…Forget your troubles/Come on get happy/You better chase all you cares away… Harold Arlen’s American standard (lyrics – Ted Koehler) introduces an entertaining look at the composer’s oeuvre between 1930 and 1939, from that first hit song through his beloved (and favorite) movie musical, The Wizard of Oz. (lyrics – EY Harburg.)
Discouraged from being a cantor by his parents, Hyman Arluck (1905-1986) was, by 15, forming one band after another. Prominent among these was The Buffalodians on whom intrepid archivists of this show managed to find 1926 film. As we watch the enthusiastic youngsters, onstage, Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks play an infectious “Buffalo Rhythm.” (Arluck with Ivan Beaty, Marvin Smolev.)
The celebrated composer changed his name to Arlen while an accompanist in vaudeville. He had aspired to be a vocalist. (Later, we hear a bit of recorded croon.) From Arlen’s first show, You Said It (lyrics – Jack Yellen), Host Klea Blackhurst sassily sings “Sweet and Hot”: I don’t like highbrows/Who arch their eyebrows… Andy Stein’s terrific violin adds distinctive texture (throughout the evening).
Later, our host performs “Satan’s L’il Lamb” (lyrics – EY Harburg and Johnny Mercer) which was bumped from three films, but successfully recorded. Vocal is expansive without going too far, phrasing right on the money, arrangement sheer striptease. A professional in both theater and cabaret, Blackhurst draws in her audience rather than looking over our heads.
Unexpected success with “Get Happy” propelled Arlen into composing – at first – for revues at The Cotton Club. Catherine Russell delivers an as-if-we-were-there, cheeky, horn-centric rendition of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” “Ill Wind” arrives hot and sultry, low key, but insidious, getting under one’s skin, rather than toppling barrels. Russell holds one hand up as if trying to hold off the inevitable. She never stresses vocals. Even the often histrionic “Stormy Weather,” introduced by Ethel Waters, is presented as if rife anticipation, low key and soulful. The song apparently took 30 minutes to write. (All lyrics -Ted Koehler.)
Stephen DeRosa and Klea Blackhurst
Stephen DeRosa, emphatically in the period, offers a jaunty, light-footed “Happy As the Day is Long,” (lyrics – Ted Koehler), a lyrically novel “I Love to Sing-A” (lyrics – EY Harburg), and a cute duet (with ably animated Blackhurst) of “Calabash Pipe.” (lyrics – Lew Brown.) A wonderfully expressive performer, DeRosa wiggles, bounces, dances and gestures in shades of Jolson and Cantor. His vocals, several with decidedly New York accents, are good. The artist is thoroughly engaging. And he looks at us.
Stephen DeRosa and Erin Dilly
“I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Let’s Fall in Love” (lyrics – Ted Koehler) are among those numbers presented by Erin Dilly with solid acting instincts and a pretty voice that tends to get stressed changing octaves. Nathaniel Stampley’s songs include “Down With Love” (lyrics – EY Harburg) which emerges without innate buoyancy, from – wait for it – Hooray For What! with Ed Wynn as a man who invents a gas that ends war, and the effective “Last Night When We Were Young” (lyrics – EY Harburg) during which Stampley looks sympathetically dazed and abandoned.
Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks are given ample showcase for their terrific mostly 1920s arrangements. During the playful, gyrating “Tickeration” (lyrics – Ted Koehler), we even briefly hear the band leader’s own inimitable scat.
A sing-along of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (lyrics – Billy Rose and EY Harburg) ends the evening on an up note. The well produced tribute is an auspicious beginning to this year’s eminent Lyrics and Lyricists Series.
Klea Blackhurst and Co Artistic Director and author Robert Kimball deliver illuminating, economic narrative about the celebrant. Both do a swell job. The evening is well written. Gary Griffin’s Stage Direction has charm without seeming showy. Pacing is surefooted.
As always, film and stills add dimension.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Nathaniel Stampley, Klea Blackhurst, Erin Dilly, Stephen DeRosa
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years
Robert Kimball: Co-Artistic Director
Vince Giordano: Co-Artistic Director, Co-Music Director, Arrangements
Klea Blackhurst: Co-Artistic Director, Vocals, Host
Gary Griffin: Stage Director
Peter Yarin: Co-Music Director, Piano
Featuring Vince Giordano And the Nighthawks
92nd Street at Lexington Avenue
January 22, 2017
NEXT: Let’s Misbehave- The Sensational Songs of Cole Porter
February 11, 12 13, 2017
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a sentimental 1934 novella by Robert Hilton (with radio, stage and film adaptations) about self effacing career teacher, Mr. Chipping. Nicknamed Mr. Chips by his students, the book’s hero spent his life in the profession and was much beloved.
When Corinna Sowers-Adler talks about her theater and voice students, she radiates enthusiasm with warm, even wattage. In the tradition of the Hilton book and Dead Poets Society, rookies from 10-19 learn considerably more than any curriculum. Methods are user-friendly. Technique, and in some cases, life solutions, are tailored to individuals. Sowers-Adler often finds herself acting as trusted mentor and/or confidante. “You’re nurturing the person, not just the performer.” The educator has found, as Joseph Campbell would say, her own palpable bliss.
Left: First place win-talent show age 9; Right: Senior Recital Schuylkill Haven Area High School age 16
Directly after graduating with a degree in Theater, Sowers-Adler began to teach voice at the community Conservatory based in her alma mater. The young woman passed on expertise honed from the age of 12 when she’d been introduced to the E. Herbert Caesari’s School of Bel Canto in a bespoke course of study that included opera, art songs, and musicals. “It’s like a tap dancer should take ballet because it gives you strength and core. Bel Canto lets you sing any style.” Its technique, she tells me, helps a vocalist find his/her own voice by approaching it as an instrument, making singing as effortless as speaking.
“I believe in the marriage of acting and singing…Whether I’m delivering a monologue or talking to you passionately about something, words come out naturally, but like rushes of wind. (She demonstrates in the telling.) Did you hear how much breath and diction emerged with the word passion?” she asks with a tone of encouragement and patience. “If I were singing that line, I’d need emphasis, the same kind of burst of breath. I want students to learn how to speak when they sing.”
Having resolved to be a performer at age 4, winning a talent contest at 9 with – wait for it, Whitney Houston’s version of “The Greatest Love of All” – Sowers-Adler then also toured locally with a children’s company. The following semester, she founded a preteen musical theater class at the Conservatory. “I was auditioning and performing, but I just fell in love with teaching. It never felt like something I would do until.”
There was method to her madness. The nascent instructor stuck close to Wilkes University waiting for the graduation of Nicholas Adler. Two years later, they wed and incorporated NiCori Studios & Productions – an amalgam of their names. At first, private students came to the house.
Early acting and directing programs
Sowers-Adler built up what became a full fledged program at the Conservatory using only student support staff. For 10 years, she taught virtually all classes: Acting for Young Performers, Theater and Imagination (Story-telling), Musical Theater… Annually, the kids would perform a full scale show. By the time she left, there were 7 different areas of study.
To say she rested on appreciable laurels would be a vast misnomer. Vast. A few years into the Conservatory program, she and her husband took over the Pocono Playhouse Children’s Theater (5 years) and, midway through that tenure, added Bucks County Playhouse Children’s Theater to their artistic direction and management roster (3 years), during which she directed 10 shows in 11 weeks. Think about that.
Now add her schedule at Wilkes, responsibilities as Director of Theater New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts (5 years) AND as Executive Director Gaslamp Academy of Performing Arts (3 years). NiCori closed during those summers. Were the venues in proximity of one another, I ask? (Beat) “No. I was in my car all the time, but we had a ball.” Clones? The word “overwhelmed” seems to have been omitted from Sowers-Adler’s lexicon.
The Wizard of Oz: Nicholas Adler, Kesley Stalter, Heidi Zimdahl, Kate Hoover, Mike Durkin, Nick Pearce
“You name a fairytale, I directed it. MTI (Music Theater International) has a junior version of a great many shows!” Sowers-Adler presented The Wizard of Oz 12 times. Older kids were given characters while the little ones played Munchkins. How do you help a young child to memorize something? I ask. “You don’t have them memorize, you have them learn it by making choices. Take a direction like Sally had a balloon and walked down the street. What color was the balloon? What street was she on and where was she going? The kid won’t forget the line because he/she has made it into a picture.”
Sowers-Adler also uses the system with older actors. “The stronger your choices are, the more vibrant and real a piece becomes to both you and your audience.” The same approach is applied to singing – deconstructing lyrics for meaning, building back stories for characters. Some of her students write pages and pages of history. “If we can get them to fall in love with the work, that’s the thing.” She beams.
Many summer aspirants were those she was training elsewhere. A boy who started with her at 12 just graduated from Yale with a degree in directing. The oldest are in their mid-20s. Tight knit relationships are formed. Some groups become lifelong friends. Seasonal theaters are not run for educational purposes, though Sowers-Adler seems to work outside the box. Young people learn in the doing. “If a kid is right for something, I don’t care whether they’re 13 or 19.” The environment is professional.
Stage Mothers and Fathers come with the territory. My subject once received a “Who do you think you are?!” registered letter from a parent whose offspring had been promised a role by the departing director. Because 400 (!) kids tried out, Sowers-Adler made “Yes”, “No” and “Maybe” piles. Wisely, she videotaped auditions to reference back. It was apparently very clear why the woman’s daughter landed in “No.” The girl’s video and scorecard were sent to her mom by return mail. There was no response. “Another mother followed me home. It was like, Oh My God!”
NiCori Studios & Productions has been housed in the Oakeside Bloomfield Cultural Center since 2008 when the couple moved to Bloomfield, New Jersey (from Pennsylvania). Youth performers/students paying semester based tuition range from 12-19. In February, acting for ages 9-11 will be added. “I get them both raw and having had lessons. Sometimes I have to unteach, which is more of a challenge.” It’s not necessary to audition to take classes, only for a role in the yearly musical.
What’s the difference in teaching a 10 year old and an 18 year old? I ask. A 10 year old, she tells me, is still naïve. There’s opportunity to give them a really good start. The craft emerges a bit more like play. With teens, Sowers-Adler often becomes a confidante and mentor.
Apparently a number of these kids are “outcasts” at their schools. “When I grew up, if there was bullying, you’d leave it when you went home. Now it can follow you no matter where you are.” Competition and pressures increase as her students get ready for college. NiCori thinks of itself as a safe haven. “I put pressure on them to be the best they can be, but there are no consequences.”
Corinna with Kevin Bergen
Kevin, who is gay and an outspoken theater devotee, had such a tough time in school he dropped out and finished with a GED. Sometimes he’d telephone Sowers-Adler in the evening or on weekends. Now he’s a straight-A college student. “If anything happens to me, I want this kid to take over. I’ve had him almost 10 years. He’s like family.”
“…Corinna taught me basically everything I know about the art of theater. As the years went by, I witnessed her true artistry…Words I will always remember in regard to both performing and true life are Don’t act, just be, the key to true art…At the age of 18, I realize I have an interest in directing because of the way she showed me to look at how life is presented on stage… I often say I would’ve ended up one of those troubled teens who never found their way without her. She made a home for kids like me. I can’t thank her enough.” Kevin Bergen
Elizabeth Nucci as Catherine in Pippin
Elizabeth Nucci who started with Sowers-Adler at 8 and is now a high school freshman, was so consistently hard on herself, she dropped out for a year with anxiety issues despite Nicori’s encouragement and her parents’ emotional support. When she returned, cast in a musical, the young actress had difficulty hitting a pivotal note. “She’d cry, I just can’t do it! which you’re not allowed to say in my studio. You have to put a quarter in a jar if you do.”
Sowers-Adler worked hard with the girl who stayed the course and nailed it in the show. “The other night, we had our voice recital and she sang Victor Herbert’s The Prima Donna Song, high D flats and everything. It was awesome.” (She effortlessly demonstrates.) While self doubt doesn’t disappear overnight, those moments remain valuable reminders.
Corinna and her students onstage – Something Beautiful – The Appel Room – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
Part of the vocal program at NiCori centers on Cabaret. Sowers-Adler, who is a professional vocalist, has appeared in New York and New Jersey since 2010, at clubs, NiCori-produced Music at The Mansion (in the solarium of the cultural center), and Lincoln Center. Fall 2016, a handful of her students joined with the artist on stage at the Appel Room in Something Beautiful. “I love teaching and directing musical theater, but I love to PERFORM Cabaret. It’s the idea of having a musical conversation and of being vulnerable.”
“At 17, I was introduced to NYC Cabaret by Corinna and I’ve been hooked ever since. I was very nervous for my first solo show, Corinna told me to treat it as if you are entertaining in your living room. That way it is both comfortable and you are surrounded by loved ones… I love Cabaret because it can be anything you want it to be. I’m very thankful.” Gerry Mastrolia
Gerry Mastrolia hosting NiCori’s Winter Gala
Do the kids understand that kind of openness and exposure? “Yes. Some can get to it and others can’t. Even the ones who hate it know it’s good for them…” Sowers-Adler persuades them the audience is on their side and that unique perspective on a lyric/song is what makes it beautiful. “If they look at the floor or ceiling while performing, I often tell them the floor doesn’t care!” Storytelling is an art. A couple of get-your-feet-wet shows are performed in New Jersey, culminating each Spring in a New Works Cabaret Showcase at New York’s Don’t Tell Mama.
“Corinna has helped me to grow from a kid who loved to sing into a real performer! Every time I step out of the studio I feel more confident and better about my singing as well as any problems that were bothering me that day. Singing at NiCori has given me opportunities that I’m grateful for and exposed me to all music and theater that I love!” 12 year-old Zoe Gelman who appeared at the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s annual Cabaret Convention in October 2016
Zoe Gelman and Corinna – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
Each summer, NiCori offers a 5 week, 5 day-a-week Theatre Camp concluding in a musical produced at The Westminster Arts Center. Twenty to 30 youngsters participate. Into the Woods is planned for 2017. Show auditions preface the season. Attendees immediately start to learn group numbers.
Classes, skewed towards the needs of that year’s chosen musical, sometimes begin with what Sowers-Adler calls a “no tension”= freeform dance to loosen up. There are focus exercises like rhythmically passing around a ball of energy while calling out the alphabet. The creative instructor uses a lot of visuals. When the soft palate needs to lift, kids are asked to imagine a balloon at the back of the throat. Connecting to the next phrase might conjure a train hurtling down the track. Breathing and stretching are employed to dissipate tension.
Like Sally walking down a street, the group discusses what the character wants, obstacles, risks, even archetypes. At what age, I wonder, do kids understand the nature of archetypes? Sowers-Adler sometimes starts with these. “They’re so recognizable. How do people perceive me, how do I perceive myself? You’re often cast according to this. I always tell them, don’t spend your life trying to be Cinderella if you’re the Fairy Godmother. Be the best Fairy Godmother you can be.” A NiCori student knows the difference between character actors and ingénues, but Sowers-Adler eschews those terms.
Both NiCori and its camp include what many experience as first rejection. Maybe you want to be the witch and you’re not. Sowers-Adler says this is a matter of either “a preparation thing” or “the person is just not right for it.” She never leaves a young actor hanging, making sure to inform each on what her decision was based. “I tell them they won’t often be told. But this is about education.”
Teaching at Oakside
What about kids who simply don’t have the talent? Sowers-Adler reminds parents, this is a business. “My own husband is a great example. He started as a child actor in theater, but on the way discovered theater management.” Nicholas Adler is currently House Manager at Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as Executive Director of NiCori Studios and Productions. “If you really love this world, you’ll find your part in it. If you’re only looking for your name in lights, you’ll be disappointed.”
NiCori offers a full roster of courses with more on the horizon. Every year it produces a full length musical as well as Music at the Mansion, and New York club showcases. Sowers-Adler currently coaches 31 private voice students and is looking forward to working on the CD of her own recent show, High Standards.
Nicolas Adler and Corinna Sowers-Adler
Starting bare bones, the organization now has two stage managers, choreographer, a musical director, and designers for sets, light and sound. (Freelance.) This December, in hopes of both expansion and the ability to offer scholarships, NiCori presented its first Fundraising Gala.
“It must be tremendously interesting to be a schoolmaster, to watch students grow up and help them along; to see their characters develop and what they become when they leave school and the world gets hold of them. I don’t see how you could ever get old in a world that’s always young.” Goodbye Mr. Chips* by James Hilton
Corinna in Performance
Corinna Sowers-Adler has been illuminating students for 18 years. She’s a happy woman. And incredibly busy.
* Dead Poets Society is a 1989 film about inspirational teacher John Keating at a Vermont boarding school
Opening: Corinna Sowers-Adler and her students
Photos courtesy of Corinna Sowers Adler and NiCori unless otherwise credited
For more information, go to the website for NiCori Studios and Productions.
With Dr. Strange coming out Friday, (the buzz says that it’s the trippiest Marvel movie yet), inevitably the mind turns to other magicians, wizards, witches, and sorcerers supreme who’ve dazzled us on screen. As the following examples show mastering the Dark Arts is a veritable cinematic tradition.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) This technicolor, musical-comedy-drama-fantasy, based on the beloved Frank L. Baum masterpiece, represents the best of Golden Age Hollywood with Judy Garland in the performance that made her an icon. While (spoiler alert) the titular wizard is a fraud, the powers of Elphalba the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda the Good Witch are very real and propel much of the events of the plot. It was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture but lost to Gone With the Wind. Initially something of a box office disappointment, it would later go on to become one of the best known films in American history and a cultural landmark.
Excalibur (1981) Directed, produced, and co-written by John Boorman (Deliverance and The Tailor of Panama) Excalibur retells the classic legend of King Arthur primarily from the viewpoint of Merlin played with grandeur by Nicol Williamson (Hamlet, Inadmissible Evidence). From the days of Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne in the role that launched his career) to Arthur’s final showdown with Mordred, Merlin steals the show. And this is among a truly great cast including Nigel Terry as King Arthur, Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fay, Nicholas Clay as Sir Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Gwenevere, a young Patrick Stewart as King Leondegrance, Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, and Corin Redgrave as the Duke of Cornwall. It was all filmed in Ireland, and holds up as one of the best Arthurian adaptions of all time.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987) Directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame and based on the John Updike novel of the same name. Alexandra (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon), and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer), are three women all living in Eastwick, Rhode Island who share two things in common. One, they’re all single having lost their husbands. Secondly, unbeknownst to them, they are all witches, and wittingly they start a coven and start practicing spells. Soon the mysterious Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) comes to town and that’s when things start to get freaky. It was nominated for two Academy Awards and holds an over 70% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) Directed by Chris Columbus. No such list would be complete without including the movie based on the best-selling book series that kicked off one of THE most successful film franchises in history. It helped that to do justice to Rowling’s vision they put together an all-star cast as well including Maggie Smith, John Hurt, Robbie Coltrane, and the dearly departed Alan Rickman. Billions of dollars later, Hogwarts has become a cultural landscape that all children secretly dream of being invited to attend, Dumbledore and Snape are now household names, and it launched Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe’s careers into the stratosphere.
The Witch (2015) Newcomer Robert Eggers wrote and directed this historical period supernatural horror tale that came seemingly out of nowhere to become an indie hit that grossed $40 million on a $3 million dollar budget. A puritan family is banished from their old settlement and builds a new farm by the woods. But beginning with the disappearance of their youngest child infant Samuel it soon becomes clear they are being terrorized by a powerful witch. It has an over 90% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and Stephen King said the movie “scared the hell out of me.”
Top photo: Bigstock