Exclusive Interview: Andrew Lippa Takes On Harvey Milk

September 30th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler chats with Andrew Lippa as he prepares for “I Am Harvey Milk,”a one-night-only concert event on October 6 at Avery Fisher Hall. Proceeds will benefit the Harvey Milk Arts Fund at the Hetrick-Martin Institute.

IAHM copyIt was in October 2011 when Andrew Lippa received an email from Timothy Seelig, the San Francisco Gay Men Chorus’ (SFGMC) artistic director and conductor. Seelig was commissioning composers for a 35th anniversary commemoration of Harvey Milk’s assassination. Milk was the first openly gay man to hold public office in California and had been the subject of a 2008 Academy Award-winning film of the same name.

But Lippa wasn’t interested in writing a five-minute installment. Raised in a Jewish household with roots in the theater, a late interest in LGBT rights and an indelible connection to New York City, the Tony- and Grammy-nominated composer/lyricist felt that there was a bigger story to tell.

Instead of responding by email, Lippa picked up the phone (unheard of, these days) and called Seelig, saying that he was interested in writing the whole thing himself. This eventually transformed into a 60-minute oratorio, “I Am Harvey Milk,” that SFGMC premiered in June 2013.

The notion that Lippa would play Milk came to fruition during an early workshop of the piece. Seelig heard Lippa sing the role and thought it would be the perfect fit. Lippa couldn’t disagree. The similarity in the men’s lives infused Lippa with a deep emotional connection to the work—one that transcended the page.

“If anything I am the dream deferred,” says Lippa. “It’s a 30-year-old dream that I’ve wanted to be a Broadway performer. But life happened differently. I have long wanted to return to being an actor and singer.” But one can’t deny his masterful interpretation of Milk’s life into musical form.

Andrew Lippa (photo provided by O&M Co. via The Broadway Blog.)

Andrew Lippa (photo provided by O&M Co. via The Broadway Blog.)

Lippa never imagined the piece as a form of traditional musical theater given that it had been commissioned for a chorus 300 voices strong. He set about creating a 12-movement work based on the 11 months that Milk was in office plus the addition of a prologue. The idea of an oratorio (which Lippa defines as “ a large choral work based on a sacred subject”) seemed like the perfect fit, but he avoided a conventional linear narrative.

“This is a fantasia. It’s not in chronological order, but the emotional story takes you by the hand,” explains Lippa. The composition incorporates counterpoint and multiple meters throughout, weaving a complex yet melodic interpretation of Harvey Milk’s life. One movement, titled “I Am the Bullet,” even explores the iconic politician’s life through the vantage point of the bullet that killed him.

Take the leap for more on I Am Harvey Milk‘s conception and a video preview.

Andrew Lippa in "I Am Harvey Milk" with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. (photo: Glenn Steiner, provided by O&M Co. via The Broadway Blog.)

Andrew Lippa in “I Am Harvey Milk” with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. (photo: Glenn Steiner, provided by O&M Co. via The Broadway Blog.)

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Weinstein Douses Criticism of “Finding Neverland”—Literally

September 29th, 2014 View Comment(s)

FN_Believe_WEB_1In reaction to a piece written by New York Post journalist Michael Riedel criticizing the new musical Finding Neverland, the producers of the show found out that Riedel had not seen the show and had been writing speculatively.

Riedel was invited by producer Harvey Weinstein to come to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and see the show for himself. Weinstein set Riedel a challenge: if less than 80% of the audience did not love the show, Weinstein would do the ALS ice bucket challenge. However if 80 percent or more of the audience loved it, Riedel would have ice dumped on him. The show was surveyed and the results were verified by accounting firm Ernst and Young.

Michael Riedel admitting defeat and being doused with ice water, in front of a large crowd that had gathered to hear the results. (photo: Evgenia Eliseeva via The Broadway Blog.)

Michael Riedel admitting defeat and being doused with ice water, in front of a large crowd that had gathered to hear the results. (photo: Evgenia Eliseeva via The Broadway Blog.)

A resounding 96 percent of the audience voted they loved the show and so Riedel, watched by a large crowd that gathered, was elegantly doused by Weinstein.

In an impromptu conversation with Riedel after the show, Weinstein joked that Riedel should stay in Boston to have a heart operation—to have a heart put IN. Weinstein challenged Riedel to champion the theater in his column and the hard work done by actors, directors and producers. He encouraged Riedel to see shows, to understand the process, rather than annihilate with bitchy gossip.

Riedel was a good sport and was charming and gracious. He admitted to giving the producers of Wicked the wrong advice when they opened out of town that they should probably not proceed with the production.

In a move to support the charity, Weinstein said he would write a $50,000 check for ALS.

Weinstein and director Diane Paulus announced on Friday that Finding Neverland will open on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on April 8, 2015. This announcement comes on the heels of Finding Neverland’s sold-out, world-premiere engagement at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University, which ended yesterday. The production began previews at the Loeb Drama Center on Wednesday, July 23, and ran for a total of 75 performances – all of which played to capacity crowds, making it the highest attended and highest grossing production in A.R.T.’s 34-year history. Finding Neverland will begin preview performances on Broadway in March, 2015. Casting will be announced shortly.

“I am so grateful to A.R.T. and its audiences for providing the perfect environment to incubate this new musical,” Mr. Weinstein said. “We are excited to continue the work and bring the musical to Broadway audiences this spring. I know that the Lunt-Fontanne, which has housed so many memorable productions, will be the ideal home for Finding Neverland.”

Based on the Miramax motion picture by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, Finding Neverland follows the relationship between playwright J. M. Barrie and the family that inspired Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up – one of the most beloved stories of all time.

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Categories: The Buzz

Review: You Can’t Take It With You

September 28th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Contributor Marcus Scott revisits the American classic by Kaufman and Hart.

"You Can't Take It With You" (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

“You Can’t Take It With You” (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

 

Brooks Atkinson, the legendary former theater critic of the New York Times, once wrote that George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart “made their best plays out of dynamite.” There’s some truth to that, given the latest roof-raising revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take It With You directed by Scott Ellis. The six-time Tony nominated director helms a cast that bursts with unwavering jubilation and affection that hasn’t been seen on the Great Way in some time.

Rose Byrne and James Earl Jones (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Rose Byrne and James Earl Jones (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

This production (the second Broadway revival in the show’s history) stars an ensemble cast of legends and rising stars and is unusual in that it strives less for crowd-pleasing applause and more for its bold critiques on the American family unit and the U.S. government at large. Not unlike like last season’s All The Way, You Can’t Take It With You, a delightful comedy of manners, aims to make the audience point the big questions to those running the country and the company we keep among us.

By June 1936, with an impending second World War on the horizon and the economic bubble having burst around them, the whimsical Sycamore family could have lived like most middle-class American families at the time: Absolutely joyless and wearing the earth-shattering spells of the times on their faces. Instead, they relish in the mayhem of mortality and life’s laughs.

Things certainly aren’t quiet for too long in the home of Martin Vanderhof (played by theater icon James Earl Jones), a retiree who hasn’t paid his back taxes to the government since it was required in 1914. He wants to know where the funds go, to which Henderson (played by Karl Kenzler) and later, the G-Men (played by Nick Corley, Austin Durant and Joe Tapper), can’t really answer. Jones, 83, just as sharp and quick-witted as ever, hits the nail with the hammer with such lines like, “Last time we used battleships was in the Spanish-American War, and what did we get out of it? Cuba—and we gave that back. I wouldn’t mind paying if it were something sensible.”

Annaleigh Ashford (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Annaleigh Ashford (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Vanderhof, grandpa of The Sycamore clan, has certainly inspired his wild bunch of pleasant, though zany, offspring and in-laws. Within the every-man-for-himself household, ballet is practiced, xylophones played, snakes collected, printing presses operated and live kittens nursed. And that’s just Wednesday evening, folks.

When Penelope Sycamore (played by the hysterically jovial Kristine Nelson) isn’t popping sweets from her skull ashtray-turned-candy-dish, she’s stroking her kittens for inspiration as she speed-types her 11th play. Penelope’s eldest daughter Essie Carmichael (the outrageously entertaining Annaleigh Ashford), the awkwardly obtuse pixie with a ballet fetish, dances around the Sycamore home in hopes of making it on the great American Stage. Her husband Ed (played by Will Brill) is equally as daft but charming as he chimes away at the xylophone. When Paul Sycamore (played by Mark Linn-Baker), the tinkering patriarch of the family, is blowing up explosives in the downstairs den, he sets them off in the living room without batting an eye. All things considered, though quirky, the family and their cohorts are simply enchanting.

The madcap parade continues with the arrival of the insatiably inebriated actress Gay Wellington (played by Julie Halston), who faints at the sight of the snakes caged in a glass case. Or, Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (played by Byron Jennings and Johanna Day, respectively), the multimillion parents of the lovesick Tony (played by Fran Kranz) who has asked for Alice’s hand in marriage. Alice (played by Rose Byrne) is a bit more skeptical than one would hope and understands that her family is more unconventional than most would hope. And for a time—especially as the curtain closes on Act II, you believe she’s quite right.

Thank heavens they have friends in high places, like danseur Boris Kolenkhov (played by Reg Rogers). After all, it’s not everyday that Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (played by Elizabeth Ashley), a cousin to the Czar who left Russia after the Revolution and is biding her time as a waitress in Times Square, comes to dinner.

Yes, a lot of names were just dropped. That was on purpose, we assume. There’s also star power behind the scenes. Composer Jason Robert Brown (whose musical The Last Five Years gets released as a feature film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan next February) created original period-heavy music and orchestrations for this production of the Kaufman & Hart masterstroke.

Scott Ellis’ seamless direction of the three-act madhouse pandemonium of a play, filled to the brim with action and fireworks that follows a family with more riches than any money can buy during the depression, is the must-see revival of the season. This production is something that will etch itself into your theatrical memory. And with any luck, perhaps you will take it with you long after the final curtain has come down.

You Can’t Take It With You
Longacre Theatre
220 West 48th Street

Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and EDGE Media Network.
 

 

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Review: “Cock” at New Conservatory Theatre Center

September 26th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Contributor Jim Gladstone discovers Cock at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center.

cock

Following the customary pre-show exhortations to take note of emergency exits and switch off cellular phones, the house manager at the New Conservatory Theater gets a quick titter from the audience when she smiles and intones, “And now, enjoy Cock.”

That almost obligatory joke provides the last cheap laugh in the West Coast premiere of British playwright Mike Bartlett’s provocatively titled 90-minute one act, running through October 12.

Todd Pivetti, Stephen McFarland. Photo by Lois Tema via The Broadway Blog.

Todd Pivetti, Stephen McFarland. Photo by Lois Tema via The Broadway Blog.

The smart, staccato production, directed by Stephen Rupsch, helps compensate for some missing nuances in Bartlett’s dark comic script—absences that will likely inspire lively post-theater debate among San Francisco audiences.

John, the central character, is the subject of a sexual and emotional battle between the long term boyfriend, identified only as M, who he dumps in the opening minutes and the new girlfriend, F, who he quickly takes up with in the breakup’s wake.

Though he’s the only character with a name, John is written as a bit of a cipher, and played as a whining maw of neediness by Stephen McFarland. Both M and W seem primarily attracted to John’s people-pleasing malleability; the very quality that ends up making all of their relationships untenable.

Todd Pivetti’s M has a critical, teasing confidence that—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not—bruises John. When their relationship reaches its crisis point, though, he reveals unexpected tenderness, loyalty, and, frankly, his own neediness (For his face-to-face meeting with F, M invites his father along as wingman).

Meanwhile, though it’s easy to imagine the charismatic, charming Radhika Rao’s W as a temptation to John with her constant reassurances that he’s 100 percent perfect, it’s much harder to imagine a contemporary urban woman who would actually behave as she does.

W’s apparently unquestioning belief that M can switch off his homosexuality and have an entirely satisfying straight relationship with her stretches credibility. So, too, does the lack of any discussion of bisexuality in the script.

The play’s rapid-fire scenes alternate terse verbal tangoes between John and M and John and F, until all three—plus Daddy, come together in the evening’s penultimate face-off. They’re set in a central, sawdust-covered playing area, surrounded on all four-sides by audience seating covered in burlap sackcloth over which hovers a wooden, wagon-wheel-styled chandelier.

This scenic design, by Devin Kasper, is more appropriate to the play than the hit off-Broadway’s production, which evoked a Greek amphitheater. Like the fairground cockfight this set evokes, Bartlett’s play is a smart entertainment with a bit of a trumped up carny quality to the battle. It’s by no means a classic, but a rousing attraction nonetheless.

Cock
New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco
Through October 12

Todd Pivetti, Stephen McFarland, Radhika Rao. Photo by Lois Tema via The Broadway Blog.

Todd Pivetti, Stephen McFarland, Radhika Rao. Photo by Lois Tema via The Broadway Blog.

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New York Innovative Theatre Awards Celebrates Off-Off Broadway

September 24th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Contributor Marcus Scott recaps the annual awards for New York’s Off-Off Broadway community.

New York Innovative Theatre Awards (photo: Innovative Theatre Foundation via The Broadway Blog.)

New York Innovative Theatre Awards (photo: Innovative Theatre Foundation via The Broadway Blog.)

It is rare that the underdog is awarded for excellence by exhibiting a caliber of artistry or ambition that may often rival that of the more popular and by-the-numbers candidate. For a decade, the New York Innovative Theatre Awards has made it their mission to shine a light on the work of art created Off-Off-Broadway, by lesser known theaters that are shaping the collective consciousness of theater-making today.

Host Jason Kravitz (photo: Innovative Theatre Foundation via The Broadway Blog.)

Host Jason Kravitz (photo: Innovative Theatre Foundation via The Broadway Blog.)

Hosted by the foul-mouthed stage and TV actor Jason Kravits, the 2014 New York Innovative Theatre Awards celebrated the more common WTF moments seen Off-Off-Broadway, relishing in all of the idiosyncrasies that make downtown theater so invigorating. For starters, there’s Kravits, whose anything-goes-carpe-diem showmanship resulted in a crass, though amusing, striptease. He also dazzled (or perhaps traumatized) in a multi-colored cross-strapped floral skintight one-piece (which by show’s end was worn by a muscular chorus boy.)

Then there was the acceptance speech by the artistic directors of Blessed Unrest, who took home the Caffe Cino Fellowship Award and gave an excerpt of their upcoming 2014-2015 showcase, “Line.” With an ensemble of nearly 20 performers, the stage flooded with personalities of every imaginable form, sashaying or pirouetting into the spotlight to ‘80s post-disco dance fluff and giving a bit of Greek chorus ham. It was out there, but certainly fabulous. Just as fabulous were the evening’s honorees. From Carlos Neto, who arrived in the U.S. only a year ago from Portugal and London on a work visa to Gail Cooper-Hecht, an actor-turned-seamstress who hadn’t been on a stage in over 40 years—this was definitely an accomplished and multifaceted group of artisans.

Among the night’s big winners, were a few special awards given to individuals who served as beacons of inspiration and consummate professionalism. Kevin R. Free, who had to run uptown to get in costume for his turn in the celebrated The Fantasticks, was presented the Doris Wilson Independent Playwright Award by friend and playwright Mariah MacCarthy. Wishing her family a “hello” in South Korea, Haejin Han of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble was award Outstanding Stage Manager by Elise Stone.

Cult theater icon Jim Rado presented his longtime friend Dan Bianchi with the Artistic Achievement Award. Bianchi, who has wowed audiences far and wide with his company Radio XXXX, recalled how he became inspired to director noir-stylized theater.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the night was the tribute to Woodie King, Jr. who was presented the Ellen Steward Award by friend and theater giant André De Shields. In an eight-minute speech, followed by a video presentation, De Shields recalled how he was first introduced to Ellen Steward and King, who took the actor under his wing. Responsible for creating a platform for important works like the Taking Of Miss Janie and For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Was Enuf, was well as aiding the careers of actors like Denzel Washington, Ben Vereen, Audra McDonald and Alfre Woodard, De Shields shined a light on a forgotten hero. By the time King took the stage, he was given a resounding standing ovation.

Click through for the list of winners…

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Categories: The Buzz, Way Off Broadway

Review: Company XIV’s “Rococo Rouge”

September 22nd, 2014 View Comment(s)

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler gets a taste of 21st century Rococo from the innovative performance troupe Company XIV.

Company XIV's "Rococo Rouge" (photo: Phillip Van Nostrand via The Broadway Blog.)

Company XIV’s “Rococo Rouge” (photo: Phillip Van Nostrand via The Broadway Blog.)

Something naughty is happening on Lafayette Street these days. It began with Bridget Everett’s tits-to-the-wall performance in Rock Bottom, which opened at The Public Theatre last week. If you meander across the street to Colonnade Row, you’ll stumble across one of New York City’s great architectural gems—a series of Greek revival buildings erected in the early 19th century. And if you delve a bit deeper, you will discover Company XIV’s latest theatrical confection, Rococo Rouge. Conceived, choreographed and directed by Artistic Director Austin McCormick, Rococo Rouge is the latest installment from this “classically trained ban of theatrical libertines,” that last year brought us Nutcracker Rouge.

poster-Rococo Rouge-wNamed after the flamboyant and virile Louis XIV (who was also known as being a great patron of the arts), Company XIV’s eclectic band of performers pulls out all of the stops, incorporating aerial acts, live vocals and contemporary dance—all set against a fantastical backdrop created by Zane Pihlstrom (costume and set design), Jeanette Yew (lighting design) and Austin McCormick (sound design). For the most part, they succeed in creating a voluptuous and dynamic world that explores the themes of love and obsession.

Shelly Watson returns as the evening’s host, bringing her unique brand of chanteuse charisma to the evening. While she’s got pipes that could bring Louis XIV back from the grave, the improvised portions of the evening and her interaction with the audience falls flat and one wishes that she might crash Everett’s show across the street for a bit of “Down and Dirty 101.” That being said, she’s got a sparkle in her eye and delivers a funky high-art rendition of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” rap.

Other pop culture and classical references are woven throughout the evening, including a haunting rendition of “Youth” (delivered with vacant seduction by Katrina Cunningham with Rob Mastrianni on guitar) and Edith Piaf’s recording of “Le Bel Indifférent.” These juxtapositions create a nonlinear fabric from which McCormick and his artists weave a complex exploration of timeless themes centered on the heart.

The committed ensemble tackles McCormick’s muscular choreography with abandon—contorting, thrusting, pole dancing and dangling from the ceiling as if it was their last night on earth. The evening loses steam, through no fault of the performers, due to two unnecessary intermissions that truncate the evening’s emotional force. While the beverage menu says, “There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne,” (credited to Bette Davis), Company XIV is bubbling all on its own.

Rococo Rouge Presented by Company XIV
Colonnade Row, 428 Lafayette Street
Through November 2

Davon Rainey and Shelly Watson in "Rococo Rouge" (photo: Phillip Van Nostrand via The Broadway Blog.)

Davon Rainey and Shelly Watson in “Rococo Rouge” (photo: Phillip Van Nostrand via The Broadway Blog.)

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Review: Mighty Real, A Fabulous Sylvester Musical

September 21st, 2014 View Comment(s)

Contributor Marcus Scott gets real with the new musical about legendary performer Sylvester.

(l to r) Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anthony Wayne and Anastacia McCleskey in "Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical" (photo: Nathan Johnson via The Broadway Blog).

(l to r) Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anthony Wayne and Anastacia McCleskey in “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical” (photo: Nathan Johnson via The Broadway Blog).

A star is born with the green light on Broadway chorus boy Anthony Wayne, known for his roles in celebrated shows Pippin and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, performing in a jukebox revue as one of the world’s most innovative underground acts. With Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical, the bio-musical following the life and times of disco diva Sylvester James, Jr. From his days as a gospel choir boy in a Pentecostal church in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood where he was persecuted for his sexuality to the 1988 Castro Street Fair where crowds chanted his name to an ear-splitting crescendo, Wayne handles the role with ethos and charisma. The song-and-dance man obviously did his homework, going as far as giving the audience a look behind the man by providing some of his favorite church hymns and perfecting the iconic performer’s ticks.

For diehards, the 90-minute musical spares the often-desired sordid details of the singer’s life, instead opting for a more straightforward approach of telling the story from birth to death; a no-no when it comes to most stage plays. Rather than transporting the audience to a moment in time (Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill) or focusing on the early life of the artist (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), the play follows the protagonist from childhood to dying breath and beyond the grave.

Anthony Wayne in "Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical." (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Anthony Wayne in “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical.” (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sadly, the story is told as more as a history presentation with live music. It is because of this, though heavily entertaining, the show suffers from a thin plot that is crafted and orchestrated only to introduce the next song. Instants that could create tension or prompt more dialogue are washed over for the sake of getting the next bullet point on an otherwise colorful saga of one of the world’s premier falsettos. Moments of catharsis are reduced to empty sentiments that could be stronger if Wayne and company simmered in the grit of the times. After all, there was no one more connected to the zeitgeist of the gay underground in the age of decadence than Sylvester, who lived long enough to see many of his friends contract AIDS and fade away before perishing of the same in 1988. Much of this information is told almost in passing, written only for the occult followers of the gay icon music and legacy.

That’s not to say, the show isn’t the promenade of confetti and footlights it promises in its title. Much like the climax of George C. Wolfe and Susan Birkenhead’s 1992 dramatic bio-musical opus Jelly’s Last Jam, Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical is more of a going away jamboree for one of the most prominent black queer heroes. Co-directors (and life partners) Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman treat their narrative with tender love and care, evident with their eagle-eyed precision with a retro ‘70s lighting and scenic staging by David Lander and costume designs, also by Bowman. Bowman gets “two snaps” for his period-heavy stitches that mirrored the singer’s most emblematic fashion statements. Operating on a shoestring budget of $21,000 from their successful Kickstarter campaign, Wayne and Bowman did the impossible in bringing a neon flamingo like Sylvester to life off stage. Provided there is a transfer, one could only hope for more costume changes in that department, however. After all, when it comes to the subject of Sylvester, theatricality was the artist’s ambrosia.

As co-director, all eyes are on Wayne, a veteran Broadway ensemble member who has twirled out onto center stage without batting an eye. It is also one of the hardest roles to play Off-Broadway: As Sylvester, the Duchess of Disco, Wayne has the burden of reviving a legendary bon vivant recording artist who thrived on pushing buttons and fanning fires. He succeeds. A Molotov cocktail of guts, gospel and glitter, Sylvester’s short though prolific career rivaled that of other disco queens Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and Evelyn “Champagne” King. Once dubbed “Queen Of Disco,” Sylvester turned heads with his flamboyant and androgynous façade, often being dubbed a drag queen, which he denounced throughout his career. But with such exquisite taste in lavish furs, sparkling gold lame, rhinestones and champagne—not to mention his profoundly mascara’d face and lip-glossed mug—he was one in a million.

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Interview: Cirque du Soleil’s Craig Paul Smith

September 19th, 2014 View Comment(s)
Craig Paul Smith in Cirque du Soleil's "O" (photo: Cirque du Soleil via The Broadway Blog).

Craig Paul Smith in Cirque du Soleil’s “O” (photo: Cirque du Soleil via The Broadway Blog).

“I’m an athlete,” says Craig Paul Smith, 41, who has performed in O, the groundbreaking—uhh…water breaking?Cirque du Soleil spectacle at the Bellagio in Las Vegas since it opened 16 years ago. “I tumbled competitively for Great Britain on the national team from the time I was a teenager.”

“But tumbling is not an Olympic sport, there’s not prize money or sponsorship money at stake. I was doing it to compete and represent my country.” For an athlete in a non-professional sport like tumbling, says Smith, Cirque du Soleil offers “the job of a lifetime.”

“While I was competing, I was doing any kind of odd job that would let me continue to train and travel to competitions. I answered phones, waited tables, anything that would help generate a little cash. But ultimately, when you’re a high-level amateur athlete, you’re probably going to have to retire and learn how to do something very different than what’s been the biggest focus of your life.”

When he was 23, at the suggestion of his coach, Smith went for an open Cirque audition in London. A year later, while at a competition in Russia, he got a phone call from his parents back in Birmingham, letting him know that he’d been invited to fly to Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal to participate in the creation of the show that ultimately became O.

Craig Paul Smith (photo: Cirque du Soleil via The Broadway Blog.)

Craig Paul Smith (photo: Cirque du Soleil via The Broadway Blog.)

And so, Craig Paul Smith ran off to join the circus.

“There was a real transition I had to go through,” recalls Smith, “in order to learn how to perform for the audience, not just for myself and my team. Competing as an athlete uses a very inward type of energy. I had to learn to project out and engage the audience in what I’m doing.”

Smith says this is a common challenge for gymnasts, swimmers, and other members of the Cirque corps who come from the world of athletics rather than having been trained in dance or circus arts. They also tend to discover a dramatic shift in life’s rhythms.

“As an athlete, you get very used to the idea of building up toward a competition over a length of time. You train and train and train, you peak at the competition, and then there’s a rest period. In Cirque, I have to peak ten times a week. Mentally, that’s tough.”

Another challenge for Smith was the fact that, even though his acrobatic routines in O take place on dry land and mid-air, he had to train and be certified in scuba diving along with the rest of the cast. “I’d never been much of a swimmer,” he admits. “The whole idea of putting myself underwater was a bit uncomfortable.”

Cirque du Soleil's "O" (photo: Cirque du Soleil via The Broadway Blog.)

Cirque du Soleil’s “O” (photo: Cirque du Soleil via The Broadway Blog.)

The things one does for the job of a lifetime.

The third—and perhaps the least challenging—transition Smith made after joining Cirque was coming out as gay. He’d kept his sexuality secret from his parents and all but a few friends and teammates back in England. But the crucible of training seemed to boil everyone down to his or her core being.

“When I went into the creation process in Montreal, we worked extremely hard for ten to twelve hours a day. Many different languages are being spoken, but you become a very tight family very quickly. You’re all very dependent upon each other no matter how different you are, and you just don’t have the extra energy to be anyone but yourself.”

Cirque du Soleil’s O is currently playing at The Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Show Folk, The Buzz

Review: Bridget Everett Hits “Rock Bottom”

September 18th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler gets “exposed” to one of New York’s hottest cabaret performers, Bridget Everett. This article contains adult themes and language.

Bridget Everett in "Rock Bottom" (photo: Kevin Yatarola ) via The Broadway Blog.

Bridget Everett in “Rock Bottom” (photo: Kevin Yatarola ) via The Broadway Blog.

I was first exposed (quite literally, in fact) to Bridget Everett at a benefit cabaret performance about a decade ago. She had been added to the roster by one of the event chairs who had a penchant for downtown performers. Even at that time, Everett’s alter ego stage persona was swilling chardonnay and waxing poetic about her white trash upbringing in Manhattan, Kansas, and her affection for black dick. Oh, how things change yet stay the same. At the end of the performance, one of the board members scrambled backstage to see if Everett was available for an encore—to the tune of a $10,000 donation to the charity beneficiary. If memory serves me, I believe the response was a resounding, “Fuck, yeah” and a star—at least in my eyes—was born.

Bridget Everett (photo: Kevin Yatarola) via The Broadway Blog.

Bridget Everett (photo: Kevin Yatarola) via The Broadway Blog.

Cut to Everett’s latest incarnation, Rock Bottom, which opened last night at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater. Developed from New York Voices, an artist-commissioning program that matches master artists with developing talent, Everett has taken her bawdy, shock-value act to stratospheric levels with the mentorship of co-creators Marc Shaiman (Hairspray, NBC’s Smash), Scott Wittman (Catch Me If You Can), Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz (original member of the Beastie Boys) and pianist songwriter Matt Ray. Cumulatively, the team’s musical compositions are framed by a shock value premise that leaves nary a rock unturned. She goes for the jugular with sex toys, a can of whipped cream and several revealing onstage costume changes (designed by Larry Krone for House of Larreón).

Everett’s Rock Bottom rants don’t necessarily follow a linear plot, but her recurring themes of body empowerment, the class system (she mentions her “slave job” several times throughout the evening) and dysfunctional relationships simmer like a batch of crystal meth in a trailer park kitchen. “Bridget’s ferocious femininity and unapologetic embrace of her sexuality are at the forefront of her work,” says Joe’s Pub director Shanta Thake in the program notes. “The feeling of female empowerment is palpable in the room every time she takes the stage.”

In order to hit those marks, Everett is well equipped with a brand new songbook that showcases her smoky alto range. Shaiman and Wittman are masters of the hook and don’t disappoint with arrangements that draw from Motown, R&B, gospel and beyond. On a rare occasion, the hooks venture into hokey, but for the most part Everett benefits greatly from the more sophisticated musicality than her previous shows, including a number of well-placed key changes that allow the performer to soar into her higher register—proving that there’s more to Bridget Everett than “them low rider titties.”

One of the greatest testaments to Bridget Everett’s endurance and endearment is her dedicated audience, who return time and again to see what she may pull out of an orifice next. They come from all walks of life (Patti LuPone is a notable fan—so much so that the Tony Award winner asked her to perform a number at her recent Carnegie Hall concert). They come to laugh and surprisingly, sometimes cry. Most have them have probably hit rock bottom at some point or another. And rising like a phoenix, Bridget Everett is there for them—inevitably with a glass of chardonnay.

Rock Bottom
Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through October 11

"Rock Bottom" at Joe's Pub (photo: Kevin Yatarola) via The Broadway Blog.

“Rock Bottom” at Joe’s Pub (photo: Kevin Yatarola) via The Broadway Blog.

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THEATER BUFF: Adam Kemmerer of “Fabulous!”

September 17th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Every third Wednesday of the month, a fabulous actor/singer/dancer fills out contributor Tom Mizer’s nosey little questionnaire and offers a glimpse of what he looks like from a bit closer than the mezzanine. For September, we’ve got a guy who is truly fabulous…

Adam Kemmerer. Photo by Chasi Annexy.

Adam Kemmerer. Photo by Chasi Annexy.

Name: Adam Kemmerer

Hometown: Catasauqua, Pennsylvania

Current Show/Role: Rock Henderson in Fabulous! The Queen of New Musical Comedies

The best part of the show I’m working on now is: Listening to the waves of laughter my castmates get every night.

The most challenging job in show business I ever had was: I was in a production of Forever Plaid in New Hampshire. I think we had to learn the music and choreography in 3 days. I remember a lot of cursing and gentle sobbing. But it turned out to be one of my favorite productions of all time.

If I wasn’t a performer, I would be: I’ve always wanted to be a police officer. Someone that can help his community. So I think a NYPD detective would have been fun. I’d settle for playing one on TV though.

Places, Intermission or Curtain Call? I like intermission best. You get to take stock of how your show is going and make adjustments for the audience you have that day and you also have one more act to get it right! Read more…

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Categories: Theater Buff