Showing posts with label Sondheim. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sondheim. Show all posts

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A Riotous Production of ‘A Funny Thing…’ Erupts at the Rinker Playhouse


Something for students of Sondheim.  Something for lovers of shtick.  Something for supporters of South Florida theatre.  “Something for everyone – a comedy tonight!”  MNM theatre company knocks A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum out of the Coliseum at the Rinker Playhouse, part of the Kravis complex. 


It is thought of as Sondheim’s first musical for which he wrote both the lyrics and the music.  It is and it isn’t.  His first such attempt, Saturday Night, was written eight years earlier, but it never made it to Broadway at the time (although that was where it was headed) as the Producer suddenly died and the bankroll evaporated.  It reflected his youth of being only 22, a traditional musical, so unlike his later innovative works.  Still, the unproduced musical put him on the radar scope and he was soon sought out as a lyricist, with such shows as West Side Story and Gypsy.

Sondheim however wanted to be a composer-lyricist; thus, indeed, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum IS his first Broadway credit in both capacities.  For any Sondheim fan, it is a must see musical for that reason alone.  It clearly reflects his genius as a wordsmith, although one can also detect his unique musical gift incubating, particularly in the duets.  And it is the lyrics and “the book” by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H fame) that made, and continues to make this early Sondheim work a success. It unfolds at a hilarious frenetic pace and it immediately grabs the audience’s attention with “Comedy Tonight."

The mad cap farce involves a conniving Roman slave (Pseudolus) who wants his freedom while his master (Hero) wants the virginal girl next door (Philia), and so the slave concocts a plan to achieve his master’s desire IF he will give him his freedom.  Sounds pretty straightforward except every complication known to vaudevillian theatre is thrown in the way.

So, kudos to MNM Productions for bringing Sondheim’s vintage, formative work to the Rinker Playhouse.  MNM’s mission is to “showcase talented Florida-based actors, Equity and non-Equity alike, live musicians and a top-notch crew of designers and technicians.”  With this show, mission accomplished! It is a professional production in every way, particularly due to the talented cast whose voices soared in the ensemble musical numbers.

Johnbarry Green who we have seen perform locally at the Maltz and at Palm Beach Dramaworks, plays the iconic part of Pseudolus  (Sondheim originally thought of the fast talking Phil Silvers when he was writing it, but it was Zero Mostel who first played the part on stage and in the movie so it is he who is traditionally identified as Pseudolus).  It’s a tall order and the entire production depends on Green’s ability to successfully pull off this buffoonish role and sing and dance and basically knock himself out for 2-1/2 hours.  Within minutes he has the audience laughing so that possible hurdle is comfortably cleared.  In fact, throughout the performance Green shows his comic physicality and even had to ad lib on stage when he almost fell off a bench, turning to the audience who drew in its breath in anticipation, saying “It’s OK, don’t worry!!” not missing a beat.  Only live theatre can convey such a special moment.  
Johnbarry Green as Pseudolus and Michael Scott Ross as Hysterium
Photo credit:  Amy Pasquantonio 

Green is all over the stage throughout the production, just one of the many details of the show’s complex choreography so seamlessly arranged by Laura Plyler.  But in Johnbarry Green’s performance, “a star is born.”  He has all the acting and comic chops and a rousing voice that enhances his performance.

J Savage plays Hero the young master who is so naively induced into Pseudolus’ increasingly complicated scheme with wide eyed wonder of innocence, his heart set on having the virginal Philia who was entrancingly played by the beautiful Meg Frost.

Hero’s father and mother were skillfully performed by Troy Stanley as the lecherous Senex, clearly carrying the burden of being the henpecked husband of Domina who Aaron Bower plays up as a shrew to be feared.  The pivotal role Hysterium is truly hysterically acted by Michael Scott Ross.  He is not on the stage for a moment without a laugh. Terry Hardcastle plays the owner of the house of courtesans, Marcus Lycus, who is willing to agree to any of Pseudolus’ plans as long has he is not in jeopardy.  The character Erronius is condemned to wander around the stage most of the night looking for his children who were stolen as infants by pirates.  Paul Thompson’s portrayal of the old man received greater laughs after each turn around the 7 hills surrounding Rome. And his plight is part of the show’s resolution.

Another star in the show bursts forth near the end of the first act, the arrival of Miles Gloriosus, a Roman Captain who has a claim on Phila (part of the plot’s complication).  Miles is indeed gloriously played by Sean William Davis.  (Think of the bravado of Lancelot singing “C'est Moi" in Camelot.).  Davis just oozes Majesty and sex appeal on stage, while his voice is clear and powerful.  Yet he, too, is duped by Pseudolus.

The courtesans –  “Tintinabula, Panacea, Geminae Twins, Vibrata, and Gymnasia” – are so amusingly and seductively played as their namesakes by Meredith Pughe, Alexandra Van Hasselt. Victoria Joleen Anderson, Alexandra Dow, Lauren Cluett, and Ashley Rubin respectively, while ”The Proteans” who are called upon by the characters to play different roles to move the comedic plot along are entertainingly and sometimes acrobatically played by Stephen Eisenwasser, Frank Francisco, and Elijah Pearson-Martinez.

This classic production is under the capable directorial hand of Jonathan Van Dyke who also coordinated the costumes and a special mention should be made of the original set design by Cindi Taylor and superb wigs by Justin Lore.  Lighting Designer is Rachel Weis. Sound Engineer Vincent Bryant’s work excelled: rarely have we been at a performance where every word can be clearly heard, whether said or sung, so important in this production.  Even James Danford came out of retirement briefly to serve as Stage Manager, no small feat in this show. Paul Reekie serves as a musical director of a band of six which in the intimate Rinker Playhouse sounds like a full Broadway orchestra.

I mention all these names as they are South Florida actors and theatre technicians who deserve our support, especially as together they created a “pretty little masterpiece” (as sung by Pseudolus in the song “Pretty Little Picture”).



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.







Saturday, August 5, 2017

Life is COMPANY, Sondheim’s Classic



Bobby.../ Bobby.../ Bobby baby.../ Bobby bubi.../ Robby.../ Robert darling.../ Bobby, we've been trying to call you…

This is my favorite Sondheim musical.  Yes, it’s dated, but it’s been updated.  Yes, it doesn’t measure up in some ways to some of his later works, but it stands on its own. 

So, why do I feel this way?  I think it is THE breakout musical for Sondheim, for which he wrote both the lyrics and music (not his first time, but his most successful first time).  It set the stage for everything that followed in American musical theatre.  His intricate scoring, the deep emotional, dramatic and comic connections, his ability to merge words and music, anoint him as our very own Shakespeare of the American musical stage. 

So we set off to see the MNM Production at the Rinker Playhouse which is part of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, albeit late in the production run.   Therefore I was able to see what some of my “fellow” critics had to say about the show, which I would characterize as being lukewarm, one even unfairly comparing it to the Dramaworks’ Sweeney Todd production which is concurrently playing nearby.  Such a comparison is apples to oranges (although Dramaworks’ production is the best Sweeney Todd that we’ve ever seen).  One is more like opera and the other is like a cabaret revue.  

This is a high, high energy production and MNM Production’s mission is to bring Florida’s own reservoir of considerable talent to the stage.  These are all local professionals and we who live in South Florida have to applaud and support such an effort.  Many of the cast we’ve seen before, predominately at Dramaworks.  They are highly experienced and most of the cast have great voices and terrific comic timing.

Company is also squarely set in New York City in 1970, the year Ann and I married and we were still living there.  So it speaks very directly to me.  It is not his very first NYC focused work.  His musical, Saturday night about City life (which is rarely performed) was written by him in the mid 1950s when he was just developing his craft.  It never opened at the time as the producer died.  It finally was performed in the late 1990s after Sondheim was THE name on Broadway.

Company rose out of a number of one act plays written by George Firth and was brought together by Sondheim, morphing the main character – outsiders in each -- into one person, “Bobby.”  It utilizes a series of connected songs that underscore the main theme: the foibles of marriage.  For its time it was revolutionary as so many of Sondheim musicals have continued to be.

It's the story of Bobby the bachelor who is conflicted about being married versus the stories of his friends who have problematic marriages as well as his girlfriends who have issues of their own.  Bobby is plainly confused.  It hangs out there like unresolved anxiety, right to the end.

As it was based on a series of plays that spoke for themselves, the music Sondheim wrote is not in the classic move-the-plot-along variety.  As he himself said "the only effective approach I could come up with was quasi-Brechtian songs which either commented on the action, like "Barcelona" – but never be PART of the action. They had to be the opposite of what Oscar [Hammerstein] had trained me to write, even though he himself had experimented with songs of that kind in Allegro.  I decided to hold the score together through subject matter: all the songs deal either with marriage or in one sense or another, New York City."

In reflecting on the musical in his book Finishing the Hat, he said "Chekhov wrote ‘if you are afraid of loneliness don't marry.’ Luckily I didn't come across that till long after 'Company' had been produced.  Chekhov said in seven words what it took George and me two years and two and a half hours to say less profoundly.  If I’d read that sentence, I am not sure we would have dared to write the show, and we might have been denied the exhilarating experience of exploring what he said for ourselves."

That’s the back-story to this groundbreaking musical, one that explores the loneliness of love relationships, and the importance of friends, in the most vibrant metropolis of its time.  We move through the “approach-avoidance” complex of marriage through a series of songs, so many of them now classics, and several incorporated in the widely performed Sondheim revue, Side by Side by Sondheim.

As some of the critical reviews pointed out, the actor who plays Bobby does not have an exceptional singing voice, and he has to sing some of the more moving songs, “Someone Is Waiting," “Marry Me a Little,” and "Being Alive," but he carries these on the shoulders of his acting abilities and we enjoyed his performance.  He is also supported by some of the finest singers in South Florida and so much of the show is ensemble singing and then solos or duets by Bobby’s friends and girlfriends.

The four couples in the play (Joanne and Larry. Peter and Susan, Jenny and David, and Harry and Sarah) knock it out of the park with "The Little Things You Do Together," an acerbic rebuke about marital relationships.  The husbands meanwhile leeringly hover over Bobby, singling "Have I Got A Girl for You" in the first and second acts.

There are several real show-stopping moments in this production:  Amy’s riotous, “Getting Married Today," Marta’s “Another Hundred People," capturing the city’s sense of alienation with gusto, and Joanne’s stinging, cynical piece about the empty lives of affluent women in the city, "The Ladies Who Lunch."  His girlfriends, Marta, April, and Kathy, critique his non-committal ways in a hilarious pastiche of a sister act song in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”

One of my favorite songs from the show is “Sorry – Grateful,” expressing the ambivalence of marriage, sung by Bobby’s friends, Harry,  David, and Larry when Bobby asks Harry whether he was ever sorry he got married.  It’s a perfectly measured argument, lyrically, and expressed in a waltz like rhythm.  I’m not going to include all the lyrics, but here is an excerpt, classic Sondheim: You're sorry-grateful / Regretful-happy / Why look for answers / Where none occur?  My own piano interpretation, in the less than ideal recording environment of my living room, can be seen / heard here.

Every song in the show is timeless and every performer brings his / her best to the stage in their delivery. Here is the extraordinary cast:

Robert        Robert William Johnston*
Sarah          Laura Hodos*
Harry         Wayne LeGette*
Susan         Amy Miller Brennan*
Peter          Clay Cartland
Jenny         Lindsey Corey*
David        Joshua McKinney
Amy          Leah Sessa
Paul           Josh Kolb
Joanne       Erika Scotti*
Larry         Larry Alexander*
Marta        Mallory Newbrough
Kathy        Jinon Deeb
April.        Nicole Kinzel 

*Denotes a member of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.

Bruce Linser demonstrates his considerable directing skills in this production, accentuating the comedic elements (e.g Sarah’s karate exhibition and her secret food addiction) and, with Kimberly Dawn Smith’s choreography, brings out the best of the energetic, ensemble pieces such as “Side By Side By Side” in the second act.  

Set design by Tim Bennett gives the director and cast a main stage to work on and five different platforms, sometimes all of them being utilized at the same time.  The set suggests the isolated nature of city life and the 70’s, although it is creatively brought into the present by Linser having his cast use the ubiquitous cell phone, replacing the answering machine.

The musical accompaniment is first rate, Paul Reekie directing four other musicians while playing the piano.  This is the kind of theatre that merits our appreciation and support in the future.