“Dorothy’s Dictionary” Explores the Magic of Books

By Mary Damiano

I love books. My earliest memory is of guests arriving at our home, and three-year-old me sitting in a big chair with a big, grown-up book, not being able to read it but hoping our guests would think I could, because to me, reading was the greatest thing in the world, and I wanted people to think I already had that super-power. 

The library where I grew up in Jersey City had a wall of glass windows and a staircase inside in front of those windows. I never tired of the view of the city as I ascended that staircase, a perfect view for a library, which put the entire world at my five-year-old fingertips. It was a proud day when I got my first library card—that little blue piece of cardboard was my passport to the world. When we moved to Hollywood, Florida the summer I was eleven, I sought out two places—the movie theater and the library—and spent much of that summer ensconced within their walls. They were my haven, my refuge, my escape to other places and other lives.    

The magic of books is celebrated in Dorothy’s Dictionary, a lovely play by E.M. Lewis, now getting its world premiere at Theatre Lab in Boca Raton. The play opens with Zan (Elijah Moseley) telling the audience about an incident at school that got him arrested. The judge sentences him to three months of community service at a convalescent home, where he is to report three times a week to a woman named Dorothy (Karen Stephens) and do whatever she says.

Dorothy is a patient in the home, a wise librarian whose room is filled with stacks of books. Zan’s assignment is pretty simple; he is to read to Dorothy and keep her supplied with library books, but even that is foreign to Zan, a sullen, withdrawn 15-year-old who has never been to a library and never read a book for pleasure. The first book he reads to Dorothy is The Old Man and the Sea, which he chooses because it’s the slimmest volume he can find and it has a boat on the cover. As Zan fulfills his community service, he not only discovers the world of books, but forges a friendship with Dorothy that changes and sustains them both in unexpected ways.

Moseley is perfect as Zan. His body language, and the way he initially avoids eye contact with Dorothy, illustrates his anger and the sadness that has permeated his young life. As Dorothy opens Zan’s mind through books and her no-nonsense life lessons, Moseley beautifully portrays that awakening. Stephens, a veteran performer who has appeared on stages throughout South Florida, delivers another layered, nuanced performance. Dorothy has been dealt a tough hand, but Stephens’ performance concentrates on Dorothy’s innate dignity and strength. Her Dorothy is a combination of straight-forwardness and sass, but some of Stephens’ most interesting moments are when there is no dialogue, and we feel her pain, her gratitude, her relentless light.

Michael McClain’s scenic design gives the story an ethereal quality, while Matt Corey’s sound design and Thomas Shorrock’s lighting enhance a crucial scene toward the end. Dorothy’s Dictionary is another gem from director Matt Stabile and his team, the kind of production that has helped Theatre Lab become a force in South Florida in a relatively short time—a well-written, character-driven play with terrific performances, excellent design elements, a show with real heart that inspires and makes you think.

Today, I have my own library, a room in my house with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with novels and biographies and books about movies and other subjects that interest me, collected over a lifetime. I haven’t been in a public library in some time, because I have all these books here at home, but Dorothy’s Dictionary makes me want to go back, to revel in the stacks and expand my world in new ways.

Dorothy’s Dictionary runs through December 11 at Theatre Lab, located on the FAU campus in Boca Raton.  For more tickets and more information, visit fauevents.com

Note: Theatre Lab has partnered with the Literacy Council of Palm Beach County and is conducting a book drive during the run of Dorothy’s Dictionary, so please contribute your new or gently used books.

Photo: Karen Stephens and Elijah Moseley in Dorothy’s Dictionary. Photo Credit: Morgan Sophia Photography.

Thinking Cap Theatre’s Shiny, New “Oscar” is a Triumph

By Mary Damiano

Sometimes the allure of a theatre production is who’s in it.  Sometimes it’s the piece itself. And sometimes it’s the theatre and the director helming the production.

For me, Thinking Cap Theatre falls into that third category. It doesn’t matter what show they show do, I’m more interested in what artistic director and company founder Nicole Stodard does with it. Stodard is an underrated force with endless vision and talent that she pours into every production.

Thinking Cap Theatre’s latest production is no exception. Written by Michael Mac Liammoir as a solo show which he performed more than a thousand times, Stodard has reimagined The Importance of Being Oscar into a funny and dark three-person show with vaudevillian sensibilities.

Ronnie Larsen, in a rare appearance outside of his own theatre, The Foundry, plays Oscar Wilde. Larsen is a terrific actor, and here at Thinking Cap, he gets to show even more of the range he exhibited in his own shows, An Evening with John Wayne Gacy and the more recent hit, The Actors, two plays Larsen wrote.  As Oscar Wilde, the famous and infamous Irish novelist, poet, and playwright who was tried and jailed for “gross indecency” over his relationship with another man, Larsen takes the audience on Oscar’s journey, from a young man arriving in London with child-like awe and wonder at the big city, through his own witty delight in his many successes, to his tragic downfall, a victim of societal mores, and his post-prison years when he sought to find a place for himself in a world that failed him. Larsen’s portrayal is elegant and funny, but also moving and heartbreaking.

The first act of the show is played broadly, with a wink to the audience, but the tone changes in the second act, when Oscar is on trial and eventually imprisoned. That shift echos Oscar’s change in circumstance. Larsen’s monologue of De Profundis, a long letter he wrote in prison to his former lover, is especially chilling, with Larsen’s plaintive performance of Oscar’s words set against a grim, shadowy projection of prison window bars. Stodard’s staging circles back to vaudeville in the final moments, with Oscar Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol set to bouncy music.

Travon Pierre and Bree-Anna Obst, who also designed the excellent sound and projections with Stodard, are terrific, playing all the other characters in the show, Oscar’s friends, lovers, colleagues, family, and jailers, as well as characters from The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. They change characters on a dime, with onstage costume changes from two armoires that flank the stage.

The Importance of Being Oscar is another feather in Stodard’s impressive Cap.  I can hardly wait to see what she does next.

The Importance of Being Oscar runs through Sunday, October 30, at MAD Arts, 481 S. Federal Highway, Dania Beach, For tickets and more information, visit ThinkingCapTheatre.org

Photo: Ronnie Larsen as Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Oscar at Thinking Cap Theatre.

Photo Credit: Ashley Brooke Miller.

“Fun Home” at Lake Worth Playhouse Is Fun and Compelling

By Mary Damiano

Michael Coppola and Kaia Davis in Fun Home at Lake Worth Playhouse. Photo: Bad Hair Day Photography

I thought I’d been to the Lake Worth Playhouse before, but walking into this grand old theatre, originally designed as a cinema, I realized it was my first time there. It’s a great venue for Fun Home a fun, insightful show that mostly takes place in the past, although its dysfunctional family dynamic is timeless.

Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, the autobiographical musical examines Alison’s struggle to understand her family life growing up, especially her relationship with her dad, her growing awareness that she’s gay, and her dad’s death when she was in college. The title comes from the slang term for her family’s funeral home. 

Fun Home features three versions of Alison—Small Alison, played Kaia Davis at the performance I saw; Medium Alison, played by Jenna Brooke Bellinato; and adult Alison, played by Jamie Mattocks. Each Alison gets a spotlight song. For Small Alison, its Ring of Keys, which describes her sudden awareness of her attraction to a woman.  Davis, who possesses true stage presence, belts out the song like an old pro. Exuberance shines through Bellinato’s performance of Medium Alison’s big number, the adorable, playful, Changing My Major.  And Mattocks beautifully illustrates Alison’s understanding of her family with Maps.

Aaron Bower is heartbreaking as Alison’s mom Helen, especially on Days and Days, one of the best moments of the show.  Michael Coppola’s portrayal of Alison’s dad Bruce—creepy, loving, abusive, and controlling—is spot on.

The three child actors in Fun Home are double-cast, and the night I saw the show, Small Alison’s young brothers were played by Ava Anger and Violet Segal, who ably portrayed the boys.  The kids’ big number, Come to the Fun Home their “commercial” for the funeral home, is delightful.

Sabrina Lynn Gore, a Carbonell Award nominee this year for her superb performance as the queen in Head Over Heels at Slow Burn Theatre Company, proves herself to be a skillful and imaginative director. The production design is cohesive and compelling. She keeps the pace brisk and the 90-minute show flies by.  She deftly moves her cast around Ardean Landhuis’s heavy, clever multi-level set, highlighted by his vibrant lighting.

This is your last weekend to see this terrific production. Don’t miss it.

Fun Home runs through October 16 at Lake Worth Playhouse.  For tickets and more information, visit LakeWorthPlayhouse.org

Musical “Six” Is a Ten

By Mary Damiano

I’ve always had a thing for odd numbers. My alarm goes off at 5:37 a.m. I always add 17 seconds to cooking times. I leave gas stations if I can’t get an odd numbered pump. But at Broward Center on Tuesday night, I discovered an even number I actually liked. A lot.

Six, the musical about the sextet of wives of Henry the 8th, is a rocking, electrically-charged good time.

The cast of Six. Photo by Joan Marcus

Here’s the premise: The wives take part in a sob story contest to prove which one endured the most hardships. It’s a clever idea and as the evening progressed, I could imagine how much fun Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss had writing the songs and coming up with modern takes on courtship and marriage in the 16th century.

Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived. Those were the fates of the six queens, in order, and they’re dying to tell us every sordid detail of why it may be good to be the king, but not so great to be the queen.

First up is Khaila Wilcoxon as Catherine of Aragon, who sets the tone with her energetic rocker “No Way”. Her divorce paved the way for wife number two, Anne Boleyn, played by Storm Lever as a ditzy bubblehead who sings the ironically titled, “Don’t Lose Ur Head”.  Jasmine Forsberg, as third wife Jane Seymour, soars with the power ballad “Heart of Stone”.  Next up is the delightful Olivia Donaldson as Anne of Cleves, whose “courtship” by Henry is portrayed as a Tinder match. One swipe right and bam—her status is changed to married queen, only to face cruel rejection due to her profile pic. (Who can’t relate to that?) Then there’s the second wife to lose her head, Catherine Howard, played with narcissistic mean-girl glee by Didi Romero.  By the time sixth wife, Catherine Parr, played by Gabriela Carrillo, takes the spotlight, the queens have engaged in a lot of cattiness in order to win their unusual contest. But Parr, the only queen to survive their common king, has a unique perspective that ties together the message of female empowerment with a big, metaphorical red bow.

Backed by the all-female band, Ladies in Waiting, the six queens traverse a variety of musical genres—rock, pop, dance, techno, and ballad. There’s a dance mix of “Greensleeves” and, naturally, a Spice Girls reference.  Gabriella Slade’s armor-like costumes can be described as Mad Max goes Elizabethan. Emma Bailey’s scenic design is sleek and spare, leaving a clean canvas for Tim Darling’s dazzling rock show lighting.

Six is a brisk 90 minutes with no intermission, and the creators and performers pack a whole lot of fun into that short time. It’s a rollicking good time with an inspired message—and the best even number to come along in some time. 

Six runs through October 23 at Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. For tickets and more information, visit BrowardCenter.org

Theatre Lab’s “Red Riding Hood” Is a Modern Take on an Old Tale

By Mary Damiano

One of my favorite parts of watching theatre designed for families is watching the children in the audience as they watch the show.  The wonder and awe on their faces, their eagerness to participate when called upon, and their delight in the spectacle unfolding before them all enhance the entire experience.

And that’s just what happened at a Saturday matinee of Theatre Lab’s production of Allison Gregory’s Red Riding Hood, a fun retelling of the classic story. The kids present were swept by theatre magic.

But the children weren’t the only ones enthralled by the show.  Some of the heartiest and most genuine laughter came from the adults in the audience.

Troy Davidson is elegant and eloquent as Wolfgang. He explains to the audience that this is a play, and he is an actor, and he will portray all the parts of the story of the wolf, the girl, and her granny. He is gleefully affected and thrilled to sink his teeth into such meaty roles. His plans are thwarted by Dayana Morales, a perky Delivery Person who wanders onto the stage with her scanner and package. She inserts herself into the action, much to Wolfgang’s chagrin, who loathes sharing the spotlight.  They quibble about the details of the story, like, what’s in that basket for granny? And why would a mom let her daughter go traipsing through a forest alone?

What follows is an absolute delight, a funny, creative take on an old story that manages to be true to the familiar tale and forge a new modern path that’s fresh, exciting, and heartwarming.

There are also a handful of songs, with live, original music performed by Paul Curtis, some whimsical moments featuring butterflies and a quail, and more than a whiff of magic. And there are puppets, too. Director Matt Stabile is known for his imaginative use of puppets in Theatre Lab shows, and these, designed by John Shamburger, are enchanting. 

The production elements are top-notch. Michael McClain’s charming set captures the spirit of a fairy tale and the underpinnings of backstage.  Dawn C. Shamburger’s costume for Wolfgang, especially his brocade coat, is absolutely gorgeous. Matt Corey’s sound and Thomas Shorrock’s lighting work together to create the right atmosphere.

Red Riding Hood is part of Theatre Lab’s Heckscher Theatre for Families series.  Don’t let that designation scare you away.  You don’t have to accompany a child to attend this show, and you certainly don’t have to be a child to enjoy it.

Red Riding Hood runs through October 9 at Theatre Lab, on the FAU campus in Boca Raton. For tickets and more information, visit Theatre Lab.

Photo: Troy Davidson and Dayana Morales in Red Riding Hood. Photo by Morgan Sophia Photography

“The Actors” Will Tickle Your Funny Bone and Touch Your Heart

By Mary Damiano

Jeni Hacker, Ronnie Larsen, Chad Raven, and David Kwiat in The Actors Photo by Jeff Walters

The laughter that filled The Foundry on the opening night of Ronnie Larsen’s play, The Actors, was so hearty, so raucous, that I would not be surprised if it spilled out of the theatre and onto nearby Wilton Drive. But I’m sure I was not the only one in the sold-out house fighting back a tear or two. 

Larsen’s play strikes the right balance between hilarity and heart-tugging in this delightful, genuinely moving story of a lonely, middle-aged man who still grieves the loss of his parents so deeply that he hires actors to come to his apartment and portray them a couple times a week, to give him the warm and fuzzy family feels he recalls from his boyhood.

There is also a charming, loopy, meta quality to this production as Larsen plays the main character, named Ronnie Larsen, and many of the plot details are based on Larsen’s own life. He reunites with his Grindr Mom team of super-talented director Stuart Meltzer and the brilliant, rubber-faced Jeni Hacker—the first scene alone between Larsen and Hacker is worth the price of admission—and adds Jerry Seeger, Chad Raven the incomparable David Kwiat to the mix.

This a gem of a play—easily the prolific Larsen’s best yet—is a stellar production and one of the funniest shows to grace a South Florida stage in years.  Do not miss it.  If you don’t laugh, you need your funny bone examined.

The Actors runs through October 2 at The Foundry in Wilton Manors.  For more information and to buy tickets, visit RonnieLarsen.com.

Hello Jerry! Revue of Broadway Titan’s Work Now at The Wick

By Mary Damiano

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Lauren Sprague, Susan Anton, Julie Kavanagh and Klea Blackhurst in Jerry’s Girls

Hello, Dolly!

If Jerry Herman had decided to rest on his laurels never compose another score or write another lyric after that show, his place in musical theatre history would have been firmly cemented.  Luckily, Jerry Herman isn’t that kind of guy.  His shows, from the cultish Dear World and Mack and Mabel to the beloved Mame and La Cage Aux Folles, are, simply, legendary.

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Lauren Sprague

Herman’s final show, Jerry’s Girls, now on stage at The Wick in Boca Raton, is a loving tribute to the career of a Broadway giant.

Jerry’s Girls began as a cabaret revue to showcase songs from Herman’s shows, especially Mack and Mabel, which was deemed a failure in its original run. After La Cage Aux Folles  premiered on Broadway, Florida impresario Zev Buffman approached Herman about expanding the cabaret revue, and Jerry’s Girls premiered at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Royal Palm Beach in 1984 before moving to Broadway the following year.

Director Lee Roy Reams, who has starred in two of Herman’s musicals at The Wick, La Cage Aux Folles and Hello, Dolly!, in which he made history but becoming the first man to play the titular role in a professional production, wanted to give Jerry’s Girls an update. So, instead of chorus girls, the leads are backed by Jerry’s Boys, including new Carbonell Award winner Elijah Word.

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Susan Anton

The star here—and The Wick loves to have a star—is Susan Anton, the tall blonde entertainer who gained fame in the 1970s through commercials and talk show appearances and notoriety in the 1980s for her relationship with diminutive British actor Dudley Moore.

Anton is joined onstage by Klea Blackhurst, Julie Kavanagh and Lauren Sprague. Word is joined in the chorus by a talented bevy of local boys, Anthony “AJ” Cola, Joshua Conner, James Giordano, Hugo Moreno and Mark Williams.

It’s a real treat to have a live band, musical director James Followell on piano, Julie Jacobs on drums and Rupert Wiawinski on bass—having the musicians on stage with the performers injects a lot of energy into the show. Emily Tarallo’s choreography is inventive and tailored to the needs of the cast. Jim Buff’s elegant costume design makes each woman look like a million bucks.  Randel Wright’s streamlined scenic design of  repeating rings and arches harkens to a simple club allowing the performers to shine.  The lighting design by Ginny Adams picks up nuances in the costumes and complements the setting of the songs.  The sound, by Justin Thompson, seems muffled at times.

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Julie Kavanagh

The show retains its cabaret roots.  The performers greet the audience as themselves and take the audience on a musical journey through Herman’s career, aided by tasteful projections by Josieu Jean, Jerry’s Girls is a primer on Herman’s work for newbies and a chance for seasoned theatre buffs to reminisce.

Most of the first act is devoted to Hello, Dolly! and Mame, the original two Jerry’s girls.  The second act begins with songs from Dear World but mainly features Mack and Mabel and La Cage Aux Folles.  Clever bits include a photo montage of performers who have played the iconic Dolly Levi over the years, which invites audience participation.  Another is a bit about the diverse things the song Hello, Dolly! has been used to sell, including Oscar Meyer products  (Hello Deli) and a president (Hello Lyndon). There is also a wonderfully staged homage to silent movies, which captures the essence of Mack and Mabel.

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Susan Anton and Jerry’s Boys

Anton is an affable performer who blends well with the other leads. Regarding solos, she is at her best on ballads—her rendition of And I Was Beautiful is lovely.  Her upbeat numbers include the title song to La Cage Aux Folles, which she does well, though her impressions of Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich mid-song fall flat and feel like the show has morphed into her own personal nightclub act rather than Georges’ emcee duties in the original musical.

Sprague delivers a beautiful version of I Won’t Send Roses from Mack and Mabel.  The lyrics have been tweaked to He Won’t Send Roses and offer a poignant female counterpoint to the original song. And Sprague’s duet with Blackhurst onKiss Her Now is stunning—their voices blend to form one gorgeous sound.  Kavanagh is terrific in Tap Your Troubles Away, accompanied by that bevy of boys and Look What’s Happened to Mabel.

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Klea Blackhurst

Blackhurst is the standout in Jerry’s Girls.  She and Anton have great chemistry in their duets, and her powerhouse voice wows.  Other singers reach for the rafters, but Blackhurst raises them.  She possesses both charisma and stage presence and fully inhabits whatever character she plays.  And when she sings the iconic I Am What I Am, she makes you believe the anthem was written especially for her.

The show is uneven—the pacing is off, some songs seem slowed down, and it doesn’t always sparkle as it should—but the good and great moments definitely outweigh the fair and flat ones. Negatives, though, can be put aside. Sometimes it’s dazzling and sometimes it’s cheesy, but this production of Jerry’s Girls is always entertaining.

Jerry’s Girls runs through May 13 at The Wick in Boca Raton.  For tickets and more information, visit TheWick.org.

Are There Coincidences? Not a Chance in “This Random World”

By Mary Damiano

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Robert Fritz and Melissa Almaguer in This Random World

Conversations with family and friends and chance encounters with strangers that show how individuals are connected is the focus of This Random World by Steven Dietz, now on stage at Main Street Playhouse in Miami Lakes.

 

Through about a dozen two-person meetings and conversations, Dietz shows how each individual can have an effect on someone’s life. There are no coincidences here; it’s two degrees of separation up close and personal.

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Laura Marrero and Robert Fritz in This Random World

The play opens with practical and pragmatic Beth (Melissa Almaguer) reading her obituary to her brother, Tim (Robert Fritz) and giving instructions for her death. Beth isn’t dying of some terminal disease, but she does love statistics and has run the numbers on the chances of her dying on a bucket list trip to Nepal.  Beth’s obit talk leads Tim to a meeting with Claire (Laura Marrero) his high school sweetheart and the one that got away, while Beth ends up stuck on a freezing mountain with Claire’s ex-boyfriend Gary (Zack Myers). Meanwhile, Scottie (Fern Katz) is planning a trip to Japan with her aide Bernadette (Rita Joe), who wants her sister Rhonda (Brianna Hart-Cox) to go in her place.

 

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Melissa Almaguer and Zack Myers in This Random World

Over the course of 90 minutes all of these characters merge in some unexpected ways, with no two characters having an in-person conversation twice. The result is a series of seemingly random vignettes that show the intimacy of this great big world.

 

This production, directed by Robert Coppel, brings Dietz’s story to life with mixed results.

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Robert Fritz and Briann Hart-Cox in This Random World

The biggest issue  is the scenic design by Amanda Sparhawk and the lighting design by Marcel Ferreira, which are a distraction rather than an enhancement to the plot. Wrinkled silver fabric behind black-framed screens hangs as a backdrop and on either side of the stage at the wings, creating a three-sided box for the characters. Chairs, tables and a few other set pieces are brought in and out by stagehands. The lighting design bounces off the shiny silver fabric creating an unfortunate garish look to most scenes. Projections of tall, spindly trees to represent an overgrown forest don’t make sense. Neither the set nor the lighting do anything to anchor the time and place of each setting, which includes an apartment, a restaurant, an airport, outside at sunrise, a mountain, a Japanese garden, a funeral parlor and a waiting room.

 

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Fern Katz and Rita Joe in This Random World

Katz has some nice moments as Scottie, a wise old woman determined to not to be a burden on her children. Fritz delivers an understated, measured performance in refreshing contrast to Myers, who either yells his lines or shows anger percolating just below the surface. And Almaguer, Hart-Cox and Marrero? Keep moving, folks, nothing special to see here.

 

Joe is the standout, infusing her character with a quiet integrity and delivering the kind of trademark performance that once again makes her the best part of a show. If only other performances and design elements of this production approached her deft skill, the overall result might have been a success.

This Random World runs through May 6 at Main Street Playhouse in Miami Lakes. For more information, visit MainStreetPlayers.com.

Photo Credit: Dennis Lyzniak

New Season at Island City Stage Includes a World Premiere Musical

By Mary Damiano

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Martin Childers, managing director, and Andy Rogow, artistic director, of Island City Stage at Pier Sixty-Six

Island City Stage could not have ordered up a more picture postcard perfect afternoon to unveil their 2018-2019.

The luncheon, held today at the rooftop lounge at Pier Sixty-Six on the intracoastal, which offers a 360-view of Fort Lauderdale, was a gorgeous setting to make the announcement to the press, board of directors, season subscribers and friends of the Wilton Manors theatre.

Andy Rogow, Island City Stage’s artistic director, revealed the season, which includes a drama and comedies, as well as a world premiere musical about two icons of the LGBT community, written by Michael Leeds, the theatre’s associate artistic director.

First up is Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tolins, a one man show about the curator of the mall Barbra Streisand created in the basement of her Malibu home.  The play will feature Matthew Buffalo, who teaches acting at New World School of the Arts in Miami.

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Carbonell Award winning actress Mallory NewBrough, who will play Bette Midler in a world premiere musical next year

Next up is that world premiere musical by Leeds, Bette and Barry: From Bathhouse to Broadway, about—who else—Bette Midler and Barry Manilow.  Mallory Newbrough, who won the Carbonell Award for Best Supporting Actress, Musical, earlier this month, will play Midler, and Carbonell Award nominee Michael Ursua will play Manilow.

Then there’s From White Plains by Michael Perlman, a play about a screenwriter who, while accepting an Oscar, outs the bully he believes pushed his gay best friend to suicide, and explores the long-lasting effects of bullying from different perspectives.  The play was brought to Andy Rogow’s attention by South Florida native Alex Weisman, an actor based in Chicago.  Weisman was set to star in the play at Island City Stage but is currently making his Broadway debut in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  Rogow called From White Plains the play next season he was most looking forward to doing.

Next is Veronica’s Position, a comedy about a Broadway diva who’s about to marry a conservative Republican politician.  The play is by Rich Orloff, whose short plays have been featured in South Florida theatres. Rogow characterized Veronica’s Position as a sophisticated comedy along the lines of The Little Dog Laughed by Douglas Carter Beane, which Island City Stage produced in 2015.

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Angel Burgos, president of the Island City Stage board of directors, with his partner, David Jobin

And speaking of short plays, Rogow said that while Island City Stage and City Theatre will partner again to present its sixth edition of Shorts Gone Wild this summer, the future of the evening of short, LGBT-themed plays is undecided, leaving Island City Stages’ summer 2019 production up in the air.

“Have we told all the stories we can tell in short form?” was the question Rogow was pondering in deciding whether or not to produce Shorts Gone Wild next year.

A highlight of today’s luncheon was entertainment by Newbrough who sang two Midler songs, the sassy One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show and the wistful ballad Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, giving the crowd a taste of what they can expect from her portrayal of the Divine Miss M.

Flex Passes for Island City Stage’s next season will be on sale in a few weeks.  For more information on Island City Stage, visit IslandCityStage.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take Me To Church: M Ensemble Delivers That Old Time Religion

By Mary Damiano

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Joseph Long in God’s Trombones

Can I get a Hallejulah? Can I get an Amen?

The M Ensemble, the company that won five Carbonell Awards at the recent April 2 ceremony, is back with its second show of the season, God’s Trombones.

While God’s Trombones seems different from Kings of Harlem, the play about a 1930’s Harlem basketball team, which won four of those five Carbonell Awards, the two bear some similarities.  M Ensemble styled both shows as immersive experiences, and both plays feature an important part of Black history and culture.

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Dancers interpret the poems in God’s Trombones

God’s Trombones is based on the 1927 book God’s Trombone: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson.  Johnson was an extraordinary man in any era, but especially for what he accomplished in his day.  At a time when the odds were against a man of color having a single professional career, Johnson had many, including teacher, principal, diplomat, poet, Broadway lyricist and lawyer—he was the first black man admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction.  He was an influential leader and held a prominent position in the NAACP.

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Daryl Patrice leads the choir in God’s Trombones

Johnson’s most famous book has been adapted to bring has words to thrilling life.  More than just bible stories, Johnson’s anachronistic storytelling, both humorous and passionate, are fashioned as sermons and accompanied by well-known hymns.

God’s Trombones is reminiscent of playwright Young Jean Lee’s Church, which was produced in 2014 at Thinking Cap Theatre in Fort Lauderdale.  Just as Church immersed its audience in an old time revival experience, complete with outdoor tent and sweltering August heat, M Ensemble’s God’s Trombones immerses its audience in the joyous celebration and raw emotion of a Sunday morning gospel service, with a few twists.

For example, as Joseph Long, playing one of the preachers, recounts The Creation, his words are illustrated by interpretive dancers.  The dancers, led by choreographer Jeffrey Cason, Jr., do excellent work and add another layer to the bible stories recounted in Johnson’s poems.

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Isaac Beverly passionately recounts the The Crucifixion in God’s Trombones

Long plays one of five preachers in God’s Trombones.  Each is a standout in a different way, bringing different styles and personalities to Johnson’s poems.  Long’s approach is steadfast and paternal.  Isaac Beverly’s passionate, heartfelt retelling of  The Crucifixion is humbling, while Ray Lockhart’s The Prodigal Son sears with fire and brimstone.  Jean Hyppolite gives power to Noah Built the Ark.  The lone female preacher, Toddra Brunson, turns her story, Go Down Death (A Funeral Sermon), into a powerful but tender tearjerker.

GT Choir Dancers

The Choir and dancers in God’s Trombones

The preachers are accompanied by a choir whose voices blend seamlessly into one.  But there are soloists who excel, despite having to compete with music so loud it often drowns out their voices.  Brunson concludes her sermon by leading the choir in Peace Be Still.  Long’s rich, clear voice is perfect for Go Down Moses.  And Asher Makeba, Brianna Woods, Deidra Chiverton and Sarah Gracel sing Were You There, creating a sound so rich and pure it may bring a tear or two.

GT Jeffrey

Choreographer and principal dancer Jeffrey Cason, Jr. in God’s Trombones

 

Director John Pryor has assembled a cast with heavenly voices, whether singing or proclaiming their truth. The simple set of risers and white draped chairs for the choir and a lectern for the preacher all framed by black curtains, leaves plenty of room for the dancers and for Mitchell Ost’s vibrant lighting design.  Shirley Richardson’s costume design is traditional, full dresses in purple spiked with vivid prints and sashes for the choir and pants and dashikis in tones of orange and yellow for the male preachers.  The dancers’ costumes enhance their characters, sometime lithe and body conscious, sometimes flowy dresses that enhance their movements.

God’s Trombones isn’t a play or musical in the traditional sense, but it is a theatrical experience worth having.

God’s Trombones runs through May 6 at M Ensemble.  For more information and tickets, visit TheMEnsemble.org.

Photo Credit: Deborah Gray Mitchell