Monday, April 25, 2011

Patter Songs Kick Ass • "Model Behavior" from WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN

Okay so, this week I got my OBCR of WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN in the mail.  I posted a blog about it when I saw it in the Big Apple, and at the time I wasn't completely sold on David Yazbek's music and lyrics.  Well, after listening to the recording (a few times), I like it much more than I did.  It's grown on me -- you know how that happens sometimes.  It was assumed that there wouldn't be a cast recording at all -- closing early and everything -- but the powers that be decided to go for it.  Luckily.  But the song that left one of the biggest impressions in NYC is still my favorite -- a fantastic little patter song called "Model Behavior".
In this number, Pepa (Sherie Rene Scott), who's just been through a painful break-up, has come home to an answering machine bursting with messages from her best friend Candela (Laura Benanti), a fashion model.  See, she is desperately trying to reach Pepa because not only is Candela in love…  again…  but is afraid her newest boyfriend may be a terrorist.

Laura Benanti (Candela)
WOMEN ON THE VERGE
OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN

It's a great tune with some interesting music and orchestrations.  I would suggest listening with earphones.  I know I know, but seriously -- you can hear the bassline better.  This song confirms my belief that patter songs are a lovely thing, and Laura Benanti is a goddess…

Enjoy!



BONUS TRACK!!
I just think this number, "On The Verge" is cool too.  That's all.  More bassline love, and the harmonies, and that subtle string action in the background around 1 min. and 48 sec. --  love…  Enjoy this, too!



Saturday, April 23, 2011

AWAKE AND SING! • The New Jewish Theatre

This Clifford Odets play debuted in NYC at the Belasco Theatre in 1935.  To me, it's a little "slice of life" kind of action, where you're dropped into the world of this lower-middle-class Depression-era Jewish family, and you get to be a fly on the wall of their lives over the course of a year or so.

Welcome to the Bronx and the Berger family.  In the 1930's, America didn't seem to live up to its reputation of being the land of opportunity.  For this family, it's a land where making ends meet is a daily struggle.  Their cramped tenement apartment houses three generations.  First there's the matriarch, Bessie (Elizabeth Townsend), a domineering selfish mother who manipulates the lives of everyone in the place, willing to do whatever it takes to ensure a future for the family, regardless of the cost to her children's aspirations.  Her submissive husband Myron (Gary Wayne Barker) is content to do what his wife wants, enduring her insults and is frankly hilarious in delivering his timid lines.  Hilarious, but kind of sad too.  There's also their children Hennie (Julie Layton), whose hopes for a better life are dashed with an unwanted pregnancy, and Ralph (Aaron Orion Baker), desperately trying to escape his family's economic misfortunes, hanging his hopes on a girl he's completely smitten with.  To him, she's "like French words."  Grandpa Jacob (Bobby Miller), a Marxist and retired barber also lives in the apartment, and urges his grandson to aspire to be something.  To fight, so "life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills.”  The Bergers have also taken in a boarder, Moe Axelrod (Jason Cannon), a cynical veteran who lost his leg in WWI.  He's got a little thing for Hennie, but you'd never know it given his incredibly misogynistic tendencies.  His antagonistic relationship with Hennie is fun to watch.  At one point, Hennie tells Moe, "For two cents, I'd spit in your eye!"  There's also Bessie's successful but swarmy brother Morty (Jerry Vogel) who drops by every now and then, and Hennie's eventual immigrant husband Sam (Jordan Reinwald).  Over the course of this play, we're witness to how the hard times have effected this family and how they each, in their own way, battle for a better life -- by hook or by crook.

Aaron Orion Baker (Ralph), Julie Layton (Hennie),
Bobby Miller (Jacob), Gary Wayne Barker (Myron)
and Elizabeth Townsend (Bessie).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Under the excellent direction of Steve Woolf, I was completely transported into the world of the Bergers.  From what I've read, this is a quintessential Odet's play.  With his reputation for capturing the vernacular of his subjects, the success of his plays seems to rely more than partially on the transport of his words.  The dialogue is a kind of rhythmic prose, dependent on the timed delivery of each actor -- kind of like handing the baton to the next runner.  Well, the night I saw it, nobody dropped.  The performances were top-notch all the way around.  Townsend's portrayal of the mother grew stronger as the play progressed, and Barker drew my sympathy as her sheepish husband.  Vogel was a slick Morty, and Cannon not only defines the meaning of the word swagger, but also shows you real passion and heart, especially in the plays last moments.  Miller was compelling and rock solid as Grandpa Jacob, and Baker was convincing as Ralph, along with Layton as Hennie.  Reinwald also makes an impression as Sam later in the play.  The costumes (Garth Dunbar), set (Scott C. Neale), lighting (Hans Frederickson) sound (Noah Thomas) and the efforts of dialect coach Julie Foh, all seamlessly come together to present an authentic atmosphere, and in the intimate space of the Wool Studio Theatre, you really feel like you're in the Berger's living room.  Love that…  It's a great night of escape.  If you don't make room for this show in your theatre calendar, you're meshuga.  (I had to fit a Yiddish word in here somewhere…)


Jason Cannon (Moe), Jerry Vogel (Morty),
and Bobby Miller (Jacob).
Photo credit: John Lamb
AWAKE AND SING!

Written by Clifford Odets
Directed by Steve Woolf
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through May 8 | tickets: $32 - $36
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and May 1 at 2 & 7:30pm

Cast:
Bobby Miller* (Jacob), Elizabeth Townsend* (Bessie), Gary Wayne Barker* (Myron), Julie Layton (Hennie), Aaron Orion Baker (Ralph), Jason Cannon* (Moe), Jerry Vogel* (Morty), Jordan Reinwald (Sam) and Terry Meddows (Schlosser).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Scott C. Neale; lighting design by Hans Frederickson; costume design by Garth Dunbar; sound design by Noah Thomas; dialect coach, Julie Foh; dramaturg, Andrea Braun; props, Wendy Greenwood & Lauren Kissell; stage manager, Champe Leary*

Monday, April 18, 2011

TILL WE HAVE FACES • Mustard Seed Theatre

TILL WE HAVE FACES is a novel by C.S. Lewis that retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  There are variations of this myth, but (very) basically, it goes something like this:  The goddess Venus becomes jealous of Psyche's astounding mortal beauty.  She orders her son Cupid to fly to her and with the aid of his golden arrows, cause her to fall in love with a beast (or not to fall in love at all), but upon seeing her, Cupid falls in love with Psyche, and has her carried away to his palace.  Cupid visits her each night for a little, you know, but asks that she never try to see his face, or discover his true form.  After the prodding of Psyche's jealous sisters, who convince her that she may well have been sleeping with a monster, she does succeed in seeing his face one night, and discovers his identity and falls even more deeply in love with him.  In the process though, Cupid wakes up and sees that Psyche has defied his order, and banishes her from his palace.  Psyche seeks atonement and Venus gives her four impossible tasks that Psyche completes, and she and Cupid live happily ever after.

Now, in C.S. Lewis' novel, this tale is given a little twist -- it's told through the eyes of Orual, the oldest and ugliest sister of Psyche, and it's getting a cleverly directed adaptation by Deanna Jent at Mustard Seed Theatre.  At the outset, in the kingdom of Glome, we meet Queen Orual (Michelle Hand) who's got a little bone to pick with the gods.  She blames them for the woes of her life -- primarily the heartache of taking her half-sister Psyche away, and proceeds to narrate her story.  The Queen then sinks into the background as we're introduced to the young Orual (Sarah Cannon) and her sister Redival (Bess Moynihan).  Their father, the King of Glome (Robert A. Mitchell), who's really kind of an asshole, is not happy with the fact that his newly born child is a female.  But this child, Psyche (Rory Lipede), is absolutely beautiful.  Beautiful enough to incur the wrath of the gods, and is commanded to be sacrificed to the "Brute on the Mountain".  Orual is so devastated by the loss of her half-sister that she, with the heat of an obsessive, possessive love inside her, becomes determined to find Psyche.  Along with her learning to become quite capable with a sword, defying her tutor's advice, and a major fallout with sis, what also follows is, to me anyway, a telling of the pursuit of one's self.  Of beauty.  Of one's reality.  And of course, of love.  It's a deep play, dude…  A different perspective on universal truths.

Sarah Cannon (Young Orual), Michelle Hand (Queen Orual)
and Rory Lipede (Psyche).  Photo credit: John Lamb
The cast is exceptional, with Michelle Hand as Queen Orual and Sarah Cannon as the young Orual leading the way.  Hand commands the stage, and Cannon is fascinating to watch.  They both really lay it all out there.  Robert A. Mitchell is easy to loathe in the role of the King, and Bess Moynihan as Orual's other sister Redival is a real treat.  Rory Lipede as Psyche is radiant.  Gary Glasgow as Orual's tutor, "The Fox" is also a wonderful characterization along with Richard Lewis as the Priest of Ungit as well as Jill Ritter as the Priestess and Shaun Sheley as Orual's military leader BardiaDunsi Dai's multi-tiered set, with Deanna Jent and Kareem Deanes' atmospheric sound design and Michael Sullivan's thoughtful lighting design, come together to steer you in the direction of where and when everything's happening, without clumsily pointing it out to you.
With the inspiration of C.S. Lewis and the realization by Deanna Jent, there has obviously been much care in the crafting of this play, but if you're unfamiliar with the story, it might be a good idea to read a full synopsis of the myth of Cupid and Psyche -- just to give you some bearings first.  Just in case, there are some nice notes in the program to give you a little background.  It's very powerful though -- open to individual interpretation of what it ultimately means.  Check it out, and find out for yourself.


TILL WE HAVE FACES

Written by C.S. Lewis
Adapted and directed by Deanna Jent 
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through May 1 | tickets: $15 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Cast:
Michelle Hand (Queen Orual), Sarah Cannon (Young Orual), Rory Lipede (Psyche), Bess Moynihan (Redival), Robert A. Mitchell (King), Jill Ritter (Priestess), Richard Lewis (Priest of Ungit), Gary Glasgow* (The Fox), Shaun Sheley* (Bardia), Leslie Wobbe (Lady Ansit), Jean Lang (Batta), Justin Leibrecht (Trunia/Servant) and Phillip Bettison (Argan/Soldier).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Dunsi Dai; costume design by Donna Northcutt; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; sound design by Deanna Jent & Kareem Deanes; stage manager, Lorraine LiCavoli.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

NEXT TO NORMAL • The Fox

So, I'm not even sure where to begin.

Those who know me are well aware of the fact that I fell in love with this musical a couple of years ago when I saw it in NYC (twice), and I was euphoric when I found out that it would be included in this year's Fox Theatre season.  Not only could my friends finally see what all the fuss was about, but they would get to see it with my girlfriend, I mean, the 2009 Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award winner (winning for this very role), Alice Ripley.

I was very curious to see the reaction from St. Louis audiences to this show.  I distinctly remember last March when AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY was here and proved too much for some to handle, with many unfortunate walk-outs at intermission.  Although there is a good amount of humor in NEXT TO NORMAL, like AUGUST…, this show deals with some major shit -- bipolar disorder, pharmaceutical "treatments", grief, suicidal impulses -- and it does so with a relentless honesty.  Really grabs you by the throat.  But unlike AUGUST…, this is a musical -- a contemporary musical with its style drifting more towards SPRING AWAKENING rather than your Rodgers and Hammerstein type fare.  I didn't think I would like it initially because I knew there weren't going to be any french horns or anything, but those preconceptions were quickly forgotten once I was sucked in to this bold roller coaster ride of a show.  The New York Times called it not a feel-good musical, but a "feel-everything musical" when it debuted on Broadway in April of 2009.

Alice Ripley & Jeremy Kushnier
in the National Tour of Next to Normal.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
As the show opens, we're introduced to a seemingly typical suburban family, but by the end of the first number, as Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley) manically lays out sandwiches for the family on the kitchen floor, we know that Mom has some issues.  During the course of the show, we discover (in revelatory spoonfuls) the cause of Diana Goodman's damage, and how her condition has in turn damaged the rest of her family.  There's her husband Dan (faithful, supportive and beautifully portrayed by Asa Somers), who feels helpless in trying to console her and nearing the end of his rope, their daughter Natalie (a funny, angry and amazing Emma Hunton), who feels invisible and afraid she may be destined follow in her mother's footsteps, and their son Gabe, ally and enemy to his mother, played with the magnetic hovering presence of Curt Hansen.  We're also exposed to the variety of medical treatments Diana is subjected to -- everything from an array of pharmaceuticals to electroconvulsive therapy -- administered by Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, both played by Jeremy Kushnier.  In the midst of all this, there's this boy Natalie kinda likes -- Henry, played by an incredibly likable Preston Sadleir.  They connect at a time when Natalie's mom is perhaps at her lowest point, and seeing how Natalie deals with the pressure of living within this fractured family -- easing her pain with her own homemade cocktails of pharmaceuticals snagged from her mom's purse -- is another branch of this story that invests you in the outcome.

The National Touring Company of Next to Normal.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
The industrial multi-tiered set (Mark Wendland) beautifully fills the Fox stage.  Incorporated images of its pointillist house outlines, and sometimes, eyes, along with lighting by Kevin Adams that I loved -- accentuating every heartbeat of this show, is just spare enough to highlight the main attraction -- the action and the actors.  Also featuring a powerful rock-opera score with music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, and compelling direction by Michael Greif, this is a show that I'm reluctant to give too many specifics about.  You know, spoilers and all.  (If you don't care about spoilers, you can check out the Wikipedia article here).  Let's just say that as the details unfold about what has triggered Diana's pain, the gravity of it never wanes.

Alice Ripley in the
National Tour of Next to Normal.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Okay -- can I just talk about Alice Ripley for a minute?  Thanks.
I've NEVER seen anyone commit to a role the way she does.  The emotion she's been able to bring to the surface for the past few years (including the show's earlier incarnation off-Broadway in 2008) never ceases to astound me.  Having originated the part, and deciding to tour with it, Diana Goodman is a woman Ripley has had to accommodate in her life for awhile now, and the demands of it are evident.  Particularly in the second act, which is basically sung-through.  There's a vulnerability in her face and a rawness in her voice that compels you to root for her success in exorcising her demons.  I mentioned that I love Alice Ripley, right?

Okay, now here's part two--
I saw it again the next night (yes, yes, I know.  Have we met?  You know I love this show, right?) and my bff and I were treated to the standbys for the roles of Diana (Pearl Sun) and Dan (Jason Watson).  I was a little worried initially, but all that nonsense went away the minute Ms. Sun opened her mouth.  She's got a wonderfully strong voice, and it was a pleasure to see another take on the role.  Mr. Watson was also a heart-breaking Dan with a beautiful voice.  These are a couple of demanding roles, and it's good to know that if you see a standby slip or two tucked into your playbill, the ride you take won't be any less intense.

Preston Sadlier & Emma Hunton
in the National Tour of Next to Normal.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Here's the thing.  There aren't always neatly tied-up happy endings in theatre.  Get over it.  Put on your big boy pants and see this musical.  It won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for crying out loud, and the opportunity to experience the emotions this cast delivers is something not to be missed.

Okay, I have to also mention that that first night there was this guy in suspenders and a striped "Garanimals" polo shirt behind me who apparently doesn't really get the "inside voice" vs. "outside voice" thing.  *rolls eyes*  Yeah dude -- we saw that too.  Shut up.  I'm in the middle of a moment here…


NEXT TO NORMAL

Alice Ripley & Curt Hansen
in the National Tour of Next to Normal.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Book/lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Michael Greif
Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Blvd.
through April 24 | tickets: $22 - $64
Performances Tuesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturday 2 & 8pm, Sunday 2pm, Sun, April 17 at 7:30pm, Thursday, April 21 at 1pm

Cast:
Alice Ripley (Diana), Asa Somers (Dan), Curt Hansen (Gabe), Emma Hunton (Natalie), Preston Sadleir (Henry) and Jeremy Kushnier (Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine).

Creative:
Choreography by Sergio Trujillo; scenic design by Mark Wendland; costume design by Jeff Mahshie; lighting design by Kevin Adams; sound design by Brian Ronan; orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt; vocal arrangements by AnnMarie Milazzo; stage manager, Rachel Zack.

NEXT TO NORMAL Band:
Conductor/piano, Bryan Perri; assistant conductor, Rick Bertone; guitars, Craig Magnano; bass, Michael Pearce; drums/percussion, Shannon Ford.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

THE DEATH OF ATAHUALPA • Upstream Theater

I had no idea what to expect seeing this show.  See, this story is one that has been orally handed down through generations in the Andes Mountains in the language of the Incas -- Quechua.  It's receiving its world debut in English here in St. Louis, and chronicles the story of, that's right, you guessed it, the death of Atahualpa, the last of the lords of the Inca.  Spanish conquistadors captured him, took him for ransom, and killed him in 1533, spurring the decline of the Incan Empire.

A wonderfully fitting tone is set as you walk into the theatre, as members of the Latin band, Son de America, play Andean music and cast members engage with each other on the Kranzberg's sparse black set.  What unfolds in the next hour is a unique theatrical presentation of this age old folkloric tale.

Dennis Lebby serves as the announcer at the beginning.  He introduces the players and later plays the Franciscan monk, Valverde.  Valverde is charged with converting these Incan "savages" to Catholicism with a bible in one hand, while Pizarro, the invading "red bearded" Spaniard (Eric J. Conners) wields a sword in the other.  William Grivna in the title role is proud and defiant, but eventually falls victim to the Spaniards' quest for gold and silver.  Amy Loui as the Woman who weaves spends most of her time just offstage seated at a loom, and serves kind of as an observer to the happenings -- delivering the last monologue of the show as Atahualpa is killed and the Empire is thrown into grief and turmoil.  The rest of the cast is strong and completely involved in the story telling, because that's what this is -- the telling of a story.  I suppose you could argue that all theatre, musical theatre and opera are essentially all about story telling in one way or another, but this presentation -- as a dramatic retelling -- is different.  Trust me.

Eric J. Conners (Pizarro) and Bill Grivna (Atahualpa).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
In the director's notes from the program, Philip Boehm mentions that although the Incas did record their historical information on knotted cords called khipus, Quechua was a largely oral culture, in which inaccuracies are inevitable.  This is given a nod during the story as Pizarro, in the midst of addressing Atahualpa's seer (R. Travis Estes), "breaks the fourth wall" and informs the audience that he's not really sure he understands what all is being said, and that his Spanish isn't that great.  During a scene depicting the approaching Spaniards, there are these neat two-dimensional puppets used behind a board of plywood, and at one point the puppeteers argue about who should play which part.  A scene that takes you out of the action for a bit, but a reminder that this is again, a retelling of an oral history, where sometimes, facts can be blurred or exaggerated.

There was a reception after opening night, which of course I attended, cause I have a hard time passing up free food and champagne.  I talked with the director and a couple of actors for a bit about the show, and it's obvious they took a great amount of care and precision in reenacting an authentic representation of this history -- everything down to the movements on stage near the end of the play.  At the end, reenacted in beautiful tableaus, we see how the Incas were indoctrinated with Catholicism, but how also the Spaniards soaked in some of the culture of the Incas in return.

Eric Conners (Anutara).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
"With the collision of civilizations and the collision of empires, something has to give".  That's a line delivered by the monk, and although the invasion of a civilization is a familiar one, the chance to see this particular one is a special opportunity.  Not your average theatre experience for sure, but for me, an interesting one.


THE DEATH OF ATAHUALPA

Directed and adapted from the traditional oral drama by Philip Boehm
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through April 17 | tickets: $15 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, final Sunday at 3pm

Cast:
Bethany Barr* (Umiña Mamani - Princess), Eric J. Conners* (Simón Quispe - as Anutara, Pizarro), R. Travis Estes* (Humberto Quillahuaman - Waylla Wisa), William Grivna* (Quripuma Katari - Atahualpa), Dennis Lebby* (Announcer - later as Valverde) and Amy Loui* (Awaq Warmi [Woman who weaves]).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Costume design by Michele Siler; scenic/lighting design by Patrick Huber; movement consultation by Carmen Dence; props, B. Taylor and J. Krieckhaus; special millinery, John Inchiostro.

Musicians (Son de America):
Cuatro, cajón, percussion, Rafael Arriojas; guitar, tenor, Juan A. Castizo; zampoña, charango, quena, Miguel Ticona.

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