The Once and Future King

As is usually the case, Broadway is playing host to a few London shows this season, most of them playing with large chunks, if not all,  of the original casts from the West End productions.

This weekend I decided to risk getting caught in the Christmas mobs that invade Manhattan each year, and catch the Saturday matinee of King Charles III, starring Tim Piggot-Smith in the title role of Charles.

Subtitled, “A Future History Play,”  it begins as Elizabeth II has died, and Prince Charles is now to ascend the throne. After meeting with a Labor Party Prime Minister, Charles is expected to accept a bill regarding privacy in the press. He is not happy about this, and some wickedly entertaining dialogue (and a bit of civil unrest) gets in the way of his coronation.

Tim Piggot-Smith is superb in the role of Charles, showing both strength and a bit of pouting while Margot Leicester is often hilarious as Camilla, without overplaying her role. Harry is predictably adorable as played by Richard Goulding, and William is all business in the hands of Oliver Chris.

I really loved the look of this play.  There are no ornate sets, as you might imagine for a play set inside Buckingham Palace.  The entire set is a brick wall, which curves along the back and the sides, and plays both inside and outside.  The various locations set up rather casually and the actors often go up or down the aisles. The lighting is dark and somber throughout, with some great candle lighting in several scenes that set beautifully  against the brick.  Live, brooding music is provided by a cello and an oboe.

The show is on a limited run, which began in September and is due to close at the end of January. A Sydney run of the play is due to begin in March of 2016 with Robert Powell in the role of Charles.

Unexpected Change

At the curtain call, in the middle of a standing ovation, Tim Piggot-Smith stepped forward.  I was expecting the usual Equity Fights Aids speech, but he threw a curve ball.

Usually when an understudy goes on, there is an announcement made, pre-curtain.  Sometimes, you get a little note in the Playbill as well.  At this performance, there was no such announcement.

The audience was delivering a standing ovation, when Mr. Piggot-Smith stepped forward to announce that the role of Jess (a young anti-royal who has a brief relationship with  Prince Harry) was played by an understudy, Rachel Spencer Hewitt. He explained that the actor who usually plays the role, was taken quite suddenly ill, and Ms. Spencer Hewitt sprang into action with no warning.  The audience gave her a rich round of applause, and the few audience members who were not yet standing, now stood.  The cast then turned to her, and applauded her while tears streamed down her face. Then, Mr. Piggot-Smith added that we had all just seen her Broadway debut.  At that point, I had a few tears running down my face as well. Rachel is a graduate of…you guessed it, Yale School of Drama.

Here is an ad for the London Production, which is precisely as it plays in New York.

 

 

Pulling a Shirley MacLaine

One of the most enduring  Broadway stories, is the one about Shirley MacLaine, who took over from an injured Carol Haney in The Pajama Game, and went on to be…well, Shirley MacLaine.

The Pajama Game, was Shirley MacLaine’s first Broadway show, and she was hired to sing and dance in the chorus and understudy for the much beloved, Carol Haney.  Haney broke her ankle very early in the run, and was out of the show for several weeks. During that time, MacLaine’s performance was seen by producers in New York and in Hollywood, and she was quickly signed to a Paramount contract.

In the movie, All About Eve, Ann Baxter plays Eve Harrington, a young actress who connives a sinister scheme to keep a Broadway star, played by Bette Davis out of New York so that she can go on in her place on a night when the critics are in to see the show.  In Applause, the musical version of the story, which starred Lauren Bacall in the Bette Davis role, the Broadway “gypsies” sing, “She pulled a Shirley MacLaine,” as they jealously acknowledge that she is no longer one of them.

Understudies are necessary.  I have been an understudy and I have had understudies. While I have never known or worked with an Eve Harrington, I would be lying if I said that things are always easy among actors and the person who has their own identical set of costumes just in case.  As an understudy, you don’t have the benefit of full cast rehearsals, and the idea of going on and making a mistake is terrifying. As the “overstudy” you can be concerned about the person going on and being better liked than you are in the role, which is one big reason actors are known to perform in a state of unwell, just shy of being in a coma.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Mighty Wind

Thanks to Doug,  my house mate, dear friend, and fellow artsy fartsy, we attend the Oneppo Chamber Music Series at Yale’s Morse Recital Hall at Sprague on a regular basis.  For the most part, the Oneppo series highlights String Quartets. (I still get emotional when I think of a performance of a Schubert Quartet from last February’s Danish Quartet performance.)

But this past Tuesday night, the Imani Winds sat where strings usually sit, and presented a concert of eclectic, daring, mostly 20th century music, that was so deeply felt, those Danish guys looked positively stoic  by comparison.

Every member of the quintet contributes to either a completely original piece, or an arrangement of an existing piece, and each member spends some time at the microphone talking about the piece we are about to hear.  I cannot tell you how refreshing this is. And since each member has an interesting personality and a sense of fun, the entire evening is completely entertaining.

One of the highlights of the evening  Jonathan Russell’s pared down arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, arranged specifically for Imani, highlighted the virtuosic talents of each member of the quintet, and accomplished what you always want a transcription to achieve by letting us hear the inner harmonies of the piece, which are sometimes harder to hear with a full orchestra.

The quintet did a terrific job on the Heitor Villa-Lobos  piece, Quintette en forme de Choros.  I like Villa-Lobos, even though  Igor Stravinsky once said,  “Why is it, that whenever I hear a piece of music I hate, it always turns out to be a piece by Villa-Lobos?  (ouch, Igor)  Over the years, I have had the joy of performing his work.  My high hum to an A-flat allowed me to get picked often to sing his Aria Number Five (sadly, never with the eight celli, but with classical guitar, thanks to the Segovia transcriptions.)  Imani really found a sweet spot with this piece, and it was my favorite of the evening.

The group plays with great passion, and they are committed to present an ethnic groove.  Their encore was a fun, rich piece, that gave more than a nod to Hanukkah, and highlighted clarinetist Miriam Adam beautifully.

Imani is based out of New York, and travels extensively. They have recently returned from an Australian tour.

 

 

 

Baroque at Battell

Yesterday at Yale’s Battell Chapel, I had entirely too much fun, at the community sing through of Messiah, by Handel.

Battell Chapel was built in 1876, and it seats 1100 people, including the balcony, and yesterday, that joint was packed!  Packed with singers of all ages, proficiency, and musicianship.

The absolutely wonderful Yale Symphony Orchestra, was conducted by a few different conductors, from the Yale School of Music, and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, as were the soloists.

If you missed it, put it on you calendar for next year. Even if you just go to listen to it.  I guarantee you will leave Battell with your feet a few feet off the ground.

 

For a schedule of  this weeks musical offerings at Yale, go to:

http://music.yale.edu/concerts/

For other arts events happening this week go to:

http://artscalendar.yale.edu/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rub-a-Dub-Dub

Last evening, the Yale Cabaret opened its latest offering; the world premiere of the English translation of the play, Boris Yeltsin, by the Portuguese playwright Mickael de Oliveira. This play is a re-telling of Aeschylus’ tragedy, Oresteia, set in Portugal in the 1990s.  I was not aware of this going in, so when Brittany Spears’ song, Hit Me Baby One More played during our dinner hour, I was, to say the least, confused. I was also curious about the bath tub set, which sat just across from our seats, but I figured that out during the play, when two naked men hopped in for a bath and a murder.

And I got to thinking.

Everyone into the Pool

When my son was a freshman in high school in New Jersey, we went into New York as often as we could to catch the Broadway offerings.  Perhaps it was because my son went to Catholic school, that he turned bright red, and looked very nervous, when, during the production of Rent, the character of Maureen dropped her pants to expose her derriere. He was shocked. Nick had never seen a person in person take off clothing before, and I am sure he didn’t think his first time would be on a Broadway stage.

Right after that, we went to see the stage adaptation of The Graduate. He had a similar, although somewhat greater reaction, when Kathleen Turner took her bath towel off to expose the audience to her entire nakedness, which was staged to expose just her side view. The look of shock on his face was accompanied by a small side grin, and an embarrassed roll of the eyes.

The very next play we saw, was the excellent production of Mary Zimmerman’s play, Metamorphoses. In this production, when Narcissus falls in love with his reflection in a pool, he does so in complete, full-frontal nudity.  It was at this point that my son and I, realizing we had just hit the trifecta of consecutive Broadway skin exposure,  just looked at each other and started giggling.

Like my son, I was in high school the first time I saw nudity on stage, when my high school Drama Club went into New York for the day, to see a matinee of Hair. Martin Landau and his then wife, Barbara Bain were sitting in front of me with their kids. (Mission Impossible was an immensely popular TV show at that time, and Landau and Bain were its main stars.  Starstruck,  I spent much of that performance watching them watch the show.)

Diane Keaton, who had her Broadway debut in that production of Hair chose not to disrobe for that scene, even though the actors were paid a whopping $50 extra a week if they did.

As relatively progressive as male nudity is on the live stage, it is still somewhat taboo on film. Full frontal female nudity is an accepted norm in films, but men are often discreetly covered by designer sheets or a decorative pillow. Is it because female directors are still a very small minority?  In  1993, Australian director Jane Campion filmed Harvey Keitel in a nude scene in The Piano, and let’s just say, that did not catch on. More than twenty years later, people made such a big deal about the brief view of Ben Affleck’s manhood in the 2014 film, Gone, Girl, you would have thought he had just signed on for the touring company of Oh Calcutta!

When I saw that production of Hair, back when I was in high school, I knew then that I wanted to be an actress. I wondered what I would do if I was asked to do a nude scene on stage or in a film. I am ever so glad that was a decision I never had to make.

 

The Yale Cabaret offers delightful dinners before the show at the early performances, and small bites for the late shows. One of the nicest things about the past two shows I have attended at the Cabaret, were the people with whom we shared a table.  It is a wonderful thing to see a show, and then when the lights come on, look across the table at another pair of eyes and have a discussion about it. The conversation is fresh, and the memory of the play is so recent, you are still working it out. Boris Yeltsin is playing  through the 5th of December. 

 

 

 

 

Ease on Down the Road

112/3/2015

Back in the dark ages when I was a working actress performing in musicals, I remember being shocked at the discovery that there were people out there in parts of the United States, who had never been to the theatre…ever. I realize now that I was living in a bubble. I just did not understand how or why anyone could reach adulthood without having enjoyed the theatre experience, and even less comprehensible was the realization that for many people, missing out was not a big deal.

So When NBC decided to broadcast live performances of classic pieces of  American Musical Theatre, I was thrilled about what that might mean to people who don’t have easy access to live theatre, but I also approached the idea with some trepidation. I was concerned that Carrie Underwood playing Maria was going to be a disaster, but was comforted by the knowledge that their broadcast of The Sound of Music also had the brilliant Broadway icon, Audra McDonald playing the Mother Abbess.

Most Americans are familiar with the movie with Julie Andrews, but many people, it seemed, were unaware that the show was written for Mary Martin. Since they presented the show as it was written for the Broadway stage (not the revised movie edition) there were a lot of angry viewers out there who thought NBC had re-written the show to suit Underwood. Some people were disturbed by what they viewed as the unrealistic notion that a black woman could be in charge of a convent in prewar Austria; as if that was somehow pertinent to the plot. Overall, I enjoyed this production. And since my theatrical debut was playing Maria in my high school production of this show, it has a special place in my heart, so I was at least emotionally obliged to give it a thumbs up.

The second offering of Peter Pan was a huge disappointment.  Broadway fixtures, Kelly O’Hara and Christian Borle were, as per usual, superb, but Christopher Walken’s Captain Hook was a disaster, despite his years as a professional dancer and his confessed love of musical theatre. He seemed to mark his way through the show while quite obviously reading cue cards.  And frankly, the less said about Allison Williams as Peter, the better.

After that debacle, I was worried that NBC would abandon the project, but I am happy to say, they did not. Tonight (12/03/15) NBC will air a live broadcast of The Wiz, with an all-star cast that includes Queen Latifa as the Wiz. Stephanie Mills (who I saw in the original cast playing Dorothy back in the 70s) will play Auntie Em.  Yale Drama School alum, David Alan Grier will play the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow and the Tin Man are played by Elijah Kelley and Ne-Yo. Newcomer Shanice Williams will ease on down the road as Dorothy, Mary K Blige is the Wicked Witch, while Glinda is played by,  Orange is the New Black actress, Uzo Aduba.

Tony Award winning Kenny Leon directs the production, which was originally directed on Broadway by Geoffrey Holder.

Have a look at the making of the Wiz, which originally aired on NBC on November 25th, and is available on Demand through most cable or satellite services.  It was directed by Mary Murphy. Mary is an old friend of mine from my singing days on Nantucket.(Mary also directed the highly regarded documentary on Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, Hey, Boo, which is available on Netflix.) I defy you to watch this documentary and NOT cry when Shanice Williams is told she got the part.

 

(NBC is not the first network to broadcast a live Broadway musical.  Check out Julie Andrews in the 1957 CBS broadcast of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Julie Andrews rehearsed and performed this WHILE she was performing in My Fair Lady on Broadway. It was performed in a Broadway theatre, not a studio, and there are a few glitches, which just adds to the nail biting aspect of walking this kind of tight rope.  You can find scenes from it on You Tube, and the full production is available through Amazon.com)

 

 

 

Yale Rep/Peerless

Peerless by Jiehae Park

I love seeing the preview productions at the Rep.  Sometimes, as was the case on Friday night, the production has to stop, and work out some technical problems, and re-start when all is ready to go again.  I once saw an actor ask for a prompt, during the preview performance.   Having been an actor, I guess I like to know what is really going on backstage.

Peerless actually begins before the play gets started. There is no curtain for this show, and our main actors, a pair of twin sisters, are already on stage, sitting in school desks.  Their faces are completely without expression, as they take notes in their high school classroom.  Periodically, they stand up, walk to the back of the classroom, face each other, and fix the other’s hair, pull their crisp plaid skirts to perfection at the hem, and return to their desks in regimented gait. (This brought back memories of Jacques Tati’s film Playtime, where most scenes are shot with people walking in right angles in sets with no curves) But, we soon realize that there are also secrets, as one sister passes a note to the other, but no emotion shows on either one’s face. The note is simply answered, and sent back.

The actual play begins, with the sisters speaking quickly, excitedly to each other, almost in code, with words spilling out of their mouths percussively like they are being typed on a keyboard.  They finish each other’s sentences as they review their PLAN. This plan is absolutely their raison d’etra. The plan is to get into their number one college pick, referred to in the play as, The College.  So devoted they are to the plan, that one sister, named, L, repeated a year in school so that the two sisters would not compete for the one spot. That way, the other sister, named M, can throw the ladder back, and offer some leverage to add weight to her acceptance.  They have considered every aspect of success, including their geographic location, their gender, and the fact that they are Asian.  They have carefully chosen their AP classes, participate in a variety of diverse extracurricular activities, and are fluent in a few languages, including C++.  They have considered everything, except for the possibility of someone else in their school who has his eyes on the same college, and this student might also have an ethnic advantage combined with an unusual family situation that could help him get noticed.  He also attempted suicide once, and they figure that makes him somewhat more interesting than they are, and they are worried.

Finding inspiration from the Scottish play, playwright Jiehae Park has written an often funny, sometimes frightening piece about ambition and commitment to getting what you want, no matter the cost.

As sisters L and M, Teresa Avila Lim and Tiffany Villarin have just the right amounts of funny combined with psychotic.  The utter ruthlessness of L comes forward when M comes dangerously close to abandoning the plan out of a sense of compassion for a fellow student.  L immediately steps in to get her back to the reality of the importance of the plan, as if no other life scenario would be in any way tolerable should they fail.

JD Taylor is perfect in the duel role of D and DB, Christopher Livingston is SO charming in the role of BF, that I truly hope I see him in something that will offer him more stage time. In the roles of Dirty Girl and Preppy Girl, Caroline Neff could play strict stereo-type, and yet turns in a fully realized character in both parts.

The production was directed by Margot Bordelon, and the spectacular Projection Designs by Shawn Boyle were so exceptionally well done, I rather wished that he had taken a bow at curtain call.

Peerless is playing at the Yale Rep Theatre through December.  Here is a great link to info on the playwright and the play.

19th.http://www.yalerep.org/on_stage/2015-16/peerless.html

 

(The night we saw the show, they did have an after the show talk.  I don’t know if this will be throughout the run, but it was mentioned that they intended to bring the talks back on a regular basis.)