, and these actress’ stature as entertainers. What a great way for the new Broadway theatre season to open!
Denishawn: Dances By
Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn
The Theatre at St. Jeans
September 30, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Produced by Audrey Ross, Denishawn: Dances By Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, is a program of rarely seen works choreographed by two of the pioneers of American modern dance, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn.
Described as the mother and father of American modern dance, St. Denis and Shawn were innovators in regard to both choreography and the performance of choreography drawing from their own life experiences and dance history.
This program was inspired by Ross’ association with the Denishawn Repertory Dancers as a publicist and also to note the passing of Jane Sherman in 2010, at 100 years-old, the last living member of the original Denishawn Company. This was a program of dance that was meant to showcase these important historical works to a present-day audience and to appreciate how much St. Denis and Shawn contributed to how American dance evolved.
Assembled was a cast of notable dancers for their interpretation of dance pieces – from the modern dance and ballet worlds – and also representing the dancers of tomorrow with the participation of Limon2.
Opening the program was Ted Shawn’s Floor Plastique, which had its original premiere in 1916, and was choreographed for students at the Denishawn School in Los Angeles, California.
Appropriately this performance of Floor Plastique was danced by Lihong Chan, Erin Hollamon, Madison Marshall, Tess McCharen, Nicole Miera, Sabrina Olivieri, and Ellie Swainhart, who are members of Limon2 – here staged and coached by Henning Rubsam. This dance is an example of less is more as these young dancers simply danced Shawn’s choreography to great effect.
Valentina Kozlova, former principal dancer of the Bolshoi Ballet and the New York City Ballet, performed one of Ruth St. Denis’ early works, Incense, which had its premiere in 1906. Based upon a Hindu ritual the sense of ritual and spirituality was beautifully danced, interpreted, and projected by Kozlova.
Bradley Shelver, a principal of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, performed Shawn’s Japanese Spear Dance, which was inspired by Japanese dance tradition and was premiered in 1919. In this piece Shelver portrays a warrior with great strength and fortitude – an exacting piece of choreography.
The trio from Ted Shawn’s Choeur Danse, was imagined as figures from a Grecian vase coming to life. Choeur Danse, which had its original premiere in 1926, was here taught and coached by Francesca Todesco. The performance of this dance had the ingredients of youth and spring as expressed by the cast of Rosy Gentle, Erika Langmeyer, and Kathleen Caragine.
Nina Jirka, a member of the Vanaver Caravan, performed Ruth St. Denis’ The Legend of the Peacock, which was staged by Jane Sherman and Livia Vanaver and inspired by St. Denis’ original choreography – and had been originally premiered in 1914. In this dance an admired and attractive woman is transformed into a peacock to punish her for her vanity. Jirka expresses regality, and in contrast, yearning and desperation, in this piece.
Arthur Aviles, former member of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance, performed Ted Shawn’s Danse Americaine, which was originally premiered in 1923. Aviles draws the character of a street dude who charms every one he meets – and danced by Aviles with wit and charm.
Ruth St. Denis’ A Javanese Court Dancer, had been premiered in 1926, and was created as an American expression of serimpi – a ritualized dance of Java associated with royal palaces. Pei-Ju Chien-Pott, former principal dancer of the Martha Graham Dance Company, presented an image of regality and femineity in this piece enhanced with the fluttering of her hands.
Ted Shawn’s The Cosmic Dance of Siva, which premiered in 1926, is described as a celebratory Hindu dance in honor of Siva. The ritualized dance and its theme of celebration was well expressed by Antonio Fini, a former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company.
The closing piece on the program was Ruth St. Denis’ Waltz/Liebestraum, choreographed to Brahms’ Waltz in A Flat Major and Liszt’s Liebestraum. Premiered in 1922, the dance’s origination was inspired by the moment when St. Denis began dancing at a party. The choreography captures the mood, airiness, and the poetry of the music, and was danced with great inspiration by Christine Dakin, former artistic director and principal dancer of the Martha Graham Dance Company.
The dances presented on this program were, for the most part, choreographed and danced by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in their premieres which reflected their artistic aesthetic. Their solos tell a story – precise, concise – and to the point. In the hands of such wonderful artists, these works came to life again for another generation to experience and enjoy.
Anna Held – The Birth of Ziegfeld’s Broadway
By Mark Kappel
Published by the University of Kentucky Press, and written by Eve Golden, Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld’s Broadway, is a look back at what Broadway was before World War I – a very different Broadway from what it is today.
That history, represented in Golden’s book, is about Anna Held, a theater superstar during this period of time. Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld’s Broadway looks back on Held’s life from her theatrical roots in Europe and then upon her immigrating to the United States and her relationship with Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., her husband, mentor, and notable producer, and their many theatrical enterprises.
Born in Poland, Held was the only child in her family to survive. To avoid Czar Alexander III’s efforts to punish Jews in all countries under Russia’s control, the Held family left for Paris in 1881. Held worked in Paris’ garment industry, and struggled like other immigrants and the poor in Paris. But she became a self-styled Parisienne taking on all sorts of jobs in order to make a living.
Around 1884, after her father had passed on, her family sought out a relative in London only to find that relative didn’t live at the address they had. But they took advantage of contacts within the Jewish immigrant community living in London. Held joined Yisrol Gardner’s theater company as an actress. After her mother’s death, Jacob Adler stole her away to join his Smith’s Theater. In 1887 when Adler’s theatre was lost to a fire Held returned to Paris where she appeared with Yiddish theater companies, and also turned to Paris’ music halls to pursue her stage career.
She met her first husband, Maximo Carrera, in 1893 — he was known as a notorious playboy – perhaps marrying him because she was pregnant with her daughter. Held converted to Catholicism and spun stories of a Christian life and memories in what was a hostile environment for Jews. Not believing in divorce, when Held and Carrera drifted apart, they didn’t divorce.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Ziegfeld, growing up with producing skills, traveled to Europe to search for acts for his productions in the United States, and during this search he crossed paths with Held.
It was in 1896 that Ziegfeld bought out Held’s contract with the Folies Bergères in Paris and contracted Held for an engagement in a revival of A Parlor Match in New York – which was also eventually toured in the United States. When Held arrived in New York for this engagement Ziegfeld initiated press promotions to enable Held to beat out her competition of the day – promoting her with the aid of a press agent, creating stunts including her infamous milk baths, and endorsing products.
Held and Ziegfeld developed a romantic relationship and taking advantage of New York State’s common law marriage laws, Held, didn’t have to divorce her husband – and Held and Ziegfeld were recognized as being legally married after 7 years.
Held returned to Broadway in La Poupe, an English version of a French farce and then on to vaudeville touring in a private railway car previously owned by Lillie Langtry. She also appeared in another English version of a French play, The French Maid, and spent her summers in Europe.
One of Held’s great triumphs was Papa’s Wife, which was created as a vehicle for her, and was a major test for her personal and professional life. Papa’s Wife received raves in its out of town tryout and opened in New York in 1899 as a smash hit – helped a great deal by Held’s recognition as a Broadway star and lots of chorus girls. Held’s next vehicle was Little Duchess which opened in New York in 1901 which was also followed by a successful national tour. As in the instance of Little Duchess Held’s vehicles were also known for its costumes, hers designed by Mme. Landoff of Paris.
The next Held/Ziegfeld extravaganza was Mam’selle Napoleon – based on a French play about Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite actress. Presented in three acts taking place in different locations in Europe, there were 44 speaking parts, 100 chorus girls and the cost was a record at its time in 1903 of $100,000. Critics panned the show – an experiment in Held taking on a serious role which was not a success – Ziegfeld lost a boat load of money on this project.
In 1904 Held and Ziegfeld moved into a luxury apartment in the newly-built Ansonia on New York’s Upper West Side. Shortly thereafter Ziegfeld teamed with producer Joe Weber to present in one of Weber’s satires, Higgledy-Piggledy, which was not a success for Held, and also brought to its conclusion the producing team of Ziegfeld and Weber.
In preparation for these projects Held was unmasked as being born in Warsaw and Jewish which created a scandal – which was also duplicated when it was revealed that Held had a daughter with Held stage managing it all in a way that further estranged herself from her daughter.
In the meantime two warring groups of theater owners dictated Ziegfeld’s fortunes as he played one group against the other. In producing The Parisian Model – play that Held was to appear in – Ziegfeld went back to a successful formula of depending upon past success that emphasized the risqué and costume designs by the leading Paris fashion houses. Unlike the Weber/Ziegfeld theatrical enterprise, The Parisian Model opened in New York in 1906 and received good notices.
The Parisian Model proved to be the biggest financial success of any musical record in theatre history.
Also, Ziegfeld began developing what became his signature contribution to theatre history —The Follies of 1907, an idea attributed to Held, which evolved into a variety show with chorus girls – branded as the Anna Held girls – and renting the rooftop garden of the New York Theater (renamed the Jardin de Paris), the Follies’ home for the first five of its seasons.
Another change in Held’s life was the death of her first husband, Maximo Carrera, in 1908 and Held assuming full custody of her estranged daughter Liane.
Held’s next project was another racy musical, Miss Innocence, and after opening in New York in 1908 it was another big hit that also had a national tour. Miss Innocence proved to be the last Held/Ziegfeld collaboration. Ziegfeld had an open relationship with one of his mistresses, Lillian Lorraine, which resulted in Held’s confrontation with Ziegfeld and his mistress. Being publicly humiliated Held left for Paris, splitting with Ziegfeld, making international headlines, and rumors about retirement.
In 1910 Held returned to Europe to appear in a variety act in London and then an American tour of Miss Innocence – and a reconciliation of sorts with Ziegfeld – and also regular trips between Europe and the United States resulting in an engagement at the Folies Bergères in Paris. But Held finally divorced Ziegfeld.
Held pursued her career with the guidance of a new manager, John Cort, which resulted in Held appearing in a vaudeville show, Anna Held’s All-Star Variety Jubilee – which had a 5-month tour – which was not all that successful and after touring opened earlier in New York that had been planned.
However, another important event in Held’s life was coming to terms that a reconciliation with Ziegfeld would not be possible when the news was announced that Ziegfeld had married Billie Burke in 1914.
When Held returned to Europe for the last time to spend time in France, she also had plans to perform in Bucharest when the events leading up to World War I impacted her plans. The theatrical community did what they could to support the war effort and were among the war casualties as well. Held, herself, wired President Woodrow Wilson requesting him to involve the United States in the war effort in Europe – but did not receive a reply. However Held assembled a troupe of entertainers, equipped cars for the purpose and without government approval set off to entertain the troops, lend assistance at field hospitals, and put their lives at risk.
Held returned to the United States and returned to her vaudeville roots and engagements, and her first feature film, Madame la Presidente, which was shot in Los Angeles and released in 1916. Held then signed a contract with the Shuberts and was to appear in a show entitled Follow Me, for which she was also a prominent investor. Although Follow Me was a great success and Held’s last success, the Shuberts did not want to sponsor a tour. Held then took over that responsibility while also still supporting the war effort, when in 1917, the United States entered World War I.
Unfortunately, the extensive touring and war activities effected Held’s health preventing her from performing during the tour of Follow Me. Her daughter, Liane, stepped into the lead role for those tour dates. But Held’s health issues were so severe that the tour was disbanded, and ultimately she was diagnosed with a form of cancer which contributed to her death in 1918. Her memory was served at the time with appropriate arrangements made by her friend, Lillian Russell.
Golden has also provided numerous details about Held’s stage career and personal life that could not be covered in a review of Golden’s book.
Anna Held’s name has passed into memory although she was among the theater’s greatest stars – in fact, legend, and myth. Thanks to Eve Golden’s book, Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld’s Broadway, one can now get to know her, her fame, and her contribution to theatre history.
Irish Repertory Theatre Presents
Angela’s Ashes The Musical
September 9, 2021
By Mark Kappel
The Irish Repertory Theatre is presenting a unique and special streamed event as part of its 2021-22 season. Being streamed on demand is Angela’s Ashes – The Musical, from Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, which began its presentations on September 9th and will continue until September 22, 2021.
Angela’s Ashes is Frank McCourt’s memoir of his early life in America and in Limerick, Ireland suffering through a life of poverty and facing the consequences being raised by an alcoholic father. As stated by the young Frank he survived his Irish Catholic childhood.
This compelling musical adaption of McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize winning memoir has been written by the creative team of Adam Howell, writing the music and lyrics, and Paul Hurt, writing the book.
McCourt’s experiences includes being surrounded by characters out of Victorian novel – and after those haunting, and challenging years, he ultimately decides to pursue a new life in America. McCourt’s story is seen from his perspective as a young boy and then into early adulthood.
Frank looks back on his childhood and young adult life through flashbacks describing the marriage of his father, Malachy, and his mother Angela, how they managed through poverty after immigrating to America and returning to Ireland, and losing some of their children to illness. The focus of Angela’s Ashes is Malachy’s battle with alcohol and how he failed in his fatherly responsibilities by not holding down a steady job, not contributing to the family’s well-being nor any money to survive on – and even though he left the family to find work in England, he reverted to his old ways when he returned to Ireland.
Frank, born in America, sees his life in Ireland as an outsider. Being teased by his peers and having difficulty in conforming to Irish Catholic life at a time of economic and political change. Benefitting from what education he had and also his talent, Frank parlays what he had financially and leaves his family behind to seek his fortune in America. Years lately the family is able to unite and the family also fulfills Frank’s mother’s request to have her ashes returned to Ireland.
Frank’s impressions are told and enhanced by Angela’s Ashes’ score which is filled with the rhythms and instrumentation of Irish traditional music that is familiar, and sentimental. The score is memorable not only for how it draws the characters in this musical but also how it sets the atmospherics that color Frank’s story.
Particularly notable were the performances of Jacinta Whyte as the long-suffering Angela, and Eoin Cannon as the young and adult Frank. Although the character of Malachi, Frank’s father, is not particularly empathetic, Marty McGuire brings realism to this role.
Thom Southerland, as the director of this production of Angela’s Ashes, guides this story with Irish charm as well as wit.
This musical version of Angela’s Ashes was premiered at the Lime Tree Theatre in Limerick in 2017, and these streamed performances of the Olympia Theatre production of Angela’s Ashes, sponsored by the Irish Repertory Theatre, make it possible for Angela’s Ashes to be seen in its North American premiere.
Angela’s Ashes is a story worth telling and is enhanced in this stage musical version with passion and empathy — with the addition of music.
A Star On Her Door – June Bronhill
By Mark Kappel
A Star On Her Door, by Richard Davis, and published by Wakefield Press, examines the life of Australian opera and musical stage star, June Bronhill. Her name not be familiar in many parts of the world, but she played an important role in Australia’s musical theater history.
For four decades beginning the 1950’s June Bronhill earned recognition as an opera star in the United Kingdom and Australia singing roles in operas composed by Mozart, Donizetti and Verdi – and in operettas by Lehar and Offenbach – part of a varied career on stage including operas and operettas, Broadway musicals, as well as in straight plays, television and cabaret.
She was born in Broken Hill, Australia in 1929 – her name then – June Mary Gough – known later to the world as June Bronhill.
Her father emigrated from the United Kingdom to Australia taking on different career opportunities, and ultimately he became known as a unionist and was well respected in Broken Hill. Notably he courted and married Maria Isabella Daisy Hall. He also changed professions from working in the mines to an administrative position at the local hospital.
June was the youngest in the family – two of her sisters did not survive into adulthood. Her talent for singing was discovered when she was five years old. She got to display her singing talent locally, in fundraising concerts, at a local radio station and as a soloist with the local choir, and subsequently began her musical studies.
In 1949 she competed in the Sun Aria vocal competition placing third – the winner was Joan Sutherland – but the following year she came back and won first prize. In 1951 she married aspiring opera producer, Brian Martin, and they set off for the United Kingdom in 1952 to allow Bronhill to pursue her vocal studies and her career, and for Martin to pursue a career as an opera producer.
In London Bronhill studied with Italian tenor Dino Borgioli, and was offered a contract as a principal soprano at the Sadler’s Wells Opera joining other Australians on the roster – making her Sadler’s Wells debut as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro.
Bronhill was invited to be an understudy for Covent Garden’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor by Franco Zeffirelli – and then was asked to sing the role on tour.
In 1960 Bronhill returned to Australia to sing the title role in The Merry Widow with the Sadler’s Wells Opera – and the same commercial producer, Garnet Carroll, who produced the tour, engaged Bronhill to appear in the Australian production of The Sound of Music. Bronhill appeared opposite American actor Peter Graves (of Mission Impossible fame) as Captain Von Trapp.
During this time period Bronhill’s marriage ended in divorce with her husband to return to living in Australia, and she met and married her second husband, Richard Finny. During the Sydney engagement of The Sound of Music, Bronhill realized she was pregnant and after the birth of her daughter, she went back to performing – an Australian tour of The Merry Widow and Orpheus in the Underworld.
London called again for Bronhill to create a starring role in a new musical, Robert and Elizabeth, based on Rudolf Besier’s play, The Barretts of Wimple Street. With a score composed by Australian Ron Grainer and playing opposite Australian actor, Keith Michell, Robert and Elizabeth premiered in London in 1964 – then touring in this musical in Australia opposite English actor Denis Quilley. Although a Broadway engagement of Robert and Elizabeth was abruptly cancelled, Bronhill toured with this musical in South Africa.
Bronhill’s opera career continued with an engagement by the Elizabethan Trust Opera company to tour Australia in Don Pasquale and Die Fledermaus, and in 1968 she was off to London to appear in a revival of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years touring in the United Kingdom and a London engagement. She also appeared in a UK tour of Noel Coward’s Bittersweet.
In 1971 Bronhill divorced her husband Richard Finny – however her performing did not stop. She also toured with Tommy Steele and appeared in two more Ivor Novello musicals.
She also appeared a prodigious number of opera performances with the Sadler’s Wells Opera in The Merry Widow and La Rondine, and with the Australian Opera in Rigoletto, The Barber of Seville, Maria Stuarda, and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.
Bronhill appeared in the role of Desiree Armfeldt in an Australian production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music – in 1972, in Paris, she had unsuccessfully auditioned for the same role in the Broadway production – and she also appeared in Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What A Lovely War! Bronhill also starred in the Australian version of the BBC sit-com, Are You Being Served?
In 1981 Bronhill was invited to play the role of the Mother Abbess in the first British professional revival of The Sound of Music with Petula Clark as Maria. And I was honored to have seen and heard her in this role in London myself. This revival was successful enough to run for nearly a year in London’s West End.
Bronhill’s last major role was that of Ruth in the Australian production of the Broadway version of The Pirates of Penzance in 1984. Other roles included Mrs. Pearce in the Victorian State Opera’s production of My Fair Lady, Nunsense, Arsenic and Old Lace, and her farewell musical stage appearance in 1993 as Miss Jones in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – her actual farewell appearance was in the comedy Straight and Narrow.
In her later years Bronhill chose her projects with visibility and a paycheck in mind, and also in those years, she was losing her hearing, and was suffering from dementia and other medical conditions. But she did her write her own autobiography, The Merry Bronhill, before passing away in 2005.
Although most of Bronhill’s career was in Australia, she did become known in the United Kingdom and re-invented herself to make it possible for to appear in a wide range of entertainment media.
Mr. Davis’ biography includes an exacting number of notes for each chapter – which are of interest in their own right – a list of Bronhill’s appearances in opera and on stage, and also a discography – and it is worthwhile reading, A Star On Her Door, if only to discover a unique opera star, musical stage star, and entertainer.
Pick A Pocket Or Two
By Mark Kappel
In his book, Pick A Pocket Or Two – A History of British Musical Theatre, published by Oxford University Press, Ethan Mordden traces the roots of British Musical Theatre – parallel to the development of the same genre in the United States.
Mordden defines American musicals as focusing on fulfilling ambition in comparison to British musicals which outline social boundaries and a person’s place in their individual world. Also British musicals were distinguished by their charm.
Mordden begins his story focusing on the roots of the British musical going back to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera — in 1728 – to the present day. Mordden explains that The Beggar’s Opera was not only an entertainment of its era but is also considered by Mordden to be stage worthy even today. Gay injected his own lyrics into well-known traditional ballads, and the story is about the criminal classes of the day which could apply to any historical era. Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera inspired The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht which had its world premiere in 1928.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas paralleled Offenbach’s operettas – all of which included social and political satire. The partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan was initiated in 1871 and lasted until 1896. Their works were political satires – spoofing the landed gentry and powerful – social commentary set in familiar settings, and foreign and exotic places – which could be described as comic operas and mastered the form of patter songs.
In his book Mordden described Sullivan as a romantic and Gilbert as the satirist.
Moving on from Gilbert and Sullivan, Mordden explores the influence of George Edwards, manager of London’s Gaiety Theatre, who “invented” what is known as the modern musical comedy during the Gaiety Era – from around the 1890s to 1915 – marking a different approach from Gilbert and Sullivan – with modern settings, emphasizing star personalities, and uplifting content in songs.
The term “musical comedy” first appeared in the billing of Cinderella At School in 1881 – used in American first – and an important example of this new form, Shop Girl opened in London in 1894 – focusing on a typical young woman of the time.
During the years from 1910 to 1920 this was an era during which productions were influenced by American styles and music – along with imported musicals by Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.
However an important success during that era was Frederic Norton’s Chu Chin Chow in 1916 with lyrics and book by Oscar Asche which had an engaging and involving plot.
Just as significant or more so was Mister Cinders in 1929, a male version of Cinderella, written by Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman in its original version with songs by Richard Myers. During its 4-month out of town tryouts the creative teams and principal actors were changed and owed its international success to composer Vivian Ellis.
Ivor Novello, another major contributor to British musicals was known as a matinee idol and movie star, and authored the dialogue in MGM’s Tarzan & the Ape Man.
In his early work he used music quotations from known composers – songs for revues – and one of his best-known, “And Her Mother Came Too!” was composed during his early years.
However he was best known for his operettas, inventing plots for them, with Christopher Hassall contributing the lyrics for them. Novello wrote the scripts, composed the songs, played the leads – and supervised each production. His operettas were dominated by long book scenes and short scores which were added to by reprises. His works dominated the years from 1935 through 1949.
Mordden describes the years between the 1920’s and the 1950’s as a conservative period in British musical presentations. He states that the British musicals lacked ambition during this time – a time when both revues and book musicals were presented and produced by Charles Cochran and Andre Charlot.
Among the standout book musicals during that period were Ever Green with a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart starring Jessie Matthews, and Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant starring Gertrude Lawrence.
Having a unique impact on the British theatre scene in 1937 was Me and My Girl with Lupino Lane playing Bill Snibson, a cockney, who is confused as he is informed that he comes from a posh family and must give up his girlfriend – having to give up his individuality for the sake of fitting in with British upper crust society. Composer Noel Gay, and Arthur Rose and Douglas Farber writing the book and lyrics, profited when Me and My Girl had a second life when this musical was revived in 1984 and was even more successful than the original production in the 1930’s.
Also during this period was Vivian Ellis’ the Water Gipsies and Bless The Bride, both of which Ellis wrote with A.P. Herbert.
From 1923 onwards Noel Coward wrote plays, revues, musicals, and popular songs – and he also acted in his own creations. Self-educated and demonized at times, and revered at other times. During his career he created eccentric characters in complicated relationships and his plays have been in and out of fashion, but have survived, and have been regularly revived.
Among Coward’s musicals or plays with music were Words & Music, Sight No More, Bittersweet (starring Peggy Wood), Conversation Piece, Pacific (produced in London and starred Mary Martin), Sail Away (starring Elaine Stritch), and The Girl Who Came To Supper taking Coward through his career up to 1963.
In the 1950’s among the imported American musicals was My Fair Lady – and there were the continued American influences on British musicals as many American actors recreated roles in the London productions of Broadway musicals. However a British musical that was very influenced by American musicals was Grab Me A Gondola, which opened in London in 1956, and Harold Fielding presented stage versions of American musicals written for television – Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Cole Porter’s Aladdin.
In 1959, Lock Up Your Daughters – based on Henry Fielding’s Rape Upon Rape – was given its London premiere notable for the creative team which included Bernard Miles, Laurie Johnson and Lionel Bart. And there were also notable musicals from the British colonies including Golden City, in 1950, which premiered in London but was written by John Tori of Rhodesia. Golden City was set in South Africa during the Gold Rush days. And in 1958 Lola Montez came from Australia, and from South Africa – and in 1958 – Lola Montez from Australia.
In 1958 Expresso Bongo made a deep impression as it employed music from the pop world, and in that same year imported from France but Anglicized – and revised version for Broadway, was Irma La Douce.
But it was in 1960 that Lionel Bart’s Oliver! premiered in London, based on Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, which became an international hit. Mordden also examined Bart’s later musicals, Blitz (about life in London during the Blitz), and Maggie May – and the unsuccessful Twang! a satire of Robin Hood. Although Bart had only one major success during his career there is no doubt that he made his mark on the history of British musicals.
Mordden has paired off the work of Sandy Wilson and Julian Slade for coming on to the scene in the early 1950’s – neither one of them influenced by American musicals but were also described as one-hit wonders – Wilson with The Boy Friend, and Slade with Salad Days – Wilson working on his own while Slade worked with collaborators. Slade’s musicals being innocent while Wilson was satirical and cynical.
Wilson’s The Boy Friend echoed the American musical, No, No Nanette – with a pastiche score – and an homage to 1920’s British musicals. Slade’s musicals are described by Mordden as unworldly and silly – including Salad Days – and a later success, Trelawney, a musicalization of Arthur Wing Pinero’s play of the same name which was launched at the Bristol Old Vic with Hayley Mills heading the original cast – then moving on to the West End with Gemma Craven as the star.
Mordden describes the 1960’s as a decade of contrast, re-invention, experimentation, and transition in terms of the development of British musicals. It was also a time of social and political upheaval in British society, and also the society at large responding to the Cold War.
Described as “concept musicals” were three musicals by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse with Newley starring in all of them – the Marcel Marceau-inspired Stop The World – I Want To Get Off, The Roar of the Greasepaint, and in the early days of 1972, The Good Old Bad Old Days. Stop The World and The Good Old Bad Old Days made it to London while Stop The World, and The Roar of the Greasepaint made it to Broadway. What they all had in common was a score filled with “hits”, relatively simple production elements, and small casts – and insights into the social conditions and politics of the time.
Even more in tune with the Newley/Bricusse musicals was the experimental musical, Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War, which premiered in 1963, a cynical musical presented in a revue format which was very anti-war employing World War I as an allegory.
But the 1960’s were also full of traditional and conventional musicals such as Passion Flower Hotel and Canterbury Tales, and a spoof of James Bond movies, Come Spy With Me, and Charlie Girl, a modernized version of the Cinderella story that was a popular success. Also there was Pickwick (with Bricusse as one of the collaborators) based on the Charles Dickens’ novel, and in 1964, Robert and Elizabeth, based on The Barrett’s of Wimpole Street.
Revues dominated the 1970’s and the 1980’s with Cowardy Custard, Cole and tributes – Noel and Gertie, Betjemania, John Paul George Ringo & Bert, and Underneath the Arches – perhaps inspiring Songbook in 1979, a tribute to a fictional composer Mooney Shapiro with pastiche music inspired by the Cold War, World Wars, Broadway and Hollywood. A Broadway production in 1981 opened and closed within a short time period.
There were also adaptations including that of J.B. Priestley’s novel, The Good Companions, about a touring theatrical company with a collaboration by Andre Previn, Johnny Mercer, and book writer, Ronald Harwood. A little less conventional was the spoof of 1950’s sci-fi movies, The Rocky Horror Show, and other adaptations – Hans Andersen starring Tommy Steele, Busy Malone, Billy starring Michael Crawford based on the movie, Billy Liar, and Howard Goodalls’ and Melvyn Bragg’s The Hired Man – and Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers – which was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic – and a play with songs, Privates on Parade.
At the end of his book Mordden examines the development of the “Pop Opera” or “thru-sung British musicals” which have dominated British stages in the last several decades. Less known have been Stephen Oliver’s Blondel, Metropolis, based on Fritz Lang’s film, but better known are Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and Martin Guerre by the team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg.
Also included for examination is Chess, Tim Rice’s collaboration with Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus – as well as the use of the ABBA song catalogue for Mamma Mia!
However the strongest British proponent of this genre of musicals is home-grown British Andrew Lloyd Webber with Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, Evita, and Cats among his best known musicals, collaborating with Tim Rice and other lyricists. Lloyd Webber’s choice of subject matter has been eclectic enough to also include The Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard, and the most recent, The School of Rock, which premiered on Broadway. And not all of his musicals have reached American shores.
Also mentioned were “new” composers on the British scene including Elton John – in particular Billy Elliott – the team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe from Honk to Marry Poppins to Peter Pan to The Wind in the Willows, Tim Minchin’s recent stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Lucy Mass’ Six.
Enhancing Mordden’s Pick A Pocket or Two is an extensive and annotated discography – a roadmap to help discover some of these important musicals in Britain’s history.
Arthur Schwartz – Broadway Composer
By Mark Kappel
Tighe Zimmers has written a detailed and engrossing biography – That’s Entertainment – A Biography of Broadway Composer – Arthur Schwartz, which has been published by McFarland and Company.
Schwartz is one of many composers whose songs are at the heart of the American Song Book.
Schwartz was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1900. Having skipped a few grades he completed his elementary school studies at the age of 12 – then on to Boys High School graduating at the age of 16. Showing an aptitude for music, sneaking in practice on the family piano while lessons were reserved for his older brother William. He played by ear when in his single digit years and also began writing songs.
Schwartz earned his undergraduate degree in English Studies at New York University, then a Master’s Degree at Columbia University, and back to New York University to complete his law degree.
Schwartz’s first published song was in 1923 – “Baltimore, Md., You’re The Only Doctor For Me’, and as a counselor at Brant Lake Camp in the Adirondacks – he continued to write songs for the camp revues and activities – where he met and collaborated with Lorenz Hart.
After being in a law practice for a brief time, Schwartz decided to leave his law practice in 1928 to begin his full-time work in the theater as a composer – after which he would take on any theatrically-related work that he could – including contributing songs to revues which had mixed success.
In that same year, Schwartz formed a partnership with Howard Dietz – a collaboration that began in earnest with The Little Show as their first significant collaboration and in so doing revitalized the revue format.
In 1930, Schwartz worked on his first show, only as a composer. with a British lyricist which was produced in London that same year. It was Princess Charming, an operetta, written with other collaborators in London with Dr. Albert Sirmay, a Hungarian operetta composer, who collaborated on an American version of this operetta – with this new version premiering on Broadway in 1930 – at a time when the convention of an operetta was waning of interest to a Broadway audience.
During a short period of time, Dietz and Schwartz wrote several successful revues. One of them being The Band Wagon which was notable because all of the score was composed by Dietz and Schwartz, and George S. Kaufman wrote the script – with Fred and Adele Astaire as the co-stars.
Also a notable collaborator was Albertina Rasch and the employment of Rasch’s dancers in the show. Rasch was a business woman from Vienna and a founding member of the Russian Tea Room – and married to concert pianist/film composer, Dimitri Tiomkin. Also Viennese, Tilly Losch, who was Rasch’s principal dancer who earned her reputation as a dancer after training at the Vienna Opera School moving on to shows in London – then on to the United States as a dancer and choreographer for Max Reinhardt.
The Band Wagon was also notable for twin revolving stages – a first for a Broadway revue – which became an integral facet of The Bandwagon – also Beggar Waltz – which was a dream/dance sequence.
Flying Colors, a follow up to The Bandwagon, was produced in a larger and grander manner. Tamara Geva was engaged as a dancer for the show and one of the cast members was Buddy Ebsen.
A breakthrough project for Schwartz was The Gibson Family, a radio serial which was intended as a weekly musical comedy on radio. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to the expectations of its sponsor, Proctor & Gamble, and came to quick end.
An important event in Schwartz’s life was in 1934 when he married actress Katherine Carrington.
In 1934, Dietz and Schwartz wrote their first book musical, Revenge With Music, which was based on the Spanish folk tale, Pedro de Alarcon’s The Three Cornered Hat, which was also the source material for Leonide Massine’s The Three-Cornered Hat for the Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. First thought of as an operetta, it was later described as a “romantic play with music” and featured a hit song for Dietz and Schwartz, “You And The Night And The Music” and starred a friend of the composing team, Libby Holman.
Another revue followed, At Home Abroad, in 1935, which starred Eleanor Powell, Beatrice Lillie and Ethel Waters. This was also Vincente Minelli’s Broadway debut for a full-length musical – the dialogue and skits were about travelling abroad in spite of turmoil abroad at the time. In that same year was another revue Follow The Sun – produced in London – for which the cast included American Claire Luce who had danced in Frederick Ashton’s The Last Shoot.
Schwartz also contributed songs to several Hollywood films including That Girl from Paris starring Lily Pons, Under Your Spell, and The Mark of Zorro, which was never produced.
Also there were two other book musicals, Between the Devil in 1937, and the musical, Virginia, produced in the Center Theater at Rockefeller Center – and supported financially by the Rockefeller Family. The locale of that musical was in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1775 – the Rockefeller Family had financially supported the restoration of Williamsburg and the musical, Virginia, focused on the romance of the era more than the history of the era.
Stars In Your Eyes was envisioned to be about leftists working in Hollywood – and was meant to be a satire on Hollywood. It was an opportunity to work with Dorothy Fields – with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante in the cast, and producer Dwight Deere Wiman’s protégé, Tamara Toumanova, who danced in two ballets in this show – with Alicia Alonso, Nora Kaye, Maria Karnilova, and Jerome Robbins as the dance ensemble.
Director Josh Logan thought the story was overdone and reduced the story to sex in Hollywood. There was the hope that New York World’s Fair visitors would buy tickets to Stars In Your Eyes but that hope for a box success was never realized.
It was ironic that Schwartz’s next project, American Jubilee, would be presented as an entertainment for the New York World’s Fair. Schwartz collaborated with Oscar Hammerstein II – with events and personalities from American history to be included in this show.
Schwartz spent a great deal of the 1940’s in Hollywood collaborating with such musical greats as Johnny Mercer and Frank Loesser. Schwartz’s songs would be inserted into a long list of Hollywood movies and also sung by the great film singing stars of the day.
Schwartz was also engaged as a producer for two major films. The first of which, Cover Girl (1944), had a score written by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly as the stars – Kelly as choreographer as well. Cover Girl was successful enough that Schwartz was asked to produce Night and Day in 1946 which was a somewhat fictionalized biography of Cole Porter which included songs composed by Porter, and starring Cary Grant as Porter and Alexis Smith as Porter’s wife, Linda. Although invitations were sent out to the many performers who had associations with Porter’s music, the only star to appear on screen was Mary Martin who sang “My Heart Belongs To Daddy”.
Schwartz once again returned to Broadway in 1946 with Park Avenue, a collaboration with Ira Gershwin, with a book by George S. Kaufman adapted from a Nunnally Johnson’s “Holy Matrimony”. Schwartz then returned to Hollywood to collaborate with Leo Robin on the film score for The Time, The Place and The Girl – resulting in another one of Schwartz’s songs being nominated for the Academy Award.
Schwartz returned to Broadway again to reunite with Dietz to work on revue based on John Gunther’s Inside USA – which opened with the same name as Gunther’s book in 1948 with Beatrice Lillie and Jack Haley as the stars. Inside USA was a great success on Broadway and on national tour.
Schwartz felt that musical revues could be easily adaptable to the new medium of television, and Schwartz adapted Inside USA with Chevrolet in 1949 creating songs and sketches set in many locations in the Untied States. In 1950 Schwartz produced Samson Raphaelson’s play, Hilda Crane with Jessica Tandy, and Hume Cronyn as director, and had also planned to be involved with a stage musicalization of Grand Hotel which was never produced.
1951 brought Schwartz together with Dorothy Fields as lyricist for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn based on the novel of the same name by Betty Smith. George Abbott and Smith co-wrote the book for this musical which starred Shirley Booth. It was a modest success on Broadway and on tour.
A return to films included contributions to Excuse My Dust, and Dangerous When Wet – collaborating with Johnny Mercer – and starring Esther Williams.
Arthur Freed, one of the master makers of movie musicals, wanted to produce another “song catalogue musical” having had successes with An American in Paris and Singin’ In The Rain. Freed and Roger Edens teamed up with Betty Comden and Adolph Green as screen play writers, Vincente Minelli as director, and Michael Kidd as choreographer to employ the Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz music catalogue to create such a musical – although not entirely based on the Schwartz and Dietz revue of the same name. The film starred Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse – and Schwartz and Dietz composed the well-known show business anthem, “That’s Entertainment” for the film.
However before The Bandwagon’s successful film premiere in 1953, there was a personal tragedy as Schwartz’s wife, Katherine, died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Schwartz’s next Broadway project was By The Beautiful Sea which had its Broadway premiere in 1954. With a book by Herbert & Dorothy Fields, and Shirley Booth as the star, this musical also had its roots in Brooklyn taking place in Coney Island in 1907 – proving to be a modest success.
Only two months before By The Beautiful Sea opened on Broadway, Schwartz married May O’Hagan Scott, a Broadway actress, which not only was a marriage but also a professional marriage as Scott worked with Schwartz are several projects together.
In the mid-1950’s Schwartz turned his focus on television projects including a television musical version of the Maxwell Anderson play, High Tor, which starred Bing Crosby and Julie Andrews, and later a television musicalization of A Bell For Adano starring Barry Sullivan and Anna Maria Alberghetti.
The last two Broadway musicals that the partnership of Schwartz and Dietz worked on were not the successes that they could have been. As Zimmer pointed out both musicals suffered from weak books, difficult out-of-town tryouts, and problems behind the scenes that hampered their success.
The Gay Life which starred Barbara Cook and Walter Chiari, was based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1-act play, Anatol, with a book by Fay & Michael Kanin. Gerald Freedman was the original director but was replaced by Herbert Ross (who was already this musical’s choreographer) during its tryout stop in Detroit. The Gay Life opened on Broadway in 1961 to a mixed critical reception and never caught on at the box office.
Jennie was created as a star vehicle for Mary Martin and was based on the life of the legendary Broadway actress Laurette Taylor. Zimmer stated in this biography that Mary Martin turned down the roles of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! to star in Jennie. Arnold Schulman wrote the book but through development, rehearsals, tryouts and performances, Martin’s husband, Richard Halliday, was interfering in every aspect of this musical. Its tryout tour was particularly rocky – it opened on Broadway 1963 to a modest critical reception and was the last of Schwartz’s Broadway musicals.
Thereafter Schwartz worked with many different lyricists on musicals that either languished or didn’t reach the point where they could be produced. Among them were stage musical versions of the film Casablanca, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, and Graham Green’s Our Man in Havana. Reaching the stage was a revision, working with his wife, Mary O’Hagan, of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, re-titled Look Who’s Dancing, was presented at the Berkshire Music Festival in 1978.
Schwartz returned to New York in the 1980’s. He suffered a stroke and passed on in 1984.
It would be impossible to comment on all of the details, including Schwartz’s personal and professional life, that Zimmer has included in his biography of Arthur Schwartz in this review. In addition, Zimmer’s biography of Schwartz also includes exhaustive listings of Schwartz’s Broadway musicals and songs which make excellent reference.
Chichester Festival Theatre
Presents South Pacific
August 4, 2021
By Mark Kappel
As the world is coming to terms with the effects of Covid-19 it is expected that streamed performances presented, on an international basis, will be fewer and far between in the future. Fortunately the Chichester Festival Theatre is currently presenting internationally streamed performances of its current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.
The esteemed Chichester Festival Theatre opened in 1962 with Laurence Olivier as its artistic director. Over the years the Chichester Festival Theatre has presented revivals of musicals and plays that have won acclaim and some of the productions have been transferred to London’s West End. Therefore it is fortunate, still to some degree in our Covid-19 isolation, that we are able to see one of its recent and ongoing productions. And I hope that the Chichester Festival Theatre will make its productions available to be seen in this manner in the future.
South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949 just after World War II and proved to be a star vehicle for Mary Martin in the role of Nellie Forbush. The musical was inspired by James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific which told the stories of Americans in the military services who were based in the South Sea during World War II. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were responsible for this musical’s memorable and dazzling score, and Hammerstein also wrote the book in collaboration with Joshua Logan.
The story begins in 1943 and traces the encounters of two couples who face new experiences living in what is a very different place from the United States. Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse from Arkansas, has fallen in love with Emile de Becque a French plantation owner, and their romance takes some strange turns as Forbush comes to terms with her prejudices concerning de Becque’s children born of de Becque’s native mistress. The second story line focuses on Lt. Cable, who is sent to this part of the world on a special mission to spy on Japanese ship movements, and comes in contact with a native girl, Liat — and realizes that he too has own prejudices. This is a story that doesn’t have a fulfilling happy ending but is certainly a learning experience for all involved.
Director Daniel Evans (who is the Chichester Festival Theatre’s current artistic director) opens his version of South Pacific with a Prologue with a lone young local Polynesian girl (Sera Maehara who plays the role of Liat)) whose space is filled with invading soldiers amid the sounds and atmospherics of chirping birds and the sounds of airplanes in the sky – all the while the orchestra is playing excerpts from South Pacific’s score. The choreography for Liat, by Ann Yee, sets the tone that we are in an unfamiliar place in chaotic times. These opening minutes set the stage for a culture clash between the native inhabitants on this island in the Pacific and the military from the United States and Japan.
Also this is a teaser for Evans’ slightly different interpretation of this classic American musical which includes some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best songs including, “Some Enchanted Evening”, “Cock-Eyed Optimist”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Out of My Hair”, “This Nearly Was Mine” and the haunting, “Bali Ha’i”.
There was some risk-taking in the interpretation of “Happy Talk” which might seem frivolous but in this production the tone was much more somber as it seems Bloody Mary is praying to the Gods, and pleading with Lt. Cable for him to marry her daughter, Liat – prayers that are not answered.
In this production of South Pacific, Evans, has made some interesting directorial choices to scrutinize this mid-20th century story from a 21st century point of view.
Both Gina Beck as Nellie Forbush and Julian Ovendon as Emile de Becque give stunning dramatic and singing performances full of charm and romance. In particular Ovendon’s heart-breaking and passionate interpretation of “This Nearly Was Mine”, and Beck in her scenes when she realizes that she still loves Emile no matter what prejudices that she may have had – particularly when she is informed that Emile’s life is in danger.
Also impressive were Joanna Ampil as the exotic Bloody Mary, Keir Charles as the comic Luther Billis, and Rob Houchen as the somewhat innocent, yet urbane Lt. Cable. Sera Maeharu’s Liat is given more expression through the language of dance which was created for her by Ann Yee, and then there were the charming performances of Emile’s children, Ellie Chung as Ngana and Archer Brandon as Jerome.
Seen in context in its time South Pacific not only deals with prejudice and acceptance, but also the displacement of people in foreign lands –and what they experience — that will affect them for the rest of our lives.
Evans conveys that message so well in his revival of South Pacific, which is supported by this revival’s excellent cast.
A Conversation with James Lapine & Stephen Sondheim
August 3, 2021
By Mark Kappel
In celebration of the publication of James Lapine’s new book, “Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park With George”, presented by Town Hall in New York City, was a digital conversation with James Lapine, and Stephen Sondheim moderated by Christine Baranski (who was an original cast member of the off-Broadway production of Sunday in the Park With George) – and Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, the two stars of the Broadway production of Sunday in the Park With George.
Sunday in the Park With George was the first of three Lapine/Sondheim collaborations and the Broadway production premiered in 1984. This musical was inspired by the art work of French pointillist painter, Georges Seurat, and in particular his painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”.
The focus of this conversation was how a musical evolves from the first discussion between the collaborators until it is being performed in front of a live audience – and in this discussion it was clear that collaboration was the word of the day. Sunday in the Park With George examines an artist and his work, and expressed in this artistic analysis how both Sondheim and Lapine look back on this musical with the wisdom of age.
In this 90-minute conversation included were few tidbits of note of how the Sondheim/Lapine collaboration worked. One of the more notable ones was Lapine employing tracing paper to trace Seurat’s painting and annotate that tracing with who the characters are that would evolve into the characters in the musical. Sondheim also mentioned that his music for Sunday was influenced by Benjamin Britten – but all of his compositions are influenced by French composers. And both of them noted that the live performance of a musical is actually where the magic is begins.
This chat emphasized that art isn’t easy but also emphasized that a creator or creators can have a meeting of the minds – and eventually result in a major musical masterpiece.
Although a 90- minute conversation between Sondheim and Lapine – and the added comments by Baranski, Peters, and Patinkin – is not enough for me – Town Hall should be proud to have presented this fascinating discourse among great artists.
Mean…Moody…Magnificent! – Jane Russell
By Mark Kappel
Author Christina Rice has written the very first biography of movie star Jane Russell entitled, Mean…Moody…Magnificent! – Jane Russell And The Marketing of a Hollywood Legend, published by the University Press of Kentucky. And it is a good read about a film star that made her mark in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Russell who was born in 1921 in Bemidji, Minnesota, lived the life of a major film star, theater performer, and activist until she passed away in 2011.
Her career in film was launched with an aggressive advertising campaign to promote the Howard Hughes’ film the Outlaw in 1943. Through the decade of the 1940’s she made very few films but ultimately she had a major film career working with the best of Hollywood’s film directors and worked with co-stars who were Hollywood legends in their own right – and Russell also managed her boss Howard Hughes who only wanted to exploit her as a sex symbol.
Starring with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and appearing as a spokeswoman in Playtex bra commercials – her back story was having strong religious faith and later in her life she had a career as a Christian vocalist – and after experiencing the side effects of an abortion she had in 1942 – which prevented her from having children – Russell adopted children with her husband Robert Waterfield (a professional football player) – thereafter creating the WAIF foundation to raise money to lobby congress to change restrictions governing adoptions.
Russell’s mother, Geraldine, had a modest career as a stage actress – and as was to be, Geraldine and her husband pursued their lives and business on both sides of the United States and Canadian border. But when those ventures were no longer stable, they migrated from Vancouver to San Francisco and then on to Los Angeles to seek their fortunes. The Russell Family wasn’t effected by the Wall Street market crash in 1919 as Russell’s father’s position with the Jergens Company gave the family financial stability. However there was the tragedy that Russell’s father died at 47 years old as a result of complications after a routine surgical procedure.
Russell took to drama at a young age and played the piano in a fashion. She joined her brothers and neighborhood kids in an orchestra that performed at ladies clubs, at the YMCA, and private parties.
Russell studied drama with Hollywood character actress Maria Ouspenskaya. An opportune connection with local photography, Tom Kelley, allowed Russell to embark on a career as a model – and Kelley even arranged for her to have movie screen tests – which unfortunately were not breakthroughs for Russell to act in films.
However Russell’s career was to change when she was casted in the role of Rio, the Mexican/Irish girlfriend of Billy The Kid in the film, The Outlaw, which was produced by Howard Hughes, who would be an important force in her film career. Rice includes several different stories of how Russell was casted in the film but it seemed to have been a connection to her modeling work with Tom Kelley, when an aggressive agent found Russell’s photo in Kelley’s studio – who then presented Russell as a possibility for the role. Russell was subsequently screen-tested and then landed a movie contract deal which was lorded over by Howard Hughes.
Howard Hughes challenged the movie production code of the time, and he also interfered in the making of The Outlaw. Only a few weeks into the shooting of the film, its director Howard Hawks was dismissed and Hughes took over as director.
In spite of Hughes control over Russell and the films she was in, when under the guidance of film director Howard Hawks, Russell learned that she could control her own destiny and not to be intimidated to do anything to promote herself that would be construed as being against her better judgment.
It took nearly five years for The Outlaw to be premiered because of Hughes’ insistence on challenging the Production Code Administration as the PCA found scenes in The Outlaw to be too erotic for American film audiences to see. Negotiating the cuts and also Russell winding her way through Hughes aggressive publicity campaign for the film – including photos by George Hurrell with Russell pictured erotically in front of haystacks – might have eventually been effective in selling tickets for The Outlaw but stalled Russell’s film debut.
When the United States entered World War II Russell became a popular pinup girl so it appears that the publicity campaign had worked to her advantage – but The Outlaw was not perceived as a great screen classic.
While waiting for The Outlaw to be released Russell had a botched abortion which influenced her life in the future. There was some question as to who the father of the baby might have been – either her fiancée Robert Waterfield or a boyfriend in between relationships, John Payne – however the impact of it all was great. Russell believed that her not being able to have children of her own was due to the fact that she turned her back on her spiritual faith – the cause of her misfortune. Upon her own revelation, Russell proclaimed a renewal of her faith and beliefs.
Robert Waterfield, Russell’s first husband, was a high school athlete and subsequently pursued college studies at UCLA – and in 1941 he made the varsity football team. Russell finally married Waterfield in 1943 eloping to Las Vegas. Thereafter Waterfield was offered a contract to play football for the Cleveland Rams while Russell pursued her career in a fashion. Kay Kyser, the bandleader, gave Russell the opportunity to sing with his band and also a recording career.
Russell and Waterfield built a showcase home in California, and still on the coattails of the publicity that Hughes generated for The Outlaw, Russell appeared on stage as a variety act during time periods when she was on hiatus from making films.
In the 1950’s her film career resumed with His Kind of Woman, and Macao, and then came Son of Paleface – again with Bob Hope.
The motion picture that Russell was most known for was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Most notably the film version of this Broadway musical didn’t include all of the music from the Broadway version – new music was written – and added were story-lines to bolster Russell’s part as Dorothy Shaw.
Jack Cole was the choreographer for the film and he had to deal with two leading ladies – Russell and Marilyn Monroe – who were not the best of dancers – and it was notable that Cole’s assistant on the film was Gwen Verdon who helped create the illusion that both Russell and Monroe were at home dancing and singing in a film musical. This same team came together for what was to be a sequel to this film, entitled Gentlemen Marry Brunettes – co-starring with Jeanne Crain – but without the same success.
After many years of association with Hughes, the film, Underwater, which was released in 1955, was her last film for Hughes.
Thereafter Russell organized a spiritual singing group that was signed on for a recording contract – and thereby launching yet another career. In 1957 Russell made her Las Vegas debut and in 1958 at the Latin Quarter in New York. She also appeared on television variety shows, talk shows, game shows, and in guest appearances in television series – she also toured the summer stock and regional theater circuit in plays.
Russell’s husband, retired from football, then went into the movie business producing and developing films for Russell with their own film production company, and then returned to football as a coach.
Russell devoted time to becoming an activist for the international adoption of children, which was enabled in the 1953 congressional passage of the Refugee Relief Act. In 1954 after several government agencies had been realigned, Russell was elected to the Board of the International Social Service – a new division, WAIF, was founded with the purpose that it would be employed to cover personal and salaries and expenses to cover adoption reforms and activism – Russell used her celebrity status effectively in raising money and lobbying politicians.
In 1981 Russell testified before Congress on behalf of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 – and after further lobbying efforts the bill passed.
In the 1960’s Russell appeared in independent films. Her last film role was a cameo appearance in Darker Than Amber and her last television appearances were in Yellow Rose and Hunter.
In 1967 Russell filed for divorce from Robert Waterfield which proved to be an ugly mess that was not settled for more than 1-1/2 years. However after working with Roger Barrett while doing a play in the Chicago area, the whirlwind romance resulted in a wedding in 1968. After a few short months of marriage Barrett died of a heart attack – just before a planned road show production of Hello, Dolly!
Harold Prince, director of the Stephen Sondheim hit musical, Company, was looking to replace Elaine Stritch in the role of Joanne who was to leave the Broadway production for the national tour. Prince saw Russell interviewed on the Dick Cavett Show and thought Russell would be right for the part. After having anxieties about preparing herself for the role, Russell took to drinking again, landed up in a psychiatric hospital, and her agent withdrew her from Company. But after second thoughts Russell wanted to do it if Prince wanted her to do it. Prince still wanted her and Prince signed her on again. Through the rehearsal process she realized that the character of Joanne was a kindred spirit – and she made her Broadway debut in May 1971 – receiving a warm reception from critics and audiences – however still having some anxieties she cut her Broadway engagement down to three months. However she continued doing limited engagements in stock productions – among them Mame.
Russell got married again in 1974 – to John Peoples, a retired military man – a marriage that lasted until Peoples’ death in 1999. However there were a few ups and downs in her personal life including her son Buck Waterfield being arrested for attempted murder, resulting in a trial, and he being convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to nine months in jail and five years’ probation. She herself was arrested for drunken driving. There was a positive move to Sedona, Arizona to spend more time with her family in the early 1980’s but ultimately returned to California. She kept on going until health issues slowed her down, and she passed away in 2011, after living her last years as a “Living Legend”.
Christina Rice’s book about Jane Russell includes many more details about Russell’s career than I could in a comparatively short book appraisal as well as details of her personal life and in all of the alternate careers that Russell was involved in after her film career faded. And also her controversial views on social issues. For those who are interested in Russell’s life, and career in entertainment, this is an important in-depth study.
Art Lab/Showtown Productions’ First Date
July 16, 2021
By Mark Kappel
From July 23-25, 2021 there is a special treat for summer time streamers as result of the presentation of the Art Lab & Showtown Productions’ streamed production of the Broadway musical, First Date, which had premiered on Broadway in 2013.
First Date, with a score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, and a book by Austin Winsberg, tells the story of the ups and downs of what might be a typical blind date for two 30-ish new New Yorkers who are set up by friends, relatives and co-workers – and more often than not, they don’t work out for many reasons.
Directed by Meg Fofonoff for this streamed performance of First Date, the audience is more than an eavesdropper on this intimate story of Aaron, an investment banker, and Casey, a free-spirited, cool, aspiring photographer who have been set up for a first date – with Aaron’s co-worker Gabe, and Casey’s sister, Lauren being the prime chorus and ghosts of the past and present who comment and support – and criticize – these first daters in the hope that this one might turn out well in spite of the personal and emotional baggage that both Aaron and Casey are carrying. And it all begins with drinks – and then dinner – and then…
This first date is immersed in misconceptions, dating mistakes, and off-key first impressions – Aaron stressed out and Casey rather cool yet unsure of herself. Both express their feelings and awkwardness in conversations and inner monologues – in spoken word and song – riding the roller coaster ride of what could be a momentous evening.
First Date has a listenable and charming score that moves the narrative ahead while not rushing the main characters’ thoughts and concerns. As this 90-minute musical moves forward the daters are caught up with the repercussions of Google searches about each other, past relationships, and breaking down barriers. And then the spontaneous and unexpected attraction that evolves between Aaron and Casey.
This particular streamed version featured former American Idol contestants – and married in real life – Ace Young as Aaron and Diana DeGarmo as Casey – and perhaps for that reason you have a feeling of where this relationship was going to wind up. Their chemistry together is evident. They are both in fine voice and adept at the comedy in First Date’s book.
Also notable were Kevin Massey as Gabe, and Jennifer Sanchez as Lauren, and also playing multiple roles, Vishai Vaidya, Aurelia Williams, and Nick Cearley.
First Date represents the kind of interaction that has been missing in this past year because of Covid-19 social distancing – and an entertaining and fun 90 minutes of theatre.
Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings)
The Cell Theatre
July 10, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Finally with theCovid-19 emergency now ended in New York State I had my first indoor theatre experience attending a performance of E. Dale Smith’s Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings) at the Cell Theatre on July 10, 2021.
And this involving and entertaining theatrical experience, conceived and directed by Braden Burns experience, makes a clever reference to one of our best known-musicals, Fiddler on the Roof.
The play focuses on a aging community theater star and real estate broker Ariana Russo, played by Jackie Hoffman, is playing the role of Fruma-Sarah in the Roselle Park Theatrical Society’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof. A production of Fiddler that is more of a revisal infusing current political figures and parties into the plot.
Fruma-Sarah is the dead wife of Lazar Wolf, the butcher, who appears in the nightmare sequence in Fiddler on the Roof. And as she does not appear for an hour into the first act, Arianna spends the time in the wings, and enters into caustic, witty, and humorous banter with Margo (played by Kelly Kinsella) the substitute crew member who is in charge of flying Fruma-Sarah high above the stage.
During the course of the play, these ladies, representing two different generations, let their hair down breaking down Ariana’s walls that she has placed around her. They share their experiences regarding marriage, raising teenagers, and their personal and professional successes – and disasters. Ultimately revealed is that Ariana has a problem with alcohol that is impairing her and is also causing damage to her reputation within the amateur theatre community in Roselle Park. She steals a drink – bourbon – to build up the courage to go on stage and bemoans the fact that so many of the leading roles she lost was collateral damage due to local politics, and favoritism – which somehow is also related to her failed attempts in securing real estate deals.
There are moments in this 80-minute play that descend into maudlin – but the humorous moments in the play more than balance out for the maudlin – and for regular theatergoers, the inside theatre jokes are worth this journey. Especially when Ariana realizes that life is worth living when she is encouraged to believe that she is being seriously considered to play Dolly Levi in the Roselle Park Theatrical Society’s upcoming revival of Hello, Dolly! There is good on the other side.
As for Jackie Hoffman as Ariana you are seeing and experiencing a gifted comic actress at work, and Kelly Kinsella as Margo is more than an actor who merely shepherds Ariana through the ups and downs in the plot lines of the play.
The theatre community in New York City has had a tough year and a half and it is now back , ready to entertain us out of the difficult time we have experienced. Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings) is the first volley in the game and we are eternally grateful.
Jayne Mansfield – The Girl Couldn’t Help It
By Mark Kappel
Jayne Mansfield was an actress who was ridiculed by her peers and critics as it seemed she was more interested in seeking publicity rather than pursuing and honing her acting craft. She was one of the many blonde bombshells seeking stardom in the 1950’s who was not taking the “acting” part as seriously as she might have.
In her book, Jayne Mansfield – The Girl Couldn’t Help It, published by the University Press of Kentucky, Eve Golden sets out to reverse those impressions of Mansfield. Among them that she was determined to reach her goals, and would do anything to achieve them, and was recognized for her talent. Also the book further condemns the contract system in place at the major film studios in the 1960’s.
Mansfield was probably best known for playing the role of Rita Marlowe in the Broadway production of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? – a role she created in the film version later in her career.
But her goal was to be a film star. Mansfield made her film debut in a B-movie, Female Jungle, in 1955 before her starring role in The Girl Can’t Help It in 1956. Mansfield followed up with a dramatic role in the Wayward Bus in 1957 for which she won a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year. In that same year Mansfield appeared in the movie version of the Broadway play, Kiss Them For Me with Cary Grant.
But beyond the struggles in her professional life, her personal life was loaded with challenges. This is where Golden describes Mansfield’s childhood, her romances, among them her best known relationship with Miklos “Mickey” Hargitay – and her struggles with alcohol.
Ultimately her life ended at the age of 34 in a tragic car accident – and one can only imagine what could have been.
Golden admits that sourcing her facts about Mansfield’s story was complicated by the fact that incidents in Mansfield’s life were generated in unreliable press releases, columnists who focused on opinions, rather than facts, and the biographies of friends, family and co-workers that were flawed by individual agendas. However she does depend a great deal on press reports and the known gossip columnists of the day to tell Jayne Mansfield’s story.
Mansfield was born in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania. She lost her father when she was three and was uprooted at the age of six to Texas when her mother remarried. She studied music and foreign languages during her school days – and although she auditioned for the drama club – Mansfield did not make the cut.
In 1942 Paul Mansfield came into her life and were secretly married when she was only 16 in 1950, and shared the birth of her daughter in the same year. At the University of Texas she pursued her acting ambitions and was given a start in the profession by the Austin Civic Theater where she acted with her husband. Leaving her child behind with her parents, Mansfield attached herself to her husband as she followed him around in his military career with the promise that her husband would take her to Hollywood to pursue a movie career.
At the same time she had her theatrical opportunities among them playing Reno Sweeney in a production of Anything Goes. Mansfield also took some time away to be a student at the University of California where she took drama classes. She returned to live with her parents once her husband completed military training and was shipped off to Korea in 1953. When her husband’s military service had ended, she held her husband to his promise to go Hollywood. But after struggling financially and trying to support Mansfield’s ambitions, Mansfield’s husband packed up and moved to San Francisco – abandoning her and also his child.
Mansfield’s movie career went forward – although not at the pace she wished – and upon auditioning for a Broadway play, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? her visibility improved. She manufactured her own publicity making herself available for supermarket openings, benefits and charity events – all in the media center of the United States – and could be described as making herself available for the opening of an envelope. She became well-known in New York and became a bonafide star.
Mickey Hargitay, described by Mansfield as the love of her life, immigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1947. Settling in Cleveland he earned his living in the building trades. In 1952 he won a weight-lifting contest, and in 1956 he won the Mr. Universe title. He appeared in Mae West’s plays and revues. Romance blossomed when Hargitay and Mansfield met – a relationship that West didn’t approve of. They both ultimately divorced from their spouses and got married. But their marriage and joint projects had their ups and down – not to mention trying to manage their dual and separate careers, and their children.
Mansfield not only collected boyfriends, she also collected a menagerie of animals. While in New York she appeared on television game shows, television variety shows and interview shows. Golden described Mansfield as “press-mad” and “professionally ambitious”. And also becoming well known for appearing as daffy and clueless in interviews.
Off to Hollywood to recreate her Broadway role in the film version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, she landed a multi-year contract with a major Hollywood film studio.
Parallel to her movie career, Mansfield and Hargitay developed a Las Vegas act. Their first venture together was in 1957 performing in the Las Vegas revue – Tropicana Holiday – at the new Tropicana hotel which was the first of many. Notably Mansfield proved to be adept at setting up straight lines for comedy routines, and also to counterbalance the dumb blonde act she displayed in interviews and television shows – although she played both piano and violin during an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
One of her films, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, was filmed in Spain – released in the UK in 1958 and in the United States in 1959. Mansfield sang two saloon numbers and a love ballad, and was humiliated to find out that her singing was dubbed by a soon-to-be recording star, Connie Francis. Ironically Mansfield won a Museum of Modern Art Golden Laurel for Top Female Musical Performance for her role in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.
Mansfield made many films abroad and several of them were in Italy including The Loves of Hercules with Hargitay as Hercules and Mansfield as one of his lovers in 1960. Thereafter Hargitay appeared in similar epics and spaghetti westerns. Mansfield also appeared with Bob Hope in USA shows, guest spots in television series and a regular on quiz and game shows, and talk shows. There was also the unfortunate film, Promises…Promises! – a film described as a nudie film – and then Mansfield posing for Playboy.
Also Mansfield and Hargitay purchased and renovated what was called the Pink Palace, a show place, and also used it to promote their projects – and there were also Mansfield’s love affairs, breakups between herself and Hargitay — and reconciliations.
With the assistance of her third husband, Matt Cimber, Mansfield appeared in theatre tours – among them in Bus Stop and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – directed by Cimber – which led to other theatre tours, as well as appearing as a lounge singer in the United States and the United Kingdom – and pining over film projects that never happened – which led to problems with alcohol and divorce from husband number three. However Mansfield never gave up the search for good-paying jobs to support her family and self-promotion. Because of her self-promotion, even after death she left a legacy behind her.
The tragedy is that Mansfield died in a car accident in 1967 near Slidell, Louisiana after visiting Keeler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and fulfilling club date obligations.
Even after her death the Mansfield mystique continued and in 1980 the Jayne Mansfield Story was premiered with Loni Anderson as Mansfield and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Hargitay. Engelbert Humperdinck, who was one of the owners of Mansfield’s The Pink Palace, allowed some of that television movie to be filmed there including the heart-shaped swimming pool.
In Jayne Mansfield – The Girl Couldn’t Help It, Golden tells the story of a 1960’s American icon who made a name for herself in the entertainment industry and also in pop culture – and this was before the evolution of social media and more modern-day methods of self-promotion. She was a reality show unto herself. Golden’s book delves into the world of that self-promotion and also how relevant it is today.
Paper Mill Playhouse Ends
Its Online Season With Beehive
June 22, 2021
By Mark Kappel
To end its online season the Paper Mill Playhouse is presenting streamed performances of the 1960’s inspired musical, Beehive, from June 12 – 26, 2021.
The creation of Larry Gallagher, which premiered off-Broadway in 1986, Beehive focuses on six young women coming of age in the 1960’s featuring hit songs from that period that were made famous by individual female singers and girl groups. With direction by Casey Hushion and choreography by Jennifer Werner, this production of Beehive is an all-female entertainment not only represented by its cast but also with its all-female band.
The 1960’s was a decade of political and social changes with women making progress in breaking barriers in education, and in careers. But it was also a time of upheaval with protests against the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and struggles with racial issues. Some historians have described this period as a time when the United States lost its innocence – certainly it was not idyllic.
Gallagher cleverly injects the feelings of these women as they navigate this unique decade in American history while adjusting to the parallel social changes.
As for the music of that decade it was the beginning of rock and roll, folk and politically influenced songs, as well as women expressing their thoughts in regard to the issues of the day also issues as relevant as adjusting to boy troubles, the British invasion of British rock bands and Beach Party movies. The music of the era is as stylistically unique as it could be. Beehive highlights the female voices of the 60’s with songs made famous by Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Connie Francis, and the girl groups – The Supremes, the Chiffons, and the Ronettes. Literally covering the musical map of this time period.
Beehive’s versatile and superlative cast of actress-singers, including Ashley Blanchet as Gina, Emma Degerstedt as Alison, Adrianna Hicks as Wanda, Isabelle McCalla as Patti, Anastacia McCleskey as Jasmine, and Mary Kate Morrissey as Laura, put their personal stamps on the music of this era.
You may well find your favorite songs of the 1960’s included in Beehive or they will be your new favorites after you have seen Beehive!
With this rousing conclusion to the Paper Mill Playhouse’s streamed season, one looks forward to attending live performances at the Paper Mill Playhouse next season.
The Big Parade
By Mark Kappel
The Big Parade – Meredith Willson’s Musicals from The Music Man to 1491, published by Oxford University Press, by Dominic McHugh, is McHugh’s thoughtful and comprehensive examination of Meredith Willson’s four musicals in detail, and how his experiences in his professional life had an impact on those musicals.
In the 1950’s, a decade that is often described as part of the golden age of Broadway musicals, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, Willson’s first musical, followed behind My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, in becoming the third longest-running musical at that time.
Willson only wrote four musicals and only three of them, The Music Man, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Here’s Love, made it to Broadway — and all of them were as American as apple pie, and also aptly described as Americana musicals.
In his examination of Willson’s career before The Music Man, McHugh has employed newly available source materials to tell Willson’s story.
Willson looked backward when he wrote The Music Man. With nostalgia in mind, as he set the story of The Music Man in Iowa, Willson’s home state, in 1912, and included in his score marches and barbershop quartets – and an example of “rap” in the chat and patter among Midwestern salesmen in “Rock Island” which opens the show.
Willson attended Juilliard and subsequently joined John Philip Sousa’s band as a flutist – and then on to the New York Philharmonic under conductor Arturo Toscanini. During the 1930’s Willson was the musical director for radio shows and in the 1940’s he composed the film scores for the Great Dictator, and The Little Foxes, both earning him Academy Award nominations.
Willson was a composer of popular songs including “May The Good Lord Bless and Keep You?, and “It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas”, and he also composed two symphonies which were premiered by the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He also composed patriotic songs during World War II for various Federal Government agencies.
McHugh tells in detail the story of how The Music Man was developed and eventually brought to Broadway. That includes details about the early drafts for The Music Man which include input from Willson’s sister, Dixie, and Franklin Lacy. Those drafts also reveal the development of this musical’s characters including one who was descended from an immigrant family – which evolved into the role of Tommy Djilas — and also a character who was disabled.
McHugh also analyzes in detail how the score for The Music Man evolved. Willson wanted the music in the score to represent what people in a Midwestern town – circa 1912 – might have heard. McHugh describes the rhythmic patter represented in the aforementioned “Rock Island” and also “Trouble”.
Six numbers in the Willson’s original version of The Music Man’s score made it to Broadway. Willson wrote almost 60 songs for the score – two-thirds of them were discarded. Also it was noted that Frank Loesser was the ghost writer for “My White Knight”.
There were many drafts of The Music Man that were written over the years – refining the book for four years before getting it ready for Broadway.
The Music Man opened on Broadway in 1957 with an estimated budget of $300,000. In 1960 The Music Man made history when Liza Redfield became the show’s musical director – the first woman to be engaged as a full-time musical director for a Broadway musical. The Music Man was received warmly by the critics and audiences.
John Chapman used an intriguing and revealing title to a profile of Willson in the Sunday News – “The Corn Belt’s Noel Coward”.
The Music Man headed to London and the stars didn’t align for Robert Preston to perform in the London production. Possibilities for the role of Harold Hill included Laurence Olivier, Sam Wannamaker, Max Bygraves, Alfred Drake, Gene Kelly, Peter Ustinov, Donald O’Connor, Gordon MacRae, and Paul Newman – but the role went to Van Johnson.
Then on to the movie version for which Doris Day, Shirley MacLaine, Mitzi Gaynor – Barbara Cook, Broadway’s original Marian was tested – but the role went to Shirley Jones who played opposite Preston recreating his Broadway performance.
McHugh also mentioned draft versions of a sequel to The Music Man about a concert pianist who falls in love with the daughter of a music publisher – the idea was not pursued but instead, The Unsinkable Molly Brown was Willson’s next project.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown began its journey to Broadway in 1959 with Richard Morris writing the book – although Irving Berlin had been the first choice for composer – to be co-produced by the Theatre Guild and Dore Schary – who eventually was assigned the directing duties for the show. Molly Brown began its successful Broadway engagement in 1960 – and in 1964 the movie version with Debbie Reynolds premiered.
This musical was based on the life of Margaret Brown, who married gold miner J.J. Brown, and in 1912 she was a survivor of the sinking of the Titanic. The musical’s story is that of people coming from humble means becoming rich, and trying to win the respect of Denver’s society.
In this musical Willson used some of the same dramatic and musical devices he used in The Music Man.
For the Broadway production, Kaye Ballard and Lisa Kirk, and Shelly Winters were considered for the role of Molly Brown – Tammy Grimes was chosen – and John Raitt was considered for the role of Johnny Brown – but Harve Presnell was chosen.
Comparisons were made to Annie Get Your Gun among other successful Broadway musicals and was not embraced by all of the theatre critics even though it was a Broadway success, on tour and in its movie version.
Willson’s third and last musical to reach Broadway was Here’s Love, a stage musical version of the 1947 film The Miracle On 34th Street. As was the case for The Music Man, Willson assumed the multiple roles as composer, lyricist and book writer. One of the major revisions made by Willson was setting the story in the 1960’s rather than in the 1940’s which necessitated changes in the story in its adaptation – and the idea of reformulating a movie for the stage was also unique at the time Here’s Love was produced – which had its Broadway premiere in 1963.
Contributions were also made by the musicals first of two directors, Norman Jewison, and producer Stuart Ostrow – who eventually took on the role of director when Jewison was removed from the project.
McHugh concludes that Here’s Love was not the success it could have been because of the changes in the storyline from film to stage, and because the principal characters of Doris and Fred were unlikeable – and in general suffered from a comparison to the movie. Also the music was weak because of the fact that none of the actors in the musical were strong singers.
Several actresses were considered for the role of Doris including Michelle Lee and Shirley Jones but Janis Paige was casted. Considered for the role of Fred were Jason Robards and Lloyd Bridges but Craig Steven was chosen – and as for the pivotal role of Kris Kringle, George Rose, Leo McKern, Barry Jones and Eddie Foy Jr. were considered but Laurence Naismith was engaged.
In regard to the casting I saw a performance with Lisa Kirk as Doris and Richard Kiley as Fred towards the end of the Broadway engagement and both them gave effective – and well-sung performances in their roles.
Michael Kidd was noted for his dynamic choreography for the show and it should be noted that Here’s Love had a respectable run on Broadway and on tour.
Perhaps what hurt Here’s Love more than anything was that its story was seasonal and might have been less interesting for an audience to see during other times during the year.
1491 – which was Willson’s last staged work – was intended to be a fictionalized account of Christopher Columbus’ back story before he set sail for the New World. It received several tryouts on the West Coast in 1969 but never made it to Broadway.
McHugh writes of Willson’s story and facts that would have been seen as being reactionary when it came to racial issues – how the Latin culture was presented – and the collateral effects of the voyage which included enslaving and genocide of the Taino people of Hispaniola. It was thought that these problems would be resolved through more work on 1491 and also research.
1491 was based on an idea by Ed Ainsworth – and noted that 1491’s subtitle in the program for its world premiere was “A Romantic Speculation”.
1491’s initial production was presented by the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and that company’s director, Edwin Lester, contributed a great deal in the development of the musical along with Ira Barmak as co-book writer, and the contributions of Richard Morris who was also this musical’s director. McHugh’s feeling was that there were great problems with the book that none of the contributors were able to overcome.
Often the casting process can influence the success or failure of a musical as often musicals are tailored to the talents of the actors who are appearing in them. Casting possibilities for the role of Columbus included Robert Preston, John Raitt, and Sergio Franchi – and the role was ultimately given to John Cullum. Elizabeth Allen, Joan Diener, Roberta Peters and Patricia Morrison were considered for the role of Queen Isabella, but the role was offered to Jean Fenn – Chita Rivera was casted in the role of Columbus’ love interest, Beatriz. Danny Daniels was the choreographer.
1491 received mixed reviews during its West Coast tryouts which might have also contributed to the fact that 1491 didn’t make it to Broadway.
Through The Big Parade, McHugh, emphasizes the influence of Frank Loesser on Willson’s scores and also offered him advice in regard to the business of show business — and McHugh often quotes Loesser advising Willson that his legacy should be based on more than one hit show.
Perhaps Willson might only be remembered for The Music Man but that isn’t such a bad track record. What is paramount is that McHugh has given us a useful reference book to enable us to examine Willson’s professional life and his achievements – in a detailed, informational, and clear manner.
National Ballet of Canada Presents Highlights From The Sleeping Beauty
June 10, 2021
By Mark Kappel
The National Ballet of Canada continues its Spotlight Series with highlights from Rudolf Nureyev’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. This particular production of The Sleeping Beauty has been one of the National Ballet of Canada’s signature works since it was given its company premiere in 1972 – and after touring this production extensively with Nureyev as a guest artist dancing the role of Prince Florimund.
The production is also known for its sumptuous costumes designed by Nicholas Georgiadis and even presented in this film of the highlights from this ballet, by Karolina Kuras, these designs shine through.
Nureyev’s production of The Sleeping Beauty is idiosyncratic not only in its new choreography but also in its staging of traditional choreography. There is also idiosyncratic naming of the characters, what they dance, and how they portray their characters. However in this stream of highlights the characters and the narrative do not get in the way. You can sit back and enjoy the dancing from this unique production of one of the 19th century’s best-loved classics.
One of Nureyev’s idiosyncrasies is not naming the Fairies in the ballet’s Prologue. Instead it is a series of variations by these fairies which were elegantly danced by Jacklyn Oakley, Miyoko Kogasu, Tina Pereira, Tirion Law, Koto Ishihara, and Kathryn Hosier – the latter dancing what is traditionally the Lilac Fairy variation. In the context of the full production the role of the Lilac Fairy is danced by a character dancer, a tradition often included in productions of The Sleeping Beauty danced by Russian ballet companies.
Also included in this stream there was the virtuoso Bluebird Pas de Deux danced by Tina Pereira and Siphesihle November, and the White Cats danced by Clare Peterson and Jack Bertinshaw.
Rather than dancing the full Grand Pas Deux from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty, Sonia Rodriguez and Naoya Ebe dance the Adagio only with great elegance, and even in isolation Rodriguez’s Act I Variation and Ebe’s Act II Variation, each captured the characters they portrayed.
Overall this was an opportunity to take a microscopic look at an important production of The Sleeping Beauty, leaving one wanting more to see the entire production.
Broadway Goes To War
By Mark Kappel
Broadway Goes To War by Robert McLaughlin and Sally Parry, published by University Press of Kentucky, is a survey covering the content of plays and musicals that were produced on Broadway before, during, and after World War II. This book looks at Broadway productions – and imports from London – from an historical prism as Americans coped with the anxieties about war, how life would change once the United States began participating in World War II, and the contemplation of what life might be like after World War II.
Broadway Goes To War’s primary premise and argument is that the universal perception that Americans pulled together during World War II is a myth. Social anxieties about the war, and what it was doing to the country were juxtaposed against love of country and sacrifice.
Noting that Broadway was the major contributor to American culture during that period – each had an effect on each other. The point is how did the Broadway theatre, in the content of its plays and musicals, support the war effort. And whether the content had an impact on the politics of the United States and an impact on social conditions.
Playwrights writing for New York theatre audiences zeroed-in on the threat of war – including the rise of Nazi power in Germany, and the ambitions of the Japanese — before other mainstream American media. Through the 1930’s the content of plays included a variety of opinions on what eventually drew the United States into World War II.
McLaughlin and Parry focus on plays and musicals with plots referencing social issues at the time – and the cause and effect of changes in America’s political landscape. One of those plays was Pins and Needles, a revue played by members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which was updated on a regular basis during its extended engagement. And there was also Cole Porter’s Leave It To Me – with its protagonist being a Midwestern businessman who is made ambassador to the Soviet Union – against his better judgement — reflecting the concerns of the American public at the time about the rise of fascism and communism in Europe, and social and economic upheaval.
The Broadway theater of the 1930’s was representative of the political divisions in the United States in terms of what its creators wanted to communicate to the general public. Some wanted to preserve social and economic norms, others advocated for radical change – and others saw theatre as a means to communicate ideas, and recruit adherents.
The Federal Theatre Project, underwritten by government funds, took on a controversial and ambitious project, a stage version of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here – which was about the possibility of fascists taking over the United States.
Before the bombing of Pearl Harbor Broadway plays’ content represented a wide variety of views ranging from pacifism to anti-interventionism – to concerns about the rise of fascism in Europe. Among the important plays were Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight, Lillian Hellman’s Watch On The Rhine, and in particular S.N. Behrman’s Rain From Heaven which predicted the extermination of Jews in Europe.
There were also plays imported from London to Broadway and the British playwrights had their own prospective about the war effort in Europe which was close to home. Particularly in Great Britain the plays depicted living conditions resulting from bombings during the Blitz – and also about British soldiers in combat.
One of those imported plays, Terrence Rattigan’s Flare Path put an emphasis on family and personal relations, and how the war impacted those relationships.
Also there were plays about the threat posed by the Soviet Union. As in the aforementioned Porter’s Leave It To Me! in which these concerns were presented in a comic manner, in contrast Robert Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night, set at the time of the Soviet invasion of Finland – positioned this threat in a more serious light.
Plays such as Clifford Odets’ adaption of Konstantin Simonov’s The Russian People was a story about Russians resisting the Nazi occupation, and also there were comedies about Russians living in the United States during the same time period and the occupation of countries in Europe – in particular the example of S.N. Behrman’s Jacobowsky and the Colonel.
Depictions of Americans in combat didn’t arrive on Broadway until the end of 1942 – centered on combat and invasions in Asia and Africa initially, and then later European locales.
A large number of plays and musicals during this time period described how American life was being transformed on the home front and how the military draft caused further stress on American society.
One of the examples was Cole Porter’s musical, Let’s Face It, touched on that anxiety, and how civilians adjusted to military life was reflected in the Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse comedy, Strip for Action.
In contrast was Irving Berlin’s patriotic revue, This is the Army, and Moss Hart’s Winged Victory which depicted civilians being trained to be pilots – adapting to military life, and Gladys Hulbut’s Yankee Point which focused on suspected German saboteurs and spies within American borders and plays dealing with war-time pregnancies, absent fathers and mothers working full-time to make ends meet, older children taking over as parenting their younger siblings, and taking on the tasks of running a household.
Youthful connection with the war years was represented in the musical On The Town which also celebrated an ideal image of New York. In contrast was Tomorrow The World by James Gow and Arnaud d’Usseau, which takes place in the Midwest where a 12-year-old German refugee was transported from Germany to live with his American relatives — turning that family upside down when he dons the uniform of a member of the Hitler Youth. Through the course of the play, he is redeemed.
Another important aspect of war life was how the returning soldiers would adjust to civilian life and their wartime obligations. Such plays as Rose Franken’s Soldier’s Wife dealt with this subject in a serious manner but many were comedies. Maxwell Anderson’s Truckline Café focused seriously on the life of returning soldiers. There were plays about returning soldiers with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). African-Americans were not represented in many of these plays although as McLaughlin and Parry stated, they were presented in a positive light – particularly as depicted in Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carmen Jones – but the returning soldiers were seen as upending social norms.
A unique theatrical presentation was We Will Never Die, with a script by Ben Hecht, Kurt Weill as composer and Moss Hart as director, whose content attacked German persecution of Jews and challenging Americans to save the Jews targeted in Europe. In contrast was Arthur Laurent’s Home of the Brave which told the story of Jewish soldiers and their homecoming which brought up the subject of anti-Semitism – the principal Jewish character being in the United States but is accepted into American society.
The same creative team that was brought together for We Will Never Die was brought together again in A Flag Is Born which questioned the silence of America and American Jews while Jews were being killed in Europe.
Produced by the New Jewish Folk Theater in 1944, Harry Levick’s The Miracle of the Warsaw Ghetto – performed in Yiddish – took place in Warsaw in 1943 where a young Jew learns his family has been killed by the Nazis and vows to fight fascism after his girlfriend is killed on a mission for the resistance.
State of the Union by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote about a political campaign which debated America’s future and the questionable behavior of politicians and rank and file voters – but hoping that the problems from the past could be resolved in the years after World War II.
Broadway playwrights expressed concerns for America’s future. The content of playwrights writing for the stage was juxtaposed with flag-waving and ith cynicism during the World War II years.
There was an amazing number of plays and musicals that concentrated on what was happening in the world or touched on it from a distance. The number of theatre productions just during the 1941-42 season was 84 plays – far more than are produced on Broadway in this day and age.
Broadway Goes To War provides an invaluable resource for scholars and aficionados of the Broadway theatre as it is supplemented with an appendix, in which plays and musicals that were produced during World War II years, are described in detail.
First and foremost Broadway Goes To War is a detailed description of the historical context that served as the background of what playwrights were concerned about during years of World War II.
Pennsylvania Ballet Presents
Three World Premieres
June 2, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Ending its three program spring season, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s final program featured three world premieres which were linked not only as premieres but all three of the premiere pieces were choreographed to music composed by Jennifer Higdon.
Created via Zoom was Juliano Nunes’ Encounter which reflected the themes of encountering people, people’s encounters, and encountering the times we are living in. These themes were significant as the piece begins with a lone dancer, and the remaining dancers of this ensemble cast joining in one at a time or by two or in groups. All of the choreography reflects searching and connections and is choreographed in a contemporary dance vocabulary.
The ensemble cast of So Jung Shin, Zecheng Liang, Nayara Lopes, Jack Thomas, Oksana Maslova, Arian Molina Soca, Dayesi Torriente and Thays Golz eased in and out of Nunes’ choreographic ideas which were also styled to interpret Higdon’s music.
Meredith Rainey’s Spillway reflected American spirit and energy, with the dancers linking up as a community. The contemporary ballet choreography responded to the music – and Rainey chose propulsive moment and steps to interpret the music.
Yuka Iseda, Jermel Johnson, Lillian DiPiazza and Sterling Baca guided an ensemble cast that was constantly on the move!
The closing piece, Russell Ducker’s Dance Card, took its theme and title from the composer’s music. The men were costumed in formal attire and the ladies were attired in stylized black ball gowns. There was formality in the patterns on the stage as they whirled in this dark ballroom – connecting and disconnecting. Of the three pieces on this program Ducker was the only choreographer who responded to Higdon’s music with classical choreography. And similar to the other pieces on the program, Dance Card was danced by a large ensemble cast.
This program was a provocative experiment in commissioning choreography pairing off the choreographers with music by the same composer. Commissioning choreography is always a challenge and a risk, but for the Pennsylvania Ballet this was a risk worth taking.
Vienna State Opera Ballet Dances
Robbins and Balanchine
May 31, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Streams of the Vienna State opera Ballet are rare and when these streams are made available on a worldwide basis, the company performs full-length ballets and not programs with multiple ballets.
On May 31st, 2021, the Vienna State Opera, now under the direction of Martin Schlapfer, presented a streamed performance which included four ballets – three of them choreographed by Jerome Robbins and one choreographed by George Balanchine.
Neither choreographer is still with us and even when staged by Robbins’ and Balanchine’s designated stagers these ballets are left to the interpretation of the dancers who are casted in them.
Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces was given its world premiere by the New York City Ballet in 1983, choreographed to pulsing music composed by Philip Glass. Robbins’ choreography and Glass’ music combine to create an urban landscape with people quickly moving with little connection to others – and a bit of gloom – and currently with the extra layering of the pandemic era.
The Vienna State Opera Ballet’s cast of dancers, Ionna Avraam, Calogero Failla, Alice Firenze, Arne Vandervelde, Fiona McGee, Lourencio Ferreira, Nina Polakova, and Roman Lazik reflected those mixed emotions in their performances.
Displaying another aspect of Robbins’ choreographic range was the intimate, A Suite of Dances, which was created in 1997 – danced by a lone male dancer with a cellist playing the music of Bach to accompany the dancing.
A Suite of Dances’ choreography has a sense of informality and improvisation, and was danced with a little bravado and characterization by Davide Dato.
In contrast was the comic ballet, The Concert, which had its world premiere in 1956. Choreographed to orchestrated music composed by Chopin, Th Concert was inspired by the fantastical thoughts of audience members attending a piano recital – those thoughts and fantasies have a wide range and latitude as even the pianist not only plays Chopin’s music but also is a participant in the comic goings-on.
Elena Bottaro as the Ballerina, Eno Peci as the Husband, and Ketevan Papava as the Wife brought much humor and comic flair in their dancing and interpretation of these stereotypical characters. And then there was pianist Igor Zapravdin, who not only played Chopin’s music impeccably but was also channeling Victor Borge.
In short The Concert is antidote for these troubled times – and the Vienna State Opera Ballet dancers acquitted themselves well in The Concert as well as in A Suite of Dances, and Glass Pieces.
The lone Balanchine piece on this program was Duo Concertant, a short and intimate duet choreographed to Stravinsky’s music of the same name played by a pianist and violinist on the stage.
Duo Concertant was one of Balanchine’s major contributions to the New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival in 1972. Throughout the piece the changes in mood in the music are reflected in Balanchine’s choreography and enhanced by the lighting effects.
Liudmila Konovalova and Masayu Kimoto both communicated well those changing moods and executed Balanchine’s choreography precisely.
Overall the Vienna State Opera Ballet presented a challenging program of choreography and dancing.
Manhattan Theatre Club Presents The Niceties
May 29, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Beginning on May 27, 2021, the Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting a virtual revival of Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, a play that the Manhattan Theatre Club had presented during its 2018-19 season. Adapted to a virtual platform, this new version is fortunate to have the original stars Lisa Banes and Jordan Boatman who truly inhabit the characters they are playing.
The Niceties focuses on an ambitious and opinionated, black college student (Jordan Boatman), and her white history professor (Lisa Banes) who meet over Skype to discuss the student’s thesis paper, a paper which presents a different perspective regarding the causes of the American Revolution.
The professor is the stereotype of a privileged elitist at a prestigious school of learning and very much in an academic bubble of her own. The student, a political science major, is eager to get a good grade in order to pursue her career as a community activist and organizer, and is accused by the professor of not focusing on her thesis paper as she is distracted by her organizing political protests and marches.
Both are described as liberal in their politics and the professor is revealed immediately for what she wishes to be represented by – drinking coffee from a Hilary Clinton mug — while the student is at home where she wanted to tackle her thesis paper rather than being on campus.
The student’s point of view is how much slavery played a part in the American Revolution and its aftermath – and the contentious debate moves on from there with both the student and professor revealing their generational differences, and their personal and academic differences regarding race. The meaningful debate between them is the heart of The Niceties.
Needless to say the title of the play is ironic – and the play’s end is abrupt leaving an audience wondering what will happen after this confrontation has ended – or if it hasn’t ended and there is more to come.
Because Burgess studied history at Yale she has made the conflict between these two women true to life. One would be able to make comparisons between this confrontation and those one might have had while studying in a college or university setting – fighting for your principals, methodology – and even a grade.
Director Kimberly Senior deftly makes The Niceties much more than a verbal fencing match, and certainly the performances of Banes and Boatman are important facets of the controversial confrontation that takes place between the characters they are playing. And that is why The Niceties is worth watching and pondering both the positives and negatives in this academic disagreement.
National Ballet of Canada – Balanchine Program
May 27, 2021
By Mark Kappel
The National Ballet presented an atypical program as part of its Spotlight Series which was an all-George Balanchine program with two of his signature works. The National Ballet of Canada has danced many Balanchine ballets since its beginnings but very rarely. This made the programming a bit unique.
Balanchine’s Apollo, choreographed to a commissioned score by Igor Stravinsky, was created for the Diaghilev Ballet Russes and shortly after its world premiere became Balanchine’s best-known work.
The ballet focuses on the theme of Apollo’s relationships with his muses — and to note that the National’s version of Apollo is based on a revised version that Balanchine created for the New York City Ballet in 1979 rather than the two scene version he created for the Diaghilev Ballet Russes in 1928. The revised version eliminates the first scene depicting Apollo’s birth and also eliminates even the minimal scenery that was designed for the original version.
The National’s production of this revised version was meticulously staged by Christopher Stowell and Lindsay Fischer.
The title role demands a heroic performance from the dancer dancing this role creating a God-like figure with royal elegance. Brendan Saye gave such a heroic performance as Apollo – proud and strong — and the dancers playing the adoring muses, Svetlana Lunkina as Terpsichore, Jeannine Haller as Polyhymnia, and Calley Skalnik as Calliope were Apollo’s ladies in waiting and inspirations.
Although this version has a bit of starkness it still has a lot to say and remains a magical match between the choreography and the music.
The other Balanchine work was one of his few stand-alone duets, Tarantella, choreographed to music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk and very much tailored to the talents of its original cast, Patricia McBride and Edward Villella. Tarantella is also an Auguste Bournonville-inspired dance piece with the Italian themes from Bournonville’s Napoli.
For the two dancers dancing this virtuoso and challenging piece they must give the impression that they have been shot out of a cannon, with none of their energy flagging. Both dancers achieved this with ease and charm. Skylar Campbell performed with a great deal of swagger, and Koto Ishihara contributed the appropriate spirit.
This all-Balanchine program was a challenging one and brought out the best in all of the dancers participating.
Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Making
of American Ballet
By Mark Kappel
Distinguished dance writer Martha Ullman West has written a thoughtful and exhaustive examination of two important figures in the American dance world in her book, Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet, published by the University of Florida Press.
West’s point of view is that Todd Bolender and Janet Reed, both of whom danced for George Balanchine during their careers, participated in the pioneering of the establishment of ballet companies in the Midwest and the Western part of the United States at the time when ballet was becoming part of popular culture rather than just a New York phenomenon.
Not to mention ballet companies dancing the works of Lew and Willam Christensen, Eugene Loring, Agnes de Mille, Catherine Littlefield, and Ruthanna Boris had as much of an influence on American ballet as did George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
So who were Todd Bolender and Janet Reed?
Bolender, who was born in 1914 in Canton, Ohio, began his dance career as a modern dancer, and Janet Reed, who was born in Tolo, Oregon in 1916, was exclusively a ballet dancer.
Bolender pursued his studies in New York with Mary Wigman and Hanya Holm described by him as his strongest influences. During the time period he was in New York, when the country was recovering from The Depression, he also studied at the School of American Ballet and with other ballet teachers who taught in different ballet styles that were not offered at the School of American Ballet.
Lincoln Kirstein asked Bolender to join Ballet Caravan which was a project for American ballet dancers to dance the works of American choreographers – and West’s book includes detailed descriptions of those ballets some of which are now rarely performed by American ballet companies.
Ballet Caravan was a significant arts entity as its activities were underwritten by the United States Government as a cultural exchange to counter anti-democratic influences in South America – a rare instance when the United States Government had supported any arts groups. Ballet Caravan offered choreographic opportunities to George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, and William Dollar among others performing “Americana” ballets that reflected American culture not only in choreography but also in music and subject matter. West provides many details about these tours and Bolender’s participation in them.
A particular note of interest is that during the time period Ballet Caravan was touring in South America, Balanchine was offered the job of artistic director of the Teatro Colon’s ballet company – which he turned down. But he returned to the Teatro Colon at a later date to choreograph a new ballet for the company, Mozart Concerto.
Reed was a descendent of pioneers and received her training in Oregon – with Willam Christensen in Portland – and appeared in adaptations of the 19th century classics – the 19th century classics which Reed later danced in with the San Francisco Opera Ballet.
Reed was a featured dancer with the San Francisco Opera Ballet where she danced in Willam Christensen’s’ full-length production of Swan Lake, the first production of this ballet in the United States.
Reed ventured to New York to join Eugene Loring’s Dance Players – an artistic extension of Ballet Caravan in that Loring wanted to choreograph “dance plays” with American themes and stories. This was one of many concert ballet groups that Reed danced with – then on to American Ballet Theatre where she danced roles in ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins and Antony Tudor – particularly creating a role in Robbins’ Fancy Free, and dancing in David Lichine’s Graduation Ballet.
Bolender joined American Ballet Theatre in 1944 – which was a short stint – and then another short stint with the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo as both a dancer and choreographer. Thereafter Bolender joined Ballet Society a precursor of the New York City Ballet – with Boulder creating the Phlegmatic section in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments – a work that Balanchine revised in 1951 without costumes and scenery. The premise of Ballet Society was not following the Diaghilev model of ballets being a collaboration of choreographers, artists, and composers.
West describes many of Bolender’s choreographic projects in the 1940’s and beyond in detail, and how much Bolender, as a choreographer, contributed to the New York City Ballet’s repertoire in its early years.
Reed married her husband Branson Erskine in 1946, and while still a dancer with Ballet Theatre appeared in the Broadway musical, Look Ma I’m Dancing! In 1949 Balanchine invited Reed to join the New York City Ballet, and created a role for her in his Bourree Fantasque.
West mentions a dispute Bolender had with Balanchine and the New York City Ballet in 1956 about the New York City Ballet performing his ballets on an extensive European tour. Bolender threatened that a decision in the negative on this issue might influence whether he would remain with the New York City Ballet. His ballets weren’t performed on that tour – but he stayed with the company and created one of his best known roles in Balanchine’s Agon in 1957.
In 1958, after a hiatus of sorts, Reed rejoined the New York City Ballet as a balletmistress and became known as a taskmaster. Ultimately she left the New York City Ballet in 1961, and in 1963 Bolender was appointed the artistic director of the Cologne Opera Ballet beginning his career as an artistic director of several ballet companies.
Bolender and Reed crossed paths again when Reed in 1974 was engaged to be the director of the Pacific Northwest Dance Company School, an appendage of the Seattle Opera – and she also choreographed for the Seattle Opera productions. Pacific Northwest Dance Company School was the precursor for what it is now Pacific Northwest Ballet.
During the time period when Reed was in charge of the company Bolender was also engaged to work with the company as a teacher and choreographer – and he took over the workload during the interim periods when Reed left the Pacific Northwest Dance Company School after the School’s executive director and Reed’s husband had a dispute. Melissa Hayden succeeded Reed for a short period of time, and Bolender kept up a relationship with Hayden and her successors, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell who formed what is known today as the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Bolender’s career in dance was extended beyond his dancing career having appeared in Broadway musicals and later directing Broadway musicals in countries all over the world. But Bolender is best known for directing ballet companies abroad and the Kansas City Ballet in the Untied States.
As mentioned Bolender’s first director’s job was in Cologne, Germany where he chose repertoire he knew well but bringing most of it from America – including several of his own ballets and Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Unfortunately that experience was not a happy one as these choices were not greeted with enthusiasm by the dance critics – and he moved on to Frankfurt which was another unhappy experience. However Bolender did create two ballets for the New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival in 1972.
In 1981 Bolender was appointed artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet where he remained until 1995. During that period of time Bolender put his stamp on the company with his own creations and adding Balanchine ballets to the company’s repertoire. West’s book chronicles Bolender’s achievements as the Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director and Bolender’s post-artistic director career involving himself in archive videos of George Balanchine’s works for the Balanchine Foundation.
Janet Reed passed on in 2000 and Bolender passed on in 2006, and both contributed to the emergence of professional ballet companies in the United States.
Besides examining the careers of Bolender and Reed, West’s book chronicles the history, the domestic and international tours, and new choreography that highlighted the years of the 1940’s, 1950’s and the 1960’s in American dance, and also emphasizes that there were important achievements that had been made by ballet and dance companies all over the United States that are worth noting – and being appreciated by dance audiences, and employing dancers, choreographers, teachers, and administrators.
For sure I commend West’s effort and to know that it will be an important source for dance scholars who wish to know more about the formative years of America’s ballet tradition.
Broadway By The Year – Virtual Edition –
The Andrew Lloyd Webber Years
May 24, 2021
By Mark Kappel
The final virtual concert as part of the Town Hall’s Broadway By The Year series was a celebration of British composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the pioneers in creating sung-through musicals for the West End and for Broadway – and is still composing them. Lloyd Webber’s contribution to the art form of musical theatre was well represented in this third presentation of Broadway By The Year’s series.
As always Scott Siegel was there with his introductions and anecdotes, and Ross Patterson was at the piano accompanying all of the wonderful singers that performed in this concert. The question was what does one pick from among the songs from Lloyd Webber’s many musicals – and those that would fit each singer’s best attributes. All of the songs chosen were from the most well-known of Lloyd Webber’s musicals but the singers presented personal interpretations of these songs giving them unique insights.
These personal interpretations were presented by a stellar cast of actor/singers. Liz Callaway beautifully and expressively sung her way through two songs from Song and Dance, “Unexpected Song” and an almost defiant interpretation of “Tell Me On A Sunday”, and Ali Ewoldt infused raw emotion in her performance of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar. Max Von Essen expressed assurance and an all-knowing interpretation of “High Flying Adored” from Evita, and Ethan Slater expressed youthful innocence in his singing of “Close Every Door” from Joseph And His Amazing Technology Dreamcoat, and brought a new meaning to “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard, anticipating when live performances in the theatre will return.
Emily Larger and Danny Gardner confirmed that Lloyd Webber’s music should not be danced to in their short excerpts from Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and The Phantom of the Opera.
The last song of this presentation, “All I Ask Of You” from The Phantom of the Opera was given a reassuring and romantic interpretation by Ali Ewoldt and Mas Von Essen – fitting as it was sung in the empty auditorium of Town Hall which hopefully will be filled very soon with an enthusiastic audience celebrating these wonderful singers in live performances.
This was yet another entertaining evening presented by Broadway By The Year – and now curtain up for next season.
Sarasota Ballet’s Digital Program 7
May 22, 2021
By Mark Kappel
Concluding its digital season, the Sarasota Ballet’s Digital Program 7 included two very different and contrasting dance pieces.
The first piece on Digital Program 7 was Frederick Ashton’s rarely performed A Birthday Offering which was premiered by the Royal Ballet in 1956 to celebrate the Royal Ballet’s 25th anniversary. Choreographed to music composed by Alexander Glazunov and arranged by Robert Irving, A Birthday Offering is a classic neo-classical ballet which shows off a company’s principal dancers.
The ballet begins with a procession of the seven couples in the ballet’s cast followed by the seven variations named after the ballerinas who created them, a Pas de Deux, and an ensemble Mazurka for the male dancers in the cast.
Staged by Margaret Barbieri the Sarasota Ballet took A Birthday Offering into its repertoire in 2013.
A Birthday Offering is neither stuffy or staid, but understated and refined classicism. Choreographed to Glazunov’s tuneful music the ballet is celebratory not only of the ballerinas who created the ballet’s original roles but also of the moment.
Although Victoria Hulland and Ricardo Graziano assertively took over center stage in A Birthday Offering’s Pas de Deux, this was an ensemble effort with excellent performances also coming from Katelyn May, Danielle Brown, Marijana Dominis, Elizabeth Sykes, Ellen Overstreet, Janae Korte, Harvey Evans, Erik Figueredo, Richard House, Yuri Marques, Daniel Pratt, and Ricardo Rhodes.
In contrast was Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, a work that has been danced in several different versions since its original world premiere in 1982. The Sarasota Ballet’s production of Nine Sinatra Songs was taken into its repertoire in 2012.
Choreographed to recordings of classic songs sung by Frank Sinatra, seven couples perform in a series of duets which dive deep into the lyrics of the songs as sung by Sinatra. Some of Sinatra’s recordings are those of his hits and others are from the American Song Book. Tharp has her own interpretation of these songs which depict a bit of romance, mystery, and conflict.
The series of duets is only interrupted by a small group dance choreographed to My Way – which also is the finale piece of Nine Sinatra Songs.
Notable performances were by Asia Bui and Daniel Pratt in “Softly As I Leave You”, Samantha Benoit and Ricki Bertoni in “One For My Baby”, and Anna Pelegreno and Yuri Marques in “All the Way”. But Nine Sinatra Songs is in many ways also an ensemble piece and was celebratory simply as an end to what has been an extraordinary and challenging season for the Sarasota Ballet.
San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake
May 20, 2021
By Mark Kappel
For its final offering of its digital season, the San Francisco Ballet is presenting a 2016 archive performance of Helgi Tomasson’s second and revised production of Swan Lake.
The San Francisco Ballet has a special relationship with Swan Lake as it was the first professional ballet company in the United States to stage a production of this ballet favorite which was staged by Willam Christensen in 1940.
In 1988 Helgi Tomasson staged his own production for the San Francisco Ballet, and in 2009, collaborating with designer Jonathan Fensom, Tomasson revised his production of Swan Lake – described as a production of Swan Lake for the 21st century.
The story of Swan Lake focuses on Siegfried, a royal prince who must marry. After meeting the enchanted Odette, who is under the spell of Von Rothbart and destined to be a swan forever – Siegfried pledges his love to her. However Von Rothbart and his daughter Odile, disguised as Odette, tricks Siegfried into pledging his love to Odile which reinforces Von Rothbart’s spell to doom Odette to a life as a swan. Odette and Siegfried do reconcile but they find that the only way out of their doomed relationship is to take their own lives in order to be together in the afterlife. Their love also breaks Von Rothbart’s spell.
Tchaikovsky composed three ballet scores and Swan Lake was his first. The first production of Swan Lake was premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet. However Swan Lake is known best from its 1895 production choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov which was premiered by the Mariinsky Ballet – after Tchaikovsky’s death.
In this production Tomasson has chosen to retain the choreography of Act II and the Black Swan Pas de Deux credited to Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and has choreographed the remainder of the ballet himself. He has also added a Prologue in which Von Rothbart introduces himself to Odette and then tries to abduct her. Although Odette escapes the evil Von Rothbart, Von Rothbart still succeeds in transforming her into a swan which is depicted with the aid of a clever projection. The national dances are also transformed into short vignettes which offer a bit of story-telling as well.
Swan Lake’s libretto focuses on relationships – and love and betrayal, and the battle between good and evil. The white acts are a display of adagio and ensemble dancing – while Act III is a dazzling display of national dances and the virtuoso Black Swan Pas de Deux in which Odile seduces Siegfried and tricks him.
You could not have a better pairing of principal dancers than Yuan Yuan Tan dancing the dual roles of Odette/Odile, and Tiit Helimets as Siegfried. Not only to dance the memorable and virtuoso choreography but to portray their characters and tell the ballet’s story. Helimets is an elegant prince, while Tan is serene as Odette, and subtle and calculating as Odile. This performance was watching two stunning classical dancers at their best.
Also notable was the performance of Alexander Reneff-Olson as the evil Von Rothbart, and Dores Andre, Taras Domitro and Sasha De Sola in the Act I Pas de Trois.
For San Francisco Ballet this production of Swan Lake is a fitting end to its digital season – a very difficult season at best – and more important knowing that the San Francisco Ballet will be returning to live performances next season.