Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shakespeare Under the Stars

By Guest Blogger, James Kassees
James Kassees is a copy editor and proofreader for local marketing communications firm Aloysius Butler & Clark and has been involved in area theater for more than 30 years. A native Wilmingtonian, James lives in the city with his beautiful wife Barb.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It has everything you could want in a play — banishment, wrestling, romance and, of course, cross-dressing. I n the story, a mean brother wants to kill his uppity younger brother, who stood up to him. So the younger brother, Orlando, flees to the forest of Arden, where he runs into a young shepherd named Ganymede. Only Ganymede is really Rosalind in disguise; she was banished by the mean Duke Frederick, who also banished his older brother, the imaginatively named Duke Senior. Still with me? Also living in the forest are the court jester Touchstone, the melancholy Jaques, and various attendants, wenches and faithful old servants. All good fun to watch — and great fun to perform.

The Arden Shakespeare Gild is presenting As You Like It this summer. Arden, an artsy little hamlet north of Wilmington, was founded in 1900 by Philadelphia sculptor Frank Stephens and his architect friend Will Price. Stephens named the utopian village “Arden” after the forest that everyone flees to in As You Like It, and laid out the outdoor theater before he built his house. He even played Touchstone in an early production. So Arden’s tradition of performing Shakespeare’s works was established right from the start.

In 2000, to celebrate the village’s centennial, the Gild selected As You Like It and set the action in 1900. Now the Gild has decided to do the show every ten years. So here we are — a bunch of engineers and psychologists and realtors who enjoy the challenge and the fun of making Shakespeare’s words come to life. By bringing our different experiences to our characters and to the story, we try to make sure that each production — in fact, each performance — is unique.

Character and story are the main concerns of our director, Mary Catherine Kelley (aka MC). She makes us ask ourselves: What do I mean when I say my lines? What do I want? How do other characters react? And how does what I say and do fit into the overall story? MC’s job is to make sure every line and every scene add up to a cohesive story that draws the audience in and pulls them along to the end.

Come see As You Like It and find out how much fun Shakespeare can be in an intimate little theater nestled in the forest of Arden. Show dates are June 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 25 and 26.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Renaissance: Support for Art and Knowledge

Drama, beauty, youth, wisdom, innovation and tradition: The Delaware College of Art and Design (DCAD) has all of this, and more. At the school’s fourth annual gala –the Renaissance – to benefit the scholarship program, DCAD created a lively evening of music, art, entertainment and delicious food. Donors, students, faculty, administrators and art aficionados of all kinds had the chance to mingle and listen to music provided by a lovely quartet.

DCAD is Delaware’s only professional art and design school. As an integral part of the newly revitalized community on lower Market Street, the college is committed to providing scholarships to its students. In order to award more than $800,000 in financial aid next year, the school relies heavily on its patrons and donors. Mr. and Mrs. Iréneé duP. May honorary chairs for the gala evening, have been integral in promoting and supporting the school and all the Arts in the Brandywine Valley.

I enjoyed chatting with the college president, Stuart Baron, about the school and its programs. A painter himself, Baron has overseen the DCAD since July, most recently having been in Baton Rouge, where he spearheaded an effort to get art supplies to students, children and displaced artists who were affected by Katrina’s devastation. His passion – for art itself and for making it available to everyone who wishes to enjoy and create – mirrors and furthers the school’s mission.

DCAD used the Italian Renaissance as a theme for its gala, since it was an era when artists were heavily supported and encouraged by their patrons. Some students wandered about the first floor in togas, preparing to bring to the life the “Last Supper” tableau staged on the back wall of the gallery. Overflowing were banquet-style tables of beautifully arranged loaves of bread, cheese and fruit. Both student and teacher works were for sale during the silent auction. Guests were greeted at the doorway by costumes from OperaDelaware’s Tosca, reminding us of the close relationship design, music and historical studies have with each other, as well as the vital Arts community that has been forged along Market Street in Wilmington.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Creation: Music Born of the Bible

The more than 50 voices of the Delaware Valley Chorale joined together to sing Franz Joseph Haydn’s masterpiece The Creation. Accompanied by a fine orchestra, under the nimble baton of Conductor and Artistic Director, David Christopher, this all-volunteer chorus (selected by audition) graced the audience with a fabulous performance of this lively setting of one of the Bible’s most beloved and well-known passages.

Christopher’s comments about the work being a hybrid of classical and baroque styles gave me a framework for listening and digesting the work. He described the work as an amalgam of Handelian choral singing and late classical music. The architecture of the piece could be heard clearly: the orchestral part, with its resounding timpani and warm strings provided the foundation, the choral writing, layered, imitative and sometimes canonic gave the work depth. The recitatives and arias were the decoration on this structure revealing the composer’s artistically musical interpretation of the text. The duets and trios brought the structure closer to the heavens with their soaring, virtuosic joy.

Bass Alex Helsabeck sang Raphael with clarity and warm, focused sound. Each phrase was planned and executed with gentle phrasing where the text required it. Helsabeck’s voice rich and full and he handles ornamented passages with grace, singing each note perfectly in pitch. In spite of the soloist’s unfortunate placement behind the orchestra, his voice was easily heard.

Joyous was tenor Dana Wilson (as Uriel) in his singing and presentation. Like Helsabeck, he projected out over the orchestra from the back with his sweet ringing tenor. Wilson brings the athleticism of his career as baseball umpire to his performance.

Melanie Sarakatsannis, soprano, provided the “icing on the cake” in the performance as Gabriel. She sang some wonderfully ornate passages with panache and a clear bright tone, projecting confidently. Her voice was well balanced with the other soloists in the duets and trios.

The real stars were the choristers. Haydn’s multi-layered piece provides many challenges in its imitative and canonic sections. Christopher has helped them grow into a group with a lush, unified quality. Each one of the singers is dedicated, and sings from a place of joy. That is exactly what they brought to the audience, too.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Matt Casarino – A 21st Century Renaissance Man

Actor, musician, beer connoisseur, bon vivant; all describe Matt Casarino. When I first met him while working on Kiss me, Kate at the Wilmington Drama League, I noticed his incredible energy.

From the audience, watching him on stage in The Music Man, that energy was almost palpable as he livened up the fictional town and the actual stage with his buoyancy.

But Matt is also a very serious and hard-working guy. He has been writing plays since 1997. His play Midnight Train to George was first runner up at this year’s Delaware Theatre Association’s 68th One Act Play Festival held on March 27, 2010 at the Everett Theatre in Middletown.

When I saw the play this past weekend at the adjudication of original works for the Eastern States Theatre Association at the Chapel Street Players, I was struck by how well the play’s dialogue was crafted. It’s the story of two women passengers on a bus…simple enough. Raye, a waitress in a diner, is bubbly and tells Kim she feels sure she has met her before. Kim denies it, but Raye persists to the point of annoyance. The words, their delivery and the flow of the dialogue seems so natural, I felt as if I were on the bus, too. I have heard so many similar conversations. As the play progresses, the tight writing makes everything move to a climax and then resolution – and all in less that thirty minutes.

Many of Matt’s plays have been published, including one in the Smith & Kraus Best 10 Minute Play series. He has had works performed all over the country – including stops in Delaware. Midnight Train to George was produced at both the Rehoboth Theatre of Arts and at City Theater Company in its 2009 series Casarino Royale in which it highlighted five of Matt’s works.
Matt’s day job is at the Wilmington Drama League, where he pretty much does everything when he is not being a musician or a playwright or keeping up his knowledge of distinguished brews.


Sunday, May 9, 2010

CTC Ends Season on a High Note with Falsettos

Already out and about for Art on the Town, I figured I’d add more material to the tour. I’d heard the hipsters at City Theater Company had partnered with AIDS Delaware to bring William Finn’s Falsettos to the stage. Since it hadn’t been produced in this area in more than a decade, I was eager to see what CTC – always engaging in its repertoire and staging – would bring to this Tony Award-winning play.

This season has been an amazing one for the company, starting with the blockbuster Sweeney Todd in December; CTC, as always, provided plenty to enjoy!

The Opening Night house, in The Black Box at OperaDelaware Studios, was sold to capacity, with folks even standing at the back. The Black Box space is intimate without feeling “tight”, and there truly doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house. You couldn’t have asked for a better opening evening – we hardly noticed the air conditioning was on the fritz, the show was so absorbing!

Falsettos is the story of the middle-aged, self-absorbed Marvin, who is struggling with his own issues and his relationships with his son, ex-wife, gay lover, psychiatrist (who marries his ex-wife) and the lesbian neighbors who live next door.

The entire cast is accomplished and well built by Producing Artistic Director Michael Gray. Gray has collected and directed an amazingly talented cast, creating a touching performance that focuses on the beauty and tragedy of all types of love and family, and he does so without sending an overly political or moral message. His interpretation of the characters is humorous, heartrending and real.

Marvin, passionately played by longtime CTC veteran Patrick O’Hara, is all-consuming in his needs. O’Hara’s voice booms and you feel his zeal and frustration as he sings “The Thrill of First Love”; then his tone lightens, coming through soothing and gentle in the touching “Father to Son”.

Jason is played expertly by Jameson May, a 12-year-old actor from Cab Calloway. May holds his own in this skillful cast and is especially enjoyable in “Jason’s Therapy” and “Miracle of Judaism”.

Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist and Trina’s new husband, finds hilarity and timidity in Jason Stockdale. Stockdale’s performance in “A Marriage Proposal” elicited laughter throughout the theater.

Jim Burns plays Whizzer, Marvin’s lover, with great strength in voice and manner. His performance of “The Games I Play” is compelling. His character is able to both captivate and infuriate. Jason loves him; Trina loathes him; Marvin seems torn between both.

Maggie Cogswell and Karen Murdock are solid and enjoyable as Cordelia and Charlotte, Marvin and Whizzer’s neighbors. They are funny and poignant, providing a wholeness to the story and further pushing home the notion that family bonds aren’t just born of blood relation.

The standout for me, though, was Trina, played riotously by Dana Michael. Michael’s neurotic, hilarious, needy, powerful performance brought the house down more than once, but her “I’m Breaking Down” was truly the pinnacle. I couldn’t imagine anyone playing this part better.

The performance enjoyed booming applause throughout, and ended with a standing ovation from the crowd. I heard one patron mention that he had seen the performance on Broadway and couldn’t wait to compare the two. CTC is up to that challenge.

Bottom line? You must see this show! We are so lucky that this musical has returned to the Delaware Arts scene. We’re even luckier that CTC is the group that has chosen to bring it. They offer one 2pm Sunday matinee on 5/16; all other shows are at 8:00pm.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Pirettes of Penzance: The Women Take Over

Every year since 1948, the Ardensingers have produced a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. This year, there was something a bit different -- a reverse gender Pirates of Penzance. I asked Bob Beavins, what inspired him to created this “farce of a farce”, making the Pirate King into a Queen, and Mabel into a young stud with a penchant for high notes.

He had heard women complain for years about not having enough fun things to do in the G&S roles. So, to Beavins it seemed, the natural thing was to switch the genders around: The pirates would be played by women, the maidens would become men of leisure and all the main roles would be reversed! With stage direction by Nancy Kraus and musical direction Helene Furlong, this fun, re-worked operetta came to life at the Gild Hall.

The audience loved the “gaggle of gorgeous gentlemen” taking the stage to sing, “Climbing over rocky mountain.” These strapping men -- some of them actors probably well into their sixties -- were dressed in proper Sunday attire with blue vests, and carrying tennis rackets, croquet mallets and cricket bats.

Petra DeLuca was dangerous and risqué as the Pirette Queen, threatening to slice the throats of those who wouldn’t obey, her athletic command of the stage ideal for the role. As Mervyn (the male “soubrette”), Ryan Goulden popped out high notes with a surprised, pained expression turning Mabel’s traditionally sweet Poor wand’ring one into a ‘how-high-can-he-go’ fest, with the male chorus backing him up.

Singing well, David Silberstein played Ralph (NOT “Rafe”), a confused Piratical Man of All Work. Amy Karash was lively as the Sergeant of Police, singing with panache. Marisa Robinson made a sweet Phoebe, and Meghan Mercier was fun as lieutenant Saphir. Not only did Martha Smylie, as Major-General Stanley spit out all her words in the beloved I am the very model of a modern Major-General (I’d like to meet the G&S alto or soprano who hasn’t tried to sing that song), but she sang some glorious lush high-notes in her other solo parts.

The Ardensingers will be at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Gettysburg this June, and producing The Gondoliers in 2011.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Tosca a Treat by OperaDelaware

Opera Delaware’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca is the best I have seen from the organization since OD’s1960s interpretation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Gustavo López-Manzitti’s passionate portrayal of Mario Cavaradossi is intense – his daredevil high tenor notes and focused acting made for a spellbinding character. His Recondita armonia, extolling the mysteries of Floria Tosca and why he finds her beautiful was almost as gripping as his hauntingly sad E lucevan le stelle - accompanied cautiously by clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt.

Kary Shay Thomson’s Floria Tosca was brilliantly sung. The glockenspiel and flute were perfectly balanced with her voice in E la luna piena – and she brought the house down with her heart wrenching rendition of Vissi d’arte. During the wild applause, both Youngblood and Thomson stayed so firmly in character that I never lost the feeling of being immersed in the story.

The staging by Marc Astafan is inventively illustrative. He places Scarpia on one side, while to his left the choir and cardinal sing the Te Deum to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat. But Scarpia is singing about how he wants to seduce Tosca and cries, “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Dio” (Tosca you make me forget God) as he demoniacally rips apart a blood red rose given by Tosca as an offering to the church.

Conductor John Baril brings out the contrasting sounds of the Puccini score -- like the bell sounds representing the church as well as tolling the warning of the devious Scarpia. Although the orchestra did not have as many stands as Puccini would have demanded, they produce a great sound. The next performances are on Friday, May 7 and Saturday, May 8 at 8 p.m.