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FX has announced more of the cast list that will appear in Fosse/Verdon, an eight episode limited series from award-winning producers Thomas Kail, Steven Levenson, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Joel Fields. Production on the series, now officially titled Fosse/Verdon, is currently underway in New York City ahead of its premiere on FX in Spring 2019.

Playing Fosse Academy Award® winner Sam Rockwell and Verdon will be played by four-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams. Series regulars will be Norbert Leo Butz as Paddy Chayefsky and Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking. Additional recurring cast members include: Aya Cash as Joan Simon, Nate Corddry as Neil Simon, Susan Misner as Joan McCracken, Bianca Marroquin as Chita Rivera, Kelli Barrett as Liza Minnelli, Evan Handler as Hal Prince, Rick Holmes as Fred Weaver, Paul Reiser as Cy Feuer, Ethan Slater as Joel Grey, Byron Jennings as George Abbott and Laura Osnes as Shirley MacLaine.

Based on Fosse, the BIOGRAPHY written by Sam Wasson, this eight-part limited series tells the story of the singular romantic and creative partnership between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. He was a visionary filmmaker and one of theater’s most influential choreographers and directors. She was the greatest Broadway dancer of all time. Together they changed the face of American entertainment – at a perilous cost. Featuring Fosse’s choreography, the series explores the hidden corners of show business, the price of pursuing greatness, and the suffering inflicted in the name of art.

Kail, Levenson, Miranda, Fields, Rockwell, Williams and George Stelzner are Executive Producers of the limited series that is produced by FOX 21 Television Studios and FX Productions.? Levenson, will serve as showrunner, wrote the premiere episode which will be directed by Kail. Actress, dancer and producer Nicole Fosse, and daughter of Fosse and Verdon, serves as Co-Executive Producer and oversees The Verdon Fosse Legacy. Co-Producer Andy Blankenbuehler is serving as a Choreographer, as is Susan Misner. Erica Kay serves as Producer.

Suzanna, co-owns and publishes the newspaper Times Square Chronicles or T2C. At one point a working actress, she has performed in numerous productions in film, TV, cabaret, opera and theatre. She has performed at The New Orleans Jazz festival, The United Nations and Carnegie Hall. She has a screenplay and a TV show in the works, which she developed with her mentor and friend the late Arthur Herzog. She is a proud member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle and was a nominator. Email: suzanna@t2conline.com

Events

The Acting Company Honors Stephen McKinley Henderson and William H. Wright II

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The Acting Company (Kent Gash, Artistic Director; Devin Brain, Producing Director; Erik Schroeder, Managing Director) is proud to announce that Stephen McKinley Henderson will receive the John Houseman Award Honor, and William H. Wright II will receive the Joan M. Warburg Award Honor, as part of The Acting Company’s “Fantastic Journeys” Gala on Monday, April 29. Additional details and performers to be announced in the next few weeks.

This one-night-only event will celebrate more than a half a century of developing emerging actors by bringing classics and new plays across the US on fantastic journeys that have changed the American cultural landscape. The evening will include a cocktail hour that begins at 6:30 PM, followed by a silent auction, special guests, performances, dancing and a gourmet dinner.

“The Acting Company is thrilled to honor exemplary Actor, Director, Mentor and Professor of Acting, two-time Tony Award nominee, Obie Award winner, Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award winner Stephen McKinley Henderson with the John Houseman Award,” said Artistic Director Kent Gash. “A veteran of theatre, film and television, Mr. Henderson has created an impressive body of work originating varied and indelible roles for nearly 50 years, written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights August Wilson and Stephen Adly Guirgis among many others. Without the work of Stephen McKinley Henderson many of us would not have careers. He is the gold standard of excellence that we aspire to reach.”

Tickets and tables for the “Fantastic Journeys” Gala on Monday, April 29 are available for purchase by calling 212-258-3111 or by visiting https://theactingcompany.org/gala.

Stephen McKinley Henderson has worked on stages throughout the United States and abroad, on and off Broadway, and in television and film. His eight Broadway performances include Between Riverside and Crazy (Tony nomination), Fences (Tony nomination), A Raisin in the Sun, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and A Doll’s House Part 2. Off-Broadway roles include LAByrinth Theatre Company’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Second Stage Theater’s Jitney (Drama Desk, Obie, and Audelco awards for outstanding ensemble). He is the 2023 recipient of the Drama Desk’s Harold Prince Lifetime Achievement Award. His stage directing credits include Signature Theater’s Zooman and the Sign, Ali! in New York, London, and Atlanta, and The Meeting for St. Louis Black Repertory Theater presented at the Kennedy Center.  Stephen’s work appears in six Oscar nominated films: Dune; Fences; Lady Bird; Lincoln; Manchester by the Sea; and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In his freshman year at Lincoln University in Missouri, a historically black institution, he auditioned for John Houseman and Michael Kahn and became a member of Group l, Juilliard Drama Division in 1968. His conservatory training continued at North Carolina School of the Arts (BFA) where he served as president of the student government and at Purdue University Graduate School (MA), where he was Director of the Drama Workshop for the Black Cultural Center. Stephen was part of a master class taught by Lloyd Richards at the Actor’s Center and he continued to study with Mr. Richards on a Fox Foundation Fellowship for three years. He is a Lunt and Fontanne Ten Chimneys Fellowship Teacher and a former Chair of the University at Buffalo Department of Theatre and Dance. John Houseman cited Stephen’s work as a student in his memoir, Final Dress, and Dr. Samuel Hay cites his work as an actor, director, and educator in his text, African American Theater, A Critical Analysis

William H. Wright II is an expert in investment banking, finance and corporate governance. Most recently, he was a managing director at Morgan Stanley, retiring in 2010 after 28 years with the firm. During his career in investment banking, he was a trustee of the Morgan Stanley Foundation. Wright has been consulted on securities regulation reform by the Securities and Exchange Commission Division of Corporation Finance and the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services. He has also served on the faculties of the Ray Garrett Institute of the Northwestern University School of Law and the Practicing Law Institute. Wright is chair of the board of trustees at Doris Duke Foundation, he sits on the board of Mount Sinai Health System, Inc. and its seven member institutions, and he is a member of the board of directors of the New York City Ballet. Wright has also served as senior warden of St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue and is currently a vestryman of Trinity Church Wall Street. He is also treasurer and a member of the board of trustees of Historic Hudson, as well as of the

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Off Broadway

NYTW’s “I Love You So Much I Could Die” Asks A Lot From You. Are You Willing?

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I’ve seen several one-person shows this past week, 3 to be exact (Grand’s Huff, Tarragon’s Guilt, & TPM’s As I Must Live It); sorta 4 if you don’t want to get toooo technical about it all (Soulpepper’s De Profundis). And each one engaged our emotional soul in differing and unique manners. I couldn’t help myself thinking about that theoretical construct as I watched Mona Pirnot, writer and performer of I Love You. So Much I Could Die, walk in from behind, down the stairs, and onto the bare minimalistic set at the downtown New York Theatre Workshop. She sits, facing away from us all, staring upright at the back walk of exposed brick, and turns on her laptop and types a few things in to get this exercise rolling. And I was struck by the abstractionism we were about to sit through for the next 65 minutes. It was clearly going to be a different experience than any of these other shows I experienced last week, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to respond to this setup.

It’s a structural theoretical experience, one destined to play mind tricks with almost every person in the audience. Pirnot (NYTW’s Usual Suspect) never turns to face us with the story she wants to tell. It’s unclear why at the beginning, but as she unleashes her story, not with her own voice, but with the voice of her computer, Microsoft text-to-speech tool, the complicated, and frustrating, unwrapping becomes more and more clear. It’s a completely devastating tale of pain and tragedy that she has set out to detail, most effectively in her “cut to” tense listing of events. And she doesn’t have the voice to actually say it out loud. It’s too much. Too difficult to vocalize. She has the words, obviously, and the wit and strength, but not the voice. Unless she is singing a sad song of sorry, or love, accompanying herself with her trusted guitar that sits, oddly enough, facing us on the wide expanse of the stage.

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop – photo by Jenny Anderson.

The story is spoken out to us from that Microsoft voice, somewhat flat and awkward, distancing ourselves and her from the horribly sad and dark moments of an accident of some sort that incapacitated (to put it mildly) her sister during that complicated timeframe of the pandemic when visiting a loved one in the hospital was just not allowed. It seems she needs that disconnect to really tell us that tale; of that difficult and chaotic time in Florida where she spent months trying to survive her emotional self and the space she found herself with her husband; the playwright and ultimately the director of this show Lucas Hnath (Broadway’s A Doll’s House, Part 2). It’s an understandable predicament, one that I’ve always praised when an actor can tell us such a sad tale and maintain their voice, so I wrestled with that inside my head, somewhat distractively, during her unpacking, and somehow came out the other end understanding and sympathizing with the theory and experiment.

Using that flat computer tone and by staying turned away, she is able to unwind a story that may cripple her if she had to look us in the eye and tell us personally about her pain. I get that entirely, but I wasn’t convinced at the beginning (and maybe a little at the end as well) that this kind of confessional makes for good theatre. I soon discovered that there was little to look at on that stage after the initial few minutes, even with the fine work done by scenic designer Mimi Lien (Broadway’s Sweeney Todd), the fading lighting design mastery of Oona Curley (NYTW’s runboyrun & In Old Age), the simplistic but meaningful costume design by Enver Chakartash (PH’s Stereophonic), and the solid expanding sound design by Mikhail Fiksel (NYTW’s How To Defend Yourself). I could engage during the few musical interludes that filled the space with her lovely voice singing touching songs of sadness and love, but during the other moments, especially the “cut to” scenarios and a sad tale revolving around sickness and death, I could look away, stare at the floor or the wall of ladders that were to my left, and just dive into those flat words with abandonment.

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop – photo by Jenny Anderson

It’s not the simplest experience to endure, and endear, but there is another level, maybe one that director Hnath has played with before in his experimental Dana H., which played both off-Broadway and on (and on a Toronto stage next month that I hope to see) where we have to pull out internal connections to our own pain and sadness to really engulf ourselves in this somewhat slim play. It’s the flatness and metallic quality of the voice that forces us to find what we feel about the tale she is telling. Not an exercise of taking on what an actor is somehow transmitting to us, in a way, telling us how to feel about the pain being described. I’m crying, so you should be too. I’m laughing at this part, so you should laugh too. No one is giving us a sign or direction in the way we should be experiencing this, so we must look deep inside ourselves if we are to really embrace it.

Or we don’t have to. That is the other option. We can let the computer voice give us permission to nod off, and not engage with this terrible event she needs to tell us, nor the love and care she experienced from her husband. Pirnot tells us flat out (in a NYTimes interview), that she “couldn’t find the strength to verbalize her feelings to [Hnath] or her therapist … she typed her thoughts into her laptop, and prompted a text-to-speech program to voice them aloud.” Makes sense, even to this writer (who is also a psychotherapist in his real day job). Does it make great theatre? That is a question that only each audience member can decide for themselves, inside and within that very moment, as they sit in the ever-darkening theatre listening to I Love You So Much I Could Die. Do I dig deep and engage with my own emotional self, led there by no other person but myself? Or do I decide to not go there? Both are credible options, with very different outcomes. You decide. Dig deep or go home. And I won’t judge you for which you choose. I chose one-way last night. I can’t tell you what I might have chosen on a different night. That’s pretty impossible to know.

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop – photo by Jenny Anderson. For tickets and information, click here.

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Out of Town

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”

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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.

Jacob MacInnis in Coal Mine Theatre’s Dion: A Rock Opera. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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.

(L to R): Saccha Dennis, Kelsey Verzotti, Max Borowski, and Kaden Forsberg, with Jacob
MacInnis in the center, in Coal Mine Theatre’s Dion: A Rock Opera. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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.

Max Borowski, Kaden Forsberg, Kelsey Verzotti, and Saccha Dennis in Coal Mine Theatre’s Dion: A Rock Opera. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Damien Atkins in Soulpepper Theatre’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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.”

Damien Atkins and Colton Curtis in Soulpepper Theatre’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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).

Damien Atkins (top) and Colton Curtis (below) in Soulpepper Theatre’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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.

Damien Atkins and Colton Curtis in Soulpepper Theatre’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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.

 

 

 

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Out of Town

Girl from the North Country Tugs Your Heartstrings

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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.

Jennifer Blood in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

Sharaé Moultrie in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

Carla Woods (foreground) in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

Jill Van Velzer in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

Alan Ariano in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

(L-R) Aidan Wharton, David Benoit, Jennifer Blood and Jeremy Webb in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

John Schiappa in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

Sharaé Moultrie in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

Sharaé Moultrie and Matt Manuel in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

L-R Ben Biggers, Sharaé Moultrie, Jennifer Blood and John Schiappa in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American Tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

Chiara Trentalange (center) and the cast of the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

Aidan Wharton and the cast of the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American Tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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.

Chiara Trentalange and Ben Biggers in the GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY North American Tour (photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

The Girl From The North Country continues now through February 25, 2024 at the CIBC Theatre in Chicago.

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Broadway

Stephen Schwartz To Be Inducted into The Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame

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Legendary Award Winning Broadway and Movie Music Composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell, Pippin) will be inducted into the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame (LIMEHOF) on Saturday, March 23rd, 2024 at 7pm.

There will also be concert emceed by Musician Paul Shaffer (from the David Letterman Show) who worked with Schwartz early in his career.

Schwartz has won 4 Grammys and 3 Oscars among other awards in his career that spans over 50 years both on Broadway and on the silver screen. Additionally, Schwartz has contributed music and lyrics to several movies such as “Pocahontas” (1995), “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996), “The Prince of Egypt” (1998), and “Enchanted” (2007).He was also involved with the upcoming feature film adaptation of Wicked to be released in the fall.

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