Friday, October 28, 2016

Where Do All The Frankie Vallis Come From? Frankie Camp, That's Where.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 28, 2016 at 12:13 PM

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Jersey Boys isn't just one of the most successful jukebox musicals of all time, it's one of the most successful musicals period. But, because all the actors are required to play their own instruments and the lead character —Frankie Valli — sings 30-numbers in an impossibly high falsetto, keeping numerous resident and touring companies fully staffed requires a casting strategy as unique as the show. Richard Hester, the show's original stage manager talked to Intermission Impossible about where all the Frankies come from — a little place called Frankie Camp. 

Intermission Impossible:
I've heard of all kinds of dance camps, and vocal camps that get actors up to speed to join big tours. Frankie Camp sounds completely different. 

Richard Hester: How it all came about— I was the original stage manager of the show at La Jolla in 2005. Almost immediately thereafter I became the supervisor of the companies because we started opening so many of them all over the world. One of the things I’m responsible for is all the preliminary casting along with our casting associate, Merri Sugarman. Merri and I are responsible for all companies — at one point 11 worldwide, staffed and cast. Each company requires four guys who can play Frankie Valli, because the role is so demanding.

I know big shows like Jersey Boys spin off all kinds of almost cottage industry. You have to have fabric for the costumes, matching or similar props, etc. This is maybe the human resources version of that?

The problem we found, having to find four guys for every company, is that the pool of guys who can actually do this is limited. Anybody who plays Frankie has to be 5’9” or shorter. They have to be vaguely Mediterranean looking. We can help that in some regards. We’ve had a Lebanese Frankie and a Native American Frankie you could sort of buy as Italian. They have to be able to sing up in that falsetto. Frankie sings 30 songs in falsetto. They have to be able to dance well. And act, aging from 14 to 70. Without makeup.
So how does it work?

We do open auditions several times a year. Will also do specific trips to places like Los Angeles or Boston or Orlando — places that have a music community. Where we can find people who wouldn’t necessarily come to a call in New York. So, over time, we gather these guys. When we get 100-120 of them we’ll have a couple of days in New York where we bring them all in, listen to them sing and compare them to each other. Out of that group we’ll pick a maximum of 10-people — to either fill a Frankie, Joe Pesci or swing slot. And we put those 10 people through a rigorous week’s worth of work. They each get a day with our choreographer. Our vocal coach, who’s worked with people like Jon Bon Jovi, works with every Frankie. If you go to a normal music theater vocal coach, you can’t sing rock-and-roll properly. You know, if Jon Bon Jovi gets sick and cancels an arena show, that’s a loss of several million dollars. His voice has to be strong enough to get through these concerts.

How many guys make it?

120 guys over the course of several months boiling down to Frankie camp — if we’re lucky we yield 2 or 3 guys who can really do the role.

I'm sure the theater guys are looking for different things than Frankie, and Bob Gaudio. Does that ever create conflict. 

Bob and Frankie to their credit are pretty hands off. They trust us and know we’re looking ut for them. And nobody ever copies a role. When somebody comes in we want them to find their own way through it— to bring their personality to the role.

How to put this. I love the Four Seasons. But listening to all those guys singing falsetto — Ouch. Do you have to go home and listen to guided meditation tapes? Waves crashing? Wind blowing? 

I’ve worked on a lot of other musicals. I always get bored with the music in a year or two, and I’ve never done a show longer than two years or so. I’ve been working on this one for twelve, and I’m still not bored with the music. But I’ll tell you this, a day of listening to 120 guys singing “Walk Like a Man,” is enough to make your fillings come out sometimes. When you hear somebody who can really do it, and has the control, that’s exciting. The problem is all the guys who don’t have that control and you start getting pitchy versions. Hits you right in the fillings.

Not blowing smoke. I see so many tours that just look tired. These people have been doing the same parts over and over for a long time, and have lost steam. Not Jersey Boys. Every time I see it it's as good as the last time. Sometimes better.

We check in on the companies as often as we can and make sure they are running the way they should. There’s something about the way Jersey Boys is constructed with music and underscoring that moves like a freight train. Also, for whatever reason, we always seem to have happy companies. They always seem to enjoy what they’re doing. Really, what person hasn’t dreamed of being paid to be a rock star. Audiences treat these guys like rock stars, and they thoroughly enjoy it. It’s also a satisfying script to act.

Very solid storytelling.

You could almost take the music away and have an interesting night of theater.

You could. But why would you...


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Hunger Game: "Cuddles" Isn't Your Typical Vampire Story

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2016 at 10:25 AM

Tracie Hansom and Hayley Hellums
  • Tracie Hansom and Hayley Hellums
I no longer possess a copy of The Amityville Horror, so don’t expect me to quote it directly. But I devoured the paperback when it was new, and I was too young to get into an R-rated picture. The line that scared me most explained the mundane triggers for demonic haunting. Supernatural horror, it said, might appear and disappear suddenly. It might be caused by something as simple and ordinary as “rearranging the furniture.” For some reason that line stuck with me, and it pops into my head whenever good plays with strong directors and gifted casts don’t seem to work. I wonder how many haints and horrors might be driven away by better design — Or at least by a simple shuffling of the chairs.

Cuddles is a different kind of vampire mystery. It unravels slowly, strangely, evoking a grinding sense of dread that grows minute to minute. At core, it’s a modern fairy tale with gothic elements ripped from 19th-Century novels where everybody seems to have a mad or embarrassing relative locked in the attic. It’s the story of Tabby, a well off, not very nice woman, and Eve the bloodsucking little sister she cares for. There are men in this story too, and although we never see them, they often feel like the play’s realest characters. Their influence erodes a system of rules and rituals the sisters created to protect each other from “the hunger.”
Cuddles is clever, but New Moon’s cast is struggling. Conversations (one-sided, per the script) turn into droning monologues. But when Tracie Hansom and Hayley Hellums connect it's horrible, hard to watch, impossible not to watch, and everything you want from a revisionist nightmare. They’re good together, but disadvantaged.

Most of the action is pushed as far upstage as possible and confined to a smallish platform floating in the comparatively immense darkness. The effect isn’t one of claustrophobia — which would be appropriate — but distance. The play’s less active moments happen in this big dark gulf between the audience, and a perfectly revolting little attic set. 

Maybe the audience could have been drawn in closer, and assembled on three sides. Maybe the attic set could have been brought to center stage. Distinctions might even blur and the attic and outside word could bleed together — literally and figuratively. Point being, there's a lot to like about this spook story. But somebody needs to rearrange the furniture.




Monday, October 24, 2016

Is "The City of Conversation" Provocative or American Myth-making as Usual?

Posted By on Mon, Oct 24, 2016 at 5:54 PM

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The City of Conversation  is a sharply-written slice of political drama nested in a family crisis. It’s essentially the story of liberalism at the end of the 20th-Century as Reaganite barbarians stormed the New Deal’s crumbling gates. The tale — told from the perspective of a politically split Georgetown family — wants to map polarization, and the end of civility in American discourse. Set apart from issues, or the social conditions that caused so much fissuring in traditional party lines, it becomes an exercise in scapegoating, and misplaced congratulations. There are plenty of fresh ingredients assembled here, but the spice blend is flat wrong.
 
As usual Jack Yates’ sets dazzle and Amie Eoff’s period costumes pop under the lights. There’s at least one extraordinary performance to crow about too,  and a few good ones worth bragging on. But the cast is unbalanced in terms of ability, and when the play staggers, author bias becomes evident. So does an unmistakable streak of weird woman-blaming.
The unwritten “Georgetown rule,” once held that, no matter how bitterly Beltway rivals fought at work, evenings were for collegiality, cigars, and dick jokes told over highballs at boozy, loose-talking soirees like the ones hosted by Hester Ferris — crisply played at Theatre Memphis by Karen Mason Riss. Hester's the tireless influencer we meet at the top of the play, working on Teddy Kennedy’s disastrous primary run against sitting president Jimmy Carter— a bitter affair opening doors for Reagan & Co. Her plans are upended when son Colin arrives home a day early from college, with Anna, the ambitious conservative he plans to marry.

Playwright Anthony Giardina romanticizes Georgetown as a kind political Eden, turning Anna — beautifully and savagely imagined by Shannon Walton — into an Eve-like temptress offering the apple of Reaganism to any powerful man who’ll sits still long enough. Eventually — and inevitably — she squares off against Hester, tearing the family apart. That’s where The City of Conversation’s metaphors break down. Because women didn't queer the fraternity. And whether the script is blown up to mythic scale, or boiled down to microcosm, turning a contrived standoff between two stubborn, differently corrosive women into a model for polarization is, quite possibly, the biggest dick joke that ever was.

From casting to set details, this City has director Jerry Chipman's fingerprints all over it. That's normally not a bad thing, but in this case it means seeing familiar faces working well inside their comfort zones. That yields some positive results — It's great to see Michael Walker back on stage, fully inhabiting the skin of a changeable Kentucky Senator. But as Hester, Riss — a JC regular — speaks well, but seems adrift. Granted, she's better adrift than a lot of actors are fully focused. But here, in a play where victories don't necessarily produce winners, and true heroes are hard to come by,  her frank, no-bullshit style falls a little flat.

Given 30-years worth of Presidential comment to choose from City's sound design makes American politics seem boring, if not exactly uneventful. So much potential, little of it realized.

But damn, it's so good looking.



Friday, October 21, 2016

Broadway Actor Charles Holt Brings Memphis Upstanders to Life

Posted By on Fri, Oct 21, 2016 at 4:35 PM

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  • Charles Holt
Charles Holt hears voices. He collects voices. Studies voices. The Broadway actor also possesses quite a voice of his own — one that’s rung out from the ensemble of Disney’s The Lion King. He performed in Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and in Europe he toured as the first African-American Rocky in a professional company of The Rocky Horror Show. He left a lot of that behind, to find his true voice — and to follow voices calling out to him. Holt’s in Memphis, Monday Oct. 24 speaking at a benefit dinner for Facing History and Ourselves. Maybe "speaking" is the wrong verb. He'll perform his solo show about 14 people who changed Memphis:The Upstanders. It’s a project Holt’s developed with Facing History. It’s a good example of how he answered a call he heard while he was working in New York.

“I was in the Lion King for almost 5-years,” Holt says. “And the time came when I just thought I should be doing something else.” A mentors advised him not to just walk away from a successful show, and he listened. But Holt also started to figure out ways to find a life in performance outside the Broadway houses he usually played.

“I felt like Lion King was limiting me,” he says.

Holt grew up in Lake Providence, a small, Nashville-area community founded in 1868. He was often amused and inspired by the town elders — the way they moved and spoke. And as a younger artist, he was prone to satirizing their mannerisms. “I would get in trouble,” he says, remembering the family’s response to his antics. But in those moments of acting up Holt discovered his love for creating characters, and when he needed to grow creatively, that’s exactly what he started doing. Then he created an avenue for sharing those characters.


“I started calling colleges and universities, creating my own tour,” he says. Monday nights are dark on Broadway, so he’d fly out Sunday nights, do his own thing on Monday, them be back on Broadway Tuesday night.

After he left Lion King Holt realized his character-creating wasn’t just a passing fancy. “It became my job,” he says.

Holt’s been working with Facing History and Ourselves for two years, developing some Memphis characters. His show introduces audiences to folks like Dr. Sheldon Korones who worked to create a neonatal center in the urban core; Lucy Tibbs who testified before Congress about massacres of African-Americans and riots; Civil Rights leaders like Rev. Billy Kyles, and Maxine and Vasco Smith.

“People who have gone beyond the call of duty to speak their truth on things they felt so connected with,” Holt says.

The characters speak to Holt. “Like Lucy Tibbs,” he says. “There was a time when she felt like cowering down, because she knew her life was at stake. But something in her rose up. I hear it all, and I all these people when I’m reading the manuscripts.”

Those elders he grew up with, and imitated are the examples he draws from. “They were upstanders too,” he says.

Form more details on the dinner, click here. 

Looking for a Halloween Costume? Theatre Memphis is Having a Yard Sale.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 21, 2016 at 10:22 AM

Christmas ghosts are still ghosts.
  • Christmas ghosts are still ghosts.
Sure, you could probably go buy a mass-produced sexy pirate costume made from the world's worst fabrics. Or you could make something at home — a paper bag mask, perhaps. Or you could take advantage of Theatre Memphis' storage limitations and pick up pieces built or selected by professional costumers. Cheap. Or, at least, relatively so. 

Theatre Memphis Is bringing back its annual Halloween season overstock yard sale. According to press materials, items up for grabs will primarily be, "clothing including vintage costumes, shoes, hats, and other unique specialty children’s items."

Just in time for all those fancy dress parties you're attending, right?

Saturday's sale happens rain or shine in the Theatre Memphis lobby.  Doors open at 8am with large kitchen trash bags  available from Noon – 1pm. $5 for all you can stuff into your treat bag. No tricks. 

Who knows, maybe you can find something swell that looks good on you all year long. 

Don't be a mass-produced sexy pirate. Be awesome. 

Oh, almost forgot: Early Birds get in at 7 a.m. for a $5 early bird fee. Just saying. 

All goes down at Theatre Memphis this Saturday. Perkins at Southern. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"Cuddles" Won't Comfort: New Moon Tells A Better Vampire Story

Posted By on Thu, Oct 13, 2016 at 5:31 PM

Huggy?
  • Huggy?
Cuddles is a different kind of vampire story. And it can be hard to talk about without giving away the things that set it apart in a genre done to (un)death. Even director Tony Isbell keeps a pretty tight lip,  referencing a quote by the original British producer. He says it's "Part horror film, part domestic tragedy, part romantic comedy. And it's very disturbing."

Given the play's reputation that description sounds both accurate and understated. Cuddles is an exercise in creeping dread. It tells the story of two sisters — one human, one vampire. They have a strict system of rules created to keep both of them alive and together — tenuously in every sense. 

New Moon Theatre has made a couple of promotional videos that don't give too much away, but seem to capture the unholy spirit of the piece. If you like spooky stuff, be sure to check them out. I've been wanting to see this one since I read an early review in The Guardian a few years back, and can't wait till opening night. Only a week away. 

Cuddles Preview from New Moon Theatre on Vimeo.

Cuddles Preview Two from New Moon Theatre on Vimeo.


Friday, October 7, 2016

Circuit Playhouse Pays Tribute to the Andrews Sisters

Posted By on Fri, Oct 7, 2016 at 4:39 PM

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Forget Lee Greenwood. Hell, forget Kate Smith. The most patriotic music ever performed may have referenced old glory and American soldiers, but it didn't slob all over them. Back when bands hammered it out 8-to-the-bar and Uncle Sam was recruiting young men to defeat the Axis powers nobody did it better than USO darlings Patty, Laverne, and Maxine — The Andrews Sisters. Although they performed for decades  — even got themselves into a harmony sing - off with Diana Ross and the Supremes — it's difficult to think of them out of their spiffy military duds. Even Over Here, the popular 1974 musical written for the sisters' return to Broadway was a farce calling to mind the trio's WWII-era movies and shows. 


If any songs remains familiar to younger audiences it's probably "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which is still a banging little ditty for being 75-years old. But for sweet Americana, nothing holds up like "Apple Blossom Time."


In case you haven notices it's election season, and Circuit Playhouse is providing Memphians an opportunity to get their red white and blue on and return to the days when propaganda was fun. Sisters of Swing — an Andrews Sisters tribute — opens at Circuit Playhouse this weekend. Here's a sneak peek. 


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

New Editions: Ibsen, Naughty Shakespeare

Posted By on Wed, Oct 5, 2016 at 4:56 PM

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This post is so going viral. I mean, who among us doesn't get crazy excited about new editions of classic plays by authors like William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen? 

I've already written a bit about Pelican's new Shakespeare collection. But I feel compelled to jot a few words about Othello and The Taming of the Shrew. Both include the usual essays, with nice, lightly rendered introductions. Breaking a willful wife and training her up right was a popular plot back in Willie's day and Shrew, we're instructed, is part of that mysoginist genre, forever popular, but at odds with modern sensibilities. Othello's intro builds from the Shavian barb inspired by Verdi's Opera Otello. In a spot on analysis George Bernard said Otello wasn't Verdi's most Shakespearian adaptation, so much as Othello was Shakespeare's best Italian Opera. But honestly, I'm not here to type about what's in the books, so much as what's on them. I mean, it's one thing to be bawdy, and quite another to be so on the nose. Or on the... something.

Nice berries Othello. 
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I'm not sure what it means to reduce the Moor of Venice to nothing but a head with a stylized penis, but here we are. Now here's Kate the cursed on the cover of Shrew. 
 What are all those little things around her her heartgina? Beads of sweat? Bugs? Just... Ew. 
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The scripts are fine, the essays are swell, but from the teeny tiny titles on, I'm just not loving this design.

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Is it fair to call Ibsen Norway's Shakespeare? Maybe not. Okay, no. But he was practically as inventive as the Bard when it came to word coinage and that can be a problem for translators. The new Penguin Ibsen collection isn't just a new edition, it's a new set of translations. That's great news because we're talking about an author who worked in a small language and is known primarily by way of translations, not all of which are historically sensitive.

It's probably not so strange, given translation goals, that the publishers continue to use the title A Doll's House even though that's not quite right. In Norway "Doll House" is a distinct word, and one that Ibsen specifically rejected in favor of something closer to "A Home for Dolls," which is less catchy, but bends the title's meaning in a slightly different direction. Beyond this example where the title is too well known to alter, this is exactly the kind of thing the new editions aim to correct. 

In addition to A Doll's House the new collection includes GhostsAn Enemy of the People, and an underrated early work The Pillars of Society. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Body Language: Our Own Voice Gets Physical

Posted By on Tue, Oct 4, 2016 at 4:38 PM

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I'm a cheerleader for Our Own Voice. I'm glad they're here doing important experimental work in Memphis. It thrills me that they soldier on, in a role that must feel truly thankless at times. If you're accustomed to reading my reviews, you're probably already anticipating the, "but." So let's just rip the bandaid off quickly, shall we?

Body of Stories, which runs at TheatreWorks through Oct. 15, is slow and shapeless. It has its share of transcendent moments, but often feels more like an ongoing workshop than a completed body of work. And I use "completed" loosely because I appreciate how OOV sometimes builds productions that aren't finished until the audience shows up to participate — or to not participate. But this one feels like it opened a little too soon, before the group's collected improvisational work yielded much in the way of revelation or insight.

Kimberly Baker and her ensemble have developed a collection of monologues and multigenerational movement pieces about how we relate to our bodies. This is well worn turf, obviously, but given a political climate where every new day brings a new slate of stories about a serious presidential contender body-shaming people, there's plenty left to explore. I'm just not sure that this "Moving Exploration," as it's subtitled, moves the ball very much. 

There's a monologue about a guy who thinks people who say nice things about his toned physique are actually body shaming themselves in a backhanded way. Interesting premise/humble brag, but without much in the way of development. We hear other, somewhat atypical stories, about esteem-raising compliments in the kind of forum that usually focuses on insults and expectations. Even then, there's very little in the way of considering what complaints and compliments may mean — And no real conflict pushing the dialogue forward. 

There's not much I enjoy more than the choreography Baker builds using a mix of dancers and non-dancers, and how she finds ways for even the less experienced movers to shine. That's true here too, although the evenings most playful and poignant moments occur in what appears to be semi-improvisational work between the company's better trained dancers. Fun, fresh stuff also happens when some of the cast's younger members are engaged. Kids continue to say the darndest things. 

OOV's goals are vastly different from most companies. There's no such thing as failure when we experiment, only positive and negative results, all of which can be interesting and instructive. So it's not uncommon to see an occasional OOV piece that doesn't feel like it was intended for general audiences (though I suspect the company's founders can make a convincing case that all the work they do is for everybody). Maybe if Body's length was cut in half, and something was done to develop conflict and connect various threads so pieces and parts feel like a body instead of like a coffee house open mic transcript circa 1992, this one might be for everybody too. And maybe it's for everybody else, just not me.

Oh well, I remain a cheerleader for Our Own Voice: RAH! 
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