Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
On the eve of the American Revolution’s final battle at Yorktown, as portrayed in the musical Hamilton, Lafayette and Hamilton cross paths and, in a brief exchange, these two freedom fighters share a private moment of mutual admiration. “Immigrants,” they shout in unison as they high-five each other, “we get the job done.”
I had the incredible good fortune to be sitting right in the front row (my husband and I won tickets through the online lottery) and the audience reaction to that exchange is one I’ll never forget. A roar of individual voices let loose such a fiery mix of shout outs, cheers, that’s right, yeah’s, hoots and hollers, I immediately realized everyone wanted in on that high five. Myself included. Lin Manuel Miranda may have authored the stage moment, but its truth belonged to all of us. Of course, that was in October. Four weeks before the election.
Just eight months earlier I had met up with fellow filmmaker and long-time friend Arthur Vincie to discuss a script he had just completed for a ten-part web series on immigrants in New York City called Three Trembling Cities. He lifted the title from E.B. White’s famous 1949 essay “Here is New York.” In what is essentially a love letter to New York, White observed that it is the settlers – those who come in quest of something – that give the city its passion. It is the immigrants, he understands, that make New York tremble with hope.
When Arthur invited me to come onboard as a producer, I didn’t hesitate. Back in February, the political rhetoric around the word immigrant had already hardwired into a freakish schizophrenia. Immigrants were increasingly labeled as either the source of all our ills or at the heart of what makes America great. The word itself, so burdened with outsize meaning, had been reduced to code for “other.” In that capacity, it was headlined almost nightly on the evening news.
What I liked about Arthur’s script was his choice to build an ensemble of characters whose “otherness” is explored without resorting to the easy pitfalls of narrative extremes or self-conscious stereotype correction. He presents his characters through the shared humanity of their everyday struggles while infusing each with enough of an “immigrant” backstory to sharpen the prism through which we see them as individuals.
For example, Behrouz, a first-generation Iranian-American, whose parents sacrificed everything to give him a chance at the great American dream, feels compelled to constantly rationalize his choice to be an artist to his sister Azin, a high-powered lawyer. Babacar, a jewelry maker from Senegal, is forced, through no fault of his own, to negotiate his living in the shadows because his father brought him over with fake papers. And Madha, a Guyanese-American waitress, whose mother’s citizenship secured her own, watches helplessly as her roommate fails his merit hearing, leaving her in the hell that New Yorkers know as searching for a new apartment.
Arash Mokhtar as Behrouz
We crowdfunded the budget online, with donations coming primarily from the immigrant community, and by early spring we were casting. Putting out a call for actors to play everything from an Eritrean refugee to an aspiring chef from Kenya to a PhD candidate from India, like the musical Hamilton, emphasized the underutilized reservoir of talent that exists here in New York. The shooting took us all over the city – Sunset Park, Bushwick, Jackson Heights, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and the lower east side –and by mid-summer all ten-episodes had been shot. By early fall we were ready to release season one. We knew the production was solid and hoped that despite having a shoe-string publicity budget, we could coax a slow build for the series online. Then the election happened.
The earthquake of the Trump Presidency spread a tsunami of fear and uncertainty across the city. Swastikas defaced a playground named after the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. A transit worker wearing a hijab was pushed down the stairs at Grand Central. And an Arab-American policewoman and 16-year veteran of the force was verbally harassed, accused of being a member of ISIS and told to go back home.
By releasing our ten-part web-series for free on multiple web platforms – Amazon Direct, Brooklyn on Demand, Rikaroo, Stareable and Vimeo – we hope it can serve not only as a worthwhile piece of filmmaking but also as an educational tool and starting point for dialogue that can breakdown the stigma of the “other” and remind everyone what E.B. White recognized 67 years ago:
There are roughly three New Yorks… the New York of those who were born here… the New York of the commuter… and the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities, the greatest is the last – the city of final destination… Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.
-E. B. White, Here Is New York
I like to imagine that E.B. White, perched in some kind of fantastic writer’s heaven, has checked out the musical “Hamilton” and feels that Layfayette and Hamilton’s high-five belongs to him, too.
Top photo: Madha (Pascale Piquion) and Babacar (Yacine Djoumbaye)
Three Trembling Cities, a new ten-part web series on New York City immigrants, is now available on Amazon.com, Rikaroo.com, Brooklynondemand.com, Stareable.com and Vimeo.
Grab your daughter and run to see Freaky Friday, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Don’t live nearby? Don’t worry. Freaky Friday was developed by Disney Theatrical to be licensed through its partner, Musical Theatre International, first to professional and then to amateur theaters. So the production may be coming to a venue near you. When it does, don’t miss it.
Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton (Photo by Jim Saah)
Disney, constantly mining its film vault for material that can be recast for the stage, made a wise call with this one. Freaky Friday is the kind of feel good show with a message that never grows old. As a writer for NBC’s Parenthood, Bridget Carpenter knows something about family relationships. For the musical’s book, she took the basic story – a mom and daughter inadvertently switching bodies for a day – while updating the themes to resonate with a young, tech savvy audience. Besides an enjoyable two hours in the theater, the musical should spark followup conversations with young people about social pressure, cliques, body image, and privacy.
Disney decided to premiere the production at Signature and brought together a talented creative team to make it happen. They included, from Broadway: director, Christopher Ashley (Memphis); musical score, Tom Kitt, and lyrics, Brian Yorke (the duo behind the Tony Award-winning Next to Normal); choreography, Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, On Your Feet); set design, Beowulf Boritt (Tony Award, Act One); Emily Rebholz, costume design (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike); and lighting design, Howell Brinkley (Hamilton, Tony Award).
Heidi Blickenstaff with the Cast (Photo by Jim Saah)
Heidi Blickenstaff, who delighted Broadway audiences with her performance in Something Rotten, plays the mom, Katherine, a widow and type-A personality who is driven to control everything and everyone around her. Besides running a successful catering business, she’s taken on the job of planning her wedding to Mike (Alan H. Green). But she still has time to micromanage her children, ten year-old Fletcher (Jake Heston Miller), and teenage Ellie (Emma Hunton).
Katherine fails to see that her upcoming marriage is having an impact on her children, who still miss their father. While the younger Fletcher retreats into a fantasy world with his puppets – a hippo and a starfish – Ellie lashes out at her mother. A tussle over a vintage hourglass with magical powers zaps Katherine into her daughter’s body, while Ellie morphs into her mother’s. Ellie is quickly overwhelmed, struggling to cope with being a mother and soon to be wife, while her employees look to her for guidance. Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself in high school, struggling in gym class, dissecting a frog in biology, and dealing with mean girls.
Blickenstaff perfectly captures the mannerisms, facial expressions, and speech patterns of a teenager. She twists strands of hair, wrings her hands, and bats her eyes. Faced with Adam (Jason Gotay), the boy Ellie has a crush on, she positively melts. The poor young man, has no idea why his classmate’s mother is acting so strangely.
Sherri L. Edelen, Emma Hutton, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Heidi Blickenstaff (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Conversely, Hunton becomes more restrained, an adult in a teenage body. When mother and daughter wind up in the high school counselor’s office, what unfolds is clever and hilarious. Two officials (played by Jason SweetTooth Williams and Sherri L. Edelen) critique Ellie’s school performance. Katherine (really Ellie), dismisses their concerns, her casual body language speaking volumes. Meanwhile, Ellie (really Katherine), takes their concerns seriously, perched on the edge of the sofa, ready to take action. Both actresses play the scene for all it’s worth.
Jason Gotay with the Teen Ensemble (Photo by Jim Saah)
The teen ensemble is terrific. Kudos to Trujillo’s choreography, particularly the gym scene where the students use inflated bouncy balls to great effect. Storm Lever, as Ellie’s nemesis, Savannah, perfectly captures the manipulative attitude that defines so many mean girls.
Heidi Blickenstaff and Jake Heston Miller (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Jake Heston Miller, who has to be one of the busiest child actors around, having last appeared as Oliver at Arena Stage, is just plain adorable as Fletcher. And the scenes between him and Katherine (who is really Ellie) are sweet moments, sibling bonding under unusual circumstances. Katherine first bursts his bubble in Act One with the hurtful, “Parents Lie,” then redeems herself in Act Two with the sweet “After All of This and Everything.”
There’s a brilliant and brave moment in the musical which will speak to so many young girls who obsess over their bodies. Ellie and her two besties – Katie Ladner as Gretchen and Shayna Blass as Hannah – strip down to own their appearance. Bravo!
With the day coming to a close, Katherine and Ellie manage to switch back, just in time for Katherine to be wed to the long-suffering, yet very perceptive, Mike. He knows better than Katherine that winning over his stepchildren will take some time. But thanks to the day’s events, mother and daughter have reached a greater understanding. There’s no better way to empathize with someone else than by taking time to actually walk in their shoes. That’s a message for the ages and for all ages.
For information on licensing Freaky Friday, contact MTI by phone, 212-541-4684, or email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Top photo credit: Margot Schulman
Freaky Friday Signature Theatre Through November 20, 2016 4200 Campbell Avenue Arlington, VA 703-820-9771
In October 1989, Donald Smith’s four year-old Mabel Mercer Foundation held its first annual New York Cabaret Convention. The New York Times headline read: Cabaret Convention Ponders a Disturbing Future. “Is there a place for cabaret in today’s age of mass entertainment? That is the question being pondered this week on the stage of Town Hall…” Stephen Holden. According to Holden’s 1991 coverage of the event, its debut “…attracted an audience of 6,000, and in its wake, Smith said, he received 900 letters about the problems facing the cabaret industry.”
Let us breathe a deep communal sigh and persevere with a modicum of rosey tint on our glasses. Print media, except for the venerable Cabaret Scenes, may refuse to acknowledge us except for an occasional blurb, but the art form continues to exist and evolve.
Small rooms and piano bars pop up replacing storied nightclubs as venues in which performers showcase talent. 54Below has become (Michael) Feinstein’s/54Below, extending programming and attracting fresh audiences. The 92 St. Y’s robust Lyrics and Lyricists series goes on with the organization’s roster adding Harvey Granat’s delightful midday salutes to iconic composers and lyricists. Fairly new on the scene, Pangea delivers striking alternative cabaret. Gianni Valenti (of Birdland) promises an additional locale in 2017. PBS has taken to the front line presenting cabaret on television. The Mabel Mercer Foundation is in its 31st year.
The 27th Annual New York Cabaret Convention runs from Tuesday, October 18 through Friday, October 21 at Jazz At Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. Artists this year range from 12 year-old Zoe Gellman and 15 year-old Joie Bianco (who KT Sullivan heard this year at Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook Academy Competition – she didn’t win…this time) to the eternally youthful Marilyn Maye. Sullivan is encouraged by all the young aspiring vocalists she’s met and has faith in the art form. “As long as people gather in small places, sometimes with a drink, they’ll want to sit and listen to musical stories- unlike rock and pop and rap.” Artistic Director KT Sullivan
Tuesday October 18: Opening Night Gala – Hosted by KT Sullivan
Featuring, in part, Christina Bianco, Allan Harris, Carole J. Buffard, Eric Yves Garcia
“Opening night is always different because I like to spotlight more new talent and more kinds of music and sounds. There are several artists who have never performed at a Convention. We’ll hear American Songbook, Weimar, Jazz, likely Noel Coward, contemporary writers, and Broadway. We’re even hoping to have a trio song from Hamilton. I try to see every performer live, though I chose one this season on the basis of a terrific video, and then advise on material presented in our show.” KT Sullivan
Wednesday October 19: Saluting Stephen Sondheim- Hosted by Andrea Marcovicci and Jeff Harnar
Featuring, in part, Karen Akers, Sidney Meyer, Steve Ross, Jennifer Sheehan, Celia Berk
“Since its inception the Cabaret Convention has been a chance for performers to shine, and what better way to feature their talents than with the wit and wisdom of Stephen Sondheim! The repertoire is vast and sparkling with humor and tenderness, more than enough familiar songs to please our audience, yet many lesser known songs have found their way into the evening to keep them on their toes. I particularly look forward to my duets with Jeff Harnar which have been the highlight of my hosting duties, so once again we’ll be “Side By Side.” Andrea Marcovicci
“Three years ago I was a performer who felt too intimidated by the Sondheim catalogue to even consider his songs for my performance repertoire. KT Sullivan changed all that when she invited me to do a two-hander Sondheim show with her. As a performer who has always felt most at home in the musical skin of Cole Porter, now in my mid-fifties, I find performing Sondheim’s lyrics gifts me with a similar musical intelligence and wit as Porter’s, but with an unmistakably 21st Century sensibility. For our fifth time out as co-hosts, Andrea Marcovicci and I will present a Sondheim songbook. No hesitation on my part saying yes to that. Jeff Harnar
Thursday October 20: Saluting Sylvia Syms – Hosted by Rex Reed
Featuring, in part, Joyce Breach, Ann Hampton Callaway, Nicolas King, Billy Stritch
Frank Sinatra, her friend and mentor for five decades, called Sylvia Syms “the world’s greatest saloon singer.” The vocalist was perhaps best known for intimacy, unabashed honesty, and the ability to sing a variety of styles while maintaining her signature voice. “When you perform it’s a one-to-one love affair with the people out there. That’s how it has to be.” Sylvia Syms
“Sylvia Syms was beloved by everyone with sensitivity, taste and even the most basic knowledge of the art of the Great American Songbook, so a tribute to her warmth, savvy, sophisticated understanding of a lyric, and the beauty of her deep, throaty voice is long overdue. In addition to her exalted place in the history of song, she was a close personal friend who taught and informed me, enriched my life, and made me laugh, so I convinced myself I was the right person to lead the parade in celebrating her life and extraordinary career. I hope what we have some up with will best represent the supreme legacy of the artistry of Sylvia Syms.” Rex Reed
Friday October 21: Saluting Sheldon Harnick, Charles Strouse – Hosted by Klea Blackhurst
Featuring, in part, Corrina Sowers Adler, Liam Forde, Shana Farr, Todd Murray, Scott Coulter
Sheldon Harnick, author of such as Fiorello and She Loves Me, is having a banner year of national and local recognition with multiple musical revivals in New York. He received the 2016 Drama League Award for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theater, as well as the 2016 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Composer Charles Strouse gave us such musicals as Golden Boy, the eternal Annie, Bye Bye Birdie, and Rags. “I never said to myself, How will I ever top this? …I mean, I like things to be a success, but the main thing is to keep working.” Charles Strouse
“As a little girl of four or five, I’d romp around the house belting out up-tempos from Fiddler On the Roof and Applause, Annie and The Apple Tree, among many others from our household collection. Flash forward to the preparations for the final night of the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 27th New York Cabaret Convention. The focus is on Sheldon Harnick and Charles Strouse, titans from my ongoing record collection. The joy Sheldon’s words have brought into my life cannot be measured or fully understood. To be hosting the event is a thrill and a huge honor.” Klea Blackhurst
This year, the Convention will be preceded by several special events: Will Friedwald presents Cabaret Clips – rarely seen video and film of iconic performers – where does he find these?! at The Laurie Beechman Theater on October 15, 2016
On October 16th, also at the Laurie Beechman, one can be present at the live DVD recording of a show (at last!) by beloved performer (and booker) Sidney Myer “a lovable madcap singer/comedian with an audacious performing style who can touch your heart at the same time.” Steve Ross. People are already clamoring for tickets as the exquisitely wry Meyer performs so rarely these days.
On Sunday October 23rd following the convention, Urban Stages will reprise a special concert encore of the critically acclaimed Mabel Madness about the life of the Foundation’s legendary namesake written and performed by Tony Award Winner Trazana Beverly.
Coming Up: November 2016 KT Sullivan and Natalie Douglas accompanied by pianist Jon Weber will judge a Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Competition in Durango, Colorado for aspiring young singers.
April 2017 The Cabaret Convention returns to Chicago for its fourth gala run in that city after a hiatus. Watch for details on the Foundation web site.
Opening: Jeff Harnar & Andrea Marcovicci – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
KT Sullivan and Rick Meadows at Town Hall – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff KT Sullivan – Photo by Maryann Lopinto Jeff Harnar & Andrea Marcovicci – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff Rex Reed – Photo courtesy of Mr. Reed Klea Blackhurst- Photo by Bill Westmoreland
While I grant that culture depicted here is relatively unknown to me, I don’t for a minute attribute my opinion of the play’s success to novelty. Author Quiara Alegria Hudes’s detailed, multicultural characterization and unexpected plot lines make the bar setting an apt canvas rather than a cliché. There isn’t a false, pandering, or extra word. The piece is lively, humorous, dramatic and affecting.
Hudes, it should be noted, won a Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful and wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights. The latter was directed by Thomas Kail, responsible for both Hamilton and this new work.
Daphne’s North Philly Bar/Lounge is the kind of old fashioned, neighborhood watering hole patronized by family and odd ducks for whom the place is a second home. Sentences begun by one are finished by others, jokes are “in”, history is shared. Owned by its grounded, wry, Puerto-Rican namesake (Vanessa Aspillaga), as is the rundown building housing questionable tenants, Daphne’s welcomes a core of regulars including:
Vanessa Aspillaga and Matt Saldivar
Struggling artist, Pablo (Matt Saldivar), currently a dumpster-diver in service of paintings depicting the discard of people’s lives; Jenn (KK Moggie), a passionate and literally colorful activist with a self avowed ‘Messiah Complex,’; and, Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a middle-aged, hippie motorcyclist who picks up physical labor to support his travels- though completely credible, the least well realized participant. Daphne’s sister Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who married a community-minded, up-and-coming businessman and her husband Acosta (Carlos Gomez) are also omnipresent. These two are economically better off and geographically better situated, yet loyal and generous.
Vanessa Aspillaga and Samira Wiley
When an upstairs apartment is raided by police and DEA who cart off drugs, guns and its inhabitants, the tenants’ 11 year-old daughter, Ruby (Samira Wiley), jumps out a window. She’s found, bruised and cowering, behind the building. Daphne first shelters then reluctantly adopts the emotionally broken girl, but, in essence, Ruby acquires six parents. Over a period of 17 years, framed by the Ruby’s informing us how old she is at the start of each scene, fates, relationships, and some personalities radically alter.
Jenn, whom Ruby identifies as her only honest friend (Jenn has no boundaries), grows increasingly more radical and then unhinged in her attempts to raise awareness about the state of the world. Both Ruby and Daphne develop strong, unforseen bonds with her. Acosta rises in politics eventually yielding to proffered temptations, risking his marriage. Ruby becomes a smart, enthusiastic student, yet her underpinnings are shakier than what’s publicly apparent; she eventually makes a surprising choice. Painful secrets about Daphne and Inez indirectly relate to Ruby. Pablo achieves a kind of fame, yet stays his course. Rey is Rey.
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Vanessa Aspillaga
At an hour forty-five with no intermission, one never feels restless. Director Thomas Kail keeps flow consistent and smooth. Lights dim; evocative piano music by Michel Camilo is heard with such pristine clarity it seems to get inside one (Sound Design – Nevin Steinberg), an efficient swarm of stagehands adjust Donyale Werle’s splendid, weathered Set.
Physical acting adds insight. Pablo is graceful in his skin, while Jenn’s natural eurhythmy seems provoked. Daphne is always aware of gravity. Acosta carries himself with calm confidence. Inez moves in spurts. Ruby is defensive. Ray lolls. Kail serves a cast who knows how to listen, utilizing his staging area with authenticity and creativity. Small business illuminates, the creation of banners and tending to a symbolic plant work particularly well. A parentheses of dancing captivates.
Matt Saldivar, Samira Wiley, Carlos Gomez, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gordon Joseph Weiss
Costume Design (and, one presumes, wigs) by Toni-Leslie James suit place, people, period, and status. Representation of Pablo’s artfully insouciant combinations and Jenn’s various off-the-wall ensembles is inspired.
Vanessa Aspillaga’s Daphne bears a palpable undercurrent of emotion and power that serves as ballast. When she briefly erupts later in the piece, disclosure has all the more effect.
KK Moggie first manifests Jenn as an insubstantial, well meaning spirit, then shepherds her evolution into someone obsessed. The actress might be a bit more frightening.
Carlos Gomez (Acosta) exudes sympathetic warmth and masculinity. Daphne Rubin-Vega (Inez), a thoroughly appealing Matt Saldivar (Pablo), and Gordon Joseph Weiss (Rey) feel completely genuine.
Samira Wiley’s Ruby is always sure the earth will open up beneath her feet. Wisely the actress delivers an unaffected 11 year-old. As the character grows to maturity, Wiley increasingly lets her inhabit her skin. This includes subtle signs of increased alcohol use and volatility. Well performed.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Gordon Joseph Weiss, Matt Saldivar, KK Moggie, Samira Wiley
Signature Theatre presents Daphne’s Dive by Quiara Alegria Hudes Directed by Thomas Kail Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre in The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street Through June 12, 2016