Single Black Female online through October 10
In what I believe is the first extended engagement in Orleans Parish, UNO’s Theatre Program presents its opening production of the fall semester, Single Black Female, through October 10.
Granted, it’s not live nor being live-streamed, (it’s actually pre-recorded) but given that tickets are being sold individually for dates over UNO’s usual two weekend run (it began on Sept. 30), it feels like a return to normalcy. And that’s a good thing.
With wit, insight and lots of compassion, Lisa B. Thompson’s play limns the many challenges, hopes, aspirations, joys and frustrations of 30something African American middle-class women in urban America as they search for love and men (and, occasionally, women). Thompson’s series of vignettes mixes sarcasm and sincerity to provide a complete and satisfying portrait of two “single Black females”, defined only as SBF 1 (Alexandria Miles) and SBF 2 (Danielle James); though similar in status, each emerges as a unique being.
Although Single Black Female premiered in 1999, it still mostly comes off as fresh, though, admittedly, having not been revised, there are no references to COVID-19 nor #BlackLivesMatter. It only feels dated, however, when the characters namecheck a list of white actors they find attractive who are from a generation or two ago, or make shows like COPS or The Sopranos or Sex and the City sound like they’re still #1 hits, a minor quibble.
Working in a Zoom format, Richon May does an excellent job of directing despite the challenge of having her two actresses separated virtually; I was truly impressed by how in synch everything–reactions, pacing, the overall look, etc.–was. Working on the ingenious set of Technical Director Diane Baas and her design team, and guiding her cast on the use of the cameras, May created a phenomenally fluid production which gained in intimacy what it lost in not being live.
Miles and James are each extraordinary as, in addition to their main character, they cycle through, chameleon-like, a variety of ages, genders, and personas, and make it seem as though they’re actually on stage together. They each bring out all the facets of their roles with knowing strength, sass, resignation, and inspiration.
Single Black Female runs two acts and there’s a brief intermission between them, though it is possible to pause the show at any time. Tickets and more information are available at https://singleblackfemaleonlineplay.eventbrite.com. The only thing the show’s 100 minutes might leave you wanting is knowing how these two SBFs are doing today. Perhaps it’s time for SBF2?
Judy Kuhn/The Seth Concert Series through November 15
After the previous edition of The Seth Concert Series (with Karen Olivo) was nearly derailed due to technical difficulties, four time Tony Award nominee Judy Kuhn’s episode went off without a hitch. And what an absolutely delightful, charming, fun and interesting one it was, all rolled into 90 minutes.
With Host/Music Director Seth Rudetsky broadcasting from a friend’s apartment because the WiFi was out at his, Kuhn appeared from her home in a snazzy, sleeveless dress. They began with a brassy, sultry version of The Best Is Yet to Come, after which Kuhn asked “What’s next?” When Rudetsky demurred telling her, she opined “Seth loves to keep you on your toes.”
There was nothing Rudetsky tossed her way, however, that Kuhn couldn’t handle. A great story about Kuhn’s first audition in NYC right after college that led to her being in Yul Brynner’s final tour of The King and I (“crazy times”) segued into a contemplative and heartfelt rendition of Hello, Young Lovers that left Kuhn a bit teary-eyed.
Speaking about her involvement with the short-lived Joseph Stein/Stephen Schwartz/Charles Strouse musical Rags, Kuhn described its star, renowned opera singer Teresa Stratas, as “wackadoodle in the best way”, adding that “she could walk across the stage and do nothing, and you’d be transfixed by her.” As Kuhn sang, beautifully, Blame It on the Summer Night with its Kurt Weill-inspired tone, one could almost imagine Stratas, a premier Weill interpreter, doing it.
For me, this was one of the best Seth Concert Series shows so far because even the less well-known songs were excellent and thoroughly enjoyable. These included a gorgeously done Someone Else’s Story from Chess, which Kuhn starred in on Broadway; the marvelous Ring of Keys, a 9-year-old’s joyous paean to her budding lesbian crush, from Fun Home in which Kuhn didn’t play the 9y.o., but her mother; and Frank Loesser & Jule Stein’s I Said No from the 1942 film Sweater Girl, a comic song that sounds like a musical orgasm with a surprise ending.
Better known numbers included the Oscar winner Colors of the Wind for which Kuhn provided Pocahontas’ singing voice; the title song from Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, touching in its simplicity and done in honor of Assassins for which Kuhn was about to go into rehearsals off-Broadway when the pandemic shut everything down; Do You Love Me? from Fiddler on the Roof (Kuhn starred in a London revival of it last year), a duet with Rudetsky in which they brought out all the warmth and humor in it; and a glorious Vanilla Ice Cream from She Loves Me.
Throughout the cabaret/interview, Kuhn came off as so engagingly modest and down-to-earth as she told how she got cast in Rags and how she saved Stratas’ life from a piece of scenery that was coming down; about the backstage trans-Atlantic insanity of Chess and its scenery of human-propelled towers; what it was like dealing with the “suits” of Disney while recording Colors of the Wind; and the trip the Fun Home cast made to South Carolina to do a concert version of the show after the legislature there banned the Alison Bechdel graphic memoir on which it was based and what a profound experience it was for her.
Unlike the “On Demand” version, the Monday afternoon repeat of these concerts is like the live broadcast in that you can’t pause or rewind it. Probably just as well as I would’ve wanted to watch it again and again and again.
Coming up next is Tony Award winner Beth Leavel (Oct. 11) about whom, when she appeared at NOCCA last year, I wrote that she gave “a fantastic, rollicking performance” as well as Keala (The Greatest Showman’s This Is Me) Settle (Oct. 18) and Tony winners LaChanze (Oct. 25) and Lillias White (Nov. 15). Enjoy!
To purchase tickets to these upcoming shows, go to thesethconcertseries.com
Most nearby theaters remain shuttered for now, but if you’re in the mood for a little road trip, two options are possible.
The Iberia Performing Arts League’s first production of the 2020–21 season, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, finishes its run October 22-25 (rescheduled from Oct. 8-11 due to Hurricane Delta) with showtimes at 7:30pm, Th.-Sat., and 2:00pm for the Sunday matinee. Written between 1953 and 1955, Cat is one of Williams’ more famous works and his personal favorite. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955.
The theater is located at 126 Iberia Street in New Iberia. Tickets are $10 and available at the door or at ipaltheater.com. Opening of the show has been approved by the Louisiana State Fire Marshal and the City of New Iberia. Patrons must wear masks and will be seated for social distancing. The concession stand will not open; however, complimentary bottles of water will be available.
In Ponchatoula, the Swamplight Theatre presents The Pillowman, a 2003 play by Martin McDonagh. In it, a writer in a totalitarian state is interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories and their similarities to a number of child murders that are happening in his town. Perfect for Halloween, eh?
The Pillowman runs at Swamplight’s home at 950 SW Railroad Avenue from Oct. 16 until Nov. 1 with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30pm, Sunday matinees at 2:00pm. Masks are required. More information and tickets at https://www.swamplight.org/
If you’d prefer to stay home, however, this month The NOLA Project introduces PodPlays, a new series of digital entertainments that hybridize podcasts with radio plays. PodPlays are written and recorded by NOLA Projecters and designed for easy download and listening.
Written by James Bartelle, Gab Reisman, Pete McElligott, and Brittany N. Williams with the listening experience in mind, and unbound by the conventions of the stage, these 30-60 minute audio stories will take audiences from the Bywater to outer space. The first of these PodPlays, Bartelle’s Alien Status, is set to be released in mid-October. Access links for this, and the full series, can be purchased at https://www.nolaproject.com/podplays
And over at the Saenger Theatre, the upcoming productions of Moulin Rouge!, My Fair Lady and Cats have been postponed with new dates to be determined; Escape to Margaritaville has been rescheduled to May 21-23, 2021 while Tootsie will now be appearing Nov. 9-14, 2021.
PAST PRESENT FUTURE VI
In this sixth PAST PRESENT FUTURE, Michael McKelvey, who wears multiple hats, lets us know what was going on at Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane, as well as The Storyville Collective and Tulane’s Musical Theatre Workshop, when things shut down, what they’re doing now, and what their future plans are.
I have greatly admired McKelvey’s productions of Gypsy, Hairspray, Matilda, and She Loves Me, among others, for Summer Lyric Theatre as well as the topnotch production of Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle he directed at NOCCA, a regional premiere. About one of McKelvey’s first presentations here I wrote “McKelvey has ingeniously staged Hand to God with a crisply paced production that’s keenly attuned to [playwright Robert] Askins’ singular voice, a mix of empathy and vinegar.”
Last year, I noted about Silence! The Musical that “McKelvey directs this ridiculousness with a sure hand adding great little comic touches throughout,” while earlier this year, about Something Rotten! at Le Petit, my review stated “As we have come to expect, Director Michael McKelvey delivers a first class production.” And, in 2017, his “pitch-perfect Reefer Madness The Musical provided a high better than any chemically-induced one.”
I was on my way back from the East Coast when I learned that Tulane would be closed because of an outbreak of the coronavirus. The Tulane Musical Theatre Workshop was in its final rehearsals of Urinetown and in preparations for tech week when the rug was pulled out from under us. Suddenly, six weeks of work were going to be thrown away for the threat of a virus that none of us knew a great deal about.
To compound the situation, Summer Lyric was in the process of finalizing casting for the upcoming season of Follies in Concert, Legally Blonde, Evita, and Once. Now, we were fielding emails from actors asking if we knew the plight of the season. I couldn’t blame them, but there was still talk of Tulane returning to in-person meetings following a few weeks online. The idea of cancelling the summer season was so outlandish that I didn’t even want to process the thought. We still had more than two months until rehearsals started. Being an optimist by nature, why would I not hold out hope? Oh, what a fool I was.
We ended up canceling Urinetown and then scrambled to find a performance project that could be taught, rehearsed and then presented via Zoom, a platform I had absolutely no experience with. Overcoming their disappointment, my students rebounded and got to work on a virtual cabaret in celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday, Zooming with Sondheim.
With one virtual project in the books, we decided to create a project for Summer Lyric’s GiveNOLA Day event, SLT Virtually On the Air featuring the talents of SLT alumni from all over the U.S.
That brought us to June 2nd and we still did not have any concrete answers on whether or not we would be able to mount a production for a live audience or even stream performers from the Dixon stage.
June and July proved to be a lesson in futility.
We cancelled our first three offerings, Follies, Legally Blonde and Evita, because of the large cast sizes and our inability to come up with protocols that would guarantee the safety of all involved. I participated in weekly Zoom meetings with other theater company representatives and artists as part of the New Orleans Theatre Network discussing topics ranging from COVID-19’s effect on the NOLA theater community to social justice matters and anti-racism training for white theater leaders. I appreciated the willingness of the members to band together in an attempt to find resolutions to the issues facing us, but was frustrated by the inability to communicate and work on these matters in person.
Even after the creation of a 20+ page health and safety protocol that would eventually be vetoed by Tulane’s health consultants, we finally threw in the towel and cancelled our remaining production, Once.
We have all struggled during the “COVID incumbation.” Theater companies are frustrated because they can’t produce and are facing huge budgetary deficits. Theater artists are suffering, not only because of the drought of jobs, but because they have no outlet to perform their art outside of their living rooms and kitchens.
This past summer, the Summer Lyric staff and I went through our own purgatory as we attempted to create safety protocols only to be shot down time and time again. We also had to disappoint our Follies, Legally Blonde, Evita and Once casts, crews and designers by cancelling contracts month after month. One of the most difficult jobs fell upon our box office staff who were asked day in and day out to provide answers to subscribers as to when we would return. And like all other arts groups, we continued to accrue financial losses.
Of course, we all struggled this past summer, but the problems we felt in our theater community could not rival the losses suffered at the hands of COVID-19 or the atrocities faced by our Black sisters and brothers. As hard as SLT worked to support others in the community while searching for a solution to our financial and artistic hemorrhaging, we (or maybe I) lost sight of the bigger picture of what was happening around us.
In a final attempt to present some kind of content for our audience, we announced a streaming of our 50th Anniversary Gala Concert from 2017. To us, it was merely streaming content to engage our audience, but what we failed to recognize was this event, which celebrated our past, was at the root of a problem facing theater companies across the U.S. – the exclusion of BIPOC performers and lack of diversity by predominantly white institutions. For an event featuring 50 artists from 48 years of productions, there was but a handful of BIPOC artists participating in the program.
Although we had voiced our support for the Black Lives Matter movement earlier in the summer, we then turned around and promoted a concert void of performers of color during a time when the nation was reeling from the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. For the past five seasons, we had been trying to bring more equity and inclusion into SLT and in one fell swoop we put ourselves back at square one. We cancelled the event and sent out an official statement outlining our action items regarding equity and inclusion for BIPOC theater-makers, but the damage was done.
I was saddened by the turn of events. It made me take a hard look at the work we had done over the past five years regarding equity, diversity and inclusion for BIPOC, as well as LGBTQ+ theater-makers and showed me how far we still have to go as a company, especially concerning our connection with the greater New Orleans community.
As shared with me by several BIPOC theater-makers, it is much more than adopting color conscious casting practices and programming shows with more Black or Latinx identified roles. It’s about creating a safe space for the artists and being aware of actions exemplifying racism, racial insensitivity, and gender identity bias.
Because of this, Summer Lyric has created an advocacy committee comprised of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists teaming with our staff to map out our action steps regarding anti-racism training, inclusivity for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ theater-makers, educational programming, community outreach, and increasing Summer Lyric’s contributions to the community. With the guidance of the SLT Advocacy Committee and input from the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ theater-makers of NOLA, I believe we can come out of this an even stronger company.
As far as producing, we are in the same Phase II bubble as every other theater company in Orleans Parish. We are planning some special streaming content, but, as we have learned from the cancellations of this past summer, we will make those announcements once everything has been approved.
Who knows what the future holds for any one of us? Just kidding. I am hopeful that moving forward we will be able to find a way to present on a regular basis in the “new normal.” As for Summer Lyric Theatre, the one show we would like to present from last season is Once. We are exploring the creation of digital content for streaming, as well as the safety protocols we will have to adopt to present work in Dixon Hall with a socially distanced audience. I wish I can say more, but as of right now your guess is as good as mine.
The Tulane Musical Theatre Workshop is working with writers from the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in New York to present the inaugural Tulane New Musical Theatre Festival. This event will be a reading of new musicals presented on the Dixon Hall stage and streamed to an audience. We may call it “Phase II Fest.”
The Storyville Collective, which has been dormant since its productions of Silence! The Musical and Cabaret Macabre in the fall of 2019, may be moving its producing activities to Southern Rep along with a few more companies, such as Tommye Myrick’s Voices in the Dark. When we are able to produce again, there are plans to produce some more social justice-focused works and possibly a chamber musical.
Michael McKelvey is an award-winning stage director, music director and producer. He specializes in chamber, avant-garde and “campy” musicals, but loves to direct a big Rodgers & Hammerstein show when given the opportunity. In New Orleans, his credits include Gypsy, Hairspray, Ragtime, She Loves Me, Matilda (SLT); Reefer Madness, Hand to God, The Laramie Project (Storyville Collective); Million Dollar Quartet (Rivertown); The Hunchback of Notre Dame, White Christmas (JPAS);and The Last Five Years, Something Rotten (Le Petit). He is the artistic director of Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane, producing artistic director of The Storyville Collective, and founder & director of The Story Road Project. He is a Professor of Practice in Music and the Interim Director of Musical Theatre at Tulane University.