Showing posts with label theatre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theatre. Show all posts

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Show Goes On! – Maltz’s Streaming Production of ‘How to Succeed in Business’

Dance number from Maltz's production of How To Succeed in Business

Here I thought my days as a reviewer would be on a long hiatus but as a Maltz subscriber we were invited to see a streaming version of their about-to-open musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying by Frank Loesser.  As the show was already scheduled to go into previews but had to be postponed, instead the musical was staged with a four-camera setup, and a skeletal audience (presumably mostly Maltz staff) “giving patrons a thrilling and unique perspective of the musical just as it was performed.” While this limited streaming event ends March 29, the show itself will be rescheduled and all ticket holders will be given the opportunity of seeing it live.

Although we have seen “live” performances of musicals on TV, quite recently PBS’ repeat broadcast of the enjoyable 2015 English version of Sound of Music, this is my first attempt to review a streamed show.  Streaming may be part of the permanent future of the theatre, not that it will shut the doors of live performances – it never will – but I’m all in favor of streaming the productions of regional theatres on a pay per view basis, giving us the opportunity to see regional performances we cannot otherwise attend. But there are complicated permissions and union arrangements to make that happen.  Credit goes to Maltz for solving those obstacles on short notice, albeit for limited distribution.

The COVID-19 crisis is going to change everything, permanently, perhaps some of it for the better, such as streaming of regional production as suggested above.  But societal change, especially in its attitudes towards work and sexism, was already well underway.  

One of the most changed environments already is indeed the office.  The Maltz production is a classic Frank Loesser musical which satirizes office life in the 1960s.  Office life doesn’t quite exist that way anymore but it is still an intense social environment.  COVID-19, and the resulting quick adaption of companies having many of their office employees work from home, is going to make further inroads into what once occupied most of our working hours.

'Coffee Break' from How to Succeed in Business
So, it is ironic that rather than seeing and poking fun at the office of the past, on a live stage, we can now watch live stage in the comfort of our homes. Which brings up another interesting topic, how different is it from a filmed version?  The answer to that question could probably fill a book, but a filmed version endeavors to capture verisimilitude, whereas the taping of a stage version has all the earmarks of live theatre other than that important missing link of the interaction between actors and the audience, one feeding off the other.  In other words, bring me live theatre any day BUT when that is impossible, bring me streaming.

Frank Loesser was cast off by his family – his older brother a concert pianist – as they deemed Tin Pan Alley an unsuitable profession for their son.  After failing to write hit songs, he migrated to Hollywood and eventually became one of the most prolific studio songwriters, writing so many memorable songs now classics in The Great American Songbook, 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”

He only wrote four Broadway musicals, with, of course, his best known work being Guys and Dolls, arguably one of the best musicals ever.  How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961) was written towards the end of his career.  By then he was considered one of the giants of Broadway’s “Golden Age.”

I remember seeing the movie version in the late 1960s with Robert Morse, enjoyable but not really memorable.  So I was looking forward to seeing Maltz’s stage version, knowing how well this theatre group does with precisely this kind of musical.

Indeed, the streaming version breathes much needed life into the work with such great enthusiasm (film is incomparable). The choreography by Rommy Sandhu (known for work regionally across the country and on and off Broadway) brought out much of the humor in all the numbers especially “Coffee Break,” "A Secretary is Not a Toy, and "Paris Original.” He was assisted by Dennis O’Bannion who was in the ensemble and served as Dance Captain. The dancing and twenty one very talented actors /singers under the astute direction of Andy Sandberg (an award-winning director, writer, and Tony®-winning producer), make Maltz’s production a hit.

Sam Bolen as J. Pierrepont Finch
The play traces the rise of J. Pierrepont Finch, who follows a handbook that shows him how to climb the corporate ladder from window washer to the Chairman of the Board of the World Wide Wicket Company.  Sam Bolen is infectiously loveable as Finch with great comic timing and pleasant voice.  The “handbook’s” voice over is by a local TV meteorologist, Glenn Glazer, who added that perfect authoritative instruction to Finch and for the audience’s enjoyment.

Finch’s love interest, secretary Rosemary Pilkington, is dazzlingly played by Clara Cox, with a voice and personality to match the best on Broadway.  One is just mesmerized by her presence in any of her scenes.  I loved her number, ironically entitled (because of COVID-19), “New Rochelle,” in which she fantasizes about married life to Finch.

Clara Cox as Rosemary Pilkington
Chuck Ragsdale, Sam Bolen,
Blake Zolfo
Supporting roles without exception were robust but special mention goes to Blake Zolfo who portrays Finch’s nemesis, Bud Frump, who also happens to be the nephew of the boss, aptly named J.B. Biggley who is hilariously played by Johnnie Hawkins.  JB’s mistress, Hedy La Rue is performed in classic dumb dizzy dame style by Leslie Donna Flesner.

Interestingly, this is one of the few musicals in which there is no real love song, the closest being Rosemary’s reprise of “I Believe In You,” heavenly sung by Clara Cox.  But it is first sung by J. Pierrepont to himself in the mirror of the men’s room while his male coworkers are standing at the urinal their backs to the audience in shadow.  It underscores the satiric nature of most of the songs in the show, but the great Frank Loesser, with the perfect marriage of music and lyrics, makes the other songs memorable, such as "Company Way," "Brotherhood of Man," "A Secretary is Not a Toy, " and of course “I Believe In You.”

Scenic designer Adam Koch’s work and sound designer’s Marty Mets are adequate for this streaming version and probably more impressive when the live production is staged. Lighting designer Kirk Bookman was at a disadvantage as this was really a preview production and probably spots and actor’s placement were not yet in sync and were not designed for cameras zooming in. But all in all the tech team did great work on short notice and for a different medium. 

Outstanding period costumes by Leon Dobkowski give the show an authentic sixty’s look while musical director Eric Alsford’s eight person orchestra is Broadway quality.

This was a very successful and unexpected streaming experience and kudos to Andrew Kato and his team for making this happen and bringing some respite from the horror of COVID-19 through LIVE theatre.

Photos by Zak Bennett

Friday, March 13, 2020

Dark Ages Descending

This is for readers who regularly visit this blog, an explanation why my theatre reviews will cease, hopefully only for a while, and my writing in general will be curtailed.  I hope this is merely an “intermission.”  COVID-19 is the reason.  My wife and I have decided to begin immediate social distancing, and this includes the activities I’ll go as far to say defines our very existence.

Since writing a draft of this entry, everything is being appropriately cancelled anyhow. We love all things cultural, but these are extensive social activities and until this pandemic gets under control, we and presumably many of you, are staying in place, nearly hostages of our home.  It means not going to NYC, where my heart is, and the area our two sons and daughter-in-law live.  It looks almost certain we will miss celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary there with family and attending the 50th anniversary of Sondheim’s Company, one of my favorite shows.  It opened on our wedding day.  Our “kids” surprised us with tickets for that very day.  But compared to sacrifices other families will be forced to make, and some with serious economic consequences as well, it is something we accept.

Regional theatres will be cancelling their productions. They are particularly vulnerable and those of us who have subscriptions, and we have several, will be asked to donate them back to the theatre rather than asking for a refund. They need our support to survive and if you care about the future of the performing arts, it would be wise to donate and not refund.

More than three years ago, when I was writing more about the serious deficiencies in Donald Trump’s experience and psychological nature to handle the responsibilities of the Presidency, I said (Feb. 16, 2017) “I merely thought [his] behavior ‘crazy making’ but it may be more -- preparation for almost anything, totalitarian rule by the Plutocracy, religious wars, the demolition of the Republic, a nuclear winter, or all rolled up into the Trumpocalypse….Instinctively, even if we survive we all know this will not end well.  I hope I am very wrong, and that the next four years will be bigly amazing, devoid of losers, with tremendous, terrific winners, but I fear it’s not gonna happen, zero percent.”

As long as he was riding on the coattails of international agreements made over decades before, and had the rising economic prosperity that was already underway before he became President, my secret hope was we might stagger to the finish line of November 2020, no matter what he does. But he was ill prepared to handle a truly national Black Swan emergency. 

His failures relating to COVID-19 have again exposed him as a worthless incompetent, now with very serious consequences. His Oval Office speech was incoherent and lacked what we needed to hear: how the Federal government was going to provide massive support for our medical infrastructure, and the resources needed to ramp up immediate testing, more ICU beds and ventilators, protection for our medical personnel, as well as concrete guidelines for social distancing in the midst of this crisis.

As he said when this crisis was first gaining attention, he didn’t want that cruise ship off the west coast to dock because the COVID-19 “numbers would go up,” the implication that it makes HIM look bad.  If there ever was a case for impeachment it is this:  his failure to take this seriously, listen to the experts, and take actions to protect the American people, all of which is an egregious breach of his Presidential responsibilities.  So, instead of a “nuclear winter” we have a COVID-19 winter ahead.

The thrust of his speech was to build a figurative wall across the Atlantic that will somehow protect us from Europe. This virus is not only already here, but is probably many-fold pervasive than reported.  Ironically, while he was talking about keeping people out of the country from those areas (and even that was unclear), a JetBlue plane was landing from NYC at Palm Beach Airport (his and my airport too), with an elderly man who had just tested positive for COVID-19 and after feeling ill during the flight a medical emergency was declared.  After landing he and his wife were deplaned, while the other 100 passengers were delayed for 2-3 hours as I guess officials were wondering what to do.  Refuel it and make it circle as a cruise ship? In the absence of guidelines, they released all the passengers into the general population and advised them to contact local health officials if they felt ill.  We know symptoms may not manifest themselves for weeks, so all these passengers are now free to mingle throughout our area with no self quarantining or monitoring?   This is how such a virus spreads like wild fire.

Trump’s address did nothing to ameliorate this crisis.  He may even have exacerbated it as he mumbled meaningless measures from the teleprompter.  He likes to use the stock market as a barometer of his “winning.” How’s that going, Mr. President?

Meanwhile, back in the fall I had explained that my I was working on a second book which although derivative from my blog would be highly edited and focused.  This has been slowly and painstakingly moving forward although in the shadow of COVID-19 everything seems pretty meaningless.  But this is the culmination of a my work for decades, so I feel compelled to follow through, and now I will turn to it more full time.  Hopefully, by the time it is published, probably spring or summer, this crisis will be a fading memory (doubtful) and we will all be able to return to a semblance of our former BC (Before C-19) lives.

I have a final title, ISBN and a nearly final structure: Explaining It to Someone: Learning From the Arts ISBN: 978-0-578-65465-2.  It is much larger than my prior work.  Here is a tentative blurb:

“This is a companion work to “Waiting for Someone to Explain It: The Rise of Contempt and the Decline of Sense” (Lacunae Musing, 2019) which focused on the political and economic landscape at the beginning of the 21st century.  While I was writing about those issues, I was also writing about what I was personally experiencing in my cultural life, particularly the literature, music, and theatre of the same period.  If I was seeking “answers” in my previous work from politicians or economists, perhaps better clues can be found in the works of some of our most creative people.  I think of them as our greatest philosophers.

Unlike most other works of literary or theatrical examination, this one is clearly idiosyncratic.  The works covered are tied together by the unique thread of my own life and times.  Sometimes I wonder whether I chose these works, or whether they chose me. Hundreds of dramatic and literary works are reviewed, along with impressions of musical performances and composers, mostly focused on the genres of The Great American Songbook and Jazz.

Together, these give a unique view of our times as well as a much needed respite from the economic and political morass we find ourselves in at the beginning of the 21st century.”

So while my blog will be relatively quiet, this is what I’m working on.  I’m hoping to resume my theatre work when and if the coast is clear.  I also hope anyone who reads this stays safe and avoids this virus.