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.
Summer and theater are words often linked but less so in this big city than in summer stock country.
Theater, like some of your neighbors, heads to the Berkshires, or Saratoga, or another vaguely vacationy venue.
There are always remnants, of course, such as the hits that play the Great White Way regardless of season, and of course the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park.
Starting in July, the New York Musical Festival gives voice to new works in off-Broadway houses. This year, thanks to some visitors from Toronto, the NYMF and Soulpepper on 42nd Street, appear in such close proximity that we can only suggest you tablehop a bit.
Take in as many of the NYMF premieres at Theatre Row and at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theatre as you can. Head a little further west to sample the workshops, master classes, ensemble creations, and new plays that the Soulpepper Theatre is presenting at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre stages.
Among the other highlights of our NYC summer there is the Bolshoi Ballet dancing The Taming of The Shrew at Lincoln Center. Check out the full list of summertime offerings at the Lincoln Center Festival, another annual event.
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.
It’s an annual event that has critics and ordinary theater goers in a tizzy. The Tony Award nominations are in, and this year’s contest (the 71st) will be televised o n Sunday June 11th on CBS. It is at this ceremony that the results of all that Tony voting will be revealed. “And the winner is…” is a nerve-racking pronouncement. Equally irksome, and this is true year-to-year, are the actual nominations meted out with such parsimony.
All theater should be celebrated, yet the Tony committee chooses to withhold even a nod from some productions. Why? oh why? (BTW, a line from My Sister Eileen, the musical version of which, Wonderful Town, starring Rosalind Russell won the 1953 Tony.)
Nevermind, we just have to face what is coming at us like a freight train, and dig in for some knotty predictions. Horse races are not my thing, and my track record, as it were, for guessing who will get which prize is extremely poor.
Rinse and repeat
The smart money this 2017 season is on Groundhog Day, a musical I have not seen. Reports –from critics, and friends alike– (one a fan of Andy Karl who went to a performance during his absence due to injury, said it was still terrific)– are that this is the one to beat.
May I propose that in honor of Andrew Call’s valiant subbing in for Andy Karl, we add this minor adjustment to the proceedings: “And the Tony for best understudy in a leading role goes to….” (A category on the women’s side once taken by Barbra Streisand.)
The contestants as we know them
War Paint, another musical I skipped this season, has not one but two leading ladies vying for the Best. Truthfully, both Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone are winners, although not necessarily this year. Ebersole has two Tonys as the Lead in 42nd Street(2001) and in Grey Gardens (2007); LuPone’s Tonys include a win for Evita (way back when, and wonderful; 1980) and for her Mama Rose in Gypsy (2008.) Both of these admirable divas have also had more than their fair share of nominations over the years.
Let me also admit to not having seen the other nominees for Best Musical, which are the wonderfully named Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, the hyper-modern Dear Evan Hansen and charmingly off-beat Come From Away. As an outsider, as it were, I will make no further assumptions here. We really liked Bandstand, and it has had only limited recognition from the Tony folk. We were sure this first-time Broadway effort by veteran musicians Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker deserved at least to be named.
The play’s the thing
On the straight play side is where we have slightly better traction, although only slightly so. Of the nominees for Best Play, we have seen (and loved) A Doll’s House Part 2. We have also seen the nominated revivals,The Little Foxesand Jitney, both in very fine productions; the revival of The Price was not among the plays mentioned. For what it’s worth, we are rooting for …Part 2, and for Little Foxes.
While on the subject of …Foxes, Tony could have given Cynthia Nixon (whom as it happens we saw in the lead) and Laura Linney (who split her lead and featured roles with Nixon) co-nominations in the Best Lead Actress category. Instead, Nixon gets the nod as Best Featured Actress, and Linney is in the running for the Best Lead.
We have seen three of the nominated actress in both the Lead and Featured category., and this is a tough call. Sally Field has had her “they really like me” moment, and in fact was a very credible Amanda in my favorite Williams’ play; if I say I really really liked her, it is not to mock but to admire. Since I cannot speak to Linney’s interpretation of the steely Regina Giddens, and I can say that Laurie Metcalf was (as usual) fabulous as the re-imagined Nora in …Part 2, I will send a nod her way. This is in part based on only partial facts and in part based on a long-term admiration for her work. The entire cast in ..Part 2has been nominated, and I would rally for each of them; the caveat is that this conclusion is also based on limited evidence.
The Men in question
We’ve seen five of the shows in which a male actor was nominated for a 2017 Tony Award. Two of them were leads. Denis Arndt gave an impressive, nuanced performance in the two-handed Heisenberg, (so named, I think, because of some relativity principal the play explored) opposite Mary-Louise Parker. Chris Cooper, Torvald in …Part 2 is definitely a worthy candidate; he is both hot and cold. Still, even with that, don’t feel like I know enough about the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play. For the Best Featured Actor, Richard Thomas is an estimable Horace Giddens in the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. We definitely felt that Danny DeVito stole The Price from under his co-stars. John Douglas Thompson also shined in the excellent revival of August Wilson’s Jitney. From this vantage, I’m certainly unwilling to pick just one. Now, it is I who is proving tiresome. Oh, well.
May we suggest that you watch the ceremony, hosted by the multi-talented Kevin Spacey, on CBS on June 11th at 8pm. Cheer for the performances and productions you’ve seen; enjoy the fine show that Tony always provides; place your bets, and….
Veteran musicians Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker, the playwrighting team that brings us Bandstandpen their first big Broadway show with this production. They have written many other works, but as Mr. Oberacker puts it “you’ve never heard a thing about.” Mr. Taylor says he’s delighted to be a new Broadway “face” after years working in the pits all over town.
It’s not surprising that veterans appreciate how their experience are represented in this musical. The veterans in Bandstand come back to a world that wants it to be “Just Like It Was Before.” They have to fight to get a fair shake, even as civilians pay lipservice in thanking them for their service.
Bandstand, at least from our perspective, looks like it should win the big prizes at this year’s Tony Awards® Before the May 2nd announcements, however, it has received great notices but nominations only for Laura Osnes and for Andy Blankenbuehler’s lovely choreography. Oberacker’s music and his and Taylor’s book also got the nod. Corey Cott did not get the nod as best actor in a musical. Likewise, Beth Leavel did not get the recognition we feel she deserves. The record for number of Tony wins by a musical is in the hands of The Producers, with Hamilton a mere 2 behind. We really expected Bandstand to meet or beat the record of 13. The very talented Corey Cott got no recognition at all this awards season, and we are bummed.
Bandstand has not received the Tony recognition we feel it deserves. Not by a long-shot.
With only 2 nominations, Bandstand, The New American Musical is greatly undervalued. Congratulations to director Andy Blankenbuehler, nominated for his choreography, and to the orchestraters Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen for their well-deserved Tony nods.