A Grand Ol’ (Checkhovian) Opry in New Jersey: “Songbird”

Country music has never appealed to me. I might leave it on a rental car pre-set, but would never seek it out. If, however, it was all as flavorful as Lauren Pritchard’s music and lyrics for “Songbird,” I could become a fan. Her score is original in more ways than one. Titles like “Black Widow Woman,” “Whiskey Lullabies,” “Highway Fantasy” and a dozen more attest to its honky-tonk bona fides, but that DNA is enhanced by undertones of both rock and jazz.  Coupled with Michael Kimmel’s affecting book (and a nudge from a Century-plus-ago playwright), “Songbird” is a rare blend of foot-stomping rhythms and heart-tugging emotions, that Two River Theater Company is serving up with style.

“Songbird” is based, subtly and effectively, on Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” an 1896 play you need not have seen or read (or even heard of) in order to appreciate this multi-faceted  hoedown derivative.

Felicia Finley, center, and the cast of “Songbird” [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

The play opens with Tammy Trip’s (Felicia Finley) Grand Ol’ Opry debut and then flashes years forward to when the now-fading former Opry and touring star comes home to Nashville with celebrity songwriter Beck (Eric William Morris) in tow. Tammy’s son Dean (Merrick Smith), a budding songwriter himself, albeit one with dubious talent at this point, is hopelessly in love with his singing partner Mia (Ephie Aardema), whose infatuation with Beck sets off emotional dynamics that echo Chekhov’s 1896 theatrical family.

The Two River cast is a believably close ensemble. It’s as if their portrayals of family and long-time friends who tolerate one another’s quirks and faults have osmosed into their onstage bonds with one another, a feeling I had when I saw the original production off-Broadway in 2015, featuring, btw, six of this ten-member cast.

Each of the ten is a triple-threat: acting the close-knit characters, singing in solo turns and as a harmonious group, and, in a casting-director’s challenge, accompanying themselves on piano, guitar, violin, bass and, of course,  tambourine.  A notable hold-over from off-Broadway is Andy Taylor (not Mayberry’s) as a saloon denizen (Chekhov’s schoolteacher) whose mellow cello tones underpin Ms. Pritchard’s score, transforming a hoedown band into a country-flavored orchestra.

Tammy’s Opry audition, “Small Town Heart,”  justifies her coming stardom, and while Ms. Finley might read a tad young for the latter-day Tammy, she acts up a storm in the emotionally complex role. She also sings and high-steps like…well, like a still-got-it Nashville star – and plays the spoons to boot! Missy, married to Rip (Deon’te Goodman) but longing for Dean, is played with quiet intensity by Kacie Sheik, dressed all in black (Chekhov’s Masha). Someone observes that she “sings like June but looks like Johnny,” and darned if her “Cry Me a River” (same title, new song) doesn’t evoke a likeness – to June.

One for the road: Missy (Kacie Sheik) pouring for Soren (Bob Stillman)

Sheltered, innocent Mia is the catalyst around whom much of the play’s emotional content revolves. Ms. Aardema, well-remembered from an Asbury Park dive bar “The Last Five Years” in 2014, captures Mia’s extremes: before and after the caddish Beck uses and discards her (as in Chekhov’s Nina and Trigórin). Merrick Smith gets inside the brooding Dean’s anxiety over being rejected at every turn. “This Place,” he sings, and an unhappy place it is for him.

Bob Stillman is particularly effective as Tammy’s ailing brother Soren, who owns the bar where most of the scenes are set. His number is “That Ain’t Right,” and much that occurs in his bar really ain’t, but set designer Jason Sherwood’s bar itself is a gem, as authentic and atmospheric as the real thing. (And well it should be, considering how much they drink in it!) Aaron Porter’s lighting washes and isolates without calling attention to itself, and Sarah J. Holden’s costumes are worn-in but not shabby.

Music director/arranger/orchestrator Kristopher Kukul is still on the job (thank you!), while Marc Kimelman has signed on to choreograph, a contribution more in evidence here on a much larger playing space than before. That expansion isn’t necessarily a plus; some of the intimacy is necessarily diminished and the play slows in spots, notwithstanding Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s controlled direction. Mia and Beck’s tentative encounter in the outdoor setting is a particularly moving romantic interlude. Only later do you realize that they hadn’t actually touched. Ms. Upchurch’s handle on the busy scenes is effective as well; she and her creative team are as much an ensemble as the cast.

Eric William Morris and Ephie Aardema

“Songbird” also succeeds in a particular aspect that was important to Chekhov, who labeled “The Seagull” a comedy, despite its serious – even tragic – elements. Like that play, “Songbird” is not frivolous, nor does it skirt serious issues (or change the ending), but it is also more than a bit funny. Family in-joke jibes are tossed off and accepted in good spirits.

There’s rustic profundity, too, as in “Everybody likes daytime drinking; they just feel compelled to lie about it” and one of the best lines ever: “I wish hangovers and orgasms would switch duration.” At just over two hours, “Songbird” is just right.

Through July 1 at Two River Theater, Bridge Ave., Red Bank NJ. Performances Wed at 1pm & 7pm; Thurs at 1 & 8; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3pm. For tickets ($40 – $70): 732-345-12400 or online at www.tworivertheater.org

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Welcome Aboard “A View from the Bridge” in Brooklyn Harbor

Playwright Arthur Miller maintained a lasting interest in his own plays, frequently popping in to productions unannounced. (I once spotted him at a performance of “Death of a Salesman” in New Jersey.)

Miller’s 1955 “A View from the Bridge” was inspired by a tale told to him by a Brooklyn water-front worker who had known the protagonist’s real-life prototype. The play was poorly received originally, but “while watching a performance,” Miller later wrote, “I saw my own involvement…suddenly the play seemed to be mine and not merely a story I had heard,” and he set about revising it. The result was – and remains – a stirring portrayal of a man’s psychological dilemma and the effect it has on his close and extended families. The fine Brave New World Repertory Theatre production is faithful to the playwright’s image and intent.

Catherine (Maggie Horan), left, Eddie (Rich O’Brien) and Beatrice (Claire Beckman) [Photos: Doug Barron]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Theatrical Alchemy: A Henry James Novella into an Off-Broadway Dance Play

Henry James’s 1903 novella “The Beast in the Jungle” is a melancholy treatise on unrealized romance and thwarted passion that unfolds in James’s characteristically elaborate prose. The same-titled theater piece inspired by the story is essentially a ballet, with intermittent narration and some spare-dialogue passages. Portrayed in flashback, it fleshes out some scenes and locations that are only alluded to in the book and adds developments and even characters that aren’t in there at all. There is also an overlay of sensuality that James scrupulously avoided.

Notwithstanding the story alterations, the overall mood is comparable. A cheery mood it is not, but as devised and staged at the Vineyard Theatre, the Dance Play is an immersive 100 minutes. With an original score by John Kander  (“Chicago” and “Cabaret” with late lyricist Fred Ebb), a book by David Thompson (“Scottsboro Boys,” Steel Pier”) and direction and choreography by five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman (“The Producers” et al), it could hardly be any less. Featuring world-renowned prima ballerina Irina Dvorovenko, superstar Broadway dancer Tony Yazbeck and an outstanding six-woman corps de ballet, this “Beast” should sooth – or at least divert – the staunchest James defender.

Tony Yazbeck with the “Beast in the Jungle” Corps de Ballet [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

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Moliere’s Comic Romp (with an edge): “Tartuffe” at Shakespeare of NJ

Last weekend I saw a play about a man who lies about pretty much everything. Despite claiming to be a stand-up guy – ardently religious even – he’d con you out of your socks given half a chance, and hit on your wife, groping her inappropriately (there’s another kind?) when your back is turned.

Sounds like a recently-written play about some politician or other high-profile hypocrite, right? Nope; it is the 350-year old “Tartuffe,” by French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière, and despite its unsavory title character, it is damn funny. Especially as being performed at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

Sarah Nicole Deaver, left, Vicroria Mack and Mark Hawkins in “Tartuffe” [Photos: Jerry Dalia]

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Variety on Canadian Festival stages: a Preview

[This article was written for Digital First Media’s Michigan newspapers, where it ran on Sunday May 13, with reviews to follow during the summer.]

Ontario’s Stratford and Shaw Festivals are celebrated as much for their diverse programs of classic and modern plays and musicals as for their productions of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Separate and distinct from one another, the companies nonetheless have much in common. Both surround their namesakes with a wide variety of other works, performed in repertory over a six-month season. The rep system affords theater-goers the opportunity to see several productions over a weekend or even two in a one-day short-hop. That format also lures the finest North American actors, who relish the challenge of appearing in, say, “Julius Caesar” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the same day. (To wit: Jonathan Goad will appear as Brutus at 2pm and as Atticus Finch at 8pm at Stratford on Wednesday August 8.)

Four Shakespeare plays anchor the 2018 Stratford Festival season, with “The Tempest” and “The Comedy of Errors” already open, and “Coriolanus” and “Julius Caesar” joining them in June and July, respectively. Building on their record of creative casting, “The Tempest” will star renowned Canadian actress Martha Henry as Prospero (Prospera), and Seana McKenna is playing the title role of Julius Caesar. (No stranger to ill-fated rulers, Ms. McKenna was an electrifying Richard III in 2011.)  “The Comedy of Errors” goes a step (or two) further, with the two sets of twins in Shakespeare’s zaniest comedy being one-each male and female as well as one-each Caucasian and Black. (Well, why not?) The war-torn “Coriolanus” sticks with Shakespeare’s gender-roles, while bringing its malicious politics into modern relevance.

Julius Caesar (Seana McKenna) and Brutus (Jonathan Goad) [Photo: Clay Stang]

(*Trivia: Only two of Shakespeare’s plays unfold over just one day in just one locale. Answer below.)

Stratford’s annual musicals rival Broadway in talent and production values. Expect no less from “The Music Man,” which runs to November 3. . Appealing to a younger demographic, “The Rocky Horror Show” is also in the rotation, including some late-night performances to accommodate diehard fans.

Professor Harold Hill (Daren A. Herbert) leading the River City Boys (and Girls) Band.

Serious drama is represented by Eugene O’Neill’s searing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and the dramatization of Harper Lee’s iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Oscar Wilde’s comedy-drama “An Ideal Husband,” about a truly honest politician (it is fiction, after all) is also on the bill, as is a new play about the Bronté sisters. An English translation of a warm-hearted Italian play, “Napoli Milionaria,” about World War II survivors, and a timely drama based on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” round out the season. Under Antoni Cimolino’s overall artistic direction, there is indeed ‘Something for Everyone’ at Stratford.

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Variety also reigns at The Shaw Festival, nestled in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Ontario’s wine region. Their namesake is represented by a Comedy Double-Bill and a traditional Lunchtime One-Act. Two of Shaw’s short plays about marriage, “How He Lied to Her Husband” and “The Man of Destiny,” are presented under the title “Of Marriage and Men” one of Shaw’s favorite – and wittiest – topics.

A Shaw one-act comedy, “O’Flaherty V. C.,” about an unusual war-recruitment effort, will play on select days at 11:30am. Its point, that a big war is not necessarily a great one, carries over into “Oh What a Lovely War,” one of the season’s two musicals. The other, “Grand Hotel,” weaves the stories of the staff and guests of the Grand Hotel into a sweeping choreographic vision. Adapted from a play that itself had a successful Broadway run, the musical ran over two years on Broadway. Already open at Shaw, it runs to mid-October.

For murder-mystery fans, Sherlock Holmes is on the case in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” while “The Baroness and the Pig” marks the Shaw Festival debut of Canadian playwright Michael Mackenzie. (While “Baroness…” might seem like a children’s title, the play carries a Mature Content alert. Hmmm…) Also on an adult topic, Sarah Ruhl’s backstage romantic comedy “Stage Kiss” is about two bitter exes cast in a play as lovers. Juvenile audiences are encouraged to attend “The Magician’s Nephew,” a magical plunge into Narnia.

Members of the cast of “The Magician’s Nephew.” [Photo: David Cooper]

Tim Carroll’s second season as artistic director also includes “The Orchard (After Chekhov),” transposing the Russian playwright’s theme to a British Columbia setting; “Mythos,” three one-actor plays derived from Greek mythology; and, in a first for the Shaw, Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” (Stratford staged Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” a few years ago.) And for those who plan way ahead, “A Christmas Carol” is on the horizon. The Charles Dickens classic will run November 14 – December 23.  “We don’t stop playing because we grow old,” said Shaw (who died in 1950 at 94), “we grow old because we stop playing.”

Both Festivals run mid-April to late October and both offer comprehensive brochure booklets with performance schedules, maps, transportation and lodging info and more.  Request Stratford’s by phone: 800-567-1600 or online at www.stratfordfestival.ca   For The Shaw booklet: 800-511-7429 or at www.shawfest.com 

(*Trivia answer: “The Tempest” and “A Comedy of Errors,” both on Stratford’s 2018 schedule.)

Blog, Canadian Theatre

Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” revived off-Broadway

Tennessee Williams’ women tend not to fare very well. Blanche Dubois is led away by kind strangers, and Amanda and Laura Wingfield are stuck with each other after being twice abandoned. “Summer and Smoke”’s Alma Winemiller might be the most tragic of all, because she is aware of her downfall even as it proceeds. One could say she is even complicit. Not wantonly or defiantly, but still…she’s more aware of her choices than those others.

Blanche’s spirit does haunt Alma. “Streetcar” was written in 1947 and set contemporaneously in New Orleans; “Summer and Smoke,” was written a year later and unfolds between 1900 and 1916 in (fictional) Glorious Hill, Mississippi. In a way, Alma is sequel and prequel in one.

Marin Ireland and Nathan Darrow [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

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