A Jazz Singer’s Triumph

[In a departure from my usual content, below is a (lightly edited) re-print of a feature that appeared in The Palm Beach Post on April 1.]

               After surgery for brain tumor, singer pursues her passion.

Yvette Norwood-Tiger with the band at Birdland

By Philip Dorian
Special to The Palm Beach Post

To paraphrase the question about directions to New York City landmarks: “How do you get to Birdland? Practice, man, practice.”  Of course it takes practice, but it also takes talent, determination and faith, all of which Palm Beach County songbird Yvette Norwood-Tiger possesses in abundance, as well as a little bit of luck.

The famous Jazz Corner off the World is no longer at Broadway and 52nd Street, where it stood – and swung – from 1949 to ’65. But after a twenty-year hiatus and a decade uptown on 105th Street, Birdland’s new home on West 44th Street in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen is once again acclaimed as the go-to Mecca for jazz artists and fans.

An engagement – gig, that is – at Birdland goes right to the top of any musician’s resume; on March 7 it landed on Norwood-Tiger’s. Her Birdland debut was a smashing success. It wasn’t a smooth journey (it rarely is), but sidetracks and setbacks that could have stalled her career instead spurred her on.

Norwood-Tiger was born and raised in Detroit, where her parents played drums and guitar in a church orchestra. Her early interests, however, were in the fields of chemical and mechanical engineering, which she studied at Macomb Community College, eventually landing a Mechanical Engineering Technician job with the federal government. Ah, but she had always sung along the way for herself and in the church choir.

Her life changed in 1998 when she met Steve Tiger during a Caribbean cruise vacation. A long-distance relationship led to their 2001 Detroit wedding and their move to Long Branch, New Jersey, where Steve had an established Information Technology practice.

There, in open-mic venues that dot the Jersey Shore, Norwood-Tiger’s singing became more than a passing interest, first at Karaoke nights and occasionally sitting in with house bands. Finally, on a family cruise in 2003, she was coaxed into singing with the onboard pianist.

“It was an out-of-body experience,” she told me, that led to a series of professional bookings, beginning at an Asbury Park N.J. night spot in 2005.

The rest might have been history, as they say, but not quite. The couple moved to Wellington, Florida in 2010 (to escape the cold), and Norwood-Tiger booked appearances at area jazz clubs, including Arts Garage in Delray Beach and Double Roads Tavern in Jupiter. All was going smoothly until fate struck a bitter blow. In 2012, after complaining of persistent headaches, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Told that she might not sing again (or worse), she emerged from brain surgery and radiation with more determination than ever, making her post-surgery debut at Rudy’s in Lake Worth in April 2014. Her recovery and subsequent career progress, she says, represented “a spiritual revelation,” which she honors with her own lyrics to jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver’s reverent “A Song for My Father.”

And now the rest might be history, as they say. But not without a stroke of what Norwood-Tiger labels divine intervention.

Another Florida jazz singer, Pat Dyer, had seen Yvette perform at Double Roads. “I admired her talent,” Dyer said, “and we crossed paths in jazz circles.” On Facebook last year, Dyer spotted Norwood-Tiger’s posts about a cruise to Havana and, interested for herself, asked to meet.

With Donnie Harrell on piano and trumpeter Alan Chaubert

While discussing their musical careers, Norwood-Tiger mentioned that singing at Birdland was high on her wishlist. Little did she know that Dyer’s daughter Lauren is the house manager at, yes, Birdland.

As all performers know, it’s not enough just to know someone, but it helps, and on Dyer’s recommendation, her daughter arranged a virtual audition, and Norwood-Tiger was booked.

Her 75-minute set, “A World Tour of Jazz,” includes a dozen songs. Backed by top-notch sidemen, she swung through Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”; “Green Dolphin Street,” originally a Polish tune (who knew?); “La Vie En Rose” and songs of Brazilian, South African and other origins, including, appropriately, the British George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland.”

Even before Birdland, with jazz festival bookings scarce, Norwood-Tiger had decided to start her own. She founded the Palm Beach International Jazz Festival, which premiered April 13 with two three-band concerts at the Kravis Center. Broadway and cabaret star Avery Sommers headlined the 2PM show; the 7:30 session featured renowned Cuban pianist Marlow Rosado and, reprising her Birdland set, Yvette herself.

After her 2014 brain surgery, Norwood-Tiger was advised to “Get your affairs in order.” So she did just that, bringing her musical affairs to Birdland on March 7 and to West Palm’s Kravis Center in mid-April.

I attended both sessions on April 13. Yvette’s story is inspirational. With plans already underway for next year’s Second Annual Palm Beach International Jazz Festival, she is being recognized as one of Palm Beach County’s most important Music Industry entrepeneurs. Besides which, she sings. And all that jazz…

Blog, Professional, Regional, Uncategorized

The noblest Roman tragedy of them all: “Julius Caesar” in Brooklyn

If your attention has wandered during the last third of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” you are not alone, but redemption is at hand. Theatre for a New Audience’s portrayal of the aftermath of the assassination of Caesar, running through April 28 at Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, is a revelation. Following Cassius’s conscription of Brutus, who rationalizes his initial doubts, and the killing and funeral orations, all played out grippingly, the ensuing violent power struggle is must-watch Theatre.

Matthew Amendt, left, as Cassius, and Brandon J. Dirden (Brutus) [Photos: Gerry Goldstein]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Kelli and Cole spark “Kiss Me, Kate” revival

Despite an occasional misfire, tailoring some shows to a performer in a particular role can be a gimme. Dolly Levi and Mama Rose, for example, come with the territory. Lilli Vanessi does not dominate as do those. At least she didn’t until Kelli O’Hara assumed the role in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “Kiss Me, Kate” at Studio 54. The luminous, assured Ms. O’Hara sings the Cole Porter score so wonderfully, and plays Sam and Bella Spewack’s book so adeptly that the show goes to soft focus when she’s not on stage.

Warren Carlyle’s choreography and the ensemble charged with executing it are outstanding, and there are some fine supporting performances, which is the key word: it’s in support of O’Hara.

Kelli O’Hara as Lilli Vanessi “So in Love” [Photos: Joan Marcus]

“Kiss Me, Kate” takes place backstage and on stage at Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore during a tryout of a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Actually inspired by Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne’s private quarrels during a run as the embattled “Shrew” couple, the show imagines egotistical producer/actor Fred Graham (Will Chase) and his temperamental co-star and ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (O’Hara) in the dual roles. “Kate” opened on Broadway December 30, 1948, winning the very first Best Musical Tony Award (over “South Pacific”) and ran for two-and-a half years. (Previous Broadway revivals were a short-lived one in 1952 and a multi-Tony-winning one in 1999.)

Knowing Shakespeare’s source play isn’t necessary, but some familiarity wouldn’t hurt. Just as Petruchio wears down Kate, so does Fred with Lilli…at least he used to. Some of “The Taming of the Shrew” and the original “Kiss Me, Kate” content would hardly qualify for a #MeToo Movement Award. Petruchio “tames” Kate by bullying, starving and applying an over-the-knee spanking that renders her unable to travel by donkey, abuses that were excerpted into the “Kate” musical (albeit farcically, but still). Moreover, the Shakespeare ends with Katherina’s monologue extolling the virtues of women submitting their wills to men, which much pleaseth Petruchio. (“Why, there’s a wench. C’mon and kiss me, Kate!”)

“Too Darn Hot”

Those misogynistic particulars and the overall tone of Kate’s (and Lilli’s) subjugation have been re-interpreted and/or re-staged here, leading to considerable debate between traditionalists and pro-revisionists, among whom, as long as adjustments do not distort plot or character beyond intent, I count myself. Petruchio/Fred kicks (not spanks) Kate/Lilli’s derriere, but she reciprocates in kind, and Kate’s closing monologue, sung to Porter’s lovely tune, is now gender-neutral. Having appeared in “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” twice each, I applaud Lilli/Kate’s emergence into the 21st Century.

John Pankow, left, Will Chase and Lance Coadie Williams

“Kiss Me, Kate” was the first Cole Porter show with musical numbers that advance the plot, none more clearly than the curtain-raiser, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.” That adrenaline-rush sets the tone for what follows: a wealth of Cole Porter, including the gorgeous “So in Love,” some songs with lyrics lifted from Shakespeare (“Were Thine that Special Face”) and a couple backstage ditties (“Always True to You in My Fashion”).

I’m not sure if Will Chase lacks the baritone heft for Fred Graham, never mind Petruchio, or if playing opposite Kelli O’Hara makes it seem so. Either way, the pairing tilts the balance toward Lilli, and why not? It’s been Fred’s way for decades.  (The memory of Brian Stokes Mitchell in the 1999 revival does Chase no favor, either.)

Preston Truman Boyd, left, Stephanie Styles, Corbin Bleu and Justin Prescott

The show’s second couple is more balanced. Stephanie Styles is a perky Lois Lane (not that one), who plays Katherine’s younger sister Bianca in “Shrew,” and Corbin Bleu is winning as the resident juvenile Bill Calhoun. “Why Can’t You Behave,” Lois sweetly implores her gambler boyfriend, who later dances a nifty backstage tribute to “Bianca.” (Bleu taps his way up and then down the stairs…backwards, and on a ceiling…upside down.)

Bill Calhoun’s forged gambling IOU is the hook that brings two gangster types on scene. John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams are formidable enough in appearance and amusing enough in their show-biz gaffes, but except for the clever lyrics, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” doesn’t rise to its usual occasion. Then there’s Harrison Howell, come to liberate Lilli from the tawdry theater world. Originally a stuffy business mogul, the character was re-imagined in ’99 as a parody of General Douglas MacArthur, complete with aviator glasses and corncob pipe. Despite Porter’s “From This Moment On,” from the 1953 “Kate” movie and later wedged into stage productions, this is one revision that does not work for me. Terence Archie does what he can with references to President Truman and the line “Guns don’t kill people,” but it’s like the scene is from some other play. (Besides, this Lilli does not need a medal-chested savior.)

Too Darn Hot II (How do they do that?)

The “Too Darn Hot” ensemble number that opens the second act is a joy, despite its incongruity. I mean if it’s too darn hot to make love, this perpetual-motion chorus line would need mass resuscitation. Fortunately, they can catch their breaths during the prolonged cheering that greets its ending. Among other pleasures, count the staging of “We Open in Venice,” which becomes more amusing with each repetition. Designer David Rockwell’s multi-level backstage set is one on which you could even wait for the girls upstairs, and Jeff Mahshie’s costumes, in and out of Shakespeare, are smashing. Scott Ellis’s sweeping direction rounds it all out splendidly, while music director/conductor Paul Gemignani and orchestrator Larry Hochman make the Cole Porter score soar.

Which brings us back to Ms. O’Hara, whose range, between the upper register of “So in Love” and the lower of “I Hate Men,” astonishes. (Simply stating “I hate men” instead of drawing out the first three notes is a neat touch.) As Kate finally stands with Petruchio, so Lilli of course does with Fred; it is, after all, a love story. The difference is that here it is those women’s considered choices. And never has a show’s final image said so much about its leading role: As Lilli and Fred exit upstage, she holds the door for him to leave and then turns for a lingering look at the backstage area – and at us – as the light fades on her luminous face.

Kelli O’Hara as Katherina (“I am ashamed that people are so simple…”)

Petruchio’s description of Katharina, while playful, applies to Kelli O’Hara in full measure. She is beautiful, witty and affable, he has heard, among other “wondrous qualities,” and he has arrived “to make mine eye the witness of that report.” You might consider doing the same.

Through June 30 at Studio 54, 254 West 54 Street, NYC. Performances Tues, Thurs & Fri at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 3pm. For Tickets ($59-$169, with tops of $229 and $252 at certain performances: www.roundabouttheatre.org

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

No wall between “The Immigrant” and George Street Playhouse

Ever wonder what happens to the inhabitants of Anatevka after they are driven from their village at the end of “Fiddler on the Roof”? We know that some of Tevye’s family will be staying with Uncle Abram in America (he doesn’t know it yet), and that two of the daughters are in Siberia and Krakow (and Yente’s off to Jerusalem), but there must have been hundreds more than are represented in the “Fiddler” exit tableau.

I might have encountered one of those refugees at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in the person of Haskell Harelik, a twenty-something Russian Jew whose harrowing journey from Anatevka (why not?) to the U.S. is enacted in the opening minutes of “The Immigrant.” Mark Harelik’s 1985 play is based on his actual grandfather’s 1909 arrival and ensuing assimilation into the U.S., but the characters and subject matter transcend the specific. They are as relevant today as when the play is set.

Benjamin Pelteson as The Immigrant  [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Want some journalistic intrigue? Go to “The Source”

There is some real good acting on display these days at New Jersey Repertory Company. Not only do the three cast members of “The Source,” Jack Canfora’s trippy excursion into the world of news management, toss off their snappy dialogue with wit and precision, they also appear comfortable with the inter-twined plot that might stymie lesser talents. In a scenario that swings non-sequentially among places and dates, that plot hinges on the ethics of gathering the news versus the business of disseminating it. It would seem that in Canfora’s view, ‘journalistic integrity’ is an oxymoron. (I will forgo a riposte.)

A two-year old phone-hacking issue, for which media giant International News Corporation had apologized, is back in the news via a leak by an unknown source, threatening INC’s acquisition of media giant Clear Sky. If that sounds vaguely familiar, any similarity to real Murdochs – er, persons – is intentional.

Conan McCarty, left, Eleanor Handley, Andrew Rein   [Photos: SuzAnne Barabas]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

A family talks it all out in “Theo” at Two River Theater

Criticizing a play for being too wordy might seem counter-intuitive. Character dialogue, after all, is words. But unlike narrative stories or essays, plays need to balance telling with showing. Martin Moran’s “Theo,” world-premiering at Two River Theater Company, relies mostly on telling, with what showing there is serving to point up the imbalance. If good intentions were enough, “Theo” would be a masterpiece.  As it is, with a boatload of good intentions crammed into one dysfunctional-family drama, the result is diffuse and, at nearly three hours (including intermission), overlong.

Brenda Wehle, left, Andrea Syglowski and Jesse James Keitel as three generations of Flynn women [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Blog, Professional, Regional