Tag Archives: Ellen Robison

Written in the Stars

Theater Review: Fly by Night

Jerry Colbert as Narrator and Lisa Smith Bradley as Miriam in Fly by Night. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

By Perry Tannenbaum

Is everything pre-ordained by a higher power? Or might everything that happens simply be the inevitable outcome when the algorithms of time and space work upon the star stuff that materialized in the wake of the Big Bang? If not, might a lucky ring or a soothsayer’s gaze into a crystal ball shift the gears of an oncoming fate? These are a few of the notions that Kim Rosenstock was playing with when she conceived Fly by Night, the last musical Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte will ever stage at 650 E. Stonewall Street.

Will Connolly and composer Michael Mitnick joined Rosenstock’s writing team, producing a storyline that revolves around two South Dakota sisters who fall in love with the same New York slacker, Harold McClam, a full-time sandwich maker and songwriter. Daphne and Miriam are as radically different as sisters can be. Daphne is impatient to leave Hill City behind and become a Broadway star, while Miriam is perfectly content to stick around home and pour coffee for the townsfolk at her waitressing job.

But Miriam already is a star in the sense that, listening to her dearly departed dad, she has absorbed the notion, during fondly remembered stargazing sessions, that we all come from that star stuff they were counting in the nighttime sky. Aspirationally, there is a link between Harold and Daphne, who meet first at the clothing shop where she clerks and again across his sandwich counter. Vocationally and temperamentally, Harold has a kinship with Miriam. They spark more instantaneously, more intensely, and more lastingly. Trouble is, they meet at the Brooklyn diner where Miriam works when Harold is already engaged to marry Daphne.

Hovering over the action, as a kind of providential presence with avuncular Our Town overtones, the Narrator frequently shape-shifts into some of the orbiting characters in his tale, including both of the sisters’ parents and the eccentric soothsayer. We actually begin the main story on November 9, 1964, with the funeral of Harold’s mother – exactly one year before his dad’s abortive suicide attempt.

There will be a certain providence in Mr. McClam’s survival, to be sure, but until then, his morose appearances can be somewhat trying and tedious. Each of the three central characters is being tormented by a livelier, more interesting nemesis. Daphne has Joey, a commercially successful playwright who’s getting serious about his craft by writing a play just for her. With plenty of revisions, stretching out the rehearsal process. Harold is bedeviled by the sandwich shop owner, Crabble, a quintessentially cranky New Yorker. The only inkling we get that Crabble has a heart is his chronic hesitation to fire Harold for all his delinquencies and screw-ups.

Miriam has the most important tormentor, that kooky soothsayer who gives her the most improbable set of omens for determining her destined true love, wrapped into a prophecy that promises bliss and catastrophe. All of them begin to recur when Harold walks into her life, sending Miriam scurrying back to South Dakota when the two are on the verge of connecting.

Fleeing fate is no less futile for Miriam than it was for Macbeth or Oedipus. She holds out the hope that her doom isn’t settled until time stands still. That will happen on November 9, 1965 – twice.
Three significant events will happen on that date, only one of them anticipated: the postponed opening of Daphne’s play. Ironically, the only stars shining on Broadway that night will be those that twinkle mockingly in the sky.

With Chip Decker directing and Jerry Colbert narrating, Fly by Night moves along briskly with plenty of verve and heart. Colbert has aged gracefully into the paternal wisdom that the Narrator and Miriam’s dad deliver, yet there is comical extravagance each time he becomes the Brooklyn soothsayer or the South Dakota mom. This Narrator seems to become most personable when he stops the action to guide us into a prefatory flashback, so we appreciate Colbert more and more as these time loops proliferate.

Colbert himself loops back to his heydays, flying by night to some fairly high notes and singing with an ease we haven’t heard from him since, oh, maybe 1997 in the 1940’s Radio Hour. Perhaps he’s inspired or rejuvenated by his co-stars. The sisters, Cassandra Howley Wood as Daphne and Lisa Smith Bradley as Miriam, are aptly cast, already ablaze in their early pair of star songs. Wood repeatedly chants “I’m a star!” with Broadway conviction belting out her anthemic “Daphne’s Dream” as she begins navigating the New York rat race, and there’s a cute Avenue Q silliness to her “More Than Just a Friend” duet with Harold.

Bradley simply torches her calling card, “Stars I Trust,” creating a wider gulf between the sisters than you’ll find on the original cast album, and there’s a greater maturity to her lighter “Breakfast All Day” sequel as she settles into Brooklyn, with less of a shuffling rock beat from the three-piece band directed by Ellen Robison. So easily grooved into a humdrum rut, it’s surprising how unnerved Miriam becomes when the soothsayer sings his “Prophecy” – in two parts – and when her eyes first meet Harold’s. Bradley, Colbert, and Christopher Ryan Stamey make it all work.

Stamey cut his teeth at Actor’s Theatre as their go-to wild man in trashy treasures like Slut and The Great American Trailer Park Musical, so to watch him mellowed into the relatively colorless Harold could be jarring to those who have witnessed his vintage exploits. But he actually nails it as both the nerdy Romeo and the mistake-prone sandwich drone. Best of all, he’s the adult in the room in his ultimate showdown with Miriam, “Me With You,” tapping into who he is and what we all believe must be right in the face of implacable destiny.

FLY 4[11]

Supporting roles all draw superb performances. Stephen Seay is wonderfully hyper as Joey when he first pursues his muse Daphne in “What You Do to Me” – and still spoiled rotten, revision after revision. James K. Flynn captures the working class vulgarity of Crabble with a poifect accent, combining with Stamey in “The Rut,” a paean to workplace hopelessness and drudgery. Perpetually toting a wee record player and a vinyl recording of La Traviata in his pathological grief, Rob Addison eventually gets to break out of his stonefaced depression as Mr. McClam. Toward the end, he decides to actually go see that opera and later, when someone finally has the time to listen, he pours out his sad, sad love story, “Cecily Smith.” Which just happens to rhyme with one of the best lines of the night: “Who cares what you are listening to? It’s who you’re listening with.”

The design team, Dee Blackburn for the set and Carley Walker for the lights, give us a nice off-Broadway sense of the various locations, efficiently transporting us to Miriam’s yard and front porch in South Dakota, the seedy nightclub where Harold tries out his song, Crabble’s misspelled sandwich shop, and McClam’s bathtub.

When we get to Penn Station and Times Square, however, an SOS goes out to our imaginations. After “At Least I’ll Know I Tried,” a tasty quintet ushering in the eventful denouement, I prophesy you’ll answer that SOS willingly.

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Selling Elegance, Spirit, and History for Just a Song

Theatre Reviews: I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

CPCCILoveAPiano6[7]

After its most lavish and extravagant production ever, last November’s The Phantom of the Opera, what was CPCC Theatre going to do to follow up? Well, since the laws of mathematics and the logic of budgets still apply on Elizabeth Avenue, the answer was simple: economize! Rolling into the parking garage, where the second story was unusually unoccupied, I was worried the audience for I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin would be as drastically reduced as CP’s expenditures.

Not to worry, I didn’t find that many more empty seats at Halton Theater last Saturday night than I saw at last February’s How to Succeed. More importantly, considering the relative merits of Berlin and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show attracted a competitive enough turnout at auditions to yield a cast that is worthy of the music — including holdover Ryan Deal, who you may recall in the title role of The Phantom.

Like the audience, the orchestra isn’t reduced quite as much as the funding, a quintet led by music director Ellen Robison from the keyboard. They’re a busy bunch, accompanying the cast — all six of them triple threats to various degrees — through a songbook that includes 53 different titles. A few of these songs are reprised, and at one point, when Andy Faulkenberry’s “The Girl That I Marry” is juxtaposed with Corinne Littlefield’s “Old Fashioned Wedding” — while J. Michael Beech and Megan Postle are teaming up on the counterpoint of “You’re Just in Love” — there are four different vocalists onstage singing four different melodies simultaneously.

Conceived by Ray Roderick and arranger Michael Berkeley, Love a Piano never says Berlin’s name out loud. But the 11 scenes, beginning with Tin Pan Alley in 1910 and ending in a summer stock revival of Annie Get Your Gun in the late 1950’s, take us chronologically through the composer’s career. Or roughly so: “Old Fashioned Wedding” was written for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and you can bet the anachronisms don’t stop there.

With a generous portion of poetic license, the show sketches a musical portrait of a composer who was consistently able to mirror his times. The title tune, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” take us back to a sepia-tinted era when rags roamed alongside sentimentality. As we cut from band shell to speakeasy, “Pack Up Your Sings and Go to the Devil” and “Everybody’s Doing It” evoke the wicked carefree spirit of the Roaring ’20s during Prohibition.

Two scenes are devoted to the ’30s, “Blue Skies” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” offering consolation during the onset of the Great Depression. Then a suite of dance tunes, including “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek,” evokes the elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Thanks to Mel Brooks, the audience failed to take “Puttin’ on the Ritz” altogether seriously.

For some reason, Roderick — or perhaps CP’s director and choreographer, Ron Chisholm — bounced the heyday of dance marathons from the 1930s to the 1940s, sketching that lugubrious phenomenon with “Say It Isn’t So” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” When we authentically reached the World War II era, it was quite obvious that Berlin more than reflected the hopes, the pride, and the humor of the times. He simply was these things, with a flowering of songs that included “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “This Is the Army,” “Any Bonds Today,” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Even those left plenty of room to bring down the first-act curtain with two of Berlin’s most enduring songs, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.” A more judicious dividing line would have been the beginning of WW2 toward the end of the ’30s. As it stands, Roderick drops a bunch of CARE packages on the 1950s, including “Easter Parade” from 1933 and everything attached to Berlin’s sharpshooting homage to Annie Oakley, which premiered in 1946.

I Love A Piano

Photos by Chris Record

James Duke’s scenic and lighting design, relying heavily on period slides and Berlin show posters projected onto three screens, move us gracefully from era to era. But it’s Debbie Scheu who most colorfully clinches the deal with her cavalcade of costume designs. Chisholm’s choreographic demands certainly tax his cast, with Littlefield and Faulkenberry negotiating their steps with the most apparent ease. On the other hand, while Postle and Beech looked like they might not be up to their challenges, both of them surprised me with their hoofing.

Deal and Kayla Ferguson were the remaining couple, most memorable in their “Blue Skies” duet. All six of the singers proved to be quite capable, not at all fazed by the spotlight, but Deal and Littlefield were my favorite soloists. The ensembles were often very lively and charming, but a special pinch of conflict was added in the summer stock tableau when Ferguson, Littlefield, and Postle all auditioned to be Annie opposite Faulkenberry’s Frank Butler.

“Anything You Can Do,” usually a comical face-off between Frank and Annie, is set up as an audition piece. So the comedy is reborn — as a rollicking showdown between three aspiring Annies.

Eliza and Watson 3

Time and reality bend in curious ways in The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at UpStage in NoDa through February 21. But so does playwright Madeleine George’s title, so what else would you expect?

Three rather curious Watsons that we’ve already heard of are trotted out and shuffled in Three Bone Theatre’s production, directed by Robin Tynes. The first of these is a relative, shall we say, of the Watson computer that defeated its human opponents on Jeopardy in 2011. Eliza, who collaborated with IBM on the victorious Watson, is now in her living room, working independently on a new android that sports a far more human body.

We travel back to the 19th century for the other two Watsons that we know. The first of these is the Watson summoned to Alexander Graham Bell’s side when Pa Bell invented the telephone, his assistant Thomas A. Watson. But we don’t really see him, either, on that historic day in 1876. Instead, it’s Alex repeatedly calling for him in brief blackout vignettes between other scenes. No, we must wait until 1931, when Watson goes on record at Bell Labs, insisting that what his boss really said was, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want you.”

The third or fourth Watson, depending on how you tally the computer chips, is more in control of his narrative, for this is the Dr. John H. Watson who ostensibly chronicles nearly all of the Conan Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You’ll find that Watson Intelligence is all about connections Ð personal and electrical — and vague connections between the android and Sherlock’s sidekick are established by a fifth Watson, a tech dweeb hired by Eliza’s ex-husband to spy on her.

Compounding the absurdities, Tynes has chosen a black actor, Devin Clark, to play the whitest sidekick in the history of literature. What’s more, Clark is perfection as all the Watsons, human and robotic, plus a special set of scenes where he dons Sherlock’s deerstalker cap. Chesson Kusterer-Seagroves crystallizes Watson’s role as the archetypal listener, pouring out her heart to the robot and the tech dweeb in modern times and bringing an intriguing mystery to Watson at Baker Street in Sherlock’s absence.

Ken Mitten rounds out the cast as Bell and the two Merricks who cause their Elizas so much distress. He’s a powerful stage presence, but I’m sure he’ll be even better when he’s more secure with his lines and cues.