Okay, so it's not Memphis related, but if theater's your thing you have to give this great lady some respect.
It's only been a year since Playhouse on the Square opened its nifty new facility and more and more people seem to be noticing the good work that they do. Today at 5:30 p.m. Jackie Nichols and the gang will gather in the lobby for a champagne toast. The event, which stretches from 5:30- 7:30 p.m. is a free thank you to the community "for its continued support of Memphis’ only resident professional theatre."
I hate to say I told you so but... actually, I don't hate to say I told you so at all because this is great news. Michael Ching's inventive a cappella take on A Midsummer Night's Dream is already beginning to get national attention and it's extremely positive. Here's a review from the Wall Street Journal.
Take that FORBES!
[Title of Show] fits NextStage like yin pours into yang. Theatre Memphis has a well deserved reputation for producing fantastic sequin-and-feather musicals on its main stage and now its smaller space is hosting this grubby, profanity-laden homage to everything that makes Broadway musicals stupid and therefore great. The script—a little too twee and loosely based on the real-life exploits of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell—traces the progress of a quartet of talented, funny, attractive people (and a keyboard player) writing a musical about four talented, funny, attractive people (and a keyboard player) writing a musical about a quartet of talented, funny attractive people (and a keyboard player) writing a musical. Or something like that. The convention gets tired but the cast never does in the latest, greatest musical in a season already crowded with good work.
The best thing about [Title of Show] is how effortless it seems. The actors wear their parts like pajamas, all warm and loose fitting. The quirky, DIY choreography has a childlike quality that calls to mind the bit of pop philosophy about the virtues of dancing like nobody’s watching. And it does that without making you want to urp. From the opening song to the closing bows director Cecelia Wingate and her big-throated, big-hearted cast—Stephen Garrett, Brennan Villines, Jaclyn Suffel and Amy Polumbo — turn a dark, empty theater with no set to speak of, into the most interesting, and inviting place in the world. The barbs hit their targets, the jokes work, the songs are mostly hummable, and as a special self-aware treat to all the straight men in the crowd who’ve probably been drug kicking and screaming to the theater by their wives, there’s a hot half-naked hottie in a hot pink bra that’s hot. What else could anybody ask for?
On the surface [Title of Show] seems all edgy and original but backstage comedies have always been popular, and at heart that’s all this is. It’s Micky and Judy reinvented for the McSweeney’s crowd, with some burlesque mixed in for color. It’s everything that’s fun about live theater blended with only a few of the things that make it hokey, preachy, and annoying.
You don’t have to be a Broadway buff to have a good time at [Title of Show]. Those who are can expect to have an enhanced experience.
Beatboxing may not be something people think about when they think about opera but Michael Ching's new a cappella take on A Midsummer Night's Dream is an unprecedented event. All traditional orchestration has been eliminated in favor of a human voicestra with Paul Koziel of DeltaCappella manning the vocal percussion. In this video Koziel teaches Ned Canty, Opera Memphis' new General Director, how to turn his mouth into a big bad beat machine.
Although he's more than able to scratch and mix in a variety of electronic sounds Koziel isn't a hip hop beatboxer. Trained in the a cappella tradition the impressive impressionist sounds like he swallowed a drum kit with double kicks. Canty, who spent more time off camera talking about the Ramones and the Pogues than he did about Mozart and Stravinsky, turned out to be an attentive and able student.
I know that Dye, a U of M alum, believed in angels because he told me once while attempting to describe his unusual position as a celebrity. At a time in life when most actors are being asked about boyfriends and girlfriends and what it's like to be young and famous Dye was constantly being asked to describe his faith. It was a strange thing, he said, to always be talking about something so personal and complicated. It was to be expected though, he said, when you play the smiting angel on a high profile TV show, and he never minded sharing his beliefs, modest as they were, with interviewers and fans. When asked if he might actually be an angel the actor would often quote his father who advised, "You'll never be a car no matter how often you sleep in the garage."
Dye, of course, played Andrew, the helpful white-suited Angel of Death on the long running family drama Touched by an Angel. He was so closely-identified with the role that his presence on an airplane could send passengers into fits of anxiety. His fans were loving and legion.
Dye, an inspiration to his younger brother, Voices of the South director Jerre Dye, was leaving Memphis in a blaze of glory just as I was arriving in town so I never had the chance to get to know him very well although we've had several conversations over the years. His devotion to Memphis, and particularly to the U of M Theatre Department has always impressed, but that's just the tip of things. It was impossible to enter the Memphis theatre world in the mid 1980's and not be bombarded with stories about this Mississippi native who, after a bit of schooling in Memphis, was positioned for Hollywood stardom.
'80's Prepsploitation at it's finest
Making the Grade, a Prepsploitation film starring Judd Nelson, and shot on campus at Rhodes College in 1983 provided Dye with his big break. Shortly thereafter he was off to Hollywood to star in Campus Man. His Touched By an Angel character was intended to appear only semi-regularly but the part was quickly expanded.
I've never put much stock in awards, but in 1989 I received a certificate that meant a lot to me. The mean, nasty, absolutely hilarious judges/hosts of the Losers Awards, a boozy late night roast once held at the P&H Cafe every year immediately following the official Memphis Theatre Awards, presented me with the John "My Daddy Owns Tupelo" Dye award for most promising young actor. It was a rare, sincere moment in a night filled with snark, and I've always treasured it.
In his absence John Dye's reputation for commitment, energy, and inventiveness challenged many Memphis performers, especially men of a certain age, to get on stage and give it everything they had. So, even if I don't believe in angels, as he did, I do think I have some sense of what it's like to be touched by one.
Thanks John, you have been and will be missed.
Apparently this show about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical contains strong language and is "ig'nant." It opens at Theatre Memphis this weekend.
Speech & Debate, which opens this weekend at TheatreWorks, isn't a musical, although the honest teenage comedy does feature one funny, heartbreaking song. The number—captured in rehearsal below— is all about a Salem witch who travels forward in time to advise a very young, decidedly gay Abe Lincoln to hide his sexual proclivities in order to become president and free the slaves. Best line: "Trust me, I'm a Puritan."
Last night I dropped by WKNO's live preview of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a new a cappella opera by Michael Ching, who recently stepped down as Opera Memphis's General Manager. All I can say: Wow! Ching's score, written entirely for the human voice, does away with all traditional orchestration. Created in conjunction with Memphis's superb a cappella chorus DeltaCappella, it's A Midsummer Night's Dream as Bobby McFerrin might have imagined it. Given the enduring popularity of the source material, if the rest of the opera is as light and tasty as the preview samples, this show should have some serious legs. Don't take my word for it, have a listen.
Opera Memphis and WKNO are teaming up for a sneak preview of Michael Ching's a cappella adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Tue, Jan 4
Clark Opera Memphis Center
hors d'oeuvres @ 6:30p
live radio broadcast @ 7:00p