Archive for musical

Brilliant Moments in the WOODS

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, REVIEWS, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2014 by erikball123

My favorite line in INTO THE WOODS has always been the Witch’s “I was just trying to be a good mother.” It’s widely received (on the stage anyway) as a laugh line to transition a moment. But in Rob Marshall’s version of this story, it’s a poignant, remarkable bookmark that made me almost tear up sitting in the Red Rock Regal Cinema. You see, everyone LOVES Sondheim. (And if you’re a theatre person and don’t…we’ll stone you to death.) But, the thing is…WHY do people love Sondheim? As a patron, is it his release from formulaic musical convention? As an artist, is it the challenge of skillfully crafted material? As a young actor, is it the blood, bad buys and nuances that are so much fun to love of hate? I think the answer is YES on all accounts. But, I would ask you to look past all of this for one moment…and look at the relationship between WORDS and MUSIC.

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Bernadette Peters (the Original Broadway WITCH) rehearses with Stephen Sondheim.

 

I’ve argued with anyone who has ears that Stephen Sondheim is a poet. The words he uses in his songs are cleverly and perfectly set to the moment. High schools across the country have presented INTO THE WOODS…heck, there is even a Tumblr site dedicated to low-budget Milky Whites, that I find most amusing. (https://www.tumblr.com/search/lowbudgetmilkywhites) From a producer’s perspective, INTO THE WOODS has a wonderfully twisted ensemble with parts for skilled vocalists, up-and-growing “green” performers, and optional ensemble parts. It has little dance (which is always a concern for drama groups) and costuming, set and prop elements can be as simple and complex as you’d like. The only tricky element is the source material, which in turn bookmarks this musical as a perfect example for those theatre groups hoping to engage students in lessons about simply telling a good story. (And for those who have a hand for creating transportive theatre, the show is a wealth of opportunity.)

Rehearsal for Faith Lutheran's INTO THE WOODS (2005). Andrew Eddins and Cash Black portrayed the tormented Princes. (Please Note: Kelly Odor and several lunch tables are in the background!)

Rehearsal for Faith Lutheran’s INTO THE WOODS (2005). Andrew Eddins and Cash Black portrayed the tormented Princes. (Please Note: Kelly Odor and several lunch tables are in the background!)

I’ve seen about a dozen live INTO THE WOODS productions. (Including one I directed in a high school gymnasium.) I’ve seen wild variations. One included a minimalist production told in an aristocratic living room during a thunder storm, as each high-society snob acted out the parts in turn “making up the story” as they went along. Interesting. I’ve seen video projections, puppetry, one told inside a closed book store and even one production where the Witch transformed from beautiful to ugly (instead of the other way around) and they played it off that the Witch preferred it that way. Hm. I’m sure there was an intended creative choice there and an accompanying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” message they were trying to send (much in the same light as Violet’s invisible scar, in Violet – The Musical, maybe??) Lots of fun to be had with characters we all know already…which is why I think directors feel magically compelled to “reinvent the wheel” (as snobby critics say) in their artistic vision of this particular musical. (Which is why it is so often regarded as a “good musical to produce.”)

The Central Park INTO THE WOODS.

The Central Park INTO THE WOODS.

 

The Original Broadway cast was superb…I show the filmed production to my classes…and it served as a springboard for Bernadette Peters to be cast in platinum as the production’s “forever Witch.” (Much in the same way that we’ll compare everyone who plays Elphaba to Idina.) The Broadway Revival, which started out in L.A. and featured a GIGANTIC giant foot that stomped on patrons waiting outside when it transferred to New York was wonderfully bland. I blame Vanessa Williams as unconnectable Witch, but that’s just me. (Loved her in Ugly Betty!) The British version wasn’t really well-received and included the new song “Our Little World.” (I can take it or leave it. I usually disregard it. The show is long anyway. Do we really need to lament more on the Witch and Rapunzel’s relationship and combing her hair?)  The Central Park, free admission production offered about 4 years ago was untraditional and offered a creepy Witch, a jungle-gym of a set and a Little Red in a bicycle helmet! I can hardly wait to see the Roundabout Theatre variation that is slated to head to Broadway very soon. (I’m ga ga over the piano concept in their minimalist design. Wackadoodle!)

Roundabout Theatre's INTO THE WOODS.

Roundabout Theatre’s INTO THE WOODS.

INTO THE WOODS is everywhere, which was why I went into the theatre today curious. I was pleasantly surprised at Marshall’s “CHICAGO” and I liked…not loved…liked, Burton’s “SWEENEY TODD.” What was going to become of another one of my favorites, and arguably a more often produced musical (moreso than CHICAGO and SWEENEY TOOD) at a high school level. I’m always worried how the non-theatre-going demographic is exposed to theatre in general. Live theatre is the most essential storytelling device we have in the world today. Music is the only thing we as a culture universally share as a binding agent. (We all love music.) Put the two together…and we have the opportunity to move mountains. As a director, I have the privilege (and burden) of shaping a production in the manner in which I hope to offer it up to an audience (full of the most critical theatre-loving critics and first-time theatre goers). When you take a musical that already means so much to you, personally…and redevelop it as a movie…the opportunity to loose integrity is great. (I would argue that the elimination of the chorus of pie-eating patrons in the Sweeney movie made the London masses, a collective character and important voice in the story, made the movie more about a monster of man…instead of the fact that we all might have a little bit of a monster inside of us. “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” How do we know to think about that, if we don’t have a collective voice telling us? But, I digress.)

The cast of Rob Marshall's movie version of INTO THE WOODS.

The cast of Rob Marshall’s movie version of INTO THE WOODS.

The Rob Marshall INTO THE WOODS is quite possibly the best theatre to film adaption I’ve ever seen. It’s a wonderful story, presented thoughtfully without any loss of integrity. Those who love the musical will love the movie. Those who have never seen the musical will not miss out on any “inside jokes” or thematic elements potentially lost int he translation. There aren’t any. It tricks you. It’s not a movie-musical….it’s a musical-movie. On three different occasions I burst into a round of applause after a musical number, forgetting that this was a movie, not a musical. It nips and tucks in all the right places, and while I’ve been hearing a drone of “I wish the song NO MORE was included” among my theatre friends, I would argue it was not needed. The handling of the Mysterious Man was well-done, and the elimination of the physical Narrator (replaced wisely by the voice of the Baker, foreshadowing the tear-jerking final moment…which was BEAUTIFUL) made the song a bit redundant. They covered what they needed to cover…and good news!…you can still sing that song in the musical! Other missing musical elements are minimal, but as you’ll note, they were all connected to theatrical devices within the story that were eliminated in the movie. Nip tuck, nip tuck. (It’s a movie…without an intermission.)

What struck me as the most profound choices in the film were the choices. Allow me to highlight a few. *SPOILER ALERT*

  • The fact that there wasn’t a single title or credit at the beginning of the movie…brilliant. Immediately it plunked us down into this world. Before we could blink an eye…we were 20 minutes into the film and all of the exposition was laid out for us and we were actively engaged.
  • The contemplative “On the Steps of the Palace” was whimsical and perfectly staged as a moment in time. How often have we scrambled our brains to make a decision in a heartbeat…millions of times throughout a day? How wonderfully theatrical of our director to present this song in such a way, and deconstruct the moment that we all know as a simple act of leaving a shoe behind. Fun stuff.
  • The Princes’ song “Agony” (a borderline stereotype portrayal of the rugged and babyfaced Princes we all know from their respective stories) found two very likable characters temper-tantruming through splashy waters as they gaze upon their kingdom. It was thoughtful, well-filmed and hilarious. You INSTANTLY championed these two devise characters.
  • There is a danger in putting Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Who doesn’t love Johnny Depp? Those not familiar with the show may be heart-broken to only see him for ten minutes of screen time and catching stills from the set prior to watching the movie made me nervous. In performance, traditionally the Wolf is either portrayed as a personification of the age-old lesson of “don’t talk to strangers” or as a evil man of some kind, because all men are dogs…or, rather, wolves. The publicity photos saw Depp as a sort of Zoot Suit wearing gigalo. (Aside from the addition of some fun fur…Depp kinda looks like he was taken right off the street in his usual wears and onto the movie set!) I was pleased to see that HOW Depp portrayed the Wolf. It was very wolf-like…darting between trees to catch a glimpse, his trademark sneer when offering a sprig of flowers to the girl….it was VERY fun. I didn’t care how he was dressed…all I cared about was the fact that Depp was “the wolf” and how it was related was acceptable to me. Sometimes I wonder if I analyze stuff too much. HA!

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  • The kids were GREAT. Daniel Huddlestone as Jack and Lilla Crawford as Little Red were perfect fits. (I would have loved a bit more snarkiness from Red…but, I’m being picky.) Emily Blunt is a superstar as the Baker’s Wife. James Cordon is adorable and sympathetic as the Baker. Everybody loves Pitch Perfect’s Anna Kendrick IN Pitch Perfect. They were quick to critique her in this film…but I would argue that she gave Cinderella the exact amount of torment. I was initially worried that she’d be too contemporary, but she was wonderful in the role. Tracy Ullman, Chris Pine….shoot, the entire cast was simply well-suited for their roles. Is there an award for CASTING a movie?
  • Now let’s talk about Meryl Streep. Preface: I’m a huge Bernadette Peters fan. I’ve always thought Streep was a great actress, but I never understood the tidal wave of hype about her. (In the same breathe…what’s up with the torrent love affair with with Barbara Streisand? I like her…but I don’t get the obsession. Another blog post for another day.) With that said…I cannot imagine another actress who could have played the role better. She sang beautifully and extracted from us the perfect about of sentiment and emotion. We loved her…we hated her…we feared her…and (most importantly) we found ourselves feeling sorry for her. In the song “Children Will Listen” (which is a song that could stand-alone as the show’s landmark) we were transported from the world of many characters’ strife to the inner struggle of a would-be mother and her desperate struggle to connect with her child and shield her from the dangers of the world. It’s beautiful. I LOVED “Last Midnight” for the same reason. I love how I can COUNT ON my students getting pissed off when the Witch disappears at the end of the Broadway version. “Did she die?” they ask. Maybe…maybe not. She’s definitely gone. They HATE unresolved. (Remind me to never read them the folk tale “The Lady and the Tiger.”) The Witch is at the center of this story…and Streep connects in every right way. (And I love the blue hair.)

I’m thrilled that another generation of could-be theatre goers will be exposed to this movie variation. It tells a great story and more importantly it relates (through WORDS and MUSIC) that truly no one is alone in their pursuit to communicate, be needed, protect and survive tragedy together. It’s a bedtime story and when the Baker is telling the tale to his son in the final moments…and the camera peels away…you desperately want to remain, a part of the audience. But no…our director takes us out of that world…and then for the first time presents the title: “INTO THE WOODS” reminding us it’s just a story. Wow. Brilliance.

INTO THE WOODS is the story of all of our lives, (whether we’re Bakers, Princes, Witches or Giants) and can effectively remind us that at the end of the day, we’re all going into a world that presents dangers, and only together can we survive and more importantly thrive.

I sit, poised and ready to purchase the Blue Ray upon its release. I have the projector in my classroom warmed up.

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REVIEW: IF/THEN

Posted in REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2014 by erikball123

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IF / THEN

I didn’t know much about IF/THEN, even after the Idina Menzel post-“Let It Go” media blitz at its incarnation. I had tickets to the show, and I purposely didn’t do any research on the show, avoided over-exposure to photos, clips, news, etc. so that my first impression of the story offered a relatively fresh perspective. With big-time names (and expectations, I would argue) comes big-time opinions. I suppose I didn’t want someone else’s opinion to be my own before I even saw it.

Allow me to try to explain the story. And I do mean, “try.” Frankly, I’m not positive I can after just one viewing.

We meet Elizabeth, a 39 year old transfer to New York from Arizona who has just divorced her husband and is hoping to surround herself in a new life in the bustling city. She’s driven, determined and pissed that she’s wasted the last 15 or so years of her life.  A pissed off character is one Menzel plays best, I guess….because from the first snarky comment, which was indeed funny, the entire theatre exploded in laughter, wrapping Menzel in a welcoming embrace. Have you ever heard a fashion designer say that the model “isn’t wearing the dress” but rather the “dress is wearing the model?” Well, it’s something like that. The story doesn’t feature Idina Menzel….it’s “Idina Menzel” who happens to be doing a show for us tonight. (Make sense?)

Anyway…back to the story. She meets up an old college friend Lucas a bi-sexual one-man army of a zoning and housing activist and outspoken terrier of a man. (Played by Anthony Rapp originally..but he went in for emergency knee surgery the night before. I’m sure there is a “break a leg” joke here somewhere….but I’ll spare you. So we got the understudy Curtis Holbrook who was very good in the role.) Elizabeth befriends Kate, an outspoken, lesbian, kindergarten teacher who lives across the hall (played by Tony winner LaChanze who is the most likable character in the whole show. Perhaps it’s because she the only one I could ever realistically seeing myself having a conversation with, should this truly be a real world.)

Once we establish the basis for these relationships in the exposition, we are introduced to the first in a multitude of “shifts” from one reality to another. Elizabeth is asked to go to a protest with Lucas (who calls her “Beth” because it’s a more sensible name), but she kinda wants to go to an impromptu street concert with her new, crazy buddy (who calls her “Liz” because every sexy, driven New Yorker would be a “Liz” not a “Beth.) Add the addition of a pair of hipster glasses to the “Liz” character and you can see how this whole concept is going to work….flip-flopping the story back and forth, in and out of “Liz” and “Beth’s” worlds, like some grown-up, contemporary Choose Your Own Adventure novel, alternating between what IS and what COULD’VE BEEN. (Although we’re never privy to what reality is the true one. A bummer of a detail that I thought for sure would flesh out in the end…and, unless I missed it, never did.)

The two plots unfold (neither taking a back seat to the other, there is no secondary-plot…so it demands a LOT of the audience’s attention. It’s like watching two mini-series play out by the same actors at the same time.) Liz/Beth meets Josh by chance (or not by chance?) and the one story line finds her marrying, having children and accepting a reasonable but expected outcome to what one might deem a considerate life.  The other story finds her thwarting the tug of her heart….choosing to invest in her career as a city planner (with the help of another old college friend who leverages her into a position of authority, whom she’s attracted to. But of course he’s married.) Twists, turns, complications and decisions that come home to roost all flesh out in front of us while Menzel snaps in and out of the opposing “Liz” and “Beth” storylines. I have to admit…I gave this whole musical my undivided attention, and I was a bit confused at parts. By the time my brain caught up (“oh, this is the ‘Beth’ storyline now”) it was halfway thought he scene and I was having to reorganize myself to regain the information that I had lost while in limbo.

You see, that’s the thing…the story is not a bad one. It’s a strong concept…with equally strong performers who communicate in clever ways. (The book is clever and crisp.) There are three problems with the show:

  • PROBLEM #1: There is not a single song I can put in my pocket and take with me. (And strangely enough…the musical numbers are NOT listed in the playbill. Very odd.) The music is empowering and drives us from moment to moment flawlessly….there’s barely a seam or break to even take an extra breath in the whole show. (And on a funny side note…I was like “dang this sounds like ‘Next to Normal’” before knowing it with the composer and lyricist to “Next to Normal.”) But, unlike NEXT TO NORMAL, it doesn’t bind the story together, like some recognizable hard-cover book that we’ll be able to find on the shelf later. It’s presented and serves the story like long, laborious footnotes on the bottom of every page of this story.
  • PROBLEM #2: The central character (our supposed “hero”) is carved out of sharp marble, with little finesse. Menzel is brilliant with a very distinct personality and voice, that’s why we love her. But, I felt that at every turn, and in every intention, I was hit on the head with the Idina Menzel rubber mallet and “gently” reminded…*BONK*….”you AGREE with this.” *BONK*….”you like this.”….*BONK*….”you are upset about this.” As an audience (an engaged part of the action, but traditionally as a voyeur) I don’t like being pigeon-holed, especially when the show impresses demands upon you. Perhaps they should have employed a device that would give the audience the choice to see what story line they want to see next? (Like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.) It’s a gimmick…for sure…but they applied all the demand on the audience without relinquishing any of the creative control. That’s not risk in my book. I felt held hostage at times.

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  • PROBLEM #3: I’m not sure this show would be as well-received if it lost one of two (or both!) things:
    •  If Idina Menzel left the show…would people still feel passionate about this Elizabeth character? I doubt it…the character seems to be written to portray the actress herself (down to her barefooted moments, which we all know is Menzel’s “thing.”)
    • If it played anywhere else but New York, I don’t think the setting would be welcomed in the same way. I wouldn’t say it’s a love letter to New York, as it sure does call to attention ALL the problem with development in the city, but it beckons you to relate to New York “stuff” at EVERY TURN. (And I mean every turn, poking fun at subway woes, rival cities, sports teams, etc.) I wonder if plays in Las Vegas, for instance, if anyone would care about such things.

With that said…I cannot express how beautiful the show looks. The set design by Mark Wendland successfully creates other worlds in unique ways with a poise and gloss like an upper west side, art deco coffee table. Of this, most impressive is a giant, tipping mirror that reflects the shiny floor. (It sometimes giving us a fun bird’s eye view, sometimes reflecting lights in the floor creating “stars”…even a roadmap of New York, etched out in LEDs on the floor makes for a fun moment.) The turntable set, multi-functional boxes and chairs offer up many locations in New York. (I stopped counting how many scenes we visited after I reached a dozen.) The staging is gorgeous and fluid. The choreography is contemporary and at some points takes itself SO seriously, that it comes across as a bit pretentious, and not “from the heart” as I think they were going for.

The play touches on every relevant buzz topic of today. You may find that hilarious and personal (catching on thorns lodged firmly in your own personal paws) or you may find that really annoying. It depends on your view….but one thing I admired about the show is that the message and it’s champion makes a very loud noise and does so in a practically perfect way. There is no doubt that there is no one in the whole world like Idina Menzel. The one “major tragedy” the authors enlisted…we saw coming a mile away.

The story has tremendous arch and both realities tied things up very neatly in the end…and again, I would have loved to find out which reality was the TRUE reality. (Or maybe they  didn’t want us to know?)

I wonder IF my opinion of this show would have been different, had I read up on the plot structures, reviews and anticipated the production value more? I didn’t take that path….so, I guess we’ll never know.

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REVIEW: Rocky – The Musical

Posted in REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2014 by erikball123

*NOTE: These are just a few thoughts from a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic. 

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ROCKY – THE MUSICAL

 

After watching ROCKY-THE MUSICAL, I felt like I truly went 15 rounds with Apollo Creed. I was exhausted, tense, and a bit overwhelmed. Mostly in very good ways. Mostly.

But, I cannot express enough, that where this musical made unbelievable strides as a theatrical spectacle and as an offering of a beloved brand that millions love (Rocky is undoubtable the true underdog story of the ages) I cannot help but wonder if it would be less of a spectacle and more of an impactful wonder if it had been reworked for the stage as a simple play.

The story (as if you don’t know. If you haven’t seen the movie, shame on you. It’s a cinematic masterpiece as the making of the film was an underdog story in itself) finds Rocky Balboa, a beat-up, boxer with a heart of gold. We get a quick shot of who his is with the charming and fun “My Nose Ain’t Broken” in the close confines of his seedy apartment (complete with Cuff and Link his two turtles…who got their own bronx-cheer when introduced. Fun!)

He’s in love with pet store worker Adrienne who is Pauly’s (Rocky’s friend) sister. We find that she’s got a lot in common with her admirer (and Margo Seibert is wonderful as the shy Adrienne) but her ballad “Raining” is very heavy-handed for an exposition song. We don’t know her quite yet…and we have yet to see the quirky charm that is our hero’s love…before hearing a draggy lament about her strife. I don’t know…maybe I’m being too harsh…but I thought “okay, I get it” at least twice during the song.

Rocky is facing hard times, boxing for pennies, barely making ends meat and even acting as a part-time “ruffian,” collecting debts in a shady side-job. (Of course, he’s too good of a guy to actually break thumbs or rough people up.) What is brilliant about this iconic character is how Andy Karl brings him to life without giving us a Stallone impersonation. Many actors turn in stellar performances…but Karl is simply a genius as the down-and-out boxer.  Simple gesturing and unbelievably grounded attention to details throughout are engaging. You find yourself laughing when he laughs, breathing heavier when he runs, and you almost feels the blows he takes in every match. Rarely do I see such touching portrayals…and the fact that he didn’t get the Tony for the role is a crime. (If you struck ALL of the razzamatazz and the technical amusement park that is the set….more on that later….and left Andy Karl onstage all by himself….I would still pay full price.)

Back to the story. Close-up on Apollo Creed, the story’s immediate antagonist and the Heavyweight Boxing Champion. He’s a flashy and rich mover and shaker, who is just as much a promoter as he is an athlete. He doesn’t have a championship match for New Year’s Day because his opponent breaks his wrist in training. So, insert the Italian Stallion, who is perceived by Creed as the perfect “American Dream” promotion opportunity. Think of the publicity! Terence Archie (who plays Creed) is a stoic, chiseled bad guy. He’s as poised and scripted as a WWE wrestler and is so much fun to watch. His number “Patriotic” is fun. Too bad that this is truly his only musical vehicle in the show.

While Creed thinks about the theatrics of the boxing match….Rocky is busy trying to woo Adrianne, make “good” decisions, and train for this once in a lifetime opportunity. Of course we have grizzly Mickey, the curmudgeon boxing gym owner who winds up training Rocky…but this character never really gets a fair shot. TV and movie character actor, Dakin Matthews is SO GOOD in everything he does…but in this, I thought, “eh.” (And frankly….I a little upset that I didn’t hear my favorite Mikey line “you’re gonna eat lightning, and you’re gonna crap thunder!”) And his lone musical moment “In the Ring” is disinteresting and long.

Now lets talk about the technical wonder that is ROCKY. The Winter Garden Theatre has been turned into a playground of discovery, and at EVERY single turn of this show, we are wowed with giant, towering set pieces that fly-in, fly-out, transform before our eyes, and offer giant visuals that will remain with you for a long time. The boxing ring itself is flown in and out, tipped sideways and serves as a movie screen and provides breath-taking, symbolic subtext opportunities. The meat locker where Pauly works consists of rows of GIANT slabs of beef in a cooler that drop from the ceiling on giant meat hooks. So cool! It created an audible gasp from the audience.

The lighting design is unreal, and the projections are taken to an interactive level that is pure genius, and makes the iconic movie moments such as Rocky’s training montages or the Philadelphia Museum of Art moment come to life. Details like rain projected on the entire set, carefully digitally generated so as to look like it’s actually hitting the set pieces are WONDERFUL!

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The second act is the real treat however. We eagerly anticipate the big fight…and when it comes time to deliver, the whole room transforms into a giant boxing arena. Ceiling monitors drop and the first 15 rows of the orchestra are redirected to the stage to sit in bleachers behind the ring which rumbles forward and covers the seating area to create a true “theatre in the round” ring-side experience. How they executed the change-over, complete with actors’ entrances, video commentary, and audience participation was something I enjoyed watching as it was choreographed as strategically as the fight scenes. Add some brilliant lighting nuances, and I tell you…I felt like I was at a boxing match. It was unreal.

Of course, the play, our hero and the audience “go the distance” and we all cheer in wild excitement as Rocky screams “ADRIANNE!” at the end of the fight.

You see…the show has the right formula and a willing and able (and I might even say EAGER) audience in waiting. They cast the right people…the spectacle is superb….it’s just the music. (And I hate to say it, because with music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, one might figure “how can you go wrong.”) I think the problem is the same problem I had with Spider-Man….it’s too ballad-y with not enough songs you can tap your toes to.

But, my question is this…should ROCKY be a musical you tap your toes to? I argue that without canceling out ANY of the special effects, technical hoopla and stellar performances, you could make this a theatrical PLAY that would garnish the same type of hype, in my opinion. (I still think WAR HORSE is one of the most amazing spectacles I’ve ever seen and they had musical elements…but I would argue it would suck as a musical.)

I hate to say it…because I love sparkly things….but perhaps the technical elements aren’t needed.

I liked this musical…a lot….but…..what if this story were told….as a beat-up, worn-down, underdog of a story…with underdog set elements…perhaps holding a mirror up to Balboa’s world?

Perhaps that’s why I’m struggling with this one….it’s a BRILLIANT “Rocky” story with a brilliant “Rocky” leading man….but it’s an APOLLO CREED-type of a musical.

Too gussied up.

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REVIEW: Heathers – The Musical

Posted in REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2014 by erikball123

*NOTE: These are merely the thoughts of a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic. 


 

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HEATHERS – THE MUSICAL

Book, music and lyric authors Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe know how to write a musical following a tried and true formula. An opening number like “Beautiful” grabs you by the shirt collar and draws you it….and follow-up numbers like “Candy Store” firmly establishes our antagonists and offers a kick of dark comedy. By the unbelievably catchy “Dead Girl Walking”, halfway through Act One, I found myself thinking…..”CRAP! I think this is a musical I’m going to really like.” Which is weird, because before I even walked into the theatre, I was mulling through my mixed emotions about this late 80’s cult movie turned musical.

HEATHERS, (which is widely recognized as Hollywood vehicles for then-freshman Christian Slater and Wynona Ryder) seems to be perfect fodder for a stage adaption. It offers murder, bullying, love, lust, danger and high school stereotypes, cliques and strife….not necessarily in that order. HEATHERS in the end left me thinking “well…it’s not a PERFECT musical, but it’s not a bad musical either.” I found myself whistling a song in the taxi on the ride back…that speaks to its likability. They’re doing something right.

It’s 1989 and we’re blinded at first glance with the neon world of Veronica Sawyer (played this evening by Charissa Hogeland…a first-rate performer in her own right) who’s life is ritualistic in that it sucks pretty bad. Her and her only friend, Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (another brilliant performer Katie Lander) are routinely picked on, humiliated and for the most part treated as nonentities by the elite, the popular and the more athletic. You know, typical high school stuff. We meet “the Heathers” a waxy trio of Barbie-doll like, big-banged divas who rule the school. (The parallels to the popular Lindsay Lohan MEAN GIRLS movie are uncanny. But remember, HEATHERS came first!) Of course they are terrible to Veronica until she saves them from detention by forging a hall pass launching herself into the Heathers’ world as their handy resource. (Like some sort of dressed-up, decked-out human Trapper Keeper.) She’s all too willing to oblige as she is now respected. Of course her friendship to Martha suffers, because while Veronica dresses up nicely, everyone is always mean to the fat girl.

Enter J.D., played by Christian Slater look-alike Dave Thomas Brown. He’s the black trench coat-wearing, hair-tossing hunk of a bad boy that wrestles with authority, breaks the rules, quotes controversial novels and everything else ideal dreamboats do. Veronica and J.D. wind up together (including a fully-clothed but suggestive sex scene, I’m reminded of Avenue Q. Why?) and seem to be poised to answer each other’s life questions. The problem is Veronica has stepped in to defend the loveable but naive Martha one too many times and now socially banished by the Heathers and nearly everyone in school. What does one do in a black musical comedy when they are wronged? That’s right….kill the accuser. Rather predictable, but we are then turned on our heels when the now-dead Heather soliloquies over the shoulder of Veronica as she forges her suicide note. (A clever devise…and good fun. But, much like the “Dear Diary” narration in the beginning of Act One…is quickly disregarded when the plot device is inconvenient and becomes the show’s “wallpaper”…it’s there in the background…but does anyone really care about wallpaper?)

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At the risk of giving too much away…let’s just say that the plot thickens and becomes more and more dangerous. J.D. slow-burns into a complete enigma and we wonder at the turning point who is the real villain here. We have a new enemy as one of the remaining Heathers steps up to don the “lead Heather” position of authority (by putting on the infamous red scrunchy….a prop that was terribly ill-used, in my opinion. I know it is a staple of the movie…but the authors could have given it more significance or it’s own moment / song…make it a magical scrunchy, or something….but it serves as a mere after thought and doesn’t carry any gravity).

Iconic lines are delivered (and in some cases given their own musical numbers…”My Dead Gay Son” squeezed every drop of funny you could possibly imagine out of a single one-liner) and we reach a cross-roads when J.D. proves to be way more dangerous that Veronica ever imagines.

We watch Veronica struggle with wanting to be good and do what’s right as she discovers that it’s not necessarily the individual that makes a situation “bad”…and by eliminating that “bad” person…one only creates another “bad” situation. Not a “bad” message, actually. But the problem is the show kinda holds us hostage in the second act when the forward momentum should propel us into even further madness, requiring us to demand a sane outcome (much like Veronica.) Unfortunately…and allow me to point out the problem, like every good bully should….the second act is a veritable see-saw of unbelievable poignant moments (like cheerleader Heather’s “Lifeboat” ballad…one of the highlights of the entire show) and big idea moments like secondary character Ms. Fleming’s flashlight clad dance number “Shine a Light” which is very catchy…but completely out of place and leaves you wondering “what was that all about?” (Who really cares about Ms. Fleming? Leave her as a device.)

The momentum of the second act made me tired…as we hiccuped our way to the final moments. The finale seemed to be well-received by the audience…but I still challenge patrons to consider that it seems a tad unlikely that people “return” after being shot and fall to the ground seemingly dead (ala every corny horror movie)….Martha’s failed suicide attempt and follow-up appearance on a motorized hospital scooter garnishes the absolute wrong reaction to this very likable and tortured character…..and am I REALLY supposed to be believe the final bad-girl Heather has turned-around completely simply because it’s the end of the show and she turns to an awkward ensemble member and smiles? Too convenient. (I had the same reaction after Hairspray. Really? The VonTussels are good guys now? Please.) Everything seems rushed, which is too bad, because the ballad-y closing number, “Seventeen” is quite good. (Although the improvised, super long-winded post curtain call dance party onstage was nothing short of awkward. I just stood there, like an out-of-place high school stereotype at a popular girl’s party.

The show wreaks of LEGALLY BLONDE influences and the costuming, while simple and effective (there are hardly ANY costume changes…they wear the same thing the whole show…but we buy into it) is completely ripped off from the movie CLUELESS. The unit set is minimal (and a smart choice) and while the choreography is perfect for each moment….it certainly wasn’t the cleanest dancing I’ve seen. (Someone behind me actually said “you can tell it’s an Off-Broadway show. Ouch.)

In pontificating about the show, my wife said to me, “yeah…but you haven’t seen the movie. If you had, it would make more sense.” But I see that as yet another problem of the stage adaption…you shouldn’t HAVE to see the movie in order to “buy into” every choice. Theatrical momentum should be presented so as to serve the story on its own.

Overall…I enjoyed it. I’ll get the soundtrack. I do predict, however, that one-by-one theatre patrons will start to die off…and pretty soon the show will close. I do think however, it’ll be reborn again and have a brilliant and much sought-after amateur theatre afterlife.

heathers rating

REVIEW: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Posted in REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2014 by erikball123

*NOTE: These are merely thoughts by a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic.


 

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A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

The perfect poison? Add three ounces of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE’S style/grace and two dashes of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s BY JEEVES…shake rigorously until laughing and then add dynamic character actor Jefferson Mays and a whirlwind of costume changes, cheeky sight gags and a story that could be a castaway from a “write your own British murder mystery” contest…and you have one of the most entertaining musicals in a long time: A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER. And it’s potent.

It’s sad that so many musicals are considered “unknown.” Take gems like 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE or the wickedly clever play THE EXPLORER’S CLUB at the Manhattan Theatre Club, that are both very successful and yet aren’t considered proverbial powerhouses in their own right. Shame.

It’s 1909 and we find Lord Montague D’Ysquith Navarro, (a wide-eyed and perfected Bryce Pinkham, who is romantic, perky, and a right stinker! Wonderful portrayal) in prison writing his memoirs, a confession really about the murders he’s recently committed, eight in fact, all his relatives and heirs to become the next Earl of Highhurst. The stage upon a stage (a clever and altogether beautiful esthetic, I took notes for future reference….the devil is in the details!) then unmasks his flashback to when he first discovered his life’s turn-around point at the death of his mother. His D’Ysquith bloodline will surely advance his social and financial status enough to capture the heart of Miss Sibella Halward, surely.  But, as so many musical comedies flesh out, we find a torrid journey ahead of us and a twisted plot as Navarro executes a plan to one-by-one eliminate the descendants, some by “accident” and some with cunning villainy. All with many laughs.

There’s a fall from a dreadful high place, a swarm of bees, a decapitation via barbell, a heart-attack, a poisoning, and one is thought to be eaten by cannibals. All before intermission. We shouldn’t be surprised, the ensemble (in a comedic nod to perhaps Sweeney Todd) warned us that this tale is grim and if we are weak of heart…we should leave. We were warned! The second act begins with a marked suspicion that Navarro is up to something. Without giving away details…I will just say that I fought to try and decide WHO I wanted to root for in Act Two. (Reserving a small part of my rascal of a heart for Navarro…who was SO charming.)

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Of course we flesh out a love triangle, and throughout we meet a menagerie of colorful and sometime caricature-like personalities….lots of musicals have that. That’s not what’s compelling about GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE. What is unlike any murder-mystery comedy I’ve see is simply: Jefferson Mays (who plays all of the D’Ysquith family members, and offers moments with lightning fast costume changes. Surely, there HAD to be doubling…wasn’t there?) It’s part comedy of errors and part magic show. It’s all wonderful! Mays is a captain of this vessel and his and Pinkham’s timing (with all the quirks that make British aristocrats so much fun to impersonate!) are spot on. There was one time that I laughed out loud (one of those annoying “explosion guffaws” that you absolutely hate when people set free) at a time that no one else laughed…and Pinkham was simply reacting to something. It was so funny though! I couldn’t help it. My apologies to the lady sitting in front of me who I scared. (Which, of course elicited even more laughter which I fought hard to suppress.) It’s one of those types of shows….you find what YOU want to find funny…and there is a whirlwind of “funny” to choose from.

Standout numbers include “I Don’t Understand the Poor”, the extraordinarily insinuative “Better With a Man” and “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” and the accompanying spit takes…which the afore-mentioned THE DROWSY CHAPERONE taught us, is always necessary. (Who says musical plot devices aren’t direct descendants of other musicals?)

The comedy is thoughtfully writing with an old-world Agatha Christie charm and an Importance of Being Earnest flare…it makes you pine to be born in that era so in which you didn’t feel so unsophisticated. I drank tea when I got back to my hotel room.

I can see why Tony voters liked this show so much. It’s a relaxing break from the eye-popping mega musicals and teeters on the cusp of Monty Python-like foolishness and laugh-out-loud situational comedy, wrapped tightly in a very very talented ensemble. (Special pops to Eddie Korbich, who is brilliant in EVERYTHING he does.) The show is kinda in a school of it’s own, as it cannot be defined as anything you’ve every seen. The book is well-written and often wafer-thin, so as to see right through it which is well-received at every turn. (Just so long as we’re in on the joke and we KNOW that’s a false mustache on Mays’ lips…then we’re okay.)

The show cannot be truly defined as a murder MYSTERY, as we see nearly every plot device and subtext nuance drop dead before our eyes. There’s nothing mysterious about it. Yet, we root for the heavy veil of plot (woven in dramatic irony) to drop at the characters feet. And when it does…often as a result of Mays unbelievable changing-in and changing-out of characters….we applaud. (And I applaud those backstage changers as well.) The show is matter-of-fact, tongue-in-cheek, and slap-stick all at the same time…and yet I feel somewhat refined after having watched it. It’s weird.

Overall…if you pine to see a killer musical…one with every ingredient that it takes to offer a fun and certainly unique story (with surprises in the ending as well!) then purchase your tickets now. Orchestra…not balcony. The Walter Kerr Theatre has very little leg room in the balcony. My left leg was as dead as Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith halfway through Act One.

gentlemen's review

 

 

 

CABARET – A Review

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2014 by erikball123

*A humble review from a theatre-lover, not necessarily a theatre-reviewer. 


CABARET – Roundabout Theatre Company – STUDIO 54 

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Cabaret first appeared on the Broadway stage in 1967 and solidified Joel Grey as a mega-star on Broadway and many remember the 1972 film version, again starring Grey and Liza Minelli. Several revivals (both in the West End and on Broadway), six in total, have been presented since then…and I must say it remains a musical I widely took for granted. The clicky and grungy Kander and Ebb tunes in the show have always served as resources for other avenues in my theatre walk. (Audition pieces, opening numbers, stand-alone offerings.) I was thrilled to finally see the show at Studio 54, with none other than Alan Cummings (who also won a Tony for the role, and who some say is the definitive Emcee) at the helm. Unfortunately we did not see Michelle Williams play Sally Bowles this evening, but let me say upfront, the understudy Andrea Goss was as bold as a shot of Gin, and as fragile as a mouse. She’s a headliner…not an understudy.

Allow me to set the stage…the atmosphere is intimate, and a grey stage with an extended thrust juts out surrounded by tiny dining tables. A swarm of small red lamps accompany the seating all the way to the back of the house. We see exposed fly rigging on one side…a lump of wooded chairs haphazardly (or maybe hastily) stacked in the side stage right…and above the stage hangs a giant, tarnished frame that leans to one side, like some awkward watch dog tilting it head, hearing something in the distance. All avenues are adorned with old-school marquee lights…some working, some broken. Actors, musicians (or are they riff-raff that wandered in from the alley?) mill around the room and stretch onstage…or warm up their instruments. I especially liked watching the efforts of one boy who gestured and beckoned to someone from the balcony…all efforts were thwarted, of course…but it was fun to watch him never give up, up to the start of the show.

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And what a start. If you’ve never heard the opening number, “Wilkommen” then you are not, nor you should consider yourself to be a “theatre person.” It’s a staple of musical theatre and I was sitting theatre church, pew # 204 in Row EE, and it was the gospel according to the Emcee, Alan Cumming, a magician, whose simple thrusts and cozy jaunt is like watching a friend onstage. He’s so bloody comfortable and poised…always joking and winking, and hiding that mischievous smile that says “I’m the keeper of all things Dramatically Ironic!” He captains this vessel….and steers us, nose-first into a world that we’re uncomfortable with, but desperate to know more about. You feel naughty for laughing at parts, and even more interestingly, you find yourself relating to nearly every curiosity and devilish tactic our host present. The Emcee can been seen in nooks and crannies of the set at every turn, watching with us, the series unfold. His Scooby-Doo disguises as German soldiers and can-can girls are expected and noticeable, not quite the magic trick I think they were going for, but I don’t care. It makes him even more fun…and we listen to every single word he offers….why? Because he never abandons us. He’s our safe place. He’s so influential that if I met Cummings, after the show, on the street and he said “hey you…take this briefcase to Paris for me”….I would.

This story offers us Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer (and somewhat currently-blocked novelist) Cliff Bradshaw, as he checks into a Berlin boarding house and checks out Sally Bowles, “the toast of Mayfair” at a nearby and seedy Cabaret. This is a doomed relationship from the very beginning, but something about the hope and cigarette smoke that lingers in the air offers us an air of mystery, and I find myself magically encouraged to hang on, to see if the illusion of true commitment and formidable buried self-worth will even see the light of day. Through the intimate setting and the up-close dynamics of this gritty world, we see glimpses of the new dawn…the light….but at every turn, we’re kept lingering in the shadows, a voyeur, trapped behind a red, tasseled lamp shade, never able to offer any answers.

That’s the finesse of Cabaret and the reason why Studio 54 is the perfect place for this musical. It makes you part of the action by immersing you into the world. You can see their hearts…hear the clothing rustle…and smell the sweat. (And I was with the poor people in the Mezzanine.)

There is a sub-plot involving a wealthy and elderly Jewish fruit market owner Herr Schultz and the keeper of the rooms, German Fraulein Schneider. (Both Linda Emond and Danny Burstein….especially Burstein, were brilliant and nostalgic, like warm tea.) My wife made fun of me, because even during their romantic and “awww” worthy exchanges / duets, she noticed me checking out a player stage left, pulling the ropes of the never-practical fly rigging, bringing the mirror-ball and “romantic air” out of the scene at the end of the number. That’s what is so special about the show…the attention to detail. The crotch grabs and the nipple rubs are silly and stupid…but part of the moment….it’s the soft lighting that shows the ensemble member wiping their brow….or the strategic placement of Cliff in the audience during a scene that uncomfortably traps several audience members who now have to see things through his eyes…..it’s genius. They don’t even give you playbills at the beginning of the show. They don’t want people rustling through pages. (Which is actually compelling to see an audience HAVE to talk to each other during pre-show!)

I also need to speak on the orchestra…who we all know is also “beautiful!” They are…in sound and sight…and here’s the thing, I know that I’m going to catch grief for this…but it needs to be said. In my travels (and through my experience only) I need to ask musicians who desire to work in the theatre to take note…when a musician dons a character and tells a story through the accompaniment or underscoring…it uplifts the play. When you acknowledge them as characters, or part of the action of the scene….then they are characters. But, I would argue, that the two should ALWAYS be the same. (Whether they are shirtless on Broadway in the Kit Kat Club….or in the darkened orchestra pit, below a stage.) Often times in amateur theatre, the musical accompaniment is offered in a perfunctory way….rote playing what is on the sheet. There is rarely an attention to draw them into the play. And I’m not saying costume them up and put them onstage with the same burdens as the actors. Rather, require of them the same FINESE that the demands of the show require. Broadway employs professional musicians who LIVE and BREATHE their music….their stake is JUST AS REAL as the storytellers onstage. Cabaret was an impressive example of musicians fighting desperately to ensure the era, the desperation and the hope of these characters are absorbed at every turn. Bravo.

Few shows render me quiet. Cab rides are usually filled with endless gibber and / or gabber about how cool the set design was or how that one actor was handed a prop by another in a split-second and “did you see that!!” This show’s forward momentum, bleak but perfectly tempo’d second act…and final moment (which was both clever and shocking) forced me into silence. (Which was the goal, I think.) The management of still-relevant topics like self-worth, tolerance, inner beauty, expression mixed with a history lesson of the rise of the Nazi party as told through a fish-net, thigh-high stocking is the conflict of the show. You want to laugh AND cry….you want to feel sexy AND wronged….you want to let loose AND hide. It’s captivating.

I hear the show is extended through January of next year. Get out and see it, if you can. In this day and age of processed food and too-social social media…allow yourself passage to the Kit Kat Club, where “there are no troubles” and “life is beautiful.”

cabaret rating

 

Auditioning for a Musical in High School

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, DIRECTING FOR THE STAGE, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2011 by erikball123

You have no idea how hard it was for me not to do a High School Musical / We’re All in This Together play on words for the title of this post. I suppose I’m more interested in people being attracted to this post for what is it rather than being attracted to the cleverness of the title….much in the same way I’ll never be able to appreciate the Twilight movies because Kristin Stewart is a strung-out mouth-breather and Robert Pattinson is a jelly-headed monkey with sweaty pits. Anyway….(Sheesh! Where did that reference come from? I gotta stop drinking V-8 before bed!)

I’m going to try to categorize the process of auditioning and give some advise in all areas. My goal here is to effectively prepare students (especially those at Faith Lutheran High School…holla!) for their upcoming musical audition. Faith Lutheran is looking forward to “ALL SHOOK UP” this spring…and next year “LEGALLY BLONDE.”

Needless to say these are two very demanding musicals…but I would argue they are amazingly fun too. I hope in the words that follow you can capture a joy in approaching your audition by gaining some sort of peace of mind. After all…this is supposed to be fun, right? I would like to thank the Music Theatre Guild, Signature Productions and my past theatre professors, as they certainly have all contributed to what I’m about to share.

DIRECTORS

There is a common misconception: directors are a roadblock of sorts in the efforts to successfully win the Nascar race that is an audition. While the process of auditioning is certainly a step in putting a show together, I would argue at a high school level (and when I refer to things at a “high school level” I’m talking about Faith Lutheran specifically. Surely other schools have standards that would support or oppose my comments. I argue that after 12 years of doing this I’ve found the processes I describe to be successful, that is all) the director WANTS a student to succeed. Let me give you two scenarios:

  • A student who has done several shows and regularly enrolls in drama classes…this kid might be considered a “drama kid” (a wonderfully stupid label…all kids are dramatic…like, really! Psh!) and has maybe even earned some leading roles. If this student walks into auditions, most likely the director has worked with them before…or the director at least knows of their work ethic. Don’t you think the director would hold them to a high standard, knowing they want to pursue performing outside of high school? Knowing that they are there to re-prove to all the other kids that they are deserving of the role (a tough speed-bump to approach, believe me)…knowing that even though they’ve had an opportunity to do a leading role before, they are a human being with desires, dreams, goals and hopes (just like the boy or girl who has never received a role.) Sure, there are going to be students who don’t appreciate their gifts….sure there is going to be arrogance….sure there is going to be entitlement issues. But underneath all of that is a human being who WANTS TO DO WELL. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Whether or not they’re re-proving themselves to the parents who don’t pay attention to them….or merely hoping for a lead so they can “finally get something of substance on their resume”…whatever the reason….the director of the approaching drama student WANTS them to succeed. Why? Because it is in the show’s and the student’s best interest.
  • Now take a student who has never done a show before. (Perhaps they’re a senior who has “always wanted to give it a shot”…or a “jock” who finds a studly role in the show appealing to their ego.) Or maybe…just maybe….it’s a student who has auditioned 5 times prior and has never been cast. All types are looking forward to facing a director with glaring eyes, and a strong opinion of them already. Well, I’m going to tell you something…..YOU’RE RIGHT! Those glaring eyes are filled with hope. That strong opinion of the type of person “you are” is about to be challenged by the type of person “you could be.” I promise you (on a stack of Bibles) that the director WANTS YOU TO SUCCEED. First and foremost, who doesn’t like an underdog! I cannot begin to tell you the number of times someone has flown under the radar and wow-ed me with an outstanding audition. I also love seeing “green actors” get their sea legs in a role and find that they have a passion for something they didn’t even know they had a talent for. And to those who keep trying after countless “failures”…to be granted a chance to finally do what you hope for, it’s thrilling. Why WOULDN’T a director what to give that gift to someone?

So, I don’t care who you are, if you want to audition for the musical, I want to impress upon you that every high school theatre director (if they’re worth a spit) wants you to succeed. This is why being a director is one of the most rewarding and heart-breaking jobs ever. Not every student will get that chance.

Directors are looking for the best fit between role and actor. PARENTS, READ ON. Directors don’t simply put the “best actor” in the “biggest role.” It doesn’t work like that. The actor needs to have what it takes to be able to fulfill the demands of the role. That includes chemistry with other actors, technique (in vocals, dance, etc.) and how a student takes direction. This is HUGE in high school theatre as directors are burdened with many issues regarding rehearsal space, school conflicts, budget, volunteers helping with set, costumes, etc. and many more! If a student is VERY proactive and works hard on their “job,” then a director can trust that with some creative tweaking, that job will get done. If the student’s approach suggests that they will be a liability (or at least, someone we’ll have to “deal” with all the time) then the attractiveness of their offering won’t be as golden. Parents, don’t storm into a rehearsal and pull your student out saying “we have to go, right now.” It’s creates a huge problem. While the play in your world may be another bullet on your list, for the production, yanking your kid out nullifies productivity in that rehearsal. I think parents sometimes forget that we high school directors (and the student actors) have a job to do too.

This is why I’m constantly nagging the students to make a good choices throughout rehearsals….clean up after themselves in the green room….be kind to others, preventing backstage drama….and being respectful to their fellow students and volunteer adults. Nobody wants to work with someone who thinks their proverbial “poop doesn’t stink.” Not in high school, not in college, not in the industry. I always saying (somewhat jokingly…but somewhat not) “It’s one of two choices: a good choice or a bad choice. What one are you looking to achieve?” Back to auditions….sheesh. See how I get side-tracked!

I want to clear up one last thing. In an audition, directors are looking for what you do RIGHT, rather than what you do WRONG. (Which is why if you mess up your words in your song…keep singing!) Mistakes are expected, so try not to focus on them. Instead, show us what you are capable of.  Edmvnd W. Golaski once said “While the actor’s ego may crave the largest role, getting a role that’s the right fit is probably more conducive to happiness during the production period. I would argue that it’s in your best interest to be yourself, show off what you do well, and trust that the directors will put you where you can shine.” I like that.

BEFORE THE AUDITION

  • PICKING THE RIGHT SONG: We are looking for a song choice that suits your voice and shows off the dynamics of what you can offer in range and personality. Remember, this offering is no less storytelling than your acting audition, so make sure it’s a song you “perform” well. If a director has set up rules to follow (aka: do not sing something from the musical, an up-tempo, etc.) then FOLLOW THEM! Do not challenge the director before you even open your mouth by bending the rules. There are a million songs out there…find one that satisfies the requirements and makes you look good. If all else fails, choose a simpler song that you KNOW you can sing well. Avoid songs that are tremendously overdone.
  • THE SCRIPT: Some high schools make sides or scripts available to students before auditions. You absolutely need to acquaint yourself with the show. Read through the show, find scenes that interest you and rehearse them. Make solid choices in character / approach that you can bring into auditions with you. Nothing too solid. If the director wants you to try something completely different…be flexible enough to change it up. I recall my callback for Mr. Salt in Willy Wonka, the director wanted me to read him as a bustling oil tycoon. I donned a rip-off Yosemite Sam and turned the character into a southern tornado. I got cast in the part and was never asked again to approach that “type” of character. I believe the director was testing me.  Unless the director requires you to memorize something, don’t bother. Know the scene well…but don’t add another stress to your plate. I guarantee you the “worth” of you having the scene memorized will not be weighed in your favor as much as you’d hope it would. Directors don’t care about that at this stage of the game.
  • DANCE CALL: If you are considering a career in performing…get into a dance class. Bottom line. Even if you’re not a “dancer,” any sort of movement will take the edge off a dance call. (Trust me…I’m not a dancer.) But, if you are unaccustomed to dancing / dance calls…my advice is to come prepared. (Bottle of water, towel, comfortable/move-able clothes, appropriate footwear.) Prepare yourself to do your very best. (Even if your very best is the best dancer’s very worst!)

THE DAY OF THE AUDITION

  • CHECK YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR: It so funny to me that a student can be so conscientious about what their boyfriend / girlfriend is doing behind their backs…but they have absolutely no sense of object permanence when they sit in a room during an audition. A director can see you rolling your eyes. A director can see you making a comment under your breath. A director can see you isolate yourself from others. Make it a point to be outgoing, enthusiastic (about everything and everyone.) Be kind. Be helpful. Be proactive. Be welcoming. Be encouraging. Be supportive. Nobody…nobody wants to work with the alternative. If you have a hard time adopting these traits…then your social personae is telling you that the impression you’re leaving is not as important as your status at the school. A director sees that too.
  • THE AUDITION FORM:  Someone once said “be illustrative, not exhaustive” when filling out your form. (Especially when detailing your experience and relevant skills.) Please come prepared to write down all of your conflicts. (Everything…that means talking to your parents and making sure orthodontist appointments don’t surprise anyone!) Good rule of thumb: “when in doubt, put it down.” Be honest and clear. Misunderstandings always create confusion…and you never want to purposely leave something off or lie.
  • IN GENERAL: Usually auditions are held after school. Try to go about you day normally. (I know, I know…easier said than done!) But, seriously, working yourself up into a tizzy ain’t gonna do you no good…so eat a good breakfast, work hard in class, eat a healthy lunch and then approach the auditions with a collected mind. Avoid pre-audition gossip and do your best to think about your audition instead of focusing on others.

DURING AUDITIONS

  • SINGING: I’m a big believer of telling a story in your song. Understand what the character is feeling in the song, and become that character. Personally, I don’t mind if you read your lyrics off of a piece of paper…but in a professional audition, you’re going to want to have that thing memorized. You will most likely not get a chance to sing the whole song. (Most directors put a limitation on offerings…mostly because of time.) If there is a part of the song you want the directors to hear…make sure you include that part.
    • THE VOCAL DIRECTOR is looking for the following: VOCAL QUALITY, MUSICIANSHIP, TECHNICAL DETAILS (pitch, dynamics, etc.) and are you ACTING THE SONG. The director is looking at a bigger “package.” Does your voice and body language suit the song you’re singing? Are you entertaining? Overall, please remember this….we know this is probably NOT going to be your BEST offering. So have fun!
    • THINGS THAT EFFECT YOUR VOCAL AUDITION – There are a million factors that will effect your audition. Ex: Are you just getting over a cold? Did you just flunk your science test? Did you get into a fight with your boyfriend/girlfriend? All of these things will creep into your audition. If you can remember: NOBODY EXPECTS PERFECTION…then you’ll do okay. If you do run into “trouble” and forget your words…my recommendation is JUST KEEP SINGING. Say any word in the world…it doesn’t matter….but don’t stop. You know the notes….sing them. Sing any words that come to your head. One of two things will happen. The director will realize what’s going on…ask you to stop…and allow you to start again. OR, the director will let you finish…and RESPECT the fact that you didn’t give up. I KNOW I WOULD! Never say die in a vocal audition. REMEMBER…the director WANTS you to succeed!

  • ACTING – Listen very closely to the directions given by the director. The best way to do this is by looking them directly in the eyes and giving them all of your focus. This is hard to do sometimes, because you’re nervous, fidgety and attempting to find some sort of comfort by connecting with your friends/classmates. When the director talks…shut your mouth, look them in the eyes…and follow their directions as best you can. If you are unsure of something…ask.
    • WHAT IS THE DIRECTOR LOOKING FOR? They need to see if you can portray a character in such a way as to effectively tell the story. (This means they’ll be looking at character choices, relationship, reactions, and delivery.) Don’t allow words to get in your way. You’ve already read through the script, right? So you know what’s going on in the scene? If a word or two gets in your way…just GO ON! You know how they respond…so RESPOND! Students have this weird notion that they have to deliver every single word perfectly…and if they miss one….they’re out! Just focus on TELLING A STORY. Best way to practice this: At home, pick a scene from a musical. (Look at them all. Which ones WOULD be a good scene to use in an audition. Usually that’s the one the director will use!) Go through it a couple of times with your friends. Now….drop your scripts. Seriously. Put them down. Now, do the scene without the privilege of the lines. Make up the lines. Keep the same intention / goals / relationships, etc…but just get through the scene from beginning to end without the scripts. Afterwards…revisit the scene WITH the script. You will find that the discoveries you make when you’re NOT buried in words are usually MORE FUN to watch. Apply them. Practice makes perfect. Some of the best auditions I’ve seen in high school were ones delivered by those who worked on their scene work BEFORE auditions. Just sayin’.
    • TAKING DIRECTION: I guarantee you at some point the director will give you instruction. Again, 90% of the time, they’re testing you. They are not so interested in the final outcome so much as they are the journey you take to get there. Listen…focus…take chances…and perform!
    • TAKE CHANCES: This is tricky. I’m not telling you to light your shirt on fire and call it an “acting choice.” There are good choices and bad choices…remember? What I’m saying is, make a FUN choice that helps tell the story. People want to be entertained. Why deny them of that honor in auditions. Have FUN! But make sure that whatever choice you make….supports the scene.
    • START THE SCENE WITH ACTION! This is huge for me. Never start a scene with the first line of the scene. Why? Because everyone else will. That’s why! Trust me. Start with a moment of action (pantomime even) that sets the stage for the first line. Also…end with action. The script is just words. WORDS, WORDS, WORDS!
    • LOOK THEM IN THE EYES: Chances are you won’t be paired with a scene partner of your choice. In any case, when you are performing, LOOK THEM IN THE EYES. It’s a little detail, but I’m surprised at how many people DON’T DO IT. If you are buried in the script…or in a distant land somewhere spouting words into the empty universe….you’ll never connect, and ultimately it’s empty and void of an entertainment value. Instead, force your energy upon your scene partner by talking to them and making eye contact. They will do one of two things: 1.) Take that energy and run with it, offering it back, thereby creating a cool back-and-forth pulse to the scene. 2.) Or, fight against it. If this happens…and sometimes it does…I promise you it makes YOU look good. Just remain persistent and let the little bugger flop in the boat like a helpless fish. (Somewhat insensitive…but so is fishing.)
    • SAY THANK YOU: A simple thank you is enough. No need to walk over and shake the director’s hand (unless they offer it.) Just look them in the eye…say thank you….and be gone.
    • DON’T STOP BELIEVING: No matter how the scene is going…keep going. If you struggle to find a heartbeat in a scene…keep going. If you flub a line…or your scene partner loses his/her spot in the script….keep going. Never, never, never stop and ask to start again. Never apologize for your offering. Never mutter how bad you thought you did as you leave the stage. Bad, bad, bad monkey!!! No, no, no. Head held high! Stiff upper lip! Act that scene….and if it sucks….well, then….suck wonderfully!!!! Just don’t stop.

  • DANCING – Listen very carefully to the instructions given by the choreographer. Make SURE you have had enough water to drink before the auditions. (That includes you, wafer-thin Tyra Bank wanna-bees who eat only celery every other Tuesday.) You will most likely be tested on how you follow direction, technique, application, interpretation, and energy. (Also, are you focused and driven? Or sloppy and distracted?) My suggestion (and I don’t dance that much) is to do you best. Focus….and do your best.
    • Something technical to think about. A choreographer tends to stand in front of the group to give instruction. Most choreographers are right-handed…which means they will turn over their right-shoulder to give instruction and watch as you execute the moves. It would behoove you to stand toward the front and stage right. Just sayin’. You’ll be noticed more. (Nobody ever got noticed standing in the back. That’s why us good old fashioned Lutherans sit in the back pews. It’s the closest to the coffee in the narthax and we most likely won’t run into the head of the church committee-of-the-month.)
    • FOCUS – In on of the dance classes I helped team-teach, one of my students challenged me to Dance, Dance Revolution. I failed miserably. It was NOT pretty. I remember the same game at my brother-in-law’s house. Empty house…game system all to myself…and I’ll tell you what, I did about 100 times better than I did in class. Why? Because I didn’t have distractions. I focused. You can do it! Final word on this….have fun. Choreographers want to work with people who WANT to work hard…and have fun. If you exhibit neither of these traits….it’ll be a HUGE up-hill battle. If you screw up…keep going. The only time I think you should ever leave a stage during an audition is if you are going to PUKE, PEE or FAINT. Then, by all means, exit stage right.
  • CALLBACKS – Remember this, unless otherwise stated, callbacks are NOTHING MORE than another audition. What does that mean? It means the director needs to see more of you. That’s all. It’s not a right of passage. It’s not a green flag so you can advance to the next level. This isn’t American Idol. You’re not going to Vegas baby. (You’re already here!) Tighten your belt, strap on your helmet and gear up for more of what you just went through. It’s JUST another audition. Directors may give you something specific to work on. My suggestion is to focus on that and give it your best shot. DO NOT focus on who’s reading for who…and who did / didn’t get a callback….blah, blah, blah. See, you’re back acting like a typical high school student. You’re above that.

AFTER AUDITIONS

  • RELAX – Try to relax. You just been through battle. Remember there are many kids in there vying for the same part you want. In essence it is a competition. But, did you do your best? Did you take chances? Did you execute everything you had in you? If so…then you have absolutely nothing to worry about. If you don’t get cast, then it wasn’t because you didn’t do something. The goal for you as an actor in an audition is to walk out of that room with confidence in what you offered with no regrets. Another goal might be to make sure the director is thinking about YOU when the auditions are over. You’re unique…you’re special…you’re deserving…and you have EVERY BIT as much right to be considered for that role as the next guy. (And if you don’t think so out of the gate….there your #1 problem. Work on that self-esteem thing before auditioning next time.) The point is: The director is rooting for you. Most likely your parents, brothers / sisters are rooting for you. Your friends are rooting for you. God is rooting for you. Why in the world wouldn’t you be your #1 cheerleader. Have confidence in yourself! You can do it! And if it doesn’t work out, then next time you’ll do it. You need to generate a tough skin. The performance industry is the most rewarding industry out there…but it’s the toughest. It’s ruthless. And you need to be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off…and start all over again. If you’re unable or unwilling to do that…then don’t get into the performance industry.
  • ONCE THE CAST LIST IS POSTED:If it’s posted on a call board, then approach the cast list, take a gander and then walk away. I recommend celebrating or reacting with disappointment several….several steps away from the cast list. Make it an agenda item. An appointment. Check the list…then go away. If you linger it’ll be perceived that you WANT to see others’ reactions (good or bad.) If you react (positively or negatively) and linger, it’ll make the approach to the cast list just that much more difficult for others. Please, for your sake and the sake of your fellow classmates, just check it out…and step away. If it’s posted online or if you receive word regarding the cast list via email…then you have the opportunity to reacting in the comfort of your own home, snuggled up with your ladybug pillow pet. Anyway you want to react is fine, but I beg of you to refrain from engaging in rumor mill gossip as a result.
    • Please keep in mind three things:
      • 1.) Regardless of the role you received…there is always someone out there broken hearted that they didn’t get the role you got. So appreciate the opportunity.
      • 2.) If you got a leading role…be humble. Remember, with great power come great responsibility. Get ready for a lot of work. (And that work shouldn’t include beating down misconceptions of others saying that your arrogant.)
      • 3.) If you didn’t get cast…please remember, this was a VERY difficult decision. It’s NEVER personal. (Parents, I understand if you roll your eyes. The job of directing a high school production is something I’m very honored to do for the school. They trust me to put in place a fair system that will determine a cast. I, and most directors, take this responsibility VERY seriously because it is our passion. We want to see children flourish in the art of theatre, not suffer as a result. After every cast list is posted, I spend a good two-three weeks as a make-shift guidance counselor, talking with students who are disappointed and working through their auditions, having a collaboration regarding what they could be doing better for the next time.
      • FACEBOOK: Can I just say one thing. I’m a huge Facebooker…I have a Twitter, a Tumblr and every other en vogue app de jour. With that said…please remember, EVERYTHING you put on Facebook is read by everyone. If you’re happy…awesome. If you’re sad…that’s perfectly reasonable. But if you feel compelled to self-medicate yourself by posting the highlight or greatest regrets regarding the posting of a cast list over the world wide web in any format…ultimately your positing yourself to hurt someone. I have been on the back-handing side of things with regards to this, and I have witnessed first hand these types of postings totally disable a person’s joy in auditioning in the first place. Frankly, it’s the reason my wife cancelled her Facebook. Not because she was attacked…but for the same reason neither of us will ever chaperone a school dance: it’s paints students in such an ugly light. We see knee-jerk sides of their personalities that we wish we hadn’t. I ask you to think twice before posting, that’s all.
      • PARENT CONCERNS: I’d say 95% of the complaints I hear from parents as a result of their students not receiving roles they believe they deserve, are brought to my attention because they believe I’m not providing an opportunity for them (in the form of a leading role.) I hope they’ll look at the bigger picture and see that while I cannot give every student a leading role…what I can do is provide opportunities for them to GROW. (Whether it is in the form of an onstage role or a supportive dialogue with the director) so that at the next time, the student can effectively expand on those opportunities and re approach the next play/musical. If you’re a drama director at a high school level, I challenge you to keep that open-door policy after auditions. If a student falls into the background after an audition…seek them out. Have a dialogue with them. I view this as the most important part of my job. Shows come and go…as do classroom dynamics…but that personal coaching is what builds character, which should be paramount.

IF YOU’RE A STUDENT: I am very interested in your continued success as a performer. If you have a question (vague or specific) that I haven’t touched on in this post…please leave a comment. I promise to respond.

IF YOU’RE A HIGH SCHOOL DRAMA TEACHER / ADMINISTRATOR: Please let me know what you’re thoughts are on this topic. I’m also interested to hear what others think are the current challenges of drama programs in the school system as we approach this generation of students. (Especially in light of diminishing fine arts programs nationwide.)

IF YOU’RE A PARENT: Please let me know your concerns as a parent of a “drama student.” I believe strongly in the classroom trinity: STUDENT, TEACHER and PARENT. Collectively they create harmony. (And anyone who has worked with me will tell you that without the direct support of the parents at Faith Lutheran…I wouldn’t be able to do what I do everyday.) I care greatly about your concerns, and would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, knowing that we all have the students’ best interest in mind.

I hope this was helpful.

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