February 20, 2017

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!

Elaine Paige, Musical Theatre Diva turns 68

If you are a musical theatre geek, you may know Elaine Paige. She got her start in a West End production of Hair, went on to originate the roles of Eva Peron in Evita, Grizabella in Cats (she had a top ten hit with the song Memory), was in the original production of Chess, graced Broadway in Sunset Boulevard and The King and I, and returned to London’s West End in The Drowsy Chaperone.

Other notable performances were as Mrs. Lovett in the New York City Opera production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, as Edith Piaf in Pam Gems’ musical play Piaf and as Carlotta Campion in the Kennedy Center production of Follies. She has put out 22 solo albums and done concerts world-wide.

She has been dubbed the First Lady of British Musical Theatre and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by no less than Queen Elizabeth. She announced her farewell tour on her 50th anniversary in show biz.  May she do as many farewell tours as Cher!

If/Then: Contemporary musical at Oriental Theater

You still have a couple of weeks left to see the national tour of If/Then currently playing at Chicago’s gorgeous Oriental Theater. Fans of the 2009 Broadway musical, Next To Normal will want to catch If/Then since the same composer and lyricist/book-writer, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, crafted both shows.

Jackie Burns plays Elizabeth, a role originated by Idina Menzel on Broadway. Burns sings with the same edgy belting sound for which Menzel is noted so it is no small wonder that Burns also played the role of Elphaba in Wicked after Menzel initially wowed Broadway audiences.

The production is inventive and swift-moving with a crack band in the pit. The choreography is modern and inventive. The singing actors in the cast are uniformly strong with stand-out Anthony Rapp reprising his Broadway role as Elizabeth’s nerdy activist friend. My two favorite songs were sung by Matthew Hydzik playing boyfriend/husband Josh: You Never Know in Act One and Act Two’s Hey Kid, a contemporary musical scene reminiscent of Soliloquy from Carousel.

The show’s major structural device sets it apart from other musicals but provides its major weakness as well. Throughout the show, we see Elizabeth alternate between the path taken by Liz and that taken by Beth. Several people around me were asking one another, “what’s happening now?” I observed the same confusion in Jason Robert Brown’s musical, The Last Five Years.

Still, if you like contemporary musical theater, this may be just the ticket. http://www.chicago-theater.com/theaters/oriental-theatre/if-then.php

Rush tickets are sometimes available for $25 before show time at the Oriental Theater box office. Hot tix is also featuring discount tickets: http://www.hottix.org/

Shoot Me, Documentary on Elaine Stritch

You don’t have to be a theater buff to enjoy Shoot Me, a fascinating 2013 documentary on the legendary Elaine Stritch. Alec Baldwin served as an executive producer on the film project, no doubt as a result of Stritch brilliantly playing his overbearing mother on NBC’s 30 Rock.

We see her home life at the storied Carlyle Hotel in New York, scenes with music director and angel care-taker Rob Bowman and observe a frustrating recording session with Stephen Sondheim when he and Stritch were both much younger. The viewer is treated to interview clips with Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, Harold Prince, George C. Wolfe, John Turturro and James Gandolfini, among others.

We see a brutally honest Stritch who quips that the footage is catching her at “almost post-time.” Indeed, she passed away just a few short months after the film was released in early 2014. If you want to see a one-of-a-kind entertainer from her performance genius all the way to her sometimes messy day-to-day life, this documentary on Netflix will captivate you.

Happy Birthday, Hal Prince!

Can you think of any theatrical producer/director that has had a wider array of hits and prestige productions on Broadway than Hal Prince? A partial list would include: Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, She Loves Me, Fiddler On the Roof, Cabaret, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, not to mention being Stephen Sondheim’s go-to-guy for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along and  Sweeney Todd. Whew! Whether directing or producing, or doing both, this guy must have been working night and day since the 1950s.

Back in the 90s, Mr. Prince had agreed to be interviewed in front of an audience in Chicago. My musical Fat Tuesday was running at the Theater Building on Belmont. Our stage set happened to be the venue for the Prince program. I gave him a hand-written note inviting him to the Pump Room where I was performing.

He wrote me back saying that he was leaving Chicago after this event, but had warm memories of his previous visits to the Pump Room. He wished me well. I was dazed with hero worship!

He turns 87 this week. Happy Birthday, Mr. Prince!

Posh at Steep Theater – U. S. Premiere

On a recent freezing cold night, my husband surprised me with tickets to see Steep Theater’s current production, Posh in its U. S. premiere. Written by Laura Wade, the Edgewater theater company had great success with one of her previous plays, Breathing Corpses, lauded as one of Timeout Chicago’s best shows of 2008. Having had outings at London’s Royal Court Theatre and the West End, Posh introduces us to a ten member private club for rich British college students.

The club’s annual dinner at a pub builds to a frenzy as the young men smuggle a prostitute into their party, harass their waitress, destroy the dining room and finally assault the restaurant manager. Warfare between the working middle class and the entitled upper crust has never been so entertaining or brutal. A blind man brought his seeing-eye dog to the performance and the noise and fury of the riot scared not only the poor canine, but me as well.

Director Jonathan Berry, no stranger to Steep, helms a talented cast of actors who have surprisingly good English accents. First act which takes some time to engage the audience could be trimmed, whereas act two is like a well-oiled machine, say a buzz saw. The musical soundtrack with classical choral works and techno pop mirrors the tug of war between tradition and progress and the entitled versus the working class.

The theater is tiny so one feels a part of the action. If you hesitate to be up close and personal with the riotous second act, you may be advised not to sit in the front row.  Nothing like a bracing evening at the theater where the characters just go wild! Posh provides much food for thought.

Domesticated at Steppenwolf Theater

You have roughly a month to catch Steppenwolf Theater’s vitriolic play, Domesticated before it closes on Feb. 7, 2016. My initial reason for attending the play was to catch friend and neighbor actress Meg Thalken in her Steppenwolf debut.

Little did I know that the topics brought up during this well-written and marvelously acted piece would cause a tsunami of emotion in my husband and me and in the audience in general.

The main character, Bill Pulver played by Tom Irwin is a doctor and politician who has been caught using the services of prostitutes. We watch his political and professional careers implode along with his marriage. His adopted daughter from Cambodia periodically gives school reports on the mating behavior and gender roles of animals replete with slide show pictures and index cards. The correlation between human and animal behavior is not lost on play attendees.

Marriage comes under fire, but so does gender definition, loyalty, immigration, child-rearing, religion and talk show hosts. Men in the audience audibly groan at the wife’s behavior while women express outrage at the man’s utterances. This is not a feel-good night at the theater, but a most bracing one. Domesticated is the updated version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  in all it’s fury.

And by the way, Meg Thalken is marvelous playing a variety of integral roles in the show. Should I blame her for the argument I had with my husband about who was more despicable, the wife or the errant doctor/politician? Methinks that the playwright/director Bruce Norris is the brilliant guilty party.

Steppenwolf Theater
1650 N. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 335-1650

Lawyers for the Creative Arts

I recently became better acquainted with Lawyers for the Creative Arts, an organization comprised of lawyers from the Chicagoland area who donate their time and expertise to help artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers with their legal problems. Creators have been given pro bono legal help with everything from copyrights to contracts to law suits.

Their recent benefit luncheon in the Palmer House’s Empire Room honored law firm Sidley Austin for their pro bono work, former board president William Frankel for his longtime service to LCA, Mark Howard, founder and choreographer of the Trinity Irish Dancers and Liz Carroll, the noted performer and composer of Irish fiddle music. The incoming Consul General of Ireland, the Hon. Orla McBreen introduced the program and popular cultural commentator Rick Kogan acted as master of ceremonies.

In the last twelve months, LCA lawyers have provided legal service to over 2000 people and organizations.  Founded 42 years ago, some of the earliest volunteer lawyers are still active in the organization. Beneficiaries of LCA’s legal advice have dubbed the organization “An Angel to the Arts.”

http://law-arts.org

John Eskola, Chicago actor/vocalist has apartment fire

John Eskola lost much of his apartment in a fire started by an electrical wiring problem. His extensive music library was the first casualty of the fire. Friends, colleagues and generous strangers have rallied to help John move to a new apartment.
Chicago firemen rescued John’s beloved cat, Vicky while they put out the fire.

A little background info on John Eskola: he is a founding member of Chicago Cabaret Professionals and Choir Director and Chief Cantor for weddings, funerals and masses at Assumption Catholic Church (River North) and throughout the Chicago area. A member of Actor’s Equity, he toured internationally as a cast member of the musical Evita, and was in The House of Martin Guerre and The Visit with Chita Rivera at the Goodman Theater.

Members of the cabaret community have been particularly generous to the John Eskola Apartment Fire Fund. For more details or to donate, go to:

https://www.youcaring.com/john-eskola-445391

If you feel so inclined, please share the link with your social media contacts. Karma, as they say, is circular.

John is sifting through his music library. Does anyone want to hear something by Noel Coward? Or possibly Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?

Julie Andrews: Singer, Actress, Author

Julie Andrews turned 80 this week. Reading her stage, tv and screen credits is pretty impressive. Her movies include The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Victor/Victoria, The Americanization of Emily, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Victor/Victoria, not to mention The Princess Diaries and voice-overs for animated movies Shrek and Despicable Me. Throw in Broadway fare such as My Fair Lady, Camelot, Victor/Victoria and the Sondheim revue Putting It Together along with a tv version of Cinderella and countless small screen appearances and one exclaims, “What a career!”

Surprisingly, Ms. Andrews has also found time to be an author with children’s book titles such as The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Mandy, Little Bo In Italy, Dragon: Hound of Honor and a series of The Very Fairy Princess books.

If you want to know more about Andrews growing up in World War II London, I thoroughly recommend, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, written with wit, grace and emotion. One can only hope that she finds the time to write about her subsequent years in New York and Hollywood.

I have one tiny connection to her from my days at the Pump Room. Victor/Victoria, the musical was doing a pre-Broadway run in Chicago. I wrote Ms. Andrews a letter asking for any advance sheet music from the show. In the nicest way, she said that the publishers didn’t want any music going out before the Broadway opening. The letter was typed but it did have her signature in ink. Celebrity geek treasure! I didn’t get to meet her, but many of the cast members of Victoria/Victoria made the Pump Room their watering hole while in Chicago, including Tony Roberts and Michael Nouri. She was, of course, absolutely marvelous in the show.

Happy birthday Julie!