Thursday, January 23, 2020

Cast of BURNED Announced

My new musical Burned, with songs by Joshua H. Cohen, will have a presentation next month at New York Theatre Barn, and we can now announce the cast.

New York Theatre Barn will be presenting an abridged version of the first act of Burned on Monday, February 3rd, at 7:00. It will be accompanied by selections from J. Douglas Waterbury-Tieman's new musical Johnny and the Devil's Box.

The cast of Burned will include Taylor Iman Jones (who was murderously good in Scotland, PA), Brian Charles Rooney (who memorably played Lucy Brown in The Threepenny Opera), and a number of other brilliant performers, including Loni Ackerman, Alex Getlin, Miguel Jarquin-Moreland, Danny Harris Kornfeld, Audrey Heffernan Meyer, and Daniel Plimpton.

Aaron Simon Gross is directing the reading. Previously, we've presented songs from the show at The Duplex and as part of Golden Fleece's Square One Series. The musical tells the story of two brothers whose long-standing rivalries come to a head when they find themselves ensnared in the financial crisis of 2007-8. Burned asks what we owe each other, and what we are owed.

The show has a rock score, and you can hear Owen Beans performing the title song here. February 3rd's reading will be held at Improv Asylum Theatre, 307 West 26th Street. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Hope you can make it!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Toy Theatres from the Girard Collection

Last month, I was in New Mexico and happened to visit the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. They had on display a number of toy theatres collected by Alexander Girard.

This is one of the oldest toy theatres in the collection. It comes from England, perhaps the 1820s. The Orientalist stage costumes are fairly common in British toy theatres, but I can't identify which play this is supposed to be.

This French toy theatre really fascinated me, in part due to what's written on the proscenium. The theatre enshrines the names of four writers popular in the early 19th century: Stéphanie Félicité, comtesse de Genlis (author of numerous moralizing dramas), Maria Edgeworth (most famous for novels like Castle Rackrent, but who also wrote plays for children), August von Kotzebue (a master of German melodrama whose plays are now mainly known for the music they inspired), and Vladislav Ozerov (a Russian dramatist whose tragedies were later overshadowed by the work of Alexander Pushkin).

Another French toy theatre caught by eye because the Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique was one of the more popular houses for melodrama in the early 19th century. It was located along the Boulevard du Temple, and helped to give that street the nickname of the Boulevard of Crime. This was not because crimes were committed in the neighborhood. You were quite safe walking on the street. But if you happened to be one of the characters in a melodrama being performed along the Boulevard du Temple, you better look out! All sorts of dastardly villains might be after you.

Here we see a puppet booth portrayed in a toy theatre. The French equivalent of Mr. Punch was Guignol, a puppet who also came out of the commedia dell'arte tradition. At the end of a century, when a non-puppet theatre named itself the Grand Guignol, the name was a bit of a joke, since the tiny character of Guignol was anything but grand.

Toy theatres were also popular in Germany and Denmark. This one comes from Germany. I like the Fairy-Tale aesthetic. Could this be the story of Sleeping Beauty? Hard to tell. I'm glad I got a chance to see it, though!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Act One of BURNED Next Month

Next month, New York Theatre Barn will be kicking off the 13th season of their New Works Series with a reading of an abridged version of the first act of Burned, a new musical with a book by myself and music and lyrics by Joshua H. Cohen.

The reading will be held at 7:00 on Monday, February 3rd. It's being directed by Aaron Simon Gross. Josh and I are very excited to work with him, and while we can't announce our cast just yet, it's going to include some really talented people.

Burned was inspired by the play The Lucky One by A.A. Milne. It tells the story of two brothers whose relationship comes apart when one of them is arrested for financial fraud. Set against the 2007-08 financial crisis, the musical asks what we owe each other, and what we are owed.

Songs from Burned have been presented by the In the Works series at The Duplex, and by Golden Fleece's Square One. Josh and I have worked on two other musicals together, Ordinary Island (previously titled Maggie the Pirate) and (together with Lavell Blackwell) Keep on Walkin'.

Burned will be presented together with a selection from Johnny & the Devil's Box by J. Douglas Waterbury-Tieman, who is a member of The Lobbyists and was co-writer of the Drama Desk Award nominated musical SeaWife. It tells the story of a young man who believes he's the best fiddler that ever was, and aims to prove it, in spite of a diabolical challenge.

The full evening will be about 70 minutes and will be held at Improv Asylum, 307 West 26th Street in New York City. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. You can purchase advance tickets here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Soldier's Play

Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing A Soldier's Play presented by Roundabout Theatre Company.  Charles Fuller's drama about the murder of an African American soldier outside a military base in Louisiana during World War II remains just as explosive today as when it first premiered in 1981.

Among other things, A Soldier's Play is a detective story, which is why it went on to become a popular film (retitled A Soldier's Story) and won an Edgar Award for mystery writing in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The plot is tightly constructed, and the acting in this production is impeccable, which is small surprise, since it was directed by Kenny Leon, whose staging of Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most remarkable productions of last season.

David Alan Grier, who is perhaps best known for his comedy, gives an exceptionally dramatic performance as the murdered sergeant, whose story is told in flashback throughout the piece. Grier was also in the original production of the play, albeit in the much smaller role of Corporal Cobb (now played by Rob Demery, making his Broadway debut). As Sergeant Vernon Waters, Grier doesn't flinch from portraying a man who is as cruel to others as he is treated, both victimizer and victim.

The sergeant's death is investigated by Captain Richard Davenport, an African American lawyer of considerable skill and training, who admits to the audience toward the beginning of the play, "The Army didn't know what to do with me." At first he suspects the local Ku Klux Klan of perpetrating the murder, but soon he finds signs pointing to a member of the military committing the crime. Blair Underwood, who is perhaps most famous from L.A. Law, is quite at home playing Davenport as the attorney drills his way to uncovering the truth.

What makes A Soldier's Play remarkable is that it turns the familiar genres of police procedural and legal drama into a probing exploration of race in America and the complexities of innocence and guilt. All of this is set against the background of the Second World War, with the threat of imminent death always hovering in the air.

The original Off-Broadway production boasted some rising stars, including Denzel Washington as  Private Peterson, and Samuel L. Jackson as Private Henson. Nnamdi Asomugha is playing Peterson in this production, and McKinley Belcher III is playing Henson. Both are more than up to the challenge of their roles.

A Soldier's Play will only be on Broadway until the Ides of March, so get your tickets soon!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Chimes

Charles Dickens is inevitably associated with Christmas, but one of his books, The Chimes, takes place on New Year's, and a display at the New York Public Library pays tribute to a theatrical production of this tale of the New Year.

The full title of Dickens's 1844 novella was The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. It followed one year after the publication of A Christmas Carol, and though it actually takes place on New Year's, it was the second of five so-called "Christmas Books" Dickens published, the others being The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man.

In "A Dickens Christmas," the exhibit showing on the top floor of the NYPL's Main Branch on Fifth Avenue, there's a playbill for a stage production of The Chimes performed "by the special permission of Charles Dickens, Esq." The production went up right after the book was published. It was performed at the Theatre Royal, Adelphi, which had recently been freed up to present "legitimate" drama after the passage of the Theatres Act in 1843.

The Adelphi began its life as the Sans Pareil Theatre run by Jane Scott, who staged Gothic melodramas like The Old Oak Chest. After Scott retired from the stage in 1819, her father sold the theatre, and the new owners named it the Adelphi. It became known as a house of melodramas--sometimes called "Adelphi Screamers"--and continued to perform lush productions with ample amounts of music, even after the Theatres Act meant that it was no longer required to minimize dialogue in order to stay in business.

By the time The Chimes premiered at the Adelphi, the theatre's management had been taken over by Céline Céleste-Elliott, better known as Madame Céleste. A dancer and actress who specialized in mute roles in melodramas, Madame Céleste was also a capable manager, frequently producing the plays of John Baldwin Buckstone. For The Chimes, she commissioned scenery based on the book's original illustrations, which had been done by Daniel Maclise, John Leech, Richard Doyle, and Clarkson Stanfield, the last of whom had actually gotten his start as a stage scenery painter.

Music was also bound to be an important part of the production, and Madame Céleste got James Howard Tully to compose an original score for The Chimes. Dickens's friend Mark Lemon co-wrote the adaptation. Lemon, who was a founding editor of the popular magazine Punch, wrote a number of plays, including The Little Gypsy, Hearts are Trumps, and The Silver Thimble.

To see the original playbill, and some other choice objects of Dickensiana, make sure to get over the the library by Twelfth Night, as the exhibit ends on January 5th!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Top Musicals of the Teens

To close out 2019, I'm making a list of the best new American musicals of the teens. I'm only including new American musicals (so no Matilda) that premiered in New York between 2013 and 2019.

No doubt many people will take issue with some of my choices, and wonder why some shows were left off the list. (Sorry, Allegiance and Amazing Grace! There was only so much room. And I never saw The Band's Visit.) Here they are:

10. Something Rotten - Okay, the egg joke runs a little too long, but this musical send-up of Shakespeare practically had me rolling in the aisle.

9. Fun Home - I honestly hated this show when I first saw it, but that was due to Sam Gold's horrible direction. The more I think about it, though, the more I think it might be Jeanine Tesori's best score yet.

8. Dear Evan Hansen - I have reservations about this show as well, but I still think it's far more clever than the critics who praised it blindly. Plus, it's hard to get "You Will Be Found" out of your head.

7.  A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder - This musical managed to escape from development and copyright-law hell in order to win the Tony in 2014. It remains one of my favorite shows of the decade.

6. Desperate Measures - This Off-Broadway gem in one of the smartest shows of the decade, and it deserves to have a long life on the regional circuit. I never would have thought of turning Measure for Measure into a Wild West musical comedy... but it works!

5. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 - I saw the Off-Broadway incarnation of this play in 2013, and loved it just as much when I saw in on Broadway four years later. Dave Malloy's music is enchanting, and the show manages to craft a small portion of Tolstoy's novel into a stage show that packs a major punch.

4. Unlock'd - Like Desperate Measures, this show had a brief Off-Broadway run, but needs to be seen by far more people. Its source material, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, was equally unpromising for a musical comedy, but in addition to being as witty as Pope, it also manages to find adventure, pathos, and even wisdom.

3. Tamar of the River - This epic piece by Marisa Michelson and Joshua H. Cohen is one of the most ambitious shows to premiere in New York during the teens. Nothing else sounds quite like it, and if you don't believe me, buy the cast album. The story, taken very loosely from the book of Genesis, remains as important today as it was when the show premiered Off-Broadway in 2013.

2. Hadestown - Though I've yet to see the Broadway version of Hadestown, and the London production left me rather cold, when I saw the show at New York Theatre Workshop it blew me away. The cast recording of that production remains a frequently visited place on my iPod, and not just because of Patrick Page's amazing performance of "Why We Build the Wall." Anais Mitchell's play is one of the best explorations of tragedy the American theater has produced in recent years.

1. Hamilton - This choice should come as no surprise. Lin-Manuel Miranda came into his own with this show, crafting both music and lyrics that resonate on multiple levels. Sometimes the show has to play a little fast and loose with history, but rather than being simply a glorification of Alexander Hamilton, it recognizes his flaws, and even pays tribute to the musical's villain, Aaron Burr. Perhaps most movingly, it rescues Eliza Hamilton from the dustbin of history, writing her back into the narrative.

Who will write the top musicals of the '20s? Miranda? Mitchell? Michelson and Cohen? Maybe all of the above.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Top Plays of 2019

I've come up with this year's list of the top plays I saw that opened in New York in 2019.

Of course some plays didn't qualify, like What the Constitution Means to Me, which opened last year Off-Broadway, or Timon of Athens, which I actually saw in England.

Last year, Travesties and Twelfth Night topped the list, and this year included pieces produced by Roundabout and The Public Theater as well. Here's this year's top ten, in reverse order:

10. Antony and Cleopatra - Hudson Warehouse provides a mixed bag of free classical theater in Riverside Park, but this year's modernized production of one of the great tragic love stories of all time was definitely worth seeing.

9. The Importance of Being Earnest - Another great free outdoor production this year was New York Classical Theatre's clever take on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. This year they performed the play in both traditional and gender-swapped versions.

8. Midsummer: A Banquet - Food for Love Productions turned Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream into a tasty treat with this immersive production directed and choreographed by Zach Morris. The Art Nouveau aesthetic worked brilliantly, but it was the remarkable acting that sold the show.

7. Cyrano - Yes, this musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac by the New Group was all over the place, but it still managed to make me cry... a lot. If they end up releasing a cast album, definitely buy it. And yes, Peter Dinklage can sing. (We already knew Jasmine Cephas Jones and Grace McLean could.)

6. King Lear - Glenda Jackson gave a performance of a lifetime in this Broadway production of Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy. Sam Gold's direction was problematic at times, but a supporting cast including Jayne Houdyshell and Ruth Wilson made up for it, and the production was thoroughly enjoyable, if rather long.

5. Caesar and Cleopatra - Gingold Theatrical Group scored a hit again this year with their Off-Broadway revival of an epic historical comedy by George Bernard Shaw. Director David Staller's imaginative staging featured seven amazing actors and one hysterical puppet. I'm looking forward to seeing what GTG does next year!

4. Hillary and Clinton - Lucas Hnath's play about the 2008 presidential primary had already been making the rounds before landing on Broadway this year. His writing is always clever, but Broadway audiences had the added benefit of seeing Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the title roles.  The play succeeded by eschewing historical accuracy in favor of a more metaphorical truth.

3. Much Ado About Nothing - The stand-out Shakespeare production of the year was undoubtedly The Public Theater's production of Much Ado About Nothing in Central Park. Director Kenny Leon assembled an incredible cast, and fortunately their performance was recorded and aired on PBS to be shared with the entire nation. If you missed it in the park, make sure you see the recorded version.

2. Scotland, PA - A lot of people have been crowing about Hadestown, which I saw both Off-Broadway and in London, though I have not yet seen in its new Broadway incarnation. The best new musical that I saw this year was Adam Gwon's Scotland, PA, a brilliant adaptation of the 2001 film, which was itself based on a certain Scottish Play. Alas, Roundabout has closed this production, but it deserves to have a longer life elsewhere.

1. Juno and the Paycock - Though I'm not a huge fan of Sean O'Casey, this spring Irish Repertory Theatre presented his three Dublin plays in rep, which is an opportunity not to be missed. Of the three, Juno and the Paycock is O'Casey's best play, and this production was masterfully directed by Neil Pepe to navigate the layers of comedy and tragedy for maximum effect. Irish Rep has a great line-up of shows for the coming year, including Dion Boucicault's classic farce London Assurance, which is running now.

I'm looking forward to that and lots of other great shows in 2020!