On Stage: Crowns

Crowns

photo: © T Charles Erickson Photography

Fifteen years ago, McCarter Theatre premiered Regina Taylor’s original Crowns, which has become one of the country’s most-produced musicals. Currently on stage at McCarter until April 1 is an entirely new version of Crowns, again written and directed by Regina Taylor.

Although, as McCarter artistic director Emily Mann says, Crowns is “a joyful, brilliant expression of the past and present lives of African-American women,” the emotional subtext of the story is universal, and the production offers a rousing, end-of-winter uplift. If you recall the original Crowns, you’ll remember the title refers to the extravagant hats worn by African-American women, especially to church, and you’ll appreciate Caite Hevner’s set design that imaginatively incorporates hats by the dozen.

Much more than a tale about headgear, Crowns remains a story about attitude and about asserting individuality when society wants you to be invisible. The hats are a touchstone for memory too, enabling their wearers to reconnect with past experiences, good and bad, with failures and triumphs. Taylor has said that “hats reveal and they conceal,” and in her play, they do both.

Taylor has brought the play into the present by combining the hip-hop of a 17-year-old Chicago girl, Yolanda (played by Gabrielle Beckford), with the gospel of her South Carolina grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison). Yolanda is sent to stay with her grandmother after her brother is murdered in a drug deal gone bad. However, she’s impervious to the support and love offered by her granny and the women of the community, the Hat Queens. “Talk about it,” they sing, but Yolanda won’t, can’t.

Loosely structured around the elements of a church service, the women cast members (Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope, and Danielle K. Thomas) are lively story-tellers and singers, and Crawford brings down the house with her rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Any of them could teach a master class in movement. The one male cast-member (Lawrence Clayton) plays multiple roles, donning different personalities as easily as his different hats.

Providing the propulsive energy for the almost non-stop music, much of it original for this production, are Jaret Landon on keyboards and trumpet and David Pleasant on percussion. Alas, on opening night, the “accompaniment” sometimes overpowered the singers. The production makes fine use of projections, which transform the single set from Chicago’s streets, to Mother Shaw’s church, to a South Carolina high school, and much more. Parts of Yolanda’s raps are projected in chalk letters too.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Trying: A Play by Joanna Glass

The story of 20th century figure Judge Francis Biddle comes alive in Trying, an engaging play by Joanna McClelland Glass, who was Biddle’s assistant during his last year of life. On stage at the George Street Playhouse through April 8, the play is directed by Jim Jack.

It has an apt title, because the irascible judge was very trying during this period, plagued by illnesses, painful arthritis, and growing infirmities. But he also wanted to finish his memoirs, and Glass (in the play, her character’s name is Sarah) must cajole and persuade and badger him to “try.” She learns to work with the prickly, demanding Biddle, and they develop a strong mutual affection and a relationship that contains a healthy dose of humor.

Biddle was the quintessential “Philadelphia lawyer,” accomplished, educated at elite U.S. institutions and related to or acquainted with a significant number of the country’s patrician leaders. He served numerous posts in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, including as U.S. Solicitor General and U.S. Attorney General.

When the internment of Japanese-Americans was proposed, he initially opposed it, and regretted his later support. (In the play, he expresses this regret and said that episode is where he learned to mistrust the phrase “military necessity.”) He took actions to support African-American civil rights. Perhaps his most notable achievements were as America’s chief judge at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis. The lobby displays posters with a number of his strong human rights quotations.

Ironically, Glass says in her notes accompanying the play, at the end of his life the two events that preoccupied him were the deaths that robbed him of a young son and his own father when he was six. The lost opportunities to know those two people haunted him.

Even though there are only two actors in the cast, the story clicks right along. Biddle—“81 years old, elegant, sharply cantankerous, and trying to put his life in order”—is played by Philip Goodwin, with increasing frailty of body, but not of spirit, and Cary Zien plays off him well as a sympathetic and energetic young Sarah. The set design conveys the passage of time, with the changing weather and flora outside the window, and though spring arrives and the days grow longer, they are a constant reminder that Biddle’s days are coming to an end.

This is a lovely play, and gives audiences a lot to think about, with respect to the contributions a single person can make—Biddle in his legal career and Glass with her acute perceptions about what constitutes a well-lived life.

The Band’s Visit

The Band's VisitIf you saw the award-winning 2007 Israeli movie The Band’s Visit, you’ll recall what a charming story lies behind this new musical, directed by David Cromer, playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (video clip).

The eight-man Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, is invited to Israel to play at the opening of a new Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva. Due to a language mix-up, the band members end up in the desolate, nothing-happening-here desert town of Beit Hatikva.

There is no hotel, only a tiny restaurant, and no transportation to their correct destination until for another day. With varying degrees of wariness and acceptance, the townspeople take them in and, suffice it to say, everyone learns something. The leading roles are played by Tony Shalhoub as the band leader and Karina Lenk as the bored restaurant owner, with a large and accomplished supporting cast of actors and actor-musicians.

As it’s a musical, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses, there are the requisite singing numbers, as well as numerous opportunities for one or two or three of the band members to play in background, often a folk-derived tune. Those are especially nice.

The production is receiving much positive attention and already considered a shoo-in for several Tony awards, perhaps partly because of its heartwarming message, as well as some endearing performances. The movie was funnier, though, and at times the background music overpowered the singing, so I couldn’t catch the lyrics. Lenk sits awkwardly and undulates a little too much a little too often in some scenes (is she feeling the music?). The contrast between her sensuality and the stiffly upright band leader is evident without that.

This is one of the new 90-minute, no intermission entertainments that are increasingly popular and a good-hearted, pleasing hour and half it is. But you say you’re not in New York? Watch for the touring production already booked in major cities around the country, starting next year.

Stones in His Pockets

Stones in His Pockets

Garrett Lombard & Aaron Monaghan – photo: T Charles Erickson

When a Hollywood film crew descends on a small County Kerry village, the locals are brought on as extras, a seemingly glamorous job that turns them into observers of their own lives. McCarter Theatre Center is presenting this Olivier Award-winning comedy by Belfast-based playwright Marie Jones through February 11. British Director Lindsay Posner puts the two-person cast through physically sophisticated and antic changes, as they portray 15 characters, never missing a beat.

The two principal characters, Charlie Conlon (played by Garrett Lombard) and Jake Quinn (Aaron Monaghan) are a bit down on their luck and skeptical of Hollywood, yet the allure it holds for them is almost tangible. In addition, they portray numerous townspeople, including the hyperactive, drugged-out Sean who comes to a tragic end—walking into the deep water with stones in his pockets, a literary whiff of Virginia Woolf—and Michael, whose claim to fame is that he’s the last surviving extra from the filming of John Wayne’s The Quiet Man. They also play several of the Americans—the movie’s director Clem, his effervescent assistant Ashley, and the big-time movie star Caroline, whose Irish accent needs serious work, but who manages to dazzle Jake and Charlie anyway.

Charlie, not unexpectedly, has a movie script in his back pocket and is ever-alert for opportunities to show it to members of the cast and crew, with the expected yawning reception. Jake recently returned from New York, with precious little to show for it. Increasingly, they become aware of the falsity of the portrayal of their town and their lives—a brazen example of cultural appropriation—but there’s nothing they can do about it. The bloom is really off the rose with the key conflict of the play: whether the film director will give the townspeople time off to attend Sean’s funeral.

The elegantly simple set by Beowulf Boritt is piled with trunks from which Charlie and Jake grab an occasional bit of costume, but these changes are lightning fast and often in service of what the extras themselves are asked to do. The principal way the audience distinguishes among the many characters is through the considerable skill and talent of the two actors.

It’s a story about community—a community of locals and a community of outsiders, and the actors, who trained at The Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin, make both these discordant communities come alive remarkably well.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance, Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance as the King

What a treat to see Mark Rylance in this new play, written by his wife Claire Van Kampen, playing at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. Rylance is one of those superb actors who can communicate a galaxy of information with a raised eyebrow or a stutter. (Rylance was unforgettable as Thomas Cromwell in BBC Two’s Wolf Hall and as the preternaturally calm Soviet spy in the movie Bridge of Spies).

This play is based on the maladies of Spain’s French King Philippe V (Rylance), who lived from 1683 to 1746. He stayed in power for nearly 50 years, despite crippling depression and delusions, and his psychic demons could be tamed only by the soothing sounds of music—specifically, the angelic, ethereal, and genderless voice of castrato singer Farinelli (Sam Crane)—a sound, thankfully, now lost to us. In the play, Farinelli is lured to the court by the king’s Italian wife Isabella (Melody Grove—now there’s an appropriate name!). His courtiers, not surprisingly, would far rather he abdicate. But he does not.

Iestyn Davis & Sam Crane as Farinelli

Iestyn Davis & Sam Crane as Farinelli

The actual singing is performed by countertenor Iestyn Davis (read more here), in New York after a season at the Met. He appears behind or alongside Crane in an identical costume, as a sort of corporeal alter ego, a device that works fine. It is theater, after all.

In addition to Rylance, Grove, and Crane, we enjoyed seeing Simon Jones again, a blustery Col. Pickering in McCarter Theatre Center’s My Fair Lady a few seasons back.

The play opens with the king fishing for a goldfish in a bowl. No wonder his ministers have their doubts! Isabella is devoted to him, but her devotion is constantly tested and found to have limits. The preoccupations and imaginings of the king are sometimes brilliantly on point, sometimes hilarious, sometimes clear only to himself. He seems genuinely to want to do right, but has lost the capacity to know how.

This sad and antic drama plays out in a rich setting, filled with period music. Adding to the intimate feel, a number of audience members have on-stage box seats, and the players interact a bit with audience members in the aisles. The audience plays its own part too, as the audience for a Farinelli concert. In addition to the play itself and the music, the beauty of the staging, the costumes, and the exquisite set design, with candles!, all contribute to a truly “theatrical” experience.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Greg Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Last year, McCarter Theatre Center’s revamped its annual production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for the first time in almost two decades. This season is the second with the update, and the new version is really coming into its own. Director Adam Immerwahr has achieved a solid Victorian England vibe for this sparkling production, which runs through December 31.

Immerwahr’s intent is to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.” He has filled it with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era.” Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play.”

The show manages to be both different with fresh sets and staging and familiar, retaining the adaptation by award-winning  playwright David Thompson. Ebenezer Scrooge (played to perfection by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Jon Norman Schneider) never more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, never more lively. Dickens’s work is stuffed with memorable characters, giving special mention of Mrs. Dilber (Sue Jin Song), Solicitor David/Mr. Fezziwig (Thom Sesma), Mrs. Cratchit (Jessica Bedford), and Mrs. Fezziwig/Lady Char/Laundress (Anne L. Nathan). Though many parts amount to a cameo, all were quite up to snuff.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there, how the Ghost of Christmas Past (Adeline Edwards) reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present (Mimi B. Francis) shows him how others, especially the Cratchits live now; and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Christopher Livingston, who also plays young Marley) lays out a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Michael Genet) has my favorite line from the story, the sententious “I wear the chains I forged in life.” The dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a new man.

The cast is augmented by a 36-member community and youth ensemble, whose members greet theater-goers, sing carols, ring bells, and dance exuberantly! The entire audience becomes involved, with the singing of a carol at the beginning and end of the performance.

Production credits to Daniel Ostling (set design); Michael Friedman (composer); Charles Sundquist (musical direction); Darron L. West (sound design); Lorin Latarro (choreography); Linda Cho (costumes); Lap Chi Chu (lighting); Jeremy Chernick (special effects); and Gillian Lane-Plescia (dialect coach).

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

The Craftsman

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665

The world premiere of Bruce Graham’s play The Craftsman, held over until December 17 at the Lantern Theater Company in Center City Philadelphia, explores a thought-provoking dilemma from the fine art world.

You may remember the post-World War II scandal created by an exceedingly minor Dutch artist (Han van Meegeren) charged with high treason for stealing his country’s cultural heritage. He’d sold hitherto undiscovered paintings by Johannes Vermeer out of the country, one of them to German Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. The crime was the more heinous because of the very small number of Vermeer’s works. Only 34 of his confirmed paintings survive.

At his trial, Van Meegeren mounted an unexpected and now-famous defense that shook the art worlds in The Netherlands and beyond. He claimed he painted the “Vermeers” he sold himself. The critics who’d authenticated the works wouldn’t back down, making the trial a legendary showdown.

The Craftsman, directed by M. Craig Getting, covers the arrest of van Meegeren (played expertly by Anthony Lawton) by former Dutch Resistance officer, Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes), flashbacks of the scathing criticism of van Meegeren’s own work by noted art critic Abraham Bredius (Paul L. Nolan), and the trial.

In this small theater, a clever L-shaped set, designed by Meghan Jones, effectively works as van Meegeren’s cell, Pillel’s office, and the courtroom. Janelle Kauffman designed projections of Vermeer’s paintings and the disputed works that turn the walls into an art gallery, enabling the audience to consider for itself the controversies the case raises.

If you saw the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, you will recall that Vermeer’s characteristic style, as the “master of light,” has engendered admiration for hundreds of years, and special exhibitions of Vermeer’s paintings draw record crowds.

By exploring the van Meegeren episode, The Craftsman asks a series of interesting questions: “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer?”; what are the limits of connoisseurship (a timely question, given the recent $450 million sale of a painting that may or may not be by Leonardo da Vinci); and, for that matter, how is the value of any creative work established?

Can’t Get to Philly?

The Art of Forgery, by Noah Charney, profiles van Meegeren’s escapade, and many other famous forgeries throughout history, reviewed here.

Tim’s Vermeer, an entertaining documentary about how a non-artist used a camera obscura in an attempt to duplicate Johannes Vermeer’s technique, reviewed here.

Girl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel, by Tracy Chevalier, a romance about Vermeer’s most famous painting; made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson.

It’s a Wonderful Life

It's A Wonderful Life

John Keabler & Elizabeth Colwell. Photo: Jerry Dalia

For many Americans, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a repeat viewing of the Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. You can also see this heart-warmer, on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Opening night was December 9, and the production directed by Doug West, will be playing through December 31.

In Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation presented here, the story is staged as a live 1940s radio play, and the audience is, well, the studio audience. (In real life, the film was adapted for radio several times.) This stage version offers the opportunity for cast members to interact, not just as the radio-play’s characters, but also as actors in a radio studio. Other delightful touches include the “Applause” light that flashes above the stage manager’s glass booth, the advertisements for hair tonic and soap presented Andrews Sisters style, the presence on stage of the sound effects man (foley artist Warren Pace), whose activities are endlessly entertaining (and effective!), and the live piano playing of cast members, especially Russell Sperberg, who plays hero George Bailey’s younger brother and wrote original music for the production.

Lest you fear all this peripheral activity detracts from the story of George Bailey’s (played by John Keabler) discovery of the importance of his life, it does not. The actors, placed mostly in front of standing mikes, create believable relationships, and the one between George and his wife Mary (Susan Maris) is especially strong. Angel Clarence Oddbody (Andy Paterson) watches over the unfolding story, just as expected. All secondary actors play multiple parts, with vocal changes that, if you closed your eyes, would work perfectly for radio.

There’s one set (the studio) and one basic costume, embellished with hats and vests and aprons to distinguish among the characters. These quick-change artists include John Ahlin (who plays evil Mr. Potter and others), Elizabeth Colwell (Violet, as well as George’s daughter Zuzu), Leavell Javon Johnson (the announcer, Horace, and others), James Michael Reilly (Billy Bailey and others), the aforementioned Russell Sperberg (Harry Bailey and others), and Tina Stafford (George’s mother and others). All the acting is totally up to this fast-paced production. My only reservation is that Keabler’s portrayal of George relies less on his own individual characterization and a bit too much on Jimmy Stewart’s, while I suspect Keabler is well capable of developing George in his own way.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

LA Cultural Forays – Travel Tips

Los Angeles is more than surfing dudes and starlets. But you knew that. Our recent visit included a toe-dip into some truly world-class cultural institutions.

The Museums

LACMA

Streetlamps on Parade

In conjunction with a visit to the adjacent LaBrea Tar Pits, we visited three museums in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) complex. We wandered down the serene walkway of the Pavilion for Japanese Art vaguely reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s sinuous Guggenheim—a sure cure for I-10 traffic stresses. We didn’t allow time (perhaps a week-and-a-half!) to fully take in the other buildings’ exhibits, but did hook up with a Resnick Pavilion tour of a temporary exhibit about artistic cross-fertilization between SoCal and Mexico, “Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico: 1915-1985.” Led by a knowledgeable and interesting docent, we got a lot out of it.

We walked through the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, happening upon Chris Burden’s delightful Metropolis II (see it in frenetic action here), which actually runs only limited weekend hours. Even at a standstill, amazing.

On another visit, I want to check out the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the Museum of Tolerance, and the Automotive Museum, all of which are in LACMA’s vicinity.

12/12 UPDATE – The Getty Center reopened 12/8 after a two-day closure due to wildfires in the vicinity. Buildings were kept closed to protect the collection. Why the art can stay.

Getty Center

Bougainvillea bouquets at the Getty

The lengthy trip (in terms of time, not distance) to the Getty Center ends at a tram stop, from which you’re whisked uphill to the art museums proper. Again, there are multiple buildings, with views to the hills, the Pacific, and downtown in between them. We took a grounds tour, learning about the architecture and construction choices, as well as the landscaping, which is equally part of the complex’s design. The “museum highlights” tour sounded like an efficient idea, but is totally dependent on the current whims of its docent-leader. Ours had a deep affinity for Saint Jerome. Even so, she got us in and out of several buildings. Paintings are distributed over the top floors of several of the pavilions, where they can get better light, and decorative arts occupy the bottom floors. A temporary exhibit I gladly spent time in was “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas.” (One of my many odd passions.) So much was lost, and what was saved is so remarkable.

Music and Theater

Walt Disney Concert HallWe weren’t willing to take out a new mortgage on our house, so did not purchase tickets for a concert at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. However, we took the acoustiguide tour of its several floors, which allowed us to see many parts of the building, excluding the auditorium itself—too much demand for rehearsals, they say. Beautiful, and the building’s curved aluminum skin changes color and appearance as the light changes. (You can take a virtual tour at the website above.) And within walking distance, theoretically, to our hotel.

 

One evening we attended a performance at the Ahmanson Theatre, across the street from the Disney Concert Hall. The theaters in the complex have a full season of opera, plays, and other performances. We saw the musical Bright Star, written by Edie Brickell and Steven Martin (yes, that one). The story was more than a bit predictable, but the production and cast were first-rate.

So You Shouldn’t Starve

Patina, a $$$$$ restaurant in the performing arts complex serves delicious food, with (more of a rarity these days) impeccably gracious service. It was our gastro-splurge. We had a nice lunch at the Getty, as well.

Books to Toss in Your Suitcase

The Importance of Being Earnest

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, is putting on a silky-smooth version of Oscar Wilde’s classic satire, now through December 3. Although the witty dialog keeps coming and coming, you dare not do more than chuckle or you’ll miss the next line. The show’s directed by Michael Cumpsty, whom Princetonians may remember as Henry Higgins in McCarter Theatre’s excellent My Fair Lady a few years back.

Importance of Being Earnest

Sam Lilja & Liesel Allen Yeager, photo by T. Charles Erickson

And here are a few of those timeless lines:

  • The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
  • I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
  • All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.
  • No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.
  • The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Artistic Director John Dias’s program notes say this about Wilde’s brilliant dialog: “We feel both horror and delight when witnessing this expert employment of language—its flexibility and the kind of doubleness of meaning that both masks truth and somehow reveals it.”

If you haven’t seen this play recently—or if by some mishap you’ve never seen it—this is a sparkling version. The two leads, friends Algernon Moncrieff (played by Sam Lilja) and Jack Worthing (Federico Rodriguez) are especially strong, and Liesel Allen Yeager’s Cecily Cardew is a delightful flirt.

The men fall in love, and though the women are willing, circumstances are not. How they sort out the absurdity of  Jack’s dubious origins—as a baby, he was found in a handbag in Victoria Station (“The line is immaterial!”)—and the women’s outré determination to marry men named Earnest . . . well you’ll have to experience those pleasures for yourself.

Excellent scenery from Charlie Corcoran and costumes from Jess Goldstein.

In a before-the-show talk, cast member Henry Vick (perfect as Algie’s super-discreet butler) reminds audience members that only a few months after this play opened in London to great acclaim in 1895, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency with men and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. He never wrote another play.

Today, 117 years since Wilde’s death in Paris, a penniless man, we can reflect on how Victorian society, which he skewered so lightheartedly in Earnest, would seem to have had the last word, yet the fact that audiences still delight in his work and flock to see it  suggests a different outcome.