Not All The Talk In “Happy Talk” Is Happy

There is a limit to how much can be revealed about The New Group production of Jesse Eisenberg’s “Happy Talk,” without crossing into spoiler territory. That there are five characters is safe enough (they’re all in the Playbill), although one’s entrance half-way through alters the 105-minute play dramatically. What had been a humanistic, quasi-comedic character study takes on a shadowy texture that continues to darken up to the denouement.

That shift in tone is abrupt, but not without some foreshadowing, as when a mystery story, once solved, yields its clues retroactively. “I didn’t see that coming,” you think, until “oh yeah” sets in.

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Identity-check at NJ Rep: “Surfing My DNA”

Any time someone appears on stage in tap shoes, I’m all in.

Jodi Long brings that footwear and more to “Surfing My DNA,” world-premiering through May 26 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Written and performed by Ms. Long, the hybrid stage piece is half biography (of her parents) and half her own memoir. With that former content split further between the two parents, including their experiences with anti-Asian racism and their show-business careers, the result, while interesting enough, is necessarily diffuse.

What separated Long’s parents from typical mainstream1940s/50s husband-and-wife vaudeville teams was not lack of talent; archived clips of their act, neatly projected on NJ Rep’s backdrop,  allay any such doubts. It was their heritage that set them apart and dictated their bookings. Long’s father was born in Australia to a Scottish mother and a Chinese father; her mother was born in Portland, Oregon, where her Japanese parents had settled. With their dominant Oriental, as it was then called, heritage, Larry and Trudie (their names, really) worked Asian-themed venues in San Francisco, known as the Chop Suey Circuit, before landing some gigs in New York, including a 1951 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. (The grainy footage of Ed introducing them as “direct from China” and Larry intoning Chinese-sounding gibberish, is priceless. Agonizingly un-PC, but historically priceless.) Jodi’s narrative through their career, punctuated by her own time-step tapping, is entertaining.

Jodi Long in tap-dance mode [Photos: SuzAnne Barabas]

She also covers her parents’ histories, with Larry’s centering on his family emigrating from Australia to the U. S., where he pursued a show-biz career, eventually landing a role  in a road company “Flower Drum Song” that toured on-and-off for ten years. Bye-bye, family.

Her mother’s background is more fleshed out. As a teen, Trudie was interred with her family in the infamous west coast camps where Japanese-Americans – U.S. citizens, mind you – were confined during World War II. Eventually sponsored for release from the camp by a New York Daily News columnist (whose motives remain un-examined), she embarks on an adventurous cross-country train trip, settles precariously in NYC and eventually lands a job as a showgirl at the Mafia-owned China Doll nightclub – for a princely $75 a week. “And that’s how I got into show business,” mom concludes. The segment is the show’s best, both for subject and narration. Trudie’s tale could (should?) comprise a play of its own.

The second hour-long act takes a more somber turn. Long attends the funeral of a family “uncle” in Portland and re-connects with long-lost family in Australia, where she learns of her Scottish ancestry. Continuing in memoir mode, the segment about surfing in Bradley Beach is of local interest, but introducing a litany of drunk and druggie ‘boyfriends’  is clearly TMI. She drops a few F-bombs that dud-out, and her imagined or recalled conversations, in which she does both voices, mostly ramble.

Channeling her late uncle

While “Surfing My DNA” is a solo-actor play, Ms. Long is complemented by a musician-cum sound effects fellow, whose skills are as versatile as his instruments. Set against the wall stage left, Yukio Tsuji provides percussive and electronic accompaniment for the musical vignettes and some hauntingly  mood-enhancing atonality on the shakuhachi, a 7th Century Japanese, longitudinal, end-blown, bamboo-flute. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Notwithstanding a couple exceptions over the past twenty-two years, plays premiering at New Jersey Rep do not emerge fully formed. The company’s raison d’etre, after all, is to provide authors with the opportunity to see their plays “on their feet” for the first time and to initiate editing and re-tooling, a process that most often involves pruning.

Jodi Long is two-thirds of the “Surfing My DNA” triumvirate. Together with her director Eric Rosen, playwright/performer Long now has a golden few weeks to carve out the 90-minute presentation aborning within “Surfing My DNA.” (Keep the tap shoes in.)

Through May 26 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances Thurs & Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2pm. For tickets ($50): 732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org

 

Blog, Professional, Regional

A Visit with “The Belle of Amherst” in Red Bank NJ

Something special is afoot at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, where Maureen Silliman is embodying Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce’s one-woman play about the enigmatic 19th Century poet. In the play, Dickinson (1830-1886) shares her thoughts, dreams, snippets of her poetry and even a recipe or two with groups of visitors that you could join before the play closes on May 5. That the reputedly reclusive Dickinson would have been so forthcoming is questionable; regardless, Ms. Silliman’s performance is touchingly sensitive as well as unflinchingly commanding – of the character, the play and, not incidentally, the wide expanse of Two River’s main-stage venue.

Maureen Silliman as Emily Dickinson [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

“Benny & Joon” with many a tune in NJ – and a British cellist off-Broadway

Do you read a newspaper? Watch cable news? Discuss politics and world affairs with co-workers or friends (or former ones)? If you answered yes to any of the above, you could surely use an entertainment that will, in parts, tickle your visual funny bone, please your ear with lively tunes, bring you to gentle tears and create some mild concern before leaving you with a warm glow for people you’d encountered a scant two hours earlier.

What I have described – and do indeed prescribe – is the musical version of the 1993 movie “Benny & Joon,” on stage now through May 5 in its east coast premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn New Jersey.  In this age of weighty messages and showy excess, “Benny & Joon” is a refreshing anti-blockbuster.

Claybourne Elder and Hannah Elless are Benny & Joon [Photos courtesy Paper Mill Playhouse]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

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