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 Michael Rosen, Michael Urie

Michael Rosen, Michael Urie photo by Joan Marcus

It all begins, under the broken neon red Torch Song sign, with the illusion of perfection with big dash of fabulousness, well, one that is under construction. A drag queen preparing in front of a mirror for her performance to come. Applying the layers of camouflage make-up, slinking into a glittery long dress, slipping on some high heels, and carefully donning a wig all the while engaging us in an intimate discourse about unrequited love and desire in a gay man’s world. The application is like preparation for a type of war that is going on in the world outside, a protective armor against the hate and misunderstanding of a gay man’s right to be who they are. All the attempts of love, false or otherwise, coupled with the adoration an audience will give is a tonic (gin perhaps) against what lies beyond in the early 1980’s in New York and America. And now in our present situation, come to think of it. All of that, wrapped up in the final “tragic Torch Song status” of heart break and pain that “ I admire so in others”, as the main character laments; the signature trademark of a true drag queen star. The ‘Lady Blues’ finale song that is destined to always bring down the house in the end. That’s what a drag performer aims for, and what this play wonderful and respectfully delivers.

A ‘Torch Song’ is defined as a sentimental love song, in which the singer laments on unrequited or lost love. This is the emotional staple of every drag queen’s repertoire. It’s the drama and the tragedy of the evening. The drag queen, at least the one in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song revels in the hurt of unrequited love, of lost love, or forbidden love. In this production at Second Stage Theatre, it encompasses every part of each, rolled up into each part of the trilogy, Torch Song. Every relationship within this emotionally intoxicating play explores the idea of love, wanting love, giving love, and holding up a flame for unrequited love, all of which are complicated, addictive, and all of which can bring such pain. No surprise there.
Estelle Getty, Harvey Fierstein

Estelle Getty, Harvey Fierstein. 1982.

Most people who saw the original production back in the early 1980’s remember it as if it was etched into their soul in the same way we talk about muscle memory. The play resides in the fibers of their hearts and anyone who was lucky enough to see it on stage will gladly tell you all the ways it affected them. I was not one of these lucky souls to have been witness to Harvey Fierstein’s devastating performance, described at the time by Mel Gussow (New York Times, Nov. 1, 1981) as “an act of compelling virtuosity”, but you can feel the historic emotionality in the air of this off-Broadway theater. It is thick, and heavy, yet devastatingly glorious.

Harvey Fierstein, Estelle Getty

Harvey Fierstein, Estelle Getty. 1982.

Initially Torch Song, written by Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles, Casa Valentina) was presented as three separate one act plays, International Stud (first presented at La Mama on Feb. 2, 1978), Fugue in a Nursery (first presented at La Mama one year later on Feb. 1, 1979), and Widows and Children First! (first presented at La Mama on Oct. 25, 1979). These names are most wonderfully and proudly illuminated within David Zinn’s (PH’s Hir) perfect and inventive set design, with beautiful lighting by David Lander (Roundabout’s Love, Love, Love), concise costumes by Clint Ramos (Six Degrees of Separation), and distinct sound design by Fitz Patton (MTC’s The Little Foxes)currently at Second Stage.

Reworked back then, into a singular four-hour theatrical event, Torch Song Trilogy as it was called, opened at the uptown Richard Allen Center in October 1981, produced by The Glines, a nonprofit organization dedicated to forwarding gay-themed cultural endeavors. It transferred on January 15, 1982 to the Actors’ Playhouse in Greenwich Village, where it ran for 117 performances. The cast included Fierstein as Arnold, Joel Crothers as Ed, Paul Joynt as Alan, Matthew Broderick as David, and a star-making turn for Estelle Getty as Mrs. Beckoff. Subsequently, on June 10, 1982, Torch Song Trilogyopened spectacularly on Broadway at the Little Theatre, where it ran for a wondrous 1,222 performances. It won a Tony Award for Best Play (Fierstein) and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (Fierstein) and instantly became iconic. Fierstein, Joynt, and Getty remained, and were joined by Court Miller as Ed and Fisher Stevens as David. I wish that this had been one of the plays I saw during any of my numerous secret trips (don’t tell my Ma) to New York City when I was a teen. How it would have affected me, is beyond comprehension. I never had to deal with the parental drama that Fierstein wrote so vividly about, but it certainly still resonates to this very day. One thing I am sure of, had I seen Torch Song Trilogyin 1981, my worldview would have been altered, most likely for the better. In the same way I believe anyone seeing this play now at Second Stage will be altered forever as well.

Rosanna Hope Radja, Ward Horton, Michael Rosen, Michael Urie

Rosanna Hope Radja, Ward Horton, Michael Rosen, Michael Urie photo by Joan Marcus

The newly reworked and edited trilogy by Fierstien, now goes by the more succinct Torch Song. The three chapters remain, brightly claiming their presence over the individual scenarios, but shortened into two solid acts. The story remains centered on Arnold Beckoff, played impeccably by the magnificent Michael Urie (Shows for Days, Buyer & Cellar). He manages, with a thrilling expertise to both create his own clear version of this iconic Jewish gay man and drag queen performer while also paying tribute to the character created by Fierstein. It’s a loving and brave performance by an actor coming into his own, owning the stage at every moment with ease, letting us into Arnold’s heart and soul. His opening soliloquy is a master class in vulnerability and engagement, in which he explains his cynical disillusionment with love. It’s clear his heart yearns to hear someone he cares for say, “I love you”, while also admitting his weaknesses and his complexities with the giving of his own heart. The beautifully signed “not” “enough” says everything you need to know about Arnold, and Urie does him proud, embodying him purely and entirely. It’s a thorough and thoughtfully brilliant performance for the ages.

Sign language
At times, my companion thought he sounded whiney and maybe that is true, somewhat. It’s an interesting cultural dynamic to consider, the fine line between whiney, needy, desperate but honest and vulnerable. Maybe when written in the 1970’s, gay men could act and be perceived as whiney and desperate more freely, at least among their own kind, while in our current gay culture, that is seen as weak and discouraged. This is debatable and I’m talking more about inner gay culture rather than a more global one. Gay men today seem more perplexed by acts of femininity within their own, shaming and marginalizing those that aren’t masculine. It’s not that simple, I know, and possibly better for a discussion of perception and gay culture within someone’s PhD thesis than here in a few sentences. For me, Urie walks the difficult tight rope expertly by being the Arnold he wants to be with truth and an open heart. His comic ability, so apparent in the hilarious The Government Inspector is on full display here, but it’s in his thoughtfulness and humanity that we really see something special and profound.
Each of the three stories told offer up different complexities in Arnold’s quest for love, acceptance, and companionship. The first, International Stud is embodied in the handsome and unavailable Ed, strong and solidly played by Ward Horton (Neil LaBute’s Bash), who may not be the international variety, but he sure is the American 1980’s equivalent. The whole segment is perfectly orchestrated, edited, and presented in mostly a series of spectacularly performed monologues. Climaxing hilariously in the back room, but leaving its emotional climax for the scene when Ed and Arnold finally engage face to face in a fierce, yet honest reunion and ending. Or is it just a beginning?
Stay tuned for part two, Fugue in a Nursery, which jumps forward a year, and introduces us to two more characters; the lovely and feisty Roxanna Hope Radia (Broadway’s Frost/Nixon, After the Fall) as Laurel, and the equally lovely and adorable Michael Rosen (Broadway’s On The Town, West Side Story) as Alan. Beautifully balanced against each other, the two new love interests add a wonderful new depth to the idea of complicated love relating. All the interpersonal drama is played out with wit and authentic charm, an impressive piece of acrobatic dexterity. My least favorite of the trilogy, it still resonates and draws us in through a dynamic love story that sets us up perfectly for the final punch that is part three.
Jack DiFalco, Michael Urie, Ward Horton

Jack DiFalco, Michael Urie, Ward Horton photo by Joan Marcus

So prepare yourself boys and girls, and all those who identify somewhere in between or beyond, for part three, Widows and Children First! is the segment that all earlier theatrical memories seem to circulate around. Estelle Getty seems to be the actor most remembered, second to Fierstein, and no wonder. It’s a part written to have the greatest impact. And here at the Second Stage Theater, the role of ‘Jewish Mother visiting her gay son’ is played miraculously by Mercedes Ruehl (Broadway’s Lost in Yonkers, The Shadowbox) who matches Urie’s Arnold as if they were truly related. Their entanglement is beyond explanation. It’s layered and deep, filled with tragedy, trauma, and a love that aches. It is the true Torch Song of the evening, clawing at our hearts, and pleading for compassion. For the lot of them. That includes the lovely and beautifully rendered performance by Jack DiFalco (Roundabout’s Marvin’s Room, MCC’s Yen) as foster son, David, and the touching return of Horton’s Ed. ‘Family’ is evident in the end, be it ever so humble and strange, and filled with love requited. “You hear that, Ma?“, as Big Maybelle sings, “I Will Never Turn My Back On You“.

Mercedes Ruehl, Michael Urie

Mercedes Ruehl, Michael Urie photo by Joan Marcus

The play’s true vulnerability lies in the honest depiction of its characters and their struggles with those others that hold that special place in their heart, courtesy of the exacting direction by Moisés Kaufman (33 Variations, I Am My Own Wife). No one is safe in Torch Song from pain, confusion, anger, and disappointment; not a mother, a lover, or a son, but the power of Torch Song lies in its balls. Figuratively speaking. It has guts and a drive to grab hold of some respect and dignity within the pain, against all odds, and it does so beautifully. The fight is ageless, as this play from the early 1980’s resonates as powerfully now as it did then. Maybe not in the same detailed way, as the culture of today has changed a bit here and there, advanced while staying the same (you’ll still hear the same gasps of recognition when certain old and negative comments are stated), but it remains, most definitely and defiantly, a profound, hilarious and deeply affecting experience. One that will be remembered for a lifetime.

“But that’s alright. It becomes part of you, like wearing a ring or a pair of glasses. You get used to it and it’s good [so good] because it makes sure you don’t forget. You don’t want to forget him, do you?” I sure don’t.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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

Ken Fallin's Broadway

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

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

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

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

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

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Obituaries

Saying Good Bye To Dr. Ruth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Off Broadway

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

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photo by Paul Aphisit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Off Broadway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Off Broadway

Empire: The Musical Wants To Be What It Is Not

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

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

Photo by Matthew Murphy

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

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

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

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

Photo by Matthew Murphy

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

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

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