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Hey Look Me Over Review: Encores! 25th anniversary concert

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Encores! concert series at City Center is doing something in “Hey Look Me Over” that it’s never done before – and, judging from the results, probably shouldn’t do again.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

Now, it’s impossible to dismiss a show with such a starry talented cast, including Bebe Neuwirth singing and dancing to Noel Coward’s Sail Away and Vanessa Williams singing and dancing from Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Jamaica.” Its delights were enough to make me glad I was there.
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The Golden Apple Review: Glorious American Music, Silly Homeric Satire

The Golden Apple, a 1954 Broadway musical, got the Encores! treatment at its most glorious over the weekend – with a sonorous 31-piece orchestra directed by Rob Berman, and a splendid 40-member cast including such go-to musical theater talents as Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Silverman, as well as two thrilling newcomers.

It’s hard to picture a more apt musical for the long running “concert series” at New York City Center, since the score is delightful, a veritable catalogue of mid-twentieth century American music — Copland-like orchestral, operetta, jazz, ragtime, vaudeville, country and get-down blues (including the hit song Lazy Afternoon, which has been interpreted by Tony Bennett, Marlene Dietrich, Eartha Kitt and Barbra Streisand, among others) – all composed by a man, Jerome Moross, who never wrote another Broadway musical. At the same time, the book by John Latouche is a busy, overly ambitious effort to transpose Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey to the State of Washington in 1900, attempting satire, more often achieving…cutesiness and clutter. Although many have praised Latouche’s lyrics (sample: “Miss Helen is a blue-eyed daisy/If I don’t get her, I’ll go crazy.”) I am surely not alone in finding them inadequate for a full-length, sung-through musical. Possible proof: The original Broadway production lasted about four months. A full-on revival seems unlikely.

And so, it’s left to Encores! to allow us to revel in the seduction of the slutty farmer’s daughter Helen (the funny and mellifluous Lindsay Mendez) by Paris, a traveling salesman who arrives in the rural Washington town of Angel’s Roost (near Mt. Olympus of course) via hot-air balloon. Paris is portrayed by the spectacular dancer Barton Cowperthwaite, who never opens his mouth, speaking eloquently with his torso, hands and feet – part of the eye-catching choreography by Joshua Bergasse. It is up to Ulysses, the always reliable and frequently swoon-worthy Ryan Silverman, to bring Helen back, thus separating once again from his wife Penelope, portrayed by golden-voiced newcomer Mikaela Bennett, who is still an undergraduate at Juilliard.

That’s all just in the first act, and I left out a lot. I don’t have the stamina to go into a detailed description of the second, which takes place largely in the slick city of Rhododendron and takes us through all seven deadly sins for some reason, including an extended soft-shoe routine and a song, “Goona Goona,” by a character named Lovely Mars (the incomparably lovely Carrie Compere), dressed in sultry red, with the lyrics:

 

By a goona goona goona
By a goona goona goona lagoon

We will croon-a croon-a croon-a
We will croon-a croon-a real jungle tune

 

Lovely Mars is playing The Siren – you know, like the Sirens in The Odyssey whose angelic voices lure strong men to their doom? The next song is, logically, “Doomed Doomed Doomed,” although it features, not Ulysses’ men, but a scientist….

 

So….still, I hope they issue a cast recording.

 

The Golden Apple

Music composed by Jerome Moross; Written by John La Touche; Musical direction by Rob Berman; Choreography by Joshua Bergasse; Directed by Michael Berresse

Cast Mikaela Bennett, Ashley Brown, Carrie Compere, Jason Kravits, Alli Mauzey, Lindsay Mendez, N’Kenge, Ryan Silverman, Rasta Thomas, Florrie Bagel, Daniel Berryman, Michael Buchanan, Brian Cali, Max Chernin, Andrew Cristi, Laura Darrell, Dionne Figgins, Hannah Florence, Tamar Greene, Jeff Heimbrock, Leah Horowitz, Monté J. Howell, Jones Jr., Andrea Jones-Sojola , Naomi Kakuk, Evan Kasprzak, Reed Kelly, Bruce Landry, Quentin Oliver Lee, Brandon Leffler, Michael X. Martin, Skye Mattox , Sarah Meahl, Justin Prescott, Lindsay Roberts, Sarrah Strimel, Joseph Torello, Kathy Voytko, and Nicholas Ward

The Golden Apple was on stage at New York City Center May 10-14, 2017.

Big River Review: Huckleberry Finn in The Era of #BlackLivesMatter

The Encores! production of “Big River” is a pleasant enough confection but with a bitter aftertaste. To understand why, it helps to know that, when he was 11 years old, Samuel Clemens discovered the mutilated corpse of a man named Noriam Todd – an escaped slave who had been hunted down and killed.

Four decades later in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain gave a happy ending for an escaped slave named Jim, who stays alive and is even legally set free, after he and Huck ride a raft through one adventure after another down the Mississippi. But there is arguably an undercurrent in the novel of outrage, albeit cloaked in irony, which makes it far more than a boys adventure story. Mark Twain is sly about this depth, posting a “Notice” in the frontispiece of the novel, which is also a sign over the stage before “Big River” begins at New York City Center: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Under Lear deBessonet’s direction, the revival of “Big River” focuses on the humor and rowdy fun of the only musical ever written by Roger Miller, best known for his country hit King of the Road, but a surprisingly eclectic songwriter. As rendered by a large, talented cast and a ten-piece orchestra of the usual Encores! caliber (including a twangy harmonica), Miller’s score holds up, a mix of honky tonk, bluegrass, rousing gospel and Miller’s signature novelty songs, such as Hand for the Hog, sung by Tom Sawyer. Sample verse:

Well, I always heard but ain’t too sure

That a man’s best friend is a mangy cur

I kinda favor the hog myself

How ‘bout a hand for the hog

 

But “Big River” also uses a racial slur more than half a dozen times. This is not unusual these days in New York theater, as I wrote this week in an essay for HowlRound, The N-word on Stage. But, as actor and playwright Jordan Cooper points out in that essay, “you shouldn’t use it without understanding its weight.”

This did not strike me as a weighty enough production, even though there are plenty of lines in “Big River” (many of which librettist William Hauptman took directly from the novel) that use irony to point to the pervasive racial bigotry of the times. Addressing the audience directly, Huck talks of a troubled conscience for helping Jim, saying he knows the right thing would be to turn him in, but he just can’t help himself. When Jim talks about his children, whom he hopes to buy back from slavery, Huck observes as an aside to the audience: “It don’t sound natural, but Jim cared for his people just as much as white folks do for their’n.”

These lines should land harder than they do. Part of the problem may be Nicholas Barasch’s portrayal of Huck. Barasch, a red-headed 18-year-old, was terrific last year as the naïve and eager bike messenger in She Loves Me.  He has a good voice, and is destined to be a go-to juvenile for a few years, until he becomes a go-to leading man. But his Huck is too bland, with little of the mischievous schemer in his eye, and rambunctious misfit in his manner. He’s as charming, cheerful and appealing as the musical.

Kyle Scatliffe (Les Miserables, The Color Purple) is a fine and powerful Jim.

Katherine A. Guy has a show-stopping number in “How Blest We Are,” all the more impressive because this is her professional stage debut. But she hardly exists other than that song.

The black characters are largely the extras in this story, pushed aside even by the comic relief. Rocco Landesman, credited for “concert adaptation” (and the producer of the original Broadway show) has altered the text to place an inordinate focus on the two clownish con men and scoundrels, The King and The Duke performed by the admittedly adept performers David Pittu and Christopher Sieber.

When Encores! began in 1994, the point of the concert series was reportedly to give a second chance to rarely heard, commercially unsuccessful Broadway musicals – whose books maybe made them sink, but whose scores were worth a listen. The criteria must have changed, because “Big River” was successful when it debuted in 1985, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and running for three years. And it is far from rarely heard. There was a Deaf West revival on Broadway in 2003, which went on national tour starting the next year. The City Center production is just one of 14 within the next few months alone planned throughout the country, from the Slow Burn Theatre Company of Fort Lauderdale, Florida to the Old Lyric Repertory Company of Logan, Utah.

Clearly, the show remains popular, although the world has changed since 1885, when “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was first published in the United States, and New York seems to have changed almost as much just since 1985, when “Big River” debuted on Broadway; there’s less tolerance for a show that serves its  indictment of racism as a side dish.

It’s also worth pointing out that the “Encores! concert series” has also changed. It no longer seems like a concert series.  “Big River” was  performed in full costume, ample if simple set (albeit shared with the orchestra), choreography,  and with everyone having fully memorized their lines: Performers used to carry their scripts during the show, which was a kind of Encores! signature.

Big River

New York City Center

Music and lyrics by Roger Miller; Book by William Hauptman, adapted from the novel by Mark Twain; Choreography by Josh Rhodes; Directed by Lear DeBessonet. Musical director: Rob Berman. Scenic designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein. Lighting designer: Paul Miller. Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Concert adaptation: Rocco Landesman Orchestrations: Steven Margoshes, Danny Troob

Cast: Stephen Lee Anderson, Nicholas Barasch, Patrice Covington, Andrew Cristi, Wayne Duvall, Mike Evariste, Charlie Franklin, Annie Golden, Katherine A. Guy, Megan Masako Haley, Adrianna Hicks, Zachary Infante, Gizel Jimenez, Andrew Kruep, John-Michael Lyles, Cass Morgan, Tom Nelis, Horace V. Rogers, Kyle Scatliffe, David Pittu, Christopher Sieber and Lauren Worsham

Big River runs just through Sunday, February 12, 2017

1776 at Encores: Review, Pics, Video Highlights

Santino Fontana (John Adams) 1776 City Center

Santino Fontana as John Adams
1776

Alexander Hamilton is not a character in “1776” – and John Adams, the central character in “1776” is not a character in “Hamilton.” But both are entertaining history lessons about the founding of the United States of America, and, if nothing else, the Encore production of the earlier musical is well-timed; one hopes the fanatical interest in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s current hip-hop hit will fan renewed interest in the earlier hit, which first opened on Broadway 47 years ago.
But there are other things that the Encores production does well – principally the casting of Santino Fontana as John Adams.
In its own way, “1776” turns the Broadway musical upside down, certainly at Encores, which was created in 1994 with the aim of presenting concert versions of Broadway musicals that had worthwhile scores but problematic books. But the book of “1776” is the best thing about the show – some say it’s the best book of a musical ever. While rooting the story in the actual history (even excerpting phrases and sentences from letters and documents of the time), librettist Peter Stone enlivens the deliberations by the members of the Continental Congress that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is educational, yes, but it is also suspenseful, funny, playful, sharply relevant and downright moving. The dialogue takes center stage. Sherman Edwards’s score contains only a baker’s dozen of songs in a running time of almost three hours. A half hour goes by without a single song. But audiences don’t feel deprived: While they’re all pleasant enough, only a handful of the songs offer memorable melodies and lyrics.
So, the Encores commitment to the original orchestrations performed by a full orchestra sharing (most of) the space on stage with the actors means less than it would with many other musicals. In addition, choreography and design, rarely Encores strong suits, are almost unnoticeable in this production of “1776.” The one noticeable design element is the costume design: Dressing the cast in modern business suits doesn’t do much for me; turning Abigail Adams (Christiane Noll) into some sort of butch 21st century gardener in dungarees, plaid shirt and L.L. Bean down vest does even less.
Yet, ultimately, none of these shortcomings, nor the uneven performances of the large cast, diminish the effect of “1776,” which is on stage at the New York City Center only through April 3, 2016. The show seems especially important, during this election year, to remind ourselves of the compromises and tensions that imperfect men hammered out to create a more perfect union.

Admittedly, it’s a stretch for a charismatic actor like Santino Fontana to play “obnoxious and disliked” (which John Adams calls himself in the show, and which the real Adams actually called himself.) But Fontana is one of the most talented and versatile performers on the New York stage, and he takes charge both in song and in speech. We share his frustration, his passion and (dare I say this?) his patriotism, from his very first speech:

“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace – that two are called a law-firm – and that three or more become a Congress.”

 

1776

Encores! at New York City Center

Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone
Based on a Concept by Sherman Edwards
Original Production Directed by Peter Hunt
Originally Produced on the Broadway Stage by Stuart Ostrow
Starring Terence Archie, John Behlmann, Larry Bull, Nikki Renée Daniels, André De Shields, Macintyre Dixon, Santino Fontana, Alexander Gemignani, John Hickok, John Hillner, John Larroquette, Kevin Ligon, John-Michael Lyles, Laird Mackintosh, Michael McCormick, Michael Medeiros, Christiane Noll, Bryce Pinkham, Wayne Pretlow, Tom Alan Robbins, Robert Sella, Ric Stoneback, Jubilant Sykes, Vishal Vaidya, Nicholas Ward, and Jacob Keith Watson.
Featuring The Encores! Orchestra
Choreography by Chris Bailey
Guest Music Director Ben Whiteley
Directed by Garry Hynes


Click on picture to learn more about (and/or buy) the new Hamilton book.

Fiorello Review: City Center Encores LaGuardia Musical For 20th Anniversary of Encores!

ImageMayor Michael Bloomberg did not address the theatergoers at City Center on the first night of the Encores! appealing though not thrilling production of the 1959 musical “Fiorello,” and he did not compare himself to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia – which is what Mayor Rudolph Giuliani did at the first Encores production of “Fiorello,” in 1994: “Like me,” Giuliani said, “he was elected on a fusion ticket, he was Italian-American, and he inherited a city treasury that is broke.” (Is anybody working on “Rudolph!” the musical?)

There are other changes as well in the Encores! 20th anniversary production of “Fiorello” that distinguish it from that first Encores! “Fiorello,” which launched the entire “Encores Series of Great American Musicals in Concert” at City Center – reflecting the changes in Encores! in general. It is no longer a series of musicals in concert. It is a series of musicals. Gone are the music stands; mostly gone are the signature black notebooks that contained the scripts the performers read aloud. There were just a handful here and there in the new “Fiorello,” as if the notebooks were props, or part of the Encores branding. The performers now play the dialogue, not just sing the songs; the book is no longer virtually eliminated (though it’s still modified.) There are costumes and extensive choreography.  There is still a wonderfully full orchestra right on the stage.  The shows are still performed only a few times, basically over a long weekend, but each production seems designed with the hope that it will generate enough buzz to transfer to Broadway (as “Chicago” did.) Ticket prices are as high as $117 – Broadway prices.

FiorellopicEven with the changes,  “Fiorello,” a musical about the beloved LaGuardia’s pre-mayoral  career and love life, might be close to the perfect musical for the Encores! series, although it is far from the perfect musical. The good match is not just because “Fiorello” launched the series or because Mayor LaGuardia is the reason why City Center still survives – he saved it from the wrecking ball by turning it into the city’s first performing arts center. (As the “Fiorello” program explains, with unintentional irony: “The goal was to bring the performing arts to all New Yorkers – at a fraction of Broadway ticket prices.”) Actually, “Fiorello” is close to the perfect musical for Encores! in part because it is far from the perfect musical — something that wouldn’t really work as a long run on Broadway anymore.

The show effectivly launched the careers of the composer-lyricist team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who went on to write “Fiddler on the Roof” and “She Loves Me” (which, fulsome disclosure, I starred in at I.S. 70.) While the original Broadway production of “Fiorello” won both the Tony for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it doesn’t hold up as well as their later musicals, which contain catchier scores, including songs that became popular hits. The songs in “Fiorello” now feel like a cross between a lesser “Guys and Dolls” and an imitative “1776” – New York smarts mixed with bouncy Americana, with a nod to the sounds of the period in which the musical takes place. What stands out about the songs for me now is Harnick’s witty, cynical, sometimes inspiring, often inspired lyrics. Nearly every song has a memorable turn of phrase.

In “Politics and Poker,” where a group of Republican party hacks looking for a candidate to run a losing campaign for Congress sing about the similarities:

Politics and Poker

Politics and Poker

Shuffle up the cards

And find the Joker

Later, the same hacks sing “Little Tin Box,” which explains how it is on a public servant’s salary, they are able to buy yachts and Rolls Royces

You’re implying I’m a crook and I say no sir!

There is nothing in my past I care to hide. I’ve been taking empty bottles to the grocer, and each nickel that I got was put aside

….into a little tin box

In “Unfair,” the lady garment workers on strike against the sweatshop owners sing:

Must we sew, and sew

Solely to survive

So some low so-and-so

Can thrive?

When LaGuardia stands up his employee Marie (who would become his second wife) to have a date instead with striking garment worker Thea (who would become his first wife),  Marie sings “Marie’s Law,”

Here’s another law we women’ll

Do our best to legislate: it shall be completely criminal for a man to break a date.

We are going to rid the country

Of contempt of courtship

Given this lyrical richness, one can nearly forgive the now-odd choice by librettists Jerome Weidman and George Abbott to focus on LaGuardia’s life between 1912 and 1933 – in other words, before his years as mayor between 1934 and 1945. “Fiorello” shows the Little Flower’s championing of the working man and woman as a lawyer in Greenwich Village; his campaign for Congress and then his enlistment while a Congressman in World War I;  his first unsuccessful campaign to be mayor, and his decision to run again. It also works in his two courtships, which is how several pleasing ballads find their way into the show. Then the musical stops before he becomes mayor.

In 1959, just a dozen years after LaGuardia’s death, it surely made more sense to leave out of the musical the years that established his greatness. Nearly everybody alive was as familiar with the details of LaGuardia’s mayoralty as we now are with “The Wizard of Oz” (which is why nobody feels cheated or disoriented by “Wicked.”)  But after the show, I asked the first eight people we ran into on 55th Street who LaGuardia was, and only two knew he was the mayor; the others said the guy that the airport’s named after.

Given this unfamiliarity, it matters less that Danny Rutigliano physically resembles the diminutive character he is playing (LaGuardia was just five feet tall). The actor is less successful in capturing the charismatic, mercurial spirit of the man. More effective performances are rendered by Kate Baldwin as Thea, Erin Dilly as Marie, and, as the political boss Ben, Shuler Hensley, fresh from his extraordinary performance in “The Whale” – minus the fat suit, but with his deep voice intact. Giving show-stopping turns are Jenn Gambatese  as the radical but cop-loving Dora (“I Love A Cop”) and Emily Skinner as the showgirl Mitzi (“Gentleman Jimmy”).  One of the strengths of Encores! has always been its ability to attract first-rate talent — something else it has in common with Mayor LaGuardia.

Fiorello

At New York City Center

Book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Directed by Gary Griffin with choreography by Alex Sanchez and music direction by Rob Berman.

Cast:

Kate Baldwin,  Jeremy Bobb, Ray DeMattis, Erin Dilly, Jenn Gambatese,  Adam Heller, Shuler Hensley,   Richard Ruiz, Danny Rutigliano,  Andrew Samonsky, Emily Skinner and Cheryl Stern,  with Justin Barnette, Meggie Cansler, Christine DiGiallonardo, Yurel Echezarreta, Leah Edwards, Rob Gallagher, Jordan Fife Hunt, Alison Jantzie, Lizzie Klemperer, Kevin Ligon, Lauralyn McClelland, Rebecca Robbins, Adam Rogers, Steve Routman, Tommy Scrivens, Lainie Sakakura, Carly Blake Sebouhian, Nathaniel Stampley, Kevin Vortmann.

Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission.

“Fiorello” is set to run through February 3, 2013