JUNE DAYS ON THE RUN
Blood Brothers . iMusical: The Musical . 1776 . Sweeney Todd . Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat & Spring Awakening
BLOODY GOOD, JAKE AND MICHAEL!!
What a way to start the month! I returned to Act Two Performing Arts on Friday, June 1st at The Olney Theatre Center to see their production of the long-running London hit musical Blood Brothers. After writing about their magnifique production of Les Miserables, I knew I was in for a treat. I had taken the Ushers to The Elden Street Players to see this year’s Watch Awards winner for Best Musical, and could not imagine seeing as good or close to that incredible production, which I named the best musical of the year in this column.
But two young actors – Jake Sheffer (18) and Michael Brick (17) – who played Mickey Johnstone and Eddie Lyons – the doomed twin brothers separated at birth, (and who have to hear the name of Marilyn Monroe invoked almost two dozen times throughout this somber musical. Can they let this lady rest in peace?) – proved that they were up to the task. It’s not easy playing kids in the first act and adults in the second act, and their ability to pull it off was a wonder to behold.
After being blown away by their remarkable performances, I sat down with Jake and Michael to talk about the popularity of the show, (it’s run for almost two decades in London) their roles, and what scenes were the most difficult to play. I was bloody impressed. Listen in here
What you will hear are two very mature and energetic young actors who describe how important it was to provide their audience with the best performance they were capable of giving. Their respect for each other and the other cast members was so refreshing.
A special congrats to Jennifer Steiger (Mrs. Johnstone). When you sang “Easy Terms” and “Tell Me It’s Not True,” I had chills up and down my spine. I still do.
THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOE BUSINESS AT THE iMUSICAL
It’s Saturday, June 2nd and it’s press night at Washington Improv Theatre’s iMusical: The Improvised Musical. I can’t wait to see what they will create. It’s the first time I’ve been back to the show since Lorraine Treanor and I recorded one of their rehearsals.
When Travis Ploeger, the musical director/pianist asked the audience for a title and/or venue, someone shouted out, “In a sweatshop in Vietnam”! Immediately, we were transferred to a Saigon sweatshop with the owner of Nike and his underpaid, underfed shoemaker slaves. Mr. Nike has taken the advice of his crazy assistant to create a new line of “Air Jordan’s” made out of human flesh, sort of Sweeney Todd has sole or Night of the Loafer Dead.
As the crazy assistant looks at Nike’s zaftig (Yiddish for “not skinny”) daughter, Melody, he exclaims, “Sir, your daughter would make a lot of shoes, but don’t feel bad, David Beckham is on the phone and he wants a new line of flesh tones created for him.”
And it got loonier with Melody thrown into a pit with a cannibal and a shoe-maker, and they sing about their misfortune in a crazy song, “Come into the dungeon of my heart” where they lament that, “Life is hard for pit people. Life is hard for me.”
Everything is eventually wrapped up in a final reconciliation scene between Father Nike (Shawn Westfall) who agrees to behave and to keep his hands off his daughter and Melody (a hysterically funny Natasha Rothwell) agreeing to have gastric stapling, after reminding her father about all the terrible things he had done to her: “His name is Daddy. He tried to make me into a shoe.”
I’m always stunned and amazed how this troupe of improv geniuses creates a musical in front of our eyes. Get thee to the iMusical. (Playing Fridays thru July 13 at Flashpoint.) And be sure to listen in when iMusical creates songs for the winner of our June iMusical contest ‘Be the Muse for iMusical.’
ELECTRONICALLY INDEPENDENT – MARK RHEA ON 1776
It’s Saturday, June 3rd, and I’m at Church Street Theatre to watch the matinee of 1776, the first musical that Keegan Theatre is mounting here. How was Director Mark Rhea going to squeeze in all those signers of the Declaration of Independence and an orchestra into this small space?
Mark accomplished this difficult feat, and as an audience member, I felt like a fly on the wall – right there with our founding fathers – battling it out. It’s a visually stunning production – gorgeous costumes and lighting, and the performance by Robert Limburger as Ben Franklin is electrifying and Mick Tinder is powerful and perfectly annoying as John Adams. Both these performances are worth the price of admission.
But beware my fellow musical theatre purists– Where is the orchestra?
I see a drum, but nothing more. Is the music in the can?
Listen in as Director Mark Rhea explains how the musical director created the orchestra for this production of 1776, and how the fiddling around and placement of speakers produced the music for the show.
THE LIGHTS GO OUT ON SWEENEY
It’s Friday, June 8th It’s Sweeney Todd, but there’s to be no pies. No throat slashing. No dead Beggar Woman or burnt Lovett.
I was at Kensington Arts Theatre (KAT) to see my all-time favorite musical -Stephen Sondheim’s delicious Sweeney Todd. My guest. Robin Larkin of Footlights and I were sent home before the hacking and baking began, because mother nature attacked during the first act and pulled the plug on the power.
I knew it was going to be a rough night when during the whipping and rubbing Judge Turpin song, “Mea Culpa,” the man to the right of me picked up his cell phone : “How are you doing kids? What did you have for dinner? I’m here at some Barber musical.”
Well, you know what’s coming…
I leaned over and said, “Shut that phone off. How dare you! Show some respect to the actors.” Instead of apologizing, the man in black threatened to call the police on me, and then stormed out to make his call in the back of the theatre (which of course we could hear). He then returned to his seat, when the thunder crashed and the rain came down in buckets. Suddenly, the lights went out on the barber, the haggard wife, the pie-maker, the beadle, the sailor and evil judge and the pies – and the audience.
As they made the announcement that the show was cancelled, I grabbed my digital recorder and asked some of the cast to describe what was happening for all of you. Sam Ludwig (Tobias) wasn’t going to get away from me until I could hear at least a snippet of “No One’s Gonna Harm You,” and he obliged and Ryan Manning, who played Anthony, described the exact moment the lights went out during his duet -”Kiss Me.”
And then the master throat slitter arrived – Michael Nansel – and talked to me about how he prepared for the more angry scenes in the show. His response may surprise you. Listen to this.
And as promised, the cell phone man in black was waiting for me as I interviewed the cast. I asked Michael if he would pose for some pictures for me and he slowly took out his razors and held them high for me as I was taking a picture of him for this column.
I had told Michael about the cell man, and when he slowly turned to pose for the picture you see above, the man in black, my cell phone buddy, quickly left the theatre again, this time for good. That was a close shave, Sweeney.
I’ll never forget the night I saw the darkest Sweeney Todd I have ever seen, or almost saw. Pie anyone?
THE COLORFUL DREAMY ENSEMBLE AND JOSEPH RULE!
It’s Saturday, June 9th and I’m back at The Olney Theater Center for another Act Two Performing Arts show, and this time it’s a happy musical – Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s funny, dreamy and color-filled Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. And what fun the audience of families and their kids had, clapping along and laughing at Marilyn Johnson’s gorgeous and colorful costumes. Joseph is an ensemble piece – a group effort. The ensemble drives this show along. And in this production, there are two ensembles – a children’s chorus and an adult ensemble. And there are three narrators – Lauren Fagan, Stephanie Rigazedeh and Kaya Simonson, whose gorgeous harmonies were supreme. Every other production I have seen of this show always had one narrator.
Listen to colorful Josh Kauffman (Joseph) tell you about his character and how the show would be nothing without the ensembles. Adult ensemble members Pacey Berman and Michelle Markowitz (OK-what’s wrong with a little nepotism once in a while? Yes, she’s my niece!) explain to their fellow actors how being in the ensemble is equally important as being the leads, especially in Joseph, and how being in the ensemble requires dedication and lots of rehearsal time.
IT’S SPRING, SPRING, SPRING!
It’s Sunday, June 10th at 4 PM, 90 minutes before my guests arrive, and I am hurriedly putting the final touches on the food for my annual Tony Awards party. The apple-pineapple-chocolate cake is done, as is the 4 kinds of cheesecake, sweet potato cranberry cake, white chocolate candies in the shape of theatre masks, are all beautifully arranged on platters surrounded by strawberries., The teriyaki chicken, the herbed small potatoes and the 10 lbs of tortellini are warming up in the oven.
The Tony ballots have been printed out and are ready to be filled out by the guests. At 5:15 PM, the bell rings as the first guest arrives. At 6:15 PM, I welcome my guests and tell them my Tony predictions (I missed 2 all night) and reveal the Ushers 18th season schedule.
At 7:15 PM, some of us gather around the computer as the first seven Tony Awards are announced , while the other guests continue to stuff themselves with tortellini in the living room.
As the awards drag on from 8-11 PM, I can’t stop cheering and smiling because my favorite musical of the last year Spring Awakening is sweeping the musical awards and The Coast of Utopia is sweeping the play awards – a double knockout!
My best DCTR buddies – Gary McMillan and Debbie Jackson – are dumbfounded as one award after the other springs upon my favorite show. Both Debbie and Gary had mixed reactions when we saw the show on an April trip to the Big Apple. I offered to perform CPR on Gary whose head was turning around like Linda Blair in that famous green pea soup demon movie.
It was so wonderful to watch local Rockvillean Michael Mayer accept his Tony for Best Director of A Musical for Spring Awakening, and thank his parents and Aunt and Uncle for their encouragement and support. “I want to thank my parents. I’m one of the lucky ones, I had parents I could talk to and who understood and appreciated what made me unique. For instance, when I was eight years old, I woke up one morning and there on the pillow next to me was the most astonishing thing I had ever seen in my life, a double album, Judy at Carnegie Hall. Right? How cool is that?
I have to also thank my Aunt Susan and Uncle Alan, all my family, my friends, my partner Roger. I think it’s awesome that the Broadway community has embraced our musical of young people struggling with the confusing and exhilarating journey to adulthood, and I believe it is only with open eyes and open ears and open minds and open hearts that we can guide future generations until one day societal repression and sexist taboo are no longer themes for which directors win Tony Awards.”
Michael’s win reminds us how blessed we are with so much talent in our theatre community, and how many talented local actors and directors are contributing to the success of New York Theatre. Mazel Tov, Michael and all my friends from Spring Awakening!