Monday, July 29, 2013

Friday Dance Party: I'm Gonna Wash That Blood Right Outta My Hair

This week's Dance Party comes as my summer activities reach the two thirds point, and by activities, I mean the productions in Manhattan in which I am performing.  I am spending my summer acting up outside, in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  I worked with this scrappy little company, called Hudson Warehouse, last summer too, in a production of Richard III (I wrote about that experience here and here too).
The Hudson Warehouse loves blood, and even more, they love splattering it all over me.  In both Richard III (above) and in this year's King Lear, I had blood spouting out of various orifices.
This year, I agreed to perform in two of Hudson Warehouse's productions, back-to-back.  In one, The Three Musketeers, I will be playing a small, comic relief role, and we will open that swashbuckler Thursday. But up until yesterday, I have also been engulfed in the dark and hubristic world of King Lear
As King Lear's Earl of Gloucester, I had the privilege (if that's the word) of being on the receiving end of one of Shakespeare's most gruesome atrocities:  my eyes are gouged out.  Hudson Warehouse loves blood, and I was drenched in it every night, so much so that I had to dash home for a thorough shower to remove it from my hair and beard.  I think there's still some in my goatee.
King Lear was plagued with lousy weather (ironic, considering much of the play occurs during a storm).  During our final week of rehearsal, which included all our tech/dresses, we were continually aborted by rain.  I mean torrential downpours which kept the cast scurrying toward the nearest overhang, attempting to protect costumes from the gales of rain.
 
Our King Lear opened a month ago, on the opposite side of this
monument, against some substantial odds provided by Mother
Nature.  All rehearsals and performances happen in this
outside space.



Elegant 1980s clothes were not made to wash and wear.
Rainstorms plagued our rehearsal period.
The weather interfered so frequently that we added a rehearsal the afternoon of our preview performance, just so we could run through the full show once before audience members showed up.  And show up they did, with one of our biggest houses.  This preview was on the Fourth of July, and I wonder how many viewers actually meant to be there, and how many others had arrived early for the fireworks display which was to happen on the river once the sun went down.
This is the climactic showdown between my two sons, the legitimate Edgar who was tricked into being disowned, and the bastard Edmund who manipulated his father and brother.  This subplot concerning the Gloucester family runs parallel to the tale of Lear and his daughters.
We had plenty of fireworks on our own, mostly provided by our dynamic King Lear, David Brown.  David was fiery and robust in the role, and I loved playing our scenes "on the heath," when Lear has gone mad, and my character, Gloucester, has been brutally blinded and is wandering around trying to commit suicide.

Oh, but rain was not our only weather issue.  The New York area, as with most of the eastern seaboard, was hit with record breaking heat for days on end. 
With the heat index reaching triple digits, and humidity higher than the Empire State, we canceled two shows.  The Heat was the big news that week in New York City, and the Daily News picked up on our cancellation.  While we were all impressed that our King Lear received this publicity for NOT doing our show, I wondered aloud if we would ever get any press for actually DOING the show.  This comment was not met with much enthusiasm from the Hudson brass.
And in the end, Mother Nature had the last word.  We were to conclude our run yesterday, Sunday, but we were rained out.  Luckily, our Saturday night performance was one of our best, with a very full audience who were very appreciative.  Still, Closing Night Performances (like Opening Night ones) are special, and to be handed one retroactively made the experience feel a bit unfinished.

I did not feel a strong connection to my role of Gloucester when we started rehearsal, but I grew to love the scenes I shared with Jake Russo, above, who played my son Edgar.  I disown him; then, after my blinding, encounter him again as he is disguised as a bum.  The resulting scenes are among the most poignant in the Bard's canon, and I think we played them well.

What does any of this have to do with this week's Dance Party?  Our Friday night performance was also a good one, and it had an unexpected participant, at least for me. 
I've got something in my eye.

During the show, I made several loops around the monument to cross from stage right to stage left.  During one of those trips, I passed a charming family seated on the lawn, having a picnic.  The mother was hugely pregnant, and there was a husband and toddler there as well. Unfortunately, I had removed my contact lenses by then (I learned early on that I could not be wearing the lenses during my "blinding" scene, as copious amounts of blood squirted everywhere, and turned my contacts pink). 
I was pleased to work with Laura
Frye again; we appeared in Taming
of the Shrew a year ago. Go here for
that report.

So, everything was pretty much a blurr as I loped around the monument to make my final entrance.  I was wearing the sunglasses which my character wore after losing his eyes, and my shirt and face were covered in stage blood.


This spot below our playing space was a prime picnic spot.
On Friday, a Manhattan family spread out their blanket,
and listened to the performance of King Lear happening
on the cement stage above them.

I was set to ignore the family seated on the blanket enjoying the evening, but the mother piped up, "Hello, Gloucester!"  I was pretty impressed that she pegged my role from the blood and sunglasses, clearly she was up on her classical theatre.  I was to learn a moment later, from one of my castmates, that the woman on the blanket was Broadway headliner Kelli O'Hara.  In her honor, she stars in this week's Dance Party.
Kelli O'Hara has an exceptional ability to bring new life to older iconic roles.  The Pajama Game, Bells Are Ringing, Sunday in the Park with George, and of course South Pacific (above) have all been reinvigorated by her presence in their revivals. She can take an outrageously corny role such as Nellie Forbush and make you believe such a person actually exists.
Other than this momentary meeting in the park on Friday, I have never seen Kelli O'Hara live, but her performance in the hit revival of South Pacific has been preserved on DVD, which I own and enjoy. 
O'Hara has created her share of musical roles, notably in Light in the Piazza, for which she earned one of her four Tony nods.  Right before she recently withdrew from the theatrical scene to have her second child, she starred in the new musical adaptation of Far From Heaven (above).  She received glowing reviews during its Off-Broadway run;  if the show has a further life, she will surely be attached. 
Kelli was born and raised in Oklahoma (and trained by the same vocal coach who taught Kristin Chenoweth), which may give some clue as to how she can so thoroughly inhabit down-to-earth characters. 
Kelly O'Hara as the 50s suburban housewife
in Far From Heaven.

In this week's Dance Party, she attacks this well-known song so enthusiastically, you can't help but be won over.  If only I had been wearing my contacts last Friday night, I would surely have responded to her sweet greeting with an expression of my admiration of her work.  Perhaps this will do.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Friday Dance Party: He Stopped Believin'

This week's Dance Party, once again, stars one of the recently deceased.

Cory Monteith
1982-2013
Everybody knows this young actor died this week, from an overdosed mixture of heroin and alcohol.  Only 31, Cory had struggled with addiction since his early teens, and spent some time in rehab as recently as April of this year. 

Monteith and Lea Michele are Glee's central romantic
couple, both on and off screen.
It's sad and discouraging when someone so young is taken, though I confess that Monteith was not a particular favorite of mine.  But the Internet has been buzzing all week about this loss, and it will certainly affect the trajectory of that TV phenomenon, Glee.

Glee provided an earlier Dance Party, in which klutzy Jane
Lynch swing dances with hoofer Matt Morrison.  Go here.

Our hero is Canadian, and after he cleaned up his act the first time (in his mid-teens), he began appearing on the American TV shows which were being shot in his hometown of Toronto.  His audition for Glee was by videotape, and though his musical skills are suspect, his charming naivete is not. 
Kevin McHale as Artie. Glee will
be remembered for its positive
treatment of disadvantaged
teens.

I confess that I have not attempted an episode of Glee in many years, having become so frustrated with it in its second season that I dropped the habit, pardon the goulish pun.  But somebody saw something in Monteith, and he landed the role of the football jock turned glee club enthusiast which anchored the "student" cast of the show.  He has been one of the show's headliners ever since.
The idea that high school jocks would also be performing geeks is foreign to someone my age, but apparently, this crossing over of various high school cliques really does happen these days.
Glee, as I mentioned, is a bit of a phenomenon: after several years of sliding ratings, it was a surprise that it was recently given a multi-year renewal.  It's unprecedented, that a show with declining ratings be given a commitment by a network for two more seasons, but Glee received just that in April. 
Both Neil Patrick Harris and Gwyneth Paltrow have won Emmys for guest shots on Glee, but Jane Lynch is the only regular to win for her performance.  The tally of the show's Emmy nominations has been declining, as usually happens with aging programs.
The show these days is a messy hodgepodge with a huge canvas of characters;  the program has run long enough that the initial group of kids has graduated high school and gone on to adult life. 
Glee often devotes full episodes to a single artist's music.
Jane Lynch's Madonna-Vogue sequence is well remembered.

Glee attempts to cover them all, as well as new students joining the current high school's club, and I understand the show these days is bloated and unwatchable.
This shot reflects the cast of the first season.  These days, the show's canvas is even bigger, covering original characters as they begin professional show biz careers, as well as current members of the glee club.
But Glee is a phenomenon for another reason:  it has gained unexpected and spectacular success in the recording arena.  Producers have shrewdly released recordings of each episode's songs on I-Tunes, the day of each episode's airings, and the results have been nothing short of phenomenal. 
This scene from the pilot episode became a defining moment for Glee. The original six members of the glee club sing "Don't Stop Believin'" in an empty theatre, secretly observed by the teacher who is losing the fight to keep the club in existence. The song's recording became a million seller, and launched Glee's success in the record world.
In 2009, Glee placed 25 singles on the Billboard top 100, a number which was beat only by the Beatles in 1964.  The next year, Glee shattered that record, placing a whopping 80 singles on the Billboard chart, far outpacing any other musical act in history. 

Glee albums include compilations of love songs, dance tunes,
Christmas carols, and this soundtrack to their episode dedicated
to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
It must be noticed, however, that most of these singles dropped out of the top 100 after only one week.  But physical CD sales of the show's various compilations have also been strong sellers, and Glee's inaugural single, 'Don't Stop Believin'", which appeared in the pilot episode, has been classified as a platinum hit (selling over a million copies).
Alex Newell as Unique is an example of Glee's ongoing commitment to presenting characters of diversity.  The character, new last year, is a transgender teen.  The Glee canvas has always included those of differing races and sexual orientations.
This week's Dance Party is not one of those big sellers, but it's a very sweet scene.  It must come from season 3 or 4 of the series, I did not see its original airing.  The song brings to a close a story line which earned high marks from the LGBT community, and which earned Cory's costar Chris Colfer a Golden Globe. 

Monteith and Colfer have a sweet chemistry.
Monteith, as I said, played a jock, and Colfer plays a role written specially for him, a flamboyantly gay boy infatuated with his straight friend. 
Darren Criss and Chris Colfer broke some ground as Glee's first
gay romance.  The show also features a lesbian couple.

In this story arc, Monteith's single mother dated, and then wed, Colfer's single father, resulting in the two boys becoming step-brothers, and ultimately, friends rather than antagonists.  Cory Monteith inadvertently ended his own life this week, and in his honor, enjoy this sentimental wedding clip:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

By The Wayside

My affection toward Wayside Theatre caused my family to surprise me one Christmas, with the gift of a personalized brick, which currently resides on the wall next to the door of the theatre's bar (natch).  Every non-profit theatre out there is always fundraising, it's why they're called NON-PROFIT;  Wayside had a hard time convincing donors that a sustained level of charitable giving was necessary to keep presenting quality work.
In the pages of this blog, I have frequently offered entries on my own birthday, and even more often, have presented tributes to (or occasionally, diatribes about) celebrities on their birthdays.  Today's entry is a special one, in that it commemorates the birthday of a friend, colleague, and all-around admirable fellow.
Happy Birthday, Warner Crocker! This shot was snapped at the Opening Night Reception for Man of La Mancha, and illustrates one of the lovely traditions Warner created at Wayside Theatre.  After each Opening Night, he took the time to toast each and every person involved with the current production.
Warner isn't dead.  Today is his 57th birthday, and it must be a strange and bittersweet one for him. 
Warner Crocker, Birthday Boy

Only a few weeks ago, he announced his resignation from his position as Artistic Director of Wayside Theatre in Middletown, VA.  He ran the theatre for about 15 years, which, I'm told, is about twice as long as the average artistic director runs the average regional theatre.  But neither Warner nor Wayside are average.

Warner had a strong tradition of hiring DC-area actors;  both Tom Simpson and myself were imported for Man of La Mancha.  Out of town talent became more and more problematic for the theatre as funding dried up, and housing became an issue.

I am not, I assure you, privy to the inner workings of a regional theatre, but I've been around long enough to see that Wayside Theatre had a lot of challenges to its existence. 
I first learned of Wayside when I was appearing
in Big River at the neighboring
Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre. During a day off,
I drove up the road and dropped off my headshot.
The artistic director at the time (who preceded Warner)
ignored it.  But I'm not bitter.

Its location, about 90 or so miles from Washington, DC, may lead one to assume it's a bedroom (ie: commuter) community, and indeed, there are some residents in the area who are crazy enough to make the long drive to and from DC every day.  But mostly, the residents who are lucky enough to have Wayside in their midst would be considered rural.  Though Wayside Theatre is over 50 years old, it sits in a community for whom theatre-going is not a routine part of life. 
If you didn't know Wayside was there, you might miss it.  Located on Main Street of tiny Middletown, VA, right next to the fire station, it was a central gathering place which should have been given greater respect from its community than it received.  Warner struggled to teach his patrons that there was a big difference between community theatre and professional.  I still don't think they get it.
I know Warner and his staff struggled mightily throughout the years to instill a sense of regional pride in their theatre, as well as a recognition that Wayside was an important asset to the community which needed to be encouraged, financially as well as creatively.  This was an uphill battle.

My first appearance at Wayside Theatre was in Agatha Christie's Black Coffee, a whodunit which is known primarily as the first onstage appearance of her famous Dutch detective, Hercule Poirot.
One of Warner's most important Wayside legacies must be his internship program, which gave countless theatre professionals their launching pad.  His former interns are now working all over the country (indeed, all over the world!).  Above are four such success stories, surrounding Larry Dalke, one of Warner's favorite actors.
I was a last-minute replacement in Black Coffee, which I mention only to justify the fact that my performance was not one of my best. 
Warner's trust and respect toward actors was
always evident. He chose to work repeatedly
with actors of talent who also had spirits of
generosity, kindness, and fun. Jim Fleming
was one of Warner's regulars.

There wasn't anything substantially wrong with it, I just never connected with the character.  I came away from the show with many, many great personal memories of the experience, but with the sour taste which comes from an unsatisfactory performance.
My debut at Wayside Theatre was in Black Coffee, a thriller in which I played a clueless, dullard husband.  I was a last minute replacement in the role, and was not cast into my strengths.  Wayside's leading actress, Thomasin Savaiano, played my wife, and wiped the stage with me.  I was sure I would never be invited back to Wayside again.
It was many years before I returned to Wayside. 
Sound designer Steve was instrumental (pun alert!)
in creating the niche into which most Wayside
musicals fell, where actors played the music.

My next role, Sancho Panza in the classic musical Man of La Mancha, was more successful.  Though once again cast against type, I had lots of help from director Warner and musical guru Steve Przybylski(I wrote about this experience in several entries at the time, including this tribute to Steve and the entire cast).
During Man of La Mancha, I stayed in this charming guest house.  In earlier days, Wayside had access to a building which housed out-of-town actors, but I guess that was deemed a wasted expense.  In recent years, out-of-towners were usually housed with Wayside constituents who wished to help out the theatre.
Only a few years went by before I was asked back to Wayside, to play a role for which I was perfectly suited.  The Nerd was the kind of comedy very accessible to a wide range of audiences, and I had a ball with the play and the role. 
As the sardonic neighbor with an agenda, The Nerd provided
me with a great role. It was to be Wayside's final production
as an Equity house to date.

It was during this period, though, that I began to realize the huge financial challenges which Warner faced every day of his career at Wayside Theatre.  His board of directors seemed split over how to help the theatre continue to survive and grow. 

Warner and his staff did all they could to keep the theatre in business. During renovations, they moved their season to
another location, actually creating a lovely little theater space out of a warehouse. Forever Plaid and other shows continued the Wayside tradition of quality;  it would have been the perfect "second space" for the theatre, but the Board saw no need.
A capital campaign to expand the theatre's space only got far enough to pay for some essential upgrades to the existing theatre (during my first show there, it was necessary to actually go outside the building to cross from backstage right to left).  Wayside's property includes an empty lot behind the theatre which Warner hoped to build on, to add rehearsal/shop/office space and perhaps a black box to house their thriving education wing.  No such luck.
It might be said that some board members were pretty blind to the realities of keeping a theatre alive.
The summer I appeared in The Nerd, we were in the midst of the economic downturn, so charitable giving bottomed out, and the theatre ran into trouble with Actors Equity.  The Nerd, in fact, was to be the theatre's final show produced under the union's Small Professional Theatre contract;  Wayside became, in a professional sense, a non-union house. 
Chairs with booties.  The perfect example, in microcosm, of some of the challenges Warner faced in creating theatre. Rehearsal space was always an issue; for The Nerd, we worked on the upper floor of a grand old house in Winchester, VA.  It was originally a ballroom, and its hard wood floors had to be protected, hence the booties on the chairs.  We added and removed them every single rehearsal.  I always sensed that Warner would like to spend all his time with actors, creating theatre.  Don't get me wrong, he never brought the outside problems of Wayside into the rehearsal room.  Instead, he seemed to relax and become his best self there.
Warner, to his credit, has always been a big supporter of the actors union, and continued to employ AEA members when he could, using the Guest Artist contract, but he was forced to severely downsize his staff, which was already skeletal to my eyes. 

My birthday buddy Malia was Wayside's Production Stage Manager for many years. Once the theatre went non-Equity, she had to move on. Like so many other Wayside folks, she landed on her feet and now works in the mid-West.
Two major fundraising campaigns seemed to prove that, when push came to shove, the community did care that Wayside was around, and recently, they seemed ready to enter a new chapter.
I guess that chapter will be without the theatre's major engine.  I have no inside info on why Warner tendered his resignation earlier this month. 
Thomasin Savaiano: Wayside's leading teacher,
actress, cheerleader, bottle washer, and
administrator.

According to the local papers, the board intends to continue with the season which Warner selected, hiring independent directors for each show, but refraining from hiring a new artistic director, at least for now.  How the hell that's going to work is beyond my comprehension, as I've been in that tiny second floor loft where Wayside Theatre's administrative offices are cramped. Warner and Thomasin, with the help of one or two others, ran all the administrative aspects of the theatre.  Without them, I wonder how the day-to-day operations will continue.

To my knowledge, Warner was never granted the title
"Producing Artistic Director," but that's what he was.  He
was also the Managing Director, but again, without the
title.
While at Wayside, Warner made many financial sacrifices, all to keep the "little theatre with the big heart" producing quality, professional shows.   I have not heard what Warner's next career step will be, but wherever he lands, he's likely to take that same determination and enthusiasm for creating theatre.  And wherever he goes, I hope he takes my headshot with him!
Warner and Thomasin hosted their final Opening Night reception last week.  I was devastated that I could not attend, but I was trapped in Riverside Park in NYC, having my eyes gouged out in King Lear.  I hated to miss this important sendoff for the Crocker/Savaiano team, but I know they understand.
Happy Birthday, Warner.
 
 
Addendum: on 8/8/13, a few weeks after I wrote the above entry, the Board of Directors of Wayside Theatre announced its immediate closing.  Its 52 year history is now that: history.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Friday Dance Party: They Want To Love Us Tender

This guy stars in this week's Dance Party.  Nobody knows who he is.  Nobody cares.
After the week I've had, I'm in the mood for something laugh out loud funny. 
This woman's hilarious video is ripe for parody, except it's
already one. It went viral a month ago, and put
"Prancercise" into the vernacular.

This week's Dance Party provides me with such.  The video is in English, but comes from Sweden and looks to be several decades old. 
This week's dance ensemble can't be missed. They must have been recruited from the nearest junior college, where girl dancers outnumber the boys 4 to 1.
At least, I HOPE it's several decades old.  But whenever it was produced, it should have proven that the Swedes should stick to meatballs.  The choreography of the ensemble is what really makes the song ...um... memorable. 
I posted this clip from Lawrence Welk during another week
in which I needed a big hoot.

I don't usually post bad videos (though I was guilty awhile back when this Bollywood monstrosity showed up).  And everybody has already seen the excruciating rendition of the song which appeared here a few days ago, "I'm Telling You...". 
OK, I guess I've been guilty a few times of posting really, really bad videos, such as this one starring Cher, Tina Turner, and the very uncomfortable Kate Smith.
Any and all of these videos are hard to sit through without guffaws. Here's another to add to the list.  Happy Dance Party!