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Off Broadway

The Complex Exciting Layers of “Sally & Tom” at The Public Theater

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A simple dance to a well-played violin masks the compelling undertones of The Public Theater‘s fascinating new play, Sally & Tom, written with a sharp edge by Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog). The deep dive, we are reminded, “is not a love story,” but a clever investigation into the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Unpacked on two levels, unaware from the onset, we watch a shoestring-style theater troupe by the name of “Good Company“, attempt to stage a period piece drama about the complicated, and historic relationship of these two. Simply called “The Pursuit of Happiness,” it’s a clear reminder of what is at the core of this play within a play, which attempts to “speak truth to power“, while not always finding the path to victory. The play, clocking in at two hours and thirty-five minutes, rarely falters in its fascinating layering, but it also doesn’t manage to find its way to rise up beyond the straightforward intellectualisms.

Sheria Irving, Gabriel Ebert, and the company of The Public Theater’s Sally & Tom. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Beginning at the end, Luce, played strongly by Sheria Irving (Public’s White Noise), is struck with a feeling of discomfort in her own last few lines of the play. It’s a play she has written and stars in as Sally Hemings, the slave who had a long-lasting affair (and numerous children) with Thomas Jefferson, yet she’s perplexed by this internal feeling. The framework in those last few moments of the play doesn’t exactly sit well inside her soul, especially as her boyfriend, Mike, played by Gabriel Ebert (Public’s Gently Down the Stream), who is both the director of her play and is performing the role of Thomas, suggests they hold hands for the last few moments. The rehearsal abruptly comes to a halt, altering the platform in a sharp wonderful instant, and all the actors, playing actors (and some other backstage duty) throw suggestions around, hoping to help.

The biggest question being asked is whether this Founding Father actually loved this woman, pointing out the uncomfortable fact that he kept her as his slave rather than freeing her when he was able. And how could this woman aged 14 and kept as property, love him back? It’s a very clever unraveling that registers strongly, as Parks grapples with and explores this explosive subject. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, a document that declared that all men are created equal, Jefferson continued to own enslaved people on his estate, including his ‘beloved’ Sally. Parks, as described in the program notes by Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public, “doesn’t just write about freedom, although that is her great subject: she embodies it in the process of her own creation.” And inside the play within a play, she challenges long-held assumptions of this pair, while also weaving in the story of the Good Company and its pregnancy parallels, as we watch this radical downtown troupe of actors navigate a system that is ruled by funding and other complications that come into play behind the scenes.

When the actors abruptly drop their 18th-century stance and return to their modern personas, the edges of the play become more entertaining and captivating, but maybe not as profound, dancing through doorways and behind curtains exposing touches of lightness and seriousness within almost the same beat. Each actor has a sideline job inside the company, from scenic designer to stage manager, while also portraying at least one role in the production. The pursuit gives sly witty opportunities for jokes and jabs about the art of theatre-making, with post-it notes being thrown at the playwright from moneyman Terry asking for alterations to the writing. It’s a complex conundrum, probably known well by someone like Parks, who continues to challenge the complicated issues of our time. Much like Luce.

Embedded within the play, there is a TV actor, played forcibly by Alano Miller (McCarter’s Brother/Sister Plays) who has stepped down onto the stage so he can deliver some serious lines; and a stage manager, wonderfully embodied by Sue Mee Chomet (LCT’s brownsville song…) who dreams of being a serious actor, as she takes on, quite wonderfully, the secondary role of the youngest of Jefferson’s two daughters. The other older daughter, played wisely by Kate Nowlin (“Blood Stripe”), unwinds wonderfully, while holding her breath on a big acting break that lingers on the horizon. There is commentary on nontraditional casting within the system, white actors being cast in “Black Plays“, and what the definition of that label really means. The play within a play’s set designer, Geoff, wonderfully portrayed by Daniel Petzold (59E59’s Switzerland), is that actor who takes on every role or action given, while leading us through the process day by day, as he leads himself through his own anxiety and attraction. Miller as TV actor, Kwame, along with Kristolyn Lloyd (ATC’s Blue Ridge) as actor Maggie, and Leland Fowler (TNG’s one in two) as actor Devon; play Hemings’ brother and sister, James and Mary, and her brother-in-law, Nathan in the “Pursuit” play, navigating and unveiling Jefferson’s treatment of his enslaved people and what will become of them when Jefferson leaves for Washington.

Directed smoothly inside the backstage chaos by Steve H. Broadnax III (Broadway’s Thoughts of a Colored Man), the formula delivers on all fronts and planes, played out to strong effect on a simple, but effective stage designed with care by Riccardo Hernandez (Broadway’s Frankie and Johnny), with superb costuming by Rodrigo Muñoz (Minetta Lanes’ Sorry for Your Loss), distinct lighting by Alan C. Edwards (Vineyard’s Harry Clarke), and a strong sound design by J. Jared Janas (Public’s The Low Road). Much of the contemporary commentary revolves around the money that is financing the show. The money, named Teddy, unseen and just referred to by Ebert’s director/actor/boyfriend Mike, is determined to have a complex, somewhat incendiary speech dropped, an interference that riles the TV actor, and the playwright. One holds to their faith, while the other, falters, in an unexplained configuration.

Sheria Irving, Gabriel Ebert, and the company of The Public Theater’s Sally & Tom. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The speech, delivered by Kwame’s character, James, against the oppression experienced, is Miller’s finest moment, and maybe the play’s, as it gets to the heart of the conflict, both then and now. It breathes life into the question and conflict around Jefferson owning a few hundred slaves, including his mistress, Sally, and not freeing any of them when he could, even when promised. Ben Franklin and George Washington did exactly that, and even though it was on their deathbed, those two men rose up to the Jefferson idea of equality. Jefferson left that liberating act up to his daughter, after his death. So it is difficult to take in his mid-play proclamation of not being a ‘bad man‘.

On the more contemporary side of things, the framework is not as clear, with Luce and Mike mirroring Sally and Tom, in frameworks that are paralleled, but not as fleshed out emotionally. Sally & Tom is not nearly as rough and tumble as Good Company’s The Pursuit of Happiness”. The production is Public polished and clear, although the gay relationship that is developed throughout fails to really find its understated importance in the proceedings. It’s cute and connecting, like most of the modern side of the play, but the serious part remains steadfast in the bad play within the good play.

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

Titanic is a Complete Musical Triumph at NYCC Encores!

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By Dennis W

Titanic sailed into New York City Center full speed ahead saved from a watery grave and stoked with a newfound energy that brought the house down. Encores! latest concert production dazzles, taking on the famed musical about the sinking of the largest, fastest ship afloat on its maiden voyage in 1912 with expert gusto. The Tony-winning 1997 musical, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston (Broadway’s Nine),resonates with emotion, class struggle and humanity.

The Encores! Orchestra, with Guest Music Director Rob Berman (Encores! Into the Woods), takes center stage and the spotlight delivering a phenomenal interpretation of the nuanced score. Filling the theater with a powerful rendition of Yeston’s vision, Berman’s musical direction breathes new life into the score that tells the saga of the iconic doomed “unsinkable” ship that went down with more than a 15-hundred people aboard. The audience is transported by the music to the disaster and seems locked in on every note. The 32 voices in the cast joined to present a sound that reverberated through the space creating a richness and fullness that would give you goosebumps.   After the curtain call the orchestra played as people left and when it was done the audience who was still left in the theater roared with appreciative applause. It’s no surprise that Titanic: A New Musical swept the music category at the 1997 Tony Awards winning for orchestration, score, and best musical.

The ensemble cast, in Encores! tradition, was chosen from the best and brightest Broadway has to offer. Each actor gave an amazing performance from the leads to the chorus but there were a few standouts. Ramin Karimloo ( Broadway’s Funny Girl) as Barrett gave a deft performance as the ship’s stoker. His duet with Harold Bride played by Alex Joseph Grayson (Encores!/Broadway’s Parade) is a highlight portraying a mix of emotions including love, hope, and desire while we watch the voyage come to a tragic end. Brandon Uranowitz (Broadway’s Leopoldstadt) is convincing as the tightly wound and controlling owner of the shipping line. The always astounding Bonnie Milligan (Broadway’s Kimberly Akimbo) as Alice Beane adds a little comic relief as the social climbing 2nd Class passenger who is determined to hobnob with the rich and famous. Drew Gehling (Broadway’s Almost Famous) as Edgar Beane gives a noteworthy performance as the husband who can not see his wife’s vision of a new society where people are not locked in their station forever. Encores!, as always, it seems, assembled an all-star cast who together brought this production of Titanic to life.

The direction by Anne Kauffman (Encores! Assassins) is limited but interesting given the small amount of stage the actors have to work in as the orchestra is elevated on stage directly behind the action. The scenic design by Paul Tate Depot III (Broadway’s The Great Gatsby) acts as a three-dimensional backdrop that gives the impression of the famed ship, billed as the next wonder of the world, but is rarely used by the actors. The costumes designed by Márion Talán de la Rosa (Off-Broadway’s The Connector) seemed to lose the formal spirit of the early 1900s on their way to the Encores! stage. The men were basically in suits and the women’s costumes did not evoke the structure of dresses of the era which were simpler in construction and with higher hemlines.

City Center Encores! production of Titanic is a complete triumph. It relies on a magnificent score and poignant lyrics to tell the story of one of the world’s major shipping disasters that sent shock waves around the globe. The orchestra, conductor, and actors embraced the rich score giving a performance that bowed the walls and wowed the crowds packed inside the New York City Center with their intensity and magnitude. Encores! Titanic is the show to see right now, playing at the New York City Center until June 23rd. Is there a Broadway transfer in the works? We hope so.

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Events

The Musical Titanic Successfully Sails onto the Stage at City Center

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Titanic The Musical proves that the music and story does not need the special effects of a sinking ship to send the audience on an emotional journey. Twenty-five years ago when Titanic opened on Broadway, after reading headlines about the  malfunctioning unsinkable set, I skeptically went to the show; but, those first 18 minutes turned out to be the greatest opening number I had ever seen. The show is currently being performed at City Center in the Encores! Series and this score can stand alone without the trappings usually required to produce a Broadway spectacle. The opening number not only introduced us to the three focal people who each in their own way contributed to the disaster of the iceberg: Captain E.J. Smith (Chuck Cooper), Thomas Andrews (Jose Llana), J. Bruce Ismay (Brandon Uranowitz); but, also the members of all three classes aboard the ship and the crewmembers. As the 32 member cast raises their voices in beautiful harmony to cheer “Sail on, great ship Titanic” the hopes of the third class passengers, the wonder of those in first class and the pride of the crew are all felt by the audience. So moving is this song that we can suspend reality and wish that the maiden voyage of this “floating city” actually successfully makes it to New York.

This is not the Rose and Jack story that fictionalized a love story between a third and first class passenger but an even more beautiful story based on real people who either survived or were left onboard as the ship broke apart.


The music and lyrics by Maury Yeston are thrilling, cheerful, romantic and haunting. The story and book by Peter Stone who had previously done justice to the telling of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 again brings history to the stage with wit and suspense despite knowing the eventual tragedy.

Over twenty songs fill this musical score with a variety of styles and themes. Each one perfectly delivered by this amazing team of actors and singers briskly directed by Anne Kauffman. There is not a bad song in the mix nor a disappointing performer; but, in addition to that opening number I must highlight a few.

Lady’s Maid sung by the 3rd class passengers brings me to tears as three Irish lasses all named Kate start by telling their fellow travelers their dreams for America. Samantha Williams, Lilli Cooper, and Ashley Blanchet play the ‘three Kates’ and are joined by the ensemble all singing their own individual ambitions – to be a constable, engineer, and governess, etc. It fills my heart with pride that America is such a land of opportunity and then it breaks when I realize that some of these dreamers will never make it to their destination.

A pairing of two male singers, Ramin Karimloo and Alex Joseph Grayson, playing coal stoker Barrett and radio operator Bride, respectively sing two love songs one to his fiancé and one about his career choice is a magical duet where each voice is given a chance to shine.

Another example of Yeston’s genius is a song where three voices combine but certainly not in love; the ship’s owner, designer, and captain Blame each other for the inevitable sinking. It is a dramatic song that is rarely seen in such a show but too often seen in human nature.

The real life owner of Macy’s department store was actually onboard the Titanic with his wife. Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn portray the elderly Isidor and Ida Straus whose love proved even stronger than the two youngsters in the James Cameron film. Ida chose not to get on a lifeboat without her life long partner and that love is beautifully sung in their duet Still.

Love, anger, hope and desire are all represented on the stage but it is second class passenger Alice Beane that gives the tension a bit of comic relief. Wonderfully sung and acted by Bonnie Milligan, Mrs Bean dances into the first class salon and in one of the few choreographed numbers brings joy to the festivities. She and her husband Edgar (Drew Gehling) sing I Have Danced – a song that depicts the struggle of a happily married couple when ambitions are not in line.

We know the ship is going to hit the iceberg but as Matthew Scott as the ship entertainment sings the rhythmic tune Autumn coupled with the Company repeating the haunting No Moon the suspense grows as the ship sails in the night.

Anne Kauffman directs the cast seamlessly from scene to scene not only allowing the songs to tell a fantastic story but to bring out the wit and passion of Peter Stone’s words.

Rob Berman, the Encores! Music Director, again conducts this 30 piece orchestra with incredible ease despite the complicated orchestrations created by Johnathn Tunick. With every violin string, trumpet note, drum roll and cymbal clash the music envelops the huge theater yet touches every individual in it.

Encores! Began 30 years ago to honor scores that are not often revived. With minimal rehearsal time for this limited run some actors are still on book but that does not diminish either the music, story or the talent on the stage. Much has been written about the cost of producing on Broadway so a production with this many cast members and musicians may never be transferred to a Broadway theater as Encores other 2024 title, Once Upon a Mattress will be doing so do not hesitate to buy a ticket. Do not be left on the dock waving goodbye to this magnificent creation.

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Off Broadway

The Opposite Of Love A Devastating Look At Where We Are At Sexually

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Ashley Griffin (Trial)  new play The Opposite of Love, is an uncomfortable, truthful, devastating and brave play about sexual intimacy, trauma, sexual abuse, assault, suicide and the sexualized world we live in today. This piece shows how the misuse of sex has permeated our culture, our minds and our feeling. We no longer truly date or have relationships, but look to satisfy our needs with not love, but sex. When you have grown up sexually abused, without a solid family background how do you navigate this world, that your heart tells you is instinctively wrong? That is at the crux of The Opposite of Love.

Ashley Griffin and Danny Gardner Photo credit: Jeremy Varner

The play follows trust fund baby Eloise (Ashley Griffin) who has been sexually compromised since she was a small child by a relative. Though not penetrated in the true sense of the word, her boundaries and trust issues have been violated. Wanting a loving, intimate romantic relationship she is ill equipped to function. Enter Will ( Danny Gardner), a male prostitute she has hired to take away her virginity. Unable to connected in any way Eloise sends Will away, but Will seeing a potential cash cow, suggests that they meet weekly to just…talk.

Ashley Griffin and Danny Gardner Photo credit: Jeremy Varner

During the course of several weeks the two share the trauma’s of their lives until they finally connect and Eloise feels safe enough. We learn about both of their insecurities, their deepest wants and lies they tell the world until they both feel seen.

Intimacy director Crista Marie Jackson has allowed us to see just enough without crossing the line, but the real kudos goes to director Rachel Klein, who does not play down to us. She crafts this play with heart, soul and intelligence allowing us to go on this journey without falling completely apart with it’s honest look at where we have come to.

Ashley Griffin, as a writer has a wonderful way with words as she expresses what we all are feeling. She shows us that we are both Will and Eloise. Who we are depends on our financial circumstances and upbringing.

Griffin as an actress needs to slow down on her delivery. Her words have so much to say but we miss some of the text due to her rushing and projection. Her charactazation fares better as she takes us on the rollercoaster of this journey. You are never going to expect the ending and that is where she really shines.

Gardner’s Will is organic as we follow his transformation with anticipation. He goes from shallow cad to a broken man who has finally allowed himself to care. We see his mind work as he lies, then tells the horrors of his actions and his the trauma’s of his life, than are even more devastating than Eloise’s as he is told by society that he can not feel. In the end when he finally let’s his guard down we feel his pain and heartbreak.

Gardner, who is primarily known for his tap dancing work on Broadway’s in Dames at Sea and Flying Over Sunset, wow’s as a dramatic actor. I look forward to seeing him do more straight acting.

Griffin and Gardner have chemistry, which allows the play to go even deeper.

The scenic design by Brendan McCann and lighting by Zach Pizza, do well in such a small space and on a small budget

The Opposite of Love, could easily upset and anger those who have not come to terms with the shadows within, but if you are willing to face those devils you just might find a fabulous piece of theatre. I hope this show gets a longer run, where audiences will have a chance to experience this intimate look at the reality of where we are now. I know it is Tony season and there are only a few more performances but if you get a chance, I highly recommend this show.

The Opposite of Love: New York Rep at the Royal Family Theater (145 West 46th Street, until June 15th.

We did a Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents with Ashley Griffin and Danny Gardner. Click here to see this interview and learn even more about The Opposite of Love.

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Broadway

Drama Desk Awards Backstage In The Press Room

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T2C was backstage at the Drama Desk Awards last night. Here is a look at the action.

First in the room:

Kara Young

Celia Keenan-Bolger

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jessica Lange

Jessica Lange

Sarah Paulson

The Cast of Stereophonic-Will Brill, Sarah Pidgeon, Juliana Canfield, Andrew R. Butler, Tom Pecinka, Chris Stack and Eli Gelb

Nikiya Mathis

JR Goodman, Ray Wetmore and Camille Labarre

Nikki M. James

Patrick Page

Enver Chakartash

Paul Tazewell

Cole Escola

How to Dance in Ohio cast members that includes-Liz Weber, Jeremy Wein, Ava Xiao-Lin Rigelhaupt, Nicole D’Angelo and Becky Leifman

Paul Tate dePoo

Avran Mlotek, Motl Didner, Dominick Balletta and Zalem Miotek

Jane Cox

Brian MacDevitt

Brian MacDevitt and Jane Cox

Isabella Byrd

Ryan Rumery

Walter Trarbach, Cody Spencer and Kai Harada

David Yazbek

Itamar Moses

Lady Irene Gandy

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick

Matthew Broderick

Nathan Lane

Will Butler

Marco Paguia

Shaina Taub

Justin Peck

Daniel Aukin

Jessica Stone

Corbin Bleu and Sarah Hyland

Andre Bishop and James Lapine

Keisha Lewis

Maleah Joi Moon, Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara

Maleah Joi Moon

Keisha Lewis and Maleah Joi Moon

Kelli O’Hara

Brian d’Arcy James

Peter Nigrini

Carole Rothman and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Amy Herzog

David Adjmi

Adam Greenfield, David Adjmi

Sarah Hyland and Debra Messing

 

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Broadway

The 2024 Winner’s Of The Drama Desk Awards The Red Carpet

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The 2024 Annual Drama Desk Awards were announced last night at NYU Skirball Center. Tony Award Winners Sutton Foster and Aaron Tveit hosted the ceremony.

Sutton Foster and Aaron Tveit

Aaron Tveit

Sutton Foster

T2C was on the red carpet.

Andrew Durand

Rick Kuperman and Jeff Kuperman 

William Jackson Harper

Shaina Taub

Peter Nigrini

Kecia Lewis

Celia Keenan-Bolger

Jocelyn Bioh

Laura Benanti

Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll

Jessica Lange

Camille Labarre, Ray Wetmore and JR Goodman

Michael Starobin, Andrea Grody and Shaina Taub

Will Brill

Sarah Paulson

Richard Ridge

Sarah Hyland

Maleah Joi Moon

Patrick Paige

Brooke Shields

Brooke Shields, Maleah Joi Moon

Brian D’Arcy James

Will Keen

Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Keen

Mary Louise Burke

Isabella Byrd

Justin Peck

Kara Young

Marco Paguia

Miss New York Rachelle diStasio

Josh Breckenridge

Lorin Latarro

Ricky Ubeda

Glauco Araujo

Dorian Harewood and Nancy Harewood

Mark Williams

Brody Grant

The Cast of Stereophonic-Andrew R. Butler, Will Brill, Tom Pecinka, Juliana Canfield, Eli Gelb, Chris Stack and Sarah Pidgeon

Paige Davis and Patrick Page

James Monroe Iglehart

Sarah Pidgeon

Nikiya Mathis

Montego Glover

Cole Escola

Tom Pecinka

Chris Stack

Leslie Kritzer

Miriam Silverman

Andrew R. Butler

Pat Swinney Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment with Juliana Canfield

Juliana Canfield

Enver Chakartash

Robert Pickens and Katie Geil

Will Butler

David Adjmi

Daisy Prince

Debra Messing

Lena Hall

Debra Messing

Nikki M. James

Michael Stuhlbarg

Paul Tazewell

Camille A. Brown

Marin Ireland

How To Dance in Ohio-Liz Weber, Jeremy Wein, Ava Xiao-Lin Rigelhaupt, Nicole D’Angelo and Becky Leifman

Jacob Karr

Dylis Croman and Robert Montano

Eli Gelb

Walter Trarbach

Steven Valentine

Peter Charney and Brendan George

Rebecca Frecknall

Lady Irene Gandy

Timo Andres

 

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