Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"Hamilton" is coming! Orpheum Unveils 2018-19 Broadway Season.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 27, 2018 at 11:28 AM

  • Orpheum Theatre Group
Spoiler alert: We've known Hamilton was going to be part of the Orpheum's 2018-2019 season for a while now. Now we know the rest of the story — and there are some nice surprises.

From the media release:

LOVE NEVER DIES September 4-9, 2018

This story of boundless love, full of passion and drama, follows Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, one of the most successful musicals of all time, which has now been seen by more than 130 million people worldwide and is the winner of over 50 international awards. The ultimate love story continues in Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s spellbinding sequel to The Phantom of the Opera.

The year is 1907. It is 10 years after his disappearance from the Paris Opera House and The Phantom has escaped to a new life in New York where he lives amongst the screaming joy rides and freak shows of Coney Island. In this new, electrically charged world, he has finally found a place for his music to soar,

but he has never stopped yearning for his one true love and musical protégée, Christine Daaé.

SCHOOL OF ROCK October 9-14, 2018

SCHOOL OF ROCK is a New York Times Critics’ Pick and “AN INSPIRING JOLT OF ENERGY, JOY AND MAD SKILLZ!” (Entertainment Weekly). Based on the hit film, this hilarious new musical follows Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock star posing as a substitute teacher who turns a class of straight-A students into a guitar-shredding, bass-slapping, mind-blowing rock band. This high-octane smash features 14 new songs from ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER, all the original songs from the movie and musical theater’s first-ever kids rock band playing their instruments live on stage. Vanity Fair raves, “FISTS OF ALL AGES SHALL BE PUMPING!”

LES MISÉRABLES November 27-December 2, 2018 (SEASON OPTION)

Cameron Mackintosh presents the new production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Tony Award-winning musical phenomenon, Les Misérables, direct from an acclaimed two-and-a-half-year return to Broadway. Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells an unforgettable story of heartbreak, passion, and the resilience of the human spirit. Featuring the beloved songs “I Dreamed A Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars," “Bring Him Home,” “One Day More,” and many more, this epic and uplifting story has become one of the most celebrated musicals in theatrical history. With its glorious new staging and dazzlingly reimagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, this breathtaking new production has left both audiences and critics awestruck. “Les Miz is born again!” (NY1).

WAITRESS January 15-20, 2019

"THE WOMEN OF WAITRESS ARE CHANGING BROADWAY!" (Time Magazine). Brought to life by a groundbreaking all-female creative team, this irresistible new hit features original music and lyrics by 6-time Grammy® nominee Sara Bareilles ("Brave," "Love Song"), a book by acclaimed screenwriter Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam), choreography by Lorin Latarro (Les Dangereuse Liasons, Waiting for Godot) and direction by Tony Award® winner Diane Paulus (Hair, Pippin, Finding Neverland). "It's an empowering musical of the highest order!" raves the Chicago Tribune. Inspired by Adrienne Shelly's beloved film, WAITRESS tells the story of Jenna – a waitress and expert pie maker, Jenna dreams of a way out of her small town and loveless marriage. A baking contest in a nearby county and the town's new doctor may offer her a chance at a fresh start, while her fellow waitresses offer their own recipes for happiness. But Jenna must summon the strength and courage to rebuild her own life. "WAITRESS is a little slice of heaven!" says Entertainment Weekly and "a monumental contribution to Broadway!" according to Marie Claire. Don't miss this uplifting musical celebrating friendship, motherhood, and the magic of a well-made pie. www.WaitressTheMusical.com

ON YOUR FEET! February 12-17, 2019

From their humble beginnings in Cuba, Emilio and Gloria Estefan came to America and broke through all barriers to become a crossover sensation at the very top of the pop music world. But just when they thought they had it all, they almost lost everything. ON YOUR FEET! takes you behind the music and inside the real story of this record-making and groundbreaking couple who, in the face of adversity, found a way to end up on their feet. Directed by two-time Tony Award® winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots), with choreography by Olivier Award winner Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) and an original book by Academy Award® winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman), ON YOUR FEET! features some of the most iconic songs of the past quarter-century — and one of the most inspiring stories in music

“An entirely fresh, funny, and gorgeous new production. A REASON FOR CELEBRATION!” – New York Magazine.

Tony®-winning director Bartlett Sher and the team behind South Pacific, The King and I and 2017 Tony-winning Best Play Oslo, bring a fresh and authentic vision to this beloved theatrical masterpiece from Tony winner Joseph Stein and Pulitzer Prize winners Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. The original production won ten Tony Awards, including a special Tony for becoming the longest-running Broadway musical of all time. You’ll be there when the sun rises on this new production, with stunning movement and dance from acclaimed Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, based on the original staging by Jerome Robbins. A wonderful cast and a lavish orchestra tell this heartwarming story of fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, and the timeless traditions that define faith and family. Featuring the Broadway classics “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “To Life,” FIDDLER ON THE ROOF will introduce a new generation to this uplifting celebration that raises its cup to joy! To love! To life!
ANASTASIA June 4-9, 2019

Inspired by the beloved films, the romantic and adventure-filled new musical ANASTASIA is on a journey to Memphis at last! From the Tony Award®-winning creators of the Broadway classic Ragtime, this dazzling show transports us from the twilight of the Russian Empire to the euphoria of Paris in the 1920s, as a brave young woman sets out to discover the mystery of her past. Pursued by a ruthless Soviet officer determined to silence her, Anya enlists the aid of a dashing conman and a lovable ex-aristocrat. Together, they embark on an epic adventure to help her find home, love, and family. ANASTASIA features a book by celebrated playwright Terrence McNally, a lush new score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) with direction by Tony Award® winner Darko Tresnjak.

HAMILTON July 9-28, 2019
HAMILTON is the story of America's Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became George Washington's right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and was the new nation’s first Treasury Secretary. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B, and Broadway, HAMILTON is the story of America then, as told by America now.

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Dead in the Water: New Moon's "Eurydice" is wet and wonderful

Posted By on Thu, Feb 22, 2018 at 4:38 PM

Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice isn’t for theater lovers who like a lot of action or tense tightly plotted drama. Though it borrows from ancient Greek forms it’s barely recognizable as a play in the traditional sense. It’s more of a living painting or character-driven poem that borrows heavily from its source material without ever pledging fidelity.

Written after the playwright's own father’s death, Eurydice is a grief project, strange and gentle. You can feel the author wrestling with pain — twisting it into origami birds and hurtling it at the sky. The New Moon Theatre Company and Director Jamie Boller have done an admirable job of bringing Ruhl’s quirky almost literally colorless meditation on memory and language to life, helping to cement the company’s reputation for taking on projects they probably don’t have the resources to produce, and making memorable theater anyway.

New Moon has turned to the Orpheus myth before having staged Tennessee Williams' intense Orpheus Descending. Unlike Williams' Southern drama (and also unlike the original source material) this contemporary update takes the spotlight off Orpheus, a supernaturally popular musician who’s songs are so beautiful they enchant  inanimate objects. It reorients the story around his love Eurydice who dies on her wedding day and is taken to the underworld inspiring Orpheus to undertake a hero’s journey to rescue her. As is the case in every version of the story he fails to rescue his love. Everybody dies — this is hardly a spoiler.
Ruhl introduces a new character to the drama— the Father. Unlike other shades dipped in the waters of forgetfulness, he remembers the language of living people. He remembers his life and family. He’s spent his whole death writing letters to his daughter, and when she arrives he teaches her to remember— a kindness with all the force of cruelty. The two rebel ghosts are regularly chastised by animated stones that are anything but silent. These rocks—witness to all— are our chorus.

Though minimal in one sense Eurydice is a gift to designers. It rains real drops inside an elevator to hell. Rooms are created out of nothing. Objects fly. It’s the kind of text best suited for companies with substantial budgets or none at all, facilitating a commitment to total theater. New Moon falls somewhere in between resulting in a production that’s imaginative and inspirational.

Eurydice’s secret weapon is an ensemble cast peopled with strong actors who listen to one another and play their parts like musicians in an improvisational jam. Still, it’s Eurydice’s play, and with effortless effervescence (even in death) Michelle Miklosey leads the way. As Orpheus Gabe Buetel-Gunn might be more overtly musical, but all holes are patched first by his doting, then by his pain of loss.

In some ways the tables are turned on Orpheus in this story. In the original myth Eurydice is barely there while in this version it's the musician who's been pushed to the margins. But Buetel-Gunn is always present, even when mute. In an understated, slow burning performance as Eurydice’s sweetly subversive father Jeff Kirwan reminds us that not all masculinity is toxic and not every patriarch is of the Patriarchy. In fact, as Eurydice demonstrates, some dads are so special they inspire poetry.

Similarly, this gray, drippy, lovely production (with terrific lights by Mandy Heath, costumes by Austin Blake Conlee, and original music by Joe Johnson) seems destined to inspire local artists who look back in order to look ahead; who aren’t constrained by convention; who like to color outside the lines.

Friday, February 16, 2018

"Souvenir" is a keeper: Florence Foster Jenkins sings at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Feb 16, 2018 at 11:22 AM

David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of  Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.
  • David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.

Friends, Memphians, Theatre lovers, lend me your ears so that I may share with you the worst, most beautiful sound you've ever heard. I'm here to praise Souvenir: A Fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (the tone deaf diva who thought she had perfect pitch), not to bury it. But maybe a moment of that too.

The magic trick that makes Souvenir so special is that it presents us with confident singing that's so painfully off key and rhythm-free  it makes us double over laughing. But it's not Madame Flo who takes us on this journey, it's her long suffering accompanist Cosme McMoon. And like McMoon, by the time all is said and done, we're left to wonder if Jenkins wasn't differently gifted — touched, like any other visionary artist, by angels and so compelled to make art whether she had the technical skills or not.

"It's the music in your head that matters," McMoon says, or words to that effect. When this idea drops, a kind of beauty emerges from the disaster of Jenkins' singing.

Theatre Memphis' charming, original (local) cast revival is a textbook example of how, particularly with small cast shows, technical improvements don't always improve things. Enlargements may even compete with performers, making them seem smaller and more isolated than they might in a less busy environment. TM's last Souvenir was done on the cheap, and you could tell. But by staying small and leaving much to the imagination, the crummy set accomplished what good design is supposed to do. It made Souvenir's two actors the focal point, not a chandelier or the painted floors. The revival's no worse than the original, but it's no better either. Simply said, the more sumptuous, and admittedly swell, scenic design doesn't leave much room for the music in our heads. This is all more food for thought than actual complaint as the design effectively drops viewers into the world of New York's upper crust during the 30's and 40's, where McMoon and Jenkins, as played by David Shipley and Jude Knight, take audiences on a strange tour fraught with delusion, meanness and uncommon generosity. 

As local theater fans all know, Knight has a powerful, lovely voice. It takes an especially gifted and giving singer to sing so badly so beautifully, with such precise imprecision and confidence. It also takes a special kind of vulnerability to let yourself be laughed at, as has always been the case with Jenkins who was never anything less than sincere. Souvenir taps our reflexive cruelty as efficiently as a doctor checking reflexes, but never judges us for the reflexive mockery. If anything, it's a warts and all lesson in how to overcome crazy obstacles and love, love, love. It's no romance, but perfect for the weekend after Valentine's Day. And Knight's second time around performance is every bit as great and guileless as it was when she first stepped into Jenkins' tiara and angel wings.

Some of Shipley's mugging and milking of laughter feels forced. But he's grown considerably in this revival and that's especially obvious in Souvenir's more emotionally challenging (if no less hilarious) second act. He's an engaging narrator. We feel his personal transformation. More than that, as his own opinions shift, he  changes our attitudes about Jenkins obnoxious singing as well. 

I've already written a fair amount about Jenkins and Souvenir so I'll link some of that here, for the curious, rather than repeat myself.  I don't have much left to say other than to encourage folks to check out this disproportionately satisfying little paint-by-numbers play that, like the artist it essays, spills color outside all the lines and is never quite as paint-by-numbers as it seems.

This fantasia on the life of an unlikely (pre YouTube) celebrity will make you want to stand up and sing whether it's advisable or not.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Souvenir: The Best Worst Sound You'll Ever Hear

Posted By on Fri, Feb 9, 2018 at 2:48 PM

David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of  Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.
  • David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.

When Theatre Memphis first produced Souvenir in 2009 I had this to say about one of my favorite little pieces of biographical theater ever:

There is a place, you see, where awfulness and earnestness combine to create something truly special — something ridiculous yet as endearing and truthful as a child's painting. And as comical as these abominations may be, they have the power of authenticity and are somehow more intrinsically human than any display of virtuosity can ever be. This thing of which I speak is a rare but real quality, found not only in the works of McGonagall but also in the cinema of Ed Wood, and in the recordings of Florence Foster Jenkins, a tone-deaf opera singer who, having no sense of rhythm or phrasing, presented herself as one of the greatest sopranos of the early 20th-Century.
You can read all the rest here, though I regret that many of the videos have been removed since the original posting. Since this season's revival features the exact same cast as the original, I suspect I'll be just as happy with the result. Here's a video clip I made from 2009.

And here's the actual FFJ singing her heart out.


Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice" opens. Also "Virginia Woolf" at GCT

Posted By on Fri, Feb 9, 2018 at 12:48 PM

There are a couple of really fantastic plays opening this weekend. And it's killing me that I'll be off covering the Ameripolitan Awards and unable to see either Sarah Ruhl's nifty interpretation of Eurydice or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at GCT in their opening weekend! Okay, I'm a honky tonk junkie and love all the musicians playing Ameripolitan events, so it's not TOTALLY killing me, but missing Eurydice — a reinvention of the Orpheus myth — is making me extra sad because it's Ruhl at her most painterly and poetic, effortlessly reshaping rules of narrative and what can and can't happen on stage.

Here's what Eurydice director Jamie Boller had to say about New Moon's production opening this weekend at TheatreWorks.

Intermission Impossible:
Why did you want to direct this play?

Jamie Boller:
Eurydice is one of my favorite stories—it has some of the most gorgeous language of any contemporary play that I’ve read. Ruhl’s play takes the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and tells it from the eyes of its heroine. It’s an incredibly powerful female story (and the first play for New Moon directed by and written by women, I might add!) I find the show to be incredibly relevant, both personally and politically. The play is a dark and magical adult fairytale—kind of an Alice in Wonderland meets Pan’s Labyrinth. Ruhl employs the surreal to examine the stark reality of what it means to lose someone you love. The story can be taken quite literally, but it can also be interpreted as an allegory for the grieving process. Ruhl wrote the play after she lost her father in her early twenties. She has said that writing this piece gave her an opportunity to talk with her father again. Audience members who have lost a parent or another loved one will be quite familiar with Eurydice’s journey. As our country is experiencing somewhat of a collective experience of grief over our current administration, this story is quite timely, as it asks the question: what happens to language and the ability to effectively communicate through grief?

Eurydice is Ruhl at her most poetic and painterly. And raw in the wake of her own father’s death. What kinds of challenges did this present for a small company, and how did you address them?

Ruhl’s script demands numerous seemingly impossible tasks such as: a raining elevator, three inanimate characters (the Stones), a ten-foot tall Lord of the Underworld, a river, a string room, and MORE. As New Moon is a smaller independent theatre company with limited financial resources, we tackled these design challenges with innovation, humor, and wit. Not to mention the strongest design team I have EVER worked with. The show has all original music, composed by Joe Johnson (currently starring in Once at Playhouse on the Square). David Galloway designed our otherworldly set, and Jake Lacher masterfully served as Technical Director. Mandy Heath designed the lights, which will take audiences to another world completely. The costumes, designed by Austin Conlee, are absolutely to die for. And last, but certainly not least, Brittany Church choreographed the abstract movement pieces in the show, which enhance and serve the surreal world in which the characters exist. This is one of the most technically ambitious productions New Moon (or TheaterWorks for that matter) has ever seen, and I think audiences will “oo” and “ah” at all of our surprises. A lot of the theatrical magic in this show is created right before the audiences’ eyes—we aren’t pretending this isn’t a play, and I think that makes things even more magical.

“Don’t look back” is one of the more obvious takeaways from the original Orpheus myth. But is it good advice?

Oh man, what a question, Chris! Through working on this process, it seems to me that the answer to this is complex and definitely lives in the grey area. For Eurydice and Orpheus, looking back is what, ultimately, leads to both of their downfalls. However, for Eurydice, looking back upon her childhood memories also helps her remember who she is, apart from her relationship with Orpheus. She becomes empowered through memory. For Eurydice and her father, nostalgia provides comfort and illumination. However, to dwell on the past is also to die a second death. For Ruhl, writing this play was a way for her to communicate with her deceased father. Through this process of memory and language, she was able to find some sort of peace. I think the grieving process involves a delicate balance of memory and moving on. This theme is certainly at the core of our piece.
"A Delicate Balance"
Well, that closing remark seemed like as good a segue as I could hope for into a conversation about A Delicate Balance author Edward Albee and his most famous play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, opening at Germantown Community Theatre this weekend.

With its themes of science and technology consuming history, Albee's profane and booze-soaked drama is the rare play that seems to become more urgent as it grows older. The cunning and hateful games of master and servant, which the aging academic George and his wife Martha play with their unsuspecting houseguests, may be viewed as a brief history of Western civilization. Their games reflect the cruelty of nature and of natural selection. The question keeps coming up: "Fight, fuck, or flight?" — whatever it takes, not only to survive but to dominate. It's terrifying, savagely, and often savagely funny. It's also a good fit for the intimate playhouse on Forest Hill-Irene. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Graceland Launches a Performing Arts Camp

Posted By on Thu, Feb 8, 2018 at 2:09 PM

  • Graceland
A performing arts camp at Graceland where kids "follow in the footsteps of Elvis"?

Sounds good to me.

The Presley home and museum has been in an expansionist phase, evolving the mission, and reshaping the popular tourist destination's identity. This July families with kids between the ages of 6 and 15 can be among the first to take part in Graceland's new, "immersive performing arts experience."

From the media release:
Participants will learn from local and Broadway professionals as they explore their creativity in workshops at the Graceland Soundstage, on stage at The Guest House at Graceland™ Theater and on actual production sets featured in the acclaimed “Sun Records” TV series. Over the four days of activities, everyone will develop their own showcase, culminating in an evening of performances on stage at The Guest House Theater for family and friends. 

The camp experience includes four nights at The Guest House hotel and availability is limited.

More information's available here.

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Friday, February 2, 2018

Italian Girls, Irish Guys, Sunset Babies and a Clown: Theater Roundup

Posted By on Fri, Feb 2, 2018 at 5:13 PM

Opera Memphis' executive director Ned Canty has a knack for gags and visual whimsey. So when a zany piece like Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers is the assignment you can count on seeing things you don't often see in an opera — Things like hand tossed pizzas being made, funny underwear, and a hairy, diaper-clad dude shooting arrows in the guise of cupid. On that front Canty, and his cast deliver the goods, although character development and the director's typical clarity in storytelling weren't quite there on preview night.

Take that criticism with a grain of salt. What matters: Preview performances are a special kind of rehearsal. Sometimes they look and sound just like the finished product, sometimes they are still very clearly a work in progress in need of an audience but not quite ready for one. The anachronistic translation is funny and the voices are strong, and blend together perfectly (and frantically!) in the composer's signature group crescendos.

There's more plotting in The Italian Girl... than actual story, but here's the nutshell. A vain Algerian bey is tired of his wife and harem and wants the kind of spice in his life you can only get with an Italian girl. So when a shipwreck brings one to Algiers (searching for a lost love, accompanied by a would be suitor) he kidnaps her, pitches hilarious woo, and gets schooled.  It's like an Italian The King and I meets The Taming of the Shrew (With the shrew doing all the taming!)

At the deeply silly heart of The Italian Girl... is the song "Pappataci" (Eat and Shut Up), which may be the single most ridiculous piece ever composed for an opera. It does not disappoint. Fans of Canty's video game-inspired Mikado will also appreciate the loving cultural pastiche on display here.

Fingers crossed that a well-intentioned, but not very effective plan to project video on hand-held screens works out better on opening night than it did in the preview. This is a chocolate fudge and caramel laden banana split of an opera. When things don't work it can melt fast.
Also worth checking out this weekend...

Sunset Baby at the Hattiloo
When I hear my more cinema-oriented friends complaining about superhero movies and how much they miss small, artfully told stories about real people with real conflicts my answer is always the same: Sounds like you might need to come back to the theater where, in addition to all the big musicals, these kinds of stories are still valued. Stories like Sunset Baby, reviewed here.

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. 
Fences at Theatre Memphis
August Wilson's best known play is lovingly revived at Theatre Memphis.

Wilson's characters are pressed to create their own mythology in order to survive in a world they are constantly reminded they didn't create. To that end, Fences' Troy Maxson is a former Negro League star, accidental labor leader, and myth-maker of the first order. As Troy, Willis Green blows through the show like a category-5 hurricane. He's supported by a strong cast that includes Jessica Johnson as Troy's wife Rose and Justin Raynard Hicks in an unforgettable turn as brother Gabe, a combat veteran whose head wound left him in a state of perpetual childhood.

Once at Playhouse on the Square
Once is one of the best shows I've seen in Memphis or anywhere else. If you miss this, you'll regret it.

Once gets its hooks in deep during the pre-show. While the audience is still being seated, the full cast of actor-musicians launch into a fiddle-sawing, guitar-picking, mandolin-strumming, box-banging, foot-stomping, and tin whistle-tooting jam session. When showtime finally rolls around, the joyful music practically gives birth to the storytelling.
Just Larry's Mayhem at the Evergreen Theatre
Do you love a good variety show? Memphis' favorite clown, juggler, magician, comedian and burlesque host never fails to entertain. If you want to know more about his latest installment of Mayhem click here. If you want to know more about the man himself, here's a longer piece about one of the city's most interesting entertainers. 

Alvin Ailey: Kicking Off Black History Month with the Legendary NY Dance Company

Posted By on Fri, Feb 2, 2018 at 11:45 AM

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform Revelations. - PAUL KOLNIK
  • Paul Kolnik
  • Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform Revelations.
Tonight and tomorrow, the Orpheum will host the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in an especially appropriate performance for this year's Black History Month. Ailey began the company in 1958, and was one of the first to feature jazz, “Negro spirituals,” and dancers from diverse cultures. Though Ailey himself passed away in 1989, that spirit of diversity lives on. And, in harmony with the MLK50 events taking place in Memphis, the Saturday matinee will feature a new work that evokes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I chatted with company member and rehearsal director Matthew Rushing, to get a better sense of what the company will bring to this show.

Memphis Flyer: How would you describe the new work based on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Matthew Rushing: The ballet is called r-Evolution, Dream and it's based around Dr. King's speeches. One speech that really rings true to me is “The drum major instinct,” and what I feel was so creative and unique about this work is that Ms. Boykin wasn't able to get the original speeches, so she had to become more creative. One of the ways that she prepared the piece was to write her own material that was inspired by the speeches she had been studying in order to prepare this ballet. She also worked with Leslie Odom, Jr. to do the recording that you'll hear, as the voice that takes you through the whole piece, the narrator of the whole piece. That's Leslie Odom, Jr., who was formerly with Hamilton.

Popular quotes by other people that Dr. King used will be included in the piece, as well as Hope Boykins' original material. All of these things speak of and reflect Dr. King's spirit. One thing that Hope talks about is the class system —how there's this division of the haves and the have-nots. I love that she tackled the topic because, in the midst of all that's going on and all this talk about Dr. King and his messages, that's something that's not talked about as much.

And I think it's a privilege to be able to be a part of it. I got a chance to do some research on my own. I listened to Dr. King's speeches, and listened to the cadence and the spirit behind it, the dynamics. And I actually tried to carry the those things within the steps that Hope choreographed for me. It's a delightful opportunity. Each time I do the piece I hear something different, I feel something different, I connect with a different member of the company. It's a very strong, relevant, important piece

I noticed it features specially commissioned music by Ali Jackson, Jr.

Yes, of Jazz at Lincoln Center. That's another great addition to the piece because you're using something that is so traditional. Something that has history, something that has weight, and something that's directly related to African-American history, as well as just general American history. So all those elements just come together well.
I know Jackson's a drummer — does that come through in the music? Is it very percussive or groove oriented?

Well, he's a drummer, but he's also composer, and what he composed was this very wide range of music. One of my favorite moments is the opening solo that I have, and instead of using a speech from Dr. King, Hope gave Ali one of the speeches to listen to. And he would listen to the cadence in Dr. Kings voice and then he came up with a score based upon his cadence.

Looking over the program, it looks like the other selections for the evening shows are very relevant to Black History Month and the MLK50 commemoration, especially Members Don't Get Weary, set to the music of John Coltrane.

Once again, incredible elements that we are working with. Jamar Roberts, who is a longtime leading company member, did incredible research, based on getting in to the music of Coletrane. Jamar loves jazz and spent a long amount of time just meditating on Coltrane's music. He would write based upon what he received from the music. It was almost like a play — he wrote out scenes and the structure, the environment, what are the relationships between the dancers that are in each section. He wrote all of this out based on what he got out of the music, and that was almost like this storyboard to choreograph the piece.

In the first section he refers to the Negro spirituals, showing the ancestors, the people who went before us, the people who were involved in the civil rights movement and fought those fights for us so that we can be who we are now. But then the second section shows the current version of that same fight. It's a newer generation, but in a sense the fight is still not over and we still must endure those hardships and those fights. They may be packaged differently, but the struggle in the sense is the same.

So much of Coltrane's music is about reinvention, taking basic elements and morphing them, yet with the same spirit. I was surprised, given the themes of this performance, that the piece didn't include “Alabama,” which of course everyone considers Coltrane's most engaged piece with the civil rights movement. What are your thoughts on the two pieces that you do use for that performance, “Dear Lord” and “Olé”?

As I said, Jamar had a very clear story that he wanted to tell. So for a choreographer, it's important to have an ebb and flow. There has to be a very seamless flow, not only within the steps but also within the structure of the piece. So I think he just went to the song that spoke to him the most, and you'll see what I mean when you see the ballet.

I've never seen anyone capture Coltrane's musicality like Jamar. It's incredible. You can tell he studied the music deeply. Not only do you hear the music when you see the ballet, you see the music.

I guess you're no stranger to choreography based on classic jazz.

Yes, I choreographed a piece based on the Harlem Renaissance and within that ballet I had many different pieces by Fats Waller, Ellington, Count Basie, and others. I even had work from Langston Hughes — it was just a whole collection from that time. That piece was called Uptown. Doing that piece was my introduction to the brilliance of jazz. Before I had danced in a lot of Mr. Ailey's work set to jazz music, specifically Ellington music, and I appreciated it. But when I had to do the research for Uptown, that's when I started to fall in love with it. And it's amazing to see that tradition being carried in Hope's work and now in Jamar's work, since both are using jazz music.

I suppose that's one great pillar of the Ailey company because he was one of the first, if not the first, to really incorporate jazz into his choreography for modern dance.

I would say not the first, but I definitely feel that he is one who put it on the map. His works were so iconic that I feel it was the official introduction of the possibilities of modern dance and jazz. There are other choreographers, like Donald McKayle, who also choreographed to jazz. But Mr. Ailey, I feel, because his work has such an accessibility to it, just captured audiences around the world. And therefore he became that icon, that person that people look to as far as seeing what's new, what's next, and I think that's probably how we may see him — as one of the first.

How does Ailey's earlier work, Revelations, that you're performing, resonate with you in this century?

It's many things. First, it's genius. It's classic, and when I refer to something being classic, I also see it as being timeless. It still speaks to all different generations and it speaks to different cultures. And the interesting thing about it is that it has a very specific message. It talks about spirituality. It's choreographed to Negro spirituals, which talk about faith, the Christian faith, the Baptist faith. But for some reason there's a universality to it: audiences around the world who may not know anything about Christianity, the Baptist religion, or even Jesus. As with the piece, “Fix Me, Jesus,” which has all these references to terms that we have here in our faith, but I don't feel that people are excluded when they watch the ballet. It's a very open-ended ballet that speaks to what I always say: everybody has a spirit. We may have different moral beliefs or faiths, but I feel everybody has a heart.

So I feel Revelations speaks to your heart, it speaks to your spirit. We have all experienced hardships, we have all experienced the need for perseverance, and we've also all experienced some kind of victory, and how good that victory feels. And Revelations captures those topics. It shows you how how heavy oppression can be, it shows you the idea of going to the water to be purged and washed of your sins, and that's parallel to perseverance, trying to hang onto your faith and live. Even though we've been through the worst of the worst, we are still alive and celebrating what we have, and I think those are very universal topics.

So among all these different pieces you're performing, there's this Twyla Tharp piece, “The Golden Section,” from The Catherine Wheel, featuring music by David Byrne. Just on paper, it strikes me that the David Byrne score is quite a contrast with the jazz and spirituals in the show. How do you feel about that contrast?

Well it's exactly that. In programming, sometimes we will have programs that are theme-based and they're very specific from beginning to end, and sometimes the program is put together in a way that shows versatility within the different dance styles. Sometimes our programs are based upon just the music styles. Maybe the artistic directors feel a city has not seen works by a certain choreographer, or if the show has very heavy pieces, we need one piece just to brighten up the entire evening. There's just so many different things that go into the planning of the program. I don't think it's necessarily like “The Golden Section” was programmed to fit in the context of the other subject matter, but it's possibly there to broaden the audience's view of dance, and maybe even just to bring balance to the evening.

I've read the company last performed the piece in 2006, so this is a bit of a revival. Is that kind of cooperation between companies common?

Since we are a repertory company, we often run across those instances where a choreographer is connected to a specific company. We have a new work called Shelter and it was originally done by the Urban Bush Women. The Ailey company was the first company to do it, outside of the Urban Bush Women. So there are many instances where we dance works from specific choreographers associated with other companies. I think that's something that the directors aim to do, to take these excellent works and give the Ailey dancers a chance to be challenged. And also bring in these works that may not have been seen by the Ailey audiences and give them a chance to see different types of dance.

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

"Perfect Arrangement" Drags History Out of the Closet

Love American Style

Posted By on Thu, Feb 1, 2018 at 1:52 PM

"Two Americas" has long been a theme in U.S. politics. It typically refers to our country's unacknowledged caste system of haves and have-nots, but there's more than one way to explore the duality of a nation built around the idea of being simultaneously separate and united. To better illustrate all this, Perfect Arrangement, a daring, mostly-successful stunt of a play that's currently on stage at Circuit Playhouse, introduces audiences to a piece of theater where tragedy and farce wrap around one another like strands of DNA. It's two distinct plays telling the same hilarious and heart breaking story.

Set in 1950 and in the looming shadows of Senator Joseph McCarthy and F.B.I. chief J. Edgar Hoover, Perfect Arrangement tells the story of two almost perfect nuclear families sharing a thoroughly modern duplex with a secret passageway connecting their apartments — straight through the closet. The symbolism's right on, if a little on the nose. The married couples, both connected to the U.S. State Department by way of employment, are gay and living a carefully built illusion where trust is dependent on deceit. From a macro perspective the two America's essayed in this conjoined, highly enjoyable oddity of a play are an nation protected by the "rule of law," contrasted with an American political system obsessed with "law and order."

The phrases "rule of law" and "law and order" are often treated synonymously in American discourse but they're very nearly opposites. "Rule of law" equalizes and assures us that the law is always the law regardless of a person's faith, race, or station in life. "Law and Order," serves the status quo so serving Americans becomes less important than protecting an "American way of life," which has always been understood to mean white, patriarchal, and heteronormative. This is the crossroads where the tragic and farcical elements of Perfect Arrangement merge as the State Department's mission to purge Communists and Communist sympathizers expands to include drunks, drug addicts, sexual deviants and anybody else whose secret lifestyle might open them up to blackmail and manipulation, compromising the department. That's when State's chief Commie inquisitor Bob Martindale (married to Millie Martindale but in a relationship with Millie's girlfriend's husband Jim Baxter) has to come up with the perfect plan for making people like him and his atypical family outcasts and unemployable. This is also where the play's tone shifts from romantic comedy to psychological horror. It's where the cracks in this perfect union become evident and everything breaks apart again. A new paradigm forms and when Kim Sanders shows up in the role of liberated translator and bon viviant Barbara Grant, the play morphs into an old school battle of the sexes like you've never seen before.

It's tempting to suggest that the entire cast (excepting Sanders who's drop-dead fabulous as Grant) is struggling with material that is, at all times, both farce and tragedy. But that's probably not accurate. The ensemble mostly rises to all occasions but their performances aren't always supported by technical elements in a production that's always a little too normal when it needs to be "NORMAL!!!!" Only Lindsay Schmeling's costumes rise to the sad yet ridiculous occasion.

So what if Danny Crowe works his eyebrows a little too hard hard as Martindale and the typically excellent Michael Gravois can't quite find the dangerous gravity needed to ground a nerdy bureaucrat. Both are ultimately effective and the awfulness of Crowe's final isolation more than makes up for any overarching deficiencies along the way. Similarly, as Martindale's smoking jacket-clad lover Jim, Tad Cameron is better in the play's darker, sadder moments.

The men may have all the real power here but this play belongs to its women. Sanders has never been better and as secret lovers Millie and Norma Claire Clauson and Brooke Papritz effectively intertwine realistic dialogue with copy that could have been lifted from a variety of atomic age TV commercials hawking modern miracles for the homemaker. Although her character's sometimes treated as a comic foil and cultural fetish, Heather Zurowski never makes Kitty Sunderson a joke. Just when you think the bureaucrat's dizzy wife is a little too two-dimensional — a blissfully ignorant proxy for an America that eschews critical thought — Zurowski makes you reconsider.

There's a lot of good theater happening in Memphis right now. A Perfect Arrangement isn't perfect, but it continues the trend.


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