A Walk on the Moon

© T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is presenting the new musical, A Walk on the Moon, May 6 through May 21, based on the 1999 movie. The story takes place in the Catskills, summer of 1969. Neil Armstrong is set to take his iconic moonwalk, the Woodstock music festival is imminent, Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations roil the nation’s streets, and second-wave feminism is on the rise. It’s a time of ferment, a time of questioning, a time when the old ways, the old ideas seemed disposable.

In the opening scene, Pearl Kantrowitz (a role superbly performed by the powerhouse Jackie Burns), her husband Marty (played by Jonah Platt), their teenage daughter Alison (Carly Gendell), young son, and Marty’s mother Lillian (Jill Abramovitz) arrive at their annual vacation destination, Dr. Fogler’s Bungalows.

The family spends every summer there with the same quartet of couples and the same routine. During the week, the women relax, cook the meals, and watch the kids, while the men return to the city to work. While the routine is comfortable, Pearl has glimmerings that life is passing her by.

Into these lazy, predictable days enters someone completely different, Walker Jerome (John Arthur Greene). He’s the Blouse Man, and the attraction between him and Pearl is immediate. You know she’s in trouble. Perhaps you can predict where her personal journey will take her, but plenty of drama and honest emotion awaits.

The musical is stuffed with song, and Pearl reveals her mixed guilt and desire through the heart-rending “Ground Beneath My Feet.” While I appreciated the live seven-piece orchestra and the clever and melodic songs, they tended toward the belt-it-out style, which might have worked even better interspersed with additional quieter numbers. Marty’s singing to his daughter, “We Made You” is a lovely example.

Even though the show’s run time is two and a half hours, there’s never a lag. The excellent cast of fourteen assures something is always going on, from the four couples’ fun dancing, to the energetic mahjongg games, to the teenagers testing their wings. The skillful use of projections establishes the verdant camp, the mesmerizing night sky, the psychedelia of Woodstock, and the blackness of a really black adolescent mood. Actual news footage of the moon landing provides an indelible sense of the moment.

A Walk on the Moon is on stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717. Check the website for current information on NBPAC’s covid requirements.

The Chinese Lady

The Chinese Lady, by Lloyd Suh, is on stage through April 10 at The Public Theater in Manhattan, directed by Ma-Yi Theater Company artistic director Ralph B. Peña. The play premiered in July 2018, but disturbing events over the past year have made it poignantly timely.

Based on real-life events, the story centers on Julia Foochee Ching-Chang King, called Afong Moy (played by Shannon Tyo). In 1834, Moy was brought to New York by a shipping magnate named Carnes who bought her from her parents. She was 14 (or so) and arrived at a time when few Chinese men and no (known) Chinese women had been seen in this country. Carnes put her on display, in order to promote the exotic trade goods he imported from the Orient. The exhibit was popular, and Moy was the first Chinese person to receive wide public acclaim and recognition in this country.

The room where Moy gives her performances is outfitted in “Chinese style,” and she describes her life there and her reaction to the New World. She demonstrates eating with chopsticks and the tea ceremony, and part of her act is to walk around the little room to show her audience how the practice of foot-binding inhibits her ability to walk. (The real-life Afong Moy toured America as a “living exhibit” for decades.)

Of course, in the beginning, Afong Moy cannot speak English, so she has a translator named Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), who is her servant and, as she says, “irrelevant.” He brings the food for the chopsticks demonstration and takes it away, he brings the tea service, and he shows audience members various artifacts that Carnes hopes they will buy. She is charming and funny.

Because the two of them talk naturally to each other, you don’t have a sense of how limited Atung’s English is until they meet President Andrew Jackson. You hear Afong Moy’s heartfelt sentiments about crosscultural communication and understanding and Atung’s translation (this is not word-correct, but you’ll get the idea), “She like it here.”

Afong Moy grows up before your eyes, evolving from a lively, optimistic teenager into a world-weary mature woman, now performing in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. As time passes, the play references the anti-Chinese laws and violent attacks on Chinese in America of the late 1800s. It isn’t necessary to dwell on the sad irony that these prejudices still generate violence, especially against Chinese woman and elders, despite the determination of the first Chinese Lady to reach out and teach.

(Watching Moy, in her beautiful blue-and-white costume, and seeing how her life and dreams shattered reminded me of a 2015 Metropolitan Museum exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass.” One of the costumes from that exhibit, similar to the one pictured, was fashioned by contemporary artist Li Xiaofeng from pieces of Chinese porcelain, simultaneously beautiful and broken.)

Theater production credits to Junghyun Georgia Lee (scenic design), Linda Cho (costumes), Shawn Duan (projections), Jiyoun Chang and Elizabeth Mak (lighting), and Fabian Obispo (composer, sound design). Contact the box office.

Photo credit for The Chinese Lady: Joan Marcus

Sherlock Holmes at the Grolier Club

This week my friend Nancy and I visited Manhattan’s Grolier Club, founded in 1884, a bibliophile’s paradise. On view there (until April 16) is the special exhibit, Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects. Every mystery-lover will recognize the significance of that number.

Especially remarkable is that the 221 objects were selected from the riches of one obsessive collector, Glen S. Miranker, and a number of them are one-of-a-kind. His is a collection “rich in bibliographic rarities, manuscripts, books, correspondence, and artwork, all with intriguing stories to tell beyond their significance as literary and cultural landmarks.” Seeing Doyle’s small, careful handwriting as he makes notes about possible stories, or pens his drafts and writes to his publisher and Gillette, is truly a thrill.

If, as the Grolier Club flyer says, Conan Doyle’s creation became “a literary juggernaut,” it was a theatrical one, as well. London’s theater world wasn’t interested in the possibility of staging versions of Conan Doyle’s stories, but U.S. actor William Gillette (pictured) was, and he made it happen, playing the role of Holmes on US stages from 1899 to 1932.

The artwork from theater posters and programs, as well as the book covers of the many editions in which the stories appeared—both legitimately and pirated—often indelibly captures the Great Detective, sometimes in contemplation, pipe in hand, and sometimes on the hunt across the moors. And sometimes just in the Art Nouveau designs in vogue around the turn of the last century.

If you’re in New York in the next month, visit The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street. Call ahead for a timed reservation, because the number of visitors at any one time is controlled. Masks required.

Baipás

The nation’s English-language premiere of acclaimed Puerto Rican artist Jacobo Morales’s play Baipás, directed and choreographed by, Julio Monge, is currently on stage at George Street Playhouse. It premiered March 4 and runs through March 20 in New Brunswick, N.J.

Live theater has a special role in presenting real, flesh-and-blood people in challenging situations and seeing how they react, live, and, in the process, challenging audiences as well. Baipás (pronounced BI-pass) does that in ninety minutes while managing to be entertaining, romantic, sorrowful, and even funny.

A big part of its success can be attributed to the two performers: Maggie Bofill as Lorena and Jorge Luna as Antonio. They meet in a strange place—a bare room that might be somewhere in a hospital. They are decidedly human in an abstract space.The most recent event she remembers is being on a respirator after a serious suicide attempt, and what he remembers is undergoing coronary bypass surgery. From time to time they are aware of their “real” bodies, wherever they are: His heartbeat stops, to be revived by a kiss from her; she takes a breath on her own. In these moments the play captures the terror and confusion of hospitalization.

Lorena and Antonio wonder about the room. What is it? A waiting room for death? Who are these people watching them (us)? Among us, they believe they see people from their past—a dead ex-wife, a dead mother. Occasionally speaking about and to the audience is odd at first, yet makes us complicit in their search for understanding.

They circle each other like wary housecats, each taking a turn expressing guilt, fear, hope. Lorena repeatedly voices her mantra, “live in the moment,” but can’t quite do it, suffused by regrets and by curiosity about the future. Pre-heart attack, Antonio’s life was a mess. You’re relieved when they finally come into the moment to dance a love song, a bolero. Adrift in a sea of uncertainty, they find their moment in the dance.

The story unfolds in a bare, elevated box, decorated occasionally with projections that mirror what is going on inside Lorena and Antonio’s hearts. Mostly, there’s nothing there for them to hang onto except each other.

George Street should be congratulated for easing back into live-audience theater with such a complex, innovative, and memorable play. Author Morales is a poet, playwright, actor, and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, while director Monge was an artistic collaborator on the recent high-powered remake of West Side Story, a production on which George Street’s Artistic Director, David Saint, served as Associate Producer.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The Tragedy of Macbeth

If you’re thinking “The Scottish Play” is so familiar, why sit through yet another production of it, even one directed by Joel Coen (trailer)? Well, think again. This is a story that greatly benefits from all of Coen’s noir sensibilities—from the dark portrayals by the protagonists to the look and feel he gives to the Scottish highlands and its stark castles. (Available on streaming)

Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his wife are in equipoise, as if personal strength were a zero-sum game. In the beginning, she’s strong and he’s weak, then he becomes strong in madness and she diminishes. In an exemplary cast, special mention must be made of Kathryn Hunter’s phenomenal work as the Witches. She is ungainly, crude, and sly. At one point the camera seems to capture her in the process of transforming into one of the ravens circling ominously overhead.

A striking moment occurs early in the film when Macbeth and Banquo approach the witch through the fog, and she stands on the other side of a pond, a black pillar with no reflection. The other two witches are invisible, but their reflection does appears in the pond. (this moment appears briefly in the trailer). It’s an image that shakes you out of your expectations. All is not as it should be. And then some.

This film is the product of a powerful artistic vision, from shooting it in an almost-square format (1.37:1 aspect ratio), to eliminate any distracting elements cluttering the periphery, to choosing stunning black and white, to Carter Burwell’s dark score. The castles are devoid of decoration and seem as cold as the hearts of their occupants. The mist-obscured crows, the dripping water, the knocking. Is that the sun shining through the fog, or is it the moon? Is it day or night?

Near the end, when Macbeth is on the battlements of Dunsinane, and Birnam wood is indeed about to come to him, fulfilling the Witch’s prophesy, he’s surrounded by fallen leaves, a visual reminder of his heart-wrenching speech about what might have been: “My way of life is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf.”

Rotten Tomatoes  critics rating: 93%; audiences 80%.

Dear Jack, Dear Louise

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson ©

If you’re looking for a show that will ease you comfortably back into the theater, the George Street Playhouse has found the perfect vehicle: Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. This romantic comedy won the 2020 Helen Hayes award for best new play, and this production isdirected by GSP artistic director David Saint. Of course, 2020 being what it was, hardly anyone has seen it. The story is based on Ludwig’s parents’ epistolary courtship during World War II, and the best word to describe it is charming.

In 1942, the parents of Jack Ludwig (played by Bill Army) and Louise Rabiner (Amelia Pedlow) are friends. It occurs to them that their children—now in their twenties—should meet. Jack is a military doctor stationed in Oregon, and Louise is an aspiring Broadway actor and dancer. The doctor indulges his parents and writes the actress, and a regular, increasingly warm correspondence ensues. As we all know, the road to true love is never smooth, and when two people have never met in person, when one of them ends up being stationed overseas for D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, and when the other starts to achieve professional success and male adulation, well . . .

Pedlow has numerous off-Broadway credits and had the role of Louise in the world premiere of  Dear Jack, Dear Louise at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Army’s most notable Broadway role was in the original company of The Band’s Visit, and he also has numerous off-Broadway, television and film credits. In a play with only two characters, much depends on how strongly they inhabit their roles and the chemistry between them—a job made harder in this play because they communicate through the written word, not the telling glance. Yet, their growing affection for each other shines through convincingly.

As each one reads (that is, speaks) the words of the letter being written, it was interesting to watch the recipient’s reactions. One of the funniest moments was when Louise told Jack about a visit to her parents in Brooklyn and meeting his parents there. The expression of shock and dismay on his face was priceless.

Travel prevented our getting to the theater for the production’s opening in late October, but it is on stage at the beautiful new New Brunswick Performing Arts Center for several more weeks, until November 21. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717. Compliments to the theater for taking patrons’ safety into account with the mask and proof-of-vaccination status requirements.

Singing ‘The Color Purple’

No, not people with synesthesia, but the eponymous song from the musical The Color Purple, was the subject of my second Zoom class on interpreting songs. Led by noted song interpreter Felicia Curry, this class is sponsored by Theatre J in Washington DC. Felicia appeared in The Color Purple in 2014 and is scheduled to do the show again next summer.

When the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alice Walker came out in 1982, I read it, and I saw the film three years later with Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in their first movie roles. Still, reading the synopsis helped me appreciate the lyrics of the musical adaptation. We also read a profile of the trio who wrote the music and lyrics (Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray), and unlike the creator of the song we studied last week—Stephen Sondheim—these three had never written for a musical before. Willis had no musical training and, a pop musician, she wasn’t familiar with the musical genre. Russell was an R&B artist and songwriter with a jazzy bent, and Bray had written hits for Madonna. Yet, this unlikely threesome created artistic magic. Well, they and 17 networked Macs. The result was a rich mix of music with blues, pop, funk and gospel influences.

According to a New York Times interview with Willis by Susan Dominus, the team had to learn to accommodate the plot-driven and visual demands of musical theater. Lyrics needed to connect to action, and usually involved some behavior. The story connection is critical to Curry. She said she always asks herself, “Why is this a song?” a question I pondered too.

Probably you can readily think of many circumstances in which a song is a strong substitute for dialog. One is when enthusiasm just bursts out of a character (“O, what a beautiful morning” from Oklahoma or “On the street where you live” from My Fair Lady). Another is when a powerful emotion washes over the character (“Love look away” from Flower Drum Song, “This nearly was mine” from South Pacific, “Me and the sky” from Come From Away). Sometimes the thrumming of the music and lyrics sets the audience up for what’s to come (“Tonight” in West Side Story or “1956: Budapest is rising” from Chess). There are many reasons to have a song, but each one should have a story purpose, not merely a tuneful filler.

Originally, the composers of The Color Purple hadn’t planned a song built around the show title, but one day, when they were struggling with a musical response to Celie’s profound admission that she was losing sight of God, Willis came up with the lyric that’s now “Like a plate of corn, like a honeybee, like a waterfall, all a part of me. Like the color purple, where do it come from? Open up your eyes, look what God has done.” It worked so well, a version is used to close the show too, memorably performed here by Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson.

Singing in the Theater

A new class under way at Washington DC’s Theatre J is on what to listen for in the songs of musical theater. It’s being taught by Felicia Curry, who in August will appear in Nina Simone: Four Women for The Berkshire Theatre Group (Stockbridge, Massachusetts). Curry is a Helen Hayes Award winner (and nine-time nominee). Each week she’s guiding my zoommates and me through the deconstruction of a single song—reading the lyrics and hearing the music both without vocals and with.

A number of years ago, I saw the Tony-award winning Yasmina Reza play Art at Papermill Playhouse. Bear in mind that Art ran for 600 performances on Broadway and for eight years in London. So, a significant work, but maybe a stretch for Papermill’s bill, which at that time, anyway, tended toward lighter fare. At intermission, I overheard the woman sitting behind me say, “I like it when they sing.” While my first reaction was a bit of an eye-roll, I thought, “Wait a minute. I like it when they sing too.” We all do.

So how are we to think about the choices that make musical theater such a delight? There are choices about the lyrics, of course, the mood they establish and the literal (and figurative) meaning of the words. Are the songs integrated with the story’s action or just pasted in? You may wonder like I do how a song written for one musical can be lifted out and plopped into another story altogether. Then, the music. Is it in sync with the words—not rhythmically, but in tone? Add to that the choices the singer/actor makes, with the director’s oversight. Is the performer owning the meaning or just getting the tune right?

For our first class, Curry picked a truly meaty song—Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods (lyrics here). You may recall the hit Barbra Streisand had with this. Streisand really belted it out in a couple of places, but to me, the song is so full of actual and potential regret, it suggests a more wistful touch.

A couple of my favorite lines were “Wishes come true not free.” If you get your wish, there’s a cost. And “How can you say to a child who’s in flight, ‘don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’” As parents, haven’t most of us felt the almost irresistible desire to hold on? It was a brilliant song to put in a play about fairy tales, because reading fairy tales aloud to children is (was?) such a universal of childhood. And they carry some pretty grim (Grimm) messages. The context is ideal.

Oddly, the song stumbled into its placement in the show’s Finale. Initially, it was a section of a long song near the end of Act I, which ultimately was cut, but the “Children Will Listen” portion was salvaged and molded into its familiar form. Theatre J continues to offer interesting and intimate classes for theater lovers. Hope to see you there!

Page to Stage: Smart Moves and Funny Business

How many times have I rolled my eyes at our local “newspaper” for running the same story twice. Then, yesterday, I did it myself!  I posted “The Deep Dive” story several weeks ago before my brain’s post-covid shutdown. Today, here’s the new content I wanted to share.

In my Zoom class, “Inside the Rehearsal Room,” the actors– Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell—started adding movement to the script for Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which they’d been working on in previous sessions. Led by Theatre J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, we saw the now-familiar first scene taking shape. Would the character ideas they’d explored in their deep dive into the script actually work on stage?

Norris and Nickell are married, so their living room became the covid-bubble “set,” with sofa, coffee table, bookcase, and cameo appearances by the couple’s cat. Ground rules established where entrances and exits would be, which furniture could be sat on, what could be moved, and so on, to give the actors the greatest flexibility in engaging with what was, after all, a very simple layout. Even though they were in their own familiar living room, “The first time you’re on your feet is always nerve-wracking,” Nickell said. The actors don’t know yet where to look, or what to do with their hands, which is why, as Immerwahr said, “Actors love to touch furniture!”

In blocking scenes, he encourages actors to “avoid the magnet of the chairs” and has them delay sitting down as long as possible. Once they sit, it’s awkward to find the right moment/motivation to get up again. There can’t be just random movement, or movement for its own sake; rather, the staging should convey the emotional points. Similarly, in fiction, a character’s movements need to have motivation. Not just him lighting a cigarette or her brushing back to her hair to break up the dialog.

Too, there may be embedded stage directions in the script. An example from Red Hot is when Barney (hopeful of having a fling with Elaine) asks her if she wants a drink, and she does. That gives him an excuse to stand up. If he’s only just sat down, then pops up again, the jack-in-the-box action underscores his indecisiveness.

At this early point in play rehearsal, actors are balancing getting their lines and knowing where to stand and when to walk. Ideas have to be tested. Here’s one that worked on several levels. Elaine wanders around, checking out the apartment as they chat. She reaches the bookshelves, takes down a book, looks at it, and tosses it on the sofa. Barney—scrupulously aware of not leaving any evidence he’s been in his mother’s apartment—picks up the book, and as Elaine moves away, nervously returns it to its place on the bookshelf.

Even though the staging process takes a lot of attention and time, Immerwahr said that, in general, a rough cut of the staging can be accomplished in about two rehearsal days. There’s a physical fight between Elaine and Barney near the end of the first act, and, for something like that, they would wait for the fight director to be on hand.

In part because of the placement of the lights, the actors’ movements have to become part of their muscle memory. However spontaneous an action may appear, the staging for a multi-person scene is almost never improvised. It’s set in stone, in the stage manager’s notes.

From Page to Stage: The Deep Dive

Once the preliminaries are over—the table read, the initial preparation–it’s time for actors and director to buckle down to the real work of rehearsing a new production. Just as authors, once they have a sense of their book—on paper, in their heads, or on innumerable post-its—have to buckle down and dig into the specifics.

Leader of my Zoom course on the play rehearsal process, Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington DC’s Theatre J, let us see how the he and the actors dissect every line. As an avid listener to audiobooks, I’m well aware of how a talented narrator wrings so much more juice (and often humor) out of a text than I’d get from scanning words-on-a-page. They have a way of making it sounds like there’s a perfect way to read each line; this experience with actors and their director showed how not true that is!

Both Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell, the actors helping with the course, were quite comfortable with this iterative process. Immerwahr pointed out that the scant stage directions Shakespeare provides force director and players alike to figure everything out. It’s fantastic training for interpretation.

Immerwahr, Norris, and Nickell began with the set-up for our “test-case” play, Neil Simon’s comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. As the play opens, middle-aged restaurateur Barney peeks into the door of his mother’s apartment. He believes she’s away for a few hours, and he’s arranged an assignation for the afternoon—a first for him. He calls out, “Hello? . . . Mom? . . . .”

We don’t get any farther before Immerwahr asks, what would Barney have done if his mother had answered him? Nickell’s reflection on that possibility suggests a number of ways to approach those two-words. Is Barney hesitant? Apprehensive? Confident?

In posing such questions, Immerwahr is trying to nudge the actors in a particular direction, toward a common understanding of what’s really going on. Text and subtext. It’s painstakingly slow, and even actors who are not in the scene benefit, Nickell said, because “they have to get on that train.” In writing, we don’t have the benefit of the actor’s intonation, raised eyebrows, chair-flop. We have to clarify what we’re trying to convey as precisely as possible, especially in key scenes.

Neil Simon’s long stage direction describes how Barney fusses around the apartment, checking his watch, trying not to leave evidence he’s been there, shutting the blinds. These simple actions show the audience how nervous and indecisive he is. He makes a chatty, unnecessary phone call to his restaurant and in the middle buries his real questions: “Did my wife call? . . . And you told her I’m at Bloomingdale’s?” Ah, his alibi is intact, and we see he’s a clumsy liar. You can see this kind of action and phone call easily adapting to a story.

Bringing out a multitude of revelations from such seemingly commonplace actions and dialog demonstrates how much art is involved. As an audience-member, you get the “right” impression of Barney seemingly effortlessly. But, as Immerwahr emphasized in a class last fall on how to watch a play, “In theater, everything’s a choice.” In novels too.

This is just one of many entertaining Theatre J classes expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater. Check it out!