A blazing performance as Nina Simone in “Little Girl Blue”

My memories of seeing Nina Simone perform in Philadelphia and Atlantic City jazz clubs in the late 1950s/early 60s are soft-focus, because, well, do the math. What does remain sharp, though, is how her singing affected those of us fortunate enough to be her fans and catch her appearances. Her upbeat, syncopated stylings were infectious, and her soul-searching blues laments were spiritual, in every sense. Her self-accompanied “I Loves You, Porgy,” sung hunched down over the keyboard as if singing only for herself, was exquisite.

My memory of Laiona Michelle portraying Nina Simone in “Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical” is much sharper, not just because it was last week at George Street Playhouse, but because Ms. Michelle’s evocation of the iconic vocalist, musician and activist is an amazing piece of work. A creation, to be sure, but equally important, a re-creation of the life, times and persona of Ms. Simone. Not only does she virtually disappear into her subject, but except for the songs, Nina’s own and a dozen others, Michelle also wrote the emotionally stirring show. (Among those other composers are Judy Collins, Randy Newman, Jacques Brel and Rodgers & Hart. That Ms. Michelle sings them so well is thrilling. That she seamlessly integrates them into her show, along with themes by Johann Sebastian Bach, is near genius.)

Laiona Michelle as Nina Simone [Photos: T Charles Erickson]

         The show takes place in the years between 1968 and 1976, with flashbacks to Simone’s childhood, her early career and her involvement with the American Civil Rights Movement that roiled the ‘60s. In two trim hour- long acts, we learn of Nina’s religious upbringing, her early piano lessons, a husband who goes from supportive to abusive, and her evolving from a club entertainer to an artistic symbol of resistance to racial and other injustices.  Along the way, Ms. Michelle channels the voices of the very young Nina, her parents, the strict piano teacher and the husband. She also does a brief, uncanny impression of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose murder in 1968 left Simone devastated and spurred her activism. “An artist’s duty,” she says, “is to reflect the times,” as valid an assessment now as it was in 1968.

The necessarily compressed overview touches on Simone’s legal problems (She withheld income taxes as a Vietnam War protest) and her self-imposed exile to France, Switzerland and the Bahamas. Ms. Michelle’s focus is on Simone as an entertainer and how those factors actually enriched her work.

Expansively directed by Devanand Janki, Michelle is constrained only to the extent that Simone might have been, and when she is not, the excitement spills over into the auditorium. A distinct advantage of George Street’s temporary home on a Rutgers campus (while the PAC in New Brunswick is under construction) is its intimacy. Laiona’s face reflects everything going on inside her – and inside Nina. You cannot take your eyes off hers.

Laiona Michelle

On designer Shoko Kambara’s clean-lines set that features a gorgeous themed-mosaic backdrop, Ms. Michelle is accompanied by musical director/arranger/writer Mark Fifer on keyboards, Saadi Zain on bass (upright of course) and percussionist Kenneth Salters. “Press the right key at the right time and the music plays itself,” Nina was taught. If that is so, it is remarkable how consistently these four select the right key to press. As for the right time to experience it, that would be before Laiona Michelle’s brilliant “Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical” ends its George Street run. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if you got another chance soon enough in NYC.)

Through Feb 24 at George Street Playhouse’s temporary home at 103 College Farm Road, off Rte.1 in New Brunswick NJ. For directions and tickets ($25-$89): online at www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org or call the box office at 732-246-7717

Nina Simone (See what I mean?)

 

Blog, Professional, Regional

“Ain’t Misbehavin'” at Westchester: The Joint Is Jumpin’

To describe a play or musical as ‘dated’ might indicate that the piece is no longer relevant by virtue of evolved social or moral standards. (You won’t see Neil Simon’s play about the battered alcoholic Gingerbread Lady any time soon.) But the term can also denote a positive, as in evoking an era worth re-visiting despite – or even because of – some outmoded characteristics. So it is with “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” sub-titled “The Fats Waller Musical Show,” enjoying a spirited revival at Westchester Broadway Theatre (a dinner-and-show venue, with a varied menu of entrees included in the ticket prices).

While it was not the first ‘jukebox’ musical, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was the first major successful one, opening off-Broadway in 1978 and soon moving to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The show quickly spawned two other catalog musicals: “Eubie,” which spotlighted the works of Eubie Blake, and “Sophisticated Ladies,” which did the same for Duke Ellington. (“Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and, arguably, such as “Mamma Mia” and “Jersey Boys” also owe a debt to Fats.)

The “Ain’t Misbehavin'” company  [Photos: John Vecchiolla]

Even without a spoken line, save one, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” provides insight into the life and times of Thomas “Fats” Waller. Born in 1904 and dead too soon in 1943, his dream of becoming a ‘serious’ composer (like George Gershwin, whom he much admired) was derailed by racial barriers. Falling back on his comic persona and swinging style, he left instead a legacy of jazz and blues that profoundly influenced Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Dave Brubeck and others. In retrospect, Fats did indeed compose serious music.

A compilation of his melodies (Fats wrote the music; various collaborators, the lyrics) and some others’ songs that he memorably recorded, the revue is set in a Harlem nightclub in the 1930s, illustrated by the costuming, the arrangements and the presentation. If there is a hint of minstrelsy, it is in the service of that time and place; performed here unabashedly, it is history – not academic, mind you, but a replication, as entertaining as it is authentic.

Five top-notch talents (and a nifty back-up band) bring new life to old songs, some of which might be familiar even to relatively younger folks, “I’ve Got a Feelin’ I’m Falling” and “Two Sleepy People” for two. The show segues seamlessly from song to song, including less familiar tunes that are well worth discovering. The tightly harmonized ensemble numbers are terrific. The title song kicks off the show with a blast, and “The Joint is Jumpin’” ends the first act on a high. “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” does just that, and “The Jitterbug Waltz” is stuck in my head a week later.

Each performer also has solo turns. M. Martine Allard’s emotional “Mean To Me” and Ron Lucas’s seductive “The Viper’s Drag,” (“The Reefer Song”) resonate. Tony Perry’s take on “Your Feet’s Too Big” is a comic gem, and his and Lucas’s “The Ladies Who Sing with the Band” is an apt tribute. Amy Jo Philips’s “Squeeze Me” is an offer you want to accept, and Anita Welch makes you believe that she’s “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” (or maybe not). All these and more (about 30 total) are accompanied by music director William Foster McDaniel at the piano, fronting the five piece band as a latter-day Fats Waller.

From left: Amy Jo Philips, M Martine Allard, Anita Welch

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” includes a musical statement that puts the show in perspective. Fats Waller wrote “(What did I do to be so) Black and Blue” in 1929 with Andy Razaf, his most prolific lyricist. The blues song is a treatise on bias, both white racism and that directed toward African-Americans with varying skin tones. Sung a capella in multi-part harmony, it is hauntingly beautiful.

Celebrating the show’s fortieth anniversary year, Westchester has snagged its creator and original director, Richard Maltby, Jr., who also contributed some lyrics (with co-creator Murray Horwitz), to helm this milestone production, and a smooth one it is.

Musical Director William Foster McDaniel as Thomas “Fats” Waller

The music of Fats Waller’s era isn’t mainstream anymore. Outside of this show, you’d be hard put to find “Honeysuckle Rose,” which Fats composed, or “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” which he recorded, featured in any popular medium. But fans of traditional jazz and blues – as well as newbies to the forms – are encouraged to embrace this “Ain’t Misbehavin’” memory trip. In the words of Fats himself, “One never knows, do one?”

Through Feb 24 at Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford NY. Performances are Wed thru Sun evenings with some luncheon matinees as well. For schedule and tickets ($59-$89 include menu choices, with show-only available): www.broadwaytheatre.com  

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A walk on the farce side: “Noises Off” at Two River Theater

One can imagine the Two River Theater staff meeting to select a catch-phrase for their “Noises Off” advertising campaign. It is fitting that they settled on “One of the funniest plays ever written,” because, well, honesty is the best policy. If they were plugging “Nothing On” instead, they might have substituted ‘clumsiest’ for ‘funniest’ in the blurb and still maintained their integrity.

“Nothing On” is the play being rehearsed and performed within Michael Frayn’s supremely comical “Noises Off” by a troupe of inept actors who manage to mangle the farce-within-the-farce at every step. Two River’s cast is anything but inept; their bungling of the third-rate inner play is a rib-tickling delight, a master-class in comic timing.

(Frayn’s mock “Nothing On” playbill is tucked way back in Two River’s own booklet. When you attend, dig it out; it is a devilishly clever parody.)

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It’s “Apple Season” in Long Branch New Jersey

At one point in E. M. Lewis’s “Apple Season” at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, one of the play’s several contemporaneous ‘Rolling Premiere’ productions, Lissie’s former would-be boyfriend Billy (it’s been twenty years) says of her taciturn brother Roger, “Anything there was to know about him, you had to piece together.”  Another time, he tells her “You are the most confusing two people I ever met,” and while Roger had been mentioned just prior, Billy’s plural could apply just to Lissie.

The nature of the relationships among the three “Apple Season” characters isn’t always clear. Neither are the twenty-years-ago details of events that shaped those relationships both then and two decades later. That might seem like a knock on the play, but it is not. On the contrary, that’s just how some people are, deep and private, and how some memories are, faded or repressed, and capturing those human elements in a one-act play is an admirable accomplishment.

It is the present day in rural Oregon, soon after Lissie and Roger Fogerty’s father’s funeral. She is picking apples in the family orchard, before returning to her fourth-grade teaching job in another town. Roger has already left to resume his nomadic hired-hand farming vocation, and Billy, who, at 36, lives on a neighboring farm with his parents (“again, not still”), where he tends to his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, has come to sound out Lissie about buying the Fogerty property. And, we gradually learn, to renew contact and unburden himself of a secret that has festered over the years.

Lissie (Kersti Bryan) and Billy (Christopher J. Smith [Photos: SuzAnne Barabas]

As they banter and flirt, we learn of the Fogerty family’s turbulent past, following the mother’s early death, and we begin to understand why the mental and emotional upheaval has never abated. Flashbacks, enacted live and before a rear-projection screen, fill in some gaps, but most of what we learn is through the characters’ behavior, their attitude toward one another and the sub-text of their conversation.

Which brings us to the performances, which are, in a word, outstanding. Kersti Bryan reveals more of Lissie’s psyche than the woman herself wants known, which is, after all, the point of the play (and, it could be said, of acting). The three-woman collaboration among playwright Lewis, director Zoya Kachadurian and actor Bryan is as smooth as it is knowing. Christopher M. Smith is a charming Billy. Awkward in Lissie’s presence, he’s nonetheless honest and emotionally available. The two achieve the essential chemistry between Lissie and Billy over a bottle of real AppleJack (if you know, you know), aided by some light-hearted innuendo. Lissie, for example, has plenty of apples, but “I haven’t got any cherries.” Ms. Bryan also coaxes sexiness out of “You can tell a lot about a man by his Swiss Army knife.”

Roger is a strange fellow, bedeviled by life-long anger and resentment he’d had to stifle for years. Richard Kent Green plays him just that way, with an undercurrent of vulnerability that softens his seeming hostility.

Roger (Richard Kent Green) and Lissie (Ms. Bryan)

The excellent technical aspects of “Apple Season” belie NJ Rep’s intimate playing area. Jessica Parks’ set is an apple orchard, and the projections, for which I’m assuming lighting designers Jill Nagle and Janey Huber as well as technical director Bryan P. Snyder share credit, are state-of-the-art in design and execution.

A few plot elements strain credulity. Lissie’s (unseen) Aunt Sally’s apparent passivity in the face of an unusual situation is glossed over; how Lissie’s financial needs, including college, are met is unrealistic (not nefarious, but would be a spoiler), and the idea that the experienced and reasonably worldly teacher had never been out of the state of Oregon seems a stretch.

At 85 minutes, “Apple Season” is certainly not overlong, but tightening some of its exchanges would enhance its pace. As it stands, however, it is an incisive slice of life, staged and especially acted in an impressive less-is-more naturalism. Accepting the rationality of Lissie’s final act requires major suspension of disbelief, but by then Ms. Bryan and the Misters Smith and Kent Green have made it seem plausible.

Through Feb. 10 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch NJ. Performances Thurs & Fri. at 8PM; Sat. at 3 & 8; Sun. at 2PM. For tickets ($50): 732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org

 

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Take Someone to “The Prom” (Formal Wear Optional)

A couple kissing in front of Macy’s in Herald Square is hardly newsworthy, but one at last year’s Thanksgiving Day Parade actually marked a milestone in live TV – and was also a spoiler for a Broadway musical. Televised by NBC, “It’s Time to Dance,” the finalé number from “The Prom,” ended with two young women sharing a loving kiss.

So now you know how “The Prom” resolves. But any audience member who doubts that Indiana high schoolers Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla) will end up together, are as heartless as the PTA folks who cancelled the prom because Emma wanted to bring Alyssa as her date. If that sounds like a serious topic, it is. But woven into the fabric of “The Prom,” it is the raison d’etre for the most upbeat, romantic and downright funny Broadway Musical in years.

From left: Christopher Sieber, Angie Schworer, Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas and Josh Lamon: “Changing Lives”

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

Adventures in the Santa trade…

[Some of what follows was originally posted a few years ago. This holiday season, I invite new readers and returnees to share the memories.]

Like many a New York actor back in the day, I drove a cab, tended bar…the usual. Decembers meant playing Santa Claus at corporate and home parties. The most rewarding Santa gigs, however, were not for pay.

After Robert F. Kennedy was elected to the United States Senate from New York in 1964, he announced that in memory of his brother, the President who had been slain the previous year, he would host Christmas parties for New York City school children. I phoned his office to volunteer as Santa. Several days later they called me back to accept my offer. (I learned later that they had vetted me with the FBI, the NYPD and Actors Equity.)

The first event was at a school in Manhattan. (Succeeding parties were in the other boroughs.) Arriving at the appointed hour, I was met by a stern fellow with a squiggly ear wire who rifled through my suitcase before directing me to the faculty lounge. “The other acts are already there,” he said.

The other acts? How ‘bout Soupy Sales and Sammy Davis, Jr. I consented to share the dressing room. We drank coffee and plotted an act until it was time to go into the auditorium packed with kids. An aide introduced Senator-elect Kennedy, who introduced Soupy, who introduced Sammy, who introduced Santa Claus, who, um, got the biggest ovation.

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