Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Encores' GOLDEN APPLE Is Delicious

From time to time, my friend Jon Alan Conrad is inspired to write a guest piece for this blog, which makes me very happy indeed. Jon is always insightful and immensely knowledgeable. Who wouldn't be delighted to offer a forum for his writing? 

Here's Jon's take on The Golden Apple, which he recently saw as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center.

We lovers of musical theater finally saw our long-standing wish granted in May 2017, when the series "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert" marked the end of its 24th season with a production of The Golden Apple.

For an explanation of "Encores!" I'll save space by referring to my previous column about an earlier production of theirs, commenting in addition that their events long ago stopped being "concerts" in any sense beyond the orchestra's presence onstage. (Apparently their standard Playbill caveat, that the performers might carry their scripts, now contractually frees them from actually doing so.) As to "our wish," naturally I can't speak for everyone. But subscribers, watching the list of "Encores!" titles (here  -- or here, if you enjoy a quiz format) mount up over the seasons, have indulged in a fan's privilege and dreamed up lists of future possibilities. And although we've seen some gratifying rarities over the years -- St. Louis Woman, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Paint Your Wagon are four that they also recorded -- many wish lists (Cynthia Nixon's, for one) kept The Golden Apple at the top.

The Golden Apple itself? It's a collaboration between lyricist John Latouche (remembered for his contributions to Cabin in the Sky and Candide) and composer Jerome Moross (probably best remembered for epic movie scores like The Big Country. There's no speaking, or even operatic talk-singing (recitative); it's all in song forms, ranging from that sweeping Americana sound heard in Moross's movie work to vaudeville, blues, soft-shoe, and ragtime.

And that's not all. In this compact two-hour opera-musical, Latouche and Moross retold the Iliad and Odyssey, setting it in Washington State (near our own Mt. Olympus) around 1900. At the start, the boys come home from the Spanish-American War to small-town contentment, until farmer's daughter Helen runs off with traveling salesman Mr. Paris in his hot-air balloon. The guys, having pledged to take care of her, troop off to the big city to bring her back. She returns with husband Menelaus readily enough at the start of Act II, but that leaves the men still far from home, susceptible to the perils of the Odyssey -- Calypso, Scylla-Charybdis, Sirens, Circe -- embodied as the temptations of the coming century -- status, wealth, sex, power -- until everyone has vanished except Ulysses, who comes to his senses and returns home to Penelope.

All this playful classicism was catnip to the critics when The Golden Apple opened at the Phoenix Theatre in March 1954 (one of the first off-Broadway musicals) as part of its repertory season. A transfer to Broadway to capitalize on its cult popularity with a longer run seemed a good idea, but after opening at the Alvin Theatre in April, it managed only 125 performances, leaving behind the published play and a highly truncated recording of highlights, mementos that fail to convey its stature and expansive musicality. But surviving photos and accounts suggest a jewel of an original production, elegantly designed and directed, and cast with great care. The folksy tunefulness in Act I creates a lovely picture of small-town life, blossoming into expansive moments like Ulysses and Penelope's duet of marital contentment, "It's the Going Home Together," or Helen's sultry seduction of Paris (and a favorite of song stylists ever since), "Lazy Afternoon." Then in the new big-city atmosphere of Act II, vaudeville specialties (starring the folks from Act I in new guises) pop out, like the slick vaudevillian "Scylla and Charybdis" routine promoting the stock market, and the hula-flavored enticements of "Goona Goona Lagoon." An interlude with the waiting Penelope gives us the soaring aria "Windflowers," and the final unsure reunion the impassioned duet "We've Just Begun." By the end, we've had a colorful experience that retold a classic tale in a witty way, and we've also learned something about ourselves. What more could you ask for?

Somehow, while other ambitious shows from the 1950s remain well-remembered, and while regional opera companies search for popular-flavored classics to fill out their seasons, nobody seems to know about, or want to produce, The Golden Apple. Even the recent release, at long last, of a full-length recording, welcome as it is, hasn't seemed to change this situation much.

So the Encores! production meant more than just the chance to see an insider's seldom-seen title: it showed the world what a fine piece of writing it is, and maybe it can persuade managements to stage more productions of it, and let its take its rightful place among the masterpieces of popular musical theater.

Presentations like the one I saw on May 13 (partway through a run of seven performances) will go a long way toward raising awareness of it, and promoting a wider fondness for it. It was certainly given the full treatment, with the biggest chorus the series has employed, multiple costumes for everyone, some evocative if skeletal sets, and no cuts whatever. Michael Berresse, having brightened several past entries as a performer, directed with fine attention to both character and theatrical effect (aided by choreographer Joshua Bergasse), and the Encores! Orchestra sounded its customary best under Rob Berman's reliable baton, doing justice to Moross's own orchestrations (assisted by Hershy Kay), among the most gorgeous written for the theater.

Some Encores! productions have provided all-star casts to enjoyable effect (like their No, No, Nanette with Rosie O'Donnell, Sandy Duncan, Beth Leavel, Charles Kimbrough, and Mr. Berresse), but The Golden Apple followed the other possible pattern, assembling an ensemble cast suitable for a real production. (And thereby eliciting a fleeting wish that they could just stay together and settle in for a long run.) There was not a single weak element anywhere, so instead of coming up with a varied series of commendations for every name in the cast, I'll link to a personnel list, a photo gallery , and two montages of in-performance videos to give the details and establish the general excellence. That will allow the mention of just a few outstanding participants without seeming to criticize the others. For instance, the sinister Hector Charybdis who appears in Act II as mayor and guide to temptation was suavely embodied by Jason Kravits, familiar as countless sleazy lawyers and judges on television but clearly an old hand with a top hat and a cane. The trio of local "goddesses" (Miss Minerva, Mrs. Juniper, and Lovey Mars) whose rivalry ignites the plot, and who transform into temptations in Act II, were delightfully embodied by Alli Mauzey, Ashley Brown, and Carrie Compere. Ryan Silverman supplied a mellow baritone and the right reckless confidence as Ulysses. Especially memorable were two actresses new to me: Lindsay Mendez (well known to fans of Wicked, but not previously to me), sultry and giddy as needed for Helen, and Mikaela Bennett (unknown to most of the audience, I dare say, as her Juilliard graduation was still a week in the future) bringing a richly soaring soprano to Penelope. Both ladies had the special spark that can make time stand still -- a most welcome illusion, because I didn't want the show to end, ever. Let's hope that everyone's local theater company becomes motivated to schedule a production next year.

Monday, May 29, 2017

SPEECH & DEBATE on Screen (on iTunes)

A film version of Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate is now available to rent through iTunes. Karam wrote the screenplay for the film based on his own play, which opened Off-Broadway in 2007 as part of the Roundabout Underground initiative.

Speech & Debate, the play, has been well-performed since then, including at Urbana's Station Theater in 2008 and at Illinois State University in 2011.

Speech & Debate involves three teenagers in Oregon, none of whom exactly fit in. Diwata is overflowing with the desire to PERFORM!, Howie is gay and looking for a way to express that at a hostile school and Solomon sees himself as a crusading journalist. Together, they revive their school's moribund debate club to expose the hypocrisy and perfidy of the adults around them. By turns, they're funny, wounded and outrageous, especially when they perform a musical with a witch from The Crucible time-traveling to meet a gay, teenage version of Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah Steele, an actress you may recognize from her role as Marissa Gold on The Good Wife, played Diwata in that Roundabout production ten years ago, and she is back as Diwata for the movie. She's joined by Liam James (The Family) as Solomon and Austin P. McKenzie (he played Melchior in the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening on Broadway) as Howie.

Karam and director Dan Harris have opened up the stage play, which showed only the three high school students and one adult, at least far enough to include space for actors like Skylar Astin, Roger Bart, Janeane Garolfolo, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kal Penn, Gideon Glick (who played Howie in the original production), and Lin-Manuel Miranda as part of the tableau.

All that, for $3.99 on iTunes.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Coming Soon: 2017 Illinois Shakespeare Festival Opportunities & Options

If it's almost summer, it's almost time for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. If you haven't purchased tickets yet, there's still time to choose single seats or a season pass. And a call just went out for volunteer ushers, which may also get you in to see the show.

Here's the scoop on what's happening this summer:

A Midsummer Night's Dream is up first with a preview performance on June 28 and official opening night on the 30th. After that, you'll find 16 more performances in the theater at Ewing Manor through August 11. This Midsummer is directed by Robert Quinlan, head of the MFA directing program at Illinois State University. Quinlan's previous Illinois Shakespeare Festival credits include Richard II and Macbeth. Festival favorite Tom Quinn leads the cast as Bottom, with Jordan Coughtry as Puck, Thom Miller as Oberon, Nisi Sturgis as Titania, and Jesse Bhamrah, Susie Parr, Raffeal A. Sears and Emily Wold as the four Athenian lovers lost in the forest.

Next on the agenda is not just any Cymbeline but an adaptation for six actors created by Chris Coleman called Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline. The ensemble consists of Coughtry, Miller, Quinn, Sears and Sturgis and Patrick Toon, under the direction of Andy Park, who also directed Peter and the Starcatcher and Failure: A Love Story in Festivals past. The preview for Amazing Cymbeline happens on June 29, with performances on stage at Ewing Theater from July 1 to August 12.

The Q Brothers return to the Festival with I Heart Juliet, "bringing their incredible energy, humor, and hip-hop verse to Shakespeare’s timeless masterpiece, Romeo & Juliet." You might've seen the Q Brothers' take on Two Gentleman of Verona called Q Gents back in 2015. This time, ISF Artistic Director Kevin Rich is at the helm with a cast that includes the Q Brothers Collective (GQ, JQ, Jax and Pos) and ten members of the Festival company. I Heart Juliet opens July 9 in Westhoff Theatre on the ISU campus, continuing at Westhoff till August 8. For all the details, click here.

If you're wondering who's who on the design team this year, look for Joe C. Klug as scenic designer for all three shows, with Dan Ozminkowski as lighting designer and Kieran Pereira in charge of sound design. Splitting up costume design duties, Nicholas Hartman will conceive the wardrobe for Amazing Cymbeline, Christina Leinicke for I Heart Juliet and Tyler Wilson for Midsummer.

In addition to these three shows, you'll have five chances to see The Improvised Shakespeare Company and Wednesday and Saturday morning performances of the fairytale Sleeping Beauty under the Theater for Young Audiences umbrella.

And about that volunteer usher opportunity... You can wear what you want, pick your dates (with some flexibility), and even see the show for free, as long as seats are available. Read more about it here. If ushering sounds like something you'd enjoy, contact ISF House Manager Dave Hansen at

Monday, May 22, 2017

What's Up from Prairie Fire the Rest of 2017

Prairie Fire Theatre's 2017 season is well underway, with their Champagne Gala last month and this month, the return of the children's opera project that tours area schools. After that, they'll finish up 2017 with a classic musical later in the summer and a revue about romantic hopes and mishaps in the fall.

This year's children's opera, once again written by Nancy Steele Brokaw, is The Last Book on Earth, and it involves three young friends intent on saving all the books in the world from a dark force called The Blank. There's a magic bookshop, storybook villains, hidden talismans and something called A Dangerous Book that our heroes must leap into to begin their mission. The Last Book on Earth has already performed two public performances at the Normal Public Library and the Unitarian Universalist Church, with the third scheduled for tonight at 6:30 pm at the Bloomington Public Library. For more information, click here.

In August, Prairie Fire returns with The Most Happy Fella, the 1956 Frank Loesser musical that "tells the heart-stopping story of unlikely love that blossoms in Napa Valley." Its original Broadway production was nominated for six Tony Awards, but it was the 2014 City Center Encores! production with Shuler Hensley, Laura Benanti and Cheyenne Jackson that impressed critics like the New York Times' Ben Brantley. You'll recognize the song "Standing on the Corner," the one where the guys are "watching all the girls go by," in Loesser's "sweeping, seamless and intricately layered score." Performances are scheduled from August 3 to 6 in Westbrook Auditorium inside Illinois Wesleyan University's Presser Hall.

And the last show of the Prairie Fire season will be Starting Here, Starting Now, a Maltby and Shire revue made up of story songs on the general subject of love and romance. In the first act, we hear about the challenges of finding love in the city, while the second turns to people who have stumbled in pursuit of romance but have hopes of new beginnings. It will be performed on October 20 and 21 in IWU's Young Lounge in the Memorial Center. (The image you see here is from the 1977 off-Broadway original cast recording. That production starred Loni Ackerman, Margery Cohen and George Lee Andrews.)

The Prairie Fire box office is available at 309-824-30476.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Portugal's Salvador Sobral Wins EUROVISION 2017

Another year of Eurovision, the international song contest that has been around since 1956, is now in the books.

Every year, an array of countries who fall within the "European Broadcasting Union" pick original songs and artists to represent them in Eurovision competition. In the 1950s, the field was limited to a dozen nations in Western Europe, but by now, the number is up to 46, including Eastern Europe, Eurasia and even Australia. It's generally a fizzy-pop extravaganza, with over-the-top performances punctuated by columns of fire, smoke, lasers, video projections, wind machines, wacky dance moves, eye-searing costumes, even shiny robots in strange headgear, an adorable group of grannies and a kinda/sorta vampire.

Ukraine was the host this time out since they won last year and they chose Kiev as the site. The theme was "Celebrate Diversity," even though the hosts were three white guys, which created some controversy.

Salvador Sobral with his Eurovision trophy
With a new (and apparently more complicated) scoring system in place, Portugal took the crown for the first time ever, with Salvador Sobral singing a sweet love song called "Amar pelos dois" or "Loving For The Both of Us." It's a melancholy, haunting ballad in the Portuguese Fado style, sung simply and softly, with no major frills in terms of explosions or milkmaids or disco balls. Not a driving dance beat to be found! And it's in Portuguese, which is unusual, since most of the songs entered are in English.

Bulgaria and Kristian Kostov's "Beautiful Mess" came in second, with Moldova, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Australia and Norway finishing out the Top Ten. There were plenty of unique (some might even say bizarre) choices, like Romania's yodel/rap/pop entry, "Yodel It!" by Ilinica featuring Alex Florea and Moldova's "Hey Mamma" performed by the Sunstroke Project featuring an "Epic Sax Guy" named Sergey Stepanov, just to keep you in a more typical Eurovision frame of mind.

Next year... Lisbon! In the meantime, it would be lovely if Sobral (and his sister, who wrote the song) get some international attention.