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15 Minutes with Aaron Michael Krueger

August 13th, 2016 Comments off

For the first time, The Broadway Blog breaks form with our “15 Minutes with…” column, taking this opportunity to introduce you to up and coming musical theater writer/composer Aaron Michael Krueger. His new show, Super!, opens August 12 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Krueger’s 2014 musical, New Dawn, took home four awards (including Best Book, Music, and Lyrics, and Best Musical) at the Midtown International Theatre Festival.

The Broadway Blog had a chance to gain some insights about his latest project, how it’s developed, and the challenges of storytelling in the context of a Festival setting.

Aaron Michael Krueger (Photo: Colin/HeadshotsandReelsNYC via The Broadway Blog.)

Aaron Michael Krueger (Photo: Colin/HeadshotsandReelsNYC via The Broadway Blog.)

What inspired you to write Super!?
I’ve always found shows like Smallville interesting because it really focused on what makes a superhero a human, instead of what makes a human a superhero. It made the characters relatable.

Can you tell us a bit more about the show? What can audience members expect? (Without any spoilers!)
Without giving anything away, I’d tell people to expect a show that’s more in line with current comic book and movie trends in terms of tone. It’s not at all like the Adam West Batman series. Audiences can expect some really stellar performances given by this incredible cast and some music that is sure to get stuck in your head.

How has the show evolved since its debut at the Midtown International Theatre Festival?
The show has grown a great deal. The book is about 90 percent new material, and there are a number of new songs and themes. One of the cast members from this production was in the MITF production as well and his first comment after reading it was that the show was much darker, and much more human.

Can you share a bit more specifics about the evolution of this latest draft? Would you say the greatest changes are in plot line, character development or other aspects?
The bulk of the changes are actually in development of the specifics of the show. There is absolutely more character development, which was needed from the last draft, but a couple of new plot points in the show have driven the show into a slightly darker place. It’s one that made a lot of sense for the story we’re trying to tell. 

Do you think there are common themes in your major works (New Dawn, Super!) thus far?
Absolutely. Both New Dawn and Super! are coming of age stories, very different ones, but they have that in common. New Dawn has a character who deals with coming out, and we actually had a conversation with our lead in Super! this time around about the similarities between telling someone you’re gay and telling them you have super powers.

What composer/lyricists do you admire and what is it about their work that resonates with you?
I really love Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. I think their work is brilliant, and I always fall in love with it. I think Joe Iconis writes music that is accessible and moving and always fun. And Larry O’Keefe writes such beautiful songs that integrate into stories so perfectly.

Finding inspiration at Comic Con. (Photo provided by Aaron Michael Krueger via The Broadway Blog.)

Finding inspiration at Comic Con. (Photo provided by Aaron Michael Krueger via The Broadway Blog.)

As an author, what are your thoughts about diversity in casting? Do you think it’s important to try to actively exemplify our multiculturalism on stage?
I am always a fan of seeing a diverse cast on a stage. I, myself, am mixed (black and white) and growing up, had a difficult time finding characters and role models that I could relate to, so it’s always exciting to see a show with a diverse cast. I try to write shows that can be open to any interpretation of ethnicity. I’m also adopted, so I don’t have an issue casting people of two different ethnicities as siblings because I’m of the belief that a common ethnicity isn’t what defines your family.

As part of the New York International Fringe Festival, what have been some of the challenges (and solutions) to putting up a show with limited time and resources?
I have been very grateful for the fact that FringeNYC does offer discounts on certain services or rehearsal rates. In terms of the show content, the biggest obstacle has been how to deliver the expectations of the superhero genre in a festival setting. It forced everyone to get very creative and figure out ways to design a superhero costume or make it seem like people are flying through the air without having the large budget of a blockbuster film. But I think the show absolutely delivers the spectacle, but even more so the heart of what has made the genre so popular.

Super!
New York International Fringe Festival 
SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam Street
August 14, 9:15 p.m.
August 16, 9 p.m.
August 18, 9:15 p.m.
August 21, 2:30 p.m.
August 26, 4:30 p.m.

Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

15 Minutes with Lady Rizo

July 19th, 2016 Comments off
Lady Rizo with her son. (Photo: Bill Evans via The Broadway Blog.)

Lady Rizo with her son. (Photo: Bill Evans via The Broadway Blog.)

Raised by theatrical gypsies, Lady Rizo is one of New York City’s powerhouse vocalists. And while those in the know may recognize her from frequent stints at Joe’s Pub and The Darby, Rizo (a.k.a. Amelia Zirin-Brown) has staying power and international recognition, including a duet on Yo-Yo Ma’s Grammy-winning album, Yo-Yo Ma and Friends: Songs of Joy and Peace.

Rizo returns to Joe’s Pub tonight with her new show, Lady Rizo: Multiplied. Eight months postpartum, she digs her sparkling heels into new motherhood. Backed by a choice New York trio led by longtime collaborator Yair Evnine, Rizo rips apart carefully chosen pop songs and presents them among her own stirring originals.

The Broadway Blog’s editor Matthew Wexler had a chance to chat with her while she was getting her hair done at a Los Angeles salon—what any proper diva should be doing on a Wednesday morning!

The Broadway Blog: It’s embarrassing, but I had no idea who you were until I saw you perform at the recent Night of 1,000 Judys benefit for the Ali Forney Center, hosted by Justin Sayre. How did you meet Justin?

Lady Rizo: I met Justin when he first moved to New York City. What a funny fellow… and then I thought—does he really talk like that? He’s completely smart and authentic and hilarious. I spent time with him at a Radical Faerie queer sanctuary in Tennessee. I’ve done his show, The Meeting, a couple of times. I’m happy to be a guest if I’m passionate about the subject.

Lady Rizo's debut album, 'Violet.'

Lady Rizo’s debut album, ‘Violet.’

BB: What was the song you sang? It was captivating.

LR: “Blues in the Night”—a haunting arrangement I created with music director Tracy Stark. I wanted something pastiche, beautiful, dark, and haunting. I’d been practicing it all night, singing it to my infant son as I put him to bed.

BB: You have a strong sense of theatricality when you perform, did you study theater?

LR: I come from a theater family. I was raised on the Oregon coast by a group of theatrical hippies. Their passion was theater—Shakespeare and Brecht in barns and basements. This artistic community I grew up in was incredible rich. I started really early. I was in a Chekov play at two (I didn’t have a speaking role.) Then I studied at Cornish College of the Arts, they offered a merit-based full scholarship.

BB: Was there a point that you could identify a shift from musical theater to your own unique cabaret style?

LR: I was always encouraged to look at art individually and radically, but after graduating I was trying to be a working actor and taking a lot of different gigs. Being cast in musicals, I firmly felt that it wasn’t my place even though I could sing, dance and act.

Then I started to get cast in straight plays with music, and finally it was the evolution of my own shows. I moved to New York City to start over again with this demeaning process. It makes sense: supply and demand—there’s a power dynamic but I had a special breed of insanity and pride that I wasn’t going to do that. So I created a show.

I was married to a beautiful Colombian man at the time and I created [“Lady Rizo”] with him. That was his last name. I didn’t take his name legally. It’s ironic that it’s had more staying power than the marriage.

Lady Rizo (Photo via Twitter.)

Lady Rizo (Photo via Twitter.)

BB: Do you have a desire to return to the stage in a more traditional theatrical setting (doing the same show eight times per week). If so, are there existing roles that you’d like to put your stamp on?

LR: There was a cool movement when there was a discussion of reviving Funny Girl and Michael Musto wrote a column about me. I love the freedom of making my own rules but I’d love my career to mimic the arc of Bette Midler that transitions back into acting.

BB: I assume your new show, “Multiplied,” is at least—in part—inspired by the birth of your son. What can audience members expect?

LR: This life change… it’s a very strange tug. I’m so happy and love with my beautiful son. He’s charming and sociable—that means a lot to me. It’s how I identity myself. But it takes so much brain space to raise a baby if you aren’t someone who farms out the job to caretakers. I don’t have daycare and nannies. His father, a lighting designer from Sydney, is incredible.

The evolution of mankind took over. It turns out I am a breeder. Part of what I’m grappling with is the resignation of that term. I identify strongly as a queer person and have always in my adult life circled around that and so I’m struggling with my own boundaries as a perceived heterosexual breeder.

Gender is the frontier that we’re at – and something fun to keep in mind when raising a son. What is it like to raise a white male? One can hope he’ll be a homosexual. All I can do is dress him in peach. (I have an aversion to pink.)

The core of my uncomfortability is that I feel like the voices of parents are still so hetero-normative and it becomes so loud. You don’t really hear alternative parenting voices in the media because people that have a problem with society aren’t vocal breeders. We need more artists and free thinkers to fill our population if we don’t want to have it completely hijacked.

Will this be the same show you intend to perform in Edinburgh?

LR: Yes, it’s a show that I started making in London in March. I loved performing pregnant. It lowered everyone’s expectations. They were just happy that I was standing in heels. I didn’t have to work as hard. But it’s good to reflect on that time.

BB: What artists do you listen to and can we expect any new collaborations?

LR: I listen to My Brightest Diamond and Tune-Yards, but so much of what I listen to is pre-1964.

I just recorded my second album at Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s seen some of the legends like Al Green and Isaac Hayes and a lot of the same components of the studio during that time are still there. I’m hoping to release it in the fall.

BB: Beyond music, your social media feeds show solidarity with the LGBT community, women’s rights, and gun opposition. How important is it for you to use your notoriety to shed light on some of these important issues?

LR: Why else do what I do? It’s interesting to hear how people get angry when artists respond to the world around us. I’m not interested in a neo-Nazi loving my singing voice. I’d much rather reach someone who’s thinking humanity more holistically through my voice.

It’s the way I was raised. Overt power and sensuality on stage can be considered radical. Slut shaming is really high. It only takes a moment reading the Internet to see that anonymity breeds contempt. We’re living in a patriarchy. We can accept that, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t voice opposition to it. Misogyny affects everyone—including men—because it denies the feminine inside the man.

If people get excited about my music, it allows me to explore these deeper causes.

Lady Rizo: Multiplied
Joe’s Pub
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
July 19, 9:30 p.m.
July 20, 9:30 p.m.
July 25, 7 p.m.
July 26, 9:30 p.m.

Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15 Minutes With Rockette Katie Walker

July 15th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

The Radio City Rockettes in 'New York Spectacular' (Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden via The Broadway Blog.)

The Radio City Rockettes in ‘New York Spectacular’ (Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden via The Broadway Blog.)

With approximately 11 shows to perform on a weekly basis, Katie Walker doesn’t find herself with much free time. The North Carolina native, who serves both as a dance captain and performer in the New York Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes, is entering her ninth year with the famous precision dance company.

Best known for the Christmas Spectacular, the Rockettes are currently starring in a summer spectacle that is thrilling audiences and critics alike. This marks the second consecutive year for the non-holiday themed show, which is a splashy love letter to New York. It also heralds a fresh approach for the Rockettes through Emmy Award-winning choreographer Mia Michaels.

Walker recently spoke with the Broadway Blog over the phone to discuss the artistic process and the improved changes she’s noticed since joining the troupe.

Katie Walker (Photo provided by MSG via the Broadway Blog.)

Katie Walker (Photo provided by MSG via the Broadway Blog.)

BB: How long have you been with the Rockettes and how did you land such a coveted gig?

KW: I’ve been with the Rockettes since 2008. The audition process was probably the most intense audition of my life. It’s a two-day process if you make it past the callbacks. There are approximately 500 other girls and you go in 100 at a time. You have about 20 minutes to learn the choreography. Then you perform it three at a time. It’s quick, it’s a lot of pressure, and after you perform it, they will make an initial cut. Then they repeat that process throughout the day. At the end of the day, about 50 dancers are chosen to come back for Day Two where they do it all over again. Then, it’s a waiting game. I auditioned in April and didn’t get the acceptance call until July.

BB: How did the collaboration with Mia Michaels emerge?

KW: We worked with her last year on the opening number (Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York”). We had a little time to work with her on that, but this year [as director and choreographer] we had the chance to work with her every single day. We started pre-production for the show on January 12 and would meet from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. to find the balance between her world and ours. We then called in some of the Rockettes to see how the material would work on a larger scale. Then Karen Keeler, director of the Rockettes creative, Mia and myself would put the formations on paper.

BB: What is one of the major changes you noticed with the New York Spectacular from last year to this year?

KW: The biggest difference is that this year, the Rockettes are featured non-stop. There is one number that we do where we have literally 90 seconds to change costumes and run back on stage. This year, thanks to Mia, the dance has an edgier style. The choreography is much more modern, physical, and contemporary but it still maintains the precision and unity that the Rockettes are known for.

BB: How has the Christmas Spectacular changed?

KW: When I started in 2008, many of the dances had been in the show for years. Over the last few years, they’ve introduced a new number every three years to make it a bit more modern and lyrical. It’s a nice balance between the classic and the contemporary.

BB: There’s a lengthy rain scene in the show in which all of the Rockettes are dancing to “Singin’ in the Rain.” How are you able to get through that with without slipping and sliding?

KW: We have taps at the bottom of our rain boots and sometimes we put tape at the bottom. Even then, the stage and the water will wash it away. We rehearsed that scene so much during technical rehearsals. Because of how the rain falls, we have to change the balance on our feet or the pressure we are putting on the stage.

The Radio City Rockettes (Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden via The Broadway Blog.)

The Radio City Rockettes (Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden via The Broadway Blog.)

BB: Is there a favorite scene in the show for you?

KW: I absolutely love the finale, which we call “Radio City New York, New York”. It’s a perfect balance between the traditional and the contemporary. Mia put a modern edge on it and it pushed us away from “being in a box” to giving us the freedom to “just dance it.” Frank Sinatra’s famous song is playing, a backdrop reveals the skyline of New York, and the audience is on its feet. It’s my proudest moment.

BB: How do you maintain your stamina through this process?

KW: Once we start rehearsals, we rehearse six hours a day, six days per week. Other activities like the gym and yoga go by the wayside and the rehearsal itself is really our stamina building activity. There is no downtime aside from a lunch break. After one week, we’re all in great shape for show mode. Now that we are performing, we have a little more free time. We are fortunate to have an athletic training center and gym at Radio City, so when we have long gaps between shows, many of us will run on the treadmill in order to keep our downtime active.

Katie Walker taking a moment on stage at Radio City Music Hall. (Photo: Facebook)

Katie Walker taking a moment on stage at Radio City Music Hall. (Photo: Facebook)

BB: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a Rockette?

KW: One of the most amazing things, in addition to performing, is so much of the outside work we get to do. We are so well known and viewed as a historical icon of New York City. We get to do a ton of community work with children and at children’s hospitals. That interaction on a human level is one of my favorite things about this job. This year, as assistant choreographer, I taught nearly every dance in the show myself. To prepare 41 other Rockettes for a new show that was created for them was a huge moment for me on opening night.

BB: What is the most challenging?

KW: None of it is really hard because it’s a job that we love so much. Even though we have to wake up sometimes at 6 a.m. to do a 9 a.m. show, we don’t mind because we get to have so many cool experiences. The physical wear is probably the most challenging because our muscles get tired and things get sore, but we just push through it and not let it affect our performances.

BB: I imagine after this show wraps on August 7, you’ll start preparation for the Christmas Spectacular?

KW: We will. We’ll have about four weeks off and I hope to visit my family in Elon, North Carolina.

BB: I will spread the word to my fellow cynical New Yorker friends that this show is not just for tourists!

KW: Yes! You’ll leave the show loving New York City!

New York Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes
Radio City Music Hall
1260 Avenue of the Americas at 50th Street
Through August 7

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics and Teaching Theatre Magazines. Follow him on twitter: @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

 

15 Minutes with Barrett Foa

June 18th, 2016 Comments off

by Jim Gladstone

Barrett Foa (Photo provided by Feinstein's at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Foa (Photo provided by Feinstein’s at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

“After seven years of being a featured actor,” quips Barrett Foa, who brings his cabaret act to Feinstein’s at the Nikko June 24 and 25 in San Francisco. “It’s nice to get back to being self-indulgent again.”

Behind every joke, of course, is a little truth.

New York born-and-bred, Foa—best known for playing operative Eric Beale in the ensemble of the stalwart CBS drama NCIS: Los Angeles—is a theater kid at heart.

Foa, 38, made his Broadway debut fifteen years ago in the original cast of Mamma Mia! and has also played Princeton/Rod in Avenue Q (Foa was the first non-puppeteer specifically trained for the show) and replaced Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

“Television has given me a cushion,” he says, “So I can get back to singin’ and dancin’. I’ve really missed the immediate gratification of laughs and applause that you get from a live audience.”

Barrett Foa (far right) and the cast of 'NCIS: Los Angeles' (Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Foa (far right) and the cast of ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ (Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

“To be honest, that’s why I started putting this show together,” says Foa, who debuted his new act in April at Los Angeles’ Rockwell and played Feinstein’s 54 Below in New York earlier this month.

“Cabaret is really the most self-indulgent of all the art forms,” he says, suggesting that it may also be and antidote-of-sorts to disappearing into formulaic procedural television.

“I’ve dipped my toe into this a bit before, doing some numbers in collaborative shows with a group of friends at Ars Nova and the Duplex in New York, but this is my first full show.”

Called Grin and Barrett, the show began with Foa assembling a long list of his favorite songs—“These are all songs that make me happy every time I hear the first chords play”—and then paring it down to dovetail with a group of anecdotes he wanted to share about his life in and out of the theater.

“It’s not your mother’s cabaret,” he says, noting that the show includes songs by James Taylor, Randy Newman, Rufus Wainwright and other pop composers as well as theater music. “I need it to appeal,” he jokes, “to laypeople as well.”

Barrett Foa at the PaleyFest 2015 Fall TV Preview (Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Foa at the PaleyFest 2015 Fall TV Preview (Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

Molding his own show also gave Foa a chance to create structure amidst the unpredictability of ensemble TV series work in Los Angeles compared to a live theater schedule.

“On Broadway, you know exactly where you need to be every night. You plan brunch at 11 and dinner at 5. With a series, you can have a 13-hour day and you don’t necessarily know when you’re going to start or finish. Over time, things have become a little more regular at NCIS and we usually work from very early in the morning and get off at 6 or 7. It’s been interesting for me to have an evening at my disposal instead of providing someone else’s entertainment.”

As he makes clear in his cabaret act, Foa loves losing himself in a character and looks forward to returning to Broadway after NCIS: LA runs its course. “People used to want to cast me as romantic characters like Hero in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or Rolf in Sound of Music. But I don’t think those are the roles for me any more. I’m ready to be a quirky leading man.”

On hiatus last summer, Foa tested those waters, playing Harold Hill in a successful Connecticut production of The Music Man. “It was a blast,” he recalls, “And I was really grateful to have a chance to play a lead like that.”

The show also held some nostalgic value for Foa, who performed a smaller role in the show while studying theater at the University of Michigan. Also in that cast were friends and fellow Broadway actors, Gavin Creel (Hair) and David Burtka (husband of Neil Patrick Harris).

Foa has fond memories of the Michigan program and this past May 16, joined dozens of fellow graduates in a New York concert celebrating their one-time professor, Brent Wagner, before his retirement.

“Every year I’m out of college I realize how important it was to me. That program really gave me my life.”

And that life, Foa makes clear, has live theater at its heart.

“My heart and soul are in New York. I want to be on stage and I want to be closer to my family. I have a seven-year-old nephew and I want to be more to him than ‘Uncle Barrett from California.’”

Barrett Foa
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
Friday, June 24; Saturday, June 25

 

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.

15 Minutes with Judy Kuhn

June 1st, 2016 Comments off

by Jim Gladstone

Judy Kuhn (photo provided by 'Fun Home')

Judy Kuhn (photo provided by ‘Fun Home’)

Kuhn’s work as Helen Bechdel, long-suffering wife of a closeted gay man, in the show adapted from lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s autobiographic novel, is indelible. While Fun Home might easily have played primarily as a father-daughter story, the distillation of intensity, bewilderment and loss Kuhn brings to her show-stopping performance of Helen’s soliloquy song, “Days and Days” adds astonishing dimensions to the show as a whole. It presses audiences to reconsider the entire story from a third perspective.

It is a wrenching portrayal, and one would hardly blame Kuhn for taking a hard-earned hiatus for purposes of rest and relaxation alone. But the 57-year-old’s six-week break was long-planned to allow a much-needed hip replacement surgery.

But for Kuhn, creation and recuperation went hand in hand. In the midst of her successful recovery—“We are so lucky to be living in a time when this is not such an ordeal and you can be walking on crutches in days,” she said during a recent phone conversation—Kuhn put finishing touches on her new concert’s repertoire.

Judy Kuhn in 'Fun Home' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Judy Kuhn in ‘Fun Home’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The program, an evolution of Kuhn’s one-night American Songbook show at Lincoln Center last year, brings together songs from a single family’s three generations of composers: Richard Rodgers, daughter Mary Rodgers (Once Upon A Mattress), and grandson Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza, Floyd Collins).

“I first heard Adam’s work,” says Kuhn, “through my friend Tina Landau who directed the premiere of Floyd Collins. I’m actually not the kind of person who has ever spent much time listening to cast albums. But I listened to that one over and over, I just found it so compelling.”

“At some point, I found out that he was Richard Rodgers’ grandson and I was so fascinated. When I thought about the opening of Floyd Collins [set in an Appalachian coal mining community] and the opening of Oklahoma, I could see a connection. There’s this idea of American optimism and the search for what you’re meant to do, a sense that ‘Something really good is about to happen to me.’”

“And then, when you bring in Mary, you see that all three of them are romantics. They write the most beautiful ballads that express people’s need for connection. In the past, we’ve seen multiple generations of actors and authors, but I’ve never seen this sort of thing with composers.”

Whether exploring the Rodgers family or the Bechdel family, Kuhn, who also works as an acting teacher, says she doesn’t like to make a distinction between her acting and her singing.“It’s all storytelling,” she says. “Sometimes we use music to help tell the story. Shakespeare used verse.”

“I always start with the lyrics. I don’t know how to do a song without a good lyric. Language is the leading element, its what needs to be communicated,” says Kuhn. “Then I think about what the composer has done with the music to lift the lyric up. What are the musical cues the composer is offering me as a storyteller. There are some highly trained singers who have never been asked to focus on anything but perfect sound.”

“I’ve never been interested in doing any writing,” says Kuhn. “I never wanted to learn to play the violin. I like being a detective and trying to understand how to best tell a story.”

Judy Kuhn
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
June 3, doors: 6:30 p.m/Show: 8
June 4, doors: 5:30 p.m./Show: 7 p.m.

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.

15 Minutes with ‘Perfect Crime”s Catherine Russell

May 23rd, 2016 Comments off

The Perfect Crime

It’s difficult to imagine repeating yourself nearly 12,000 times—unless you’re Catherine Russell. Russell is the star of the smash hit off Broadway play Perfect Crime, which is now entering its 30th year. At the time of this writing, she has missed only 4 performances, earning her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Housed at the Anne L. Bernstein Center, it is the longest running play in the history of New York theater, on or off Broadway. Russell plays Margaret Thorne Brent, a Connecticut psychiatrist accused of killing her husband and she has been with the project from its’ inception. The Broadway Blog recently talked to her about this stalwart that has been thrilling audiences since 1987.

Richard Shoberg and Catherine Russell in 'The Perfect Crime.' (Photo: Graham Dougherty via The Broadway Blog.)

Richard Shoberg and Catherine Russell in ‘The Perfect Crime.’ (Photo: Graham Dougherty via The Broadway Blog.)

BB: What is about the show and you that endures?

CR: I’m a proponent of the off-Broadway economic model. This has a small cast and one set, so the costs are relatively low. I think people really like thrillers too. It’s a genre that people understand and the title lets people know exactly what to expect. Because crime dramas are so prevalent on TV, this is something that they recognize when they choose live entertainment. The ticket prices are less expensive and seats are much closer because of the intimate space. Our Times Square location mixed with the 30-year history is also an endorsement.

In terms of my involvement, I was in a theater company called the Actors Collective. It was at 39 Grove Street. We did a season of plays with Warren Manzi as the artistic director. Manzi told us that he had written a play that had been in his drawer for seven years. It started as a showcase that ran for 16 performances, and then it moved Off Broadway and has moved nine times. I never expected that it would run as long as it has.

BB: And you’re not only the star of the show, but you also manage the theater yourself, produce the musical The Fantasticks (housed in the same complex), and you teach college English and Theater as well. Where do you get all this energy?

CR: I really like doing the play and I like stability. In a weird way, I’ve been able to carve out that stability in an unstable business. For me, those two hours, eight times a week is wonderful. I’m doing a show that I have fun doing and I try to find something different in every performance. I try to use gravitas from my own life experience and draw on that.

Catherine Russell in 'The Perfect Crime.' (Photo: Graham Dougherty via The Broadway Blog.)

Catherine Russell in ‘The Perfect Crime.’ (Photo: Graham Dougherty via The Broadway Blog.)

BB: Well, your pep definitely comes across in the performance. Do you exercise or is this show your workout?

CR: (laughs) I can do a lot of pushups, I’ll say that. I can do about 180-200—not bad for a 60-year-old!

BB: Wow! You’re like the younger female version of Jack Palance!

CR: Exactly.

BB: Do you ever think you’d like to do other roles, or are you satisfied in this one?

CR: Fortunately, I’ve been able to work around my schedule and I’ve done some work in films and television. I tend to get offered roles similar to the character I play in Perfect Crime, which is nice, but it would be great to have an opportunity to play someone completely different.

BB: Do you foresee an end point for your involvement in the show or will you be with it for as long as it runs?

CR: Quite honestly, I’m not sure. The fact that I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records is a selling point, but I certainly don’t feel as though I’m the only one who can play the role.

BB: Has there been anything unexpected, funny and/or traumatic that has happened in the 30 years of doing the show?

CR: Everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong. I used to bring my dogs to the theater and one of them walked onstage during intermission and began eating the props. Things have broken; guns haven’t been placed on stage. We used to have a glass table in the first scene and the actor who gets shot accidentally shattered it. I’ve fallen down the stairs. My dress has fallen off. We once had a kid in the second row projectile vomit onto the stage. The first row leaned forward and dodged it, but we just kept going.

BB: Have you thought about putting your experience of this show into a memoir?

CR: Not really. It may be interesting only to theater people. I’m not being false modest when I say this, but my life is pretty boring.

BB: I think what puts you on the map is that you have done this production for so long and it’s a huge achievement. Your work ethic is extremely impressive.

CR: Thank you but isn’t it sad that we value people who show up to work every day. I could take a vacation if I wanted to. I mean, it’s not like this is a prison, but I just like to work a lot.

BB: Has there been talk of licensing this show to other markets?

CR: I’ve always thought it would do well in London, or as a vehicle for former television stars, but it’s on my to do list.

BB: Any pre- or post-show rituals?

CR: The guys watch Jeopardy, I run the box office and take tickets for The Fantasticks and then run upstairs to do the show. Afterwards, I take out the garbage.

BB: So you go from the not so glamorous, to the glamorous, back to the not so glamorous.

CR: Yes. It keeps thing in perspective. I don’t fantasize about driving off in a limo at night. I love being part of it all. I look out and see the lights on Broadway and I’m glad to be a tiny part of the theater world in New York. I’m really grateful for that.

Perfect Crime
Anne L. Bernstein Theater at The Theater Center
1627 Broadway, NYC

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

Don’t Miss: ‘A Twist of Limelight’ Benefit with Eden Espinosa

May 4th, 2016 Comments off
Eden Espinosa (Photo Courtesy of Bay Area Musicals.)

Eden Espinosa (Photo Courtesy of Bay Area Musicals.)

The rest of the country might be green with envy on Monday, May 9, when A Twist of Limelight, a benefit for San Francisco’s Bay Area Musicals (BAM) features a full hour-long concert by Eden Espinosa. The actress is well known in the theater community for her portrayal of Elphaba in the now iconic musical Wicked.

Espinosa was Idina Menzel’s standby in the original Broadway production and went on to perform in the first national tour, came back to play Elphaba on Broadway, then on to the Los Angeles and San Francisco productions—she’s likely played the role in more performances than any other actress.

“I think I brought my own signature to the part,” says Espinosa of the not-so-wicked witch widely associated with Menzel. “My experiences and emotions informed it and made it mine.”

Espinosa’s ability to take artistic ownership of material made familiar by others is showcased to stunning effect on her 2012 debut album, Look Around, on which Broadway tunes are significantly reframed as standalone pop ballads.

eden espinosaEspinosa’s elegiac, cello-inflected rendition of “One Song Glory” from Rent, her unexpected elevation of “Petrified” from the Boy George musical, Taboo, and her intimate guitar-accompanied reading of Elton John’s “I Know the Truth” from Aida bring a fresh, often-poignant vitality to material that’s either been overlooked or overdone in the past. She is currently working on a follow-up in the same vein.

Like Espinosa, the year-old BAM and its founder/artistic director, Matthew McCoy, are committed to reframing well-known musicals, teasing out new meanings and resonances without setting aside their tried-and-true pleasures.

“In our first season, we’ve done How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which I think is surprisingly relevant in its story about women in the workplace; and Hair, which was really important to do in this city, which is changing so much with the influx of the tech industry—people need to keep being reminded what San Francisco has stood for in the past and the idealism it somehow needs to hold on to despite all these changes.”

bay area musicalsOver 13,500 audience members saw the company’s first two shows, with the number of ticket buyers increasing by 25 percent between the first and second, a promising sign for the fledgling troupe, especially in the face of reviews that, while encouraging, were equivocal.

“The local theater community is really supportive,” notes McCoy. “So many people are helping us out and rooting for us to grow successfully.”

BAM’s final show of the season, opening in July, is La Cage aux Folles. The 1983 Tony Award-winning musical by Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Harvey Fierstein (book) feels almost anachronistic in contemporary San Francisco, where it’s easy to strike a blasé attitude about gay relationships. But historically, in terms of evolving public perspectives, the show is important. Along with jazz, the Broadway musical is the quintessential American art form.

La Cage aux Folles“This was the first Broadway musical,” McCoy points out, “that ever had two men kissing on stage.” Since then, makeshift “marriages” like Albin and Georges’ in the show have become a thing of the past.

McCoy is a seasoned director and choreographer who has worked on the regional theater circuit nationally as well as in Las Vegas, Paris, London, and Shanghai. He moved to the Bay Area four years ago from South Carolina as a choreographer for the Berkeley Playhouse and began fundraising for BAM through an IndieGoGo campaign.

In addition to choosing shows that can provide unexpected prisms for considering the Bay Area, McCoy is committed to casting that reflects the local population, with black, Asian, Latino and white actors cast based on skills rather than preconceived ideas for who should play what role.

“I really want to do non-traditional casting,” says McCoy. “And I know that Bay Area audiences are really supportive of that. But what they don’t necessarily understand is that I have to work with what I get. While I’ve brought in a couple actors from out of town and may do a little more of that in the future, I want this to be a local company, which means I have to cast from who shows up to audition. I want more minority actors to try out and am going to continue pushing for that in our next season.”

It seems entirely in keeping with McCoy’s aspirations that—with the help of friends—he’s been able to get Espinosa, fresh from a run in the debut production of Michael John LaChiusa’s Rain at the Globe in San Diego, to donate next Monday’s benefit performance. Her multicultural background and unusual interpretation of Broadway favorites is a lovely encapsulation of everything BAM hopes to achieve.

A Twist of Limelight
Castro Theatre
429 Castro Street, San Francisco
May 9
6:30 p.m.
Tickets start at $30.

 

15 Minutes with Laura Osnes

April 18th, 2016 Comments off

 by Jim Gladstone

Two-time Tony Award nominee Laura Osnes appears at Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco on April 22 and 23. Jim Gladstone chatted with her about the difference between theater roles and nightclub performances.

Laura Osnes (Photo: Nathan Johnson via The Broadway Blog.)

Laura Osnes (Photo: Nathan Johnson via The Broadway Blog.)

“I had never planned to perform in a cabaret setting,” recalls two-time Tony nominee Laura Osnes, recalling her 2012 debut at the ne plus ultra of such venues, The Café Carlyle. “Someone from there got in touch with my agent and asked if I’d do it.”

“I was so nervous,” says Osnes of being asked to headline a venue associated with the gimlet-eyed cosmopolitan likes of Elaine Stritch, Bobby Short, and Eartha Kitt.

Regularly cast—and admittedly typecast—in ingénue roles including South Pacific’s Nellie Forbush and the title role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway, the 30-year-old, devoutly Christian Minnesota native felt anxious that “I wouldn’t be enough” to fulfill cabaret audiences’ expectations of sophisticated confessional entertainment.

“Cabaret is so much more vulnerable,” says Osnes. “To me, it’s vastly different than the theater, where you’re in a costume with a character to hide behind. The intimacy of it is an amazing opportunity for audiences, but it was nerve wracking for me.”

“My confidence has grown a lot,” she notes of the subsequent four years, during which she’s developed three additional cabaret sets. “It’s been two years since my last Broadway show”—she’s slated to return in a new musical, The Bandstand, next year—“So I’ve been able to grow more comfortable with concert and cabaret performances where I really have to put myself out there.”

That said, notes Osnes, “I’ve worked Norah Jones and Sarah Bareilles songs in my cabaret shows, but tend to stick to theater songs. That’s what I love and that’s what I know. I do try to find ways to connect them to stories from my life to make them more personal than they’d be in a show.”

Osnes’ love of theater music has been lifelong, beginning with playing a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz in second grade. Continuing to appear on stage through high school, she enrolled in college as a music theater major, only to drop out after a year to “do the work I was studying to do.”

Yet a performing apprenticeship at the Minneapolis Children’s Theater Company and roles at the local Chanhassen Dinner Theaters are not obvious paths to Broadway stardom.

laura osnesIt was during a run as Sandy in the dinner theater’s production of Grease when Osnes was spotted and cast as a contestant in the television competition, Grease: You’re the One That I Want. As the winner, Osnes got to play the role on Broadway, where she was quickly recognized as more than a television gimmick. (The overall production fared considerably less well, described by The New York Times as “a musical set in a high school that feels like a musical put on by a high school.”) 

“I’ve had a charmed career,” Osnes says. “But part of the impetus for this new cabaret act that I’m doing at Feinstein’s is to let people see that there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes; that performers have failures as well as successes.”

In the show, called Paths Not Taken, Osnes present songs she hasn’t had the opportunity to sing in stage productions, several because after making final callbacks, she didn’t get cast in the roles.

“Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “Heather on the Hill” from Brigadoon, “Til There Was You,” from The Music Man, and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady are among the selections Osnes will sing at Feinstein’s, accompanied on piano by her music director, Fred Lassen.

Despite the fact that her last Manhattan role was Polly Peachum in Threepenny Opera, it’s clear that Osnes tastes run toward the wholesome.

“I still haven’t seen The Book of Mormon,” she confesses, though she has twice appeared as a featured vocalist with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “I did do Cabaret in high school. It’s not something that I would typically be up for. But its part of being a stage performer, getting to be different than yourself, getting to act sexy.”

As a PG-leaning Christian, how does Osnes feel about working with a significant number of gays and lesbians in the New York theater world and knowing that Broadway musicals have a large gay fan base?

“I love my job and the people I work with,” she says. “In my heart, I know that God put me here to love, not to judge.”

Laura Osnes
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
April 22, doors open at 6:30 p.m.; show at 8 p.m.
April 23, doors open at 5:30 p.m.; show at 7 p.m.

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.

15 Minutes With Norm Lewis

April 9th, 2016 Comments off
Norm Lewis (Photo courtesy of NJSO via The Broadway Blog.)

Norm Lewis (Photo courtesy of NJSO via The Broadway Blog.)

Broadway star Norm Lewis heads to New Jersey to perform with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, April 15-17. The program’s headliner has garnered critical and audience acclaim and made history as Broadway’s first African-American Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. Frequent NJSO guest conductor and audience favorite Thomas Wilkins conducts.

The New York Times praised Lewis’ history-making turn in The Phantom of the Opera, writing that Lewis’ “sonorous baritone has been among the most reliably impressive voices on Broadway for many years now. In his big solo ‘The Music of the Night,’ Mr. Lewis’s supple phrasing and power combined to gorgeous effect. His Phantom is imposing in his willfulness, as his lustrous voice comes booming down from the heavens, and touching in his energetic but unrequited love for Christine.”

Norm Lewis (lev radin / Shutterstock.com)

Norm Lewis (lev radin / Shutterstock.com)

The Hollywood Reporter hailed the actor’s “multidimensional” performance in the Broadway production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opposite Audra McDonald: “this is a man who literally grows in stature and strength before our eyes, as if nourished and emboldened by love. His ‘I Got Plenty of Nothing’ is an explosion of sheer joy that almost blows off the roof.”

In this NJSO POPS program, Lewis performs music from Phantom, Porgy and Bess, Les Misérables (he appeared as Javert in a West End production and in Les Misérables: The 25th Anniversary Concert, which aired on PBS) and other Broadway shows; he also performs songs from his debut album, This is The Life.

The Broadway Blog caught up with Lewis as he prepared for the three-concert weekend, titled Norm Lewis: Music of the Night with NJSO.

How did the NJSO performance come to fruition?

Cheyenne [Jackson] had an obligation and the symphony thought of my name and they gave me a call. I worked with maestro before and that was how I got connected.

What elements of concert performance do you enjoy that are different than appearing in a traditional book musical?

The last show I did on Broadway was Phantom—eight times a week is a commitment—you’re giving 100 percent (or as close to possible) every night, sometimes twice a day. The concert world is exciting because it’s just you. Each song has its character but you have to relate to the audience between those songs. I just want to make it fun… like you’re in my living room.

I’ll also be performing with Ramin Kamilroo in Peter Jöback’s I Love Musicals [also featuring Scarlett Strallen and Japanese star Seiko Niizuma] at the Nippon Budokan Arena in Tokyo on July 7.

You’re a bit of an enigma – breaking boundaries for actors of color: Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, The Little Mermaid, even A New Brain. Was there a “big break” that happened or would you consider your career trajectory more slow and steady?

I did not have the background that a lot of actors have. I didn’t go to Carnegie Mellon or the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Honestly, I was jealous and intimidated. I worked in advertising and studied. I hit the ground running and went to [audition]. I just showed up. And that’s why I got hired. Early on in my career I got hired to do A Chorus Line to play Richie, they heard me sing and hired me on the spot. But I’m not a great dancer and I asked them why they hired me. They said, “You’re the only black guy that showed up.” From that I was able to get certain jobs – just by auditioning.

Director Eric Schaffer saw me in the original Broadway production of Side Show. He offered me the lead in Sweeney Todd at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. I think that was a big break for me and people started to see me in a different light.

What do you think about the state of non-traditional casting right now on Broadway?

It’s such a great season for diversity. But when it comes to doing a show in a universal world—one that doesn’t talk about race— as long as you can portray that character, it’s a no brainer to hire an actor that fits the role.

The whole idea of non-traditional casting is not about affirmative action, it’s just about having the chance to audition. Students go to school, study and learn these roles but when they get out it might be a different story. But these doors have been cracked.

For me, being Phantom and all of the attention that came with it was much bigger than me. A lot of people came up to me— from India, Japan, South America— and said, “Now I feel I have a chance.”

Music of the Night: Norm Lewis with the NJSO
Friday, April 15, at Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank
Saturday, April 16, at NJPAC in Newark (Fourth Annual ‘Saturday Night Out’)
Sunday, April 17, at State Theatre in New Brunswick

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

15 Minutes with Lea DeLaria

April 2nd, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Lea DeLaria (Photo: Sophy Holland via The Broadway Blog.)

Lea DeLaria (Photo: Sophy Holland via The Broadway Blog.)

Lea DeLaria won’t be upset if you stop her on the street and snap a photo with her. The Broadway star, who appeared in the 1998 revival of On the Town, and later in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, has grown accustomed to the attention she’s received lately. As a series regular on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, DeLaria is well aware of the immense popularity of both her role (Big Boo) and the show.

Currently, the multi-talent is focusing on her vocal side by touring cities to sing and promote her latest album, House of David. The album showcases the late David Bowie through DeLaria’s unique, classy musical interpretations. On Saturday, April 9, she’ll take to the stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center for two performances.

In a recent phone conversation she chatted with The Broadway Blog about fame, activism, and even the taboo subject of politics.

You have recently acquired the nickname of “Bull Dyke Santa Claus”. What is that all about?

That is my fiancé’s affectionate term for me. She calls me that because, due to the popularity of Orange Is the New Black, whenever we go anywhere, people stop me and want to take a picture with me, shake my hand, and talk. My fiancé said, “Ya know, just the sight of you makes people happy. You’re like Bull Dyke Santa Claus. We laughed and laughed and it just sort of stuck.”

How has the show changed your life in terms of your recognition?

Before, I was moderately famous and was leading what I would call a very charmed life. I toured, I did stand up, I worked on and off Broadway, I did television and movies and it was all good. I was a working actor. Then, Orange Is the New Black put me in a whole different category. Because of the digital medium, people all over the world are watching the show in a single weekend and the numbers are staggering. So now, everyone carries their cameras, takes pictures and then post to social media, so I get even more famous. Welcome to fame in the digital age!

Does that annoy you or are you more appreciative?

I love it! I love my fans!

House of DavidAnd now you are doing the House of David tour. What inspired you to do this album?

First of all, David Bowie is a genius. You never hear anyone say, “Oh! That hack David Bowie!” I’ve never heard anyone trash him. I’ve heard people argue over the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Kurt Cobain, and whether or not hip hop is real music—but never in my whole life have I heard anyone say anything bad about David Bowie and that’s because he’s a fuckin’ genius.

His music speaks to me in volumes in regards to being an outsider from the Midwest. He made being weird, cool. He gave kids who didn’t grow up in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles hope. As a performer, he taught me that you should be true to yourself as an artist and if you’re gonna fail, fail big!

Will we hear other songs at your concert or will you focus exclusively on songs from the album?

Mostly, it will be House of David, but there are other standards that I’ll sing. And of course, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a stand-up comic, so the audience will get that, too. Plus, it is an election year, so they’re going to get that as well.

What are your current thoughts on the political race?

Well, I’m gonna talk about that in the show, so I’d rather not talk about it now. But, I think that people know my political beliefs… Run like a girl! Although I can’t claim that slogan. That is from Emily’s List, an organization that is dedicated to getting females elected to high office, especially non-white females. I’m on their creative coalition.

Who were your musical influences?

Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Anita O’ Day (most definitely). I also like Mel Torme a whole fuckin’ lot. More than the singers and because my father was a jazz pianist, I believe that I’m more influenced by horn players. When I sing, I sing from my gut and I work on having my own style. My dad told me, “If you’re gonna be a singer, don’t be a chic singer. There’s a whole lot more than just having a pretty voice and looking pretty. You’ve gotta know your scales, you’ve gotta be present, and sing the music as well as the lyrics” Those things were hugely influential to me as a singer. 

And with the comedy aspect, who or what makes you laugh?

I was really upset by Garry Shandling’s recent death. George Carlin was a heavy influence, as was Lenny Bruce. The more political comedians who were really trying to say something were the kind I’ve always appreciated. Plus, the entertainers…those people that did many things and did them all well, like Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, Jackie Gleason, The Rat Pack. To me, it’s always been about being well rounded.

Do you consider yourself an activist and do you think that artists in general have a responsibility to activism or would you rather they just entertain and separate the politics?

My response is that people can only be who they are. Some people are incapable of activism within their frame. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like them. There are plenty of goofballs who just make me scream with laughter. For me, I started as an openly gay comic and everyone knows what a big ass dyke I am. I’m really clear about that. But it was my choice to be that open. I couldn’t entertain being anyone else. I never begrudge celebrities who are in the closet who later come out. That’s their path. Changing the world is really the reason I did what I did. I didn’t start out in 1982 talking about being queer because I thought I’d get famous and I didn’t think I’d be on television much less on a worldwide hit. So first and foremost, I am activist.

Kudos to you for that. It’s a mature way of looking at things. I think that the coming out process is tough no matter who you are. It’s a journey for every individual, right?

Absolutely! Depending on who you are and where you grew up, it totally is an individual journey. I’ll even go one step further and say that I get very upset with people within my community who get upset by people who are not out. Frankly, that is like blaming the rape victim because she is provocatively dressed. No matter how much the world has changed, it’s still very difficult to be out in the world. It’s not easy. There are dangers. People do get killed and families do ostracize and we do not have the rights and equalities under the system we currently live in. If you know those things, why would you blame someone for choosing not to be out?

True. And Being in a metropolis like New York, it’s easier for us to forget that people in smaller towns aren’t quite as progressive as they are in this city.

Oh… no shit! (Laughs)

Lea DeLaria at New Jersey Performing Arts Center
1 Center Street, Newark, NJ
Saturday, April 9
6 p.m.; 8:30 p.m.

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook