Once upon a time, there were hucksters and rich artists. The latter grew rich sometimes with the help of a kind of door-to-door hucksterism wherein they shilled their works to the public.
In the case of Georama: An America Panorama Told in Three Miles of Canvas, the artist was one John Banvard, now unknown.
Who was John Banvard (P.J. Griffith)? He was a showman, mainly because of the skills of his composer, Elizabeth (Jillian Louis) who worked the towns up and down the coast to promote and show off his new moving panorama of the Mississippi.
Success breeds imitation, and there are those who will take the opportunity. The huckster, who helped and then stole much of Banvard’s thunder, was Taylor (Randy Blair, in a very appealing role.) The businessman and showboat owner who remained Banvard’s friend through thick and thin was William Chapman.
To catch this musical by West Hyler (Hyler also directs) and Matt Schatz, with music and lyrics by Schatz and additional contributions to the latter by Jack Herrick, visit nymf.org. There are a couple of performances left through August 6th, which is also the end of the New York Musicals Festival.
Nativist sentiments are often rooted in the stories of European conquerors who obliterated and enslaved native populations, and then high-handedly saw themselves as the rightful owners of the lands they seized.
This is the story of Puerto Rico as depicted in Temple of the Souls, part of the New York Musical Festival and playing at the Acorn at Theatre Row. Puerto Rico, named for the golden riches the Spanish found in the port of this island, was once such a promised land; its indigenous inhabitants, the Taino Indians were defeated by the invading Spaniards. Time has melded the heritage of the isle so that most Puerto Ricans recognize themselves as descendents both of the Spanish and the Taino.
Temple of the Souls is an exploration of this history, filtered through a love story–actually several love stories. Amada (Noellia Hernandez), the daughter of one of the conquistadores, Don Severo (Danny Bolero) falls in love with Guario (Andres Qunitero), a Taino she meets in the rain forests on a fiesta day. They are the Romeo and Juliet figures in this musical. Amada’s “nurse” is Nana (Lorraine Velez in a truly earnest performance) who has kept a secret all these many years.
The music, by Dean Lanon and Anika Paris, with lyrics by Paris and Anita Velez-Mitchell, is affecting. Paris, Velez-Mitchell along with Lorca Peress, who also directs the proceedings, are responsible for the book.
Temple of the Souls is a sometimes erratic work that does not always hit its mark. It aims to elucidate the story of a country and its peoples with warmth and understanding. It’s sincerity is indisputable; its artistry is less marked. The plot and its intermingling of past and present is more intriguing in concept than in execution.The cast, mostly Equity, are all good, some even excellent.
NYMF is an annual event. It is a showcase for new musicals in development. Some make it to off- or off-off-Broadway, a few to Broadway houses. Just getting into the Festival means they have been percolating for some time.
John Banvard was a muralist during the days after the American Civil War. He painted portraits and panoramas. His mechanism for displaying a moving panorama received mention in the December 16, 1848 issue of the Scientific American magazine.
Myth making is history’s fake news, but all good fictions share a grain of truth.
Kristen Childs’ Bella: An American Tall Tale, at Playwrights Horizons through July 2nd. Directed by Robert O’Hara (auteur and director of Bootycandy (Fall 2014) also @PHnyc) and choreographed by Camille A. Brown, is a big new exuberant musical in which the cowboy truths are told from the African-American perspective. Childs’ Bella is a legend-making story, relating history through fantasy.
Bella (Ashley D. Kelley) is young and on the run. Her naiveté, like that of Voltaire’s Candide, is infectious as is her giggle. She leaves Tupelo after a confrontation with a plantation owner, Bonny Johnny (Kevin Massey) that has put a price on her head.
Bella, one of a long line of strong women, is sent off under an assumed name by her mother (Kenita R. Miller) and her aunt Dinah (Marinda Anderson); her grandmother (NaTasha Yvette Williams) urges her to remember who she is. She is also aided by the spirit of an ancestor her grandma (also played by Williams) invokes.
It’s nearly 1880, and Bella heads out to reunite with her Buffalo soldier, Aloysius (Britton Smith.) Kelley’s charm, by the way, is as big as Bella’s fabled behind.
Bella meets various larger-than-life characters on her way. As is her custom, Bella weaves ever taller fables about their fates. These include a Mexican caballero named Diego Moreno (Yurel Echezarreta) and a Chinese cowboy, Tommie Haw (Paolo Montalban).
A Pullman Porter whom Bella calls Mr. Porter, and who is actually called Nathaniel Beckworth (Brendon Gill), is her protector and confidante on the train ride west.
The Western setting is a natural for the rough and tumble (and rugged) entertainment Bella: An American Tall Tale gives us.
The music and lyrics (along with the book, all from Ms. Childs’ creative imagination) propel the plot, as they should in a well-ordered musical. Ms. Childs’ provides the vocal arrangements with orchestrations by Daryl Waters; the band is under the musical direction of Rona Siddiqui. Hoedown and hootenanny further serve to tell this whopping yarn. Ms. Childs’ songs range from funny/silly to interpretive to poignant.
Camille A. Brown’s terrific choreography, executed beautifully by the exceptional cast also furthers not just the plot but helps define the characterizations.
Kenita R. Miller as both Bella’s mother and the very proper Miss Cabbagestalk whom Bella meets on her journey, is outstanding. In all fairness, the entire cast, many in multiple roles, is superb. Olli Haaskivi does a nice turn as a stuttering circus announcer (and a bandit named Scooter). Jo’Nathan Michael and Gabrielle Reyes (as Mr. and Mrs. Dimwiddie respectively) do a wonderful bit when they step out of the chorus to play a couple who narrates in awe what they have just seen.
Robert O’Hara directs the spirited tale with vigor and originality. The actors give voice to Kristen Childs’ vision of the adventures of Bella Patterson, or is Johnson. The costumes by Dede M. Ayite are inspired and inspiring. The seemingly simple set (by Clint Ramos) gives color to the staging and is evocative.
Black history is an unacknowledged footnote to the history we’ve been taught in school. It’s good to see it be the main event as it is in Bella: An American Tall Tale.
For more information and tickets for Bella: An American Tall Tale, please visit the PHnyc website.
History lives through the music of an era and its lessons often resonate with us across our own times.
Bandstand, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in an open run, takes us back to the swing era just after WWII. America is on a road to recovery, as veterans are returning from overseas battles.
Big-band music, written by Richard Oberacker (music, book and lyrics) and Robert Taylor (book and lyrics), is a welcome and original addition to the big Broadway musical mix. Bandstand, with orchestrations by Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen, is indeed, as it claims, The New American Musical. Jazz is the all-American musical idiom, after all, and this blockbuster is jazzy.
The music devised to cheer up a post war world offers a big backdrop for a big-hearted theatrical feast.
On its face, the story has an old-fashioned movie plot feel, but Bandstand goes much deeper. Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) comes back from fighting overseas to create a band with his fellow vets. He teams his band mates with a lovely war widow, Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes) and enters them in a national contest. He intends to win. After this, lots happens to change it from the ordinary. Suffice it to say, you will enjoy the twists, which we won’t reveal.
The band Donny puts together include the level-headed Jimmy Campbell (James Nathan Hopkins) and the charismatically off-the-rails Davy Zlatic (Brandon J. Ellis). Each man leads him to another one who served. Nick Radel (Alex Bender) is an ambitious horn player. The shell-shocked Wayne Wright (Geoff Packard) attempts to reset the world by tidying everything he touches. Johnny Simpson (Joe Carroll) still keeps time with his drums, but is locked in to a moment in time.
Donny’s–check that– their fallen comrades people their on-stage memories and act as inspiration for the band.
Each of these talented actors plays his instrument in the on-stage band, backed by a full-pit orchestra under Fred Lessen’s baton.
The songs that Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker have created for the show move the story along, and tell it in so many special moments. Julia’s mother, Mrs. June Adams (the wonderful Beth Leavel) has one great one, when she encourages her daughter with a particularly apt tune, “Everything Happens” in the second act.
Bandstand is directed and choreographed by Tony-winner (for choreography for Hamilton) Andy Blankenbuehler. Both his direction here and his choreography for the large ensemble are memorable. The Jacobs theater is chock-full with talent, and sound, and dancing. In fact, this joint is jumping. Watch the jitterbug explode on stage.
The costumes by Paloma Young are terrific; the sets by David Korins magically represent the places in the story.
In emotional and stirring roles, Osnes and Cott are overwhelming and genuine, as are the rest of the cast. Of course, they also shine as musicians and singers. Bandstand is a thrill and a gas.
The play without pause,aka the intermissionless hour and a half (appx) drama or comedy has become a favorite of ours.
The intermission can actually ruin a play and its audience. Drawn in, as we are, by the plotline that has transpired, our attention is broken by the pause. If a piece is long, the intermission is a mercy. We need to use the bathroom, or counterintuitively, grab a drink between acts. We can discuss the suspense, and rehash the story thus far with our mates.
Of course, tradition has it that a theater-work be writ in three acts, with two intermissions. That tradition dates from the days of Marlowe and Shakespeare, days when audiences came and went at their own discretion; some of the Bard’s tragedies were even longer. I love that in England the intermission is called an interval. More recently, most plays had one intermission; sometimes even if there were three acts, the action would just pause between the first and second, until the intermission which ushered in the final act.
And now, most recently, there have been spates of works which condensed to a pithy and intermissionless conclusion.If you’ve said all you wanted in that shorter time, why not just wrap it up. David Mamet has a habit of putting forth his premise and its conclusion in short order with wit and alacrity. Some others are not so skillful. One comedy, whose name I cannot recall, lasted just 51 minutes and not much longer in its run. Sometimes, the extra short play is a relief for theater-goers; sometimes it leaves them wanting more.