Showing posts with label Westport Country Playhouse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Westport Country Playhouse. Show all posts

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Hershey Felder BECOMES Irving Berlin in this One Man Tour de Force

The final performance at the Westport Country Playhouse of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” was last night and we were lucky enough to be there.  It was a poignant and persuasive reminder that this nation is a nation of immigrants.   

It took a Jewish immigrant from Russia to write such classics as “God bless America “and “White Christmas” two of the top selling pieces of music of all time.

Felder traces Irving Berlin’s life having written not only the Book for this production, but he acts, sings, and as an accomplished concert pianist, accompanies himself.  It is a one man theatrical triumph with a beautiful set (a representation of Berlin's New York City Beekman Place apartment) and lighting by the Westport Country Playhouse where we’ve attended performances for more than 40 years during the summers..

In addition to those two classics previously mentioned, Felder’s bio-musical tells Berlin’s story in a score of songs, including “Alexander's Ragtime Band",” My Wife's Gone to the Country - Hooray! Hooray!” (Seriously, Berlin could make up a song just about anything and Felder engages the audience with this one, allowing us to sing the “Hooray! Horray! refrain), ”Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”, “What’ll I Do?”, “Blue Skies”, “Say It Isn’t So”,”Puttin’ On the Ritz”, “Supper Time” (a song about racial violence, sung by Ethel Waters) and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from one of his most memorable and enduring Broadway hit musicals, Annie Get Your Gun (which he was enlisted to write at the last moment by the Gershwin Brothers as the intended composer, Jerome Kern, had died).  Incidentally, Felder does a great Ethel Merman imitation!

Felder traces Irving Berlin’s life in chronological order starting with his birth somewhere in the Russian empire, his family’s escape from the Russian pogroms and their arrival at Ellis Island when was only five years old, and his beginnings in music as a singing waiter.   

He had two marriages, his first wife dying soon after their marriage, and his second from one of the wealthiest families in America -- a marriage to which her family of course strongly objected.  He lost his only son in his infancy and had three daughters.  These facts are woven into the incredible musical accomplishments of his life.   

The evening is further enhanced thanks to the astute direction of Trevor Hay who cleverly embeds scenes from movies, still photographs and other emotionally relevant images and sounds on a large “mirror” and wall behind Felder.

But foremost is Felder’s spirited and talented portrayal of Berlin – in song, in piano performance, and acting, capturing the essence of the man and an era, underscoring the importance of Berlin to the Great American Songbook.  Indeed, as Jerome Kern said “he IS American music.”

Remarkably, his composition and performance abilities were all self-taught.  He wrote all his songs in F Sharp and they had to be transposed for most performances.  It is a most unlikely story, the immigrant songwriter who couldn’t read music and ultimately wrote some of the most iconic American songs.  Felder’s story emphasizes his contributions to both the WW I and WW II war efforts.  Simply put, he loved America!  

Berlin’s times, of course, had its own societal afflictions and horrors, and except for a few brief moments here and there, referring to the depression, and racial segregation and prejudice, and a little about anti-Semitism from his father in law, Felder mostly avoids those issues.  But this is meant to be more of a “feel good” bio-musical, and the author/performer sticks to his mission.

Felder’s ability to tell this story as an integrated musical performance has, I think, matured over the years.  About 15 years ago we saw him perform his first bio-musical Gershwin Alone at The Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach which ironically has now been transformed into the home that Dramaworks now occupies.  We loved that show as well, but I recall it was not so much a biographically integrated theatre piece as this one of Berlin as it was more reliant on Felder’s considerable talent as a concert pianist.  His Irving Berlin show tells the life story seamlessly through his acting, singing, and playing.  In other words, it meets the test of the modern Broadway musical although only one person, but, oh, what a remarkably talented person he is.

The thousands of songs Berlin wrote during his long career, which included more than a score of Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals tapped into feelings and tunes that appealed to his generation and succeeding ones, and Felder frequently engages the audience to sing along.  As he said after the show in a casual Q & A, there are basically three players in his piece, he, the piano and the audience.

After more than 1-1/2 hours without intermission and a standing ovation, he still had the enthusiasm and energy to spend another half hour with the audience amusingly fielding questions.  It was like talking to your best friend, but one with exceptional gifts.

We look forward to his future works, including a new play featuring the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  Sign us up!

And so after such a satisfying evening we followed the winding roads of Westport back to our boat as a thunderstorm was gathering in the west.  Luckily, we beat it “home.”

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Another Week of Wonder

How Samuel Pepys was able to keep up a detailed daily journal for some 10 years is incredible.  He was the Lou Gehrig of bloggers.  Not that I’m in competition, but his observations were all over the place, ranging from the profound to the commonplace, very personal as well as observational on significant developments during his time.  In an age of social networking though, with attendant privacy issues, I continue to walk the line.  And, as I am but one of an endless number of bloggers, I increasingly find myself writing more for my own needs, a form of an auxiliary memory bank.

Right now I’m sitting in a hotel room on NYC’s Upper West Side. The last entry was written while still on the boat.   Lots of water under the proverbial hull since then, one wave in particular, but I’ll take this temporally. 

Before leaving the boat we returned to the Westport Country Playhouse to see The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck.  This is a three handed farce / comedy which I would wage actors LOVE to perform.  In this production are Eric Bryant, Brett Dalton, and Andrea Syglowsik (who plays the little appreciated stage manager, a function many of us theatre goers take for granted, perhaps as important as the Director).  It’s a play within a play, supposedly an adaptation of a Kafka short story but in fact a Kafkaesque portrayal of life in the theatre itself.  Wish I had photos and more time to spend on this production, but if the play comes your way, or if you are in the Westport area, see it (through Sept 1).

Then onto the main event.  Our son, Jonathan, was married last Sunday to the daughter we always dreamed of having, Tracie.  It was an elegant but simple affair, the ceremony overlooking the water where we have spent countless days.  It was an informal, non-denominational event, casual, no jackets, and no ties.  This is the way they wanted it and we wholeheartedly approved! 

The wedding deserves its own detailed entry, and for that we must await our return to Florida.   It was a wonderful day, sharing it with family, old friends, and new friends, and Tracie’s parents, Alan and Pat.  More later.

After the wedding we were going to go home, but why not use the opportunity to spend some time in our old neighborhood of the upper West Side?  Two weeks in paradise, our hotel at 79th and Amsterdam, not far from where we both lived when we worked in the City.

There is a cornucopia of little reasonably priced al fresco restaurants here with a sea of humanity passing by, every ethnic group, young people, babies galore, dogs shitting on the sidewalks, but people picking  up after them, the blaring of horns, long walks early in the morning while Ann is having her coffee and getting ready for the day’s activities.

I’ve walked over to Central Park and up and down Columbus, Amsterdam, and Broadway.  Love the pulse of the upper WS and the fact that some markets are open 24 hours.  I could live like this.  I have recaptured my NYC walking gait of almost 50 years ago, maintaining the necessary speed to traverse cross-town blocks without having to wait for a red light.  I know that might sound silly, but it’s imprinted in my reptilian brain.  When I lived here I wish I had known that it was my moment, but time seemed endless and this neighborhood was not yet gentrified.  One lived here just to go to work.

It is impossible to recount everything we’ve done since being in the City this last week, but I’ll reference a few highlights.

Last year we focused on the theatre, but this year more on sites and museums.  Nonetheless, one of our first nights here we saw The Band’s Visit.  No time to do a “review” but I can well understand its several Tony Awards.  It had such an inspirational message, with the power of music to unite.  It starts slowly and gathers momentum.  Musicians perform on stage and in the pit.  Although the music is decidedly Middle Eastern, I could detect stains of melodies which reminded me of some of those in the movie La La Land.  Just a few bars here and there and when I’m home and at my piano, I intend to identify them.

One day we took the B train (subway hasn’t changed much since we lived here decades ago, other than the price and they’re now air conditioned) downtown to Grand Street. 

The D train went by as we waited for the B.

There were three reasons for this day trip.  First was to tour the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, choosing their Shop Keepers tour as it focuses first on my German heritage, and then on Ann’s Jewish heritage.  Their site on line provides all the details so I am not going to go into them, other to say one could make this an all day visit with the other available tours.

Some time ago the Tenement Museum had contacted me about recreating my great grandfather’s photography studio which was established at nearby 143 Bowery in 1866.  Unfortunately, nothing came of that.  But while downtown I wanted to see the building which is still there today, although under constant renovation. 

It was strange standing in the vestibule, probably on the very floor my great grandfather walked.  The photography business survived some 120 years although it later moved to 100 5th Avenue.

Then, how could we not have a late lunch at Russ & Daughters while there?  Here I’ll supply some detail, having shared a pickled herring trio on pumpernickel, potato latkes with sour cream & applesauce, a scooped bagel with nova smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomato, onion and capers and finished with blintzes with fruit compote & sour cream. 

While Ann drank a white Spanish wine with the meal, I could not resist the beverage of my youth, a chocolate egg cream.  Ironic, there is no egg and no cream in the drink, just some chocolate syrup, a splash of milk and lots of seltzer.  As a kid it was what you ordered when you couldn’t afford chocolate malt, which was most of the time.

Yesterday we went to Downton Abbey: The Exhibition which is soon closing.  We had watched each and every episode over the last few years and even visited the castle in Scotland where their initial Christmas show was filmed.  Now we understand there will be a movie to continue the series.  Can’t wait.

The exhibit is incredibly thorough, on three floors, holograms of the major actors speaking to you, and virtually every costume designed for the show, as well as much of the furniture.  I was particularly impressed by the detail, right down to telegrams that were read on the air, but existed in the exact form they would have appeared at the time.  Here we are “with the family.”

Afterwards, we ate an early dinner / late lunch at the nearby Brooklyn Diner, sharing a pastrami sandwich -- as it was made in the days of Ebbets Field, exactly the period the Diner tries to capture.

As this is undoubtedly the last entry for this month, a brief political observation about Mr. Manafort and Mr. Cohen.  They can’t possibly be guilty as Trump appoints only the best people!  At least 33% of the public still believe that.  Add to the pot the admission of the National Enquirer about their role.  Their influence was as pernicious as Russia’s on the election, all condoned by an unknowledgeable, self-centered “celebrity” WE elected President.  How much longer will the GOP allow him to go on before destroying our country and any sense of respect for the office of the President?

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Whirlwind Theatre Week

From classic farce, to Shakespearean comedy, to a tragic love story, from the Westport Country Playhouse, to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival on the grounds of Boscobel, to the Imperial Theatre in NYC, it has been a whirlwind week of theatre, the commonality being relationships of men and women and some of the most glorious acting and staging we’ve ever seen in such a concentrated time period.

Last week we saw A Flea in Her Ear, a new version of Georges Feydeau’s classic early 20th century farce at the Westport Country Playhouse where we’ve been going for some 40 years now.  Although the old playhouse has been renovated, it still retains its old time charm as their collection of playbills of yesteryear attest, such as this one which featured Tyrone Power.

And, under the artistic direction of Mark Lamos who also directed this particular production, the old WCP is in good hands.  Its new doorways beckon its patrons.

A Flea in Her Ear is such an ambitious, interesting selection, made possible by a co-production with the Resident Ensemble Players from the University of Delaware, 14 actors in perfect harmony, choreographed with such precision, that the laughter was non-stop.  It’s been a long time since I laughed so hard at a show which, at its heart, is nothing more than intended to do just that.

The acting made it something special.  How often have you been at a three act play with two intermissions, which seemed to pass in a flash?  Michael Gotch played an unforgettable Don Carlos de Histangua and whenever he was on stage, laughter was uncontrollable.  That does not mean to distract from any of the other players, all pros at the top of their game, as was the technical staff of the Westport Country Playhouse.  We’re so grateful for our summer visits to Connecticut, and to our old home town of Westport which continues to keep this jewel of a theatre in mint condition.

Three days later we went up to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel in Garrison, NY.  This is outdoor theatre is in a large, well appointed tent, a sand floor for a stage and some of the most breathtaking views.  Before the show begins, the grounds make an ideal setting for a picnic.  As the production begins, the sun fades to twilight setting just to the right of West Point on the other side of the Hudson in the distance.  In fact the players emerge over the lawn and some of the action takes place there, although the play proceeds in the tent.

From farce to comedy. The Taming of the Shrew must be close to the way the bard intended except for all the modern references, including even some music of the Village People.  Once again theatre magic emerges from some clever choreography and a group of ensemble players who are deeply immersed in Shakespeare’s intent.

These are not easy tickets to get.  Plan in advance.  In fact, Ann and I could not get good seats together but fortunately the people sitting in back of me saw us chatting and as Ann went to her seat, they offered us the two front row seats as their friends had booked them and last minute had to cancel out.  But as the show began we learned why they preferred the second row, as the actors frequently interact with those in the front row, so it was not unusual for one to sit next to Ann, take her bottle of water, look through her program, even commenting on it, all in fun of course and it just added to the immeasurable pleasure of seeing Shakespeare performed in this setting.

Liz Wisan played Kate with a fiery demeanor, but Biko Eisen-Martin who played Petruchio, usually in torn jeans and an undershirt, had the cunning and patience to wear her down.  Comedy is different from farce, the latter designed for belly laughs while Taming’s  comedic elements brought out some of  Shakespeare ‘s  more serious observations  regarding male - female relations of his times (the “Me Too” movement might not wholeheartedly approve of Kate’s final relenting to her taskmaster’s Pavlovian training, but all is in fun).

Like the Westport Country Playhouse’s presentation, this show is performed by a talented ensemble that performs four other plays in rotating repertory.  Everyone in the cast is perfectly fitted into the director’s take on the show.  It was more than theatre; it is an experience when performed in the open air, in a tent, after an early evening picnic.

Last year we were part of the picnic festivities, but we’re getting a little too old to spread out a blanket or to cart chairs so we had an early evening dinner at the nearby the Bird and Bottle, an inn which has operated since 1751 and used to be a stage coach stop between New York and Albany.  The food and ambiance were special.

But the highlight of “our theatre week” was going into New York City yesterday to the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.  As soon as we heard of the serendipity that it was going to be performed while we would be in the area we booked tickets, front row, as we did not want to miss a word or even a mannerism of the performers.  It is the kind of show that one only wants to see on a Broadway stage, although there have been good scaled down or concert versions. 

It’s hard to say that one has a “favorite” R&H show, sort of like saying of your children, one is the favorite.  But when I play their music on the piano, I seem to gravitate to Carousel or The King and I, although South Pacific and Oklahoma are in the mix too.  Maybe my preference for Carousel is partially because it takes place in New England, or the “Carousel Waltz”, a rousing piece of musical composition, or the incredible comic/moving piece, “Mr. Snow.”  All the songs fit perfectly in the book but the one weak song, and I think it is simply our times, verses when the musical was written, is the (now) somewhat schmaltzy “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which unfortunately, is the emotional finale. Still, it works.

“Soliloquy” which concludes the first act is perhaps the longest solo in all Broadway repertoires, one I’m constantly seeking out for piano time.  Joshua Henry, who plays the wayward Billy Bigelow in this production and sings his parts with powerful gusto, performs this song a little too quickly.  I simply feel it needs to be finessed in all its normally allocated time.  Perhaps this is his take or Jack O’Brien’s direction, I don’t know, but I missed the pauses, or even the phrasing which some have brought to the song, including Frank Sinatra, who’s voice cannot hold a candle to Henry’s, but he knew how to sell the emotional content.

There.  The end of picky criticism as one has to judge a performance of Carousel by its gestalt.  The orchestration is per Richard Rogers’ intent by Jonathan Tunick and a 30 piece orchestra under the solid Musical Supervision of David Chase brings out the highs and the lows.  The singing is splendid, the voices soaring, and how could they not with Renee Fleming among the leads?

I’ve heard some criticism that the dance portions of the play were not the Agnes de Mille’s original.  Given what Justin Peck accomplished with his award-winning choreography, transparent and perfect, it is hard to accept that criticism.  After all, every artist has his/her take.  Look at the liberties the Hudson Valley players took with Shakespeare, only to arrive at the same destination.  Maybe I’m  not being impartial as Peck once worked with the Miami City Ballet and one of the performers in the Carousel ensemble is Leigh-Ann Esty who Ann actually watched “grow up” in the Miami City Ballet over the last decade.  Ann adored watching her every move and avidly enjoyed her perform in one of the greatest musicals of all time on the Broadway stage.

An outstanding cast, a classic musical, a full orchestra, and many of the best technical people in the business, make this production so memorable, even if I have to leave the theatre humming “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” after wiping away the requisite tears.

So after meeting our son, Jonathan, and his fiancĂ©e, Tracie (the BIG event in only two plus weeks), for a dinner adjacent to Bryant Park, we scurried back to Grand Central and from there to our boat, our home away from home.  This morning my daily walk took me to Shorefront Park and the placid water of the Norwalk Harbor to reflect on the wonderful theatre of the past week and to think of writing this entry.

Saturday, September 2, 2017


A return to our Connecticut roots would not be complete without attending a play produced by the Westport Country Playhouse where we’ve gone over the summers for some forty years.  The playhouse retains its essential “country” character although the old wooden bench seats are gone (thankfully) and air conditioning has been introduced (in fact too air conditioned), but the essential mission of presenting the highest caliber theatre has been retained.  The play we saw – Appropriate -- just closed, so writing a full-blown review is not my intent.  For that, there is always the reliable New York Times – a review of the play when it opened Off Broadway in 2014.

Without having seen that performance I imagine the Westport Country Playhouse’s production is every bit as successful,

The play was, as the author admits, “appropriated”  in some way from a number of the finest American family dramas of our times.  In particular there is attribution to Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, and Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County”.  And to say the play is derivative of such works, to me, is not a criticism but a compliment.  Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ dialogue is really a new voice in American theatre and even though every family may be unhappy in its own way, eventually it all boils down to dreams deferred or unrealized and the blame that hangs heavily in rare family reunions.  When that reunion is over the death of a patriarch, and there is a dark secret that explodes on the family, as it does on the adult children, Toni, Bo, and Franz, the stage is literally set for conflict.  And when you take your seat, the chaos of the gloomy stage foreshadows of what will unfold.

I was amazed at Jenkins’ ability to draw such well defined characters and to write such potent dialogue.  There is even a “fight director” for the play as verbal accusations, not only become loud, but physical as well.  And the three siblings are not the only ones caught in the fray; there is an aggrieved spouse, a new age girlfriend, and children of the spouses.  The dysfunction is multi-generational. No one escapes the tragedy, which is eerily heightened by a decaying ancestral Arkansas family home (think Tennessee Williams), the increasing intensity of the sound of cicadas, and the suggestion of ghosts haunting the property.  And of course, the secret,  the inexplicable discovery of a photo album containing pictures of lynching’s among their father’s property (in addition to the home being on the border of a white graveyard with stones, and unmarked graves of blacks on the other side):  the original American sin and their father’s potential complicity confounds and divides the family further.

The Westport Country Playhouse has spared no expense in scenic design, lighting, and sound.  They recognize Jacobs-Jenkins as an astute dramatist who is at the beginning of an important, noteworthy playwriting career.  We were fortunate to catch this production.  This is what great theatre is all about and we will be watching for future works by this talented and gifted writer.