Rent is Due

By Mary Damiano

Mike Westrich and Bruno Faria in Rent

Mike Westrich and Bruno Faria in Rent

It should come as no shock to anyone familiar with Slow Burn Theatre Company that their production of Rent is electrifying.

Director and choreographer Patrick Fitzwater’s imagination had a field day with this one, daring to change up some of the iconic elements of Rent and making it fresh and uniquely Slow Burn. Everything works: Fitzwater’s stripped down staging and joyous choreography; Sean McClelland’s steely, industrial platform set with its ominous clock—time literally hangs over the characters’ heads like the sword of Damocles; Caryl Fantel’s musical direction amps up and clarifies the rock opera score, Lance Blank’s lighting is almost a character, giving the feel of a laser light show; and Rick Pena’s costumes stray from the original and usually duplicated production, modernizing the design yet keeping true to each character.

Amy Miller Brennan and Christina Alexander in Rent

Amy Miller Brennan and Christina Alexander in Rent

From the leads to the ensemble, there is not a weak link in the cast. Mike Westrich gets to really work his rock chops as put-upon filmmaker Mark. Bruno Faria plays moody Roger with the same intensity that made his Clyde Barrow so successful in Slow Burn’s January production of Bonnie and Clyde. There’s real heat between Amy Miller Brennan as narcissistic Maureen and Christina Alexander as her girlfriend Joanne—their fiery duet Take Me or Leave Me is hot, hot, hot. Rayner G. Garranchan plays Benny as your friendly neighborhood villain. Darrick Penney plays Tom Collins with a genuine soulfulness that’s hard to come by. His solo on I’ll Cover You in the second act is heartbreaking. Bruno Vida transforms himself into Angel, the ray of light and goodness in Rent. Slow Burn devotees have seen Vida in  many shows, but here he embodies Angel’s tough vulnerability and brings his own witty optimism to the role.

Abby Perkins in Rent

Abby Perkins in Rent

And thanks to Patrick Fitzwater for casting Abby Perkins in a lead role. Perkins’ charisma was evident when she was in the ensemble of White Christmas at The Wick and her talent has shone through in even the smallest parts in a variety of shows. As Mimi in Rent, she’s front and center where a performer of her vocal range and acting ability should be. Her Mimi is dynamic, vulnerable, fierce and sexy.

Slow Burn’s Rent is incredibly energetic, emotional and explosive, a reimagined rock epic for a new generation of Rent fans.

Rent runs through April 26 at West Boca Performing Arts Theatre in West Boca High School in Boca Raton, then moves to the Aventura Art and Cultural Center April 30 through May 3. For more information and tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit slowburntheatre.org.

FLCT Show Is the Cats Meow

By Mary Damiano

I spend my days surrounded by cats, but even more so today when I went from a house filled with cats to a theatre filled with Cats.

cats

The Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre is doing Cats, and I attended the morning performance. Although I’ve seen this popular show on Broadway and on several national tours, I’ve never enjoyed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic more than I did today. This is not only a terrific-looking production, but the large cast of middle and high school students is a delight. Beautifully sung and energetically performed, the cast does an excellent job bringing Webber’s and T.S. Eliot’s Jellicle Cats to life.

Having cats, it’s obvious that these kids have done their homework. Their cat-like movements, their head-butting, the way that scratch their heads with their paws—they embody furry felines from their ears to their tails.

cats2

I know that many people hear “children’s theatre” and think it’s kids singing off-key wearing rinky-dink dollar store costumes on flimsy cardboard sets. Let’s dispel that misconception right now. The production values in Cats—and in every other show I’ve seen at FLCT, for that matter—are just as professional as other regional theatres. Tyler Smith’s multi-level junkyard set is marvelous and Karen Kang Hancock’s costumes are polished and clever. FLCT presents high quality productions that are performed by youth but are for everyone.

Cats runs through April 19 at the FLCT’s Studio Theatre in the Galleria in Fort Lauderdale. Some performances are already sold out.  For more information and to purchase tickets, call 954-763-6882 or visit flct.org.

Full Disclosure
I’ve been working at FLCT since February and have had added treat of watching Cats come together. For two months I’ve seen the seemingly disparate elements—the wigs, the fur scraps, the brown paper bags, the tridents and thrift store finds—parade through the office. Today I got to see all these pieces come together in a glorious production by talented designers and enthusiastic cast. That’s the magic of theatre in action.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix

By Mary Damiano

If you’re not watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, you should be.

Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt

Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt

The wacky sitcom, created and written by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, is original, funny, clever, heartwarming and features terrific performances by its cast. The show was first slated for NBC, but Netflix got it instead. Like other original Netflix, series, all 13 episodes were released at once, so you can binge-watch to your heart’s content

Here’s the premise: Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) has been living in an underground bunker in Indiana along with three other women by a self-styled preacher/DJ who told them the apocalypse came and the world was gone. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Kimmy and her bunker-mates are rescued and whisked away to New York to be interviewed by Matt Lauer on The Today Show. Realizing that there is nothing for her back in Indiana, Kimmy decides to take a bite out of the Big Apple.

Determined to begin a new life, Kimmy keeps her kidnapping and bunker life a secret. Soon, she has what every girl needs to survive in New York City—a gay roommate whose dream is to be on Broadway, (Tituss Burgess), a cranky but caring landlady, (Carol Kane), and a job as a nanny where her boss, (Jane Krakowski), is a pampered, out-of-touch socialite. And, of course, she has a nemesis, teenaged Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula), the stepsister of Kimmy’s young charge, who makes it her mission to uncover Kimmy’s secret past.

The 13 episodes follow Kimmy through her quest to live independently as an adult. Kimmy was kidnapped when she was in middle school, so she’s got some catching up to do. Her zest for life and plucky determination are infectious, as is the earworm of a theme song. There are some hints at the terrible reality of Kimmy’s life in the bunker, but they’re addressed with humor.

The good news is that a second season has already been ordered, so there’s more Kimmy to come.

Winners of the 39th Annual Carbonell Awards Announced

The suspense that has gripped the South Florida theatrical community for more than two months finally ended Monday, March 30th when the winners of the 39th annual Carbonell Awards were announced in a lavish ceremony at Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.

Best Supporting Actor in a Play winner Mark Della Ventura

Best Supporting Actor in a Play winner Mark Della Ventura

Unlike past years, there were no sweeps by an individual theater or production. GableStage in Coral Gables narrowly pulled ahead of the pack with four awards going to three of their productions. Natalia Coego won Best Actress, play, and Mark Della Ventura won Best Supporting Actor, play, for Bad Jews. Matt Corey won Best Sound Design for The Mountaintop. And Arielle Hoffman, daughter of Carbonell Award winners Avi Hoffman and Laura Turnbull, carried on the family tradition by winning Best Supporting Actress, play, for her performance in The Whale.

Zoetic Stage, the company with 16 nominations, the most of any theater, won three awards. Best New Work went to playwright Michael McKeever for his comedy Clark Gable Slept Here; Stuart Meltzer won Best Director, play, also for Clark Gable Slept Here; and the company won the award for Best Production of a Musical for Assassins.

Maltz Jupiter Theatre took Best Production of a Play honors for The Foreigner, while Marcia Milgrom Dodge won Best Director, musical, for The King and I. Leon Weibers won Best Costume Design, also for The King and I.

MariandLast fall, Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre stepped away from their usual fare and took a risk with the edgy, rock and roll love story Murder Ballad, and Monday night their bet on that production paid off with three Carbonell Awards: Chris Crawford won Best Supporting Actor, musical; Mariand Torres won Best Supporting Actress, musical; and the cast won the Best Ensemble award.

The partnership between the The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Arts and the University of Miami also proved fruitful. Their co-production of Peter and the Starcatcher won three awards: Nicholas Richberg won Best Actor, play; Yoshinori Tanokura won Best Scenic Design and Eric Haugen won Best Lighting Design.

Slow Burn Theatre Company, in its sophomore year of eligibility, won two awards: Ann Marie Olson won Best Actress, musical, for Parade; and Emmanuel Schvartzman won Best Musical Direction, also for Parade.

RonHutchinsThe Theatre at Arts Garage and The Wick won one Carbonell Award each: Clay Cartland won Best Actor, musical, for The Trouble with Doug at The Theatre at Arts Garage while Ron Hutchins won Best Choreography for 42nd Street at The Wick.

The awards were divided between Miami-Dade County with 13 wins and Palm Beach County with 7 wins. And while several of the performers in the acting categories had previously been nominated for Carbonell Awards, each is a first-time winner of South Florida’s most prestigious theatrical honor.

Along with honoring excellence in theater, a highlight of the annual Carbonell Awards ceremony is recognizing those who have made significant contributions to the arts.

The prestigious George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, awarded to an individual (or team) who has contributed significantly to the artistic and cultural development of the region, was presented to Scott Shiller, executive vice-president of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and President of the Board of Directors of the Carbonell Awards, in recognition of his arts and civic involvement as well as his term as President of the Board of Directors of the Carbonell Awards, for which he led the organization through its first strategic plan, established new financial goals and instituted fresh governance procedures aimed at securing the organization’s future.

Katherine and Antonio Amadeo, co-founders of The Naked Stage

Katherine and Antonio Amadeo, co-founders of The Naked Stage

The Ruth Foreman Award, which recognizes significant contributions to South Florida theater development by an individual or group, was awarded to The Naked Stage for the company’s annual event, The 24 Hour Theatre Project, which fosters new one-act play development and promotes unity among the region’s theaters.

The Howard Kleinberg Award, bestowed as special recognition for contributions to the health and development of the arts in South Florida, was awarded to Iris Acker, an actress, director, author, talk show host and Carbonell judge, for her tireless work in promoting the arts in the region.

The Carbonell Awards also awarded $1,000 scholarships to three South Florida students pursuing careers in theater or journalism: Gena Yvonne Sims (Miami-Dade County) who attends of New World School of the Arts; Danielle Angela Jensen (Broward County) who attends Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School; and Jacob Poser (Palm Beach County) who attends Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts

Donald R. Walters, incoming President of the Carbonell Awards Board of Trustees.

Donald R. Walters, incoming President of the Carbonell Awards Board of Trustees.

The other big news of the evening was the announcement that Carbonell Board of Directors Treasurer and Secretary Donald R. Walters is the new incoming board president. Walters takes the reins in May, when current Carbonell Board of Directors President Scott Shiller moves to Denver to become the president and CEO of Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

For more information on the Carbonell awards, visit CarbonellAwards.org.

A complete list of winners follows, as well as stats on number of awards by county, theatre and production.

Carbonell Award Winners, 2014

Best New Work (play or musical)
Clark Gable Slept Here, Michael McKeever, Zoetic Stage

Best Ensemble Production (play or musical)
Murder Ballad, Actors’ Playhouse

Best Production of a Play
The Foreigner, Maltz Jupiter Theatre

Best Director/Play
Stuart Meltzer, Clark Gable Slept Here, Zoetic Stage

Best Actor/Play
Nicholas Richberg, Peter and the Starcatcher, The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the University of Miami

Best Actress/Play
Natalia Coego, Bad Jews, GableStage

Best Supporting Actor/Play
Mark Della Ventura, Bad Jews, GableStage

Best Supporting Actress/Play
Arielle Hoffman, The Whale, GableStage

Best Production of a Musical
Assassins, Zoetic Stage

Best Director/Musical
Marcia Milgrom Dodge, The King and I, Maltz Jupiter Theatre

Best Actor/Musical
Clay Cartland, The Trouble with Doug, Theatre at Arts Garage

Best Actress/Musical
Ann Marie Olson, Parade, Slow Burn Theatre Company

Best Supporting Actor/Musical
Chris Crawford, Murder Ballad, Actors’ Playhouse

Best Supporting Actress/Musical
Mariand Torres, Murder Ballad, Actors’ Playhouse

Best Musical Direction
Emmanuel Schvartzman, Parade, Slow Burn Theatre Company

Best Choreography/Musical
Ron Hutchins, 42nd Street, The Wick

Best Scenic Design/play or musical
Yoshinori Tanokura, Peter and the Starcatcher, The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the University of Miami

Best Lighting Design/play or musical
Eric Haugen, Peter and the Starcatcher, The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the University of Miami

Best Costume Design/play or musical
Leon Weibers, The King and I, Maltz Jupiter Theatre

Best Sound Design/play or musical
Matt Corey, The Mountaintop, GableStage

Awards by County
13 Miami-Dade
7 Palm Beach

Awards by Theater
4 GableStage
3 Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre
3 Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the University of Miami
3 Maltz Jupiter Theatre
3 Zoetic Stage
2 Slow Burn Theatre Company
1 The Theatre at Arts Garage
1 The Wick

Awards by Production
3 Murder Ballad, Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre
3 Peter and the Starcatcher, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the University of Miami
2 Bad Jews, GableStage
2 Clark Gable Slept Here, Zoetic Stage
2 The King and I, Maltz Jupiter Theatre
2 Parade, Slow Burn Theatre Company
1 42nd Street, The Wick
1 Assassins, Zoetic Stage
1 The Foreigner, Maltz Jupiter Theatre
1 The Mountaintop, GableStage
1 The Trouble with Doug, The Theatre at Arts Garage
1 The Whale, GableStage

Carbonell Awards Nominee Reception and Ice Cream Social

Clay Cartland and Mary Damiano

Clay Cartland and Mary Damiano

The festivities began early this year for the 2014 Carbonell Award nominees as they were celebrated at the Carbonell Nominee Reception and Ice Cream Social Monday March 23, 2015, at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale.

“It was like a kids’ party for adults, a counterpoint to the formality of the Carbonell Awards ceremony,” said Mary Damiano, Carbonell Awards Managing Director.

Show tunes from Broadway musicals, candlelit tables and balloons provided the perfect ambiance for the festivities as more than 80 guests enjoyed a variety of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches from Ms. Cheezious, scoops of ice cream with a variety of toppings, and donut Munchkins. The party was generously underwritten by board member Jerry Cohen.

Lisa Richberg and Mary Damiano smooching Carbonell Nominee Matthew Korinko

Lisa Richberg and Mary Damiano smooching Carbonell Nominee Matthew Korinko

In her acknowledgements, Damiano praised the nominees for their work in a years’ worth of shows.

“It was important that we celebrate the talent and general awesomeness of the performers, directors, and designers who give their all in shows from Cutler Bay to Jupiter,” she told the crowd. “You entertain us, you inspire us, you make us laugh, you make us cry, you give of yourselves in a way that enriches us all, and you have helped make South Florida a thriving, vibrant, region for theatre. Bravo to you all!”

Photos courtesy of Chuck Field

Remembrance of Things Past

Theatre Review

The Interview Encourages Its Audience to Bear Witness to History

By Mary Damiano

Harriet Oser in The Interview at The Women's Theatre Project in Boca Raton

Harriet Oser in The Interview

Never forget.  It’s a powerful statement and a willful vow when referring to tragedy of an historic capacity.  Memories of the unimaginable must be passed down like precious heirlooms, to ensure that such horror cannot be allowed to occur again.

This idea is at the center of The Interview by Faye Sholiton, now enjoying an engrossing production by The Women’s Theatre Project.

The Interview focuses on Bracha Weissman (Harriett Oser) a Holocaust survivor living in Ohio.  Bracha has agreed to be interviewed for a project to document and record the memories of Holocaust survivors.  Her interviewer is Ann, (Patti Gardner) a woman whose late mother grew up not far from Bracha, and who also survived the camps but who never shared her experiences with Ann.

Bracha has agreed to the interview for the twin grandsons she’s never met, the children of her estranged daughter, Rifka, (Irene Adjan) who appears in the play through Bracha’s memory.  Bracha needs to tell her story, and Ann needs to hear it to come to terms with her mother’s memory.

The Women’s Theatre Project produced The Interview a few years ago, with Oser, Gardner and Adjan.  Then, the company only produced plays by women playwrights with all female casts, so Sholiton rewrote the last scene and changed the gender of a character.  This production includes the original scene, which adds more resonance to the play.

Oser is excellent as Bracha, conveying her steely will, her anger and her vulnerability with just the right mix of power and poignancy.  Gardner and Adjan do well in their supporting roles, but this is Bracha’s story and Oser’s show all the way. Sean McClelland evokes the memory aspect of the story with his inventive set design.

“There are no happy endings after Auschwitz,” Bracha tells Ann during a powerful moment in The Interview.   No happy endings perhaps, but, as The Interview shows, there are new beginnings.

The Interview runs through January 20 at The Willow Theatre at Sugar Sand Park,300 S. Military Trail, Boca Raton.  For tickets and more information, call 561-347-3948 or visit WomensTheatreProject.com.

Cat Fancy

Mad Cat’s New Production Goes On the Prowl with Pick-up Artists and Pussycats

By Mary Damiano

Kristina Wong Cat Lady

Kristina Wong in a sea of pussycats in Cat Lady

Paul Tei can’t imagine his life without cats.  The actor, director and founder of Mad Cat Theatre Company currently lives with Derby and Julep, feline siblings he calls “precious gifts.”   But his first cat, Belly, holds a special place in his heart.

“I would say that it’s because of Belly that Mad Cat was born,” Tei says.  “He saw me through some difficult times and brought my folks and I closer through the kind of love he created.”

While Tei’s cat Belly inspired his theatre company, Kristina Wong’s cat Oliver inspired  her play, Cat Lady, which is Mad Cat’s current production.

In Cat Lady, Wong plays a herself and Ken Clement plays her cat, Oliver.  Cat Lady involves two seemingly unrelated subjects: Wong’s efforts to get Oliver to stop spraying and the sub-culture of pick-up artists, men who turn picking up women into a sport.

“I had no idea how these two ideas were going to manifest in one show, but the way I see it, if they are two points of obsession in the same brain, there would be a way to connect them theatrically,” Wong says.

At the time, Wong was experiencing a great deal of professional success with her solo show, Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a show about suicide and depression among Asian American women, in which she played a character named after herself.

“Believe me,” Wong says, “nothing will screw up your love life and your own head more than playing a semi-fictional version of yourself repeatedly in front of a live audience for many years.”

Kristina Wong in Cat Lady

Kristina Wong in Cat Lady at Mad Cat Theatre

But as successful as she and the show became, Wong started to feel trapped in the fulfillment of her dream, worried that the show was preventing her from moving forward in her personal life, depressed that no future show could top her success.

Enter the pick-up artists.  Wong became fascinated by the subculture after watching the VH1 show “The Pick-up Artist” and befriending some of the eliminated contestants.

“The techniques they learn are basically theater techniques,” Wong says.  “Like me, they perform versions of themselves in clubs in structured/scripted routines.”

Wong experienced a taste of that world when a Korean American pick-up artist picked her up at South Beach club in 2008.

“I actually figured out halfway through that he was a pick-up artist and he confirmed,” Wong says. “And I continued to let the evening play out, mostly because there was nowhere else I had to go that night, but it was like being the only audience member at a really great show.  When it was all over, I was left with some intense thoughts about whether or not it was all a performance, and at what point do I move onto ‘real life’— and what is ‘real life’ anyway when all you know is performance?”

After 23 drafts, several bad relationships and a weekend interviewing pick-up artists, Wong had an epiphany.

Jessica Farr, Noah Levine and Kristina Wong in Cat Lady

Jessica Farr, Noah Levine and Kristina Wong

“I realized that this wasn’t just a quirky, arty show, it was a show that was about the intense psychology of my own loneliness,” says Wong.  “I was drawn to these pick-up artists because I too had issues with connecting with people, fear of getting to know the ugly side of humans, and wasn’t sure how to make a genuine connection outside of theatrics. Like these pick-up artists, performance gave me a character that connected me to people.  And my cat Oliver’s spraying problems also were his way of ‘creatively’ expressing his frustrations at being abandoned by me when I went on the road.”

This is the second Wong show produced by Mad Cat; her eco-conscious solo show Going Green the Wong Way was seen in Miami in 2011.  For Tei, Cat Lady was a natural follow-up.

“I had a strong feeling that it would resonate with the local audiences because of its universal approach on dating today—the club scene, pick up artists, transient life style,” Tei says.  “For Mad Cat, it was as if it was written for us, which of course it wasn’t, but it’s like finding that perfect song that you wanted to do a cover of and everyone thinks you wrote it yourself.”

Sadly, Wong’s cat Oliver died earlier this year.

“It was so sudden and very sad,” Wong says.  “I love cats. I am not ready yet to get a new cat.  So much commitment, and I think that each cat has such a particular personality.  It’s like picking out a new boyfriend or girlfriend.   But whenever I see a cat in the room I try to pick it up.”

Cat Lady runs through January 20 at The Light Box at the Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26 St., Wynwood Arts District, Miami.  For tickets and more information, call 866-811-4111 or visit MadCatTheatre.org.