CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Studio Cast

Originally published on CastAlbums.org

300_hunchbackIf you only know The Hunchback of Notre Dame from the 1996 Disney animated film, you’re in for a surprise the first time you listen to the newly released Studio Cast Recording of Disney Theatrical’s stage adaptation. Taking a more “adult” approach to the material by hewing closer to the Victor Hugo source, composer Alan Menken, lyricist Stephen Schwartz, and librettist Peter Parnell have given us a Hunchback that bleeds, lusts, and ultimately soars.  Continue reading

The Sondheim Review: No guarantee of happiness

The destructive potential of the American Dream

Originally published in The Sondheim Review.

Mark Linehan (center) played John Wilkes Booth in New Repertory Theatre's October 2014 production of Assassins in Watertown, MA. Photo by photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

Mark Linehan (center) played John Wilkes Booth in New Repertory Theatre’s October 2014 production of Assassins in Watertown, MA. Photo by photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

Stephen Sondheim has distanced himself from the practice of reusing discarded songs from old shows when writing new pieces. He has only ever acknowledged dipping into his trunk twice, both for Wise Guys: “Addison’s Trip,” present from the first reading in 1998, and “It’s In Your Hands Now” from the 1999 workshop. What distinguishes these from one another is that while “Addison’s Trip” reused material from an unknown song from a dead project (“Lunch” from Singing Out Loud), “It’s In Your Hands Now” came from Assassins.

It makes sense that if two shows were to share music, it would be the two written with John Weidman about the destructive potential of the American Dream. Even to the untrained ear, “It’s In Your Hands Now” sounds like Americana, with a melody based on the tones of a bugle call and a lyric about the “land of opportunity.” According to Look, I Made a Hat, “It’s In Your Hands Now” is based on “Flag Song,” an abandoned opening number for Assassins that focused on regular Americans before introducing the titular killers. But if you’re reading The Sondheim Review, chances are the first time you heard “It’s In Your Hands Now,” your subconscious started singing along with a different set of lyrics: “I just heard / On the news / Where the mailman won the lottery.” Continue reading

The Sondheim Review: A lotta Sondheim songs

Cabaret offerings prove the strength of the material

 

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KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar perform Another Hundred People at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Photo by Russ Weatherford.

Originally published in The Sondheim Review.

 

On any given night in New York City there is likely to be at least one cabaret offering some kind of Sondheim program. That leaves intrepid fans to wonder if artists can still show something new at such a performance. Recently, KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar and Broadway leading lady Alice Ripley took up the challenge.

Harnar and Sullivan’s Another Hundred People at the Laurie Beechman Theatre is billed as “Act Two” of their Sondheim program Our Time, from 2014, but it’s fully satisfying on its own, and in many ways superior to its predecessor. Based on the idea that Sondheim’s lyrics can do the heavy lifting, the performers eschew banter for a song-stuffed program of 18 numbers — 40 songs in all, from Sondheim projects.

Their program is most exciting when numbers take on fresh ideas through new contexts and dialogue with other songs, ably shaped by musical director Jon Weber and director Sondra Lee. Harner’s smarmy take on “I Know Things Now” from Into the Woods in medley with “More” from Dick Tracy turned the song about a young woman reaching maturity into a celebration of a gay man’s discovery of sexual abundance. The duo’s medley of songs about partnership (including the opening number from Wise Guys, the title song from Bounce, plus “It Takes Two” and “Side by Side by Side”) became a mini-musical in itself.  Continue reading

It’s dlevy!: David’s Favorite 2015 Theater

Originally published on itsdlevy.net.

I’m not sure how many shows I saw this year, and I didn’t keep good enough record to count. Suffice it to say, I saw a lot, but not everything. Therefore, I’m not in a position to tumake a “best of” list or anything of the sort. Instead, I present to you a list of my favorite theater from 2015, in alphabetical order.

Last year, I listed a top 13, with one honorable mention plus three additional shows I had loved enough in previous years to see for a second time during 2014. This year’s list includes 15 shows, two of which were return trips, plus two honorable mentions, so I guess I have a fairly consistent amount of love in my heart available for great theater.  Continue reading

Keshet: An Interview with Luzer Twersky: From Ultra-Orthodox to “Transparent” Star

Originally published on Keshet’s blog on MyJewishLearning.com.

Luzer Twersky

Luzer Twersky is an actor who plays Mendel in Season Two of Amazon’s hit television show “Transparent.” He grew up in an insular Hasidic community in Brooklyn, which he left in his early 20s, with help from Footsteps, an organization that helps formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews integrate into mainstream society. He is best known for his role in the film “Félix & Meira,” which is Canada’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year. Luzer spoke with Keshet’s David Levy last week after the first episode of “Transparent” was released.

DAVID LEVY: Let’s just start by saying congratulations on being part of “Transparent.” Have you had the opportunity to watch the finished product yet?

LUZER TWERSKY: I watched the first episode of the new season, and it’s very good. I’m very happy with it and very proud of it.

DL: I saw your name in the credits but didn’t spot you in the episode itself. I assume you’re in the German flashback?

LT: In the first episode I’m a little “blink-and-you-miss it.” These flashbacks will happen all season. You’ll see the parallel between what’s happening at the wedding with all the dancing and the craziness and what’s happening at this party filled with queers and gays and gender-fluid people, and then you see those same kind of people 100 years ago in Berlin. And you also notice that Simon, Maura’s nephew, seems to be in those scenes in Berlin. It’s all going to tie together.

And then you’ll notice at the end of the episode, when you see Ali standing on her balcony, and then you see someone next to her who we had seen dancing in that Berlin scene.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide by Ethan Mordden

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

On SondheimIn Passion, Fosca sings, “If you have no expectations, you can never have a disappointment.” These are wise words to bring with you to Ethan Mordden’s latest book, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide. Judging by its title, you might expect the book to provide a complete listing of Sondheim’s output with the author’s assessments of same, but it is oddly inadequate as both opinion and guide. The book immediately shirks its guide obligations by referring readers on the very first page to SondheimGuide.com (without a mention of Michael H. Hutchins, the man responsible for putting it together). It falls short in the opinion arena as well, offering far fewer than the title implies and hardly any that might register as controversial. And yet, taken on its own terms it offers pleasures for both the Sondheim expert and newbie alike.

Mordden knows his subject well, but he occasionally lets that get the better of him. Acknowledging in his preface that he generally did not consult other books on his subject in the writing of this one, he lets the occasional misstatement slip through. Mordden’s prose style is characterized by an awkward combination of SAT words (“manumission,” “equiponderant”) and slang (relating an artistic disagreement as a “hard-on contest,” or describing the opening scene of My Fair Lady as “an Instagram of the show’s analysis of class”). A quick poll of acquaintances who have read other Mordden uncovers that this is a common quirk of his writing about musicals, and the percentage of those who hate it is fairly close to those who adore it.  Continue reading

CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: The Wiz Live! Original Soundtrack of the NBC Television Event

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

197.pngIt makes sense that The Wiz Live!, the best of NBC’s recent live musical broadcasts, should produce the best album of the three as well. Even so, you might be surprised by just how good this soundtrack is. As exciting as the live show was, there were some iffy notes and more than a few moments of sub-par sound mixing. None of that is in evidence on the album. Superstar producer Harvey Mason, Jr. and co-producer/music director Stephen Oremus have lovingly spun the raw material from the broadcast into recording gold. And despite the addition of effects (most obviously a lot of additional reverb and yes, some auto-tuning) to create a sonic experience more akin to a studio-recorded pop album, The Wiz Live! never sounds overproduced and, oddly enough, comes out more theatrical than the self-consciously pop original cast recordingContinue reading

250 Word Reviews: Puffs

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

Third or Nothing

PUFFS, OR: SEVEN INCREASINGLY EVENTFUL YEARS AT A CERTAIN SCHOOL OF MAGIC & MAGIC
(Off-off-Broadway: The Peoples Improv Theater)

Churchill said, “History is written by the victors,” but how often do we hear about life during great events for the rest of us? Playwright Matt Cox provides this lens on the Second Wizarding War, through the eyes of one Wayne Hopkins (Zac Moon). Wayne dreams of being the hero of his story, but that position has already been filled be a certain Mister Potter. Neither brave nor smart nor anguine, he is sorted into the house for everyone else, Hufflepuff, and makes two best friends: Oliver, a math whiz (Langston Belton) and Megan (Julie Ann Earls), a wannabe villain. Mentored by Cedric Diggory (Evan Maltby), the Puffs’ rallying cry represents their dreams of someday not coming in last: “Third or nothing!” Do they have a chance at making a difference in a world dominated by legendary heroes and villains?

Like Kapow-i GoGo (from the same team) before it, Puffs transcends parody and fan service to create a three-dimensional world populated by believable characters whose tragedies resonate as strongly as their triumphs. There’s a lot of story to get through in 80ish minutes, but director Kristin McCarthy Parker’s sure hand keeps the story clear even as the pace gets frenetic. Moon’s performance, more Hamlet than ham, provides a strong center around which wackier characters orbit. The whole cast excels, but special kudos to Andy Miller for the best “rally the troops” moment this side of Henry V. Knowledge of the Potter canon is helpful but not necessary to love Puffs.

Production photograph by Colin Waitt: Zac Moon (l) as Wayne with (l-r) Nick Carillo, Andy Miller, Eleanor Philips, Jessica Cannizzaro, Madeleine Bundy, and Stephen Stout.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to note that I contributed $10 to this production’s Kickstarter campaign.

Jewschool.com: Why the Syrian Refugee Crisis Encourages Me to Talk about My Least Favorite Subject

Originally published on Jewschool.

Syrian Refugees

The last thing I want to talk about is the Holocaust. From where I stand, it’s bad enough that Hitler decimated our grandparents’ generation. Letting discussion of the Third Reich and the Final Solution parasitically take over Jewish discourse two generations later seems to me that it’s giving Hitler a posthumous victory. A full year of my own Hebrew School education was dedicated to learning every minute detail of Hitler’s plan – memorizing the names of death camps and the terminology for each different position in the camp hierarchy, not to mention God knows what else. Imagine if, instead, we had spent a year learning about Rashi, Maimonides, and Heschel instead of Goebbels, Mengele, and Braun. Continue reading

250 Word Reviews: The Pavilion

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

The Pavilion

THE PAVILION
(Off-off-Broadway: The Producer’s Club)

You know the story: middle-aged white guy has a mid-life crisis, so attends high school reunion to attempt to rekindle things with his high school sweetheart. In Craig Wright’s The Pavilion, the white guy in question is Peter (Jeffrey Delano Davis), returning to Pine City, MN from his life in the Twin Cities to make amends for impregnating then abandoning Kari (Ayesha Adamo). Their encounter is placed into cosmic context by a professorial narrator (Jon Adam Ross), who alternates between spouting philosophy about the nature of time and giving voice to all the other (unseen) reunion guests.

Michael Kostroff’s direction is strongest in the scenes between the two former-lovers, which find Davis exposing raw vulnerability only to be met by Adamo’s measured resistance. Ross is less successful overcoming his obstacles, often lecturing from a podium far off to the side of the stage or adopting ridiculous character voices while facing the opposite direction of his scene partners. The play’s reliance on a projection design (by Javier Molina) that feels straight out of Myst is unnecessary at best and often distracting. Zoey Russo’s simple but effective sets would have more than sufficed on their own.

The play itself isn’t nearly as profound as its philosophizing monologues indicate it wants to be, but it does feature a nice moment of meta-theatrics in the second act that offered one of the few surprises in the writing.

Production photograph by Melissa X. Golebiowski: Jeffrey Delano Davis as Peter and Ayesha Adamo as Kari.