Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lynne Wintersteller and Robin de Jesus star in Mother Jones at NYMF

By Rob Hartmann

Mother Jones and the Children’s Crusade, with book, music and lyrics by Cheryl E. Kemeny, is currently in rehearsal for its run as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The show focuses on turn of the century labor activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, as she leads a march of mill children from Philadelphia to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt in New York, protesting child labor conditions — young children were routinely injured while they worked in mines and mills for starvation wages.

The NYMF production stars Lynne Wintersteller, perhaps best known for her iconic performance in Maltby & Shire’s Closer Than Ever; the cast also features two-time Tony nominee Robin de Jesus.

I spoke with Benjamin Edward Simpson, an actor who stepped into the role of producer to bring Mother Jones to New York, and also with director Michelle Tattenbaum (who directed Nobody Loves You at Second Stage and the Old Globe.)

ROB HARTMANN: Ben — I understand that you were actually in this show when you were a kid?

BEN SIMPSON: It’s kind of a crazy story how it all started. So the author, Cheryl Kemeny, runs a not for profit children’s performing arts center in Norwalk Connecticut, the Crystal Theatre. So, growing up, instead of doing Annie or Bye Bye Birdie, you’re doing one of these original musicals that she writes. And they’re written for a cast of sixty so everyone has a part. So this show was one of the shows I just signed up for as a kid. Robin de Jesus was in it as a kid as well.

These days, I’m primarily an actor — I was in between shows and I just kept thinking about this show, and how it’s really relevant to what’s going on in the world today.

MICHELLE TATTENBAUM: That was one of the things about the script that I really responded to — this feeling of utter timeliness. I think the Gilded Age is on everyone’s mind right now, and I think that is very telling. To have the chance to tell a story from that era — well really, it’s a plea for trying to change things for the better. That we can’t just sit by. That, to me, is the universal message that needs to be heard right now.

I feel this incredible sense of fatalism about how things are right now, in terms of income inequality, in terms of the ways in which our society is completely unsupportive of families. The indignities of that are everywhere and daily — trying to operate in a world where you need to have both parents in a family working full time, or otherwise you can’t afford to have a safe and comfortable life. And yet at every turn the culture is not set up to support that.

BS: I always thought Mother Jones was Cheryl’s best material — I’ve grown up loving big Broadway musicals like Ragtime and Parade, and I thought that this show had that kind of epic story. It’s a star vehicle, but it also has the kids — they’re the heart of this story. I would tell anyone to come see it, whether you’re ten or seventy five.

MT: It was originally written to be performed by kids — but, while I think it’s still quite suitable for a family audience, it’s not a “kid’s show.” We’re not approaching it in that way. We’re approaching it with a greater level of complexity and sophistication. Obviously, people can bring their kids — there are four kids in it — but we’re not approaching it in a “family theater” kind of way.

RH: And you have Lynne Wintersteller as Mother Jones.

BS: Lynne Wintersteller is so amazing. She’s gone through this script and score so thoroughly, finding all the dimensions of the character. The truth of the matter is that Mother Jones wasn’t always likeable. Cheryl has tried to stay true to that, really showing all her flaws. Lynne sounds amazing — she’s so game for anything. What’s exciting is, she’s really inspiring some of the changes we’ve made. We’re tailoring it to her — she is our Mother Jones.

MT: Cheryl is incredibly open — she’s a very smart writer. She’s written a lot of shows, so she’s not precious about any of it. She brings a lot of experience and maturity to the table. She’s a pragmatist.

BS: Cheryl’s been staring at this piece for years and years. And I’ve been attached to it for so long that I thought it was really important to have Michelle, who could be fresh set of eyes on the show. On the first day, she gave us all a little history lesson about the world of this show. Like, “I’m wearing this new pair of pants — these were made in some factory by some person who has a story – and that’s the story we’re telling.” All her detailed research and her excitement for the piece — she’s just so invested, it gets everyone excited.

MT: I talked about individualism, and how deeply ingrained this idea is — that everything that happens to you is based on your worth as an individual. And if you work hard enough, and if you’re a worthy enough person, then you will get ahead. And nothing has anything to do with the societal structures we’re operating in or the water we’re swimming in or the air we’re breathing in, it’s all your personal worth. I talked about that, and laissez faire economics and social Darwinism (laughs.) Those are my three things. And I wanted to talk about Calvinism, because I feel it really goes all the way back to the Calvinistic attitudes of the Puritan and the other folks who founded this country — that sort of judgment — “you deserve what you got” —it feels so pervasive, and we don’t even talk about it.

RH: How are rehearsals going?

BS: We’re just taking it day by day. Cheryl never had this dream to be a big Broadway composer or anything — we were actually talking about this in the car. She used to perform, and traveled the world with her sister, singing. And she found this calling, you know, teaching and composing — and she never cared about the glitz and glamor. But now that we’re getting a taste of working with Lynne Wintersteller and Michelle and people who are challenging her creatively, I think it’s just incredibly exciting. And the piece is only getting stronger and stronger.

RH: And you’ve got Robin de Jesus in the cast.

BS: We’re really good friends — he’s just the sweetest guy. He’s at a point in his career where he just goes from job to job to job, but he really made sure that he could clear his schedule to do this. For him to turn down these big movie auditions and these big readings and workshops that he could easily have been doing  — that’s such a big thing. He said, it’s not about the money, it’s not about the credit, it’s about honoring the woman that gave him his start. I mean, Cheryl got him the audition for Camp, where his career took off. So it’s like coming full circle for him, and for me.

Mother Jones and the Children’s Crusade. www.motherjonesmusical.com

Book, music & lyrics by Cheryl E. Kemeny. Directed by Michelle Tattenbaum. Music direction by Micah Young. Choreography by Clare Cook. Produced by Benjamin Simpson and The Crystal Theatre, Inc.

Featuring Lynne Wintersteller, Frenie Acoba, Tessa Grady, Robin de Jesus, Lizzie Klemperer, Lulu Lloyd, Zachary Mackiewicz, Robert Mammana, Johnny Marx, Grace Matwijec, Marissa Miller, and Kevin Reed.


For tickets, www.nymf.org. Performances at PTC Performance Space, 555 W. 42nd St. Thursday, July 17 at 8:00 pm; Saturday, July 19 at 1:00 pm; Sunday, July 20 at 12:00 pm; Monday, July 21 at 1:00 pm; Thursday, July 24 at 9:00 pm.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Interview - Jennifer Conley Darling of terraNOVA

By Byrne Harrison

Last week I had a chance to interview Jennifer Conley Darling of terraNOVA Collective about their Groundworks New Play series, which runs through today. 

Jennifer, I'm excited to see that another Groundworks New Plays series is underway.  How many years has terraNOVA Collective been producing this series?

Groundworks has officially existed for 5 years. The program grew organically through a need for playwrights to have a support network and not feel as if they were working in a bubble. When Jessi Hill joined the team five years ago, she saw what we had and helped us formalize the program. The way it has grown is largely due to her dedication and vision and the program is stronger than its ever been under her leadership.

I see several familiar names among the playwrights and directors.  How did you choose this year's plays?

Groundworks has taken a bit of a new form this year with the addition of the soloNOVA Arts Workshops. The series now showcases the work we are developing in both our Groundbreakers Playwrights Group (for multi-character plays) as well as soloNOVA ARTS (for solo shows). With terraNOVA long history of supporting and presenting solo work, this was a natural progression to add a layer of development for this wing of our company as well.

Each year, we have a submission process to select the plays. We have a reading committee of directors, dramaturgs and playwright alumni that help us select our top 12 contenders. From there, Jessi Hill and I interview the finalists and come up with the group. It becomes harder each year to select the group with so many talented people out there!

How can artists get involved with your Groundbreakers Playwrights Group?

Our submission process will be announced on our website in the coming months and outline what is to come for next season, so stay tuned!

The series is nearly over.  How has the audience response been so far?

The responses have been amazing. Each playwright has stepped up their game and the directors and actors have been absolutely stellar. I am so thrilled each writer is thriving in this environment. I look forward to seeing where these plays and these writers will go from here.

What else is coming up for terraNOVA in 2014?

After our busiest season ever in 2013-14, we will be taking a break for the rest of 2014, but will be coming back strong in 2015. We’ve been so busy producing that it’s now time for us to step back, assess and figure out what’s next!



The final two readings are on Monday @ the Cherry Lane Theatre.

RUNBOYRUN
Written by Mfoniso Udofia
Directed by Awoye Timpo
Monday, June 23rd at 3 pm

WHERE DID WE SIT ON THE BUS
Written by Brian Quijada
Directed by Matt Dickson
Monday, June 23rd at 7 pm
*A soloNOVA ARTS Workshop

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Blood Brothers are back in Brooklyn

By Byrne Harrison

Growing up, my parents used to play the cast album from "You Don't Have to be Jewish" quite often.  One of the short plays featured a Jewish mother crying out "Oh, the agony! Oh, the ecstasy!"  When asked what was wrong, she confessed the her only daughter had eloped (the agony), but it was with a nice, young doctor (the ecstasy).

My own agony/ecstasy moment is happening now.  Oh, the agony… the next installment of the Blood Brothers' Bedlam Nightmares series opens tonight and I'm out of town for the run.  Oh, the ecstasy… one of the Blood Brothers has smuggled me a copy of the script.

I can't review the production, since I won't be able to see it.  And I don't want to give out any spoilers.  So I'll just say this.  The show is well-written.  It is bloody (oh, how I wish I could see what Stephanie Cox-Williams has planned for the special effects).  And it is full of the stuff that will give you nightmares, including the return of Grandma Blood.

I can't wait to hear the buzz about the show when I get back.

So while I can't tell you much about this weekend's show, I thought I'd give you some information about this new Blood Brothers series and review the previous show in the series - "The Blood Brothers Present… Bedlam Nightmares, Part One: Strapped In."

Part One found the Blood Brothers (Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer) inmates in Doctor Queen's (Kristen Vaughan) asylum.  Scheduled to be executed in October, Doctor Queen plans to spend the rest of the year figuring out what makes the Blood Brothers tick.

Helpless for the first time in their lives, the Blood Brothers find it hard to adapt to their new surroundings and to Doctor Queen's insistence that they no longer directly address the audience (those familiar with the Blood Brothers know that Shearer's character serves as a sort of bloodthirsty host/emcee - think of a psychopathic Rod Serling or a cross between the Marquis de Sade and Mr. Roarke).  Bereft of their normal source material, the Blood Brothers incorporate the stories of the other inmates into the narrative.  These include a new inmate and his cellmate who promises to watch over him during his first night, a woman obsessed with being forgiven by the love of her life for a betrayal, and the survivor of a yoga retreat that went horribly awry.

Also included in the mix is Nat Cassidy singing the first section of a song cycle that will span the Bedlam Nightmare series about a nascent (and pre-pubescent) serial killer.

As usual, the evening features some amazing writing from Blood Brother stalwarts Nat Cassidy and Mac Rogers, as well as some strong directing from Pete Boisvert, Patrick Shearer and Stephanie Cox-Williams.  Cox-Williams, often referred to as the Tom Savini of Off-Off-Broadway does her stomach-churning best with the special effects for this show.  Just an example of what she can do - in one of the short plays, Mac Rogers' creepy "Breakfast at Six," featuring the new inmate (Collin McConnell) and his cellmate (Bob Laine), one of the characters rips off his own eyelids (one of which is later eaten by Boisvert's Blood Brother).  Nasty, horrifying, and so incredibly well done.

The surprise of the evening was Cassidy's "Into the Life of Things," about the yoga retreat.  A young couple (Matthew Trumbull and Stephanie Willing) falls under the spell of a charismatic leader (August Schulenberg).  Throw in some food deprivation, a touch of psychic ability, and a possible love triangle and the retreat takes a homicidal turn.  This was a strong, well-structured story with an unexpected paranormal twist, and it worked nicely into the main Blood Brothers/asylum story.  This was longer than the typical short play included in a Blood Brothers show, which provided a nice balance to Rogers' and Cassidy's other short pieces.

I'm happy to see that some of the evening's pieces will be continued in the current episode of Bedlam Nightmares.

I can't wait to see where this series goes.


The Blood Brothers present… Bedlam Nightmares, Part One: Strapped In

Strapped In
Written by Mac Rogers
Featuring Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer (the Blood Brothers), J. Robert Coppola and August Schulenberg (the Orderlies), and Kristen Vaughan (Doctor Queen)

Breakfast at Six
Written by Mac Rogers
Directed by Pete Boisvert
Featuring Collin McConnell (the New Kid) and Bob Laine (the Longtimer)

All in Good Fun
Written by Nat Cassidy
Directed by Pete Boisvert
Featuring Nat Cassidy (the Troubador), Melissa Roth (Mrs. Albemarle), and Bob Laine (another Old Man)

Into the Life of Things
Written by Nat Cassidy
Directed by Patrick Shearer
Featuring Rebecca Comtois and Leal Vona (the Cops), Anna Rahn (the Attendant), Stephanie Willing (Carole), Matthew Trumbull (Joshua) and August Schulenberg (Edmond)

Leslie & Steven Forever
Written by Mac Rogers
Directed by Stephanie Cox-Williams
Featuring J. Robert Coppola and Melissa Roth (the Orderlies) and Ivanna Cullinan (Leslie)

Production Manager: Stephanie Cox-Williams
Fight Choreographer: J. Robert Coppola
Costume Designer: Karle J. Meyers
Gore/Prop Designer: Stephanie Cox-Williams
Graphic Designer: Pete Boisvert
Lighting Designer: Morgan Anne Zipf
Sound Designer: Patrick Shearer
Production SM/Board Op: Robyne C. Martinez
Original Music: Larry Lees and Nat Cassidy
Producers: Pete Boisvert, Stephanie Cox-Williams, Roger Nasser, Patrick Shearer


The Blood Brothers present… Bedlam Nightmares, Part Two: Shock Treatments opened tonight at The Brick Theatre, 575 Metropolitan Ave. in Brooklyn.  It runs through Saturday, May 10th.  For more information, visit www.bricktheatre.com.


Monday, April 14, 2014

“My Mother Has Four Noses” - Intimate But Sometimes Uneven

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Sandrine Lee

The phrase "My mother has four noses" is not a play on words, a joke, parody or something with any major cosmic significance. Rather, it refers to something much more serious and all too real in Jonatha Brooke's very moving one-person show of the same name. This revelation being the starting point in Brooke's tale regarding her relationship with her mother, especially during the final two years of her mom's life.

Brooke takes great care to paint a clear picture of her mom, Nancy Lee Stone through words and pictures, thus allowing the audience to feel they know her quite well. Nancy wrote poetry, had a great sense of humor and was a devout Christian Scientist to the point she ignored a personal medical situation for nearly two decades; leading to the loss of part of her face and the introduction of the four noses in the title - one for each season of the year. Brooke pointing out that while her mother depended heavily on her faith, when there was some kind of crises "then she turned to me". Brooke also admits that her own rejection of this religion caused something of a strain in their relationship. Yet through it all there remains a deep connection between the two women, one often more of emotion than words.

Things change when Nancy starts experiencing signs of dementia. Jonatha becoming her de facto caregiver, along with the support of her husband and her husband's sister Julie. Brooke describing the painful process of beginning to lose someone she loves to a condition over which she has no control and where flashes of her mom's humor and lucidity mix with ever-increasing incidents of disorientation, rage and anger. There's also the issue of her becoming incontinent and all that that entails. Most telling of all however, is the ever-present fear Nancy starts to exhibit, such as when she refuses to take her various medications and the struggles that resulted in an effort to get her to do just that.

This is a tale that is sadly all too universal and Brooke's unhesitancy about bringing forth her own feelings in the matter allows the story to shine as she recounts the huge struggles and occasional triumphs she experienced while dealing with Nancy's condition. These include describing how Nancy starts collecting junk and giving it to family members as Christmas gifts; the pride in her voice as she reads her mom's poems; and the awe and relief she felt when it became clear that Julie was able to calm Nancy down when no one else could.

It also helps that Brooke tosses in a goodly amount of humor into the mix to leaven out the overall seriousness of her tale. Such as when her mother is trying to plan an escape in a wheelchair during a physical therapy session following knee surgery. Stories like these - which include talking about the different noses and her mom' s love of hats - also help to show more than just the pain and hardship of what was happening, thus making the entire piece much more interesting and involving.

Where things run into problems is when Brooke, who is also a singer/songwriter, injects various musical moments into the story. That's not to say the songs she performs aren't good - it's just that they're not really necessary and serve more as a distraction from the overall narrative. It's this uneven blending of styles that keep things somewhat off balance and also succeed in removing an element of immediacy from the tale. It also results in the show feeling a bit too long and taking too much time to get to its ultimate conclusion.

Jeremy B. Cohen's direction is fine as he helps Brooke, who obviously has a clear idea of the story she wants to tell, bring the proper emotional emphasis to the forefront, though Cohen is also hamstrung by the use of the musical selections, which ultimately keep the tale from delivering its maximum potential.

Also quite good are Caite Hevner Kemp's various projections, which greatly aid in creating a more fully formed image of Brooke's mom. Also deserving of mention are the efforts of the two onstage musicians, Ben Butler and Anja Wood.

My Mother Has Four Noses is a very touching and personal tale and Brooke deserves great credit for being able to talk about her experiences so clearly and expressively. However, it probably would have worked better without the various musical touches.


My Mother Has Four Noses
Written and Performed by Jonatha Brooke
Directed by Jeremy B. Cohen
Produced by Patrick Rains
Associate Producer: Pam Carter
Musical Director/Guitar: Ben Butler
Cello: Anja Wood
Orchestrations: Jonatha Brooke & Ben Butler
Set & Projection Design: Caite Hevner Kemp
Lighting Design: ML Geiger
Sound Design: Paul Mitchell
Production Stage Manager: Anne Lowrie
Musical Contractor: Antoine Silverman
General Management: The Work Room
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachael Gass
Marketing: Red Riding Marketing
Advertising: Media Bridge Advertising
Press: Susan Blond, Inc. & Coyle entertainment

The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Tickets: (646) 223-3010 or www.dukeon42.org/Shows/2014/4Noses.aspx.
Running Time: Two Hours, with One Intermission

Closes: May 4, 2014

“Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes” - An Intense Journey

By Judd Hollander

They say truth is stranger than fiction. It certainly is in the case of Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes, a one-man show written by and featuring Hayes, who recounts his own story of his time as a drug smuggler, being thrown into a Turkish prison, receiving a 30 year sentence, and his eventual escape to freedom. His story previously chronicled in the book "Midnight Express", which is prison slang for "escape", and the subsequent feature film. Since the outcome of what happened is known from the first moments of the play, if not before, what makes Hayes' story worth hearing is the actual journey he takes. One not only from place to place, but also of maturing and understanding; and thanks to Hayes' willingness to share his recollections, wart and all, it's a fascinating journey indeed.

Following the path many others took in the 1960s, Hayes turned on, tuned in and dropped out. Realizing the money to be had through drugs, he began making trips to Turkey, buying hashish there and bringing it back to the United States where he sold his ill-gotten gains at a huge profit. His first few trips through Turkish customs were relatively easy, taping bags of hashish to his body, hiding them in a plaster cast, etc. to avoid detection. However he found the entire process so easy that, by his own admission, he began to get careless and before his final trip didn't thoroughly check out the security procedures at the Turkish airport. As a result, he ended up being stopped just before he got on the plane where the drugs he was carrying were found by security guards, who were actually relieved that all Hayes had on him were drugs, rather than explosives of some kind. However that was enough to get Hayes sentenced to more than 4 years in jail, at least at first. The added time came later.

Hayes' narrative is divided into sections, he recounting them with alternatively a matter-of-fact air, a bit of wryness when he recalls - as he puts it - the "stupid" things he did to get him into this situation, as well a more serious and somber attitude as he brings to life the emotions he felt from the different events he experienced. Each of these moments being fascinating in their own way, Hayes having the ability to vividly recreate the scenes he's speaking of and bring those listening right into the story with him. The middle portion of the play giving a good idea to the uninformed, which one assumes would be most of the audience - this writer included - of what life was like in a Turkish prison at that time. This includes the camaraderie he felt, the friendships he formed, the enemies he made, and the survival instinct which kicked in that enabled him to withstand it all. Eventually, he is able to come to terms with what he's done and accept his punishment. That is until, due to various political circumstances, his time in jail is increased to 30 years. This in turn leads to a fascinating scene whereby Haynes recounts how he addressed the judge and his accusers just before his revised sentence was handed down.

From there the story takes on the aspects of a thriller as Hayes plots his escape from prison, and from the country itself. Hayes methodically laying out his orchestration and execution of these events, as well as the attitude of those he encounters while on the run. There's also more than a hint of amazement in Hayes' voice when he realizes just how lucky he was to make it to safety.

Hayes is a good narrator and has a congenial quality about him as he takes a story he's told hundreds of times before and fills it with feelings, descriptions and emphasis that makes it all completely fresh and absorbing. It's also the smaller details he talks about that add a more involving element to the entire tale. Such as the fact his additional sentence allowed him to select the prison where he would serve his time, so he could choose one which be advantageous to an escape; his taking a manual labor job at the prison to get himself in shape for his flight; as well as how the dangers of fighting in jail can get you in trouble with the authorities while at the same time building you a rep in prison. Also telling in Hayes' story is his own internal transformation from an irrepressible kid who thinks he's above the law to someone older and wiser who's willing to admits his mistakes. This in turn transforms the play into an intimate, personal and completely relatable journey. Hayes also tosses in a bit of rueful resignation when talking about the Hollywood process as he points out several pivotal moments in the "Midnight Express" film that never really happened. This includes one particular scene which got the Turkish government rather upset - and as Hayes notes, rightly so.

John Gould Rubin's direction is pretty much flawless, giving Hayes enough space to tell his story but never over-dramatizing, over-sentimentalizing or making the entire piece feel overlong in any way. The program notes also help detail Hayes' time in Turkey, along with the escape route he took. All of which help to fill in some important background information for the audience.
 
Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes is compelling from start to finish and a show one should definitely see. Especially as it offers a chance to hear a riveting story from the lips of the man whose story it is.


Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes
Written and performed by Billy Hayes
Presented by Barbara Ligeti, Jeffrey Altshuler and Edmund Gaynes
Co-Producers: Jonathan Chang, Jann Cobler, Exodus Broadway, Joseph Trent Siff
Press representative: Gary Springer, Springer Associates
Marketing & Advertising: Amanda Pekoe, The Pekoe Group
Set & Lighting Consultant: Josh Iacovelli
General Management: Form Theatricals (Anthony Francavilla and Zachary Laks)
Directed by John Gould Rubin

St. Luke's Theatre
308 West 46th Street
Information: www.ridingthemidnightexpress.com
Running time: 85 minutes, including a Q&A with Mr. Hayes

Closed: March 23, 2014

Sunday, April 13, 2014

54 Below - Karl Saint Lucy performs on Monday, April 14th

54 BELOW, Broadway's Supper Club, is expanding its popular late-night series with fresh faces and hot new performances to keep the party buzzing into the wee hours.  Located just below the legendary Studio 54 at 254 West 54th St.


KARL SAINT LUCY, April 14 at 11:30PM:

Karl Saint Lucy, Brooklyn-based composer and singer-songwriter, will present his solo debut, Karl Saint Lucy: Easier Said Than Done, on April 14th at 54 Below. Songs young and old will be sung, all in Saint Lucy's eclectic high-art-meets-campy-trash idiom. Born in St. Louis and raised all over the heartland of the United States, Karl Saint Lucy is a songwriter whose influences are as varied as his experiences. He was conceived the moment Joni Mitchell shared "Free Man in Paris" with David Geffen, and he lost his innocence the moment Rufus Wainwright shared "Dinner at Eight" with his father, Loudon. Saint Lucy found his way into songwriting by way of musical theatre; he studied musical theatre composition with Michael John LaChiusa, William Finn, Polly Pen, and other great New York theatre composers through the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at Tisch. What comes out in the work of Karl Saint Lucy is a synthesis of people and places that reveals not only love-hate relationships with genre, approach, and his country of origin; but also a fierce determination to redeem those relationships to better inform the present. He also really loves torch songs. $5 food & beverage minimum. Two alcoholic drinks or $20 food & beverage minimum.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

50 Shades! - A smart, raucous party musical

By Rob Hartmann
Photos by Matthew Murphy

A few years ago, I was sitting waiting for my flight in the gate area in a Midwestern airport during a layover. The woman next to me was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. A woman sitting across from us pulled her copy out of her bag and exchanged a knowing look with the woman next to me. Another woman pulled out a copy a few seats down. Winks and giggles. Another woman pulled out her copy, and the sequel. A fifth woman joined the pack. The woman next to me whispered apologetically, “It’s just so… good.” I hadn’t really heard of the book before that moment, but it was clear that it was a phenomenon.

The latest manifestation of the Grey craze is the frothy, brash satire 50 Shades! The Musical, billed as “The Original Parody of the Greatest Novel Ever Written.” Created by members of the improv group Baby Wants Candy while the troupe was in Edinburgh performing another show, 50 Shades! is a smart, raucous party musical that deftly skewers E.L. James’s “mommy-porn” bestseller. I confess I have never read the book — but 50 Shades! can be enjoyed by fans, haters and non-readers alike.

The show begins with a trio of book club members (Kaitlyn Frotton, Chloe Williamson and Ashley Ward) who decide to take on Fifty Shades of Grey. Williamson, rocking a Courteney Cox wig, gets things rolling with sharp comic dancing and rockstar vocals. Frotton also appears as bedhead-in-a-bathrobe roommate Katherine Kavanaugh, with a vocal-fry voice like a pan of bacon. Co-creator Ward, as hapless bookclub member Carol, stands out with goofball charm like an American Tracey Ullman.

Amber Petty and Chris Grace take on the roles of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Petty is a wide-eyed wonder channeling the sweet naivete of young Goldie Hawn with the baby-voice breathiness of Amy Adams. Grace rules the stage as the bondage-obsessed billionaire. He struts through his numbers, including a Rocky Horror-style down and dirty rock-n-roll anthem, with a great voice and spot-on comic timing. By the time he appears in a wrestling singlet which leaves nothing to the imagination, Chris Grace has the audience in the palm of his hand.

Tim Murray is a comic standout as Anastasia’s tango-dancing and flashbulb-popping admirer Jose. There is also plenty of eye candy on display: Adam Hyndman and Alec Varcas go shirtless for much of the show, exhibiting physiques that are normally only seen on comic-book superheroes. Casey Renee Rogers, as the Inner Goddess, shows off actual dance chops in the dream ballet (yes, there’s a dream ballet) while poured into a patent leather dominatrix outfit (John Dunnett designed the costumes, as well as the sets.)

Co-directors Al Samuels and Rob Lindley keep the energy turned up to 11 and never let the pace falter. The show doesn’t just parody Fifty Shades of Grey; there are sly references to Phantom, Les Miz and there’s even a helicopter. Mindy Cooper’s choreography finds comedy in small moments, while making the most out of the limited space. The cast proves that New York is home to insanely talented actors: you would not expect a group this funny to also be able to sing as well as they do. This cast gives every screlter on Broadway a run for their money.

The group-written score mixes Motown with musical theater parody, along with a dash of Gilbert & Sullivan. Music director Michael Thomas Murray on keyboards leads a rocking band, featuring Michael Shapiro on drums and Lavondo Thomas on bass.

The Elektra Theatre at the Times Square Arts Center has a bar area, as well as movie-theater-style drink holders at your seat. This show is one to see while having a few drinks with your friends. 50 Shades!  shows its improv-comedy roots — it is smart, sharp, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and knows when to wrap it up. The show zips by, with all cylinders firing at every moment (I imagine the cast has to be exhausted after every performance — they go all out.) Bachelorette parties, girls-night-out, and yes, book clubs should be flocking to this show. 50 Shades! delivers the goods.


Al Samuels, Emily Dorezas, Marshall Cordell, Andrew Asnes, Brett McDonald, Rob Kolson present 50 Shades! The Musical: The Original Parody.

Music & Lyrics by Al Samuels, Amanda B. Davis, Dan Wessels, Jody Shelton & Ashley Ward.
Written by Al Samuels, Amanda B. Davis, Emily Dorezas, Jody Shelton & Ashley Ward.
Featuring David Andino, Kaitlyn Frotton, Chris Grace, Adam Hyndman, Tim Murray, Amber Petty, Casey Renee Rogers, Alec Varcas, Ashley Ward & Chloe Williamson.
Costume & Set Design: John Dunnett.
Sound Design: Matt Kraus.
Lighting Design: Herrick Goldman.
Musical Director: Michael Thomas Murray.
Choreographer: Mindy Cooper.
Co-Directors: Al Samuels & Rob Lindley.

Elektra Theatre at Times Square Arts Center, 300 W. 43rd Street at Eighth Avenue. www.50ShadesTheMusical.com

Monday, March 3, 2014

FRIGID New York Interview - Rob Matsushita of "Boogie of the Apes"

By Byrne Harrison

Show: Boogie Of The Apes
Photo credit: Dan Myers

Rob Matsushita is a playwright, author, actor, filmmaker and now, a podcaster, with a new show called "10 Minutes About Your Favorite Movie," which is available on iTunes. He can also be seen in the web series "Chad Vader," as the often-abused Lloyd. He has written and produced over ten full-length shows, and his short plays have been performed in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. You can also check out his work on his official page, IverPictures.com. 
 
Tell me a little about your show.

"Boogie Of The Apes" is a lightning-fast parody/summary of the first four Planet Of The Apes movies, using read-along comic books from the 1970's. Also, like any good '70s comedy/variety show, we have dance numbers.

What inspired you to create it?

This is actually one in a series of plays! Our first of was "Superhero Boogie," and our next one is (possibly) going to be called "Christmas Boogie." (Or "Holiday Boogie," depending on what material we find.)

Ever since I was a kid, and I used to listen to these records all the time, I've wanted to do a show like this, lip-syncing them. Of course, then, I didn't want to do it ironically. "Superhero Boogie" was so much fun to do, I just need to do another one. The Planet Of The Apes series all kind of fit together like one long, insane story, and so it was a natural to do next.

Who else is helping you bring the show to FRIGID?

Heather Renken and Broom Street Theater, here in Madison, Wisconsin, has been instrumental in getting us off the ground, and Dan Myers, an actor in the show, was nice enough to let us rehearse at Broom Street and use the building while his own playwriting debut, "Chat" has been rehearsing. (It's running in Madison at the same time we're running in New York.) Also, Rick Vorndran has been our eyes and ears in New York City as our Venue Liaison, and my mother, Geraldine Matsushita, has also provided some much needed help at the right time.

Who would be your dream audience for this show?

There's a lot of little specific references to the Planet Of The Apes series throughout the show, as well as little references to other sci-fi movies and shows. If you were a kid in the '70s, you'll probably get a lot out of this show. But we've had plenty of audience members who were younger or older, or who never saw the original movies, and all of them have laughed a lot.
As a theatre artist, who are your biggest influences?

For this show, I was influence by the original Pee Wee Herman Show--not the Saturday morning show from the '80s, but the original stage show. Also, there's a hilarious play called "Bullshot Crummond" that I drew from a lot.
What other shows are you planning to see at FRIGID?

As many as I can! I was at the first annual FRIGID New York, and saw 22 shows in five days! Of course, I'm going to go and see "I Shall Forget You Presently," because I'm friends with The Dysfunctional Theatre Company. They did my play "Orange Murder Suit" at that first festival.

What's else does 2014 hold for you?

I'm writing and directing another show for Broom Street in May, called "Civil," which will be my first sci-fi show. It's a futuristic courtroom drama. I've never written a serious sci-fi show before, and wanted to try one.

Lightning round
Favorite playwright?  Currently, it's Martin McDonagh, although he says he doesn't write plays anymore.

Show you would love to be involved with?  Always wanted to do the aforementioned "Bullshot Crummond."

Favorite venue?  Gotta stay with home court: Broom Street.
Favorite actor?  Paul Giamatti.

Best theatre experience?  Playing Detective Tupolski in "The Pillowman." Also "Superhero Boogie" was a great time.

Worst theatre experience?  I once directed a show where an actor felt that closing night was optional if you drink and play kickball just before the show. She'd just had a kidney removed. I am not making any of this up.

Person you’d most like to thank?  In general, my cast deserves all the thanks I have.

For more about "Boogie of the Apes," visit the FRIGID New York website.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

FRIGID New York Interview - Gregg Barrios of "I-DJ"

By Byrne Harrison

Show: I-DJ
Photo credit: Warren Peace

Gregg Barrios is a playwright, poet and journalist. He is a 2013 USC Annenberg Getty Fellow, and serves on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. He has received a CTG-Mark Taper Fellowship, a Ford Foundation Grant, and a 2013 Artist Foundation Grant for his theater work. His play, I-DJ, premieres at the 2014 NYC Frigid Fringe Festival. He is collaborating with actor and filmmaker James Franco on a book of his experimental work in poetry and film.

Tell me a little about your show.

I-DJ centers on a gay Mexican-American DJ / actor who spins the soundtrack of his life on the dance floor by night and by day performs in a send-up of Shakesqueer's Ham-a-lot set to a dub-step beat of ecstasy, tainted love, Rollerena and Herb Alpert. When a younger DJ challenges him to a musical standoff, their stories and music collide. Only one will survive.

What inspired you to create it?

I wanted to write about the DJ music scene and also about the rich theatrical works that emerged in the late 1970s, early 1980s. I was an arts journalist at that time in Los Angeles. So I covered those beats. I was also interested in how the LGBT community of artists faced the plague years – how bravely and fiercely they confronted it. And how this virus decimated many of our finest artists in the midst of a creative period of their lives and who would never be able to finish their life’s work.

Who else is helping you bring the show to FRIGID?

We have a lively theater scene in San Antonio, TX. I am part of The Overtime Theater Company. We premiered the work there. For the FRIGID, the Woodlawn Theatre across town provided facilities and loaned us their AD Greg Hinojosa to direct this version of I-DJ. I call it the bare bonez remix.

Who would be your dream audience for this show?

Gosh, I’d love all those wonderful folks that lived through that era covered in the play – a testament to their humor and courage in the face of outrageous fortune.

As a theatre artist, who are your biggest influences?

Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Michael Bennett, Beck/Malina, Luis Valdez, Maria Irene Fornes, Shelagh Delaney, Charles Ludlam, Terrence McNally, Tony Kushner – etc.

What other shows are you planning to see at FRIGID?

Chicken-Fried Ciccone.

What's else does 2014 hold for you?

The premiere of Hard Candy, my new play about legendary Texas stripper Candy Barr. I’m also finishing a new play (Tennessee, Mon Amour) commissioned by the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. It’ll be my second show for them.

Lightning round

Favorite playwright?  In 2014, Annie Baker and Dan O’Brien

Show you would love to be involved with?  Baker’s The Flick.

Favorite venue? St. Ann’s Warehouse

Favorite actor?  (on stage) Brando, Anthony Quinn.

Best theatre experience? My Mark Taper Fellowship in LA.

Worst theatre experience?  I prefer to forget them.

Person you’d most like to thank?  Rollerena, the legendary New York City street performer. I saw her once in her full regalia. I dedicate I-DJ to her. I hope she comes to see the show.

For more information about I-DJ, visit the FRIGID New York website.

"The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens" - Thrust into the court of public opinion

By Byrne Harrison

You lead a normal, quiet life.  A job.  Friends and family.  The same thing as most everyone else.

But imagine if society suddenly turned its spotlight on you.  Everyone wanting… needing… deserving to know every detail of your life.  What if you didn't want that?  What if you didn't want everyone to steal pieces of your life to fulfill their own agendas?  What if you had no choice in the matter?

Sybil Stevens (Jennifer Gordon Thomas) was content.  Being a flight attendant gave her a chance to see the world and enough money to care for her nephew.  Plus, she loved it.  She had her quiet life, her comfortable apartment and her beloved Cubs.

Then came the crash.

After a mid-air explosion ripped her flight in half and nearly killed her, Sybil, the sole survivor, finds herself one of the most sought after people in America.  Besieged by media requests which have only gotten more insistent due to a blog set up by her nephew Derek (Jordan Tierney) that has chronicled her recovery, the intensely private Sybil finally agrees to grant an interview with Tessa MacKenzie (slickly played by Yeauxlanda Kay), an aspirant to the throne of Oprah.

But Tessa, armed with material dug up by her assistant (Samantha Fairfield Walsh), plans a little gotcha journalism, and the capper is an unexpected announcement from Joe (Sean Williams), the paramedic who found her crushed body in the wreckage and saved her life.

Sybil, a new media neophyte, discovers the mercurial nature of internet and media fame, as the court of public opinion turns against her.  Sybil, Derek and Joe find themselves adrift and unsure how to move forward, as they struggle to bring their lives back into some kind of order.

Playwright Kari Bentley-Quinn has created a remarkably sensitive and intelligent play, and director Christopher Diercksen has a solid grasp of the ebb and flow of the piece.  The ensemble is outstanding, with particular praise to Thomas for her skilled performance as Sybil.  Her nuanced work brings Sybil's physical and mental struggles to life without ever going overboard.  Plus, her accent was great.

Although I've given the character of Joe short shrift, much of that is due to a plot point that I don't want to spoil.  However, I must compliment Williams on his portrayal of the down on his luck Joe.  Williams really shines in a short scene between Joe and Derek.

I highly recommend seeing this production, part of The Secret Theatre's New Voices Project.  The Secret Theatre is to be commended encouraging new works of this caliber.


The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens
By Kari Bentley-Quinn
Directed by Christopher Diercksen
Producer: Leta Tremblay
Set Designer: Meredith Ries
Costume Designer: Sarah Bertolozzi
Lighting Designer: Aaron Porter
Sound Designer: Beth Lake
Projection Designer: Kevin Brouder
Stage Manager: Sarah Lahue
Assistant Producer: Yvonne Hartung
Production Assistant: Emily Delbridge
Publicity: Lanie Zipoy
Executive Producer: Richard Mazda
Production Photographer: Kacey Stamats

Featuring: Yeauxlanda Kay, Jennifer Gordon Thomas, Jordan Tierney, Samantha Fairfield Walsh, Sean Williams

Through February 23rd
www.secrettheatre.com

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

FRIGID New York Interview - Alycya Miller of "Brownie and Lolli Go To Hollywood"

By Byrne Harrison

Show: Brownie and Lolli Go To Hollywood
Photo credit: Darlyne Cain (on her iPad)

Born and raised in South Carolina, Alycya Miller came to New York via Princeton University, where she studied the work of Katherine Dunham, classical Japanese theater and served as music director for the R&B vocal group, Culturally Yours. After a stint on Wall Street, Miller studied comedy writing at City University London and improvisational theater at the People's Improv Theater in New York. A lifelong hip hop dancer, Miller studied samba and salsa with the Djoniba Dance Center in New York. A classical violist since the age of 9, her string arrangements can be heard in the song “Sweet Danger.” Miller's directing credits include Backstage At Da Fonky B - A Musical, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide and Top Girls. Acting credits include The Women Of Brewster Place (Theresa) and Macbeth (Lady Macbeth). Miller's comedy writing influences are Jennifer Saunders, John Cleese, Bud Abbott and Norman Lear. Her music influences include Rick James and Deborah Harry.

Tell me a little about your show.

I wrote this piece, but every time I read it, I find something more literary about it than I consciously intended. I thought I was just writing a goof comedy piece around four original R&B songs I produced back in 2005, but it could actually be used as a study piece for 7th graders. It's a musical comedy about this Abbott and Costello-like pair of girls who work at a hat shop in New Orleans. They've been wanting to get their sexy clown act on a popular TV show called "Live at Da Fonky Burlesk," but the show hasn't had auditions in years. After a series of unfortunate events, the girls finally have a chance to audition for the show. The only problem is that they have to be in Hollywood by tomorrow. They're broke with no cars, so the rest of the show has this song and dance duo doing all kinds of unsavory and illegal things to raise the money. People who like Abbott and Costello, The Monty Python and Absolutely Fabulous will appreciate the comedy. People who like jazz, R&B and nudity-free burlesque will, too.

What inspired you to create it?

The idea came to me for a female comedy double act who sang and dance back in 2003 at the real peak of the burlesque revival. I was fronting a funk/R&B band in North Carolina at the time and gradually turned our gigs into a variety show/talent showcase called "Da Fonky Burlesk." We had singers, belly dancers - anybody interesting and talented - all set to "fonky" music. One of the regular performers was very ditzy, always late and frazzled. I called her "Lolli" because she was always lollygagging. My stage name was Brownie Glendale because that was the name of my first pet paired with the name of the first street I lived on. We were so different - she the clown, me the straight band manager - the idea just evolved from there. With my song, dance and comedy writing background, well - the piece just developed from there.

Who else is helping you bring the show to FRIGID?

JIM BEAM (the whiskey, not the company, though sponsors are more than welcome).

Who would be your dream audience for this show?

A bunch of narcoleptics - they'd fall asleep during the acting bits and then we (the cast) could have fun startling them awake when we break out into song and dance numbers. Another benefit is that we could just chat while their sleeping and tell them later that they missed the best show.

As a theatre artist, who are your biggest influences?

Bud Abbott, Katherine Dunham, Bob Fosse, Carol Burnett.

What other shows are you planning to see at FRIGID?

Basic Help, East in Red. All of them, though, if I can. There's some real talent in this festival.

What's else does 2014 hold for you?

Brownie and Lolli Go To Hollywood will continue to run in New York until April/May and then head to DC in July for Capital Fringe. We will find investors somewhere along the way. Fall onward is to be determined, but I have a feeling there's a tall dark stranger in there... 

Lightning round

Favorite playwright? Tennessee Williams.

Show you would love to be involved with? Tommy.

Favorite venue? Town Hall.

Favorite actor? Stage actor? Christine Baranski. Overall? Glenn Close.

Best theatre experience? Fela, the Musical. Bring it back! It was magical.

Worst theatre experience? A production of Ibsen's Wild Ducks that I had to walk out of before intermission. I think the director must have been a sadist to make us all sit through that.

Person you’d most like to thank? My parents, who at 41 years have one of the longest running comedy double acts in America. They call it Their Marriage.

For more information about Brownie and Lolli Go To Hollywood, visit the FRIGID New York website.


FRIGID New York Interview - Nicole Lee Aiossa of "I Shall Forget You Presently"

By Byrne Harrison

Show:  I Shall Forget You Presently
Photo credit: Theresa Unfried

Nicole Lee Aiossa has been singing, teaching, dancing, song writing, acting, choreographing and directing in New York City for the past 15 years. Nicole is Dysfunctional’s resident opera singer, having performed in such productions as La Boheme (Musetta), Falstaff (Alice), Il Segretto di Susanna (Susanna), Dido & Aeneas (1st Witch), The Impresario (Goldentrill), La Traviata (Violetta), Carmen (Frasquita), Orpheus in the Underworld (Eurydice), Don Pasquale (Norina), and numerous others.  Dysfunctional Theatre credits include, Final Defenders (Queen Bowsera/Co-Director) Unlicensed (Jodi), Brew of the Dead II: Oktoberflesh (Julie), Porcelain and Pink (Julie), Fancy Eating You Here (Monique), and various other nuns and zombies. Nicole is currently a member of an operatic duo called ‘Park Avenue’, and a lounge act called ‘The Bobby Oahu Big Band’.  For more info please visit  www.wix.com/NicoleAiossa/soprano

Tell me a little about your show.

Using original poetry, music of the era, quotes and dialogue, writers Eric Chase and Amy Overman have constructed a patchwork of the remarkable life and work of Edna St. Vincent Millay.  The ensemble cast moves, acts and sings it's way around the poet and into her life, loves and passions.  More than just a poet, we show you a woman who captured love, defined feminism and shaped the 20th century.   We hope that we have captured her life as well as any person can.  I myself, am part of the cast, but am primarily the 'Lead Singer,' commenting on the action thru song.  There is a house band, The Wobblin' Wobblies, that does an amazing job setting the mood for the piece and breaking up the action. All of the music chosen is appropriate to the time, written and performed from that era, with the exception of course, of the one piece i wrote myself, set to Millay's poetry.

How did the show come about?

Dysfunctional had been asked to be a part of The Brick's Tiny Theater program, which consisted of doing a show in a 6x6x6 cube.  The show could also only be ten minutes long.  The director, Eric Chase, and producer/co-writer, Amy Overman, had long been fans of Edna St. Vincent Millay and thought this would be a good chance to work on something new.  The ten minute play went so well, we decided to work on a longer, more involved show.

How did you become involved with it?

As a member of the Dysfunctional Theatre Company, I was asked if I would like to be involved from the beginning.  I was also asked if I could write an original song to one of Edna's poems, which I did.  This then evolved into me becoming the musical director, and researching more music of the time, and incorporating that in to the full length show.

Who else is helping you bring the show to FRIGID?

The cast of I Shall Forget You Presently, Dysfunctional Theatre, whiskey, and my love of Benedict Cumberbatch.

Who would be your dream audience for this show?

Dysfunctional Theatre Company is an all inclusive theater group, and we love for everyone to be able to enjoy our productions, even if it doesn't seem like their 'cup of tea'.  That being said, literary types, fans of poetry and especially fans of Edna St. Vincent Millay, should really like what we have been able to accomplish.  We would love for members of The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society to come and see the work, and get their feedback as well.  Also, Benedict Cumberbatch, because he is dreamy.  

As a theatre artist, who are your biggest influences?

First off, all of my fellow members of Dysfunctional.  I have been very blessed and thankful to be able to work, create, laugh, drink, and evolve with all of them.  I came into the company as an opera singer, with not much theater background (other than musical theater), so to be able to watch what other actors do, without music, has truly been a privilege. Secondly, since like I said, I am classically trained, my biggest influences have been Natalie Dessay,  Kiri Te Kanawa, Teressa Stratas, and my mentor- Mark Rucker. 

What other shows are you planning to see at FRIGID?

For sure, Boogie of the Apes, because ummm, yes and Drag Queen Stole My Dress, because that has happened more than once to me.

What's else does 2014 hold for you?

Immediately after I Shall Forget You closes, I go into work on a new production of Mozart's The Impresario, which I am a co-writer and singer in.  It will be performed in English, at the Laurie
Beechman Theater.  For more information on that you can visit:  http://www.wendytaucherdanceoperatheater.com/home.html.  I also plan on stalking Benedict Cumberbatch, through many multi-media venues...

Lightning round

Favorite playwright? I don't really have one, but my favorite composer is Giuseppe Verdi.

Show you would love to be involved with? Any production at the Met, or on Broadway, or Off-Broadway… seriously any production. umm hire me?

Favorite venue? Under St. Marks.

Favorite actor? Benedict Cumberbatch.

Best theatre experience? Singing my all time favorite role, Violetta in La Traviata for Martina Arroyo.

Worst theatre experience? Performing a show for an audience smaller than your cast...*sigh*.

Person you’d most like to thank? Rob Brown, my fiance, for getting me involved with Dysfunctional Theatre, and Benedict Cumberbatch, for being perfect in every way.

For more information about I Shall Forget You Presently, visit the FRIGID New York website.