Blows against the empire

Will I see Summer before summer?

Aside from the day-to-day activities, there have been a few events I have missed. The Blows Against the Empire tour was canceled before it got to Clifton Park, near Albany. It wasn’t that I was desperate to see that show. But I was going to go with my oldest friend from my college days. And he was going to pay!

I was planning a trip to my hometown of Binghamton, NY in March 2020 for two reasons. I’m looking for the transcript of the October 1926 trial involving my biological grandfather Raymond Cone, at which my grandmother, then Agatha Walker, testified against him. I also wanted to track her location in the city directories during the 1930s. However, both City Hall and the local library are closed until they aren’t.

Also, my friend since kindergarten Carol, not to be confused with my wife Carol, was going to fly up from Texas to visit her mom. So I’d have a chance for a visit with her and perhaps my Binghamton-area friends. Not yet.

Postponed, so far

At the Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, I have a subscription. The musical Summer, about the disco queen Donna, has moved from March to June. Will that actually come to pass? Or Dear Evan Hansen, still scheduled for June? Or Come From Away in September? What does theater look like in the era of physical distancing? Does the economic model even work?

Then there are the ersatz gatherings. The weekly church services, which get better as the folks have figured out the technology. The Bible studies. The Google Hangouts, Zoom meetings, and whatnot.

Something that I have discovered about sharing screens on these platforms. Sometimes they can be quite useful. On one Zoom call, a guy with the same surname as some of my ancestors wanted to see my family tree. I’m going to be helping my friend with some librarian skills, and her seeing what I’m working on will be great. On the other hand, one ought not to feel obliged to share JUST because one can, technologically.

We’re muddling through.

New Colossus; Fiddler on the Roof

my second-favorite musical

the new colossusI’ve seen two shows at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady in February, New Colossus and Fiddler on the Roof. I am having difficulty reviewing either, for different reasons.

The New Colossus is a play written by actor Tim Robbins and the cast from the Actors’ Gang Ensemble out of Los Angeles. As Robbins told Democracy Now, “I had 12 actors from various parts of the world, some of whom English was a second language. And I asked them to write their story, write the story of either their immigration or their parents’ or grandparents’ immigration. And we came up with this story of 12 different people, from 12 different time periods, speaking 12 different languages, telling the story of the arduous journey towards freedom — something that unites us, by the way, as a country.”

The tale as told, some with superscript as one experience at some operas, some cacophonous. A lot of literally walking in circles, which I took to represent the tedium of the process. But then the “refugees” communicate with each other, largely without words.

By the end, when each performer describes their ancestor, it is quite affecting. Then Robbins polls the audience about their immigrant journeys. Folks had their picture taken with Robbins. I told him my affection for the movie The Player. On the way home, my wife and I talked about the pacing of the production. But it was a valuable experience.

Tradition

Fiddler on the Roof is my second-favorite musical, behind only West Side Story. And that’s probably only because I’d seen WSS earlier. My first exposure to Fiddler was a version of Sunrise, Sunset sung by Robert Goulet on some Columbia Records compilation from the mid-1960s. I thought it was a bit schlocky. But when I heard it in the musical this year, it may have been the most affecting song.

In this production, I felt more of the oppression of the Jewish people by the government bullies before the ultimate expulsion from Anatefka. There’s a particular physical technique in which Tevye is separated from his third daughter that was fabulous. The relatively barren stage for Tradition, using essentially two large doors, was quite effective.

The Tevye, who I believe was the understudy, was fine. Tzeitel, the eldest daughter, really sold the fear of the Matchmaker’s decision in a way I don’t always feel. I loved the physicality of the young tailor Motel in fear of his future father-in-law.

So if the bottle dance wasn’t as effective as the one I saw at Mac-Hadyn in 2014, whatever. My wife, my daughter and I enjoyed the performance.

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.