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The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF):2013
An Overview and Review Sampler
NYMF is back! Just as New York's theater season seems to be on snooze, the New York Musical Theatre Festival (dubbed "NYMF") returns with a roar. Since 2004, NYMF has launched 320 new musicals, with many garnering award-winning productions in New York.
Not surprisingly, producers and industry professionals flock to NYMF to taste the musical zwieback (shows hail from cities and hamlets across the country) and eye the up-and-comers of musical theater. Dubbed the "Sundance of Musical Theater," the festival's 10th season will again run in July as it did last year (July 8-28). It will feature 13 full productions plus special events, freebies, staged readings and several talkbacks during its run (July 8th-28th). The festival hub this year is at the Pershing Square Signature Center, and many of its events are presented there, or at the Signature's former home a bit further West.
Having covered the NYMF festival for the past few years, I can vouch for its musical verve, thematic range, and derring-do spirit. Delving into its archives, you can find some very famous alumns, including a trio that have been anointed with Broadway productions: Chaplin, [title of show], and the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. These shows give NYMF a certain magnetism and glamour, as well as others that have created sizable ripples off-Broadway, including the feisty F#%king Up Everything, The Other Josh Cohen, and the red, white, and trueYank! that first waved its flag at NYMF in 2005.
Taking a quick glance back at last season's festival, who can forget the spankingly fresh Baby Case, about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the media circus surrounding the murder case. And playing out in a more bizarre key, the sci-fi Re-Animator The Musical raised some comedic dust as it told the wooly story of a young medical student who fathomed a way to bring human corpses back to life.
Yesteryear or present-day, NYMF is anything but predictable or tame. Little wonder that it won a special Drama Desk Award in 2012 for nurturing the future of musical theater.
This season smorgasbord of new musicals promises to have something for everybody's musical taste. If you like your ancient Greek myths with a twist, then you might try Icarus, which gives the old tale a new burlesque flavor and puppetry. Volleygirls will appeal to your inner optimist who believes that second-chances are a key part of life's game. And for those who enjoy shows about wannabes of the pop music world, Life Could Be a Dream promises a new testosterone spin to the dreamy art form from the creators of the Marvelous Wonderettes. Bronte aficionados can look forward to the literary sisters getting musical legs in The Brontes. This one comes to the festival with plenty of buzz about its rock and roll energy. It should be great fun to see these Victorian era sisters acquire vocal cords and electric vibes.
Before the gong bell closed the NYMF festival, this reviewer joined the crowd watching Castle Walk at the PTC Performance Space. To appreciate this show, you really must have a genuine interest in musical theater history and be ready to time-travel back to the early twentieth century when Vernon (Bret Shuford) and Irene Castle (Lynne Wintersteller) were the cat's meow in America. Not only did this husband-and-wife team create major sparks on stage, film, and dance floors, they set trends in fashion, hair-styles (Irene originated the "bob" coiffure) and more.
Milton Granger's book, music, and lyrics hop-scotch around a lot but capture the essence of the famous husband-and-wife team. Set in 1938, when the film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was being whipped up in a Hollywood studio, Irene is shown struggling with director H. C. Potter (James Clow) to ensure that the film-in-progress becomes a truthful reflection of her life with Vernon. She wins and loses her artistic battles with Potter, much like she won and lost in the tug-of-war throughout her own career.
Thke story points up the old clichés but speaks them through Irene's canny voice and a cadre of Hollywood insiders. You see once again that fame is fleeting, Hollywood films are full of artistic compromise, and luck always matters. But the real value of Castle Walk is in its dual perspective, which is viewed alternately through the fame-weary eyes of Irene and the young Irene (Stephanie Rothenberg).
The libretto doesn't stray far from the history books. Vernon's untimely death at age 30 in a plane accident in Texas dramatically changed Irene's life and career forever. What's more, Fred Astaire (Chris Kane) and Ginger Rogers (Lauren Sprague) were on the rise as Hollywood new dancing star. Their phenomenal success only accentuated Irene's profound loneliness and gradually diminishing career.
Like the tango, Castle Walk progresses in non-linear sequences. It advances, retreats, zigs, and zags through Vernon and Irene's life. At curtain rise, you see one of their silent films projected on a screen, with a number of live performers seated on chairs, their backs to the audience, riveted to the film. A few beats later, as the black-and-white film fades out, the performers are up on their feet re-enacting the dance moves (choreography by Jonathan Stahl) that just played out before their eyes. Passing on the baton, if you will, is at the heart of this show. And the story of Irene and Vernon is the blood pumping through its theatrical veins.
While I was more swept off my feet by other musicals featured at NYMF, this one reminded me that everybody loves a "Last Hurrah." In Castle Walk we see how Irene squared her account with Hollywood and eased her painful memories of life without Vernon.
. Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on July 26th at the PTC Performance Space. Performances were on July 22nd, 24th, 26th, 27th, and 28th.
Foolproof recipe for a new musical? Take one Olympic joke named Kim Brindell (Susan Blackwell), morph her into a Shakespeare teacher and "replacement" coach of the "Ladyhawks" volleyball team at St. Agnes High School for Girls, add the no-nonsense title Volleygirls to the story, and start rallying!
If you missed this smart this sold-out show, watch for it on the theatrical horizon. Dollars to donuts, Volleygirls will see a glowing post-festival life.
It succeeds on many fronts: Eli Bolin's music is, in turns, buoyant, brash, and bristling with intensity. Sam Forman's compendious lyrics articulate the gamut of emotions felt by its nearly all-female ensemble. The crackerjack book by Rob Ackerman is part sports adventure, part coming-of-age tale, and part love story. Tautly directed by Neil Patrick Stewart, it manages to avoid all the pitfalls of cloying sentimentality. But dive into the depths of the human heart it does, and once there, hammers home a message that everyone, regardless of gender or age, needs to look in the eye: self-acceptance. And as revealed in spades, it can be tough on the psyche but good for the soul.
The songs are a mixed bag of gritty girl-power ("Jabali"), puppy-love and its maturer version ('You're Beautiful When You Play" and "The Beast That You Used To Be"), a paean to lesbian pride ("I Like Girls"), and even a scary P.T.A song ("Animal in our Midst"). But the best number by far is "Don't Say A Word, where Kim has a tete-a-tete with a Wilson volleyball in the empty school gym, recalling that shattering moment when she choked at the Olympics. Or as she spins it a la Shakespeare: "Frailty, thy name is Wilson." Though there are other poignant moments, it's hard to outdo this soul-searching tableau where she "stares down her demons."
Much like the ebullient Lysistrata Jones (loosely based on Aristophanes' Lysistrata) that dribbled its way to Broadway in December 2011, Volleygirls speaks to female-empowerment. Whereas it can't claim an ancient Greek source , it has a lot of winking references to the Bard that work to fine effect.
Ultimately, it's the show's ferociously fierce attitude that keeps the stage action going. Kasprzak's does an impressive job with his muscular choreography that appropriates the signature moves of volleyball ("the bump, the set, the spike"). Valerie Therese Bart's costumes are ordinary gym outfits and workaday clothes. Ken Larson's miminalist set succeeds with only bleachers, benches, and a bare floor. othing on Nstage feels extraneous or overdone
While Volleygirls does need more polishing before it can go on to the next theatrical level, it has all the right ingredients for scoring with a larger audience. And you don't have to be of the volleyball persuasion to enjoy the misfit "Ladyhawks" (Juliane Godfrey/Katie Kavett, Julia Knitel/Ingrid Hansson-Tuntland, Allison Strong/Jess Hartline, Gerianne Perez/Marisol, Allison Jill Posner/Jocelyn Andrews, Dana Steingold/Stretch Mandelbaum) turn champs.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on July 20th at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. Remaining performances are July 26th @ 1pm & 9pm, July 27th 1:30pm & 5pm.
Pirates of Finance
Whenever I start to worry that originality is fading from musical theater, nothing cheers me up more than a quick listen to a few Gilbert and Sullivan songs, almost breathtaking in their wit and often surprisingly complex satirical vision. As for originality within the contemporary musical, a quick stop into a Fringe show or, of course, the NYMTF will generally set my mind at ease. So you'd think a musical which combined those elements, as The Pirates of Finance does, couldn't miss. But the choice to serve two masters is always a risky one, and it causes problems here. For most of the show, this feels less like a pleasant mix than a jarring mashup.
At least the ridiculousness of the plot fits right in with a typical Gilbert and Sullivan piece. Frederick Freemarket (Preston Ellis) has just inherited his uncle's Wall Street business, complete with billions of dollars tied up in toxic assets, and is determined to bring the firm back to its former glory while adhering to strict "free market" principles. Working in his favor is the firm's "cash machine," conceived and programmed by his eccentric uncle and capable of making tons of money in any kind of market. But just when things may be starting to look up, Wall Street shark J. Geoffrey Behemoth (Christopher DeAngelis) enters the formerly safe waters, buying half the company and threatening to destroy it if it doesn't make him money (so that he "wins").
To make things worse, Frederick is in love with company nutritionist Elsie Gardener (Heather Lundstedt) despite his own strict no romance policy. Will he find true love and keep his family's name intact, or will he be overrun by evil speculators and bad fortune?
If you know anything about Gilbert and Sullivan, you already know the answer to that last question. The problem is that if you know anything about Gilbert and Sullivan, you've already seen the best this show has to offer.
There's nothing particularly wrong with the show but much of it feels like it's going through the motions, with the plot, songs and even the accompanying orchestra eminently forgettable. Even as satire, a story with heavy reliance on discussion of derivatives and stockholder impasse isn't wildly exciting, and Charles Veley's lyrics fit uneasily into Sullivan's always brilliant music, as if he intended to pay proper respect to the famed composer and forgot in the process to write songs which could stand on their own.
The cast does what it can, with particularly good showings from Jacob Thompson as Bill Brilliant and some nice vocal work from Behemoth's advance team of April, May and June (Sydney Ransom, Janice Landry and Lynn Craig), and there's nothing wrong with Gary Slavin's direction. But it's hard for a show to be both properly reverential to its source material and simultaneously clever and satirical, and in its attempt to be both The Pirates of Finance falls a little flat. If you love Gilbert and Sullivan, this musical will elicit a few smiles-but it could have done much more than that if it had ever decided what kind of a show it truly wanted to be.
The Pirates of Finance runs through July 20th at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. July 15th at 9 p.m., July 16th at 5 p.m., July 18th at 5 and 9 p.m., July 20th at 9 p.m. Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson.
Bend in the Road
"God's in his heaven, all's right with the world." That idyllic verse from Robert Browning's "Pippa's Song" seldom rings true in our too-cynical and fast-paced world. But when whispered by the young and plucky heroine Anne Shirley (Alison Woods) at the finale of Bend in the Road, it remarkably can make a believer out of the most jaded soul. Based on Lucy Maud Montgomery's beloved classic Anne of Green Gables, this inspiring tuner resurrects the precocious young orphan whose mistaken adoption by Matthew (Martin Vidnovic) and Marilla Cuthbert (Anne Kanengeiser) ends up being the best mistake that this brother and sister ever made.
Benita Scheckel has written the charming book and lyrics, and Michael Upward composed the zesty music plus some additional lyrics. And though you don't get all the layers of the onion in this stage adaptation of the 1908 text, this show has plenty of dash and go.
The adaptation rightly goes with the livelier rather than the psychologically dense episodes from the novel: There's Anne's first encounter with Matthew at the train station; her awkward settling-in at Avonlea farm where her fiery temper and will collides with the starchy Marilla and town dowager Rachel Lynde (Maureen Silliman); her less-than-smooth first days at school when her temper flares again at being called "carrots" (the character Anne famously has red hair) by handsome classmate Gilbert Blythe (CJ Pawlikowski); and the tea party where she accidentally gets her bosom friend Diana Barry (Whitney Winfield) tipsy on raspberry cordial.
Though nuggets from the novel are faithfully mined and theatrically appropriated here, you inevitably realize that no stage adaptation could ever do complete justice to the timeless classic. Fans of Montgomery's work might bemoan, as I did, the omission of the woman teacher who served as Anne's academic mentor and occasionally shrug at the too broadly portrayed main characters. But then no creative team to date has yet outdone the literary masterpiece on stage or screen, though many have added a fresh sheen and innovative chapter to Anne of Green Gables' lore.
Clearly, this coming-of-age musical, with its multi-faceted songs and heart-felt narrative, is a good bet for the young and young-at-heart alike. How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable this world would be without the likes of saucy heroines like Anne.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on July 20th. Remaining shows are July 24th @ 1pm, July 25th @ 1pm, July 27th @ 5pm, July 27th @ 5pm, and July 28th @ 1pm.
The Awakening of Angel DeLuna
When it comes to breath-taking spectacle, the live trapeze acts in The Awakening of Angel DeLuna are tops. But this musical that emphasizes the resiliency of the human heart slips into gooey sentimentality. While Judylynn Schmidt's book and Lee Ellis' music and lyrics are promising, this exploration of the hard realities of circus life needs more bite.
Part of the problem may be in its timing. There have been two other circus-themed shows in New York this season. The past spring, famous clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner holed up at the Signature in Old Hats and became an instant hit. Following closely on its clown heels was Diane Paulus' delightful mounting of Pippin, which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. And now Angel DeLuna steps in as the third circus-inspired production of 2013. And though comparisons are odious, this new piece doesn't have the snappy wit of Old Hats or the crackling good songs of Pippin
To its credit, it has a genuinely affecting love story, set in a 1930s circus. A trapeze duo Angel DeLuna (Patty Nieman) and Ollie Blatsky (Michael Thomas Holmes) are the toast of the Big Top till Angel misses the flying somersault and takes a tragic fall. This accident ends both Angel's career as a trapeze artist and her relations hip with Ollie, who soon departs the circus. The rest of the story is about how Angel slowly heals, bends her heart and mind to necessity, and learns that miracles exist for those who believe.
The problem is that it takes for granted that the audience will suspend its disbelief and go along with its premise that floats right up to the Pearly Gates of Heaven. Sincere as Angel and Ollie, are, they aren't altogether credible. And Deuce (Paul C. Kelly), who acts as their foil, comes across as a cotton candy version of a Machiavellian villain.
All that said, there are genuine thrills in this airborne show. With no safety net or visible cables tethered to performers, the live trapeze acts are a heart-skipping spectacle. If only this new musical's book and songs were as dazzling.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on July 16th at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. Performances were on July 16th and 17th.
Gallows humor is making a comeback in the new musical Julian Po. This offering, starring Chad Kimball, Malcolm Gets, and Luba Mason, takes the taboo subject of suicide and gives it some small town levity. While it comes across as a work in progress and has an occasional clunky scene, it has a very original character in the mysterious stranger Julian Po (Kimball), who o to end his life at sea till he gets stranded in middle America. You'll see ghoulishly witty gun-slinging scenes and hear spicy songs with old-fashioned heart.
Book and lyrics are penned by Andrew Barrett and the music is composed by Ira Anteli. The inspiration, however, comes from Branimir Scepanovic's book La Mort de Monsieur Golouja and Alan Wade's film Julian Po.
In short, this show is a rich theatrical tapestry interwoven by artists of yesteryear and today. The trio of performers have strong musical theater chops: Kimball (Memphis) as Julian. Gets as the eccentric Pastor Bean is also a Broadway veteran, and the renowned Mason portrays the sexy Lilah Leech. Others in the cast—Jon Fletcher, Jason Gotay, Corbin Reid, Sean Cullen, Isadora Tulalian—if not quite as riveting do make a strong showing as the Townspeople.
While this musical is ever-so-promising, my reservation here is whether people are going to go along with its edgy humor, dark psychological complexities, and quirky plot twists. Naturally, time will tell. But those visiting this show are bound to remember it for its top-notch cast.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on July 13th at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. Performances were on July 8th, 10th, 13th, and 14th.
Life Could Be a Dream
Another juke-box musical? Don't groan! When it goes by the title, Life Could Be Dream, you can go down that old nostalgic road again with no apologies.
This new tuner centers on a group of recent high school graduates-Denny (Daniel Tatar), Eugene (Jim Holdridge),Wally (Ryan Castellino), and an auto mechanic named Skip (Doug Carpenter). They want to stop living like automatons and forge new identities in a rock-and-roll band that hopefully will erase the doldrums from their lives.
All the action unfolds in Denny's basement in Springfield, USA. And to jump-start their American dream, there is a rock-and-roll contest being sponsored by their local radio DJ, "Bull's Eye Miller." But the young crooners must first tame their nerves, warm up their vocal cords, and choose the right songs and moves to persuade "Bull's Eye Miller" that they have the stuff. And, oh yeah. They draft their gorgeous neighbor Lois Franklin (Victoria Matlock), whose dad owns the "Big Stuff Auto" company, as their lead soprano. This gives them a real edge in the contest.
This coming-of-age musical isn't all that original but it gains fizz with its 60's hit tunes. These include the title song "Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)," "Runaround Sue," "Easier Said Than Done," "Pretty Little Angel Eyes." Okay, you've heard these golden oldies a myriad times since they first inched their way up the pop music charts. But truth be told, they hold up incredibly well, and aren't the worse for wear.
This show is not the next Jersey Boys, nor does it have all the feminine charm of creator Roger Bean's , long-running off-Broadway hit The Marvelous Wonderettes. But it does have its own winning five-member cast. Add the live band on stage (Michael Borth on Keyboard 1, Emily Croome on Keyboard 2, Dan Erben on Guitar, Jeff Schiller on Reeds, Adam Wolfe on Drums), and you do have an enjoyable dream musical.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on July 14th at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. Performances were on July 8th, 11th, 13th, and 14th.
Songs for a More Funnier World
Wearing your heart on your sleeve just got a whole lot funnier. Songs For A More Funnier World takes a quartet of wannabes named Woman 1 (Abigail Raye), Woman 2 (Amy Albert), Man 1 (Kevin Massey), and Man 2 (Steven Stafford) and has them belting out their musical chops in the next-great song cycle. This satire, in 100 hilarious minutes, allows you to glimpse the psychological make-up of those feisty young performers who are trying to make a go at showbiz.
Writer-composer-lyricist Stuart McMeans aims at your funny bone and, more often than not, hits the mark. Set in "any blackbox theater USA" with a two-person band on stage (Ming Aldrich-Gan at the piano, Eric Coyne at the cello), this show's appeal lies in its unmasking of hubris in up-and-comers.
Book-ended by the title song, the best numbers portray performers who foolishly believe that they are earmarked for success, or, in a word, are special. In fact, one of the show's rawest and funniest moments occurs in the vignette, "Oh New York City," where a young female singer waxes wroth about her dashed dreams and warns others: "Don't come to New York . . . New York doesn't care about your dreams . . . GO BACK!" No Pollyanna show, this.
The hard-knocks of showbiz aside, some skits are devoted to the thorny paths of romantic love. There's even a nod to the graveyard scene of Romeo and Juliet in "Good Times," where the young lovers must confront that happily-ever-after isn't in their stars.
Some numbers like "In Line For the Bathroom" possess little artistic merit and could easily be cut. But the wittier songs like "Dubuque" literally get you where you live, revealing that what works in a small town hardly passes muster in New York.
Admittedly, this is very light theatrical fare. But my real criticism of this showbiz spoof is its limited run. It breezed in and out of the fest with three performances within 24 hours.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on July 12th at the Studio Theatre. Performances were on July 12th @ 6:30pm & 9:30pm, July 13th @ 1:30pm.
If you threw away your chance to connect with the famous Bronte writers in high school, then Dizzy Miss Lizzie's Roadside Revue's The Brontes gives you a second chance to dip into their remarkable lives and literary classics. This robust vaudeville show, set to rock-and-roll and blue grass rhythms, is a smart vivisection of the 19th-century Victorian clan who made a colossal contribution to world literature.
Charlotte (Debra Buonaccorsi), Emily (Felicia Curry), Anne (Haely Jardas), and Branwell (Matthew Schleigh) are all represented here, joined by the The Carnies-The Gypsy (Gillian Shelly), The Con Man (Mike Kozemchak), The Barker (Steve McWilliams), The Dealer (Jason Wilson), The Drummer (Rich Nagel). The boundaries of fact and fiction blur, but director Rick Hammerly and the creative team strongly hammer home one major point: The Brontes' ghosts are still ripe for rambling the desolate moors of our imagination.
Debra Buonaccorsi's book is deliciously irreverent and upends the repressive mores of the Victorian era with a soupcon of Americana. It skims the cream from each Bronte persona, highlighting their wooly idiosyncracies and sums up their major, not-so-major, or non-existent literary works. Abetted by Steve McWillliams and Debra Buonaccorsi's music and lyrics, the show is a medley of scenes and songs that invites you to eavesdrop on the Brontes' sibling rivalries, personal triumphs and despair — and without any theatrical dead spots in this show. Though I couldn't catch every single lyric, the energy of each song often carried the gist of its meaning.
In "God Knows," you can listen to Branwell unpack his soul and confess how he made the least of his advantages and ultimately succumbed to alcoholism. "Heathcliff" is a heavier musical number that acquaints (or reacquaints) you with the dark brooding soul of its namesake. You get less intellectual brawn in "Anne's Song" as Anne reveals her impossible dilemma of having a pair of literary geniuses for sisters.
The last stretch of the 80-minutes without intermission show is devoted to exploring the immense talent of Charlotte via "Jane Eyre: Voodoo Child."
The drawbacks, if any, to this satiric musical is that it skates too quickly over the great classics, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. So Bronte purists shouldn't expect to ensconce themselves in a seat here and experience the psychological complexities and nuances tucked into their favorite Bronte novel. Rather than an in-depth study, this is a theatrical frolic with no stuffy affectations. Given its advance buzz, The Brontes may well become, if not the high-water mark of the fest, one of its gems.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on July 11th at the Studio Theatre. Remaining performances are July 14th @ 5:30pm, July 16th @ 5:30pm & 9:30pm.
As with past NYMF festivals, Curtainup will be grazing through the festival, sampling and reviewing just a few shows. Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater, The Romululus Linney Courtyard Theater, and the Studio Theater at the Pershing Square Signature Center, at 480 West 42nd Street.
Pearl Theatre Company Performance Space, at 555 West 42nd Street.
For information about all the shows, check the Festival's web site at www.nymf.org
Links to past festivals we've covered:
Anything Goes Cast Recording
Our review of the show
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show
Slings & Arrows- view 1st episode free
©Copyright 2013, Elyse Sommer.
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