Sunday, June 30, 2013

World Premiere of "Arms on Fire" by Steve Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik - At the Chester Theatre Company

Like an artistic Colossus of Rhodes, the creative team of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik stands astride the breadth of Massachusetts casting a long shadow from the Berkshires to Bass Rocks.  Last Sunday I took in the current Gloucester Stage Company's fine production of the team's 2006 Broadway sensation, "Spring Awakening." (See link below to my review)

White Rhino Report - Spring Awakening

This Sunday I headed west to the sleepy town of Chester, Massachusetts (population 1,308) to the World Premiere production by the Chester Theatre Company of "Arms on Fire."  The new work is described as a "play with music," in contradistinction to a "musical play."  I found this description to be accurate, for the music, for most of the play, proves to be atmospheric.  In a sense, the music, when sung by the ghostly presence of Josephina, serves several purposes.  For the deracinated Ulysses, a former Honduran DJ now washed up on the rocky shores of Hell's Kitchen, the music serves either as a gentle breeze that stirs painful memories of his days with Josephina, or it functions as an ineffectual and swirling puff of wind that leaves him becalmed in the doldrums of regret and self-recrimination.  He lives a life of quiet - almost monastic - desperation toiling as a factory worker and retreating at the end of his shift to a bleak walk-up flat filled only with old record albums and memories of his lost love.

Into his life stumbles Smith, a failed singer and street hustler. Smith is looking for one last chance to succeed as a musician.  Somehow, he and Ulysses are strangely drawn to each other and develop a friendship that is classic New York dysfunction and hard scrabble toleration of each other, spiced with just enough mutual intrigue and affection to keep the audience wondering where all this may be leading.  Ulysses is teaching Smith to play chess, and it speaks volumes about Smith's character that he is most intrigued with the abilities of the Knight to move in an L pattern, and for the Bishop to move diagonally.  There is nothing strait forward about Smith.   In pawing through some of Ulysses's LP's, he finds some recordings of Josephina from her days as a lounge singer in Honduras.  He, too, falls under the spell of her Siren's song.

Director Byam Stevens, who also serves as Artistic Director for this gem of a theatre company, has assembled a remarkable trinity of actors to tell this story.  As an ensemble, they function as a three-pronged trident, piercing the hearts of audiences members as they interact with one another.  The nods to the myth of Odysseus are richly distributed throughout this modern tale. We learn early in the story that Josephina has died, so there is no Penelope to whom Ulysses can return.  His Penelope/Josephina has fallen prey to suitors - human and chemical - that have lain waste to her beauty and talent.  He and Smith are two men desperately trying to find new homes for their wounded hearts and souls.  Their clumsy and halting search for meaning and mutual understanding is accompanied by ghostly ballads and torch songs - sung by Josephina, who sometimes haunts them from behind a scrim and at other points in the story weaves in and out of the apartment - so close and yet so unattainable.

Ulysses (Guiesseppe Jones), Josephina Natalie Mendoza)
and Smith (James Barry)
Photo by Rick Teller

Natalie Mendoza brings a haunting physical beauty and an alluring and lyrical voice to the role of Josephina.  Guiesseppe Jones is the almost sphinx-like Ulysses, a steady rock who observes Smith closely, and gradually begins to thaw from his stony silence to reveal some of the pain of his past.  As he explains to Smith as they do their dance of getting to know each other, "I was a DJ and I talked for a living, so now it is time for me to listen.  But it has been a long time since I have had anyone to listen to."

James Barry is simply a tour de force as Smith.  The last time I remember seeing a performance as riveting as his depiction of Smith was when I watched Tony-Award winning actor, Mark Rylance, in "Jerusalem."  Smith is a bundle of complexities and contradictions; he is a hustler in need of nurture, a frenetic and twitchy junkie who is comforted by his stuffed animals, a psycho-babble spouting street philosopher who keeps an aquarium with fish named Depak Chopra and Ghandi.  Just when it appears he has squandered his artistic gifts  - much as Josephina had done years before - he sings and records a song based on a poem that Ulysses had written in memory of Josephina.  The gorgeous song "A Boat on the Sea," is a high point of the show and of the dramatic arc of the story.  Barry's singing chops are given full expression here, and the moment evoked in me chills and tears (my personal measure of a story that has touched me deeply!).  Ironically, in the wake of laying down some "tracks" for this recording, Smith also co-opts Ulysses into injecting him with dope - laying down needle tracks that can only be leading into a dark tunnel.  Early rehearsals for this play took place a few blocks from the theater, in the old Chester railroad station, next to tracks that are still used for freight and Amtrak service - evocative of the journey theme of this play.

During much of the play, Smith address Ulysses as "U-man."  This moniker comes across both as typical  NYC street "dude talk," but also as "human," turning the ex-DJ into an Everyman.  He is every man who has been crushed and silenced by life's battles and failed loves, but who also harbors a human need to reach out and connect - even to the point of hungering to offer nurture and rescue - even to a "Smith" - another Everyman name.  Drawing from lessons he had learned as a boy from his Abuela in Honduras, U-man cooks up healing recipes of cafe con leche and soup to bring to Smith, who suffers from chronic breathing difficulties.

The audience was universally enthusiastic over this new play and its flawless execution.  It is a play that needs to be seen by a broad audience.  It runs for one more week in Chester.  I encourage you to plan a post-4th of July road trip out the Massachusetts Turnpike and US Route 20.  It will prove to be an odyssey worth taking.

As an interesting aside, a new restaurant has just opened up down the street from the theater in Chester.  I happened upon Wyld Thyme on 30 Main Street, and had a delicious and very affordable lunch prior to the Sunday matinee.  When you make the trip, double your pleasure and plan to stop by.

Wyld Thyme



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by Steven Sater, with Music by Duncan Sheik

Tony Award Winning Creators of SPRING AWAKENING

Running June 26 ­ July 7

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Today Is National PTSD Day - Announcing the Launch of PTSD United, INC.

Today, Friday June 27 has been designated as National PTSD Day.  It is appropriate that my good friend, Josh Rizzo, has chosen this day to launch a new social network to offer support to anyone dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Please read the press release below to learn details, and then join me in spreading the word within the warrior community and beyond to the general public.  Increased awareness is the beginning point of winning this battle against the effects of PTSD.

PTSD United, INC. launches completely free and anonymous social network for anyone dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD United, INC. has launched a completely free and anonymous online social network where people can connect with others living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. PTSD United is dedicated to providing resources and support for anyone dealing with PTSD, as well as their friends and family, and educating and increasing awareness among the general public.

PTSD United is currently accepting beta testers at The non-profit organization is also in the process of forming strategic partnerships with cooperating charities, professional medical organizations, and corporations that would like an opportunity to serve their communities.

Executive Director and Army Veteran, Josh Rizzo explains the impetus behind the idea: “Transitioning into civilian life after combat, I noticed there was an epidemic in our society that extended beyond my fellow soldiers to law enforcement personnel, firefighters, first responders, victims of physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse, victims of accidents and tragedies, and people suffering from disease and illness, to name a few. I also noticed a stigma associated with the condition, which I still personally deal with. We formed PTSD United to help people realize that they are not alone and that there are resources out there for them.”

“The number of people in the U.S. affected by PSTD is staggering,” Rizzo continues, “But possibly the most critical group affected by PTSD are the families and friends of those suffering – not knowing how to help or what’s going on with their loved ones.”  

Approximately 7-8% of the U.S. population (24 million) will experience some form of PTSD. [Department of Veteran Affairs]

One of every six American women (26 million) has been the victim of rape or attempted rape. [RAINN]

Rizzo likens the Internet social networks of today to the church basements of decades past, where support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous began. “However, PTSD United is unique in that it is the only fully functional online social network that is completely free of charge and provides all members full anonymity,” he says.

Dr. ErinKate Stair, a member of the Board of Directors at PTSD United says: “As a medical field professional, I see the drastic need for an online resource like this and am thrilled PTSD United is going to be answering the call.”

The intent of the organization is perhaps best summarized by its Process: Connect, Learn, Heal, Grow, and Inspire. “Our goal,” Rizzo says, “Is to reduce the stigma of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and ensure that PTSD, and, more importantly, the population suffering from it, are given the appropriate attention and support they deserve.”

Learn more and join the community at

Josh Rizzo is a West Point 2002 graduate and Army Veteran. He can be reached at:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Troop ID - The Most Vet Friendly Small Business in America

Troop ID Founders Matt Thompson and Blake Hall

I received an e-mail recently from my good friend, Matt Thompson, whom I first met when he was a student at Harvard Business School (HBS) and a leader of the HBS Armed Forces Alumni Association (AFAA).  We had just spoken on the phone about the fact that his business, Troop ID, which he operates with fellow Vet and HBS alum, Blake Hall, had just been named “The Most Veteran-Friendly Small Business in America.”

“Great speaking with you Friday morning and I appreciate you highlighting Troop ID in the White Rhino Report.  We're humbled to have been named The Most Veteran-Friendly Small Business in America by the US Chamber of Commerce and Spike TV and hope we can use this honor to inspire other businesses to focus on veteran-friendly hiring and business practices.  Below are a few of the articles that covered this award.”

Here is an excerpt from a recent article which ran on which describes the purpose behind establishing Troop ID:

“WASHINGTON - Army veterans Matt Thompson and Blake Hall recently found themselves walking a cheetah-print carpet in the company of Jeff Bridges, Burt Reynolds and Ben Affleck.

The two McLean, Va.-based business partners were invited to attend Spike TV's Guys Choice Awards in Los Angeles. And while other honorees at the event were awarded golden "mantlers," Thompson and Hall took home the title of the nation's most veteran-friendly small business.

After serving tours in Afghanistan and hunting high-value targets in Iraq, Army Rangers Thompson and Hall met in a less treacherous environment: Harvard Business School. When it came to starting their own business, the two veterans chose to help those who help the country.

Thomson and Hall recognized an unfortunate trend in military benefits: Many service members and veterans were not able to access their discounts and benefits online or in an efficient manner. To help alleviate this problem, Thompson and Hall founded Troop ID in 2010.”

A recent press release by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce adds some additional insight into why Troop ID has been singled out for its focus on helping and hiring veterans:

“Troop ID is a prime example of the way small businesses are having a big impact on the lives of veterans and their families,” said Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Schmiegel (ret.), executive director of Hiring Our Heroes. “Embodying the innovative and responsive nature of small businesses, Troop ID has developed both a smart digital product to help veterans and a creative business model to hire them. We hope that others will be inspired by the high bar they have set, and we congratulate the entire Troop ID team on this well-deserved honor.”

“It is Spike’s honor to salute Troop ID, a thriving small business that recognizes the incredible leadership and abilities our veterans bring to the job marketplace,” said Niels Schuurmans, Executive Vice President, Brand Marketing and Creative, Spike TV.”

Matt Thompson’s e-mail message to me continues:  

“As the leaders of  a company founded by combat Veterans, Blake and I certainly understand and appreciate the skills the military community brings to the workforce.  40% of Troop ID's employees are Veterans, to include the first Chief Information Security Officer at the Pentagon, Glenn SchoonoverCollaborating with best-in-class military and veteran organizations has also been a key focus of Troop ID's strategy.  Fortunately, many of our friends from HBS AFAA are now leaders in these organizations, like Derek Bennett (HBS '10), Chief of Staff of IAVA) and Yinon Weiss (HBS '11), Founder and CEO of RallyPoint.

Al, I'm grateful for the advice you gave me and so many other Veterans in Harvard Business School's Armed Forces Alumni Association to pursue something unique and use our skills to make a positive impact on society.  I hope this recognition my company recently received is another proof point that I'm following that advice.  Thanks for everything!

Warm regards,

Congratulations to Matt and Blake and the Veterans they employee and the large number of Veterans that Troop ID helps.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Awakening To The Artistry At The Gloucester Stage Company - Review of "Spring Awakening"

The Spring Awakening Cast
Photo by Gary Ng

On this gorgeous New England summer day, I climbed into my Toyota Solara, pointed it in the general direction of the iconic artist colony at Rocky Neck, East Gloucester, and set sail for my beloved Cape Ann. The occasion for this voyage was the Press Opening of the Gloucester Stage Company's season-opening production of "Spring Awakening."  Despite my love for Gloucester and Rockport, and despite the solid reputation that this 34-year old professional theater company boasts, today's visit would mark my first time as an audience member at a Gloucester Stage Company play.  It certainly will not be my last.

When "Spring Awakening" opened on Broadway in 2006, it blew away the theater world.  It garnered 8 Tony Awards, but it also served as a lighting rod for cultural critique and commentary because of the bold and raw approach that it took in addressing complex issues of domestic violence, incest, rape, teen suicide, adolescent homosexuality, abortion and sexual repression.  That is quite a bouillabaisse for one play to serve up, but the ingredients blend together successfully and give the audience a lot to chew on.  Choosing to open the 2013 season with this play was a bold  move by Artistic Director, Eric C. Engel, his Board and staff.  This is not a beloved "old chestnut" like "The Sound of Music" that is playing just a few miles down Route 128 at the North Shore Music Theater.  (I understand that it is a wonderful production, but I have not seen it).  Clearly Engel is angling for a different kind of audience than the typical summer crowd looking for sea breezes and light entertainment.  I applaud this bold choice, and today's audience roared their approval throughout the play and during the curtain call.

Mr. Engel, who is also the Director for this production, has assembled a stellar creative team and cast - a mixture of stage veterans and fresh faces.  Musical direction is provided by Catherine Stornetta and choreography by Jodi Leigh Allen. The cast of 13 welcomes back three Gloucester Stage veterans: Melody Madarasz from 2012’s "Crimes of the Heart" as Wendla, Paul Farwell from 2012’s "Carnival" and Amelia Broome from 2005’s "My Old Lady" play all the adult male and female roles respectively in "Spring Awakening." The remaining ten cast members make their Gloucester Stage debut: Lydia Baldwin as Anna; Jordan J. Ford as Hanschen; Meghan LaFlam as Thea; Sarah Oakes Muirhead as Ilse; Ross Mumford as Moritz; Mary Nepi as Marthe; Andrew Oberstein as Georg; Chris Renalds as Ernst; Phil Tayler as Melchior; and Daniel Scott Walton as Otto.

This landmark musical with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German expressionist play about the trials and tribulations, and the exhilaration of the teen years. Sater and Sheik’s energetic and powerful reimagining of the play for the Broadway stage earned the following  Tony Awards in 2007: Best Musical, Best Book of A Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction of A Musical, Best Performance by A Featured Actor in A Musical, Best Choreography, Best Orchestrations and Best Lighting Design of A Musical

The play is set in a very repressed and repressive German 19th century city in which questioning authority in any manner - or even expressing curiosity about the birds and the bees - is strictly verboten and would rain down a storm of stinging recrimination on the heads of the curious young men and women who populate this story.  Despite their period clothing and hairstyles, these actors and the characters they bring to life feel like today's kids - artfully bridging the gaping chasm that exists between the life of a teenager at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and today's members of Generation Next.  No matter where in the world or when in time this universal metamorphosis percolates, puberty is still puberty and hormones are still hormones.  The edgy music and frank lyrics yank us towards the present, but the skilled direction and acting bring us the rest of the way towards being willing to set aside disbelief.

I must mention the simple and profound set design by Jenna McFarland Lord.  A very imposing metal structure sits upstage, serving to imply both a bridge and a barrier.  During a "pivotal" time in the play's action, as the adolescents begin to give rein to their awakening urges, the bridge structure experiences its own mechanical "spring awakening" and the two ends rise from the horizontal to the vertical, coming to rest in an erect position.  What is left is essentially an empty stage with this newly transfigured structure rising in a curvilinear fashion reaching to the heavens.  The reconfigured space struck me as a womb with the metal structure emblematic of a dilated cervix through which some of the characters would be abortively expelled before having the chance to become fully formed as mature human beings.

The cast is universally to be praised.  Among this strong ensemble, several of the actors stood out in their ability to reach out and connect with the audience in telling their story.  Key to the arc of the drama is the relationship between Melchior and Wendla.  Phil Tayler and Melody Madarasz shine - in their individual roles, in their songs, and in the chemistry between them.  Melody gets the ball rolling musically with the "cri de coeur" opening number, "Mama Who Bore Me."  Tayler stitches together several strong moments, including his song "All That's Known" and "Left Behind."  Their duet, "The Guilty Ones," is a highlight of the show.  

Paul Farwell and Amelia Broome play all of the adult roles.  When I saw the original production of "Spring Awakening" on Broadway, the adult roles were largely played as caricatures.  To a certain degree, this is appropriate, since part of the point of the play is to show how universally and how badly the adults are letting down these children by repressing their natural  curiosity.  So, a certain degree of uniformity is called for among the variety of Germanic adult figures that interact with the students.  Farwell and Broome both managed the difficult task of walking a tightrope - without a net - between painting with a broad brush the Germanic rigid stereotype and giving individual nuance to each of their not-so-minor characters.  They are both masterful  in these roles.

I must mention Moritz, the struggling student whose stumbles in Greek, Latin and mathematics cause him to be denied promotion to the next level of education, much to the shame and chagrin of his martinet of a father.  Played superbly by Ross Mumford, Moritz reached out and broke my heart.  His obvious internal brokenness and shame are profoundly expressed in the physicality of the character, in his speech patterns, in his disheveled hair, and in his fractured singing voice that at times sounds like the wail of a mortally wounded animal.  After his suicide, Moritz returns briefly as a ghost to visit Melchior.  He has been transformed by death - no longer broken in body, voice and spirit.  The transformation is palpable, and represents an amazingly mature piece of acting by young Mumford.

Ilse and Moritz
Photo by Gary Ng

I have already mentioned that I saw the Broadway version of this play.  It is dangerous to make comparisons between the Great White Way and a Regional Theater stuck out on a cape in the North Atlantic.  Yet I will venture to make such a comparison.  I loved the Broadway version, but I really loved this version more -  because it moved me more deeply.  I credit the intimate setting of this theater.  I credit the choice to have the actors speak and sing without microphones, removing an electronic "fourth wall" that more sophisticated venues struggle with.  I credit a well-synchronized creative team.  And finally, I credit an astounding company of actors who made me care about them and the issues with which they struggle.

Before I left the theater, I sent a text message that read as follows:  "I am at Gloucester Stage company for the Press Opening of their production of 'Spring Awakening.'  I think you would be pleased.  I suggest you make the trip to Cape Ann and check it out."

The message was sent to Steven Sater, the play's lyricist and book writer.  I had a chance to get to know him when he was in residence in Cambridge working on "Prometheus Bound."

My Blog review: White Rhino Report Review of Prometheus Bound

To those within driving distance of Gloucester, I offer the same advice: I suggest you make the trip to Cape Ann and check it out. I think you will be pleased.

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The remaining performance schedule for Spring Awakening is Wednesday, June 26 through Saturday, June 29 at 8 pm; Wednesday, July 3 at 7pm; Thursday, July 4, Friday. July 5, and Saturday, July 6 at 8 pm: Wednesday, July 10 through Saturday, July 13 at 8 pm; Saturday matinees at 3 pm on June 22, June 29, July 6 & July 13and  Sunday performances at 4 pm on June 23, June 30, July 7 & July 14. A limited amount of discount tickets are available to Cape Ann residents for all Wednesday and Thursday 8 pm performances. For these performances only, Cape Ann residents can purchase discounted tickets for $20. Advance reservations are strongly suggested to ensure tickets at the discounted price. Year round Cape Ann residents must identify themselves as Cape Ann residents when making a reservation and proof of residency must be presented at the box office the night of the performance. Gloucester Stage is handicapped accessible. Ticket prices are $40 for all performances. Senior citizen & student tickets are $35 for all performances. For reservations or further information, call the Gloucester Stage Box Office at 978-281-4433 or visit



Friday, June 21, 2013

Happy Medium Theatre Illuminates The Stage with Peter Shaffer's "Black Comedy"

All great comedy is built upon a serious foundation of throwing black comedic light onto the darker questions of human existence.  Peter Shaffer's brilliant play, "Black Comedy" accomplishes this feat in spades, much to the delight of the audiences that are filling the cozy space at the Factory Theater. (Only 2 performances remain - Friday and Saturday).  The current production of the play by the Elliot Norton Award-winning company, Happy Medium Theatre, is a tour de force of balletic split-second timing by the actors and explosive side-splitting laughter from the audience members.

In the case of Mr. Shaffer's writing, which is deadly serious in plays such as "Equus" and Amadeus,"  the very British Shaffer takes a humorous look at the antics of a group of class-conscious characters feeling their way around a pitch black room — although the stage is actually flooded with light much of the time.  Beginning with the preliminary announcements - presented in flawless BBC diction - we are transported to an England in which nothing is as it appears to be.  The darkness - caused by a blown fuse - becomes a metaphor for the many ways in which the characters hide their true selves from one another.   In many ways, the play feels like a classic British bedroom farce set primarily in a living room.

The cast, deftly co-directed by Lizette M. Morris and Michael Underhill, are skillful in creating the illusion that they are flailing around in pitch darkness.  Brooks Reeves as starving artistic sculptor Brindsley Miller is a revelation - red hair askew and eyes focused on the nothingness of his blacked-out flat.  Equally impressive is his soon-to-be-announced fiancee, Carol Melkett, played with bemused grace by Louise Hamill.  Playing the role of Carol's fiercely regimented father, Col. Melkett, Mike Budway is the very model of a cartoonish modern British officer.  Adding spice to the proceedings are two neighbors who have taken refuge in the dark in Miller's flat - Miss Furnival and Harold Gorringe.  Audrey Lynn Sylvia as Miss Furnival is wonderful, often evoking the holy ghostly presence of her departed father, the hard shell Baptist preacher who abhorred alcohol.  Naturally,  throughout the course of the evening, Miss Furnival furtively sips gin and ends the evening very much in her cups.  Gorridge, played by Mikey DiLoreto, is a collector of fine furnishings and objets d'art.  His affections also lean in the direction of young Mr. Miller.  But when Gorringe discovers that Miller has appropriated some of his priceless furniture for the evening to impress a rich art collector, he turns on Miller in a fit of high dudgeon.  Rounding out the cast are Alyssa Osiecki as Clea, Miller's "main squeeze," and Tim Fairley as the German refugee light company repairmen, whom everyone mistakenly assumes is the long-awaited millionaire, George Bamburger.  Making a last minute appearance is Bamburger himself, played with panache by Michael Underhill.  It turns out that he "drops in" only for a brief, but memorable, visit.

Happy Medium continues its unbroken string of presenting plays that employ its fine company of actors in the best possible light.  They are one of Boston Fringe Theater's gold nuggets.

Let there be light!

Fri.  June 21 (8 p.m.)
Sat. June 22 (8 p.m.)
Adults- $18 in advance, $20 at door.
Students/Seniors- $15 in advance, $17 at door

Monday, June 10, 2013

Still on a Tony Awards High For "Pippin" - Congratulations to The Entire Pippin Cast and Creative Team!

Diane Paulus Accepts Her Tony for Directing "Pippin"

I don't know why, but all during last night's Tony Awards telecast, I felt like an expectant father.  I cannot take any credit for the creative successes that "Pippin" is experiencing, but I was there at the A.R.T. in Cambridge during this production's first trimester; I felt it kick and heard its heartbeat before Broadway every saw it in its fully-formed neonatal state.  Pippin has earned a place in my heart and in my memory as my co-favorite musical of all time (tied with "Les Miserables"!).  It was a thrill to watch last night as people who have become well known to me as acquaintances and friends performed and received Tony awards.

Diane Paulus won for Best Director of a Musical, having previously been nominated for directing Tony winners "Hair" and "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess."  She has taken the beloved music and lyrics of Stephen  Schwartz, the iconic choreography of Bob Fosse and in collaboration with Chet Walker and Gypsy Snider, has created a new art form that blends acting, singing, dancing, acrobatics and magic in a seamless tapestry of gorgeous and moving storytelling.  In her very eloquent acceptance speech, Diane singled out the President of Harvard University, Dr. Drew Faust, who has publicly stated that "Creativity is a form of knowledge."

Andrea Martin has reinvigorated the role of Berthe, Pippin's saucy grandmother.  She has deep Boston roots, having graduated from Emerson College.  When I saw the very first public performance of this production of Pippin, I grabbed Andrea at the reception and said to her: "That song you just sang will win you a Tony.  I can guarantee it."  She won the Tony last night as Best Featured Actress In A Musical.  This was her second Tony nomination.  I cannot wait to see her again to remind her of that conversation we had this winter in Cambridge.

Andrea Martin Giving Her Tony Acceptance Speech
Patina Miller took a huge risk in accepting the role of Leading Player, a role that had been made famous forty years ago by Ben Vereen.  She has made the role her own, adding elements to the character that could not have been imagined when "Pippin" first opening on Broadway in 1972.  In expanding the role and making it hers alone, she has also garnered her first Tony Award as Actress In A Musical, having previously been nominated for her work in "Sister Act."

Patina Miller Cradles Her Tony!

In one of the evening's highlight's, after the cast had performed the mesmerizing and stunning opening number, "Magic To Do," "Pippin" was named Best Musical Revival.  As the producers trooped to the stage, it became clear that behind the princely production was an army of investors backing up the creative team and actors and musicians.  Art isn't easy, but it can be tremendously rewarding when it is done right with passion and excellence and imagination.

"Pippin" continues to play to record-breaking audiences at the Music Box on New York's 45th Street, just west of Broadway.  The new cast album is now available on iTunes, and  the CD will be out in a few weeks.  Still lots of "magic to do"!



Sunday, June 09, 2013

Tony Awards Tonight - Behind the Scenes With Stephen Schwartz and Pippin

Tonight the 2013 Tony Awards will be presented at Radion City Music HAll.  Pippin has received 10 nominations, so I thought it appropriate to share some behind the scenes Pippin information, courtesy of The Stephen Schwartz Scene newsletter.  Carol de Giere is the official biographer of Stephen Schwartz's remarkable career as composer, lyricist, producer, director, singer/songwriter.  She also edits a quarterly newsletter for fans of Mr. Schwartz and his work.  The current edition has just been published, and I am pleased to share excerpts with readers of The White Rhino Report.  I encourage you to click on the link at thew bottom of the page, and to subscribe to the newsletter.  Through our common love for Pippin and other things Schwartzian, Carol and I have become friends over the past few months, and I have come to appreciate the terrific job that she does in chronicling the many creative endeavors of Mr. Schwartz.

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The Schwartz Scene Newsletter 50 – Spring 2013

THE SPARK OF CREATION: Stephen Schwartz Update and Events

Stephen Schwartz and Scott Schwartz in 2009June 1, 2013
pippin-marquee-music-box-theatre-new-york-smTomorrow evening is a listening party of the new Broadway PIPPIN album for the cast, who I think will be pleased to hear how good they sound. It was fun to do a new cast album for several reasons: First and foremost, the new cast are all such good singers. I also think the new orchestrations by Larry Hochman are very imaginative, and it’s nice to be able (with the longer time available on CD versus vinyl) to be able to include more of the dance music. On the original cast album back in 1972, it was so challenging to squeeze all the songs onto one disc, we had to compress “Morning Glow” greatly and slightly speed up “Spread a Little Sunshine” (to Leland Palmer’s understandable annoyance.) It felt like such a luxury to be able to get over an hour of music onto this CD. . . . 

Publicity photo of Pippin by Joan Marcus. . . And as far as the new Broadway production itself is concerned, to quote my friend Glinda, “I couldn’t be happier”. I had a wonderful time working with its creative and imaginative director, Diane Paulus, who managed to keep her cool through acrobatics, magic tricks, Fosse dancing, and literal fire. The result is a show that, in my opinion, is not only breathtakingly well staged and superbly performed, but which has a clarity of story-telling and a wellspring of emotion superior to the original. The whole experience was so positive that I found myself telling a friend after a rehearsal during previews in New York, “I worked on a Broadway show today and actually had fun!” (to which the reply was, “Who ARE you and what have you done with Stephen!?”)
Pippin playbill
–Stephen Schwartz

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I encourage you to take the time to check out the full issue of the newsletter.

The Schwartz Scene Newsletter

BUY the Pippin album here: Pippin at iTunes or pre-order the Pippin Cast Album CD  
Editor’s note: if you’re wondering what his comment “Who ARE you and what have you done with Stephen” means, find out by reading  Defying Gravity. This creative biography includes the many challenges of Schwartz’s previous Broadway experiences.

The Schwartz Scene Newsletter

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

"In The Heights" Redux - My Return Visit To The SpeakEasy Production

When I first saw the current SpeakEasy production of "In The Heights," there were a few minor technical glitches. Those difficulties have been ironed out, and I wanted to see the show again to catch the full effect of the lighting design.  The show is good enough to warrant a return visit, so I returned to the Boston Center for the Arts this past Sunday to immerse myself once more in the ethos of the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan.

My enjoyment of the show was even greater than when I first saw this show.  The cast is operating as a well-oiled machine - dancing, singing and acting all very "tight."  Audiences are loving this show, and the run has been extended now until June 30.

See my original review in the link below.  I stand by everything I said then with even more enthusiasm.  The show is entertaining, energizing, moving and infectious!


Original White Rhino Report Review of "In The Heights"



Wall Street Journal Profile of A.R.T.'s Diane Paulus - The Green Thumb of Broadway

Diane Paulus directing Patina Miller and Matthew James Thomas
in "Pippin"

I have written often in The White Rhino Report about the amazing work that Diane Paulus has done as Artistic Director of Harvard's American Repertory Theater.  Today, the Wall Street Journal is running an insightful Associated Press article about Diane's "green thumb" in bringing to life revivals of such classic pieces as "Hair," "Porgy and Bess" and "Pippin."

I am pleased to share this excellent article with you.  Watch the Tony Awards this Sunday evening and  see how many awards "Pippin" will take home.  It is nominated in 10 categories!

Diane Paulus, the green thumb of Broadway

NEW YORK — If Broadway musicals were gardens, their directors would be the gardeners. And right now, Diane Paulus is the gardener with one of the greenest thumbs in the business.
Specifically, Paulus, director of the crackling, high-energy revival of "Pippin," has a knack for reviving musicals, getting them to the Great White Way and then, whoosh — to the awards podium.
Her last two revivals, "Hair" and "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," both won Tonys for best musical revival. And "Pippin" could well do the same this year, not to mention Paulus herself as best director. The show has a total of 10 nominations, including for cast members Patina Miller, Andrea Martin and Terrence Mann.
What's her secret? Colleagues note how Paulus, who is artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard (where both "Porgy" and "Pippin" began), finds a way to honor both the old and the new, staying faithful to the original while finding a new twist that makes it feel utterly fresh.
They also say she has a strong collaborative sense that allows ideas to flourish, not to mention a Herculean work ethic and a constantly open mind.
"There's no ego with Diane," says Audra McDonald, the Tony-winning star of "Porgy and Bess." ''And there's no let-me-put-my-mark-on-something. With Diane, it's always, 'Let's see' or 'Let's try this.'"
McDonald adds that Paulus "will take a good idea from anybody. If you're the janitor walking by and say, 'Put them on trapezes,' she will go, 'You think?'"
It may not have been the janitor who suggested trapezes in the case of "Pippin," but it's certainly trapezes — and hoops and teeterboards and incredible stunts executed by sculpted bodies — that give the show its new panache. Teaming up with the Montreal-based acrobatic troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers) was just one of several key decisions Paulus made on the way to achieving her vision of the Stephen Schwartz '70s hit, which she loved in her youth.
"When I saw them, I just had a gut reaction that this kind of movement had never been on Broadway before," Paulus says of the troupe, led by Gypsy Snider. "I thought, 'I want THAT.'" But how? Eventually the idea emerged that the entire show would be based on a circus troupe, and Snider's acrobats would be fully integrated into every part of it.
Paulus had a similar gut reaction when auditioning actors for the Leading Player, an emcee-type role that won the charismatic Ben Vereen a best-actor Tony in 1973. This year, the Leading Player won't be winning best actor — because he's a she, Patina Miller, in a sexy, knockout performance. Score two home runs for Paulus.
"We saw so many people — men, women, great host types," says Paulus. "They obviously had to sing and act. But what about dancing? That was crucial." Once she had whittled the list down to eight or so finalists, she says, they were tasked with learning the famous "Manson Trio" number, a piece of iconic Bob Fosse choreography that came to define the original show.
"I didn't know Patina could do that — SHE didn't know," says Paulus, who'd worked with Miller in "Hair" before it came to Broadway. "But when I saw her do it, I thought, 'This is what I want!' And then we found out she could sing and hula-hoop. AND do the trapeze."
Snider remembers endless casting sessions. "She'd bring in more and more and more people, and I would ask: 'Is this normal?'" Snider says. "But that's Diane. She just keeps going. You get another coffee, and you keep at it. We worked incredible hours. "
It's generally agreed that an especially inspired casting decision was Andrea Martin, the veteran comic actress, in the role of Berthe, Pippin's grandmother. Martin, like Miller, learned she was capable of more than she thought. Not to give too much away, but the 66-year-old actress stops the show nightly, with stunts that would frighten a 21-year-old.
"At the first preview," Paulus recalls, "there was a full standing ovation after her song. I ran into her backstage, and she said, 'What do we do now?'"
Another key decision, Paulus says, was to retain the original Fosse choreography — something not all "Pippin" productions have done. For that, she turned to Chet Walker, a choreographer who also performed in the original show.
"We just clicked," says Walker, nominated for the best-choreography Tony. "She was open to all possibilities. Diane is an amazing storyteller."
Paulus, 46, grew up in New York City, where she lived just blocks from Lincoln Center. She studied piano and danced ballet. "I almost became a musician," she says. "But I think I realized that I think best as part of a group, in a collaboration."
Paulus went to Harvard and then to Columbia for graduate school, and trained as an actress. But directing appealed to her entrepreneurial side. "I was interested in all these bigger ideas of theater," she says.
One of her earliest successes was a collaboration with her husband, Randy Weiner, called "The Donkey Show," a disco version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that ran off-Broadway for six years, and various places around the world.
In 2008, Paulus took up her role at A.R.T., where she's made a name for herself partly because of the uncanny frequency with which her productions end up on Broadway.
But, she insists: "That's never the intention! It's about breaking boundaries. It's about creating a show that fits the mission." To that end, her next project is a new musical, "Witness Uganda," to open in February 2014 — the story of a black American volunteer who travels to Uganda to help build a village school. "It's sort of the anti-'Book of Mormon,'" she quips.
Will that show, too, ends up finding its way to New York? With her track record, no one would be shocked.
"She dreams big," says McDonald. "Her mind is just about as wide as any mind can possibly be. That's where the genius comes in."
AP Drama Writer Mark Kennedy contributed to this report.
—Copyright 2013 Associated Press Diane Paulus