October 21, 2017

Julie Wilson, cabaret icon and mother

I had chosen Cabaret artist Julie Wilson as my honoree since she would have been 93 this week. As luck would have it, I had also selected Mind Hunter for a blog post. Imagine my surprise when I realized that her son, Holt McCallany was one of the stars of this Netflix original series. Synchronicity at work.

Whenever I was in New York, I would stop in to see Iowa-born make-up artist Steven Herrald and buy products from him. He was also the make-up man for cabaret icon Julie Wilson who was originally from Nebraska. Our paths crossed at his studio where I first heard about her son, Holt McCallany, the actor. She was rightfully proud of his success.

For those who need a refresher on who Julie Wilson was, her career spanned from her Broadway stage debut in 1946 all the way to her cabaret engagements before her death in 2015.
Career highlights included her Tony nomination for Legs Diamond in 1988, a Broadway musical starring the legendary Peter Allen, her appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and roles on the soap opera, The Secret Storm. I even saw tv footage where she did a head stand on one of the late night talk shows. She was an avid practitioner of yoga!

Wilson resided in London in the early 1950s while performing in productions of Kiss Me, Kate, South Pacific and Bells Are Ringing. She also did American national tours in Show Boat, Panama Hattie, Silk Stockings, Follies, Company and A Little Night Music.

She was best known to me as a superlative interpreter of Great American Song with collection recordings featuring material by Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen, Cy Coleman, Stephen Sondheim, and the Gershwins.

Julie, we miss you but we see a bit of your signature eyes in the face of Holt. Your legacy lives on in son and song.

Who is Karen Akers you ask?

She was in the original Broadway production of Nine and had a juicy role in another Maury Yeston musical called Grand Hotel.

Akers has also appeared in films; Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo and Heartburn, but she has devoted fans for her cabaret career.

Her first two albums were continually on my stereo turn-table, Presenting Karen Akers and In a Very Unusual Way. Adept in French and German as well as English, she has been known for her impeccable repertoire of theater and cabaret songs.

All Music lists ten Karen Akers solo albums: https://www.allmusic.com/artist/karen-akers-mn0000356422/discography

Becky Shaw at Windy City Playhouse

There is always cause for rejoicing when a new theater opens, especially in a neighborhood that has not previously been known as a theater destination. Windy City Playhouse may have opened in 2015, but this was my first time at the playhouse located in Old Irving Park, to see the dramatic play, Becky Shaw.

I entered the lobby to find myself in the midst of a boisterous pre-show party. I looked around at the crowd and was struck by the variety of ages, skewing on the younger side and the strong fashion sense. “Hipsters with taste and money” was the phrase that came to mind.

Inside the theater, I was lucky enough to nab a swivel chair on the ground floor. The action alternated on two stages opposite one another and in front of me in the center of the theater. I pivoted to wherever the characters were delivering their witty and acerbic banter. Side seating seems to have excellent sight lines but you may want to ask for one of the 70 swiveling ground level seats just for the novelty.

Michael Doonan as a fast-talking cad and Carley Cornelius as a fragile but truth-telling young woman are mesmerizing as the couple thrown together on a blind date by newlyweds who are related to them by family and work. Verbal fireworks ensue. Suzanne Petri is the family matriarch who says the most deliciously biting things with great style.

If you like snappy dialogue about big ideas set in an innovative theater environment, Becky Shaw is the play for you.  

windycityplayhouse.com/becky-shaw/

Thicker Than Water on MHZ

If you are looking for a fantastic family drama with amazing acting, look no further than Thicker Than Water, a Swedish/Finnish tv production currently streaming on MHZ. Yes, it has sub-titles.

Three siblings are invited to meet at the family-owned inn in the Aland islands which are part of Finland but full of Swedish-speaking inhabitants. Lasse Waldemar (Bjorn Bengtsson) is the bad boy brother who is a failed restaurant owner in Stockholm. Jonna Waldemar (Aliette Opheim) is the beautiful sister who has made her life in regional theater. Oskar Waldemar (Joel Spira) is the resentful brother who stayed behind to run the family business and take care of “mom.”

The mother meets with each adult child and gives them a one sentence message to remember. She then takes a boat out on the water and shoots herself. After all, this is set in Scandinavia. Her female lawyer lays down requirements the children need to meet to inherit their mother’s estate. They need to stay on the island and run the small hotel, together, for one summer.

Family secrets, former loves, personal dramas and sibling rivalry all come to a boiling point during this summer season at the old family compound.

The ten-episode season does have an element of “murder mystery” about it, but the main emphasis explores the bonds between parents and child, brothers and sisters, spouses and neighbors. Thicker Than Water makes for exciting television in any language.

Alan Jay Lerner, wordsmith

Musical Theater geeks will recognize the name Alan Jay Lerner, but the general public may ask, “Who?”
Not only did he co-write My Fair Lady which some theater aficionados consider the perfect musical theater piece, but his creative output also included Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, Gigi and Camelot, all written with composer Frederick Loewe. He won Academy Awards for writing the screenplays for An American In Paris, Gigi and a nomination for the adapted screenplay for My Fair Lady so lyrics were not his only interest.


He also had some other interesting collaborations. With Burton Lane, he created the movie musical, Royal Wedding, and the stage musical, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever which was recently revived on Broadway with Harry Connick, Jr. and Jessie Mueller. He and Andre Previn penned a musical, Coco about iconic fashion designer Chanel; Lolita, My Love was a written with composer, John Barry; 1600 Pennsyvalania Avenue was co-written with the revered Leonard Bernstein; composer Charles Strouse was his partner on Dance a Little Closer. Lerner also started the movie project Dr. Doolittle but was replaced with Brit Leslie Bricusse.

A little known fact is that Alan Jay Lerner was, for a time, the lyricist for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. The second act opener, Masquerade is conjectured to have an uncredited lyric by Lerner.

The celebrated librettist has two other darker claims to fame. He was a patient of Max Jacobsen, “Dr. Feelgood” and was addicted to amphetamines for 20 years. Lerner was also married 8 times and fathered four children. An ex-wife quipped, “Marriage is Alan’s way of saying goodbye.”

Still and all, every time I sing favorites like Almost Like Being In Love, On a Clear Day, On the Street Where You Live, If Ever I Would Leave You and countless other songs, I honor the brilliance of Alan Jay Lerner.

An American In Paris at the Oriental Theater

I had heard about this charming musical ever since it premiered on Broadway to great acclaim in 2015, so it was with great anticipation that I caught this national tour version of An American In Paris.

The production has several things going for it. Ballet sequences are breath-taking as conceived by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.  George Gershwin’s music provides the lush soundtrack for the whole show. Not only do we hear permutations of his famous An American In Paris orchestral work, but we are treated to portions of his classical Second Prelude, his Concerto in F, his Second Rhapsody and his Cuban Overture. Beloved songs like I Got Rhythm and The Man I Love are sung by cast members, but lesser known tunes like Fidgety Feet, Who Cares and Liza shed new light on Gershwin’s song catalogue.
The technical aspects of the show dazzle with creative use of screen images on the electronic back drop and moving screens. Parisian buildings, paintings and other famous sights delight the eye throughout the show. A recurring view of the river Seine is most amusing as two boats are depicted by different artistic techniques.

The plot harkens back to the basic romantic formula found in black and white movies. Three men who are friends are all in love with the same ballerina. Boy and boy and boy meet girl. Only one boy gets girl.

The action takes place in Paris right after World War II in 1945 so the frothy doings are sprinkled with references to the German Occupation, the Resistance, and the Holocaust making this a work of both light and dark.

For me the orchestral music, the dance sequences, the stage images and Craig Lucas’ snappy dialogue outshine the singing, but this is a quibble when the over-all effect of the production is to know that one has spent a delightful evening at the theater.  Broadway In Chicago will be running An American In Paris at the Oriental Theater through August 13, 2017.

http://www.broadwayinchicago.com/show/an-american-in-paris/

Lonesome Losers of the Night at Theo Ubique

Put Theo Ubique’s excellent chamber revue, Lonesome Losers of the Night on your must-see theater list.

The songs of Jacques Brel burst onto the American scene with a Broadway revue called Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris which opened in 1968. Lyric writer and translator Arnie Johnston has taken on the task of translating Brel songs that are unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, as well as re-translating well-known Brel songs with lyrics that skew closer to the images in the original French versions.

A wonderful collaboration between Theo Ubique and Johnston began in 2006 with Songs of Love and War, the theater’s first Brel revue. This is the second go-round for Lonesome Losers which was previously produced by Theo Ubique in 2008-2009.

The new production features stunning ensemble singing, inventive choreography and blocking, a realistic set, plus the excellent music direction and piano skills of company member, Jeremy Ramey. Theo Ubique lynchpin, Fred Anzevino masterfully directs this 110 minute intermission-less revue. No words are needed as the singing actors segue from solos, duets, trios and quartet numbers. We are drawn into the drama of a seaport speakeasy as we observe the bartender, two sailors and a “girl for sale.” All four performers are skillful, but I was especially impressed with Randolph Johnson as the world-weary bartender and Jill Sesso as the provocative female of the cast.

A few of the songs may sound familiar but the lyrics will be fresh to your ears, such as Don’t Leave Me which is better known as Ne Me Quitte Pas/If You Go Away. Not all of the material is angst-laden, such as Beer, Rosa and the Song of Jacky, but neither is it a laugh riot with the second to last number being the thematically apt, Alone. Emotional depth is the raison-d’etre of this revue.

Cabaret theater like this usually flourishes in small venues such as Rogers Park’s No Exit, allowing the audience to enjoy food, and especially drink during the show. Word comes that the theater company will be moving to Evanston in the near future. Let us hope they recreate this intimate theater environment that requires no mikes and has the actors literally a breath away from their audience.

Get your Brel on before Theo Ubique’s marvelous production, Lonesome Losers of the Night closes on August 6, 2017.

http://www.theo-u.com/

Parade at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, IL

Last night I saw a well-nigh perfect musical theater production of  Parade at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. The singing, acting, staging, choreography, costumes and pit band were all excellent.

For years, I have heard about this storied musical with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and book by famed playwright Alfred Uhry. The work itself reminds me of Floyd Collins with its intricate score and midnight dark topic. Parade has the added benefit of having an emotional apex in act two that alchemically turns bad events into a flowering of love and loyalty.

Leo Frank masterfully played by Patrick Andrews is a Jewish factory owner in Atlanta who is accused of murdering one of his female workers. Brianna Borger portrays his steadfast wife. Everyone in the cast turns in stellar performances but I was especially taken with servant turned chain gang tough Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and Kevin Gudahl as prosecutor Hugh Dorsey.

You might not get the chance to see Parade in the near future and certainly not in a such a stunning production. Director Gary Griffin has created stage magic at Writers Theatre.

This was the first time I had seen their new ultra-modern building and I literally fell in love with the exterior, the lobby and the main stage area. I will certainly be back for other productions.

Don’t let the parade pass you by! The show runs through July 9, 2017.

http://www.writerstheatre.org/calendar-tickets#6/2017

 

Elaine Paige – Musical Theater Diva


You may not know the name of Elaine Paige, but she has made musical theater history in several iconic shows.
She made her 1968 West End theater debut in “Hair,” but it was originating the role of Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1978 musical, “Evita” that really put her on theater map.
She went on to be the first actress to sing the role of Grizabella in “Cats” which resulted in a top ten recording hit for her with the song, “Memory.” She was also in the original production of “Chess,” the musical penned by members of ABBA.
In 1996, she made her Broadway debut in “Sunset Boulevard.”
“The King and I,” “Nine,” “Anything Goes” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” are some of the other musicals that have benefited from her presence.
Having released 22 solo albums, she has also hosted a BBC radio program called “Elaine Paige on Sunday” since 2004. She celebrated 50 years in show biz in 2014. Happy birthday, Elaine Paige who turns 69 this week.

Harold Prince: Superlative Director/Producer

Producer/Director Harold Prince turns 89 this week. His remarkable career spans from being assistant stage manager on Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam in 1950 to directing a revue of songs from his hit shows in 2015.

A partial list of his Broadway endeavors looks like a history of musical theater: The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Candide, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Showboat plus countless others.
I have a tiny little connection to him. Harold Prince was being publicly interviewed in Chicago by theater writer Jonathan Abarbanel. My musical Fat Tuesday was then showing at the old Theater Building Chicago. Our stage set was where the conversation took place in front of a rapt audience.
I had the opportunity to give Mr. Prince a hand-written invitation to attend the Pump Room that evening where I was currently performing.
He sent me a lovely letter back expressing his regrets at not being able to attend the Pump Room since he was flying out later that day. He was most gracious in thanking me for the invitation and expressed fond memories of other visits to this famous supper club. As busy as he was, his courtesy and attention to detail was demonstrated in this kind reply to my note.
Happy Birthday Harold. You are indeed a Prince!