A few random reflections, as I look back on 2016. I’d like to salute some performances and performers that provided unexpected pleasures. I want mention some shows I caught in 2016 that I haven’t written about before, that, in one way or another, made an impact on me.
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The most charming musical production I’ve seen this past year wasn’t on Broadway, but Off-Broadway–the revival of “Finian’s Rainbow” at the Irish Repertory Theater (132 West 22nd Street, NYC). This engagement is currently set to run through January 29th 2017, but I hope they extend beyond that date, so that as many people as possible can see it.
You won’t find better singing anywhere else in New York. (An added plus: You’re hearing the natural beauty of voices in that intimate space, with no apparent amplification.) And oh! The score by composer Burton Lane and lyricist E. Y. (“Yip”) Harburg–two master songwriters at the top of their game–is glorious, a succession of delights. Director Charlotte Moore’s adaptation of Fred Saidy’s original script moves along quickly. There’s some enchanting dancing. And you’ll leave beaming.
I initially hesitated about going to see this new production because the Irish Rep’s 2004 production of this same musical still shines so brightly in my memory. The 2004 production was one of the best things I’ve ever seen at the Irish Rep–which is saying plenty. And my memories of that production–even after a dozen years–were so vivid, I wasn’t sure I needed to see a revival now. (The Irish Rep’s acclaimed 2004 revival, incidentally, helped prompt other producers to mount their own Broadway revival of “Finian’s Rainbow” a few years later, but their version didn’t go over well.)
But I’m very glad I went to see this new production at the Rep. The score was even richer, more varied, and more fun than I had remembered. There are a number of fine individual performances. A terrific ensemble sound. And moments of great delight.
I was won over, once again, by the wholesome, endearing, down-to-earth quality of Melissa Errico–the sole returnee from the 2004 production–in the leading role of “Sharon McLonergan.” Who could resist her? And she gets to put over such great songs as “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” and “Look to the Rainbow” with heart-melting ease. I loved her in 2004. And I fell in love all over again this time around. There’s such warmth in her fine soprano voice.
I’ve admired her work since the start of her career; she was appealing whether playing a lead in a Broadway show that was great (the last Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady”); fun-but-flawed (“High Society,” “White Christmas”); or didn’t quite work (“Dracula: the Musical”).
Ken Jennings is a treasure, portraying her father, “Finian McLonergan,” who has stolen a leprachaun’s pot of gold. Jennings is as likable a blustering, blarney-filled rogue as ever strode the stage. I could not imagine anyone ever playing the role better. Whether he’s talking, singing, trying to con others, or bursting into a jig during the curtain calls, Jennings is enormous fun. I’ve always been a great fan of his work. He added much to the casts of such Broadway successes as “Sweeney Todd,” “Sideshow,” and “Urinetown.” But he enhances whatever he’s in. Even given terrible material–and I’ve seen it happen–he knows how to create moments of magic. (I’m recalling once going to a backer’s audition on 42nd Street, maybe 15 years ago, for some dreadful show involving a statue coming to life–perhaps Jennings may recall the name of the show, I don’t anymore–and even there, he sparkled. He made me briefly believe, when he finally got a chance to do something late in the show, that the show had possibilities; because he was interesting, even if that show, for the most part, was not.)
Ryan Silverman (as “Woody”) makes a splendid leading man. And “Finian’s Rainbow” is such a fun show. There isn’t a bad song in the score. The comic numbers (“When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” an “The Great Come-and-Get-It day”) land as well as the famed ballads, like “Old Devil Moon.”
I might add that even the “unknowns” in this production have fine voices. (Producers Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly have a great track record, generally when it comes to securing talent for their shows. A tip of the hat to them, and to casting director Deborah Brown.) I loved the voices of William Bellamy (fresh out of Pace University, where I saw him earlier this year in “A Chorus Line”–I really like it when talented university kids make that leap to professional success so quickly), Ramone Owens, and Kyle Taylor Parker. I liked their voices individually–I’d enjoy an album of any one of them, individually, just for their rich timbres–and when they joined up with Dewey Caddell to put over “The Begat” as a quartet, they were even more effective. What a brilliant performance of “The Begat”!
I can’t comment on each actor in the show, but every member of the company–Matt Gibson. Kimberly Doreen Burns, everyone–gets moments to contribute. And the rousing full-cast numbers are right on the money.
I must give credit, too, to Josh Clayton, for his orchestrations; the piano, bass, violin, and harp (under the direction of Geraldine Anello) created a supple–sometimes fanciful–orchestral support that fits this musical fantasy well. Of course I love full orchestras. (Who doesn’t?) But the 13 actors and four musicians in this company do right by “Finian’s Rainbow.”
Special mention must be made of Lyrical Woodruff. It is a joy to have this superb ballet dancer–who’s most recently graced Susan Stroman’s new musical “Little Dancer” at the Kennedy Center and Christopher Gatteli’s “In Your Arms” at the Old Globe–portraying “Susan the Silent.” Her dancing (choreographed by Barry McNabb) is a delight, and adds much to the night. I just love her dancing–the lightness of touch, the ease, the playfulness. She expresses her character beautifully through movement. She can do simple turns and make you feel you’ve witnessed something divine. I love her dancing in this show as much as any dancing I’ve seen this season. And look forward to seeing what she will do next. (She does straight acting, in theater and on TV, in addition to dancing.)
I must note: The 2004 Irish Rep production of “Finian’s Rainbow” benefitted from the extraordinary and unforgettable presence of Malcolm Gets and Terri White in the cast, and their young replacements in the current production, Mark Evans and Angela Grovey–while certainly likeable–simply don’t have their star-power. (At least, not at this stage of their careers.) Don’t get me wrong. I warmed to Evans and Grovey as the show went on. They’re congenial and I enjoyed them. (And it was cute the way Evans–playing the leprachaun, Og, who is becoming mortal, made the transition. I liked him breaking the fourth wall to briefly flirt with a woman in the front row of the audience, pantomiming her to “call me.”) There isn’t a really weak link in the entire current cast. I mean, I’d have no complaints if I hadn’t seen the 2004 production. But Gets and White left awfully big shoes for anyone to fill. White’s authoritative, roof-raising singing of “Necessity” in the 2004 production was definitive; her performance in that show was not only a high point of that whole theatrical season, it was a high point in her long and varied career, which has included Broadway shows ranging from “Barnum” to “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” to “Follies.” White really is extraordinary. I liked Grovey, but I missed the power that White brought to the stage.
Incidentally, one of the best performances I’ve seen anywhere in recent years was not at a theater; it was at one of composer/conductor Fred Barton’s parties, filled with showfolk; Barton’s place was packed with great Broadway talent. And one by one, performers took turns, accompanied by Barton on piano. But it was White who stole the show that night–and after she sang a couple of numbers, no one wanted to follow her. The guest I’d brought, who’s a terrific singing actor in his own right, gave up all thoughts of singing that night; White, at her best, is a force of nature. She’s out on the West Coast, and dealing with health issues, right now (and I certainly wish her well). But if you want to hear how great she was in “Finian’s Rainbow” at the Irish Rep a dozen years ago, the cast album from that production is still available. She was featured in the ill-fated Broadway revival, too, and is on that cast album as well.
That said, I enjoyed this latest production of “Finian’s Rainbow” a lot. I’m glad the Irish Rep has brought the show back. (And give them credit: they’re the only off-Broadway entity ever to revive this show.) Their beguiling current revival offers many rewards. And there isn’t a bad seat in that house, which has been beautifully renovated. Get a ticket, if you can.
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“The Humans,” by Stephen Karam, was my favorite new drama of the year. Boy! I did not know what to expect when I first heard that a play called “The Humans” was coming. That curious title–which I like–gave away nothing. I was surprised by how much I relished this play, which arrived with little fanfare and happily seems to have found an audience. (I’m also glad there are still some Broadway producers willing to take a chance on a serious, realistic drama.)
This finely etched, sweet/sad play caught the tenor of our times better than anything else I saw on stage this past year. Broadway is richer for it. And with this strong follow-up to his impressive debut play “Sons of the Desert,” a few years back, Stephen Karam is emerging as my favorite young-playwright-to-watch. “The Humans” is a realistic drama, achingly honest in its writing and acting, with touches of mystery. It feels very true to life.
The setting: A family is gathering for a Thanksgiving meal. There are three generations present–a grandmother who seems lost in dementia; two hard-pressed parents in their 60s, who have little to show financially for a lifetime of struggles; two grown daughters, trying to find their ways in life; one of the daughters, dealing with serious health issues, has just broken up with her girlfriend; the other is living with a boyfriend who, in his late 30s, is still in college. All are struggling. All are facing their own challenges, and the playwright does not sugar-coat their situations.
The parents would like their children to have better prospects in life than they had when they were young; but there’s not a lot to be optimistic about. The parents offer what suggestions they can–including platitudes about the importance of marriage and religion. At the start of the play, the characters are all trying to maintain facades of contentment, which gradually drop. Everybody hurts. And they huddle together, in their way, trying to give comfort. And sometimes needling one another knowingly, the way family members can.
And the play, which is sometimes funny, but gradually darkening, can be painful at times. The writing is, for the mot part, so superb, I felt by night’s end as if I had visited with relatives. There are occasional rare lines that, for me, did not quite ring true, that felt contrived. But by and large, this is startlingly good work. And very much reflective of the times we’re living in. Karam’s instincts are terrific–even to knowing when a light-bulb burning out will have an impact. And so are director Joe Mantello’s. Kudos to both.
All six actors were well-chosen. Playing the parents, Jane Houdyshell and Reed Birney–both of whom I always love seeing on stage–were terrific. Houdyshell in particular was giving a master class in acting. I could not take my eyes off of her. I’d recommend her for some kind of a lifetime achievement award for the excellence of her work on stage, year after year. But then I remember, the Drama Desk gave her just such a special award a few years ago.
I’m eager–as I was after I saw “Sons of the Prophet”–to see what Stephen Karam will write next.
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“A Taste of Things to Come,” which I caught at the York Theater in New York City, didn’t completely work for me; but there’s much in it to admire; it’s an ambitious “near-miss”–the kind of show I hope, with some further development, will have more of a life.
“A Taste of Things to Come”–with book, music, and lyrics by Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin–transferred to the York Theater in NYC from the Bucks County Playhouse. It’s a fun show–and, in its best moments, a thought-provoking one–with many of its songs appealingly evoking the sounds and moods of the years in which the show is set. Act One takes place in the kitchen of a home in Winnetka, Illinois, in 1957. Act Two takes place in the same kitchen, in 1967.
In both acts, we see four female friends talking about their lives. They discuss their hopes, wishes, and concerns, reflecting–both by what they say and by what they do not say–the changing values of the times in which they live. (And the authors have wisely chosen two highly contrasting years in which to set a show–1957 and 1967–taking us from the conformist Eisenhower era to a time of growing personal freedom, individuality, and openness.)
We see four individuals responding in their own ways to the currents of the times they live in, trying to find common ground and sustain friendships, despite personal differences. The songs are all likable–and sometimes a good deal more than that. And the book has substance. I’d be interested in the four women’s conversations–their struggles to find themselves, fulfill their goals, and maintain connections–even if the play did not have any songs. The writers–aided and abetted well by director/choreographer Lorin Latarro and associate director Joe Barros–maintain a satisfying balance between light entertainment and drama. That’s not an easy thing to do. And they held my interest throughout.
After the show, I ran into a friend who asked me, “What is this new musical like? What other musicals did it make you think of?” I told him that this musical–unlike most I see–really did not remind me of any other musical. (And that’s a good thing.) I added that this musical made me think just a bit of Wendy Wasserstein’s play “Uncommon Women and Others” (which I’ve always loved). There, too, the playwright presented it us with female friends talking about their lives, their conversations reflecting ongoing sociopolitical changes (such as the advance of feminism). “Uncommon Women” was a more serious work than “A Taste of things to Come,” but it dealt with related themes.
I liked the four performers in this musical–Janet Dacal, Paige Faure, Allison Guinn, and Autumn Hurlbert. They gave us vivid portraits of women trying to figure out who they are, how they fit into the larger society, and what they wanted to accomplish in life. And the authors have given us four individuals, each trying to cope with specific challenges. I’ve long enjoyed Debra Barsha’s music, and I’d buy a cast album of this show just to hear again the catchiest song in the score, “The Whomp”–a wonderful number which I think would have been very well received on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” back in the day. Having grown up in the eras represented in this show, I like the way the creative team has caught, in many way, the tenor of the times. One terrific details: the passing reference, in 1957, to America’s “most eligible bachelor” being Rock Hudson. (No one, in those sheltered times, would have imagined that that popular Hollywood leading man was gay.) And they’ve included some neat period TV clips–“Betty Crocker,” “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” etc.–which contributed to the fun, too.
I must add, though, I was bothered by some distracting anachronisms and errors in the show. Were they terribly important? No and yes. There was so much I liked about the show that the occasional gaffes did not prevent me from enjoying the night as a whole; the mistakes were not exactly deal-breakers for me. I had a good time seeing the show at the York, which an important incubator for new shows. And I hope that, with some tweaking, the show can transfer to another theater for an open-ended commercial run.
But each time I noticed a little error or anachronism–each time something in the play did not quite ring true–I was pulled out of the play for a while. And that’s not good. Eventually, of course, I got pulled back in. But for me, the errors and anachronisms were distracting. And since the show aims to tell us what life was like in 1957, and how things had changed by 1967, it ought to get the details right. And making a few fixes might make a good show better–at least for some audience members who care about details. Or are old enough to remember those years.
There’s a scene, for example, in which the women, in 1957, are checking out “The Kinsey Report,” the famed groundbreaking report on human sexual behavior. In the scene, one of the women–who’s supposedly viewing a sexually explicit photo in “The Kinsey Report”–says that the picture must have been printed upside down; the intended joke is that she’s naively unaware of the sexual position she’s viewing in the photo. But the scene didn’t completely work for me. Why? There were no photos of any kind in “The Kinsey Report.” The two volumes of “The Kinsey Report”–which were published in 1948 and 1953–contained in total more than 1,600 pages of academic text and charts dealing with sexual behavior.
They were terrific, important books. But there were no photos–or even drawings–depicting sexual activity; had the book included any explicit imagery, it would have been censored. That’s simply the way things were at the time. I wondered, as I watched that scene dealing with “The Kinsey Report,” if the authors of the script had ever looked at “The Kinsey Report.” And I wondered how well they understood the 1950s, if they believed a book containing photos of sexual activity could have become a hit in that era. The show is trying to tell us how life was back in the 1950s. The show gets a lot right; but some of the needless errors sort of threw me.
The scene in which the women are doing the Limbo dance threw me just a bit, too, because the Limbo craze hit the US in 1962. That was the year everyone was doing the Limbo, and listening to Chubby Checker’s hit record, and repeating the catch-phrase from the record, “How low can you go?” Most Americans had never heard of the Limbo before then. And as soon as characters on the stage–in a scene set in 1957–began doing Limbo moves, I thought: “1962.” When one gal began using a Hula Hoop, I thought “1958.” For that was the year of the huge Hula Hoop craze. And the reference to a TV with a “big 12-inch screen” didn’t ring true for 1957. The very early TV’s, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, had very small screens. But by 1957, 21-inch TV’s were common. And no one in 1957 would have thought of a 12-inch screen as big.
In the play, one woman, who is white, falls in love in 1957 with a man who is black. And then in the 1967 scene, characters refer to interracial marriage as now being legal–a positive change that they’d witnessed. But in Illinois–and many northern states–interracial marriage had actually been legal throughout the 20th century. The 1967 Supreme Court ruling against laws forbidding interracial marriage mostly affected Southern states. Again, are such details important? Not to everyone. And I liked the show very much. But I’d like it even more if more of the details were just right.
Details don’t matter as much in certain kinds of shows. There are musical-comedies that create their own realities. “The Drowsy Chaperone,” for example, exists blissfully in its own whimsical, imaginary conception of the 1920s; “Grease” offers an appealing caricature of the 1950s; both of those shows are great fun. Neither is trying to be realistic; neither is trying to provide a history lesson. But “A Taste of Things to Come” is, in part, intended to be a history lesson. And I’d welcome having more historical details just right. For me, errors can be jarring.
Here’s one example. I remember watching a good, realistic film that was set back in 1945, just as World War Two was ending. So many of the details were just right. But then two characters in the film began singing a song that wasn’t written until 1954–a hit of the early rock ‘n’ roll era. I was pulled out of the moment immediately, and wished the filmmakers had picked a song from 1945 (or a bit earlier) for that scene set in 1945. Getting the details right can help.
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Another new musical that could have–and should have–been better was “The Bodyguard,.” which I saw at Paper Mill Playhouse, and which is now heading out on a national tour under the management of Troika Entertainment. I have very mixed feelings about this show. It had some terrific moments early on, which is why I want to write about it. But it was overproduced; it hit too hard, too relentlessly, for too long; and ultimately disappointed.
I can’t remember another show that I liked so very much at the start of the night–but couldn’t wait to get away from by night’s end. “The Bodyguard” had as exciting a beginning as any musical could hope to have. I was wowed at the start. In the early part of the evening, I was sure I’d wind up writing a rave for both the script by Alexander Dinelaris (based on the film of the same name, written by Lawrence Kasdan) and the director, Thea Sharrock. I was hooked right away, and got caught up in the storyline quickly. And that was great. Dinelaris, incidentally, wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for the film “Birdman,” which I loved. So I respect his talent, when he’s at his best. And the fluidity of the direction, at the start, impressed me. The basic storyline is intriguing–a deranged stalker is pursuing a star, and a bodyguard–with whom the star falls in love–is hired to protect her
But my enthusiasm for the show gradually waned as the show progressed. The director pushed way too hard, trying to sustain a level of excitement that felt increasingly forced and artificial. At the close of the first act, I was still enjoying the show, although not as much as at the start. But as the second act wore on and on, I found myself liking the show less and less. I kept wishing the writer and director would give the story a chance to breathe. Instead, we’d be hit with more big numbers–the music and singing at high volume, with laser-light effects, and projections, and such–in a desperate attempt to make you feel like you were at the climactic moment of some superstar’s concert. But I felt like I was being shouted at, that the show was trying so hard to convince me it was exciting and dramatic and big, that I stopped responding to it. (It’s like if you’re chatting with someone online and they type everything in capital letters, and end every sentence with three exclamation points; it does not make their words more convincing; if everything is emphasized, ultimately nothing is emphasized.)
And what should have been a really big moment in the show–the stalker attempting to kill the star–felt oddly small and inconsequential. We just saw this villain standing and aiming his gun at the star, and we knew the bodyguard would catch him before he actually fired. Which is what happened. But in the context of this show, the heroism just seemed predictable and obvious. There are ways to generate tension so that a climactic moment pays off. But the writer and director failed at that key point.
And the huge projection of the bodyguard’s face while the star sang–designed to tell us she was thinking of him (which we already well knew)–only seemed to make her appear small and insignificant onstage.
The casting was odd. R&B/pop recording artist Deborah Cox was the nominal star of the show. And at first she seemed like an exciting choice. But her acting skills are somewhat limited–Judson Mills, as the bodyguard, was a more convincing actor–and her powerhouse singing grew tiresome and repetitious. For my tastes, comparative-newcomer Jasmin Richardson–in a supporting role as the star’s sister–was a better singer. A graduate of Abilene Christian University with a lovely voice, .she is not a “name,” but her singing was heartfelt, her timbre was attractive, and her work was more nuanced. I enjoyed her singing more than that of the star. Douglas Baldeo, playing the star’s son, was likeable and his little scenes added some much-needed quiet moments.
Whoever’s responsible for messing up a show that began so promisingly–and could have been a winner–really deserves a reprimand. It’s not too late. A good “show doctor” might still be able to fix it. And then maybe it could come to Broadway. But it needs help. A show needs to take its time to build to peak moments. But the pacing was off.
I was glad when the curtain call came, thinking: This show didn’t quite come off, but it had some strong moments.
But then, after the actors took their bows, the show went on for what seemed like forever–singing and dancing for the longest time, pointlessly. (Even the villain was happily dancing.) They were still trying to whip us up into a frenzy. But by then I was, like, “Enough already! Too much! Too long! Too loud! You can’t create excitement just by turning up the amplification and turning on the laser lights one more time. Now I just want to go home.”
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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “School of Rock” (directed by Laurence Connor) is a high-spirited Broadway musical that kids and adults alike can enjoy–a show that’s better than I thought any musical-theater adaptation of the breezy/cheesy/schlocky original movie was likely to be. Not a masterpiece, by any means. But lots of energy. I saw many young kids in the audience having a good time. (Well, kids will always respond to a story in which kids come off better than most of the stuffy, set-in-their-ways adults. And in “School of Rock,” it’s the kids–not the authority figures–we’re rooting for; and the kids in the show do shine.) My young cousins would like this show a lot. And adults can have fun. (I did.)
It’s light entertainment. I wouldn’t want to see it a second time; there’s no need. And I doubt I’ll remember it terribly well in a year or two. (Although I’ll remember a few of the strong performers, like Will Blum, Brandon Niederauer, and Olivia Chun.) But the show often made me smile. And it’s professionally crafted–well-constructed and well-paced.. In that regards, it’s got an edge over “The Bodyguard,” which I reviewed above. And I respect professionalism. (When I see a show that starts strong but falls apart by the end the way “The Bodyguard” does, I worry that people don’t know how to write and direct good musicals anymore. Or that the pool of people who know how to do those things well is getting alarmingly small.) The libretto of “School of Rock” (by England’s Julian Fellowes, based on the Paramount movie written by Mike White) is engaging enough, with a nice balance of book-scenes and musical numbers, and the whole show builds towards a rewarding conclusion. I got caught up in the story. The score by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics)–while far from great–serves the story well. And the business of having kids forming a band actually works better on stage than it did on screen; the impact is much greater when you see kids–perhaps 10 or 11 years old–playing their own instruments on stage, as opposed to seeing kids portray musicians on screen (where all of the music could easily be dubbed by adults pro’s). And some of these kids handle their instruments well. So there’s a good bit to like in this musical. I left smiling, glad I’d seen the show.
But it’s superficial theater. It sort of skims the surface of life. Nicely done, for what it is. And there certainly are some good performers. It’s fun, in it’s way. But I prefer musicals with more substance. It’s fun to go out for a hot dog and fries, when you’re in the mood for that. But no one is going to mistake a hot dog for a gourmet meal.
The musical “School of Rock” owes a good bit to “The Music Man.” But every time the plot reminded me a bit of “The Music Man,” I couldn’t help thinking: “The Music Man” did this better. Much better.
In “School of Rock,” a fellow with no credentials and no teaching experience–played with tremendous aplomb and conviction by Will Blum at the performance I attended–worms his way into a snooty private school. Initially, he has everybody conned. (And theater audiences always like a lovable con-man.) The people running the school think he’s teaching kids the required academic subjects. In reality, he’s focusing all of his energy on getting the kids to form a band, so they can play in a big “battle of the bands.” When the parents find out he’s got no credentials–that he isn’t who he’s claimed to be–they want to tar-and-feather him. (Shades of “The Music Man.”) But he’s made an important ally, who’s come to believe in him–and even fall in love with him. (In “The Music Man,” it was the music teacher who fell for the con artist; in “School of Rock,” it’s the headmistress of the school, but it’s the same idea; the dynamics are exactly the same.) The parents come to realize that the con man–even though he may not have the credentials he claimed he had–has been a positive force in their community; the kids are happier, more fulfilled for having known him. Everyone, by show’s end, is glad he’s come into their lives. The production ends with us watching, and cheering for, the kids’ band. (Again and again, shades of “The Music Man.”)
The kids in the cast have great energy. The standouts–Brandon Niederauer (a terrific performer and guitar player), and Olivia Chun (as the ever-assertive, take-charge manager of the band)–make an invaluable contribution to the show. And I liked the exuberant drumming and cocksure attitude of Raghav Mehrotra a lot, too. The 13 kids in the show play their own instruments (augmented by a house band of adult rock musicians.) Andrew Lloyd Webber has said that one reason he opened this show in New York rather than in London is that America produces more of the type of kids this show needs–brash, scrappy, talented kids with plenty of moxie–than England does. It’s a cultural thing. And the kids have lots of spirit. They seem to be having a good time on stage “sticking it to the man” (as the show likes to emphasize), and the mood is contagious.
But it’s musical-theater-lite, compared to a masterwork like “The Music Man,” which boasts a superior book and score, and gives us subtler, richer human portraits, and displays a far greater understanding of the complexities of human life. “The Music Man” has a more powerful emotional payoff–we see more clearly the difference the protagonist has made in individual lives, and the protagonist has grown by show’s end, as well. “School of Rock” seems far more contrived, and glib. (The central premise of “School of Rock” is flawed, too, if you think about it; because the show makes a lot of fuss over the fact that the protagonist does not have teaching credentials; but in the U.S., a private school–like the one in this musical–can hire anyone it likes; in the US, only public schools require teaching certificates. Perhaps this show’s British librettist, composer, and director did not know that.)
I was glad to see “School of Rock.” But over the years I’ve seen many better Broadway shows at the famed Winter Garden Theater–beginning with such musicals as “Funny Girl” and “Mame.” It’s a beautiful, historically important theater. And it’s my own personal favorite Broadway house; just walking into the lobby from Broadway, remembering performers I’ve seen there, is thrilling for me. “School of Rock” is fun in its own way. But I’d rather see such a great theater serve as home for a truly great show.
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For most of my life, it’s been traditional for me to catch a production–and sometimes more than one production–of “The Nutcracker” each winter. I enjoy it on multiple levels, and always look forward to it tremendously. It’s fun seeing new talent emerge and rise to the challenges of mounting the show. It’s fun seeing dancers, as they mature, take on new roles. And seeing the ways different dancers–each with her or her own personality–will interpret a role.
My schedule permitted me to see two performances of the Nutmeg Ballet Company’s “Nutcracker,” up in Connecticut, this year. I wish I could have seen a third performance, because the Nutmeg triple-casts key roles, and I did not get to see how some very good dancers, whom I’ve enjoyed in past years, interpreted some key roles. But I’d like offer a few comments–just a few impressions I had–after watching two performances. (This is not intended to be a comprehensive review; there were more good dancers than I can mention here; but I want to mention a few dancers; my apologies to others I’m leaving out today; hopefully, there will be other times.)
I was impressed anew by the skills of Andris Kundzins and Alma Evertz, and I felt grateful I got to see them, at the second performance I attended, play the key roles of “the Cavalier” and “the Sugar Plum Fairy.” They are both accomplished, seasoned performers, and dance with a high level of proficiency. Evertz seems to have the soul of Prima Ballerina; there’s a kind of grandeur in her work.
And oh! I always get such a great kick out of seeing Kundzins on stage. His movements are so polished and finished, and graceful. He’s a consummate performer. And he’s got presence.
At the first performance I attended, he actually did not have much to do; he was cast in one of the smaller roles–the male “Marzipan” soloist. It’s a fairly minor bit in the production, almost a throw-away. And sometimes I barely give it a second thought. But he performed with such gentle strength and style, and elegance and class, he made that scene–which ordinarily doesn’t count for much–a high point of the night. He shined. And performed with such assurance and finesse, that at that performance, I was as impressed by the “Marzipan” sequence as I was by anything else in the show. His presence helped make that little scene a standout. (Had he been asked to do even the “Chinese Dance”–another smaller number–I’m sure he would have made that scene the standout. He commands attention.) I’m glad I also got to see him as “the Cavalier”–a major role–the next time I went. His dancing in that role became–as it should be–a highlight of the night. But he’s got something. And watching him elevate the importance of the little “Marzipan” scene by the power of his work was fascinating.
I was totally enchanted by Sydni Allen’s work, portraying the “Adult Clara.” And in this case, I hate to even use the word “work”–because what made her performance so magical was that it did not feel like “work” at all. It had a beautiful feeling of ease and graciousness, and delicacy–and an utter naturalness. She’s wonderfully un-self-conscious on stage.
I’ve enjoyed witnessing her growth as a dancer in recent years. A couple of years ago, she would only have been cast as “Young Clara” (a much less-demanding role than “Adult Clara”). I’ve seen her play that role a couple of times, and she’s fine. But it’s a real joy to see her grow into the role of “Adult Clara”–where she has more opportunities as a dancer–and play the role about as satisfyingly as I’ve ever seen anyone at Nutmeg play it.
When I say I find a dancer’s performance exceptionally satisfying, of course that’s a subjective judgment. One observer might like one style of dancing more; a different observer might have a different preference. But this is my column; I’m just giving my own reactions. What I love about Sydni Allen’s dancing, as “Adult Clara,” is the sense of relaxation and grace she projects. Her dancing feels utterly unaffected, spontaneous–as natural as skipping is for a happy child. I just love that kind of dancing. And it fits the character of wide-eyed “Clara” very well. As Allen moves across the stage, it feels as if it is all happening for the first time. (I’m well aware, of course, that that’s an illusion. I performed enough in my youth–and have directed enough in later years–to know full well how much work in rehearsal goes into creating each seemingly effortless bit of movement on stage. But it’s a wonderful illusion. And I reveled in watching her.)
Sydni Allen is a dancer–like, say, Lyrica Woodruff, who’s currently in the musical “Finian’s Rainbow” in New York, and also performs with Tom Gold Dance and other dance companies–who can create an illusion of lightness, and airiness, and gentle grace in her work. (Different dancers–just like different actors–may have different strengths. And may be better suited to some roles than to others. One small example: I’ve loved Bebe Neuwirth’s dancing since she was a teen, but I’ve never seen a suggestion of lightness or airiness or vulnerability in her work. She’s a masterful dancer–precise, and controlled, and strong–but not an ethereal one; projecting delicacy is simply not her thing.) I found Sydni Allen utterly delightful as “Adult Clara.” Totally endearing. And spirit-lifting.
Allen, Evertz, Kundzins–all have their own individual strengths; and all have the basic stuff needed to sustain professional careers. I’m glad I got to see them.
I wish my schedule would have permitted me to see a third performance of the Nutmeg “Nutcracker” this year. I wish I could have checked out one of the performances, for example, at which Demeri Sutula–a great favorite of mine from her past work–played the “Sugar Plum Fairy.” But, unfortunately, I was not able to catch any of those performances, and she was not showcased as a soloist at the two performances I saw. I wish I could have seen how Benton Stivali interpreted the leading role of “the Cavalier” but I did not get to see that. It’s just the luck of the draw, what performance (or performances) I might be able ro see in any given year. Stivali played “the Harlequin” at both of the performances I saw, and I was happily impressed. He’s grown nicely as a dancer since he started with Nutmeg, and I enjoyed his “Harlequin.” He seems serious and ambitious concerning his work, and was a strong “Harlequin.” And made that scene count. It was an important moment of the ballet and I hated to see it end. He was even better in the role the second time I caught him–more confident. That added to effect. I look forward to seeing more of his work.
Each dancer makes a part subtly his own. And the same dancer, simply by changes of attitude, can alter–if he or she wishes–the impact a character will have on the audience. If–and I’m just giving an example–Stivali were to do the same choreography but think “playful,” his “Harlequin” would have a slightly different feel. If he were, instead, to think “witty,” the dance would have a still different feel. If he were asked to strive for the approval of judges of classical ballet, he might make certain choices. If he were asked, instead, to do the same choreography but strive to make children in the audience laugh, he might make subtly different choices. The same dance, but with different effects.
Sidebar. If I can digress for a moment, I’ll see Broadway shows I like, over and over, as opportunities allow, marveling at the way different people–or sometimes the same people, at different times–can interpret the same material differently. I’ve seen the musical “Chicago,” for example, more than 10 times. (And I’m eager to go again.) Each experience–as some performers come and go, and others remain in the show–has its own unique feel.
The late master/director Bob Fosse shaped the unforgettable original production of “Chicago”–as dancers who worked for him told me–by guiding not just how they moved, but their attitudes as they moved. Staging the number “All that Jazz,” he told dancers to simultaneously sell it to the audience as if it were an inviting opening number–and to also think of revolting images as they performed (like babies being burned to death by Napalm bombs in Vietnam), so the audience would also pick up on disturbing, uncomfortable emotional undertones, even as they smiled; he got layers of feeling he wanted. And when one reviewer suggested that Fosse’s dancers reminded him of something that had crawled out from under a rock, he felt he had succeeded.
He was a genius, and understood that dance isn’t simply about executing moves, it is about conveying emotions. Dancers, he believed, should always be making audience members feel things. End of sidebar.
And oh! But before I forget, I want to acknowledge one more member of the “Nutcracker” company, who’s emerging as an artist-to-watch.
If I didn’t yet know yet for sure, this year’s “Nutcracker” made it clear: Julius Taiber is a dancer. I delight in his work. A couple of years ago, when he was very early in the apprenticeship process that all aspiring performers must go through, he was pretty much just an anonymous member of the large ensemble. (Nutmeg puts about 50 of its dancers on stage for “The Nutcracker” each year, not counting the very young kids from the Torrington School of Ballet they add in some scenes. ) Oh, maybe there was a nice gleam in Taiber’s eye–a vital life force shining through–but, for the most part, he did not stand out from the crowd. And that was perfectly natural for that time and place. Then last year, playing some smaller parts with verve, he began to demand notice. There was promise.
And now this year, in somewhat bigger roles, he made it clear he’s a dancer. He gets it. And given an opportunity to do a dance, he’ll make it interesting. He’ll tell a story through his dance, the dance will hang together; and it will have its own distinct quality. (And because I usually only get to see the Nutmeg dancers two or three times a year, his growth since the last time I’d seen him dance–seven long months ago–seemed especially dramatic.) Oh, I’m not saying there isn’t room for improvement. With any dancers–and especially younger dancers–of course there’s always room for improvement. I’m sure he’ll be better next year than he is today; and even better the year after that; and so on. And I certainly look forward to witnessing the progress. But already he’s a real dancer, and it’s satisfying to see him work.
In the “Arabian Dance” (which I saw at one performance), he was relaxed, lithe, languorous, sensuous. And very much alive. He’s comfortable on stage, comfortable in his own skin. He belongs there. Playing a different role–the “Nutcracker Prince”– at another performance, his dancing was, by contrast, appropriately crisp, confident, forthright, projecting a youthful innocence. His instincts are right. He gets what the particular dances should be; each dance has its own character; and each dance is great fun to watch.
In both of the dances I’ve mentioned, he was very much in synch with his talented partners (Makenna Wollman in the former dance; Sydni Allen in the latter). Sensitivity to one’s partner is always a plus; if both partners’ arms, for example, move together at just the same time and with just the same expressiveness, the effect is striking. And in all of his dancing, he moved with feeling and commitment.
Now, maybe you’re thinking: “But isn’t that the way dancing always should be?” Well, of course. But many younger dancers fall short in many of these areas. Yes, they are moving in time with the music, yes, they are executing steps correctly; but they are not really dancing. At least not in a way to make audience members feel anything.
Let me digress a bit, to explain my point further. This winter, I also got to see excerpts from the Nutcracker performed elsewhere by another group of dancers–including some longtime family friends–in the greater New York metropolitan area. I’m not going to mention names or be too specific here, because there’s no point in hurting anyone’s feelings gratuitously. But I watched a young man, 18, perform the Arabian Dance. He’s studied since childhood; his mother was a dancer; his siblings all study dance. (I’ve known the family, casually, for years.) But whatever dance he’s asked to do–it would not matter if you asked him to perform the Arabian Dance or a Bulgarian folk dance about the harvesting of barley–his performance has the same feeling. Which is to say, sadly: no feeling. His movements are technically correct–he can learn any combination of moves and execute them in time–but they are passionless, and seem leaden. He usually has a blank look on stage, like his mind is somewhere else. (And for some numbers, you really need to smile; it’s part of the performance.) He does not appear invested in anything he’s doing. He dances like it’s a chore. If I ask him, after a performance, how he feels, his comments are always painfully self-critical: he says he doesn’t like his wrist and hand motions; he says he’s too fat and needs to lose weight (he’s not at all fat); he thinks everyone must have seen the way he messed up this movement or that movement…. His older brother teases him because he always insists on wearing two pairs of tights on stage, one on top of the other; he gripes that he isn’t comfortable feeling “exposed.” on stage. And he gets so nervous before performances, he says, that he sometimes throws up. His mother says that stage fright is normal. But I think there’s something more than that going on here.
He’s not, at heart, really a dancer. He dances, he says, because that is what his family does; it is expected of him. But he does not really enjoy it, he tells me. And if he’s not enjoying dancing–or even comfortable in his own skin, even comfortable being on stage–how will the audience possibly enjoy what he does? And where is he headed in life? (I worry a bit about him. And I’ve told him that if he really doesn’t like dancing, he ought to get out–or 10 years from now he’ll be telling some expensive therapist that he hates his life.) Now he is an extreme case. But there are plenty of aspiring dancers who, alas, appear to be more like him than they are like Julius Taiber on stage; they are aspiring dancers who can perform mechanically–they are going through the motions–but they are not really dancing. Not making anyone’s spirit’s soar. And they probably should be doing something else.
But, boy! I enjoyed every bit of Julius Taiber’s work. And wish I could have seen more. It’s always inspiring, seeing someone working to the best of their abilities–whatever their current level of proficiency–with real enthusiasm (which comes from the Greek: enthousiasmos–meaning “the god within,” or possessed by a god). I wish I could ask him things like: “What are your hopes, dreams, aspirations? How do you feel about dancing?” My hunch is that he’s as serious about his craft as I am about mine, and loves it just as much. Because that’s what he’s radiating on stage. And it’s good to share in the vibes he’s giving off on stage. He’s got that vital spark in him–that certain, indefinable something I look for when I hold auditions for a show. If someone walks in the door with that, I’ll find a place for him or her in a show. Or on a recording, or something. Because I know he or she will add life to a project.
But when I see an emerging artist beginning to shine, I want to give encouragement (just as people encouraged me when I was younger). And if you’ve got good eyes, you can see the potential early on. Santino Fontana co-stars on television’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” today, and has impressed as a star of various Broadway shows (from “Act One” to “Cinderella”). But he had it when he was a teen, when I first met him in Idaho–as I told him at the time. And as soon as he got to NYC, before he made Broadway, I had him in the recording studio, recording for me; because the potential was clear. Before Celia Keenan-Bolger was starring in shows on Broadway (or doing anything on Broadway), I was happy to present her as a singer in my theater festival. Seth Sikes is currently the hottest nightclub singer in New York City. As soon as I met him, right after he arrived in New York from his home town of Paris, Texas, I gave him a lead in a show and invited him to record for me. He was then a total “unknown,” but to me, his talent just jumped off the page. Eventually, others saw him, and his career took off. But I saw something in him. And part of the fun of seeing lots of theater and dance, is you have a chance to spot people who have something. And have the potential to make a difference. And you want to see them develop their talent (or talents) as fully as possible. And sometimes people may surprise you. Lyrica Woodruff’s dancing skills won her acclaim even when she was a teen at the School of American Ballet in New York City; the won the school’s “Mae L. Wien Award” for showing “Outstanding Promise.” So her success since graduation as a dancer, working with the likes of Susan Stroman, Christopher Gattelli. Patricia Neary, and Tom Gold, should not be surprising. But she’s also finding work as a dramatic actress, guest-starring on assorted TV shows, from “Boston Public” to “Private Practice.” I’m happy she’s finding success in multiple fields–and that she’s going for it all.
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OK. I want to take a moment to respond to an Email or two I’ve received from some readers. I love hearing from you; you can always write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll try to write back.
One reader asked if I could explain what I mean by the term “presence.” That’s hard to explain, but some performers simply shine brighter on stage. It’s something they have, above and beyond technical skills. We speak of “presence” and “star power” and “charisma” and “magnetism.” It’s a little something extra. I can’t really define it. But I know it when I see it. I was at a holiday party in Manhattan, where most everybody there was involved in some way in the performing arts–actors, singers, dancers, models, writers, directors, managers. At one point in the evening, the door opened and a fellow strode in. And as he walked into the apartment–greeting those he knew, getting some food and drink–heads turned. When he stopped, a circle formed around him. Whether people knew who he was or not, people treated him like a star, because he carried that aura with him. I knew who he was–a very fine dancer with the New York City Ballet. He’s good-looking. And so were assorted other actors, models, and singers in the room. But only he caused that reaction when he entered. He’s not a household name. And I don’t think most people at the party knew him or recognized him. But when he entered the room, people took notice. And wanted to talk with him. He simply had more presence. And people responded.
I got another Email from an aspiring performer, asking if I’d check out that performer’s work on a home-made YouTube video clip and give my evaluation. I’ll periodically get such requests–someone wants me to check out a clip of them singing or dancing or performing “an intense dramatic monolog,” and they want me to let them know what I think (and maybe pick them for a project, performing on stage or on a recording or something). A couple of times, I’ve actually found performers I wound up working with, because I was wowed by a video they’d made. But that is extremely rare. And videos often don’t really capture what a performer is about, and I don’t want to judge some stranger’s video. So I’ll usually just offer encouragement; if people are passionate about pursuing acting or singing or dancing, or whatever they love, I’m all for them doing it. If they want to audition in person some time, they can. Often times, I simply see someone performing some place in a show and make a note of them, and eventually we find a way to work together. And often times what I’m looking for is a certain spark, a vitality, that’s easier to spot “live” than on a video clip. And if they’ve got that spark, I want to know them.
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Please share in my happiness. Three brand new albums that I’ve produced are coming out at once (available–as both physical CD’s and digital downloads–from Amazon, CDBaby, Google Music Shop, Footlight Records, iTunes, etc.). I get such a kick out of producing these albums. I get to work with wonderfully talented members of the theater community: Giuseppe Bausilio, Jon Peterson, Seth Sikes, Matt Nardozzi, Emily Bordonaro, Jeremy Greenbaum, Charlie Franklin, Beth Bartley, Michael Townsend Wright, Gabriella Green, Alex Deland, Jenn Spottz, Michael Kasper, Amada Andrews, Katherine Paulsen, and more.
The three new albums are “The Chip Deffaa Songbook” (39 of my theater songs, from shows I’ve written over the years); “Chip Deffaa’s Irving Berlin Revisited” (featuring rare, and in many cases never-before-recorded Berlin songs–part of a series I’m doing, of Berlin rarities), and a new cast album for my show “Irving Berlin’s America,” co-starring Michael Townsend Wright and Matthew Nardozzi. I’ve never before launched three new albums at the same time. But there’s no time like the present. And I’m looking forward to exciting additional releases in 2017. I like my work. Whether I’m writing or directing a play, or running a recording session, it’s rewarding. And I get to work with people I really love.
Happy New Year! Write me, if you like, at email@example.com.
– CHIP DEFFAA, January 3rd 2017