Sunday, April 26, 2015

Finding Neverland

There is this little thing on Broadway call politics. Yes, that ugly P word appears everywhere. In this case, a show was created years ago with one creative team, the producers brought in a completely new team, tried it out of town and then it came to Broadway (replacing some of the leads that upset some people). The fact said producer is also not a New York guy (but instead a film guy) gives people more reason to pull the "P card" and tear it down.

Those are some of the only reasons I can understand that critics and theater forums have been attacking Finding Neverland. If you read my blog, you know I see almost everything and I don't always like everything - but this show is beautiful, entrancing, magical, and allows everyone to be a child again for just a moment. Yes, a moment in time, Associated Press…hence the 'obsession with clocks' that annoyed you so with this show in your review. A show about a man that doesn't want to grow up (time) where time is running out on so many in this story. But I digress, I'm not going to spend time fighting the reviews that are already out there. 

If you are like me, you may have missed the 2004 film of Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet when it came out. I actually only saw the film this past year on cable and loved it. Sobbed at the beauty of it. It hit me on so many emotional levels. So I was looking forward to the musicalization of the film with trepidation as I read so much about the bumpy road to Broadway. Yet director Diane Paulus has given us a visually stunning show with her team of designers, intriguing choreography by Mia Michaels, a beautiful score by Gary Barlow, and an ensemble of actors that make  you want to believe in Tinkerbell once again. The score was first written by the team behind Grey Gardens, yet I loved the pop score Barlow has given us. Sure there are a few lyrics that are trite or not perfect rhymes, but I forgave that due to the fact he took me on a journey with his music. 

The story of J.M. Barrie and how he came to write the story of Peter Pan may be a little different from what history books say, but it makes for a moving evening of theater. Barrie's infatuation with the Llewelyn Davies boys and their caring and giving mother brings up themes of death and divorce, but isn't that real life? What is so wonderful is how in the midst of all of that 'realness', he teaches the boys and in turn the audience to stay young. To play. To let go. 

Matthew Morrison returns to the stage in the main role and has a wonderful voice and great presence. He counters the fantasy of the musical by grounding his Barrie in an understated performance, yet still effective. As Sylvia, the widowed mother of the boys, Laura Michelle Kelly deserves a Tony nomination. She is stunning, amazing voice, warm and you care deeply for her raising four boys and putting up with a pushy mother played perfectly by Carolee Carmello. Kelsey Grammer takes on the role of Barrie's producers and is everything an overbearing American working in London should be. Great comic relief as well and hams it up wonderfully as the Hook inside of Barrie's mind. 

There are amazing images displayed on stage in this show (and I don't mean the ever-changing sets and projections). I mean the use of shadows to create a dance. The way in which ensembles move and shift (it's not just dance, it's an exciting use of body not always seen in musicals). The building of a ship as Barrie grows stronger. And I won't even share the magic at the end that some critics gave away. There are some things we're meant to enjoy in the moment and not know they are coming. We escape into our childhood, we cheer for the hero, and we want to protect Peter. In this case, Peter Llewelyn Davies was played by Aidan Gemme and he grabbed my heart the same way Freddie Highmore had done in the film.


For those that say it's too sentimental and not a crowd-pleaser, I have to say that I haven't heard thunderous reactions from an audience like this (after every number) since seeing Wicked. And perhaps, like Wicked…this too will find its audience and stick around New York for a long time. Maybe if people believe and keep clapping long and loud enough, others will hear and take a trip to Neverland even if critics and politics attempt to keep people away.


  

Saturday, April 25, 2015

FilmFest in My Own Backyard


What a great morning I had! Last week I received an unexpected email from a member of the Passaic County Film Commission wishing me well at the Boston Film Festival. I can't believe I didn't know the county that I live in has a film commission let alone their 11th year of producing a film festival. The festival is made up of high school students, college students and indie filmmakers showing shorts, documentaries, PSAs, and music videos.

I thought I had missed the day, but luckily made it to the Fabian Cinema where the entire festival was top notch from top to bottom. The way the staff ran it all making people feel welcomed with pins and t-shirts, the greetings from the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the wonderful turnout of families and film enthusiasts, and the amazing talent…especially from young budding filmmakers.



The entire festival was full of talent, but there were a few that stood out to me in each category among the high school students: 


LaFortuna by Sam Applebaum (documentary) Wayne Hills High School.  
Discover Learn Live by Evan Quintero, Brianne Remy, Erin Van Lenten, Caitlin Duffy (Music Video) from Eastern Christian High School
Highbeams by Reid Hensen (short films) Wayne Valley High School

One With Wifi by Frankie Lagana (short films) West Milford High School

Many wonderful PSAs (I actually learned about the Move Over America law from Matthew Romano from Passaic County Technical Institute as it never occurred to me you have to switch lanes when passing an emergency or police vehicle on the shoulder)

I had to run before the awards were handed out, so I look forward to checking their website on Monday to see who took the prizes.

Thanks to Carl "Doc" Burrows for the email this week letting me know about the festival and a huge thanks to everyone involved who brought this wonderful FREE Festival to New Jersey.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Family of Airline Highway

Much like Armistead Maupin did with creating a family at 28 Barbary Lane, playwright Lisa D'Amour illustrates that family can be chosen and not blood in her play Airline Highway. A group of downtrodden people (addicts, hookers, strippers, poets) have gathered in the parking lot of The Hummingbird Motel in New Orleans to throw a party for an aging burlesque performer who has requested a funeral before she dies. The play is steeped with humor, but all of that comedy covers deep wounds and pain that each of these characters carry within.

Like the revelers of The Wild Party, this group doesn't know when it's time for the party to end. Everything is in excess to where things are said that should remain unspoken. However being a family, they all believe they have the right to say what they want because deep down, you believe these people genuinely care about each other. The people are flawed and those you may not give two looks to in real life, but that's what is heart breaking about looking into the worlds of this make-shift family.

Joe Mantello has directed a true ensemble piece that has multiple story lines happening at once (and often on different levels of the set that represents the outside facade of a fading motel). It's the way in which this cast talks over each other and interacts that gives this character-study-driven piece depth and truth. I felt as if I was watching an indie film at times where Mantello has definitely directed it cinematically. 

It is hard to single out cast members because they truly are an ensemble that works like a well-oiled machine without a weak link. However, Julie White as the aging prostitute that has given up children and uses drugs to cope with life gives a brilliant performance. I found myself watching her when she wasn't speaking and there was a complete play happening within her mind. Her Tanya is stripped bare and not afraid to leave anything on that stage. The other that stuck out to me was K. Todd Freeman as Sissy Na Na. The no-nonsense bad ass drag queen that keeps everyone in check. But honestly, I loved them all. And they are always present and living these characters.

I don't want to give away plot or points. I think some critics may complain of the open-ended nature of the piece, but that's real life. It's not as if these people could all be whisked away to a new world by someone winning the lottery. Instead of major twists and turns, D'Amour has given life to those you'd not find yourself hanging out with in the real world. Do know you are in for an experience that you are sure to remember if you venture into the seedy underbelly of New Orleans (the Manhattan Theatre Club).


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Working The Film Festival Circuit


Seven months ago on September 21, we wrapped on production of our film MOTHER; the first short film that I had directed. Like most projects I take on, I studied everything I could, listened intently to those around me, and then allowed my gut to just push through. Most people never see short films. Think about it; when was the last time you saw a short? And I bet watching the Oscars, you go to the bathroom during that category.

The short film is an amazing form to tell a full story in a very small window of time. Just this past weekend, after the world premiere screening of our film, Hollywood actor Kevin J. Ryan paid a very high compliment to us stating how we managed to pull off that very thing with our film.

I knew after post production the next step was attempting to get into film festivals. And there are tons out there. Weeding through all of that is a job to find the ones that make the most sense for your project (and I’m sure everyone uses different criteria when deciding). I started submitting in January and have had numerous rejections. It started to become a part of my normal emails. And then we got one and another and this past weekend we attended our first festival as the film team.

We had our World Premiere screening at the beautiful Paramount Theater in Boston at the Boston International Film Festival. We were told they had hundreds of submissions and we felt honored to be among some incredible short and feature films. (I particularly want to shout out to Tom in America that stars Burt Young and Sally Kirkland, The Loyalists, Home, and Paddy’s in the Boot from the ones I got to see.) We were also extremely lucky to be screened on both Saturday and Sunday in two of their locations. Some of our actors, producers and supporters showed up Sunday night to see our hard work on the big screen. I can’t describe that feeling in words. We had to leave before the awards ceremony on
Monday night (because yes, I do have a day job that pays bills) and I was stunned to find out the next day that we had won the Indie Soul Best Director Award for short films. To say I’m honored is an understatement. Had I been there in person to accept it, I would have mentioned how this film was a beautiful collaboration that allowed this stage director’s transition to film be a smooth ride because of the enormously talented people in front of and behind the camera.


We also were part of the Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival, the third longest-running International Film Festival in North America, and the Oldest Independent Film Festival in the world. Some major filmmakers have gone through this festival and while we didn’t screen, we did win a coveted platinum Remi Award where more than 4,300 category entries had less than 12% place according to their press release. We are absolutely over the moon about that.


Next up: The LAIFF Awards in Los Angeles. We are an official selection and waiting until the end of the month when they announce nominations for their awards for May.


So this ‘film festival thing’ may just be starting for me, but I can already see that each will be a unique experience and a wonderful opportunity to meet other people in the film-making industry. I’m grateful to constantly be changing my creative endeavors and look forward to what the rest of 2015 has in store. Appreciate those that read my blog that show such amazing support to me too. Grateful for that more than I can even share.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Talking DEAR HENRY with Arthur Wooten

Arthur Directing Dear Henry
Several years ago I met someone on twitter and my life changed from watching his career, bouncing ideas off of him, and making a new friend. Arthur Wooten is a published author, playwright, director and has a one-man show coming up in New York City at the Duplex on Monday April 27, Sunday May 3 and Saturday May 9 all at 7pm. I’m thrilled that our company ASD Media is behind his show (which means I got to watch a rehearsal and loved it) and I wanted to ask him a few questions about this one man show staring Luke Doyle: DEAR HENRY.

Greg Allen: I feel like I've known you forever, but there is an entire world of theater you did before I ever met you as an author. Can you tell a little about your life on the stage?

Arthur The Actor
Arthur Wooten: I’ve always been a bit theatrical. Even as a kid I was putting on shows. I think the first adaptation I acted in and directed was Rumplestiltskin on roller skates. I grew up in Andover, MA and we had an exceptional musical theatre program. We put on full-scale productions of shows like Hello Dolly, The Music Man and in Mame, as politically incorrect as it is now, I played Ito, the Japanese houseboy. I was so disappointed that I wasn’t cast as Patrick Dennis until I realized that Ito got all the laughs. 

GA: Did you continue this love affair into college?

Arthur - 4th from Left
AW: Yes. I attended Umass at Amherst and my love of theatre really took off. The first musical I did there was Dames At Sea but I was also cast in several plays such as: Queenie in Fortune In Men’s Eyes and as the contestant in Adaptation/Next. Between my first and second years I auditioned and was accepted into the Off-Off-Broadway theatre company in Ogunquit, Me. It was WAY Off-Broadway. Over the course of 13 weeks we did 12 different musical in rep/rotation. If it was Tuesday I was Kenneth in Call Me Madam for the matinee and Jimmie in 110 In The Shade in the evening. One night I had a nightmare that I was on stage and didn’t know what show we were doing. But then I realized it wasn’t a nightmare, it was real life. Someone pushed me onstage and said, “Sing, If I Hear A Waltz!” The next summer I was cast in Wonderful Town and Crazy Girl for the Festival of American Theatre at Penn State. And the following year I moved to NYC, enrolled in HB Studios, met Bob Elston who truly took me under his wing and taught me all that I know about acting. I went with him from HB to be a founding member of The American Renaissance Theatre. I joined Equity shortly afterwards being cast in a production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at Coachlight dinner theatre. Remember dinner theatres? They were big in the 70s and 80s. I did shows like Man Of La Mancha and six different productions of Sound Of Music including a bus & truck to 97 cities with Sally Ann Howes.

Arthur as Friedrich
GA: I did my share of dinner theater too, Arthur. I have always admired your versatility from writing LGBT themed books, to women's fiction to a children's book (heck - some may say I copied you!) What do you feel is the common denominator/strong point in all of those?

AW: Truth, honesty and overcoming extreme odds with a self-deprecating sense of humor.

GA: I was lucky enough to have you launch a play reading series at a theater I manage this past fall (and have read almost all of your plays). You and I always talk about screenplays versus stage - so tell us how DEAR HENRY came about as a stage work.

AW: It was my friend and illustrator of my children’s book Wise Bear William, Bud Santora, who brought up the concept of adapting Dear Henry to stage. At first I was stumped. I thought of Dear Henry as a sort of gay version of the play Love Letters. But upon brainstorming I realized there was much more here than just reading the letters which first appeared in reFRESH Magazine in London when I was their humorist. Slowly, the piece evolved to what it is today, a one-man play with a beginning a middle and an end with an  arc.

Luke Doyle rehearing DEAR HENRY
GA: The rehearsal process is such a great time to really work a piece, make changes, etc - what has been some of the great moments of working with actor Luke Doyle on this project?

AW: Luke is fearless. I told him upfront that our working process was a place to be completely unselfconscious and an opportunity to experiment without feeling stupid or judged. Every rehearsal has felt like an intense workshop, with tweaking and the discovery of new choices. 

GA: I've been fascinated as you would share major shifts and changes as the piece evolved. What do you believe (under the comedy of the piece) is the core of DEAR HENRY?

AW: Hope. Hope for something better. Hope for acceptance. Self-acceptance. The ability to stop listening to others and follow your heart. Hope for true love, which is a theme that runs through much of my work.

GA: You are trying this out at the Duplex with 3 performances. If there were wishing well in front of you...what next steps would you wish for? (Let's put it out to the universe!)

AW: This is a one-person play with one simple set with no special effects. This is a producer’s dream. My wish is to see it segue to Off-Broadway. And I know it will have a strong life beyond New York. Whether it be in Los Angeles, Provincetown, MA or the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The show can fit in your pocket and go anywhere.

GA: Last thoughts on having your baby up on a NY stage where every person will judge and critique it and then be nice to your face afterwards?


Luke & Arthur after rehearsal
AW: Well, I’m going to second guess your reaction when you come running up to me saying you love it with a huge smile on your face. In truth, although this is a story about a gay man and a very unique relationship he is in, everyone whether they be straight, lesbian, bi, transgender will relate to the issues that are tackled. I mean who doesn’t suffer from some sort of misophonia?

Learn more about Dear Henry on ASD Media's website and get tickets in advance to any of the three performances!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Return To The Fun Home

Sometimes we want to see a show that ran off-Broadway once it opens uptown because we loved it so much. Other times, it's to see what has changed. I saw Fun Home off-Broadway in November of 2013 and blogged about it here. Let me just say, I'm not sure WHAT show I saw downtown or if I was just in the wrong mood, but seeing it at Circle in the Square now on Broadway was a completely different experience for me. 

People loved this show off-Broadway. They raved. If you read my original review about this memory play of a grown lesbian coming to terms with the story of her closeted gay father who kills himself and raises his family in a funeral home (fun home), you'll see I was sort of lukewarm before. Last night, I was actually crying by the end of the musical. Previously I sat in the very back of the theater and felt removed from the story. No connection. I was watching it happen from far away. Now, you feel as if you are part of the memory - that you are right there living through it all with Alison as she recounts her story. 

Many of the leads have moved with the show to Broadway and they have all settled into these roles beautifully. Beth Malone breaks my heart as she tries to make sense of her past. Emily Skeggs is wonderfully awkward and empowering as the college-aged Alison. And Sydney Lucas has grown up since off-Broadway playing Small Alison, but still youthful, bright, and has a great song with "Keys". Judy Kuhn touched me much more in this setting and Michael Cerveris is pure brilliance in this role that makes you angry and yet also makes you so sad for him. What he has done to his entire family…wow - Cerveris finds layers to this character that are mesmerizing to watch.

At first, I thought I would miss the vast set from off-Broadway. But what they have done with the sets for Broadway - incredible. Everything floats in and out as it should for something taking place in memory. And yet as the audience, we can feel the stifling museum-feeling of this house they live in. We feel trapped like a fly on the wall hearing what is taking place and often are in an awkward position. That's how close you feel in this new setting. And that's part of the reason I connected to it this time around and was so touched by the music and words of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron. Kudos to Sam Gold on how he has directed this show in the round. 

I'm still unsure if everyone will fall in love with this musical. It's heavy. Even if the colors and commercial attempt to lighten it up. The young siblings get great moments of levity in some songs, Roberta Colindrez & Oscar Williams offer reprieve from the heaviness of the situation, and yes - even the leads will have you laughing. But when you laugh, you still feel the looming presence of doom and gloom in this tomb of a home. The house is full of secrets and they are never too far out of your view. All of that hovers over you so that when Alison sings to her dad "say something!" as they are on a car ride, you want desperately for her to be able to change the inevitably fate that she has told us about at the show's beginning.

For those that appreciate smaller musicals with deep messages…give this one a try. And if you're like me, sometimes you need to give it another look. So glad I did or I would have missed out on a true theatrical experience last night.

PS: Looking at this photo of small Alison and her dad hits me in a completely different way now than it did before. Sometimes we all just need to fly.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Life is Like a Train


It's great to walk into a revival of a Broadway musical and know very little about it. I had no idea that Comden & Green and Cy Coleman wrote On the Twentieth Century. Nor would I know after seeing it as nothing about it sounds like Cy Coleman. This comic gem of a show is a throw back to comedies where doors open and close, situations are topsy turvy and it's all layered into a comedic opera sounding score. A Broadway writer/producer wants to woo a movie star back to the stage (and into his life) and it all takes place on on a train from Chicago to New York called..the 20th Century.


I loved it.


It's a perfect evening to let go and laugh and be entertained. It has taken Roundabout Theatre Company a few years to get it here from when they did a reading with Hugh Jackman, but kudos to them for finally getting this show back into New York which originally ran in the 70s. 

Everything about this show is great from starting it with an overture (which we rarely hear anymore), to the train porters that tap and give us the rhythm of the train with their feet, the costumes and sets with the perfect art deco look and feel. The ensemble sounds glorious the moment they start singing which is when I felt it was more of an operetta than a Broadway show. (Shout out to Ben Crawford in the ensemble who always grabs my eye any time he's in a show.)


The six main performers all bring the right amount of slapstick and humor to their roles. Completely in love with Mary Louise Wilson, Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath. I also feel I owe Andy Karl an apology for my review from Rocky after seeing him in this. I had no idea of the range this man had (even though I had seen him as the UPS Man in Legally Blonde). He is absolutely wonderful in the role originally played by Kevin Kline. Perfect comedic timing - and yes…he knows how to use those muscles. I've been a fan of Peter Gallagher's for years and can't believe it was over 20 years ago since I saw him do Guys & Dolls on Broadway. He plays the aging cad of a producer/director wonderfully and I grew exhausted for him watching him crawl around the stage and giving 110%.


But yes, it is Kristin Chenoweth for which I'm sure this revival was done. The woman gets to show every inch of her talent in this role originated by Madeline Kahn (who only stayed in the show 6 weeks during the original show - Judy Kaye thanks her). The opera training shines through in this role and she sounds amazingly fierce. And she channels every comedic actress that has done farce before and yet manages to still make it her own. When she sings "Babette" in Act II and has a "Sybil moment" - WOW! She is a small force to be reckoned with and the audience eats her up. 

This is a limited run of this screwball comedy so if you are in the mood for a great laugh - get to 42nd street and see this show!