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He Says: The Great Society Makes History Riveting – Even for Teenagers

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I was a bit worried as I walked up to the Vivian Beaumont Theater to see the Lincoln Center Theater‘s grand and wise production of The Great Society written by Robert Schenkkan (All the Way). Standing outside the theatre were hundreds of high school students, taking up too much space, making it difficult to get through, even though, if they were being a bit more thoughtful, there was ample space to gather and not be in the way of people going to the doors of the theater. But yet they seemed oblivious, spreading out, filling the space, and making it difficult to wind our way through. It wasn’t a good sign, as it was clear that these teenagers were going to the same theater that I was going to this afternoon. Most likely, they were being taken to the same solid historical play that I was. A play based on Lyndon B. Johnson, and his determination to build a Great Society. Just how that was that going to turn out was anyone’s guess.

If anyone out there remembers that scene from television’s “Slings and Arrows“, when the seasoned actors, are standing back stage waiting to make their entrance, complaining and moaning about having to perform at student performances, and all the heckling and penny-throwing the actors had to deal with, as they tried, diligently to convey Shakespeare Hamlet to the room. It wasn’t a pretty structural set-up to have in my mind as I pushed my way through the iPhone-hypnotized crowd of students and teachers, particularly on this day. I must admit that I was exhausted from a not-so-great night’s sleep and a busy morning at work, the idea of sitting through a play about one of America’s presidents, even if that man was LBJ, seemed like a challenge. I’m a Canadian, you see, and although I know some American history (probably more than any American knows about Canadian political history – besides how lovely Justin Trudeau is), I don’t know it as well as I’d like as I took my seat.  I paused, took a deep breath as the crowds of teens took their seats around me, and pleaded to the theatrical gods that this was all going to turn out well.  Or that I didn’t fall asleep.

2769 Barbara Garrick and Brian Cox in THE GREAT SOCIETY

I had nothing to worry about. As directed with stealth and determination by Bill Rauch (LCT’s The Clean House), this piece of historical theatre was as riveting as one could hope for. The students were mesmerized, barely making a peep, (maybe one of the quietest shows I’ve sat through – not one cell phone went off – not one!) except for one particularly crass word spoken by one of the actors that caused an audible gasp from the crowd. Good, I thought, as it’s a word associated now with the Orange Monster, and I couldn’t have been more pleased that they all seemed to know how wrong that word is.  The Great Society pulled me in quickly and thoroughly, far more than I ever could have imagined. Brian Cox (Broadway’s Rock’n’Roll) powerfully embodies LBJ, the 36th President of the United States from the get-go, with his faithful and charming wife, Lady Bird Johnson, beautifully portrayed by Barbara Garrick (Keen Co.’s Later Life) standing steadily at his side.  LBJ was sworn into office following the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and with that, he was handed the Vietnam War to deal with. But it was really his ambitious slate of progressive reforms that enveloped him, his “War on Poverty” aimed at creating The Great Society for all Americans. He championed many of the programs that still exist (and are under attack) now—Medicare, Head Start, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act—having a profound and lasting impact in health, education and civil rights. But it was that war, the Vietnam War, that was his Achilles heel. It was his failure to lead the nation out of that marred his legacy in the history books. Under his watch, the number of American troops in Vietnam soared from 16,000 when he took office in 1963 to more than 500,000 in 1968, yet the conflict remained an impossible stalemate, with casualties and the injured, listed defiantly on the back wall, courtesy of set designer David Korins (Broadway’s Beetlejuice), lighting designer, David Weiner (Broadway’s The Price), and most importantly, projection design by Victoria Sagady (Broadway’s Leap of Faith), that added fuel to an uncomfortable fire.

0891 Grantham Coleman & Company in THE GREAT SOCIETY

The other flame that was burning at the same time, close enough to scald him, was a movement that would challenge his negotiating ways as he attempted to change American through social reform. The Civil Rights Movement, with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., dynamically and stylistically portrayed by Grantham Coleman (Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing), standing up proudly to LBJ as the champion of non-violent confrontation, and the leader of that important movement. With his strong and sturdy wife, Coretta Scott King, dynamically portrayed by Nikkole Salter (DR2’s Gloria: A Life) lending her unflinching but concerned support, King, Jr. rose up and tried his best to work solidly and faithfully with Lyndon B. Johnson and his Vice President, the Former Senator and long time supporter of civil rights, Hubert Humphrey, strongly portrayed by Richard Thomas (Broadway’s The Little Foxes). It was a complicated path, filled with holes and slippery stones to blindside one or the other, and destabilize the secure stance they, at one time, believed they had with one another.

2630 Marchant Davis, Brian Cox and Bryce Pinkham in THE GREAT SOCIETY

Then there is the relationship he had with Senator Robert F. Kennedy, deftly portrayed by the always wonderful Bryce Pinkham (Broadway’s Holiday Inn) as the Democratic NY Senator and former Attorney General, who was the party rival to LBJ. Their interactions beautifully demonstrate all the complications that are difficult to manage in that political world, when personal opinions and arrogance outweigh the good of the country, something we sadly are seeing in today’s politics with a greater and more obvious clarity. The play is filled to the brim with other solid and stellar performances of well known historical figures, overflowing into the political side lines of that beautiful stage, such as the Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley (Marc Kudisch); J. Edgar Hoover (Gordon Clapp); Senator Everett Dirksen (Frank Wood), the Senate Minority Leader (R) from Illinois who helped pass the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968; U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1961-1968, Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch); Army General and commander of the U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland (Brian Dykstra); civil rights activist and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Bob Moses (Tramell Tillman); civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis (Marchant Davis); and American civil rights activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Ty Jones). In what is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the play, the tragedy of Jimmie Lee Jackson, beautifully portrayed by the engaging Christopher Livingston, floats out strongly for us to take in. The Great Society breathes life and courage into the story of the young civil rights activist whose death inspired the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. It stings forward, whispering into our ears his unforgettable story. This, in essence, is what makes The Great Society hypnotic.  They take the facts, and force the blinders off the horse, forcing the pain and the emotionality of the events to inhabit our soul and make us curious with care, even if it causes us to get a wee bit scared of what it all means.

0440 Brian Cox, Richard Thomas, and Gordon Clapp in THE GREAT SOCIETY

Stay or jump, they say, and LBJ, when he sees the literal writing on the wall, concedes defeat, and declines to run for a second term in office. He retires to his Texas ranch in January 1969, as we watch one of the last memorial images and scenarios of The Great Society, take his iconic place in national history. It is the silhouette of Richard Nixon, dutifully portrayed by David Garrison (CSC’s Dead Poets Society), who also, appropriately plays the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, the defiant opposer of integration and voting rights, as well as the Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, Jim Clark who was responsible for several violent arrests of civil rights protestors during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. Garrison’s Nixon is the epitome of all we associate with that man, thanks to some fine work by costume designer Linda Cho (Broadway’s The Lifespan of a Fact), with equally solid sound design by Marc Salzberg (LCT/Broadway’s Oslo) and composer/sound designer Paul James Prendergast (TFANA’s Julius Caesar). With his wife Pat, portrayed by Angela Pierce (Broadway’s Norman Conquests) standing at his side, as all the wives seem to do, the man feels as shifty and dishonest as the man currently in office, although maybe just a bit less. The final moments ring true, and a warning to us all. I hope those kids seated around me take note, as they are our future, in a way. The Great Society that LBJ did attempt to formulate is at war with the current administration.  It could all crumble before our very eyes, and change the whole way America looks after their own.  It’s a horribly scary scenario, but I’m glad those kids were as taken as I was.  You could have heard a pin drop in that theatre, and that, I must say, is the biggest compliment you can give this solidly smart and captivating new play.

1531 Brian Cox in THE GREAT SOCIETY

For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Ken Fallin's Broadway

Ken Fallin’s Broadway:​ Inspired By True Events A New Play by Ryan Spahn

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Off-Broadway’s Out of the Box Theatrics is presenting Inspired By True Events, a new play by Ryan Spahn.

In the green room of a community theater in Rochester, the Uptown Players are getting ready to play to a full house after opening to rave reviews the night before. When their star actor arrives in a dangerously unhinged state, they must improvise on and off stage in ways they could not have imagined. By turns hilarious, harrowing, and horrifying, Inspired By True Events follows a tenacious group of show people who must determine at what cost the show must go on.

Inspired By True Events received development workshops with New York Stage & Film, Vineyard Theatre and EST.

Knud Adams is directing, and the cast will feature Lou Liberatore, Jack DiFalco, Mallory Portnoy, and Dana Scurlock. The play opens July 17 at 154 Christopher Street (formerly the New Ohio Theatre). The play was developed by Michael Urie.

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Obituaries

Saying Good Bye To Dr. Ruth

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“I was left with a feeling that because I was not killed by the Nazis — because I survived — I had an obligation to make a dent in the world,” Dr. Westheimer stated.

Becoming Dr. Ruth was a compelling play that chronicled the remarkable journey of Karola Siegel, who was best known as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the iconic sex therapist. Dr. Ruth’s escape from the Nazis as a child, her time as a sniper in Jerusalem, and her courageous pursuit of success in America as a single mother, Becoming Dr. Ruth was and is about a triumphant spirit. On July 12, 2024 Dr. Ruth passed on at her home in Manhattan. She was 96.

Sex sells and Ruth Westheimer, a child survivor of the Holocaust who was a sex therapist knew that. At a time when the world didn’t talk about sex Dr Ruth’s frankness led to a long-running radio and television call-in shows. She was the go-to for tips on the art and science of lovemaking.

The sexual revolution that began in the 60’s but the world was still repressed on subjects like erectile dysfunction, masturbation, fantasies and orgasms.

Dr. Ruth was not the typical radio and TV personality, She stood at 4-foot-7, she was bedecked in pearls, and had a recognizable German-inflected voice.

Dr. Westheimer was over 50 when she debuted in 1980 on New York’s WYNY with “Sexually Speaking.” The radio program started out in 15-minute segments and was later syndicated and extended to two hours to accommodate those who were curious. There was also “Good Sex With Dr. Ruth Westheimer,” She was a frequent guest on late-night talk shows.

After surviving the Nazis, she went to Israel, where she joined the Haganah paramilitary group fighting for Jewish statehood (and where, she said, she lost her virginity in a hayloft). After that to France and to New York. As Dr. Westheimer she taught university courses in human sexuality before a producer at WYNY, an NBC affiliate, booked her for quarter-hour segment, first broadcast on Sundays after midnight. Within a year, she was on prime time at 10 p.m. to 11 p.m.

She wasn’t the first on-air therapist, but the most remembered.

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Off Broadway

The Journals of Adam and Eve The World’s First Love Story Starring Hal Linden and Marilu Henner

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photo by Paul Aphisit

“Some day we’ll look back on this and laugh.”

The Journals of Adam and Eve The World’s First Love Story starring Hal Linden and Marilu Henner is a master class in acting. Created by Emmy-winning comedy writer Ed Weinberger (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Cosby Show), the show is very reminiscent of Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve. Ultimately an endearing love story, the  show records the couple’s initial ambivalence to growth within themselves and in love.

Done like a reading, the actors are in black street clothes. They refer to their scripts from adjoining music stands. There is water on small tables and a chair for each.

Hal Linden and Marilu Henner are very amusing and powerful storytellers. Linden’s journey as Adam, starts off with “Much to my amazement, I was born a full-grown man,” to “It wasn’t the Garden of Eden. Not by a long shot.” We meet and see a man who is flawed, childlike in full blown ego to a man content with the journey. It is truly funny to see Mr. Linden recall his favorite herb. “A few swallows of the bud and I soon found myself wolfing down handfuls of figs drenched in honey and sprinkled with crunchy chili peppers. It also made me giggle when I counted my fingers.”

Henner commands the stage squeezing every laugh out of goading Adam, flirting in a way that is subtle and innocent. When he tries to rule over her she states; “Well, it just so happens that this living thing that ‘moveth’ is not one of your birds, fishes, or any other animal you have dominion over. So maybe you and this God ought to have another little talk about who is whoest and what is whateth.”

As the mysteries of life and love are explored desire, discoveries, temptation, lust, being the world’s first parents, joys, sorrows, separation and contentment in their twilight years all are explained and shown in a way that makes you think.

This thought-provoking comedy’s makes you wonder did we ever really know the first couple, that in a strange way has influenced all of our lives?

Amy Anders Corcoran’s direction is simple, yet effective and you will leave the theatre more satisfied than Adama dn Eve after they bit that apple.

The Journals of Adam and Eve: The Sheen Center, Loreto Theater, 18 Bleecker Street, until July 28th

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Off Broadway

Cats – The Jellical Ball at PAC NYC Death Drops Deliriously Divine and Feline-Free

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This is a ball darling, emote!” and with the glitter dust blown off an iconic album, this Jellicle Ball reimaging eyes the runway in classic form, giving a nod to the old, but radically restructuring this new version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats with divine aplomb. The shadow ballet to the overture, as directed by Zhailon Levingston (Broadway’s Chicken and Biscuits) and Bill Rauch (LCT’s The Great Society) with choreography by Arturo Lyons (Madonna’s Celebration Tour) and Omari Wiles (Les Ballet Afrik), sets fire to the excited crowd that has gathered around the runway at PAC NYC, giving mystical divinity to Gay Pride Saturday. It’s clearly the musical theatrical event of the summer, with nothing else coming close, other than a few shows that are coming to an end after reaping the awards of a Post-Tony upswing. And I couldn’t feel more blessed as I took my seat right behind the two special guests who were seated on each side of an empty throne. So prepare yourselves, kittens, for what is about to come, because it’s not what you remember. Not at all. It’s something very different, and magically magnificent in ways I could never have imagined before this construction. It has meaning, deeper than when it first crawled in from the streets, and a unifying sense of community that registers far beyond what one could have anticipated, culturally and emotionally.

For anyone of a certain age, this musical, Cats, which started out in the West End at the New London Theatre in May 1981, was a phenomenon that was unparalleled at the time. Interesting fact: Judi Dench was originally cast to play the glamour cat but tore her Achilles tendon during rehearsal and was replaced by Elaine Paige.  Later, it opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1982 with Buckley as Grizabella. Her 1983 Tony-winning performance has etched itself firmly into our collective theatrical minds with all of its pain, beauty, and power. I was not lucky enough to have seen either Buckley or Paige as Grizabella, but I did see Cats for the first time at the newly opened historic Elgin Theatre in Toronto in 1985.  It was a big deal for me and the city when this famous show ushered in a new period of theatrical renewal for Toronto, and I, as a university student studying Theatre Design at York University, could not wait to see it.

André De Shields in Cats – The Jellicle Ball at PAC NYC. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

I had worn out my record (or was it a cassette tape?) listening to all of those unique and exciting songs over and over again. I cannot tell you who played the part in the Canadian production for this two-and-a-half-year run (if you can tell me, I’d love to know) but I can honestly admit that I loved the experience. An idea that both tells you the state of theatre at the time, and how this musical, even if it has gained a certain level of disdain and unpopularity in the modern theatrical world, ignited something in our collective consciousness that hadn’t been seen on stage before it purred its way forward. It was revolutionary, even as we look back at it down our more enlightened noses.

When I saw the 2016 Cats revival, directed again by Trevor Nunn, it was like revisiting an old magician friend, but one that I had hoped would have tried a few new tricks, and maybe given us a bit different twist.  Cats, to be frank, is a ridiculously silly show in terms of modern-day musical theatre, but I do recognize that at the time, back in 1985, it was historic. Cats started a theatrical trend or model, whether you like it or not, for producers to create what was to be called the ‘megamusical’ phenomenon. It quickly established a global market for musical theatre, focusing the industry towards establishing big-budget blockbusters, as well as creating a theatrical entertainment landscape devoted to family and tourist-friendly shows. The musical’s profound but polarising influence also reshaped the aesthetic, technology, and marketing of the medium for the better, or maybe the worse for the industry today.  It changed what musicals were allowed to be.  And I get that.  But some shows don’t age so well.  Don’t get me wrong, Cats is not a bad show in any way but it was running out of lives, and needed viewing through a completely different lens.

The cast of Cats – The Jellicle Ball at PAC NYC. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.
But who could have guessed it would be reborn most brilliantly on the runway of Harlem Ballroom; a culture made iconic in shows like 2018’s “Pose“, as well as in the video for Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue“, released in 1989, and Madonna’s “Vogue“, released in 1990, one year before the ground-breaking documentary “Paris Is Burning“, which really brought the iconic framework into our cultural sensibilities. They all did in their own ways, but co-directors Levingston and Rauch (artistic director of PAC NYC) took on this dusty ALW musical, that was famously inspired by “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T. S. Eliot, and sent it swirling and voguing itself into an astounding new Heaviside Layer (the Cats version of heaven), reforming and rebirthing these former felines into something very different, and absolutely earth-shakeringly fabulous.
Their new Cats has been reborn and redesigned, throwing itself into the competitive Ballroom Scene with a confident power that is intoxicating and electrifying. Played out on a long runway space running from the windows to the judges’ table, designed with a spirited sense by Rachel Hauck (Broadway’s Hadestown; MCC’s The Wrong Man), the newly formed megamusical delivers its mega reframing with an African-American and Latino underground LGBTQ+ subcultural slant, rolled out with pride and self-assurance. The retooling has nothing to do with the four-legged feline. These ‘cats’ are performative alter-ego contestants; magnificent and creative, competing in a captivating, integrated competition that has its historic soul coming from drag balls of the mid-19th Century. And those balls, in response to increasing racism and homophobia, evolved in the 20th Century into house Ballroom Competitions, where Black and Latino participants would ‘walk’ the runway in a variety of categories, resulting in the awarding of trophies and cash prizes. The framework is perfection for these personality introductions, and these ‘cats’ are ready to revel and death-drop dip into these historic roots like no one could have ever imagined possible.The newly formed framing works its magic throughout, creating community within the Cats clan of chosen names and chosen family. Adam Honoré (Broadway’s Ain’t No Mo’) delivers a spectacle in lights alongside the solid sound design by Kai Harada (Broadway’s Kimberly Akimbo), as does the recreated iconic projections by Brittany Bland (Public’s A Raisin in the Sun) that honor, enhance, and elevate. But like any ballroom competition, memorable magic is forever created in the costumes designed masterfully by Qween Jean (TNG’s Black No More) and the wigs created by Nikiya Mathis (Broadway’s Home), and neither let this ball drop.

Sydney James Harcourt and the cast of Cats – The Jellicle Ball at PAC NYC. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

Competing in an assortment of Ballroom categories like “Butch Queen Realness” and “Old Way vs. New Way” voguing, the cast fly themselves forward, finding authenticity in their irresistibility. It’s powerful exciting and theatrical, while only once purring itself a bit too closely to the actual idea of playing Cats. That moment aside, everyone in the cast is beyond excellent, dipping themselves down into death at the drop of a hat, while playing with the structure and feline concepts most majestically. The incredibly sexy Sydney James Harcourt (Public’s Girl From the North Country) makes an irresistible Rum Tum Tugger, winning his trophy easily, while Emma Sofia (Broadway’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as Skimbleshanks, loses by a whisker. Antwayn Hopper (Broadway’s A Strange Loop) as Macavity steals the scene in designer labels with tags still attached, while later on, ballroom legend Junior LaBeija delivers a touchingly sweet spiriting as Asparagus, the old theater cat. But it is the long-legged “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees“, embodied by the mega-talented Robert “Silk” Mason (“Into the Colors“), that truly brings all that brilliance to the forefront, and ties it all together with such talent and presence.

But really we are all waiting for the arrival of Old Deuteronomy, knowingly played most deliciously regal by André De Shields (Broadway’s Hadestown) to take his seat on the throne. His entrance and demeanor couldn’t have been more perfect for the part, carrying himself forward like many of the trophies given out by MC Munkustrap, portrayed dutifully well by Dudney Joseph Jr. (Public’s The Harder They Come), to the young contestant kitties vying for Old D’s respectful nod. As in the traditional telling of this tale, a tribe of ‘cats’ called the Jellicles have come before the honorable Old Deuteronomy to make the “Jellicle choice”, deciding which of the many worthy cats assembled will ascend up to the Heaviside Layer and come back to the world in a new life. Here, under the strongly focused eyes of its determined directors, the lens has shifted yet remained tuned into the competitive introductions of ‘cats’ vying for the ultimate award of the night. And the experiment works, better than any of us could have dreamed or hoped for.

André De Shields (center) and the cast of Cats – The Jellicle Ball at PAC NYC. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

It’s a deliciously delivered radical relayering, that completely renders us helpless against the talented ‘cats’ laid out before us, choreographed to the heavens, and performed to energetic perfection by an astounding cast. Anyone familiar with this musical knows we are all waiting for the one who has fallen on hard times, the formally glamorous Grizabella, usually played by “Tempress” Chasity Moore, but on this particular night, understudy Garnet Williams (Parity’s At Hotel MacGuffin) majestically donned the smudged lipstick and ripped coat, delivering the goods with extreme gusto. The other cats pull back and away from her at first, but it’s only a matter of time until Grizabella is given the floor, and Williams, thanks to the strong musical supervision and music direction by William Waldrop (Broadway’s Evita; Cats) and Beats arranger Trevor Holder (Brian Jackson’s Gotta Play; Broadway’s The Wiz), weaves some “Memory” magic all around her, shining radiantly upwards to the Heaviside Layer in shimmering majestic fashion. It’s an exit worthy of the work being done here, and the supreme magic created in this radically magnificent restructuring of Cats – The Jellical Ball. Let’s hope this ‘radical reimagined’ production has a few more lives to live, and runways to walk. Is Circle in the Square its next alley cat Ballroom? Or are the whisperings I hear wrong?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrfstFrQKccTo see the video click here.

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Off Broadway

Empire: The Musical Wants To Be What It Is Not

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I was so looking forward to Empire: The Musical. I was impressed at the press meet and greet, as well as the video on Youtube with the musical scoring, sadly it did not hit the mark. The book by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull is confusing and doesn’t allow for us to become emotionally involved. For the most part the show takes place in Great Depression, however it starts off in 1976 and is seen through Sylvie Lee (Julia Louise Hosack the understudy for Jessica Ranville) eyes. My first question becomes how did Sylvie get to the era of the Great Depression and interact with it considering it started in 1929, the Empire State Building began construction in 1930 and, after an incredible 13 months (just 410 days), was completed in 1931?

Sylvie is the daughter of a worker who died during construction and hates the building and the past. She is resentful and now she is in the Great Depression interacting with  former New York City Governor Alfred E. Smith (Paul Salvatoriello), former General Motors executive John J. Raskob (Howard Kaye), architect Charles Kinney (Albert Guerzon), and Frances Belle “Wally” Wolodsky (Kaitlyn Davidson) who is the person behind Smith and girlfriend of Kinney. Another of the confusion here is Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates were the architect not Charles Kinney.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

As we learn this story we meet the workers which are written so stereotypical. There is Irishman Ethan O’Dowd (J Savage), the racist Italian Mateo Menzo (Robbie Serrano), the Polish Joe Pakulski (Devon Cortez) a dreamer, as is his Mohawk wife, Rudy (also Kianna Labeary), who disguises herself as a man in order to work alongside him.

Dave Clemmons once told me we sing in musicals, because words are no longer enough. The problemm here is though the songs are pretty, there seems no reason to sing them. Sherman and Hull also did the score. Almost all of the songs sound the same and the lyrics don’t always work. They are well sung. especially by Kaitlyn Davidson, Paul Salvatoriello, Julia Louise Hosack and April Ortiz. What is done well is the harmony.

Lorna Ventura’s choreography tries to succeed and does for the most par,t but it seems like this is a poor man’s Newsies. There are even some riffs in the songs, that sound borrowed.

The cast has spirit and energy and gives performances that make you wish they had a better show or director. Cady Huffman seems lost considering she was given very little to work with.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Even scenic designer Walt Spangler seems lost with the odd set that has hidden treasure every where you look, but doesn’t fit the musical.

I do hope to see more of Ms. Davidson and the boy in the chorus Joel Douglas, both stand out and made the most of what they could of their respective roles.

Empire: The Musical: New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, until September 22nd.
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