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NYMF Reviews: As We Lie Still; Der Gelbe Stern (The Yellow Star)

July 19th, 2014 Comments off

The New York Musical Theatre Festival is in full swing. We caught two shows this week that capture varying degrees of success in the development of new work.

ShowArtworkAs We Lie Still is a musical fantasy that follows magician Avi Leiter (Travis Stuebing as Young Avi and Michael A. Robinson as Old Avi) and his rise to fame during the turn of the century. His one epic trick—the ability to bring his assistant Josephine (Olivia de Guzman Emile) is hampered when she is mesmerized by Azriel, gatekeeper to the afterlife (George Michael Ferrie, Jr.). The show flashes forward to show Hope (Erika Larsen), the daughter that Josephine gave up for adoption at the bedside of her coma-ridden husband, Michael (Clinton Greenspan). Will Old Avi be able to cast his spell one last time?

The production, staged by Broadway veteran Micahel Serrecchia (who appeared in the original A Chorus Line and has worked in the theater for 45 years) has great moment of theatricality, mostly because of the music and lyrics by Patrick Emile. “I set out to write a musical theater piece that explored the human experience in the style of magical realism,” Emile told the Broadway Blog.  “I have a great interest in stage magic and the vaudeville era, as well folklore, the supernatural, etc.  I had stumbled upon the term psychopomp (the culturally and historically ubiquitous being that transitions the dying into the next phase of existence), and the story began to click together like a puzzle. Once plotted, Olivia took it into the book writing stage.”

As We Lie Still’s book is less successful than its libretto, often feeling too earnest and as if each of the characters were cut from the same cloth. But at this stage of development, it’s serviceable and carries the plot along to frame Emile’s score, which has soaring moments. In particular, Azriel’s number, “Street of Mine” is a highlight of the show—delivered by Mr. Ferrie who has one of the strongest voices in the ensemble.

“My musical influences are many and vary greatly, but I tend to wear them all on my sleeve,” says Emile of his composing style. “For As We Lie Still, I chose to draw heavily from minimalist and post-minimalist wells and weave those ideas within a contemporary musical theatre fabric. Sondheim is of course floating around throughout.”

As We Lie Still is an interesting concept piece. I’m not sure what sort of life it may have after NYMF, but as Avi Leiter would testify, anything is possible.

As We Lie Still
PTC Performance Space
555 West 42nd Street
Remaining performances:
Tuesday, July 22, 9 p.m.
Thursday, July 24, 5 p.m.
Sunday, July 27, 5 p.m.

Alexis Fishman in "Der Gelbe Stern" (photo: Alina Gozin'a via The Broadway Blog).

Alexis Fishman in “Der Gelbe Stern” (photo: Alina Gozin’a via The Broadway Blog).

Move over Sally Bowles, there is a new girl in town. Der Gelbe Stern (The Yellow Star), follows fictional chanteuse Erika Stern (a show stopping Alexis Fishman) on her final cabaret performance in Berlin circa 1933. Conceived and co-written by Fishman, who won NYMF’s “Next Broadway Sensation in 2012”, the musical draws its inspiration from German, American and British cabaret songs of the 1920 and ‘30s.

Ms. Fishman’s performance is subtly delicious, from the opening moments where the audience thinks she’s wiping cocaine from her nose; there are far darker stories to be revealed. Along with piano player Otto (an equally as entertaining Heath Saunders) and two-piece band (Steve Millhouse on bass and Giuseppe Fusco on woodwinds) the four actor/musicians weave a harrowing tale of Nazi Germany.

“I created Der Gelbe Stern to better understand and connect o to the unconnectable. It is so easy to put up barriers that allow us to disassociate from the plight of others. The lives of European Jewry were so much like our lives today… until they weren’t,” says Ms. Fishman in her program notes.

Alexis Fishman as Erika Stern (Photo: Alina Gozin'a via The Broadway Blog).

Alexis Fishman as Erika Stern (Photo: Alina Gozin’a via The Broadway Blog).

It may be a bit unfair to bestow such accolades on the piece compared to other NYMF entries, as the work opened in Australia at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2011 followed by runs in Melbourne and Sydney. The polished show feels as if it’s ready for an extended run. That being said, director Sharone Halevy still has the potential to draw more out of Ms. Fishman’s performance, which at times feels emotionally guarded. As she nears the end and the inevitable awaits, she has the audience in the palm of her hand and could take her final numbers, “If You Go Away, Little Boy” and “I Don’t Know Who I Belong To” in a more visceral direction. But the fictional Erika Stern is a survivalist, and perhaps the wall that she has built is one to protect her beyond Der Gelbe Stern.

Der Gelbe Stern (The Yellow Star)
The Laurie Beechman Theatre at the West Bank Cafe
407 West 42nd Street
Remaining Performances:
Sunday, July 20, 12 p.m.
Monday, July 21, 5 p.m.
Monday, July 21, 8 p.m.

Matthew Wexler is the editor of the Broadway Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @roodeloo.

Review: Somewhere With You

July 13th, 2014 Comments off
"Somewhere With You" (photo: Jeanette Aultz via The Broadway Blog.)

“Somewhere With You” (photo: Jeanette Aultz via The Broadway Blog.)

Now in it’s 11th year, the New York Musical Theatre Festival returns for three weeks of ingenious works in progress, all vying for the tiara of best musical, in hopes they will get picked up by a bevy of the city’s finest producers. Of the nearly 500 shows curated at NYMF, only three—Next To Normal, [title of show] and Chaplin—have made it to Broadway, and several musicals like Altar Boyz, Yank! and last year’s Volleygirls, which is being developed at New World Stages, have become cult hits.

With some tinkering, the JT Harding and Peter Zinn penned honky-tonk country rock musical Somewhere With You may join the latter. Offering a vicious yarn of addiction and meta-commentary of Bush’s war on terrorism, this Nashville radio-inspired musical gives a 21-gun salute to red-blooded Americans.

Somewhere With You follows TJ (Graham Scott Fleming), an aspiring 19-year-old country music star in backwoods Shreveport, Louisiana, down on his luck after losing his job for “sucking helium from a Slurpee machine” at the local Burger King. When his father evicts him from his trailer park home, TJ, now homeless and destitute, his cumbersome best friend Drew (Jonathan Judge-Russo) takes him in, much to the chagrin of Drew’s demanding girlfriend Nancy (Lauren Hoffmeier).

It doesn’t take long before TJ is kicked out and left to slum it with Benjaman Bakerman (Andrew Rothenberg), a sleazoid petty pusherman that may rival James Franco’s white bread ‘ratchet’ Spring Breakers alter ego. In lieu of a place to crash, Bakerman, a distributor of Methamphetamine, forces TJ to move his product. But the bright-eyed, fresh-faced Nashville crazed singer-songwriter has to know what he’s selling first.

Thus, TJ is sent to a room to try it out. There he has an unexpected meeting of the minds with crystal meth buff “23,” a spaced out young woman nicknamed after a spy on her mother’s favorite espionage TV show. This chance encounter spearheads the star-crossed couple into dangerous territory when they fall in love with one another.

Katy Frame (23) in "Somewhere With You." (Photo: Craig Bagno via The Broadway Blog.)

Katy Frame (23) in “Somewhere With You.” (Photo: Craig Bagno via The Broadway Blog.)

A prisoner to a drug lord and narcotrafficker, TJ is convinced by “23” to take Drew’s car and leave town, and so the two love birds elope and get clean. A happy ending seems just around the corner, until TJ enlists with the U.S. National Guard on the eve of September 11, 2001. His tenure with the military takes him around the globe while his vulnerable ex-junkie wife is left to her own devices. Things get ugly for the cast and spectators, as Act Two pivots the audience into the Third World of Husaybah, Iraq, and violence balloons. This is not for the faint of heart.

Zinn’s book feels contrived and convoluted at points, if not staggeringly offensive. For instance, shortly after the two love interests meet for the first time in the dark room sharing stories over a bonfire of crystal meth, they are interrupted by Bakerman who proceeds to carry a terrified “23” away before forcing himself on her. Not even a moment later, TJ sings a ballad about how smitten he is about the shell of woman being sexually assaulted in the next room. It is such a moment that one could argue reinforces the insouciant red flags of rape culture. Especially in the first act, the book does similar things in terms of juxtaposition, taking diegetic songs—most of which were previously written and recorded by celebrated artists like Kenny Chesney, Uncle Kracker and Jake Owen—and dropping them in chancy moments that rarely progress the story. But the talented cast anchors many of the glitches.

The cast of young actors, featuring neat cameo appearances by Jay Thomas (Emmy Award winner for Cheers), crafts a believable tale. Graham Scott Fleming’s voice, a silver toned baritenor with raspy tinge, searches the room with soulful, yearning eyes that sees wonder in everything. Katy Frame as “23” is spellbinding, hooking the audience with her warped ingénue character who has been weathered by life, showing a range and hardened exterior rarely seen in performers her age. Her Vaseline smile seems numbed by Novocain and peppered with pain. Jonathan Judge-Russo as Drew echoes America’s answer to James Corden, his offbeat humor tinged with a lick of self-deprecation. Lauren Hoffmeier’s aggressive alto, however, feels unfocused with signs of struggling vocal technique as she attempts to reach the soaring rafter-shaking notes that have become a standard in the musical theater canon.

Nevertheless, this occasionally controversial new musical inspires chill-inducing concerns, questioning the unnerving problems centralized around war and drugs. From the dissection of AA culture to faulty psych evaluations in admitting prospective legionnaires, the production raises profound inquiries for the both the mind as well as the heart.

Somewhere With You
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St
Remaining performances: Sunday, July 14 – 12 p.m., 4 p.m.

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.

NYMF is Underway! What Not to Miss

July 9th, 2014 Comments off

nymfThe New York Musical Theatre Festival opened this week, celebrating 11 years of America’s greatest art form by providing an affordable way for artists to mount professional productions. First staged in 2004, the inaugural season featured more than 30 fully staged full-length musicals. Since that time, more than 350 shows have premiered at the Festival, featuring 8,000 artists and seen by more than 300,000 audience members. NYMF was honored with a 2013 Drama Desk Award, recognizing its first decade of creating and nurturing new musicals. Notable shows that have been cultivated at NYMF include Altar Boyz, Next to Normal and [title of show] and Chaplin.

The Broadway Blog had a chance to chat with Festival executive director and producer Dan Markley as the first round of productions were preparing to open. “It’s epic in scope and that’s been intention.” But beyond fully staged productions, Markley is most proud of the new developmental reading series, which offers artists and audience alike the opportunity to celebrate the craft of musical theater. “Our hope is that more shows will be developed in that series and the next year they’ll be done in full productions. There is no yellow brick road on the way to Broadway.” Two shows that were done as readings last year, Searching for Romeo and Cloned!, are part of this season’s full production roster.

"Cloned!" Foreground: Eric Mann (Clone Wally), Background: Alex Goley (Wally). Photo: Andrew Barry Fritz (BarryMoore Photography) via The Broadway Blog.

“Cloned!” Foreground: Eric Mann (Clone Wally), Background: Alex Goley (Wally). Photo: Andrew Barry Fritz (BarryMoore Photography) via The Broadway Blog.

The next Kander and Ebb (or Ahrens & Flaherty, or Stephen Sondheim… the list goes on) are clamoring for their chance to be part of this creative incubator. This year the festival received nearly 250 submissions, up 50 percent from last year. What does it take for a new work to make the cut?

Initially, Markley says the committee is less concerned about the breadth of work in terms of the Festival season, but more concentrated on the “quality in book, music and lyrics. For a writer or writing team who understands where that show is in the developmental process and agrees with how we can all find the best path of success.”

“As we get the collection of shows that fit within those high standards,” says Markley, “then we start to separate what shows might be too similar in theme or musicality. I’m just watching it play out for the first time and it’s a very sophisticated process.” The reading committee consists of about 40 theater professionals, followed by 10 grand jurors—a highly qualified panel of agents, actors, directors and theater professionals who “have been down the road with putting new musicals into play.”

Take the jump for our top five Festival picks…

Read more…

New York Musical Theatre Festival Concludes Season 10

July 31st, 2013 Comments off

The Broadway Blog’s editor Matthew Wexler recaps Icarus at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and shares the NYMF Awards for Excellence. 

The cast of "Icarus."

The cast of “Icarus.” (photo: Chris McIntosh)


The New York Musical Theatre Festival
concluded another whopping year of new works, concerts, symposiums, workshops and readings that celebrate the craft (and challenges) of music, lyrics, dance and storytelling. As you might imagine, the 20-day festival had its fair share of triumphs and tribulations, but all should be commended for tackling such an indelible art form.

The final show I caught was Boston-based Liars & Believers’ production of Icarus. The musical tale, told through innovative puppetry, movement and music is based on the Greek myth of the same name, though this interpretation was set in an unconventional Depression-era sideshow. Nathan Leigh’s music and lyrics have soaring potential, but were somewhat limited by an inexperienced cast. Austin Auh as the title character lacked the emotional connection to the story while his romantic interest, Penny (played by Lauren Eicher) was also missing the dynamic range to help Icarus fly.

As an ensemble piece, Icarus is filled with visual splendor — so much so that I wish Tim Gunn was around to edit some of the creative team’s work. Puppetry (by Faye Dupras), costumes (by Kendra Bell) and set pieces (by Aaron Sherkow) occasionally get muddled, but there is enough genuine, organically created inspiration that you can’t help but root for this production. With more seasoned performers, Liars & Believers have great potential for telling more emotionally truthful theatrical stories.

As for the rest of the festival, the closing night party revealed audience favorites and some forerunners as to what you may see on the commercial stage in seasons to come.

Take the leap for NYMF Awards for Excellence and a peek at scenes from Volleygirls, the “Best of Fest” Audience Winner.
Read more…

Review: “Kerrigan and Lowdermilk Live at NYMF”

July 27th, 2013 Comments off
Kait Kerrigan, Brian Lowdermilk

Kait Kerrigan, Brian Lowdermilk

She’s vintage girl-next-door with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. He’s got a self-deprecating sense of humor and “stubby fingers.” Together, they are the songwriting team of Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk. And while their musicals have been developed at La Jolla Playhouse and Manhattan Theatre Club (among others), that break-through commercial project has eluded the team so far — or they’re not telling us about it yet.

Even so, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk have become cult musical theater favorites and I understand why. Their contemporary melodic riffs and underdog lyrics tug at the heartstrings but avoid cliché. Broadway’s top performers are clamoring to wrap their vocals around the duo’s work, hence the all-star revue at this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival. Big belters like Jeremy Jordan (Smash, Newsies, Bonnie and Clyde), Kate Shindle (A Christmas Story, Wonderland) and Josh Young (Jesus Christ Superstar) showed up to sing through their songbook, led by Lowdermilk on piano and narrative by Kerrigan.

Brian Lowdermilk, Kait Kerrigan

Brian Lowdermilk, Kait Kerrigan

For an avid listener of musical theater, you’ll pick up on the inspiration of other contemporary composers like Jason Robert Brown and Andrew Lippa, fine-tuned phrases from the likes of Ed Kleban and Richard Maltby, Jr. as well as modern masters like William Finn. There is something warm and fuzzy about K&L’s work—wholly unique, yet informed by the grand lineage of musical theater.

While I haven’t seen K&L’s full scripts, this showcase of their work captured one prolific, vulnerable, intimate and soaring song after the next. The two have written for young audiences (Henry and Mudge is still touring with Theatreworks USA) as well as explored themes of young adulthood (The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown). One such highlight was Josh Young’s interpretation of “Run Away With Me.”

Michael Arden sings “Run Away With Me.”

K&L also used the NYMF platform to showcase songs from new works, including Republic, a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV set in 1970s Northern Ireland. Another work in progress is Unbound, based on the harrowing story of one of the Beijing Dance Academy’s most famous dancers, who traveled thousand of miles across China to pursue her dream. It is in these sequences where I wonder what is to become of K&L’s body of work. The team needs is a visionary director who can shepherd these story songs into a fully realized vision that resonates beyond the insular bond of the supportive theater community.

An audience-participation performance of “Holding On” from Tales From the Bad Years, led by Dee Roscioli (Wicked), concluded the evening, as the following lyrics echoed throughout the theater…

The earth keeps turning,
The light keeps shifting,
And I keep holding on.

I’m holding on to see where Kerrigan and Lowdermilk go next. I think the next great writing team for musical theater has arrived. Somebody find them a producer and let’s put on a show.

Review: “Boys Will Be Boys” at NYMF

July 23rd, 2013 Comments off
"Boys Will Be Boys"

“Boys Will Be Boys”

 

The Broadway Blog’s editor Matthew Wexler is on the heels of the latest offerings from this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Spend an evening set in the basement of the American Legion Hall (Post 69) in Lodi, New Jersey, and be prepared for a pot-luck of gay-inspired show tunes that range from Forbidden Broadway-style knock-offs to contemporary musical theater riffs that show theatrical promise beyond the imaginary confines of its setting. Boys Will Be Boys (book and lyrics by Joe Miloscia; music by Kenneth Kacmar) is—for the most part—a light-hearted revue that follows four gents and a lady as they raise funds for an imaginary sufferer of GAY.D.D. (Gay Attention Deficit Disorder).

This slim story structure offers a framework for show tunes that borrow (and occasionally steal) from the musical theater songbook. For anyone that has spent late nights on YouTube or iTunes, you’ll recognize rehashed melodies from Mame, Little Shop of Horrors and a host of other musicals. Throw in a Lena Horne tribute and you’ve got theater divas through the ages. Both the content and the performances very greatly, but there are enough shining moments that you’ll find yourself rooting for a GAY.D.D. cure.

Ryan Speakman in "Boys Will Be Boys."

Ryan Speakman in “Boys Will Be Boys.”

Forgoing their forgettable character names, Jeremy Pasha, Ryan Speakman, Steph Stanek and Rance Wright comprise the company, with Courtney Cowart as the lone female. It is Cowart—delivering the bulk of the show’s script with deadpan humor—that seems to most naturally capture the intended style and delivery. Cowart is reminiscent of a cleaned-up Bridget Everett, one of New York City’s bawdiest downtown performance artists, and she’s got the pipes to belt out her only solo number, “All the Good Ones.”

There are lots of lowbrow innuendos, jokes about penis size, bottoming, topping, little blue pills and any other gay reference you can imagine circa 1998. And this is where the show falls flat. For this reviewer, the gay voice in Boys Will Be Boys is filtered through a cassette tape (does anyone remember what that is? Exactly.) Then Speakman delivers the 11 o’clock number, “Giant,” a narrative ballad about first love, hate crime and letting go. It is in this moment where the audience catches a glimpse of the creative team’s talents. The haunting melody and honest delivery captivated the audience. Of course, a musical revue of this sort can only have one such number, but it’s a shame that the rest of the material didn’t rise to the occasion. Perhaps a little blue pill is in order.

Boys Will Be Boys appears as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Remaining performances are July 24, 9:30 p.m.; July 26, 5:30 p.m.