Musicals Tonight!

Not long after nytheatre.com got off the ground, I got an email from a fellow named Mel Miller inviting me to the opening of his new project. It was a concert-style revival of a VERY obscure musical comedy called Let It Ride!. It was at the Lambs Theatre near Times Square. Would I like to review it?

Of course I would.

I wrote (in part):

Producer Mel Miller, the guiding light behind this revival, has assembled a terrific cast of ten appealing young singers and actors who put over all nineteen numbers with enthusiasm and style, as well as read and enact an abridged version of Let It Ride!‘s dopey, simple-minded book. The result: pure theatrical magic—a happy, funny, utterly charming entertainment offering a couple of hours of pleasant diversion and, not incidentally, a terrific showcase for some very deserving, very talented musical theatre performers.

Thus began the life of the Obie-winning indie theater company Musicals Tonight!, and the first of many many delightful, edifying, and surprising evenings in the theater for yours truly. Musicals Tonight! begins its 20th (!) season this fall; check it out.

Musicals Tonight! has accomplished two important things. First, it provides an honest-to-goodness showcase for musical theater performers who are currently at the chorus-level on Broadway, giving them a chance to play much larger roles in front of an audience, which can only be valuable training for them. (Mel also produces a series of concert shows called “At This Performance,” in which current Broadway understudies sing and dance the numbers they are understudying; a marvelous and awesome concept!)

The other important achievement of Musicals Tonight! has been to provide musical theater fans and aficionados a chance to see and hear work that, in general, has long been out of circulation or (sometimes) has been heretofore thought entirely lost. My favorite memories of Musicals Tonight! are the shows I’d read about and knew would never be done again:

No one but Mel Miller and Musicals Tonight! would have revived Chee-Chee. No one else should. This strange musical comedy, written by Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Herbert Fields, ran for a month in 1928 and then disappeared; now that we can see it, it’s clear why that was the case. Chee-Chee is not uninteresting, but it certainly isn’t good. Indeed, it’s probably the worst show any of its illustrious creators every worked on. A price-y Encores presentation is far more than Chee-Chee merits; but a cozy two-week stint at the 99-seat 14th Street Y main stage is entirely appropriate: musical theatre diehards will want to take advantage of this unique opportunity to see this weird curiosity.

Of course there’s one other, very important achievement, the one that has ensured Musicals Tonight!’s longevity: the work that Mel and his collaborators do is invariably entertaining. I’ve seen more than two dozen of his revivals over the years, and I have never regretted one of those evenings. And I really adored many of them, usually when I least expected to: King of Hearts, Mademoiselle Modiste, and Face the Music are three that instantly come to mind.

The full record of nytheatre.com reviews of Musicals Tonight! shows is here.

***

Mel has a history kind-of similar to mine: he worked in the business world for a long time, all the while maintaining a true love for theater. After he left the business world, he followed his dream and became a producer of musicals.

It’s easy to get to know Mel, because–following in the footsteps of Ellen Stewart–he introduces every performance of every show personally. Here’s me talking about that in my review of Cabin in the Sky from 2003:

In 15 previous reviews of Musicals Tonight! productions, I’ve neglected to mention the charming way that producer Mel Miller opens each and every one of his shows. He climbs onto the stage, introduces himself, and then offers three or four minutes of background—about the show and its creators, and about the moment in history when this particular revival originated. So we learn, for example, that 1940-41 was the leanest Broadway season up to that time: just Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark, Gene Kelly in Pal Joey, Al Jolson in Hold on to Your Hats, and of course Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky.

There are few folks in the indie theater world whom I respect more than Mel. He pursues his passion full-out and shares his discoveries with audiences with an enthusiasm and aplomb that never seem to waver.

***

One final point: soon after my review of the that first Musicals Tonight! show, Let It Ride!, appeared on nytheatre.com, I received the following note in the mail:

rayevans

For someone still relatively new to theater reviewing to receive a personal note from Ray Evans (Oscar-winning lyricist of “Buttons and Bows,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Que Sera Sera”) — and to be thanked for bolstering his ego! — well, let’s just say that my ego got bolstered quite a lot, too. Thanks, Mel, for that.

Chris Harcum, Aimee Todoroff and Elephant Run District

Elephant Run District was founded in 2010 and in a relatively short time has cut a significant swath in the NYC indie theater community. (Read their creation story, which includes how they got their name, here.)

In addition to producing a number of excellent new plays, ERD ran a salon series (the “Stampede Labs”) that brought artists together to collaborate and also appreciate each others’ work; they’ve created an innovative podcast concept (where they record live performances of new plays); and founders Chris Harcum and Aimee Todoroff have exemplified the idea of good citizenship in various organizations (including serving as reviewers for nytheatre.com; read reviews by Chris and Aimee).

I first got to know Chris before ERD came into existence, as an actor in plays at Metropolitan Playhouse (Andre and Poe-Fest) and the Brick (Adventures of Caveman Robot). He was working primarily in his early days in NYC as a solo performer (his day job was as a teaching artist for NYC public schools). Our reviewers enjoyed his one-man shows in various summer festivals:

  • Seth Duerr wrote of Chris’ 2003 FringeNYC show, Gotham Standards: “At once, powerful and insightful, Harcum’s show is a 75-minute solo tour-de-force that is something to be seen.”
  • Matt Freeman saw Anhedonia Road at the 2004 Hell Festival at the Brick, saying it “sounds like Eric Bogosian running smack into The Wizard of Oz.”
  • Richard Hinojosa praised Mahamudra at the 2005 Moral Values Festival at the Brick: “I enjoyed his descent into his own nightmare and I came away thinking about ways that I too judge myself and others too harshly.”
  • And Kimberly Wadsworth began her rave review of Chris’ FringeNYC 2006 show this way: “About five minutes into Chris Harcum’s Some Kind Of Pink Breakfast, I realized that I have personally never been more of a target audience for a particular piece. “

My own experiences of Chris’ solo work have been just as satisfying. I admired American Badass (2008 FRIGID Festival) so much that I published it in Plays and Playwrights 2009. Then came Green (2011), Two Lovely Black Eyes (2013) and The Preservationist (2014, part of Metropolitan Playhouse’s East Side Stories series); with a tour-de-force performance as Moliere’s The Hypochondriac (which he co-adapted with Shira Gregory and Greg Tito) coming in between.

 

hypochonriac
Chris Harcum in one of his funniest performances ever, as The Hypochondriac

 

Green was the first of Chris’ plays directed by Aimee and presented by ERD. Since then they have been fairly constant collaborators. She directed his multi-actor play Rabbit Island (2012) and the latest ERD show, which opens today, Martin Denton, Martin Denton (there’s no modest way to say this, I’m afraid: yep, it’s a play about yours truly).

Now I haven’t told you what’s at the heart of Harcum/Todoroff/ERD work–what makes it tick, what makes it special. It is a deeply felt social conscience, a sense that as citizens of the world they have a duty to ask challenging questions and tilt at the occasional windmill while still engaging and (importantly) entertaining their audience. Green is a sci-fi play with strong environmental concerns behind it. Two Lovely Black Eyes considers issues of gun ownership and gun control. Aimee’s outdoor production of three short Brecht plays (a rare ERD foray into classic material) was all about social justice.

American Badass consists of a dozen monologues running the gamut of American society circa 2008; one particularly prescient one, spoken by a neoconservative leader at a college commencement, includes this line:

Okay. I’m sure the fine people at this university assign lots of good books to read. History and theory. That’s good. That’s important but it’s not as important as one thing. Winning.

The work of these folks at ERD is important, and it’s great that just about all of it is documented on Indie Theater Now and nytheatre.com. I encourage you to check it out and please comment about it here!

Pearl Theatre Company

 

hamletpearl.png
Sean McNall as Hamlet and Bradford Cover as Horatio in HAMLET at the Pearl Theatre Company, 2007

 

This post was supposed to be an appreciation, but a sad announcement today has turned it into a memorial. My Facebook feed is abuzz with members of our community mourning the demise of the Pearl Theatre Company. I’m dipping into the nytheater indie archive to celebrate some of what was great about this excellent NYC institution.

Under the leadership of Shepard Sobel, who founded the company in 1984 and served as its artistic director until 2009, the Pearl produced a slate of 4 or 5 revivals every season, featuring a regular company of actors. Shep’s wife, Joanne Camp, was part of that terrific ensemble, but the Pearl wasn’t ever just a showcase for the couple: they nurtured and encouraged the talents of artists young and old–many of whom were still with the company during this past (final) season.

I used to tell people that if I were a civilian I would have subscribed to the Pearl. I am thankful to them because much of my grounding in classic drama comes from the shows I saw there: from some of the less-well-known plays of Ibsen (this and this and this) to renditions of the Greek dramas (this and this and this and this and this) to–most delightfully–splendid revivals of Restoration Comedy (this and this and this and this and this and this), the Pearl gave its audience, year in and year out, clear-eyed and articulate productions of immortal theater works of every stripe.

Vivid memories from more than a dozen years’ of reviewing the Pearl include:

  • Austin Pendleton’s staging of Tennessee Williams’ rarely seen Vieux Carre (2009), featuring indelible performances by George Morfogen and longtime company member Carol Schultz, among others.
  • Robert Hock’s delicious turn as The Miser (1998), about which I revealed, in the first sentence of my review: “The final curtain call at the Pearl Theatre Company’s delightful production of The Miser is reserved for a small, unassuming cash box.” (Such surprising impish touches were not uncommon at the Pearl!)
  • Dan Daily’s creepy, charismatic, weirdly charming Richard III (2000), not to mention his (quoting myself) “exuberantly eccentric” Inspector Rough in Angel Street (1999).
  • Shep Sobel’s remarkable Hamlet (2007), with Sean McNall inhabiting the title role; I wrote: “we can see this young man slowly transform into the authentic hero that Horatio always knew he could be, and it’s thrilling to watch.” I’ll tell you here something I couldn’t write in the review because it would have been spoiler: the unforgettable climax of the duel scene came when T.J. Edwards as Claudius started to sneak off the stage. That struck me as so absolutely right, and I’d never seen it before. I loved this show.

Perhaps the quintessential Pearl offering back then was their Cherry Orchard (2001). I wrote: “This Cherry Orchard holds up that mirror to nature that Hamlet talked about: the play is the play of life itself, neither more nor less–but up close where we can see it.” I remember Joanne Camp, who played Ranevskaya, telling me the secret of this production’s success: that because the Pearl acting company knew each other so well, and trusted each other so much, that they were a kind of family, and thus could inhabit this family seamlessly.

I fear we will not see a company like the Pearl again in Manhattan. They carried the torch of classic theater with real valor–and after Shep and Joanne left, and they moved out of their longtime home on St. Marks Place, the company valiantly re-invented itself in a new venue with a revised mission. Farewell, Pearl, you will be missed.

 

 

Theater Ten Ten

From 1997 (when I first found out about it; see below) until 2010 (when the company ended an extraordinary 55-year run in Manhattan), Theater Ten Ten presented 36 shows at their welcoming space in the basement of the Park Avenue Christian Church. I saw 30 of them. And I wrote about them all, though alas 4 of the reviews from the early years have sadly disappeared.

Here’s a link to my 26 Theater Ten Ten reviews in the nytheater indie archive.

(When you click that link, you’ll find 32 matches. That’s because other nytheatre.com reviewers wrote about the shows I missed.)

Theater Ten Ten was an indie Equity company that specialized in Shakespeare and classic musicals. They did make the occasional foray into producing brand new work, but revivals were their bread and butter. So you wouldn’t think they’d be an indie company that I loved.

But they were exactly that, because the defining element of Ten Ten was an abiding and enduring sense of community. Judith Jarosz and David Fuller, who were the leaders of the company during the dozen-plus years I went there, made their audiences and, I think, their artistic collaborators all feel at home, like part of a big family. They worked with many of the same directors over and over (like David Scott, Lynn Marie Macy, Tom Rowan) and even more of the same performers over and over (Jason Wynn, Greg Horton, Lorinda Lisitza, David Tillistrand, and Cristiane Young are some that come immediately to mind).

And of course Judith and David were almost always either on stage or behind the scenes directing and/or designing. I just found this great photo of David in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2007):

midsummer

About David in that show, I wrote: “Fuller’s Bottom (so to speak) is dazzlingly earnest and dazzlingly dumb: when he makes his first entrance as Pyramus, it is with a heady gravitas such as I’ve not seen since Jack Benny took the stage for Hamlet’s big soliloquy in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.” (In the photo with David are Annalisa Loeffler as Puck and Lisa Riegel as Titania.)

Looking back over my review of Ten Ten’s Midsummer, which Judith directed, I note that this was the very first time I saw Nat Cassidy on stage. Nat went on to become a prolific contributor to nytheatre.com and, as a playwright, to Indie Theater Now. And that’s exactly to my point about the way David and Judith made community: they have spent their careers not just bringing classic shows to a diverse audience in an out-of-the-way location (Ten Ten was pretty much all by itself among indie theaters on the Upper East Side), but also nurturing the careers of so many others.

And I must include myself in that last bit, because Judith and David embraced nytheatre.com almost immediately. Both of them reviewed theater for us for more than a decade (go here and here for their reviews). One of David’s reviews was reprinted in a college text book.

David helped us with some of our very first podcasts, and Judith was part of the team that worked with us at MNN to make a few pilot episodes for a proposed TV version of Indie Theater Now. They hosted more than one of our play anthology book parties at the Ten Ten space (and also once at Jean Cocteau Repertory, which David ran for five seasons). They served on NYTE’s artistic advisory council for a decade.

I have many fond memories of the shows I saw at Ten Ten, but in some ways my fondest may be my first encounter with the company, in the fall of 1997. Here’s how it came about: right after I attended the first FringeNYC festival, publicist Ron Lasko invited me to review a production of Macbeth by The Basic Theater at walkerspace. This was perhaps the third or fourth time I’d been invited to review a show (as opposed to asking if I could); I was excited.

So the thing that impressed most about this Macbeth was the performance of an actor I’d never seen before named Scott Galbraith, who played Macduff. I mentioned him favorably in my (lost!) review of the show. And then a surprising thing happened–something that I don’t think had heretofore happened to me in my short tenure as nytheatre.com critic: Scott’s wife Florence emailed me a thank you, and then invited me to see Scott’s next show. He was going to be Laertes in Hamlet at Theater Ten Ten.

Off I went to this church on Park Avenue that I’d never even known about. And I was transported. After the show I went to the lobby area upstairs, where I met Florence and Scott in person. They introduced me to Judith and David.

I went to Theater Ten Ten and, for 13 years, I stayed.

The theater is gone; the church decided to re-purpose the space in 2010. Judith and David then re-purposed themselves, as founders of a new company, Theater 2020, in another area of New York that’s underserved by theater, namely Brooklyn Heights. They’re doing Shakespeare and classic musicals, mostly. They’re nurturing new talent. They’re continuing to make revivals of old plays fresh: in the Ten Ten days they moved The Pirates of Penzance to Nova Scotia and The Mikado to Singapore; this week, they’re doing a Macbeth, directed by David, set in the South Pacific during the 1960s.

What they did–and still do–is to never forget that the most important element in any production is the audience. Theater Ten Ten was all about doing work with immediacy and enthusiasm and love. I was honored to get to see, and write about, pretty much their entire body of work for a good long time.