Sunday, October 21, 2012

Off Broadway: Mama, I Want to Sing: The Next Generation

L-R: Tyrone Flowers, Sandra Huff, Ahmaya Knoelle Higginsen, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Bettina Pennon, and the Gospel for Teens Choir in MAMA, I WANT TO SING: THE NEXT GENERATION.  Photo by Jasmin Williams.
Mama, I Want to Sing by Vy Higginsen and her husband, Ken Wydro, opened at the Heckscher Theatre in East Harlem in 1983 and went on to become the longest-running off Broadway black musical in American history.  It tells the story of Doris Winter, one of many African-African performers who got their starts in church choirs before going on to make their marks in the commercial world of popular music (think Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer and Patti LaBelle).  The role of Doris Winter is based largely on that of the real life Doris Troy, Ms Higginsen’s own sister: in the musical, Doris Winter emerges from the choir in her father’s church, performs during Amateur Night at the Apollo, and capitalizes on her Apollo performance (despite her mother’s initial objections) to achieve a successful musical career.  In reality, Doris Troy parlayed her own appearance at the Apollo into a successful singing career in London.

Then, in an example of life imitating art, the real Doris Troy eventually performed in Mama, I Want to Sing in the role of her own mother.

Life has now come full circle: the musical is currently being revived by the Mama Foundation for the Arts at the Dempsey Theater on West 127th Street in Harlem with the appropriate sub-title “The Next Generation” appended and the role of Donna Winter is being played by Ahmaya Knoelle Higginsen, the real life daughter of Vy Higginsen and Ken Wydro.  Nor is this an example of opportunistic nepotism.  Far from it!  Ahmaya Higginson is absolutely terrific in the role of Donna Winter: she not only exhibits a vocal range that is truly extraordinary, but she acts brilliantly as well, providing a performance in which she gradually evolves from her childhood self as a shy, gawky adolescent to her adult self as a poised professional singer.

The other principal actors are similarly outstanding and have backgrounds that would seem to have uniquely qualified them and conditioned them for their roles.  Bettina Pennon, a Reverend’s daughter herself who has been singing since the age of four, plays the role of Mama Winter, Doris’ protective mother who is so reluctant to let her daughter go; she has an exceptional voice herself and plays her role with the sensitivity and understanding that she obviously derived from her own life experiences.  Tyrone Flowers, who plays the role of Reverend Winters, Doris’ father, is an ordained elder at Pilgrim Cathedral of Harlem and that background is evident in his own singing and portrayal of his part.  Sandra Huff, who plays the role of Sister Carrie, Doris’ aunt and godmother, is the worship leader for the Agape Family Worship Center in Rahway, New Jersey and, wow, she really can belt out a song.

Which brings us to Elijah Ahmad Lewis who plays the role of Minister of Music at Doris’ church and who, in that position, is responsible for training and leading the choir.  He is simply sensational.  He moves with the grace of a dancer and the sensuousness of a circus contortionist.  He moves his body in ways that I would not have thought possible if I hadn’t seen them for myself.  Imagine an accomplished break dancer with bones of rubber.  And the exuberance he conveys is absolutely infectious.

In addition to the lead players, Mama, I Want to Sing: The Next Generation also features several wonderful performers from the Gospel for Teens Choir, the award winning choir that Vy Higginsin founded to pass the tradition of gospel music on from one generation to the next.

At the performance I attended, the overwhelming majority of the members of the audience were of African-American descent and it was obvious from their response to the show that many, if not most, shared the gospel music tradition therein depicted.  To that extent, they probably could derive even greater pleasure from this production than could the small minority of us there who do not share that heritage.  But in a broader sense, this show has universal appeal in terms of the basic family values it espouses.  White or black, Christian or Jew, Italian, Irish, Chinese or whatever – all can recognize, understand and empathize with the pain associated with a young daughter’s loss of her father, with a mother’s reluctance to let go of her child in a dangerous and uncertain world, and with a girl’s desire to strike out on her own and follow her dreams.  This show has captured all that and, whatever your background, I urge you to see it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Off Off Broadway: Yentl

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s classic short story, “Yentl The Yeshiva Boy,” is subject to many interpretations.  On a politically correct feminist level, it is the story of Yentl, a strong-willed young Jewish girl whose love of learning is so great that she rebels against the strictures of her male-dominated society, posing as a boy in order to enter a yeshiva and study Talmud (something that only Jewish men and not Jewish women were permitted to do in Poland in the 1800s). A deeper alternative interpretation, however, focuses on Yentl’s transgender issues: as she saw herself, she was “neither one sex nor the other” and she had “the soul of a man in the body of a woman.”
Singer and Leah Napolin adapted Singer’s story for the stage and in 1975 Yentl premiered on Broadway starring Tovah Feldshuh.  Less than a decade later, the play was adapted for the screen and starred Barbra Streisand.  The play remained true to the original short story but the motion picture did not: in the play, Yentl, even after being found out, opts to live out her life as Anshel, her male alter ego, despite her obvious strong emotional attachment to Avigdor, her male yeshiva study partner; in the movie, on the other hand, she expresses her true feelings for Avigdor and re-assumes her female personae.
The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective is currently staging a revival of Yentl at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan and, to its credit, it is the play, not the movie, that is being revived.  And to its further credit, Beautiful Soup has managed to blend both the politically correct and the psycho-sexual interpretations into one seamless whole.
The principal actors in this revival are Mallory Berlin as Yentl/Anshel; Peter Oliver as Avigdor; and Kim Sweet as Hadass, Avigdor’s first love.  All three are excellent in their respective roles but Ms Berlin is truly outstanding , exhibiting both her sexual ambivalences and her religio-socio-political rebellion.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Off Off Broadway: 1931-

Eighty years ago, the very talented and very left-leaning Group Theatre (its avowed mission was to express "propaganda for a better life" and its members included Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Clifford Odets) staged the play 1931 – , a one-dimensional cartoonish depiction of the unemployed during the Great Depression.  Written by Claire and Paul Sifton, the play wasn’t very good and ran for only twelve performances, which may explain why no one ever thought to revive it until now.

The relatively new ReGroup Theatre Company (formed less than three years ago) has now taken it upon itself to revive 1931- at The Living Theatre on Clinton Street in downtown Manhattan, as part of its mission to re-publish and re-produce “lost” Group Theatre plays. Given that 1931- wasn’t a very good play to begin with, ReGroup Theatre should be commended for what it has managed to pull off. With 13 actors playing more than 65 different roles and weaving in and out onstage, the play is not so much directed as choreographed. But it is all accomplished relatively seamlessly and Allie Mulholland, the director, deserves credit for a tough job well done.

The play's plot is a simple one. Adam (Stephen Dexter), having been fired from his warehouse job over a minor squabble with his boss, strives relentlessly to find another job. But in 1931, that is no easy task. Millions of others are out of work as well and Adam’s life spins out of control. He loses his home, his health deteriorates, he risks losing the girl he loves. He resorts to begging, joins breadlines, sleeps in parks, even contemplates crime. And he is but a symbol of the millions of others who are in the same predicament. It is all to no avail. By the end of the play, it seems that revolution is the only solution.

Dexter plays his role with considerable passion but there is nothing he can do about the limitations of the role itself, the shallowness of the play, and the playwrights’ failure to provide any real character development. The play’s other actors have even rougher rows to hoe, with even less to work with and, considering how little they have been provided, do a more than adequate job of communicating their cliché-driven, redundant messages.

One finalfinal aside: the play 1931– glorifies the struggling unemployed masses who suffered during the Great Depression and that is a noble, understandable and commendable sentiment. But some have compared the plight of those proud and independent Great Depression casualties with today’s Occupy Wall Streeters and assorted protesters and that is not merely wrong-headed but an insult to the memories of those who suffered so during the 1930s. The unemployed workers featured in 1931- sought only one thing: jobs of any kind so that they might earn money with dignity, avoid the government dole, raise their families with pride in their own abilities, and take responsibility for their own lives. To that end, they left New York and travelled all over the country seeking work. By contrast, today’s Occupiers, the self-proclaimed 99%, aren’t seeking jobs so much as government handouts; they don’t protest over lack of work but over lack of longer unemployment benefits; they leave jobs elsewhere in the country in order to travel to New York to sit in and protest, not the other way around; they want others’ wealth redistributed to them because it’s just not “fair” that they don’t have as much as others even if they never earned it; and their sense of victimized entitlement has replaced their sense of independent self-esteem. We have made enormous economic strides since 1931 but the direction our moral principles (regarding individualism, independence, property rights, redistribution of wealth, and self-esteem) since then is open to much greater question.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Off Broadway: Ten Chimneys

L-R: Julia Bray, Byron Jennings, Carolyn McCormick, and Michael McCarty in TEN CHIMNEYS.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The title of the play Ten Chimneys by Jeffrey Hatcher derives from the name of the Wisconsin estate to which Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne repaired every summer.  Staged by The Peccadillo Theater Company, the play is currently receiving its New York premiere at Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street.  The play is an ambitious one, touching on everything from Lunt’s youthful homosexual longings to the threat that Uta Hagen might have represented to the Lunt’s unconventional marriage; from Lunt’s half-brother’s pool hustling to his half-sister’s self-sacrifice for the sake of her family; from Sidney Greenstreet’s compassion for his institutionalized wife to Lunt’s mother’s demanding and suffocating behavior toward her son.  Such ambition in a playwright often is a good thing but here Hatcher may have bitten off more than he could chew: none of the play’s many themes are fully developed and one leaves the theatre mildly disappointed that one has not seen the less intricate but more developed play that Hatcher might have written.

To be sure, Ten Chimneys does provide two hours of cheerful entertainment and some insights into the personae of Alfred Lunt (Bryon Jennings); Lynn Fontanne (Carolyn McCormick); Alfred’s mother, Hattie Sederholm (Lucy Martin); Alfred’s half-brother, Carl Sederholm (John Wernke), Alfred’s half-sister, Louise Greene (Charlotte Booker); Uta Hagen (Julia Bray); and Sydney Greenstreet (Michael McCarty).  Hatcher has written a backstage comedy with some interesting story lines and some clever repartee between the principals.  Moreover, theatre buffs, in particular, should appreciate the way in which he has managed to elucidate how actors can make overlapping dialogue work and how makeup ought be applied to create particular illusions.

And yet, when all is said and done, it is the ghost of Noel Coward (who is mentioned but does not actually appear in this play although he had been a guest at Ten Chimneys himself and was rumored to have engaged in a menage a trois with the Lunts) hangs over this production – to this play’s disadvantage.  Maybe it’s unfair comparing Hatcher to Coward because we have no reason to believe that Hatcher was seeking to compete with Coward in the first place but, given the theatrical personalities involved, such a comparison would seem to be inevitable and, once the comparison is made, it is Ten Chimneys that comes up short.

The play’s principal story line relates to the arrival of Uta Hagen at Ten Chimneys to rehearse her role in Chekhov’s The Seagull.  Her subsequent relationship with Lunt is mildly disturbing to Fontanne – not for what it migh portend between Alfred and Uta in the bedroom but rather for the challenge it might raise to the relationship between Lunt and Fontanne onstage.  For as we are reminded again and again, the Lunts have a rather inverted view of the stage and reality: their reality, and therefore their love for one another, is what takes place on stage; it is everything that is not on stage that is secondary.

A sub-plot entails Alfred’s meeting up again with his old college roommate, for whom he still might long.  But this sub-plot goes nowhere.  Finally we are treated to some minimal explorations of what might make Hattie, Carl, Louise and Sydney tick.  Hattie, based upon the Freudian beliefs of the 1930s and 1940s, the period in which the play is set, would seem to bear responsibility for Alfred’s homosexuality or sexual ambivalence.  Carl, the pool hustler, is presented as being as much an “actor” in his own sphere as Alfred is in his.  Louise is the play’s passive-aggressive victim.  And Sydney is the obsessively compassionate husband.

All of the actors are to be commended for their performances but the one standout for me was Michael McCarty as Sydney Greenstreet.  His depiction was spot on and watching him was like watching the “fat man” being brought back to life from Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon.