Friday, January 26, 2018

You Can't Go Wrong With "Once," "Fences," or "Sunset Baby"

Posted By on Fri, Jan 26, 2018 at 2:16 PM

I’ll have fuller reviews of all these plays available shortly. In the meantime I just want to encourage everybody to take advantage of an opportunity to go to the theater on a weekend when you'll have to try extra hard to see a bad show. The mix of musicals, dramas, classics and world premieres makes for an especially rich spread. So if you’ve got a hole in your schedule this weekend, fill it. If you've got plans, cancel at least one. Whether you’re already a theater lover or just a little bit curious any all of these pieces will satisfy.

Once at Playhouse on the Square

Take a peek at this seconds long video. I’ll wait.

That clip's from the pre-show. You know, the half-hour or so after audience members are allowed into the theater but before the show actually starts. It’s the (mostly) full cast of Once having a fiddle-sawing, guitar-picking, mandolin-strumming, box-beating, foot-stomping, tin whistle-tooting jam session. It's fantastic and they carry the joyful Celtic momentum into this bittersweet Irish ballad of a musical that invests far more in the power of live music and honest theatrical performance than it does in Broadway spectacle.

Once is the story of a depressed young songwriter who lives with his old Da above the shop where they make Hoovers that don’t suck suck proper again. His girl’s left him for New York, and nobody’s listening to his music except for the struggling Czech immigrant who becomes his muse and chief motivator.

The ensemble's amazing but the secret star of this Once is  simple wooden stage that looks like it was designed not to impress visually but to maximize the warm sounds of acoustic instruments and lightly amplified human voices. It’s a little like hearing guitars played inside a bigger guitar. It’s hard not to get swept up in the songs, and swept away by the story.

Highly recommended.
Sunset Baby at The Hattiloo

You want to see one really great performance? Oh baby. Decked out in fuck me boots and the war paint of a woman who lures Johns into her car in order to rob them Morgan Watson's Nina is as hard and multifaceted as cut diamonds. It’s hard to eclipse actors as strong as TC Sharp and Emmanuel McKinney, and they both hold their own as Nina’s long absent father and gangsta boyfriend respectively. But whether she’s rolling her eyes and saying, “I love you,” or holding forth on what it really means to be “children of the revolution,” it’s hard to take your eyes off Watson long enough to look at anybody else in a tight, terrific ensemble.

Sunset Baby’s set after the death of a one time Civil Rights icon named Ashanti X who had struggled economically, becoming a less than inspiring crack addict in later years. Now that she’s dead her papers are worth more than she ever was and Nina’s long-estranged father shows up looking to get back into his daughter’s life. And for letters Ashanti X had written to him while he was in prison.

Sunset Baby is a GenX story looking at lives shaped by a stalled  Civil Rights movement, when protest gave way to politics, and old heroes became fringe figures and outlaws. It’s a little play telling a big story.

Highly recommended.
All Saints in the Old Colony at TheatreWorks

Here’s an excerpt from my review of a great fookin’ world premiere launched right here in Memphis.
All Saints in the Old Colony feels like Homokay's New England-flavored answer to Katori Hall's housing project drama Hurt Village. The Old Colony, Boston's second oldest housing project, has changed quite a bit in recent years, but was once a dense cluster of brick towers populated by poor Irish families. As with Hurt Village, All Saints is set against a backdrop of gentrification and change. It tells the story of Kier, an Irish-born immigrant and disabled dock worker who, in the absence of parents, raised his siblings as best he could, making hard decisions that still haunt his malnourished, whiskey-soaked brain.
All Saints in the Old Colony: real people, real problems - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • All Saints in the Old Colony: real people, real problems
More specifically, it tells the story of an attempted intervention where the whole family comes together — including sister Fiona who was given up for adoption at an early age — to help Kier into a healthier lifestyle. But, in the words of playwright Sam Shepard, whose work is also reflected in All Saints, there's no hope for the hopeless. Opportunities for temporary escape abound, but for these siblings normalcy will always be relative, and there's no hope that these four — five, counting an offstage brother too unforgiving to appear — will ever find peace, let alone happiness.
Highly recommended. 

Theatre Memphis’ second production of Fences is another good opportunity to revisit favorite topics like exceptionalism and how badly our legacy playhouses serve Memphis’ communities of color, and how productions like this first-rate go at an August Wilson classic are the very thing we talk about when we talk about exceptions proving the rule. But I've buried the lead, so put those thoughts on hold long enough to consider this: No matter how overexposed Fences may be relative to some of Wilson’s consistently strong oeuvre this perfectly cast and lovingly-staged production is something you’ll want to see. Maybe more than once.

Highly recommended.
Perfect Arrangement

This is the only one of the bunch I haven’t seen yet, but it sounds awfully intriguing. Here’s how the folks at Circuit Playhouse are describing it.

It’s 1950, and new colors are being added to the Red Scare. Two U.S. State Department employees, Bob and Norma, have been tasked with identifying sexual deviants within their ranks. There’s just one problem: Both Bob and Norma are gay and have married each other’s partners as a carefully constructed cover. Inspired by the true story of the earliest stirrings of the American gay rights movement, madcap classic sitcom-style laughs give way to provocative drama as two “All-American” couples are forced to stare down the closet door.

Verdict: We’ll have to wait and see, but it better be good because the competition is stiff.

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

"Finding Neverland" Star John Davidson Has Some Advice for Actors

"Bring your own shoes."

Posted By on Thu, Jan 25, 2018 at 11:23 AM

John Davidson - JEREMY DANIEL
  • Jeremy Daniel
  • John Davidson
Finding Neverland star John Davidson has an affinity for the double role he plays in the spectacle-laden musical adaptation of Finding Neverland. "As Captain Hook, I give [Peter Pan author J. M.] Barrie the same advice I'd give anybody getting into the business," he says. "Find the child within yourself, because to find out who you are is the greatest challenge of life. I'm telling Barrie, 'Don't write what you been writing. And don't write what everyone expects you to write. Write your story.' Then, as Charles Frohman who's Barrie's producer, I'm trying to talk him out of writing a play for children. 'It will be a disaster,' I tell him. 'Children don't have money; they can't buy tickets!'"

When it comes to the business of show there are worse people to take career advice from than Davidson. The clean cut actor started on Broadway in the 1960s before packing up his Pepsodent smile and taking his act to Hollywood, where he became a ubiquitous game show presence, recorded albums, and landed notable guest spots on popular shows. Davidson hosted That's Incredible, The New Hollywood Squares, and was a frequent substitute for Tonight Show icon Johnny Carson. But between appearances on The American Style and in made for TV films like Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders II, Davidson continued to work as a song and dance man.

"Until this time, my favorite roles have been Don Quixote in Man of la Mancha and playing Harold Hill in The Music Man. But now this is by far my favorite role," Davidson says. "I'm at my best when I can chew on the scenery, and each of these roles gives me a chance to do that. It is exhausting and I just love it and I'm so grateful.

"In my mind, I'm the luckiest guy in the world to have this role," says Davidson who, at 76, describes Finding Neverland's Hook/Frohman as, "the role of a lifetime."

Intermission Impossible: Critics really seem to like you in this role. Even those who don't love the script seem to love you in this double role as Hook and Frohman

John Davidson: It's true that it's not a typical Musical. It is not Sondheim. It's not Rodgers and Hammerstein. But it's a magical show with a hit song in every scene. It's British pop music and very singable. I just love the music. The story will make you laugh. There's a lot of funny funny pieces. But it's guaranteed to make you cry. It's a very moving script. Of course it's paste on the film where Dustin Hoffman play Charles Frohman and Johnny Depp played J.M. Barrie. But I think the Broadway show. It has incredible special effects. It is a powerful two and a half hours in the theater.

As I read the reviews I wondered if there was some surprise among people who may mostly know you as the host of Hollywood Squares or from That's Incredible. It's got to be at least a little gratifying to turn heads: "Wow, he's really a good actor!"

That is true. My career has been very confusing. I would call it variety. But it is confusing. Is John Davidson just a game show host? Is he just a singer or not an actor? Whatever. I've been so many different things, and that's been the fun of my career, but it's true that it does surprise people. A lot of people who saw me on That's Incredible didn't even know that I sing or act. But I have a Bachelor of Arts in theater and I started out on Broadway as a leading man. That is at the heart of what I do. That kind of storytelling is what I started out doing, and it's nice to get back to that. But I understand. It is surprising people. And that's okay, it's kind of fun to surprise people.

The great thing about being a generalist writer is getting to wake up in a new world every day depending on your subject. So I really appreciate that perspective.

I'm sort of old school. You know, the performers that came on the scene in the 50s and 60s and before always thought of being multifaceted performers. I had an early manager who said, "Don't be a spear, be a pitchfork." By that he meant a spear has one prong. But a pitchfork can handle a lot of points of attack. The variety is what's kept me going all these years. That's the old-fashioned way of doing it, and that's my advice to a lot of the kids in our cast. I'm 76, and most of the kids in the cast from their late 20s. When they Google me.

You get Googled!

Oh yes. And they come back the next morning and they're surprised by all the things I've done. And I say to them, "You could do that too. Don't just think about playing roles in musicals. The greatest role you play is yourself. You got to figure out who you are, Because that will help you play other parts."

You talk about being old school. But you really have worked with generations of artists. Your first Broadway show was with the Cowardly Lion, Bert Lahr. As a host and panelist on Hollywood Squares you worked with so many people including the great Rose Marie who just passed — best known for The Dick Van Dyke Show, but whose career goes all the way back to Vaudeville and variety when she was Baby Rose Marie. Were there performers like this who inspired you particularly?

I think Bob Hope. I worked on a lot of his specials. He was an early supporter of mine and he was a total performer. I guess he didn't do any serious roles, but he did Broadway film television. And Betty White. Any person who has a talk show always wants Betty White on because she's mischievous and funny and she's a total performer. I was always attracted to people who knew yeah, but to tell a story with a song. To take stage. To master the space. I think that excites me more than just a singer. Robin Williams was an inspiration to me.

I knew you'd been a guest host for Johnny Carson before he retired from The Tonight Show. I honestly can't think of anything more intimidating than sitting in for an icon like Carson who so completely owns his format.

When you substituted for Carson you always knew it was his desk. It was his desk, it was his chair. His name was on the pencils. His name is on the coffee cup. I couldn't book my own guests. They were very tight about getting people on. I remember trying to get Kenny Rogers on. I told them, "You understand Kenny Rogers is a major performer, right? He's a Storyteller he's a singer, he's a great talker." They saw him as just a hit record guy. I finally got him on. I want to have a Jacques Cousteau on because I'm a scuba diver and a big fan. And I couldn't get him on. Then they finally put him on but in the last 7-minutes of the show so I didn't have enough time with the great Jacques Cousteau. You realize you're just a guest there, you're not the host. You can't really indulge yourself. But I began to have this realization — I replaced Carson. I replaced Mike Douglas on his daytime talk show. When I got the music man I replaced Robert Preston in his Harold Hill. I came to realize you can't feel someone else's shoes. Like in Finding Neverland I'm replacing Kelsey Grammer from Broadway. I began to realize you can't feel someone else's shoes. You've got to bring your own shoes and try and fill them. That became my motto. Bring your own shoes.

But what kind of shoes do you bring if you want to be a game show host? That's its own skill set it seems. Where does one train for that? How do you prepare?

It's a very tough thing. And it's a very good question. That's why I talk about with the young actress in Finding Neverland. We talk about it all the time. How do you make that jump from Broadway to television. Because you can play Broadway all your life, and it's great it's very fulfilling. But if you want to have some power, and the freedom to pick and choose, and if you want to have producers call you instead of you trying to call them you've got to get some television so that you mean something. And fame gives you power. That's the reason for being famous. But when I first started on Broadway, a television producer named Bob Banner Who had just found Carol Burnett signed me to a five-year contract. And he brought me to television. And he helps me do my Las Vegas act. And he help me find out who John Davidson was. He developed me as a television variety show performer. I was very lucky in that way.

So we've talked about how you were a goto replacement guy. But you were also at the leading edge of some things. That's Incredible is a pretty clear antecedent to reality programming.

That's Incredible and another show at the same time called Real People.

With Sarah Purcell who you sometimes had as a guest on Hollywood Squares.

Yes. And they were some of the first shows to bring real people to television in that way. It was fun working on That's incredible with Fran Tarkington and Cathy Lee Crosby. I think that advanced my notoriety, but it didn't advance my talents as a singer or actor. It gave me the power to say okay now I want to do Man of La Mancha. So I can go to a theater and people would come because they see me on That's Incredible. That's Incredible was at its best when we celebrated human triumphs over physical and mental obstacles. We were at our worst when we dealt with ghost stories and psychic phenomena, and some of them really superstitious stuff. Just these pitfalls the imagination can get us into. I think we were at our best when we should real stories, and not people who just wanted to be on TV.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

Hamilton Star Mandy Gonzalez Launches New Recording in Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Jan 12, 2018 at 2:02 PM

Mandy Gonzalez is fearless, and not shy about saying so. The Hamilton and In the Heights star is taking a one-night break from performing on Broadway to “really launch” her Fearless album at the Halloran Centre in Memphis, with a title track penned by none other than Hamilton’s author, composer, and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“Memphis was where it's was at,” She says excitedly, talking a mile-a-minute. “Because when I was a kid my dad worked a lot. He worked three jobs, and he worked nights. Sundays were like our only day with dad and by then my mom kind of needed a break. So dad used to put on Elvis movies and we’d watch them. I really fell in love with music and rock-and-roll through Elvis. So I've always wanted to go to Memphis. It's kind of where I feel rock and roll began. I wanted to see Sun Records, and Graceland. It's the perfect place to start.”

#Fearless started as an online movement to create support “squads” and combat negativity on Social Media. “Everybody needs a squad,” Gonzalez says explaining four simple rules of membership: Embrace differences; Help one another when we fall; Look for the good; and dream big. “I don’t know where I’d be without my squad,” she says. “And if somebody doesn't have a squad, they can be a part of mine.”

Gonzalez says she always wanted to make a record but was too busy doing other things — until now.

Intermission Impossible: You’re a pro. You’ve done this for a while now. But Hamilton’s not just another show, it’s a cultural touchstone. That’s got to be different.

Mandy Gonzalez: It's so different. Because people are screaming because before the show even starts. They're so excited because they’ve waited so long to see it. They worked so hard to get tickets. And when the lights go out people start screaming. And I never heard that before. Screaming tears of joy. Not, you know, terrified screaming. At the end people jump from their seats and I see so many people crying. And to hear what Hamilton means to so many people. I’ve heard a lot of beautiful things from people about In the Heights because it connected to so many young college students. And my character Nina was part of that. But you come to Hamilton and you see a young person with their parents with their parents, and their parents, and they're all sitting together. And they're all screaming. And they're all cheering. And it really is this ray of bringing people together which is a beautiful thing. It's what theater is supposed to do.When I go to the stage door at night it takes 45 minutes to get through because everybody has a story about what Hamilton means to them. Because I think that it's the first time they've really felt connected to our forefathers. The first time they’ve seen them as people. And they go, “Oh, I can do that. I can move mountains.” Or, “This person had a characteristic that’s a lot like mine.” I hope it gives people that. It gives people hope. It certainly does for me performing it.

True story. I heard someone playing Hamilton in the checkout line at my neighborhood dollar store. People may blast show tunes when they’re out buy toilet paper in New York but that just doesn’t happen in Memphis.

It used to be, if you were in the theater, you felt like you were only part of this certain community. But the community continued to grow. Like The Greatest Showman, the movie The soundtrack is by Broadway composers. There's something happening. Now it's become a part of our culture and it's something that, if you can't get a ticket to Hamilton, you can go and see another incredible show. It's opening up culture which, I think, is a beautiful thing.


Don’t tell anybody, I don’t want to be run out of town. While I do really like Hamilton, I love the street life of In the Heights. It may be my favorite. Okay, it’s my favorite.

I love them both.

Can you tell me just a little bit about having had the opportunity to work on both shows?

The beautiful thing about Lin and Tommy and Alex and Andy is they are the same guys that I met when I did a little reading of In the Heights in the drama book shop.They're the same. They're humble and passionate about what they do. It's about collaboration. It's about lifting people up. It's just now everybody recognizes their brilliance. I think this thing about Lin is he just shines this light wherever he goes. Not like literally with a light.

Yeah, that would be weird.

Now to see him on all these talk shows and in all these places, that's the same guy I met when I first started. And he's got the same heart. And the same passion for what he does. The beautiful thing for me, is to watch my friends have the success. That's an incredible thing. But also to have him say, “Hey, why don't you come along with us?” is a very rare thing. I don't take any of it for granted and I'm very super grateful and proud of this. The people that they are. And what they represent. My love for them started with in the Heights, and we really became like a family, that cast.

Hamilton has a life apart from the script and story. It’s associated with ideas about action and accountability. And being fearless. When you are a part of that are there expectations?

I don't know about that. But I know because of social media, if you have a platform I think it is your right and your hope to do good with that platform to help people.

Playhouse Looks Into Sexual Misconduct, Names Investigator

Posted By on Fri, Jan 12, 2018 at 11:42 AM

Jennifer S. Hagerman of the Burch Porter and Johnson law firm has been tapped by Playhouse on the Square to lead an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by POTS executive producer Jackie Nichols. A review will also be conducted of the theatre's "policies and procedures," according to a report in The Commercial Appeal.

Decades old allegations of misconduct involving a minor (now an adult) went public and were shared on social media when Nichols 49-year-old stepdaughter posted her story on Facebook.

Michael Detroit, POTS longtime associate producer is standing in for the 70-year-old Playhouse founder who's taken a leave of absence while the investigation is being conducted.

Nichols has denied allegations while characterizing the investigation as responsible.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Playhouse Executive Producer Jackie Nichols Takes Leave of Absence Following Accusations of Sexual Misconduct

Posted By on Fri, Jan 5, 2018 at 1:19 PM

Playhouse on the Square's Executive Producer Jackie Nichols is taking a leave of absence following accusations of sexual misconduct.

From the official Playhouse on the Square (POTS) press statement:

The Executive Committee of Circuit Playhouse Inc. today announced that Executive Producer Jackie Nichols is taking a leave of absence pending an investigation of a sexual misconduct allegation against him, which he denies. This allegation is unrelated to the operations of Playhouse on the Square. Our board of directors take this matter seriously and will appoint an independent investigator to investigate the allegation.
POTS Media Consultant Antonio Hernandez says, "We are aware of the allegations and the POTS board of directors will launch an official investigation into the matter."

Details to come.

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