Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Forks in Roads

By Cindi Pree

Life-altering choices aren't a new theme in the world of theatre, certainly. Like love and human relationships in general, life’s choices are the stuff of great theatre. Big choices are often also part of the business of theatre, too!

In the summer of 2007, MBT took a new fork in the road by adding in-house productions to our usual touring “road-house” shows. The first self-produced Summer Rep series consisted of three rotating plays featuring a combined cast of four actors. Building on the success of several years of Summer Rep, we launched Winter Rep in February 2010 and Main Stage Rep in October 2011. Winter Rep is a single play with multiple performances, while Main Stage Rep represents yet another fork as a much larger, Broadway-style production.

Summer Rep is now an established annual event at MBT. The upcoming 2014-15 season offers three fabulous chances to explore both the drama and the comedy that happens when we reach a point in our lives that leads to taking a new direction. Most of us who have lived well into adulthood either have faced, or see coming at us, that time where we pause to examine the past, dare to question the future, and perhaps choose a different fork in the road than the one we expected to take.

In Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Neil Simon works his expectedly witty magic as Barney Cashman, overweight and overworked, married and middle-aged, attempts to join the sexual revolution before it’s too late. Barney’s three seduction choices add their own humor in the form of a kooky 20-ish actress, a bundle of neuroses with a foul mouth, and a gloomy, depressed housewife married to Barney’s best friend. 

Lanford Wilson’s 1980 Pulitzer Winner Talley’s Folly joins Sally Talley in her journey as she explores her choices: probable spinsterhood or life with a kindred spirit she is sure her family will never approve. Set in 1944 Missouri, these characters find a touching wholeness rare in human relationships.

In the final selection of this summer’s season, we take a devious and delightful romp with Becky Foster as she explores a different fork in the road that is her life. Becky’s New Car, by Steven Deitz, takes a look at the temptation Becky faces to flee her middle-age, middle-management, middling-marriage life.

Whether you have already faced that proverbial fork in your life’s road, wonder how you would react if you did, or you just want a great theatre experience, this stellar selection of plays will amuse, delight, and likely provoke some interesting conversations.

MBT Summer Rep runs July 15 through August 10.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Music: The Universal Unifier.

By Kristin Costanza

When I was a preteen and still rebelled against my bedtime, I looked forward every night to The Underground Planet on my local radio station. At 9 PM, the last of “today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites” would segue into what was sure to be my next favorite song. The energetic DJ Sini Man hosted an hour of music that wouldn't otherwise make the commuter cut. I could trust that what Sini introduced to me as a loyal listener would be edgy, alternative, and may even be deemed inappropriate by the parents who could hear my radio’s hum down the hall. Just by tuning my dial to 93.5 FM, I was taken away to a place that felt customized for a girl like me.

One night, Sini welcomed a very special guest to do an in-studio interview and performance. I had no idea who the talent I was hearing was, but I was enthralled with the humor passing between the young men delighting in each other’s conversation as they revealed stories about first love, hard times, and how music made it all okay. I was so enthralled that I began taping (yes, on a cassette tape recorder) the show, anticipating that I’d wish to revisit this moment in the future. The two finished the broadcast in a duet of the up-and-coming artist’s first single, “April Fools,” which I listened to on repeat for the next few weeks. The artist I was introduced to that night was Rufus Wainwright, a singer-songwriter who has since become the writer of an opera and one of today’s most iconic adult contemporary performers, and who remains one of my biggest musical influences.

I can’t help but recall my reverence for radio when thinking about the upcoming Memphis, a new Broadway musical that explores music’s power to connect people. DJ Sini introduced me to new music because he delivered it with such enthusiasm and genuine interest.. In Memphis, we are given Huey Calhoun as our faithful DJ, who does the unthinkable by playing “race music” to a listener base made up almost entirely of white people. It’s a shared love of this powerful, danceable music that brings Huey and Felicia, a black club singer, together, and it’s the music that eases the tensions cast on them by their 1950s Southern society. These characters are compelled beyond what’s expected of them in their choice to pursue their love, and it’s all thanks to the foot-tapping, finger-snapping music known today as the all-embracing rock ‘n’ roll. Memphis offers a look back at a time in history that today’s younger generations may not be aware of, the residual effects of which are still alive in the popular music of today.

You’ve got two chances to connect with this uplifting, rocking production at MBT May 20-21, so don’t miss one of the best shows of the season!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

That Classy Cocktail Sound

By Katharine Conrad

When it comes to entertaining, Thomas Lauderdale knows his stuff. The talented pianist made a name for himself at Harvard, not by playing piano (though he did plenty of that), but by appointing himself “cruise director” of his dorm. He planned group getaways for spring break, welcomed incoming freshmen by handing out Twinkies and flowers, and eagerly assisted the fashion-challenged. Sporting outrageous-yet-chic outfits, Lauderdale became legendary for his fabulous parties, glamorous theme bashes he organized to make up for what he felt was a distinct lack of glamour. A Lauderdale shindig was no typical college kegger – his parties are described as grand Gatsby-esque affairs: waltzes with live orchestras and ice sculptures, disco masquerades with giant pineapples on wheels, midnight swimming parties, and more. Pizza and beer were nixed in favor of more refined refreshments: strawberries and whipped cream, fresh squeezed orange juice, smoked salmon, and, for “chocoholiday” parties, mountains of chocolate.

It’s that same sort of glamour that Lauderdale brings to Pink Martini, the Portland-based “little orchestra” he founded in 1994. Pursuing an interest in politics at the time, he quickly became distracted by the so-called “entertainment” at the functions he attended, finding it “underwhelming, lackluster, loud, and un-neighborly.” Much like he did at Harvard, Lauderdale took it upon himself to add posh and polish to the city’s fundraiser soundtrack. His initial quartet quickly blossomed into a 12-piece ensemble, becoming successful enough that he was able to persuade Harvard classmate and vocalist China Forbes to join his cause. The two have been writing songs together ever since.

The heart of those songs is Lauderdale’s own sample-a-bit-of-everything style, asking, “What kind of band do I want to hear personally?” He compares the group’s repertoire to mixtapes of favorite songs, describing it as “sort of a big multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-style kind of project.” The result is an eclectic, even eccentric, collection that includes Abba’s “Fernando” sung in the original Swedish, an eerily nostalgic rendition of “Que Sera, Sera,” the vintage dreamy romance of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do,” and many, many original works. Forced to classify his music, Lauderdale says it’s “Hollywood musical crossed with global pop.”

For Pink Martini’s new album, Dream A Little Dream, Lauderdale reached out to collaborate with the von Trapps, the great-grandchildren of Capt. Georg and Maria von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame, and a talented ensemble in their own right. Lauderdale has mentored the group since they met two years ago in Portland, helping them broaden their repertoire to develop their own musical identity while staying true to their roots. In fact, the new album includes two songs from the famed film: the lighthearted “Lonely Goatherd” and, of course, the stirring “Edelweiss.” Frivolity and finesse: a true Lauderdale combination.

Pink Martini brings their signature sophistication, and the von Trapps, to the MBT Main Stage on Tuesday, April 15, 2014, at 7:30pm.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

More Than Just Flirts in Skirts

By Katharine Conrad

Quick: name a competitive event that involves hurtling a teammate into the air mid-synchronized backflip routine. Full points if you guessed competitive cheerleading (half points if you guessed its cousin, gymnastics). The term can be misleading – while so-called “sideline cheerleaders” operate in the traditional sense, rallying crowd support for players on the field or court, competitive cheerleaders are their own brand of athlete, less focused on cheering and more focused on elaborate displays of superior physicality.
Competitive cheer is a serious business – squads train with the same rigor as other athletes to develop the muscle tone and balance needed to execute stunts, flips, and tumbles. The person balancing on one leg fifteen feet in the air needs to be able to trust her teammates implicitly – one wrong move can lead to serious injury, so synchronization and teamwork are absolutely fundamental. Competitive cheerleaders must also be adept at a variety of physical techniques and styles, with routines borrowing and combining aspects of dance, gymnastics, and even acrobatics.

It’s a distinctive style of competitive movement, one the creators of Bring It On: The Musical wanted to get right. Choreographer/director Andy Blankenbuehler had won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Choreography for the 2008 Broadway hit In the Heights, but, having attended a cheerleader-less all-boys school, he didn’t have much experience in choreographing cheer routines. So he did what any self-respecting creative mind would and immersed himself in the world of competitive cheer, attending national competitions, consulting with respected judges and choreographers, and spending hours watching video clips online to get a feel for the different styles of cheerleading. Once he had an idea of the stunts he wanted, Blankenbuehler turned to the staff of the Universal Cheerleaders Association and the Varsity Cheerleading company for help in realistically (and safely) bringing them to life. To add extra authenticity, Blankenbuehler cast some of the most skilled competitive cheerleaders in the nation as squad members in the show.

The result is nothing short of astounding: Bring It On: The Musical features stunt after stunt and flip after flip, leading The New York Times to remark that the cast “should probably be racking up frequent-flier miles, so often are they airborne.”

Rounding out the show’s hit choreography are a slew of contributions from fellow Tony winners: movie-inspired original story by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), music by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), lyrics by Amanda Green (High Fidelity), and music supervision by Alex Lacamoire (In the Heights). Blankenbuehler believes this all-star creative team has resulted in a show even non-cheerleaders can appreciate, telling, “Throughout our lives we find our passions, we find out what we love, and we must have the courage to go for our goals. In this production, that’s all told through the lens of cheerleading, so if someone doesn’t know anything about it, they will still be able to relate.”

Bring It On: The Musical tumbles across the MBT Main Stage Wednesday, March 5, 2014, at 7:30pm.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The 39 Steps: A Path to Hilarious Hitchcock

By Katharine Conrad

Though the upcoming Winter Rep production of The 39 Steps is a comedy, the original book was anything but. Scottish author John Buchan’s adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps was written while Buchan was ill in bed being treated for an ulcer. According to son William, the title originated when his sister was counting the stairs at the convalescent home where their father was recovering. Said William, “My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down [the stairs] and gleefully announced, ‘there are thirty-nine steps!’” The tale was first published as a magazine serial story in 1915, becoming the first of five novels to feature main character Richard Hannay.

In the book, Hannay, an average-Joe-type Scot, is minding his own business in pre-WWI London when his mysterious American neighbor, Franklin P. Scudder, suddenly appears at his door. Scudder claims to be in fear for his life after discovering a scheme to assassinate the visiting Greek Premier, and says he faked his own death in pursuit of a ring of German spies. When Scudder is murdered in Hannay’s apartment, our hero becomes the most likely suspect, forced to go on the run to clear his name and stop the assassination.

Buchan called the book a “shocker,” an adventure story with unlikely events that readers can just barely believe. It was one of the first to feature the “innocent man-on-the-run” thriller archetype so widely used in books and movies today, and the non-stop espionage suspense made John Buchan the Tom Clancy of his day. The novel became a hit, especially with soldiers in the trenches of WWI, and spawned four sequels and numerous media adaptations.

The first and best-known adaptation was the 1935 black-and-white movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Deviating significantly from the book, this version introduced two female characters to the book’s all-male roster, altered the story to remove plot holes, and added the music hall and Forth Bridge scenes now widely associated with the film. Despite these changes, Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is routinely counted as one of the best British films of all time, and is widely considered to be superior to the screen adaptations that followed. Following Hitchcock came a 1959 color remake of that film, followed by a brand new movie version directed by Don Sharp in 1978. Sharp’s The Thirty Nine Steps starred Robert Powell and included a host of well-known British actors in bit roles. This version moved the action back to pre-WWI London, featured the iconic image of Hannay hanging from the hands of Big Ben, and spawned the prequel television series Hannay also starring Powell, which then led to a new BBC tv adaptation in 2008.

Beyond film, Buchan’s story remains popular enough to be reincarnated through 70 years of changing technology. Radio adaptations began with a 1939 Orson Welles broadcast, a 39 Steps video game debuted in early 2013, and Penguin Books released a so-called “interactive fiction” digital book called The 21 Steps in 2008. Technophiles of all generations have been enthralled by the novel’s nail-biting dramatic suspense.

That being said, the most inventive, truly unique reinterpretation of The Thirty Nine Steps brazenly defies sophisticated technology in favor of the world’s oldest entertainment platform: a stage. Originally debuting in 1995, the play is a send-up of the Hitchcock classic that puts a remarkably funny twist on the espionage thriller. Specifically, it calls for the entire 1935 film to be performed live with just a four-person cast. Those four people play over 150 characters without the benefit of movie magic, relying on speedy costume quick-changes, body language, fake mustaches, and the inherent comedy that comes from an actor performing a scene opposite himself. On-stage train rides and plane crashes are part of the mix, as are dozens of in-jokes and references to other Hitchcock classics like Psycho and The Birds. Productions of the play have received six Tony nominations and two wins, an Olivier Award, and a Drama Desk Award.

This funny, award-winning adaptation is one of the most popular versions of The Thirty-Nine Steps yet, a perfect combination of Buchan’s swashbuckling adventure and Hitchcock’s signature suspense, with an extra dose of comedy for good measure. It’s no wonder that MBT Winter Rep is eager to share the fun. The 39 Steps opens on February 14, 2014, in MBT’sWalton Theatre.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

One Man’s Blues

by Kristin Costanza 

“It’s Americana, if it’s anything.” That is how Kevin Moore, or Keb’ Mo’ as he is known, categorizes the music from his most recent album, The Reflection. The artist openly rejects claims that he is the “living link” between blues greats and his own influences Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, preferring to leave his sound unclassified. To you and me, the comparison is complimentary and accurate, but to an artist as creative as Keb’ Mo’ it leaves much unsaid.

Keb’ Mo’ built his music career in South Los Angeles around his guitar-playing and recently relocated to Nashville with his family to pursue a more independent recording experience. The Reflection delves deeper into his life and his roots than his previous albums and exemplifies his genre-blending style. According to Keb’, “[This album] is the culmination of all of my influences throughout my career.” The Reflection also marks the artist’s first studio album on his independent label Yolabelle International, with another studio album announced for a 2014 release.

Longstanding fans of Keb’ Mo’s jazzy, modern blues will see the vibrancy and artfulness that likely captured them originally and will also observe a cool and calm apparent in his current songwriting. Collaborations with country artist Vince Gill and R&B songstress India.Arie show Keb’s creative approach to the blues platform and flexibility within the genre.

A Grammy award-winner since 1996, Keb’ Mo’ has long been a critical success, and commercial success has built over time as well. Keb’ Mo’ has written music for such popular television series as Touched by an Angel, The West Wing, and the current Mike and Molly. He has even appeared on screen as a musician and actor in blues films Honeydripper, Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl (where he played previously mentioned influence Robert Johnson), and a favorite guest star platform for today’s musicians, Sesame Street.

A real musician’s musician, Keb’ Mo’ is always making music and performing. He doesn't require a new album release to be found playing some of blues music’s most esteemed venues. For the better part of 2013, Keb’ Mo’ hosted a monthly blues night at the Studio Gallery at Fontanel, inviting guest artists to take part in the intimate presentation of his music. It may come as no surprise that this showman plays more than the guitar he is known for. Other instruments in his repertoire include the trumpet, timbales, and the steel drum he played in a calypso band early in his music career. The way he tells stories through music that can both inspire and challenge his listeners makes Keb’ Mo’ one of our generation’s most important blues/Americana/jazz/R&B musicians. It is our pleasure to welcome him to the Main Stage on Saturday, February 22!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Far Cry: Chamber Orchestra for the 21st Century

By Katharine Conrad

When it comes to orchestras, a conductor is a standard feature. Typically the person who chooses the music, the conductor determines how a piece should sound, rehearses with the musicians to create that sound, keeps rhythm, and, in basic terms, tells the musicians when to play. It’s a pretty key position, which is why it’s so striking that A Far Cry doesn’t have one.

Ages 25-36, the string ensemble’s 17 members are a new generation in orchestral music. Says violist Jason Fisher, “Most of us couldn’t see ourselves in a traditional orchestra, if only because we had too many very personal ideas about exactly how, and what, we wanted to play.” The organically grown group began experimenting, described by violinist Alex Fortes as “[applying] the creative autonomy of smaller ensembles to a string orchestra [with] radically democratic leadership, where everyone [has] an equal say, with everyone pitching in on the administrative side to make it work.”

The Criers admit it was “pure anarchy” at first, but soon instituted a successful “constitutional republic” system, with the members democratically electing principles for each piece. They also created the unorthodox rotating position of “spanker;” if a rehearsal gets bogged down by creative differences, the spanker yells “spank!” and, no matter what the ensemble is doing, they must stop and move on.


With no guiding conductor, it’s imperative that each member is able to keep time for themselves, no matter how rhythmically complex. Coaching is a collaborative effort, as is the business side of the organization. Every member is also an administrator, and every position rotates, including the key “artistic axle.” The axle interacts with the “spokes,” the leaders of each piece, to make sure artistic decisions are facilitated by the whole group in a timely manner to present a polished final product.

That product is as unique and different as the group itself. The Criers’ programs tend to run the gamut of orchestral pieces, from classical to contemporary works, realizing their goal of “radical creative democracy.” Says Fortes, “We believe that the functioning of our group is representative of greater shifts in the artistic world towards more collaboration, more entrepreneurship, and more localism and community engagement.” Could we soon see a resurgence of interest in orchestral music? If A Far Cry has anything to say about it, absolutely. 

A Far Cry Chamber Orchestra will demonstrate their collaborative talent on the MBT Main Stage Friday, January 17, 2014, at 8:00pm.