Once On This Island- tour and Jr.

Jr. edition March 8 at First Pres

Once On This IslandMy church is performing Once Upon This Island Jr. It is a simplified version of the musical set on an island in the French Antilles at night during a storm.

Once On This Island ran from October 1990 to December 1991 (19 previews, 469 performances). It was Tony nominated for Best Musical; Book of a Musical; Original Score (Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty); Featured Actress in a Musical (LaChanze); Costume Design; Lighting Design; Choreography and Direction in a Musical, the latter two by Graciela Daniele.

Revived for one day, May 12, 2002, it was as a Benefit for Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS. In December 2017 to January 2019, it returned again for 29 previews and 457 shows. This time it was nominated for eight Tonys, winning as Best Revival of a Musical.

It toured nine months in 1992. The current tour started in October 2019 and runs through July 2020. It’ll be all over the country. The show we saw at Proctors in mid-January was very good. It featured Tamyra Gray, from the first season of American Idol, as Papa Ge, the demon of death.

Why not?

The weather forecast was rather dodgy. My wife recommended that we take the bus to Schenectady and back. This notion did not appeal to either our daughter or myself. It would mean taking a bus home at 10:30 p.m. If we missed the last connecting bus, we’d be stuck downtown Albany in the cold. I suppose we could have taken an Uber or something that point, but would one come in such nasty weather?

The solution was absurdly extravagant. We left c 2:30 p.m., just as the snow began. We checked into a hotel in downtown Schenectady, only a few doors from Proctors, and hung out in the room for a couple of hours. Then we went out to dinner with one of our Jr. cast members and his parents at a newish restaurant called Grano. It was nice, and more importantly, it was within walking distance.

The next morning, we went down to breakfast. My wife was talking to a woman who had a young girl. It turns out the girl was Mari, who played the young Ti Moune in the production we saw the night before. Her mom left briefly and brought back a We Dance knit hat and gave it to our daughter. Then we drove directly to church, the nasty weather having passed.

The Once On This Island Jr. edition that our church is performing March 8 contains some alterations. It cuts some verses in songs and eliminates a couple of tunes altogether, notably The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes.

The production also alters dialogue to accommodate multi-ethnic productions. “The original cast was chosen along racial lines with darker-skinned actors portraying the peasants and lighter-skinned actors portraying the upper-class landowners.” The altered script preserves the differences about class distinctions.

Frozen; The Band’s Visit- Proctors

Frozen: technically brilliant

Band's Visit.playbillOne of the perks of retirement is that I’ve gotten season’s ticket to see musical matinees at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. Oh, I’ve had them before, but it’s been a few years that I went to the THURSDAY matinees. Those particular matinees mean three things: cheaper tickets, a lot of older patrons, and best of all, a discussion with the cast after the shows.

In some ways, the after-show talk is the best part. For instance, there were three cast members fielding questions from the audience at the mid-November 2019 performance of Frozen. I had seen the movie when it came out and thought it was though it was fine.

The cast let us know that they were up in Schenectady running technical rehearsals. Probably for geographic reasons, Proctors is often the first show on national tours. This involves making sure the show is set not just for that venue but all of the subsequent ones.

The three performers were a guy who was in the ensemble, a woman with a small role who was otherwise in the ensemble, and the guy who voiced the Olaf the snowman puppet-like creature. The first two had to make costume changes after almost every scene. The controller of Olaf had less changing, but had to make sure it was the snowman, not the person operating him, who was the focus.

Technically, Frozen was brilliant. Thanks to lighting, smoke and other effects, one believed the country was getting colder. There were audible gasps and even applause with the transition. The show was well-performed, but the extra songs did not enhance the narrative. I thought the second act in particular dragged. But I blame the script/songs, not the performers.

2018 Best Musical

Here’s the plot of The Band’s Visit. “When an Egyptian police band gets stranded in a tiny Israeli town, the musicians wait in a cafe — and get to talking with the locals.”

It is “one of four musicals in Broadway history to win the unofficial “Big Six” Tony Awards, which include Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. It won the 2019 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.”

My wife and I enjoyed a performance in late December. The woman behind me clearly did not. “Thank God it’s over!” We surmise it’s because there’s no big numbers in The Band’s Visit to let one know It’s A Broadway Show. It’s more subtle than that.

The four cast members we saw afterwards, all men, were particularly engaging. A couple of them were from the Middle East. One said he loved the show because it’s an antidote from being told he could only play a doctor or a terrorist.

Not incidentally, two of the leads in the show were played by understudies. Was that to allow them a chance to play a show or two each week? NO, the usual leads were not available.

Spamilton: An American Parody

created, written, and directed by Gerard Alessandrini

SpamiltonMy wife, my daughter and I enjoy the musical Hamilton. But we can also appreciate a bit of a takedown of the phenomenon. Spamilton: An American Parody fits the bill. My family saw it on a Saturday night at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. I was attending a library gala at the time, so I went on the previous Thursday.

The first song made it clear that it was Lin-Manuel Miranda who would be the target of many of the jokes. And, according to the program, a skewering was allowed by Manuel and his co-creators.

The bulk of the ninety minutes were played by five actors. Jared Alexander played Daveed Diggs, who played Lafayette and Jefferson in the original cast. Datus Puryear was Aaron Burr and the actor who played him, Leslie Odom, Jr. Rendell DeBose played various other characters, from Ben Franklin to Annie. Adrian Lopez is a ringer for a younger Lin-Manuel.

Paloma D’Auria played ALL of the leading ladies, sometimes with puppets. She also portrayed many of the divas of Broadway. Brandon Kinley only played King George III and one other role.

Not every setup worked. But the piece, created, written, and directed by Gerard Alessandrini, was so full of ideas that it barely mattered. The energy and talent of the five primary players were astonishing for ninety minutes, with no intermission.

Reviews

The New York Times review calls Spamilton “convulsively funny”. The Huffington Post raves “you don’t have to see Hamilton to have side-splitting fun at Spamilton.” True, but it DOES help to be at least familiar with the Tony-winning musical. Here’s a preview clip. The show will be in Kansas City, MO, and Greenville, SC, in the coming weeks.

Incidentally, my wife and I also attended a lecture on September 29 at Siena College. Hamilton: How the Musical Remixes American History by Richard Bell, a history professor from Maryland was presented by the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Bell is a HUGE fan, yet he noted the shortcomings of Miranda’s work, notably the role that women played. She suggested that Hamilton failed the Bechdel Test in that the women in it who talk to each other, mostly talk about a man, the named character. It may be an overly simplistic metric, but it is a tool.

The Waitress phenomenon

Larry Dallas

christine dwyer
Christine Dwyer
When I was still working, there was a woman in one of the other departments in my building who was obsessed with the musical Waitress. She had seen it more than once on Broadway and had selfies with members of the cast. When it hit Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, she saw the touring show.

But she also had a Waitress cookbook and even promised to bake me a pie before I retired. (She tried to, but the pie failed, so she bought me one.)

When my wife, daughter and I saw it back in June, I thought it was… fine. Pleasant. It reminded me structurally to the TV show Alice. Alice never fell for her gynecologist, as Jenna (Christine Dwyer) did, though. Becky, the black waitress (Melody A. Betts), reminded me of the white, wisecracking Flo on the TV show. The timid Dawn (Ephie Aardema) is not dissimilar to the flaky Vera.

Even the diner managers, Mel, and Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) were guys with rough exteriors but with hearts of gold. Odd that I didn’t get that deja vu feeling with the movie.

All she found was Earl

In the musical, Jenna’s abusive and controlling husband Earl (Jeremy Woodard) made my daughter extremely uncomfortable. In both stage and screen, Earl reminded me of the villain in the Dixie Chicks’ video for Goodbye Earl with Jane Krakowski, Dennis Franz, and Lauren Holly.

Another difference is that in Waitress, the actual diner owner was an older man named Joe, played in the show I saw by Richard Kline. You may remember Kline best from the sitcom Three’s Company as Larry Dallas.

The most interesting/bizarre character in Waitress is Ogie (Jeremy Morse), who is wooing Dawn. A local reviewer suggested that he seemed to belong in another play entirely, he was so off the wall. He was the most entertaining part of the production.

Waitress opened on Broadway on April 24, 2016, and has over 1450 performances. But it will close on January 5, 2020. Several people I’ve actually heard of have played Jenna, including Sara Bareilles, who wrote the serviceable music, and former American Idol contestants Katharine McPhee and Jordin Sparks. Meanwhile, the touring show continues through at least mid-2020.

Musical review: SpongeBob SquarePants

The dance will remind old-timers of Tommy Tune

SpongeBob SquarePantsThe first show in the 2019-2020 Proctors Theatre package in Schenectady, NY was SpongeBob SquarePants. I could have traded in the ticket for another show not in the subscription series, but I decided to see it.

In case you’re unfamiliar, SpongeBob SquarePants is an American animated comedy television series. It was created by Stephen Hillenburg, a marine science educator, and animator, who died in November 2018. “The series chronicles the adventures and endeavors of the title character and his aquatic friends in the fictional underwater city of Bikini Bottom.”

I went alone on a Thursday afternoon, in part because that is the cheapest time to go. Did I mention I was retired? The house was maybe 2/3s full. I suspect some of my fellow retirees opted out.

Before writing this, I explained the highlights to my wife. “Oh, I heard a guy on the radio who pointed out the same things that you liked.” Being the lazy blogger I am, I quickly found Bob Goepfert’s review for The Troy Record that she heard on WAMC.

“I actually enjoyed the cleverly staged mountain climbing sequence.” This is actually quite extraordinary visually, with our title hero hanging upside down on a ladder more than once. And the look, in general, is a lot of fun.

“There’s a sensational tap number that lasts for about 8 minutes that is breathtaking. Performed by the tall and lanky Cody Coolie (who plays Squidward) the dance will remind old-timers of Tommy Tune… ‘I’m Not a Loser,’ by They Might Be Giants was made meaningful by the already mentioned tap number.

“[T]he musical uses the tale of friendship and heroic actions to teach some fine values – like believing in yourself, being a loyal friend, trusting in individuality and encouraging diversity.” It also addressed fearmongering among politicians, cult followings, and panic.

Avoidance

I enjoyed it far more than Goepfert did, and he’s explained why: “Over the years, no matter how much they begged or cajoled, I avoided watching a single episode of the Nickelodeon television cartoon series with my grandchildren. I refused to go with them to any of SpongeBob films, and they knew better than to ask me to take them to the musical when it played on Broadway. Seeing the show on Wednesday evening at Proctors proved I was right.”

I had wondered right after seeing the show whether someone who was not familiar with the cartoon could make the transition to the stage version. With a now teenaged daughter, I’ve seen more than my share of episodes.

SpongeBob was not in a sponge costume, but rather wore a shirt, tie and shorts. Squidwardhad a pair of slacks and shoes, and another pair of same attached to the back. It’s easier to appreciate that if you can see the cartoon visual in your mind.

That said, the second act was stronger than the first. I first became really involved when Pearl the Whale, the daughter of Mr. Krabs, played by Meami Maszewski, sang Daddy Knows Best in Act 1.

Before the show even began, there were cast members playing some Hawaiian music with a slide dulcimer, fiddle, kazoos, and various sound effects, played by the guy who was also onstage for much of the actual show.

Proctors Theatre was the first stop on the tour for SpongeBob SquarePants, and I suspect the show will only get better. Here’s a favorable review in Nippertown. It’s not Fiddler on the Roof, which is briefly referenced, but it should be entertaining when it comes to a theater near you.