Review: World Premiere of VIVIAN Shows Huge Potential for Future Productions

How does a family move on from the loss of a wife and mother? It’s a difficult question in the first place, then you throw in a haunted house, and the whole situation gets jumbled.

So begins Vivian, a new musical by Atlanta theatre professionals Chase Peacock and Jessica de Maria. Making its world premiere at the intimate Lyric Studio Stage (one of a zillion theatres on the Marietta Square), the audience is tightly packed in, inches from the action- the pre-show curtain speech requests no one leave their seat until the end of the show for their own safety.

It’s worth noting that this particular crowd- largely composed of friends of the writers and performers- seemed unfazed by the spooky elements. Unexpected ghost appearances, sudden shocking moments, almost all were greeted with laughter from this congenial, if relaxed group. You’ve never seen an audience more ready to fall in love with a new work.

Vivian tells the story of therapist Cliff Bennett (a rich Travis Smith) who, having recently lost his wife, moves with his two daughters to a disheveled fixer-upper home. Reading patients and reaching his own daughters prove two very different things, with the latter being the chief struggle Dr. Bennett- who repeatedly reminds us of his prestigious title- faces. As they settle in, his youngest child, Vivian (a young and brilliant Mabel Tyler), seems haunted by an invisible force in the house. Teenaged Chrissy (a poignant Brittany Ellis), meanwhile, is so over both her dad’s lame attempts at connecting with her, and the boy-next-door’s, James (a golden-voiced Austin Taylor), attempts to woo her. As a first mounting, the 90-minute one-act musical leaves much to be desired while showing great promise.

It feels like two shows in one: the first being a sad but hopeful musical about a family trying to rebuild their life, a man struggling to love his daughters well, and a teenager falling in love. The second, a straight play without songs, is a ghost story about a girl sporadically possessed by something unknown. Each entity is intriguing and worth pursuit, though neither is fully fleshed-out. As a unit, Vivian plays as simultaneous productions of both the musical and the straight play performed in tandem unbeknownst to one another. This ultimately creates an unfinished product in search of a focal point as it flails in different directions.

Chase and Jessica’s modern ballads sit comfortably in the Broadway-pop genre, with an easy rock bent. Especially in “The Tides,” a masterful trio sung by Dr. Bennett and his daughters, C&J’s songs feature utterly delightful folk-like harmonies. Much of the music and lyrics prove memorable in the best ways, with another particular winner, the sweetly relatable “Let Me Guess.” Still, the show feels under-sung, with little variety in the tunes, which often trail off without closure, and have a weak connection to the book.

Its billing as a ghost story hypes the supernatural elements more than the story delivers, with some explanations turning out to be disappointingly benign. Even at the close of the show, it’s unclear whether the ghost(s) are malicious or just creepy by virtue of being ghosts.

A few key moments are lost in Vivian’s underdeveloped book. Without giving anything away, the audience reaches some conclusions while the characters are still in the dark. Then suddenly, we’re all on the same page, not quite sure how or when the Bennetts and co. got there. Among its many fragmented pursuits, the most disjointing is the show’s abrupt, songless end. Even the actors seemed apologetic as they shrugged, smirked as if to say, “Yes, that’s really it,” and bowed.

Director Julie Skrzypek uses every inch of the limiting venue, with a simple if predictable set. As a small-scale world premiere, this production does exactly what it needs to: it shows the vast potential in this musical and its writers.

(Dis)Agree with what you read? Let’s have a discussion in the comments or on Twitter- @BwayGinger!

Oh and let’s just all listen to “The Tides” and “Let Me Guess” on repeat, ok? And then check out more at Chase and Jessica’s website, here.

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Top 5 Performances to Catch in Atlanta This Fall

In a city now full of pumpkin spice lattes, hay rides, and flannels, local theatres are bringing their Halloween A-game to round out this fall in Atlanta. From immersive outdoor experiences to Hitchcock classics, our Atlanta theatre fam has it all!

But how to choose which shows to attend? Check out BroadwayGinger’s top five spooky theatre picks!

Photo Flash: Aurora Theatre to Stage Crucible Sequel ABIGAIL/1702

Abigail/1702 at Aurora Theatre

When: Now through October 15

Elevator pitch: Diany Rodriguez is the bomb.com under normal circumstances, but in this show, she’s non-stop, taking her talent to the next level.

But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? The Devil. Flashbacks. The scariest surprise goat of all time. This one-act sequel to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is as thought-provoking as it is terrifying.

Get those tickets!

Check it out! Interview: Diany Rodriguez Humanizes a Familiar Antagonist in ABIGAIL/1702 at Aurora Theatre

Vivian at the Lyric (Studio Theatre in the Square)

When: October 11-14

Elevator pitch: A brand new musical premiering right in Atlanta? Sounds like we Atlanta theatre nerds will get bragging rights for dayyyyys!

But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? The Lyric’s studio space creates an intimate experience perfect for a spooky musical. Written by our own local theatre artists Chase Peacock and Jessica De Maria, this mysterious ghost story promises its fair share of intrigue.

Get those tickets!

Click here to check out BroadwayGinger’s review of Vivian!

The Sleepy Hollow Experience at Serenbe Playhouse

When: Now through November 5

Elevator pitch: What’s scarier than a Halloween show? A Halloween experience in the woods.

But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? Serenbe can do no wrong. Their consistently inventive work never fails to expand the bounds of what’s possible in the theatre world. So now bringing a new adaptation of their annual Sleepy Hollow Experience,

Get those tickets!

DIAL M FOR MURDER

Dial M for Murder at Stage Door Players

When: Now through October 15

Elevator pitch: As a rule, I’m on board with anything involving the phrase “perfect murder” and “Hitchcockian.”

But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? No Halloween season is complete with out a good, old-fashioned murder mystery. Even those of us who haven’t seen the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name know Stage Door’s show is bound to include twists and turns and unexpected gasp/scream/jump/grab the arm of the stranger next to you moments.

Get those tickets!

Sense and Sensibility at Synchronicity (say that five times fast)

When: Now through October 15

Elevator pitch:  Ok, so it’s not spooky. But I mean, Jane Freaking Austen. Need I say more?

But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? I like to call Synchronicity a hidden gem of Atlanta theatre. Housed in a shared space, they aren’t the most conspicuous venue in our city, but I completely trust their play choices and execution of them. I have yet to be disappointed by a work there.

Get those tickets!

 

 

Interview: Diany Rodriguez Humanizes a Familiar Antagonist in ABIGAIL/1702 at Aurora Theatre

Can a liar be redeemed?

Aurora Theatre’s newest mainstage endeavor, Abigail/1702 revisits Arthur Miller’s The Crucible ten years after the Salem Witch Trials. Though, to go as far as calling this a sequel may be a misnomer.

“It’s kind of its own unique story,” shares actress Diany Rodriguez, starring as the title role through October 17. “Both [The Crucible and Abigail/1702] are works of fiction, although they’re based in realistic events. Abigail is what might have happened if these characters, as written, continued to live ten years later.”

In Abigail/1702, the finger-pointing girl whom fans of The Crucible have a special hatred for, Abigail Williams now leads an altruistic, secluded life in Boston. Haunted by her past in Salem when her knowingly false accusations about witchcraft in the town sent many innocent people to hang, this play sees Abigail piling on good deeds to make up for her sordid background. Using Miller’s characters, playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa asks enough questions to turn the story on its head.

“If you go into this thinking, ‘Okay, if the devil exists, and if the devil made Abigail do it, but the onus is on Abigail to have said “No,”’ then what is it in Abigail’s character or her circumstance that made her think this was the best way?  If there is a devil, and if she wanted to make a contract with him, why?  Is it because she wants power?  Is it because she inherently loves the feeling that making a contract with the devil gives her?” Photo Flash: Aurora Theatre to Stage Crucible Sequel ABIGAIL/1702

Rodriguez says the Devil himself very much plays a part in this story, though what exactly, she won’t say. “In Abigail, there’s more of an investigation over whether Abigail did have a contract with an actual devil that actually guided her to make some of the allegations that she did, or whether it was just her way to camouflage her own actions and her own need to serve herself and be a guide for her own survival.”

In addition to asking questions of Abigail’s character, this piece also explores the idea of redemption in a powerful way. “This is a whole fictionalized version of her story and telling what happens when our deeds have actual real-life consequences. Can we be redeemed after we’ve done so much to our detriment and- for Abigail- to the detriment of at least twenty others whom she sent to their death and the lives of the people who loved the people whom she sent to their death?”

Despite her character’s past, Rodriguez can empathize with her, pointing out how she was not set up for success from the beginning of The Crucible.

abigail at aurora

“It’s easy for me already to take her side because I do see her as a victim of her circumstance. Hey, she is wholly flawed.  Don’t get me wrong! But she also could have used help. There is a lot of potential thinking that her Uncle Parris abused her, so there’s a lot to be said for her circumstances and how she might have not even been in a great place to make decisions [in The Crucible], even had she not had a sexual affair with a much older man who happened to be married and have two children.”

Besides Abigail, which familiar characters from The Crucible will we see? That’s part of the surprise too.

“There are characters in Abigail that are very much central characters in The Crucible, and they are only billed as, ‘Young Man,’ ‘Young Woman,’ ‘Older Woman,’ ‘Older Man,’ and like ‘Young Child,'” she explains. “Even small characters in The Crucible that had some sort of impact on her appear in Abigail. And that’s about as much as I can say without giving it away!”

However, she did reveal that the audience will get some closure on pieces that Arthur Miller left hanging. “There is a scene where my stage manager said at one point, ‘I hope the audience gets on their feet and claps, because this is a moment we’ve wanted to see since The Crucible.’”

After Abigail/1702, Rodriguez will be switching gears to appear in the fun, family-centered Stone Mountain Christmas, and then The Followers at Seven Stages Theatre. But right now, this actress continues to share her contagious passion for both the multifaceted role of Abigail Williams and the show itself.

“Theatre is supposed to either let you escape or be a mirror to humanity or let you get in touch with your empathy or let you think really hard. Abigail/1702 is really beautiful, scary, and thought-provoking.”


Abigail/1702 runs on Aurora Theatre’s mainstage through October 17. Click here to purchase tickets!

 Diany Rodriguez:
Notable Atlanta Credits: Significant OtherInformed ConsentHands on a Hardbody, HomersBull Durham: The MusicalRocky Horror ShowIn Love and Warcraft, Zorro: The Musical, Into the Woods (X2), The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, and August: Osage County. Notable regional credits: Carrie: A Comedy (Sue), Marvelous Wonderettes (Suzy), Fame (Carmen). Tours: Rent (Mark’s Mom/US Mimi), Dora the Explorer (Dora). Off-B’way: Soul Kitchen (Sangita), Shlomo (Anjia/Ruth). Film/TV: Pepper’s Place (pilot),The Yellow Birds, Survivor’s Remorse. Up Next: Christmas Canteen at Aurora Theatre and Exit Strategy at True Colors Theatre. Thank you, people I love; I love you.

THE KING AND I: 101 Reasons to Bring Back Poofy Skirts

Why did we ever do away with hoop skirts and ballrooms? Whoever made that decision didn’t ask me. But this week, Broadway in Atlanta takes us back to such a time with the lavish tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic, The King and I.

Making a stop at Atlanta’s own Fabulous Fox Theatre this week as part of its nationwide tour, the Lincoln Center Theater’s musical revival won four 2015 Tony Awards, including the much-awaited Best Actress for Broadway favorite Kelli O’Hara. The classic score continues to enchant audiences, with well-known favorites like “Getting to Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” and my personal swoon favorites, “Something Wonderful” and “I Have Dreamed.”

Below, let’s take a first look at the beautiful musical!

About this production:
Director Bartlett Sher is reunited with the award-winning creative team from South Pacific and The Light in the Piazza. The King and I features sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Scott Lehrer and choreography by Christopher Gattelli based on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.

Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist King, in an imperialistic world, brings to Siam to teach his many wives and children.

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Joan Almedilla as Tuptim. QUEEN. (not literally, but like… she’s got a voice of gold)
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Hoops for DAAAAAYYYYSSS, feat. Jose Llana (the King) and Laura Michelle Kelly (and I)
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Jose Llana
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Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana in the most iconic The King and I pose.
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“You are precisely my cup of tea” – Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna
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Can I have her dress and gloves? Please and thank you. (Laura Michelle Kelly)
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Laura Michelle Kelly, Baylen Thomas, Graham Montgomery in Titanic the Musical The King and I
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Young lovers Manna Nichols and Kevin Panmeechao kiss in a shadow
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Gold!!

If this doesn’t convince you to return to the days of elaborate fabrics and the poofiest (and totally extra, let’s be honest) of skirts, I don’t know what will.

The King and I runs right here in Atlanta at our Fabulous Fox Theatre through October 1. Click here for tickets.

Photo credits: Matthew Murphy

Review: Aurora’s BURNPILE Tugs on Atlanta Heartstrings

It’s a sinister-looking poster, right? That title combined with the visual of a woman holding a match and a mischievous look on her face that says, “Just dare me not to do it”-honestly, I thought I was walking into a tragedy. But Aurora’s nostalgic Throw me on the Burnpile and Light me Up is anything but sinister in this one-woman production starring Taylor M. Dooley.

The summary on the flier hardly does it justice. This piece sees Boss recalling memories from a solid year or so of elementary school in rural Georgia. Delivered as though every memory happened yesterday, Dooley embodies a 3rd/4th-grader as she tells anecdote after anecdote about her life. “Boss” (as her father calls her) is the daughter of a pro bono lawyer who defends criminals most of the judgmental folks in the town would call scumbags. He uses his cases as a way to gently educate her, particularly in his philosophy, which she repeatedly parrots, “Everyone deserves a defender.”

Very reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Boss recalls events in her life as nothing special, not realizing in her innocence that bringing Sam Cook tapes to murderers in jail isn’t exactly a regular part of most childhoods. She refers to the cases and clients as “ours”- hers and her daddy’s. It’s a sweet touch. In her wide-eyed desire to help her hero, her father, Boss genuinely sees herself as part of the defense team. The way she tells it, she is indispensable.

As fits the backdrop motif to the story, the burnpile- a collection of belongings of Boss and her father’s clients who died on death row- very literally serves as the backdrop in the play. Stacked high upstage, it visibly includes items she mentions in her stories. Kudos to the design team for that noticeable detail. From all these objects, the faux monkey grass bordering the stage, and the candles she lights before every new scene, some combination thereof created a musty, summery scent. This olfactory touch puts the audience right in Boss’s backyard as she paces around and tells us about her life.

From the moment she first addresses the audience, Dooley makes an individual connection with everyone as if each audience member is her best friend. Maybe not a feat for intense memories, but she keeps the connection throughout the entirety of the show. Her engaging eye contact, active childlike demeanor, and her impeccable impersonations of every person in her life bring an urgency to her serious stories, but keep the audience actively engaged even in the silly, childlike stories.

She solidifies this connection by breaking the fourth wall in her pauses for laughter, directing the next line at people laughing the loudest, adding a smooth, “Yeah, and you won’t believe what happened next…” effect. At first glance it seems that Dooley’s friends must all be on the front rows. But they aren’t. Boss’s are.

The lighting stands out as a significant piece of the story’s tapestry, creating a marvelous car headlights look at one detailed moment, and throughout the piece, distinctly changing for emphasis. In the first half, Dooley sporadically transforms into adult Boss to tell some portions of stories, with lighting playing a large part in her transformation. Quite an intriguing choice, though it ultimately proves confusing due to its inconsistency and ultimate discontinuation.

The depiction of Boss and her father and the way Dooley brings it to life make this one-woman show a winner. I kept apprehensively waiting for the moment she would die, or her father would suddenly do something horrible to taint her childlike hero worship of him. But neither happens. It’s just a sweet, meaningful look at two formative years in the life of a child in an adult world, dealing optimistically with harsh realities, not knowing hers is anything but a normal childhood.

Photo Flash: First Look at THROW ME ON THE BURNPILE AND LIGHT ME UP at Aurora Theatre

Top 10 Reasons to Drop Everything and see HUNCHBACK at Aurora/Theatrical Outfit Yesterday

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Got any plans this weekend? Perfect. Go see a musical. And make it The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville.

Aurora and Theatrical Outfit’s joint production of the musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame based on the songs from the Disney movie and classic Victor Hugo novel of the same name opened mid-July at Aurora and will transfer to the Rialto Center for the Arts in September. It’s beautiful. It’s dark. It’s perfection. Despite its “Disney” tag, there’s nothing fluffy Disney or kid-friendly about this wonderful musical. At its core, it is a true adaptation of Hugo’s book, representing harsh realities of living in a broken world.

Whatever you do, don’t miss The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and here is why.

1. It’s basically the movie on steroids.

The Hunchback movie has always disappointed me. It brought us some of Alan Menken’s very best music coupled with a genre-ambiguous story that sits homeless between depressing and happy ending-driven. The songs were fantastic, eagerly awaiting an expanded score and overhauled book. Enter the 2014 stage adaptation at La Jolla Playhouse. With a book by Peter Parnell and about a zillion extra songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, this new Hunchback ditches the wishy-washy attempt at child appeal and leans boldly into a genuine take on this dark, sad story. More songs. More backstory. Richer plot. Huge kudos to Aurora/Theatrical Outfit for choosing a rock solid musical.

2. “Top of the World,” “In a Place of Miracles,” and many more new tunes. 

The 10+ added songs- many more if you count the frequent Latin choir background- bring a fresh wholeness to the score. Like Disney’s good stage musicals, the extra tunes give audiences a new favorite song from a musical they thought they knew so well. You’ll leave the theatre with “Top of the World” in your head and really might cry over “In a Place of Miracles.”

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3. That set though!

For those who watched the La Jolla production, Aurora’s set will look familiar. Designed by Shannon Robert, the whole stage is the interior of Notre Dame itself, complete with a painted floor and stone statues of saints (don’t worry- I hate myself for that alliteration as much as you do). But better than La Jolla’s, Robert ingeniously depicts Quasimodo “gazing at the people down below” by using a freestanding staircase that easily swivels about the stage. With no suspension of disbelief, the audience often sees Quasi high atop a church tower overlooking Paris, especially effective in “Out There” and “Top of the World.” As an added bonus, nostalgic Disney fans get to see this Quasi perform his signature parapet slide which, as ’90s Disney VHS tapes remind us, appeared in every preview for Hunchback ever.

4. Themes on themes on themes.

Hunchback is largely plot-driven, taking the audience through a neverending sea of emotions. These are evoked through the inventive direction of Justin Anderson as he pulls out many poignant themes, including the comparison between Quasimodo and his stone gargoyle friends (virtually unexplored in the La Jolla premiere), the power of those who are physically weak but emotionally strong, and of course the line that appears in both the first and final song, “What makes a monster, and what makes a man?”

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5. The hardest-working ensemble in the world.

You’d think there were 40 people in that cast. Throughout the whole show, the ensemble is ubiquitous- on stage as characters, off-stage singing in Latin as a church choir, sometimes townspeople, sometimes gypsies. Oh and sometimes gargoyle puppeteers. Discussing what a tragedy it is that Hunchback has yet to premiere on Broadway, one cast member jokingly told me, “Well I can see why! Who wants to do all this eight times a week for months? It’s exhausting!”

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6. Oh hey Lowery Brown, where have you been all my life?

As captain of the guard, Phoebus, Lowery Brown comes close to stealing the whole show. His stirring vocals particularly during “Finale” coupled with his commanding presence secure him in the ranks of Atlanta’s best. It begs the question- where have I been, that this is the first time I’ve seen this incredible talent in action?

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7. Puppets.

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for the moment the creators of the La Jolla production decided how to handle the gargoyles. My best guess is they shrugged and said, “Meh, let’s just throw some people in grey robes and call it a day.” Were they gargoyles? Were they just saints? Lol honestly, who knows. Aurora/Theatrical Outfit’s production looks the issue square in the face and solves it. With puppets. This design is strongest during “Made of Stone,” as Quasimodo has all but lost hope. One by one, the puppeteers lay down their puppets, showing a harsh comparison between the gargoyles’ immobility and Quasimodo’s defeatism.

8. The unstoppable choreography of Ricardo Aponte.

Oh y’all, Hunchback sees Ricardo Aponte’s choreography at its finest. Composed mostly of songs sprinkled with dialogue- think The Phantom of the Opera, but shorter and with an actual plot- Aponte was busy. His stellar melding of various dance syles drives home the idea that the outcast gypsies are a melting pot of nomads from many cultures. His work brilliantly enhances the story rather than merely making a pretty spectacle to look at. The characters don’t just dance because it’s a moral imperative for musicals. They dance because that’s part of who their characters are, a rare approach that is refreshing to see right here in our city.

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9. Julissa Sabino, the only Esmeralda. 

You think you’ve seen Esmeralda, and then you see Julissa Sabino’s interpretation, and everything changes. She takes on the resilience for which the character is so well known, but she adds a distinctly feminine gentleness and quirky affectations that bring Esmeralda down from a macho, invincible gypsy to a woman who can admit her imperfections without letting them hinder her. She never sacrifices kindness for strength. Can we just go ahead and hand Sabino that Suzi Bass Award? Please and thank you.

Check out my conversation with Julissa from this summer!

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10. Haden Rider, my new favorite Quasimodo.

As Quasimodo, Rider tackles the interesting challenge of playing a man with a strong heart but a deformed, weak-looking body. With his whole being, he distinguishes so effectively the difference between the Quasimodo the world sees and the true Quasimodo in his head. We see him transform for the duration of his solos from a man with a physical impediment and raspy voice into a man with a strong posture and stunning voice. Rider’s tenor vocals are simply unmatched. He delivers “Out There” with ease, even with strep throat (as he told me was the case the first time I attended the show). Frankly, it’s an exhausting process to watch. And he does it magnificently.

You got your tickets yet?

In short, go see the show. As someone who has attended Atlanta theatre for years, I can firmly say this is the best local production I have ever seen. It’s a spectacular musical, and there could not possibly be a better version than Aurora/Theatrical Outfit’s.

Follow BwayGinger on Twitter for more Atlanta theatre news, reviews, and coffee shop live-tweets!

For more information and to purchase tickets, click here (Aurora Theatre) or here (Theatrical Outfit).

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Photo credits: Daniel Parvis

The Guilty Pleasure Round- Musicals I Love Against All Reason

They’re not the most critically-acclaimed. They can’t claim many awards. But they’re unapologetically delightful. Weeping through a musical has its merits (oh, hey Aurora’s upcoming production of HUNCHBACK), but sometimes going to a musical means learning nothing except how long you can smile before your mouth loses all feeling. So today, let’s just have a feel-good listening party, ok? This is kind of my way of saying some musicals are better out of context. And heard rather than seen.

Image result for story of my life musical logo

  1. The Story of My Life, music and lyrics by Neil Bartram

The recipient of Ben Brantley’s most fantastic collection of zingers in the form of a review, this two-man show is indeed uncategorizable, absurd, and incredibly cheesy. It even has this weirdly dark rabbit-hole parallel to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE while unashamedly plagiarizing all of WIND BENEATH MY WINGS (the movie). In all of its unoriginal glory, listening to THE STORY OF MY LIFE is a solid hour of joy. There’s something incredibly meta about writing blog posts while listening to a musical about a writer trying to find inspiration.

Smiliest song: “The Butterfly”

Fast-track to smiles line: When you flap your wings to stretch yourself, it might seem small to you, but you change the world with everything you do.

Cringe-worthiest line: And with snow on the back of our pants, we’d wait for our angels to dance.

Image result for legally blonde the musical2. Legally Blonde, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin

Eyerolls always accompany mention of LEGALLY BLONDE in industry circles- followed of course by one brave soul sheepishly uttering, “…but actually I really like it.” Everyone in the circle subsequently concurs and giggles with relief.

OMG you guys, a bubble-gum pop, screlt-laiden musical version of the quintessential fluffy chick flick? It’s disrespectful to everyone from Antoinette Perry to the actress playing the Star-to-Be in [name that local production of] ANNIE. In spite of it all, “So Much Better” skyrockets my confidence upon every listen. And I believe I’ve never listened to Kate Shindle sing “…best friggin shooooeeess!!” without lip syncing and believing I can conquer the world.

Smiliest song: “Legally Blonde Remix”

Fast-track to smiles line: And soon all y’all gonna know much better! I am so much better than before! [as a Southerner, I relate to the “all y’all” phrase on a spiritual level]

Cringe-worthiest line: I’m not a fool, and as a rule I do not ‘bond.’ [I’m sorry what? What the what does that even mean?]

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3. A Little Princess, music by Andrew Lippa, lyrics by Brian Crawley

The second-worst professional musical I have ever seen with my eyes- second only to a B-level tour of a knock-off Cirque du Soleil- I’d advise listening to the album, but you can skip watching it live. Without having any real clue what’s happening in the show, you find yourself happily botching the pronunciation of the African words as you dance to “Good Luck, Bonne Chance” and mirror-belting the “I want song”‘s staunch, yet never-revisited theme, “I want to live out loud.”

Smiliest song: “Let Your Heart be Your Compass”

Fast-track to smiles line: If that makes me headstrong, fine! That’s a fault I’m glad is mine!

Cringe-worthiest line: That moment Lippa rhymed “lucky” with a forced “plucky.” And the irrationally mean but secretly jealous bad guy, played by Julia Murney says it all with a straight face.

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4. Chess, music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice

Speaking of NYT zingers, theatre critic-at-large of the ’80s-00s Frank Rich cuts CHESS no slack, with unsparing highlights like, “characters onstage at the Imperial yell at one another to rock music,” referring to the score as “a suite of temper tantrums,” with the “theatrical consistency of quicksand.” Speed-round, because we’re having so much fun: “drab,” “pompous pretensions,” “incoherent,” “jerry-built,” “sketchy.”

Rich’s opinions aside, I can go for the in-concert recording from 2009 in a heartbeat. Soaring duet between Idina Menzel and Josh Groban? Yes please! Even its painfully ’80s pop hit, “Bangkok” brings a smile to my face every time. Unlike some of the unabashedly feel-good aforementioned shows, this one is packed with overdramatic wannabe LES MIS tune after another. I think the smiling comes in the nostalgia created therein. And giggling ensues because it’s borderline nonsensical in every way.

Smiliest song: “Nobody’s Side”

Fast-track to smiles line: How could I leave her? Where would I go? I cross over boarders, but I’m still [something? I actually have no clue what word he says there. I’m sure it’s inspirational]

Cringe-worthiest line: And now let us dedicate ourselves to the spirit of chess:
We are one united family,
Black and white.
The game–
Our one true guiding light,
Sweeping through
The darkest corners
To express
Countries, classes,
Creeds as one,
In love of chess. [yes this is literally a hymn to chess. What is it, a game or a god?!]

Julissa Sabino Talks Returning to IN THE HEIGHTS with Aurora’s Musicals by Moonlight Series

Displaying JulissaSabino_TheatricalHS2_AMT.jpgJoyful is the best way to describe Julissa Sabino.

With enough excitement to fuel all of Metro Atlanta, this diligent actress clearly possesses a contagious passion for her work and a relentless desire to continue stretching herself as a performer. In the interview below, she shares about the process involved in returning to the role of Vanessa in Aurora’s encore performance of IN THE HEIGHTS- previously featured on BroadwayGinger as one of Atlanta’s must-see shows of the summer– and how she is more than ready to dive back in and explore the character once again.

How has it been revisiting IN THE HEIGHTS?

I think it’s always great! I got to revisit TOXIC AVENGER before, and I’m revisiting IN THE HEIGHTS, so this is my second time revisiting a show, but this show in particular is so much about community and choosing the parts of your tradition you’re going to keep with you as you move on, and which parts you’re going to leave behind. Especially the second time around, those relationships are really amplified among the characters in the script. It’s really great. It’s such an ensemble show; I don’t think there’s a small part in that. Everybody’s so integral to the community, and they all form it.

So what effect do you feel like doing it again and again over a long period of time has on the show and the way it comes out?

Gosh, I feel like it’s such a wordy show! You know? It’s not a normal musical where everything is very legato; everything’s very staccato and very fast, so I think doing it a second time and getting out of your head word-wise- our Usnavi, Diego, he’s done this show I think 3 times now, and you can see his finesse on stage. That’s the perfect word for it. His cleanliness, and finesse in the performance because he just is Usnavi at this point and doesn’t have to think about his lines. He gets to just kind of observe the world around him, which is what every actor wants to do, to go on stage and not think about what we’re doing, only observe what everyone else is giving us, and I think that’s the really cool gift of getting to do something like this a second time around.

How is the process going to be different for the concert version?

Gosh, you know, for concert versions I think always energy is the number one word, and of course you have less time to make everything really clean. Ann-Carol Pence, our wonderful leader in music she makes the show, so I know she’s going to stress our cut-offs being extremely clean because anytime you’re in a field- this sounds really nerdy- but there are no walls, there’s nothing for the sound to reverberate off of, so things can get very muddy. Everyone sounds like Ariana Grande, and you can’t understand where one word starts and the other finishes.

So diction is really important when you’re outside and making things entertaining when you’re far away in a field and not in a beautiful theatre. And then Aurora’s really nice, because you don’t get a bad seat the way it’s set up very close. There is premium seating for this event, for those who want to get closer, but I know energy is going to be a huge thing. We’re still going to do the lines, I’m sure the dances will be a little bit smaller, and stuff like that, but essentially, it’s going to be the essence of the same show. It’ll be nice to do it concert-style so we get to concentrate on the words.

It sounds like the perfect show for a concert since it’s so dense!

[IN THE HEIGHTS writer Lin-Manuel Miranda] is so presentational anyhow as a human being, and this show is his baby, so it really shows the best parts of his personality, so I think just being at a mic and just singing the show is great. Usnavi has so many funny lines, it’s just going to be really great to play those straight out to the audience.

As far as “making things entertaining from far away” like you mentioned earlier, how will you personally be doing that?

Yeah, gosh, for me, voice is so important. you can always make people watch you if you’re saying the right thing with the right intention. My hair always helps! [laughs] I’m a head-bobber. But for this is going to be all about positioning and taking equity of the stage. I think we’re on the festival’s center stage, so we’ve been on this space for a small concert before, so it will be about highlighting the people who are on stage up front. Just really using all those theatre tools we learned in college! It’s crazy, the more professional I get, the more I’m like, “Oh yeah, I should be warming up every day like my college teacher told me.” Because it really does make a difference in your work.

So what are you most looking forward to about this version?

Gosh, I guess seeing everybody again! It sounds really lame, but this is one of the most special shows to me. Everyone from our dance captain to our ensemble, they were working non-stop in rehearsal. Even when people weren’t using them, they were working backstage cleaning stuff. I’ve just never seen a process where people, no matter far the show was, they always wanted the show to be better during rehearsal and during the run. So I know that when we get together this time again, everyone’s just going to be more clean and it’s just going to be a sharper, better show.

It’s a cool opportunity for the patrons who missed it last year, because I know a lot of people missed it because we had so many nights sold out. I’m really excited to get the cast together again now that we’ve all had a year of other shows and a year to just grow and stretch our muscles. To get to do this one again will be so much easier for us.

So particularly with your character, what are you looking forward to most about stepping back into that?

Our director, Justin Anderson, I hadn’t worked with him before, but I had known him in the theatre community for a long time, and I knew he always asks a lot of his actors. So my particular task for IN THE HEIGHTS was to be more grounded. I’m very happy as a human being; joy is not hard for me to display on stage, but stability and strength while being vulnerable and not completely falling into a puddle is very hard for me because I have the inclination to want to lean towards extreme emotion.

Vanessa doesn’t really show very much emotion. That’s her face guard, how she protects herself. So I got a lot of, “That’s great, but less.” So I’m really excited to get to try that again, because I feel like as we age, we always experience different things in life, and I feel like this year, I have kind of hardened a lot, and not in a bad way, but just that I know how to deal with people and I’m not emotional all the time. So I’m really excited to visit the character now that I’ve grown, and the things that were a challenge to me before, I’m excited to tackle them now instead of being overwhelmed by them like I was the first time.

That’s so great to get a chance to revisit and see how you’ve grown and how you can apply that!

Yeah, because by the end of the run, I really felt like I got it, but I really wished that I’d had it from the beginning. So I’m excited to be able to do it for one night and just hit it right from the top. And the show is really fun! It’s not a show where afterwards you’re like, “Ugh I’m just going to go home and cry!” It’s a joy to do!

Aurora continues their Musicals by Moonlight series with IN THE HEIGHTS tonight, June 17, at the Duluth Town Green at 8pm. Aurora says, “Free to the public and part of Duluth Art Week, the show will be held on the Festival Center stage. Bring the whole family and a picnic dinner (cooler with drinks perfectly acceptable) to enjoy during the show. Lawn seating begins at 5:00pm for the 8:00pm performance. Beer and wine also available for purchase.” Click here for more information!

7 Songs I Love from Musicals I Don’t

Image result for natasha pierre & the great comet of 1812 logo off broadway

A succinct, sassy title for this playlist could be, “The Partial Credit Round” or “The Best of the Worst,” but I’m not in the business of adding more to my Broadway enemies list than Alan Cumming (sorry, Alan).

No matter how many nerd friends rave over them, there are so many musicals I won’t listen through (again) if you paid me. With that said, it seems time and again these same shows have about a song and a half or so of pure gold tucked away, which I’d low-key lose it over were they listed in a musical revue. So today let’s pay tribute to those shows that really don’t do it for me, but they still get their five minutes of fame and/or playing time on my Shower Jams playlist.

1. “Prologue” Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Backstory: A front-runner for the 2017 Tony Awards which ended up disappointing, THE [MEDIOCRE AT BEST] COMET of 1812 made its first appearance Off-Broadway, starring HAMILTON’s Phillipa Soo as Natasha just four years ago.

Why it’s a nugget of gold: You can’t go wrong with accordions any day of the week. Let’s just start there. The Russian melody backing the prologue sets the “complicated Russian novel”‘s scene flawlessly- rounded out with shockingly straightforward lyrics which encourage the audience to read their programs for full character names and then introduce the characters a la The Twelve Days of Christmas. Who does that?! It’s like a 21st-century take on “Tradition” from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and it’s delightful.

2. “The Proposal/The Night was Alive” from Titanic

Backstory: Not a musical version of the Leo DiCaprio movie, this adaptation sailed (#sorrynotsorry) to Broadway eight months before the release of James Cameron’s film. TITANIC the musical took home Best Musical and four other Tony Awards (its Best Musical competitors are also obscure), losing in multiple categories to the stellar CHICAGO revival.

Why it’s a nugget of gold: Three words: Brian d’Arcy James. BDJ’s Fred puts his heart on the line as he dictates a telegram to his lady in New York, imploring her to marry him on his return. Lyrically, the earnest ballad is a triumph. “Marry me! May the Lord who watches o’er watch over thee!” The third-wheeling telegrapher jumps on board as he tells the audience how greatly the telegraph job has improved his social life. Out of context, his verses hang awkwardly, but all is forgiven as he beautifully descants over BDJ’s final refrain.

3. “What do I Need With Love?” from Thoroughly Modern Millie

Backstory: The star-making performance for Sutton Foster in the title role, originated by Julie Andrews in the 1967 film, also marked the first of Foster’s collaborations with composer Jeanine Tesori.

Why it’s a nugget of gold: Jimmy, oh Jimmy. It’s the classic anti-love song so characteristic of the American musical theatre since the beginning of time. The first song of (spoiler) Millie’s love interest, the proudly unattached Jimmy claims immunity to the trap of love while showing the desire for just that. Gavin Creel oozes charm as he sings the playful tune’s endearingly contradictory lyrics.

 

 

4. “What a Waste” from Wonderful Town

Backstory: The second Bernstein/Comden/Green musical of the early Broadway canon centers around sisters who- wait for it- move to New York in search of fame on The Great White Way. Ever heard of a Broadway show like that? Yeah, me neither. Classic light-hearted ’50s shenanigans ensue.

Why it’s a nugget of gold: “What a Waste” is the antithesis of the love letters to New York usually found on the Broadway stage. Sung by a naysayer calling malarkey on the notion that NYC is the end of everyone’s rainbow, this Bernstein tune features story after story of prodigies whose careers tanked upon moving to the Big Apple. Between the playful tune and unexpected twist on the New York musical, this song truly represents what made Golden Age Broadway absolutely delightful. [Not to be confused with MISS SAIGON’s song of the same title, which is less about New York and more about brothels in Bangkok.]

5. “Take a Chance on Me” from Little Women

Background: Based on the Louisa May Alcott classic about the adventures of four sisters at the time of the Civil War, it bears the official subtitle “that Sutton Foster skit where hers was the only Tony nomination.”

Why it’s a nugget of gold:  “Sometimes late at night, I watch you in that attic pacing back and forth like a maniac…” With some downright creepy lyrics to kick it off (but it’s a musical, so how creepy can it be?), Laurie (Danny Gurwin) spends an entire song trying to impress Jo (Foster) by recounting his fictitious achievements which she couldn’t care less about. But bless his heart, he keeps trying. And then he loses to her in a boxing match.

6. “Muddy Water” from Big River

Backstory: What better style to accompany a musical HUCKLEBERRY FINN than the classic country sound of Roger Miller? Let me set the scene: Huck and Jim are in pursuit of adventure and freedom down the Mississippi river- Huck from his smothering guardians and Jim from slavery. Spoiler alert: Mark Twain awards a happy ending for all.

Why it’s a nugget of gold: Oh y’all, if ever there were a song that makes you want to run out and conquer the world, it’s “Muddy Water.” Without a specific destination in mind, Huck and Jim fearlessly hit the big river (again, #sorrynotsorry), crooning all the way down. Then just when you think the exciting harmonies can’t get any better, they up and modulate. You’re not ready.

7. “Revolting Children” from Matilda

Backstory: A year after BILLY ELLIOT and SPRING AWAKENING dimmed their Broadway lights, and it looked like the days of angsty European youths on the Great White Way were over, in came Roald Dahl’s Matilda and co. But unlike the trio of Billys- three actors who alternated performances as the title character, because child labor laws are a thing- MATILDA’s leading ladies were found ineligible for a Best Actress Tony nom. Not to worry, as they received a special Tony honor instead.

Why it’s a nugget of gold: Speaking of conquering the world, there’s nothing like a chorus of pint-sized revolutionaries to inspire you to rebel against, well, anything. When it opens with a kid riffing a capella, you know it’s going to be off-the-chain. Not to be confused with “Stick it to the Man” from SCHOOL OF ROCK, this giant “I’m here!” number features the kids revolting in the best way they know how- misspelling words, misusing hockey sticks, drawing on the chalk-board, and other such indecorous behaviors. Using an unstoppable rock beat, it’s as cute as it is exciting.

[Dis]agree wholeheartedly with my thoughts? Perfect. Let’s talk about it. Join the conversation on Twitter (@BwayGinger) we can discuss Broadway and Atlanta theatre all the time.

How to Converse with Theatre Nerds (and Survive a Tony Awards Party)

The Tony Awards night is Christmas for theatre people (or actually Hanukkah would be more fitting, wouldn’t it?).
It’s the magical June night when a group of the best people in the world (theatre kids) pile on the couch to unashamedly geek out and fangirl for a solid 3 hours. Public Tonys viewing parties are some of few places where you can bet a group of 100+ strangers will think it totally natural to discuss the worst Tony Awards tragedies of all time, and instead of giving you weird looks when you burst into some Broadway tunes, they’ll pick up the harmony alongside you. And then BOOM! BFFs for the evening.
But it is possible that some run-of-the-mill fans step foot into such a gathering without a full breadth of Tony knowledge and love for obscure Sondheim shows. My heart goes out to those who receive incredulous looks for not knowing who Patti LuPone is or the number of minutes in a year. So to rescue those people, I have compiled a simple cheat sheet to surviving any conversation with a hardcore theatre nerd. And coming out of a Tonys party without looking like a fool.
  1. Eight times a week. This refers to the Broadway performance schedule. And you will hear this phrase every five and a half seconds during the Tonys. Please note that when someone says it, it’s bound to be part of what they consider a really profound statement. Practice your adequately awed face in the mirror.
  2. THEATRE. Because theatre nerds are anglophiles, it’s “theatre,” not “theater.” To answer your question, yes they can tell from your voice how you’re spelling the word in your head.
  3. OBC. This stands for “Original Broadway Cast” and is a vital step in understanding nerd-speak. Theatre nerds will repeatedly remind you that the original actors to play [name that role] on Broadway were the best, though hipster nerds prefer the original out-of-town tryout understudy.
  4. Ensemble. No one refers to the “chorus.” The cool kids say “ensemble” instead, because chorus sounds as though the members of the company are less important. Tiny, laughable distinction, really. But seriously, don’t say chorus.
  5. Colm Wilkinson. Aka, “Mr. Les Mis.” This brilliant guy was the original Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on the West End and Broadway in the ‘80s. He fittingly played the bishop in the Les Mis movie as well. Because he’s perfect.
  6. Idina Menzel. I dearly hope anyone who steps foot in a Tonys party now knows her name, but what’s a cheat sheet for if not to save the day? She originated the role of Elphaba in Wicked, for which she won a Tony Award. And oh yeah, she voiced Elsa in Frozen. And she’s perfect.
  7. Aaron Tveit. He’ll honestly never stop being a relevant, gorgeous leading man, having made himself known through his appearance as Gabe in Next to Normal, Enjorlas in the Les Miserables movie, and of course Danny in the recent Grease Live. But get in line, because everyone and their mother is in love with him.
  8. Andrew Lloyd Webber. British composer who wrote many, many award-winning musicals including the currently running Sunset Boulevard, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. His works are constantly produced on and off Broadway, and you could say they will never die (with the exception, of course, of The Phantom of the Opera 2: Love Never Dies).
  9. Broadway is always better. If you tell a theatre nerd that you loved Les Mis after only seeing the movie, you’ll get the death stare. Even worse would be if you let it slip that you actually liked a movie soundtrack better than an OBC recording. Rule of thumb: Terrence Mann beats Russell Crowe any day.
  10. Lin-Manuel MirandaOk, if you don’t know him, I’m not helping you.

Follow @BwayGinger on Twitter for more Broadway love, Atlanta theatre news, and sassy live-tweets. And then let’s be best friends, ok?

A version of this piece was originally published as part of the KCACTF Region IV Institute for Theatre Journalism Advocacy. You can read the dated, pre-Hamilton version from February 2014 here.