Saturday, December 15, 2018

World Premiere of BITTER GREENS by Clea DeCrane at 59E59 Theaters

L-R:  Regan Sims, Andy Do, Jessica Darrow, Ben Lorenz, and Clea DeCrane in BITTER GREENS.  Photo by Brendan Swift.

I shouid not be surprised to learn that it was Rainer Maria Rilke’s work that inspired (or at least influenced) Clea DeCrane in her writing of  Bitter Greens, a well-crafted but less than earth-shattering play about five self-absorbed but fundamentally insecure millennials currently enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan.  In “Notes” to the script of Bitter Greens, Ms DeCrane quotes from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as follows:

“That is why us young people, who are beginners in everything, must, with our whole being, with all our forces, gather around our anxious, upward-beating hearts, and learn to love.  For we are so often and so disastrously wrong when we fling ourselves at each other when love takes hold of us, we scatter ourselves, just as we are, in all our messiness, disorder, bewilderment... and what can happen there?  

What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that we call our communion and that we would like to call our happiness, if that were possible, and our future?"

And, as if to underscore Rilke’s influence, the lead character in Bitter Greens, a 22 year old brilliantly successful overachiever, is named Reyna – played in this production by Ms DeCrane herself.  Three of the other four characters in the play – Caitlin (Jessica Darrow), Andrew (Andy Do), and Lily (Regan Sims) – are also 21 or 22 years old; all were classmates and friends as undergraduates at Berkeley; and, to a greater or lesser degree, all but Caitlin have bought into some sort of stereotypical Californian millennial foolishness: veganism, ultra-environmentalism, naturopathic medicine, etc.

Andrew, Reyna’s Japanese-American boyfriend, is cute and very much in love with her, but he is relatively ineffectual and indecisive (he has difficulty even deciding whether to stay in or eat out) and he certainly constitutes no threat to her.  Caitlin, one of Reyna’s closest friends from college, is a talented artist but can’t quite believe it herself.  And Lily, another of Reyna’s college friends, is involved with her partner, Indigo, in building a company that manufactures herb-infused tonics; she is excited over their success in acquiring the funding they need for their enterprise while glossing over the fact that most of it actually came from mommy and daddy.

Reyna and Andrew have just returned from Tokyo and she is eagerly awaiting word that she has landed the dream job she applied for at Green Communications (the most competitive post-grad program in the country).  There’s not much doubt that she’ll get it: after all, she did intern for Green Comm all through college (even winning the company’s Initiative/Leadership award), and she did double major in college, and she did graduate magna cum laude.  And, over the course of her entire life, she never did fail to get whatever it was that she set her sights on.

Never, that is, until now.

When Reyna learns that she didn’t get the job – and, what is worse, that Andrew got it instead – she simply goes off the rails.  It is a situation with which she cannot cope rationally because she never really learned how to deal with failure. (It is analogous to the picture Andrew painted for her of older Japanese children who, when they tripped, invariably fell on their faces because their overprotective parents consistently prevented them from falling as young children, with the result that they never learned to put their hands out in front of them to protect their faces.)  And so it is that Reyna’s relationship to Andrew takes a macabre turn in connection with her millennial obsession with vitamin supplements and super-foods.
And it is then that it all goes from bad to worse when Jack (Ben Lorenz) shows up.

Jack is the fifth member of the cast, not quite a millennial himself, but almost.  He’s 28 years old and relatively sexy but pretty much something of a grubby loser, nonetheless.  He dropped out of Stanford six years ago and is now working at Trader Joe’s while still harboring fantasies of returning to college some day.  When he delivers an order of stuffed peppers to Kayla in her presently vulnerable state, the immediate consequences are relatively foreseeable.  The ripple effect on the other members of Kayla’s millennial crowd are, however, less anticipated.

The press release for Bitter Greens describes the play as “an explosive look at the deep roots of jealousy and privilege, and how relationships can deteriorate when the foundation in which they were born completely changes”.  And the entire cast of Bitter Greens does do a superb job of bringing Clea DeCrane’s play to life and expressing just what it means to be a millennial in today’s world.   Yet, when all is said and done, I doubt if the play’s “explosive” insights would matter all that much to anyone who’s not a millennial herself.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Kurt Vonnegut's MOTHER NIGHT Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Gabriel Grilli and Andrea Gallo in MOTHER NIGHT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

In 1962, more than a half-century ago, Kurt Vonnegut wrote Mother Night, a meta-fictional novel brimming over with a plethora of audacious characters, both real and imaginary: Nazi propagandists, double agents, Communist spies, white supremacists, and on and on.  A motion picture adaptation of the novel was released in1996, featuring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman.  But it was not until last year that the novel was adapted for the stage by Brian Katz, premiering to generally very positive reviews at Custom Made Theatre Company in San Francisco 

The play has now arrived in New York, directed by Brian Katz, where it is enjoying its East Coast premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan.  And it is simply terrific.

Mother Night is the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Gabriel Grilli), an American-born writer raised in Germany since the age of 11, whose literary ability brought him to the attention of Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine - which he ended up serving all too well.  To be sure, he had also been recruited as a double agent for the United States and he did pass along coded secret information to the Allies in his virulently anti-Semitic radio broadcasts heard throughout Germany.  But it was still the case that those broadcasts inspired the German people, reinforcing their belief in Hitler’s and Goebbels’ racist propaganda.  Or as Vonnegut wrote: “he served evil too well and good too secretly, the crime of our times.”

As the play begins, Campbell is in an Israeli jail, writing his memoirs and awaiting trial for his war crimes by the State of Israel.  And as the play ends, he is preparing to leave the world and contemplating the morals he has learned along the way:

When you are dead, you are dead…

Make love when you can.  It is good for you.

And, perhaps most important of all:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Between the play’s opening scene and its closing moments, we are treated to a variety of flashbacks to different events at different times and in different settings, in which six other very talented actors play a wide variety of different roles.  Campbell is married to Helga (Trish Lindstrom), a famous German actress,  but loses her in the war.  He is approached by his “blue fairy godmother,” Frances Wirtanen (Andrea Gallo), an American secret agent who convinces him to spy for the US and pass along coded secret messages to the Allies in his radio broadcasts.  After the war, he is captured by Lt. Bernard O’ Hare (Dared Wright) of the American Third Army but manages to avoid the hangman’s noose when Wirtanen succeeds in “disappearing” him and settling him anonymously in Greenwich Village.

It is there that he meets George Kraft (Dave Sikula), a reclusive artist who also turns out to be a Communist spy, and Lionel Jones (Eric Rice), a paranoid-schizophrenic dentist and the leader of a white supremacist organization.  And along the way, we also are introduced to Helga’s younger sister, Resi, and Campbell’s mother (both of whom are also played by Trish Lindstrom); Helga and Resi’s Nazi father, Noth, (also played by Dared Wright); Joseph Goebbels (also played by Dave Sikula); and a young Dr Epstein and Adolf Eichmann (both played by Matthew Van Oss).

Ultimately, Campbell, betrayed by both Kraft and Resa and his spirit broken, determines to accept the consequences of his wartime actions, arranges to be captured by Israel’s Mossad and be taken to Israel, there to await a fair trial for the war crimes he committed – despite his receipt of another letter from Wirtanen offering to intercede on his behalf to set him free.

The play is extraordinary in its scope, a tribute to both Vonnegut and Katz, and to the performances it has elicited from its very talented cast.  Assuredly, this is one well worth seeing.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

SEPARATE AND EQUAL Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Adrian Baidoo and Ross Birdsong in SEPARATE AND EQUAL.  Photo by Jeff Hanson.

Currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan, Separate and Equal is a powerful, provocative, and timely play that addresses the issue of America’s racist history with considerable insight and unusual creativity.  Written and directed by Seth Panitch, the play was produced by the University of Alabama in partnership with the Birmingham Metro NAACP and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and was inspired by personal recollections from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum.

The play is set in Birmingham, Alabama in 1951, three years before the Warren Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision mandating school integration - and thereby overturning the holding of Plessey v. Ferguson which had established the concept of “separate but equal” as the law of the land.  The play perfectly captures the essence of Jim Crow Alabama at that time through the medium of a series of basketball games played by six teenagers – three white and three black – struggling to deal with its constraints.

The set for Separate and Equal is designed to simulate a basketball court, one that is reserved for whites during most of the week and is only supposed to be used by blacks on Sundays.  Today, however, when three black teenagers – Calvin (Adrian Baidoo), Emmett (James Holloway) and Nathan (Edwin Brown III) – show up, it is only Wednesday.  Presumably, though, any white teenagers who might have wanted to use the court are all in school, so what can be the harm if….

Except for the fact that three white teenagers – Edgar (Ross Birdsong), Jeff (Steven Bono Jr.), and Wesley (Dylan Guy Davis) - have chosen this day to cut school and they show up too.  The situation is fraught with risk but the teenagers manage to overcome it (at least superficially and for a while) in a manner superior to what their elders might have achieved.  The older generation, after all, was so set in its ways that even the idea of a black teenager’s addressing a white teenager by his first name without attaching the honorific “Mister” was difficult to accept.  Certainly Edgar’s mother, Annabelle (Barbra Wengerd) and Calvin’s mother, Viola (Pamela Afesi) – who worked for Annabelle – were uncomfortable with it.

Separate and Equal can be enjoyed and appreciated on many levels.  It is a first-rate depiction of the relationships between whites and blacks in Jim Crow Alabama in the 1950s – not only relationships of teenagers with one another but also relationships with black elders such as Two Snakes (Will Badgett) and with police officers such as Lt. Connor (Ted Barton) and Lt. Dixx (Jeremy Cox).  It is also a brilliantly choreographed rendition of a basketball game that I found enthralling.  And the playing out of the basketball games, which are at the very center of the play, turn out to be a wonderful metaphor for the evolution of race relations in this country over the last century.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

SONGBOOK SUMMIT Concludes With The Anderson Twins Tribute to Jimmy Van Heusen

The Anderson twins at SONGBOOK SUMMIT.

This year’s four weeks’ production of Songbook Summit at Symphony Space, featuring Peter and Will Anderson on saxophones, clarinet and flute, has come to a close with a tribute to the life and works of Jimmy Van Heusen, Frank Sinatra’s good friend and go-to songwriter.  In the first three weeks of the 2018 Songbook Summit production, the Anderson twins, supported by Tardo Hammer on piano, Clovis Nicolas on acoustic bass, Philip Stewart on drums, and Molly Ryan on vocals, played the songs of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Hoagy Carmichael,. All of those programs featured musical arrangements by Peter and narratives by Will, together with a wide array of historical film clips and drawings from the Al Hirschfield archives and all three programs were enormously entertaining (see our recent posts on all three programs).

It is not at all surprising, then, that the final week’s program, devoted to Van Heusen and staged in a similar format, was equally entertaining.  The Van Heusen name (which the composer assumed after seeing an advertisement for the shirt company!) may not be as recognizable as that of Berlin, Kern or Carmicahael, but perhaps it should be.  Van Heusen was, after all, exceptionally prolific, having written 800 songs recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Bette Midler, from Miles Davis to John Coltrane, from Peggy Lee to Doris Day, and from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra (who alone recorded 85 of them).

Among the Van Heusen hits featured in this final Songbook Summit program were Love and Marriage, High Hopes, Like Someone in Love, It Could Happen to You, My Kind of Town, Here’s That Rainy Day, and, in a terrific finale, Come Fly With Me.  The film clips that accompanied the musical program were also remarkably enlightening, including shots of characters as disparate as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; the members of the “Rat Pack” (Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop); Groucho Marx; Bette Midler; Willie Nelson; and Johnny Carson.

The 2018 Songbook Summit may be over but the Anderson twins are planning a similar program for next year devoted to four other renowned American composers (individual selections have not yet been made).  I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to it.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Anderson Twins Play Hoagy Carmichael at SONGBOOK SUMMIT

L-R: Molly Ryan, Peter Anderson and Will Anderson in SONGBOOK SUMMIT.  Photo by Geri Reichgut.

Irving Berlin was arguably the greatest American composer of the twentieth century and Jerome Kern may well have had an even greater influence on the Broadway musical, but Hoagy Carmichael was unquestionably “jazzier” than either of them – both figuratively and literally.  Indeed, Carmichael was so “jazzy” in a figurative sense that he actually served as one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations in his creation of James Bond.  And, in a literal sense, one need only listen to Bix Biederbecke’s recording of Riverboat Shuffle, Carmichael’s first big Dixieland hit – or recordings of Stardust or Skylark or Jubilee or Georgia on My Mind, for that matter - to appreciate the enormous musical contribution that Carmichael made to the jazz world.

Songbook Summit, featuring Peter and Will Anderson, two exceptionally talented musicians on saxophones, clarinets and flute, has been running at Symphony Space on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan since early August.  It is a four weeks program devoted to the works of Irving Berlin (August 7-12), Jerome Kern (August 14-19), Hoagy Carmichael (August 21-26), and Jimmy Van Heusen (August 28-September 2).  We were fortunate in having attended performances of both the Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern programs and we enjoyed them both immensely, not only for their musical entertainment values but for their educational values as well (see our recent reviews of both programs). But having just come from the penultimate performance in the Hoagy Carmichael program, I must say that, strictly from a musical standpoint, this was the best program of the three.

I suspect that that may be because Carmichael was so much more of a true jazz composer than Berlin or Kern ever were, so that the Anderson twins found themselves so much more in their own element when performing his works.  And that may be true of the other very talented musicians backing up the Andersons as well: Tardo Hammer on piano, Clovis Nicolas on acoustic bass, Philip Stewart on drums, and Molly Ryan on vocals.  But whatever the reason, the Carmichael program was just terrific with several knockout performances.

I was particularly taken with the Anderson twins’ opening performance of Riverboat Shuffle, with Tardo Hammer’s virtuoso solo piano performance of Heart and Soul, and, of course, with Molly Ryan’s big band renditions of Skylark, Jubilee, The Nearness of You, Lazy River, Two Sleepy People, and Georgia on my Mind.  All in all, the segment of Songbook Summit devoted to Hoagy Carmichael clearly was a huge success.

The final program in this year’s Songbook Summit will focus on Jimmy Van Heusen and will run from August 28 through September 2.  I can hardly wait.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Anderson Twins Play Jerome Kern in SONGBOOK SUMMIT at Symphony Space

L-R: Peter and Will Anderson in SONGBOOK SUMMIT

Chalk up another win for the Anderson twins.  We have just come from the Jerome Kern program they staged in the second week of this year’s Songbook Summit at Symphony Space on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (August 14-19) and we found it to be as delightfully entertaining as was the Irving Berlin program we attended during the first week (August 7-12). (See our August 12 post: “Peter and Will Anderson Present SONGBOOK SUMMIT at Symphony Space”).

If Irving Berlin was the greatest American composer of the twentieth century, Jerome Kern was assuredly the composer who had the greatest influence on the Broadway musical.  Prior to 1927, Broadway musicals largely consisted of light comedies, revues, and operettas in the European tradition but Kern’s production of Showboat that year changed all that.  For the first time, a plot-driven musical play was staged on Broadway, one dealing with racism and other serious subjects, and Broadway has not been the same since.

In the course of his remarkable career, Kern collaborated with the leading lyricists of his time including P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin.  He wrote over 700 songs used in over 100 stage works including such classics as Ol’ Man River, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, The Song Is You, I Won’t Dance, Nobody Else But Me, and The Way You Look Tonight.

Peter and Will Anderson have taken all this material and used it to create a terrific jazz program based on Kern’s work (arrangements by Peter).  This, of course, is rather ironic given that Kern didn’t care for jazz and was vehemently opposed to altering, adapting or interfering with his work – which is absolutely essential to its jazz re-interpretation and improvisation.  But the Anderson twins have done such a great job that I’d like to think that Kern would be more than willing to forgive them.

The Anderson twins are exceptionally talented jazz musicians (Peter on the tenor sax, soprano sax, and clarinet, and Will on the alto sax, clarinet and flute).  Peter’s arrangements are also excellent and Will does a superb job of educating his audience with narratives, video presentations, and lessons, even while entertaining them musically.  And, in the performance I attended, the brothers were also very fortunate in being backed up by three other top flight musicians: Tardo Hammer on the piano, Clovis Nicolas on the acoustic bass, and Phil Stewart on the drums.

And we cannot forget Molly Ryan on vocals whose renditions of Ol’ Man River, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, A Fine Romance, and I Won’t Dance were all exceptional.

The third program in this year’s Songbook Summit will focus on Hoagy Carmichael and will run from August 21 through August 26.  I’m looking forward to it.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Peter and Will Anderson Present SONGBOOK SUMMIT at Symphony Space

Peter and Will Anderson, 31 year old identical twins, are exceptionally talented jazz musicians (Peter on the tenor sax, soprano sax, and clarinet, and Will on the alto sax, clarinet and flute).  Together they currently are presenting this year’s Songbook Summit, a homage to four of the greatest American songwriters of the last century: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, and Jimmy Van Heusen.

In Songbook Summit, the twins are devoting a week of performances to each of the four composers at Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Each show runs 90 minutes without intermission and consists not only of musical performances by the twins but also video presentations, Al Hirschfeld drawings, and informative narration by Will regarding the subject of that week’s performances.  In their musical performances, the twins are backed up by Tardo Hammer or Steve Ash on the piano, Clovis Nicolas on the acoustic bass, Phil Stewart on the drums, and Molly Ryan on vocals.

The first of the four programs (which ran from August 7 through August 12) was devoted to Irving Berlin, arguably the greatest American songwriter in history and it was really terrific.  It began with a wonderful rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band and concluded with a very creative arrangement of Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better, in which call and response were between Molly Ryan (vocally) and the Anderson twins (instrumentally).  Also included in the program were great performances of Puttin On the Ritz, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Blue Skies, Isn’t This a Lovely Day, White Christmas, Always, and I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.

The Irving Berlin program has now drawn to a close so if you missed it, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.  But you still can get tickets to the Jerome Kern program which will be running from August 14-19; the Hoagy Carmichael program which will be running from August 21-26; and the Jimmy Van Heusen program which will be running from August 28-September 2.  And if those programs turn out to be anywhere near as good as the Irving Berlin program was, you won’t be disappointed.