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The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF):2011
An Overview and Review Sampler
Tucked away as a special event in NYMF’s calendar is a new musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, aptly-named Tempest Toss’d. It is being performed by the students of Los Angeles’s PUC schools and Bronx Prep, not because of their privileged backgrounds or precociousness, but as a simple tribute to the Bard. In fact, all the youngsters are from underprivileged neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York, and they sincerely want to help youngsters (and oldsters) conquer their “Shakesfear.”
The adults supporting this venture include Sarah Rosenberg (who wrote the book) and Luis Reyes Cardinas, who conceived the idea. Eric Luke created the music and lyrics. He and Rosenberg, along with these very talented kids, are bringing a brave new world of Shakespeare to NYMF and beyond.
The book mixes Shakespeare’s original text with Frankie-and-Annette-style beach party songs. Indeed this retooled Tempest is the marriage of the Beach Boys aesthetic to Aretha Franklin’s sassiness. And you gotta R-E-S-P-E-C-T the rollicking results.
With the exception of Prospero (Sean Charles Henry), this cast is comprised of youngsters who look to be somewhere between the ages of 7 to 18, so this is essentially kids performing for kids! And, not surprisingly, it’s an interactive adventure, with the kids onstage frequently inviting young audience members to join them in the rough magic of the play.
The young performers here may be fledgling actors, but they already have amassed some impressive credits. Not only did they win 1st place at the prestigious Southern California Shakespeare Festival with their performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but they were featured in the Kevin Spacey film Shakespeare High that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in February 2011.
One can find full scale productions of The Tempest that are fathoms deeper. But this musical adaptation of the Bard’s classic is definitely more fun.
Tempest Toss’d, reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at The Theatre at St. Clement’s. Last performance was on October 9th at 3pm.
Outlaws: The Ballad of Billy the Kid
The real Billy the Kid was a small-time criminal who joined a gang in New Mexico and participated in a local dispute called the Lincoln County War. When hostilities ended, he was too restless to settle down and subsisted by gambling and cattle rustling. He was finally killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Over time, the story has been augmented by a good deal of romantic details.
In Outlaws: The Ballad of Billy the Kid, Alastair William King and Perry Liu turn Billy (Corey Boardman) and his pals into young hoodlums, who, despite the holstered guns they wear on their hips, seem more contemporary than historical, and more urban than rural. It’s sort of like a very west West Side Story.
The language used in Outlaws is much like what one would hear on the subway at three o’clock when school lets out. And the music is loud, rhythmic and sometimes quite good. But after the first few numbers they seem to repeat themselves.
Despite the trail of blood he left behind, Billy is not a bad guy at heart. He’s merely misunderstood. His beloved father left him, thanks to his mother’s infidelity. Without a proper role model, it’s no wonder he went astray.
Director and choreographer Jenn Rapp keeps the mood intense and the energy high. But the simplistic plot seems mostly an excuse for the excellent band to do its thing.
In the program notes the writers tell us they “tried to strip away any and all western cliches.” Unfortunately, they merely replaced one type of cliche with another. Outlaws: The Ballad of Billy the Kid reviewed by Paulanne Simmons. Remaining show October 9 at 4:30pm.
Madame X has found its way into NYMF, and even if it doesn’t set the town ablaze, it introduces us to some highly talented performers and gives us a new twist on John Singer Sargent’s classic portrait of “Madame X.” Helmed by Gerard Alessandrini (of Forbidden Broadway fame), with book, music and lyrics by Alessandrini and Robert Hetzel, it’s hard to resist this parody of Old Money and the vintage films of Douglas Sirk.
Fortunately, Allessandrini’s and Hetzel’s book retains much of the language and all of the melodrama and murder from the 1966 film Madame X (with Lana Turner). But while the film punctured the excesses of the privileged set living in Greenwich, Connecticut, this new version pushes the conceit furthe , and adds a pulverizing comic edge. Yes, it’s still about the meteoric rise and downward spiral of a rich politician’s wife, but Holly Anderson has morphed into Bunny Bixby Henderson (Donna English) here. Like her Hollywood counterpart, she’s no long-suffering Penelope waiting for her Odysseus to return home.
Donna English, as the lead must be praised for her theatrical resilience. She came down with laryngitis at the Festival’s opening and had to cancel an early performance. However she gamely returned on October 2nd and her voice, with the exception of a few high notes, was just fine.
What about the music? Janet Dickinson gives her all to “Everything’s Green in Greenwich” in Act 1, Pouring on the melodrama in Act 2, English feelingly croons “There’s Always a Man (But Never a Name)” as her character travels on an Orient Express club car to nowhere. It’s one of the quieter numbers, but deeply affecting.
Although the production seems a bit rough around the edges, with more time and tightening, Madame X might just out-live NYMF and land itself a commercial run. Even though it's not picture perfect it boasts a solid cast, spicy bon mots, catchy tunes, and Sargent’s haunting “Madame X.”
Madame X reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at the 47th Street Theatre. Remaining performances are October 5th at 1pm, October 8 at 11pm, October 9th at 7pm.
The Kid Who Would Be Pope
Part Charles Busch for minors and part The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for Catholics, with a good deal of The Wizard of Oz thrown into the mix, The Kid Who Would Be Pope, with book, lyrics and music by Tom Megan and Jack Megan, has a strange charm.
The operating premise here is that a pre-pubescent student at Our Lady of Perpetual Motion who has fallen in love with a nun can get to marry her if he becomes Pope, and he can become Pope if he performs three miracles. With the encouragement of his best friend Allie (Rachel Resheff), Billy McPherson (Kyle Brenn) makes a dying plant bloom and helps Sister Sister Delmonico (Tina Stafford) to walk and sing (“Stairway to Heaven”) again. It’s the third miracle that gets him into trouble. But with a little help from the reigning Pope (James Judy), even that is accomplished.
If you can believe all that, you also might believe the next Pope will be Jewish. The sheer fantasy of this musical should not have been a problem for director Gabriel Barre. In fact, fantasy works very well with musicals, because, let’s face it, if you can believe that people spontaneously burst into song you can believe anything. But The Kid Who Would Be Pope is so inconsistent that just when you’re captured by a delightfully sweet interaction between Billy and Sister Katherine (Jillian Louis), or Billie and Allie, the Megans breaks the mood with a scene of pure cynicism (and there’s enough here to make any former Catholic schooler quite satisfied). And you’re left wondering what is this all about? There are jokes about God being in the closet and a bizarre scene in which Billy equates the free love movement of the 60s with Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes.
Where can the show go from here? It’s hard to figure out whether it's intended for kids or adults and whether it’s a fantasy or a farce. But the score is consistently upbeat, although it’s most often derivative (there’s a lot here for fans of old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll). . And there are all those talented kids singing their hearts out. So who knows? Anything can happen, especially when you have faith.
The Kid Who Would Be Pope reviewed by Paulanne Simmons. Through October 7 at The Theater at St. Clements. Remaining show is Oct. 7 at 9pm.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: A Musical
What if an author revisited her unpublished manuscript and found it had a pulse? That is the basic premise behind Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: A Musical. With its pronounced literary bent, it’s bound to mesmerize some, and bore others. But to those festival-goers who like two teaspoons of satire with their musicals, this production might be their cup of tea.
Lindsay Warren Baker’s and Amanda Jacobs’s book is not a peg-by-peg chronicling of the masterpiece, published in 1813. Instead it allows the audience to watch the novel come to life scene by scene, as Austen (the charming Donna Lynne Champlin) meticulously re-works its early version called First Impressions. It sometimes topples over into the surreal. But thanks to the use of a framing device, which allows us to see Austen dust off her rejected manuscript and earnestly renew her literary efforts, the book makes sense.
But it’s the music (Baker and Jacobs again) more than the book that creates the frisson here. There are some intoxicating melodies, including the aptly-titled opener “First Impressions,” the love-struck “Isn’t She Wonderful?,” and its twin song in Act 2, “I Think You’re Wonderful.” The lyrics build on and amplify Austen’s s gorgeous (and sometimes biting) language. And in the show’s best moments, there’s an organic feel to the music and fine acting of the large cast.
I could live without some of the chat between Austen and her characters. Austen, who never leaves the stage, serves not only as a fledgling novelist here, but as dancing partner and empathetic consultant to her characters at their most forlorn moments.
This operetta is original without being cloyingly sentimental, and it breathes with romance. It portrays Austen with stoical grace, and ends up showing the audience that Pride and Prejudice clearly was not love at first write.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: A Musical reviewed by Deirdre Donovan. Signature Theatre at the Peter Norton Space. Remaining performances are October 7th at 1pm and 5pm, October 11th at 5pm.
Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon . This is the perfect Festival show for families. Ennio Marchetto takes the art of origami and gives it a terrific new twist with his physical comedy. Conceived by the Italian-born Marchetto, and directed and designed by Marchetto and Sosthen Hennekam, this one-man show has traveled to 70 cities throughout the world, but seems especially at home in the Big Apple.
Ennio is a bit of an anomaly in a musical theater festival. After all, Marchetto doesn’t create any original music and the “book” is his muscular body in motion. Yet he still orchestrates a symphony per his extravagant paper costumes accompanied by a eclectic soundtrack of R & B, rock, gospel, country, and hip hop. Inspired by Disney cartoons, and the choreography of Pina Bausch, Marchetto seamlessly blends popular culture, physical verve, and his unique paper art. And the total effect is magical.
Clad in an array of paper costumes over a black leotard, Ennio launches into a series of hilarious skits, and inhabits the likes of Mona Lisa, Elvis Presley, Liza Minelli, Beyonce, and a host of other iconic personalities from the past and present. Most shows build slowly to a climax; but Ennio starts at full throttle and stays there for an hour and ten glorious minutes.
Out of the countless skits, it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite. But I loved his Mona Lisa vignette that turns Da Vinci’s Grand Dame into a transvestite crooning Freedy Johnston’s “Venus is her Name.” Another memorable number is his send-up of Stevie Wonder’s song to his new-born daughter “Isn’t She Lovely?.” In the space of a few minutes, the performer, in faux-dreadlocks and royal-blue sunglasses, sucks on a pacifier, plays on a keyboard that ingeniously brings forth a harmonica, all the while lip-synching the lyrics to the song.
Just when one thinks the show couldn’t possibly get better, Ennio takes us down the yellow brick road and morphs into Judy Garland singing her anthem “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Although many of the figures he impersonates are culled from the entertainment world, he also adds some historical heavyweights like Einstein, Jesus, and Buddha.
It all adds up to a ton of fun that's nostalgic, sometimes a bit naughty, but never in poor taste. A chance to get in touch with your inner child.
Ennio at the 47th Street Theatre. Remaining performances are October 2 at 9pm, October 3 at 8pm, October 9 at 1pm and 4:30pm, October 12 at 8pm.
Follies and frolics and film . . . Oh my! Ghostlight tenderly dramatizes the glamorous and tragic life of Olive Thomas, the stunningly beautiful Ziegfeld show girl (and Ziegfeld’s mistress) who died just short of her 26th birthday. She allegedly still haunts the New Amsterdam Theatre.
As co-directed by Matthew Martin and Tim Realbuto, it is hard to resist this musical, which is not only an homage to Thomas but to the Golden Age of Broadway. There are many reasons why the show works, the most basic being that the show’s co-creators, Matthew Martin and Tim Realbuto (book, music, and lyrics) convince you that they actually felt compelled to bring back this beautiful soul and somehow finish her unfinished story. They became fascinated with Thomas's rags-to-riches story through a magazine article Ghosts of Broadway. And though Thomas already had a cult following, they felt that her story deserved to be told to a broader audience.
The show's book is a complicated one, but it holds its center, largely because of Rachael Fogle’s nuanced full of magicperformance as Thomas. Though Fogle isn’t a mirror-image of her character , she does possess a similar porcelain doll look and has the pipes for her diverse musical numbers and heart-rending second act solo ”How Brief the Light,” in the final moments of Act 2.
Enroute to the finale, we’ll watch Fogle’s Thomas become a star at the “Ziegfeld Follies,” be seduced by Florenz (“Flo”) Ziegfeld, Jr. himself (the well-cast Michael Hayden), witness the jealousy of Ziegfeld’s wife Billie Burke (the superb Rachel York), listen to the comic wit of Fanny Brice (Kimberly Faye Greenberg), and get a look at Hollywood royalty in Jack Pickford (Matt Leisy), who Thomas married following a whirlwind romance. With the majority of the scenes set on, or near, the New Amsterdam Theatre, one will be totally enveloped in Old Broadway.
Times present are merged with times past in Ghostlight. No sooner do we meet Fogle’s Thomas, see her star ascending to its zenith, that we are whisked ahead to her death in a hotel room at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1920. Though I found myself wishing that the show had brought out more of the wit attributed to Thomas in Michelle Vogel's biography (Olive Thomas: The Life and Death of a Silent Film Beauty). That said, even though the production clocks in at over 2 ½ hours I never felt myself shifting in my seat, or eyeing the exit.
The creators don't give any pat theories about Thomas’s untimely death (she swallowed mercury bichloride, a drug prescribed for her husband’s syphilis). Was it an accident? A suicide? Or simply the result of her getting a celluloid diploma too fast? Perhaps the best way to sum up this show is with the stage directions the great Ziegfeld shouted in delirium from his deathbed: “Looks good! Looks good!”
Ghostlight reviewed by Deirdre Donovan. Through October 9 at Signature Theatre at the Peter Norton Space. Remaining shows are October 5 at 5pm, October 7 at 9pm, October 8 at 5pm, October 9 at 1pm.
Anything Goes Cast Recording
Our review of the show
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show
Slings & Arrows-the complete set
You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to love all 21 episodes of this hilarious and moving Canadian TV series about a fictional Shakespeare Company