Friday, December 30, 2011

Can I just talk about Stephanie J. Block for a minute? • Thank you.

Hello again theatre peeps, and Happy Holidays!  You know what the Holiday season brings -- among many other things, it's also typically when I ramble on about random stuff, so here goes…
I love Stephanie J. Block, aka, Broadway Crush #1.  I know, big surprise.  Why you ask?  Well, the first time I saw her was when she came through St. Louis with the first National Tour of WICKED as Elphaba in 2005.  That show is what prompted me to see more theatre.  I just thought to myself, "I enjoy this too much to not do more of it".  The rest is history.  Okay.  Not really history, but you get my point…

WICKED rehearsals with Stephanie J. Block
In preparation for seeing WICKED, I found an online trailer for the tour.  With "The Wizard of Oz" being one of my all-time childhood faves, after watching the trailer, my obsession with WICKED began immediately, and I did a little reading about Stephanie and the play.  At the time, she had suffered an injury from a flying accident in a scene that was later taken out of the show, and had thankfully recovered in time for the St. Louis stop.  After more online googling, I learned that she had been involved in the workshops for the show as early as 2001 - 2002 (Joe Mantello loved her), but the "higher ups" were concerned about the fact that she hadn't opened a Broadway show before, so they went with that other one…  Don't get me wrong -- Idina Menzel is a great talent, but Stephanie has a voice meant for this score.  A big-ass Broadway voice.  It's incredible.  Don't believe me?  I have clips at the end of this post -- don't even…
WICKED First National Tour with Stephanie J. Block.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Shame she wasn't able to originate the role.  Stephanie has always been very gracious about this, acknowledging the fact that nothing is a done deal until the papers are signed.  Although she had been with the show from very early on, she knew that she wasn't a shoo-in, but as far as I'm concerned, Idina Menzel has Stephanie's Tony Award on her mantel.  There.  I've said it.  Anyway, my girl is still featured in one of the original tour trailers included below.
Next for me was the rather unfortunate PIRATE QUEEN in 2007, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil of Les Misérables fame.  Based on the life of Irish pirate and clan chieftain, Grace (Grania) O'Malley, this musical (a reported $18 million flop) didn't last too long on the Broad-Way.

Stephanie J. Block in THE PIRATE QUEEN
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
The life of Grace O'Malley had all of the makings of a hit -- potentially, but producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan, who brought us Riverdance, kind of mucked it up.  That, along with Schönberg and Boublil's blue-print, soulless book, that completely shortchanged the fascinating life of this historic figure, ensured this show a quick death.  The reviews were not kind.  Did I see it though?  Uh, yeah.  Twice.  Actually three times -- twice during previews in Chicago and once the last night of previews in NYC.  *sigh*  Poor Steph…
Megan Hilty (Doralee Rhodes), Allison Janney (Violet Newstead) and Stephanie J. Block (Judy Bernly).
Photo credit: Joan Marcus


Next up was 9 TO 5, which I also had to see out of a sense of obligation in 2009.  Stephanie as Jane Fonda's film counterpart, Judy Bernly, made the most out of a role that wasn't that great.  Again -- she gets the big 11 o'clock number, but those reviews...  Oof...
The next time I saw my girlfriend Ms. Block, she was "Grizabella, the Glamour Cat" right here at the MUNY's 2010 production of CATS.  Yes, she was brilliant belting out another powerful 11 o'clock number, "Memory", and was charming at the stage door.  Then the following year, we were both seeing a show in NYC (WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN).  She was like 5 seats down from me!  I didn't notice her there until the intermission, when I went up and said hello, and she recognized me from the MUNY… WHAT?!?! … and we talked a bit after the first act.  It was the bomb.  Mentioned it at the end of this blog post.


Stephanie J. Block (Gloria Mitchell)
and Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark).
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc


Then, last year I saw her in BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK, where we had a cool, "low-key" chat after.  It was a matinee show and she was trying to escape the stage door, but she recognized me again (love) and we talked on our way down 43rd street for a little while.  Magic…  I went into more detail in the blog for the show.
Recently she got to fill in for Sutton Foster in ANYTHING GOES.  Her reviews were incredibly positive, and it makes me happy for her.  I hope in the near future she can originate a role in a show that doesn't suck.  She deserves it.  
So now, for your viewing and listening pleasure, here are a few little knick-knacks for your enjoyment!


WICKED Tour Trailer:





"No Good Deed" from WICKED




"Sea of Life" from THE PIRATE QUEEN




And yes, her voice is legit.  The "money notes" are at the end...


Saturday, December 10, 2011

KRAPP'S LAST TAPE • The Black Mirror Theatre Company

Samuel Beckett wrote of his character in KRAPP'S LAST TAPE, "Krapp has nothing to talk to but his dying self and nothing to talk to him but his dead one."  This hour-long, one-act, one-man classic is said to be the closest thing to an autobiography he'd ever written, and its current staging, the second show from the newly founded Black Mirror Theatre Company, is marvelous.  

The space where the show is presented, the Firecracker Press on Cherokee Street, is a graphic design studio and letterpress printshop.  This showroom is filled with handmade posters, stationary, and a ton of other little artistic knick-knacks for sale.  In enlarging Krapp's profession to include printing, this location served as the perfect backdrop.

The play begins with a lovely welcome and introduction by its director, Dennis Corcoran.  The action starts during the introduction, with Krapp (a superb Rob Suozzi) coming out to work on printing our programs in the background.  After this engaging initiation, Krapp slowly moves in and around the audience, turning off lights, putting on his vest, and eating a banana.  It's his sixty-ninth birthday, and after several minutes of quiet business, a weary and unkempt Krapp hauls out several boxes filled with audio recordings and a reel-to-reel tape recorder.  After finally finding the spool he's looking for -- a recording made when he turned thirty-nine, he listens to excerpts.  This has been his ritual -- to listen to his impressions of the past as a younger man, and record new ones on his birthday.  On this reel, he mentions not only that the new light above his table is a great improvement, but that he had also just listened to a recording he'd made when he was in his twenties, and seems to regard his younger self with amusement mixed with scorn.  He recounts his resolution to drink less -- even as Krapp takes breaks, wandering outside his stark circle of light, to go to the back of the room for a healthy swig.  Or two.  The present Krapp seems to regard his thirty-something year-old self in the same way his thirty-something year old self regarded his twenty-something year old self.  Ordinary details, discarded pleasures and past and present aches of Krapp's life are alluded to and expanded upon as his memories unspool on the tape and in person.  I'd really rather not go into the particulars of what he listens to, and proceeds to document making his new recording.  Watching it intimately unfold in front of you is too rewarding to compromise with details.  Just get a ticket.

Rob Suozzi (Krapp)
Rob Suozzi was captivating as Krapp.  This young actor was able to pull off the role of a man in his late sixties, and I was impressed with the way he was able to command our attention with affecting silence -- also a great credit to Beckett's script and Corcoran's direction.  This is a slow moving play, but that's also what makes it so intriguing.  The lighting and costumes, along with that wonderful space, and Dennis Corcoran's invisible direction, all came together seamlessly for a truly cohesive and poignant presentation.

It's only playing until the 17th, so check it out.


KRAPP'S LAST TAPE

Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Dennis Corcoran
The Firecracker Press, 2838 Cherokee Street
December 17 | tickets: (donncha@swbell.net or 314-740-6514): $10 donation at door*
* A portion of the proceeds to benefit the Family Resource Center – “Helping to Keep Kids Safe”
Performances Friday & Saturday at 7pm

Cast:
Rob Suozzi (Krapp).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO • New Jewish Theatre

The plays I've seen from The New Jewish Theatre often seem to be these intimate little "slice of life" affairs that offer lessons that sneak up on you.  This 1997 Tony Award winning play by Alfred Uhry (author of DRIVING MISS DAISY), with solid direction by Gary Wayne Barker, is no exception.
It's the Holiday Season in a 1939 well-to-do German Jewish community in Atlanta, Georgia.  "Gone With the Wind" is about to make its film debut, and a flighty, young Lala Levy (Rachel Fenton) cannot wait to soak up the atmosphere of this highly anticipated premiere.  Lala's social climbing mother, Beulah "Boo" Levy (Peggy Billo), is more concerned with securing a suitable gentleman to take Lala to "Ballyhoo" -- an annual celebration for southern Jews that culminates on the last night with a dance.  Lala, a college dropout who's not the most popular girl, is one of the only ones in her circle of friends who is still unmarried.  Lala and Boo live on one of the finest streets in Atlanta with Boo's single brother, Adolph (Greg Johnston), head of the Dixie Bedding Company, and their seemingly simple and endearing sister-in-law, Reba Freitag (Laurie McConnell).  Although they boast a Jewish heritage that goes back 150 years, the Levys and the Freitags have hardly any idea what it means to be Jewish, aside from a couple of Yiddish words here and there.  They are so assimilated into the predominantly Christian South that the opening scene has Lala decorating their Christmas tree -- without the star on top (which makes it okay).

Greg Johnston (Adolph Freitag), Peggy Billo (Boo Levy),
Laurie McConnell (Reba Freitag), Adam Moskal (Joe Farkus)
and  Rachel Fenton (Lala Levy).
Photo credit: John Lamb
When Adolph brings his newest employee home for dinner, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn named Joe Farkus (Adam Moskul), the first hints of friction begin to surface.  Joe is a devout Jew -- baffled a bit by the presence of a Christmas tree in his employer's home, but he's also a Jew of Eastern European descent -- looked down upon by Jews of German descent.  Joe meets Reba's daughter Sunny on the train, after Adolph asks him to check up on her as she's on her way home from Wellesley College.  They hit it off.  But again -- those differences.  While Sunny seems willing to be more open to her Jewish identity, other members of the family seem blissfully oblivious to their heritage -- even going so far as hurling anti-semitic slurs.  Meanwhile, Boo is trying to angle a match between her daughter and Peachy Weil (Dylan Duke), a Jewish boy from a good family in Louisiana.  As the night of the dance approaches, tensions emerge, and the heavier subjects of self-hatred and inter-cultural prejudices are further explored, and it all hits the fan at…  yes… the last night of Ballyhoo.
Rachel Fenton  (Lala Levy)
and Peggy Billo (Boo Levy).
Photo credit: John Lamb
This show has a fantastic cast.  Peggy Billo as the ambitious Boo Levy was impressive.  A real piece of work that one.  With her own grudges to nurse, Billo is not only bitter and biting at times, but also sympathetic and very funny, with some of the best lines in the play.  Laurie McConnell's Reba Freitag was brought to life with a wonderful charm -- down to that spot-on Southern drawl.  Greg Johnston was marvelous as Adolph, delivering some of the most sentimental moments in the show.  Also nice work from Adam Moskul and Dylan Duke as Joe and Peachy, and Rachel Fenton was perfectly distracted as Lala.  Although her dialect didn't quite ring as true, Alexandra Woodruff's Sunny Freitag was also a delight.  The beautifully natural set by Justin Barisonek, enhanced by Michael Sullivan's lighting and Michele Friedman Siler's costumes, draw you further into the story.

Check this one out for a great cast and crew, seamless direction, and some food for thought when you leave the theatre.  You won't be sorry.


THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO
Written by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Gary Wayne Barker
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through December 18 | tickets: $35.30 - $39.50
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm
Laurie McConnell (Reba Freitag), Greg Johnston (Adolph Freitag)
and Alexandra Woodruff (Sunny Freitag).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast:
*Peggy Billo (Boo Levy), *Laurie McConnell (Reba Freitag), Greg Johnston (Adolph Freitag), Rachel Fenton (Lala Levy), Alexandra Woodruff (Sunny Freitag), Dylan Duke (Peachy Weil) and Adam Moskul (Joe Farkus).
* Member Actors' Equity Association
Creative:
Scenic design by Justin Barisonek; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; sound design by Donald Smith; props, Peggy Knock; stage manager, Lorraine LiCavoli.

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