Friday, February 17, 2017

Talking Carole King with Beautiful Star Julia Knitel

Posted By on Fri, Feb 17, 2017 at 12:22 PM

  • Julia/Carole
Sure, you probably know Carole King’s double-sided hit single, “It’s Too Late Baby,” backed with “I Feel the Earth Move.” Maybe you own a copy of Tapestry. Or maybe your parents or grandparents owned a copy, so you might also know she wrote/co-wrote lots of songs that were hits for other people. Songs like “Natural Woman,” a generation-defining cut from Aretha Franklin, and the James Taylor staple, “You’ve Got a Friend.” King’s girl group oeuvre alone ran the gamut from the Chiffon’s optimistic “One Fine Day,” to the Crystal’s terrifying, “He Hit Me and it Felt Like a Kiss.”

And that's just the tip.

As a songwriter King charted well over 100 hits between the 1950’s and the turn of the millennium, making her one of the most successful American songwriters of the 20th-Century. The jukebox musical Beautiful maps King’s early career in the recording industry, and her rocky, but productive creative partnership with husband Gerry Goffin.

Intermission Impossible recently spoke with Julia Knitel, who plays King in the Broadway tour of Beautiful— docking soon at The Orpheum. Here’s what she had to say about the music, the person, and audiences who can’t seem to get enough.

Intermission Impossible: Were you a Carole King fan before you were cast?

Julia Knitel: I was, I was. I grew up in a house that had great respect for great music. I was bread on the likes of Carole King and Joni Mitchell and was really lucky in that sense, because, when I stepped into this show I had a pretty good background.

What’s your favorite song?

I always likes “Natural Woman.” It’s such a special song. That the song was written by a husband and wife is pretty incredible. But then you hear their story, and it’s not peachy. It’s just a beautiful piece of music.

And beautiful really does hone in on the early career, when she and Goffin are writing together.

She ages from 16 to 28 in the show.

Tell me a little bit about, well, the tapestry. How are the songs and biography woven together?

What’s special about the show vs a traditional jukebox musical is, we don’t create a story to shove songs into. We have an incredible story about a husband and wife and their very dear friend and writing partner Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. How their lives were changing, and in turn changing the scope of American music. And it’s really cool because you see a scene where they’re talking about having written a song, and they know it’s never going to be a hit, and they’re self-conscious of all of its flaws, then it gets done, and it’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and the Righteous Brothers are singing it. It’s just really cool to see where these people were when they were writing songs into the American songbook.

Are there songs you didn’t know so well that have grown on you since you’ve been with the show?

I have a real soft spot for “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” It didn’t dawn on me for a couple of months, but this song is about the morning after from a woman’s perspective of sex. And it was a first in popular American music.

Maybe not a first, but…

Even Joni Mitchell said it changed her life when she was growing up in Canada. Goffin is coming home late from work. Only later do we discover his wandering eye and tendency toward infidelity. It makes you question who that song is about. Of course Carole is naive — “of course it’s about me, and my husband, and our love life?” It’s up to the audience to decide for themselves who he was writing about.

People obviously connect her to her hits. But she wrote so much for other people.

You sit back and you say, “No way!” “The Loco-motion?” “Up on the Roof?”

"He Hit Me" ...

All these songs that became hits for other people, long before Tapestry.

How long have you been with the company?

Two years. I spent a year-and-a-half in the Broadway company. Now six months out here.

Still love it? Is it still fresh?

Absolutely. I love it more every day. Best job in the world.

Who is your audience?

It runs the gamut. Obviously the baby boomers love it because it’s music they grew up with. Their children love it because it’s the music they grew up with second hand. My generation has looked to the past to music for inspiration. And I think more people than expected are in love with Carol king. Fathers sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and the like, and it’s such a wide audience.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Opera Memphis Stages a Pop Culture Classic

How many times has the "Modern Major General" song been sung on TV and the Silver Screen? A zillion?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 15, 2017 at 4:44 PM

Opera Memphis’ general director/nerd-in-chief Ned Canty compares Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance to Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch. “It’s a direct descendent from the pirates," he says. "You take this very fearsome group of people and make them kind of ineffectual and cuddly. These pirates never attack anybody weaker than they are, and they never attack an orphan. So everybody says they’re an orphan and the pirates never make any money."

The Pythons aren't the only comics to crib from G&S. Is there any musical theater song more frequently referenced than Pirates' "Modern Major General?" I've linked to clips from a handful of times it's bubbled up in pop culture — this list can't even scratch the surface.

What notable versions of the Major General's song have been left out? Gotta be a lot.

• "You blew it my child": The great Gilda Radner gets comically tripped up on The Muppet Show. Also — a giant snooty carrot.

• "With the eggs on top": Poor Peter doesn't do much better on Family Guy.

• "Very unattractive flannel.": Pranks take an operatic turn on Home Improvement.

• Babylon 5. Wait for the credits.

•Things get dreamy in the "Peggy & the Pirates" episode of Married... with Children.

• Barney's diction gets better on The Simpsons. In space nobody can hear you burp.

• Searching for that last episode of The Simpsons made me aware of this rendition on Veggie Tales. So, that happened.

• And now for something not completely different, The Pirate Movie: "Not now darling, I'm on!"

Friday, February 10, 2017

Rock of Ages, Haint, Blueprints to Freedom Close, Sense and Sensibility Opens.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 10, 2017 at 1:46 PM

John Rone's a first rate director with some experience bringing Jane Austen's classics (as adapted by Jon Jory) to wordy life. Productions of Pride & Prejudice in 2008, and Emma in 2011 were long, literate affairs, lovely to look at and listen to.  Like I wrote following the original P&P, "If devoting the best eighth of your day to a barrage of class- and gender-conscious barbs traded with restraint in a variety of picturesque settings sounds at all like a little slice of heaven, then the play will probably be a delightful experience. If it sounds like a hellish torture ingeniously conceived by your worst enemies, it's probably that too."

That's no knock at the material or the work, which was very good.  
But, in my experience there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who live for 19th-Century authors, with a special affinity for Austen, and those who'd rather bathe in leaches. A say this as someone who trusts this creative team, and tends to be the former, with a slight preference for George Elliot's more startling imagery. If it sounds like you, order tickets now (opening night has already sold out). If it doesn't...

Maybe you'll want to check out Rock of Ages, which, in spite of being a difficult, class-conscious romance, is about as far as you can get from Jane Austen. The story goes something like this: The economy is wrecked, city cores are crumbling, but it's morning in America so foreign investors are snapping up property and transforming local flavor into upscale homogeneity. Into the scene walks Sherrie, a young girl from the heartland, in painted-on, cut-off jeans, dreaming of work on the silver screen, even while she works the pole in a gentleman's club. A five-minute stand with a burnout rockstar in the men's room of the Bourbon Room (a stand-in for the Whiskey a Go Go) has wrecked her chances for real love and brought her to a place she never thought she'd be. Now she's holding out for a hero. It's fun, vibrant work expertly executed by a great band, and a top-notch cast. Looks like they're having the time of their lives.

If you're in the mood for something a little more serious, Blueprints to Freedom is a timely ode to civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin. Michael Benjamin Washington's ambitious portrait of Civil Rights organizer Bayard Rustin, zeroes in on a singular moment in history. But what went down in the hot summer of 1963 didn't stay in 1963. The historic march for jobs on Washington D.C. was attended by 250,000 people, creating magnificent ripples that still rock us today. The play is celebratory. But it's also cool, conflict-ridden and circumspect. It shows Rustin, King's mentor in the ways of nonviolent protest, in exile, but still the intellectual center of a coalitional movement grasping for unity. In the era of Black Lives Matter, Washington's soul-searching history, also forces us to consider whether or not the "protest or politics" choice Rustin and union leader A. Philip Randolph present is a false dichotomy. As the late Judge D'Army Bailey often suggested, as an early advocate for the creation of a National Civil Rights museum, maybe activism is always in season.
To read more about Blueprints, here you go.

For something just as timely, but far more irreverent, Hand to God delivers. The time: Now, more or less. The place: A Sunday school room somewhere in suburban Texas. The plot: Margery is working through grief and an evidently difficult past by teaching teens how to reject Satan with puppets. She's a horny new widow doggedly pursued by a horny minister, engaged in a dangerous liaison with one of her horny young puppeteers, and emotionally ill-equipped to cope with her own horny, hurt, badly repressed, and clearly demon possessed teenager. Though sometimes compared to Avenue Q, because both shows contain foulmouthed puppets doing shocking things, Hand to God is more like a mashup of The Exorcist and King of the Hill, all under the influence of Meet the Feebles, Good stuff, dark as hell.

Looking for something a little more local? Justin Asher's a Memphis playwright to watch and Haint's an entertaining example of what he does. Inspired by rural legends about a woman who wanders the roadsides looking for her lost son, Haint tells the story of Mercy Seer, a caustic medicine woman who whips up weed-and-seed home remedies, hangs jars full of memories on trees, and occasionally pretends to talk to spirits for the townsfolk in order to pick up a few extra bucks. She lives in a ramshackle old house on the edge of town with her son Charley, who dies midway through the show, but never goes away. Worth checking out.

Also on stage this week: Hamlet.

I haven't seen the New Moon Theatre Company's take on Shakespeare's masterpiece, but I've seen the director play every single character in the show and trust it to be in very good hands. The cast is solid, and it looks fantastic.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Haint Ain't Bad. GCT Builds a Better Ghost Story

Posted By on Sat, Feb 4, 2017 at 5:01 PM

It’s easy to make fun of Scooby Doo, but that spooky Saturday morning cartoon show had one helluva message that it hammered home in episode after predictable episode: If you want to catch the real monsters, always follow the money. (And maybe the trail of empty bottles is a clue!) Justin Asher’s Haint is a Southern Gothic noir about life, death, and ghostly resurrection in the rural South, where gossip is corrosive politics, and church is a gated community separating “us” from “them.” But once you get past its hoodoo and hard boiled exterior, Haint’s got a heart that’s pure Scooby Doo. The bad guys would totally get away with it too if not for for a pair of meddling friends, who didn’t know they needed each other till they absolutely did.

Inspired by rural legends about a woman who wanders the roadsides looking for her lost son, Haint tells the story of Mercy Seer, a caustic medicine woman who whips up weed-and-seed home remedies, hangs jars full of memories on trees, and occasionally pretends to talk to spirits for the townsfolk in order to pick up a few extra bucks. She lives in a ramshackle old house on the edge of town with her son Charley, who dies midway through the show, but never goes away.

After being too long absent from the stage, Michele Somers makes an impressive return as Mercy. Her performance as the root-working conjurer, washerwoman, and mom is grounded, completely real, and a joy to watch. The former Playhouse on the Square company member swears this is her one last gig.  Let's hope that's not the case.

Somers leads an able cast that includes the reliable Marques Brown as an abusive sheriff, Amy Neighbors as his frustrated wife Evangeline, and Stuart Turner as poor, doomed Charley.

JoLynn Palmer is in top form as a small town gadfly with an agenda.

Justin Asher's set is fussy, but effective and Christopher Cotten’s sound design is about one snuck-in Robert Johnson song away from being perfect.

When I first reviewed Haint in 2014 I described it is being “a good play” — something the theater needs a lot more of. It’s an even better, tighter play now, with director Cecelia Wingate's fingerprints all over it. That's true, even if the outcomes are still a little woo - Scooby Doo. Though set in the early 1950’s, threads of otherism, sexism, slut-shaming, xenophobia, and good old fashioned Christian hypocrisy resonate.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Flick, Fun Home: Playhouse on the Square Announces 2017-18 Season

Posted By on Fri, Feb 3, 2017 at 6:09 PM

via GIPHYThree is a magic number. Playhouse on the Square begins and ends its 2017-18 season with musicals about female trios, doing things their way, and taking care of business. Circuit — housed in the old Memphian Theater — goes cinematic with The Flick, and Heathers the Musical then does a trip through theater history with Stupid Fucking Bird and Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf.

Combined, It's a season of solids, sleepers, and certifiable groundbreakers.
Playhouse on the Square


9 to 5
Not to be all Danny Downer, but pretty much everything you know about women's awesome progress across the 20th-Century is bunk. Yeah, good stuff happened, but every time a glass ceiling shattered, an iron window shade slammed shut.  Or something like that. The 1980 comedy 9 to 5 was full of silly laughs, but it's a straight up expression of ERA-era rage. — a screwball revenge fantasy about three working gals bucking the male dominated pet-along-to-get-along office politics. You knew there had to be a musical lurking in there somewhere, right?


Shakespeare in Love

You know that movie with the Gwyneth, right? Where she needs poetry in her life? That, basically.

Peter Pan

The story of the little boy who won't grow up and who also, apparently, won't go away.


You know what would be awesome? One surprise performance of this show in a little joint like Murphy's. Just screw all theatrical convention and let this music-forward story of an Irish Street musician and the woman who gives his songs meaning happen however it happens with pint-wielding patrons all around, and in the way. Yeah. That'll never happen, but on stage will be nice too.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor

I could go the rest of this life, and most of the afterlife without any more Neil Simon. But for this one, a fictionalized account of his time in the writers room on Your Show of Shows, I'll make an exception. It's no My Favorite Year, but it'll do.

Fun Home

Comic books come to the stage. But no superheroes here. Based on the best-selling graphic novel of the same name, Fun Home is a story about modern life modern love, sexual orientation, family, and the place you live. The author takes you on a tour of her life, and it's a sweet, sweet ride.


And I am telling you...  I'm pretty sure y'all know where this is going.

The Circuit Playhouse Season


The Flick
Employees at a run down movie theater argue about cinema is a terrible synopsis This form-pushing Pulitzer winner deserves better.


Does your teen angst have a body count? Do you love your dead gay son? Do you think Stranger Things has coat tails?
Junie B. Jones: The Musical
Everybody's favorite first grader, and stuff.


The Santaland Diaries
Sedaris' sassy Elf discovers the true meaning of ruining Christmas.


Perfect Arrangement
An Atomic age comedy inspired by true and horrible stories of the Red Scare, this is the story top US spooks employed to root out sexual deviance. Top covertly gay spooks, that is. Tales from the American closet.


James & the Giant Peach
If you don't know what this is I feel sorry for you.


Stupid Fucking Bird
The fucking Seagull. It's just the fucking Seagull. Only they went and fucked it up. Not in a bad way.


Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody
If Stupid Fucking Bird wasn't meta enough for you, this silliness from Second City is a mashup of Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Our Town, etc. I can already predict that the word "romp" will appear in most reviews.

A Peek at "Hamlet" from the Wings

Posted By on Fri, Feb 3, 2017 at 12:26 PM

Okay, okay, so the sound's not very good, the view is compromised, and, of course, it's a rehearsal, but I found this vid out there on the internets, and wanted to share it here anyway, because, this wonky little bit drives us right to the crossroads of thoughtfulness and simplicity where the best New Moon productions reside.

I may miss opening weekend, unfortunately. Would love to get some reader comments about the show.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Voice of Satan: Hand to God's a Wicked Piece of Puppet Theater

Posted By on Wed, Feb 1, 2017 at 5:18 PM

Aside: I told Hand to God director Irene Crist I'd let everybody know I attended a preview performance of the show. You know, the performance before the opening night performance, once called a "critic's preview," but now called "friends and family night." I promised I'd put the information front and center too, so here it is. The paint was literally, and figuratively still wet, but so what? I grew up on the other side of the footlights, and I always liked that smell. It smelled like the details coming together.

Promise fulfilled. Now, the review...
Hand to God. Holy shit. Maybe you should just clear your mind and let me give this to you like an elevator pitch. The time: Now, more or less. The place: A Sunday school room somewhere in suburban Texas. The plot: Margery is working through grief and an evidently difficult past by teaching teens how to reject Satan with puppets. She's a horny new widow doggedly pursued by a horny minister, engaged in a dangerous liaison with one of her horny young puppeteers, and emotionally ill-equipped to cope with her own horny, hurt, badly repressed, and clearly demon possessed teenager. Though sometimes compared to Avenue Q, because both shows contain  foulmouthed puppets doing shocking things, Hand to God is more like a mashup of The Exorcist and King of the Hill, all under the influence of Meet the Feebles,

There's something not quite right about the Circuit Playhouse's production, admirably directed by Irene Crist, with showy performances by Jordan Nichols and L.B. Wingfield, and a strong cast all around. It's a tonal problem. Something I like to call "outside the trailer park looking in" syndrome, with actors commenting on characters they need to inhabit. But it's not quite wrong either — except in the ways it's supposed to be.
Hand to God works like The Twilight Zone or Tales From the Crypt. It's a living comic book journey into mystery, complete with an ominous narrator. In this case, a gospel-preaching sock puppet named Tyrone. It's a trip to the House of Secrets in a Black Mirror universe much like our own, where humor and heartbreak spring from some really dark, sometimes genuinely upsetting places. Crist's take is a little more icky sit-com with lots of canned contemporary kiddie music. It should  appeal to the more mature end of the Stranger Things demo, but could stand a bolder, more cringe-inducing treatment.

Nichols uses young Jason/Tyrone's split personality to really show off his acting chops and it's impressive stuff.  The infernally-charged monster on the end of his arm has its own independent life — One that, unlikely as it seems, becomes even more unique and vibrant in the scenes Nichols plays with himself. The play's best moment happens when Jason and Jessica (L.B. Wingfield, wonderfully) have the show's first real breakthrough conversation. It's a feat they accomplish while their puppets are having nasty sex and too distracted to interrupt.

Tracie Hansom's about the bravest actor in town. She's always good and often great, though she didn't seem completely comfortable as Margery. The same goes for Sam Weekley as a minister with roaming hands and entitled fingers. He settles in when the good Reverend slips out of good ol' boy mode and into something a little more authoritarian.  As Timmy, the Sunday School bully, Jacob Wingfield takes care of business like the bad motherfucker in a John Hughes film.

I got the sense Hand to God was coming together late. On the night before opening actors were still too busy wrestling with their parts to be part of an ensemble. But they were getting there.

Freaky stuff, and recommended. But not for the faint of heart.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Rules for Radicals: "Blueprints to Freedom" is Right on Time

Posted By on Tue, Jan 31, 2017 at 11:52 AM

Courtney Williams Robertson as Bayard Rustin in the Hattiloo Theatre's production of Blueprints to Freedom. - HATTILOO THEATRE
  • Hattiloo Theatre
  • Courtney Williams Robertson as Bayard Rustin in the Hattiloo Theatre's production of Blueprints to Freedom.
Blueprints to Freedom has its share of resonant moments. But, in this peculiar place we occupy in spacetime, nothing rang out in the theater like this four word question — "Why do we march?"

Michael Benjamin Washington's ambitious portrait of  Civil Rights organizer Bayard Rustin, zeroes in on a singular moment in history. But what went down in the hot summer of 1963 didn't stay in 1963. The historic march for jobs on Washington D.C. was attended by 250,000 people, creating magnificent ripples that still rock us today. The play is celebratory. But it's also cool, conflict-ridden and circumspect.  It shows Rustin, King's mentor in the ways of nonviolent protest, in exile, but still  the intellectual center of a coalitional movement grasping for unity. In the era of Black Lives Matter, Washington's soul-searching history, also forces us to consider whether or not the "protest or politics" choice Rustin and union leader A. Philip Randolph present is a false dichotomy. As the late Judge D'Army Bailey often suggested, as an early advocate for the creation of a National Civil Rights museum, maybe activism is always in season.
Davis, Randolph, and Rustin - HATTILOO THEATRE
  • Hattiloo Theatre
  • Davis, Randolph, and Rustin
American politics have always failed to account for class issues at the intersection of race and gender. Blueprints to Freedom is especially good at showing intersectional tensions inside the movement, with special attention paid to the predicament of being a minority inside a minority: Women, atheists, gays, etc. The communist-affiliated Rustin had been to jail for draft dodging, and for being homosexual, which made for easy propaganda, and an uneasy relationship with Martin Luther King and other movement leaders. All anybody had to do to spread discredit was go on the radio, name names, read charges, and infer, infer, infer.

American propaganda used against Americans isn't the latest fashion, it's retro chic.

Washington's play is also very good at showing Rustin's complicated relationship with physical sex, and how he found discipline, and motivation in faith, even when he was deeply skeptical, and unable to find the light or hear the still, small voice. It's especially satisfying watching Bayard — a Quaker whose faith walks hand in hand with a widening skepticism — sparring with MLK over which Biblical character they're most like, and how that rhetorical bedrock defines their tricky relationship.

The Hattiloo gets things done, but the production feels like an unfinished sketch — Roughed in and a little bit stilted. Even a beautifully executed piece of multimedia that takes the audience on a documentary tour of the '63 march stops the show in its tracks. Ultimately strong characters, strong writing, committed actors, and one hell of a timely story about complicated alliances, secrets, sacrifices, and hard choices wins the day.
Also starring a piano, never played. - HATTILOO THEATRE
  • Hattiloo Theatre
  • Also starring a piano, never played.
Courtney Williams Robertson struggles to find his center as Rustin, but grows into the role as the narrative unfolds. It's an unassured performance that still strikes many of the right chords. He is especially good in scenes where Rustin explores faith, not as a matter of passive certainty, but active process.

Tim Flowers and Charlton Johnson are effective as Randolph, and King. Like Robertson, it takes Johnson a little time to warm up to his role. But he's also a real life minister, and when he works up a good head of steam, there's a mix of vulnerability and authenticity to his cadences that transcends simple imitation. Strong stuff in fits and starts.

Hattiloo regular Bart Mallard is typically capable, if maybe a little too predatory-seeming, as Davis Platt, Rustin's white lover, who can't square any struggle for freedom that means he has to keep hiding and pretending. Mallard is a confident performer, and a grounding presence on stage. When he's in the game things move. Stakes become evident, and choices get made. The same is true of Maya Robinson, who never fails to find the humor or the humanity in her characters. She's a perfect fit for Miriam Caldwell, Rustin's atheist, feminist, single mom intern.

The Hattiloo has been on a roll with strong shows like Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, and The House That Will Not Stand — easily the most fulfilling thing the company's produced since Hurt Village rocked its old, shop-front space to the foundation. To that end, Blueprints to Freedom, which could be fluid and majestic, is stiff, with visible seams and a projection screen that ripples like a sail in a gale. The one constant element — and probably the most important — is top notch content programming.  As was the case with The House That Will Not Stand, Blueprints is a show with a lot of life still ahead of it. We haven't heard the last of it.

So, back to the original question: "Why do we march?" There are a lot of answers, I guess. The first may be to find out who we are. The second is to show everybody else — or remind them — whether they like it or not. The rest is politics. 
Looking for the light. - HATTILOO THEATRE
  • Hattiloo Theatre
  • Looking for the light.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Take The 39 Steps, Please: Theatre Memphis Roasts Hitchcock

Posted By on Sat, Jan 28, 2017 at 5:21 PM

(l to r) Gabe Beutel-Gunn, Lena Wallace Black, Kinon Kiplinger and Chase Ring perform in the comedic adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The 39 Steps at Theatre Memphis, January 20 - February 5
  • (l to r) Gabe Beutel-Gunn, Lena Wallace Black, Kinon Kiplinger and Chase Ring perform in the comedic adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The 39 Steps at Theatre Memphis, January 20 - February 5
Style only goes so far. But sometimes "so far" is a long, long way. Theatre Memphis' take on The 39 Steps, an homage to cinematic suspense, murders any opportunity for tension or coherent storytelling, but the wounds bleed laughter. Style and some very good acting carry the day even when it's impossible to follow the plot. At every surprising twist and unforeseeable turn it looks great doing whatever it is it does.

The 39-Steps is a tough proposition. It's a balancing act between Hitchcocky storytelling and self-aware gags in the vein of a Seth Macfarlane cartoon. Only, instead of Family Guy's celebrity drop-ins, be on the lookout for allusions to other films, particularly those by the old master himself. Add to all that an impressive stunt factor:  Four actors  play somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 characters, revisiting events from movies that should be impossible to recreate onstage. Airplane chases, anybody? (Airplane chases anybody?)

Director Tony Isbell has built a chaotic clown show, chock full of cheap theatrics and owing as much to the Marx Brothers as it does to Hitchcock. Of course his cast of clowns are deadly serious, especially when they're being absolutely ridiculous. The show's train-top chase is a purely theatrical joy, as is the climactic moment when the villain is flung from the balcony. And if you think that's a spoiler, you may not fully grasp the fact that the plot just does not matter here at all. Besides, while unessential, it's more fun if you've seen the film already. If, by some chance, I've now spoiled the film for you, it's like 80-years-old, you had your chance.

The 39 Steps  tells the story of an ordinary, if almost impossibly handsome Londoner, who, while going about the everydays, stumbles bum-behind-teakettle into rollocking spy-infested misadventure. This go-round said Londoner is played by Kinon Keplinger, and it's a perfect fit. Keplinger's a versatile character actor trapped in the person of a lost-in-time leading man. He's a solid anchor — the one actor not jumping from role to role, holding all the play's threads together , even when things threaten to become unmoored.

Gabe Beutel-Gunn, Lena Wallace Black, and Chase Ring play everybody else with an eye toward the original film, and heel toward the banana peel. But not really. I'd never spoil a good banana peel gag.

I don't know how well the 39-Steps works in Theatre Memphis' big space. It's a big little show. It wants to be big, and it looks great on the stage. But it's also a show that benefits from intimacy. It wants to include the house, and Isbell's hyper-aware production ups the ante on all that. The deep, narrow space with its gulf between upper and lower seating doesn't prevent this sort of thing, but it's not ideal either.

The 39-Steps is one of those shows where pieces outshine the whole, and the gags are the best thing going. To that end it's a little like vaudeville. And, as the setting should make perfectly clear, it knows it.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Wild, Wild, Wild: Rock of Ages Revisits the Reagan Era

Posted By on Fri, Jan 27, 2017 at 1:38 PM

Just a small town girl... - MCDONALD/SIMMERS
  • McDonald/Simmers
  • Just a small town girl...
It’s confession time. I haven’t been a fan of 80’s top-40 music since way back in the 80’s when my high school class wanted to make the sappy Phil Collins hit “Against All Odds,” the song we marched into at graduation. Unironically. So, it should come as no surprise, of all the jukebox musicals out there — good, bad, and terrible — I’ve always had the hardest time giving Rock of Ages a fair shake. It’s like somebody went out of their way to pick all the music I rebelled against and force-fit it into a thinly plotted romantic comedy set in the sleazy, testosterone-flooded hair metal scene of LA’s Sunset Strip. The first viewing I endured like torture, and swore it would be the last. The show’s campy edge couldn’t shake off the slime, and the few songs I do legitimately enjoy (Motering...) couldn’t escape the horrible gravity of Starship’s “We Built This City,” which, I think we can all agree, is at least a least a semi-finalist in the worst song in history contest. So imagine my surprise when I found myself (mostly) enjoying Playhouse on the Square’s energetic homage to the Reagan era, when everything was awful.

The story goes something like this: The economy is wrecked, city cores are crumbling, but it’s morning in America so foreign investors are snapping up property and transforming local flavor into upscale homogeneity. Into the scene walks Sherrie, a young girl from the heartland, in painted on cut-off 
Born, raised in S. Detroit. - MCDONALD/SIMMERS
  • McDonald/Simmers
  • Born, raised in S. Detroit.
jeans, dreaming of work on the silver screen, even while she works the pole in a gentleman’s club. A 5-minute stand with a burnout rockstar in the men’s room of the Bourbon Room (a stand-in for the Whiskey-a-Go-Go) has wrecked her chances for real love, and brought her to a place she never thought she’d be. Now she’s holding out for a hero.

In this case, the real bad guy isn’t the asshole rock star — a cross between David Lee Roth of Van Halen and Axl Rose. We recognize him from first meeting, as someone spiraling toward oblivion and probably a toilet filled with his own vomit. The villain is a German real estate speculator with no compunctions about bulldozing rock clubs and putting up a retail shopping destination. The hero is busboy and would-be metal god, Drew Boley, who only wants to rock. And maybe sip some wine coolers with a nice girl now and then.

Scott Ferguson is a favorite among directors. I like how he stuffs scenes to their bursting point with life, color, and texture, although sometimes storylines get swallowed up in all the fun. This go-round, he keeps the action up front, and the conflicts clear while working with choreographer Travis Bradley to build body shots, stage dives, and lots of windblown hair into the production numbers.  Even the muddled second act races along like a crazy train, always threatening to slip off the rails.

There’s always been a little teeny-tiny hint of Threepenny Opera in Rock of Ages, and Ferguson, and a rock solid ensemble, find grace and meaning in LA’s slimy underbelly. Maybe even a hard life lesson or two.

Kathryn Kilger is a fine fit for Sherrie, the good girl in a bad situation, and Chris Steinmetz is appropriately cringe-inducing as Stacee Jaxx, a pretty, petty boozed up sack of garbage in too-tight pants. Isaac Middleton sometimes struggles with the range and brute force the songs require, but he overcomes all obstacles including the character’s own piggish instincts. He makes you love him, and makes the music work.

The glue holding everything together, however, is Stephen Garrett, who’s back on stage in Memphis after a brief hiatus. It is a welcome and auspicious return. Garrett specializes in emotionally detached smart guys, smartasses, and smarmsters with hearts of gold. This go-round he’s Lonny, a rock-and-roll lifer, living for the city and the scene: A little bit middle aged Jim Morrison, a little bit roadie for Spinal Tap. But the way he leads both the audience, and his fellow characters through the show is more like stoner Bugs Bunny leading Elmer Fudd on a wild rabbit chase. You just know somebody’s gonna get a big ol’ kiss. It may be my favorite musical performance by Garrett since he Christian rocked the house in the band satire Alter Boyz.

If there's anything I dislike more than Hair Metal it's Huey Lewis & the New's Sports LP. But if there is a Heart of Rock & Roll it's Jarrad Baker as the Bourbon's true believing owner, trying to hold on to that feeling and everything else that matters, even if he can't hold on to his club. Jonathan Christian turns in a strong supporting performance as Hertz, the teutonic moneyman, as does dancing machine Daniel Stuart Nelson who channels the spirit of Klaus Nomi as Hertz’s son Franz. Brooke Papritz mugs a little too much in her role as a cartoon activist, but also displays comic instincts reminiscent of Laugh In-era Ruth Buzzi.

Annie Freres has a voice that can’t be ignored, and her too-brief moments on stage are worth the ticket price. "Shadows of the Night," could have gone on much, much longer.

I’m never going to be a Journey fan. Or a Bon Jovi fan. Or all that into Quiet Riot. But if every production of Rock of Ages was as full and fun as this one, I could warm up to it pretty quickly — Against all Odds.
  • Anywhere
Apologies: Brooke Papritz was originally misidentified because somebody clearly can't read a program. (Me)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Hitchcock, Cock Rock, and Bayard Rustin Live on Stage

Posted By on Fri, Jan 20, 2017 at 1:23 PM

Rock of Ages
I'm sure the Germans must have a word for it. (What does "Gunter gleiben glauchen globen" mean, anyway?) But, far as I know, there's no good English word or phrase to describe the sensation, unique to critics, of being entertained by a show you dislike in every way a thing can be disliked. "Guilty pleasure" doesn't quite get there, because there's nothing inauthentic about having one's biases dismantled by the right cast, or some clever staging.

The 80's-era jukebox show Rock of Ages collects all of my least favorite songs from high school (snatches of Benatar and actual guilty pleasure "Sister Christian" excepted) and plops them down in a thin romantic comedy set on the Sunset Strip in a fictionalized Whiskey-a-Go-Go during the sleazy heyday of hair metal. It's a fine locale for exotic bird-watching, and almost relevant as America lists in a gaudier, greedier direction.  Director Scott Ferguson keeps things light and moving, and the cast sells it even when some of them can't quite sing it. Either way, I could recommend this entirely were it not for some excessive mugging, and "We Built This City,"  an automatic deal breaker.

Still, if you need some 80's-era escapism, Playhouse on the Square's got a great big jellybean jar full of the stuff. Full review to come.

Screwball Suspense
(l to r) Gabe Beutel-Gunn, Lena Wallace Black, Kinon Kiplinger and Chase Ring perform in the comedic adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The 39 Steps at Theatre Memphis, January 20 - February 5
  • (l to r) Gabe Beutel-Gunn, Lena Wallace Black, Kinon Kiplinger and Chase Ring perform in the comedic adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The 39 Steps at Theatre Memphis, January 20 - February 5

The 39 Steps (opening at Theatre Memphis) is a fine example of what's possible when performers throw out all the old rules about "suspending disbelief" and simply ask audiences to engage their imagination and play along. Suddenly, anything's possible.

This giddy homage to Alfred Hitchcock is built on one primary conceit: A small company of actors play 150-plus characters, recreating events from various Hitchcock films that are impossible to recreate onstage — being chased by airplanes for example. When it works it's what fun theater is all about.

Blueprints to Freedom

Man, Bayard Rustin is a complicated individual. He was an architect of the Civil Rights movement but  isolated within the movement, not because of his prison time, but because he went to jail for things like standing up against the draft and being gay. He was as a nonbeliever among ministers — a Communist who eventually became a neoconservative. As a labor organizer his common sense mantra "from protest to politics," shifted responsibilities from individuals to intermediaries at the moment when corporations became people, money became speech, and the movement became unraveled.

Blueprints to Freedom, a new play opening this week at the Hattiloo Theatre drops in on Rustin in the tense Summer of 1963. It depicts a man of conviction and contradiction confronting an enormous, assignment — to organize an unprecedented march on Washington D.C. When it comes to subject matter, you simply couldn't ask for better.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Living Colors: "Other People's Happiness" is a Well Made Play

Posted By on Thu, Jan 12, 2017 at 11:18 AM

Little ditty 'bout Sara & John
  • Little ditty 'bout Sara & John
You know what it's like when everybody in the family gets sick at the same time? Nobody's able to make soup, or Jello, and somebody's always in the bathroom when you really need to go, and nobody can seem to be nice to anybody for very long, even when everybody's sympathetic? Other People's Happiness is a little like that. It's a well made play about a tightly knit family of four who all come down with relationship flu at the same time. Some of the drama feels artificial — manufactured by characters who court it — but there's some real stuff too in this latest NewWorks@TheWorks-winning world premier. It's a handsom thing too.

Like most well made plays Other People's Happiness begins fairly late in an ongoing story, and the first stretch is devoted to much exposition. This one starts on a family fishing vacation, with an occasionally interrupted monologue by John. He's a reasonably successful businessman and father of two, who's casting around for more than the evening meal. John drops his fishing line again and again without success, while talking about the new phase he and his wife Sara are entering. Maybe it's time to relax and try new things. Maybe they can spice things up too with some erotic adventures. But Sara has a completely different future in mind, whether she's willing to be honest about it or not. Words are spoken, mean things are done. Stupid things too.

Did you catch the metaphors? I figured. More complications (and metaphors) arise when the couple's adult son and daughter, who are experiencing rocky patches of their own, get involved. The details make the show, so I'll say one more thing and stop at that. There's a twist that comes near the end of the show. In a well made play there's almost always a twist that reverses much of what the characters think they know about everything.

Jeanna Juleson is a terrific Sara, reserved on top but with so much more going on just below the surface. After all these years she's still something of a mystery to her husband, and that's only mostly his fault. Gordon Ginsberg's John is appropriately bland, working harder than his wife to maintain a veneer of reason and control while completely losing his shit. Jacquelyn Skoog Hayner and Standrew Parker are the kids and they both bring a lot of dimension to characters that are sometimes more functional than fully baked.

Like a New Yorker Cartoonist, playwright Adam Seidel has a fine sense of economy. He ably builds people we recognize, and circumstances we know too well, with only a few scribbles and scrawls. And like old masters of the well made play he makes great use of letters and notes. Or, in this case, smart phones. So many big events happen offstage and are explained in scenes where the kids meet up to catch up, or while John gives a tour of the barn he's decided to rehabilitate and repurpose. It sometimes makes for a play that's more talky than active. When somebody sets fire to the family home conversations about the blaze need to pulse with the heat and horror of memories and dreams fighting to stay alive. What we get is more and more squabbling between characters who are so bland they're almost fascinating.

New plays are usually born in an austerity that fosters marvelous invention. But a professionally mounted show is one of the real perks of POTS' competition, and it's a nice one. Veteran performer/first time director Leah Bray Nichols hasn't gone out on any limbs, and with a straightforward piece like Other People's Happiness, that's probably for the best. She's shown a keen sense for what's necessary, and gotten honest, believable performances from a generous cast. But artistry is another metaphor in Other People's Happiness and the real stars of the show are Jackie Nichols' blank canvas set and Mandy Heath's gorgeous, painterly lighting design. Heath isolates her figures in space and makes them glow against rich, jewel tone landscapes of color that sometimes make up for an absence of color in the writing. The lights are a big bold choice in a play plays it safe and could benefit from more bold choices.

New plays are the lifeblood of live theater, and Playhouse on the Square's New Works series, now in its third production season, has been a magnet for solid material like We Live Here, and the excellent Byhalia, Mississippi. Like most of what we've seen so far from the series, Other People's Happiness is intriguing, with real potential to become something much better with a draft or two. On many occasions I've made the point that not everything needs to be a masterpiece, the theater needs more good plays appealing to all kinds of consumers. Other People's Happiness is already a good play, and it connects, judging by the mostly enthusiastic response of a packed Saturday night house. It's also a little familiar — currently lacking the unique identity and defining moments that make for really memorable theater. Leah Nichols' clean composition and Heath's saturated colors make it memorable anyway.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Best of Memphis Theater, 2016: A Highly Subjective List

Posted By on Mon, Dec 26, 2016 at 11:17 AM

The drama of another year is playing out its final scene. It would normally be time to look back and remember the good, the bad, and the ridiculous. But, if I'm reading the social media tea leaves correctly, 2016's been a bummer for everybody, so I'm going to do something completely out of character and only highlight the good stuff.

While I aim to see everything, and do see most of the shows produced in Memphis, I inevitably miss some things along the way. GCT's Ostrander-winning production of A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, might have made my year's end list if I'd seen it. Or maybe not, hard to say. This list isn't supposed to be definitive. It's a collection of things that spoke to me, surprised me, moved me, and made me laugh. Feel free to add, detract, or share your own lists in comments.

1. The Other Place: Great script, great cast, great show.
"It’s not an uplifting play, this story of Dr. Juliana Smithton, a biophysicist developing drugs to treat dementia, while losing her grip on reality. She has brain cancer. Or maybe she doesn’t. Her husband is screwing around and filing for divorce. Or maybe he's not. Her daughter’s dead in a ditch somewhere, or maybe she's at the bottom a the river sleeping with the fishes, or maybe — just maybe — she’s dropping by the family’s second home and bringing the twins to visit grandmother. "

2. The House That Will Not Stand: A fantastic script based on Lorca's House of Bernarda Alba. Betting this one picks up some Ostrander nominations next summer. And an award or two.
"Set in New Orleans in 1813, a short decade after the Louisiana Purchase, House is, in part, about the Americanization of French Louisiana where communities of free blacks flourished. Men and women, once able to walk the streets without papers, could be stopped by authorities and enslaved. With this change in dynamics — all tragic contemporary resonances considered — came other changes to culture and tradition. The House That Will Not Stand touches on many things, but is essentially a twisted, sometimes terrible Cinderella story built around an old, decaying practice of French colonials taking black common-law wives. There is a (possibly) wicked mother, who only wants to protect her three girls from the new system, keep them out of the old system, mind her interests, and serve the occasional slice of pumpkin pie."

3: Charles III: Missed opportunities in staging were more than balanced by solid performances and a clever, confident script that out Shakespeare's Shakespeare. Like The House That Will Not Stand, this one's got play prizes in its future.
"Mike Bartlett's deliberately (and delightfully) Shakespearean King Charles III is a history play about things that haven't happened yet. It's also one of the more interesting, and innovative scripts to make rounds in ages. It begins with somber candles, and a sad eventuality — the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II who, in real life, is still very much alive, but a relative short-timer at 90-years and ticking."

4. Peter and the Starcatcher: Theater should be theatrical — like Peter and the Starcatcher. Cheers for David Foster as Black Stache.

"I’m not going to say too much about Rick Elice’s sprawling — sometimes too sprawling — Peter Pan origin story, because it’s a show where the journey really is the destination. I’ll merely note that it begins with two tall ships sailing in different directions to a common destination. One ship carries a mysterious trunk, some British seamen, and a bunch of pirates. The other carries young boys destined for slavery, the daughter of a British seaman, an identically mysterious trunk, and a passel of seagoing scoundrels. It ends at the beginning of a legend we already know, about the immortal Pan locked in his forever battle with a wicked, one-handed brigand. Between times there’s swashbuckling, glib banter, vaudeville routines, a song or two, and just enough gut-honest acting to keep things real."

5.Byhalia, Mississipi: One of the best reviewed plays of 2016 has deep Memphis roots.
"Jim, [Evan] Linder's philandering male protagonist, is what passes for "post racial" in the American South. Evan McCarley plays him as a laid back good ol' boy who can't understand why Ole Miss abandoned Col. Reb, but "some of his best friends "... etc. The play trades old Jim Crow stereotypes for new Jim Crow stereotypes so Jim, an unemployed construction worker faced with the prospect of taking a job at Walmart, isn't frothing at the mouth because his wife slept with an African-American. Sure, he immediately assumes the worst of his best friend Karl, but, end of day, the baby's blackness is only an issue because it's an indelible mark of Laurel's infidelity. It makes her mistakes worse than his own because her mistakes can't be swept under the rug. Pop culture's usual cartoon rednecks who hate on women and do racist things because they're cartoon rednecks have been replaced here by something more banal. And more awful. Something that loves you like your mama. Something that hides behind heritage, embedding itself in values and institutions where nobody will look because looking is rude."
6: Beauty and the Beast: This wasn't a great year for musicals in Memphis. In some cases extravagant extravagance underscored flaws instead of hiding them. And God only knows what went wrong with The Wiz. Playhouse on the Square did good work with less than stellar material like Sister Act and Memphis' namesake musical. Only one song and dance show really delivered the goods start to finish.
"There’s a difference between staging a classic fairytale and staging the Disney version of a classic fairytale. When one leaves the public domain to dance with branded content, there are certain obligations (not to mention expectations) to forego interpretation and adhere, as much as possible, to visual tropes and character traits established by Disney in a growing catalog of adapted animated features. In other words, you’re supposed to faithfully recreate beloved cartoons on stage. Large talent’s a must, obviously, and some ingenuity is always required. But as long as you can figure out a way to raise enough money to rent a Shrek head, or build a giant whale mouth, all the creative stuff’s been taken care of for you by Uncle Walt’s magnificent i-merch-a-neers. So it’s rare to see a company really stamp a Disney musical and make it their own. That’s what makes Theatre Memphis’ production of Beauty & the Beast a little extra special."

7: Henry V: Close to perfect.
"To borrow a line from Shakespeare's titular boy king, "The fewer men, the greater share of honor." I suppose that means there's plenty of honor to go around for the 10 hard working actors taking on every role in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's Henry V, handsomely situated on stage at the University of Memphis...".

8: Compleat Wrks if Wllm Shkspr (Abridged): Comedy really is hard. You wouldn't know it though watching this seemingly effortless romp.
"Don’t go to Theatre Memphis’ production of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) unless you like good acting, stupid gags, and Falstaff-sized belly laughs. It’s a perfectly entertaining night in the theater, and I’m more than a little surprised to find myself typing those words. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s signature piece with its abundant (sometimes dated) pop culture references, and glib approach to the material. But Theatre Memphis’ production is completely current, with enough heart to comfort like sunshine after rain."
9. (Tie) I Hate Hamlet and One Ham Manlet. Do we overproduce Shakespeare and Shakespeare by-products? Love it though I do, I sometimes think so. More accurately (and troublesomely), we cynically ignore big chunks of his oeuvre while wearing out a narrow spectrum of hits. 5 plays on this short list are Shakescentric  and three of them — including the Compleat Wrks — are mostly about Hamlet. Good news: It was all a joy to watch.

If you only see one one-man Hamlet this season, make it One Ham Manlet. It's a joy for Shakespeare lovers, but also a fantastic entry point for skeptics, who think they should know a little something about the celebrated tragedy, but can't bring themselves to commit to the full four-hour show. 
It seems silly to write it down, but tastes have changed quite a bit since John Barrymore's days on the Great White Way. There's not much room in the modern theater for the kind of disposable material I Hate Hamlet aspires to. Jokes fall flat. Characters annoy. But just when it feels like the play's about to devolve into a live action version Three's Company, Rudnick's comedy — aided by director John Maness and a terrific ensemble — taps into something genuinely Shakespearian.
10. Sister Act: One of the most appealing shows I've ever actively disliked. Proof that good theater is often greater than the sum of its parts. There's dialogue in Sister Act that makes me cringe, and I'll count myself lucky if I never have to sit through this musical again. It made my list because I believe in giving credit where it's due. Designers and performers understood that they had one job here — to entertain. Nailed it.

"Painterly lighting designs by John Horan splatter across Jimmy Humphries' fine, illustration-based scenery to make this Sister Act easy on the eyes. Rebecca Powell's costumes take cues from the script's John Travolta references and are built to highlight the dancers' most shakable parts. It's almost enough to send alert audience members straight to confession."

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Man of Tomorrow: Q&A with Annie Lyricist Martin Charnin

Posted By on Thu, Dec 15, 2016 at 2:12 PM

  • Joan Marcus
  • Annie
Martin Charnin's Broadway career got of to an auspicious start when he sang and danced his way through more than 1000 performances of West Side Story. And, even if you aren't a Broadway aficionado and don't  recognize the name, chances are you probably know some of the lyrics he wrote for Annie, a show he also directed on Broadway in 1977. Charnin additionally directed the Annie revival currently on stage at the Orpheum. Intermission Impossible talked to him about spending a life in the theater, and the last 40-years with America's favorite orphan.

Intermission Impossible: Annie's 40-years-old.

Martin Charnin: It will be, absolutely. 40 years.

II: And you've been with it from the beginning. How many productions have you directed?

MC: Aside from the original that I directed on Broadway, I did it three times in revivals on Broadway. And about sixteen other productions. Road companies, London, Amsterdam, Australia. And Regional theater things and tours.

That makes you the foremost authority on all things Daddy Warbucks.

MC: At this time probably yes.

II: I'm always interested in how shows travel through time. And in this case we're talking about a character that precedes the show by another 40-years at least. So Little Orphan Annie is created during the Great Depression. Annie opens on Broadway in 1977 when America's struggling with recession, an energy crisis, no jobs, inflation. Now your revival's coming to the Orpheum at a moment of extreme political and economic uncertainty. Tell me about the life of this billionaire able to access the power of the US government in ways no ordinary citizen might, and the orphan who always seems to show up when things are dark and gloomy/

MC: The concept of this show is universal. One of the things we discovered, particularly in this production, is that it is extremely relevant. And that relevance surfaces in different dosages every time it’s done depending on where the country’s psyche happens to be. We haven’t changed anything. I’m often asked, “When did you rewrite the show to make it appropriate and fitting for the time.” And the answer I always give is, ‘We have not changed anything.’ From a physical standpoint we have. Every time you cast it you change it because different actors will have different attitudes. But the text and musical content hasn’t changed since 1977. We wrote it with an eye for what we were all really feeling, and conflicted about, and angry about, and disappointed about in the 70’s. That cycle comes around and for whatever reason we always need that moment of reassurance — that tap on the shoulder that says, no matter how awful everything is right now it’s going to get better. That’s one of the underlying messages of the play that’s resonated certainly for the last 40-years and my instinct is it will resonate for the next 40 as well.

II: Unfortunately—  or maybe fortunately — I think you're right.

MC: But one of the things that make it fun and interesting is how audiences respond to it, and that thrills me and keeps it exciting for me. An audience makes a very important contribution to a show. They’re the final part of the puzzle. When that response is good, and in some cases overpowering, it’s a wonderful thing to feel and see.

II: Let's talk about you for a minute.

MC: Okay.

You really get your start working on Broadway in the original production of West Side Story.

MC: I was a performer at the very beginning of my theatrical career.

II: For someone who wasn't going to be content just being an actor, this was an opportunity to work with one of the most extraordinary creative teams ever assembled.

MC: I was very fortunate to be attached to that quartet of individuals. Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerry Robbins, especially. It was like boot camp. And the only time those four ever collaborated. They never did anything together again. And I paid a lot of attention to the things each one of them were doing. It was quite exciting to watch Jerry Robbins at the top of his form putting the detail work of West Side together. That has resonated with me all my life.

II: That was the first thing that occurred to me when I was prepping for this interview. How could that not set the bar very high?

MC: Also a really interesting time as far as theater was concerned. It was going through profound changes. West Side happened, point of fact it was miles ahead of its time. To the point that it really makes good sense, but wen it opened it was kind of an anomaly. They’d taken major steps with Rodgers and Hammerstein in the 40’s, when they created Oklahoma and started bringing in that kind of writing. But there were still a lot of song and dance shows on Broadway where the book kind of mattered. My Fair Lady happened the year before. Music Man won 95-percent of the Tony Awards given in the year West Side Story opened.

II: It produces so many songs that have become standards. Which brings us back to Annie. Because you have a few of those too. "Tomorrow" is inescapable — so many people have performed it. Jay Z borrowed "Hard Knock Life." Is there one version out there you have a special affinity for?

MC: I love them all, but the fun of listening to "Tomorrow" is how many different ways it’s constantly reinterpreted. It has a life of its own and has become one of the great iconic musical theater moments. I didn’t set out to make that happen, but it did. And we were all really pleased when, last year, it was named one of the 100 most sung songs of the last hundred years. It also turns up in interesting ways in some very odd locations. And that’s the fun of it. And why its life is so expansive. It’s done in commercials. But it’s in and of itself what Annie’s all about. It’s her attitude toward life.

II: Has it ever surprised you? You agree to let it be used, then you hear it and find it really effective. Or not.

MC: Occasionally it turns up where you least expected it. A bank using it — “You’ll be able to get your loan. Tomorrow.” Things like that. I rarely let that happen because I want to protect the integrity of the song. Right now it’s being used for a heart medication that’s apparently revolutionized one aspect of how heart medications are used.

II: I've seen and written about the show several times. And I'm always struck by one change in Annie's translation to the stage. FDR's such a pivotal and heroic character. But Annie's creator, Harold Gray, hated FDR. I think he even killed off the strip for a while to protest Roosevelt's reelection.

He was a staunch conservative and had a big problem with FDR. But in order for us to make the points we wanted to make, we tempered that attitude he had. We reconciled the two of them for the two hours the play goes on.

II: Was it difficult to make that change?

MC: It wasn’t a struggle once we decided to do it. The reconciliation part is extremely important in the world. You have to make compromises. Particularly in politics in order to get anything done.

II: You've got several projects brewing, can we talk about some of that?

MC: Two things going right now that are kind of fun. In 1992 we did a sequel to Annie which didn’t work at first called Annie 2. But we revised it, called it Annie Warbucks, and did it again Off-Broadway. Because of a snowstorm that blanketed New York we had to close after 8-months. All of a sudden it’s become inspirational and we’re moving toward the possibility of making that happen on Broadway. I’m also involved in a stirring and interesting musical with two young writers, about Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who went to Nazi Germany in the 40’s and was responsible for saving the lives of 100,000 Jews as the. I rather am attracted to subject matter that is relatively important and not frivolous. And Wallenberg is certainly not frivolous.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

He Said/She Said: Talking to the Stars of Tennessee Shakespeare’s “Much Ado”

Posted By on Wed, Dec 14, 2016 at 9:45 AM

Beatrice and Benedick are one of Shakespeare's greatest couples and the Tennessee Shakespeare Company reunites them when Much Ado About Nothing opens this weekend in Dixon Gallery & Gardens’ Winegardner Auditorium.

In keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, director Dan McCleary has given his production an especially festive air. For a taste of what's in store I talked briefly with Much Ado's stars Tony Molina, Jr. (Benedick) and Carey Urban (Beatrice).

Tony Molina, Jr. - TN SHAKESPEARE
  • TN Shakespeare
  • Tony Molina, Jr.
Intermission Impossible: There are a handful of really great couples in Shakespeare and Beatrice and Benedick have to be close to the top.

Tony Molina, Jr: Benedick is certainly one of the wisest characters I’ve ever played. And one of the funniest. They have this fiery and passionate relationship that kind of reminds me of my grandparents. They were married for 50 years, and it was easy sometimes to wonder why. Because they knew how to get under each other’s skin. And they knew each other so well they knew exactly what to say. And it was funny because they’d argue for hours sometimes. And then, at the end of the night, granny would still sit on grandpa’s lap, and kiss him, and they’d hug each other. I wish I’d had one relationship like that in my life. And hopefully, I will have, someday.

It can be such a fun show.

And it’s a lot of fun working with Carey too.

She was easily the best Juliet I’ve ever seen, and at this point I’ve lost count.

She’s so passionate and fiery. Skilled, funny— a great acting partner.

I think when people think of Benedick they think of his wit before his wisdom. But you brought up his wisdom, tell me about that.

The wisdom— He puts things into perspective, simply. The way people deal with things. He talks about being a confirmed bachelor who’ll never marry. At the same time he’s in love with Beatrice. That’s what people do. They hide their feelings by creating this mask. And Benedick, very wisely, describes that mask. And when he comes to be in love, the way he expresses it, is from the heart, and the words are really eloquent.

I understand this show has a festive atmosphere — appropriate for the holidays. Can you tell me a little bit about the production?

The whole thing is set at a party. The audience members are guests. They get to hear all the conversations and all the relationships, and all the things that are happening at the party. There are tuxedos and masks. And music. I won’t say it’s holiday music, but it’s music of celebration. It’s a state of mind for us, and we try to include the audience.

  • TN Shakespeare
  • Carey Urban
Intermission Impossible: So, Carey, this isn’t your first Much Ado, is it?

Carey Urban: I did another production in New York 10-years ago and played three characters, none of which are the characters I play in this one.

Do you like returning to a show?

It’s wonderful getting to play Beatrice. When Dan announced the season I wrote him and said, “Beatrice is on my bucket list. When I did Much Ado 10-years ago I didn’t even dream of being considered for Beatrice. But I knew I wanted to play the role some day.

Beatrice is one of the great roles. That’s not intimidating. What does it even mean, “the great roles.”

I wanted to play Juliet since I was a little girl.

You were my favorite Juliet ever. And I’ve seen that show more times than I can count.

When I was little I didn’t even know that much about the role. I just knew the legend. Then you get older and learn more about the canon. And things you want to do get added because something grabs you emotionally. Maybe you’ve seen somebody else play a part and it really spoke to you. Or like Juliet, there’s a legend or a mystique to it. One of the great rewards is how they challenge you, and you grow as an actor. They’re usually very demanding.

Audiences love all the banter between Beatrice and Benedick..

Something— obviously a lot of humor in the dialogue. But people recognize aspects of themselves or people they’ve known in these characters.

Right. Is it the humor that attracted you, or something else?

That aspect isn’t what most drew me to the role. What made me hungry to play her was she’s really very modern in her worldview. Even for today. There’s a really important scene where she says something about gender inequality that really hit home for me. This woman has some things to say that I want the opportunity to say.

I understand the show is something of a holiday party. Can you tell me a little about the production?

It has a very celebratory air, in keeping with the play as written. It’s mainly about love and all the crazy, brave, and potentially even insane and cruel things that love inspires or compels us to do. It begins with men coming home from a battle in which they’ve been victorious, and that sets off a season of parties, and masked balls, and courting.

Much Ado About Nothing
is at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens through December 18

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