Friday, June 26, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Churchill at New World Stages by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of “Churchill" at New World Stages was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Churchill
Adapted & Performed by Ronald Keaton
Directed by Kurt Johns
New World Stages 
340 West 50th Street
New York, New York 10019
Reviewed 6/25/15 at 8:00 p.m.

Churchill is the first project of SoloChicago Theatre, the only Equity theatre in the country dedicated to promoting the art of solo performance. Ronald Keaton, who adapted and stars in this one-man show, gives a compelling portrayal of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill in this warm, witty, engaging and entertaining show. Churchill was a hit in Chicago during its run at The Greenhouse Theater Center. It opened Off-Broadway at New World Stages in February and is still going strong. Ronald Keaton presents us with a warmer, gentler, reflective man who enjoys painting and spending time with his family and children but who is also resolutely committed to defending Britain from Nazi aggression and to making his mark, which to a large extent he believes to be his destiny. The play is set in 1946 and Churchill is speaking to an American audience about his life, challenges and adventures. His story is told primarily in chronological order with images flashing on the back wall from the various time periods of his life (e.g. military school, a scene of battle, his wife). The play opens with Winston Churchill dabbing his brush at a canvas and announcing that he prefers to paint in oils because doing so allows you to fix mistakes. The closing image has him back at the canvas, hoping that when he gets to heaven, he will be able to spend the first few million years painting. His famous quotation about death is, "I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter."

Winston Churchill was born in a bedroom in Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire on November 30, 1874, six weeks premature. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, the third son of John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, was a successful politician, and his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jennie Jerome) was the daughter of American millionaire Leonard Jerome. As he joked, "my mother wasn't a Yankee; she was a Dodger, having been brought up in Brooklyn." From age two to six, he lived in Dublin, where his grandfather had been appointed Viceroy and employed Churchill's father as his Private Secretary. With limited contact with his parents, Churchill became very close to his Nanny, Elizabeth Ann Everest, whom he called "Woomany." He reports he might have had five conversations with his father his whole life and his mother's heart was not in the nursery so at age 7, he was sent off to Boarding School. Still, his love of his mother made him feel very close to the Americans and his father's success as an orator and politician inspired him his whole life. One day his father asked him if he would like to join the military, to which he readily agreed. Excited that his father may have seen some potential in him, he later overheard his father telling his mom, "There are only four options for the lad: the land, the law, the church and the military. He has no land. He's too stupid for the law and he's too obstreperous for the church." So he was off to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, the British Army's initial officer training center, where he trained for the cavalry and graduated 8th in his class.

He recalls his military service in India, Sudan, and South Africa as well as how he became a writer and was paid as a war correspondent. He describes how he met and proposed to his wife and tells us a bit about his children including his daughter Marigold, who died young. He goes into some detail regarding the political and appointed positions he served in and mentions some of his successes and failures, highs and lows, and how he reacted to them. He may have been depressed at times "believing all human beings are worms," but he would eventually come around to the recognition that he, at least, "is a glow worm." In this regard, Ronald Keaton presents Winston Churchill as a human being, not some caricature. The play is full of accurate details regarding Winston Churchill's life. It also successfully introduces you to both his vulnerable and stubborn side. On the one hand, he and his wife Clementine have pet names for each other (Winston: Pig or Pug; Clementine: Pussycat) and sometimes the whole family crawls around under the dining room table making animal noises. On the other hand, he is willing to insult every member of Parliament when they don't view an issue with the same importance as he does. Ronald Keaton also highlights Winston Churchill's sense of humor. He tells the story of meeting a potential voter when he was first running for office. The man told him, "I'd rather vote for the Devil" to which Churchill responded, "I understand but just in case your friend isn't running, can I count on your support?"

In the political arena, Churchill described Socialism as "a philosophy of failure, a creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy" with "its only inherent virtue being the equal sharing of misery." He defined an appeaser "as someone who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last." When elected Prince Minister in a unity government prior to World War II, he said he had nothing to offer but his "blood, toil, tears and sweat." When Ambassador Joseph Kennedy was predicting Britain's defeat and urging its surrender, Winston Churchill gave a speech in which he said, "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." In the darkest hours of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill was confident the New World would come to the aid of the Old World, not just with the Lend-Lease program, but eventually with troops. Once Pearl Harbor was attacked and FDR told him, "we're all in the same boat now," he felt it was only a matter of time until the Allies emerged victorious. Winston describes a very personal meeting he and FDR shared after a conference in Casablanca as well as his experiences with Harry Truman, who became President after FDR died one month before V-E Day.

I have only touched on some of the many interesting stories you will hear while watching this play, and it is amazing that after 1946, when this play is set, Winston Churchill remained active for another 19 years, serving as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955, and dying on January 24, 1965 at age 90, 70 years to the day after his father's death. Ronald Keaton based the script on Churchill's voluminous writings (he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953), and on a 1980s teleplay by James C. Humes. The knowledge of what this extraordinary man did during his life as well as his many talents, is not common knowledge among the general population. It is for this reason I highly recommend you see this play. However, you will not only obtain new knowledge but also have a grand time in the process. I will leave you with one last quotation. Being an anti-Communist, Churchill was once asked how he could send aid to Russia, who was also fighting the Nazis. He responded, "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least one favorable reference to the Devil in front of the House of Commons."

To learn more about Churchill, visit www.churchilltheplay.com. To purchase tickets to see Churchill before the run ends, go to https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Churchill/Overview where you can buy tickets for the very low price of $67.00. You will be glad you did!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Adam Fried's Misunderstood: An Unrequited Love Story at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Adam Fried's Misunderstood: An Unrequited Love Story at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Misunderstood: An Unrequited Love Story 

Written & Performed by Adam Fried
Music Direction by Peter Tinaglia & Rachel Whorton
The Duplex Cabaret Theatre
61 Christopher Street
New York, New York 10014
Reviewed 6/21/15 at 9:30 p.m.

In Misunderstood: An Unrequited Love Story, Adam Fried takes us along on his journey to find love and career success in New York City. Having grown up in Ohio and then getting his B.A. in Musical Theatre from Ball State University (in Muncie, Indiana), a wide-eyed, optimistic, charismatic Jewish boy flies into the Big Apple from Cincinnati to seek fame and fortune. He also hopes to fall in love and to spend the rest of his life with his soul-mate. Leading with his heart instead of his head, he jumps into numerous relationships, which fail to work out. Flashing back in time to Ohio, Adam reports his first relationship embarrassment involved a girl who came to his family's home for Passover. He fell in love with her and thought the "A" and "F" on her shirt the next day meant Adam Fried, when it really meant Abercrombie & Fitch. Next came a fellow actor he met at the Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan, who was his first boyfriend. Both were confused regarding their sexuality. They only had secret midnight encounters with each other and never mentioned their involvement to anyone else. Eventually, they stopped speaking.

Once in New York, Adam took acting and dance classes and tried to pursue his career goals. Eventually, he got a role in a national tour of a play and earned his Actor's Equity card. Eventually, he dated a guy from London, who he met in a gay bar. Just as the love bug bit, his boyfriend's work visa wasn't renewed. Next came "an asshole with a Napoleon complex" and a blond-haired lawyer who turned out to be an alcoholic. Online dating put him in contact with a lot of people who looked good on paper but with whom he had no chemistry. As he sang, "there is a fine, fine, line between love and a waste of time." As a result, he has decided to invest his time in his "family, friends and career." He understands now that "life moves really fast. You need to know and own who you are. Life is one big journey. It's O.K. to enjoy that journey and let life happen as it may. If I meet someone, they can come along for the ride."

Misunderstood: An Unrequited Love Story originally opened at The Laurie Beechman Theatre. It then moved to Don't Tell Mama, and most recently, The Duplex Cabaret Theatre. Adam Fried is moving to Los Angeles to be closer to his sister and to be a guncle (i.e. gay uncle). He intends to reprise the show in Los Angeles. It contains a number of songs but my favorite was his rendition of Kooman & Dimond's "To Excess." Adam Fried shares his personal experiences with us in a funny and heartfelt manner. Most people will be able to identify with the experiences and challenges he has faced. We are all not that different. We'd like love and career success but also, in time, we come to realize the importance of family, friends, and most importantly, ourselves. Adam Fried's secret weapon is that, while he too gets depressed from time to time, he also has a positive, optimistic attitude about life and his future. His friend Jen didn't nickname him "Shiny" for no reason.

For more information about Adam Fried, visit www.AdamFried.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/adamfriednyc 

Applause! Applause! Review of Ben Rimalower's Bad With Money at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Ben Rimalower's Bad With Money at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Bad With Money 

Written & Performed by Ben Rimalower
Directed by Aaron Mark
The Duplex Cabaret Theatre
61 Christopher Street
New York, New York 10014
Reviewed 6/21/15 at 7:00 p.m.

Ben Rimalower opened the show singing that little ditty, "I'd Like To Hate Myself In The Morning," first performed by Judy Garland in the final stretch of her life. John Meyer wrote a memoir called Heartbreaker about his relationship with Garland, how when he met her, she was homeless, couch-surfing, desperate for the 200 bucks he could get her to sing at a piano bar, dependent on the kindness of strangers just for a glass of gin to calm the DTs (i.e. the shakes). Ben said, "I've always related to Judy Garland as a fellow alcoholic. Even before I acknowledged my own problem, before I came out - if you will - I identified with a sort of glamorized Rat Pack image of Judy throwing back a highball. I've been a Garland fan all my life, but what I learned reading Heartbreaker was that another enormous problem Judy faced was colossal, crippling debt. There is nothing glamorous about Judy's debilitating financial problems. I never wanted to identify with that aspect of Judy Garland. And yet here we are."

During this one-hour, one-man show, Ben candidly reveals his addiction to spending beyond his means and how that led him to betray friends, embezzle money, steal items from places where he worked, engage in prostitution, and eventually to committing grand larceny by charging over $10,000 on his boss's credit card. As he accurately described the pleasure-pain ratio associated with the addiction, he makes one "questionable decision at the cash register" but even though he doesn't have the money to pay the credit card bill, he still gets to keep the stuff he bought. Similarly, he might get a call from the salon when his check bounces, but his "hair is still cut." Instant gratification without consequences, thanks to those who have enabled his addiction over the years. First on the list of enablers are his parents who continued to bail him out, and second are his boss and business partners who didn't press charges against him. He also got lucky by not getting arrested as a prostitute or for smoking and possessing crystal meth. The result has been that Ben Rimalower is still struggling with his addiction. As he says near the end of his monologue, "I'm just vomiting up war stories. I'm standing here telling you this story but I'm still stuck in it."

More tragedy than comedy, Ben reveals that as kid, his grandparents learned they could keep him quiet by simply buying him things. When he spent the $300.00 his friends gave him for the rental of the limousine for their prom, his parents bailed him out. They suggested he get a job, which he did, at a record company, but when his employer mentioned he could take a CD or two gratis, he ended up filling his car multiple times over with CDs he stole from the company's storage room. He recognized his family was not poor but "even though they were able to squeak through the gates, they couldn't keep up." He "never had enough money" to spend the way his friends did at the mall. He attended the University of California at Berkeley in 1994 and accepted a credit card with an $800.00 limit so he "could build his credit score." His plan was to buy a $37.00 dinner to celebrate getting the card plus a $13.00 CD and to then pay it off by the end of the billing cycle. Within months, he maxed out the card and when they raised his credit limit to $1,000.00, he used that too. When his parents found out, they paid that bill as well. In Junior year, he found out that his friend Tim's parents would pay for a trip to Europe for him and his boyfriend, so he proceeded to climb on top of Tim to bring their friendship to the next level. The audience laughed and Ben said that Tim "thought it was funny too." Ben always is keeping an eye out for "a good story" he can "one day include in his one woman show."

Without money, Ben next considered prostitution. He called an Escort Agency and wanted to make sure they were not legitimate, so he asked whether they would expect him to sleep with the clients. They responded, "prostitution is illegal in the state of California but if our clients want to walk around the block, we expect our employees to walk them around the block." However, when he went in for an interview, they told him they wanted more of a "frat boy" look than a "drama major" look so he decided to go out on the street and simply be a prostitute without going through an escort service. He went out to Polk Street in San Francisco but soon realized he had overestimated the price he could get for what he was willing to give. He expected to be paid $100.00 for a hand job while johns were willing to pay him $40.00 for anal sex. He met an eclectic mix of people during his time as a hustler. A rich guy gave him $300.00 plus $50,00 for transportation just to help him out. Another gave him $40.00 for oral sex and two Japanese dudes invited him to participate in a party that lasted almost two days. Ben told everyone he was a prostitute but even when doing so, he always felt he still had a secret, namely, that it was true since many would have questioned whether he had the build or looks to be an effective and successful rent-boy. 

After the two-day sex and drug party, Ben Rimalower decided to go straight and become a nice Jewish boy again but he still had no money so he decided to cash in the IBM stock he got as gifts at his bris. It came to $10,000.00, which he deposited into a fund with Charles Schwab. Within a short time, he not only used the entire $10,000.00 but somehow ended up owing Charles Schwab an additional $1,200.00. After graduation, he finally got a job paying $650.00 a week but after using the money to pay back debts, get hundred dollar haircuts, buy Broadway theater tickets and dinners, he always ended up with no money by the end of each week. His boss had given him a credit card to buy items he was instructed to purchase but he started using it for dinner, Kiss Me, Kate tickets and splurges at Banana Republic. He rationalized it at first by saying that he could explain away the first wrong charge by saying that both his credit card and employer's card were blue and that he made a mistake, but that excuse was completely blown away after Ben charged over $10,000.00 on the card. When caught, the boss didn't press charges and simply fired him. 

When Ben and two friends produced Joy at the Actor's Playhouse, he started embezzling small amounts of money from the fund of investors returning some of it but ultimately taking $1,500.00. This destroyed the trust of his friends and hurt their chances of attracting other investors. His friends interpreted his actions as his giving them "a big fuck you" which made them "sad rather than angry." It didn't stop there. He bounced a check when producing his own cabaret show and in 2010, he got a $5,000.00 bonus only to find that weeks later he had minus $600.00 in his checking account and he still hadn't paid his rent or his monthly bills. Recognizing nothing would get better until he was sober, he contacted his parents about entering rehab at Hazelton. Insurance brought the $28,000.00 bill down to $17,000.00, which his parents paid. They addressed his alcohol and drug addictions but not his problems with spending money. He eventually realized that even rehab was just another scheme, wherein he hoped to reinvent himself, which is not possible since there is no getting away from money. Alcohol and drugs are easy to stop in comparison but the underlying needs and addictions to "stuff" is something you can't abandon cold turkey. Even therapy hasn't helped him.

Ben eventually reveals he is not drinking anymore and that he is not stealing anymore. However, he put this show together in the hope of putting it all behind him but none of his big schemes to solve everything has worked. His whole life is still unmanageable and he recognizes that even if he won one hundred million dollars in a lottery, he'd spend it in a year and, if he started drinking again, it would be gone in six months. He finally confesses he "always saw himself as an emerging talent," but that what he really is "is a criminal lucky to have lived such a privileged life." He ends the show as if he is introducing himself at a Debtors Anonymous meeting, saying, "My name is Ben and I'm Bad With Money."

Bad With Money opened at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre on September 4, 2014. It was developed within the Theaterists Group for Writers at The Public Theater and was named The Advocate's #1 Solo Show of 2014. Ben Rimalower continues to perform this play around the world. It is not a particularly funny show because Ben has chosen to reveal some of the darkest and most embarrassing aspects of his private life. There is nothing funny about stealing, embezzling and betraying those who love and have trusted you. He shares his struggles with addiction in all its forms and doesn't hold back from telling the audience exactly how it was and how it is. But Ben never gives us any indication he is taking the steps necessary to deal with his problem. Has he destroyed all his credit cards? Has he told his friends and parents not to lend him any money, even if he asks? Has he cut his ATM cards in half so he has to withdraw money physically from his checking account? Has he limited the amount of money he withdraws? Is he keeping track of all his income and expenditures, placing himself on a short leash? We never hear any of those steps so we are left without an indication as to how his story will end. Will he one day get arrested for writing bad checks or for embezzling money in the future or will he finally get his act together? We just don't know but we do leave the show feeling he should have accepted responsibility for his actions many years ago. Ben Rimalower is just terrific in Bad With Money. He shares his soul with the audience and holds nothing back. 

You can learn more about Ben Rimalower on his website at www.BenRimalower.com or by following him @benrimalower on Twitter. He is also on Facebook, Instragram, and YouTube. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of John Jeffrey Martin's If By Some Freak Chance at Don't Tell Mama by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of John Jeffrey Martin's If By Some Freak Chance at Don't Tell Mama was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

If By Some Freak Chance 

Starring John Jeffrey Martin
Don't Tell Mama 
343 West 46th Street
New York, New York 10036
Reviewed 6/14/15 at 8:00 p.m.

John Jeffrey Martin, named John after his grandfather, famed singer/actor Johnny Desmond, grew up on Long Island and graduated from the College of Visual & Performing Arts at Syracuse University. Jeff is an accomplished actor, musician and painter, He currently plays Richard Bailey and part of the Ensemble in the Broadway production of Kinky Boots at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. He got good notices for appearing as Troy Bolton in the national tour of Disney's High School Musical and has appeared on Broadway in The Rocky Horror Show, Hairspray and Good Vibrations. He has been composing and singing his own songs for the past 15 years, the last show being at Don't Tell Mama on March 20, 2015. While he did perform four songs in this show, some original, and some covers, accompanying himself on the electric guitar, If By Some Freak Chance was primarily about the presentation of "absurd improv characters" he has created (some with their own screenplays in development) that are "accelerated snippets of humanity born in the chaos of the center of his brain." On his Facebook Page, Jeff Martin heavily promoted this show calling it "a fully committed evening of character-based comedy" that he intended to be "a living art exhibit" where his characters would "tell stories and share their lives" with us. He said the phrase he had in his mind was, "If you build it, they will come." Unfortunately, besides me and my guest, and his girlfriend, there were only two other people in the audience.

The structure for introducing the characters was an audition to find a replacement for Nestor, a man with a sinus condition who was leaving as host of Nestor's Notable Radio Show. Using different wigs, caps, hats, glasses, and other props, Jeff Martin appears as different characters who argue why they should be hired as Nestor's replacement. We are introduced to Pepe, Andre, Colby, Gary, Al, Marv and many others who fail to tell any interesting stories about their lives. He hoped his show would get the audience to "laugh, squirm and think" but it only made me squirm. Jeff Martin occasionally and very rarely was able to successfully deliver a funny line. One was when his Italian character Al spoke about making his famous "water reduction sauce, which is good for making any pasta dish," and another was when Gary, who spent the last fifteen years in college paid for by his parents, who after working many jobs to pay for his tuition, finally killed themselves, said, "there is an upside; my parents did pack away enough cash to let me stay in school for one more semester, especially given their lack of current living expenses." The bottom line is that the characters Jeff Martin has created are not interesting or unique enough, there is no storyline worth telling, and there is very little that is funny about them. The words "stupid" and "silly" come to mind.

On the other hand, John Jeffrey Martin is an accomplished singer and songwriter. His covers of Neil Young's "Old Man" and Paul Anka's "My Way" were inspired and his original songs showed promise as well. Jeff Martin claims his 15-year singing career has not resulted in the breakthrough he would have liked but as I learned in my many years as a partner in Cassone & Stevens Management (that had offices in the Ed Sullivan Theater building), many people have talent. In fact, talent is abundant in New York City. That is never enough to succeed. You also need perseverance, dedication, and an almost obsessive desire to follow ever lead and take advantage of every contact to maximize your chances of obtaining that breakthrough role and building a fan base to eventually launch a successful career. With social media, that is even more possible today than it was two decades ago. When I first contacted Jeff Martin about reviewing his show, I sent him a few links via Facebook based on a conversation we had. He did not view them. Then, at the end of the show, I gave him my e-mail and asked him to send me his bio and a list of all his characters and the correct spelling of their names. Now, two days later, he still has not sent them to me. This is the problem. John Jeffrey Martin clearly has extraordinary talent. Just look at his website at www.JohnJeffreyMartin.com yet that is not enough to succeed in this business. He needs a hard-working, legitimate, talented manager, or mentor, who knows how to harness his talents and get him the help he needs. With proper packaging, motivation and hard work, Jeff Martin has the potential to be a star. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of The Redheads: Alicia Terri & Corky at Don't Tell Mama by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Redheads: Alicia Terri & Corky starring Alicia Lazansky & Corky Romash at Don't Tell Mama was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Redheads: Alicia Terri & Corky

Starring Alicia Lazansky & Corky Romash
Musical Director: Barry Levitt
Don't Tell Mama 
343 West 46th Street
New York, New York 10036
Reviewed 6/14/15 at 5:30 p.m.

Two decades ago, there was a popular, well-known act in cabaret called The Three Redheads starring Diana Templeton, Dottie Burman and Gerta Grunen. With the latter two divas now deceased and Lady Diana Templeton, K.R. busy with her duties as reigning Queen of the Beaux Arts Society (having been coronated at the 108th Annual Beaux Arts Ball), Alicia Lazansky and Corky Romash have put together another Redheads show that played to a packed and enthusiastic audience at Don't Tell Mama this past Sunday. These brassy and sassy broads are great entertainers who held our attention throughout the evening. Each sang six songs with a duet of "Sisters" and "Friendship" in the middle and "S'Wonderful" opening and closing the show with the special lyric, "You made our hearts feel gay at the Don't Tell Mama cabaret." After the "Sisters" and "Friendship" duets sung by both veteran singers wearing bright red boas (actually worn in the musical La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway), Alicia suggested they "shoot for who would sing the next three songs." Corky didn't know how they would accomplish that since she doesn't own a gun, but Alicia explained they'd just shoot for it - odd or even. Corky won (or lost, depending on how you view it) and then went on to sing the next three songs.

Both Alicia Lazansky and Corky Romash put their all into this show. They sang each song with the feelings and emotions necessary to properly deliver the intended message, whether the song was sentimental, humorous or deadly serious. Alicia did a fine job with "How Did I End Up Here," I'm Living Alone & I Like It," "A Little More Mascara," and "I Want To Know What Love Is." Corky's smash hits were "I Am What I Am," "Don't Go To Strangers," "The Power Of Love" (recommended for her by her husband), and a "Sunrise, Sunset/September Song" medley sung in honor of her ten great-grandchildren. Both of these talented women have a huge fan base and are very sincere and decent people. With a little help, they can easily put together a themed show providing a bit more background about themselves and the songs they select. Add to that some witty patter, a talented director and a good publicist, and these women, either alone or together, will start to get the recognition they truly deserve. Despite having had multiple husbands and careers over the decades, Alicia Lazansky and Corky Romash are real troupers who have survived and persisted through difficulties and hardships without complaint. It is now their time to step into the spotlight. It's never too late to achieve your dreams! 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of The Metropolitan Greek Chorale's 50th Anniversary Concert "Odyssey" at Merkin Concert Hall by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Metropolitan Greek Chorale's 50th Anniverary Concert "Odyssey" at Merkin Concert Hall was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Odyssey
The Metropolitan Greek Chorale
50th Anniversary Concert
Music Director: Marina Alexander
Accompanist: Yannis Xylas
Featured Vocalist: Grigoris Maninakis
(with the Microkosmos Ensemble)
Merkin Concert Hall (Kaufman Music Center)
129 West 67th Street, New York, New York
Reviewed 6/6/15 at 8:30 p.m. 

Known as The Metropolitan Greek Orthodox Choir from 1965 until 1969, The Metropolitan Greek Chorale celebrated its 50th Anniversary by giving an inspirational two-hour concert at Merkin Concert Hall on June 6, 2015 that was followed by a champagne reception for all attendees. With men dressed in black tie and women in elegant black gowns with matching white pearls, Music Director Marina Alexander put on a program that allowed The Metropolitan Greek Chorale to revisit past achievements and to take on new challenges all while celebrating Greek culture in its many forms. Established in 1965 by the Council of Greek Orthodox Choir Directors of Greater New York, the newly formed Metropolitan Greek Orthodox Choir functioned under the aegis of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Its first conductor was James Stathis. Today, the Chorale has the distinction of being the longest performing Greek-American choral group in the United States. From choral modes of Ancient Greece and musical renderings of great Hellenic poetry, to works in the Byzantine tradition, as well as Rebetika and contemporary Greek Folk music, the Chorale continues to dedicate itself to performing the widest variety of extraordinary musical genre from its Hellenic heritage. 

Since its 1968 concert debut in Town Hall, The Metropolitan Greek Chorale has performed at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center and other major halls in the United States under the artistic direction and dynamic leadership of outstanding concert maestros: the late Dino Anagnost (1968-1977), Dean of Music of the Archdiocesan Orthodox Cathedral and conductor of  the Little Orchestra Society; George Tsontakis (1978-1995), a world-renowned and award-winning Contemporary Classical Composer, who was in the audience and arranged many of the chorale pieces that were performed; Constantine Kitsopoulos (1999-2004), Queens Symphony Music Director and celebrated Broadway theater conductor; and Marina Alexander (2004-present). Ms. Alexander holds a Master's Degree in Conducting and a BFA in Stage Directing for Opera from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She founded The Arcadian Chorale in New Jersey and has served as the Musical Director of the Richmond Choral Society of Staten Island. Ms. Alexander is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Choral Music at College of Staten Island-CUNY where she teaches Music History and Conducting.

The concert opened with a rousing and inspirational performance of Canto Olympico: Ode to Zeus, which is "an invocation of Zeus, father of the Olympic Games, wherein the singers ask him to appear from the depths of eternity and brighten the opening of the Games by rewarding the victors with a laurel wreath." A complementary and similarly upbeat Canto Olympico: Ode to Apollo began the second half of the concert, wherein "an Olympic athlete invokes Apollo, god of sun, logic, music and lightning to help him win the coveted wreath of laurel and myrtle in the Games, thus glorifying his country." In this latter song, Benjamin Robinson, a Guest Singer, was the soloist. He is a significant talent worth keeping an eye on! 

Petits Cyclades featured a series of poems by Odysseas Elytis set to melody and arranged for the Chorale ("The Garden Was Entering The Sea" - Memories of love expressed in a series of surreal images; "Maya" - The Evening Star with its seven children visits a poor woman's home and leaves behind the youngest one, Maya, pinning her into the woman's hair; "The Cricket" - A man expresses his feelings of loneliness on a moonlit summer night while in the company of a cricket; "The North Wind" - In a small room, a woman is dying with her beloved by her bedside while he begs the Little North Wind not to disturb her; "Give Me Mint To Smell: Marina" - The smell of spearmint, basil and verbena helps a man recall magical moments spent with his beloved Marina; and "It Was Divine Will" - A light-hearted song celebrating the union of two lovers). Three Byzantine Hymns ("Those In Christ," "For The Grace Of God Has Been Revealed," & "The Lord Has Visited Us"), arranged by former Music Director George Tsontakis, were presented next along with Two Greek Dances, arranged by former Music Director Dino Anagnost and current Music Director Marina Alexander. 

Kristina Semos did a fine job as soloist during the presentation of Someone Is Celebrating (about a person who is awoken by a celebration nearby and realizes that she is the one being congratulated) and It Was Not An Island (a song about the sister of Alexander The Great from the stage adaptation of Kapetan Mihalis (Captain Michalis), a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Speak To Me was a particularly impressive piece (also arranged by former Music Director George Tsontakis) about a man who incessantly begs the object of his affection to talk. The outstanding performance of this concert was by Grigoris Maninakis, the Featured Vocalist, who brought along his Microkosmos Ensemble to accompany him. When Mr. Maninakis performed the many traditional, folk and contemporary songs he sang, I was immediately transported in my mind to Athens, recalling the many nights I spent in cafes listening to similar music. Grigoris Maninakis represents the gold standard when it comes to presenting Greek music and his Microkosmos Ensemble (Megan Gould, violin; Richard Khuzami, percussion; Glafkos Kontemeniotis, piano; Kostantinos Psarros, bouzouki; and George Stathos, clarinet) are top notch. I encourage you to see them wherever they perform. 

As featured vocalist, Grigoris Maninakis, sang no less than ten songs during the concert, most so popular and well-known that Music Director Marina Alexander encouraged the audience to sing along. The top audience favorites were The Swallow Requested (a traditional song from the Peloponnese), The Tough Girl (from "The Magiko" - 1928), The Coins (about a passionate man who courts a young woman, showering her with compliments and songs, as well as displays of 'coins'), It Is Worthy Intelligible Sun Of Justice (wherein a narrator implores the Sun of Justice and the glorifying Myrtle, symbol of Nature and Dionysus, to not forget his country), Behave Yourself (where a man talks to his current lover, painfully recounting the details of a failed affair) and If It Could Be 1821 Again (where a man wishes he were alive during 1821's uprising of the Greeks against the Turks. At this point in the concert, Music Director Marina Alexander left the stage leaving Grigoris Maninakis and his Microkosmos Ensemble to perform Little Hariklia (a song by Panayiotis Tountsas (1886-1942) about a man who expresses his love for unattainable little Harikleia ("Hariklaki"), a free-spirited young woman with a legion of admirers). This song featured extraordinary solos by Megan Gould on violin, George Stathos on clarinet and Kostantinos Psarros on bouzouki. To close the concert, Marina Alexander returned to the stage to conduct The Metropolitan Greek Chorale as it performed A Legend, the Chorale's "signature piece" wherein a narrator tells the legend of a man who left civilization to live alone in the mountains while a second narrator disagrees with the original version.

The Metropolitan Greek Chorale's 50th Anniversary Concert was an elegant affair and a great tribute to all who have been associated with the Chorale over the years. In fact, a number of "50-year members" were recognized and participated in this concert. The Commemorative Journal reflects the commitment of its supporters, who appreciate the Chorale's dedication to Greek Language and Culture. This autumn, they begin rehearsals for their annual Christmas Concert, which this year will be held on Sunday, December 6, 2015 at the historic Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. For more information about joining, either as a singer or helping out in a non-singing role (e.g. stage managing, lighting, programs, fundraising), visit their website at www.metgreekchorale.org or call 908-353-1845.  

Monday, June 8, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Douglas McGrath's Checkers at Studio Theatre Long Island by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg

This review of Douglas McGrath's Checkers at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Checkers
Written by Douglas McGrath
Directed by David Dubin
Richard Nixon played by Scott Earle
Pat Nixon played by Carolyn Popadin
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York
Reviewed 6/7/15 at 2:30 p.m. 

Today I saw a delightful production of Checkers produced by the Studio Theatre at 141 South Wellwood Avenue, Lindenhurst, New York. It is conveniently located near the Long Island Railroad Station and the Southern State Parkway. The only physical drawback was climbing the steps to the second floor of the building. The lounge was extremely comfortable with chairs and tables. It was nicely decorated. There were free treats on one table and complimentary coffee. Other beverages were reasonably priced. The bathroom was a delight to use and it was so inviting, I felt as if I was at home. The staff was friendly and welcoming.

On stage, a television screen was effectively used to announce scene changes (instead of the complexity of sound effects and light arrays used in the original Vineyard Theatre production) thanks to the imaginative staging of Erick Creegan and Liz Grudzinski. In the original Off-Broadway production that I saw in 2012, Richard Nixon and Murray Chotiner were the foci of an ellipse of which everybody revolved around. This time, Pat Nixon was the center of the universe or the glue that held everything together. This is her show. Pat Nixon, perfectly personified by Carolyn Popadin, is the one that urges her husband to show his best side and be bigger than his critics instead of giving into his darkest and basest instincts. Nixon gives the speech of his life which saves them all. The pinnacle of the speech is about a dog named Checkers, who is not used as a weepy, sentimental motif but as the center of the middle class life style that the Nixon's share with their children. 

While the "General" - Ike - was portrayed by an actor in the Off-Broadway stage production, a recorded voice is used here to portray the general as an empty suit devoid of principle. He is too ready to throw Nixon under the bus in order to get elected. Outmaneuvered by Nixon, he has no choice but to say, "Nixon is my boy" when the Republican National Committee is flooded with wires and phone calls running 350 to 1 in favor of keeping Nixon on the ticket, topping what seemed to be an impossible 90% threshold set by Eisenhower. 

We see how equally shallow and dowdy Mamie Doud Eisenhower, well-portrayed by Lorrie DePelligrini, is herself, pun intended. Having never really struggled in life, she is unable to empathize with another woman seeking to improve herself, refusing to recommend a clothing designer to Pat Nixon and suggesting that she buy off the rack. Mamie was a housewife who could not cook; Ike did the cooking. Pat Nixon, on the other hand, had been a nurse and then a school teacher, who viewed herself as a partner in her husband's career.  

We feel like strangling Herb Brownell brought to villainous life by W. Gordon Innes. Sherman Adams, acted by Ralph Carideo, can only play a pale reflection of a political operative ready to throw anybody under the bus that Innes portrays so effectively. Murray Chotiner, acted by David Rifkind, plays a credible advisor to Nixon and political operative in his own right. He was there for Nixon in 1952 and comes back in 1966 to get Nixon to run for President again. 

Scott Earle is able to bring to life the Richard Nixon that is not yet the Richard Nixon we come to know in later years but is on the way to evolving into the final, dysfunctional version. We see a Nixon capable of dreaming big dreams but unable to forget and forgive the slights that life has dealt him. These destructive qualities will eventually overwhelm the better angels of his nature.

Giving her husband advice on how to handle the alleged scandal of a secret fund was in a way Pat Nixon's last hurrah before losing her identity as an individual in her own right. During the ordeal, she is beaten down by the political system to conform to what is thought best for her husband's political campaign and political career. Richard Nixon (you don't really say "Dick" to his face) has learned all the wrong lessons. Although the use of the high road approach worked in dealing with the "slush fund" scandal, Nixon decides to embrace the bare-knuckled principles of his enemies in order to win at all costs. We see the beginning of alcoholism for both the Nixons. In the end, the Nixons win the battle on his reputation but lose the war on living a life that is positive for them and for others. Nixon ends up placing his desire for a continuing political career as his top priority, even over the happiness of his wife, just as Ike always told Mamie that for him, the Army would always come first.

In this well-written play, you see both good and evil within people. It is not all black and white. Each major character is far more complex as people are in real life. In the end, we see a tragedy in the making. Douglas McGrath has written one hell of a play that will stand the test of time because it shows how good people are transformed into S.O.B.s to survive in the American political jungle.