It has been 30 years since Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 magnificent and uniquely challenging big musical had a new and full London staging (The Broadway production opened on April 4, 1971, ran for over 500 performances, was nominated for eleven Tony Awards and won seven). So it was with great fanfare when the National Theatre announced its star filled production that would grace the main stage this past fall. And what a glorious night at the theatre it is. Us New Yorkers were lucky enough to have had the opportunity to see the Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, and Elaine Paige revival back in 2011 directed beautifully by Eric Schaeffer (Gigi) not to mention the 2000 revival that starred Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey, Treat Williams, and Polly Bergen. I count myself as one of the lucky souls that saw both. And now, I’m even more fortunate to include this Dominic Cooke directed revival that stars the four time Olivier winner, Imelda Staunton (Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who seems to be making her way through the American classics for the West End audiences, joined by Olivier and Obie winner Janie Dee (NT’s Carousel), three-time Olivier winner Philip Quast (NT’s South Pacific), Peter Forbes (Royal Court’s How to Hold Your Breath), and two-time Olivier winner Tracie Bennett (Regent’s Park’s High Society). This is a Follies that will be remembered, not for all their Fol- Lies, but for all the truths that these characters need to tell.
The production is as wonderful and thrilling as it sounds, expertly guided by first time musical theatre director Cooke (NT’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) with a wonderfully inventive stance and perspective. Utilizing a number of compelling thematic ideas, the National Theatre’s revival is presenting a Follies that in some telling ways has not been seen or heard since the original Broadway version of the show. In 1987 for it’s London premiere, Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics, Sweeney Todd) and James Goldman (book, A Family Affair with John Kander) revised large parts of the show’s script and score in an effort to tone down the dark ending of the Broadway original, offering up a more hopeful finale for its main characters. Cooke dives back to the original to unearth the more devastating lines said by Sally just before the final blackout; lines that have not been uttered since Dorothy Collins spoke them 40 years ago.
He delivers us a Follies drenched in regret and frustration, overflowing with anger and middle-aged crisis, and haunted by the dreams of the past. Impresario Weismann, played with a regal sadness by Gary Raymond (NT’s Sunday in the Park with George) introduces us to what’s in store best when he describes what the reunion of his Weismann Girls, and Follies in general, represents to himself and all his girls: “to glamorize the old days, stumble through a song or two, and lie about ourselves“. He has orchestrated a gathering in his old dilapidated Broadway theatre on the eve of its demolition with all his beautiful showgirls (based on the famous Ziegfeld Girls) assembled for one last homage to the memory of their youthful glory. Floating along side that celebration are all their memories in beautiful ghost-like form, drenched in distorted nostalgia dusted with optimism and hope, but tinged with disappointments and complexities.
Designer, Vickie Mortimer (NT’s The Threepenny Opera) bravely knocks away the traditionalist approach to this abstractionism; demolishing the proscenium and in its place, constructing a brick wall collapsing in upon itself, stationed on a rotating stage. The wall, with a fire escape firmly attached to one side and an old sign “glorifying the American Girl”, separates the acting and party space into pockets of memories and moments; backstage and front of house; past and present; real and ghost-like, and with the help from lighting designer, Paule Constable (NT’s Angels in America) and sound designer, Paul Groothuis (Old Vic’s Design for Living) does it effortlessly. The structure and surroundings beautifully symbolizes every drop of artificial pretension and ritzy false glamour that these showgirls represent, both than and now, slowly declining into disrepair and ruin.
The soon to be torn down theatre rotates the party a-round and a-round throughout the evening’s celebration. It’s a wondrously complex backdrop to their festive reminiscing, gossiping, lies, and laughter. It pulls us in and out of their moments of intimacy, inventively weaved with the filming of a documentary-styled recording of the girls’ salutations and introspections, without ever wondering where the rest of the party has gone. In the 2011 revival, one that I loved so dearly, the party itself seemed to disappear for moments at a time, leaving us all to wonder where they went, but here in the National’s large Olivier Theatre, the party never disappears from view, making it feel so private and public all at the same time.
And as perfect as this scenario is, the use of the ghostly young dancers fading in and out, following themselves around, extends far beyond the opening creating another revelation in this rendition. Instead of being merely the occasional apparition reminding us of their long gone glamorous days, these ‘ghosts of dancers’ past’ lay claim to the Weismann Theatre. Perfectly coiffed in those fantastical feathered creations of that bygone time, they shadow their wistful older counterparts throughout the evening, questioning their presence at the old Follies playground. They are in attendance to see the end of this era and to see what the future has in store for them, re-enacting moments of conflict in order to push their older selves forward and away from the past.
Thanks to the numerous glorious numbers from Sondheim (music supervisor: Nicholas Skilbeck; orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick with Josh Clayton; music director: Nigel Lilley), these older ladies try to connect with their former selves through songs reminiscent of their days in the theatre while simultaneously commenting on their state of affairs in the present. We are gifted by Sondheim with one wonderful hit after another, with songs such as ‘Broadway Baby‘ sung by Di Botcher (NT’s A Little Night Music) as Hattie Walker, ‘I’m Still Here‘ gloriously sung by Bennett as Carlotta Campion, ‘Ah, Paris!‘ sung by Geraldine Fitzgerald (Leicester Haymarket’s Into the Woods) as Solange LaFitte, and ‘One More Kiss‘ sung by the astounding Dame Josephine Barstow (a celebrated opera singer worldwide, singing for over 50 years) and equally talented Alison Langer (Opera Holland Park’s The Pirates of Penzance) as both the older and the younger Heidi Schiller. Telling us a tale of middle aged angst and confusion with humor and beauty all shimmering in together. One of the more fun highlights is the group dance number, ‘Who’s That Woman‘ that melts the older ladies, lead by Stella, a magnificently radiant Dawn Hope (Battersea Art Centre’s Josephine) with their younger selves. These woman relive their glory breathlessly by performing this magnificent song and dance assisted with the expertise of the young and confident dance girls. Cooke treats each lady with an enormous amount of respect, even enlisting the format utilized in the last New York revival when he allows us to be privy to watch some of the characters leaving, allowing them flashes of intimate closure as they finish their story and leave their ghosts behind.
But Follies has another more personal dimension, and that lies in the hands of the four leads, each one contributing their own folly to the mix. I struggled in the first few moments of Follies, waiting for that initial flavorful song, ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs‘ that signal to me that the main construct has begun. All before seems less engaging, feeling more like a quasi-revue of an old art form, each number barely moving the plot forward, until those first words are sung by the young boys waiting for their girls. Staunton as Sally Durant Plummer (ghosted by the wonderful Alex Young) does a spectacular job filling out the desperation and distortion that lies inside Sally’s memories. Her song, ‘Losing My Mind’ is the powerhouse of the production, and even though I had a harder time connecting her to her younger dance girl-self, her breakdown and bleak finale haunts me still. Forbes as Buddy Plummer (ghosted by the strong Fred Haig) did a grand job with his two strong numbers, ‘The Right Girl‘ and ‘Buddy’s Blues‘, I had a hard time not recalling the more intense Burstein from the 2011 Broadway revival, but Forbes found his strength not so much in his songs, but in his intensely emotional connection to Staunton’s Sally. Dee knocks it out of the theatre with her well-timed humoristic delivery of ‘Could I Leave You‘ and that was even when my own memories were comparing it to the powerful Jan Maxwell performance that is lodged in my brain for a lifetime. As Phyllis Rogers Stone (ghosted by the charming Zizi Strallen), Dee gets the balance just right throughout and never makes us question her motives or actions, even when the hand is held out to her husband in the end. She’s exceptional in the jazzy dance number, ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie‘, accompanied by a squadron of well-orchestrated chorus boys giving us both sex appeal and insightfulness. Quast also does a stellar job as husband, Benjamin Stone (ghosted by the talented Adam Rhys-Charles) especially during his epic meltdown that brings the complicated, difficult, and utterly challenging ‘Loveland‘ segment, the final musical sequence featuring a string of vaudeville-style numbers, reflecting the leading characters’ emotional problems, to a crashing close. Even when knowing what is on its way, the stuttering and collapsing of his ‘Live, Laugh, Love‘ devastates and leaves us as floored as Sally lying there distraught and feeling betrayed.
Earlier when the Weismann Girls make there way down the improvised staircase, cleverly staged by Cooke and stellar choreographer Bill Deamer (Aldwych’s Top Hat) to the wonderfully charming song, ‘Beautiful Girls‘, we can’t help but see the importance and deep meaning this history has melted into these older women’s souls. Their past has given them great superficial meaning to their somewhat less glamorous after-lives. But there in the back, making their mirrored way down another improvised staircase made up of rubble and discarded theatre chairs, are the spirits of their youth, brimming with hope and ideas of the future. The juxtaposition is both jaw-droopingly elegant and lovely to see, but also painful to take in, as is the whole production of the magnificent Follies. The mask of contentment held so dearly by all is as cracked as that wall, and only some will survive its eventual destruction. ‘Loveland‘, an extravagant and opulent fantasy, more gaudy than anything Weismann could have created is “the place where lovers are always young and beautiful, and everyone lives only for love” but that fantastical creation must crumble away, forcing them back to a reality that is surrounded by those equally destroyed walls of the theatre. Life will carry on, maybe etched in bleak despair, disappointment, and weary resignation that everything is not as glamorous and well put-together as a young Weismann Girl, dressed to the nines in feathers and lace, but it’s better than losing your mind.
Blu On The Hudson The Destination For a Perfect Dinning Experience
I first wrote about Blu On The Hudson 8 months ago. This perfect mini vacation, is one stop on the 158 bus or a ferry ride away. Located on the Hudson River, at 1200 Harbor Boulevard, in Weehawken, you will find breath taking views, a calming atmosphere and food that rivals the best 4 – 5 star restaurants in Manhattan.This is the spot where Arron Burr shot Hamilton.
Blu on the Hudson is spacious with over 30,000 square foot, so far, but they are creating a space that I was lucky enough to see. This glass enclosed and outdoor upstairs will rival every wedding, event space within a 2 hour drive. I am letting you know, now is the time to book your event before it is booked out.
Blu Hospitality Group, truly wants to impress you and goes out of their way to do so. You are greated by a specious luxurious space and a large fireplace.
Beautiful walls, several dining room with views, alcoves for a intimate dinning moments and bar that you will want everyone to know your name, awaits. High ceilings and modern decor makes everyone who enters forget their stress and just relax. You can feel your body ease.
My server Sarah was a prime example of this.
Starting off the experience, my guest, writer and friend Craig and I decided to indulge with cocktails. I had the Oil On The Skin ($16) made with Aperol, Strawberry, Grapefruit and Prosecco. This was refreshing and the perfect summer drink. Craig, who was excited by the amount of Tuffle inspired food and drink choices ordered the Blu Seasonal Black Truffle Bloody Mary ($18) and was thrilled. Spicy, with garnishes that made this drink an appetizer in itself had sure this brunch was already a hit.
When looking at the menu I knew we had to try the Ricotta Stuffed Pancakes ($21). Topped with a Blueberry Compote and served with organic Maple Syrup, these surpassed my expectations. The ricotta had a lemon zest, the pancakes fluffy with crispy edges. I was already imitating Sally in the film “When Harry Met Sally” after my first bite. I will definitely be coming back, for this alone.
Already on a bacon kick thanks to David Burke, I also wanted to try the Thick Cut Wagyu “Bacon” ($26), that is slow cooked in a soy caramel glaze. This is only served at dinner, but luckily I got to try this. With a savory salty crunch, this was the perfect compliment to the pancakes. Sweet, then savory, crunchy, then tender, what Blu offers the dinning experience is a sensual layered, all senses dive, into carnal pleasures.
For entree’s more truffles for Craig with the Truffled Mushroom Omelette ($22) filled with White Cheddar, egg whites and one yolk served with a side salad. Craig was in heaven with his light as a feather, but flavorful dish.
Craig also ordered the Parmesan Truffle Fries ($12), and I am so glad he did. These were bite fulls of erotic delights.Loving artichokes, I ordered Eggs on Artichoke ($24), which consisted of poached eggs, pecorino, roasted tomatoes in a light béarnaise sauce. The piece de resistance of this dish, were the lightly fried artichokes that added texture, then melted into your mouth with a pop of flavor. Even the roasted tomatoes added an arousing impact to the tongue. When food is done well, sex definitely comes second.
The fabulous warm and inviting manager Andrew, wanted us to try his favorite dish, the Jumbo Lump Crabmeat and Shrimp Cobb Salad ($29). Topped with Deviled Eggs, Bacon, Tomatoes, Corn and Avocado, this was served over Market Greens and a feast to behold. The crabmeat was tender and the shrimp succulent, but the surprise here was the corn, which added so much to the dish. This is great luncheon entree when you want to indulge and also stay healthy.
First up the Tiramisu ($14), which is one of the best I have ever had. Extra creamy and not overly sweet. An added layer of thin chocolate added to the decadence. This dessert also puts on a show.
The most luxurious, extravagant haven of food for the senses has to be the Chocolate S’Mores ($14). Served with a gluten free graham cracker crust, Chocolate Mouse and Marshmallow. Tiny chunks of sea salt make this decadent and sweet, with pops of indulgence.
A coffee ($6) ended our foray of culinary ecstasy. To quote myself from my last experience at Blu “Food and sex have always gone hand in hand and eating at Blu On The Hudson, will make all your senses take flight. This restaurant potions of food, drinks and presentation justify and make the whole experience worth the trip and the cost.”
To Executive Chef Juan Carols Ortega, you make my body sing with your creations. This is definitely one of my favorite places to eat. Blu is exquisite perfection.
You can follow Blu on The Hudson at @bluonthehudson.
Theatre News: Legacy: An Evening with Maria Friedman and Friends, Heart of Rock and Roll, Melba Moore, Gun & Powder and Bordello The Musical
The new, one-night-only concert event Legacy: An Evening with Maria Friedman and Friends will celebrate the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch and Michel Legrand on Monday, March 4, 2024 at 8PM at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre (141 West 44th Street). The evening will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The Stephen Sondheim Foundation and The Marvin Hamlisch International Music Awards. Tickets, which start at $100, and VIP sponsorship packages are now on sale at broadwaycares.org/mariafriedman.
Four-time Olivier Award winner and director of this season’s critically acclaimed Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, Maria Friedman has crafted a special one-night-only concert, with friends old and new, that will explore the legacies of three titans of 20th century musical theatre. The evening will showcase Maria Friedman, Santino Fontana, Savy Jackson and a special company of extraordinary young talent performing from the songbooks of celebrated composers Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Bernstein, along with a special surprise performance from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in which Friedman famously starred as The Narrator alongside Donny Osmond.
Collaborating with musical director and pianist Theo Jamieson, Legacy: An Evening with Maria Friedman and Friends is directed by Tony Award Winner Christopher Gattelli.
Producers Hunter Arnold, Tyler Mitchell and Kayla Greenspan welcomed the company of The Heart of Rock and Roll as rehearsals began for the upcoming Broadway musical, which is set to begin previews on March 29th, 2024.
The Heart of Rock and Roll, the new musical inspired by the iconic songs of Huey Lewis and The News, will open on Broadway at The James Earl Jones Theatre (138 W 48th St, New York, NY 10036) on Monday, April 22, 2024.
The principal cast features Corey Cott, McKenzie Kurtz, Josh Breckenridge, F. Michael Haynie, Zoe Jensen, Tamika Lawrence, Raymond J. Lee, John-Michael Lyles, Orville Mendoza, Billy Harrigan Tighe and John Dossett.
The cast also includes Mike Baerga, Tommy Bracco, TyNia René Brandon, Olivia Cece, Taylor Marie Daniel, Lindsay Joan, Ross Lekites, Robin Masella, Kara Menendez, Joe Moeller, Jennifer Noble, Fredric Rodriguez Odgaard, Michael Olaribigbe, Kevin Pariseau, Robert Pendilla and Leah Read.
Set in 1987 and jam-packed with Huey Lewis megahits like “Do You Believe in Love”, “Hip to Be Square” , and “If This Is It,” The Heart of Rock and Roll centers on a couple of twenty-somethings on the cusp of their futures—Bobby, a rock and roller who’s traded his guitar for the corporate ladder and his boss Cassandra who’s always put the family business first. When they both get a second shot at their dreams, it’ll take “The Power of Love” and a little help from their friends — to figure out what kind of life they really want.
The Heart of Rock and Roll premiered in San Diego at The Old Globe, helmed by Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director Barry Edelstein and the Audrey S. Geisel Managing Director Timothy J. Shields, in 2018.
Paper Mill Playhouse (Mark S. Hoebee- Producing Artistic Director; Michael Stotts- Executive Director), recipient of the Regional Theatre Tony Award, is pleased to announce the full cast and creative team for the new musical Gun & Powder, with book and lyrics by Angelica Chéri and music by Ross Baum. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher and music directed by Austin Cook, the production will play April 4 – May 5, 2024 at Paper Mill Playhouse (22 Brookside Drive). Opening night is Sunday, April 14. Gun & Powder will feature Liisi LaFontaine (West End: Dreamgirls, Moulin Rouge!; Regional: Born for This) as Martha Clarke,Ciara Renée (PMP: The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Broadway: Waitress; TV: “The Flash,” “Arrow”) as Mary Clarke, Jeannette Bayardelle (Broadway: Girl from the North Country, The Color Purple) as Tallulah Clarke, Aaron James McKenzie (Broadway: A Beautiful Noise; TV: “Bull”) as Elijah, Hunter Parrish (Broadway: To Kill a Mockingbird; TV: “Weeds,” “The Other Black Girl”) as Jesse Whitewater, and Jisel Soleil Ayon (National Tour: Hamilton, Waitress) as Standby for Mary and Martha. The ensemble of Gun & Powder will include Rickens Anantua, Reed Campbell, Carrie Compere, Meghan Olivia Corbett, Joann Gilliam, Francesca Granell, Aaron Arnell Harrington, Mary Claire King, Malik Shabazz Kitchen, Rayshun LaMarr, Zonya Love, Tiffany Mann, Tony Perry, Adam Roberts, Hank Santos, Christine Shepard, Katie Thompson, Aurelia Williams, and Jason SweetTooth Williams.
Gun & Powder is a new musical inspired by the true story of Mary (Renée) and Martha Clarke (LaFontaine), African American twin sisters who take extraordinary measures to settle their mother’s sharecropper debt and save her home. In 1893 Texas, the Sisters Clarke—passing as white—embark on a remarkable Wild West adventure that examines race, family, and identity with two electrifying women who transformed from farm girls to outlaws to legends.
The production features orchestrations by John Clancy (Broadway: Kimberly Akimbo, The Notebook), scenic design by Beowulf Boritt (PMP: The Wanderer, Murder on the Orient Express; Broadway: Harmony; New York, New York; The Scottsboro Boys), costume design by Emilio Sosa (PMP: On Your Feet!; Broadway: Sweeney Todd; Ain’t No Mo’; Good Night, Oscar), lighting design by Adam Honoré (PMP: After Midnight; Broadway: Purlie Victorious, Ain’t No Mo’), sound design by Connor Wang (Broadway: How to Dance in Ohio; American Repertory Theatre: Evita), wig, hair, and makeup design by J. Jared Janas & Tony Lauro (PMP: Clue; Broadway: Sweeney Todd, & Juliet), fight direction by Sordelet, Inc./Rick Sordelet (PMP: The Wanderer, Fiddler on the Roof; Broadway: Take Me Out), and intimacy direction by Crista Marie Jackson (Broadway: Between Riverside and Crazy; Film: Dumb Money, No Hard Feelings). Casting is by Tara Rubin Casting. Jakob W. Plummer is the Production Stage Manager.
The York Theatre Company (James Morgan, Producing Artistic Director, Marie Grace LaFerrara, Executive Director) “Where Musicals Come to Life,” will present developmental readings of Bordello, The Musical, with book by Barbara Bellman and Joan Ross Sorkin, music by Emiliano Messiez, lyrics by Barbara Bellman, music direction by Steven Gross and directed by Will Pomerantz. The presentations by invitation only will take place on Thursday, February 29 and Friday, March 1. These presentations are part of The York Theatre Company’s Developmental Reading Series. General Management by Hillel Friedmanfrom Evan Bernadin Productions. Executive Producer is Rashad Chambers.
Synopsis: Set in the colorful world of Buenos Aires in 1920 and inspired by historical events surrounding Raquel Liberman, Bordello is the story of a Polish immigrant who is forced into prostitution and risks everything to bring an international Jewish sex-trafficking ring to justice. This never-been-told-before tale of love and bravery has a musical theatre score that incorporates tango, klezmer and other sounds of the period.
Cast: Dana Aber, Harrison Bryan, Emily Brockway, Ellie Biron, Alison Cimmet, Omar Cepero-Lopez, Cicily Daniels, Ryan Duncan, Jamie LaVerdiere, Jillian Louis, Benjamin Magnuson, Samantha Massell, Shereen Pimentel, Cheryl Stern, Pablo Torres, and Eric Van Tielen. Stage Manager is Michael Wizorek.
Two Epic Centerpieces in Two Very Different (and Dynamic) Musical Treatments Revel in Their Magnificence in Toronto: “Dion: A Rock Opera” & “De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail”
Within two very different musical renderings inside two different theatres in Toronto, two very different yet magnificently dynamic characters take hold of center stage and create magic out of legends; one myth and the other tragically human, and musical art out of their tales of love and power. Seen back to back over the weekend, these two shows: Coal Mine Theatre‘s Dion: A Rock Opera & Soulpepper‘s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail deliver the musical goods in abundance, finding opportunity and inventiveness in their unpacking, opening up the field with creative power, and fueling our imagination with their energy and superb talent.
With a red-tiled runway and a magnificently gifted soothsayer calling forth a Greek mythology pathway down the center of the Coal Mine Theatre, Dion: A Rock Opera rocks fantastically and enthusiastically into the black and white fashioned spotlight of The Bacchae. The musical tailors, quite tremendously, the tale of Dionysus, orDion, as he is sung and called here, in surprisingly theatrical energy and determination. It’s an epic rendering of an ancient tale with modern gender-bashing sensibilities and a captivating sound and fury, with four chorus souls seated at each end, giving us just a wee flavor of the spectacle we are about to digest. We, the spectators of this extravaganza, sit on each side of this runway, gazing at the statuary and each other, waiting in anticipation for Euripides’ classic tragedy to begin. And within the first few bars of music, sung by the impeccably dynamic and detailed SATE (Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire), we are transported and delivered into the hands of Ted Dykstra and Steven Mayoff’s Dion.
In the beginning, “the word is Evoi” and SATE sings out loud, magnificently, and emphatically, framing a concept that proclaims the ‘exclamation of Bacchic frenzy‘ as delivered by the blind soothsayer, Tiresias (SATE), who has lived a life as both a man and a woman. Tiresias lays out the foundations in subtle magnificently sung scenarios that hold our attention hypnotically, backed by an energized chorus, made up of the followers of the cult of Dion: Max Borowski (Ovation’s Cabaret), Saccha Dennis (Tift’s Jesus Christ Superstar), Kaden Forsberg (Drayton’s Sh-Boom), and Kelsey Verzotti (Vertigo’s Gaslight). Their voices ring out the proclamation with a deliciously operatic edge and fever that engages and excites us delightfully, as the chorus plays with light and their supple bodies, energized by the captivating choreography of associate director Kiera Sangster (Shaw’s Grand Hotel). As directed with fire and precision by Peter Hinton-Davis (Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged…), Dion unwraps the electric formula and dives fully in, unleashing the nine-person cast with a communal vibe reminiscent of an elevated and gender-fluid Jesus Christ Superstar in the modern world of inclusivity. The musical piece drives forward in both its sound and fury, thanks to the fine work by composer Ted Dykstra (Coal Mine’s Creditors) and a libretto by Steven Mayoff (Turnstone Press’ Fatted Calf Blues), giving us echoes of others, while finding authenticity and inclusion inside itself.Mastering the duality of the otherworldly central character, this non-binary demigod Dion, played to vocal perfection by the talented Jacob Macinnis (Stratford’s Play on! A Shakespeare Mixtape), luxuriates with style and stature in the powerful position of half-human, half God. Dion, in great magical style, has enraptured the citizens of Thebes, who have been tyrannically ruled in pseudo-Trumpian rage by Pentheus, well played with fury by Allister MacDonald (That Theatre Company/Buddies’ Angels in America). It’s the ultimate powerful match, between absolute power and absolute pleasure, embodied passionately by both Macinnis and MacDonald.
The strange “seduction” of the city, set upon first by Dion on the mother of Pentheus, Agave, beautifully embodied by the captivating Carly Street (Canadian Stage’s Heisenberg), has drenched the city streets with mayhem, violence, and drunken desire, in revenge against the hateful Pentheus for spreading blasphemous lies about Dion’s mother Semele, destroying her reputation after her death and Dion’s birth. It’s epic and delicious, as the two stand facing one another for battle on that long narrow stage, designed dynamically by set and costume designer Scott Penner (Off-Broadway’s JOB), with inventive insightful lighting by Bonnie Beecher (Shaw’s Shadow of a Doubt) and a clever sound design by Tim Lindsay (Eclipse’s Sunday in the Park…), assisted beautifully by technical director Sebastian Marziali (TO Fringe’s Lysistrata), stage manager Fiona Jones (Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged…), production manager Erik Richards (ReadyGo’s Talk Treaty to Me), and supervising production manager Wesley Babcock (Factory’s Armadillos).
The battle is on, “storming and surrendering” to the sound of bursting balloons and agony, all exactly as Dion has planned and dynamically unfolded by this terrifically engaging cast. “It’s you who’s in my trap“, sings Dion, as Pentheus fights back with a “Tweet, Tweet, Tweet“, but the “great reclaiming” is not far away, with Dion, through the powerfully voiced cast (particularly Macinnis, SATE, and Street), working their magic on Pentheus, and us in the audience. We watch in wonderment as this magnificently dynamic reckoning of Pentheus struts its way to the decapitating ending. The music, as delivered solidly and dynamically by musical director Rob Foster (Mirvish’s Rock of Ages), sings and soars non-stop, from beginning to end, touching on the ancient story with a rock opera edge and wit.
The pop song aria energy is dramatic, even when repetitive, finding urgency in its drawn-out meanderings in single-minded non-binary force. The catchy choral arrangements layer the piece with movement and light, on that catwalk stage, and we can’t help but be pulled into the theatricality of the piece, as planned by both the director, Hinton-Davis, and The Bacchae story. It is exactly as it should be, and we can’t help but fall under the spell of Dion: A Rock Opera at Coal Mine, and its magical Rock Opera queerness and sensual subline sensibility.
De Profundis (Latin: “from the depths”) is a hypnotically potent letter written by a ruined and tormented Oscar Wilde during his many years’ imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to the man who ultimately destroyed him, “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde wrote this letter in 1897, close to the end of his imprisonment after his conviction for ‘gross indecency‘, recounting his relationship and extravagant engagement with Bosie, which eventually led to his ruin and imprisonment. He indicts both Bosie’s vanity and selfishness, while also acknowledging, quite poetically, his own weakness in acceding to Bosie’s demands. “I blame myself,” he repeats in Soulpepper Theatre’s brilliant De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail, before singing the refrain, “Happy Birthday Oscar!” for the ‘presents‘ he was sarcastically gifted by himself, and by others.
This is just the first half of the letter, wherein the second half, Wilde dives into a spiritual landscape, ending with the framing, “Your Affectionate Friend“. Soulpepper’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail, crafted from this very letter, is a powerful and majestic investigation, worthy of all the magnificent theatrical magic that is unveiled here. Through the unparalleled creative energy of adaptor and director, Gregory Prest (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage) with original music by composer/music director/arranger/orchestrator Mike Ross (Soulpepper’s Spoon River) and lyricist Sarah Wilson (Soulpepper’s Rose), Soulpepper has unleashed the most magnificent musical fantasy that I have had the pleasure of sitting through. It’s powerfully captivating and emotionally destructive; engagingly clever and beyond witty, pulling quotes from Wilde out of a metal hat, reminding us all of his incredible ability to craft intellectual gold from his quick observations and sharp mind. “If you know, you know.”
Ushered into the fantastic unwrapping of this letter; a 55,000-word communication addressed to Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Wilde’s friend and previous lover, Robbie, touchingly and lovingly portrayed by Jonathan Corkal-Astorga (Eclipse’s Sunday in the Park…), engages directly with us, taking us gently by the hand and guides us through the proceedings, that is until an impatient Oscar pokes his head through the door and chastizes the gentle Robbie, hilariously. It’s a wonderful bit of pre-play, propelling us into the more torturous arena of a confinement cell where Oscar Wilde, played to wild perfection by the intricate and meticulously well-defined Damien Atkins (Factory’s Here Lies Henry), dives right into the specific meanderings of his sharp-witted mind and angry hurt heart.
The unraveling, over 95 minutes, is a not uncomplicated, defined bit of abundance, on a stage meticulously well orchestrated in layers by set and lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini (Soulpepper’s King Gilgamesh…). Savoini creates some visually arresting magic, as Oscar’s cramped jail cell evaporates to the sides, giving Oscar an ever-enlargening arena to dramatize his damaged psyche and emotional variance. The effect is majestic and deep, with perfect projections elevating the dramatics almost effortlessly, created masterfully by designer Frank Donato (Soulpepper’s Guide to Being Fabulous), with a strong forceful assist by costume designer Ming Wong (Stratford’s Rent), movement director Indrit Kasapi (Buddies’ The First Stone), and sound designer Olivia Wheeler (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time).
Director Prest delivers an exceptional experience filled to overflowing with personality and emotion, playing with the interconnectivity of the framework and giving Atkins the space and platform to really capture and translate his emotional language. De Profundis is not your traditional musical, by any means, it lingers and floats around the idea of love and lust that sometimes is best delivered through song (and some dance). Atkins is the perfect vessel to unpack it vocally, spiritually, and creatively, either through dramatic sequences filled with anger and sadness, or a bouncy Irish song, that spins out of his control most amazingly.
Bosie, magnificently embodied by the gorgeous Colton Curtis (Stratford’s A Chorus Line), flits in and out, playing both the antagonist and the pained lover, edging him forward into emotional chaos with a captivating stare or snarl. For having little to say, like the pseudo-MC role of Corkal-Astorga’s Robbie, the effect is powerfully dynamic and painfully engaging. It’s almost a solo show, with Atkins leading us through the paces expertly, but it would also diminish the piece without these two adding a layer of entrapped emotional engagement. Pirouetting between musical genres most cleverly, De Profundis elevates itself with its unpredictability, cleverly enacted emotionality, and the absolute brilliance in its visual splendor. “Like Byron, but better.“
Atkins’ Oscar is definitely the main and most ingenious focal point, even as he stares longingly and angrily at the beautiful Bosie. The actor is outrageously magnificent in the part, rotating and spinning himself from charming and witty to manic and completely diminished by anger and frustration, mostly for his blind obedience to Bosie’s vanity and eventual dismissal. Curtis’ Bosie mesmerizingly unleashes a silent but meaningful dance behind the singing Oscar, nearly perfect in his frame and form, adding a layer of complicated understanding to the idea that Wilde basically “lost his mind over a beautiful man.” Understandable, but it is Atkins who holds us completely in his hands, leading us through the letter with imperfect perfection right to the last moment of engagement. It’s one of the most stellar performances of the year, inside an absolutely gorgeous rendering, and it should not be missed if you have any say in the matter.
Oscar Wilde wrote this impressive manuscript and poem between January and March of 1897. There was no contact between Bosie and Wilde, even as Wilde desperately pleaded to the prison walls for a reply. After all these trials and tribulations, both public and criminal, and all the suffering from his imprisonment, the physical hard labor of his punishment, and the emotional isolation, his impulse, layered with anger, frustration, love, and forgiveness, was to write a ‘love letter’ to the man who essential caused his destruction. The prison did not allow Oscar to send the long letter, which he was only allowed to write alone in his cell “for medicinal purposes”, one page a day. Each page was taken and saved for him to read over and revise at the end when he was finally released on May 18, 1897. The rest is history, sad, but true. Yet, it made the most magnificent musical fantasy one could ever hope for, from a love-sick artist, struggling to deal with his anger, betrayal, and the art of forgiveness.
Girl from the North Country Tugs Your Heartstrings
Bob Dylan’s songs reflected the struggles of the working class, and evoked images of the Depression era, rural America, which still lived in the memories of the older adults of the late 60’s and early 70’s. In writer/director Connor McPherson’s jukebox musical, Girl from the North Country, Dylan’s songs serve as a backdrop for the world of pained souls he assembles onstage. The national tour of this show, in Chicago now through February 25 at the CIBC Theatre, is an emotionally charged evening with an outstanding ensemble of performers who should not be missed when it comes to your town.
Nick Laine (John Schiappa) is the proprietor of a boarding house in Deluth, Minnesota in 1934. Mr. Schiappa’s face seems to be chiseled from stone. He brings a similar strength of heart to his performance, as he doggedly tries to sustain the lives of his family while on the brink of foreclosure. He juggles that obligation with caring for his mentally ill wife, Elizabeth (Jennifer Blood). She left me alternatingly in laughter and tears with her unfiltered outbursts and unexpected sense of humor in the face of her character’s disability.
Nick and Elizabeth have raised a black teenage girl as their own, Marianne (Sharaé Moultri), whose centered performance is both stunningly honest and deeply beautiful. She is also inexplicably pregnant, in a story beat that is oddly unexplored. Their young son, Gene (Ben Biggers) is an unemployed drunk, who seems to know he has no future. Mr. Biggers makes us ache with sympathy for this poor, tortured soul.
One of their boarders, Mrs. Neilson (Carla Woods) is sleeping with Nick, and waiting for a financial windfall with an optimism which is ripe to be shattered. Ms. Woods is a warm and wise soul who makes us share her longing for a better life.
The other boarders include the Burke family, who have fallen on hard times. David Benoit as Mr. Burke is compelling as a man dancing on an emotional tightrope, desperately trying to avoid being pushed off by financial and family tensions. As Mrs. Burke, Jill Van Velzer is both riveting and heartbreaking in her longing to escape the personal prison of her life. I can still see the pain in her eyes as she would try to force a smile in the face of hopelessness. As their seemingly autistic adult son, Elias, Aidan Wharton is convincing, if necessarily limited as a character.
The boarding house is also visited by a young black boxer with a past to hide, Joe Scott, played with great dignity by Matt Manuel. The other visitor, Reverend Marlowe, is a small time con man whose unctuous manner and devious soul are perfectly captured by Jeremy Webb.
The personal stories interwoven into this emotional tapestry evoke memories of the great ensemble plays by early twentieth century writers, like Clifford Odets and Eugene O’Neill. It’s the kind of writing we don’t get to see enough of anymore, in our times of rising budgets and shrinking casts. It’s also a far more serious exploration of character, and depth of emotion, than you get from the typical musical today.
Their stories are told in flashback by the spirit of another boarder, Dr. Walker, played by Alan Ariano. Unlike Tom in “The Glass Menagerie,” The doctor does not undergo any personal emotional journey, or gain any perspective on his own life by being the narrator of the play. As a result, his presence seems tacked on, and he lacks any of the emotional heft accorded to the other characters in the story.
Producers and writers in theater and film have been cobbling stories together around existing song catalogues since the early 20th century. It was easier to create a direct relationship between the songs and stories back in the day when the songs were mostly simpler variations on love, which could be shoe-horned into almost any Broadway romance. Dylan’s twenty-two musical ruminations on life included here, which range from familiar hits (“Like a Rolling Stone”, “Make You Feel My Love”) to lesser known titles, relate much less directly to the story being told here than the songs do in other successful jukebox shows, whether we’re talking about Jersey Boys, Beautiful or even Singin’ in the Rain.
The title song, “Girl from the North Country”, is a memory song about a lost love on a wintry day, no part of which has anything to do directly with what is being depicted on stage. The legacy of the Depression is evoked by “Duquesne Whistle” which states,“Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing/ Blowing through another no good town.”But the rest of the song doesn’t have anything to do with this story either.
There’s a bit more connection to the existential despair of “Jokerman,” whose lyric states, “Freedom just around the corner for you. But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?”The songs overall create an appropriate tapestry of Americana sounds and deeply personal images. But they intersect only tangentially, at best, with McPherson’s story.
To the credit of the production, the songs seem to come from the hearts of the characters even if the lyrics are disconnected from the actual story. The music evokes both the era and the despair of the characters, and the universally talented singing actors stir the soul. A great deal of credit for the emotional power of the music goes to Simon Hale for his outstanding orchestrations and arrangements.
The fine ensemble of musicians under the direction of Conductor/Keyboardist Timothy Splain, and supporting ensemble singers, weave in and out of the action seamlessly under Mr. McPherson’s direction. Actors David Benoit and Jill Val Velzer are also employed as percussionists, at a drum kit which sits for the whole show on one side of the stage. It did seem a bit odd and inconsistent to have only these two actors step out of their roles and become musicians, when the other actors were not similarly used.
When I go to the theater, I would rather be stirred deeply than glossed over emotionally. Although the songs may not integrate with the story, The Girl From the North Country will move you with the emotional power of the outstanding performances.
The Girl From The North Country continues now through February 25, 2024 at the CIBC Theatre in Chicago.
A Slew of Personal One-Person Shows Hit Deep in Toronto: “Guilt (A Love Story)” & “As I Must Live It”
It’s all about the one in the center, and after taking in the heavy, twisted, and intense one-person show, Huff at the Grand Theatre in London Ontario earlier this week, I found myself entering back into the Toronto Theatre world for another two, albeit very different, but somewhat similar one-person shows that etched out very specific landscapes for each of the talented writers/performers to spin out from. Each in their own very particular and very personal way, and both from an internal force that, turns out, is impossible to ignore.
The first was on Valentine’s Day, entitled, ever so appropriately for the day, Guilt (A Love Story) at Tarragon Theatre. How perfect. The second is the very inventive As I Must Live It, at Theatre Passe Muraille. Both excellent streams of confession, manifested out of personal trauma, pain, and pride or joy, and brought to the stage in an exuberant style overflowing with energy and determination. And I have one more to go this weekend (after a slight detour into Dion at The Coal Mine), when I see another one-person show, De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail at Soulpepper, although I think that will have a very different edge than the two I saw over the last two nights.
Both of the opening night shows are an experience in personality and pain to remember, led by high-wattage performing balls of light, with big proclamations and endless amounts of style and energy. They each usher us into the space with a unique personal flair and differing edges that engage; one fueled by tequila, wine, and a historical tradition of self-doubt and confidence; the other filled to overflowing with familial love, need, and mental health complications, drunk in from a faulty water bottle that needs to be replaced. Or it could be Jamaican rum in that bottle. But I doubt it.
The first one begins with a shot inside the Tarragon Theatre. The energy is high and excited, as the writer and performer, Diane Flacks (Tarragon’s Waiting Room), makes her way in from the lobby for her fifth one-person show in the space. She comes in big, carrying a tray of tequila shots for the willing few who took her up on her offering. I wish one of those shots were within my reach, as a bit of tequila wouldn’t hurt the hearing of her one-person show Guilt (A Love Story) as it dances its way into our frame. The premise is intoxicating, like the drinking that Diane says she doesn’t have a problem with. “I feel better when I’m drinking“, she tells us as she opens up seeing how that could be read a bit wrong. But this is not the story she is intent on telling. Oh no, it is something far more complicated and engaging than that. That old alcoholic story we have heard, in a way, before, but what Flacks has in store is something entirely hers, and one that piques our interest pretty much from the get-go.
“Drinking numbs the guilt,” is also something she leads us in with, but that’s no surprise, and as the references fly fast and furious forward, rattling the cage bars with funny intent, Guilt (A Love Story) finds its true force in the unraveling of a family and a partnership. But she isn’t the typical victim in the stereotypical tale. She is the one who opens this thing up and runs a bit wild with her newfound freedom. She is the one who left, found passion and excitement outside, and she is also the one who has to take on the Guilt.
It’s a captivatingly funny unpacking, filled with formulations and characterizations that connect with the passion and the raw guilt that has been found, like “a raccoon in my chest” clanging and banging on the bars. And as directed smoothly by Alisa Palmer (Tarragon’s Sibs), Flacks finds a way to both laugh and find emotional truth in the matter, walking us through her crumbling marriage and all the ways she tries to hold on to all things important. She radiates pride in her family, but also, slyly, adds that being Jewish leads her easily down the road of self-blame into a landscape filled with Guilt and desperation. Her embodiment of Sigmund Freud steps in for a few moments, giving us a playful intellectual framework on the matter, inhaling deeply the smoke from an imaginary cigar, quite naturally. We also are visited by Flacks’ memorable bubbe who unpacks more in a few one-sided lines of a phone conversation than one can fathom. But it’s the yoga instructor who is the one that seals the deal for me, adding layers of underlying knowledge and insight that can only be matched by Flacks’ characterization of a neuro-scientist explaining it all to us as a glowing brain centers our soul.
Featuring uncomplicated choreography and intimacy coordination by Rebecca Harper (National Theatre School of Canada’s Director of Movement), a somewhat overly complicated diamond island set and costume design by Jung-Hye Kim (Crow’s The Chinese Lady), superb transitional lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy (Stratford’s Richard II) and a solid sound design by Deanna H Choi (Tarragon’s Cockroach), Guilt (A Love Story) and Flacks engage with her complicated unraveling with an expert’s ease. It’s the one with her wife that fills the space, but also the one that gets the shorter end of the stick as the divorce papers get finalized. Her X takes up very little space in this tale, as it centers itself more firmly around the effects this breaking has on her family; mainly her two sons whom she worships and defends like the greatest of wild beast mothers. Her play borders on standup, filling in the gaps with funny asides on culture and Tik-Tok mothering, with some being more engaging than others, Yet, most find their target effectively, pulling the audience along in connected happy engagement even if the framework isn’t as solid as one could hope for. I can’t say that I was completely enraptured from beginning to end, but she is an effective personality and an engaging performer who finds her way through a unique perspective with aplomb and determination.
Over at Theatre Passe Muraille, in co-production with Modern Times Stage, another unraveling comes alive, rollicking playfully forward most wonderfully and emotionally. The show, As I Must Live It, opens up in the lobby, much to my surprise, from the stairs to the floor where a rose is given, as well as a ball and a hat. All are de-thorned and disinfected for our safety, we are told by the exuberant and charmingly sweet Luke Reece, the writer and performer of this one-person rotation. He’s clever and engagingly childlike, as he draws us to the window to tell us a story about a squirrel named Blackie who eventually comes home. It’s an endearing start, metaphorically and creatively, placing the formula in and around the idea of external editing and control; holding high our own particular voice and not giving it up for anything or anybody. We lean in, adoringly, to the imminent unveiling, curious to see more of this captivating and pure adventure that is about to be thrown, like a ball, around by this fantastically talented spoken word artist. We happily follow him into the space to take a seat somewhere in the expanse of the theatre, but we can’t help but feel like we are following some magical pied piper. Maybe more like curious city squirrels than medieval rats that had overrun Hamelin, but the appeal of his identity is strong and true; someone we want to know more about and are eager to engage with.
Under the solid direction of Daniele Bartolini (DLT Experiences’ the stranger…), As I Must Live It dives into familial engagement like an energetic kid in a playground, moving through the wide open spaces of the theatre with an expert focus. The overall experience is of wonder, yet, we are told, it is “haunted by joy” yet filled with an air of stress “cause I wanted to be perfect.” Our expert guide Reece (CBC’s ‘Notice’) starts off curled up inside a colorful pool of papers and playground equipment, courtesy of set and costume designer Jackie Chau (Factory’s The Waltz) and lighting designer Sarah Mansikka (Gloria Grethel Productions’ Elbow Room), delivering poetry with a tender air, but the unedited energy of this engaging performer can’t let him stay still for long. Soon we are transported, playfully and inventively, through his madcap costumed experience, and we just can’t help but stay completely tuned in.
Flying and moving through the space with a strong confidence, Reece touches on so many aspects of childhood, ranging from grandmothers, dinosaurs, Chris Pratt’s Jurassic physique, all the way to Darth Vader and a Star Wars line made famous, even in its incorrectness. That one line repeated incorrectly affected this boy named Luke for many of his most formative years, that is until he was renamed Cool, Hand-ed to Luke by a mentor that would change the angle this young emerging artist would see the world. And we revel in his open-hearted presence and delivery, feeling his effervescence and his shame as he climbs about, taking us on journeys that register and roll.
The one-person telling really takes shape, thanks to some spectacularly well-choreographed projections from UK’s Limbic Cinema (2023’s Glastonbury Festival), and their designers: Barrett Hodgson & Thom Buttery, assisted by the detailed sound design by Adrian Bent (‘SNOLPS‘). It’s cleverly playful and authentic, mixing poetic storytelling with tenderly told experiences growing up in his mixed-race hybrid family, with a mentally ill father and an overly protective caring mother, with a few grandparents thrown in for good measure. We watch the smile of this retail salesman fade from anger and shame as he climbs through his memories to talk to his mother and more, letting petals fall to the sound of Italian music. He is “killing it” throughout, as he says, even when he becomes the “robber of ignorant bliss“. Or is it “blissfully ignorant“? Such things can’t be helped sometimes when the power of words spoken from the heart is truly heard by the ones who may need to hear them in poetic delivery.
Through his signature deft wordplay, the show, As I Must Live It, is an invitation to move forward, to hear a truth that needs to be told, by a performer with clarity and vision. It moves around the playground of his youth with purpose, maybe more so, and with more structural awareness than Guilt (A Love Story). But both shine light on realms and arenas that need to be seen and truly felt, from the ground up, and it doesn’t hurt at all to be in the presence of these wonderful storytellers determined for us to see what is hidden and not talked about.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
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