Advertisements

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

Advertisements

August 2017 New York Theater Openings: Hal Prince, Michael Moore…and More

Michael Moore and Harold Prince have the month all to themselves, more or less,  at the center of the two Broadway shows opening this month. It’s unusual to have any shows open on Broadway in August. Usually, it’s a month filled with festival fare — but, for the first time in 20 years, there will be no  New York International Fringe Festival this August, thus minus its 200+ shows. Still, there are three other (much smaller) theater festivals opening this month, one of them new.

Below, shows with August openings arranged chronologically by opening date.Click on any title to get to its website.

Color key: Broadway: RedOff Broadway: blue. Off Off Broadway: Green. Theater festival: Orange

August 2

A Parallelogram (Second Stage Theater)

A new play by Bruce Norris, the author of Clybourne Park, stars Celia Keenan-Bolger as a woman who can see her future.

August 3

Curvy Widow (Westside Theater)

Nancy Opel stars in a musical comedy “based on a true story” as a 50-year-old widow going back into the dating pool.

August 6

summer shorts 59e59

Summer Shorts, Series B (59E59 Theater)

Plays by Neil LaBute; Chris Cragin-Day; Lindsay Craft and Andrew Leeds

August 7

Corkscrew Theater Festival (Paradise Factory)

Running Aug 7 – Sept 3, this new summer theater festival features five world premieres and five readings performed in repertory over four weeks.

August 10

The Terms of My Surrender (Belasco)

Michael Moore makes his Broadway debut in what promises to be a stand-up routine to take down Trump.

A Never-Ending Line (Players Theater)

A song cycle with music by Jaime Lozano and lyrics by nine women lyricists. “Inspired by his upbringing in a strong matriarchy, Lozano conceived the show as a tribute to the women in his life. The songs, performed by a company of four, explore the unique challenges women face in society today on the journey to find happiness, love, and meaning in their lives. ”

August 17

Come Light My Cigarette (Theater at St. Clement’s)

A new musical about a young actress who “is driven to confront the two most turbulent relationships in her life—her father, with whom she shares a volatile and shameful past, and her ex-lover, a powerful and controlling woman who was instrumental in making her a success.”

August 24

Prince of Broadway (MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman)

Musical numbers from shows in which Hal Prince served as a producer or director, such as “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd.”

The Suitcase Under the Bed (Mint Theater at Theater Row)

An evening of four one act plays by Irish playwright Teresa Deevy (1894-1963), directed by Jonathan Bank.

August 27

Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn in I.M. LOST!

Dream Up Festival  (Theater for The New City)

The eighth annual festival will run August 27 – September 17, featuring more than 25 plays, 12 of them world premiere, four musicals, four on LGBTQ themes. One play comes from Iceland, “Guilty,”  about an infamous 19th century crime there. Another,”I.M. LOST!” is an “interactive clown show” based on interviews with clowns.

August 30

Inanimate (The Flea)

Nick Robideau’s play is about a woman who is in love with a Dairy Queen sign.  The play “explores objectum sexuality, feeling like an outsider, listening to your heart and finally, finding your tribe.”  But what’s most significant is that it’s the premiere play in the new million-dollar digs of The Flea, one of the consistently best Off-Off Broadway theaters in the city.
Here’s a video I put together of The Flea when they broke ground on the new building four years ago:

NYMF Review: Freedom Riders, A Civil Rights Musical

 

I ran into Congressman John Lewis, one of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, on my way to see “Freedom Riders,” the inspiring gospel and soul-flavored musical about the courageous efforts by black and white activists in 1961 to desegregate interstate travel in the South. Rep. Lewis was going to the same show, as it turns out, and he was also in the show – one of the characters.

For two hours, the actual John Lewis watched Anthony Chatmon II as John Lewis persist in the face of beatings and jailings; arguments over strategy with Martin Luther King Jr. (Guy Lockard) and Stokely Carmichael and other movement leaders; temporary setbacks and ultimate triumph. And he sings …many songs, with lyrics like:

We choose today to make history,

If you’re not willing to die for this, what good is life if not living for it?

I focus on John Lewis because the real person was in the audience at Theatre Row. But the character of John Lewis is far from the only focus of “Freedom Riders,” written by Richard Allen and composer Taran Gray. Fourteen performers portray some three dozen characters over 30 short scenes, from May 3, 1961 — a non-violent training session in Washington D.C. for those who will be riding the buses down South – to November 1, 1961, at a bus station in Birmingham, Alabama, newly integrated by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Alternating with scenes of the civil rights activists are those with federal officials, primarily Robert Kennedy (Barry Anderson), the Attorney General of the United States, who at first is simply indifferent to the Freedom Rides, then worried about the potential for violence and bad publicity for the nation, and then finally embraces the cause.

It is not surprising, given the many short scenes full of incident and huge cast of characters, that Allen writes primarily for film and television.

But the musical must make room as well for Taran Gray’s songs, 15 of them (some sung twice.) They are rousing soul, gospel, r&b, pop…and the performers deliver them like a major gale force rarely below a category 3.

Indeed, each and every one of the singers are such powerhouse talents that it can seem almost amusing: Even white actor Mike Nigro (!), whose characters include a convincingly thuggish white bigot and a nebbishy student activist, lets loose like a star soloist in a gospel choir.

They all sound like soloists, even when the entire cast is singing together. The result is intense, and exciting, but the experience as a whole feels largely…. unmodulated. (The most noticeable exception is Brynn Williams as movement leader Diane Nash, who besides the powerhouse songs is also given some lovely ballads.)

This musical is running for just a few performances through Saturday, August 5, as part of the New York Musical Festival. It may be worth it for the creative team to consult a dramaturge, and consider working on focus and pacing in the next production. And “Freedom Riders” is sure to have another production. It deserves an audience.

 

 Photographs by Mia Winston, except the photograph of (the real) John Lewis, by Jonathan Mandell.

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

NYMF Review: The Goree All Girl String Band. Prisoners Fiddling Their Way to Freedom.

Six women inmates, in a Texas jail for crimes ranging from cattle rustling to murder, form a country music band in order to get on the radio, get famous, and get pardoned by the governor. That is what happens in this show at the New York Musical Festival, a musical so tunefully entertaining that one could make allowances for such an outlandish plot. But we don’t have to: “The Goree All Girl String Band” is based on a true story.

Click on any photograph by Shira Friedman to see it enlarged

Inmates at the Goree State Farm for Women learned to sing and play string instruments well enough in 1940 to land on “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls,” a surreal but real weekly program on WBAP that featured musical performances by Texas prisoners. The Goree group became famous throughout Texas – and, yes, the governor eventually pardoned them.

In the retelling of this history, we are first introduced to inmate Mozelle McDaniel (Ruby Wolf), just 17 years old and new to Goree, which allows the audience to get to know the jail along with her. Her fellow prisoners describe their crimes in a jaunty song, “Did It Cuz I Had To,” We meet Captain Marcus Heath (Nick Plakias) and his wife Clyde (Tamra Hayden), who run the jail. Clyde is warm-hearted; the Captain initially seems stiffer but fair and well meaning. When rowdy inmate “Cocaine” Nora Harris (Miche Braden) acts up, however, Heath has a guard force her to the infirmary for what the inmates call a “Mississippi Appendectomy” – an operation that makes her sterile. “Don’t want no more deviants; they think we’re deviants,” inmate Bonnie (Lizzie Hagstedt) explains.

But “Goree” is not gory; this is no Caged. The misery is played down. The music is what matters, 16 original songs composed by Artie Sievers, orchestrated by Max Gordon, and sung by all 13 members of the cast, who also play the musical instruments. Theatergoers are likely to remember Nora’s off-stage sterilization much less than Braden’s later bring-down-the-house blues solo, “How They Leave You.” Hers is just one of several memorable solos, most of them by performers portraying characters who are not among the six members of the Goree band – besides Braden’s, Hayden’s lovely “Great Big World” and Nattalyee Randall’s powerhouse “I Don’t Mind.”

The six-member band gets most of the attention. Reable Childs (Lauren Patten, veteran of “Fun Home” on Broadway and “The Wolves”) is the central character, the inmate who comes up with the idea of forming the band, after listening to Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. Then Clyde the warden’s wife teaches the women how to play the musical instruments. By the end of Act I, they’ve made it to the radio show. By the beginning of Act II, they’ve become celebrities.

There are faint and feint stabs here and there at character development and complications and subplots; these are no more fleshed out than the set, which uses wooden ladders to suggest jail cells, and different color lights to mark a change of location. Michael Bradley’s book and lyrics play second fiddle to the fiddles …and the voices, guitar, banjo, drum, mandolin, cello and bass, as well as accordion, saw, spoons, and washboard — and to the musician/actors who play them.  I would be remiss not to single out Hagstedt’s masterful bass playing. Ensemble member Titus Tompkins is the most spectacular player of a washboard that I’ve ever heard. That’s in the number called “Daddy Wore Boots,” when all stops are out, the entire cast is playing or singing, and the instruments and instrumentalists both seem to be flying in the air.  These musical numbers are so damn fun that, while “The Goree All Girl String Band” may have its flaws, like the governor of Texas, I pardon them.

The Goree All-Girl String Band
Theatre Row
Book and lyrics by Michael Bradley, music by Artie Sievers
Directed by Ashley Brooke Monroe
Music direction by Max Gordon, choreography by Brandon Powers, scenic design by Brett J. Banakis, costume design by Tina McCartney, lighting design by Isabella Byrd

Cast: Lauren Patten, Elizabeth Hagstedt, Kendra Jo Brook, Ruby Wolf ,Titus Tompkins, Lauren J. Thomas, Robert Ariza, Tamra Hayden,Luke Darnell, Nattalyee Randall ,Chanel Karimkhani, Nick Plakias,and Miche Braden

Running time: Two hours including an intermission
Tickets: $29.75
The Goree All Girl String Band is on stage through Saturday, July 29, 2017

 

To The End of the Land Review: An Israeli Love Triangle Defined By War

 

A love triangle that lasts 35 years is at the heart of “To The End of the Land,” but the lives of the three main characters of this Israeli play, being presented in Hebrew with English supertitles at the Lincoln Center Festival, are less defined by love than by war.

This stage adaptation of David Grossman’s celebrated novel begins when Ora and her two eventual lovers, Avram and Ilan, are all 16 years old and meet in a hospital during the Six Day War in 1967.

In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Avram is captured and tortured, and, after he’s rescued, he wants nothing more to do with Ora nor Ilan; when he finds out Ora is pregnant with his child, he wants nothing to do with his son either. Ilan marries Ora and raises the son, Ofer, as his own.

Then, in 2002, the grown-up Ofer is now in the Israeli army, and decides to re-enlist. An anxious Ora comes up with a unique and cockamamie way to keep her son safe. She decides to leave her home and hike to Galilee (“the end of the land” of Israel), so that nobody can come to her door to deliver the official news if her son has been killed.

Estranged though not divorced from Ilan, Ora locates Avram, and takes him on the hike, where they go over their lives, their past, the waxing and waning of their relationship. They reveal secrets they’ve kept from one another.

That is more or less the essence of this two and a half hour play, boiled down from Grossman’s 2008 novel, which runs 674 pages in its English translation. Director Hanan Snir, who wrote the adaptation, chops this story into pieces, and presents the pieces in an order that makes it more dramatic, and at times less than clear. He also spices it with an anti-naturalistic theatricality, harnessing the dozen cast members to populate the various scenes and even depict the sundry landscapes using minimal props, their own bodies, and occasional musical instruments. Although the creative team makes apparent attempts to help the audience — sometimes a character speaks directly to us, narrating – the play often feels geared to people who’ve read the novel, with short scenes inserted that feel shorn of the context the novel might provide them (or at least deprived of the extra time the readers get to figure out these eerie, lyrical scenes.)

Yet, there are enough moments in “To The End of the Land” that hit hard enough to compensate for the confusion, such as an effective combat scene and what one can call an anti-combat scene – when Ora (standout Efrat Ben Zur) lets out her frustration at leaders, both Arab and Israeli, while chopping a salad, calling out a different name with each angry chop of her knife.

“To The End of the Land” is produced by two Israeli theater companies, the Ha’Bima National Theatre and The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv.

 

To The End of the Land

Based on David Grossman’s novel

Adaptation and Direction Hanan Snir

Set Design Roni Toren

Music Ori Vidislavski

Movement Miri Lazar

Costume Design Polina Adamov

Dramaturg Noga Ashkenazi

Lighting Design Roni Cohen

Cast: Efrat Ben Zur as Ora, Dror Keren as Avram, Amnon Wolf as Ilan,  Daniel Sabbag as Ofer, David Bilenca as Akiva, Guy Messika, Rinat Matatov, Amos Boaron, Harel Murad, Nir Barak, Eldar Brantman, Vitaly Podolsky

 

 

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including intermission

To The End of the Land runs through July 27, 2017

 

Spoon River Review: The Dead, Singin’ and Regrettin’

In “Spoon River,” we meet a town full of drunks, hypocrites, home-grown philosophers, resentful husbands, frustrated wives, an arsonist, a killer, and dozens more – all of them dead…and all of them singing and fiddling and stomping with glee.

As part of their month-long residence at Signature Center, Canada’s Soulpepper theater company has created a lively, joyful musical adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, the celebrated 1915 book of poems by more than 200 residents of the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois – or more precisely, residents of the graveyard in the town; the poems are expanded tombstone epitaphs

Theatergoers are led through that graveyard before we are shown to our seats, past black-suited funeral directors, and an open casket with a dead woman named Bertie.

Bertie is portrayed by Hailey Gillis, and we won’t see her again for some 90 minutes, when she crawls out of a wooden casket on stage to sing a beauteous hymn to life and beauty and the kisses of vanished lips – the last of the characters, portrayed by 19 cast members, to tell her story.

Composer Mike Ross and director Albert Schultz have done a masterful job of selecting the poems, some of which are spoken, some set to an original score. Much of what Ross has composed is what used to be called hillbilly music, but that doesn’t do justice to the range of genres and the depth of talent that put them over, from Miranda Mulholland’s exquisite violin playing and operatic soprano to Alana Bridgewater’s bring-down-the-house gospel. (see the video below.)

At least one of the poems is both spoken and sung:

Didymus Hupp (Daniel Williston), the first of a quartet of drunks, says

“Like If God is all and in all, as I opine

Then God is also in quinine.

Also in whisky, and also in wine….”

Then one by one, the other drunks join him to sing the stanza, accompanied by bass and mandolin.

There are other clever groupings: A toothless Don Juan, followed by several of the women he deflowered in his prime; a series of married couples, side by side in their coffins (as if we are viewing them from above), vituperative and resentful even in death, or still loving and grateful.

There is humor lurking in the grim tales and sad regrets voiced by individual characters: The town’s telephone operator Edith Bell (Sarah Wilson), after recounting some scandals, observes that “the commandment not to judge was made impossible by the telephone.” Margaret Fuller Slack (Alana Bridgewater), wanted to be a novelist, and married a rich druggist because he promised her a life of leisure, and instead gave her six children. The lesson she has learned in the grave:

Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!

If the pile-on of graveyard observers starts to feel too rich, and the songs too repetitive, what will surely remain a fond memory after theatergoers depart (the theater!) are the rompin’, stompin’ hootenannies, when the entire cast of 19 gather,  reassuring us that the dead can have fun.

Soulpepper in Bryant Park

Spoon River

Soulpepper on stage at Signature

Adapted from Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz; Composed by Mike Ross; Directed by Albert Schultz

Cast: Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Hailey Gillis, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Richard Lam, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Jeff Lillico, Diego Matamoros, Michelle Monteith, Miranda Mulholland, Gregory Prest, Jackie Richardson, Mike Ross, Paolo Santalucia, Brendan Wall, Daniel Williston and Sarah Wilson

Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $20 to $55

Spoon River is set to run through July 27, 2017

NYMF Review: Temple of the Souls. A Romeo and Juliet romance in 16th Century Puerto Rico

“Temple of the Souls,” a musical about a doomed, Romeo and Juliet romance in 16th century Puerto Rico between a Spanish conquistador’s daughter and a Taino, begins with a thrill. The cast, dressed in the naguas (loincloths), masks and straw headgear of the indigenous people of the island, dance sensuously and athletically to a tuneful melody driven by an infectious beat.
Here’s what that opening number, “Yucahu,” sounded and looked like in rehearsal, which gives just a hint of how exciting it is in performance

These are Taino Souls, they tell us in song, haunting a cave in the rain forest of the El Yunque mountains, a sacred place called the Temple of Souls. It is sacred, we’re told later, because the cave’s walls are full of paintings and carvings that tell the history of the Taino people, a history that climaxed in Spanish discovery, conquest, enslavement and genocide.
Everything about the opening number is promising; it promises an enlightening and entertaining journey through Taino history and culture.
One of those cave paintings, explains a guide leading modern-day tourists in the next scene, recounts the story of the forbidden love between Amada and Guario. “Legend has it that they are the parents to many of us … the blending of two worlds, the Mestizo race of Puerto Rico.”

Little in the nearly two hours (without intermission) that follow the opening number in “Temple of the Souls” quite matches it. The largely predictable story of Amada and Guario is dramatized without much nuance and performed mostly with the kind of exaggerated clarity normally reserved for children’s theater. (I suppose “Temple of the Souls” is appropriate for children, save perhaps for about a minute of fairly explicit lovemaking.) Many of the songs owe less to Puerto Rican culture than to the cult of American Idol, generic pop ballads that end in sustained notes demanding applause.

Still, “Temple of Souls,” one of the 20 full productions in this year’s New York Musical Festival, is worth seeing – and worth developing further – thanks not just to the opening number, but to Enrique Brown’s choreography throughout, the colorful eye-catching visuals by the design team (costume designer Lisa Renee Jordan; projection designer Jan Hartley; scenic designer Jennifer Varbalow; lighting designer Jason Fox), and several stand-out performances, especially Lorraine Velez (not to be confused with her twin sister Lauren Velez) as Amada’s mother, who has been forced to pretend to Amada that she is only her nanny, her Nana, because she is Taino.
It would be difficult to ignore the appeal of Noellia Hernandez as Amada and Andres Quintero as Guario, and hard to help the chills when, in the face of the Spaniards’ cruelty, they sing “Love is stronger than death,” or exclaim: “The mestizo history of Boriken will live on forever.”

Temple of Souls is on stage at Theatre Row through July 23, 2017, as part of the New York Musical Festival.

NYMF Review: The Fourth Messenger. Buddha as a 21st Century Woman

 

The story of the Buddha informs this intriguing and well-produced musical at the New York Musical Festival about a modern-day female spiritual leader. But it’s not until the last fifth of the show that we realize what aspect of the Buddha’s life most struck Tanya Shaffer, who wrote the earnest script, and Vienna Teng, who composed the delightfully eclectic score. It was when future Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who had been sheltered from the world by his father the king, left his home and family behind to help alleviate suffering in the world.
How would we feel if a 21st century Buddha sacrificed their connections to their loved ones for the sake of strangers? And would we feel differently if that Buddha were a woman?
Is it possible, the authors ask in a program note, for someone to be both enlightened and flawed? “And how can we integrate the Buddha’s principle that attachment causes suffering with the intuitive notion that it is those very attachments that give meaning to our lives?”
All of these are substantive and provocative questions. The challenge is how to address them in a musical.
In “The Fourth Messenger,” Raina (Samia Mounts), an intern at “Debunk Nation Magazine,” convinces her editor Sam (Alan Gillespie) to let her investigate the spiritual teacher, Mama Sid (a terrific Nancy Anderson.)
“What do you have on her?” Sam asks
“A hunch.” Raina says of Mama Sid “she’s hiding something.”
And so she is, as we learn after Raina becomes ensconced with Mama Sid and her followers.  I won’t say more except that the big revelation definitely took me by surprise, but doesn’t pass the plausibility test.
If the twist makes the plot of “The Fourth Messenger” less sturdy than its themes, the musical is very nearly redeemed by its musical numbers. Director Matt August and choreographer Natalie Malotke put the show’s talented nine-member cast to good use, and musical director Jesse Lozano makes the most of Vienna Teng’s music, a pleasing mix of heavenly hymns, folk, rock, jazz, ballads and delicious touches: When there’s a flashback to an old flame, he sings a song tinged with tango; when the singer is remembering a young child, the song sounds like a nursery rhyme.

There is enough beauty here that my hope is “The Fourth Messenger” lives on past the New York Musical Festival — after extensive rewrites.

video from a rehearsal:

The Fourth Messenger is on stage at Theatre Row through Sunday, July 23, 2017

NYMF Review: Matthew McConaughey vs. The Devil, An American Myth

The actor Matthew McConaughey sells his soul to the devil, and then tries to get it back, in this musical that opened the 2017 New York Musical Festival, which describes the show in its program as “a Faustian comedy that dares to ask the question: How did Matthew McConaughey win an Academy Award?”

I dare to ask a more sensible question: How did so many talented people produce a show so pointless, derivative and mean? Its worst sin may be that it is rarely funny.

The very premise of this supposed satire collapses on the slightest inspection – that McConaughey was nothing more than a pretty boy Rom-Com star before he gave his Oscar-winning performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” in 2013.

“They respected my abs,” McConaughey (Wayne Wilcox) says in the musical, about his performance in the 2012 stripper movie Magic Mike. “But did they really respect me?”

So, to get that respect, McConaughey needs an Oscar, and to get that Oscar, he signs a contract with Mephistopoheles (Lesli Margherita.)

Compare this show with the 2002 New York Fringe Festival play “Matt and Ben” (written and performed by a pre-celebrity Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers), which posed a similar question – how did Matt Damon and Ben Affleck write the Oscar-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting” – and provided a similar silly answer — that it must have been aliens from Outer Space that provided the script. But Damon and Affleck were both little-known actors at the time, aged 27 and 25 respectively, with no previous screenwriting credits. Matthew McConaughey is 47, with a long and respectable acting career. Long before his Oscar-winning performance, he played serious roles in serious films – “Lone Star” and “A Time to Kill” in 1996, for example; “Amistad” in 1997.

So “Matthew McConaughey vs. the Devil” doesn’t make much sense from the get-go. It is not, however, completely damnable. The music is never less than competent – although there’s no “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)” (a song from another show it superficially imitates, “Damn Yankees.”) But the real salvation for this show is in the production values – kudos to director Thomas Caruso, choreographer Billy Griffin, and the design team — and thanks to the performers.

Lesli Margherita, who was the evil Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda on Broadway, is striking in a bright red dress, handing out a business card as if an agent in a management firm run by Satan. Wayne Wilcox as Matthew and Max Crumm as his pal Woody Harrelson have a fun duet together. Ensemble members are employed to great effect – serving as everything from living props to backup singer and dancers, to a dream come to life…a fun dance sequence that features costume designer Daryl A. Stone’s delectable interpretations of the things supposedly in Matthew McConaughey’s life — an Oscar trophy and a marijuana plant.

Recently, James Franco had a lawyer send a cease and desist letter to a downtown play called “James Franco and Me.” The playwright was unfazed: “We’re just going to remove any mention of James Franco,” he told the Daily News. “We’re calling it ‘______ and Me’ “

I’d love to see a show assembled by the talented team who put together and performed “Matthew McConaughey vs. the Devil” that removed any mention of Matthew McConaughey.

Matthew McCanughey vs. The Devil: An American Myth is performing through Sunday, July 16, 2017 at Theatre Row, as part of the New York Musical Festival.

Two songs recorded during rehearsals: