Songs for a New World at the New Orleans Jazz Museum
Hallelujah! Live musical theater performances have returned to New Orleans!
Under its “Lyric Lagniappe” banner, Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane University (SLT) recently presented Songs for a New World at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. And the only question I have is “Why did it take so long for anyone to do a show there?” as it offered a wonderful venue, both technically and aesthetically.
Polanco Jones, Jr.’s exuberant direction and choreography had a cast of eight using all three levels of the Museum (also known as The Old U.S. Mint) to marvelous effect. While one might’ve been concerned with what dancing on the stone surface of the Museum’s courtyard could have on the performers’ feet, that didn’t stop them from inhabiting, with a graceful energy, Jones’ dance movements that enhanced the lyrics of Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle.
Jones did have some wooden boards set down for a fizzy tap dance segment which Theo Fogelman’s sound design captured precisely. In fact, I was tremendously impressed that, despite being outside, there was not a single glitch in the sound system for the entire performance and every lyric could be heard clearly, except, alas, when an occasional music-blaring car or helicopter passed by.
Joan Long’s colorful lighting took over when the sun went down, highlighting the performers and sharply defining the playing spaces with blues, pinks, magentas and other rich hues. Music Director Natalie True elicited gorgeous vocals from the entire cast and conducted the small band, perched on the second floor landing, with her usual expertise.
For SLT’s return after a COVID-enforced year-long hiatus, Jones assembled a cast of bountiful talent.
How fabulous to have NOCCA-alum and Ambie “Someone to Watch Out For” Award-winner Ximone Rose back home after appearances on and off Broadway. A true singing actress, her voice has matured into an instrument of ethereal beauty.
Prentiss E. Mouton, making his SLT debut, likewise sang with phenomenal passion in a creamy, smooth tenor reminiscent, at times, of George Benson.
Similarly, Adair Watkins brought emotional intensity and understated masculinity to his numbers with his wide-ranging, crystal clear tenor assuming the baritone track for this production.
And Meredith Owens, whom I’ve always admired, has never been better in numbers both serious and comic, including Just One Step performed high above the audience on the Museum’s topmost balcony(!).
The hard-working featured performers (Madison Britton, Deangelo Renard-Boutté , Eric Shawn, Julia Swann) all sang and, especially, danced with aplomb and panache.
As for the show itself, well, yes, it was entertaining but too many of Brown’s melodies sound the same, often tending towards the bombastic. For some reason, Owens got the best material (the wistful Stars and the Moon, now a cabaret standard; the poignant Flagmaker about a woman whose husband and son are fighting in the Revolutionary War; Just One Step, a comic delight about a wife trying to get her husband’s attention; and the cute Surabaya-Santa which features a bitter Mrs. Claus); the others did their best (which was consistently fantastic) with songs that haven’t always aged well (who, nowadays, would want to spend a “honeymoon in Beijing”?). With too many numbers featuring a whiny straight male viewpoint, the show could’ve been called Songs from a Very Heteronormative Perspective.
(Lest you think I’m being harsh, can you think of any songs by Jason Robert Brown? Despite some Tony Awards, since Songs’ off-Broadway debut in 1995, he’s never had a commercial hit.)
But no matter. Seen on a balmy spring eve, under a clear sky, and surrounded by the French Quarter’s historic architecture, Songs for a New World marked a triumphant return for Summer Lyric Theatre and all those who brought it to life.
SLT’s season continues with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s A Grand Night for Singing (June 24-27) and Jesus Christ Superstar (July 15-August 1) both at Tulane’s Dixon Hall. For tickets and more information, go to https://liberalarts.tulane.edu/summer-lyric-theatre
SPILL presented online by NOCCA’s Drama Department
Seven years ago, I journeyed to Baton Rouge’s Swine Palace theater on the LSU campus to see Leigh Fondakowski’s SPILL about the BP Gulf oil disaster. Fondakowski first started developing SPILL at NOCCA in 2012 and, with its virtual Zoom presentation by NOCCA’s Drama Department directed by her, which debuted in May and continues to be accessible online, it has now come full circle.
Fondakowski was one of the creators of The Laramie Project and, as with that ground-breaking show, she used interviews with the people who worked on the Deepwater Horizon rig and their relatives as well as those living in the coastal area who were directly affected by the oil spill to create her script.
After seeing the drama in 2014, I wrote:
It is a noble approach and Fondakowski did an admirable job of explicating what happened plus humanizing the men on the ship who lost their lives or were gravely injured. Yet, though intermittently moving, at over two and half hours, it came off as a TV movie-of-the-week or an expanded version of 60 Minutes. Unlike Laramie Project, there was little sense of a community awakening and changing its opinions in response to a national event. And, though it may be unavoidable, four years after the fact, SPILL already feels a bit out-of-date as BP noxiously polishes its image and has been allowed back in the Gulf.
Funny how seven years can change one’s opinion.
What felt dated seven years ago, ironically, now comes off as both a vital reminder of recent history that has too quickly faded away, and a prescient alarm of what the future could hold; to its credit, SPILL now seems almost ahead of its time as global warming, climate change, and man’s impact on the environment have, in recent years, moved to the center of the world’s stage.
I’m not sure if Fondakowski has tweaked her script at all, but it now becomes more emotionally powerful sooner and doesn’t let go of its grip till the end. I suspect this may be because of the more intimate, literally in-your-face nature of the Zoom format.
The script could still, however, probably lose about 20 minutes–any 20 minutes–from its overlong length; Fondakowski, the playwright, might benefit from bringing in another director who would likely have a more objective eye.
That said, as director, Fondakowski expertly guided her student cast of nine to finely nuanced performances. Visually, however, the static talking heads did grow a bit monotonous with just a few subtle, though certainly effective, changes of hats or jackets to indicate a change of speaker. Full disclosure: in addition to the brief intermission about halfway through, I took a number of breaks along the way; I think, though, this only enhanced my enjoyment of the rather wordy presentation.
As for the young actors, the entire cast is extraordinary as, chameleon-like, they metamorphose from one character to the next, portraying the rig workers, their parents & wives, scientists, fishermen, and other members of the community engulfed by this disaster. These are not showy “actorly” performances, but ones that get to the core truths of the material and convey them simply but forcefully with tremendous focus and inner passion.
The cast is only identified in the credits as “Ensemble” so I’m not sure who played which roles, but I look forward to seeing more of each of these thespians’ work in the future: Eli Barron, Kayla Elder, Will Ettinger, Ian Faul, Audrey Gold, Rosaria Jackson-Shipps, Myana Myrick, Amalia Perez Lam and Ava Pezant.
I do have to acknowledge, however, more bobbled lines than one would expect from the usual high standards of NOCCA; whether this was due to the Zoom format, lack of rehearsal time, or some other reason, I can’t say. As properly learned lines are a requisite for actors, I bring this up as constructive criticism; I would hate for any of these talented actors to lose out on future professional roles because of a technicality.
Aside from that, if you are familiar with the BP Oil spill or, especially, if not, I would highly encourage you to take the time to view SPILL. Not only does it detail an important part of Louisiana’s 21st century history but you just might be watching a future Tony, Oscar or Emmy winner at the start of their careers.
SPILL can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5G4Z0zrk3I
Andrea McArdle, Christine Pedi, Laura Benanti & Linda Benanti, Chuck Cooper & Lilli Cooper, Matthew Morrison/The Seth Concert Series through June 20
It’s been a few issues since I’ve had a chance to feature The Seth Concert Series. Here’s a round-up of shows from the past month or so.
To anyone of a certain age, Andrea McArdle will always be Broadway’s original Annie. But she’s all grown up now, having gone “from Annie to Granny” courtesy of a granddaughter, and looks great.
Her concert program was one of Host/Musical Director Seth Rudetsky’s best, ranging from her years as a child actress on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow and Welcome Back, Kotter (John Travolta’s sister played her mother) to wild tales of backstage shenanigans as a young adult during runs in Starlight Express and Les Misérables, as well as Annie. Her only bad experience was playing Judy Garland in the TV movie Rainbow due to the abusive behavior of Director Jackie Cooper, himself a former child actor. You felt bad for her but it did make for fascinating talk.
With a slight nasal twang, McArdle’s purring soprano was put to excellent use in such songs as Wherever He Ain’t (from Mack and Mabel which she performed in the revue Jerry’s Girls; she turned 21 in NOLA while touring with the show) and Fallin’ from Neil Simon/Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager’s They’re Playing Our Song (nice to hear something from this now overlooked musical).
Throughout, McArdle came off as down-to-earth, self-deprecating yet a real pro, and very generous in acknowledging others who have helped or influenced her. One felt frustrated that Rudetsky didn’t always allow her to answer his questions fully, butting in before she had a chance to finish.
After doing a great rendition of Maybe, the opening number from Annie, McArdle later topped herself with a magnificent finale of Annie’s signature tune, Tomorrow. Rudetsky’s 90 minutes with McArdle absolutely flew by.
Impressionist Christine Pedi’s Mother’s Day show got off to a chatty start as we learned that, despite growing up in New York, she didn’t see a Broadway show till high school and vowed that, after “years and years” of trying, the open audition she went to for the satirical revue Forbidden Broadway would be her last (“No more humiliating calls!”); naturally she got the job and has been happily working ever since.
Highlights of Pedi’s concert included Who’s Gay in Hollywood? (to the tune of Hooray for Hollywood); The Pirates of Penzance’s I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General done as the mush-mouthed Patti LuPone; and the naughty fun of Chicago’s When You’re Good To Mama in which Pedi showed off her talents as a comic actress in the part that finally got her a lead role on Broadway.
Pedi ended with a tour de force medley from Les Miz that showcased the amazingly wide range of impressions she can do by which she somehow changes the timbre of her voice. As she channeled Cher, Joan Rivers, Julie Andrews, Bernadette Peters, Eartha Kitt (as Javert), Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, Carol Channing (doing a too funny On My Own), Fran Drescher, Elaine Stritch, Angela Lansbury, and Ethel Merman, Pedi gave all the mothers watching–and everyone else–as grand a present as one could ask for.
Father and daughter Chuck Cooper and Lilli Cooper, he a Tony Award winner (for The Life), she a nominee (Tootsie), clearly were having fun together as they sang and reminisced.
Chuck, who grew up in Cleveland, spoke of knowing that he wanted to do something he enjoyed, wound up majoring in theater, “and the rest is history.” That history included working as a messenger and a carpenter when he was starting out and, more recently, getting an email from Hal Prince which led to a meeting in Rockefeller Center with the legendary director and, eventually, a role in the revue Prince of Broadway in which Cooper portrayed, among others, Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof; I kvelled as he sang If I Were a Rich Man with his resonant bass-baritone voice.
Lilli, a native NYer who went to the High School of Performing Arts, recalled auditioning for Spring Awakening when she was 15, getting the part, and then hearing haunting tales at the stage door from fans involving abortion, suicide and abuse which mirrored the musical’s storylines.
She then went to Vassar College and, after graduation, starred in Wicked on tour and on Broadway as Elphaba, commenting “I never thought I could play this role” by which she meant “be given the opportunity” to do so.
If Lilli ribbed her Dad by doing a mumbling impression of him when he went up on the lyrics of Colored Spade during a concert version of Hair, she appreciated his knowledge of theater which he has shared with her, learning from him the value of “knowing when to say ‘No’”.
Both father and daughter did comic songs (she–Rodgers & Hart’s sly and witty To Keep My Love Alive from A Connecticut Yankee; he–the wild and crazy Your Feet’s Too Big featured in Ain’t Misbehavin’) and serious ones (she–The Dark I Know Well a terribly sad number she sang in Spring Awakening; he–the powerful, aching The Bus about President Kennedy’s assassination he sang in Caroline, or Change).
Best of all, and a series highlight, was their duet on the raucous The Oldest Profession from The Life done for Chuck’s co-star from the show and fellow Tony winner Lillias White who was watching. Together, they got every bit of humorous world-weariness out of Ira Gasman’s sassy lyrics.
Watching this delightful cabaret concert, one enjoyed the lovely bond between father and child. And with Lilli very pregnant (her “little human COVID-15″ as she referred to her tummy), one can look forward to the next generation of Coopers.
Matthew Morrison, best known for TV’s Glee, seems like a nice guy and has a smooth classic tenor, but he came off as very low-key; his was the only concert of The Seth Concert Series I can recall in which the star sat down for just about all of it.
Though it was nice to hear such classics as On the Street Where You Live (from My Fair Lady) and You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught (South Pacific) along with newer songs like the lovely Il Mondo Era Vuoto (The Light in the Piazza) and the cute You’re Nothing Without Me (City of Angels), I could’ve done without some gooily sentimental songs from an album of his.
The finale, a medley from Hairspray, like most of the rest of the show, lacked energy and was good enough, but, overall, this was not one of the series’ better efforts.
As for the daughter and mother teaming of Laura Benanti & Linda Benanti, Tony Award-winner Laura delivered an abbreviated version of My Fair Lady with a smashing medley from Eliza’s perspective, and juicy backstage stories from when she did Broadway revivals of The Sound of Music as a 19-year-old understudy and She Loves Me while pregnant.
Mom Linda spoke about doing Home Sweet Homer (formerly Odyssey) with Yul Brynner and locking eyes with Judy Garland one time at the Palace Theater.
More I cannot tell you as I wasn’t taking notes, but, even if I viewed it on the small screen of my iPhone, it was an altogether thoroughly enjoyable show and an outstanding way to pass the time while waiting for a delayed flight at the airport in Nashville.
The program on June 20 with Jenn Colella, Tony nominee for Come from Away and self-described as “mostly gay”, will wrap up the series until it returns in the fall. Many thanks to Seth Rudetsky and Producer Mark Cortale for bringing so much joy and entertainment to people around the world during this most challenging of years!
To purchase tickets for either of Jenn Colella’s shows on June 20, go to thesethconcertseries.com