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Poll: Best Cast Recording of 2017

It’s no secret that original cast albums were the gateway drug for many lifelong theater addicts. Just ask Lin-Manuel Miranda or Todrick Hall.

Choose your favorite recording from among the 10 below, listed alphabetically, which were released in 2017.
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#AChristmasStoryLive on Fox. Ranking Live TV Musicals

When A Christmas Story is broadcast live tonight on Fox (starting at 7 p.m. ET), a reworked version of the Broadway musical by Pasek and Paul, it’ll be the latest example of a trend that began four years ago, with NBC’s live broadcast of The Sound of Music starring Carrie Underwood.

How has this new trend/tradition fared?

Below is a ranking of nine of these live musicals, with links to my recaps/ reviews (and/or features or photo galleries), and the shows’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes.

Update: Rotten Tomatoes has now included A Christmas Story, and it isn’t pretty. Preliminary reports also reveal the show had the lowest viewership of any of the live musicals since 2013.

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The Lion King Turns 20 on Broadway

Today is the 20th anniversary of the opening of “The Lion King.” Now the third-longest running show in the history of Broadway, the musical is worth celebrating.

 

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Sondheim Originators on His Advice to Them

Len Cariou, one of the five performers who recently reminisced about having originated roles in musicals by Stephen Sondheim, recalls getting the script for “Sweeney Todd” and thinking “You’ve got to be kidding!”  At the end of the first preview, although it was plagued by technical glitches, Sondheim came backstage and exclaimed about the audience: “The understood it! They f— understood it,” and performer and composer hugged. By that time Cariou had long since come around: “We realized this was one of the great musicals of all time, a work of genius.”

Cariou and the others — Harvey Evans, Pamela Myers, Kurt Peterson and Teri Ralston, who variously originated roles in “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Sweeney Todd,” (and performed in the original “West Side Story” and “Gypsy”)  — gathered over the weekend to talk for 90 minutes about their experiences with the composer who changed their lives. The video below is an 18-minute excerpt, answering the question: What advice did Sondheim give you?

“I don’t remember his giving us too many notes,”says Harvey Evans, who performed in the original Broadway productions of West Side Story, Gypsy, Anyone Can Whistle and Follies. “I wish he had given me more personal help.” But he did give them stories.

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Google Celebrates West Side Story

“West Side Story” opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957. To celebrate its 60th anniversary, Google Arts & Culture is presenting a virtual exhibition that explains its history, profiles its makers, assesses its impact, and showers us with imagery  (some of it digitized for the first time).The online collection was created in partnership with Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Museum of the City of New York, and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Below is a glimpse (Click on any photograph to read the captions supplied by Google.). Check out Google Arts and Culture’s whole West Side Story exhibition.

 

A 360-video of “Cool”, one of the most popular songs of the musical, performed at the Knockdown Center in Queens, NY as part of Carnegie Hall’s, The Somewhere Project.

NYMF Awards for Excellence 2017

Errol and Fidel, Generation Me, and Georama were among the big winners of the 2017 New York Musical Festival Awards for Excellence. Freedom Riders won for both outstanding music and “social relevance and impact.”

The complete list below:

OUTSTANDING MUSIC
Winner: Richard Allen and Taran Gray, Freedom Riders

OUTSTANDING BOOK
Winner: Julie Soto, Generation Me

OUTSTANDING LYRICS
Winner: Matt Schatz with Additional Lyrics by Jack Herrick, Georama: An American Panorama Told on 3 Miles of Canvas

OUTSTANDING OVERALL DESIGN
Winner: Jason H. Thompson, Whitney Locher, Scott Neale, Ann Wrightson, Georama: An American Panorama Told On 3 Miles Of Canvas

OUTSTANDING MUSICAL ARRANGEMENTS AND ORCHESTRATIONS
Winner: Doug Oberhamer, Errol and Fidel

OUTSTANDING CHOREOGRAPHY
Winner: Justin Boccitto, Errol and Fidel

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE IN A LEADING ROLE
Nancy Anderson, THE FOURTH MESSENGER
Milo Manheim, GENERATION ME

Brian Charles Rooney, MISS BLANCHE TELLS IT ALLOUTSTANDING

PERFORMANCE IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Randy Blair, GEORAMA: AN AMERICAN PANORAMA TOLD ON 3 MILES OF CANVAS
George Psomas, ERROL AND FIDEL
Nattalyee Randall, THE GOREE ALL-GIRL STRING BAND

OUTSTANDING ENSEMBLE
GENERATION ME. Cast includes Addyson Bell, Jenna Bergman, Laila Drew, Ian Ferrell, Mateo Gonzales, Brett Hargrave, Celia Hottenstein, Milo Manheim, Will Meyers, Julia Nightingale, Anthony Norman, Dante Palminteri, Oscar Revelins, Anabella Ronson-Benenati, Deandre Sevon

OUTSTANDING DIRECTION
West Hyler, GEORAMA: AN AMERICAN PANORAMA TOLD ON 3 MILES OF CANVAS

BEST MUSICAL SPONSORED BY PLAY-BY-PLAY
GENERATION ME –Book by Julie Soto; Music by Will Finan; Lyrics by Julie Soto; Story by Julie Soto & Ryan Warren

OUTSTANDING INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE AWARDS:
Janet Aldrich, BEN, VIRGINIA, AND ME (THE LIBERACE MUSICAL)
Sydia Cedeño, ERROL AND FIDEL
Ian Ferrell, GENERATION ME
Julia Nightingale, GENERATION ME
Anabella Ronson-Benenati, GENERATION ME
PJ Griffith, GEORAMA: AN AMERICAN PANORAMA TOLD ON 3 MILES OF CANVAS
Harriet D. Foy, MOTHERFREAKINGHOOD! (MATERNAL DISCRETION ADVISED)
Tara Martinez, NIGHT TIDE
Sharon Sachs, NUMBERS NERDS
Carrie Berk, PEACE, LOVE, AND CUPCAKES
Zoe Wilson, PLAY LIKE A WINNER

SPECIAL CITATIONS:
Building a Movement Through Musical Theater: Sheryl Berk, Carrie Berk, Jill Jaysen, and Rick Hip-Flores of PEACE, LOVE, AND CUPCAKES for their partnership with NoBully.org

Theatre for Young Audiences: Matthew McElligott, Tuxbury, Brian Sheldon, and Michael Musial, BACKBEARD

Extraordinary Festival Costume Design: Kurt Alger for BEN, VIRGINIA AND ME (THE LIBERACE MUSICAL)

Social Relevance and Impact: Richard Allen and Taran Gray, FREEDOM RIDERS

Festival Achievement in Projection Design: Kevan Loney for his work on BEN, VIRGINIA AND ME (THE LIBERACE MUSICAL); GENERATION ME; NUMBERS NERDS; and THE CADAVER SYNOD

 

Check out my preview of the 14th annual New York Musical Festival

NYMF Review: A Wall Apart. Love and Rock N Roll vs. The Berlin Wall.

“A Wall Apart,” a production at the New York Musical Festival, has a catchy score by Graham Russell of the Australian rock group Air Supply, sung by an eminently watchable cast of steel-voiced Broadway professionals. But its story, about two lovers separated for 28 years by the Berlin Wall, opts for a sentimental and frequently simpleminded version of history.

 Click on any photo by Michael Schoenfeld to see it enlarged 

 

Ironically, it begins with a black and white newsreel, which straightforwardly explains the events that led to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 — how the Allies after World War II divided Germany up into sectors, with the Soviet Union turning its sector into the “German Democratic Republic”….East Germany. But immediately afterward, we get a loud, Les Mizish rock anthem in which three brothers – Hans, Kurt, and Mickey – sing over and over about “liberty, the pillar of our city/we’re going to build our city like new,” which is forcefully sung and sort of rhymes but is never explained.
It’s soon clear that the three brothers have different views of East Germany. The oldest, Hans Ostermann (Darren Ritchie), is a captain in the border patrol and a Communist out of gratitude for the government’s support after the three of them were orphaned. Mickey (Josh Tolle), the youngest, is frontman for a rock n roll band with a standing invitation to play in a West Berlin club called The Bunker; he is determined to move to the West with his bride Suzanne (Emily Behny.) The middle, Kurt (Jordan Bondurant), is ambivalent – until he meets Esther Wilson (Maddie Shea Baldwin), an American citizen living in West Berlin. “A Wall Apart” follows the family and the two lovers from 1961 to 1989, the years that the Berlin Wall stood, dividing the city of Berlin, and the nation of Germany, and the characters of this musical.
Had “A Wall Apart” appeared on stage six months ago, or maybe even three, it might have been easier for one to view it more narrowly as a cautionary tale, nearly an allegory, about politicians building walls, and not been bothered as much about what’s left out of the history it is supposed to be depicting.
Esther Wilson explains when she meets Kurt that she is half-American and half-German, her “German refugee” mother having met her American father after she arrived in the United States in 1934. Other than these oblique clues and the fact that she named her daughter Esther, we are given no indication that Esther’s mother is Jewish, much less any sense that Esther is even aware of the Holocaust.
At another point, Tante (Leslie Becker), the aunt who raised the three boys after their parents were killed, reminisces about the “miseries” of 1945 – by which she means when Soviet soldiers (“Stalin’s murderers”) “overran Berlin.”
Why did the creative team omit any real references to the Third Reich and its lingering effects?  It would be difficult for them to argue that the Nazi past is irrelevant to the story they’re telling: Students of history know that East Germany justified its existence by claiming the mantle of anti-Fascism while accusing West Germany of failing to confront its Nazi past.  It’s unlikely to be because the creative team is unaware or indifferent. Co-book writer Sam Goldstein has told interviewers that Zero Mostel was his “god uncle.” Did they worry that any explicit mention of the Nazi past could undermine our identification with this wholly decent family or get in the way of the feel good narrative? Would it needlessly complicate the musical’s Manichean view of Berlin Wall history?
There is a scene where Hans urges Kurt to join him in working for the border patrol, and they debate the merits of the job, and of East Germany as a whole. Hans makes a few weak but rational arguments — they’ve fed us; security is important; you can work within the system to change it – while Kurt says things like: “What’s the point of security if there’s no liberty to go with it?”
Is there anybody sitting at the Acorn in Theatre Row on 42nd Street who is going to side with Hans against liberty?
This stacked deck approach might have been more tolerable if there didn’t exist the vastly more sophisticated examples of Doug Wright’s play “I Am My Own Wife,” or even the current FX TV series “The Americans,” which present alternative viewpoints from the same era that challenge our worldview rather than lazily confirming it.
Some of this may be fixable. “A Wall Apart” is, after all, a work in progress. That status is most obvious by the sudden shift about three quarters of the way through the show, when a character comes back from the dead to narrate the remaining quarter century that has yet to be dramatized (“…Esther began teaching dance at an orphanage. In her spare time she worked for the reunification movement….”) Although three decades have passed, neither Esther nor Kurt have aged when, in one scene, they talk through the cracks in the wall, like the scene of Pyramus and Thisbe, the silly play-within-the-play, in Midsummer Night’s Dream, except we’re meant to take the scene in “A Wall Apart” seriously.
If it’s easy to pick the script apart, it’s hard to dismiss Russell’s music, which holds some surprises, such as a lovely lullaby in German, “Forlorn Fraulein,” and “Son of the Father,” performed by a late-arriving character portrayed by Matt Rosell (who was in the cast of Les Miserables, natch.) It’s one of the musical numbers that feel hard-charging enough in and of themselves to tear down that wall.

A Wall Apart
Theatre Row
Music by Graham Russell, book by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde. Directed and choreographed by Keith Andrews,
Musical Direction and Arrangements by Jonathan Ivie; Scenic and Lighting Design by David Goldstein; Costume Design by Dustin Cross; Sound Design by Shannon Epstein;

Cast: Maddie Shea Baldwin as Esther, Leslie Becker as Tante, Emily Behny as Suzanne, Jordan Bondurant as Kurt, Darren Ritchie as Hans, Matt Rosell as Mickey Jr., Josh Tolle as Mickey, with Mili Diaz, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Amanda Downey, Lindsay Estelle Dunn, Sean Green, Jr., Emily Kristen Morris, and Vincent Ortega.

Running time: 2 hours, including an intermission.

A Wall Apart is on stage through July 30, 2017