GRACE NOTES Reviews
Film Review: “The English Teacher”
by Michael Scheman, May 6, 2013
It’s frustrating to watch a film choose the right landscape, an ideal cast and a fresh premise, and watch it squander it all in a morass of schizophrenia. While it starts out promisingly, “The English Teacher” finally fails to figure out what it wants to be.
Julianne Moore plays the title character, a middle-aged, single woman who has given up on love and pours all her passion into her job at a suburban high school. She reconnects with one of her ex-students (Michael Angarano), a recent graduate of the NYU playwriting program who has lost his way. He’s back home, living with his disapproving father (Greg Kinnear) who wants to send him to Law School. She offers to read his thesis play, which she instantly falls in love with, bursting into tears upon reaching the final page. She gets the high school drama teacher (Nathan Lane) on board to program it as the annual school play, and they obtain permission from the school principals (Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz). Issues of artistic censorship, backstage passions and school politics arise, and hilarity ensues.
Except that it doesn’t. Apart from a genuinely funny conceit that has “teacher’s comments” actually appearing alongside the faces of different characters that our heroine encounters, there’s not much fun to be had here. The overlong farcical set-up fails to blossom into anything remotely resembling farce. Nathan Lane nails the half-dozen funny lines he’s given, but that’s about it. The film can’t decide if it wants to be an edgy indie or a watered-down ABC Family movie of the week. By trying to do both, it achieves neither. The performances are uniformly fine, as one would expect from such a strong line up of theatre actors. Hecht and Butz do their best to elevate one-note characters, and Moore does all she can with the flaccid material but finally gives up. Tech credits are professional. It’s too bad, really, because it’s a genuinely fun premise. My H.S. English teacher would have given it a C/C+… I’d probably agree with her.
Album Review: “Andrea McArdle – 70s and Sunny: Live at 54 Below”
by Gary Mattison for GRACE NOTES, Apr. 2, 2013
“I wanna have a party!” begins the liner notes for Andrea McArdle’s new CD, “70’s and Sunny: Live at 54 Below,” her first album release in 17 years. Recorded live in January of this year at the former site of Studio 54 (which McArdle frequented as a young teenager and where she hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger) and wonderfully accompanied by piano, guitar, bass and drums, McArdle sings an eclectic mix of Broadway, disco and pop songs, almost all of them dating from the 1970s.
McArdle of course achieved fame as the original ‘Annie’ on Broadway. Since then, she’s remained active as a singer/actress via Broadway shows (including Jerry’s Girls with Carole Channing and Leslie Uggams, Starlight Express, and others), concert performances, regional theatre productions and occasional TV appearances.
McArdle will turn 50 later this year, but both her speaking voice and singing voice are that of a woman half that age. Overall her singing is pure, confident and ideally situated for a cabaret setting. At times I wished there were a bit darker or richer quality to her voice for certain songs, but this is just a personal preference.
Choosing the 70s as a theme, McArdle pays homage to those singers and songwriters who greatly influenced and inspired her own musical journey. Her patter cites her love of this decade as she talks about meeting Michael Jackson, Barbara Streisand and countless other celebrities backstage while in Annie, and walking down the street and seeing other big stars like Anne Bancroft and Gwen Verdon. But, she says, she will always remain a girl from a good family in Philadelphia.
The CD starts, appropriately, with two lively, upbeat disco songs from 1977: “Native New Yorker,” and “I Believe in Love,” the latter written by Marilyn and Alan Bergman (!) and made popular by Kenny Loggins and Barbra Streisand. McArdle’s rendering of both songs is spirited and engaging.
From Broadway she covers two Marvin Hamlisch songs (“Fallin’” from They’re Playing Our Song and “Nothing”, from A Chorus Line); Stephen Sondheims’ “Being Alive” (from Company); Jerry Herman’s “Wherever He Ain’t” (from Mack and Mabel); and Stephen Schwarz’s “Meadowlark” (from The Baker’s Wife). “Nothing” is perfect for her voice and she does it great justice; and as for “Meadowlark”, I’ve listened to and loved Betty Buckley’s high octane bongo version for years, but McArdle adds a level of sweet innocence and sincerity I’ve not heard elsewhere. She is a natural storyteller through song.
Equally comfortable in the pop genre, she covers a Karen Carpenter song, “Rainy Days and Mondays,” but for someone who wants to have a party, this seems an odd choice since it’s all about depression. And since Carpenter had such an iconic voice, I think any other singer would pale in comparison to the original version.
Other songs include Billy Joel’s “Angry Young Man”; Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be There” and Michael MacDonald’s heartbreaking ballad, “I Can Let Go Now.”
In one of her patters, she says she used to feel that she was cursed with the song “Tomorrow,” but Carol Channing, while they were performing Jerry’s Girls, advised her to embrace it for what it’s worth, telling McArdle that she should be proud “you have a song that’s called your own.” “Tomorrow” is included this album.
One thing I like about McArdle’s approach to songs is that she’s pretty much a purist when it comes to melody: no endless melismas, no wild liberties with the notes or the phrases. I know other singers do this well, but I feel that for some songs, these liberties work against the songwriter’s original intent.
This CD release should please McArdle fans and perhaps attract some new ones. And she is now working on recording another album called, “Calendar Dreams” (an anagram of her name). So it’s likely we will be hearing a lot from her in the years ahead.
Album Review: Bombshell cast recording
by Gary Mattison for GRACE NOTES, Mar. 22, 2013
I had pretty much convinced myself before listening to this soundtrack that I wasn’t going to like it because it’s comprised of songs from the lamentable NBC TV show, “Smash” (not a true Broadway cast recording). When it first debuted in early 2012, I thought “Smash” was an intriguing concept with much dramatic and music potential, but as the season wore on (and more of the same in its second season), what could have been an exciting story devolved into sappy soap opera owing to weak scripts and unsympathetic characters (couldn’t at least character have big cojones and not be plagued by alcohol, low self-esteem and/or moral turpitude, and not be forced into highly improbable and even laughable dramatic situations?).
This is supposed to be Broadway, dammit, not “Waiting for Guffman.”
But having extricated in my mind the soundtrack from all the above sausage-making, I have to say I, for the most part, enjoyed listening to it. The songwriting team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman pen good material and they do competent work here with Bombshell. While their score to Hairspray was more genre-specific (mostly Motown), this score tends to lean upon (or pay homage to) the music of Alan Menken, Cy Coleman, Kander & Ebb, Jule Styne and even a little bit of Grease — but the music comes off well, especially in the big song and dance numbers.
Most of the songs here have already been heard on “Smash”. But whereas on TV they were only accompanied by piano or minimal instrumentation, here they are given full-blown arrangements: lush, sparkling and full of life and pizzazz. The big dance numbers in the first act, “The 20th Century Fox Mombo,” “The National Pastime” and “I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn’t Love to Howl,” are toe-tapping, feet-stomping good times. The second act songs (there are 22 songs in all) are more jazz-oriented and could easily be inserted into a show like City of Angels. The final song, “Don’t Forget Me,” is Marilyn’s alone, and it seems strange to end a musical with a solo number. But then again, this is not a Broadway soundtrack, so maybe there’s a finale yet to be written.
As on TV, actress/singers Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty share Marilyn’s songs here. Both go for Marilyn’s breathy voice at the beginnings of songs, but soon the breathiness vanishes and they sing full out. They both sing the opening number, “Let Me Be Your Star,” and while this has been performed a lot on the show, on this recording it feels fresh. But singers who want to add this song to their repertoire, beware: the range is one note shy of two octaves. And given that Hilty’s voice is much more Broadway bound, I tend to prefer her vocal renderings over McPhee’s.
Shaiman & Wittman have more success writing big numbers than ballads. There are several of the latter throughout the recording, but they’re pretty perfunctory in terms of structure, melody and harmony. Some no doubt will be incorporated into singers’ repertoires and will make good audition songs.
The score is generally very upbeat; there’s only one song that even approaches sturm und drang. “On Lexington and 52nd Street” is sung by Joe DiMaggio (Will Chase), and he is very, very angry… mostly because his relationship with Marilyn is not going well at all, but also perhaps because of lyrics like this:
“You wanna see what her husband sees
Just wait to the next subway breeze.”
And weirdly, there’s a song performed by Debra Messing and Christian Borle called “The Right Regrets,” and it totally plows through the fourth wall. On “Smash”, they are the bookwriter and composer, respectively, of Bombshell. Go figure.
Without the book, it’s impossible to say how well the score supports and drives forward the narrative of Marilyn’s rise and fall. But I think aficionados of musicals will enjoy listening to this soundtrack, and should Bombshell ever make it to Broadway, it might have a decent run. I suspect it would do well on tour, and be a favorite of community theatre groups and high school productions. And this is not a bad thing at all.
Album Review: “Christiane Noll – Gifts: Live at 54 Below”
by Mark Leslie for GRACE NOTES, Mar. 8, 2013
What I don’t understand about the people who make shows and albums all about their own lives, is this (and it seems an obvious question): Why are they so sure anyone else will care?
At the very top of this quite lovely recording, after only one song, Christiane Noll goes into a ten-minute musical tale of her early life as the daughter of musicians, sprinkled with tidbits of opera and operetta as well as a few of her own cutesy toddler quips. This is charming on a certain level, but as I listen I can’t help but wonder, did anyone really purchase this CD to hear that? Noll revisits her parents and the rest of her life, including the birth of her own daughter, throughout the show. It’s mildly entertaining in concert, I’m sure, but no one needs to hear it every time the CD is played. And there is something a bit creepy about hearing it all in Christiane’s speaking voice, which is often that of a 10-year-old girl.
Ms Noll is gifted with a facile soprano which she frequently uses to wondrous effect, and I was impressed with her choice to keep that doggone thing under control. In so many instances where many a coloratura would burst into stun-volumed notes a foot above the staff, Noll keeps a tight hold on the reins and allows the song to complete itself rather than battering-ramming it to a fatigued conclusion.
This is a fortunate choice, because in the instances where she pushes that voice into stratosphere mode, I am so sorry to say that it begins to border on the Aging Lady In The Church Choir That Always Wants The Solos But Whose Vibrato Is A Major Third Wide And Utterly Out Of Control. Admittedly, I have a very low tolerance level for Showy High Singing Syndrome, and I do pray often that a speedy cure is found for SHSS.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is what I’ve always felt was the true gem of the score of Annie, Strouse and Charnin’s “Maybe.” Christiane holds the lyric close throughout, allowing the orphan’s fantasy to unspool gently while leaving the crescendo to the able hands of pianist/music director Ross Patterson.
I also wonder about the song choices that singers make. I imagine that in most cases they simply choose a song because they love it and they want to sing it. It’s a desire to have the experience of producing the sound necessary to recreate a particular piece. Maybe they want to put their stamp on it, but I feel that more often it is simply a matter of wanting the feeling of singing it. I have a close friend who, at a recent performance, added Laura Nyro’s “Buy and Sell” to his otherwise all-original set list, simply because he felt a real longing to sing that song. In his case, the performance was nothing special and the song will no longer be in his show. But he had to do it.
So I’m guessing this is why Christiane Noll felt the need to record, say, “Some Enchanted Evening” and “The Sound Of Music” and “Send In The Clowns.” To her credit, she holds herself in check in all of them (with the exception of a brief appearance by Highness For No Reason at the end of “The Sound Of Music”), especially in the desperately tender “Send In The Clowns,” which she somewhat inexplicably relates to the birth of her daughter. She sings the heck out of all three, but of course so have many, many others.
On the other hand, she includes a couple of tunes by Ahrens and Flaherty, and (God help us all, forever) a Wildhorn/Bricusse song, none of which stand out for any reason. Given the choice between those songs and the aforementioned three, I go with the standards.
There are brief uptempo patches, such as her mashup of Kander and Ebb’s “How Lucky Can You Get” and Arlen and Koehler’s “Get Happy,” but on the whole, it is a serene collection, which I find refreshing. For someone so admittedly impressed by her diva mother, Noll understands that hers in not to bash us over the head but rather to get under our skin with subtlety and interpretation. She was given a dexterous soprano voice and she shows it off to fine effect, with a minimal of showboating.
Now if I just cared more about her life.
Kritzerland’s Billy! A Celebration of Billy Barnes
at North Hollywood’s Sterling’s Upstairs at the Federal
by Marc Mantell for GRACE NOTES, Mar. 2, 2013
With an audience filled with familiar names and faces, producer and emcee Bruce Kimmel and associate producer Adryan Russ lovingly coordinated an evening to honor the work of composer Billy Barnes. The show was designed to allow an enthusiastic cabaret audience the chance to partake of the masterful tunes and lyrics written by Billy, who sadly passed in 2012.
Best known for special material created for Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye, and others, Billy’s body of work most often tells a specific story. Many of his songs are constructed like three-act plays in and of themselves. The lyrics go from topical, ironic, comedic, sweet, and dramatic, to romantic at heart.
Some highlights of the evening: performing in beautiful voice was Robert Yacko, with “Keep Away,” and vocal powerhouse Caitlynne Medrek singing “New Girl.” Jane Noseworthy did an excellent take on “Something Cool.” Chelsea Emma Franko beautifully rendered “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair” (previously a hit for Streisand). And Susanne Blakeslee hysterically knocked “A Little Lift” right out of the park.
Special guests for the evening were Nancy Dussault and Jo Anne Worley, who both regaled the audience with personal anecdotes of their experiences with Billy, before singing songs that he had composed just for them: for Nancy he wrote “Captain’s Daughter,” and for Jo Anne, “My Inner Child.” The audience was also packed with divas and divos for whom Billy had also written songs and/or worked with — among them, Jackie Joseph, Tom Hatten, Kat Kramer, Susan Watson and Dee Stratton, along with Billy’s significant other, Richard Jordan.
A top-notch cast of performers, along with Lloyd Cooper’s masterful musical direction, brought all the wonderful material to life. It certainly was a celebration of and for Billy Barnes.
Bebe Neuwirth: Stories with Piano
at Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center
by Marc Mantell for GRACE NOTES, Feb. 23, 2013
Slicked-back hairdo, wearing a black dress, multi-award winning theater and screen performer Bebe Neuwirth is easy on the eyes. Taking center stage, she made it known right from the start she would be telling Stories With Piano.
The minimalist show ran a little over an hour with no intermission. The evening was blessed with pianist Scott Cady, a one-man orchestra of strength and nuance, who keeps Ms.Neuwirth in the best of company.
This cabaret act, with some minor dance moves, is an eclectic cornucopia of songs. Running the gamut from Kander and Ebb and Stephen Sondheim to Tom Waits and Irving Berlin, Ms. Neuwirth also feels comfortable handling the dramatic and at times subtle nuances demanded by Kurt Weill. Her choices with regard to “Susan” and “Surabaya Johnnie” are commendable.
It is truly an evening of songs that tell stories interpreted by a talented performer.
Gifts of Love: The Words and Music of Stephen Schwartz at Hollywood’s Catalina Jazz Club
by Marc Mantell for GRACE NOTES, Feb. 10, 2013
Gifts of Love was a sensational cabaret concert to benefit the musical theatre program at Summit View School. Producer Dianne Fraser and associate producer Adryan Russ should feel proud of their accomplishment in putting together such a well paced, thoroughly tuneful and entertaining show. Emmy Award nominated actress Carolyn Hennesy was the perfect Mistress of Ceremonies. With her attractive persona and a dry wit, she presented notes on the assorted songs and the musicals they were from. This benefit proved to be a great introduction for a new audience to learn about composer Stephen Schwartz and his contribution to musical theatre.
The Lighting and Sound Design were technically perfect. The band: Mitch Kaplan, Scott D. Olsen, Valerie Taylor and Denise Fraser….the best! The arrangements, orchestrations of numbers like “Meadowlark” and “Rags,” were first rate. This group of musical artists was a gift for both the performers and audience!
As for the lineup of Mr. Schwartz’s memorable numbers, they covered the bases from his premiere musical Godspell to his current mega hit, Wicked. And to match the excitement, depth and emotional context of each — this concert had a cast of wonderful performers to do them justice. Everyone had a chance to shine brightly and here they are: Terron Brooks, Palmer Davis, Julie Garnye, Dan Callaway, Juliana Hansen, Joanne O’Brien, Dennis Kyle, Louise Marie Cornillez, Tal Fox, Kelly Lester, James C. Mulligan, with Dianne Fraser and Mitch Kaplan who also performed…. Bravo!
And The World Goes ‘Round at North Hollywood’s NoHo Arts.
by Michael Ford for GRACE NOTES, Feb. 10, 2013
And The World Goes Round celebrates the successful partnership of multi-award winning songwriting team Kander & Ebb. This revue is a tune-packed song cycle with material culled from their vast repertoire. The musical numbers to name but a few are from Cabaret, Chicago, Flora, The Red Menace, The Happy Time, Zorba, 70 Girls 70, The Act, Woman of the Year, and The Rink. There is also some special material the duo composed for the likes of Liza Minnelli etc. The song list is more than impressive.
The five-member ensemble (Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Emily King Brown, Kristin Towers-Rowles, Isaac James and Ryan Ruge) inhabit the evening with a wide variety of characterizations. They are a fine cast of talented young singing actors, supporting one another and each performer has a moment to shine alone during the process.
Director Gary Lee Reed keeps the evening moving. The pace is accelerated in the right way by Noel Britton’s musical staging. Comic numbers like the frenetic and funny “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup”, “Me and My Baby”, ”Pain” and a roller skating “The Rink” are staged within an inch of their life in the compact playing space. The talented performers are up to the task and hit their marks precisely. One of the high points of the evening is the choreographed musical scene with Kristen Towers-Rowles and Robert Ruge. The number, a mix of “Marry Me” and the haunting “A Quiet Thing” is a three act play all in itself. Filled with yearning, pain and humor it affords a moment for these two powerhouse musical theatre performers to truly connect with each other and the material.
Musical director/piano accompanist Joshua Eli Kranz works non-stop and occasionally joins the cast vocally in some numbers. On the opposite side of the stage, drummer/percussionist Alex Stickels provides excellent backup for the singers. He doubles chores playing a bartender and although he’s in semi-darkness he nevertheless brings a focused and interesting persona to the evening.
Thomas S. Giamario’s set is a cabaret and on the intimate playing space, Daniel Mahler’s colorful costumes add to the mood as does Matthew Richter’s lighting….And the world goes round…..and round….and round!
And The World Goes ‘Round continues through Mar. 10 at NoHo Arts.
Album review: Patti LuPone, Far Away Places, Live at 54 Below
by Stephen Cole for GRACE NOTES, Feb. 4, 2013
Come to the cabaret!
Cabaret is back and in the most unlikely of places. 54 Below is literally under the infamous and fabled old Studio 54, which is now a theatre and home to the Roundabout Theatre Company. This beautiful new cabaret space opened with a sell-out run of Patti LuPone’s new act, Far Away Places. So successful was the run, that Patti returned and, happily, was captured for the ages on state-of-the-art digital equipment (no one waxes a record or tapes a show anymore!) and has come out as the first release of what promises to be a grand series of recordings from the newly established Broadway Records.
Having seen and enjoyed this act, devised by Scott Wittman, arranged by Joseph Thalken and played by Thalken and a top notch band, I was looking forward to experiencing it again aurally, all the while wondering if Patti’s special brand of saucy belting and sly comic asides would be elusive on CD. I also wondered if I would enjoy it all without the two vodka martinis. I need not have feared. Everything but the vodka is captured on this delightful recording.
The act (with an emphasis on Kurt Weill, a great favorite of mine as well) takes us on a musical journey with stops in Germany (“Black Market”), Peking (“Come to the Supermaket”), Sicily (don’t miss Patti’s heritage!), France (“I Regret Everything”) and back to Broadway where Miss LuPone has triumphed so many times. Patti’s voice is strong and clear and, interestingly, as she ages, the power and range seems to grow and miracle of miracles, her diction has improved as well.
The only thing missing on this CD is the encore, which changed at each performance, as Miss LuPone would let the audience choose from a selection of her material. I was lucky enough to be there when she sang “Meadowlark.” Ah well, maybe there will be a special release with bonus tracks of all her encores.
In the meantime, settle in with a vodka martini, straight up with olives, and enjoy a night at 54 Below with a grand diva at the top of her game. For an intoxicating evening, this CD is highly recommended.
Personnel: Joseph Thalken (vocals, piano); Larry Saltzman (guitar, banjo); Andy Stein (violin, saxophone); Antony Geralis (accordion, keyboards); Paul Pizzuti (drums, percussion). Audio Mixers: Robert Sher; Adam Long. Liner Note Authors: Marc Routh; Richard Frankel; Steven Baruch; Tom Viertel; Jeffrey Richman; Van Dean; Andy Propst; Scott Wittman. Recording information: 54 Below, New York, NY. Directors: Joseph Thalken; Scott Wittman. Editors: Robert Sher; Adam Long. Photographers: Rahav Segev; Grace Rainer Long. Arranger: Joseph Thalken.
Fallen Angels at the Pasadena Playhouse
by Rob Meurer for GRACE NOTES, Feb. 3, 2013
I suppose that Fallen Angels is what might be called a “chestnut.” It was an early work of Coward’s, coming five years before Private Lives and a full sixteen before Blithe Spirit, and though not as popular as those two it is performed frequently. First produced in London in 1925 and on Broadway a few years later, Fallen Angels could not be mistaken for anything of any import. For all the blah-blah in the program about the characters’ “social, sexual, political [and] spiritual confinement,” by today’s standards the play is an enjoyable piece of fluff and little more. But the world can always use a little sharply-written, intelligent fluff.
For at least the last half of the first act, the two female characters—childhood friends now each married to typically dull Englishmen—get drunk and then get drunker, and the show becomes nothing so much as an episode of “Absolutely Fabulous,” right down to the pratfalls and the exaggerated affection turning to exaggerated bile. I mean, this was Patsy and Edwina up on that stage. For that matter, the two husbands were not so far from Ricky and Fred. So if this and other of Coward’s plays inspired several generations of good situation comedy, props for that.
This show belongs to the women: Pamela J. Gray as Julia, Katie MacNichol as Jane, and Mary-Pat Green as Saunders, your standard scene-stealing maid who knows more than her employers. The three men in the cast did a fine job for what they were asked to do, but that didn’t amount to much; they were necessary coglets in the plot who came and went as needed.
From the program: “Julia and Jane are the best of friends and happily married to Fred and Willy. But before tying the knot, they each had a brief affair with Maurice, a handsome and charming Frenchman. While the husbands are away for a day of golf, guess who is back in town and requesting the pleasure of the ladies’ company?” You get the idea. In their eventual inebriated state, the women’s distrust emerges and each believes the other will sneak around to meet up with Maurice in order to one-up her. There is a lot of sassy repartee, smoking, tangled phone cords, and falling down. Which is not to say that Gray and MacNichol don’t give it their all and keep the audience laughing; MacNichol especially, playing the more demonstrative and over-the-top gal, gives a performance which, though anything but nuanced, was punctuated with outbursts worthy of the classic comediennes. Gray’s silver-tongued but at least slightly lower-key counterpart balances things out perfectly.
As Saunders, Green wanders on and off, always with the courtesy befitting her station but ever too smart for the room, playing piano, singing, and speaking French better than her superiors. Oh yes, and she has a few golf tips for the man of the house as well.
By the time the fabled Maurice actually arrives on stage near the end of the play, we’ve already had about all the fun there is to be had. Apologies (and points) are made, and lessons are learned, but the curtain (if there was one) comes down on the two women in essentially the same state as at its rise—unfulfilled by years of marriage to men they love but are no longer in love with.
The direction by Art Manke keeps the comic motor chugging smoothly, and he gives the women all the rope they need to stop just short of hanging themselves.
The evening began with artistic director Sheldon Epps revealing that the anonymous couple who had given the Playhouse a cool million to keep it breathing back in 2010 were in fact Mike Stoller and his wife Corky Hale Stoller. The venerable popular songwriter and his jazz musician missus were presented with a plaque and appropriately honored. It was a moment as sweet as their gift had been historic.
Fallen Angels continues through Feb. 24 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
“One Night Stand: Creating a Play in a Day”
by Michael Scheman for GRACE NOTES, Jan. 28, 2013
“One Night Stand: Creating a Play in a Day” is a documentary chronicling the unique experience that is the 24 Hour Musicals. Fittingly -if regrettably- presented as a one night event on 1/30 (in select theaters nationwide), the film features Cheyenne Jackson, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Richard Kind, a truly terrified Rachel Dratch and a whole host of other musical theatre favorites (both onstage and off). Directors Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton follow the frazzled overnight rush by the various writing teams to create four 15 minute musicals with nothing but the actors and a few props or costumes for inspiration.
Warts and all, the film captures the insanity of the mad-dash creative process, including the auditions, the writing, the creation of vocal arrangements, choreography, direction, tech and the awful process of getting “off book” for the performance that evening. Poor Richard Kind is dumbstruck when he’s handed a page-long, complex lyric he’s to sing, memorized, that same evening. It’s striking (and often hilarious) to see how different artists respond to the pressure. Watching the way Jackson and Ferguson forget their lines mid-performance and deal with it is priceless. The whole thing is wonderfully ridiculous and oddly moving as well.
The filmmakers wisely chose a “celebrity” edition of the 24 Hour Plays/musicals (an institution that the tenacious and extraordinary Tina Fallon created and has been shepherding since 1995), as the names involved will make the film more of a must-see for non-theatre folk. But for industry people, it can’t help but be a terrific antidote to all the cinematic drek that’s been opening this month. Part of you will be glad you’re not in that anxiety-ridden boat with them, while the other part fiercely wishes you were.
“Norbert Leo Butz: Memory and Mayhem – Live at 54 BELOW” album
by Michael Scheman for GRACE NOTES, Jan. 22, 2013
“Norbert Leo Butz Memory and Mayhem – Live at 54 BELOW” is is just that – a live recording of his recent appearance at the new, invaluable venue. He offers mostly a mix of rhythm & blues, a bit of country, and one or two theatre tunes thrown in for his Broadway fans. The recording is masterfully mixed & produced, and it’s a perfect tribute to what makes him such a vital part of our musical community.
His “memories” inspire songs ranging from Van Morrison to Jason Robert Brown (an early version of Shiksa Goddess from The Last Five Years, “I Could be in Love with Someone Like You”). Some other highlights are a wonderfully restrained “If These Walls Could Speak,” and a rich duet with Lauren Kennedy (his original Last Five Years co-star) on “Poison and Wine.” When he sings “Georgia on my Mind” in honor of his newborn daughter, he finds the album’s most potent lyrical connection.
Butz’s voice has always had a clarion mix of rich musicality, effortless charisma, and a soulfulness that makes it clear just how personal each song choice is for him. He treats each lyric with a calibre of authenticity that’s rare in cabaret today, particularly for middle-aged musical theatre men.
His musicians sound hand-picked and groove wonderfully with him on each number. His patter is entirely authentic (“things smell better in our memories”… “I had this dream… about a hardcore S&M club in the 30′s”), sounds wonderfully unplanned, and gives the whole album a terrific off-the-cuff flavor that adds to the fun. The personal stories he tells are just the kind you hope a performer will share, the kind that make you feel you’ve gotten to know them in a whole new way.
By the time he shares his wonderfully quirky mash-up of “Sixteen Tons” and “Great Big Stuff” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (who came up with this?), he so utterly owns the stage and the crowd that he could sing the proverbial phone book and make it pulse. With Brian Stokes Mitchell and Nathan Lane doing less and less Broadway work, Butz is quickly becoming the go-to guy for musical theatre talent. For his fans, old and new, this album is invaluable.
The Rainmaker, at Santa Monica’s Edgemar Center
by Rom Watson for GRACE NOTES, Jan. 12, 1013
The Rainmaker is an old-fashioned play, but one still worth seeing, as its underlying message never gets old. Fortunately, the production at Edgemar Center for the Arts is a good one, doing justice to this fine play.
The Rainmaker is much better than the musical it spawned, 110 in the Shade. The musical version dilutes the power of the play, as the songs are pleasant but inferior to the dialogue they replaced. The musical doesn’t make the material “sing,” but the play does, using language, (slightly heightened, poetic without being florid,) to create its own music. The play does make a few assumptions that audiences in 1954, when the play premiered, accepted with ease. In 2013, those assumptions are now a bit jarring for an audience. Times have changed, and being divorced no longer carries a social stigma. Likewise, being called an “old maid,” though not a compliment, no longer sounds like a death sentence, since many women nowadays choose to not marry or have children. In this regard N. Richard Nash’s play has dated, but its story and characters have not. Set in 1937, it tells the story of Lizzie Curry, a woman frightened by the specter of spinsterhood. A trip out of town to meet eligible beaus has proved fruitless, and the only local prospect, the sheriff’s deputy, has shown zero interest. Lizzie’s father and two brothers love her, but have different ideas about what’s best for her. When a stranger shows up on their farm, claiming to be a rainmaker, Lizzie’s father sees hope for ending both the physical and spiritual droughts plaguing his family.
Under the direction of Jack Heller, the cast does very well with their roles. Tanna Frederick is wonderful as Lizzie, beautifully inhabiting the character in her silences as well as when she’s speaking. Lizzie is the heart of the play, and Frederick’s portrayal is top-notch. The role of Starbuck is a tricky one, as the rainmaker is meant to be charismatic without being likeable, much like a revival preacher. Robert Standley is a good actor who fulfills the requirements of making Starbuck flashier and shallower than the other characters. File, the sheriff’s deputy, is a solid and stoic character, but Scott Roberts avoids the trap of being bland and makes File interesting. Stephen Howard is notable as Lizzie’s father, H.C. Curry. Some actors take the Walter Brennan route with H.C., but Howard reveals H.C.’s motivations by simply being his character and not overplaying. The other roles are capably filled by David Garver, Benjamin Chamberlain and Ralph Guzzo.
The costumes were a source of numerous petty annoyances for the viewer. (Jimmy’s elk tooth should be on a leather cord, not a gold chain; Jimmy’s jeans look too new, as does Starbuck’s shirt; Lizzie’s second dress should have a higher collar with more noticeable buttons; Lizzie’s third dress is thin, revealing that her slip is too short; etc.) However, one learns to ignore the clothes and focus on the people wearing them. The lighting cues could have been more synchronized, but that will surely improve over the course of the run. The set is good, and effectively uses the wide stage. Though the program states there are two intermissions, don’t believe it. The three-act play has wisely been divided into two acts, with one intermission.
The Rainmaker is a good story that still has something to say to an audience, even today. Praise goes to producer Alexandra Guarnieri, Henry Jaglom and The Rainbow Theater Company for realizing The Rainmaker is worthy of revival and for mounting this well-acted production.
The Rainmaker continues through Mar. 24 at Santa Monica’s Edgemar Center.
Kritzerland Presents the Songs of Bock and Harnick
at North Hollywood’s Sterling’s Upstairs at the Federal
by Rob Meurer for GRACE NOTES, Jan. 6, 2013
Sterling’s Upstairs at The Federal was once again the site of the latest incarnation of Bruce Kimmel’s Kritzerland series, this time celebrating the songs of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. You’d be hard-pressed to foul up an evening of material by those two, and the superb lineup of performers assembled for this show did anything but.
The festivities began with the screening of the latest brief webisode of Kimmel’s comic series of theatrical mayhem, “Outside the Box,” this one concerning a new musicalization of the movie “Chinatown.” The highlight of this very funny piece was the “She’s my daughter/she’s my sister” scene in which the Evelyn Mulwray character, after being slapped repeatedly by the Jake Gittes character, breaks into a sprightly charm song about incest.
Well, maybe you had to be there.
The show proper began with the young trio of Jenna Rosen, Sami Staitman, and Sarah Staitman performing “Matchmaker” from the smash-hit of Bock and Harnick’s career, Fiddler on the Roof. The teen girls gave the piece all its requisite sparkle and charm, and I was sorry that they were never to appear again in the evening’s lineup.
In a night of highlights, I can only give you an overview and point out my own favorites. Kimmel was wise to limit the number of songs from the hugely popular Fiddler, choosing rather to feature gems from their lesser-known works. And the evening was liberally sprinkled with selections from my (and clearly Kimmel’s) mostfavorite Bock/Harnick show, She Loves Me. That 1963 musical had the great misfortune of appearing on Broadway the same year as both Hello Dolly and Funny Girl, and though it ran for 300+ performances it was pretty much swept under the rug by those two juggernauts. The exceptional, much-beloved score didn’t even garner a Tony nomination! (One more example of the inexplicable power of a Jerry Herman song.) Jane Noseworthy’s touching rendition of “Will He Like Me?” was sheer delight, as was her handling of the tumbling syllables of “A Trip to the Library,” and Michael G. Hawkins displayed the sharp craft and nervous humor of “Tonight at Eight” with effortless style. But Heather Lee’s endearing and skillful mixed medley of “Dear Friend” and “Vanilla Ice Cream” near the end of the show was, well, the ice cream on the cake.
Hawkins’ fine work on “The Picture of Happiness” from Tenderloinwas another standout, as were the several treats served up from the under-appreciated The Apple Tree.
The strongest, most passionate voice of the night belonged to Dan Callaway, and if he wasn’t given the very best material to sing, he made up for it with control and sheer power. He practically took the roof off at the conclusion of his performance of what was easily the weakest song of the evening, the big ballad “In My Own Lifetime.”
With no slight to any of the other fabulous artists, I must admit to being most consistently riveted by the performances of Lisa Livesay, whose sensitive, haunting renditions of Tenderloin’s “My Gentle Young Johnny” and (probably my favorite moment of the evening) the Fiorello reject “Where Do I Go From Here” were heartfelt and truly memorable.
But the centerpiece of the evening was the appearance by Hal Linden, best known to the general public as Barney Miller of the hit TV show of the same name, but a Tony winner for his leading role in Bock and Harnick’s 1970 show, The Rothschilds. He (literally and figuratively) owned his animated, character-driven performance of the musical scene from early in that show, “He Tossed a Coin,” which belied his 81 years with voice and timing in fine form.
And major props go to Music Director and pianist Lloyd “Brother” Cooper for consistent accompaniment perfection.
If I had to scrape up anything to complain about (and I don’t), it would be the thinness of the vocal sound at the top of the show—which may have been partially due to the young voices in the opening number—and, especially, the very cozy seating arrangements. I saw not a soul getting up to visit the facilities during the entire show, which I attribute less to the genuinely captivating performances on the stage than to the customers’ reluctance to wrestle with chairs while saying “excuse me, sorry” to several dozen people. I couldn’t even stand up without my chair hitting the chair of the person sitting at the table behind me.
So if that’s the worst I can come up with, be assured that the Kritzerland series is a top-flight—and very reasonably priced—evening of excellent voices celebrating excellent song.
Chaplin, The Musical cast album
by Mark Leslie, for GRACE NOTES, Dec. 24, 2012
Am I getting old or something?
Well, I am, but let me get to the point: I don’t understand the bizarre polarity in current musical theatre scores.
It seems that everything being written is either some rockish slog with lousy craft, or it’s some pastiche without a trace of originality. There are no rock scores with sharp rhyme, no “traditional” scores teeming with musical invention — and so little in between.
Why? I mean…why?
The School Of Uninteresting Pastiche is what I encountered when asked by GRACE NOTES to review the cast album of Chaplin, the Musical (Sony Masterworks).
Wait a minute! While I’m complaining…Chaplin, the Musical? You mean, it’s not Chaplin, the Bowling Tournament? Everyone is sick of “______, the Musical.” Producers, please stop making the writers tack that on, it’s very silly and we’re all tired of it.
I was encouraged by the opening strains of the Chaplin CD. Nothing remarkable, but a few seconds of intrigue wherein the listener is not certain what will develop. Alas, those few seconds are the last moment of curiosity to be found, as the number turns into something predictable as a sitcom theme. I suppose it’s designed to be Little Tramp music, but I couldn’t help imagining an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” lurking around the corner.
This prologue segues into “Look at All the People,” a surprisingly unengaging piece of music for a show opener. I don’t mean to be vicious here, and I’ve no intention of going at every song on the CD with a razor—I am hugely impressed by anyone who writes a show and gets it produced, and my intention is always to wish them well—but, yikes, these changes! I-V, V-I, then the obligatory IV-iv. Oh, that subdominant to subdominant minor change; it should bring a prison sentence. And if I hear the III-vi cadence in one more score, I may burst into flames. You can actually smell the changes coming.
It’s possible that the creators of the show would argue that this is period music and that they were going for authentic. But Kern and Gershwin and Rodgers and Loewe and Bock and all the others did a perfectly lovely job of putting us smack in a desired era while keeping us continually surprised and delighted.
Yes, it is possible to write a show that appeals to a mass audience and yet surprises and delights musically. The big questions here are, how can a composer versed in the American Musical not know that? And why have they stopped trying?
The next song, “Whatcha Gonna Do,” picks up the tempo a bit but its jauntiness can’t hide its lack of invention. You’ve heard this song before…lots of times. And, sure enough and soon enough, here comes IV-iv again. Except this time it jauntily continues with a drop from the tonic to the major submediant, another change as common as the dust that gathers on it.
So on to the third song, “If I Left London,” a talky piece that starts like a ballad and ends up sounding like the other songs. And—I swear to you—right off the bat we get the dreaded IV-iv change YET AGAIN. This time it’s buddied up with some of those other stunners like II-V and, of course, the equally unwelcome and ubiquitous III-iv.
Three songs in a row, all utilizing precisely the same chord patterns.
As a younger man, I might have asked how a show with such a limited musical palette ever got to Broadway, but now the nagging questions are, why would someone choose to write this way? And why be satisfied with these worn-out options?
Every composer has his or her language, and this language usually includes the same chords I’ve been lamenting here. But they can be presented with originality, with imagination. What I’m hearing here is more recycling than composing.
The rest of the score is similar: competent, and not without charm, but utterly inevitable.
And I remind you, I am not singling out Chaplin for these sins. The sheer lack of work being put into musical scores—and my bemoaning of it—makes me feel like a real geezer. Writing a show—hell, writing a song—is a hugely difficult undertaking, and so many shows of today sound as if the songs were an afterthought, tossed off in an hour while enjoying a latte. The very aspiration to write a show that will stand tall beside the best of the American Musical Theatre canon seems to have vanished.
There are exceptions to every rant, but in this case oh-so-few. Let’s hope it’s a generational thing, and that the next batch will approach writing musicals with the awe and respect that produces captivating, ingenious scores that were argued about, fought for, and sweated over like every great and lasting show that came before.
Coney Island Christmas at LA’s Geffen Playhouse
by Rom Watson for GRACE NOTES, Dec. 2, 2012
The Geffen Playhouse is presenting the world premiere of a new holiday play, Coney Island Christmas. Sure to be performed for years to come, it is funny, touching, and surprisingly moving.
Playwright Donald Margulies has done an excellent job of taking characters briefly mentioned in a 7-page reminiscence by Grace Paley and extrapolating to create a story that is both specific and universal.
The opening sets up a framing device not found in the source material, introducing us to Shirley Abramowitz, the character that will narrate the story. The next thirty minutes are spent establishing the setting (1930’s Brooklyn), introducing the characters and creating a nostalgic atmosphere. Then the conflict kicks in and the play’s engine revs up, drawing us in and making us care.
Shirley tells the story of her younger self, well played by Isabella Acres, as she takes a role in the school Christmas play. Her parents object because they feel it’s inappropriate for a young Jewish girl to portray Jesus Christ.
Coney Island Christmas is deliberately inclusive, not only in its casting of actors of various ethnicities, but in its themes. The play shows both the eagerness and the reluctance of immigrants to assimilate in America, as Jews collide with Christmas, past collides with present, and Santa Claus collides with Jesus. The climax of the show is the performance of the school play, as we watch the mingling of myths performed by mingling cultures.
The cast of twenty is a cohesive ensemble, with Kira Sternbach’s portrayal of the Virgin Mary as played by a child particularly amusing. The technical elements are all good, especially the props for the school play, which appropriately look like they were made by children. Unfortunately, the creaking of the turntable is noticeable during quiet moments. Well directed by Bart DeLorenzo, this 95-minute play-with-music performed without intermission is suitable for the whole family.
Coney Island Christmas is slow to reveal its charms, but stick with it because the payoff is worth it.
For tickets, go to geffenplayhouse.com. Coney Island Christmas plays through Dec. 30.
The Morini Strad at Burbank’s Colony Theatre
by Rom Watson for GRACE NOTES, Nov. 19, 2012
Willy Holtzman’s The Morini Strad belongs to that subgenre of play wherein a younger person is forced to spend time with an older person, they overcome their differences, and each ends up learning from the other (examples include Educating Rita, Visiting Mr. Green, Old Wicked Songs, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, and Grace and Glorie, with most produced by The Colony Theatre). Though not nearly as moving or rewarding as Grace and Glorie, it is an interesting play that has been given the Colony’s usual handsome production.
Though likable, one wishes the play were stronger, especially as it is based on a true story. Some of the humor works, but some of it, such as the Lennon/Lenin mix-up, feels tired. At the end, the play resorts to first-person narration, and we feel cheated. The audience might have been better served had less time been devoted to setting up the situation and more time devoted to the developments at the end. Like the secrets of the main character, the play turns out to be interesting without being dramatic.
Mariette Hartley stars as Erica Morini, owner of a Stradivarius that is in need of repair. She’s believable, but her journey might have been more effective had she been larger than life. Adding more flamboyance at the beginning would have served to elicit more sympathy for her physical decline at the end. Erica is meant to be prickly and imperious, but Hartley settles for cranky and self-absorbed. Which may sound like a quibble, but it’s the difference between being good and being great. Sometimes it’s better to risk alienating the audience at the beginning so they have farther to journey as you reel them in over the course of play. Perhaps she should study Luise Rainer’s performance in the 1997 film of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. Rainer can convey imperiousness in a way that makes you gawk at her sense of entitlement at the same time you’re charmed by her vulnerability.
David Nevell is quite good as Brian, the violin repairman Erica hires. He overuses the gesture of putting his forehead in his left hand, but that’s a minor complaint. He grounds the play with his likeable presence.
The third person in the cast is talented violinist Geneva Lewis, who portrays two of Erica’s students and Erica as a young girl. She’s well cast, and a welcome element in the show.
It’s a shame she didn’t play more frequently, as the set changes took an inordinate amount of time to accomplish relatively little. With a musician in the cast, one would think her services would be used to provide set change music, but this was not the case. Hopefully these set changes will shorten as the run continues, as they disrupt and dissipate the audience’s attention.