Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Brandywiners and DE Shakespeare Co

The weather has been unkind to open air theater this week. We had the opportunity to attend both The Brandywiners' “Camelot” at Longwood and Delaware Shakespeare Company's “Twelfth Night" at Rockwood Mansion Park. On starry, starry summer nights their productions are treats for the senses and live theater, but each succumbed to inclement weather on their opening weekends.

The Broadway opening of Camelot was in 1960. After initially faltering at the box office, the show became a notable hit after it was publicized that the show's original cast album was favorite bedtime listening in the White House of President John F. Kennedy. Forever afterward, the name "Camelot" has been associated with the Kennedy administration.

The group with me at Longwood was particularly impressed with Ted Harting's King Arthur. While in real life Harting could be Erin Cates Smith's (Guenevere) father, the May-December differential was believable owing to the politics of arranged marriages between European royals. Perhaps dying his hair would have brought the two together a farthing more in stage years.

We empathized with Harting's strong portrayal of an insecure, self-doubting king thrust into the responsibility.

Smith's soprano voice and lilting, insouciant air as The Queen was perfect for a character who loves her king in spirit but loves his best friend in more earthy ways. That rift is discovered by the evil Mordred and rends all the good Arthur's Round Table to wrought.

Jeffrey Chapman as Lancelot was as strong vocally as any “Lance” that has trod the voluminous Longwood stage, but the chemistry between him and Guenevere was as unlimber as his jousting pole, used with dexterity versus less talented and less self-absorbed knights. Sir Pellinore (Tom Cates) was great comic relief and is emerging as one of the best character actors in the region.

With the mission to make “CAM-E-LOT...a more congenial spot” in terms of developing darkness, the decision for an 8:30 curtain was made. The first act was not over until 10:10; making for a long night.

Til August 1. or (800) 338-6965.


Great credit must be extended to Molly Cahill Govern, artistic director of Delaware Shakespeare Festival. She and her society of passionate volunteers have had all the right moves since their 2003 premiere.

They persuaded NCC Exec Chris Coons to allow the group use of Rockwood Mansion as their venue and then bring along The Greenery as their caterers for picnicking; they stage a show orientation an hour before curtain to acclimate those lesser students of Shakespeare to the night's proceedings; they instituted a comedy pre-show (by Acting Apprentices) to warm us up and they even have Shakespeare-themed arts and crafts for children.

Aisle Say remembers my parents taking me to The Brandywiners when we sat on blankets, as guests do presently with DE Shakespeare.

Another sign of a growing reputation is the outreach to trained actors from around the region. The company has reached out to a number of Villanova U theater grads and the quality is exhibited on stage. Also, they have been accepted into the prestigious Philly area Barrymore Awards.

Govern said they their attendance last year reached 2,500, sure to be exceeded this year if Saturday night's crowd is any indication. Aisle Say suggests they connect with DE Theatre Co. Their product is comparable to that of the latter group.

'Til August 1. or at the door. Curtain at 7:30 but come an hour early for the orientation. It will further your understanding.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Making of "Down At Mama Jones'"

Four years ago, composer Larry Kerchner gave me a CD of ten tunes he wrote. That artistic endeavor, penned in a creative frenzy, was the birthing ground for what I hope will become a First State first on Broadway.

Larry, like Broadway icons Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter, writes both music and lyrics. To put that fact into perspective, in the famed duo Rogers and Hammerstein, Rodgers wrote the music, Hammerstein the words, Kander the music, Ebb the lyrics, Lerner more words and Loewe more music.

A Wilmington based artist, Larry's resume includes two Grammy nominations, years as head composer for Ringling Bros., work on The Tonight Show and commercials with McDonald’s, Coke and 7-Up. We first met years ago at Candlelight Dinner Theater when our kids were in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Those ten fully-orchestrated tunes came to life through a high-energy eight-member jazz band, resplendent with intricate sax and trumpet solos and profound - but not complex - lyrics. To me, a writer, there was a theme that drove this twelve cylinder race car.

I have had had some success taking songs from Gershwin, Porter and Judy Garland's signature standards and writing musical revues around them. After hearing the CD perhaps a zillion times and being rendered speechless by it's originality, I asked Larry if I could have the privilege of writing a musical engendered from his lyrics.

My first concept was a show entitled Capone: The Rat-A-Tat-Tat-Tat Musical. The world loves gangsters, right? In preparation, I got a DVD of one of my fave childhood TV shows, “The Untouchables,” and set the scene in a glitzy speakeasy bordering Capone's South Side and enemy Bugsy Moran to the north. It was to be set on Feb. 13, 1929 -- the next day having singular significance to the racketeers' careers.

Larry was happy that I was taking the project but nixed the Capone idea, as the music centered around the late 1930s to the 1950s.

Back to the drawing board.

If you Go...

'Down At Mama Jones'

Aug. 25, 7 p.m.

Brandywine Hundred Library

For musical theatre lovers, expect lively discussion about every aspect of mounting a show from concept to completion.

(302) 494-3133

Around this time, fellow Brandywine High grad Sue Cerceo was looking for a project. I gave her Larry's CD and within a few hours she was back to me exclaiming “This music is awesome ... and, just as important, it's new! Broadway needs original work!”

If you saw the Tony Awards, you know there is a dearth of "new" on Broadway and an abundance of revival material. What we're making is not only original, with great music, dance and storyline, it will also be Delaware's first completely homegrown Broadway musical.

Sue's connections in musical theatre are as capacious as are Larry's in musical composition. She had been Wardrobe Supervisor for an eight year tour of "Les Mis," hitting every major city in America and Canada. She has toured with “Phantom,” “Wicked” and most recently “Hair Spray.” She created the wardrobe head position at The Academy of Music and most recently worked at that same venue with the tour of “Grease.”

Over the past two months, Sue and I collaborated on an entirely new storyline. Our setting is a glitzy New York City nightclub called Mama Jones' and the title is “Down At Mama Jones'.” Larry's sizzling title tune opens the show.

The three of us plan to showcase the production regionally and mount a tour. Sue has sent the CD to Broadway friends and many wish to take part. One such colleague is Charlo Crossley, late of the “Hairspray” tour and previously one of Bette Midler's backup trio, The Harlettes.

For a preview behind the scenes look at that making of a musical, we are starting a documentary package of “The Making Of 'Down At Mama Jones',” starting right here in northern Delaware. For those who love musical theatre, there will be lively discussions and interaction.

Aisle Say - Club Phred in Hockessin

When last we left Fred Dawson, majordomo of local sensation cover band Club Phred, he was lying prostrate in front of his wife Louise, begging for a band room in their Hockessin home. Growing weary of his whimpering, the dear lady - a long suffering soul - finally acceded to his importuning.

“Aha!” exclaimed Fred, eyes glistening with tears. He raised himself from the carpet, threw open his front door and screamed, “Dear citizens of New Castle County, now our band has a place to practice so we can spread our gospel of '60s and '70s rock 'n' roll over the land! Hallelujah! The world can never get enough of Wilson Pickett, Steppenwolf, Chicago and Percy Sledge! Brother and sister party animals – I am talkin' to you! We are on a mission from God!”

Club Phred

What: 60s & 70s rock 'n' roll, food, beer & wine. Cash bar

When: Sat., July 18, 7 p.m. - 12 a.m. (dining first hour, music starts at 8 p.m.)

Where: Hockessin Hall, 1225 Old Lancaster Pike

Tickets: $25/advance, $30/at door


Club Phred delivers the gospel of hard driving rock 'n' roll, make no mistake. However, the seven-member group of Baby Boomers is ever mindful of its role in the community as public servants. Since the group formed in 2002, the Club Phred has raised more than $1.3 million for statewide charitable organizations.

On July 18, Fred will tote his 430-pound Hammond B3 organ to Hockessin Fire Hall for yet another benefit.

Mark Sisk, Phred's rhythm guitarist (and Newark attorney in the real world), says the Hammond is not the only vintage instrument used.

“We feel the authentic sounds of these great tunes can only be delivered by the instruments used to record them in the first place. One of our members plays a 40-year-old Fender Stratocaster - similar to ones used by many of the '60s and '70s groups.”

Aisle Say attended a Club Phred gig at the Baby Grand in Wilmington last December. It was unequivocally one of the rockingest parties in this arts enthusiast's long dancing and sing-a-long career.


Greer Firestone lives in Brandywine Hundred. He draws from a half-century of involvement in Delaware's theatre scene to write about arts and the business of art in the First State.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Brandywiners stage CAMELOT at Longwood Gardens

C'est moi, c'est moi, Aisle Say, and I exclaim The Brandywiners, sans doubt, is the patriarch of Delaware community theatre.

In 1932 Frances Tatnall, of The Tatnall School fame, convinced Chick Laird, a duPont family scion with direct lineage to founder Eleuthere Irenee, that the time was right for community theatre in Wilmington. Laird had the brainstorm to travel out Route 52 to ask his favorite uncle for a place to play. The uncle was P.S. Du Pont and the sylvan stage was Longwood Gardens. (Laird went on to co-found both The Wilmington Drama League and The Brecks Mill Cronies, but they are stories for another day at Aisle Say.)

The Longwood stage is a magical place to perform and a requirement for a young singer or dancer's resume. Great memories are birthed here. On a starlit summer night, there is no more ideal place to see live theatre. For the actors, the backstage underground dressing rooms are a vertiginous labyrinth of passages.

Aisle Say has had the opportunity to appear in a few productions over the decades. I recall, during a '91 performance of "Kismet," that a light mist began falling before a solo. The director handed me an umbrella and said “the show must go on.” I opine that politics has factored in for a reprise of "Kismet." It's tough when a war is being fought and one of the production numbers of the show is “Baghdad.”

The most scenically appropriate shows at Longwood are "Brigadoon," "Carousel" and "Camelot." The natural splendor magnify and enrich the settings of these lush productions.

Lerner and Lowe's "Camelot" opened in 1960 with an otherworldly cast of Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet.

As we know, The Brandywiners stage large musicals only...with the largest casts in the region. Many amateurs re-visit productions over the decades; some return to the same roles. So it is this year.

Ted Harting, this year's Arthur, first played the role in 1981. His Lancelot was Jim Smith, the current director, who elevated himself from knight to king in 1993.

Two newcomers round out the leads, both of whom have substantial operatic backgrounds. Erin Cates Smith (Guenevere) has a Masters in Vocal Performance and has sung leads in "The Mikado" and "Pirates of Penzance" (coincidentally the very first Brandywiners show). Aisle Say last saw Wilmington native Jeffrey Chapman (Lance) in OperaDelaware's "Marriage of Figaro" and "La Boheme" at The Grand. Specifically, the songs “C'est Moi,” “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and “If Ever Would I Leave You” fit well with operatic voices.

Both Jim Smith and Music Director Lawler Rogers had long and distinguished careers as educators in the Brandywine School District. Rogers was music director for the recent "Carousel" and "Oklahoma" and has worked with OperaDelaware and Delaware Symphony.
The ticket purchase includes entrance to the world renown Longwood Gardens, so come early.

The show runs July 23 – August 1. For tickets, call 478-3355 or visit