Archive for the Indie Theatre Category

Why the World Needs More John Housemans

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians with tags , , , , , on September 22, 2016 by travsd

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 Today is the birthday of that great theatrical man John Houseman (1902-1988). We’ve already done a biographical post on him (read that here), and we’ve done one on his late career television show The Paper Chase (read about it here).

Earlier this year I chanced to read the first volume of his three part memoir, Run Through, which he wrote in the 1970s. I found the book both inspirational and consoling. How heartening it is to know that, even for the greatest theatrical geniuses of the age, working on these now legendary productions, life was still feast-or-famine, precarious, on top of the world one minute, broke as a hobo the next, always surfing the miserable yet exhilarating metaphysical tsunami of risk — risking your reputation, your very SELF, repeatedly on the altar of the public’s approval. When looked at this way, is there any doubt that the theatre begins NOT with storytelling, but with human sacrifice? At the volcano’s mouth, at the stake, in the coliseum? It’s not just “putting on a show” — it’s KILLING yourself to put on a show, trying to make something important that will make a memorable impression on the audience, will make some kind of alchemical change in their heads. What a rush. Clearly he felt the same way, although perhaps to a less pathological degree than his partner Orson Welles. 

My other take away from this book is how badly the theatre needs more Housemans. Indie theater in particular has more than its share of wanna-be Welleses. Everyone can’t play the coddled genius in this life; someone has to pay the baby food bills. Much rarer and arguably more necessary than aspiring geniuses are willing, hard working business managers. The elephant in the room when discussing Welles, yet rarely brought up, is the fact that the “charmed” phase of his career ended when he alienated Houseman. With Houseman out of the picture, Welles’ life became a struggle instead of the cakewalk it had always been until that point.

Houseman spent his young adulthood toiling behind desks in a series of responsible positions which even he found dreary (he traded grain until the stock market crash). But it taught him worldly skills and discipline. What made Houseman even rarer, of course, was that he was such a highly cultured businessman. In fact most people today think of him primarily as an actor. He was also an accomplished writer, dramaturg and director in addition to being a producer, and was well cultivated in ALL of the arts. Thus, when it was his task to raise money for a project, he was a full creative partner and collaborator. He was necessary to the art; he wasn’t just a bean-counter in some compartmentalized department (as I’ve often witnessed in larger arts organizations). He knew whereof he spoke. Thus I say and say again:  The best thing that could happen to the arts in this country would be to start churning out far fewer Wellses, and many more Housemans. WAH! I WANT MY HOUSEMAN!

Tammy Faye Starlite is Back (and My Rave About Her is Up)

Posted in Art Stars, Comedy, Contemporary Variety, Crackers, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Singing Comediennes with tags , , , , , , on September 21, 2016 by travsd

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I caught opening night of Tammy Faye Starlite in Holy War 2016 at Pangea and it was every bit as dazzling as I knew it would be. Read my rave here in Chelsea Nowhttp://chelseanow.com/2016/09/the-transcendent-tension-of-tammy-faye-starlite/

Don’t Bother With “The Black Crook”

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , on September 20, 2016 by travsd

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We expressed no little excitement here and here regarding the advent of a show calling itself The Black Crook at the Abrons Arts Center. Marketing materials strongly implied a revival, or revival of sorts, of the seminal production, long regarded as the Ur-show of American musical theatre. And by “implied”, I mean “used the word ‘revive'”.

But that’s not what it is. And now that I read the description more closely, I see that (as one does) I saw what I wanted to see in their p.r. materials: “With new text [and] new songs…a team of only eight actor/ musician/ dancers will perform the full 1866 musical and bring the biggest of all American spectacles into the tiniest of spaces.” This comes much nearer the truth than what I thought I was in for, but still won’t bear fact checking. It does indeed have new text and music, and only eight performers, but they scarcely do any of the rest of what that sentence promises.

I am sorry to report that the production is sort of an ANTI-Black Crook, an avant-garde theatrework that makes a stylistic choice to MOCK The Black Crook, its melodrama and its ballets. Such fragments from the original five and a hour show as they present or re-create drip with oleaginous attitudinizing, lack of conviction, and smarmy superiority. The relationship between this version and the original may be conjectured as roughly equivalent to that between The Beggars Opera and the Threepenny, but in this case with no apparent ideological motivation. It is merely, frankly, fucked with. A dubious honor for a 150th anniversary, but so be it. Such fragments of the original text as we get are wedged between an original “meta” story about the creation of the original show, with the small cast doubling as the author, producers, etc. Little effort is made to differentiate the two realities. In both planes, the actors wear the same clothes, act in the same style, move on the same set. Thus the two worlds bleed together, making what is already an irritating ordeal into a confusing one.

As for the “spectacle”? The first music doesn’t appear until 50 minutes into the show; the first song appears after that. Only a couple of songs are from the original show. And the principal thing we associate with The Black Crook…the ballet chorus? Well, the dancing is done by this cast of eight. Four of them are female. We have gotten very far away from both the spirit and the body of The Black Crook at this stage.

Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the real thing. The original show, as we said, was five and a half hours long and featured a cast of dozens. I expected a truncation, and certainly some scholarly substitution of missing material. The backstory idea I find tedious and commonplace, but if you must do it, I find myself offended by its self-conscious, apologetic approach about the very notion of how 19th century theatre was practiced. This is a self-hating production of The Black Crook if ever there was one, far more about the director’s apparently high self-regard than service to the play, the theatre, or the audience. Unfortunately, I’m not interested in how much smarter Mr. Joshua William Gelb is than the material he took the trouble to excavate. I am interested in the material itself.

There are positive things to say. The cast are extraordinarily talented, however warped and misused their gifts are in the service of this production. In addition to their polished, animated acting, most of them are highly skilled musicians, which is most impressive. One of the songs I heard was exquisitely beautiful. And the costumes, by Normandy Sherwood, are gorgeous. They are the best thing about the production, which is quite a statement to have to make.

I confess I left (at a sprint) during intermission. I would have left about five minutes into the show, once I knew what I’d let myself in for, but there was no way for me to gracefully slip out without causing a ruckus. But I find it inconceivable that the second act would somehow redeem the show, given the choices I suffered through in the first act. If you’re bursting with curiosity about The Black Crook, this is not the show to see. But if you must, you must. Do it here, but don’t let me know about it.

For Talk Like a Pirate Day: Trav S.D.’s “Sea of Love”

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, ME, My Shows, Summer Solstice/ Mermaid Parade with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2016 by travsd

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All things considered we give our plays short shrift here (and elsewhere,I think) and one of our New Year’s resolutions is to make amends by plugging them aggressively. The best way to make your New Year’s resolution come true is to get to work on it several months early.

Fortunately, we have a handy “way in” to talk about one of my plays today, it being INTERNATIONAL TALK LIKE A PIRATE DAY and all. Trav S.D.’s Sea of Love is basically an extended “talk like a pirate” nautical riff, structured as a series of crashing ocean waves. It has had many lives.

It began as a two-hander about a couple on a date, which I began developing as a student at Trinity Rep Conservatory in 1987. It begins with the galling premise of a prudish young man rebuffing the scary advances of a highly open and sexual female co-worker whose trippy monologue provided its original title, Love Embrace at 50 Fathoms. It was a Gilligan and Ginger scenario, if you will.

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A couple of years later (1989) I attended the Coney Island Mermaid Parade for the first time, and that inspired me to take the play where it eventually went, an over the top fantasy scenario, where the date is first invaded by the young man’s equally sexual and forward mother “Mrs. Paul”, and then the ghost of his pirate father “Long John”. This version was produced at the now defunct Vortex Theatre, and featured my good friend Sarah McCord Williams as “Gidget” and her then-boyfriend Brian Price as the hero “Bildad”. Coney Island performer Sailorman Jack opened the show with a set of sea chanteys.

In the early ’90s I directed yet another version at the old Village Gate, which is now Le Poisson Rouge. I think at this stage I had the effrontery to call it Wet Dreams, which is gross, but actually fits the theme.

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Tony Millionaire designed the postcard for the 2002 edition

Then in 2002 came what I consider the definitive version of Sea of Love, at the Ohio Theatre’s Ice Factory Festival. For this one, I pulled out all the stops. I introduced a dance chorus number, choreographed by the one and only Julie Atlas Muz, and featuring several key burlesque dancers as the “Naughty Nereids”, including the legendary Bambi the Mermaid (THE Coney Island Mermaid Parade Mermaid), Kate Valentine (a.k.a Mistress Astrid), Lin Gathright (a.k.a. Miss Bunny Love) and others. The lovely Moira Stone sang my song “Love of the Ocean” for a curtain raiser.

Stone (right), with Sarah Jane Bunker, who played Gidget, backstage at the Ohio

Stone (right), with Sarah Jane Bunker, who played Gidget, backstage at the Ohio

And I added another wave of craziness in the person of the Great God Poseidon, played by Robert Pinnock wearing nothing but a thong and a green afro wig. Jeff Lewonczyk played Bildad’s mother Mrs. Paul (in drag, natch), and Bildad was to be played by the multi-talented writer-comedian (and former Fox commentator) John Devore. 

I was extremely jazzed to play the part of the pirate — in fact, that was kind of the whole point (see the publicity photo at top). But just before opening night Devore suffered a tragic death in the family, and (as I have had to do so often in the past), I had to understudy for him, re-envisioning the pirate by having Adam Swiderski and Dan Maccarone play the body (at different shows), with Pinnock supplying the voice offstage through a microphone. Then we closed out the show by having the entire cast sing the Donovan song “Atlantis”.

As too often happens when I write/direct/produce/ and star in something, little (sometimes major) things fall through the cracks. All too often it has happened that I forgot to arrange for photographs of the production! Thus there is no photographic record of this  show. I have video of it, but it’s kind of rough (at least my copy is), and so I really only have memories.

And then there was additional life. In 2007 we did a commemorative reading of the play at Coney Island USA, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the parade.

And then that terrific resource Indie Theater Now made it available to purchase! It’s yours to peruse and (hopefully) produce at this link:

http://www.indietheaternow.com/Play/sea-of-love

“How to be an American” at the York

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags , , , , on September 17, 2016 by travsd

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This Weekend: “The Black Crook”

Posted in AMERICANA, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Broadway, Burlesk, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on September 16, 2016 by travsd

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In 1866 (150 years ago), a show called The Black Crook opened at Niblo’s Garden that has been credited with everything from being the first musical comedy, to having been the Cradle of Burlesque (the dance elements were actually closer to what we think of as ballet). The Black Crook was thus a kind of American theatrical Garden of Eden. As you can guess, I am a LITTLE excited about the fact that a version is being revived at the Abron’s Arts Center, not so very far from its original production. Previews start tomorrow night; opening night is Monday. And I will be there with bells on. Look for our review here next week. Tickets and more info are here: http://www.theblackcrook.com/

The Overshare Cabaret

Posted in Comedy, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, PLUGS, Singers, Singing Comediennes with tags , , , on September 9, 2016 by travsd

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It may be as long as ten years ago since I last saw my old friend Mel Delancey on stage. Let’s just say that it was long enough ago that she was still in an improv troupe with her (now ex) husband and their headline act was John Oliver — try and book him nowadays, anybody I know! And I won’t “age” us both by revealing how far we go back, although I can divulge that it was in Ian W. Hill’s adaptation of Ed Wood’s The Violent Years, I believe. Mel and I even had a “making out” scene, although I never actually touched her face, for fear that I would smear my pencil-thin mustache. Anyway, in the years since then, she’s gotten divorced, and gone on 150 failed Tinder dates, which she made a show about and was reported in this NY Post article last year.

Thanks for taking this last night, whoever took this!

Thanks for taking this last night, whoever took this!

After months of good intentions, I finally got over to see her Overshare Cabaret at 13th Street Rep last night, and had a capital time. It is exactly what the name suggests: a cabaret-style variety show, with occasional forays into the embarrassing — usually the sexually embarrassing. It dances around the boundaries in a playful way, but I will say that you’re mighty square indeed if her envelope-pushing is too much for you (although she definitely pushes it).

One thing I particularly love about the show is its raw informality. It is precisely my preferred aesthetic, relaxed, inclusive, friendly and almost family like, and with almost no line at all between the stage and the audience.  My bete noir is technology in the theatre, and I especially hate microphones and amplifiers which to my mind separate performers from audience in an intrusive way. In Mel’s show, performers are unplugged and lettin’ it all hang out, right over there. Things they are not: perfect, artificial, soulless, song production superhuman gymnasts. Things they are: funny, charming, lovable, accessible, natural.

Last night’s theme was “Shame and Scandal” and was co-hosted by Amy Overman, who sort of played Ed McMahon to Mel’s Johnny (now I’m definitely dating myself), and also drank real or pretend vodka by the tumblerful, and recited Edna St. Vincent Millay poems. The show opened on a strong note with Mel’s rewritten version of “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks (the jist of which can be gleaned from the fact that the recurring verse-ending word “follow” is here replaced with “swallow”). Other treats included our own Bob Laine, doing a crazy acid fueled monologue. I’d heard that he used to do these monologues years ago, but in all this time I’d never heard one. It did not disappoint, as it was hilarious, crazy and profound in its way all at the same time. We got to meet Mel’s sister Jennifer Delancey who also sang on the bill…aas well aas her old high school friend “Goobs”, who sang “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” by The Mr. T. Experience...the HIGHLY entertaining Evelyn Sullivan pulled off (pulled out?) the evening’s most polished all around performance in a turn that included great patter, vocals, comic chops, and (miraculously) male full frontal…Katelyn Bailey sang Gilda Radner’s “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals”…Bryanna Tyson and Peter Graham sang Kander and Ebb’s “Money” from Cabaret …and the whole cast sang Cole Porter’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”. This was just some of it.

They’re doing it again tomorrow (September 10) and the show returns in new editions with new casts every month. To stay in the Mel Delancey loop, go here.

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