Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sheri Sanders Blows the Roof Off the Joint - "Sheri Sanders: In Concert"

By Rob Hartmann

Part rock concert, part master class, part interactive exploration of pop music history, and part autobiography-confessional, Sheri Sanders: In Concert is a theatrical experience unlike any other.

Sheri Sanders is currently best known for her long running series of classes, “Rock the Audition” (which later became a book and DVD), in which she gives musical theater actors the tools to fully engage with pop and rock music – music which can be intimidating and mystifying to performers raised on show tunes.

Sanders, along with director Joe Barros and musical director Meg Zervoulis, created an evening which gives three dimensional life to her credo: that rock and pop songs are inextricably entwined with the social history of their time – but that performers today can connect with them as still-living, still-relevant personal expressions.

Each performance of the concert featured a different opening act: Todd Almond, (, Bobby Cronin ( Joe Iconis (, Michael Mott (, Brad Simmons and Paul Oakley Stovall, Katie Thompson ( and, at this performance, Max Vernon (

Max Vernon, accompanying himself at the piano, began with a wry song that drew on his days as a young fixture on the fashion-punk-party scene: “Lower East Side Angry Face.” His set included two moving numbers from his new musical, The View UpStairs, inspired by the horrific 1973 arson attack on a gay club in New Orleans.

Sanders is a tasty explosion of fizzy giddiness as she charges onto the stage. The simple setting pays respect to both the past and the future: downstage is a portable record player and a collection of LPs; stage right is a flat-screen where images of pop music icons float by.

Sanders immediately takes the audience in hand as she unrolls the tale of her journey from performer to teacher and mentor. After early career success, she fell prey to vicious self-sabotage. In order to take the pressure off herself, she decided to put the focus on others: she would step back from the intensity of high-stakes auditions, and teach what she had learned.

Sanders immersed herself in studying pop music history hand in hand with cultural history, specifically from a performer’s point of view.  She developed a course (at one point she displays the very first flyer she ever posted, complete with rainbow background) which eventually grew into “Rock the Audition.”

She segues effortlessly into a brief survey pop music history, shifting into song to demonstrate points – dipping into the blues tune “Come Back, Baby” and later Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, as covered by Judy Collins.

Sanders is a consummate performer, able to shift emotional gears and fully inhabit any style of music with complete conviction and authenticity.  After completely mesmerizing the audience on her own, she takes the spotlight off herself, and transforms the proceedings briefly into a master class. Two different students took part each night of the concert; at this performance, they were Elijah Caldwell and Jessica Norland. Sanders first worked with Caldwell on his rendition of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1979 hit “Boogie Wonderland”; in minutes she had him loosened up and fully embracing the spirit of the 70s with a full-on disco falsetto.

Norland’s song was Heart’s 1985 “Nothin’ At All.” At first, Norland gave a completely credible, straightforward rendition of the song, in a clear, strong voice. With quick, intuitive coaching from Sanders, Norland completely transformed her voice and physicality: a new power, strength, and confidence, completely emanating from the music.

Much credit must be given to music director Zervoulis, who coaxed sounds of every decade from the piano. Playing rock music convincingly at a solo piano is extremely difficult; the genre is built for guitars and drums. Zervoulis breathed along with Sanders and the student singers, while keeping a rock-steady rhythmic drive.

After watching Sanders in action as a master teacher, we resume the story of her journey: landing a book deal by cold calling the music publisher Hal Leonard. (The book and accompanying DVD were reviewed on this site here:

In a dizzying montage, we see Sanders come smack up against a grim truth of the entertainment industry: in the end, so many of the people employed to help  – publishers, PR reps, agents – do very little. The artist is on her own.

This is a point where many one-person shows would stop, content to sigh or sneer at the cynical realities of “the business.” Sanders moves through it, in a moving, deeply felt exploration of “The Great Escape”, written by Pink and Dan Wilson.

I’m the king of the great escape
You’re not going to watch me checkin’ out of this place
You’re not going to lose me, cause the passion and pain
Are going to keep us alive someday
Yeah the passion and the pain
Are going to keep us alive, someday

Sanders understands that the artist’s journey is equal parts passion and pain: they are inescapably bound to each other. She recognizes it in her own life’s story, and in the stories of the pop and rock artists whom she honors.

The evening was subtly and fluidly directed by Joe Barros, who keeps the narrative thread moving through each shift of format. Holly Long contributes skillful lighting design which moves effortlessly from intense, deep tones during the performances, to bright clarity when Sanders chats with the audience.

The innovative producers of the event were Kenny Metzger and Kristin Morris, operating under the auspices of the Araca Project, which seeks to mentor up and coming producers.

Sheri Sanders In Concert concluded its limited run in New York on October 2nd, but will tour in conjunction with Sanders schedule teaching master classes at colleges, universities and theaters across the country. If you have the opportunity to see Sheri Sanders work her alchemic magic of performance and transformative teaching in person, do not miss it. In days past, Broadway shows or television series would be built around Sheri Sanders and her extravagant hug-you-madly personality: we can only hope that the industry will take note and bring us more Sheri Sanders, pronto.

Sheri Sanders: In Concert. September 25 РOctober 2, The American Theatre of Actors, 314 W. 54th Street. Produced by Kenny Metzger and Kristin Morris, KMM Productions, LLC. Conceived by Sheri Sanders. Directed by Joe Barros. Musical direction by Meg Zervoulis. Lighting design by Holly Long. Sound design by Andy Sowers. Casting by Kitay-Witt Casting. Stage manager, Tiffany de Bruyn. Assistant director, Aim̩e Cucchiaro.

"Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance" - Wonderful melding of movement and story

By Judd Hollander

With a crash of thunder and the stirring sounds of Tchaikovsky's music, Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty bursts wonderfully upon the City Center stage. Drawing inspiration from several sources - including the Grimm's fairy tale and Disney animated film - as well as new material created especially for this production, the work is able to stand completely on its own thanks to director/choreographer's Bourne's vision.

This particular tale begins in the year 1890 where a childless King (Edwin Ray) and Queen (Daisy May Kemp) implore Carabosse, the dark fairy (Tom Jackson Greaves) to bless them with the offspring they so desperately seek. Carabosse grants their request, but when the new parents fail to show the proper gratitude in return, the now-angry fairy descends on their castle with a pair of hellhoundish-like servants to place a curse on the infant child. One which will destroy her when she comes of age. Fortunately all is not lost as Count Lilac, the King of the Fairies (Liam Mower) and some of the magical creatures under his command arrive to save the infant Princess Aurora (played by a marionette as a child - wonderfully brought to life by the puppeteers in the Company - and Ashley Shaw as an adult). Yet even though Carabosse is defeated, her son Caradoc (Jackson) returns years later to wreck vengeance in his mother's name. This time, the best Count Lilac can do is soften the curse and place Aurora into a deep sleep until her one true love arrives to break the spell.

This is a production filled with universal themes: good versus evil and the power of true love being the two most obvious examples. There's also a hint of class prejudice present - as shown via Leo, the Royal Gamekeeper (Dominic North) who Aurora seems to love dearly, but as she's quite literally a pampered princess, she also enjoys the company of high society and all the attention that goes with it. Through it all, Bourne takes great pains to leaven out the more serious sequences by tossing in some enjoyable moments of merriment. Such as when the palace servants try to care for the tantrum-throwing infant Princess while her parents just flit in and out to dote on her now and again. Showing quite clearly how it takes a village to raise a child and that doing so is not all fun and games. There are also some funny moments in the beginning of act two - set in 2011 - when a group of kids with iPhones take pictures of themselves in front of the now-closed up castle which has become overgrown with rose bushes. Bourne also nicely shows the wonderment the child Aurora first experiences when the fairies appear at her bedside one night.

Just as interesting are the way the various acting styles themselves unfold. At first everything shown seems slightly off-center; as if what we're seeing isn't quiet real, with movements that look quite stiff - apparently deliberately so - with the different characterizations feeling only half formed. Something that also carries over to the dancing. It's only when Aurora becomes a young woman and she and Leo are together do the tightly controlled movements really start to explode, with everything becoming more fluid, graceful and flowing. In both dance and expression.

Some of the best dancing occurs in the second act where Caradoc holds the sleeping Aurora captive, and who is now determined to make her his unwilling bride, yet needing Leo's love to waken her after 100 years of slumber. While Cardoc's plans are unfolding, Leo is involved in a mission of his own. That being to find Aurora, while Count Lilac does whatever he can to aid him in his search. This entire extended sequence being a variation on the "quest" storyline with Leo having previously being given the ability to remain near the Princess thanks to Count Lilac in one of the more erotic moments of the production.

Mower is wonderful as Count Lilac, a sort of combination avenging angel and noble guardian. His various movements filled with passion and a determination to make sure Aurora ultimately survives the tragedy that has befallen her. Shaw is great as Aurora, her dancing and actions showing the exuberance of youth, the wonder of first love and the restraints and liberation that come with the privilege and position she holds. A particularly enchanting scene, one bordering on farce, occurs as Aurora is getting ready for a party with her friends and parents when Leo sneaks in and Aurora must take great pains to hide Leo's presence from others who walk in and out of her room. The nature of the story limits Shaw's performance at times, particularly in the second act, but she still rises to the occasion when called for. Who knew that a sleeping person could be so animated?

Greaves' performances come across as strong and impassioned. Playing both the dark and foreboding Carabosse, arriving in manner akin to a Disney villain, and her vengeful son, eventually becoming almost animalistic in his actions in the latter role. Caradoc's evil plans making him a good contrast for the heroic Leo, North nicely embodying the qualities of both rebelliousness and impetuousness as he too comes of age in this timeless tale, the two playing off each other well in their eventual showdown.

Bourne has a strong handle on what he wants to present, his directorial and choreographic efforts succeeding flawlessly while working in the various dance styles - ones which range from quietly subdued to those brimming with an athletic grace - into the storyline he helped envision. Juggling both moments of humor and despair, as well as those of hope and desire, he is able to make the entire production come brilliantly together in a cohesive and very satisfying whole.

Also deserving of credit are the various costumes by Lez Brotherston, which are wondrous to behold. Brotherston's impressive sets also working well in helping to set the atmosphere for the overall story.

Wonderfully conceived, beautifully executed to showcase a rich tapestry of both dance and performance, Sleeping Beauty is a joy from start to finish and a fine feather in the cap of Matthew Bourne as well as everybody else connection with the production.

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance

Featuring: Edwin Ray (King Benedict), Daisy May Kemp (Queen Eleanor), Ashley Shaw (Princess Aurora, their daughter), Dominic North (Leo, the Royal Gamekeeper), Liam Mower (Count Lilac, King of the Fairies), Tom Jackson Greaves (Carabosse, the dark fariy/Caradoc, her son), Mari Kamata (Ardor, the Fairy of Passion), Katy Lowenhoff (Hibernia, the Fairy of Rebirth), Joe Walkling (Artumnus, the Fairy of Plenty), Dena Lague (Feral, the Fairy of Spirit, Luke Murphy (Tantrum, the Fairy of Temperament), Daniel Collins (Lord Rupert, Suitor to Aurora), Danny Reubens (Viscount Aubrey, another Suitor), Mami Tomotani (Miss Maddox, Aurora's Nanny), Pia Driver (Flossie (Aurora's Maid), Leon Moran (Archie, Palace Footman), Phil Jack Gardner (Bertie, Palace Footman)

Carabosse Attendants, Garden Party Guests, Tourists, Sleepwalkers, Caradoc's Henchman, Wedding Guests and Puppeteers all performed by members of the Company.

Directed, Choreographed, and New Scenario by Matthew Bourne
Music Composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Set and Costume Design by Lez Brotherston
Lighting Design by Paule Constable
Sound Design by Paul Groothuis
Associate Director: Etta Murfitt
Associate Choreographer: Christopher Marney

New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Closed: November 3rd, 2013