Monday, November 17, 2014

Review: BROADWAY'S NEXT H!T MUSICAL Showcases Strong Performances in a Hilarious Evening of Entertainment

I attended a touring show at Georgia Southern University's Performing Arts Center on Nov. 6 called "Broadway's Next H!t Musical." And let me just tell you: this musical improv show was the most ridiculous, off-the-wall thing I've ever seen, and being someone who loves to laugh more than anything, I enjoyed myself way too much. My favorite song of the night was called "Dance in the Fountain of Banana Pudding," because for one thing, it was hilarious, but possibly funnier than that was the fact that my good friend sitting with me was singing along to this improvised song. Anyway, I reviewed it for

Do you ever go to a night of theatre positive that you’ll leave there feeling something? Going into “Broadway’s Next H!t Musical” I was pretty sure the show would either be really funny or ridiculously lame. I went to a different touring musical revue last year at the same venue, and none of the actors seemed to be enjoying the show itself, or each other. It really is a horrible combination. The experience was painful for everyone involved. Even the encore at the end involving seven choruses of “Oh What a Night” just couldn’t redeem it. Fortunately for me and my sanity, “Broadway’s Next H!t Musical” was far from lukewarm.
“Broadway’s Next H!t Musical” is billed as musical improv. Yes, that’s a thing. Before the show, the event supervisors were taking song title ideas from audience members on slips of paper, and during the show, an actor would select one of the pieces of paper from a bowl and make up a song with that title. But not just that- the performer would make up a speech on the spot about the entire fictitious show that featured this musical number, including plot, audience reception, and anecdotes. See what I mean about hit or miss with this one?
As the host of the evening, called “The Phony Awards,” Robb Coles’ comedic antics- which included a satirically fangirlish commentary following each song- did not land with this South Georgia audience. Bless his heart.
The strong ensemble was a joy to watch as they embraced the complete awkwardness that comes with trying to improv an entire (15-20-minute) musical. One of their strongest qualities was that rather than skipping over obvious inconsistencies within their songs- like accidentally changing a character’s identity or ignoring a previously pantomimed wall- and trying to make it seem natural, they blatantly made fun of themselves. Thus, they created an intimate experience that made the audience feel like they were part of a joke between friends.
Deb Rabbai, who also serves as co-producer and co-artistic director for the group, creatively transported the audience to a magical world in, “I Graduated Today,” and seamlessly sang her improvised lyrics with confidence that made me honestly question whether or not this was actually made up on the spot. (Especially since it was the first song of the evening, I was still unsure of the entire structure of the show to begin with)
Rachel Bouton tackled a very fast song, entitled “Oh, That Perfume.” Though like any professional actor, she committed to everything about the song and the world of the song, she stumbled over creation of lyrics and struggled to continue any sort of rhyming scheme. She also began the scene with a Jersey accent that flew completely out the window by about the end of the first verse.
Robert Z. Grant, whose unusually tall stature (especially for an actor, let’s be real) was alluded to multiple times, employed a comedic, Dick Van Dyke-like movement vocabulary. Despite his beautiful voice and physicalities, he produced lackluster lyrics.
Easily the highlight of the evening was co-producer/co-artistic director Rob Schiffman. His creative mind is full of rhymes and childlike creativity that was refreshing. He listened to his fellow actors brilliantly, so much so that he could sing in harmony or descant with them and (usually) successfully made a well-structured musical number. The entire time, I could not decide whether he should go into writing or acting, because the former would seem a waste of a brilliant character actor, and the latter a waste of a brilliant writer. Thus, I believe he has found his niche in improvisational musicals. I will say that his vocals were wanting at multiple times, but this is the first case in which I can genuinely say that such a flaw didn’t matter at all. Particularly, he and Grant read each other very well, to the point that their scenes together seemed rehearsed. The scenes that they shared were the highlight. 
The whole evening had an air of childlike creativity and wonder. And honestly, it was refreshing to see such an uninhibited, raw production that was made from the minds of creative people just having a good time making art together and sharing it unpretentiously with an audience. There was an unmistakable bond between the performers and audience.
So I’m telling you, I was laughing the entire evening. And so was my friend who was sitting beside me. She even sang along to these new songs on multiple occasions. Neither of us wanted it to end. (Click here to read the full article)
If this show comes to your city, go see it! Easily one of the most entertaining and creative pieces of art I've seen in a long time. The unbridled creativity of it is why we make art in the first place.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Interview: FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR's Joseph Marcell on Original Shakespeare, KING LEAR, and More

Joseph Marcell in King Lear
I recently got to chat with stage and screen actor Joseph Marcell. I think most normal people remember him as Geoffrey, the butler, in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (Yeah, that guy!), but I'm ashamed to admit that I have only seen an episode and a half of that in my life... I know, I didn't have a childhood. Anyway, check out what he has to say about playing a pretty opposite role from his '90s sitcom days, the title role in King Lear on international tour with Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (currently at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, CA).

Make sure to read the full article on here!

I've heard that some of the double-casting plays into Shakespeare's irony. Can you tell me about that?
The casting of multiple roles being played by one actor is how Shakespeare did it. That comes down to us from the Bard. And it allows actors to delineate various roles by simply changing hats or changing a coat, changing a jacket, or whatever. And it's not a Hollywood production, unfortunately, it's simply about the words, and the only thing we have from Shakespeare is the words. We don't have his productions. They were not filmed, and so the Globe has decided that because it's called "Shakespeare's Globe," and the globe being the world, that the only thing that Shakespeare's left us are the words, and therefore the words are the most important. 
In this production, you're playing the title character, and you're of course costumed in normal, not really royal, clothes. So what goes into playing the character of Lear? 
What we have done is we have presented a medieval interpretation of the play as would have been presented by Shakespeare's company of eight actors. We do not have the facility to have a jewel-encrusted crown and all that kind of stuff. The special effects, the sights of the production are not the important thing. What is important is the words that Shakespeare's written, which are much more interesting than what we can do with it or how we can dress it. For me, playing the role is extraordinary, it's awfully hard work, I get terribly hungry by the end of it, and it's a challenge. It continues to be a challenge, and every day, every performance is a discovery of my perception of a certain moment in the play.
But our production of KING LEAR is that of a touring theatre company that arrives in a town, let's say a town like Oxford in England, or Cambridge, or somewhere, and they enter the marketplace, they put up their set, their stage, they go around telling the town that, "we're in town, come and see us, come and see us, we're going to be doing this production of KING LEAR," and they're dressed as normal people. The king wears a crown, but you know, he's dressed like kings were in those days. They were the true renaissance men. They had brains and brawns. They led from the front, they were not administrators, especially in Lear's time. He led armies, and he was a vigorous man. It's simply that he could not wield a broad sword for eight to twelve hours anymore. His arms were tired, but he certainly wasn't frail. And that is simply what we've done. So what we're presenting is a king who leads, who leads by example and discovers that there's a difference between the monarch and the man. And the man cannot deal with the stuff comes across from the family, and in the end, it's a family drama really.
I so want to see the show! If it comes to your city, GO TO IT!!

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Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz/Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Monday, November 3, 2014

Interview: Conductor Todd Ellison Discusses Fast-Paced ENCORES! Schedules, THE WILD PARTY, and More

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I think every time I conduct an interview, I finish and say, "That was my favorite interview yet." But I might just be serious this time. Todd Ellison's musical career is ridiculously impressive, having conducted and/or music directed not only Broadway shows, but the Rockettes Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall, as well as many others. Oh, and then he's also composing musicals on the side, like ya do. He was such a pleasure to talk to (and slightly geek out with)! I was technically interviewing him about his upcoming conducting engagement, The Band Wagon, at Encores!, but of course I couldn't help but ask him about his experience with The Wild Party! Make sure to read the whole interview* on BroadwayWorld!

"So, what can you tell me about the upcoming Encores! production of THE BAND WAGON, starring one of my favorites, Brian Stokes Mitchell?"Oh yeah, he's great. Well it's a whole reworking of the show. It took all this time until now to figure out a venue for it, and they decided to have it at City Center as part of an Encores! production, so we're doing basically, an Encores! production of this show, then everyone will decide whether they want to move forward with it or not. It's with an orchestra and 16 ensemble kids, and Tracey UllmanMichael McKean- a fabulous cast and a really fun story. 
"And what else have you done with Encores! in the past?"Yeah, I conducted ON THE TOWN for them, and I had the good luck of having done the show before- I worked on the Broadway revival as well as the one with Shakespeare in the Park- so I knew the show well, and I knew that Bernstein music very well. So that was a real treat to do it with a full 30-piece orchestra. It was incredible.
"Also, there's a two-piano part in the show NO, NO, NANETTE, and I grew up on that album, so when my friend Joe said, "Hey, I'm going to go play the first keyboard part for the NO, NO, NANETTE Encores! show; I need someone to play the second part," I was like, "I'll do it!" And because I was conducting SPAMALOT on Broadway at the time, he was like, "No, no, you're not going to leave a Broadway show to go to Encores! and do five performances of this." I was like, "Yes I am! I've waited my whole life to do this show!" And so we had a hilarious time. We were on two grand pianos in front of the orchestra, playing this great, great arrangement of songs.
"It was incredible. I love Encores! but I haven't done one since ON THE TOWN, which I think was 2007 or 2008? So it's been fun to return here, because it's intense pressure, but it reminds you that you're alive, you know? There's no escaping that fact. You just get up there and do it, and it's kind of fun. And then it happens, and Monday morning, after it's over, you press delete and move on, you know? It's crazy. It's been so intense that your brain goes, "Ok, I can't take it anymore, let it go."" 
"Sounds perfect! You're not only conducting THE BAND WAGON this year, but your musical, THE BLACK AND WHITE BALL is going to be fully-staged.
"Yeah, we're going to be presented by the FWD Theatre Project in Chicago, and they're giving us a fully-staged reading. So, they're providing the actors, a space to do it, promoting it, and opening it up to all the theatres in Chicago to see if they want to further develop it, which is incredible. So here we had our little show, and we didn't quite know what to do with it, and my writing partner submitted it to them- they had a notice that said, "Submit your musicals to us." Out of 220 submissions, they chose five shows, and we are the first one up. We got to do a concert in September of four songs from our show, and each show did four songs. Then the venue sold out immediately. It was crazy! 
"And how cool to do it in a place where they're all about doing new works, and they really understand your piece. It sounds like this is a good opportunity for your piece to be done very well.Absolutely. Then we found this incredible fifteen-year-old girl to play the main role, a little girl who wants to go to the ball, and she blew the place apart in our opening number. I mean, it was almost like we'd just created a little star there in Chicago, and she was phenomenal that night. She was absolutely phenomenal! So I'm really looking forward to working with her, and we have a great guy who's playing Truman. These people have been so nice to us, just incredible. So I think that we're going to spend a week in Chicago in January, then put on our presentation and see what happens. 
On that note, you can actually listen to the music from The Black and White Ball on his website, here. You're welcome.
"So, you’re conductor, music director, and composer. How many musicals have you worked on thus far? 
"I’ve conducted 12 Broadway musicals and worked on 16 productions all together. My first one was SHE LOVES ME, then HOW TO SUCCEED with Matthew Broderick, then ONCE UPON A MATTRESS with Sarah Jessica, and then ON THE TOWN, then THE WILD PARTY, with Mandy Patinkin, then 42ND STREET, which is one of my favorite shows- I conducted exactly 1000 performances of that, and then I left to do MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT, and then I did two, sort of, “bombs.” One was called AMOUR, by Michel Legrand, and LESTAT with Elton John, a musical which, he won’t even let the cast album be released, because I don’t think he liked the show that much.  I did one called, A CLASS ACT, and that didn’t last long either. I did LA CAGE AUX FOLLES with Kelsey Grammer, love him, nicest man in the world, then ANNIE was the last one I did. It closed in January." 
Oh, did you know my friend David Rossetti? He was the swing. 
Of course, yeah! He’s doing JOSEPH, or something now, right? Yeah, David’s very talented. He was the greatest swing, because he has such a period look, so he looks like he’s from the ‘30s, so he can dress as anyone. He can play Rooster, and he could be the butler, or he’s able to be so versatile. 
"And I saw you also did THE WILD PARTY, and that was such a strange time for Broadway and Off-Broadway, because THE WILD PARTY was playing on Broadway, and a totally different production of THE WILD PARTY was playing Off-Broadway… At the same time. 
"Yeah, I had friends who would attend a Saturday matinee of Off-Broadway, and Saturday evening of the Broadway one and just get immersed in the whole thing. It was crazy. And they were so completely different. The musical styles were so completely opposite ends of the spectrum.
"Yeah, after listening to them, there’d be no mistaking the two whatsoever. 
"Sure. Yeah, one is very very very dark, the one we did was dark musically and tonally, and it had an edge to it. But a lot of people didn’t respond to it. It was too hard."
Did you see any weird effects of having shows of the same title and source material on at the same time? 
I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t think that peple who seek out Off-Broadway things were- I think people who seek out Broadway htings rarely go to Off-Broadway stuff. So, the Broadway audiences always go for the Broadway things. And our show was so out there, so we closed after two months. And I think it was interesting for people to be able to compare the two and compare the story. All of it had gone into public domain, at one point, so both people picked it up around the same time, and started working on it at the same time, unbeknownst to each other. And to find out that both productions were happening at the same time was crazy. It didn’t hurt or harm us. They both stood very equally on their own two feet and did their thing. I think Michael John LaChiusa’s was interesting and fabulous and a little bit ahead of its time. 
"I’m glad that both shows even though they did not run for very long, they both have a cast recording, so that’s very important that we can listen to that and revisit that. 
Yes, thank goodness. You know, that’s one that I put on one or two tracks occasionally and go, “What did we do?” And it’s like I’ve never heard it before in my life. That show was just so out there. It was just really cool stuff." 
I finally got to chat with someone who was involved in one of The Wild Party musicals! I figured the middle of the interview wouldn't be the best time to say that I had memorized the Off-Broadway version rather than the Broadway one... 

Read more:

Broadway's 3 Most Entertaining Tweeters Interview: Phyllis Newman Talks Broadway, Showbiz, Beating Barbra Streisand Out of a Tony, and More!Producer Judith Abrams Talks KINKY BOOTS, Richard Rodgers, Pixie Judy Troupe, and More! 'Wild Party' of Two: Broadway vs. Off-Broadway

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*Portions in quotation marks were featured on; other portions are exclusively on Singular Sensation!