Monday, March 18, 2019

"The Last Jews of Kalisz"- Keeping Alive The Rich Legacy of the Jews of Poland



Kudos to author Irv Kempner for his commitment to keep alive the memory of his father, David Kempner, who survived the Holocaust to live a full life in America. This very personal book, "The Last Jews of Kalisz," is also a loving tribute to the countless Jews from David's home town of Kalisz, Poland, who perished under the thumb of the Third Reich and their Polish collaborators.

The early chapters of this book set the scene and tell the history of Jews in Kalisz in Western Poland, perilously close to the German border. Jewish history of Kalisz began in the 12th century with settlers who were fleeing Crusaders. Over the years, the Jewish population of the city grew to close to 35%, and stayed that way until the purges began.

As I read the story of Mr. Kempner and his family and fellow citizens, I was reminded of the notorious quotation often attributed to Joseph Stalin: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." By highlighting his father's tale of survival in contradistinction to the death of many of his family members, author Kempner moves the reader beyond mere statistics to make the tragedy of the Holocaust very personal. Writing this book is only one part of Kempner;s commitment to uphold the memory of the Jews of Kalisz. He is involved in a movement called March of the Living that brings visitors to Poland and Germany to learn details about the history of the Holocaust.

After being liberated from a death camp in May of 1945, David Kempner made good on a promise he had made to a young woman he had met before his imprisonment. He tracked Marilla Freidenreich down in Germany. Not long afterward they were married. Thanks to the kindness of a boyhood friend from Kalisz who had emigrated to America, the newlyweds were sponsored to resettle in the U.S. by Manny Duell. David started as a low-wage worker in the garment industry, and eventually founded his own successful company.

My reason for giving this fine book 4 stars rather than 5 is the author's propensity for needless repetition. He often repeats the same information several times within the same page or paragraph. For the second edition, some judicious editing will make this important book  even more compelling reading.

Enjoy.

"If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka" by Tori Sampson - at Playwrights Horizons


Tori Sampson is a new voice that should be - and can be - heard when you travel to Playwrights Horizons to see her play "If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka," She adapts a Nigerian folk tale, and uses Beyonce lyrics to address the issue of beauty and body image among teenage girls. She stands on the shoulders of Middle Ages Morality plays, and claims August Wilson's "Fences" as a strong creative inspiration for her writing. There is a bow to "Mean Girls" in the interactions among the village girls.

Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) is the prettiest girl in her village, coddled and sheltered by her parents. Maechi Aharanwa and Jason Bowen. Her fellow 17 year-olds resent her for her beauty and perfection, and plot to remove her as a threat by drowning her in a nearby river. Her rivals are Akim (Nike Uche Kadri), Adama (Mirirai Sithole),and Kaya (Prumzile Sitole). The role of Kasim, the young man who catches the eye of Massassi, is played by Leland Fowler.

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy
Nike Uche Kari, Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sitole
"If Pretty Hurts. . ."
by Tori Sampson
at Playwrights Horizons
Through April 5

The tale is narrated by Rotimi Agbabiaka, as Chorus. He throws a good bit of campy Billy Porter into his vibrant portrayal of the voice of the village oral tradition.

The plot to drown Massassi is complicated by the fact that the river is inhabited by river spirits. In the most visually and aurally stunning scene in the play, we see Massassi being welcomed by the spirits, accompanied by a soaring Gospel rendition by Carla R. Stewart as The Voice of the River.

The Drowning Scene
"If Pretty Hurts. . ."
by Tori Sampson
at Playwrights Horizons
Through April 5
There is a scene that closes the play that shows one of the girls sitting at a makeup table applying beauty products while gazing in a mirror. Ms. Sampson is offering this play as a mirror to prompt us to take a look at ourselves and at our culture's preoccupation with surface beauty while ignoring deeper values. While this play is not perfect and could use some judicious cutting, it is a compelling examination of a contemporary issue that rightly has caught the eye of a number of  playwrights.

The cast is well directed by Leah C. Gardiner. The shimmering Scenic Design is by Louisa Thompson, Costumes by Dede Ayite, Lighting by Matt Frey. Original Music and Sound Design are by Ian Scot.

The play run at Playwrights Horizons through April 5th, and is worthy of your patronage and consideration.

Enjoy!

Al

A Jewish Joke - A Play by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson - McArthyism Was No Laughing Matter

Phil Johnson as Bernie Lutz
"A Jewish Joke"
by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson
The Roustabouts Theatre
Theatre Row
The Roustabouts Theatre production of "A Jewish Joke" is a serious exploration of the invidiousness of the the Hollywood Blacklist during the McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria. We see the destructive results of the witch hunt through the eyes and voice of a screen writer, Bernie Lutz, played in a tour de force performance by the amazing Phil Johnson. Mr. Johnson co-wrote the script of "A Jewish Joke" with Marni Freedman.

In the course of an hour and a half, we get to see Bernie travel a painful arc, from euphoria to despair. The play is set on the eve of the Premiere of a film that Bernie wrote with his partner, Morris Frumsky, who is notably absent. The action transpires in Bernie and Morris's writer's bungalow on the MGM lot in 1950. As Bernie awaits the arrival of Morris - a la"Waiting for Godot" - he handles an avalanche of incoming phone calls, each of which leads him deeper into the realization that he and Morris are the targets of an investigation into Communists in Hollywood.

When the pressure on Bernie gets too great, he injects comic relief by pulling an index card from his desk and reading a standard Jewish joke in an aside to the audience. It is an ever-present reminder that humor, and especially Jewish humor, almost always is birthed in tragedy, As the reality of the situation becomes clear, Bernie faces a moral dilemma. The FBI offers him a chance to save himself by implicating Morris. As he wrestles with this crisis, we see Bernie slowly emerge as a mensch from the chrysalis of a schlemiel. Under the fine direction of David Ellenstein, Mr. Johnson gives a memorable performance that is no joke.

Phil Johnson as Bernie Lutz
"A Jewish Joke" 
by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson
The Roustabouts Theatre
Theatre Row

Costume Design is by Jordyn Smiley and Peter Herman and Sound Design by Matt Lescault-Wood.  The play can be seen - and should be seen- at Theatre Row on West 42rd Street.

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

"The House of Medici" by Christopher Hibbert - Insights Into Renaissance Florence and Beyond


Previously, I reviewed the book "The Medici Effect" by Frans Johansson.  In his work on innovation, Frans uses the Medici family of Renaissance Florence as template for the kind of enabling patronage that draws together talent from a variety disciplines, arts and sciences - with the ultimate impact of empowering extraordinary levels of creativity and innovation.

As I read Johansson's book, I was struck by the fact that I knew precious little of the history of the Medici and the story behind them emerging as the greatest patrons of the arts the world has ever known.  Despite the fact that I have visited Florence, Italy, I still felt that my knowledge of that world needed to be enhanced.  As someone who often alludes to Renaissance Men, I felt that it behooved me to learn more about the time and place that spawned the first generation of prototype Renaissance Men - Leonardo, Michelangelo and their ilk.

A quick Google search led me to Christopher Hibbert's classic book on the history of the Medici - "The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall."  Hibbert does a nice job of leading the reader through a Grand Tour of several generations of the Medici - bankers to the Papacy who investments a large portion of their largesse in supporting artists and scholars of many stripes.  A nice set of end notes provides a parallel tour through the architectural history of all of the sites mentioned in the body of the text.

While I will not take the time for a full review here, I do want to share some insight that I gleaned early in the book that shed important light on how Florence emerged as the haven for genius that turned it into the magnet that it remains today for people who want to experience the glory of its Golden Age.

In 1438, Cosimo Medici arranged for a Council to be convened in Florence that would attempt to repair the breech between the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church centered in Constantinople.  The Council ultimately failed to bridge that theological chasm, but had more salubrious effects on the reputation of Florence as a center for the arts and scholarship.

"Yet for Florence, as Cosimo had foreseen, the Council had happier consequences.  As well as profiting the trade of the city, it was an important influence on what was already being spoken of as the Rinascimento ["Renaissance"].  The presence of so many Greek scholars in Florence provided an incalculable stimulus to the quickening interest in classical texts and classical history, in classical art and philosophy, and particularly in the study of Plato, the great hero of the humanists, for so long overshadowed by his pupil, Aristotle." (Page 68)

This book helped me to fill in some missing pieces in my understanding of how the Renaissance emerged from the Dark Ages that had beclouded and adumbrated Europe for so many centuries.  I recommend it as a useful resource for those, who like me, are not serious students of history, but who desire to know more than "the average bear" about the intellectual history of Western Civilization.

Enjoy.

Al

Thursday, February 28, 2019

"Crack The Funding Code" by Judy Robinett - A MUST READ for Founders Seeking To Fund Their Startup


Whether a founder is looking to start a new business or grow an existing enterprise, finding appropriate sources of funding is always a major challenge. Only a small percentage of entrepreneurs are successful insecure funding from banks, angel investors, or venture capitalists. Author Judy Robinett offers a vital tool for increasing a founder's chances of success. "Crack the Funding Code" lives up to the promise of the subtitle: "How Investors Think and What They Need To Hear To Fund Your Startup." Throughout this well-conceived book, she and her team of collaborators and guest writers take the reader inside the mind and mindset of a wide variety of investors.

Having set the stage for helping the founder think like an investor, she leads the reader through a logical progression of topics: What kind of Investors are out there, How to choose the right target investors, How to secure an appropriate introduction, How to prepare for first and second meetings, The details of financial information that will be needed, How to read a term sheet, How to prepare for due diligence, and finally, How to decide whether or not to accept an offer of investment.

This book will be literally "money in the bank"  for any founder who assiduously follows the path that Ms. Robinett has laid out here. There are several important themes that stand out:

Never, under any circumstances, cold call a potential investor. That investor will surmise that if you lack the resources and resourcefulness to secure a warm introduction from someone the investor knows and trusts, then you do not have what it takes to build a successful company.

The initial scrutiny by potential investors will be of the person of the founder and his or her team. Is this a person of integrity, intelligence, hard work with a track record that leads me to believe they will make good use of any money I might choose to invest? Are they responsive in a timely and respectful manner? Are they open to coaching and constructive feedback? Would I enjoy interacting with them deeply over the next 3-5 years as together we build a company? It is only in later meetings that the investor will take a close look at product, service, and business plan.

Now that I have finished reading this MUST READ book, I plan to hand my copy to a first time entrepreneur who is just beginning the journey of securing funding for a startup. This book will make an excellent compass as he begins that long journey.

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline - A Thoroughly Engaging Scavenger Hunt In Cyberspace


In a recent visit to a client in Texas, I entered into a discussion with the family about interesting books we had each read. One of my client's sons - a Millennial - told me about "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline. The plot and structure reminded me of some of the novels of Neal Stephenson that I have come to appreciate, so I decided to add the book to my reading list. Before I left Austin to return to Boston, my client's son graciously gifted me with his lovingly dog-eared copy of the novel, and I was off on a fantastic journey.

While the primary audience for this tale of a hi-tech and high stakes multiplayer contest is Young Readers, this Baby Boomer thoroughly enjoyed the story and the literary style that Mr. Cline brings to his craft. The plot revolves around a dystopian world in 2044.  Teenager Wade Watts is an orphan living with a drug-addled relative. His only real pleasure as he seeks to stay alive is experienced when he is on line playing games and solving riddles in cyberspace.

Things take an interesting turn when the will is read of a billionaire game designer. The will announces that the winner of a complex scavenger hunt will receive the bulk of the hermit's fortune. And the race is on, pitting Wade and a few of his on-line friends against a devious global cartel that will stop at nothing to claim the prize and eventually gain control over all of cyberspace.

The pace of the narrative is non-stop action, intrigue, and hidden dangers. Players whose default setting is independence and isolation have to choose to adapt and become interdependent if they want to survive this deadly sprint and claim the prize. The science and science fiction that the author describes are both fascinating and plausible.  The novel is full of fun allusions to pop culture phenomena from the 1980's, when Halladay, the billionaire game developer, was in his heyday.

The journey through the novel's almost 400 pages is well worth the investment of time and brain share.

Enjoy!

"Gone So Long" by Andre Dubus III - A Great Writer At The Top of His Game


It was well worth the wait for Andre Dubus III to produce his latest novel, "Gone So Long." As a novelist, Dubus was gone far too long, but he is back and in top form. I have followed his work closely since reading "The House of Sand and Fog," What I have always appreciated about Dubus' writing is the indelible and memorable characters he creates, and the strong sense of place. In the case of "Gone So Long," the two places are the North Shore of Boston, specifically Salisbury Beach and Newburyport. Subsequent action takes place around the rural Tampa Bay area.

The three main characters include Daniel Ahearn, an ex-con who has finally finished his parole many years after killing his wife, Linda, in a fit of jealous rage. The murder took place in front of his three year-old daughter, Susan. Susan was raised by her maternal grandmother, Lois. The grandmother's mission in life was to shield Susan from any contact with her father.

Daniel senses that he is nearing the end of his life, with his prostate cancer accelerating. So he does research, and finds that his estranged daughter Susan is living in Florida, teaching English, and struggling to find the courage to publish her writing. He decides to head south and try to make amends with his daughter after an absence of almost 30 years. He has no idea if she will agree to see him.

The development of the characters in this novel is brilliant. The end result is that even Daniel, a murderer, becomes a sympathetic figure. Ugly - hooked-nosed with eyes set too close together - he struggles to find answers to why he allowed himself to become consumed with rage and jealousy of his beloved Linda. We see Susan grappling with a complex relationship with the over-controlling Lois. She also is not sure how to learn to really love her husband, after she had spent her adolescence and early adulthood in a series of meaningless and promiscuous relationships. As the action progresses, the individual threads begin to weave themselves together, toward a denouement that is not entirely predictable. Themes of forgiveness, identity, jealousy, creativity, ambivalence, obsession, and brokenness are explored as the story unwinds.

I mentioned the writer's strong sense of place. Daniel was able to attract Linda in their youth because his sonorous voice allowed him to be hired as the DJ on the iconic Himalaya ride at Salisbury Beach. Beginning with their high school years, both my sister and brother worked at Shaheen's Fun Park in the late 1960s and early 1970s. so, I was intimately familiar with the Beach. Dubus perfectly captures the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the kitschy Salisbury Beach ethos. A could almost taste the friend dough, and hear the screams from the Himalaya riders.

It is hard to imagine a more engaging and thought-provoking novel. If you appreciate great writing and story telling, this book is a must read.

Enjoy.

Al

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review of "The Boys Who Woke Up Early" by A.D. Hopkins - A Brilliant First Novel


In creating his intriguing first novel "The Boys Who Woke Up Early,"A.D. Hopkins has drawn from the deep well of his memories of growing up in Appalachia at the end of the Eisenhower era.  The title has a wonderful double meaning. Stony and Jack were two friends living in the southwest Virginia town of Early. While still in high school, they teamed up to form a private detective practice. I think of this work as The Hardy Boys meet "To Kill A Mockingbird," with a dash of "Tom Sawyer." The boys volunteered to help at the short-staffed sheriffs office. Through that lens, they saw the underbelly of the Jim Crow South, and eventually played a role in changing the nature of racial tensions and race relations in their corner of the world. So, in that sense, they helped to wake up the town of Early. And in another sense, they became "woke" to the realities of discrimination and prejudice at an early age.

As told through a series of adventures and misadventures, we see Stony and Jack learning to find their place in a backwoods world that was mired in old ways of thinking while the world around them was changing. This is a coming of age story - both for these two young men and for the town that they called home.

The narrative is full of tales of comradeship, moonshine, hunting, bullying, Klan rallies, domestic violence, political corruption, puppy love, and a feud that rivals that of the Hatfields and McCoys. The author has created characters that are both believable and relatable. I came to care about each of them.

This is a book worth reading. I look forward to the author's next offerings.

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Classic Stage Company Presents August Strindberg Retrospective - "The Dance of Death" and "Mies Julie" In Repertory

August Strindberg
1849-1912
Classic Stage Company is staging an impressive look back at two of August Strindberg's best known plays. "The Dance of Death" and "Mies Julie" are running in repertory through March 10 in the East Village - 136 E. 13th Street.

"The Dance of Death" being presented is a new version by Conor McPherson and Directed by Victoria Clark. The title of the play has multiple meanings. Protagonist, Swedish Army Captain Edgar (Richard Topol), and his wife, Alice (Cassie Beck) are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Yet it is clear from the opening montage that love has no place in this relationship, and the Silver Anniversary is tarnished. Edgar is literally dancing with death as his heart is giving out. And it becomes clear that the playwright (thrice divorced himself) sees dysfunctional marriage as a figurative dance of death. As the action of the play progresses, that figurative dance almost becomes literal as swordplay enters the arena. The cast of characters is filled out by Kurt (Christopher Innvar), a former lover of Alice and newly appointed Head of the Quarantine Station at the remote island outpost to which Edgar and Alice have been posted The addition of Kurt to the mix throws additional light and shade on the complex relationships among the three.

Set Design is by David L. Arsenault, Costumes by Tricia Barsamian, impressive Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier, Sound Design by Quentin Chiappetta, and Original Music by Jeff Blumenkrantz.

Running in repertory is Yael Farber's adaptation of Strindberg's "Mies Julie." The play is set in South Africa on the eve of the annual celebration of Freedom Day. The characters in the play are anything but free. Julie (Elisa Kibler) is the daughter of a Boer farmer. She was raised lovingly by the housekeeper, Christine (Patrice Johnson Chevannes). Christine's son, John (James Udom), and Julie played together as children and became friends. But as they became young adults, their expected roles were solidified - John as farm laborer, Julie as the untouchable daughter of the white land owner. Yet their passion thoughtlessly breaks through those taboos and they enter into a night of passion that fuels a desperate love/hate Dance of Death.

James Udom as John
Elisa Kibler as Julie
"Mies Julie" by Yael Farber
Adapted from the play by August Strindberg
Classic Stage Company
Through March 10th
Photo by Joan Marcus

The play examines the deep wounds of the policies of colonialism and dispossession. The farmhouse is built over the graves of Christine's ancestor's, represented by the ghostly figure of Ukhokho (Vinie Burrows), who glides silently through the action as a reminder that the racist policies and actions of the Boers haunt the present generation.

The play is sensitively Directed by Shariffa Ali, who was born in Kenya and lived in South Africa before relocating to the U.S. She infuses into this production her sensibilities to the complexities of social structures and strictures. The creative team include Set Design by David L. Arsenault, Costumes by Ntokozo Fuzanina Kunene and Andrew Moerdyk, Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier, Sound Design by Quentin Chiappetta, and Original Music by Andrew Orkin.

Strindberg plumbs dark depths in his plays. In each of these two works, it becomes clear that as individuals struggle to find their place in the world and within relationships, they fight forces within themselves and outside of themselves in their culture. Although the actions of these two plays are set in Sweden and in Africa, the lessons are applicable to the struggles we face in America in this century.

Make your way to the East Village between now and March 10th and see both of these fine productions.

Enjoy!

Al


Playroom Theater Presents "God Shows Up" by Peter Filicia - A TV Evangelist Feels the Wrath of God!

Lou Liberatore, Maggie Bofill, Christopher Sutton
"God Shows Up" by Peter Filichia
Playroom Theater - 151 W. 46th St.
Through February 21st
Photo by Andy Evan Cohen
Playwright Peter Filicia has perfectly captured the bizarre and profane world of TV evangelists, using an effective blend of gallows humor and well-placed righteous indignity. In "God Shows Up," evangelist Dr. Thomas Isaac Rehan (Christopher Sutton) invites his viewing audience to pay close attention to his next guest - none other than The Almighty Himself (Lou Liberatore). In the Beginning, God shows up dressed like a lumber jack, and engages in light banter with Rehan about the weather and other topics. But The Omnipotent One eventually brings the focus of his questions to His real agenda - unmasking the hypocrisy of Rehan and his ilk.

Every few minutes, Rehan interrupts the dialogue to hawk the latest holy tchotchke that viewers can receive for a donation to the ministry. As God - also presented in female form by Maggie Bofill - continues His/Her questioning, we learn of Rehan's expensive limousines, designer clothing, extravagant homes, body guards, child labor in the developing world making trinkets for pennies a day, sexual impropriety,etc.

While appearing over the top, this portrayal of the prototypical TV evangelist hit close to home. I recently fell asleep with my TV turned on. When I awoke at 3:00 AM, there was an evangelist I had not seen before, promising blessings galore if viewers would send $58.00 to unleash God's bounty upon them. There was the Prosperity Gospel in all of its ugliness and bad theology.

The trinity of actors are effective in telling the story, and are well directed by Christopher Scott. The action is helped by excellent Projection and Sound by Andy Evan Cohen, Lights by Joan Racho-Jansen, Costumes by Michael Platkowski, and Set by Josh Iacovelli.

The play runs through February 21st at the Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th Street.

This play is worth seeing. And that is the Gospel truth!

Enjoy!

Al

Saturday, February 02, 2019

"Barefoot" by Kate Billingsley & Thomas G. Waites - by Black Rose Productions at the Gene Frankel Theatre - Through February 9th


"Barefoot" is a fascinating study of a love quadrangle - soon to become almost a pentagon when the Pizza Delivery Man (Trent Cox) is baked into the narrative - that at its core is an existential exploration of the meaning of life. The play opens with Sylvia (Playwright Kate Billingsley) arriving home, drenched from a downpour, and clearly verklempt. This quintessential Jewish American Princess dourly surveys her domain, which is filled with elegantly wrapped wedding gifts that have arrived in advance of her approaching nuptials.Before she has had a chance to collect herself, a knock is heard at the door, announcing the arrival of equally soaked Teddy (Elissa Klie). It seems that Sylvia has just caught Teddy kissing the groom-to-be, Robert (Judah Tobias), and Teddy wants to apologize and explain.

It is clear from the dual entrances of the protagonist and antagonist that the playwrights are showing us that "into every life a little rain must fall."  As the narrative develops, it becomes clear that this deluge of existential rainfall includes betrayal, obsessive compulsive behavior, mistrust, abuse of drugs and alcohol, clashes over socio-economic status, and verbal and psychological abuse.

Things take an interesting turn when the next knock on the door brings Robert and Marc (Will Rosenfelt) into the mix. Marc is Teddy's cuckolded finance, and he is not too pleased to learn that she has been fooling around with Robert. The playwrights do a commendable job of demonstrating the biblical principle of "straining at gnats and swallowing camels." A sign inside the front door commands those entering to remove their shoes and go barefoot in the home. Sylvia is trying to keep specks of dirt from marring her perfect world, but has no trouble later in the play trashing her own place by allowing cocaine to be snorted from her coffee table, and throwing and smashing fine china dishes in a fit of pique. Likewise, Sylvia and Robert's need to control is shown by their assiduous insistence on pronouncing February as "Feb-roo-ary," Perhaps they can control the enunciation of their tongues, but not much else.

The interplay among these four as they act out what happened during the betrayal is both hilarious and heart-breaking. The arrival of hipster Pizza Man adds a new element of homoerotic tension to the mix.

Co-playwright, Thomas G. Waites directs this quintet of actors with a deft touch, allowing each to establish a distinct persona. The actors are uniformly convincing in their roles. Despite their various peccadilloes, these are characters we come to care about, seeing through the fog of their ennui and nihilism. Several of the characters explicitly express the underlying theme of this play:"Does this existence of living, loving, betrayal, fighting, and dying ultimately have any meaning?"

Produced by Black Rose Productions, "Barefoot" runs through February 9th at the Gene Frankel Theatre at 24 Bond Street.

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

"Carmelina" - Musicals In Mufti Series at The York Theatre Company - Through February 3rd

Original Poster
"Carmelina"
1979
It is a truism in the world of theater that "there are no small parts - only small actors." Never has that cliche been more true than in the case of the current enchanting production of "Carmelina," the opening salvo in this year's York Theatre Musicals in Mufti series. The role of Roberto, a humble fisherman.s son (Antonio Cipriano) does not offer much in the way of solo opportunities throughout the musical, but it is crucial, in that Roberto opens the play by introducing the first strains of "It's Time For A Love Song." Roberto enters from the rear of the house, accompanying himself on the guitar, and meanders down the aisle and onto the stage. Mr. Cipriano's voice and stage presence are such that with the opening note, I turned to see where the sound was coming from and who might be producing such perfect music. From that moment, I was drawn into this fisherman's net, and into the charming web woven by Alan Jay Lerner's story and lyrics and the melodious music of Burton Lane.

Antonio Cipriano as Roberto
"Carmelina"
Musicals In Mufti Series
The York Theatre Company
Through February 3rd

The plot is based upon a 1968 film, "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell," starring Gina Lollobrigida. The story line is remarkably similar to that of "Mama Mia," with a young woman having conceived a daughter during wartime, and not knowing which of three men may be the father.

For this staged reading limited production, Director Michael Leeds has assembled a stellar cast, ably supported by Musical Director David Hancock Turner on piano, and Joseph Wallace on bass.

Carmelina (Andrea Burns) shimmers when she embraces the beautiful songs written for the protagonist. In particular, "Someone In April," which she shares with her cook, Rosa (the brilliant Anne L. Nathan) is memorable. Not only is the song lovely, but it brilliantly provides back story to explain how the sweet sixteen year old Carmelina could have had three lovers in the course of one short month.The role of Rosa is written and acted in a way that brought to mind the comic relief provided by Juliet's nurse in "Romeo and Juliet."

In order to protect her reputation among her pious neighbors in the small Neapolitan village, Carmelina invents a story of a husband, American GI Lt. Eddie Campbell, who died heroically in the war. In the meanwhile, she has convinced each of the three soldiers with whom she shared a night that he has a daughter who needs support. She has been receiving three checks each month for seventeen years!

Vittorio (Joey Sorge) has been in love with Carmelina forever, but she refuses to accept his offers of marriage in order to preserve the charade of being a grieving widow. Mr. Sorge gets to showcase his powerful voice in "Carmelina," "You're A Woman," and "I Will Kill Her," as well as a reprise of "It's Time For A Love Song."

The three "father's" are part of a regiment of veterans who come from the U.S. to revisit the site of their war service in Italy. The three actors, Evan Harrington, Timothy John Smith, and Jim Stanek really shine as they harmonize in "One More Walk Around the Garden," a highlight of this delightful score.

Jim Stanek as Smith
Timothy John Smith as Karzinski
Evan HArrington as Braddock
"Carmelina"
Musicals In Mufti Series
The York Theatre Company
Through February 3rd

Carmelina's daughter, Gia (MaryJoanna Grisso) has been off at finishing school in Switzerland, but makes a surprise visit home after Roberto calls to tell her the Americans are coming. She can't wait to interrogate them about her war hero father. Naturally, complications ensue! Ms. Grisso has her vocal moment in the sun with the lovely "Smiling at Me."

MaryJoanna Grisso as Gia with her three "fathers"
"Carmelina"
Musicals In Mufti Series
The York Theatre Company
Through February 3rd

This production has as Scenic Consultant James Morgan, and Lighting Design by Steve O'Shea. If you want to see this delightful little gem, this coming weekend will provide the last opportunities. The 2019 Musicals in Mufti Series continues with "The Day Before Spring" (February 9-17) and "Lolita, My Love" (February 23-March 3).

Cast
"Carmelina"
Musicals In Mufti Series
The York Theatre Company
Through February 3rd


Enjoy!

Al



Tuesday, January 22, 2019

"Master of the Crossroads" by Paul Calderon - Presented by Primitive Grace Theatre Ensemble


Playwright/Director Paul Calderon has crafted a compelling and masterful drama in "Master of the Crossroads." The play draws in the audience at a primal level as we see three individuals struggling with the affects of PTSD upon each of them, and upon an unseen innocent victim.

The action is set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana as Yolanda (Sarah Kate Jackson) enters in a frenetic state, frantically downing pills and alcohol to try to find a way to calm herself so she can convince her ex-brother-in-law, Jim-Bo (Obi Abili) to intervene in an unfolding tragedy. Her ex-husband, Cornbread (Nixon Cesar), is off of his medications and has taken a hostage, whom he plans to crucify. Yolanda has discovered this heinous situation when she dropped by to check on Cornbread. Jim-Bo is reluctant to intervene for a whole host of reasons. He and his fraternal twin are estranged, each choosing to wrestle with their demons in isolation. Jim-Bo clearly has adopted a dual coping mechanism to handle his own PTSD and moral guilt. He has emotionally barricaded himself behind a facade of church and religiosity. He also is clearly someone who hangs onto sanity using Obsessive-Compulsive (OCD) rituals. The playwright shows this OCD behavior clearly when Jim-Bo obsesses over the color of the shirt and tie he will wear that day. It is also clear that Jim-Bo fears what may happen to shatter his fragile shell of normalcy if he engages with Cornbread.

It becomes clear as the narrative develops that Yolanda and Jim-Bo have a history that transcends their former relationship of brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Yolanda finally persuades Jim-Bo that he has an obligation to intervene, and the scene shifts from Jim-Bo's place to Cornbread's hovel. Cornbread enters naked, emblematic of the fact that by the end of the play each of these three characters will have been stripped naked emotionally and psychologically. As Jim-Bo tries to reason with Cornbread, the well-dressed brother - a Dr. Jekyll figure - devolves into a manic Mr. Hyde. At some point in the drama, each of the three characters erupts in a primal scream that we know comes from the depth of their troubled souls.

Mr. Calderon explores themes of hyper-religiosity, betrayal, guilt, denial, rituals, mental health, the trauma of war, and the insidious effects of poverty and racism to weave together a troubling tapestry of three lives hanging on by a thread. The acting by this trio is mesmerizing and believable. They are directed by Mr. Calderon in a way that gives them free rein to vent their rage, frustration and fear.

Be warned that the play features nudity, racially sensitive language, and violence, none of which is gratuitous, but is firmly rooted in the text and subject matter of the play.

The play runs through February 9th at the Bridge Theater at Shetler Studios, 244 W. 54th St.

Enjoy!

Al

"Intelligence" by Helen Banner - Presented at Next Door Theater by Lucy Jackson in Association with Dutch Kill Theater


Helen Banner's play, "Intelligence,"is a timely and poignant examination of the consequences - intended or unintended - of the current administration's evisceration of the U.S. diplomatic corps. The action takes place in the basement of a State Department building in Foggy Bottom. Three women - a senior State Department official and two young rising stars - are trying to figure out how to interact with a deadly leader in the Middle East whose cooperation they will need if any semblance of peace is to be achieved. It turns out that dealing with the off-stage enemies within the administration is just as challenging as dealing with an avowed jihadist.

Playwright Banner is not only a dramatist and librettist, she has also been deeply involved in creating choral works. So it makes sense that there is almost a musical quality to the rhythms and volumes of the dialogue that takes place among these three women as the tension mounts. As snippets of information flow into the isolated conference room, it becomes more difficult for each of these women to know who than can trust - within the trio, and in the world beyond. The three actors are superb in creating  characters wrestling with being intelligence professionals in an administration that clearly does not value intelligence - in both meanings of that word. They are Actors Equity members Kaliswa Brewster as Lee Culvert, Amelia Pedlow as Paige Smith, and Rachel Pickup as Sarah MacIntyre.

The playwright cleverly paints with white space - allowing the audience to learn about developments outside the room, elsewhere in D.C. and in the Middle East, through inference from bits of gossip that each of the women bring back from their brief forays outside the room.We also get to imagine events that are transpiring in the outside world through the limited electronic communication available in the room.

I have wondered how professionals within our State Department are coping with being marginalized by our current POTUS. Ms. Bonner provides some credible answers, and they are disturbing in terms of America's role in shaping global policy now and into the foreseeable future.

"Intelligence" is tautly Directed by Jess Chayes, with Scenic Design by Carolyn Mraz, Lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, Sound and Original Music by Sinan Reflik Zafar, and Costumes by Sophia Choi.

The play is presented by Lucy Jackson in association with Dutch Kills Theater. It runs through February 3 at Next Door@NYTW at 79 E. 4th St.

Enjoy!

Al

Monday, January 14, 2019

"Power Ball" by Rob Neyer - Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game


In writing "Power Ball," author Rob Neyer has very cleverly, and very effectively, chosen to dissect the details of a single baseball game as a way of examining the state of Major League Baseball as a whole. The result is an inning-by-inning, sometimes a pitch-by-pitch,, chronicle of a game that was played late in the 2017 season between the Houston Astros and the Oakland A's. This book stands of the shoulders of Michael Lewis's iconic "Moneyball." In choosing to examine one game as a microcosm of baseball, Neyer also follows in the footsteps of Arnold Hano, who wrote "A Day In The Bleachers," and Dan Okrent, who authored "Nine Innings."

This is simply one of the most engaging baseball books I have read in recent memory. The author uses specific situations in the unfolding game between the Astros and the A's to highlight significant changes in baseball: the emergence of a whole generation of power pitchers who can hurl over 100 MPH, the role of the defensive shift, the disappearance of the bunt, the changing perception of strikeouts by batters, the pace of the game, the out sized dominance of players of short stature, the new generation of super statistics, launch angle, exit velocity, etc.

Having attended literally thousands of baseball games in my lifetime, and having taken in thousands more via radio and TV, I am more than a casual fan of the game, Yet each chapter of this book offered me new insights into aspects of the game I had not previously considered.

If you love baseball, then this book is a MUST READ!

Enjoy!

Monday, January 07, 2019

"The Leader's Guide To Mindfulness" by Audrey Tang - How To Use Soft Skills To Get Hard Results


The topic of Mindfulness has been - well - on everyone's mind in this millennium. Each author, speaker, and guru seems to have his or her own definition of exactly what mindfulness is. As a core practice of Buddhism, the concept of Mindfulness has been around for centuries. Author Audrey Tang offers her opinion that the practitioner ought not worry too much about having a firm definition of Mindfulness, but should be willing to use any technique or practice that brings tangible results.

This is a very practical and pragmatic book. The subtitle gives a good overview of the author's intent:"How to use soft skills to get hard results." The three major sections of the book are entitled: Practical Applications, Personal Applications, and Mindful Growth. In each chapter, Dr. Tang offers templates or scripts for guided meditation specific to the topic at hand.

A chapter I found particularly helpful delineates the differences between Problem Solving and Decision Making. The different mindset needed for each of the two distinct situations is carefully explained. In the next chapter, she explores the key differences between Creativity and Innovation.

This book serves as a helpful handbook for anyone committed to becoming more self-aware, more present, more emotionally available, and more productive, using techniques steeped in Eastern practices of relaxation and meditation.

Enjoy!

Al