Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Theater Fun at Arden!

The Gift of the Magi and A G&S Christmas Carol opened December 17 at Arden’s historic Gild Hall. A joint effort of the ArdenSingers and Thespis Etc., the performances showcase local talent. The productions, which premiered two weeks ago in Media, Pennsylvania, are sure to bring holiday cheer.

Jerry Goldberg and Seymour Reiter’s musical version of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi is a sweet Christmas tale of young newlyweds’ quest for the perfect gift. The show, which features some sweet melodies and touching scenes, takes us through the day before Christmas in the lives of Della and Jim.

Gayden Wren’s G&S Christmas Carol is a witty adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ chestnut, set to music from favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Not only are tunes like “Three Little Ghosts for Scrooge” (“Three Little Maids from School” from The Mikado) lifted right from the beloved operettas, so are many of the references and lines. The show is very entertaining, even for those uninitiated in the world of Gilbert and Sullivan patter-song and ensembles. Shows are Friday, December 18 at 8:00 pm and Saturday, December 19 at 2:00 and 8:00 pm.

Jessica Graae

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Newark Symphony Orchestra at the Independence School

Bad weather did not keep a large crowd from coming to the Independence School to hear musical director candidate Simeone Tartaglione conduct the second Newark Symphony Orchestra concert of the season. Tartaglione told the audience, “If I get the job of directing this wonderful orchestra, I would like to know what you [the orchestra] want to play and what you [the audience] want to hear.”

His version of Smetana’s The Moldau (Vitava) from Ma Vlast (My country) was quite fast. Crystal Norman’s flute brought the symphony in with gusto, but softly enough that the string pizzicato line came out delicately. The woodwinds excelled as both flutes (adding Dorothy Boyd) and two clarinets (Anthony Wastler and Shao-Tang Sun) played together in thirds and sixths.

Jeffrey Lang, Associate Principal Horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was able to show his beautiful French horn tone as the acoustics of the hall were great for the Horn Concerto in B-flat major by Reinold Glière. The violas deserve special praise for their clear melodic lines (how rare that they get any) and Anna Montejo played a haunting oboe melody. The soft dynamics the orchestra was able to achieve meant that everything could be heard clearly.

The Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor was the pinnacle of the concert. Tartaglione introduced the piece as a story of Johannes Brahms’ unrequited love for Clara Schumann which made it all the more vivid for the listener. Sally Cornell’s oboe playing was clear and smooth. Having four excellent horns was also a great bonus for an amateur orchestra. Mordecai Furhman’s timpani entrances were clear and rhythmic, spot on. And to have the alto (James Olson), tenor (Frederick Unruh) and bass trombone (Phillip Hessler) parts played that well in the chorale was quite an accomplishment.

The audience demanded an encore and got one: the Brahms Danza Ungarese No. 5, conducted with giant retards and accelerandi, making it a lusty end to a great concert.



Calvary Community Series: Nourishment for Your Brain and Soul!

Once again, I am completely bowled over by the talent in our small state. Calvary Hillcrest Episcopal Church, located on Lore Avenue just off of Philadelphia Pike in North Wilmington, holds an exciting Arts series that showcases artists and scholars in a rich array of events, and brings them to the public free of charge! The Episcopal Church, known for its accepting and welcoming tradition, is also a place where intellectual growth and ideas are encouraged and nurtured. Calvary’s rector, J. R. Keith Hudson, PhD, led a fascinating acting workshop using materials from Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party”.

Professor Hudson, who holds degrees from Oxford University and SUNY Buffalo, explained to the group that theater was broken down into movement/stillness and light/darkness. Both church and community members, the participants thoroughly enjoyed watching their friends act out Pinter’s husband and wife scene. Hudson encouraged the actors to be meticulous in observing the scene’s notated pauses and stage direction, demonstrating how essential they are to its meaning. As we experienced the dialogue going from simple reading to staged play, its elements and motives and shifts of power were illuminated. Hudson’s directives were both gentle and expeditious, helping the both the actors and “audience” come to better understanding.

Some other programs coming up in the Calvary Series include concerts by The Delaware School of Music faculty members, an annual photography contest and exhibit, a choral festival and an exhibit by artists with special needs.


Jessica Graae

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sweeney Todd: A Bloody Good Time

City Theater Company opens its 16th season with a riveting production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. This punk-inspired version, directed Michael Gray, does justice to the show’s dark drama and masterful score. The orchestra, conducted by musical director JA Kawarsky, handles Sondheim’s contrapuntal and rhythmically challenging music with panache. Dawn Morningstar choreographs the show, getting actors up-close and personal and using every nook and cranny of OperaDelaware’s black box space. Costumes by Kerry Khristine McElrone are bold and fun.

Well cast is the show, with the actors revealing their raw, often lustful motivations. Dale Martin, Jr. sings Todd with warmth and power. Todd’s obsession with his barber’s blade, and its potential for retribution is the artery connecting each player and vignette in the tale. TS Baynes is a vocal powerhouse in her wickedly playful Mrs. Lovett. Tyler Hoffman (Pirelli) is riotously funny in the shaving competition scene, singing “You clip-a da chin. You rip-a da lip a bit.”

Aileen Goldberg is heart wrenching as the Beggar Woman, who has been reduced to insanity by life’s cruelties. Only she, Anthony and Johanna (both sung well by Brendan Sheehan and Lauren Cupples, respectively) do not succumb to the greed and bloodlust that envelops the others. Steven Weatherman plays a sorrowful Judge Turpin, who is unable to see wrong in his pedophilia. Tobias, played by Michael Jahil, is touching as he sings his song of blind devotion to Mrs. Lovett, “Not While I’m Around.” Brian Couch provides comic relief as Beadle, when he tests out Mrs. Lovett’s invisible harmonium, singing ridiculous snippets of songs. Maggie Coswell’s strong voice is excellent in the ensemble. The show runs through December 19, 2009.


Jessica Graae

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Director's Inspiration: Sweeney Todd

By Guest Blogger, Michael Gray
Michael is the Producing Artistic Director of City Theater Company, and one of the three founding members. He resides in Philadelphia. Here, Michael offers a look into the inspiration for the current CTC production, SWEENEY TODD.

Our "interpretation", and I use that word very loosely because we follow the script and score as written, was to approach this piece via what one might call a "punk aesthetic" --- meaning a design and performance built on simple constructs that could be utilized by most and hitting the audience with a very aggressive, assaultive and "in your face" performance.

The origins of punk music are rooted in the 3-chord song played by a guitar, bass and drums. Music and lyrics were simple and direct. This countered what some might consider the overblown psychadelic music of the mid to late 70s. In addition, the punk movement had its roots in poor, urban lower-class neighborhoods struggling with the economic downturn, loss of jobs and high inflation of the late 70s. The underlying anger and frustration can be clearly heard in the music.

We felt this "aesthetic"would lend itself nicely to Sweeney Todd. Hence, the simple scenic and lighting design, the use of nontraditional lighting instruments such as flashlights, and use of minimal props and furniture. The staging, though simple and uncomplicated, is very direct and aggressive as it sits on top of and above the audience, given the stage actually wraps around the audience. You can never get away from the show once you are seated.

The costumes areinspired by the punk movement as well and again, very simple and direct. Nothing is hidden and no special effects are used --- no special razor that sprays blood, no special barber chair. We do use lots of "blood"; it is literally painted on the actor as he or she is killed. I felt it provides a very graphic and ritualistic feel to the murders. Also, given the shift from the mid 1800s to late 20th Century, we attempt to explore some of the darker themes of the play more directly.

That said, it is a Sondheim show. The music is at once gorgeous and unsettling, difficult and inspired. A score typically sung by a group of 20-25 actors is sung here by only 10. Most do double or triple duty throughout. Watching 10 actors tackle what some consider the hardest score ever written for the Broadway stage and succeed is, in my opinion, worth the price of admission!

We do have a 9-piece orchestra with an arrangement by the great Broadway arranger JonathanTunick. We did not want to short change the music, given it is probably one of the greatest scores ever written for the stage. Overall, we think this is a Sweeney Todd no one has seen before and as such, we hope it is like seeing it for the first time!

Catch the Rabbit!

December 11 and 12 at the Arden Gild Hall, Bootless Artworks presents The Velveteen Rabbit, a puppet musical by Simon Chan adapted from the beloved book by Margery Williams. Directors Roseanne DellAversano and James Fuerst revised the show with the musical’s creator, Simon Chan, adding puppets to make it more accessible and fun.

The adorable hand puppets, created by DellAversano and Fuerst, are small enough to allow the audience to enjoy the actor’s voices and movements, yet they lend a fairytale feel to the show.

Sweet and playful, most of the story is set in the boy’s bedroom, where his toys come to life, arguing about which one of them is better and more loved. Big boxy toys Choo-Choo and Steamy, played by Sarah Blandy and Carlos Alicea respectively, take over the stage with their fine singing and bossy presence. Melissa Castillo (Velveteen Rabbit),is touching as she comforts the ailing Boy with her song, “All Through the Night”. Singing “The Use of Love” from atop a pile of trash, she is sure to move even the meanest fourth-grade class bully. Gary Hubbard (Harold) and Kimberly Pryor (Gwendolyn) are a riot in the jazzy song/dance number, “This Ain’t No Rabbit” as they mock and poke the forlorn stuffed animal. By the end of the show, both the boy, sung beautifully by Hunter Reed, and the Velveteen Rabbit find acceptance and love.

Bootless Artworks is committed to bringing theater to the community. Along with securing grants allowing for schools serving low-income populations to attend performances, the directors created a handbook for teachers of students up through 12th grade. This book gives tips on creating puppet-theater and provides a guide for the literary analysis.


Jessica Graae

Monday, December 7, 2009

Wilmington Art Loop - December 4

Watching an artist over time shows how versatile and flexible they are. Felise Luchansky has had such a range of media and style since I starting watching her work in 1995 that it is more than worthwhile to grab her catalog when you see her Paper Trail at the Hatch Gallery this month at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts.

I have seen her collages of Americana using Dick, Jane and Sally, her hand-made paper table settings, and so many lost buttons done in brilliant red (the piece I want to buy when my ship comes in) – not to mention her Barbie legs and measuring tapes in a constructed work with MISS AMERICA emblazoned at the top.

Luchansky shows more than style in her metamorphosis – she shows her Weltanschauung. Her works for the December show are part of a commentary on old technology which she makes in creative art. She has taken two piano rolls of old songs and created a horizontal etching (See detail above). Each perforation is represented by intricate lines. Luchansky added spheres in graphite – each shaded to a different degree and accent.

The starkness of Luchansky’s rolls is a perfect foil for Andrew Wapinski’s Nature Drawings whose boldly colored abstracts are actually his experiments with letting weather have its way with ice and watercolor left to melt on paper.

The DCCA also gathered impressive crafts for the Alternatives Holiday Craft Show for the art loop. I was struck by Peter Saenger’s porcelain. His pieces are both decorative and useful. The interlocking starkly designed salt and pepper shakers, teapots and cups are reasonably priced and fascinating.

Two exhibits near Rodney Square merit a visit - Barbara Proud’s nature photographs on display at Gallery 919 are surprising in detail and provocative in subject – reminiscent of O’Keefe but clearly a century beyond. Maria D. Cabrera’s photographs at the Wilmington Institute have one work which stopped me in my tracks: her over-exposed photograph of a vivid sunset by the sea in South America resulted in vivid magenta and blue tones mimicking watercolor.

At the end of the evening, oldies and youngies crowded into the New Wilmington Art Association’s exhibit at 4 West 5th Street after most of the other exhibits had closed for the night – proving that the NWAA is succeeding in their efforts to put the nightlife back into downtown Wilmington. I wondered why the inflatable sculpture was mute and deflated and stopped to ask Michael Kalmbach about the Beardsley-style meticulous pen and ink sketches by April D. Loveday.

The Art Loop: all local, all inspiring. We are rich, Wilmington!


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

OMG…It’s Legally Blonde!

OH. MY.GOD! OHMYGOD! The national tour of Legally Blonde is at the DuPont Theatre this week through December 6, and it’s totally entertaining. Feminism and empowerment are served up with a Chanel suit and pink spiked heels in this snappy, witty musical based on the 2001 hit movie. Elle Woods, played by the adorable Becky Gulsvig, leaves California for Harvard Law School to follow her ex-boyfriend, only to discover she herself has brains and talent. Though the main message of the show may be about women using their strength, instinct and power, broader themes of self-acceptance and integrity are also powerful elements.

The cast pulls off an unbelievably high-energy performance---from the adorable Sigma Nu “Greek” chorus, who constantly appears to give Elle Woods advice and support---to the company dancers who weave hilariously in and out of the scene. At times trite and overly “pop”, the score is boosted by wonderfully witty lyrics and some expert singing, as Elle worries her ex-boyfriend’s preppy new girlfriend might practice some “debutante J-Crew kung fu” on her.

Sleek and eye-catching are the sets, which move in a flash around the actors, setting the scene for a Harvard classroom, a hair salon, Elle’s fluffy “pinkified” bedroom and an ominous, striking prison hallway. The choreography is pure delight, with cheerleaders, law students and inmates always in perfect, and often humorous, step.

Professor Callahan (Ken Land), who later proves to be a shark himself, sets the Harvard Law School scene beautifully with his “Blood in the Water”, one of the more classic-sounding Broadway numbers from the score by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin. As Paulette, Elle’s hairdresser friend, Natalie Joy Johnson is a powerhouse singer. Her earnest delivery of her sometimes silly lyrics and her story of a beloved dog left behind in a trailer park is moving and keeps the show rooted in reality.


Jessica Graae