Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"Harry Shearer and Judith Owen's Christmas Without Tears (Does This Tree Make Me Look Fat?)" - Totally Brilliant

By Judd Hollander

By Arkanjel Productions
Husband and wife Harry Shearer and Judith Owen offer a perfect way to ring in the 2016 holiday season with their annual party, Christmas Without Tears (Does this Tree Make me Look Fat?). The festivities held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gillman Opera House on December 1st and then proceeding on a brief tour.

What originally started out as a simple Christmas gathering in the couple's Santa Monica home has grown exponentially over the years, becoming a public performance for the first in 2005, with a portion of proceeds from ticket sales going to charitable organizations. This year's beneficiary being the Elton John AIDS Foundation. A particularly apropos choice especially in light of the fact that December 1st is World AIDS Day. The press materials describing the show as "a guilt-free way of having fun and giving back".

Owen was the de facto host for most of the evening, often combining her words with a tongue and cheek air of depression. She putting it down to the fact that since she's Welsh, she was in fact born depressed. Her mood in actuality helping to set the stage for some of the more poignant moments in the piece. Such as the song "(I'll Sing) Silent Night For You", honoring those friends who are no longer with us; and "The Best Things", about the joy of having a loved one close by for Christmas. Both of the numbers sung beautifully by Owen. Also quite touching was a sequence where she comes out holding a stuffed toy, and, after dissolving into tears while noting how childhood dreams and fantasies just don't come true, a life-size version of that selfsame toy (played by Godfrey Daniels) appeared and proceeded to enchant the audience via a series of silent movements and interplay with a large red ball. 

Shearer meanwhile nicely injected some political humor into the evening with his song "Christmas a'la Trump". Something The Donald would probably have liked were he in the audience. Shearer also revealing one of Christmas' biggest kept secrets via the tune "Jesus was a Dreidel Spinner". "Spinner" being one of several not-strictly-Christmas songs presented. The number was a nod to Shearer's heritage, something Owen says she first became aware of about five years into their marriage. Shearer also at one point talked about global warming while noting his people have "been burning oil for a long time". 

The entire performance was a very enjoyable mixture of the heartfelt and the hilarious, with the various "party guests" performing a number or two, or a comedy bit, and then basically becoming happy onlookers at the party itself. Those not actively participating at the moment, sitting near the fireplace, watching the goings on and talking amongst themselves. Owen and Shearer at times circulating the stage like the genial hosts they are. These actions creating the impression of being in the living room of some old friends and just having an enjoyable time. Which exactly what a Christmas party should be. 

Also running throughout the evening was the continual feeling that all of the performances presented were totally off the cuff and completely unrehearsed. This was especially evident in the "Jingle Bell Rock" duet by Shearer and Paul Shaffer. Shaffer, probably best known for his 33-year tenure as David Letterman's musical director, also getting in some good licks in the piano during the song. Another similarly rousing number was the raucous "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" sung by Doña Oxford, and which quite rightly brought the house down while closing the first act of what Owen called a "ten hour" show - actually three hours and fifteen minutes. Shearer and Owen definitely believing in giving the audience their money's worth.

By Alex Kluft
Other highlights included a virtuoso performance by banjo player Bèla Fleck, who offered up some fascinating riffs on various Christmas carols, including "the First Noel" and "Joy to the World; all the while moving seamlessly from one song to the next. Another standout was Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus performing a vaudeville routine which included multiple bowl spinning and spoon flipping. The latter effort in particular being harder than it sounds. Also of note was actor Fred Willard's recitation of what he called the "true story of Christmas", which reduced the entire audience to fits of laugher. Willard's talk delivered in a perfectly deadpan manner. In the same comical vein, one of the definite highpoints of the show was a performance by actor Mario Cantone and his biting deconstruction of the classic television special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". Cantone giving his personal take on what that special was really talking about with it's continual reference to "misfits" and those people that just don't fit in.

There was also the chance to pick up some interesting trivia which could used at one's own Christmas party. When singer/musician Peter Asher of the 1960s music group "Peter and Gordon" performed their hit "I Don't Want to Live in a World Without Love", he pointed out the song was originally written by Paul McCartney for the Beatles, who rejected it. McCartney later finishing the tune and giving it Peter and Gordon to record. One also learned the meaning of the expression "the steamy" as it applies to Glasgow terminology. Performer Alan Cumming elaborating on a bit of Scottish slang before going on to sing a song of his own.

The evening also included some audience participation, the crowd performing a rather unique rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". They being urged on in their efforts by Owen and the rest of those on stage, with prizes handed out when it was over for the most outrageous participants.

Further helping to add to the overall yuletide feeling was a stage nicely festooned with Christmas trees, a menorah, holiday wreaths, and the afore-mentioned fireplace - adorned with hanging stockings of course. Christmas Without Tears is exactly what a Christmas party should be about. A chance to connect with some old friends and meeting some new ones in the process. One could easily imagine sitting with these folks and sipping hot chocolate or drinking eggnog while singing Christmas carols, swapping stories or just catching up on the latest news and gossip - which is what friends do. Well done indeed!

Harry Shearer and Judith Owen's Christmas Without Tears
(Does this Tree Make me Look Fat?)

Harry Shearer, Judith Owen, Alan Cumming, Mario Cantone, Alfie Boe, Paul Shaffer, Bèla Fleck, Peter Asher, Davell Crawford, Godfrey Daniels, Jerry Dixon, Amy Engelhardt, The Gregory Brothers, Keith Nelson, Doña Oxford, The Songbirds, Fred Willard

Choral Singers: 
Amy Engelhardt, Director
Mick Bleyer, Emily Goglia, Kristi Holden, Tim Kodres, Austin Ku, Jen Malenke. Mark Bradley Miller, Anne Fraser Thomas

Music Director: 
CJ Vanston

CJ Vanston (Piano), Leland Sklar (Bass), Oz Noy (Guitar), Jim Hines (Drums)

Set Designers:
Steven Hillyer, Tim Marback, Judith Owen, Harry Gaveras

Set Decoration:
Pam Halstead

Lighting Designer:
Paul Bartlett

Production Assistant:
Pam Halstead

Hair and Makeup:
M'Shane Alsondo, Deja Smith, Dee TrannyBear

Tour Manager:
Mark Botting

Tour Stage Manager: 
Jennifer Hellman

Produced by: 
Steven Hillyer, Tim Marback, Judith Owen

Directed by: 

Judith Owen, Tim Marback, Steve Hillyer

Performed at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on December 1, 2015

Christmas Without Tears Tour Information: http://christmaswithouttears.com/

"Dear Elizabeth" - The Enduring Power of Friendship

By Judd Hollander

Finding a kindred soul can be a wonderful thing. Someone to tell your personal thoughts, feelings and hopes without fear of condemnation or dismissal. Such was the case with the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, their story told in Sarah Ruhl's Dear Elizabeth, now being presented by the Women's Project Theater with a rotating cast. J. Smith-Cameron and John Douglas Thompson assuming the roles the week I saw the show. Ruhl taking her inspiration from the book "Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell", and using the poets' own words - as well as a selection of their poetry - to help bring these two individuals to life.

The relationship between the two begins in 1947 when Bishop first sends Lowell a letter. Lowell, familiar with Bishop's work, responds in kind, noting that Elizabeth is the only "real" person he's had a chance to talk to in his recent travels. As time passes, their friendship deepens, as evidenced by their increasingly familiar and intimate written salutations to one another. The two talking not only about their respective poems and projects, but also about what's going on in their lives at the moment, as well as the hope they will have a chance to meet. 

Through their words, the audience soon begins to get an idea of just who these people are. Elizabeth for her part, coming across as a rather shy, introverted woman. Telling Robert at one point that when he writes her epitaph, "you must say that I was the loneliest person who ever lived". Robert on the other hand, is much more of an outgoing fellow, with a seeming lust for life and all that it has to offer. Kind of like Ernest Hemmingway in that approach. Hemmingway being one of Bishop's and Lowell's contemporaries and one of the many literary names mentioned in passing via their correspondence. Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Conner, being among the others. The names serving as indicators of the circles in which Lowell and Bishop moved and the times in which they lived. 

Eventually, a sort of shorthand develops between the two. One evidenced as much by what wasn't put down on paper as what actually was. This is especially true when either questions the other's work. There's an initial hesitancy from the one making the query, while couching their point in open admiration and gentle teasing. In the same vein, the one on the receiving end of this advice accepts it with an air of rueful acknowledgment. They not really wanting to have their work criticized in the first place, but ultimately accepting it; knowing the comment to be valid.

This shorthand manner in their communications is also visible when the two talk about their more personal situations. Such as Bishop's problems with asthma and her struggle with alcohol, and Lowell's various episodes of Manic Depression and his various hospital stays. Many of these situations are described almost in a passing manner. The two knowing each other well enough by now and not needing to really elaborate, or to ask questions; other than offering help to the other if needed.

Thompson does a great job with Lowell, showing him to be a man who embraces life, while looking for the "real" things in it, whatever they happen to be at the moment. The actor also nicely conveys Lowell's great joy at becoming a first time father. A moment rather ironic when one remembers Lowell's previous comments regarding children he happened to come across. Smith-Cameron's silent response here is also quite telling. According to Ruhl, in her very involving and informative program notes, one of Bishop's great regrets was never having a child. 

Smith-Cameron does an excellent turn as Bishop, making her a much more ethereal creature than Lowell. One, if not afraid of life, then certainly not embracing it in the same head-on terms Lowell seems to do. We also see traces of wistfulness in her, she at times wondering how her life would have turned out had things been different. Bishop and Lowell never being at the same relationship stage in their lives at the same time, which may have been a reason why nothing more personal ever seriously developed between the two. Yet even when that possibility is presented to her, be it Lowell's proposal of marriage or an address to write to him where he wife wouldn't be aware, Bishop declines the offer.

Kate Whoriskey's direction is letter perfect, giving the actors enough leeway to move about the stage and bring life to the words they're speaking. Rather than keeping them seated at a pair of writing desks throughout the show. In a nice twist, the actors never specifically acknowledge each other while writing their respective letters, but do so at times when listening to the other speak. The glances and gestures adding an extra emotional layer to the words being spoken.

Scenic design by Antej Ellermann fits the story nicely, the space projecting a semi-cramped feel while filled with bric-a-brac and various materials that writers of Bishop's and Lowell's time would have used. Lighting by Mary Louse Geiger helped to give a subtle emphasis to the work when either of the actors recited (and performed) some of Bishop's and Lowell's poetry.

Part acting exercise, part biographical piece and a well-told story throughout, Dear Elizabeth offers a touching glimpse into two people who found joy both in the world and in each other. It's a play well worth seeing and their story is well worth knowing. 

Also in the cast is Polly Noonan.

Featuring: Polly Noonan (Stage Manager), J. Smith-Cameron (Elizabeth Bishop), John Douglas Thompson (Robert Lowell).

Dear Elizabeth
by Sarah Ruhl
Scenic Design: Antje Ellermann
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound Design: Jill Bc Du Boff, Emily Auciello
Production Stage Managers: C. Renee Alexander, Bernita Robinson
Production Manager: Steve Rosenberg
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Press Representatives: Vivacity Media Group, Leslie Baden Papa, Whitney Holden Gore

Directed by Kate Whoriskey

Presented by Women's Project Theater
McGinn/Cazale Theatre 
2162 Broadway (at 76th Street)
Closed: December 5, 2015

Radio City Christmas Spectacular - The Perfect Way to Ring in the Holiday Season

By Judd Hollander
Photo by MSG Entertainment

As constant as the changing of the seasons is the annual appearance of the Christmas Spectacular at New York's Radio City Musical Hall, which has been bringing delight to audiences for more than 85 years. Seamlessly combining the secular and the religious, and newer musical numbers with old favorites, the show is an unabashed treat for all ages. The production offering snow, Santa Claus, Christmas carols and of course, those high kicking, toe tapping Radio City Rockettes.

The entire show is basically a combination Christmas pageant/immersive experience. It starting the moment one enters the massive Music Hall performance space to be greeted by a cacophony of snowflakes projected on the ceiling and walls. No two of them seeming to be alike (and yes, I looked). Just as each snowflake is different from the next, a perfect Christmas gift for one person will not be a perfect fit for someone else. Something eight year-old Ben and his older brother Patrick find out while looking for such a present for their sister. The brothers getting some help with their quest from the big guy in the red suit. A process which also reintroduces the magic of Christmas to the rather cynical Patrick. A magic which, as a song makes clear, is "closer than you know". 

Santa also serves as the unofficial narrator/guide through most of the proceedings. Coming out at the beginning and interacting with the crowd before taking them on an eye popping sleigh ride from his North Pole workshop straight to Radio City. Said journey accomplished though some enjoyable projections, the use of 3-D glasses previously distributed to the audience and some fantastical sets that are guaranteed to thrill every child present, while also stirring the youngster that dwells in every adult's heart. Though to be honest, I couldn't help thinking how some of the huge snowflakes, which at one point descend on wires from the top of the stage, and the method in which Santa took Ben and Patrick on a trip to his workshop would make for a great episode of Doctor Who.

In an extremely well-done number, Santa answers a question children have pondered down through the generations - and one which parents have continually struggled to answer. Namely, how can every person dressed in a Santa suit - be they in a department store or ringing a bell on a street corner - actually be the one and only? The answer, one which eventually involves a stage full of dancing Kris Kringles, is wonderfully executed and choreographed. The early moments of the numbers containing just a bit of otherworldliness to call to mind the classic "Elephants on Parade" number from Dumbo.

When Santa wasn't involved in the various goings on, or serving as a bridge to the different scenes and songs, it was the Rockettes' turn to shine; and shine they did. Be they dressed up as rag dolls (in a number that had its genesis in the 1940 Christmas show), reindeer, Christmas ornaments, or NYC tourists - complete with matching sweaters for the latter - their dancing was always in perfect synchronization and magnificent to watch. Some of their more enjoyable numbers included a wonderful rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas"; a song about Christmas in New York City - and featuring a double-decker bus; and the absolutely show-stopping "March of the Wooden Soldiers" sequence, which has to be seen to be believed. The "Soldiers" number was first introduced in 1933 and there's a reason it's become a perennial favorite. The chorographic work is superb, with the entire line of Rockettes/soldiers moving in a way so it appears the performers seem almost flat as they turn, break apart and come back together. This all leading to a most fantastic finish.

Another particularly striking sequence that also had its roots in the past was a scene from "The Nutcracker", featuring a little girl named Clara and some rather large dancing bears. The bears being of the Russian, Panda and Teddy varieties.

One thing evident throughout was how transfixed the children in the audience were with what was happening on stage. The "Wooden Soldiers" and "Rag Doll" numbers being two of their particular favorites. Unfortunately some of the adults were far too intent on capturing moments of the show on their various hand held devices to really enjoy the experience as it was unfolding.

The evening's crowning moment, notable for its relative simplicity after all that had come before, was the quiet beauty the of "The Living Nativity" sequence. The scene including camels, sheep and, like everything else, brought off without a hitch and to great effect.

The technical credits were excellent down the line. Each one showing the care going into the production to make it all seem fresh and new, no matter how many years prior some of the sequences presented, or variations thereof, had actually been done before.

Whether you've seen The Radio City Christmas Spectacular many times previously or if this is your first go round, one thing is clear. The show is a heart-warming treat which should be on all Yuletide lover's "must-see" lists each and every Christmas season.

Radio City Christmas Spectacular

Featuring: Charles Edward Hall (Santa Claus), Alexandra Hoffman, Kayla Mak, Rachel Quiner (Clara), Jack Broderick, Jack Mastrianni, Sawyer Nunes (Patrick), Jad Grey, Avery Noble, Jorge Vega (Ben), John Paul Almon (Santa Standby), Annie Fitch, AnnMarie Powers (Mrs. Claus), Kasey J. Hughes (Santa Understudy)

Skaters: Maxim Fomin & Svetlana Butova, Andrey Baka & Victoriya Glichenko.

Ronald Lee Clark, Bradley Glenn Galey, Misty Irwin, Jonathan M. Kim, Zachary Blu Miller, Sebastian Saraceno, Josh Walker, Kristin Xettlemoyer

Jordanna H. James, Jason Justin Perez

Jackie Aitken, Nicole Baker, Lori Barber, Samantha Beary Burns, Samantha Berger, Danielle Betscher, Tiffany Billings, Bethany Blanchard, Torrie Bogda, Rachel Borgman, Bailey Callahan, Mary Cavett, Jennifer Calvin, Sierra Ring Collins, Jessie Crouch, Jessica Molly Davison, Tara Donleavy, Teneise Ellis, Alyssa Epstein, Melinda Farrell, Katelyn Gaffney, Eleni Gavalas, Lauren Gibbs, Kari Gregg, Tiffany Griffin, Sarah Grooms, Katie Hamrah, Christina Hedrick, Nikki Hester, Danni Heverin, Melissa Hillmer, Sara Michelle Hoenes, Sophie Rose Holloway, Lindsay Howe, Candace Jablonski, Laura Jakowenko, Alison Jantzie, Kristin Jantzie, Lisa Jantzie, Sarah Lin Johnson, Ashley Kasunich, Allyson Kelly, Heather Langham, Alissa LaVergne, Maranda LeBar, Alyssa Lemons, Megan Levinson, Alicia Lundgren, Amanda McCormick, Mindy Moeller, Danielle Morgan, Kimberly Petros Nassif, Jessica Palu, Stacy Paydo, Phoebe Pearl, Thrersa Pelicata, Elizabeth Peterson, Logan Reginato Prince, Natalie Madison Reid, Lauren Ella Renck, Traci Reszetylo, Joanna Richardson, Karen Ritchie, Sagan Rose, Courtney Rottenberger, Tori Schelling, Nicole Schuman, Taylor Shimko, Hannah Sides, Christine Sienicki, Alina Silver, Kristen Grace Smith, Brittany Paige Snyder, Elizabeth Sousek, Audrey Thelemann, Katie Elizabeth Walker, Sarah Staker Wenstrom, Brittany Werthmann, Corey Whalen, Raley Zofko.

Rockettes Swings:

Jennifer Calvin, Jessie Crouch, Melinda Farrell, Stacy Paydo, Traci Reszetylo, Nichole Schuman, Hannah Sides, Katie Elizabeth Walker.

The Dancers:

Alex Aquilino, Jennifer Abuin, Devin Aubin, Brittany Bean, Karolina Blonski-Heflin, Bella Calafiua, Ron Christopher, Adam DiLoreto, Lindsey Fletcher, Drew Heflin, Haley Hellman-Genry, Nina Hudson, Sonia Jean, Justin Keats, Tanner Lane, Stephanie Lo, Chase Madigan, Amanda Mondoro, Antuan Raimone, Olivia Sharber, Demetrius K. Shields, Kelli Shimada, Brian Slaman, Shane Sitely, Paul Vicars, Jessica Walker, Matthew Winnegge, Camille Workman.

Lauren Cannon, Daniela Filippone, Marqui Jenn, Michael McArthur, Dylan Pearce, Cody D. Smith, Tyler Stickel, Samantha Zuidema-Wilhem.

The Singers:
Breanna Bartley, Eddie Egan, Alexandra Fassler, Annie Fitch, April Holloway, Joey Khoury, Thaddeus Pearson, AnnMarie Powers, Nathan Andrew Riley, Clinton Roane, Andrew Van Allsburg, Amy Lynn Zanetto.

Chris Gleim, Clarissa Grace, Kasey J. Hughes, Andrea Rodriguez.

Lighting Designer: David Agrees
Scenic Designer: Patrick Fahey, 8 hangs High Inc.
Sound Designer: SCK Sound Design
Christmas Production Manager: Beth Zitzman
Costume Design: Gregg Barnes, Frank Krenz, Martin Pakledinaz
Production Stage Manager: Kathy J. Hoovler
Production Managers: Julie Mason Groob. Michael Donaghy
Director, Rockettes Creative: Karen Keeler
Assistant Choreographers: Marqui Jenn, Traci Reszetylo, Hannah Sides, Samantha Zuidema-Wilhelm
Associate Conductors: Edward G. Robinson, Ethyl Will
Associate Costume Designer: Erin Elizabeth Murphy
Santa Flies to New York 3D: Synthespian Studios
Technical Director: Larry Morley
Musical Director and Principal Choreographer: Kevin Stites
Writer/Lyricist: Mark Waldrop
LED Video and Projection Mapping Design: Batwin & Robin Productions
Director and Chorographer: Julie Barman

Radio City Music Hall

1260 Avenue of the Americas (between 50th and 51st Streets)
Tickets: 1-866-858-0007 or www.RadioCityChristmas.com
Running Time: 90 Minutes, No Intermission

Closes: January 3, 2016