Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, in which I look back on the last seven days of theatre news and reviews (including my own).
MONDAY NOVEMBER 6
My week in review(s) column of news and reviews (including my own) across the last week (from October 30-November 5) is here: https://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-the-week-in-reviews-oct-30-nov-5/
am in New York this week; and if my trip got off to an inauspicious start, as I reported on in the column above, a heavenly three nights followed at easily my favourite New York live entertainment venue — 54 Below.
Here is simultaneously one of the world’s most inclusive yet exclusive spaces: the entire room is connected to one another and the performer(s) onstage in intimate harmony (or just occasionally disharmony), sharing the joys of great singers and great songs; and yet we’re in such close proximity to each other that it’s necessarily an occasion that only a hundred or so people can enjoy at each sitting.
I’ve duly had some of my best-ever cabaret nights here, watching some of my favourite-ever performers. On Saturday that meant Melissa Errico (pictured above), long one of the Broadway voices I love most, and a radiantly intelligent performer who brings astonishing depth and perception to her deep embrace of great music.
She illuminates it from within. A great cabaret night can be as complete and thrilling as a full musical. In the hands of a mistress of the art like Errico, it can be even better, paying tribute to her own past but reinventing it, with a quietly revelatory ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” from MY FAIR LADY, which of course she never got to sing in that show.
And on Monday, I saw the great Marilyn Maye here — now 95, every performance is infused with a lifetime’s experience and sheer happiness. Melissa Errico is a great fan and friend of hers, and it’s no accident: she’s carrying the torch on for her. (Errico wrote a terrific profile of Maye for the New York TImes in March, ahead of Maye’s Carnegie Hall debut that month; as Errico noted, “Carnegie Hall won’t make Marilyn Maye bigger; she’ll make Carnegie Hall smaller”.)
It’s also no accident that they share the same remarkable musical director Tedd Firth (pictured above with Maye tonight; you can see a clip of their partnership here).
In between the two, I caught Norbert Leo Butz, a Broadway actor I’ve seen in this room before when he appeared with his great friend Sheri Renee Scott in a searingly honest portrait of their long and sometimes turbulent onstage relationships. On Sunday he was solo, mostly accompanying himself on piano and guitar, for a show that entirely eschewed his Broadway career to offer songs by popular songwriters who inspire and influence him, from Springsteen to Dolly Parton.
TUESDAY NOVEMBER 7
One of the all-time favourite professional engagements of my life was the nearly decade-long stint I did teaching part-time at ArtsEd, where from 2012 to 2021 I gave a lightning (and hopefully, enlightening) introduction to musical theatre history to first year musical theatre students in their first and third terms.
But yesterday Deadline.com reported on distressing behind-the-scenes allegations of bullying, misconduct and toxicity at the school in the years since I was last there. According to the report,
“Principal Julie Spencer has been ArtsEd’s reformer-in-chief, but current and former students and employees have voiced considerable anxiety about her leadership style. She is viewed as a smart and often charismatic individual, but 20 people who have had personal interactions with Spencer accused her of being an erratic and occasionally intimidating leader since she joined in 2019.”
Steven Kavuma, a now former member of the teaching faculty, is quoted telling Deadline,
“I witnessed first-hand bullying towards students and teachers. I tried to challenge it within the school, but the principal would isolate you. I don’t think it is a safe environment to train. If students don’t feel comfortable challenging that within that school, if they feel fearful… I just don’t think that’s healthy at all. Some students felt like they had to be watching their backs constantly, they felt intimidated.”
Though I greatly miss my time at ArtsEd, I now think I may have dodged a considerable bullet by no longer being there.
WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 8
A few weeks ago I had afternoon tea in London with producer Jamie Forshaw, a British theatre executive who previously worked for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company but is now based in New York, where he heads up the theatre division of Madison Wells Live.
He is currently represented on Broadway by the world premiere production of Jocelyn Bioh’s JAJA’S AFRICAN HAIR BRAIDING that Madison Wells Live are co-producing with Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre.
It was at his urging that I went to see it, and I’m glad I did: this is an ebulliently funny but also serious workplace comedy that’s stunningly acted by its ensemble cast as it chronicles the comings and goings at a Harlem hair-braiding salon.
This is hardly a world I’ve paid even passing attention to, but for over 90 minutes it held me both riveted and richly entertained. Theatre routinely allows you to see world’s far beyond your own; and it’s always a privilege to do so.
THURSDAY NOVEMBER 9
Never mind the critics; these days the tone is often set by the commentary. And if Kenneth Branagh’s KING LEAR got critically slammed, at least the show gave rise to this considerably more gushing column from The Guardian about his hair and abs:
“His luxuriant bouffant – making him possibly the most follicularly blessed Lear since Laurence Olivier – is all Hollywood, as is the surprising third-act revelation that this Lear comes with abs.”
Welcome though it is to see theatre spring free of the arts pages, it’s a bit sad to see the continued degradation of The Guardian’s theatre coverage, but this comment is par for the course for a paper whose chief theatre critic gave the show itself a (barely more enlightening) three-star review.
Broadway routinely honours its greats, not just by the ceremonial dimming of Broadway’s theatres marquees when one passes, but also in public memorial events that are held. I’ve been to many over the years, and today was the turn of veteran lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who died in June, aged 99, Generous, heartfelt tribute was paid to him by colleagues and collaborators, including composer John Kander — now 96 himself — who called him “the best of us” (pictured above). Video of some of the artists who appeared can be viewed here.
Being in New York this week, I missed a deeply personal event yesterday — a memorial for my best and oldest friend, Dean Jones (pictured above, top left with his husband Graham, on the terrace of my former London home a few years ago). I previously wrote about his passing in July, aged just 56, here; I’d already said my private farewell to him a few days ahead of his funeral in August, when I visited him at the funeral home in Tooting where his body was being held.
Currently being broadcast on ITV Is one of the last TV shows he was involved in the commissioning of, MAMMA MIA! — I HAVE A DREAM, and it’s lovely that at the end of the first episode a final credit screen is dedicated to him, too.
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 10
Today’s big news in London is of the appointment of director/choreographer Drew McOnie as the new artistic director of the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park — a place where his choreography for the 2016 revival of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (pictured below) would have taken the roof off the theatre, if it actually had a roof. He succeeds Tim Sheader, and emphasises the stock that this unsubsidised venue puts in its annual musicals. (McOnie also directed and choreographed a glorious production of Bernstein, Comden and Green’s ON THE TOWN and choreographed CAROUSEL there),
It’s rare for choreographers to be charged with running theatres, but McOnie is a brilliant theatre artist; his 2017 revival of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical version of THE WILD PARTY — that he both directed and choreographed — was one of my favourite shows of that year.
Amongst its stellar cast was Frances Ruffelle, who as it happens I saw tonight at 54 Below, reprising FRANKIE & BEAUSY, a delightfully eclectic, occasionally eccentric cabaret that she has created with her partner Norman Bowman. Demonstrating real rapport, warmth and affection, they are a joy and a constantly playful surprise.
SATURDAY NOVEMBER 11
This week in New York I’ve been to two press previews of musicals that open officially next week: on Thursday I saw HARMONY, ahead of its opening on Monday.
And today I caught SPAMALOT ahead of its opening on Thursday. My commentary on both will therefore have to wait till next week’s newsletter; but it’s interesting to note that SPAMALOT Is back on Broadway less than a decade and a half since its original production closed there, whereas HARMONY has taken its creators — composer Barry Manilow and his long-time librettist/lyricist partner Bruce Sussman — the best part of a quarter of a century to finally get it to Broadway, via various out-of-town try-outs and a previously aborted intended production.
SUNDAY NOVEMBER 12
As ever, I left New York yesterday with a wish-list of shows I wished I’d had the time to catch — or see again — but I ran out of time. The new Alicia Keys musical HELL’S KITCHEN, currently previewing at the Public, is one of them, but hopefully it will have a further life.
Ditto David Adjmi’s new play STEREOPHONIC, currently off-Broadway at Playwrights’ Horizons (pictured above, where it has now been extended to run to December 17).
I’m also sorry not to have had the chance to revisit HERE LIES LOVE, the immersive musical that this week announced it will be shutting on November 26.
SHOWS AHEAD IN LONDON, SELECTED REGIONAL THEATRES AND ON BROADWAY
My regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here: https://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-november-13-2023/
I will be here again next Monday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/, as well as Instagram with the same handle (@ShentonStage).