Showing posts with label Maltz Theatre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Maltz Theatre. Show all posts

Sunday, April 14, 2019

A Musical Week

It’s our universal language and while the political discourse is discordant, music seems to bring out our commonalities.  Our favorite musical genres are songs from Broadway, the Great American Songbook, and Jazz and so it was with much anticipation that we looked forward to last week which began with a show at the Delray Beach Playhouse, I Believe in You! – The Songs of Frank Loesser.

Ann arranged a preshow dinner at Racks Fish House off Delray’s famous (and congested) Atlantic Avenue, a happening place.  It was a balmy early April evening, with a nice breeze so we dined al fresco.  Imagine our surprise reading the appetizer menu which included Copps Island, CT oysters!  Copps Island which is connected at low tide to Crow Island is where we have taken our boat for the last 35 years during the summers, anchoring there on weekends.  So here we were, some 1,250 miles away dining on wild oysters from those very waters.  These are bottom planted as opposed to cage or floating trays and the oysters are known for “sweet briny flavor and plump meats. “  It was a nice and nostalgic start to the evening.

Delray Beach Playhouse which opened in 1947 is a community theatre featuring everything from one person acts to full scale plays.  They have a dedicated audience, we now among them.  But who knew, the playhouse is on Lake Ida, a fresh water lake right off of I95, comprising 121 acres, but seeming much larger than that as it is long and narrow.  Looking at it is reminiscent of our days on Lake George in NY and Candlewood Lake in CT as one can see similar boat houses and lake front homes.

I Believe in You! – The Songs of Frank Loesser was narrated by Randolph DelLago who has been the Resident Artistic Director of the Playhouse since 1982.  He also sings in this production.  When one thinks of Frank Loesser, one recalls the iconic Guys and Dolls, one of the great classic musicals of Broadway’s Golden Era.  It perhaps has more recognizable songs than any other musical, including those of Rogers and Hammerstein.  He only wrote four other musicals, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, being the most notable.  Songs were performed from all of these with original still scenes projected on a backdrop.  The Most Happy Fella has one of the most moving rhapsodic opera style songs ever written for the Great White Way, “My Heart is So Full of You,” one of my favorites for the piano, with an exotic bridge section of eight bars.

But Loesser, who was cast out by his family as they thought “songwriting” was beneath their dignity (his father was a piano teacher and his brother was a classical piano prodigy), found his roots in popular song in Hollywood before migrating to Broadway.  There are many memorable songs he wrote for The Great American Songbook and this show had many, such as “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” “Heart and Soul,” “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Two Sleepy People,”“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”“No Two People,” and “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” (the latter being another personal piano favorite of mine).  Along with DelLago, performances were given by Alicia Branch-Stafford, a soprano, baritone William Stafford, and Hanz Eneart who added a little cabaret dancing to the show as well as joining the ensemble in song with a comedic rendition of” Once in Love with Amy.”

Breaking up the week was a trip to Peanut Island with my friend John, a destination on the boat which will become more frequent as the water warms to bathtub temperatures.  Amazing that at one time in my life, jumping into the waters off of Copps Island into 70 degree water was refreshing but now wadding into Peanut’s current 79 degree water seems difficult!  Maybe that’s because the air temperature on Thursday was in the high 80s.  Got home late in the afternoon, just in time to clean the boat with John, shower, and get ready to go to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

There we saw West Side Story towards the end of its run, so I am not publishing a full review.  This is what the Maltz Theatre does best but, still, we were a little concerned about seeing this yet again.  Could it still possibly be fresh (although the music by Bernstein and lyrics by Sondheim are immortal)?

The short answer is a resounding yes!  I think some of the classic musicals are being looked at in a new light, due to the times and the influence of Hamilton.  Most recently this is apparent with the Circle in the Square’s current production of Oklahoma which some have criticized as a travesty, irreverent to Rogers and Hammerstein’s intent.  I’m not too sure, although that was my knee jerk reaction.  Now, thinking about it, and reading more about it, I’m willing to be persuaded and therefore we’re going to see it sometime in August.  I’ll be lining up for the chili and corn bread!

There is a dark side to Oklahoma, as in all of the R&H plays.  Just think of Billy Bigalow’s corruptibility in Carousel, or the racial tensions of South Pacific and The King and I, the lurking Nazi shadows in The Sound of Music.  These musicals were played out for the audiences of their times with relatively happy resolutions (just what was expected then).  One could cast them now in an entirely different light and why not?

In a sense, the Maltz’s interpretation of West Side Story has been so influenced.  A framing device of Hurricane Maria has been introduced.  How ironic is that, the Maria of the story picking up after Hurricane Maria, alone with her memories of Tony?  This scene reprises at the end of the show.  It was a lovely, moving touch, particularly in the light of how this terrible storm has been politicized.

And with Puerto Rican born Marcos Santana’s direction and musical staging, we have more of a take on the Sharks rather than the Jets.  The hell-bent fury of xenophobic victimization is explosively probed by Angel Lozada who plays Bernardo.  Michelle Alves performance as Anita is more than up to the easily remembered performance of Chita Rivera in that part.  Alves is every bit as dynamic as a dancer and is a very talented vocalist as well.

Not enough praise can be directed toward Jim Schubin who plays Tony and Evy Ortiz as Maria.  Schubin brings a strong sense of constant optimism and wonder to the role as well as a clear tenor voice.  Ortiz is the ideal Maria, a soprano and coloratura who is radiant in the role of Maria (she was recently on the West Side Story national tour).  They had the perfect chemistry as Tony and Maria and their duets soared.

The choreography by Al Blackstone (with additional choreography by the director), gives a hat tip to Jerome Robbins’ choreography but is original and pulsating on the Maltz stage.  It’s a smaller cast than the original musical, but one would not know it.

With the refugee crisis of our times, it was time to look at West Side Story through a different lens, and the Maltz comes through. 

And last night we attended the 1st Palm Beach International Jazz Festival, the first, we hope, of many in the future.  It is the idea of one of South Florida’s premier jazz singers, Yvette Norwood-Tiger, who has traveled the world with her interpretations of jazz classics, particularly songs sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.  She performs in six languages including English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Xhosa.

She created an afternoon and evening performance with different groups and singers.  We attended the evening performance and thus my comments are confined to that.

First up was Marlow Rosado, a Latin Jazz pianist from Puerto Rico, and his group.  Rasado is a salsero, and is imposing at the piano with his driving salsa rhythms, somewhat reminiscent of Monte Alexander.  I said to Ann that I’ve never seen a pianist who could pass as a football tight end and the physicality of his performance spoke wonders.  He posted last night’s performance on Facebook, so you can catch him there.
Next up was Eric & The Jazzers, a South Florida group of professional musicians that play swing/bebop from the great era of Duke Ellington.  Eric Trouillot also served as MC for the night’s performances, a guy from the Bronx who brought out the best of the very well represented NYC crowd (including us).

His group’s trumpet player, Yamin Mustafa, is one of the best we’ve heard and pianist, Chad Michaels, obviously has studied Oscar Peterson’s technique closely. As Mustafa said, the group’s musical selections are eclectic.

But the star of the night was clearly the evening’s organizer, Yvette Norwood-Tiger.  Yvette is a survivor of a benign yet life-threatening brain tumor because of its size and position, but had a successful operation some seven years ago.  Every time we’ve seen her she encourages the audience to “find that door opening” and for her it is singing Horace Silver’s jazz classic "Song for My Father."  Naturally, Yvette means it quite literally, thanking God for the opportunity to continue on with her unique gifts, a powerful yet sometimes subtle interpreter of the Great American Songbook. 

Backing her up musically were all the “old gang” we see almost every Sunday night at Double Roads in Jupiter, her musical director for the evening and oh-so talented pianist, also the co founder of the Jupiter Jazz Society, Rick Moore.  Along with Rick were Marty Gilman, on sax and flute, Joshua Ewers on bass and Michael Mackey on trumpet.  Marty is a multitalented musician who can play a large number of instruments at the professional level and we watched Joshua and Michael while they were still in high school, and have now grown into professional musicians in their own right.

And to bring this entry back to where it began (remember, Copps Island, in the Norwalk CT chain of islands), I learned that Horace Silver (Yvette’s tribute composer), was born in Norwalk, CT so it seems that all roads lead back to our years there.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Two Different Musical Eras

We attended concerts two nights in a row.  As it turns out, they are like the bookends in my life.

I began my love of music in my early teens, the music of rock ‘n roll.  In college my musical allegiance morphed to classical.  As I play the piano, my adult years have been consumed by the Great American Songbook, and Jazz.  As I’ve matured I’ve come to appreciate some opera and in particular the potent instrument of the human voice.

Last night we revisited a performance of one of the world’s great tenors, Emmet Cahill, who returned to the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in West Palm Beach.  Last year when I reviewed Cahill’s concert I had thought that his titanic talent warranted “a bigger boat” but nonetheless he returned to this same church and I understand why.  He began singing as a child in his home church in Ireland with his family and besides being a proud Irishman from the town of Mullingar; he is a religious young man as well.  Interestingly his love of these essential elements of his life transcends the ambition of many of his contemporaries.  Thus, he is content to allow his career to develop rather than rocketing overnight which perhaps it could if he pursued it at the expense of other values.  I have profound respect for him as a human being, not to mention as an astonishing artist.

He is also loyal to the Robert Sharon Chorale, the 84-voice-strong local community chorale which appears with him at the church, usually performing as an opening to Emmet’s solo appearance but sometimes backing him up as well.  His voice, though, needs no backup, other than his very talented accompanist, Seamus Brett, an extraordinarily gifted pianist.

The format of last night’s concert was similar to last year’s with perhaps more emphasis on liturgical and Irish pieces, but still a number of Broadway pieces so suitable for his voice such as “This is the Moment” and “Bring Him Home.”  Of course, with St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, his Irish upbringing impacted his musical selections this time around. 

Many of the pieces he sang were from his new CD Blessings of Music which includes “Be Thou My Vision, "Galway Bay," "The Gaelic Blessing," "Amazing Grace," "Ag Criost An Siol" (Christ is the Seed"), "Panis Angelicus,", "The Last Rose of Summer," "Moon River," "Danny Boy" and "How Great Thou Art."

As with last year, the audience was invited to shout out some pieces for him to sing and Seamus Brett would arrange them on the fly and Cahill performed them as if having rehearsed them for that particular concert.  I asked him to sing “Children will Listen” which he knew was from Sondheim, but said he’d better practice that.  And so I wait for Cahill to take that next step in his career.

I had selfishly asked his publicist about those plans and she said “Emmet has returned to his first musical love, opera, so don't be surprised if you hear him sing a bit of that at his concert. He's been training with a voice coach and fans will tell you Emmet's voice has more resonance now (and he sings in a higher key!). Yes, he'd love to do a Broadway musical one of these days. He told me that opera is a way to get into musical theater.”

And opera he sang, a superlative rendition of “O Sole Mio – which he also performed last year, but this time with a discernible intensity of voice and clarity which elicited another rousing standing ovation.

And as he said, he would not be let out of the auditorium on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day without performing “Danny Boy” which I managed to get a brief clip of and posted on my Twitter feed.

Emmet, you had us at the words “glad to be back” and we gladly look forward to your next appearance here and will watch your career with interest and amazement.  You are a unique talent, a captivating personality, and are truly blessed with a golden voice.

It’s hard to segue from Emmet to the dynamic denizens of Rock ‘N Roll, so apologies to Emmet’s fans, but welcome to those who remember the 50’s.  The night before seeing Emmet I experienced that other end of the “bookend” referred to at the beginning of this entry, and that is seeing One Night in Memphis at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.  This included the original cast members of the Broadway hit Million Dollar QuartetIn effect it's a concert rendition of the show which was about a legendary one night session in Memphis at the birth of Sun Records, a jam session featuring Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. 

Carl Perkins was my first favorite as a kid, a cross over performer of rockabilly and country.  His big hits were the original rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” (before Elvis’ version), “Honey Don’t,” “ Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby” and he was quickly followed by Jerry Lee Lewis  (“Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On,” “Great Balls of Fire”), Johnny Cash ("Folsom Prison Blues," "Ring of Fire") and of course the most famous of them all, Elvis Presley (“Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up”).  These are but a FEW of the songs performed by the four talented guys in the show. 

Normally, I don’t seek out performers who are imitators of famous entertainers, but will make an exception for this show as with every passing moment they seemed to BECOME the originals.  This particularly applied to the performer who played Elvis, as he was under the most scrutiny and at first your senses reject him as Elvis, but quickly he won over the audience.  I still have Elvis’ first 33-1/3 record he recorded for RCA.  My wife, Ann, actually saw him in person in 1956 at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta as an Elvis crazed teen!

John Mueller who played Carl Perkins was particularly effective as his guitar playing accompanied all the performers throughout the show.  Blair Carman as “the Killer” is a very talented pianist, convincing as Jerry Lee Lewis, even “tickling” the ivories with the heel of his shoe.  Shawn Barker plays the "Man in Black," Johnny Cash and in one song manages to sing a lick an octave below bass.  Truly, a crowd-pleaser.  Finally, Brandon Bennett as Elvis undergoes that transformation before our eyes.  And boy can he twist and shake!

Heartfelt thanks to all the many talented artists in this world who bring the joy of music into our lives.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Maltz Theatre Stages a Cutting-Edge Production of A Doll’s House Part II

Knock. Knock.  No answer.  Bang. Bang!  Hello, is anybody there?

You bet.

The family you left behind 15 years ago, Nora, slamming the door heard around the world.  They have it in for you.  And you in turn have to deal with some of the same issues, being an independent woman living in a man’s world and now new ones of your own making.  You didn’t think you could come back to ask for a favor without consequences, did you?

Nominated for eight Tony Awards, Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part II is the most produced play throughout the country this season.  Maltz Theatre’s production is a welcome addition to the bandwagon, and for South Florida Theatre goers in particular.

The play’s Director J. Barry Lewis commented, “While A Doll’s House was written nearly 140 years ago, it has a contemporary flair that speaks to today’s audiences. It is at its heart a very modern story that deals with selfishness, selflessness, growth and compromise. A Doll’s House, Part II is not a sequel to the original work, but more of a thought experiment of ‘what if.’ It presents a very sophisticated argument about what we owe to ourselves and to each other.”

J. Barry Lewis has taken this highly-charged intellectual tour de force and framed it in period dress but with a contemporary off kilter set.  The stage itself reflects that theme, the soaring white stucco walls, the minimalism of furniture, the stage floor sloping downwards into the audience’s lap and scene changes electrified by cringing amplification and visual identification.  The audience has entered Nora’s nightmare world.

Carol Halstead as Nora returns “home” on a self-serving mission.  She boasts to her former maid/confidant, Anne Marie, about becoming a highly successful author, with all the connections and money anyone could desire.  Nora writes books about women, their bondage in and the superfluous nature of marriage.
Carol Halstead and Mary Stout Photo by Zak Bennett

Halstead stalks about the stage, highly satisfied with herself as Nora, while explaining (or bragging about) the last 15 years to the maid who not only raised her as a child, but has raised Nora’s three children as well.  

Mary Stout, Photo by Zak Bennett
 Anne Marie is hilariously played by Mary Stout, who welcomes Nora on the one hand, but has her own reservoir of anger for everything she’s sacrificed for Nora and Torvald (including giving up her own child to keep that job), and Stout begins to wear that on her sleeve.  It is she who explosively uses the F word, quite a few times in fact, indicating that although this sequel is supposedly taking place in late 19th century Norway, the dialogue is strictly contemporary.  It is in perfect harmony with the surrealistic staging and the plays’ theme.

Nora has returned to her marital home for a simple request: to ask Torvald to properly file their divorce papers.  She had naturally assumed that had been done when she left as she went about her life as a single woman, signing contracts, having lovers (which Nora proudly enumerates), until one of her anti-marriage books led to a Judge’s wife leaving him. Once the Judge discovered her true identity, that in essence she was still a married woman and as such could be incarcerated for signing contracts, not to mention having affairs, he made demands that she refute her work or be exposed.  In essence, blackmail.  Thus, Nora has to become once more a supplicant to her husband.

Not so simple Anne Marie explains, “A lot of people thought you were dead.”  In effect, it’s awfully hard to get a divorce from a dead person and for Torvald to do that would expose him to the fact that the assumption which he never publicly denied, could even threaten his high level banking position.

Indeed, a complication. What would a drama be without one or in this case several which keeps the audience guessing?

Suddenly Torvald unexpectedly returns home for some papers.  Nora wasn’t prepared to make the request at that very moment, but after his stunned realization that the person standing before him is really Nora, he forces her to explain why she’s returned.  Torvald is played by Paul Carlin, with the confidence befitting his position as a highly respected member of society, as well as the very perplexed disheartened husband of a wife who inexplicably walked out on him 15 years ago, and with no explanation, no discussion.  Now she has some ‘splainin’ to do.

So the fencing match begins.  He refuses to grant her request for the reason Anne Marie has explained. 
Carol Halstead and Paul Carlin Photo by Zak Bennett

What is Nora to do?  The thought of agreeing to the Judge’s demands is an anathema to her.  In another tete-a-tete with Anne Marie, who is scheming for her own benefit, perhaps to retire or at least not lose her job, she suggests that Nora approach her daughter, Emmy, to intercede on her behalf in asking her father to grant the divorce.  Apparently Emmy has clout with Torvald.

No, Nora, says, I didn’t come to meet or involve Emmy but then her seemingly lack of alternatives make her relent.

Mikayla Bartholomew
Photo by Zak Bennett
Suddenly, there is a one-on-one scene with Emmy who we soon learn is a chip off the old block.  She could be Nora in her youth.  She’s in love and wants to marry! -- a young man from Torvald’s bank.  Emmy is deliciously played by Mikayla Bartholomew, who radiates that confident bloom of youth with the smarts of the mother she never really knew.  She is standoffish but civil, genuinely trying to help her mother as she has her OWN agenda.  This is yet another ingredient in the bubbling broth.  She knows that if Torvald is taken down at the bank, her impending marriage might be in jeopardy.

First, though, mother and daughter have to debate the merits of marriage (or demerits according to Nora).  Nora is confident that marriage is not only not needed in society but that in 20 or 30 years from now (the late 19th century being the “now”) all these issues of marriage and women’s inequality will have been settled.  Sure, Nora.  Emmy on the other hand, to her mother’s horror, “wants to be possessed.” 

So, there you have it, another stalemate, although Emmy gives Nora yet a third alternative.  Forge the death records at city hall (Emmy conveniently knows someone there, one of the many stretches of plot Lucas Hnath uses to move the story and the complications forward).  After you are “dead” disappear for a while as you did 15 years ago, going to your own fortress of solitude.  Nora had confessed that when she first left she lived alone “up north” until the “voices in her head” dissipated.

Eureka!  Saved by the bell, Torvald stumbles home, bloodied, holding a piece of paper which he reveals is the divorce.  He’s a good guy after all!  Why he is bloodied and the choice Nora now has to make I’ll leave for when you see this audacious play.  The author has us all guessing until the very end.

Suffice it to say, this production has it all, comedy, suspense, empathy, and some of the finest acting you’ll see this season.  In fact, what may make this play especially distinctive, besides the pedigree it attempts to follow, is how all four characters come across as likeable.  There is no one who you can call a hero or a villain.  They are all believable and engaging.

Of course the acting accolades have to go to Carol Halstead as Nora.  She’s on stage full time in this intermission-less fast paced production and Halstead IS the Nora we have imagined, beautiful and brash.  Mary Stout as the maid, Anne Marie, is the perfect comic foil, mesmerizing to watch on stage. Paul Carlin as Torvald personifies the man we’d expect for this part, knowing the hurt he harbors, while Carlin mightily tries to keep his dignity. His anguish in learning that one of Nora’s novels is about their very own marriage and how he doesn’t come out too well is affecting (although laughingly Nora had to “kill off” the heroine to make it acceptable – a bit of foreshadowing for one of her own alternatives).  Mikayla Bartholomew is self-assured as Emmy, passionate in her own beliefs, but always under careful control of her emotions, the perfect foil for the very arguments that Nora has lived and written, not hesitating to say to Nora “I’m better at life because you were gone.” Ouch.

J. Barry Lewis directs this parlor drama for the comedy and the messaging.  He moves his characters into interesting positions among the sparsely decorated stage to bring out both their character and the “debate.”  The play moves steadily, like the second hand of a clock, striking a strident note as scenes change, the characters we’re about to see in that scene briefly stenciled in lights on the back wall across the door.  And when I say “strident” I mean electrifying, like the dialogue.  Yet Lewis knows when his characters must pause to give the audience time to take in a look or a pained response of a character.

His technical crew, particularly lighting designer Kirk Bookman and sound designer Marty Mets play a significant role in those scene changes.  Scenic designer Anne Mundell has created the perfect space and feeling for this contemporary play based in the 19th century.  Costume designer Tracy Dorman and wig designer Gerard Kelly provide that touch of verisimilitude against the backdrop of the surrealistic set

A Doll’s House Part II is a must see at the Maltz Theatre.  It is also a reminder why live theatre is so, so, much better than the ubiquitous streamed entertainment to which we are now subjected.  This play and production is intellectually engrossing and comedic as well.