New York Musical Theatre Festival
nytheatre.com review by various
September 16, 2005
|REVIEWS: It Came From Beyond • Soon of a Mornin' • Richard Cory • But I'm a Cheerleader • Yank! • Monica! The Musical • Reluctant Pilgrim • Nerds: A Musical Software Satire • You Might As Well Live • The Unknown • Isabelle and the Pretty-Ugly Spell • The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World • 6 Women with Brain Death|
IT CAME FROM BEYOND
If the words “Klaatu Barada Nikto” have any meaning to you, then have I got a musical for you. It Came From Beyond is a loving homage to 1950s science fiction films, with a snazzy rock 'n' roll score, and plenty of kitschy in-jokes for people who have seen Plan 9 From Outer Space too many times.
The '50s were a time when red-blooded American men waged wars with Commies from Mars, every Saturday afternoon at the matinee double-feature. It seemed that every weekend there was a hideous space monster after America's leggy dames, and only a God-fearing American scientist, armed with an Atomic Space Ray, could save the day. In It Came From Beyond, one can see elements of countless numbers of these films, including War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, This Island Earth, with even a pinch of Plan 9 From Outer Space thrown in.
Harold (Kevin Earley), a high school science nerd, has been forcibly teamed up with the bullying Steve (Todd Fournier) to work on a science project. They're also competing for the love of the beautiful Becky (Heather Marie Marsden), with Steve getting the upper hand there. Harold gets his idea for the science project from a comic book and, as he reads through the comic, its characters appear onstage (played by the same cast) making It Came From Beyond a play within a play.
The story told in the comic book is a standard tale of alien invaders and freedom-lovin' humans who battle for the fate of the Earth. The comic story also strongly parallels Harold’s life. In the comic book scenes, Earley plays The Professor, a government scientist who suspects that aliens walk among us. Steve is now a mysterious scoundrel who might be a Russian spy, or perhaps a Commie from Mars, and he’s also competing with The Professor for a lovely gal (also named Becky, and also played by Marsden).
Will The Professor perfect his “Mind Power” ray in time to repel the aliens? Will Harold finish his science project in time to defeat the bully?
See: Terrifying creatures from beyond the cosmos! Witness: Humanity’s desperate struggle for survival! Experience: The terror of: IT CAME FROM BEYOND! In color!
It’s all done in super-campy style that should even amuse people who aren’t too familiar with the sci-fi genre, and it’s guaranteed to delight anyone who spent their childhood watching Cold War-era monster movies. Stephen M. Schwarts and Norman Thalheimer's lyrics are a riot, and there are several songs which humorously sum up the paranoia of the McCarthy era, like “Are You One Of Them?” The lyrics hit a high point when suspected Commie Steve sings about what an all-American guy he is, and it's filled with wholesome Americana gibberish like "Are you now, or have you ever been a Mouseketeer?” Music is done in period style with some rock ‘n’ roll, but there are a few modern-sounding ballads too (they’re pretty enough that one can forgive them for not being completely '50s sounding).
The cast all sing and perform exceptionally: Earley nails the 11 o’clock number “Find a Hero,” Marsden is a perfect ingénue, Katherine Von Till is a scene-stealer in the supporting role of the mousey Miss Benson, and Stephen Breithaupt makes a goofy, paranoid Army Colonel. Fournier’s “Fifties Kinda Guy” might very well be the highlight of the show.
Cornell Christianson’s book is funny, and very reverent of its subject matter, but there are a couple of problems. The play within the play is a keen idea, but the lines between fantasy and reality blur too much at the end of show (Harold's science project turns out to be a fantastically powerful gizmo, which is plausible in a comic book, but requires a major suspension of disbelief to buy as a high school science project). This is not to mention the fact that Harold's problems with the school bully seem a bit anti-climactic after watching The Professor battle an alien armada.
There were quite a few technical problems with this performance, and Marsden’s microphones were constantly malfunctioning, all but ruining her solo numbers. Hopefully this tech issue can be ironed out in future performances.
Even though there might be a problem or two, It Came From Beyond is a hysterical show. The energetic music, campy style and terrific performances should entertain even those Earthlings who’ve never heard of Klaatu.
Only sixteen lines, but what indelible lines. Everyone I know remembers E.A. Robinson’s poem from school, or from Paul Simon’s adaptation in the '60s. A.R. Gurney first turned the old chap into a play some 30 years ago, teasing out the fiber of Robinson’s poem and spinning it into a taut dramatic line that imaginatively explores Cory’s mysterious suicide. Now, at Gurney’s suggestion, Ed Dixon has turned this play into a musical, which is receiving an exemplary workshop production in the NY Musical Theater Festival. Designers Michael Bottari and Ronald Case (sets and costumes) and Kevin Hardy (lighting) have worked with director James Brennan to provide as clear a workshop staging of this piece as could be asked for.
Herndon Lackey cuts a dashing figure as the title character. Beautifully costumed in a light beige suit that contrasts with the cast’s muted blues and grays, Lackey convinces as “a gentleman from sole to crown.” He speaks with authority and humility. Since he is the only character who speaks in this otherwise “through-sung” show, it creates an intimacy between Cory and the audience. It’s an intriguing and largely effective conceit.
The problem is that Dixon hasn’t sufficiently developed the music of the piece. The words come almost verbatim from Gurney’s elegant prose drama, trimming only a few scenes for length. To be sung, however, those words need to be reconstituted so that their meter and rhyme fulfill the cadences of the music. Dixon shows a sound sense of the ways in which harmony expresses the mood of the scene. But by setting almost all of Gurney’s dialogue to music, Dixon imposes an emotional value on each line that flattens the delicate ambiguity of Gurney’s original, without tapping the potential of musicalizing it.
When he does depart from the script, Dixon makes a strong case for an operatic treatment. The first half features a couple of contrapuntal trios, where three characters sing simultaneously about the same subject. One in particular is promising, when Cory’s wife starts to sing about how she is the only person who knows this unknowable man. She is then joined by Cory’s mistress, and an old flame of his. The counterpoint happens too soon, cutting short some much needed insight into Mrs. Cory’s plight, but the idea is a good one. The notion of community as character begs for effective choral writing, and Dixon starts to write some during a political rally scene. And the scene where Cory’s wife come to terms with the emptiness of their marriage has the basic materials for a powerful and heartrending aria. Lynne Wintersteller makes the most of this scene, singing with poise and a civilized sense of urgency. But just when the play should give way for a heartrending song, Dixon instead allows Cory to intrude with his speech, to the scene’s detriment.
The two most effective moments are Dixon’s most complete departures from Gurney’s play. The mistress, played by Christeena Riggs, is given an entire song to sing about her hopes and the hollowness of her tryst with the famous man. It’s a bit too long, but does allow us a complete journey, from her infatuation with Cory’s glamour to her revelation of its hollowness. And at the end of the show, Dixon has taken material from earlier in the play and compressed it into an impressive coup de theatre, where the lead character attempts at long last to sing his own song. He sings a dense text on only one note, and the actor’s attempt to find a melody is riveting. At last the lead character’s lack of music becomes more than an experiment in form. And at the end of the show, when Cory does sing the last line of Robinson’s poem, it allows a depth of feeling that completes the tragedy without violating the essential enigma of the character. If Dixon can bring this level of affect to the rest of the piece, he will have something profound. For now, I’m left eager to see a good production of the play.
Yank! is a well-crafted show that uses a traditional musical theatre form to treat an interesting and unusual subject: gay soldiers in World War II. Yank! is a sentimental affair; the 1940s-era feel is so perfectly evoked by the pop standard-style songs that you may feel nostalgic for dance bands, crooners, and “This Is the Army” as you hear them. The bittersweet story and romantic qualities of the show are nicely balanced by some zany humor and by the crispness of the staging. If the underlying ideas in Yank! aren’t exactly original, there still is much to be enjoyed in the production, which is expertly executed by all parties.
Yank! tells the story of Stu, an army private who quickly is dubbed “light loafers” by his squad, called the “Charley Company.” He is befriended by another private, the swaggering, confident Mitch, who takes Stu under his wing. While in the barracks, the men of Charley Company long for the women they left behind at home, and Mitch and Stu, both overcome by their need for affection, share a kiss. For Stu this is the fulfillment of his deep attraction to Mitch, who has been his protector. But for Mitch, who as far as we know has never had a relationship with a man, things are more complicated; he asks Stu to forget it ever happened.
Stu is introduced to the secret world of gay military men through Artie, who works for the popular Army magazine, "Yank!" Artie hires Stu as a photojournalist for "Yank!," which, to Stu’s delight, leads to his following the Charley Company for a "Yank!" story, and a reunion with Mitch. Stu tries to show Mitch that there are other gay men in the Army, and even shares Artie’s highly illegal journal of stories of gay military men with Mitch. When the journal is discovered in Mitch’s locker, Mitch is arrested. But Stu insists to the military police that the journal is his, not Mitch’s, and Stu is arrested instead. In prison, Stu faces his demons and the show ends on a bittersweet but hopeful note.
The songs by David and Joseph Zellnik, which are bulls-eye pastiches of swing, big-band, and ballad styles of the time, are first-rate. The rousing “Yank” describes life in the army and recalls Irving Berlin’s patriotic mode. “Betty,” sung by a quartet of lonely men on a bunk bed as they trade photos of movie stars, captures the achingly lonely mood of the soldiers perfectly. There’s a very funny Carmen Miranda-style number called “Put It in Your Dance,” which ends the first act on a high note, and there are several sweet ballads which allow the soldiers to express their true feelings for each other through song. There are some very nice tight-harmony vocal arrangements, which presumably are by musical director Rob Berman, who also provided the fine orchestrations and leads the tight four-piece band. A running musical gag in the second-act involves the interweaving of musical themes from Max Steiner’s film score for Gone With the Wind into Yank!’s dance music; it’s indicative of the cleverness of the minds and talents at work here.
The performances all are excellent, with some special standouts. As Stu, Doug Kreeger is sweetly naïve and a sympathetic protagonist. Nicely contrasting the slight Kreeger as Stu is the strapping Ivan Hernandez as Mitch, who uses his strong baritone to express Mitch’s inner emotions; he also has a winning stage presence. Jeffry Denman plays Artie with knowing confidence and flair, and executes a terrific tap number with style. Daniel Frank Kelley, Tally Sessions, Joey Dudding, and Jeffrey J. Bateman are swell as the men of Charley Company, a motley group of Army buddies who become a kind of family.
The very funny Julie Foldesi plays a host of roles ranging from a nursing home attendant who’s led one too many sing-alongs to a matter-of-fact lesbian Army sergeant, and she is a bona fide Broadway belter. James Patterson hilariously wears many hats throughout the show (mostly comic), most memorably as a very strict drill sergeant and as an obsequious doctor. Stellar dancer Ken Alan plays Stu in the two dream ballets. Recorded dialogue for an Army “buddy movie” that Charley Company takes in are provided by Raul Esparza and Marc Kudisch.
One of the most enjoyable and impressive elements of Yank! is the skillful staging by Igor Goldin. The production has a professional sheen and we are guided through the story with the minimum of distraction and the maximum of entertainment. Using only two moving wall units and a few benches, Goldin has come up with smoother scene transitions than many a hydraulic-assisted Broadway production, and this creativity is exciting. Ken Lapham’s top-notch lighting and Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes are important contributions to the overall achievement.
Special mention must be made of Chase Brock’s choreography, which provides some of the most moving moments of Yank! “Blue Twilight,” a gorgeous pas-de-deux performed by Ken Alan and Joey Dudding, is stunning. Brock also impresses with an elaborate second-act ballet dream sequence; without giving anything away, I’ll just say that Brock and his dancers deftly maneuver hoop skirts—not something you’d necessarily expect in an Army musical.
Yank! has some astute and meaningful things to say about being gay in the homophobic military (one memorable line spoken by a military officer: “the crime isn’t doing it, lots of guys do it, the crime is wanting it”), but Yank!’s real accomplishment is the poignant contrast of the romantic world of movies and music with the frightening reality of fighting on the front lines in a bloody war. The message we are left with at the end of the show is how valuable tenderness is in a world filled with meaningless violence. This isn’t the most original of notions, but it certainly is one worth hearing again and again, perhaps especially now, with our nation once again at war and our men and women, brothers, sisters, children, friends, and lovers being sent into danger.
NERDS: A MUSICAL SOFTWARE SATIRE
The second act of this new musical comedy by Jordan Allen-Dutton & Erik Weiner (book and lyrics) and Hal Goldberg (music) begins with IBM CEO Tom Watson, DOS inventor Tim Paterson, and Apple guru Steve Jobs gathered together under a bridge, apparently homeless and derelict, singing "Nobody's Got It Worse Than Me." (Jobs, more or less the hero of this tragically awful show, actually compares his lot to Jesus Christ's, apparently viewing crucifixion as somehow preferable to being fired.)
Later, a mystical entity known only as "Oracle" (an allusion to the computer software company) urges the still down-on-his-luck Jobs to "Thinketh Different," citing the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Einstein, and Jim Henson as inspiration. What this Steve Jobs does as a result is launch a class-action suit against Microsoft, which, here, he and his colleagues lose (Bill Gates pays off the judge, singing "I've Gotta Lotta Money"). Huh? But everything ends up okay, because Gates apologizes, and he and Jobs and the other computer industry wizards who are the main characters of this musical agree in the finale that "We Are All Just Nerds."
Pretty much everything about Nerds is as misguided as this, and as idiotic. Its simplistic universe offers us a young Bill Gates whose only desire is to get laid; a young Steve Jobs who walks around in flip-flops in a drug-induced stupor and has no idea how computers work; and a young Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) who carries around a "Dr. J" barbie doll. Gates goes in for the most ribbing, characterized here variously as a pimp, a sexless and hopeless geek, and an avaricious bully who wants to own "100% of everything." If you were hoping, as I was, for even a modicum of intelligent commentary about the truly world-changing accomplishments of Gates and his colleagues, then you will be very sorely disappointed by Nerds.
There is one really fine song, "The Revolution Starts With One," about the birth of Apple Computers (but it feels too much like a commercial for that corporation to finally sit comfortably in a musical "satire"). The actors work gamely; they include Sean Dugan as Gates, Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone as Allen, Anthony Holds as Jobs, and Trisha Rapier and Jessica-Snow Wilson as the two fictitious love interests (Rapier's character, a woman named Myrtle, is supposedly the head of Netscape).
Gags include pulling down people's trousers several times, plus an Italian clown. Jokes are mostly double entendres based on computer terms like "disk," "floppy," "hard drive," etc.; plus a running gag in which Bill Gates puts Steve Jobs's last name at the end of sentences, like this: "I'm not here for blow, Jobs!"
Carnies. Freaks. Sideshow attractions. What is it about the different that attracts us? What is it that makes something different? Are any of us really all that different? These questions and more are explored in the macabre and enjoyable musical The Unknown, currently on display as part of the NYMF. This musical, based on Tod Browning’s 1927 silent film of the same name, is a refreshingly original piece about a group of carnies operating on the perimeter of society, told in a style that blends Brecht, Sondheim, and Barnum. It is a tale of illusions—both the obvious ones, like how most of what we see in a circus sideshow isn’t really what it seems, and the not so obvious ones, like how most of what we see in the people we long for isn’t really what it seems, either.
The story revolves around Alonzo, an armless knife thrower, who is obsessed with Joan, the beautiful young woman he throws knives at every night. Alonzo is unable to tell Joan the truth about his feelings or himself, and this leads to some very unpleasant situations. Alonzo’s main rival is the new strongman, Malibar. Malibar seems to be a typical strongman, gruff and crude—and very much taken with Joan. Running the show, and keeping everyone away from Joan (because she is his daughter), is Master Carrion, a very sinister Ringmaster who doubles as the show's emcee.
To say more of the plot would give too much away. Suffice to say that nobody—not the strongman, not the ringmaster, not Joan—is what they appear to be at first. But what is really remarkable about this production is that as the masks slowly fall from each character, and we see them as they really are, they become hauntingly familiar.
The music, by Shane Rettig, is great—atmospherically creepy, sensual, and driving. The show’s pace is excellent, clocking in at one and a half hours. And the book and lyrics, by Janet Allard & Jean Randich, offer fine pastiche of witty asides and stark confessions. Standouts in the cast include Thom Sesma, who seems to channel Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera as Master Carrion; Piter Marek as Fell, Alonzo’s cryptic sidekick; and Manu Narayan as Alonzo. Narayan evokes both pity and horror with ease, and has a beautiful voice.
While this production may be a little rough around the edges, given a slightly bigger budget and a little more time to iron out some minor kinks, The Unknown should be around for a long, long time.
ISABELLE AND THE PRETTY-UGLY SPELL
Isabelle and the Pretty-Ugly Spell, by Steven Fisher and Joan Ross Sorkin, is a pleaser. This fun youth-oriented piece follows a beautiful princess (Meredith McCasland) cast under a “pretty-ugly” spell since birth that makes her appear ugly to everyone except to herself and to her true love. It’s a delightful mix of "Sleeping Beauty" and "Cinderella" delivered in a modern, entertaining, and well-presented production.
The spell is cast by the princess’s own fairy godmother, Isabelle (Ruth Gottschall). Because the princess is born too beautiful for her own good, this particular spell wards off suitors focused only on beauty, in the hopes of leading her to her true love. Years pass, and Isabelle realizes that the spell will last forever unless the princess finds true love by her 16th birthday, only three days away. The well-meaning fairy turns speedy matchmaker, even though all eligible bachelors run from the princess’s “ugly” appearance. At the final hour, Isabelle convinces Clyde the clumsy inventor (Jamie McGonnical) to believe in himself and meet the princess. They fall in love, yet he rushes out at midnight, leaving behind his spectacles. In a refreshing reversal, girl searches for boy, finding him by testing the spectacles on every man of the land.
Overall, this musical is worthwhile, especially for families. While offering the familiar archetypal characters of a fairytale, such as the King (Kevin B. McGlynn), Stepmother (Becky Barta), and two ugly Stepbrothers (Bill Caleo and Darryl D. Winslow), it successfully adds forward-thinking twists to the fairytale formula. In particular, it is the princess who is willing and wants to marry a poor commoner. Also, there is a catchy number “I Love My Job” where Isabelle sings about her 9 to 5 fairy godmother life with the excitement one expects a child to have for a fun game. In today’s somewhat unsentimental outlook toward the worker and routine employment it is refreshing to hear someone sing out about their genuine enjoyment for their job.
Gottschall, as Isabelle the fairy godmother, handles the role masterfully in a convincing and funny manner. When she’s on stage, your attention goes right to her. Two other performances also grab your attention by storm: the stepbrother duo of Caleo and Winslow. These two actors seem like they have performed together for years, and are an example of true scene partnership. They also play two fairy godmother's co-workers, and two royal footmen, and they are hilarious, with a slight edge to Caleo.
The strongest numbers in the piece are two company numbers, appropriately placed: "The Pretty-Ugly Spell" is a welcoming opening prologue, and "Will This Be the Night?" is a creative climax. David Armstrong’s choreography is simplistic, but works appropriately for show’s youth-oriented nature. Designers Ken Goldstein and Cheryl McCarron deserve praise for their contributions in scenic design and costumes, respectively.
6 WOMEN WITH BRAIN DEATH
In this fast paced musical revue, six women of different ages, sizes, and backgrounds examine how they cope with the effects of modern-day pressures and today’s pop culture on their lives. The show deals with everything from grocery store lines to long leftover residue from not being elected the prom queen in high school. A cleverly staged group number called "Toll Road" has the ladies sitting on tires with flashlights, dealing with road rage. In "Prom Queen," a plus size gal (Amorika Amoroso) laments being too large to be elected. In "The Real Thing," the women examine the Barbie & Ken phenomenon, and how that relationship shifts as you hit puberty, to some hilarious results.
This town is never lacking in talent and the six women assembled for this cast are chock full of it. Cheryl Alexander, Amorika Amoroso, Valerie Fagan, Joy Franz, Leisa Mather, and Pearl Sun are all experienced, attractive performers with strong powerful voices and solid comic timing. Director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge does a nice job of keeping up the pace and filling the stage with interesting pictures. Mark Houston’s music is lush and sophisticated, with some lovely dense and difficult harmonies, which the cast handles very well, thanks I’m sure in part to music director Kim Steiner. The lyrics range from the very clever to occasional moments of crassness that fall flat. No one is credited for the simple sets and costumes, and the lighting supervisor is Michael Salvas. The cast is ably supported by band members, David Purcell, David Brophy, and Dan Levy.
The book has a lot of authors: Cheryl Bengee, Christy Brandt, Rosanna E. Coppedge, Valerie Fagan, Ross Freese, Sandee Johnson, and Peggy Pharr Wilson. Perhaps it is the amount of cooks in the kitchen that makes this piece so uneven. There is no real storyline, just vignettes. Nothing is resolved and you are never allowed to really know the individual characters. It feels like a gathering of a support group, where people get up to tell you what challenges them. All six performers are immensely likeable, yet at the end of the show, I don’t really care about the characters that they played. Still, it is an upbeat and sometimes very funny show with six strong women’s roles, which could benefit from more development.
SOON OF A MORNIN'
Soon of a Mornin’, a new musical by Andrea Frierson-Toney, tells the story of the real African American town of rural, isolated Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Told in a linear, narrative fashion, the scenes are announced by hanging a patch of quilt on a clothesline, like a series of photos laid out on the table for passers-by to see. By the end, there is a whole quilt representing the life cycle of one generation. The cumulative effective is like viewing a scrapbook with page after page of the same people at work, at play, at a funeral, at a wedding. It is a musical celebrating family and community. It is the singing that brings it to life.
The play opens in 1934, when cotton prices are low and boll weevils are flourishing. Failure is not far away and there to help are two white representatives from the Farm Securities Administration. One is a nurse, Annie Chambers, sent to introduce modern medical practices. The other is Freidberg, a documentary filmmaker whose success in exposing the poor conditions ultimately leads to the town’s redemption. But first, Annie and Freidberg must gain the confidence of the community, who are not receptive to strangers. Slowly, the two make inroads, and all the while, the women of Gee’s Bend, represented by Sarah Mae, record the sorrows and joys in their quilts. Sarah Mae, upon learning that her adolescent daughter Patsy is pregnant, insists it is time for her to learn to quilt, as if the loss of innocence is the cue to begin chronicling life’s woes.
The quilts of Gee’s Bend are renowned. According to the play’s publicist, they inspired Frierson-Toney to write this musical. Those fortunate enough to have seen the Gee’s Bend quilt exhibit at the Whitney Museum, which is still on tour throughout the U.S., will understand how isolation can free the imagination. Made out of available materials, most of the quilts hang atilt and unevenly, free of the strictures of symmetry. Content is all. The women of Gee’s Bend pour their hearts, their lives, into their quilts. They sing, they laugh, they cry around the quilting table. This is community at its best. So it is a wonder to me that Frierson-Toney chose to tell her story standing so far back. Like the snapshots they resemble, each scene gives only a superficial hint of the emotions behind it. Still, Frierson-Toney’s original music and lyrics, mixed with traditional songs, have heart.
Milton Craig Nealy portrays the hardworking Isom, a substantial man who has earned his muscle. His deep dramatic voice sets a fine tone in the initial number, “Hollar,” and in the familiar “Boll Weevil Song.” Carole Jones as Sarah Mae delivers a determined matriarch. She hangs quilts patches between scenes, removes them to a laundry basket, and generally keeps watch over her children. Her voice is lovely and full. Her marriage to Isom is somewhat of a surprise since there is no hint of romance earlier. This may be meant to point out that marriage is part of the life cycle, no more or less important than birth or death, and serves as the final square of the quilt.
Gerry McIntyre, the director and choreographer, keeps the pace moving with a good mix of clever choreography, as in the whimsical “Steer Chase” number. Megan Magill and Fred Rose as Annie and Freidberg, respectively, voice their frustrations in letters home. Again, the emotions are stated but not felt. What does come across is the lesson of what it means to have family and community. They learn this from living in Gee’s Bend and they sing a tender duet, “The Joy of ‘We’,” in homage.
McIntyre keeps the narrative fraught-free. Jason Veasey plays Frank, Jr. with optimism, giving this musical its title and theme song. He is Gee’s Bend’s hope and future, and he does a fine job of showing it when he sings "I plant dreams to come" in the number “I Am a Farmer.” Bianca Jazzmine Ottley is convincing as Patsy Pettway, a naïve adolescent. In “Paper Pictures,” she dreams of what it is like to be the women in the newspaper ads. Richard E. Waits gives Reverend Paul Mooney what he can, but without a fiery or substantial sermon, his influence is reserved for the warning he gives the community against killing the boll weevil.
The songs give folksy substance and personality to Soon of a Mornin’. The scenic design team of Michael Bottari and Ronald Case artfully remind the audience of Gee’s Bend's quilts. Long strips of quilting hang ceiling to floor as a backdrop, the center scraps forming a full and hopeful moon. They also designed the appealing colorful costumes.
My slight disappointment is perhaps of my own making. I came in with some knowledge of Gee’s Bend and its history of quilt-making. I had expectations of quilting bees, mournful laments and gospel exaltations. But it is Andrea Frierson-Toney who did the actual research and wrote a musical about the history of the town of Gee’s Bend, as the subtitle ("The Story of Gee’s Bend Farms")indicates, not the women and their quilt-making, and she has done so skillfully.
BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER
Based on the Lions Gate Film of the same name, But I’m a Cheerleader—The Musical is a non-stop, hysterical, poignant, sexy, hot, and madcap musical look into the life of 17-year-old Megan and her coming of age (i.e., out of her Christian closet). In a nutshell, Megan’s friends, family, and boyfriend think she’s a lesbian, so they have an intervention, after which she is sent off to a “rehabilitation” camp called True Directions. There, Megan meets other kids like herself, and begins a 5-step process of “losing the gay.” The camp is run by a crazed gay-hater, Mary Brown, who will stop at nothing to “help” these children. Mary’s obstacles include her sexually-frustrated gay son Rock, and a nearby gay couple who provide “other alternatives” to the children. Is Megan really gay? If so, will she graduate and be straight?
Let me stress this: there is no need to have seen the film. Actually, I recommend not seeing it. The film, which I did not view until after I saw this version, is bland in comparison. That being said, Bill Augustin (book and lyrics) and Andrew Abrams (music) have done a phenomenal job taking a very funny concept and making it splash all over the New York musical stage.
The entire cast is golden. Rye Mullis from Dave Clemmons Casting definitely deserves kudos for putting this amazing talent pool together. More importantly, they are collectively, and appreciatively, having the most infectious fun I’ve seen in quite some time. Standouts include, but are certainly not limited to: Chandra Lee Schwartz, who is adorably naïve as Megan; Jenna Pace, who adds a touch of grace as Megan’s solid best friend, Kimberly; and P.J. Griffith, who beautifully plays Megan’s dumb-jock boyfriend, Jared. Annie Ramsey, as Hillary, the Cockney student who shows Megan the ropes at True Directions, and John Hill (as Rock), earn so much audience appreciation during their first scenes, that they simply have to walk on stage to produce uproarious laughter throughout. Special mention must also be given to Sarah Katherine Mason, Nicole Cicchella and Paul Lane, who are simply hilarious during the cheer/scene changes as Cheerleaders 1, 2, and 3, respectively.
Okay, then there is Kelly Karbacz as Graham, the sexy tomboy at True Directions who may or may not have caught the eye of Megan, whose powerful rendition of “If That’s What It Takes” in Act I sent shivers down this reviewer's goosebumps. Which brings me to the music itself. It’s great. It’s funny, snappy, and memorable. During intermission, I, along with a few other gentlemen in the men’s room, found myself singing the songs from Act I.
The direction by Daniel Goldstein is solid. Scene changes (again, special thanks to Cheerleaders 1-3) are executed flawlessly and everything flows from start to finish without a misstep. Unfortunately, there were a few missteps with the group cheers in the opening and the closing, but that would have to be the only major flaw I have to report. Synchronized cheering usually works best when it is actually synchronized, and some cast members seemed a bit unsure of their moves at the matinee I attended. Besides that, Alyssa Moran’s cheer-coaching is...ready?...OK! The choreography by Wendy Seyb is light and fine. Costumes are very fitting, so to speak. The set design by David Korins is excellently adaptable for the quick scene changes and befitting to the stage at hand. The lighting design by Ben Stanton keeps everyone well lit.
By the way, But I’m a Cheerleader is the best show you’re not going to be able to see at this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival. It’s sold out, folks. Let’s hope we hear from this show again...with the CAST INTACT!!!
MONICA! THE MUSICAL
For those who are wondering, the “Monica” in Monica! The Musical is, indeed, Monica Lewinsky.
I walked into Monica! The Musical with lots of apprehension. I thought: Didn't Jay Leno and David Letterman say everything that can be said about the Lewinsky scandal back in the '90s? I also wondered: Why does anyone need to make fun of an ex-president when G.W. Bush provides weekly opportunities for satire? (Yesterday Bush was quoted as saying “We look forward to hearing your vision so we can more better do our job.”) Then there's the issue of whether Monica Lewinsky even deserved her 15 minutes of fame, let alone a few bonus minutes from a musical eight years later. Well, right from the opening number, Monica! The Musical, was so much fun that that I found it easy to toss aside my preconceptions, and enjoy this witty, silly little satire.
First of all, this is actually the Bill Clinton story (in fact, Monica doesn't even show up until about a third of the way through the show), and the story continues on after the Lewinsky scandal, too. It starts off in Arkansas, where we meet the young Bill Clinton (Duke Lafoon). Here he's depicted as an idealistic hillbilly man-child, and the denizens of Arkansas are a bunch of wide-eyed, wholesome yokels right out of a Rodgers & Hammerstein show (complete with a song 'n' dance number where the whole cast prances around with hoes).
The show wastes no time bringing in Hillary (Megan Lawrence), and it's not long before it's implied that young Hillary is having an affair with the young Janet Reno (Kristie Dale Sanders). Ken Starr (Charlie Pollock) shows up as a cackling melodrama villain, out to bring down Clinton at all costs. Eventually Monica (Christine DiGallonardo) comes into play, but the first act is nearly over by the time she shows up.
The project in hip deep in farce, and the characters often address the audience directly. One of the funniest songs is Ken Starr's "Shakespearean Asides" where Starr sings about his evil plans, directly to the audience, while other characters politely pretend that they can't hear him.
Since the characters know that they're in a show, they also make a few jokes about current politics, including one line where Clinton refers to a certain American President as a "Spoon-fed spineless moron" (who’s doing a more better job…). The couple of Bush gags, are funny, but there seems to be a missed opportunity to make a more substantial commentary on politics.
There is a lot of subtle wit in Daniel J. Blau and Tracie Potochnik's book and lyrics. In one scene Monica refers to Janet Reno as "Mister Reno," and one of Clinton’s songs uses a clever play on the Schoolhouse Rock “I’m just a Bill / Sittin’ here on Capitol Hill” song. There are also some imaginative plot twists that defy the history books, like when it’s revealed that Linda Tripp is actually Ken Starr in disguise!
There's a top notch cast here, including Broadway Urinetown alums Lawrence and Pollock as Hillary and Ken Starr. Duke Lafoon's Bill Clinton is a likeable guy, who possesses much of the real Clinton's charm (without a trace of lechery).
The show does seem to need a larger scale of production, though. There are several numbers that are obviously intended to be huge Las Vegas or Broadway style spectacles, including several scenes where crooner Tom Jones (played by Ray McLeod) shows up as a sort of mentor to Clinton, but the relatively small venue and limited resources only give a taste of what these scenes should be like. Given that the project is often a parody of theatricality itself, it noticeably suffers as a scaled down spectacle.
There is a long line of Washington bimbos, dating back from Donna Rice to Maria Helpin (google her), and Monica Lewinsky is surely destined to disappear into this sea of scandal, but Monica! The Musical deserves much more than a mere fifteen minutes of fame.
Reluctant Pilgrim is a collection of some of the lesser-known songs by famed composer Stephen Schwartz. Schwartz is best known for his hit Broadway musical Wicked and for his collaborations with Alan Menken on the Disney animated features The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas.
There are very few theatre composers who attain the level of fame that Schwartz has. Only a handful of musical theater composers are even known to the general public (Sondheim, Larson, Lloyd Webber), but as a recipient of three Academy Awards and three Grammy Awards, Schwartz long ago distinguished himself as a rare talent. His popularity is precisely what makes this collection of his mostly unreleased work, some from his better known musicals (Pippin, Wicked), so interesting.
The production is a small workshop with extremely minimal set and lighting. But, with the competent guidance of director Jamie McGonnigal, and music director Ray Fellman, this piece is neither devoid of structure nor lacking in a degree of showmanship. The transitions between the 16 songs from different productions might well have been troublesome, but are managed well here, generally finding a quiet way to let the staging and the music lead from one piece into the next.
The themes of Schwartz's collection here are mostly love and loneliness, but there are some upbeat songs like "The Goodtime Ladies Rag" thrown in to keep things from becoming too morose, and a couple of frenetic pieces like "Two's Company" and "Endless Delights" that bring in a bit of humor. Not to be missed is the ballad "Since I Gave My Heart Away," a song sung by Geppeto about his love for his errant wooden son Pinocchio, from a show that began as a Disney TV movie—but is in the works to be a stage musical.
The show features some promising new talent: Jeremy Benton, Marcie Passley, Christine Rowan, Horace Smith III, and Craig Wilson, with especially strong showings from Smith and Benton.
Anyone with an interest in Stephen Schwartz, or musical theatre in general, would be remiss to not take advantage of this opportunity to see his works which haven't yet been performed in a major venue, and others which may not be performed again.
YOU MIGHT AS WELL LIVE
Is there another American poem that so pithily captures a writer’s unique sensibility? After digesting these lines (tellingly titled “Résumé”), one hardly needs a biographical examination of its author, celebrated Algonquin Round Table wit Dorothy Parker. And yet even during her lifetime, Parker was, and continues to be, a source of boundless fascination for biographers, critics, and dramatists, with the latest depiction arriving in Norman Mathews’s one-woman musical, You Might as Well Live.
Hmm, …. One wonders whether Parker, if not already deceased, might not wish to revisit some of the methods described above.
Set in the 1950s, well past the height of her jazz-age celebrity, the show opens with Karen Mason as Parker, straining under another dread deadline. Between copious gulps of scotch, she skirts her writer’s block by rifling through previous poems and recounting her life in quips, anecdotes, and songs. This chronicle of erudition, notoriety, divorces, miscarriages, suicide attempts, and political exile is a worthy complement to the often-apocryphal mythology surrounding the inimitable “Dottie” and her dysfunctional “vicious circle.” Furthermore, Mathews wisely allows Parker’s own epigrams to do most of the talking.
And yet with all that glittering cleverness at her disposal, Mason’s portrayal of one of the wittiest, darkest, and most vicious women of American letters is bizarrely, dishearteningly bland. She jauntily tosses off bon mots with a breezy, nostalgic smile, sighs wistfully (almost casually!) at recollections of what were, by all accounts, excruciating personal disappointments, and chuckles indulgently at her own past transgressions. She sports Parker’s legendary malice like some glamorous cigarette holder, to be swanned about and occasionally puffed for stylistic purposes, rather than to stave off the toxic self-loathing coursing through her veins. In short, she behaves as if Dorothy Parker did not actually endure most of her waking moments in a simmering sublimation of profound rage and relentless frustration. And when she does manage to edge ruefully past the safe and the genial, Mason commits the most heinous sacrilege of all: she grows sentimental rather than anguished, woeful rather than bitterly and impotently furious.
At which point, this faithful reviewer (in the immortal words of dear Dottie herself) damned near “frowed up.”
Although Parker’s work repeatedly, indeed thoroughly, flirts with the tragic, its fundamental cynicism never permits it to wallow. No sooner does she dole out an unflinching dose of despair, than she brusquely pulls it up short with a curt slap of savage, withering irony. And as for the renowned witticisms: for all their gleeful venom, Parker was notorious for underscoring their ferocity with a dry, dismissive, and dispassionate delivery, (even once claiming “a girl’s best friend is her mutter”). Under Guy Stroman’s misguided direction, however, Mason’s plucky affability does little justice to the desperately alcoholic, perennially suicidal, pathologically self-destructive (and, alas, utterly irresistible) train-wreck that was Dorothy Parker.
And yet, miraculously, the moment Mason breaks into song, even the most ardent Parker acolyte grows forgiving. Although her forays into theatre were relatively unsuccessful, Parker’s linguistic acrobatics and verbal panache practically beg to be translated to lyrics, and, fittingly, the songs of You Might As Well Live are the strongest element of this production. Mathews has married Parker’s text to vibrant melodies ranging from snappy, jazz-infused numbers in an elegant Cole Porter mode, to classic musical theatre ballads, complete with dramatic chord changes and soaring, big-finish theatrics.
All of which suits Mason’s vocal virtuosity to a tee. Her voice is a dream, her phrasing impeccable, and under Christopher Denny’s musical direction, her interpretations display all the expressiveness, precision, and agility that befit a seven-time MAC award winner. In fact, if this show were reworked as a cabaret revue, with Mason playing her own undeniably charming self, it would showcase everyone’s talents to far better advantage.
As it stands now, however, we can only applaud Mason’s considerable bravery in portraying a critic who once acidly observed, “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Upon Mason’s delivery of that infamous line, this faithful reviewer remained heroically silent—tongue bitten, mind reeling, and firmly convinced that Dottie would have reveled in the sweet, spiteful irony of it all.
THE SHAGGS: PHILOSOPHY OF THE WORLD
In early 1970, Austin Wiggin, a blue-collar worker from Fremont, New Hampshire, pulled his three young girls out of school, bought them all musical instruments (Helen, the youngest, was given a set of drums; Dot and Betty were each given an electric guitar) and forced them to become a rock and roll band. He named the trio the Shaggs because according to Austin, “everyone likes shaggy dogs,” and in a relatively short time, he got them into a studio to record an album. Years later, Rolling Stone magazine named it as one of the most influential alternative albums of all time. The tale of how the Shaggs came to record that album is remarkable not because of how good the album was, but rather because of how awful it actually was. (If you’ve never heard the Shaggs sing, I suggest you conduct a quick Google search and sample their music for yourself. It’s an experience like no other.) Austin likens them to “cotton candy and vinegar…only better.” To say they were way ahead of their time, as Frank Zappa once suggested, is extremely generous in my humble opinion.
But thankfully the play I saw on stage was not "The Shaggs: The Jukebox Musical."
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World focuses instead on the Wiggin family’s quest for fame. Sure, you’ll get to hear some of those warbled, discordant, arrhythmic songs the Shaggs are famous for (including my personal favorite "My Pal Foot Foot"), but the real appeal of this play lies in the story of fatherly love that it recounts, however quirky and delusional this father happened to be. At its core, this is a play about a man so driven to have his daughters achieve success as a means of avoiding the dreary existence he feared lay ahead for them in Smalltown, U.S.A., that he became blinded (or in this case deafened) to their biggest fault: that they could neither sing nor play instruments. It’s a story quite cleverly brought to life by Joy Gregory (book, story, and lyrics), Gunnar Madsen (story, music, and lyrics) and John Langs (story and overall direction). Although the production has its flaws (which I’ll get into soon enough) they were not enough to deter me from being really moved by the piece. I found it truly entertaining, with music that is at once both heartfelt and funny. And the acting—as well as the singing—is quite laudable.
The girls are strongly portrayed by Dana Acheson (Helen), Jamey Hood (Dot), and Amy Eschman (Betty)—each played with odd quirks and thick New England accents which only endear them to us more. These talented actresses not only do spot-on impersonations of the Shaggs, but in a fresh directorial moment (which takes place during the recording session) they provide us with a sense as to what the Shaggs sounded like to themselves and their dad (juxtaposed with how they really sounded to the sound engineers) and in so doing gave the audience a taste of what it might have been like if they had actually been able to sing.
The play also boasts a solid supporting cast, including Glenn Peters, whose offbeat comedic timing while playing the school principal and assorted townsfolk is pitch perfect; Jimmy Bennett, appealingly slimy as band promoter Charley Dryer; and Bill English, who smoothly transitiond from an awkward adolescent neighbor/friend to a self-assured soldier (heading off to Vietnam) before our eyes. I especially loved watching Tracy Sallows, who carries herself with such composure and grace on stage as matriarch Annie Wiggin—her silences really do speak volumes. Then, of course, there is Peter Friedman, who plays Austin Wiggin with just the right mix of tough love, insanity, and buried anger that I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. I sat riveted afraid that I might miss some subtle gesture or nuance that would surely reveal yet another layer of this complex character.
The overall design is in keeping with the story and the festival circuit’s natural limitations. Sets by Gary Smoot and costumes by Wade Laboissonniere are simple and understated in order to help facilitate quick changes. Lighting by Aaron J. Mason and sound design by Robbin E. Broad are less prominent features of the production but no less effective.
Only one thing kept me from being completely exuberant about the show however—and that sadly was the quality of the sound. The night I saw the show I overheard a production assistant say that the sound board cues and levels had been completely erased that morning by accident. The show went on despite this glitch and as a result the audience had to endure gaffes galore from broken mics and errant noises such as hisses and pops and unequal levels from unbalanced speakers. It definitely diverted my attention. Poor sound quality does not bode well for a musical, but I applaud the cast and crew’s adherence to the age old theatre adage "the show must go on" and trust that the sound has improved since then.