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Public’s Coal Country Explodes Musically in a Heart Breaking Authenticity

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[Over the next few days, I’m posting reviews of shows I saw before Broadway and Off-Broadway went dark. It’s a sad and confusing time, but one where we need to remember and believe in the power of community and everything that theatre stands for. We need to support those who are desperately out of work now until the lights get turned on once again (think about donating to theatre companies or out-of-work artists through either of these two sites: actorsfund.org and broadwaycares.org – Thanks Lin-Manuel for the info). Let’s all send a thank you to those who work so tirelessly to bring these productions to life day in and day out. It must be a shock to their systems to not do the thing they love to do. We need to support one another as many isolate themselves trying to be safe or not spread this virus. I do not want to be a new version of Typhoid Mary, so I’ve been quiet and removed, slightly worried about my cough that I’ve had a few days now, but less worried because there is no fever and I’m a pretty healthy and fit man. Our world has changed quite dramatically almost overnight, but I for one have to believe that we will return somehow from all this, and sit once again as a community watching art and design stand proudly before us on stage. So here are a few reviews. It’s weird to finish writing them, but I want to remember, so I can remain hopeful. I hope this will have the same effect on you.]

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
Ezra Knight, Michael Laurence, Thomas Kopache, and Michael Gaston in Coal Country. Photo by Joan Marcus.

So, “here we go” as said by the phenomenal guitar-strumming singer who beckons us into Coal Country at The Public Theater, New York City. It’s strange to step back into time and write about a show I saw on March 7th, as I usually try to write about anything I see fairly soon after. That way the juices are flowing and I feel connected. But the show is about tragedy and loss, layered with anger and frustration, and that, I am sure, is something we can all attach to quite easily these days as we self-quarantine ourselves away from others and watch the U.S. government stumble and fall over themselves with their dangerous reluctance, most likely while they secretly find a way to make themselves some money on this terrorizing pandemic (just my opinion as to their slow response).

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
Mary Bacon in Coal Country. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The opening is some foot-stomping storytelling if I ever heard it, written and performed by the musical director Steve Earle (2004’s The Revolution Starts Now), that magnetically lifts this piece up and beyond the documentary style of theater that playwright/director Jessica Blank and playwright Erik Jensen have excelled in producing. The two have previously crafted, to acclaim, the life-changing The Exonerated and its award-winning TV movie adaptation, as well as NYTW’s Aftermath, and with Coal Country, the duo has constructed a powerful venue for the coal miners and their families to speak out and let their voices be heard. Not surprisingly, they have a lot to say about that fateful day in Montcoal, West Virginia, when their lives exploded inward and out, burying their broken hearts with dirt and anger. Their existence changed forever in a flash that fateful April 5th, 2010 day when the largest U.S. mine explosion in half a century took the lives of 29 men, creating an emotional destruction that is devastatingly irreversible and painfully unimaginable.

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
The company of Coal Country. Photo by Joan Marcus.

To make Coal Country, Blank and Jensen traveled to that small town in West Virginia in order to interview the survivors and family members of the miners who were killed in that deadly explosion. They sat in their homes and listened to their stories surrounding that event, and using their exact words, along with court documents, trial transcripts, and other primary source documents, they pieced together a text and tale that is simply put and unforgettable. Every word is true, and it rings just as true, thanks to the strong portrayals by Mary Bacon (Public’s Giant) as Patti, Amelia Campbell (Broadway’s Translations) as Mindi, Michael Gaston (Public’s Othello) as Goose, Ezra Knight (Broadway’s Mean Girls) as Roosevelt, Thomas Kipache (Public’s Coriolanus) as Gary, Michael Laurence (Broadway’s Talk Radio) as Tommy, Deirdre Madigan (Broadway’s Hillary and Clinton) as Judy, and Melinda Tanner (Broadway’s The Robber Bridegroom) as Judge Berger. They pull us in with their candor and authenticity, thanks to a clear vision by movement director Adesola Osakalumi (Broadway’s Fela!), slowly turning the screws on our emotional frailty, until the floodgates burst, and the pain burns the air around us.

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
Mary Bacon, Ezra Knight, and Thomas Kopache in Coal Country. Photo by Joan Marcus.

On a warm and beautifully simplistic set, designed by Richard Hoover (Public’s House Arrest); with strong and subtle costuming by Jessica Jahn (Daryl Roth’s Gloria: A Life), clear and concise lighting design by David Lander (Broadway’s Torch Song), solid sound design by Darron L. West (Public’s Mlima’s Tale), the story of that day and the frustrating all-to-real aftermath spins out powerfully and poetically, taking us on a journey down into the depths of heartbreak and loss, followed quickly by anger and frustration as to what happens next. The intensity is profound, particularly when I learned that in the audience that show-day were the real-life counterparts to the characters I just heard from on stage. Their pain ripped through the space, with one gentleman who was sitting behind me becoming so overwhelmed with grief that he had to leave midway. I could feel the sting of his tears and gasps for air down my neck, making my own discomfort and sadness minuscule to the hurt he was reliving.

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
Michael Gaston and Amelia Campbell in Coal Country. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The paralleling of the process with what is happening right now as we watch the U.S. White House Administration’s respond to this virus sends shivers down my spine. It’s unfathomable what is happening in the World and particularly in Washington. Just thinking about it makes me angry and frustrated as I sit in isolation, glad to have escaped to Canada and the land of universal health care (remind me once again Mr and Mrs GOP why universal healthcare is such a terrible idea??). The denial of responsibility in their handling is mind-boggling and anger-inducing, similar to how these characters feel about the owners and operators of the Montcoal mine, particularly when the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, West Virginia, May 2011 reported that “the explosion was the [clearly] the result of failures of basic safety systems [created] to protect the lives of the miners.” Coal Country lives up to its documentary-style purpose and then excels above and beyond its scope. We are given a boost musically and emotionally by this presentation of fact, filling us to the brim with heartbreak, loss, frustration, and anger, one that I will never be able to fully shake. It was a good primer for dealing with the crazy times we find ourselves in today. So stay safe, and speakup. Hopefully, it will save some lives if we do.

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank

Michael Gaston, Ezra Knight, and Thomas Kopache in Coal Country, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen with original music by Steve Earle and direction by Jessica Blank, at The Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.Powered by wordads.co

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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

Events

Tribeca Festival Premieres ‘Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes’

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Tribeca Festival hosted the North American premiere “Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes” on June 11 in New York City.

The film which makes the audience understand Taylor’s moxie in a whole new way is captivating and a thrill to watch. It is hard to turn your eyes away from the screen that shines a spotlight on one of the most famous legends in Hollywood history. The tapes tell her version of an icons larger than life script.

As the iconic actress says in a recording as highlighted in the HBO Documentary film, “To thine own self be true. That’s all I have to do.”

In attendance at the screening at the SVA theater were Aude Temel (Co-Producer), Barbara Berkowitz (EP & Elizabeth Taylor Estate), Bill Gerber (Producer), John Paul Horstman (Co-Producer), Nancy Abraham (Executive Vice President, Documentary and Family Programming, HBO),Nanette Burstein (Director/Writer), Glen Zipper (Producer), Quinn Tivey (EP, Elizabeth Taylor Estate and Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson), Rachel Rusch Rich (Producer), Sean Stuart (Producer), Tal Ben David (Editor/Writer), and Tim Mendelson (EP & Elizabeth Taylor Estate).

Oscar-nominated director Burstein’s documentary showcases a mesmerizing journey via audio tapes discovered in the archive of journalist Richard Meryman. Through her lens we are guided by Taylor’s voice as she walks the audience from the first step of her career through her time with Burton in the 1970s.  As described, “she reveals intimacies about her relationships, romantic and otherwise, she peels back the layers of a beloved public figure to reveal a vulnerable, funny, and tenacious woman who persevered despite a life led almost entirely under the scrutiny of public opinion.”

Speaking on the red carpet about Taylor’s accomplishments on the screen to her celebrated advocacy work Burstein mused over the icon and said, “She realized that she could change the game and she did.”

Photo Credit: HBO Documentary Films

 

 

 

 

 

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Composer Randy Edelman Will Be Honored And Closes The Evening At The Metropolitan Club for Career Bridges

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On Tuesday May 7, 2024, The Schuyler Foundation for Career Bridges, David Schuyler Bender and Barbara Bender will be celebrating their Twentieth Annual Concert and Dinner at the historic and illustrious Metropolitan Club located @ 1 East 60th Street, NYC. There will be a cocktail reception & silent auction beginning at 6:30 and the dinner and concert will begin at 7:30. Black tie is preferred, tickets are still available at careerbridges.org.

David Schuyler Bender and Barbara Meister Bender

The mission of Career Bridges is to help young opera singers launch their careers by awarding them grants in voice coaching, diction, language, repertory and stage presence. Many of the grant recipients will be performing at this year’s Gala hosted by renowned Metropolitan Opera Star Denyce Graves and Theodore S. Chaplin, former President of Rogers and Hammerstein Organization.

As one of the prestigious honorees, eminent Symphonist Randy Edelman will be granted “The Lifetime Achievement Award” for his endless contributions to the cultural mosaic of music in film, television, recording, and nearly every aspect of the music industry.

The music of composer Randy Edelman isn’t just a tune, but rather a touch, a supernatural force that makes galaxies collide and creates a million tiny universes. His music is an emotion unfurled and perfectly orchestrated, a melody that becomes a story making song and singer, a single force engulfed by the notes. The crowd caresses the echoes of his lyrics replaying past memories that awaken forgotten worlds. His music is stronger than time.

Others to be honored alongside the multi-award winning composer include: Jason Kwintner, Director of Special Events for the Metropolitan Club, Dr. Joan Taub Ades, who will receive the Humanitarian Award for her musical philanthropic work, and Tony Award winning producer Jane Bergère.

Special thanks to Lorraine Silvetz (Executive Director Of Global Stress Initiative), Yvette Wenger and Jane Thorngren.

The official website for tickets may be found at the Career Bridges Website here:
https://careerbridges.org

T2C will be interviewing Randy Edelman this Wednesday at The Hotel Edison.

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Art

Tony Bennett Auction Exhibition at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco

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Tony Bennett: A Life Well Lived,” exclusive exhibition opening at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, California, celebrating the legendary life and career of the iconic pop jazz vocalist before its two-day auction event by Julien’s Auctions taking place April 18th and Friday, April 19th, 2024 at Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame in Jazz at Lincoln Center. The free public exhibition opens April 8th and runs through April 10th (10am-6pm daily).The Fairmont San Francisco and Mr. Bennett have enjoyed a special relationship for decades. Mr. Bennett first performed his hit “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in the Venetian Room at the hotel in 1961. The Fairmont San Francisco has had the honor and pleasure of welcoming Mr. Bennett and his family to the hotel for decades. The hotel also touts a special Tony Bennett suite that pays homage to his career and features several pieces of his artwork.Highlights of the exhibition include artifacts pertaining to the American songbook master’s life and career with his special link to San Francisco such as a San Francisco cable car bell award presented to Bennett for his instrumental role in saving the city’s iconic cable car system in the 1980s; a San Francisco Giants jacket worn by Bennett as the Texas Rangers faced the San Francisco Giants in Game 1 of the World Series in San Francisco, California, October 27, 2010 and his white personalized “Bennett” San Francisco Giants jersey; his original “Landscape San Francisco” watercolor painting; as well as record awards, a Grammy nomination plaque for his iconic hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and more.

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Jameson Set to Take Over Times Square for Epic Event and More with Colin Jost and Michael Che

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To make St. Patrick’s Eve as epic as possible, Jameson is taking over Times Square on Saturday, March 16. Starting today, fans can visit JamesonSPE.com to enter for a chance to score a spot on the guest list for Jameson’s St. Patrick’s Eve celebration in New York City, co-hosted by Jost and Che, featuring a  surprise DJ performance and a can’t-miss, first-of-its-kind ‘rock drop’ – a Jameson version of the famous Times Square ball drop – at 8 p.m. ET (aka midnight in Ireland) to mark the occasion. Jameson Irish Whiskey is one of the first brands to ever drop the Times Square Ball to launch a celebration for a new holiday. To further spread the St. Patrick’s Eve spirit from coast-to-coast, Jameson will also light up the Sphere in Las Vegas in Jameson green, wrap the ferries and water taxis in the dyed- green Chicago River and have a complete digital takeover at L.A. Live – all marking the new holiday.

Anyone 21+ can tune into the rock drop live streamed on JamesonSPE.com and for those in NYC, Jameson will have a kick-off to St. Patrick’s Eve in Times Square Plaza between 43rd and 44th Streets with a live DJ, giveaways and more from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET.

Because a special holiday deserves an equally stylish look, Jameson is releasing limited-edition, vintage-inspired jackets at JamesonSPE.com. The design includes a hidden pocket inside the jacket to perfectly

hold a Jameson hip flask that comes with the order, as well as luxe patches signature to the iconic Irish Whiskey brand. The Jameson St. Patrick’s Eve jacket will retail for $150 plus tax with free shipping in the continental U.S., and 50-jacket drops will take place weekly hrough March 12.

All proceeds will benefit the Restaurant Workers’ Community Fund (RWCF), a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for food and beverage service industry workers, continuing the brand’s long-standing partnership with the organization to support its bartending community.

For more details about Jameson St. Patrick’s Eve festivities or for St. Patrick’s Eve cocktail ideas, visit JamesonSPE.com and follow @Jameson_US.

 

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Public Theater Brings “The Ally” Forward for an Intense Debate

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So here’s the pickle. This play, The Ally, clocking in at a far too long two hours and forty minutes, throws controversy at you in numerous long-winded speeches one after the other, filling your brain with details and complexities that clash and do battle with each other from beginning to end. The structuring is intelligent, as the Public Theater‘s new play, The Ally, written by Itamar Moses (Outrage; The Band’s Visit) and directed with precision by Lila Neugebauer (Second Stage’s Appropriate), strides forward into dangerous territory with determination against all odds. Wickedly smart and articulate, the play, in general, overwhelms the intellectual senses. It’s factual and intricate, somewhat off-balanced and attacking, delivering detailed positions with fiery accuracy, which only made me question whether I wanted to sit this one out. Or step more in.

It’s unsafe and determined, placing the action (or inaction, if you really want to get into it) inside a college campus, and attempting to engage in deep-level conversations and arguments with the complicated issues of the world. These are exactly the debates worth having, says basically one character to another, in the tradition of arguing. Because banning free speech is “weird on a college campus.” These conundrums and conflicts are core to passionate dialogue, and just the idea of having them is meeting with fierce debate at universities and colleges across the country. The complexities and the tipping points are layered and real, swimming in a sea of questions about what free speech really truly means, and how differing points of view, civil dialogue, and the stark polarization contrasts collide and enflame. And how, in discussion, defensiveness and aggressive emotional stances are taken on and used against one another like weapons; bullets, and missiles. I even feel a bit worried that taking this stance of wanting to back away might be taken as ‘part of the problem’.

Ben Rosenfield and Josh Radnor in The Ally at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The program notes that “the theatre is a safe space in the most literal sense of that term: no one is going to be physically harmed during this performance in the Anspacher. But it is most decidedly not a safe space if by that term we mean a space where everyone will feel comfortable and no one will feel angry, saddened, or offended. It can’t be that kind of space. The theater depends on conflict – the form itself refuses the idea of a single truth. It’s why I [Oskar Eustis; Artistic Director of The Public Theater] believe that theater is the ultimate democratic art form – just like citizens in democracy, the theater demands that we listen to and share opposing viewpoints, and that from that conflict, a greater truth will emerge.” And I couldn’t agree more with that.

Yet, even with such heightened emotions on stage, delivered full throttle by the excellent cast that includes Cherise Boothe (Signature’s Fabulation,) as Nakia; Elijah Jones (Signature’s Confederates) as Baron; Michael Khalid Karadsheh (Target Margin’s The Most Oppressed by All) as Farid; Joy Osmanski (“Stargirl“) as Gwen; Josh Radnor (LCT’s The Babylon Line) as Asaf; Ben Rosenfield (RTC’s Love, Love, Love) as Reuven; and Madeline Weinstein (BAM’s Medea) as Rachel, who each try to make it sound more authentic than the writing really allows, the play suffers from how deep of a dive the writing goes. But not without a solid attempt by this cast, bringing qualities and characteristics to the forefront whenever they are given the chance. But a lot of the time, like their main focus, Radnor’s Asaf, they must stand and listen to whoever has the microphone at that one particular speechified moment. And wait, just like us, for the next round. And viewpoint.

Madeline Weinstein, Michael Khalid Karadsheh, and Elijah Jones in Ally at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Playwright Itamar has certainly dived fully into some of the most difficult topics of our time and asks us to patiently listen to all sides, even when the dialogue doesn’t really resemble discussion but more like informed lectures or one-framed speeches. On the plainest of sets, designed by Lael Jellinek (Public/Broadway’s Sea Wall/A Life), with costuming by Sarita Fellows (Broadway’s Death of a Salesman), lighting by Reza Behjat (ATC’s English) and sound design by Bray Poor (Broadway’s Take Me Out), The Public‘s The Ally, uncovers some emotional space within the manifestos presented. Itamar states in the note section: It “wasn’t that i had nothing to say,” he carefully explains, like the main character who has to stand back and take on the full force and brunt of the argument. “Rather, I didn’t know where to begin because what I had to say was too confused, too contradictory, too raw.” And if that was the complicated stance he was trying to unpack, the playwright succeeded tremendously well.

But does that make The Ally, at The Public Theater, especially this long-winded one, worth sitting through? I’d say yes, and I’d say no. I couldn’t wait to leave that debate hall, but I was also impressed and intrigued by the arguments presented and discussed, even if ‘debate’ would not exactly be the word I would use for the ideas thrown around at one another with brutal force. One of the later statements said to Radnor’s Asaf by his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Boothe) at maybe one of the few truly emotional moments of actual human souls speaking their truth, sums up my stance. “The thing you need, may not be words.” I won’t argue with that.

For more information and tickets, click here.

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