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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Nevermore' - A Ghoulishly Stylish Musical Biography

A scene from Nevermore.
(Photo courtesy of the company)

A torrent of song and rhyming couplets stream through the new music-theater piece Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, which opened last night at New World Stages, bringing the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s life into creepy and sad perspective.

Written, composed, and directed by Jonathan Christenson, the show delivers Poe’s biography as if it were a series of his own macabre stories. Sorrow, tinged with both despair and curious hope, starts in his childhood. He’s raised by an alcoholic father and an actress-mother who suffers from bouts of manic-depressive mood swings. After he and his two siblings (an older brother and a younger sister) are orphaned, they are separated, and Poe’s shuttled off to a childless couple, where his adoptive mother dotes on him while her husband resents his presence.

More tragedy---as well as loss, madness, cruelty, and fear---awaits in this household as well as in Poe’s first love affair and in his career as an emergent writer. Throughout, there are also references to Poe’s works as black cats, pendulums, and yes, a raven, crop into the biography.

The entire production unfolds in a ghoulish universe, where the versatile and talented ensemble move with an almost robotic precision, clad in production designer Bretta Gerecke’s inventive costumes that bring the meld nineteenth century styles with a decided contemporary avant garde fashionista sensibility. As if the visuals of the clothes and performers (all ghost-like white faces and dark circles under the eyes) weren’t enough, lighting designer Wade Staples uses purples, greens, blues, and yellows pointed at the stage in sharp angles to eerie effect.

Christenson’s music fuses sounds that echo Kurt Weill during his days in when cabaret reigned in the Weimar Germany with insistent music box trilling and even some more contemporary styles to terrific effect. And the melody for the number that closes both acts of Nevermore sticks in the ear for days after the show has ended.

Nevermore is actually enjoying a return visit to New York in this presentation. It was seen in 2010 at the New Victory Theatre, and for anyone who saw that incarnation of the show, this new one might disappoint. The piece has been expanded with a framing device about a group of actors who are leading Poe through his life. It feels unnecessary and though it (along with a scene late in the show when his characters inform him “we are your nightmares, we are your dreams”) only adds perhaps ten minutes to the show’s overall run-time, the additions are enough to make Nevermore feel as if it has become bloated.

Still, for those who did not catch it during its first New York outing, the unity of vision and style that permeates Nevermore is bound to impress, amuse, and maybe even send a small shiver down the spine.

---- Andy Propst

Nevermore plays at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street). For more information, visit: nevermoreshow.com.

'Into the Woods' - Vest-Pocket Staging Offers a Semi-Happy Ending

(clockwise from top) Emily Young, Ben Steinfield, Claire Karpen, Patrick Mulryan, Noah Brody, Jennifer Mudge, and Andy Grotelueschen in Into the Woods.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Theatrical whimsy and inventiveness reign in a new revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical Into the Woods, a Fiasco Theater production being presented at Roundabout Theater’s off-Broadway venue that opened last night. It’s a lighthearted and often quite inventive take on the much-beloved and oh-so-well-known musical (this is the third major revival of the show in New York since its premiere and, of course, there’s also the Disney movie that’s packing ticketbuyers in), and for the first half of the show, the Fiasco production works remarkably well. But when the show takes a turn for the darker side of “happily-ever-after,” the show’s conceit undermines the musical’s emotional punch.

It’s rough not to be charmed by the show even before the first words of Lapine’s script have been spoken or the initial notes of Sondheim’s score have been played. The ten-person ensemble mills around the stage (which, backed by what look the strings of piano and framed by the sounding boards of grand pianos, has been filled by scenic designer Derek McLane with antique riches of seemingly pulled from a musty attic). They do warm-ups and chat with the audience members. Then, there comes a moment when the words “Once upon a time...” are spoken, and well, the journey has begun.

The production demands - and delightfully so - that theatergoers suspend disbelief and just use their imagination. When Jack (of beanstalk fame) is introduced, so too is his cow, Milky White. At that moment, Andy Grotelueschen steps forward and is proffered a cowbell. After it’s on his neck, well, the contract is made and he is a cow. When that bell isn’t around his neck, he can be found playing Florinda (one of Cinderella’s stepsisters) or the prince who pines for Rapunzel. These characters for Grotelueschen, as well as the host of others, are all indicated in ways similar to that bell, and part of the fun of this production, co-directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, is how the company uses the various items on the stage to make character changes happen.

For a show as complex as “Woods,” where a quartet of classic fairy tales collide with one another along with an original one about a Baker and his wife and their efforts to remove a witch’s curse, the fact that the merriment and multiple casting never becomes confusing and, oftentimes, simply induces smiles and laughter as the performers morph from one role to another in a split second is remarkable.

And throughout the first act, performances like Emily Young’s, which includes both an amusing portrayal of Little Red, whom she imbues with both innocence and almost unnatural maturity; and a terribly funny rendering of Rapunzel, whom she makes a semi-vapid woman-child, spark smiles and laughs, as audiences along with the production, wink at the theatrical games being played.

But after the first act in which all of the characters find that they have reached their happy endings, having gotten the things they’ve wished for thanks to their adventures in the woods, such game-playing undermines the musical. As most theatergoers know, act two of Into the Woods examines the not-so-happily-ever after that greets the characters. And once the giant’s wife (widow of the one slain by Jack) has stormed down upon them all to wreak vengeance, well, they have to go back into the woods to revisit their wishes and realities.

It’s pungent and potentially heartbreaking stuff, and though the directors slow the action appropriately, and there are some flourishes that make the threats the characters face feel terrifically real (the appearance of the giantess is grand), the emotional punch that this portion of the musical can have never materializes. It’s a little rough to feel the weight of Cinderella’s prince’s infidelities when he’s handing his stick pony to someone sitting in the front row, for instance. Thankfully, the real crux of the second act-the Baker’s tragic but ultimately uplifting fate -does resonate thanks to Ben Steinfeld’s heartfelt work.

Sondheim’s score faces similar challenges as it's played by pianist Matt Castle and supported by various instruments or noise making devices used by members of the company. There are some wonderful reimaginings, including country western sounds for melodies belonging to Jack (an endearing Patrick Mulryan) and his mother (a comically stern Liz Hayes). And when the women of the company unite to sing the haunting melodies that belong to Cinderella’s dead mother, the effect is gloriously ethereal.

In other instances, though, notably some of the heftier numbers in the second act, like “Last Midnight,” the searing number delivered by the Witch (played with an odd stridency by Jennifer Mudge), underwhelm, and at such moments, it's rough to not wish that somehow this production, which can be so captivating, was less of an uneven journey.

---- Andy Propst

Into the Woods plays at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street. For more information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.

'Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)' - Merry Oratorio for the Holiday (or Any) Season

Eric Idle, Victoria Clark, William Ferguson, Lauren Worsham, and Marc Kudisch in Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy)
(©Erin Baiano)

The holiday season in New York got a lot merrier earlier this week with the Collegiate Chorale’s two-night presentation of Eric Idle and John Du Prez’s oratorio Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) at Carnegie Hall.

Based on the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian, this nearly sung-through piece provokes glee on multiple levesl, starting with its story (pretty much known to everyone). It’s all about a guy who was born in the next stall over from Jesus, and who finds himself taken as the Messiah. Of course, he’s just a regular Joe.

Musically, Not the Messiah draws on just about every imaginable style to joyous effect. As an oratorio, there are classical stretches, but the show has doo-wop, Latin, gospel, and operetta-like numbers. Impressively, the diversity of the score never jars, but rather it coheres as part of one larger joke. One reason for the unity that audiences sensed during the two performances at Carnegie Hall was the expert work of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Chorale, both of which, thanks to Ted Sperling’s fine direction and conducting, traversed the wide-ranging sounds with finesse.

The lyrics for Not the Messiah, too, contain a merry assortment of jokes. Burning bushes flee from the White House in one number. In another, the writers manage to reference Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” and “The Rain in Spain” from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady.

At the center of the performances were four talented singers, who reveled in both the music’s serious side and its more whimsical nature. From the world of opera, William Ferguson demonstrated that his lustrous voice could be ably and beautifully put to use for pop sounds, and he seemed to delight in playing the hapless Brian.

From Broadway, the performances boasted Victoria Clark, who, brought a comic earthiness to her portrayal of Brian’s mother and sounded sublime as her voice soared along with melodies. Lauren Worsham’s soprano was equally at ease with the high trills---and low comedy---of the piece, and Marc Kudisch, a reliable bass (base?) comic in shows ranging from 9 to 5 to Thoroughly Modern Millie, proved particularly funny as a couple of authority figures Brian encounters on his journeys.

The fifth principal for the show was “Baritone-ish” Idle, who, unremarkably, provoked gales of laughter as the show’s narrator, and in a host of secondary roles. In the presence of the more serious voices assembled for the show he has written with Du Prez, Idle also acquitted himself admirably in his vocals. And once the show had ended on Tuesday evening, theatergoers could warm themselves against a chilly, rainy night by the glow that had been cast by Not the Messiah.

---- Andy Propst

For more information about the Collegiate Chorale, visit .

2009 performance of Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) offered at London’s Royal Albert Hall was recorded and can be ordered as a disc-on-demand from Amazon.com. This reviewer hopes that it will be complemented by a release of the American version in the very near future.

A Look at Twelve Vocalists' CDs

As 2014 winds down, there are a lot of new recordings to talk about, both cast recordings and individual vocalists.  Releases from the former category are being covered in a column on BroadwayDirect.com this week, and for the latter, here are a dozen that I’ve quite enjoyed, starting with six from female vocalists:

Celia Berk - You Can’t Rush Spring (Gramercy Nightingale Music Co.)

Cabaret performer Berk draws from roughly eighty or ninety years of songwriting for this shimmering recording.  The varied array of tunes on the album come from well-known songwriters like Stephen Sondheim; John Kander and Fred Ebb; and Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner, but the titles, “Sand,” “It’s the Strangest Thing,” and “You’re All the World to Me,” respectively, are not the ones you normally find on discs like this.  But Berk’s selection of rarely-heard tunes isn’t all that makes “Spring” special.  There’s also Berk’s gossamer delivery, which brings to mind classic band singers, and Alex Rybeck’s astute arrangements, which both support her vocals and gracefully illuminate the music.  I’ve found myself returning to this one frequently.

Ann Hampton Callaway - From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project (Shanachie) 

This recording of a concert Callaway offered at Dizzy’s Jazz Club in Manhattan contains a delectable array of songs, from her überly seductive “Whatever Lola Wants” (from Damn Yankees) to the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me,” in which her vocals are filled with a palpable (and heartbreaking) ache.  When she turns to “Mean to Me,” she shows a fun, teasing side.  Particularly notable, I think, is her rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” For this well-known tune, Callaway’s voice takes on an ethereal quality and her vocals are beautifully supported by an elegant, classic jazz arrangement (co-created by Vaughan’s frequent collaborator Bill Mays), which surprisingly and effectively reference “Moonlight Sonata” and enhance the song’s already significant gravitas.

Kimberly Faye Greenberg - Fabulous Fanny: The Songs and Stories of Fanny Brice (CDBaby)

On this superb disc, you’ll find that the Ziegfeld Follies star who’s so closely associated with Streisand comes to life anew thanks to Greenberg’s fine work.  She’s actually played Brice in a trio of shows, and this album is based on her one-woman show dedicated to the singing comedienne.  What’s great about Fabulous Fanny is that it resurrects, tunefully and hysterically, so many of the songs that Brice performed.  Yes, there are the familiar ones like “Second-Hand Rose,” but there are also ones like “Sadie Salome” and “I Was a Floradora Baby.”  The disc does pay homage to the incarnation of Brice that most of the world knows:  the one from Funny Girl and there are a couple numbers from that show, and then, as a bonus, there are a pair of numbers written for the musical Ghostlight, which also features Brice as a character.

Isabel Rose - Trouble in Paradise (Jubilee Recordings)

This singer, who has been working in an jazz mode for a while, breaks into a bigger and more pop vernacular with this new 12-track release that takes its title from the hit Bye Bye Birdie song, which has been given an infectious funkadelic arrangement by Eric Helmkemp.  Beyond this selection from the realm of musical theater, Rose’s choices are eclectic.  There’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (which was a hit for both Bessie Smith and Nina Simone), the Captain and Tennille’s 70s classic, "Love Will Keep Us Together," and Nat King Cole’s “More and More of Your Amor.”  Rose renders these diverse tunes and others (The Supremes’ “Reflections”) with a sultry feline-esque quality that’s positively seductive.

The Shapiro Sisters - Live Out Loud: Live at 54 BELOW (Broadway Records)

Real-life sisters Abigail and Milly Shapiro have been racking up impressive stage credits of late (in shows like Matilda and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas), and you’ll find out why as you listen to this live recording of a show they offered at 54 BELOW:  they’re engaging and smart performers.  Their repertoire features some of the “princess” numbers you might imagine (“Part of Your World” from Little Mermaid, for instance), but then, there are tunes like “The Pretty Little Dolly” (a Yuletide tune that works for Halloween too).  They were joined at the concert by a performer who herself started on the Great White Way early in life, the original Annie, Andrea McArdle.  She’s on hand for charming renditions of “Together” (from Gypsy) and “Anything You Can Do” (from Annie Get Your Gun). 

Barbra Streisand - Partners (Columbia)

Streisand turns to some old favorites like “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen,” among others, on Partners (Columbia).  For each track, she’s paired with a stellar male vocalist, such as Billy Joel (“New York State of Mind”), Stevie Wonder (“People”), Andrea Boccelli (“I Can Still See Your Face”), and Josh Groban (“Somewhere”).  It’s one of her best albums in recent memory and worth looking into.  Saying anything more would really be overkill for this singing legend.

And after “Ladies first,” six albums from male singers:

David Campbell - Sings John Bucchino (Social Family Records (Australia) Pty Ltd / Luckiest Records Pty Ltd)

Australian actor-singer Campbell (who frequently graced cabaret stages here in New York and was seen in Sondheim’s Saturday Night off-Broadway) and American songwriter John Bucchino combine forces for this smoothly mellow album that brings together tunes that Bucchino has written for the stage and screen as well as standalone songs, such as “Grateful” and “Feels Like Home,” that have become part of many singers’ repertoires.  Bucchino is the sole musician on the disc (at the piano and his work as always is impeccable) and his work perfectly melds Campbell’s vocals, which can be both winningly delicate and passionately robust.   Highlights here include the bluesy “What You Need” and the jazzier “Puddle of Love.”

John Michael Dias - Write This Way (CDBaby)

It’s unsurprising that this performer, who has played Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys on Broadway and on tour, has a terrific falsetto, and he displays it amply and ably on this album where the Gershwins brush up against Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann, and Cole Porter meets Billy Joel (in a swell medley of “Take Me Back to Manhattan” and “New York State of Mind.”)  What is surprising are Dias’ delicious lower and slightly smoky notes, which are particularly heard when he delivers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” as a lovely duet with Jamie Beth Barton.  One other standout on the album is Sondheim’s “Being Alive” that’s part acoustic, part vocalized instrumental, and thoroughly moving.  It’s a marvelously fresh take on this often-performed tune.

Michael Law - Easy to Love (PICCD)

Law, director of the Piccadilly Dance Orchestra in England, takes a turn as a solo artist on this album that’s intoxicating from start to finish. Law lends his supple, dulcet tones to a bevy of tunes by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Noel Coward, among others, and he delivers such well-known tunes as Porter’s “De-Lovely” and “I Won’t Dance” (Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein and Otto Harbach) with immecable phrasing and with gentle piano accompaniment that he’s also playing.  The album was recorded live at The Pheasantry in London, and there’s a decided intimacy to the album, where, among many, many highlights, you will find a deeply felt rendition of Berlin’s “Change Partners” and a grandly conceived medley of “After You - Who?” and “Night and Day.”  Hunt this one out.

Jesse Luttrell - Jesse Luttrell (Fred Barton Music)

Luttrell lends his rich baritone to a sextet of tunes on this EP that also features some swank orchestrations from Fred Barton.   Each of the selections are pretty sweet, but if I had to pick faves, I’d say that the standouts are “Make Someone Happy” (from Do Re Mi), which has a smart combination of brashness and delicacy; and “Where’s That Rainbow?” (from Rodgers and Hart’s Peggy-Ann), which has actually sounds as if it might have just come to the 21st century from the 1920s.  

Leslie Odom Jr. - Leslie Odom Jr. (CDBaby)

Odom, who made his Broadway debut in Leap of Faith, garnered some great reviews, and landed on NBC’s Smash, has now released his first solo album and it’s a jazzy, acoustic joy.  From the world of musical theater, he offers up exceptionally fresh versions of standards like "Look for the Silver Lining" (heard in both the musicals Zip and Sally) "Joey, Joey, Joey" (from The Most Happy Fella), and "Love Look Away" (from Flower Drum Song).  The nine-track recording also features a couple of duets.  One, a driving “I Know That You Know,” features some exceptional piano work from Elew (Eric Lewis), and another, the gently moving “Song for the Asking,” pairs Odom with the silvery voiced Nicolette Robinson.

Nick Ziobro - A Lot of Livin’ to Do (Titanium Entertainment)

This recording, produced by none other than Michael Feinstein, proves to be an ideal showcase for this classic crooner who’s also got a contemporary vibe.  Ziobro’s at home with both Burt Bacharach and Hal David (a heartfelt “This Guy’s in Love With You”), Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields (a swinging, effervescent “I Won’t Dance”), and Sondheim (“Anyone Can Whistle”).  Ziobro delivers this last number with remarkable simplicity, enhancing the song’s lyrical ache, and it’s just one reason why the album is a sparkling debut from a performer I’m betting we’ll be hearing more from for many years to come.

'A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)' - A Fascinating Theatrical Jigsaw Puzzle

Stephen Rea and Lloyd Hutchinson in A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)
(©Matthew Murphy)

One part Greek myth and one part television procedural Sam Shepard’s newest play A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) asks audiences to dive into the equivalent of a theatrical jigsaw puzzle that’s been semi-assembled. Given that most (if not all theatergoers) will walk into the Pershing Square Signature Center, where the show opened last night, knowing the Oedipus myth, a clear sense of what the puzzle should ultimately depict is basically understood. How Shepard’s varied pieces (that span centuries and cultures) fit together is the challenge, and for those theatergoers who are willing to wrestle with Shepard’s enigmatic script, the show consistently fascinates.

Certain portions of Particle center on Sophocles’ tragedy as it’s basically remembered. A soothsayer predicts that a king will be murdered by his child. The monarch attempts to forestall this eventuality after his wife gives birth by abandoning the child in the wilderness, assuming it will die. Of course, the infant is rescued, and when the he reaches adulthood, the prophecies, including the one about the child marrying the mother, are fulfilled.

Other portions of the play center on a drug lord who, along with two of his thugs, has been run down and killed in the desert in Southern California, and on the ways in which a local cop and a forensics investigator who’s been brought in to help solve the case go about determining what happened on a barren stretch of road.

The hallucinatory trick of Shepard’s play is that the two plot lines, which are loosely telling the same tale, warp in and out of one another. The conceit of the show seems to be that when the actors speak with English/Irish accents (the show features a company from both sides of the Atlantic and premiered in Ireland), audiences are watching events that are taking place in ancient Greece. When the actors affect a Southwestern twang, well, the procedural is unfolding.

But, the accents slide, and Lorna Marie Mugan’s contemporary costumes (that nod toward a Grecian aesthetic periodically) for the double and triple cast company only change slightly. Further, Shepard blurs the action almost from the outset when it seems that Oedipus’ father Laius is receiving the message about his fate from a soothsayer. In fact, it’s Lawrence (the drug lord) who has visited Uncle Del (as in Delphi) who predicts the future by rolling bones and reading entrails. Immediately following this, the actor playing Lawrence, Aidan Redmond, moves into a scene with Brid Brennan. Now he’s playing Laius and she’s playing Jocasta and we’ve moved back thousands of years.

Ultimately what the show seems to be exploring - and interpretations about exactly what Shepard’s getting at will, most likely, tantalize theatergoers and academics for years to come - is how this myth continues to haunt us and also how desperately people feel the need to ascribe meaning to events in the world around them. As an example of this, during the present day sequences, wheelchair-bound Otto (Stephen Rea, who also played Oedipus) becomes fixated on the murders in the desert, but a direct or clear line between Otto and Lawrence is never drawn. So while there are ties between this crime and the events in the Oedipus portion of the play, they are not exactly parallel. Depending on theatergoers’ taste for puzzles, such aspects of Particle will either fascinate or annoy.

All theatergoers will pretty much be able to agree on two things. The first is that Shepard’s language and colloquial poetry has never been richer. Throughout, the dialogue has both lyricism and a rough-hewn edge that seems like it would be at home in the playwright’s seminal works like Buried Child or Curse of the Starving Class.

Similarly, audiences should also be able to concur on the sharpness of director Nancy Meckler’s production, which unfolds in a white-tiled abattoir-like environment (from scenic designer Frank Conway) and is underscored with some terrifically atmospheric music for cello and slide by Neil Martin (who, tucked in an alcove of the set, performs the score with Scott Livingston).

Meckler’s elicited a host of savory performances from the company. Rea in the Oedipus/Otto roles is by turns passionately arrogant and curiously, and slightly dimly, inquisitive. Brennan brings spitfire intensity to her portrayal of Jocasta while a kind of wearied sweetness informs her rendering of Jocelyn. Redmond’s turns as Lawrence/Laius/Langos (yes, there’s a third patriarch) all have a genuine regality, and the performer brings subtle nuances to the three different roles.

Matthew Rauch and Jason Kolotouros deliver sturdy performances, respectively, as the forensics expert and the local police officer. Lloyd Hutchinson, who plays Uncle Del, the blind Greek seer Tiresias, a homeless guy labeled “Maniac of the Outskirts,” and a nameless traveler offers a quartet of immaculately detailed, wacky performances. And Judith Roddy does yeoman’s work as she takes on the roles of Oedipus’ daughter Antigone and Otto and Jocelyn’s child Annalee.

Midway through the play, Uncle Del says “Why they keep coming to me is a mystery, tell the truth. In droves sometimes, they come. Lines. Limping. Begging on their hands and knees for the truth. As though it were the rarest thing on earth.” Oddly, it’s a line that, altered ever-so-slightly, could be taken as an admonition about A Particle of Dread overall. Substitute the word “meaning” for “truth.” Look for it in this wonderful tease of a play, but as you do, don’t make it paramount. Enjoy the sense that oftentimes it’s elusive.

---- Andy Propst

A Particle of Dread plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.