Intermission Talk

December 1st, 2015

End Your ‘Misery.’

Get ‘On Your Feet’

with ‘Dames at Sea’





Don’t you wanna just disgorge when you read a column or commentary that purports to connect three separate items with some tenuous, credibility-stretching theme?  Some they-have-it-in-common element?  Some I’m-so-clever observation?  This is one of those.


Feet.  All three shows herein explored have ‘feet’ as an organizing factor.  Best to start with the most appropriate, which would be the new bio-musical about the life and career of Cuban pop singer Gloria Estefan: “On Your Feet!”


For those of you who may have spent the better part of the ’80s sequestered under a rock, the pulse-racing, blood-stirring beat of the musical group the Miami Sound Machine achieved record-breaking success when it accomplished the almost cliche-labeled feat [f-e-A-t] of crossing over.  This refers to any performer or group who manages to capture the attention and sustained following of an audience outside their original home base – think Dolly Parton skyrocketing herself out of the country music universe of Nashville, for instance.  For the Estefans, it’s a even more noteworthy achievement, because their original home base speaks, sings and dances in Spanish.  There are credible comparisons to the “Dreamgirls” saga – a ‘sound’ that defines the emotions of a particular culture, refined to its best level, and then promoted and marketed with super-human energies, until it begins to find a niche in the larger world of recorded music.


Most rags-to-riches stories have common chapters along the way to their ultimate, victorious conclusion, and in that respect, this one is no different.  When Emilio Estefan, the band’s organizer and Gloria’s husband, faces off with a reluctant record producer who is not convinced the Estafans will appeal to a wider [translation: whiter] following, Estefan goes nose-to-nose with him, stating with complete conviction: “You should look very closely at my face, because whether you know it or not . . . this is what an American looks like.”  This line needs no ‘Applause’ sign to trigger a riotous response from the house.   Gloria’s mother supplies the requisite opposition to the idea of having her daughter strike out as a singer, in part because her own dream was squashed by her mother.  When Gloria’s mother was a little girl in Cuba, her singing talents propelled her to the point where Hollywood came calling, to lure them to the movie capital of the world where she would become the Latin-dubbed voice of megastar Shirley Temple.  Her mama said ‘no,’ and now, she’s doing the same.


It is Gloria’s father, back from serving in Vietnam, and crippled with MS, who lets his daughter’s dream have a chance.  Despite a lack of any kind of formal training, Gloria’s talent convinces Emilio that she has the voice and the chemistry to front his MSM plans.  Their chart-topping hits, such as “Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “1-2-3,” “Reach,” and this show’s title hit “Get On Your Feet,” have sold more than 100 million records and earned two dozen Grammy Awards.


Like most bio-musicals of this genre, there is/was a major setback.  While on tour, the bus carrying Gloria, Emilio and the band, overturned on an ice-slicked highway in the Poconos.  Gloria suffered multiple injuries, among them a broken back and a broken voice.  Her fierce determination to regain all her abilities paid off, and sooner than doctors, family and friends expected or counseled.  She recovered fully, and resumed her dazzling career.  While the tale of an artist or athlete recovering so completely from a major accident is not unique, it is rare, and in this instance, even more compelling, since her health dictated whether all the people around her, professionally, could also continue to work.  [A similar occurrence, but without the added dimension of affecting so many careers,  happened seventy + years ago, when major singing star Jane Froman survived a plane crash in 1943, and most people in and out of show business wrote off her career.  With legendary fortitude, Froman fought her way back to health, and despite a leg amputation that left her permanently confined to a wheelchair, capped off her comeback  when she starred in the Broadway revue “Artists and Models.”  Her life story also received the bio-musical treatment – it was a movie, titled “With a Song in My Heart,” after one of her biggest hits, with Susan Hayward playing the lead.  Froman dubbed the singing.]


“On Your Feet!” benefits from deliberate production decisions that enhance the entire experience.  It would be easy to let the show ‘ride’ on the music alone, but this musical also features valuable design work, most critically, from SCK Sound Design, which means we can hear the lyrics!  This show also provides choreographer Sergio Trujillo his best chance yet to display his versatility.  And the by-now Broadway veteran, director Jerry Mitchell, keeps the pact clipping along, to match the forward-moving pace of the music.


Most significantly, like the producers of the Carole King bio-musical “Beautiful,” who struck gold by casting Jesse Meuller in the title role, this production also hit the jackpot, finding the multi-talented, energy-to-spare Ana Villafane to portray Gloria.  It’s hard to side-step the usual adjectives that describe young Latina performers:  spicy, firecracker, fiery, hot, etcetcetc.  But . . . they all fit!  She’s all those, and much much more, because her talent, like the woman she portrays, extends beyond the musical.  Villafane, making a stunning Broadway debut, brings out the emotional roller-coaster this young woman underwent, escaping her mother’s negativity, growing from her father’s watchful gaze, and the adoring attention of millions.


When romance novelist Paul Sheldon opens his eyes, he finds himself confined to bed in a homey little room in a modest little house, tucked away on a quiet little road, in the Colorado hills.  Victim of a serious auto accident that left him incapacitated, his fate rests in the caring hands of a quirky middle-aged former nurse, who describes herself as his ‘biggest fan.’  The serial heroine in Paul’s pot-boiler best-sellers is named Misery, and this mostly two-hander from William Goldman, who adapted it from the Stephen King thriller, also titled “Misery,” is so named as well.  More than a quarter century ago, James Caan and Kathy Bates starred in the feature film version, which earned Bates her Oscar.  Now, in residence at the Broadhurst Theatre, is Goldman’s stage adaptation, starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf in the lead roles.




To succeed as a thriller, on stage, a script must keep delivering unpredictable swerves, and quicksilver ricochets.  A listing of the better ones would include “Wait Until Dark,” “Deathtrap” and “Ten Little Indians.”  Sadly, that list will not include this “Misery.”  And why . . . ?  Simply put, not enough thrills.


Every good cat-and-mouse tale relies an equal pairing of participants.  If one is stronger, smarter, quicker or even more sympathetic than the other, the balance is tilted.  No contest.  In a brief description, and I’m told, in the novel, Paul and his ‘keeper,’ Annie, may appear to be evenly-matched.  He’s a worldly, able-bodied [until now], clever male; she’s an agile, thoughtful, single-minded, obsessive female.  What one lacks the other can benefit from.  In this case, the man’s obvious physical advantage is compromised because he’s bed-ridden.  And it soon becomes obvious that Annie ain’t about to let him recover, and return to the wider world.  She can hardly believe her luck – the one person she admires more than anyone, the person who created a fictional heroine who Annie dotes on, is confined to her care.  And as soon as it becomes clear that he plans to kill off the hapless Misery, the hapless Annie springs into action, resorting finally to a gruesome, brutal act that involved an axe and an action that renders useless Paul’s feet.


So, you say – isn’t that thriller material?  Could be.  What’s missing, is that balance.  And the inequality here lies in the acting.  Whether you like or don’t like Willis on the big screen, he can count himself among the group of cinema stars who haven’t been able to adjust to the rigors, the challenges, the nuances, the demands of stage acting.  The slightest flicker of emotion can be picked up by the camera.  On stage, that flicker is lost to all but those fortunate few in the first three rows, center.  And more than any other genre, the thriller banks on feeling, along with the protagonist, the sense of dread, of fear, of pending doom.  Willis’s performance at its best merely acknowledges these feelings, instead of making them real.


On the other hand, Laurie Metcalf’s Annie bristles with life.  Metcalf is saddled with the burden of being identified always with the Emmy-winning role of Jackie in the television sitcom “Roseanne,” despite numerous other instances that prove her versatility and skill.  Hers  is a career that I’ve followed since Metcalf first took to the stage, with fellow Steppenwolf players, in Chicago.  She once told me her introduction to theatre came as a kind of lark, when, as an office worker, she accompanied a friend to the early try-outs that John Malkovich, Gary Sinese and a few friends decided to form a theatre company, and performed in a converted bowling alley space.  Hers is a natural, visceral talent, one that instinctively finds the meter and rhythm in the writing, the humor in the situation, the heartbeat in the character.  Here, she manages one of the most difficult undertakings for any actor – re-visiting a character whose previous incarnation was so vivid, it could be capable of wiping any subsequent interpretation off the map, in this case, that of Bates as Annie.  However, Metcalf locates other life-giving moments in her Annie.  The problem lies with an audience that can’t shake the ‘funny lady’ association Metcalf created on television, which results in laughter at some critical plot points.   Even when she succeeds in drawing out the menace in Annie’s care-giving, her acting partner lets  her down.   Another case of ‘cast a famous screen name, and they will come.’  Well, I suppose they will.  And it’s possible her efforts will result in a Tony nomination.  Where are the adventurous producers who will locate a vehicle for her that doesn’t rely on the stunt casting for other roles, to boost box office?  How about a revival of William Inge’s “Dark at the Top of the Stairs?”  Imagine Metcalf as Rosemary in “Picnic,” another Inge classic.  Or Josie in O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten.”


It may have been a miscalculation to entrust the adaptation chores to screenwriter William Goldman, because a theatre audience does not have the benefit of seeing a character in peril, in close-up.  Perhaps director Will Frears wasn’t able to master the challenge of presenting what is, in essence, a ‘small’ story in the cavernous Broadhurst Theatre, seating capacity 1,186, which was built in 1917 to accommodate both dramas and musicals.   In hindsight, it’s ironic that the character Willis portrays tells Annie ‘You have saved me.”  If only . . .


And finally, the happiest feet of all, the ones tap, tap, tapping away on the boards at the Helen Hayes Theatre, in service to “Dames at Sea.”  When this spunky little rhinestone first glistened downtown at the legendary Cafe Cino fifty years ago, the concept was fresh: marry the send-up style that takes aim at the gee-whiz movie musicals of the thirties, and the can-do-without spirit of summer stock.  Result: a six-person cast, a reinforced cardboard set, pastel-based costumes, and eight musicians in the pit.   And the book?  It’s about the girl [one of the ‘another hundred who got off of the train’] who wowed ’em back home in her high school revue, and zeroed in on the closest theatre in Times Square, the minute her time-stepping tootsies hit the pavement.  And as luck [or in this case, a gob named Lucky] would have it, our heroine Ruby [monikered in a tribute to Ruby Keeler], crosses paths with a couple of honest-to-goodness sailors, one of whom is Ruby’s love at first sight gag.


When Jim Wise [music] and the writing team of George Haimsohn and Robin Miller [book and lyrics] created “Dames at Sea,” the practice of milking Hollywood oldies was still new.  Today, it’s de rigueur for any collection of ambitious musicals-inclined group of kids with a piano, a barn and three summer months to play around in.  And some of the songs the show introduced have taken up permanent residence in the repertoires of songsters of a certain age, including “Broadway Baby,” “It’s You” and “That Mister Man of Mine.”


And when the show Ruby has been tapped to step into loses its lease on a theatre, Act Two finds the undaunted troupe on the deck of those sailors’ battleship, giving it all they’ve got, and then some.  All six cast members – John Bolton, Mara Davi, Danny Gardner, Eloise Kropp, Lesli Margherita and Cary Tedder – are proof that there is an ample supply of exceptional musical talent to be seen and heard within the eight square blocks around Times Square.  Visiting “Dames at Sea” may not offer any surprises, but, hey!  That’s the value, every now and again, of turning back the clock and settling in to a pastiche from the past.  These happy feet will put a smile on your face.




Switching gears to elite feet, ’tis the season to bask in the collective glories of Tschaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Ballet.”  A filmed presentation of the George Balanchine interpretation will be screened in 27 metro-area movie houses on 12/5 (12:55 pm) and 12/10 (7 pm).  Visit for details.   And to see the New York city Ballet’s live production, which has begun its run, visit for details. . . . the 8Players theatre experience kicks off a limited engagement, now through January 23rd, at undisclosed locations in the Village and downtown Brooklyn.  This immersive, interactive adventure immerses only eight audience members per show, as ever-changing plots challenge even the most veteran of theatre-goers, in scenarios such as ‘Girls Boarding School Melodrama’ and ‘Erotic Thrillers from the ’80s.’  If you are up to being stimulated, shocked and generally mind-tossed, visit to find out the whys and wherefores . . . and a gentle reminder to readers coming to Town during the holidays: many shows have expanded or altered performing schedules through January 1st.  To find out about the weekly schedules for all shows, check out


On Book


To soak in all the atmosphere, antics and big-chorus production numbers of the ’30s that “Dames at Sea” cheerfully celebrates, here are three books that will let you peek behind those curtains.  Start with the easy, breezy memoirs of P.G.Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, two writers whose names graced numerous Great White Way playbills, such as “Sally” and “Very Good Eddie.”  It’s titled “Bring On The Girls! – The Improbable Story of Our Life in Musical Comedy, with Pictures to Prove It,” from the publisher Limelight . . . for the big, big, bigger chronicle, Stanley Green’s comprehensive “Broadway Musicals of the 30s,” a Da Capo large edition paperback, with an introduction by Brooks Atkinson, features dozens and dozens of production stills, rehearsal shots, posters, playbill covers and stories galore . . . and tracking the musicals that made their way West, the massive [but every page a treasure] Ted Sennett tome “Hollywood Musicals,” from Abrams Publishing, is hefty enough to replace rather than simply grace the coffee table.  You’ll get lost in its pages, and come out singing . . . and to take a closer look at the plays of William Inge mentioned as great properties for Laurie Metcalf, pick up “William Inge – Four Plays,” a Grove Press collection.  “Inge reveals the powerful mysteries in our lives.”  That’s Tennessee Williams talking.




TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’  His play “Admissions” won the Best Play award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts.  His play ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge.  He has written about the performing arts in Parade, Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor an dozens of other publications.  He currently teaches theatre sessions at the 92nd St. Y.  His new play “Labor Days” is in pre-production.




CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978,  has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at or 212 – 666 – 6666.










Intermission Talk

November 16th, 2015

“Sylvia” Is Not

“Finding Neverland”

with “Therese  Raquin”






There’s a commendably hard-working cast of six currently presenting a very welcome production of A.R. Gurney’s adult farce, “Sylvia.”  Who are they?  They are Julie White, Matthew Broderick, Annaleigh Ashford, Robert Sella, Robert Sella and Robert Sella.  It’s a slightly wacky, off-center version of unexpected adultery, threatening to cause a staid, comfortable couple to uncouple, except that, in this tail tale, the third party is a dog, here named Sylvia, embodied [personalized] by a truly magnetic Annaleigh Ashford.  White, a schoolteacher, and Broderick, some sort of marketing type, have finally emptied the house of college-bound children, and their empty-nest syndrome generates entirely opposite reactions.  While she delights in the quiet, he is almost morose with his inconsequentiality.  A stray dog, brought home from the park, creates the wedge.

Sylvia Cort Theatre Robert Sella Matthew Broderick Julie White Annaleigh Ashford Production Credits: Daniel Sullivan (director) David Rockwell (scenic design) Ann Roth (costume design) Japhy Weideman (lighting design) Other Credits: Written by: A.R. Gurney - See more at:

But what of those other three?  While Ashford manages to frolic through every sort of doggie behavior to everyone’s sheer delight, and White makes perfect use of her comedic ‘exasperation’ talents, [I’m too polite to heap scorn on Broderick’s lazy, irritating, whiny-based performance – if you’ve seen him in his last couple of stage outings, enough said], it is Sella who deserves real adoration.  Working actors who turn in great, but brief renderings amidst scenes involving the primary characters rarely receive the major adjectives.  At first, Sella bounds onto the stage, into one of David Rockwell’s cheery pop-up book Central Park sets, tending to his own canine surrogate child, lending Broderick the kind of encouragement that leads to a home for the stray.  He then appears [in idealized drag], as an uptight friend of White, aghast at how the dog has so unnerved her dear friend.  And finally, Sella shines as a gender-bending therapist who provides no help at all in resolving the domestic distress.  A great play this ain’t.  A very funny execution of a pretty clever comedy sketch premise it surely is.   And it also serves to solidify Ashleigh’s emergence as the Judy Holliday of her generation, with minute-to-minute total discipline, making every twitch and yelp, every crotch-sniff and couch invasion, pay off with big big laughs.



Do not venture to Studio 54 if you’re seeking laughs.  But do make it your destination if it’s stirring, satisfying dramatic story-telling you’re craving, during a season when it’s in short supply.  In a dour representation of the consequences of real-world, nineteenth-century adultery and murder,  The Roundabout Theatre Company does itself proud with its 50th season production of Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of the Emile Zola novel “Therese Raquin.”  Set amid rather spare living conditions in a small French village on the River Seine, and in Paris, in 1868, the title heroine finds herself consigned to a life of marginal servitude, the wife in a loveless marriage to her gangly, graceless distant cousin, and helpmate to his manipulative mother.  And throughout the newly commissioned work’s first act, it is her near-silent evocation of intense but hopeless desperation, from versatile film actress Keira Knightley, [her stage debut], that rivets our attention.  She has mastered the kinds of wordless expressions that would have made her a silent films drama queen a century ago, with long stretches of fixed gazes, and unspoken longings..  Her only verbal confessions are expressed to her lone ‘friend,’ the river.  Ironically, it is the river who will provide the circumstances that free her from the marriage vows that seem to be strangling her.


When her husband [a pitifully bland Gabriel Ebert] and mother-in-law [another spot-on performance by Judith Light] decide to move to Paris, the emotionless Therese prays the new circumstances will finally give her a life.  And it does, in the person of Laurent [Matt Ryan, as an effortlessly sexy rogue family friend and struggling artist].  The death of her son seems to suck out all vitality from Light, who devolves into a skeletal shadow of her former self, in yet another remarkable transformation from this skillful, commanding actress.  And she welcomes Laurent into her home, unknowingly setting up the liaison that will curse all three.  When the two young people finally find themselves alone together, their pent-up volcano of passion explodes in unrestrained carnality.  The intensity of his sexual cravings for Therese are surprising, since someone as handsome as he is rarely experiences feelings of deprivation of any kind.  They have liberated each other, giving her the power to become expressive, and giving him the courage to admit his obsession with her.


How they plot to murder her inconvenient spouse, then carry it out, ticks off like plot points in a Hitchcock thriller. Director Cabnet, with an able assist from lighting designer Keith Parham, zones in on Knightley’s silent anguish by bringing down all the lights except for a cold spot on her [a trademark of film director Morton da Costa, who used it to great effect in “Auntie Mame” and “The Music Man”].  In a bizarre twist, it is her aggrieved mother-in-law, who generously worries about Therese’s widowhood, who suggests a marriage between her daughter-in-law and the friend who has taken to comforting the two women, his ploy to be near the object of his lust.  A kind of madness infects Therese, who ‘hears’ the spirit of her dead husband.  Therese can feel an accusing glare from the portrait of her husband, that Laurent painted, which has graced the dining room wall.  Slowly, relentlessly, the newlyweds’ love for each other turns to suspicions, as a kind of madness infests their relationship.  Are those ghostly aural emissions, and scratching noises at the window the accusatory moaning and sinister sounds of their murdered victim, determined to curse their happiness?  Has a vivid, morbid imagination finally condemned Therese to madness?  How it ends, and what it all stands for, can be counted on to deliver a jolt strong enough to last past the curtain calls.


The glories of a happy imagination give “Finding Neverland” what every child should enjoy, and what every adult should recapture,  As a re-telling of the life of J.M. Barrie, whose children’s books have delighted millions since they were written, this new musical, with a book by James Graham, and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, is a gift to parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts who are looking for that first Broadway musical to share with the child [or children] in their lives.


A chance encounter in London’s Kensington Park, with a young widowed mother, Sylvia, and her four gregarious sons, unleashes Barrie’s dormant imagination, helping him let go of the fears and obstacles that have lately prevented him from writing about the things he has deeply felt in his heart, since he was himself a child.  Broadway veteran [“South Pacific,” “A Light in the Piazza,” “Hairspray,” etc.] and T-V’s “Glee” alum Matthew Morrison gives Barrie an unexpected muscularity, coupled with his lilting vocal abilities.  A too-heavy Scottish accent hampers the early scenes of his performance, robbing us of the chance to hear the lilting lyrics.  Stuck in a loveless marriage, Barrie welcomes the creative and emotional outlet he finds whenever in the company of  Sylvia and her brood.   When Barrie finally realizes that the playfulness he enjoys with the children is in fact what his writings have lacked, a whole new world opens up for him.  In championing the virtues of letting loose all the possibilities your imagination can create, Barrie invents a fantasy world he calls Neverland, where growing up does not rob you of your dreams, and all good things last eternally.  And when the oldest boy, Peter, takes a stab at writing his own story/play, Barrie helps Peter, and in turn his brothers, recapture the joyfulness they lost with the death of their father.  [Barrie, as the vehicle for helping the young boys reclaim their lost innocence, has the distinct echo of Prof. Harold Hill’s positive effect on Marion’s brother Winthrop].  Morrison’s gentle Barrie lends non-judgmental support to young Peter [and even names the main character in his book after him], anointing a self-doubting Peter with the declaration “You ARE a writer, Peter.”


As Sylvia, the comely Laura Michelle Kelly exudes the kind of naturalness that marks the best film performances of Kate Winslet, a wholesome beauty without a trace of any unseemly characteristics, at ease with the boundless energy of her four boys.  One can easily imagine what a perfect heroine Kelly’s “Mary Poppins” must have been,  in that show’s London production.


Spurring him on to write a new play – any new play – is his longtime producer, played with dutiful engagement by a silver-haired Terrence Mann.  When the producer’s pressure to generate a new work for him to present to the public, Barrie finally notes the obvious – it is his time with, and enjoyment of Sylvia’s sons that have given him the most pleasure to date.  What their imagination has unleashed, and what Barrie crafts into the familiar tale of an always-young Peter Pan, the twinkling fairy Tinkerbell, the Darling children, the infamous villain Captain Hook, and all the attendant young residents of Neverland, is the timeless ‘fairy play’ “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.”


And it is the central role of one’s imagination in keeping childhood alive in all of us that seems to have inspired director Diane Paulus.  Instead of relying heavily on all sorts of high-tech tricks, special effects and fancy theatrics, Paulus has kept things simple, which is not to say reality-infected, or lacking in great entertainment values.  One of the most effective, and moving sequences involves the boys imagining the freedom that flying would grant, as black-clad figures quietly enter, and each in turn lifts the boys into the air, legs rotating, arms flapping, their faces lighting up with the magic they are experiencing.  Paulus is no stranger to bringing fantastic tales to the stage, such as in the recent revivals of “Hair” and “Pippin,” so it is all to her credit that she keeps the special moments from being overburdened with technical underpinnings – a testament to the power of magic.



Yes, there is life, and great theatre, beyond the Broadway Theatre District!  Case in point: a new work by AUDELDO award-winner Cheryl Davis, titled “Carefully Taught,” being presented by the Astoria Performing Arts Center, at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, in Astoria Queens.  Her drama centers on two schoolteachers – one white and one black – and how their loyalty and friendship are shaken when one of them loses her job. Check out the details at . . . Primary Stages has expanded its Free Student Matinee program with the introduction of Tixteen, enabling NYC middle and high-school students to attend their productions free of charge.  Learn more at  . .  and another innovative undertaking focusing on high school students, “Prospect High: Brooklyn,” conceived by Daniel Robert Sullivan, is underway from Roundabout Theatre Company’s education director Jennifer DeBella, in partnership with the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships.  The powerful examination of serious contemporary issues will eventually be presented in 23 high school productions across the country, starting now in New York, and then across the country.  Details are available at, with the script available on Amazon and directly from Smith & Kraus.

On Book

If you’re new to discovering the magic of musical theatre, and would like to be more familiar with its language and history, a thoughtful compendium to guide you along is Robert Blumenfeld’s “Dictionary of Musical Theater,” a Limelight Editions volume from the Hal Leonard Corporation . . . and for more from the marvelous mind of  A.R. Gurney, check out the series of collections of his plays from Smith and Kraus, which contain such popular favorites as “Love Letters,” and “The Dining Room” . . . and if you’re too busy to tackle an entire book, pick up a wide-ranging collection of essays called “Joy Ride – Show People & Their Shows,” from author and critic John Lahr.  He casts a critical eye on three categories of subjects: playwrights, productions and directors, each one brimming with insight and wit.




TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions,” a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts, and his play “Maisie & Grover Go to the Theatre,” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has written about the performing arts since 1966, in dozens of publications, including Parade, USA Today, Rolling Stone, Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine and many others.  He teaches theatre sessions at the 92nd St. Y, and other institutions.  His new play “Labor Days,” is in pre-production.




CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk, in business since 1978.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at or 212 – 666-6666.











Intermission Talk

October 25th, 2015

A “Fool for Love”

Plays “The Gin Game,”

His “Spring Awakening”

Recalling “Old Times”



Perhaps someone brighter than I [translation: almost everyone] can explain what was in the zeitgeist in 1983. In that same year, John Patrick Shanley inflicted rough love from Roberta onto Danny in the Bronx, in “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” while Sam Shepard paired another tortured twosome, Eddie and May, on the edge of the Mojave Desert, in “Fool for Love.” In both mini-sagas, the undertakings are overshadowed by the menacing influences of the fabled Apache Dance. As their men withdraw attention, the women beat up on them, latch onto them and a fair amount of slapping around ensues.


Casting, as Arthur Miller was fond of saying, is 85% of the battle in determining whether a production will succeed.   Here, the quotient tops off at 100. Sam Rockwell inhabits Eddie with the unsettling intensity the role requires. Rockwell, another of the stand-out alumnae of John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s LAByrinth Theater Company, carries on the meticulous characterizations he’s become noted for, including in the Stephen Adly Guirgis classic “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” He could be the love child of James Dean and Bonnie Parker. And Nina Arianda continues to enhance her growing rep as one of her generation’s most important actors, displaying here the fearlessness that helped her explode onto the scene a few seasons back in “Venus in Fur.” For those who enjoy making these types of comparisons, Arianda closely follows in the hallowed footsteps of Bette Davis. Yes, there’s that dismissive squint of her eyes, from time to time, that lets you know there’s always something else going on behind them that you will not be permitted to understand fully.


At rise, May has perched herself on the edge of a ramshackle bed, along with two small tables, a couple of chairs and a coat rack, the only pieces in a desolate, stark southwest motel room where she has taken refuge. The two had been co-habiting in a tin-walled mobile home until something triggered her latest need to light out to anywhere where he was not. And, as has happened before, he has found her.


Rarely are a playwright’s stage directions executed in the way one imagines he had in mind. Here, though, when Shepard directs the actor playing his May to ” . . .erupt furiously, leaping off the bed and lashing out at him wild-eyed and angry,” Arianda more that delivers the goods.   If one draws from its environs, her behavior, her fury resembles those wild, never-broken stallions Gable, Wallach and Clift faced down in “The Misfits.”


Realities that are presented include how this pair of scorpions in a bottle first met as teen-agers, lovers and rebels, only to learn they shared the same father. The forbidden attraction only grew with time. Illusions that are presented include the dusty, weary old man seated just outside the stage frame [done perfectly shabbily and liquor-soaked by Gordon Joseph Weiss], that careless father who goads them from time to time, never making much of an impact. Rounding out the jagged ensemble is Martin, [Tom Pelphrey, in a clean characterization], a hopelessly clueless local whose bad timing has him arriving for a date with May at the worst possible time. And it all melds together via the whip-smart, raw, organic direction of Daniel Aukin.


“Fool for Love” remains one of Shepard’s more accessible accomplishments, with its welcome balance of the actual and the fantastic. It’s most like a world-class roller coaster – the dips and plunges, although fairly predictable as to when they will hit, still provide more thrills than most of the other rides in the amusement park. You don’t get on because you’re captivated by an uncertain ending. There is a definite certainty that this is one helluva journey. And with Rockwell and Arianda doing the driving . . . tremors galore.


Let’s get the obvious out of the way. James Earl Jones is 84. Cecily Tyson is 90. Together, their combined 174 eventful trips around the old running track of life constitute a commendable record of endurance and fortitude. Granted, happily.


It’s not just the fact that they are, alone and with only each other, carrying the nearly two hours of D.L. Coburn’s sturdy two-hander “The Gin Game.” They’ve infused their characters, Tyson’s Fonsia Dorsey and Jones’ Weller Martin, with specific traits that distinguish them from the couple’s previous ‘occupants.’ Having seen the original pair in 1976 [Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronin], and twenty years later, Julie Harris and Charles Durning, I can attest to how valuable the contribution is, of the current couple’s accumulated skills set, in bringing their roles to life with distinction.


Consigned to what commonly used to be labeled an Old-Age Home, they share the irritations and indignities inflicted on them, both from the far-less-than-luxe accommodations of this, their final residence, as well as how diminished their options have dwindled down to, when it comes to basic human companionship. Although they’ve each only been ensconced here a relatively short time [she: three weeks; he: a couple of months], they’ve concluded their waking hours are better spent in solitary self-confinement. So, when they each discover the welcome solace of the place’s rickety back porch, itself a repository of no-longer-needed or worn-out articles, they value their time there. At least, until they learn of the other’s similar discovery.


Using the card game as a sort of metaphor for how a person spends their life, Coburn weaves in exposition as skillfully as an award-winning embroiderer, life threads tatting in, out and around, to fashion a unique but somewhat familiar pattern. Weller’s sought-after respite from boredom, playing [and winning at] gin rummy loses its allure for him as Fonsia, gently goaded by him to engage in the cards, even while she pleads ignorance to its rules, chalks up victory after victory, always accompanied by a blue tirade from the man who fancied himself the master. An outwardly shy woman, she soon takes offense at his offensive language, which threatens to become a wedge them drives them apart.


As weeks pass, they discover hidden truths about each other, often revealed with an emotional display not usually part of their repertoire. With the able contributions of director Leonard Foglia, a few little behavioral embellishments seem to have been added for the twosome to perform – even though they are at once the feeblest of the Fonsias and Wellers Broadway has seen. Weller especially has been permitted a few surprising physical outbursts, almost to reaffirm how vital Jones still is – note the final moments when, in frustration at yet another defeat, he kicks in the always-locked back door.


Coburn has demonstrated a deceptively-simple type of playwriting. It’s tough enough keeping an audience’s attention when there’s very little actual moving about. But to attain that, with only basic life lessons the topic – a winning hand.


And if you miss seeing masses of movement on stage, the current revival of “Spring Awakening,” [book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik], will more than satisfy that thirst. Both director Michael Arden, and choreographer Spencer Liff [in his Broadway debut as full-fledged choreographer] make certain this high-voltage tale of sexual arousal, youthful rebellion and societal repression never slows down. Why revive a [admittedly remarkable Tony-winning] musical only nine years after its premiere run? This time, it’s the stunning product of Los Angeles’s Deaf West Theatre, which has double-cast the principal roles, with both hearing and hearing-impaired performers, a device first welcomed with the ground-breaking “Big River,” in 2003.


In a uniformly-accomplished ensemble, the three principal teen-age roles are achingly created by five actors: as Wendla, the guileless girl, unaware of her emerging fecundity, deaf Sandra Mae Frank, shares the stage with her singing counterpart, Katie Boeck; as the hyper-emotional Moritz, deaf Daniel N. Durant makes us feel how ultra-sensitivity can almost cripple a boy, even as his singing voice comes from Alex Boniello; and golden boy Melchior is handled in every aspect by a fetching Austin P. McKenzie. And the two women who fill the distaff roles contribute greatly to the proceedings, without pulling focus from the main teen characters, despite being presented by two well-known women, Camryn Manheim, and Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin.


All this angst unfolds in late 19th century Germany, represented on a minimalistic skeletal set that allows separate vignettes to play out, again with a pace that insures no empty moments. And some jolting visual images to register, such as an interwoven mesh of young bodies that form a human oak tree, and a cemetery scene that recalls the ending of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a kind of mirror image of innocent young people in a small town, a hundred and a quarter years ago.   Among the most impactful visuals is the sight of Manheim’s anguish at the lethal result of her mishandling of her daughter’s transgression. And when the boys collectively rage in “The Bitch of Living,” the result recalls the same energy unleashed a generation ago in “Rent.”


While none of the themes are new, there is a special double-edged passion evoked here by the marriage of hearing and deaf performers in many of the same roles. Are there problems? Yes, of course, chief among them the momentary disorientation of needing to locate who among those up there are doing the actual talking/singing. But you know what? If you were able to overcome the issue of a voice coming from one place, and meant to be the voice of someone else, in “Avenue Q,” you can handle it here.


In the glorious Orson Welles classic “The Magnificent Ambersons,” the Joseph Cotton character admonishes someone else to stop romanticizing the past, proclaiming “Old times? Forget them. There ain’t no times but new times.”  As blasphemous as it feels to state it, the current revival of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” belongs in the era of its premiere, in 1971.


One man, his [current] wife, and her former female friend [roommate? lover?] drift about in the couple’s high-end, converted barn living space, as the relationships get hinted at, poked and shaken up, causing all concerned to question the reliability of memory, and the value of it at all, when it may not be true at all. Pinter, in one of his Strindberg-echo dramas that had thinking people thinking during the apex of that brilliant writer’s career, did it so well. But its greatest contribution was the continuation of the style that dissected, deconstructed and denuded reality scenarios. Even with the spot-on performances from Clive Owen, Eve Best and Kelly Reilly, director Douglas Hodge, hampered at the start by an abstract set that screams for some eye relief, can’t force us to care much about the proceedings. And this from someone who chose to write his senior thesis on Pinter.


On Book


Which is not to say that there’s not great enjoyment to be gained from reading Pinter, to savor his language dexterity. Pick up “The Essential Pinter – Selections from the Work of Harold Pinter,” from Grove Press. This fine collection even includes Pinter’s ‘Art, Truth & Politics’ Nobel Lecture . . . and while you’re collecting collections, grab “Sam Shepard: Fool for Love and Other Plays,” from Dial Press. Ross Wetzsten contributed a great introduction . . . and finally, as musical theatre evolves, [see “Spring Awakening,” “Fun Home,” etc.], it’s really instructive to study work of the dynamic duo, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. The volume is called ‘Musical Scene Study: The Musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein,” and delves into the true basics of the construction of scenes in ‘Carousel,” “Oklahoma!,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music” and “South Pacific,” among others.





Speaking of ‘Oklahoma!,” to commemorate the 60th anniversary of its feature film release, a partnership between BY Experience and Rodgers & Hammerstain, An Imagem Company, will release a fully-restored film to be shown during more than 1,300 screenings nationwide. A special bonus with Oklahoma native Kristin Chenoweth performing songs from the score accompanies the event. To learn where you can see all this, visit . . . and an ambitious new program offering free theater tickets to NYC’s middle and high-school students is being launched by Primary Stages, who will be invited to attend special matinee performances.   For details, visit




TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series “Character Studies,” about theatre. His play “Admissions,” won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts. His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press. His writings on the performing arts have appeared in Parade, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other publications. His new play, “Labor Days,” is currently in pre-production. Currently, he teaches special workshops and classes at the 92nd St. Y, with a session on “The Music Man” slated for Tuesday, November 3.






Intermission Talk

September 10th, 2015

“Hamilton” Has Got

“Absolute Brightness.”

“Something Rotten!” It’s Not.




Great to be back.  Had some time to let this summer’s buzz dust settle.


Speaking of ‘back,’ back in 1959, the incomparable Sam Cooke, sang “Don’t know much about history; Don’t know much biology; Don’t know much about a science book; Don’t know much about the French I took.”  In those days, just about anyone under the age of nineteen nodded in recognition of that “Wonderful World.”  Today, it’s a good bet there’s still a very large slice of the American population on either side of nineteen who still don’t know much about history.  Also today, there ‘s a wonderful world performing its heart out eight times a week in a musical that does know about history.  It’s called “Hamilton,” and it does not expect you to know your history.


What it does expect is that you bring a kind of open-mindedness when you settle into your hard-won seats  at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.  This true gem of creative accomplishment packs more types of potential prejudice-prompting elements than anything else on Broadway, and that includes the rollickingly incendiary “Book of Mormon.”  Be prepared to re-assess your views on the legitimacy of rap and hip-hop as musical forms that can carry the burden of complex story-telling, the ascendancy of color-blind casting to its highest application yet, the mythologies surrounding the presumed sanctity of America’s Founding Fathers, whether a variety of street-based dance moves can be created to sustain an almost non-stop flow of a sung-through libretto and, well – just show up, shut up, watch and listen.


Lin-Manuel Miranda took on the same responsibility that a painter, a sculptor or a poet would, which is to say, he chose to do the whole thing.  Like creators of those other art forms, Miranda conceptualized his vision all of a piece – and it’s his words, his music, his lyrics, his vision and his performance in the title role that come together to give birth to this creation.  He was wise enough to gather round him superior, iconoclastic talents in the other areas needed to make a musical show, and it shows.


By now the tale of Miranda picking up Ron Chernow’s ginormous biography of Alexander Hamilton at an airport bookshop, and digesting the tome with fascination, has taken on the level of near mythological standing that the pained birth of “Rent” following the demise of its creator Jonathan Larsen has achieved.  It’s vital to imagine how all the distinct pieces it takes to make up a musical have emerged separate but equal, and in some cases, have been improved upon from their original appearances.  Those of us who did not grow up or try to grow hip listening to rap or hip hop can readily recall how we reflexively would recoil whenever an example of those musical styles would flow into our unwelcoming eardrums whenever someone younger than our, oh, favorite houseplant, would glide by us on the street.  Yet, throughout this show, the score has solid melody lines that recline without conflict, beneath the rap line.  A student since pre-teen years of Broadway standards and the internal structure of their story lines, where the lead character must belt out his/her “I Need. . .” song, Miranda accepts the importance of such a song in building his tale.  Here, Hamilton force-feeds us the declaration of his goals and objectives, in the chilling secular anthem “My Shot.”  The double meaning of the title in regard to Hamilton’s final moments of life, ended by a bullet in a duel with Aaron Burr, does not override the song’s power.  And he makes graceful use of hip hop’s inherent reliance on internal rhyme, a fading art that is resurrected.


[History of another sort lives on in this production.  Almost half a century ago, The Last Poets burst onto the musical scene, with their stinging rhymes recited to/with a percussive beat, a penetrating voice of the African-American civil rights movement.  Two versions of that group’s name emerged, drawing from the talents of Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain, David Nelson, Jalaluddin Masur Nuriddin and Umar Bin Hassan.  Their insistent spoken-word poems are often cited as among the earliest, and certainly most legendary influences on the birth and growth of hip hop.  Miranda did his homework; he knows his history.]


Hamilton forces his presence and will on the canvas of the era with his canny talent for dropping himself into the center of the action, and then letting anyone within hearing distance take in all his verbal self-referential encomiums.   Meanwhile, a man who becomes at the same time a soul mate and an adversary, Aaron Burr, also wends his way into the place where core principles are being shaped and adopted.  It is mostly Burr’s POV that supplies the narrative through-line.


No musical theatre artist can do it all – all.  And champions in key areas layer their brilliant choices on top of the elegance of Miranda’s formulations.  The very real danger of a kind of stagnation could certainly have swallowed the story whole, what with the suggested interior of a wooden and iron tavern interior.  David Korins overcomes that threat with the simplest of set design choices – a large round turntable that can move people and things from place to place, silently yet decisively.  The action, like the story, ‘moves.’  The hip hop music provides, because of Miranda’s language[s] propensity, plenty of ‘room’ to pack in loads of information.  However, the other use for a musical’s music is to underlay the patterns for its choreography.


Anyone who has spent seven or eight minutes during the last couple of decades on the sidewalks of most major cities can attest to the dancers’ acrobatic dexterity.  By minute number nine, though, it begins to look like there are about ten or eleven ‘steps,’ at most – result: admiration, but boredom.  In one of the wisest decisions among so many that define this collaborative endeavor, the selection of choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler provides an almost miraculous accomplishment – his choreography, which ranges from his pairings and triplets of characters who come together and drift apart, to full-stage formal couples-making-stage patterns that illustrate special events, require fancy dress and honor strict movements.  And the miracle is that, during the show’s entire, lengthy two acts, nothing looks repeated.  And the greatest compliment any stage director can receive is for someone to note that the director’s work seems invisible.  That’s the case here, where Thomas Kail has kept all the balls in the air, all the stories happening organically, and every moment doing its part to lead us into the next one, which we anticipate eagerly.


What boldly overrides all the predictable chatter and slush about color-blind casting is the power of great performances.  All these people, these history-book names and models for oh-so-many statues, portraits,  paper currency likenesses and elementary school namesakes – all these people are up there, and what we should be taking in is not the color[s] of their skin.  What we notice, and then cannot not fixate on, is their facial expressions.  Who they are, what they are doing and undoing, feeling and inflicting – it is all there, behind the eyes.


This is truly a production that draws from American [and world] history, to forge its own historical theatrical event.  The night I attended, my seat was three rows behind Meryl Streep.  I couldn’t help fantasizing how, when Miranda ends his run in the title role, she might entertain the notion of replacing him.  It could happen.


Now that “Hamilton” assures the future of musical theatre [see also “Fun Home”], one ponders  its origins.  Fortunately, John O’Farrell and the Kirkpatrick brothers [Karey and Wayne] have graciously emerged with a most unlikely answer, being conveyed eight times a week at the St. James Theatre.  Under the dazzling direction of Casey Nicholaw, who did splendid double time devising the eye-popping choreography, “Something Rotten!” lifts the veil on the birth of the musical.


Seems another pair of fraternal literary practitioners, back in 1595 London, found themselves forever overshadowed by a grandiloquent gent name of William Shakespeare.  Try as they might, Nick and Nigel Bottom could not get a break having their plays produced or appreciated.  Then, as legend would have it, a conveniently-placed soothsayer [name of Thomas Nostradamus] foresaw the emergence of a new style of theatricality – the “musical.”   And we are all so much better off because he was right.


This rollicking romp asks very little of you, except a little patience, as it spills itself out over the footlights relentlessly, tirelessly, almost ceaselessly.  One can imagine the giddiness that must have pervaded the creative and rehearsal processes, as sly reference after blunt parody from great musicals of the last sixty or so years get dropped into dialogue, lyrics, and even dance moves, as “West Side Story” gang choreography hits you, cheek-by-jowl with echoes of “Les Miz.”  From the opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” the exuberance levels of all concerned make for great good fun.  Familiar practitioners of the art of the musical fill out the cast beautifully, including Christian Borle, Brian d’Arcy James, Brad Oscar and David Hubbard.


Best of the best is Heidi Blinkenstaff, as Nick’s fierce spouse, spouting centuries-ahead-of-their-time feminist dictums, such as “This is the ’90s!  We’ve got a woman on the throne!”  Ever since she shook the rafters in [title of show,] Blickenstaff has delivered 110% in every role, including memorable turns in “The Little Mermaid” and “The Addams Family.”  If someone’s got a script with a mother-daughter pairing of two outrageous, fantastic dames, call Heidi and Debra Monk.


Throughout the telling, “Something Rotten!” benefits from its well-matched creative team.  The skill of the writers mining bits and bobs from Shakespeare, the glorious costume designs from Gregg Barnes [codpieces that house scraps of poetry], and above all, Casey Nicholaw’s inspired direction, come together to almost make you believe that it really happened this way.


Did it happen that way?  The question hangs like a dark cloud over “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkay.”  Count me among those who felt confident they could recall many of the salient details of the gruesome homicide that claimed the life of an exuberant , effusive, gender-defiant fourteen-year-old New Jersey boy, whose missing persons case led to the discovery of his murder, and formed the basis for James Lecesne’s riveting solo piece “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.”  Then, after seeing the play at the off-Broadway Westside Theatre/Downstairs, include me among those audience members gob-smacked to learn that it’s a total work of fiction.


Lecesne has crafted a noteworthy career built on three elements: advocacy in the ever-present universe of LGBTQ youths facing serious obstacles from others and within their own minds; producer/writer of an Oscar-winning short film [“Trevor”] that exposed how prevalent suicides are among that population, and creating captivating multiple-character stories he brings to life, playing all the roles.  This latest project, which gestated from adapting his 2008 young-adult novel into a simple stage piece originally seen at the Dixon Place, showcases all of his talents, and still delivers the kind of unique theatrical entertainment those who cherish great theatre are grateful for.


The writer/actor presents this tale with only a small table littered with a handful of disparate props [a dirty sneaker built up from gluing the sole-pieces of colorful flip-flops to its bottom, a silver money clip, a tube of lipstick, and more], and backed up by thoughtful projections courtesy of designer Aaron Rhyne and animator/photographer Matthew Sandager.   The clever composer Duncan Sheik supplies spot-on incidental music. With just these elements to aid him,  Lecesne relates the heart-rending details of young Leonard’s life and death, the impact this fearless gay young man unknowingly had on those whose lives he touched and the soul-searching his brutal homicide prompted.  One-person shows that feature actors gliding in and out of various personae have burgeoned into a healthy category of theatrical event, but few practitioners equal Lecesne’s abilities.  Lily Tomlin’s masterful performance in Jane Wagner’s “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” comes to mind.   Perhaps the fact that here, the actor is also the writer accounts for how smoothly he makes all the transitions.  His finely-tuned ear for voices and life-lines also may come from the fact that another of his accomplishments was serving as executive producer of the documentary film “After the Storm,” which follows the lives of a dozen teen-agers struggling to survive in post-Katrina New Orleans.  Any good reporter takes in the rhythms, slang and cadences of how people talk, along with what it is they are saying.


“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” offers an opportunity to see and hear, up close, one of the masters of this performance style, because Lecesne has joined that very small coterie of talented folk who can seamlessly segue from one story to another, weaving the chronicle of a crime resulting in one young man’s death, that forced others to call into question their own lives.




Whether you’re a Manhattan Baby, or plan to be in town for a stage-happy weekend, check out the return of the Off Broadway Alliance’s bi-annual celebration of all things O-B’way, with the return of its popular 20at20 program.  Between September 14th and October 4th, the Alliance will make available $20 tickets [cash only] to more than forty [40!] plays and musicals, twenty minutes before curtain.  The list is too extensive to, well, list, but the range and variety = impressive indeed, from, “MotherStruck,”  the next addition to Cynthia Nixon’s directorial career, and “The Berenstein Bears,” to a pair made for each other: “In Bed with Roy Cohn” and “Naked Boys Singing.”  Visit for the whole story . . .   not to be outdone, The Broadway League, partnering with about a dozen other organizations, is still running its two-for-one Broadway Week event, until September 20th.  Two dozen Main Stem tuners, plus “Old times,” “Hand to God” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”  are part of this line-up, from A [“Aladdin”] to, not exactly Z, but W [“Wicked”].   Details for this fest are at  . . .  and musical theatre phenom director/choreographer Susan Stroman gives puts the orchestra on hiatus when she returns to the Vineyard Theatre to helm her first straight play, Colman Domingo’s “Dot,” later in their 2015-2016 season.


On Book


If you’re determined to best the Bottom boys from “Something Rotten!” and take your own swipe at the Big Bad Bard, check out a marvelous entry in the Helm Information Ltd.’s Icons of Modern Culture series titled “That Man Shakespeare.”  This comprehensive edition walks you through Will’s life and career, and then zeroes in on each of his styles.  For a different view, purloin your own copy of Ken Ludwig’s “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare”  from your middle school kid’s backpack.  It’s a thoughtful, thorough-going overview that makes those speeches accessible . . . And if acting in one of his comedies is on the horizon, Janet Suzman’s four decades of experience performing the classic female roles has given her the best perspective on how to tackle some of those grand dames.  She authored “Acting with Shakespeare: Three Comedies,” one of the superb editions in the Applause Books Acting Series.  Maria Aitken served as general editor . . . Now that all eyes [and ears] have turned to “Hamilton” for the foreseeable future, let’s take a few moments to re-examine the past.  If you’d like to understand where all that finely-honed craftsmanship came from, you can see where it was nurtured in “In the Heights: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical,” also from Applause, its Libretto Library series.  There’s so much to uncover, so much to marvel at, when you slow-walk yourself through the pages of this compendium of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s christening,



TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions” received three New York productions, concluding with its win as Best Play at the New York International Fringe Festival.  He has covered the performing arts for nearly fifty years, in a variety of publications, including Dramatics Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Parade, Rolling Stone and Readers’ Digest.  He currently teaches theatre-related sessions at the 92nd St. Y, and will next conduct his “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . ” series there, interviewing James Naughton, on Monday, October 12.

Intermission Talk

July 29th, 2015

“Shows for Days”

Need “Amazing Grace”

Notes as “Preludes”


by Tony Vellela


From knowledge of Moss Hart’s achingly sentimental chronicle of his entry into the world of Broadway in “Act One,” to the homage to the vaudeville lives of closeted gay men he wrote about in “The Nance,” Douglas Carter Beane is in familiar, comfortable territory in his new comedy “Shows for Days,” now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. Beane has both the skills and the anecdotes to deliver a minor gem of a play about a young [still questioning] gay boy/man’s entry into the whirling world of theatre. In “Shows for Days,” the central character/narrator subconsciously brings himself to volunteer at his local community theatre, and with little resistance, finds himself both on stage speaking lines, and offstage, writing them.


Beane’s real-life adolescent coming-of-stage took place in Reading, in southeastern Pennsylvania, a small town struggling to stay viable, in 1973.   The tale is told by the mid-teens Car, [short for Carter?], as he ignores the fourth wall to explain to the audience the backstories of the circumstances, and in particular the emotions, as they unfold. The Newhouse thrust stage enhances a casual informality. Beane, with the able assistance of director Jerry Zaks, has found in Michael Urie the ideal candidate to step into that pivotal role. Urie, all jutting elbows, levitating eyebrows and toothy grins, [and liberated from his star-making turn in la Streisand’s basement mall in “Buyers and Cellars”], provides just enough angular physicality to convincingly represent a fourteen-year-old’s un-tethered life challenges. Car, as has happened with a handful of other art-driven Reading thespians, has been pulled into the orbit of the magnetic Irene, a mesmerizing, organizing, dramatizing life force brought to full-measure life by our real-life life force, Patti LuPone.   Her persona magna is given the full visual measure of spark and fire, and then some, by costumer extraordinaire William Ivey Long, missing no opportunity to dress her in gold-lame, shiny satin-esque outfits.


The basics in “Shows for Days” will ring true to anyone who has done time in community or summer theatre. Aspirations and expectations far exceed possibilities and actualities. What makes the enterprise so captivating is the genuine dedication of those devoted souls, to deliver ‘culture’ to the masses, whether they like it or not. [I spent a few summers in that realm in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, and know whereof I speak. I once produced a season of summer theatre at the ambitious, naive, and blindly determined age of 22, opening our season with Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in its unedited, stark entirety. Without fail, at every performance, when Martha calls George a prick, about a third of the offended, shocked house would stand up and indignantly march out. And, no, they did not get a refund.]


The Prometheus Players’ doyenne Irene is also not one to be deterred. What Beane has done so charmingly is marry the facts [or their reasonable facsimiles] to invented events, yielding a comedy that would make Hart, George S. Kaufman, et al, proud of their incidental protege.


This is not high drama, but it is also not low comedy. Beane has structured the telling in a rehearsal-room sized space, with the floor marked out in various colors of masking tape, and then given Car/Beane permission to guide us through the antics. Along with its natural flow and easy presentation, Beane has fashioned a piece that itself becomes a prime candidate for any community, summer or university theatre to captivate its audience, as the players pull from their own resources, reflect on their own ambitions and along with their audience, have lots and lots of fun.


The real “Shows for Days” doyenne could certainly be credited with discovering Beane. There’s something special about ‘discovering’ new talent. I’m reminded of my first opportunity to see Michael Shannon, in the off-Broadway production of Tracy Letts’ “Bug,” at the Barrow Street Theatre. Similar good memories accompany my recollection of seeing the incandescent Lily Rabe, in Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” at the Roundabout. Doesn’t matter whether you are late to the ‘discovery’ party. When you personally experience a talent like those, and others such as Patricia Clarkson, or Dana Ivey – you remember. So it was, seeing Gabriel Ebert as Jonathon/Miranda in Harvey Fierstein’s tender “Casa Valentina.” Finding out that he was heading the cast of Dave Malloy’s “Preludes,” about a complex, troubled period in the life of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, [1873-1943] provided the push I needed to see a play about a subject very unfamiliar to me.


It paid off. Ebert inhabits the volatile Russian with every ounce of his energy, pumping up every nerve ending to the max, while all the while paying rapt attention to each moment’s tensions, splayed out across the footlights. His is indeed an historic performance. Set, according to the Playbill, ‘in the hypnotized mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff, in Moscow, 1900,’ this piece shakes out the demons, confronts [or attempts to] the terrors that great artists of any persuasion must face, before they overtake him. His listless behavior threatens to rob him of the vitality needed to do the creating he was meant to give the world.


With the exception of one piece by Mussorgsky and Golenishchev-Kutuzov, and one by Beethoven, all the music is either by Rachmaninoff, or original work by Malloy.  What he has done is construct a rhapsody for the stage. He uses a narrative device employing three different individuals, to explain the actual, tormented, psychologically-battered three-year period Rachmaninoff survived. He was, after all, recognized as being in possession of great gifts, and counted among his personal mentors from the age of ten, the legendary Tchaikovsky. When we join Rachmaninoff’s story, he is in his early twenties, and had been primed for a breakout concert, when it all fell apart. Chief among the explainers of this lamentable period is the hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl, summoned by the composer’s wife Natalya Satina, to cure her husband of the deep doldrums he had fallen into. This nightmare period seized him when, at age 24, his Symphony no. 1 in D minor, op. 13, premiered in St. Petersburg, under the drunken baton of conductor Alexander Glazunov. The concert was a shambles. Result: the young composer’s reputation spiraled downward, and the disastrous performance very nearly could have resulted in a suicide.


Instead, Dahl forced him to confront every demon and fear. Rach, as he is called here, is abetted by his alter ego dubbed the full Rachmaninoff, who is tasked with doing the actual piano-playing, portrayed perfectly by Or Matias.   Malloy, and his dexterous director Rachel Chavkin, escort us through the labyrinthine chambers of Rach’s mind, with drop-in visits from Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Czar Nicholas II, among others, all courtesy of excellent portrayals by Chris Sarandon, with no apologies for anachronisms and fanciful fictions woven into the facts of Rach’s life and times. This eclectic, eccentric melding of styles bears strong echoes of the legendary “Dr. Selavy’s Magical Theatre,” Richard Foreman’s 1972 creation wherein a hapless Ben undergoes various musical ‘treatments’ to cure his madness, drawing from lyrical folk music, Tin Pan Alley and “Hair,” all of it decked out in a riot of disparate objects, textures, colors and sounds. Malloy and Chavkin make maximum use of the unbridled talents of their creative team [Mimi Lien’s sets, Paloma Young’s costuming, Bradley King’s lighting, Matt Hubbs’ sound design, synthesizer musicians Wiley DeWeese and Emily Marshall, and musical director Matias].

But Foreman invented Ben. Malloy is ‘honoring’ the very real Rach. And if there’s a ‘rub,’ it is that ‘Preludes” promises to reveal an understanding of the submergence and subsequent re-emergence of the state of mind of a genius. Tantalizing as it is, the masterful piece concludes with some unfilled expectations. Case in point: the taunting query near the close of act two, about why a piece with four sharps is so difficult to play. As it happens, the real-life Rach was known to have large hands, a wide ‘spread’ of fingers and thumbs. Four sharps are difficult to play because it involves four black notes on the keyboard. In a key with flats or sharps [flats being certain white notes lowered, and sharps being white notes raised, the position of the hand is different, requiring a reach to keys farther apart. That’s why the C-major scale [on the piano = all white notes] is the easiest to play.


And in case you’re still wary of witnessing this glorious piece, based on the life of a Russian composer you think you don’t know, recall, please: the haunting melody behind Frank Sinatra’s mega-hit “Full Moon and Empty Arms” is a direct lift from Rach; the Geoffrey Rush character in “Shine” performed a Rach piece before suffering his breakdown; Tom Ewell plays Rach’s 2nd piano concerto for Marilyn Monroe in “Seven-Year Itch;” NASA named the 290 K-wide impact basin on Mercury after Rach; his influences can be heard in Muse’s “Space Dementia” et al – need I go on?


My recommendations: [1] see this remarkable achievement that provides a dazzlingly well-written role for Gabriel Ebert, and nearly explodes the musical theatre form, and [2] if possible, bring an accomplished musician as your guest.



A different kind of musical creation story is being told in “Amazing Grace,” the new show at the Nederlander Theatre, featuring music and lyrics by Christopher Smith, and book by Smith and Arthur Giron. Musical director Joseph Church also supplied incidental music.


Just about everyone, from President Obama to the very occasional visitor to any Christian ceremony, will recognize the title song. Its message of hope, inspiration and devotion can be heard thousands of times every day, everywhere. Its composition is the product of John Newton, an 18th-century British slave-trader, who was for a time caught up in his father’s business of the trafficking in human beings, kidnapped from Africa, or in some cases, bought outright from the native rulers in the countries of their origin. All the elements of this saga, despite some shifting of the real particulars, strike deep, as much or more now, in light of our recent infestation of racist occurrences. Newton, played and sung with ringing conviction by Josh Young, finally cut his ties to the trade, and to his father, only reconciling when the senior Newton himself saw light. As Newton’s sorely-tested fiancee Mary, Erin Mackey lends a silvery soprano voice that puts her squarely in the company of Kelli and Kristin.   And the towering Chuck Cooper provides another kind of ballast to the proceedings, as Newton’s paternal-substitute slave, Thomas.


While there is certainly room to criticize this daring undertaking, there are stellar moments that generate chills. They include the depiction of young, black bodies being branded like cattle, an image that is not easily forgotten, and should not.


“Amazing Grace” easily fulfills its promise to captivate the senses, and at the same time explore serious issues. The story line is clean and clear – a blessing when, at times, plot lines seem often to spin out of control in other undertakings. Discovering these in a well-presented combination, especially for those who seek out the chance to introduce their children to the joys of A-list performances and stagecraft, in service of a meaningful, moral tale – that’s a real gift.


On Book


Another of my fond ‘discovery’ memories happened back in ’69. I’d gone to see a friend of mine, Margo Sappington, in her Broadway debut, in the chorus/ensemble of ‘Promises, Promises.”   There was a real spark-plug little performance in a bar scene; the character was called Marge; the actor was Mary Louise Wilson. So now, unless I’ve got two broken legs and an outbreak of hives, I wouldn’t miss anything she’s in. And it’s great to share the news that her so-easy-to-read autobiography “My First Hundred Years in Show Business” is out, from Overlook Press. Her writing talents have been honed via pieces in The New York Times and The New Yorker, and along with Mark Hampton, she co-authored her stunning off-Broadway hit “Full Gallop,” about fashion icon Diana Vreeland.


Mary Louise played the title role in the solo piece, garnering a Drama Desk Award. And if you were lucky enough to see her as Big Edie in “Grey Gardens,” you’ll have enjoyed a landmark performance . . . from Douglas Carter Beane’s local life-story to the world-class sagas of Rachmaninoff and John Newton, the story-telling aspect makes or breaks any ambitious piece. And one of the most acclaimed story-tellers of the big screen was Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Now in paperback, Kenneth L. Geist’s “Pictures Will Talk” traces the endeavors of Mankiewicz as he weaves the fascinating adventures and misadventures of his characters in such landmark pictures as “All About Eve” and “Letter to Three Wives.” If the creative process fascinates you, as it does me, this book, from Da Capo Press, will satisfy your craving for another story well-told. . . and the first-person telling of the story of John Newton can be found in his autobiography “Out of the Depths,” in which he relates his own personal struggles with the perils of confronting slavery, and turning his life around.




TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre “Character Studies.” His Best Play Award-winning “Admissions,” at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts. His comedy “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press. He wrote the CableAce Award-winning “The Test of time” for Lifetime Television. He has written about the performing arts for dozens of publications, including Parade, Dramatics Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, and others. Vellela teaches theatre-related sessions at the 92nd St. Y. His new play “Labor Days” is currently in development.


Intermission Talk 6/20/15

June 20th, 2015

Is “Wolf Hall, I & II”

“An Act of God,” or

. . . something else?




If you listen very, very closely, you may be able to hear the sounds of

someone [that would be yours truly] going ‘against the grain,’ as they say.

One of Broadway’s most eagerly-anticipated theatrical events of this or any other season, the importing of the Royal Shakespeare Company Production of “Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two,” has settled in at the Winter Garden. Based on Hilary Mantel’s multi-award-winning pair of novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” the plays are running in rep, with Mantel listed as the playwright, and Mike Poulton credited with the adaptation.


An energetic ensemble cast of twenty-three inhabits the scabrous environs of 16th century Britain’s royal court. The ever-imposing King Henry VIII [an imposing Nathaniel Parker] is in an almost constant state of bereavement because his Queen has not supplied a male heir to his Tudor throne. And the ever-watchful, ever-scheming lawyer-at-court Thomas Cromwell [Ben Miles, with easy confidence serving the role well] seems to pop up everywhere necessary, like a whack-a-mole in cape and leggings, to attempt to remedy the situation and at the same time, maintain his envied position as the one man who can always gain access to His Majesty’s ear.


The grand sweep of the interwoven personal and political tales, stretching as they do from the fall from grace of Queen Katherine of Aragon, [Lucy Briers, showing touchingly her character’s resignation tempering the cursed hand she’s been dealt] to the rise and bloody descent of her wily successor, Anne Boleyn, [Lydia Leonard, snarky before there was such an adjective] fills both plays to overflowing, clocking in together at nearly six-and-a-half hours. Others have noted in commentary better written than I am capable of generating, that a great deal of the dialogue starts with “I hear,” or “they say.” And there’s the rub. For a very large portion of the time spent in attendance at both parts, what ‘they’ said was something that I could not hear.


Carefully combing through all the emotions and agendas, the seductions and the confessions, the taunting and the appeasements, adapter Poulton has applied the surgeon’s scalpel and the calligrapher’s quill to all this information, a task only a very few writers would have the skill and the courage to attempt. And he has, it would seem, managed to retain not just the headlines, but the complete accounts, including sidebars, of these stories, a dutiful court reporter, if you will. And he is not without a sense of dry humor – one of his best moments slides in very unobtrusively when, at the close of Part One’s first act, an unimposing little slip of a thing responds to a question of her identity by responding modestly “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m only Jane Seymour.” The lady will be the next to occupy the throne to Henry’s right.


The production’s design elements adhere faithfully to the less-is-more school of theatrical presentation: all but bare stage, except for the occasional piece of furniture required when someone needs to sit, or something needs to rest upon a surface; attention-focusing lighting [expertly delivered by Part One: Paule Constable, Part Two: David Plater] that assists in telling you where to look and who is speaking, and a dazzling display of the greatest array of heavy-brocade, silky-fabric, fur-trimmed, jewel-encrusted costuming [compliments of Christopher Oram, who also designed the sets – less there to distract from the costumes?] ever seen in a production that does not include singing and an eleven o’clock number.


The promise of the chance to bathe in the gossipy-style revelations of this historically critical period in western civilization, the expectation that we will witness lethal clashes between the low-born and the highly-placed, the anticipation ginned up with the sterling credentials of its creators on and off stage – all that, held out to theatre-goers hungry for what all that could satisfy . . . and then, what happens? Clearly, obviously, certainly, all the stories have been honored. There are twenty-three named court members, from King Henry VIII down to a musician, Mark, each of whom can lay claim to being a Duke, a Lord, a Lady, an Earl, a member of the Boleyn family, or one of their servants. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a prime mover in Henry’s clash with the Pope over the subject of divorce, and half a dozen other clergy or officers of state, constitute another dozen or so characters with roles to play and words to say. And at the epicenter of all the intrigue, active or passive, is Thomas Cromwell [and his family and staff]. One begins to ache – really, ache – when the difficulties of trying to follow the machinations unfolding on the cavernous set begin to take their toll. This issue may not receive much attention in polite discourse, but how is it that director Jeremy Herrin, a much-honored member of London and West End A-listers, would not realize that language so well-sculpted, delivered anywhere but straight-on and loud, will just not be able to be heard well enough to be understood?   This failing, coupled with the near absence of visual cues as to who’s who [all we have are costumes] means we have been left outside the action. We can see compelling confrontations, we can hear inflections that indicate anger or jealousy or lust or compliance, but we [at least not yours truly] were not able to match emotion to situation, or speaker to listener. This results in lots of loss. Rich language dissipates. And more seriously, facts are also lost. Taking one of the most basic: why did the house of Boleyn hold such a privileged position that gave them an E-Z pass to the King’s short list of prospective brides? Not an avid student of history myself, the assumption that an audience member would blindly accept that condition, at the core of the dynamics this vast drama depicts, suggests a kind of elitist attitude that poisons the proceedings.


This glossing-over of primary conditions, or the idea that they are not able to create a dynasty or cause a regent-pretender to part company with her head, is not inherent in the tales being told. There is an crucial difference between these stage adaptations, and the recent television and feature film versions of roughly the same tales [notably the BBC Two television series top-lining Mark Rylance as Cromwell, and the 2008 picture “The Other Boleyn Girl,” also with Rylance, and Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson as the sisters Boleyn]. Film/video cameras show us where to look, who is speaking, and with necessary visual detail, where we are. Is theatre different? Of course. And it should be. But not at the expense of experiencing the real rewards of powerful, compelling story-telling. It’s not enough to know that they are telling the story. We must be able to hear it.


What does Dr. Sheldon Cooper have in common with Dolly Gallagher Levi and the King of Siam? Like that Empress of the Harmonia Gardens and the ruler of a proud southeast Asian monarchy, the mega-watt-brained physicist Cooper is also the central character in a work of popular culture [the funniest, modern-ist television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Dolly lives in the Jerry Herman musical “Hello, Dolly!” and the King in the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “The King & I”].


And like the other two larger-than-life characters, Cooper’s real-life counterpart is identified with one actor. Cooper’s real person is actor Jim Parsons, who has received four Emmy Awards for playing the role, just like the much-awarded Carol Channing and Yul Brynner for their career-defining performances as the above-mentioned.


And now, that beloved and exasperating physicist has landed on the East Coast – at Studio 54 to be precise – as the central stand-in for the Almighty in David Javerbaum’s delightful new comedy “An Act of God.” The Big Guy has chosen to revisit our home planet in the guise of this sitcom star, and we’re the better for that choice. Who are we to argue with BG?


Director Joe Mantello, wisely assisted by set designer Scott Pask with production design chores from Peter Nigrini, makes it very easy for us to bask in His revelations, even when they are less than revealing. God did, however, reveal Himself to be a savvy Superior Being with his choice of Parsons to be his human host. Parsons [could that ecclesiastical-sounding last name have given the actor an advantage?] possesses that rare combination of stage-friendly qualities: a measure of self-confidence that does not tip the balance over into arrogance; a firm, direct ability to master the task of having his voice reach to the back of the house; the invisible wink to the audience that lets us know we’re all in this together, and finally, he’s cute as a baby’s belly button.


Turns out God’s got some unburdening to do. He’s not happy with how we’re doing as the resident population of this particular planet. He’s also very not happy with all those myths and mysteries attributed to him and his contemporaries. And one by one, and even two by two [he corrects that Big One about a wooden boat and a pair of every known type of living thing crammed on it], he dissects and corrects. He’s also gracious enough, due to precise comedy timing, to give us time to laugh ourselves silly between pronouncements.


Gabriel and Michael, his angelic pair of wing-men [get it? angels? wings?] assist, when necessary. Tim Kazurinsky’s Gabriel keeps watch over the Bible, with God acknowledging that, ever since Guttenberg ran it off, it’s been downhill for publishing ever since.   And Christopher Fitzgerald’s Michael proves to be almost too frisky and contrarian as the bad boy brat, sewing a few too many seeds of discontent that leaves God with no choice but to clip his wing.


In what may be the consequence of the popularity of Letterman’s ‘Top Ten’ lists, God unveils His new set of commandments. Not enumerated but definitely apparent, this one: Thou Shalt Not Miss This Show.


On Book


Technically not a theatre book, “The Science of TV’s ‘the Big Bang Theory’ – Explanations Even Penny Would Understand,” by Dave Zobel, walks us through the actual science behind all those formulas on the white boards in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment. Dotted with dialogue from various episodes, from ECW Press, it’s a rousing browser of a book, that will make you appreciate just how smart this show is, and marvel at how it can be that, and also be so damn funny . . . and lest you be discouraged about not seeing [or hearing] the “Wolf Hall” plays on stage, you would certainly do well to pick up the print versions of the playscripts penned by Hilary Mantel, from her pair of award-winning novels “Wolf Hall,” and “Bring Up the Bodies.”   A Nick Hern book from Fourth Estate, London, the stage version from adaptor Mike Poulton proves to be compelling reading, in large part because the front of the book includes five pages of detailed descriptions of who the players are


. . . and finally, it was sad news indeed to learn of the passing of actor/playwright/comedy icon Anne Meara. With a smile and a wit as dazzling as her bright red hair, Anne instinctively, naturally made you feel comfortable. My visits with her were always enjoyable, always laced with laughter. To share that legacy, pick up her husband of sixty-plus years Jerry Stiller’s “Married to Laughter – A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara,” from Simon & Schuster.




TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series on theatre, “Character Studies.” His New York International Fringe Festival Best Play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts. His comedy “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by Art Age Press. He has covered theatre and the performing arts for dozens of publications, including Dramatics Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Parade, Rolling Stone, etc. His new play “Labor Days” is on track for a production in the fall.


Intermission Talk

May 11th, 2015

“Hand to God,”

You Can’t Beat

“Fun Home”


George Burns once told me that he and Gracie learned to be prepared when they were introduced to people, who would then laugh riotously at almost anything Gracie said.  When someone is pre-conditioned to expect ‘funny,’ then just about anything will get a laugh.  It’s all about expectation.   And though it certainly does not need to be thought of as a detriment, and though it certainly is so true that the Robert Askins romp “Hand to God” is chock full of great laughs, there are some admittedly short stretches, and dry-spell pockets that keep it from being what’s being heralded as a Second Coming for theatre comedy.

Maybe that’s appropriate, because the proceedings are under the snarling control of a decidedly other-worldly, Satanic-inspired sock puppet.  The cotton, yarn and button-built Tyrone has taken up residence on the left hand of Jason, a shy, disturbed teen-age son of Margery, an addled, middle-aged church lady.  As a gesture to help her handle the grief of losing her husband recently, Margery’s Pastor Greg has set her up with a teen puppet ministry.  He’d much rather stick his hand not up inside a limp sock, but up inside Margery’s skirt.  For her part, she saves that pleasure for the hunky eighteen-year-old Timothy, who comes to Bible study to moon over Margery.  A decidedly dim bulb in many departments, he does know how to lock the door, lift Margery up onto a desk, and have a quick one in the church basement meeting room.

Rapid-fire mono-dialogues ricochet between the actual Jason and the puppet Tyrone. Bold defiance, heresy, physical violence, blood-letting and wicked wordplay roll out at breakneck speed, giving this remarkable comedy, well, legs.  Jason’s withdrawal from the world, and the pervasive lost-boy aura that engulfs him, seemingly from the poisoned relationship he had with his now-deceased dad, and from his mother’s utter failure to relate to him, all combine to render Jason out-of-control.  Or, rather, an easy victim of this evil puppet, who overtakes Jason’s mind.  The results are brimming with both hilarity and horror.   Anyone of a certain age may recall the sweet innocence of the Shari Lewis hand puppet Lamb Chop.  They may also recall several versions of the story line [think “The Twilight Zone,” or maybe “Outer Limits”] wherein a ventriloquist’s dummy gradually takes over his master’s mind, with murderous consequences.  Tyrone would be the issue if they were to mate.

Askins cleverly weaves in an homage to the Bud Abbott/Lou Costello ‘Who’s On First?’ classic routine.  He appropriates the type of foul-mouthed screeds of the residents of Avenue Q that jolted us when they first hit town a few seasons back [and have taken up residence off-Broadway].  Askins even choreographs a plethora of sex acts between Jason’s Tyrone, and the compliant girl puppet who is owned by  the teen group’s only female [a winningly deadpan Sarah Stiles].  Her mission is to satisfy Jason/Tyrone’s  urges and squelch his anger.   There’s enough story line to connect the bursts of bad behavior and unmet needs  to keep it from careering off the rails.  It’s telling that the human characters have not much more dimensionality than the puppets.  And if you’re fine with not having anyone to root for, the laughs will come – accompanied by lotsa blood, perhaps in honor of the Grand Guignol traditions that Askins seems to be saluting.   And if you’re of a mind to confirm the guidance of some other-worldly entity to this raucous comedy’s success, look no further than its slow-and-steady rise through the ranks of the New York stage world: Askins and company, under the astute guidance of its director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, have slowly, steadily ascended from small readings to developmental workshops, through Ensemble Studio Theatre’s artistic director Bill Carden’s inclusion in its 2011-2012 season, and then on to the 2014 support of Robert LuPone, Bernie Telsey and Will Cantler at their MCC Theatre.  Whatever else this piece has bestowed on it, there should be a special category award for the dedication of its entire team, on and off stage, in particular giving early cast members the opportunity to display the selflessness that has helped it rise through the ranks.  [There’s some sorta pun in there somewhere, giving a wink and a nod to such a ‘rank’ story.]

By the bye, as Tyrone nearly manages to cause his host Jason to suffer a mild amputation, one wonders if Jason has fallen victim to a very real neurological condition known as somatotopagnosia, a dissociative disorder where a person, as a result of a neurological ‘insult,’ such as a stroke, comes to believe that a part of his body no longer belongs to him, and seeks to have it removed.  Yeah, I know – not the usual motivation for a comedy.  From the get-go, “Hand to God” overcomes some glaring short-cut writing, assuming that you’re primed to laugh.  Tyrone, without a visible Jason to be seen, delivers an opening monologue that pulls you in.  He returns at the end, to stake out his claim on the proceedings.  What a little devil !

How satisfying it is to report that there are no short-cuts in the crafting of “Fun Home.”   It’s not always a compliment to state that something seemed ‘familiar.’  That often means that it’s derivative, that its elements remind you of that person or that place – one of the cardinal sins of short-cutting.  Instead, the ‘familiars’ that “Fun Home” evokes, without the aid of types of people, sounds of voices and musical phrases or place-names, are memories, states of mind, emotions, moods and feelings.

The specifics in this musical masterwork have been put/pulled together by Jeanine Tesori [music] and Lisa Kron [book and lyrics], based on the graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel.   She subtitled her autobiography “A Family Tragicomic,” in which she reveals the stages of her life, maturing into an insightful cartoonist whose lesbianism informed how she saw the world, and how the world saw her.

Tough stuff, that.  In part, it’s because Bechdel’s father, Bruce, who taught English in the small western Pennsylvania town where she grew up, and operated the town’s undertaker establishment, had his own parallel biography unfolding, secretly – a penchant for sex with boys and young men that may have triggered his death, a possible suicide.  [The children have pared down the description of their father’s funeral home occupation, tagging it a “Fun Home.”]  The interweaving of these two lives, through decades of discovery, is glowingly achieved because Tesori [“Violet,” “Caroline, or Change”] and Kron [“Well”] are gifted, sensitive story-tellers, keen to reveal what’s behind the facts of a character’s life, and in this case, two characters’ lives.

Director Sam Gold has broadened his palette, formerly focused on dramas/straight plays [“The Flick,” “The Mystery of Love & Sex”], displaying a genuine affinity for musicals that do not fit the conventional musical theatre mold.  The Bechdels’ multi-layered lives demand acute attention to the non-verbal cues that stitch together the easily-misunderstood or the stereotypical, all the short-cuts that lazy producing rely on.  And in this case, Gold has dug deep into the talent pool to locate just the right person to represent the Bechdel family, and in particular, the role of Alison, subdivided into three periods of her life.  Judy Kuhn’s mother, Helen, seems to know just when to make her presence known, and just when to recede.  As the adult Alison, Beth Malone realizes how much her younger selves have shaped the grown-up.  On the tightrope balance between teen years and emerging college adult, ‘Middle Alison’ Emily Skeggs finds the sweet spot that allows for the missteps and happy events that open up Alison to her future self.  And as ‘Small Alison,’ the gifted, bravely-nuanced Sydney Lucas carries her young self through one of those iconic ‘theatre history’ moments.  In a heart-wrenching number titled “Ring of Keys,” Lucas chronicles how the pre-teen tries to make sense of her ill-defined but touchingly real discovery of mutual identity she shares with a lesbian delivery woman.

All three versions of Alison enjoy the benefits of having their outer and inner selves play off the same actor portraying the father, Bruce.  In yet another demonstration of his versatility, Michael Cerveris lets out some of this man’s tortured personality, and like a fishing rod, reels it back in again when it starts to get too close to endure.   Watch Cerveris let his postures, his behavior and his fluid physicality silently speak – hand-wringing when too-true revelations burble up to the surface, awkward little dance steps as the family inhabits a mock Partridge Family homage, uneven gestures of generosity when trying to seduce one of his young male targets.  Recall the defiance in the upward-thrust of Sweeney Todd, as portrayed by Cerveris, and you can understand how and where he can inject such decisiveness into such tentative movements.

Ben Stanton’s lighting design projects empty picture frames on the stage floor, reminding us that this is a family that does not ‘fit’ into any conventional depiction of ‘family.’  And similarly, the Kron/Tesori score does not ‘fit’ into any conventional set of categories that usually define a musical theatre creation.  They’ve all come together to craft and build a work that dares to move beyond even the most recent rule-breaking works, such as ‘Next to Normal,” as it sacrifices none of its powerful stories in its ability to invite you in – all the way in – to these lives.


Keeping to a roughly-every-twenty-years cycle of Broadway productions, the D.L.Coburn two-hander “The Gin Game,” returns to the boards this fall, starring Cicely Tyson [age 90] and James Earl Jones [he’s 84.]  It had its premiere in 1977, starring Hume Cronin and Jessica Tandy, followed by its first revival in 1997, with Julie Harris and Charles Durning.  I saw both of those productions, have a great respect for the tender yet sharp-edged story of two retirees in a nursing home, and eager await its next incarnation . . . If you never quite got around to seeing the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical fable “The Fantasticks” during its last 42 years, you will get another chance.  An anonymous donor has come forth to extend its run  at the Snapple Theatre Center . . . And if you didn’t quite make it to the opening night event for the 13th Annual Downtown Urban Theater Festival on May 12, the festivities continue through May 30th, at HERE.  Visit for the details about the seventeen new stage works being presented.

On Book

It’s that time of year, when graduations propel some folks into the career-search mode, and catapult others into the June wedding mindset.  Suppose you’ve gotten it together enough to consider a life upon the stage – what’s out there to help?  The Fifth Edition of Brian O’Neil’s “Acting as a Business – Strategies for Success,” from Vintage Books – Random House is a very good place to start . . . and from a different perspective, check out Lisa Mulcahy’s unsentimental “The Actor’s Other Career Book – Using Your chops to Survive and Thrive.”  This Allworth Press edition walks you through the many ‘stages’ you need to learn about before you make that big decision . . . and if you and your theatre-folk friends will be gathering to view the Tony Awards broadcast on Sunday, June 7, pick up the latest collection of Tony Awards data from Heinemann, “The Tony Award” . . . and if you’ve decided to re-live some sugar-coated memories of sitcom days gone by, you can furnish your new digs using Diana Friedman’s “Sitcom Style,” from Potter Publishing.  It’s subtitled “Inside America’s Favorite TV Homes,” and lets you duplicate the interiors of more than a dozen popular T-V shows, from “Frasier” and “The Nanny” and “Murphy Brown,” to “All in the Family” and “I Love Lucy.”  Why not, after a hard day at work, come home to some real nostalgia-lovers’ dream home?


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play, a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge published his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  He recently accepted a staff position presenting a variety of theatre-themed sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit for details].  His new series of live, in-person conversations there, “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . . ,” will next feature Susan Stroman on June 1. Two more one-day in-depth explorations of iconic works are on his calendar: “The King & I” on May 19, followed by “Chicago” on July 14.  These sessions feature segments from his exclusive interviews with theatre greats, including Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Ann Reinking, Debra Monk, Barbara Cook, and many others.   His interview pieces and feature articles on the performing arts have appeared in Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other outlets.

Intermission Talk

April 30th, 2015

“The King & I” Enjoyed

“The Visit” with “An

American in Paris”


When a person [or for that matter, a place], deprived of true romance, finally has that loss put right, everything seems to lift off the ground, as the joy of sharing that new, fresh love infuses its gravity-defying powers in everything it touches.  World War II -ravaged Paris, just after the liberation, was just such a place.   The new stage adaptation of the 1951 George and Ira Gershwin movie musical “An American in Paris” is filled with all those emotions, and so much more.  Director/choreographer  Christopher Wheeldon has expanded his creative repertoire from New York City Ballet  principal dancer and artistic associate of England’s Royal Ballet, to the Broadway stage.   A new work has successfully retained the admittedly simple story line of Jerry [splendid Robert Fairchild], an American GI staying behind in Paris after his discharge, to follow his dream of being a painter [Gene Kelly in the film].  He meets [not really by chance] a timid but radiant young ballerina/shop girl, Lise [a lissome, doe-eyed Leanne Cope, and Leslie Caron in the film].  Along the way, his composer friend Adam [a charmingly churlish Brandon Uranowitz], an arts patron Milo [a fetching Jill Paice, who admires more than Jerry’s creations], and the ballerina’s intended fiance Henri [Max Von Essen] conspire and contradict each other, injecting plot complications that any love story can easily overcome.  And the always-delightful Veanne Cox turns the part of Henri’s mother into a delicious role, adding a few more twists to the story line, but never overpowering the romance.

This sumptuous production is about showing more than telling.  The serviceable book, by Craig Lucas, handily connects the dots.  [An earlier, aborted project to adapt the movie for the stage had Wendy Wasserstein attached to pen the libretto – one wonders . . .]  Nowhere else in town can you revel in a piece that has dance, movement, music, lights and atmosphere combine to warmly wrap its arms around you.  Tapping Wheeldon to oversee the wedding of book and music gives the entire musical the invaluable benefit of someone who knows how to unspool dances, like silk billowing off a bobbin.  He starts with a wordless pastiche that presents the Paris of that moment, from the quickened pace of Parisians expressing their new-found freedoms, to a fierce mob-attack inflicted on a Nazi sympathizer.  He delivers great showmanship to the many standards, songs that have lived on, apart from the show, including “I Got Rhythm,” “Who Cares?,” “The Man I Love,” “Shall We Dance?,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and many others.  And he offers us a spectacular ballet suite for the entire company, set to Gershwin’s brilliant, haunting “An American in Paris.”

Wheeldon very wisely has collaborated with an A-list of designers: Natasha Katz [lighting], Jon Weston [sound design], the 59 Productions team [projection design] and first among equals, Bob Crowley [set and costume design].  What they have given him, and his stand-out ensemble, is an environment that appears to float – yup, float – because all the set pieces have been mounted on silent wheels.  They are positioned and re-positioned by people rather than electronics, gliding into place and away again, all with a welcome dash of whimsy.  And he fills the spaces with the assured aplomb of a veteran director.  One lively set-piece has Jerry follow Lise into the shop where she works, resulting in a boisterous, cheerful number that brings to mind that same kind of choreographed chaos  Prof. Harold Hill unleashed in Marian’s library.

No musical like this can survive if it feels like a stitched-together collection of scenes and sequences.  This production owes a great debt to Rob Fisher, who has adapted pieces from the Gershwin canon, gifting them to Wheeldon, who in turn gives his cast  these excellent orchestrations to move to, as they segue from moment to moment.   He has chosen a handsome, appealing, musically masterful pair in Fairchild and Cope, who bring to mind memorable, versatile on-screen dancers of the era when the Oscar-winning picture was made, such as Kelly, Caron, Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, Bambi Lynn, and Marge and Gower Champion.

If one wants to dispense credit where credit  is due, some of it needs to be sent back in time to Vincente Minnelli, who directed the 1951 lush, sensuous motion picture, staking out the territory this production needed to recall.  Happily, it does.

At the same time [1951] that movie-goers were being dazzled by “An American in Paris” on the big screen, theatre-goers visiting Broadway’s St. James Theatre were experiencing the birth of another classic – composer Richard Rodgers and book and lyric-writer Oscar Hammerstein II’s “The King and I.”   Today’s audiences can, with no disrespect intended, say they’ve seen this classic tale of courage, dignity, and the clashes of cultures and human hearts brought to life at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre in a production superior to any in its history.

Alone among Broadway producing entities, Lincoln Center operates much like the fabled movie studios during Hollywood’s Golden Age, with vast resources of all kinds brought together to present matchless work.  And that becomes apparent within minutes of the opening, as the ship carrying schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and her young son Louis glides into the port of Bangkok.  That’s because the ship makes its way right into the audience, a stunning effect, as mother and son peer expectantly onto the dock, awaiting a welcoming party to escort them to the palace of the King of Siam.  It is 1861, the world’s leading political players are snapping up countries around the globe to claim as their colonies, and the insightful but poorly educated King has hired Anna to teach his children [and perhaps their mothers as well] the ways of the West, hoping to hold off the very real threat that the British Navy, docked nearby,  will soon invade.

And the King’s welcoming party does arrive, streaming down the aisles of the Beaumont much like the parade of animals entering the realm of “The Lion King.”  The sounds, dance moves, costuming and colors of Siam seem to provide the newcomers with a sense of how rich and textured this place will be, and they are escorted into the palace without incident, until a major snag hits the proceedings.  Anna’s version of her contract included having a private, separate house outside the palace, a provision the King has chosen to forget and ignore.  Against her better judgment, she agrees to stay, charmed by the parade of the King’s many, many children who will be her charges.  [Remember how Nellie’s heart was melted by Emile’s children in another  R&H classic, “South Pacific.”]

Easily negotiating her way despite the miles-wide hoop-skirt dress she wears, Kelli O’Hara presents a woman balancing the many stages of her life that have all come together at this critical moment.  She is the widow of a navy captain, as well as the mother of  pre-teen, inquisitive son Louis, and also, the representative of Western culture.  She stands as the embodiment of what the King calls the ‘scientific’ way of doing things.  And at or near the bottom of the list, she is, save for Louis, a woman alone in a strange and challenging land.  Perhaps more than any other role in her illustrious career, O’Hara has been provided with the opportunity to inhabit a character who is juggling all these elements at the same time.  Not even the very commendable portrayal she fashioned in the recent “Bridges of Madison County” involved bringing to life such a complex, conflicted and compelling role.  And the production’s strength and substance starts and ends with her.

This is a genuine eye-popping spectacular, and not simply because of lavish sets and costumes.  Dances reflect the stylized movement of men and women from this region: eye-filling,  angular-limbed movements of native rituals, which have long been repeated in tapestries and pottery.  And the ubiquitous applications of gold echo how southeast Asian cultures have traditionally always used it to summon good fortune, nowhere more than an all-seeing, all-knowing statue of Buddha that presides over the King’s domain.

To impress the landing party of British naval officers who have arrived to check out how ‘civilized’ the Siamese people are, Anna suggests presenting a stage play based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book being eagerly devoured by slave girl Tuptim.  The beguiling young woman has been presented to the King by his neighbor and potential adversary, the King of Burma.  The result: a narrated-ballet depiction of how she has translated the American classic into “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.”  The result: a folklore tale amusingly assayed through the simple yet respectful cultural references of the young woman’s experiences.   This world of “Uncle Thomas” swirls about, as giant snowflakes suspended from poles, represent the harsh winter in ‘the kingdom of Kentucky.’   Acres of billowing silk represent the tumultuous river runaway slave-girl Topsy tries to navigate.  This production’s lilting, child-like version of the saga is better than any other version I’ve ever seen of this vital element in the emergence of the critical breach between Anna and the King.

Young Jake Lucas maintains a proper, poised demeanor as Anna’s son Louis, matched by Jon Viktor Corpuz’s performance as the Crown Prince.  And as the powerful, influential Lady Thiang, the King’s first wife, Ruthie Ann Miles commands the respect that must be shown to her as mother of the future king.   She treads a perilous tightrope in the King’s court, overseeing all the other wives, protecting both her son and her husband from those who would try to supersede the succession.  She understands that there are those who are wary of Anna’s growing ability to persuade the King that many ingrained traditions regarding the treatment of his subjects, and in particular of women, are indeed barbaric.  Miles delivers a nuanced, calibrated performance, showing how this woman, through restraint rather than assertions,  has managed to grow into much more than a wife/mother, and has learned well how to manipulate situations to keep the peace, with no loss of face to the King, while at the same time insuring her son’s succession to the throne.

If there is a weakness in this otherwise glorious production, it is Ken Watanabe’s poor diction.  Of course, the King’s English should be unpolished, but that does not excuse his often flawed pronunciations and garbled articulation.  More’s the pity, since his otherwise anchored performance captures the evolution of a supreme ruler who has come to terms with the myth of his ‘infallibility,’ as he discovers, and acknowledges his human emotions and vulnerabilities.

The actual life story of Anna Leonowens stands as one of those properties that has successfully withstood many translations, from personal memoir, to stage play, to black-and-white film, and color film, and adaptation into a stage musical [that is this version], and a last stop on the ‘popular culture’ train when the musical emerged as a beloved motion picture.  Yet, for those who have seen that picture [starring Yul Brynner as the King, repeating his Broadway performance, and Deborah Kerr as Anna, ably aided by the off-screen vocals of Marni Nixon], the experience of being brought into the lives and feelings of these characters will more than match the impact of a two-dimensional telling of the tale. Like Anna, you become immersed in the vibrant hues, the tactile surfaces, the memorable melodies and the powerful emotions this masterwork contains.  All hail the King!

Talking of royalty, the [relatively] new musical “The Visit,” from John Kander (music), the late Fred Ebb (lyrics), and Terrence McNally (book) currently in residence at the Lyceum Theatre, might better be titled “The Visit From Queen Chita.”  Broadway legend, winner of two Tony Awards and seven additional nominations, and uncontested doyenne of The Great White Way, Chita Rivera carries her 82 years with a regal presence that still captivates.  Her newest role, Claire Zachanassian, is part romantic, part villainess and all seductress.  Based on the 1956 folktale drama of the same name by Friedrich Durrenmatt, the almost macabre proceedings unfold in a lean, spare single setting, a railway station long ago fallen into disrepair.  Dead and dying grape vines strangle the rusting girders.  And the townspeople in this desolate, bankrupt backwater Mediterranean village await the arrival of one of their own, the long-departed waif who has since become the wealthiest woman in the world, whom they hope will rescue them from certain extinction.  And she’s not alone.

Escorted by a sinister butler, and a pair of blind eunuchs, who protect  an imposing ebony coffin,  she has also brought a proposition to save their village.  However, before her ‘deal’ can be revealed, she methodically, coldly reminds those welcoming her today to the injustices she suffered as a wronged teen-ager, and of the emotional lacerating she endured from her handsome, cocksure boyfriend Anton all those many decades ago.  The weather-beaten old man he has grown into is played with both melancholy and bravura by Roger Rees.  It is Anton that she has returned to see, and she demands nothing less than his life, in exchange for a gift of $8 billion to the town, and an additional $2 million apiece for its residents.  Kill him, and she writes the checks.

This seemingly simple plot, however, teases us with all the hard-core questions that people have tried to reconcile since civilization began – what is one person’s life worth?   Is there an expiration date that attaches to an injustice?   What can money buy beyond material things?  And can an old, long-dead love be revived?  Should it?  Claire challenges her hated birthplace to settle her score with Anton, who can still stir some embers in this cheetah, a commanding vision in blazing white mink and blinding red lipstick.

It is to director John Doyle’s credit that the outcome is never certain, that he keeps tension alive, as songs and dancing reveal the intricacies of Claire’s poisoned past.  And after seven or nine husbands, she knows exactly how to play things moment to moment, and how to torture all assembled with her tantalizing bargain.  Will they comply and shoot their beloved neighbor and friend, in exchange for the fortune?  Will Anton’s long-suffering wife intercede and disrupt Claire’s plan?  Can Claire and Anton recapture their youthful rapture?  Will she kill him and then herself, leaving their burial together in that coffin to her grim attendants?

The musical has travelled many roads before landing on Broadway.  Originally conceived as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury, that plan was abandoned when Ms. Lansbury had to withdraw to attend to her ailing husband.  Chita [who has a rich history with the creators, as well as with choreographer Graciela Daniele] has taken Claire from Chicago’s Goodman, to DC’s Signature Theatre, and finally to last summer’s Williamstown Theatre Festival, while the piece was tweaked and prodded into its current intermission-less ninety-eight minutes.  Fred Ebb’s score, while revisiting familiar chords and patterns heard in works such as “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Steel Pier,” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” has infused it with the haunting harmonies reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s longtime composer/collaborator Nino Rota.  And throughout the show, Chita/Claire commands the spotlight.  Yes, the dancing has been toned down to accommodate those sixteen metal screws in her character Claire’s left leg, a repair made following a 1986 car accident.  And yes, her singing voice has echoes of its decades of good service, from “West Side Story,” “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “Chicago,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” to “The Rink,” and many other vocal victories.

But, hey!  Chita’s back!  And there will always be a time and a place for a visit with this royal legend.

On Book

Coming up next week will be a rather thorough review of the exciting, much-buzzed-about new musical “Fun Home,” which features Jeanine Tesori’s splendid score , matched with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron.  This show is based on the graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel – full title: “Fun Home – A Family Tragicomic,” from Houghton Mifflin’s division that publishes its Mariner Book collection.   Why mention it in the ‘On Book’ section?  To urge you to pay a visit to the Drama Bookshop to pick up a copy of that novel,.  It’s certainly a worthy way to spend your ‘down time’ reading, and I think it will enhance the experience of seeing the show, running now at the Circle in the Square theatre . . . However, if you’d like to dive into a fascinating reading experience that also honors the idea of ‘home,” consider a very engrossing pair of new books from Dress Circle Publishing. The musical theatre historian and producer  Jennifer Ashley Tepper has compiled this literary ‘duet,’ with the full title “The Untold Stories of Broadway – Tales from the World’s Most Famous Theaters.”  The list of people interviewed for this project runs well past one hundred, everyone revealing inside anecdotes and, as they say, ‘fun facts.’  Wanna sneak behind the curtain at “Wicked,” or “Rent” or “A Chorus Line?”  What did Jonathan Groff undertake to cop tickets for “Thoroughly Modern Millie?”  And who was observed dropping trou in the direct sightline of a venerated TV icon?  And the good news is that there are more editions on the way.


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  “Admissions,” his Best Play Award-winner [N.Y. International Fringe Festival] is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge Press published his play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  His articles about the performing arts have appeared in dozens of publications, including Parade, the Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, Dramatics, Reader’s Digest and the Robb Report.  He has taught at several institutions, including Columbia University Teachers College, HB Studios and the New School.  He is currently conducting theatre-topic classes and sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit for details], as well as small-group sessions and individual coaching from his home in Manhattan.

Intermission Talk March 30, 2015

March 30th, 2015

“The Audience” for

“The Heidi Chronicles”

Crosses All Generations


“I’m sorry I don’t want you to find out that I’m worthless.  And superior.”  Dr. Heidi Holland, art historian, author, professor, friend, makes this confession as guest speaker to a banquet room of other Miss Crain’s alumnae, the exclusive Chicago girls’ school.  The topic?  Women, Where Are We Going?  It’s 1986.  And Heidi does not know where she is going.

When Wendy Wasserstein’s brilliant play “The Heidi Chronicles” premiered in 1988 at Playwrights Horizons, later moving, for a three-year run, to Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre, it’s fair to say that the playwright also did not know where she was going.  What she did know was that her tightly-constructed serious drama, laced with wit sharp as a carving knife, had up-ended both how a certain category of women looked at their lives, and how women characters would forevermore be depicted.  Spanning nearly a quarter century [1965 – 1989], the story line explores personal and professional relationships, at a time when the notion of women ‘Having it all’ first gained real traction.

Going from inside out, this production has been blessed with a few real assets, chief among them casting Elisabeth Moss as Heidi.  Her career has included other characters with challenging life situations, including Peggy Olsen, whose evolving assertiveness in AMC’s “Mad Men” has much in common with Heidi, and Zoe Bartlett, daughter of President Jeb Bartlett, in NBS’s “West Wing.”  Moss possesses an elusive quality that may just come naturally to some – her public ‘image’ has few definitive adjectives attached to it.  People like that often find that others project onto them the characteristics they believe the person has or should have – a kind of blank slate – not judgmental, not aggressive, not flirtatious, and not ego-centric.  Wasserstein told me on more than one occasion how lucky she felt that it was Joan Allen who originally brought her Heidi to life, because she’s an actress in possession of these highly-cherished characteristics.   [It’s the principal reason I found Jamie Lee Curtis’s Heidi in the T-V movie version less convincing.  She, whether consciously or not, projects certain attitudes, regardless of the role, the circumstances or the dialogue.]

With Moss as Heidi, this production has made room for the work of Jason Biggs and Bryce Pinkham, who round out the three main characters.  While attending a dance with her best friend Susan [a smart, focused Ali Ahn] while still a high schooler at Miss Crain’s, Heidi meets cute – Pinkham’s clever, witty Peter Patrone.  The pair complement each other’s natural inclination to stay removed from the action, using for-their-age rather well-developed repartee [him to her: You look so bored you must be very bright.]   Somewhat prophetically, he affirms: “I want to know you all my life.  If we can’t marry, let’s be great friends.”

The third point on this triangle is Scoop Rosenbaum [Biggs].  When he meets Heidi at a Manchester, New Hampshire mid-winter dance for Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential ambitions, she’s now a Seven Sisters college student, still more comfortable on the outskirts of the dance.  Scoop trumpets his importance, boasting that as a reporter for The Liberated Earth News, he’s been chosen to pick up Paul Newman from the airport.  Like Peter, Scoop has an immediate attraction to Heidi’s quick wit, but Scoop manages to use his as a kind-of verbal truncheon, deployed in service of picking up women, or at least, her.  Even at this first meeting, Heidi and Scoop lay out their fundamental life positions.  She states “All people deserve to fulfill their potential,” and reacting to his polished confidence, wonders “what is it that mothers teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters.”

During the ensuing two-and-a-half decades, Heidi’s world takes her to representative situations, places, events and societal moments that define the state of American life.  She joins women friends protesting the exclusion of women artists at the Chicago Institute of Art – on the day Richard Nixon resigns.  She attends a baby shower for Scoop’s accommodating wife, in the wake of the assassination of John Lennon.  And a secondary character, Lisa’s younger sister Denise [an appealing Elise Kibler] holds an important key to Wasserstein’s overview of the play’s topic of feminism.  As the playwright anticipated, younger women would come to take for granted the advances made by Heidi’s generation, even finding fault with how they conducted their lives.  Women today in their teens and twenties find it implausible that there was a time in this country in the not-so-distant past when the questions Heidi’s cohorts struggle with were ever a real issue.  The quarter century the play spans was riddled with assaults on women’s rights from many quarters.  The thought that a single woman could/should be a mother – natural or adoptive – rocked institutions, split apart friendships and working relationships, caused many women to re-examine very carefully all the parts of their identity and self-image.  It seemed like, every week, there was another ‘the first woman . . .’ story in the news, and that stage of American life continues.  One of the most poignant consequences of Heidi’s journey emerges when her best friend Peter comes out to her during the women artists protest, and they manage to heal the breach that so many others never did – the strain of who’s liberation was more critical, more painful, more significant – equality for women, or for the gay community.  And again, Wasserstein’s writing personalizes the issue so poignantly, as we see two individuals, rather than two stereotypical characters, try to understand each other.

Wasserstein’s very canny decision to make her central character someone who is not the central character in her life story presented an unusual challenge – how to make a self-defined outsider the person whose life we want to follow.  There’s been a fair amount of carping in reaction to the staging of this revival, about how relevant Heidi’s story still might be, and how the events and people mentioned still might be.  I would ask those making these kinds of observations whether they were unable to feel moved by the revelations in the dark corners of the Keller family  in “All My Sons” without specific knowledge of World War II homefront activities, or whether lack of familiarity with the politically-motivated blacklisting that went on during Korean War years reduced their feelings for Katie and Hubbel in “The Way We Were.”  I confess to one area of nit-picking that hit me as soon as I saw the first full-page New York Times ad, announcing the production.   There’s outsider, reserved Heidi, holding forth in a short-sleeved, fire engine red, low-cut dress, with a come-hither smirk on her face to match.

Costume designer Jessica Pabst made a serious misstep here – was it trying to make her look more contemporary?  More social [both male characters have always been featured behind her in the red-dress shot].  Others who also saw the original production have also told me how jarring that photo was to them when it first ran, and made them think twice about revisiting the play.

Wendy spent a good deal of her time trying to make the point that she wrote about specific people in specific situations, and not stand-ins for societal stereotypes.   That meticulous crafting of her work paid off – members of any generation can find a great deal to enjoy in this classic Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award winner.  Despite her noteworthy good humor, it remained a sore point for her to continue having to say that Heidi’s life choices were those of Heidi, not of an entire generation.   And as long as anyone believes that the other people whom she’s close to may be at odds with her choices, and as long as society forces labels onto its members that marginalize rather than include them, this play will resonate.  For now, take this opportunity to experience the signal achievement of one of our great playwrights – gender aside.

What do Queen Elizabeth II, Dolly Gallagher Levi and the King of Siam have in common?  They’ve all been brought to stage by one actor [not the same one for all three], and all garnered considerable acclaim.  In reverse order, those thesps are/were Yul Brynner, Carol Channing and Helen Mirren.  [Remember James Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey. . .?”]  And Ms. Mirren’s regal recreations of meetings with Britain’s prime ministers can be seen right now at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre, in Peter Morgan’s “The Audience,” where she is revisiting the role that won her the 2006 Best Actress Oscar for portraying Her Majesty in “The Queen.”  This production, which earned her an Olivier Best Actress Award, has been transported from its London origins, two years ago.  [I refuse to use that wearying phrase ‘from across the pond.’  Retire it, please.]

And just as a lack of specific knowledge of who all the bold-face-named people are does not detract in large measure from enjoying “The Heidi Chronicles,” here, too, one can enjoy so much of the goings-on without being steeped in all the historical names/dates/places ricocheting round the stage.

And what a stage!  The Windsors inhabit two splendid domiciles – their day-to-day digs, London’s Buckingham Palace, and their working country estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, that serves as the nestling-place for Balmoral Castle.  Both locales are presented with just enough detail to evoke their splendor, their provenance, and ironically, despite ever-soaring ceilings and vast expanses of rugs and drapes, their ability to make one feel quietly confined.  Understandably, the Queen appears more relaxed at Balmoral, possibly because it is privately-owned by the family, and not by the Crown.  She’s perfectly comfortable when one minister’s audience at Balmoral has a backdrop of “a spot of summer rain.”  [The estate was a gift to Queen Victoria in 1852 by her loving consort, Prince Albert.]   And once again, designer Bob Crowley [no relation, I believe to the residents of Downton Abbey], has delivered a masterful depiction of place, time and atmosphere.

Portraying a living monarch presents specific challenges for any actor.  In this case, Mirren is tackling the unique challenge of giving us moments in someone’s public and private life during sixty-plus years, and out of chronological sequence.   Wizard Crowley, ably aided by hair and make-up designer Ivana Primorac, repeatedly transforms Mirren from one era to another, often during the flick of an eye.  This venerable actor hits all her marks – watch her posture arch and straighten, hear her voice almost sparkle as a young girl and devolve into sterner stuff as age, health and crises take their toll, and take notice of how her body will gently rock back and forth in a gesture she retained all her life.  We witness the intellectual growth of this young girl through her teen years, jolted by the death of her father, King George, and marred by Europe’s clumsy descent into another war.  These were duty-driven times when she reluctantly but with a steely sense of purpose, exhibited a maturity her troubled realm will come to rely on.  If we don’t understand that she understands how she possesses power through influence, all we would get is an impersonation of familiar public moments and little else.  The full sweep of the play’s chronology assures us, as the play’s audience, that there is substance here.

Elizabeth’s personality manages to serve her well, as it bumps up against prime ministers large and small, modest and arrogant, grounded and unsteady, each one learning how to back out of the room while maintaining a modicum of dignity – some more successfully than others.  Director Stephen Daldry has carefully assisted an estimable ensemble in extracting choice moments, as minister after minister must attend their weekly meetings, policy reviews masquerading as afternoon tea sessions.

Among the passing parade of spot-on depictions are Dylan Baker, capturing the boyish charm of a politically naive John Majors;  Judith Ivey, giving the Queen some unladylike push-back as Margaret Thatcher; the rumpled bulldog Winston Churchill, trying to secure a place in the Queen’s confidence as a seasoned grandfather figure, done to perfection by Dakin Williams, and seemingly her favorite, when it comes to sheer camaraderie, Richard McCabe’s humane, almost homespun Harold Wilson.  When the crisis builds concerning the Suez Canal, she laces her colloquies with Sir Anthony Eden with just enough starch to make it clear that she is, indeed, thank you very much, on top of all the issues.  A simple “I read everything” puts his borderline paternalism to rest.

Lest one feels put off by the prospect of a come-to-life series of historical Madame Tussaud-inspired dioramas, there is a different prospect on offer.  Here is a to-be-cherished opportunity to experience capital G great capital A acting.  Two of the most celebrated and honored grande dames of the theatre of the last century  made their mark in roles about royalty.  Laurence Housman’s 1931 drama “Victoria Regina” provided Helen Hayes with the role that she became identified with, which required her to depict the British monarch from youth to old age, and with a reputation that resulted in having a Broadway theatre named for her.  Thirty years later, Julie Harris brilliantly mastered the same role for television’s Hallmark Hall of Fame.  And now, Helen Mirren joins that small list of greats.

On Book

Talking of greats, few people have worked with as many greats as Robert Lewis.  His penetrating, well-written autobiography “Slings & Arrows: Theater in My Life” has been in paperback for a while, from Applause Books, and in it, you will find an overflowing life, filled with the likes of Julie Harris, Lillian Hellman, Marilyn Monroe and Tallulah Bankhead, not to mention Stella Adler, Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Agnes De Mille.  You’ll also be acquainted with how Lewis worked with Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, Alan Jay Lerner, Charlie Chaplin and yes, even Eleanora Duse . . . . the new Broadway season promises to introduce several new musicals, and if you’d like to ground yourself in their ancestry, pick up a pick-up [you may need it to tote this tome home], and buy David Leopold’s “Irving Berlin’s Show Business.”  Coming in at more than 225 pages, it’s not a coffee table book – it’s a coffee table on its own.  That’s because Leopold has peppered this work with many dozens of full-color photos, production stills and publicity shots, all of them delicious. Berlin was another giant in the world of theatre, his 100+ years churning out classic after classic – from half a dozen Ziegfeld Follies, five Music Box Revues and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” “Easter Parade” and more, all brimming with numbers that got recorded in every style, by all of the country’s greatest warblers – it’s the true chronicle of American music . . . I’m re-referring “Wendy and the Lost Boys,” Julie Salamon’s captivating biography of Wendy Wasserstein.  Now that Heidi has returned to Broadway, it’s fitting that this loving  look at a genuine genius of her era be read and enjoyed . . . and going back to the importance of accurate, character-specific costuming, there’s a very comprehensive little volume simply titled “Edith Head,” a commendable compilation pulled together by Isabella Alston and Kathryn Dixon, for TAJ Books International.  Head received thirty-five academy Award nominations, winning eight Oscars, a still-standing record.   It’s loaded with sketches and full-color photos from her decades-long career.


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play, a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge published his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  He recently accepted a staff position presenting a variety of theatre-themed sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit for details].  His new series of live, in-person conversations there, “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . . ,” will next feature Susan Stroman on June 1. Two more one-day in-depth explorations of iconic works are on his calendar: “The King & I” on May 19, followed by “Chicago” on July 14.  These sessions feature segments from his exclusive interviews with theatre greats, including Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Ann Reinking, Debra Monk, Barbara Cook, and many others.   His interview pieces and feature articles on the performing arts have appeared in Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other outlets.


Intermission Talk

March 3rd, 2015

“Between Riverside

and Crazy” There’s

No “Abundance”


If there’s one thing there’s plenty of in Beth Henley’s 1989 play “Abundance,” now in revival at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre, it’s exposition.  Admittedly, she has chosen a sweeping saga to relate – the play follows a twenty-five year period in the lives of two mail order brides, from their arrival in the relatively-untamed Wyoming Territory of the 1860s, through a final encounter in St. Louis.

When we meet them, Bess is an outwardly meek, plain-ish young woman, enraptured by romantic notions engendered in dime novels about true love, while Macon, the first person who talks to Bess after a nine-day wait for her intended, is outgoing, boisterous and eager for adventure.  The man who shows up for Bess is the brother of the man she expects, because that man has died.   The brother, Jack, has none of the intellectual or aesthetic inclinations of his deceased brother.  He drags Bess off, marries her, and thus begins her abusive odyssey.  Macon, meanwhile, is claimed by Will, a humble, modest man with a scarred face and missing one eye, covered with a eye patch – not a love match, but a serviceable one.

As time passes, we learn, through rather blunt dialogue, about how the two women’s friendship fills in for what’s missing in their marriages.    And while colorful dialogue gets bandied about, some of it laced with more two-dollar words than seem natural to their users, meaningful facts and events get told rather than shown, breaking any mood.  [“Can you believe it’s been four years since. . .” or “It was just last summer she buried her infant child in a soap box. . .”]  When Bess fails one night to return to the cabin they’re all sharing, it’s discovered that she’s been kidnapped by Indians.  Despite the deep bond between the women, Macon doesn’t actively resist the advances of Jack, almost immediately, launching an ongoing sexual relationship.

More time passes,  crops fail, and Bess reappears.  She’s been held captive by an Indian tribe and turned into a slave bride, complete with facial tattoos.  Her survivor tale becomes the fodder for a true adventure book, and the subject of a wildly successful speaking tour.  With this comes the searing rift between the women, as Bess becomes the more powerful, and turns her back on the others.

Sounds like a hoot, don’t it?  Well, sadly, some serious missteps weaken the impact of the tale, chief among them how the drama is compromised by Henley’s often lazy writing, that foregoes crafted expository scenes for exclamatory statements.  At  rise, a striking wrap-around piece that resembles tree bark graces all three walls, and lighting changes produce some eye-pleasing effects.  But designer Wilson Chin undercuts that clever choice by adding a ten-foot tall block-and-tackle rigging that overhangs the proceedings, yet never comes into play at any time, ever.  Not since the huge dead tree that haunted the stage of “Parade” has such an overpowering image done such damage.  And despite program notes that explain how the play is based on factual events, Henley has a lovely feature of the women’s friendship, how Macon teaches Bess to whistle.  She uses Joseph Brackett’s Shakers dancing song “Simple Gifts” as the tune.  It’s another unexplained, facile choice that, because of its familiarity as the basis for Aaron Copland’s theme in his ‘Appalachian Spring,’ takes us out of the story.

All four principals – Ted Koch, Kelly McAndrew, Todd Lawson and Tracy Middendorf – do their very best to mine what’s on the page, but even their best efforts can’t kindle enough interest to make us invest emotionally in the outcome.

Ironically, despite being drawn from factual events, “Abundance” rings false, while the new Stephen Adly Guirgis play “Between Riverside and Crazy,” an entirely fictional story, bristles with real-life feeling.   The central role of Pop, a retired New York City policeman, is stunningly portrayed by one of our most accomplished actors, Stephen McKinley Henderson, who has finally been given a leading role.  Ensconced in the kitchen of his rambling Upper West Side rent-controlled apartment, Pop chooses to sit in the wheelchair that belonged to his deceased wife.  His choice to do that reflects a willingness to appear victimized, the basic characteristic that threads throughout.

One of the many virtues of any work by Guirgis is that who it’s about – here, it’s a retired cop, a jailbird son, a shiftless hanger-on and his slutty-looking girlfriend, the cop’s former female partner, and devoted Church Lady – does not begin to tell you what it’s about.  This writer instinctively creates layers of behavior, varieties of personal agendas, well-hidden facts and contradictory responses for each of his characters.  And under the astute direction of Austin Pendleton, a pitch perfect ensemble delivers the goods for each of their roles.

A few plot points include an aggressive campaign to oust Pop from the apartment, so landlords can charge a market rate rent; a shooting in which Pop was seriously wounded by another off-duty cop that Pop believes has not been properly compensated; some losing struggles with various addictions, and an over-eager evangelist church lady who weaves together religion with mysticism.

The chronicle unfolds on a multi-segment turntable set, meticulously dressed under the superb direction of set designer Walt Spangler.  As various rooms in the coveted apartment turn into view, so, too,  do the various themes and situations, providing just the right sense of how separate events, like separate spaces, can co-exist distinctively,  rather than blend together and lose their integrity.

Because the playwright has us meet his central character in a somewhat comic set-up – the first kitchen scene when dietary foibles stand in for larger conflicts – the steady if irregularly-spaced [that’s a good thing] turns of events can never be predicted.   Each one of these walking wounded speaks with a unique voice, a particular dialect, a personal point of view.  Very rarely do all the components of a stage drama come together as organically as they do here.  And if there’s a middle-management type holding down an acquisitions post at any cable television network, hustle yourself over to the Second Stage Theatre and snap up this gem, so that the whole country can bask in the sheer pleasures it provides.   And while we’re at it, where’s the visionary producer who will mount an all-black cast version of “Death of a Salesman,” toplining Henderson and S. Epatha Merkerson?  I’m there.

On Book

How to fight the drearies of this endless winter!  Immerse yourself in the life stories of theatre folk who have given us so much pleasure, diversion, entertainment and food for thought.  Here are four recommendations to take you away from the now.  Given his monumental contributions to the American theatre, one would have imagined that, by now, a theatre would be named for Moss Hart.  In Jared Brown’s diligently compiled “Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre,” from Back Stage Books, the all-too-short life of this genius unfolds, and wraps you up in its warmth . . . although ‘warmth’ is rarely used to describe the personage of his subject, Robert Dowling’s “Eugene O’Neill – A Life in Four Acts” from Yale University Press,  makes it very clear why this dramatist remains a giant of the stage.  Much more than a diary of plays produced and productions heralded or derided, this dutiful biography gives us more insight into the man, the women in his life, the people who governed his place in American theatre, and all of it set against the backdrop of the times when they occurred.  It’s as substantive as any PBS special, and you get to go back and revisit sections as your knowledge of this remarkable life grows from chapter to chapter . . .

While preparing for my recent special class at the 92nd St. Y on Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy,” I discovered Victoria Wilson’s utterly charming new book “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907 – 1940.”  Stanwyck famously portrayed Lorna Moon in the film version of that play.  In her volume, Wilson takes us by the hand and walks us through every phase and stage of this not-heralded-enough actor, who had her early success on the New York stage.  The term ‘page-turner’ was coined for this one . . . and finally, a little-known personal story to consider as a welcome respite.  Character actor, producing associate, librettist and agent Richard Seff has seen it all, from every vantage point, and reports his memories, anecdotes, observations and advice in “Supporting Player – My Life Upon The Wicked Stage.”  Boldface names weave in and out of his glorious life, as we bump shoulders with Chita, Roz Russell, the Merm and many, many more.   Treat yourself.


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS theatre documentary series “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions” won a Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and was published by Playscripts.  He’s written nine other produced plays and musicals.  He teaches theatre sessions at the 92nd St. Y [ for details], and launches a new series of live events, “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . .” on March 12, when he welcomes Michael Cerveris as his first guest.  On June 1, he interviews Susan Stroman as the next entry in the series.