Tuesday, January 31, 2012

This Month's Title Photo

By Byrne Harrison

January has completely gotten away from me, thanks to the day job.  So it seems I'm only now giving credit where credit is due for the wonderful title photo from January.

The photo is by Isaiah Tanenbaum and is from Flux Theatre Enesemble's production Erin Browne's "Menders."

Corey and Aimes are new recruits mending the wall that guards their city from an unnamed threat. But as their teacher Drew tells them subversive tales of the world outside they begin to wonder at the real purpose of the wall, until an unexpected act of passion tears the menders apart. Inspired by Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”, Menders is a hauntingly lyrical look at what we’re walling out.

The production, presented by Flux Theatre Ensemble, will play a four-week engagement at The Gym at Judson (243 Thompson Street at Washington Square South), January 19-February 11; January 19, 20 & 21 at 8pm, January 22 & 24 at 7pm, January 27 & 28 at 8pm, February 1, 2, 3 & 4 at 8pm, February 5 at 3pm, February 7 at 7pm and February 9, 10 & 11 at 8pm. Tickets($18/$15 students) may be purchased online at www.fluxtheatre.org or by calling 866-811-4111.

"The Philanderer" - A Loving Exercise with a Gentle Touch

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Jacob J. Goldberg

The Pearl Theatre Company presents an enjoyable look at the battle of the sexes with a staging of Bernard Shaw's play The Philanderer, and if changing times and cultural sensibilities have dimmed some of its satiric edges, there is still a lot to be enjoyed in this production.

Leonard Charteris (Bradford Cover) is the philanderer of the title. When the play opens, in 1897 London, Charteris is happily proclaiming his love to Grace Tranfield (Rachel Botchan) and she to him. However Leonard's previous paramour, Julie Craven (the superb Karron Graves), is not about to give him up, storming into Grace's home and demanding Charteris return to her. Julia was originally happy with the open arrangement she and Leonard had. However now that Leonard has chosen Grace, Julia has decided she will accept nothing less than monogamous bliss with him.

In the midst of the arguing, Julia and Grace's fathers, Joseph Cuthbertson (Dominic Cuskern) and Colonel Daniel Craven (Dan Daily) arrive. Yet instead of relying on an elaborate lie or explanation Charteris instead confronts the situation head on, explaining that both women are in love with him, even the elder Cuthbertson points Charteris is "standing between two fathers".

The way Charteris handles things is in actuality an example of a new morality. At the time Shaw wrote this play England was feeling the influence of playwright Henrik Ibsen, who often wrote about strong woman, leading to talk about the equality of the sexes. Thus womanly woman or manly men are looked down upon by some of the characters in The Philanderer, i.e. those who would take advantage of their genders to get what they want. There's even an Ibsen Club through which all of the characters pass through. Charteris uses these concepts to extract himself from his current predicament by giving Julia to someone else, specifically one Dr. Percy Paramore (Chris Mixon) a bit of a quack, through quite earnest in his efforts and possessing an honest heart. Dr. Paramore has previously passed a medical death sentence on Colonel Craven, which allows Shaw to get in a few swipes at that profession, a frequent target of his. Helping Charteris in his efforts is Julia's sister Sylvia (Shalita Grant) who has so embraced the Ibsen philosophy she refuses to be addressed as a woman while at the club.

What Shaw also seems to be saying here is to be very careful what you wish for or you'll find yourself settling for far less than you should. Director Gus Kaikkonen nicely brings out the gentler points of the tale by letting things unfold in an unhurried manner, rather than in more farcical terms, and allowing the work to serve as a metaphor for people's perceptions as reflected in a changing world.

The production could, however benefit from a bit of cutting here and there, with some of the early scenes in the Ibsen Club going on a bit too long. Through it would be nice to see a list of rules of that govern the club, an institution that confounds Joseph Cuthbertson and Colonel Craven, members of an earlier generation, more than once.

Cover makes a great Charteris - a rapscallion and rogue, one honest to a fault ("perhaps I’m incapable of love") and ultimately content with his lot in life. He's also so disarming, with a humorous and self-deprecating quality about him, that he quickly endears himself to the audience.

Graves often steals the show as Julia, initially coming on like a blaze of fire. This is a wronged woman desperately in love, yet put in her place by Charteris and even more so by Grace, the latter giving her a non-nonsense lecture about the meaning and responsibilities of love. Julia also undergoes a major transformation during the course of the play, at points struggling to define herself in her search for happiness.

Grace also undergoes a series of emotional changes during the show, if not as markedly as Julia, moving from passion to reason and emotion to intellect. Botchan making the character a complex force to be reckoned with and who, like Julia, struggles to balance what she wants with what she believes is expected of her.

Cuskern and Daily work fine as the blustering fathers, with Daily doing a series of comical slow burns when he learns the true extent of his medical situation. Mixon is nicely amiable as the sad sack Dr. Paramore. Grant is okay though bit grating at times as Sylvia.

Scenic design by Jo Winiarski works very well, with the Pearl technical team doing a nice job with the different scene changes. The set of the Ibsen Club is especially good, offering a sort of overstuffed look at a bygone era.

This production of The Philanderer is quite a lot of fun, and if it is a bit dated, there's nothing wrong with examining the work with the benefit of hindsight.

The Philanderer
Featuring Bradford Cover (Leonard Charteris), Rachel Botchan (Grace Tranfield), Karron Graves (Julia Craven), Dominic Cuskern (Joseph Cuthbertson), Dan Daily (Colonel Daniel Craven), Chris Mixon (Dr. Percy Paramore), Shalita Grant (Sylvia Craven), Chris Richards (Page Boy and Butler)

Written by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Gus Kaikkonen
Scenic Design: Jo Winiarski
Costume Design: Sam Fleming
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Fight Direction: Rod Kinter
Production Stage Manager: Erin Albrecht

Presented by The Pearl Theatre Company
New York City Center, Stage II

131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-598-1212 or http://www.pearltheatre.org/
Closes: February 19, 2012
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 Minutes, with one intermission

"Instinct" - More than a bit of a misfire

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Gerry Goodstein

Instinct is a play with a lot of potential but sadly ends up feeling like a speed read through an epidemiology text, with playwright Matthew Maguire trying to hit way too many targets in this 85-minute work.

The story centers on husband and wife epidemiologists Mara (Kim Blair) and Daniel (Jeffrey Withers), and vaccinologists Lydia (Maggie Bofill) and Fermina (Amirah Vann), Lydia and Fermina also being long-time lovers. Mara, at age 32, is hearing her biological ticking and wants to have a baby, but Daniel, who likes things just the way they are, balks at the idea. He even talks about having a vasectomy to prevent any so-called accidents. Needless to say this does not sit well with Mara, who begins to look for other options. Meanwhile Lydia has continual problems opening up to Fermina even after 16 years together, leaving Fermina feeling somewhat alone and not above flirting with Daniel. Even though, as Daniel points out, he "plays for the other team". Lydia is also totally driven in regards to her work, often wanting to publish research before Fermina feels they're ready to do so.

This foursome is brought together when health authorities confirm the outbreak of a new strain of SARS, one which quickly becomes an epidemic. As more and more cases and fatalities are reported, the group races to find a vaccine while various personal issues continually bring them into conflict. It's also not long before questions of medical ethics are debated, such as the dilemma of giving placebos to control groups during this time of crisis, and whether to start making a possible vaccine available before clinical trials are completed. The matter of religion also comes into the mix, with Lydia being an atheist and Mara a churchgoer. With all these variables constantly emerging, it's not surprising the team often seems on the verge of being torn apart by internal strife.

Instinct might be a very interesting play if only Maguire wasn't trying to shoehorn in quite so much information, as well as not going far enough with the material he does include. It would have been more interesting for example, if Mara was more devoutly religious than she initially implies. In addition, this particular story thread is quickly dropped and never mentioned again, so one wonders why bring it up at all. Another problem is that the text makes too much use of technical jargon with not enough emphasis on the human factor. It's as if the performers were reading from a medical paper rather than presenting a play. It also might have worked better if Maguire had picked another virus than SARS, the subject of which has already been extensively covered, and used a disease with a bit more mystery to it.

Direction by Michael Kimmel is only so-so, his efforts pretty much suffocated by the excess and at times cloying dialogue. Not to mention a storyline that needs to move faster and be laced with more emotional impact. The cast tries their best but with so many diverse elements to cover, none of the characters really resonate and so it's difficult to care about their situations. The playwright also has a habit of dealing with absolutes in the story, such as with Mara and Daniel's arguments regarding having a baby, rather than looking at more open-ended possibilities. The set by Ben Kato is adequate, though his lighting effects used when the different cast members continually announce the latest status of the epidemic start to feel repetitious rather quickly.

Sad to say, there's not much to recommend in Instinct, a case where the playwright's own convictions and judgment seems to have failed him.

Featuring Kim Blair (Mara Carracci), Jeffrey Withers (Daniel Kempe), Maggie Bofill (Lydia Makarova), Amirah Vann (Fermina Santos).

Set and Light Design: Ben Kato
Costume Design: Christina Bullard
Music by Andrew Ingkavet
Stage Manager: Christine D'Amore
Associate Costume Design: Nina Bova
Technical Director; John Ralston
Assistant Stage manager; Michelle Heller
House Manager: Kathleen Longazel
Press Representation: O&M Co.
Presented by Creation Production Company

Lion Theatre
Theatre Rows Studios
410 West 42nd Street

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com

Running Time: 85 Minutes

Closes February 4, 2012

Universal Theatre Universally Entertaining

By Greg Waagner

“What in the world do you do on Cape Cod in the winter?”

It’s the question year-rounders hear more than any other, perhaps, and there are almost as many answers:   walk the beach in perfect solitude, read – or write – a great book, join a gym, take a class, learn to knit, fly south, design a garden, redecorate a room, create a festival of plays.

No really, that last one may not be the first thing that springs to everyone’s mind, but it was certainly the choice of playwright Myra Slotnick when she created Universal Theatre in the winter of 2008.  The community of the Outer Cape couldn’t be luckier that she did, because now “attend a presentation of terrific short plays” is now another option available to Cape Codders when winter blows into town.

Playwrights submit short plays, and if they are selected, must be cast, directed, and rehearsed before arriving on Thursday of the festival weekend.   One day’s rehearsal is all festival participants have in which to get familiar with the black box space on the first floor of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown before the weekend’s three performances.   Minimal are the sets of these shows, a table and maybe a couple of chairs.  The audience relies on the actors and their scripts to fuel imaginations and stir emotions in plays that last only moments.  The result, of course, is pure theatre magic.

From over three hundred submissions, eight plays were selected for UT 2012.

As Colonel Meredith Eastwood Floats in Space by Alex Dremann, was directed by Robert Locke, featuring Andrea Alton as the title character.  Alton as the spacey Colonel Eastwood is delightful as she sits at a desk, dictating a rambling log detailing her experiments and observations regarding the 86 gram gerbil, Horatio.  Her focus also seemingly untethered by the weightlessness of space, she wonders if the real experiment on the spaceship isn’t the (she hopes) burgeoning romance between her and Leiutenant Jake, her fellow astronaut.  A fun bit of stage craft had three other (sadly uncredited) performers onstage behind Alton, all clad in black with black veils and gloves – let’s call them the Zero Gravity Players – who simulated deep space conditions by animating Colonel Meredith’s lovely locks and unattended pen, as well as the now-sadly-deceased gerbil family of the intrepid Horatio, whose tiny corpses float about the cabin.

30 Love by Terry McFadden, directed by Steven McElroy, reinvents divorce negotiations as sport between a wife and husband, as portrayed by Jamie Heinlein and Nicholas Wuehrmann.  Clipped tones, short refusals and rapid-fire exchanges get them volleying back and forth through the business of who gets the house and who gets the cottage and who gets which car and finds them reviewing their history together revealing - first to the audience and then to each other - the fondness that lingers still between them.   Heinlein and Wuehrmann work well together, fresh and believable, as a couple whose love match remains undecided.

Birdie by Jyl Lynn Felman was directed by Brian Carlson,  focuses on Jane MacDonald and Melissa Nussbaum Freeman as Selma and Marlene, a pair of New England widows who’ve found friendship together following the deaths of their  husbands.  Every day they share coffee and, often, a comfortable silence neither of their late spouses ever appreciated.  Selma – bitter like her coffee - sees herself as the stronger of the two, able to drink her coffee black, while the more-lighthearted Marlene needs milk to make it palatable and longs for a little bird to fill her life with color and song.   As Marlene begins humming and laughing and exploring life on her own terms, Selma realizes she must address this feathered threat to their uneven friendship, at first with ridicule and hinting threats like egg salad and then later by whatever means necessary.

Bluff by Tony Foster, was directed by Antony Raymond, with Jacqueline Raposo as Clarrisa and Dalane Mason as Rudy.  Rudy is plagued with insomnia, playing endless games of Solitaire to pass the night.   Insomnia is just a symptom of Rudy’s problem, as it turns out.   Clarrisa appears dressed in Rudy’s clothes and paddling a skateboard ship down the hallway out of the dark.   She describes the voyage from the bedroom vividly, her sentences making a playground of language.   Rudy, as Clarrisa says, has his crankypants on because of the insomnia, annoyed by her imagination, or her wordplay or perhaps her presence.   We aren’t sure, but it’s something to do with the secret behind his insomnia.  Rudy says she’s sleeping, so perhaps this is her dream, but in fact it might be his nightmare:  Is she leaving him?  Has she died?  Is she crazy?  Is he?  Clarrisa knows, but the answer is never revealed to the audience, only to Rudy himself. The secret matters only to them, though, as the poetry of the script and the engaging performances of these two actors are enough to lead the audience along to the play’s emotional pay-off, freeing theatre-goers to apply their own meanings as Clarissa paddles off into the night.

Cassandra’s Choice was directed by the author, Richard Ballon and starred Tom Smith as Frank, a gentleman who has come to the police station to file a Missing Persons report on a man whose name he does not know.   Frank knows the man only from regularly meeting him on his street while walking his dog, Cassandra, who liked the missing fellow in question.    Their connection, he insists, must’ve been a strong one, coming as it did in a technology society that devalues individuals by reducing “You” to “U” and makes a simple touch between two people such a rarity.  Here was a young man who paid attention, unlike so many of his peers who “panic when Old Ones speak” and Tom’s Smith’s Frank is quietly heart-broken to have found and then lost their passing connection.

A Shiny Pair of Complications, written by J. Stephen Brantley and directed by Roberto Cambeiro finds an excited and slightly frazzled Kevin (played by Wayne Henry) on his wedding day, riding herd on the caterers and florists via cellphone while teaching his dad, Tom (played by Marc Castle) about cufflinks, which he explains are some of the complications that come of having money and only part of the perfection that’s expected of a gay wedding.  As they get ready, it’s clear their relationship is a little uneasy, balancing long-suffering gay son against long-baffled straight dad, each one a sort of shiny complication in the other’s life.  Henry and Castle reveal a father and son who find a sort of comfort in their perennial unease and remind us that you don’t have to understand someone to love them.

Surprise by Mark Harvey Levine was directed by Patrick Falco.  Peter (Brian Carlson) has brought Whitney (Braunwyn Jackett) to the restaurant he always brings girlfriends to when they’re going to break up with him.  Whitney is absolutely exasperated with Peter’s talent as a “two minute psychic” – he’s not psychic enough to save people or make a lot of money, only psychic enough to annoyingly finish every sentence she utters and she can’t stand another minute.  Meanwhile, Esther the waitress (Tia Scalcione) has seen these break-ups before and might know Peter better than Whitney.  She knows Peter well enough to bring him cornflakes, his break-up-in-progress comfort food, for example.  In celebration of the truth that hardly anyone pays attention to waitstaff, semi-psychic Peter couldn’t be more completely shocked to discover that she’s in love with him.

Cat & Dick was written by Andrea Alton (AKA, Colonel Meredith Eastwood) and was directed by Mark Finley.  Our title characters - an unhappy trust fund baby and an unemployed obituary writer - meet on a ledge outside the Employment Office.  She wants to end it all (this ledge comes highly recommended by others in her family) and he just wants her job.  Great laughter ensues.  Elizabeth Bell and Allen Warnock are smart and funny in this exploration of what leads one out onto the ledge.

Hearty applause is earned by everyone in this festival, with perhaps an extra hoot and holler to Stage Manager Amy Germain and Tech Director Robb Yates, and bouquets to Myra Slotnick for curating such a terrific show…and for giving us something wonderful to do in the winter.

It’s not too early to make your reservations for the third weekend of January 2013 – Myra and another amazing array of theatre talent will surely be on hand to make magic again at the UU Meeting House in Provincetown.

Review - "Speak Up Connie"

By Rob Hartmann

Actress and writer Cindy Cheung's solo show, SPEAK UP CONNIE, is hilarious, thought-provoking and touching. The sold-out run at Stage Left Studio has been extended for five more performances in February (see production details below.)

Ms. Cheung's material is drawn from the usual topics one might see in a performer's solo turn: growing up, working in show business, and so on. SPEAK UP CONNIE stands apart from other shows in this genre - the stories are told with sharp and telling detail (she lists the words which describe her Los Angeles childhood as "Disney, piano, cul de sac, swimming, and Olivia Newton-John." That says it all.)

The evening's arc weaves several disparate narratives together in a way that is unpredictable yet satisfying: being a "good Chinese girl" (her mother explains away her own temper - "That's my Korean side!"); transitioning from math major to actress; her complicated relationship with her mother. Ms. Cheung brings a open-hearted humor to her description of the many death-by-a-thousand-cuts incidents of conscious and unconscious racism that she has encountered. No matter what your background, you will find yourself thinking, yes, absolutely! as Ms. Cheung homes in on the universal nature of the painful awkwardness present in so many human interactions.

Ms. Cheung has worked in theater (NAATCO's The Seagull), television (three flavors of Law & Order, Sex and the City) as well as movies - she hilariously recounts her mother's willingness to harangue strangers everywhere when Cheung landed a leading role in Lady in the Water. Standing in line: "Have you heard of M. Night Shyamalan…?" Cheung uses every instrument in the actor's toolkit to fully inhabit the stage - she deftly conjures up all the other characters through her witty vocal mimicry and natural comedienne's elastic physicality. In one anecdote, when her mother is madly videoing her while she sings in a piano bar, you'd swear the stage is occupied by more than one person.

Much credit for the evening's structure and look naturally must go to the director, BD Wong. Perhaps best known as an actor (Oz, Law & Order: SVU, M. Butterfly), Mr. Wong is also a published author, and, as this show demonstrates, a resourceful and imaginative director. (The program notes that "Choreography, lighting, sound, projection & graphic design also by BD Wong… thanks, BD") Mr. Wong and Ms. Cheung make good use of Stage Left Studio's intimate stage, aided by Ellen Rosenburg’s subtle but effective lighting. The show incorporates smart sound design, video, and a few humorous original tunes which Ms. Cheung sings while accompanying herself on the ukulele. (That’s right. The ukulele. And it’s swell.)

Sometimes the genre of the solo show can feel like a platform for self-aggrandizement or a substitute for therapy. SPEAK UP CONNIE feels like a play ­ well constructed, thematically sound – smartly delivered by an immensely engaging performer.

The show's title refers to both Cheung's natural don't-rock-the-boat instincts, and this typical exchange when she introduces herself: "Hi, I'm Cindy Cheung." "Hi, Connie!" After this show, you won't forget the name "Cindy Cheung." And you’ll want to grab this opportunity to see her rock the boat and speak her mind.

Rob Hartmann is a composer and writer based in New York City.

Written and performed by Cindy Cheung
With original music and lyrics by Cindy Cheung
Directed by BD Wong

A comedy about getting a word in edgewise.

February 5, 7-8, 12 & 15 @ 7:30pm
Running time 75 mins

$20 admission ($2 ticketing surcharge will be added.)

Stage Left Studio
214 W 30th St
6th Floor
(between 7th Ave & 8th Ave)

Divine Intervention – Tony-winning "Hairspray" Can’t Stop the Beat in Northern Virginia

Review by Mark A. Newman

Baltimore is reborn with newfound glee (allusion intended) on the stage of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., with the rollicking new production of Hairspray, a show that threatens to literally bring down the house. I was doubtful when Signature announced it was mounting this musical ode to John Waters’ 1988 film namely because there was so much dancing. While the other shows at this venue have been great, if not phenomenal, none of them has ever really had a lot of dancing. Until now.

The choreography by Karma and Brianne Camp was delightful but the group of actor/singer/dancers who pulled off the moves deserve accolade after accolade. As previously mentioned, when the entire cast was busting a move on the Singature’s thrust stage, the audience could not stop the beat either as everyone felt the vibrations from the stage reminiscent of  the “Sensurround” effect touted when the 1970s disaster movie Earthquake played in theaters. But this shaking, rattling, and rolling was a lot more fun. Plus, no Charlton Heston.

I don’t feel compelled to recount the plot since anyone who reads these blogs is already in the know about storylines to major musicals. However, I will say that the racial inequality aspect of the storyline—the raison d’etre for the show’s plucky hero, Tracy Turnblad—seems even more poignant in 2012 when the U.S. is in the midst of our first black president’s first term. I actually wondered what these fictional characters would have thought of our country’s progress from the show’s 1962 setting.

As portrayed by Carolyn Cole, this Tracy has a sweetness, cuteness, and awkwardness that can only be described with one word: adorable! Hairspray is to Tracy Turnblad as Les Miserables is to Jean Valjean; the show rests on her petite shoulders. A lackluster Tracy will definitely mean a lackluster Hairspray. Fortunately Cole will make you forget all about the previous Tracys you may have seen in the past. Her singing and dancing abilities are without compare and her cuteness makes her a very believable romantic interest for the show’s Elvis wannabe, Link Larkin. That wasn’t necessarily the case for some other Tracys.

As Link, Patrick Thomas Cragin could be considered an atypical choice. While you could see why Tracy would swoon for him with his youthful swagger and boyish looks, it may be less obvious why the girls of Baltimore would. While not unattractive, Cragin has a look that is, well, more subjective. Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton would likely say when informed of Tracy’s crush, “Yeah, if that’s your type.” And speaking of Penny, Lauren Williams’ portrayal of this awkward nerdy girl is goofy, odd, and nothing short of awesome.

If Tracy carries the show, then the object of Penny’s desires, Seaweed J. Stubbs played by James Hayden Rodriguez, is the unabashed scene stealer. The role is a showcase for whoever plays it; had the role existed in the 30s or 40s it would’ve been ideal for a young Sammy Davis, Jr. But Rodriguez lights up the stage—especially in “Run and Tell That.” Sammy would be proud.

Aside from Tracy, the other two divas are Motormouth Maybelle portrayed by Nova Y. Payton and Edna Turnblad portrayed by D.C. radio and TV personality Robert Aubry Davis. Like the show’s boot-scooting cast, Payton brings down the house; at the end of the only serious song in the show—Motormouth’s ode to hard times, “I Know Where I’ve Been”—she got applause, cheers, and a standing ovation from an admiring audience, and it was much deserved. It was one of those goosebump-inducing moments so rare in the theatre.

And then there’s Edna. Played on Broadway by the great Harvey Fierstein and in the film by John Travolta, Davis has some pretty big orthopedic shoes to fill. It should be noted that Davis is not an actor. Unfortunately that is evident in his uncomfortable portrayal of the show’s “biggest” character. Davis should be given props for being game for the role but his Edna had the same flailing reaction throughout and reminded me of those “womanless weddings” rural communities would perform as fundraisers where the city fathers and sons would dress up as women to the delight of their wives/sisters/constituents. Edna’s reservations about Tracy’s desire to be on TV and then to make herself the voice of a local social movement seem to echo Davis’ own reticence about taking this over-the-top role.

But wait, there are more divas: Amber Von Tussle is Tracy’s rival for virtually everything, and her mother Velma Von Tussle is the producer of the Corny Collins Show, the American Bandstandish dance program that figures prominently in the show. Erin Driscoll’s Amber is a classic “mean girl” and she plays her with a snappy attitude and oozes contempt…in a good way. As her mom, Sherri L. Edelen’s Velma is self-entitled, underhanded nitwit who will stop at nothing to make sure Amber is the star attraction. Oh, and she’s racist. And a control freak. Instead of a soccer mom she’s a sock hop mom…from hell. Edelen plays her with just the right amount of vitriol and venom to inspire fear in those around her.

The only person who did mess with Velma was Corny Collins himself who, like Tracy, was ready to take his show into the brave new world of integration. Filling Corny’s plaid suit was Stephen Gregory Smith whose mixture of smarm and integrity was an interesting balancing act but Smith seemed comfortable as a makeshift ringmaster for the nutty antics going on around him; Corny is actually as close to normal as any character in the show.
While the ensemble was exceptional—the dancing was easily as good as any I’ve seen on the Great White Way—I need to single out one supporting player whose expressive face and dancing eyebrows deserve an award of their own. Chorus member Nick Hovesepian resembles the living caricature of Dick York from the opening of the Bewitched TV series. He looks nothing like York—he actually looks like the love child of Jim Carrey and Roddy McDowall—but with his slicked-back hair, sugar bowl ears, and a rubber face, he would fit right in with the antics at the Stevens home and his reactions always inspired a chuckle.

The sets by Daniel Conway were ideal for the era and the Signature’s limited space and brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “shabby chic.” However, the theater space, which has worked so well in the past, seemed to encumber the production during key scenes. For example, when the “nicest kids you know” were all dancing their hearts out on the Corny Collins Show, Edna, Penny, and Wilbur were watching on TV. The TV watchers were situated at the rear of the stage and not easily visible to a good portion of the audience. Having the secondary scene on a raised platform or even in the front would’ve solved this problem but it certainly didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the show. Colin K. Bill’s lighting was spot on (no pun intended), but Kathleen Geldard’s costumes were a bit of a letdown, especially in the big reveal after Tracy and Edna’s makeovers. When they stepped out from backstage, their matching dresses were pretty plain, the colors blended in too easily with what the rest of the cast was wearing, thus they didn’t stand out and take center stage as they should.   

Make no mistake, Signature Theatre’s Hairspray will move you. And when the entire cast is rocking and rolling onstage in the show’s uproarious finale of “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” you might actually need a seatbelt!

Side Note: “Good Morning Baltimore” has got to be one of the best opening numbers written for a Broadway musical in the last 20 years. Why the city of Baltimore hasn’t adopted it as its official song is a mystery to me…maybe it’s the lyrics about rats, bums, and the flasher? At least the rats dance and the bum and flasher are friendly.
Follow Mark on twitter at MarkNYC64.

Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206

Featuring: Robert Aubry Davis (Edna Turnblad) Carolyn Cole (Tracy Turnblad), Nova Y. Payton (Motormouth Mable), Sherri L. Edelen (Velma Von Tussle), Patrick Thomas Cragin (Link Larkin), Harry A. Winter (Wilbur Turnblad), Erin Driscoll (Amber Von Tussle), James Hayden Rodriguez (Seaweed), Stephen Gregory Smith (Corny Collins), and Lauren Williams (Penny Pingleton), Jennifer Cameron, Matthew Conner, Parker Drown, Jamie Eacker, Nick Hovsepian, Brandi Knox, Sean-Maurice Lynch, Kirstin Riegler, Nickolas Vaughan, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Matthew Wojtal, and Stephen Scott Wormley.

Based on the 1988 film Hairspray by John Waters

Book: Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics: Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Director: Eric Schaeffer
Scenic Design: Daniel Conway
Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Sound Design: Matt Rowe
Music Directon: Jon Kalbfleisch
Choreography: Karma Camp and Brianne Camp

Tickets: 703-820-9771; ticketmaster: 703-573-SEAT tickets@signature-theatre.org

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review - "Advance Man" (Gideon Productions)

By Byrne Harrison
Photo by Deborah Alexander

In today's world, where instant gratification is the norm, it is deliciously frustrating to know that there are some things you just have to wait for.  That anticipation and longing makes your appetite sharper and it's more exciting when the day finally arrives.  That's why I'm so eager to see the next two parts of Mac Rogers's new sci-fi series The Honeycomb Trilogy.  If the first play in the series, Advance Man, is any indication, Rogers has written another sci-fi hit (his earlier unrelated sci-fi play, Universal Robots, is one that I still rave about whenever the opportunity arises... like now).

Rogers strength (and it's one the horribly named SyFy channel could stand to learn for their movies) is that he spends time creating believable characters, and despite the sci-fi plot, he creates situations that ground the play in reality.  Cardboard characters are boring, no matter how good the special effects are.  Advance Man, at its heart, is a story about family.  First is the biological family of astronaut Bill (Sean Williams), his wife Amelia (Kristen Vaughan), and their children Ronnie (Becky Byers) and Abbie (David Rosenblatt).  It's also about the created family of Bill's team of astronauts, three years after their mission to Mars - Bill, Raf (Abraham Makany), Valerie (Shaun Bennet Wilson), Belinda (Rebecca Comtois) and Conor (Jason Howard).  And like all families, these two families have issues, and it's these issues that breathe life into these characters and fuel Advance Man.  Bill may be having an affair.  Conor was seriously hurt on the mission to Mars and is a permanent house guest of Bill and Amelia.  Amelia and Ronnie are at each other's throats in the way only mothers and daughters can be.  Abbie is an awkward dreamer.  And Raf seems to be faltering on his part of the mission.

What mission, you ask?  Well, that's where the story gets fun. Trust that the less you know, the more you'll enjoy the clever way Rogers teases the story out a little bit at a time, never revealing too much, until things start cascading toward the climax of the play.  Then it's like cresting the highest point of a roller coaster.  You see the huge drop ahead of you, and you know that things are going to get very fast and very scary.

The ensemble is strong in Advance Man, and features some standout performances.  Sean Williams, whose Bill is a modern Ward Cleaver with a touch of Jim Jones thrown in, is exceptional.  Becky Byers is outstanding as the rebellious daughter, Ronnie, and her scenes with Kristen Vaughan crackle with tension.  Jason Howard (who was amazing in Universal Robots) does a great job with the difficult, often barely verbal role of Conor.  David Rosenblatt and Becky Byers make convincing siblings - some of the best scenes involve them busting each other's chops or plotting together (and like real siblings, this even happens simultaneously).

It's always nice to see sci-fi wrested from movies and TV and brought back to the stage.  This is especially true when it is in the hands of talented artists like Mac Rogers and director Jordana Williams.  By relying on the storytelling and the acting, they don't need to force in a lot of special effects, taking the risk that those effects won't work or will seem shoddy to the audience.  When it comes to stoking the audience's imagination, less is often more.  Rogers and Williams hit that balance nicely.

The Honeycomb Trilogy will continue with Blast Radius (March 29-April 15) and Sovereign (June 14-July 1).

Advance Man
By Mac Rogers
Directed by Jordana Williams
Stage Manager: Devan Elise Hibbard
Set Design: Sandy Yaklin
Lighting Design: Sarah Lurie
Sound Design: Jeanne E. Travis
Costume Design: Amanda Jenks
Props Design: Stephanie Cox-Williams
Fight Choreography/Head Carpenter: Joe Mathers
Photography: Deborah Alexander Photography
Publicity Design: Pete Boisvert
Art: Tsai Wan-Jin
Assistant Set Design: Deanne Guttenplan
Technical Director: Ashanti Ziths
Set Crew: Sandra Alexander, Deanne Guttenplan, Nancy Mendelson, Jennifer Gordon Thomas, Sean Williams, Morey Yaklin, Lanie Zipoy

The Secret Theatre
4402 23rd St
Long Island City

Friday, January 20, 2012

"It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later" - A Mesmerizing Journey of Memory

By Judd Hollander

If Daniel Kitson is not an actor, as he notes in the beginning of his one-man show It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later - now having its American premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn - he is definitely a master storyteller, offering an engaging, involving and enthusiastic approach to his tale of two very different individuals in a journey toward love, death and everything in between.

The two people in question are William Rivington and Karen Carpenter, Kitson examining specific moments in their lives, including the time Karen broke her nose racing a bike down a hill at the age of eight, and a rather abrupt blind date for William at age 39. This is not a love story about William and Karen; the two meeting only once, and then only quite briefly. But the play definitely is, as Kitson explains, "a story about love". Other moments examined during this journey include marriage, infidelity, death of loved ones and the beginning of relationships; including a lifelong friendship which began in a graveyard. Kitson moves between these various situations via a stage filled with a dangling forest of lights, each one representing a specific instant in either Karen or William's life.

What makes the play come alive, and William and Karen's stories so interesting, is Kitson's easygoing and congenial method in imparting these two tales. His disarming manner easily drawing the audience into the action and making every situation feel quite real. Kitson also tells the story as an impartial narrator, never assuming the personas of the various characters he speaks about - several in addition to William and Karen. In a nice touch, Kitson also frequently breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience when he flubs a line, if a technical issue emerges (i.e. a light not working) or while explaining some terminology which may not be familiar to American audiences - some of the terms in question being "eggy bread" (French toast) and "ladybird" (ladybug). The show originally premiered at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival and later appeared at London's National Theatre.

It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later also has a powerful circular finality to it with Karen and Richard's lives going in opposite directions. One of the story threads beginning at the moment of death and going backwards; the other starting shortly before birth and moving forward. This method offers poignancy on both ends of the chorological spectrum. In one case those watching know what has already happened as aged cynicism is replaced by dreams of the future; while in the other, the person gains wisdom with experience which they then pass on to the next generation and which also gets passed back to them. An ongoing mention of what is "normal" is used to highlight that idea in the latter timeline.

The work is nicely paced throughout, with flashes of humor and insight mixed in with the ebbs and flows of various emotions, the different moments moving with almost a fluidic feeling from one situation to the next. It also helps that, thanks to Kitson's presentation and delivery, the audience quickly becomes quite willing to follow him wherever the stories lead.

It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later
Written and performed by Daniel Kitson
Designers: Susannah Henry and Daniel Kitson
Technical Director: Jon Meggat
Lighting Designer: Rob Pell-Walpole and Daniel Kitson

Presented by St. Ann's Warehouse
38 Water Street

Tickets: 718-254-8779, 866-811-4111 or www.stannswarehouse.org

Running time: 1 Hour, 40 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: January 29, 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Three Performances Left - "Honor & Fidelity: The Ballad of a Borinqueneer"

Puerto Rico-themed One Woman Show plays limited engagement in NYC
Honor & Fidelity: The Ballad of a Borinqueneer
January 7th – 21st at The Drilling Company
with live classical guitar music and Korean War-era themes.

“So vibrant, so passionate and so complete in love and remembrance. Tanya Perez is captivating and vivacious in her one woman show… enough cannot be said about this offering except that you make it a point to share in this journey you will not regret.”
-Tracey Paleo, LA Theatre Review

Honor & Fidelity: The Ballad of a Borinqueneer, a multi-character solo show written and performed by stage and screen professional Tanya Perez, will be presented during a three-week limited engagement in NYC at the Drilling Company Stage, January 7th-21st.

Honor and Fidelity: The Ballad of a Borinqueneer is a story about a woman’s journey to find her cultural identity by unraveling the history of her family’s past. Set in modern day at the San Juan boarding gate in New York’s JFK airport, the one woman play is a moving story accented with both live music performed by classical guitarist Carlos Cuestas and recorded original music by Perez’s grandfather and Puerto Rican serviceman, “Borinqueneer” Gelin Colon.

“I started doing research into my family’s background,” says Perez, “and found an album that my grandfather produced that was full of all of these Puerto Rican love songs. It was a part of his life I never knew about. I found this whole love story between my grandparents.”

The Borinqueneers—the 65th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army—was an all-volunteer Puerto Rican regiment that participated in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War; whose motto was “Honor and Fidelity.” Perez’ grandfather was a member of the 65th.

The play was originally performed to sold-out audiences at both the Downtown Urban Theatre Festival at the historic Cherry Lane Theatre, The Hollywood Fringe Festival and Teatro La Tea’s ONE Festival in New York City.

Honor and Fidelity: The Ballad of a Borinqueneer is filled with humor and pathos about love, devotion to one’s country, and what it means to be Puerto Rican.

For more information about Honor and Fidelity, visit www.honorandfidelityshow.com.
All performances will be at the Drilling Company in Manhattan at 236 West 78th Street (btw Broadway & Amsterdam).
Further information on the Drilling Company is available at www.drillingcompany.org
Produced by The Drilling Company & Tanya Perez

Tickets are $12 and can be purchased here.

Show dates:
Saturday, January 7th at 8:30pm
Sunday, January 8th at 7pm
Thursday, January 12th at 8:30pm
Friday, January 13th at 8:30pm
Thursday, January 19th at 8:30pm
Friday, January 20th at 8:30pm
Saturday, January 21st at 8:30pm

TANYA PEREZ (playwright/actor) is a working actress whose career has spanned over New York; Los Angeles; and equity stages and film and television screens in between. Some of her credits include: ‘The Judas Tree’ with MultiStages, ‘Sonia Flew’ at CATF and Laguna Playhouse, ‘Anna in the Tropics’ at Seattle Reparatory and the Maltz Jupiter Theater, Staged Readings of ‘Yellow Eyes’ at Hartford Stage, and ’Sam’s Coming’ at New York Theatre Workshop. Her Film and Television credits include ‘Law & Order,’ ‘Mickey Mouse Club,’ ‘Take Out’ by Sean Baker (Independent Spirit Award Nominee, 2009), and Hal Hartley’s ‘The Girl from Monday’ (Sundance) and will be in the new ABC Family show ‘Jane by Design’ this January. Perez’s solo performances have been produced by and performed at Om Yoga, Dixon Place, and chez LaRoe. ‘Honor & Fidelity’ has been featured at the Downtown Urban Theater Festival in the Cherry Lane Theatre, Teatro La Tea’s ONE festival and the 2011 Hollywood Fringe Festival at the ARTworks Mainstage. Her webseries, ‘Itty P & DJ Model T’s Dat’s a RAP!,’was nominated for both Best Comedy and Best Actress in a Comedy at the 2011 ITV/StayTuned TV awards and is available online www.ittypdjmodelt.com.

LORCA PERESS (director) specializes in new works. She is Co-President of the League of Professional Theatre Women, Founder/Artistic Director of the multidisciplinary and multicultural MultiStages, and teaches at NYU Tisch Strasberg Studio and Strasberg Institute. Recent credits: Temple Of The Souls (MultiStages musical drama), Fengar Gael’s Morpho-Genesis (w/ Kathryn Lang, LPTW Fest, New World Stages), And Then I Went Inside (w/Obie Winner Kathleen Chalfant, LPTW Festival, Cherry Lane); Earl Robinson‘s The Lonesome Train (w/Ruby Dee and Sam Waterston, Riverside Church Lincoln Bicentennial); Jamuna Yvette Sirker’s Hell And High Water… (MultiStages). Upcoming: two Bruce Saylor Operas, The Image Maker (world premiere), My Kinsman Major Molineaux (Queens College, May 2012). Grants/Awards: 2 MCAFs from LMCC/ DOCA, Dramatists Guild Fund, La MaMa INKY, et al. Bennington College graduate; SDC.

CARLOS CUESTAS (classical guitar/cast) was born in Bogota, Colombia. Cuestas is an active teacher and performer, appearing regularly as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the NYC area, and is currently completing his Master’s Degree in Performance Practice with emphasis in nineteenth century music at CUNY’s Brooklyn College. Born in Bogota, Colombia, Carlos has performed in some of the most important venues of his native city such as the Teatro Colon with the Schola Cantorum from Basil, Auditorio Leon de Greiff, Sala Otto de Greiff, among others. In the United States, Mr. Cuestas has appeared in venues such as Avery Fisher Hall, CAMI Hall, Whitman Hall, and B.A.M. Carlos has collaborated in the stage world, playing in the production “Honor and Fidelity” by Tanya Perez which participated in the Cherry Lane Theater Festival in 2008 (NYC), and in The Missing Piece Theater in Burbank, C.A. He also provided music for Puerto Rico’s celebrated poet Miguel Algarin in the legendary Newyorican Poets Café in 2009. As a teacher, Mr. Cuestas has been a T.A. in the areas of theory, history, and guitar in his Alma Mater, Nyack College.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tonight at Industry-Bar - Marty Thomas Presents: Diva

Grammy nominated recording artist and Broadway performer, Marty Thomas (Xanadu, Secret Garden, Wicked) prepares to redefine the nightclub scene with his new act Marty Thomas Presents: Diva at the hottest spot in Hell's Kitchen. With Industry-Bar dominating every happy hour crowd of the week in the heart of the Theatre District, it only seemed fitting that the neighborhood destination finally brings the cabaret-style spotlight back center stage. Industry-Bar and Thomas are breathing life back into the doldrums and monotony of a Music-less Monday night.

Bob Pontarelli the proprietor of Industry-Bar describes the event: "The Divas night is a weekly salute to all the divas we know and love from film, recordings and video...from Madonna, Tina, and Aretha, to Gaga and Beyoncé...the list is endless! The centerpiece each week is a live tribute featuring the biggest, belting, show-stopping voices on Broadway. What's not to love?"

"Diva will hit home with the theatre crowd," Thomas explains. "It'll be a brand new show every week, featuring diva material - all the songs that fans like to hear, but in a new light. This is really a way to feature and celebrate some wonderful female talent."

Diva promises a return to glamour and the theatrics lost onto a culture starved for original performers, who sing live and regaled their adoring audiences in fabulous fashions. "It'll be more burlesque/cabaret/concert and less karaoke," elaborated Marty, who is not only the MC of the weekly Monday night event, but will be musically arranging and conceptualizing the varying themes. The girls, emerging starlets in their own rites are pop-songstresses Kelly King (Michael Bolton and Babyface), singer-actress Marissa Rosen (My Big Gay italian Wedding), and Anne Fraser Thomas (How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

"The girls will be working as a group, providing three-part harmonies," continued Thomas, "they will also be featured as solo artists." They will be performing some favorite popular standards, hits made famous by Whitney, Celine, Barbra, Mariah, Aretha and other divas throughout history.

Each week, the divas are joined by a guest act from the Broadway stage, recording or dance industry.  Past guests have included Orfeh, Ramona Keller, Leslie Kritzer, Sabra Johnson, Felicia Finley, Alysha Umphress, Carly Jibson, Rachel Potter, Celina Carvajal, Christine Pedi, Emma Hunton and many more.

Monday Jan. 16,  Rachelle Rak will grace the diva stage as special guest.  DIVA will be celebrating the release of her new video, "Snapshots", just one week before her new one woman show "I'm in" opens at Le Poisson Rouge.  The video will be debuted and Rachelle will perform some of her hits live.

Nicknamed “Sas”, Rachelle began her dance training at the age of 2 under the direction of her mother, Rosalene, at the Rosalene Kenneth Professional Dance Studio in Pittsburgh. Rachelle is very involved with the studio and teaches class on occasion, as well as serving as the school’s Executive Director. She has been labeled as a Triple Threat on Broadway for her immeasurable talent in dance, singing, and acting. Rachelle was presented with the award for outstanding achievement in the world of dance from Dance Educators of America. She has made a huge impact on the Broadway and Musical Theatre community. A few of her impressive credits include leading roles in: 

Catch Me If You Can, Cats, Starlight Express, West Side Story, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Fosse, Thou Shalt Not, Oklahoma!, The Look of Love, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Sessions, and An Evening at the Carlyle 

She has performed in countless concerts and productions at New York City’s Town Hall, and has been a crowd favorite time and again in many Encores Productions. Her talent doesn’t cease at the stage. She can be found on screen in commercials for eBay, and played a reoccurring role on the soap opera series “Another World” as well as a feuture in the documentry "Every Little Step". You can find her performing on the 1999 seasons of the Rosie O’Donnell Show and the Jay Leno Show. She is also the spoke’s person for Pittsburgh Brewing Co’s I C Light, and has had the honor of singing the National Anthem at an Orlando Magic NBA Basketball Game. Rachelle has the pleasure of serving as a teacher and judge for the L.A. Dance Explosion, the National Finals of Access Broadway, and DEA competitions. 

Rachelle has also lent her talents to many jobs behind the scenes, including the position of Dance Captain for Starlight Express America, Assistant Choreographer to critically acclaimed On The Twentieth Century, choreographing the Fringe Festival show, "VOTE" , "Evening at the Carlyle", and Additional Choreography for "Sessions". In 1993, she was voted 2nd best performer in a musical in Europe. She has had a substantial contribution to the worlds of musical theatre and dance and is revered as one of Broadway’s most talented performers.

Rak can be seen in her new one woman show I'M IN, an intimate look at the path of a Broadway starlet.  Shows are Sunday, January 22nd at 7:00 PM, and Monday, January 23rd at 10:30 PM at Le Poisson Rouge, 165 Bleecker Street.  Tickets are $40 for premium seating (limited availability) $30 for reserved seating and $25 for general admission.  Please visit the Le Poisson Rouge website to purchase tickets lepoissonrouge.com.  Reservations recommended, running time is 55 minutes.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Showstopping Broadway dancer Rachelle Rak talks about life, her one-woman show, getting her start in Pittsburgh, taking notes from Gwen Verdon, and why she’s called “Sas”

By Rob Hartmann

I spoke to Rachelle Rak by phone. She’s having a busy month: she premieres a new video at Marty Thomas Presents: Diva at Industry Bar on January 16th, and her one-woman show, I’M IN, runs January 22nd and 23rd at Le Poisson Rouge. (Complete details below.) On top of all that, she just performed in a reading of Flashdance the Musical.

ROB HARTMANN: So how did Flashdance go?

RACHELLE RAK: It went well. This is one of the final readings – I ‘ve done a couple table readings where we read Act One and they were writing new songs. Sergio Trujillo – this is, I think, his directorial and choreographic debut - he’s choreographed so many things [Jersey Boys, Addams Family, Memphis, Next to Normal…] He has his own take on the story, because he’s a dancer. It was a lot of fun – Gavin Creel plays Nick, and Emily Padgett played Alex. A lot of talented people were in the room, and the composer, Robbie Roth, wrote some great songs. It was a backer’s audition – we did four presentations, so I am burnt. My character is Tess – she’s an old stripper – just like me [laughs.] It’s fun to be kind of sassy – I mean, I get to sing “I Love Rock and Roll” in a club – it couldn’t get better than that. If it’s any way to end my career, you know, in a dancing way, I’m in.

I’m really grateful – Sergio called me out of the blue and said, “I want you to read this part, Tess” – and they keep on keeping me, so I’m hoping I’m doing something right. But there’s no guarantee, as you know, in show business. You could be written off right before they come to New York – so I do not marry anything anymore after A Chorus Line, that’s for sure. But who doesn’t want to dance in Flashdance? Like – “What a feeling--!” [Laughs] Flashdance was a lot of fun – it’s high stakes. You only have 29 hours [to rehearse an Equity reading.] Sergio did a dance lab – they have this new thing called a “dance lab” where he could choreograph a prologue and opening number. Because, for the producers, you don’t want to just come out and say – like, the last reading, he came out and said, “Well, there’ll be dancing.” And for people who aren’t dancers or who aren’t in musical-land, they need to see something. So he created this entire prologue with street dancers – it was great, I just sat there cheering the dancers on. And then we went to the story. The story is solid and, you know, who doesn’t want to root for the working man, especially now? It has that heart. And, I’m from Pittsburgh – hello! So every time they said “steel mill” or “sahside” [that’s ‘southside’ in a Pittsburgh “Yinzer” accent – RH] I just got all tingly, it’s ridiculous. [Laughs]

RH: I know that your mother ran a dance school in Pittsburgh, is that right?

RR: She actually just retired. 58 years she ran a dance school. Rosalene Kenneth is her name. 58 years. It’s unbelievable. She taught me everything. I actually went into the business right from her school. The national casting tour of Cats was coming through Pittsburgh and auditioning. I was a senior in high school. I wanted to just go to the audition, it was a big deal just to go. And so I went, for practice. At the time, I wasn’t set on any college – I didn’t know what I would be doing. You know, then it was the 80s, everyone didn’t go to college for musical theater. It was very different. And for whatever reason, they picked me. And I remember I got an offer a few days later to go out on the road.

I didn’t know what it was to “swing” a show [understudy multiple roles]. My mother thought that the salary was for the month – when they said, “You’ll make $900 plus per diem” or $700 or whatever it was, who knows, she said to me, “You must be confused, that’s for the month.” So we were kind of clueless, naïve – I was a teenager. I had to get permission to leave my senior year of high school to go do Cats, and they gave me a personal day at Cats to graduate. And the people on the road, they were so good to me, but I’m sure they were thinking, “Out of all the people in New York City, they had to go to Pittsburgh and pull a girl out of high school?” You know, like – really? So there I was. And that’s how it started.

And then I paid my dues after. You know, you’re like, “Oh! This is show business.” I did a terrible tour of West Side Story where I was on a bus in Europe eight hours a day and I ate Toblerone. I came back and I think I weighed – I weighed in at not my Cats weight, let’s just say.

RH: And your Broadway debut was when you came in to Cats on Broadway for a few months.

RR: That was it, ’96. I mean it took all those years to get a Broadway debut. And that was three months in for Marlène Danielle, who had been in a car accident. And she was fine, but she was taking a leave of absence. So that was my debut. 1996. Crazy.

And then, after I went on the road with Smokey Joe’s Café, I auditioned in L.A. for Fosse. I remember this specifically, because it was, like, randomly flying from the road, wherever I was in Smokey Joe’s, to L.A. to make sure I was there for this audition. And I didn’t wear black like everyone else, I wore red. I was so f****** clueless for some reason. But then when I went to the callback, I made sure I was in blllack. And they offered me a swing position to come into Broadway. And, I will say this: I said no. Because I knew the heartache that goes with swinging. People thought I was nuts. I remember my mom saying, “Are you sure? This is Fosse. This is the opportunity to be a Fosse dancer.” She wasn’t sure about saying no. I just remember saying, I will be so miserable standing on the sidelines. I will be miserable. And I couldn’t do it. Better to not be there, than to be terribly miserable. For whatever reason, my fate changed the next day, and they said, “We’ve made a spot for you onstage.” That was it.

I talk about Fosse because it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. When it started off, I was in three numbers. Three numbers. “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” “Big Spender” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.” It took me months on the sidelines learning Fosse style. And then, for some reason, Gwen Verdon had a day in Toronto when she wanted anyone that knew any understudy stuff – anything that they knew, she wanted to see it. And I did “I Gotcha” for the first time for her. It planted a seed of some sort – and when the opportunity came about [to take over that number], she gave it to me. The fact that I get to say, Gwen Verdon gave me notes – that is a big part of my life as a dancer. I really am grateful for all of it. Especially for starting out with Fosse.

[You can see Rachelle Rak’s electrifying performance of “I Gotcha” on the 2002 DVD of Fosse.]

And then things seemed to keep coming. But people told me, that were older, “You know, Rachelle, it’s not always going to be this way.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” You know, just cocky. “Well, that’s your story, sweetie.” Hello? And then – all of a sudden – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels closed, A Chorus Line didn’t hire me, and I couldn’t f****** get a job. I mean, I couldn’t get anything. And it was like ten years straight. You know, when you’re on a good ten year run, you’re thinking, “This is just gonna last and last.” I can laugh now. I was crying a lot then. [Laughs] It’s all funny now.

RH: The Chorus Line  movie [Every Little Step, the documentary about the casting of the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line]  was just heartrending in so many ways. [Ms. Rak makes it to the finals for the role of Sheila, but is not cast.]

RR: Tell me your thoughts on seeing that.

RH: I found it really difficult because knowing so many performers and what they have to go through, I almost couldn’t stand to watch it.

RR: Me too. [Laughs] It stirred up something in you.

RH: For my friends who are not in theater, they understood a little bit more about what people go through on a daily basis. So it was good for that. But for everybody in theater, it’s like a dagger in the heart.

RR: I have a friend, my old dance partner from growing up, she’s still one of my dearest friends, she’s a nurse anesthetist. When she saw it – and this is a twenty year friendship – she said, “I finally get it. I get it.” And yes, we sometimes are like [melodramatic voice] “Oh, you have no idea what we go through,” but when you really see it on the screen, and you see the vulnerability -- ? You are just waiting for someone to say you’re good enough. Constantly. Waiting for them to pick you. And to be perfectly honest, I have had it with that. I will go in, I will be me, I will give you one thousand percent of my being, but if you don’t pick me in the end, it’s not because I’m not good enough. That lesson was learned. You know when you learn a lesson and you’re like, “That one’s done”? It goes for me, because I’m the only person I can speak for – but when you do the work, and you go in and you’re prepared and you give them your all, that’s all you can do. But at the time, then, I was not the Rachelle I am now. I was broken down. It creates doubt and fear  - “Why can’t you do what you did?” [In the documentary, at the callback she is asked to “do what you did last time” … which was eight months earlier.]  The s*** that comes up when someone asks you to repeat a day – it would be like me saying, “Can you repeat what you did today?” Like – who can remember?

That was a time when I just wanted to get out of town. I didn’t want to see anyone. By the time the movie came out, I had kind of healed. The best part of that whole movie was the gypsies all around, on Facebook or to my e-mail, saying “Sas, you spoke for all of us. Finally somebody spoke up and said, no, this isn’t good enough. I need to know now.” [in the film, she asks the production team for their decision on the spot.] For some people, doing that made them very uncomfortable. Some people, I’m sure, were thinking, “Who does she think she is?” But to have the ability, after eight months of giving everything, to say, “I’m gonna need an answer” – as actors, we’re so used to backing down and waiting, and nobody ever calls you. If you didn’t get something, they don’t call you. You just went in and gave your entire soul, and that’s it. You just wait. We get so numb.

RH: The power imbalance. That’s what makes that very hard to watch.

RR: I fell in love with the idea of being that part. And when that didn’t happen, it was a like a breakup that you don’t know if you’ll recover from. It was like a love affair – that was how I felt about it at the time. [joking, back to melodramatic voice] But bit by bit I’ve pulled myself back together… and the next thing you know, she’s on a pole in Flashdance.

But then I did an off-Broadway show called Sessions which completely rebuilt my confidence. A little 72 seat house on the Lower East Side – I got to do monologues. Doing a show in a little space, without the elaborate sets or the luxury – it makes you better. I got better. I highly recommend it. After that, I choreographed a musical called VOTE! in the Fringe Festival. I was on survival mode for five years.

The best thing about my whole career is that I have been on the ground floor of all these musicals from the first day of rehearsal – the first reading – and you get to see it happen. Good or bad. You get to see it happen – you see the writers let go of their songs, you get to see the choreographer let go of an idea – it’s really something. And even if they’ve flopped, that part of my career has been the best.

At Flashdance, Sergio said, “I’m going to have to put you on a pretty strong leash.” I guess because I like to ‘Sas’ it up – some people don’t want me to go too far. [Laughs.]

RH: So tell me about that nickname, “Sas.”

RR: I was on the road with Smokey Joe’s, and I could never remember any of the crew guys’ names, and I started to say, “Hey Sass.” It was very familiar, very friendly. And some electrician turns to me and says, “You’re the Sass.” And because I would always call people “Sass” they would say it back to me. So I became “Sas” – my last name has three letters, I figured, cut the extra “S”, who needs it? And that’s it. I became “Sas” on Smokey Joe’s Café in 1996. And now it’s become a thing.

RH: How did you get into doing music videos?

RR:  I met Daniel Robinson [the director of Ms. Rak’s videos and show] at Broadway Bares. He came up to me, and he was like, “I love you.” I remember it very clearly, like – who is this young man, hmm? Daniel – he also ended up being in the musical VOTE! that I choreographed – said to me, “I want to do your reel.” And I was like, yeah yeah yeah. You know how many times I’ve heard people say they want to do something for me, and then it’s done in that moment? But he was persistent. And we started working together, and we had some kind of electrifying energy. He said, let’s go down to the pier, and just make a video. I just want to have you moving, about where you are right now. And that was it. It was not about dance steps. We had no idea. I think the lesson is, it stopped becoming about the result. It stopped becoming about anyone liking it – it just became what it was. It’s never been about the result.

RH: And your new video, “Snapshots”, is premiering Monday night.

RR: Yes! Monday night. Marty Thomas at Industry does a show on Monday nights called Diva, and it’s really so good. These chicks are so talented (and him!) They do these songs – all this four part harmony – I sit there in awe. Everyone is so willing to help you, when you ask. That’s what I didn’t know. Marty said, you want to do it here? Absolutely we’ll play it!

RH: And your show I’m In plays the next week. Tell me about that.

RR: I’ve learned a lot – the ‘big business’ part of show business is a lot. No one in the business has the right to tell you, at least for me, after all these years, where you stand or how good you are or how much work you’ve put in or how much heart you have. Only you can decide that. And for my show, I hope that people want to hear what my story is. I hope I don’t bore them to tears. I hope they laugh a little, feel a little, and think, how does she do that? People say to me – like someone today said to me – “How do you do that? How do you physically do that?” I think they want to say at the end “–at your age” you know, but they don’t. [Laughs] I swear to you, I just said: it’s will. I will it. I will it. This body does not want to do what I make it do. I just go full out! [Laughs]

I’m In is all Rak, one hundred percent everything that I have. Story, life, heart. Some video, two back up singers, a full band. I’ve never done a show with a live band, only to tracks. This is all new to me. I have no idea what happened. [Laughs] Sas is about to speak her mind. [Laughs.]

RH: Do you have any advice for the young dancers you work with or teach?

RR: I want to say – “If you could only listen.” I listened a lot when I was young. I definitely listened. I was willing to do a thousand percent, and dance on number ten. [referring to the stage numbering system that marks centerstage as zero and works outward.] I worked my way to zero. I worked really hard to get there. Nobody handed it over.

That makes you who you are – that you’re willing to go that far. I always say to my stepson, who’s ten - you have to learn how to lose well. Keep your chin up.

My mother always says, “Would I do it differently if I knew I was going to lose my daughter to show business at seventeen?” All the people in my town, they grow up, they have their daughters there with them. My mother was never one to coddle me. She did say, “You’ll be fine. You’ll get ‘em next time.” But she never told me I was the best, the prettiest. She knew I was going to have to fight. She just knew. I thank her to this day. This morning she called me, she left a message. And maybe it was because today I was doing Flashdance which is about the dancer from Pittsburgh, but I’ve had a couple of moments of tears. It’s who I am – fourteen years old, watching that movie, living in Pittsburgh, believing that dream, believing in something. My mother was tough and she made me work really hard – and it paid off.

Rob Hartmann is a composer and writer who teaches in the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at New York University. www.robhartmann.com

Marty Thomas Presents DIVA hosts Rachelle Rak video release party, SNAPSHOTS, 1/16/12. Marty Thomas Presents DIVA performs every Monday night at 11 PM at Industry Bar in midtown Manhattan. There is no cover charge, arrive early to get prime seating.  You must be 21 years of age to enter. For more information www.martythomaspresentsdiva.com.  Follow

Rak can be seen in her new one woman show I'M IN, an intimate look at the path of a Broadway starlet.  Shows are Sunday, January 22nd at 7:00 PM, and Monday, January 23rd at 10:30 PM at Le Poisson Rouge, 165 Bleecker Street.  Tickets are $40 for premium seating (limited availability) $30 for reserved seating and $25 for general admission.  Please visit the Le Poisson Rouge website to purchase tickets lepoissonrouge.com.  Reservations recommended, running time is 55 minutes.