Wednesday, February 22, 2012

PBS Celebrates the inimitable Cab Calloway

"Hi de hi de hi de ho!" When that clarion call pierced the air, you knew a rousing time was about to be had. Cab Calloway was a force of nature. When he appears in movies, one simply cannot take your eyes away....even with that delectable Lena Horne in the same frame.
Charisma and creativity, energy and elegance all dressed up in white on white double breasted zoot suit with looping gold chain.
Calloway led one of the most popular African American big bands during the jazz and swing eras of the Harlem Renaissance in the '30's and '40's.
PBS's “American Masters” will premiere 'Cab Calloway: Sketches' beginning Monday February 27 at 10 pm.
Mobsters owned the Cotton Club. Cab and his band were “invited” to sub for Duke Ellington when the latter was on tour, being given the infamous Mafia 'offer'. Suddenly, the young Calloway (barely 23 in early 1930) was the new star, the chic place for rich, white people to enjoy the twin thrills of slumming in Harlem and taking in the elegant, sexy revues performed by stunning and scantily clad black showgirls. He soon became the darling of journalists and of New York’s nightlife. The radio quickly caught on to the phenomenon, broadcasting his shows three times a week. The United States had discovered Cab Calloway, and he was an overnight success.
Calloway lived in a segregated world. At The Cotton Club blacks could only perform, not attend. His was one of the first bands to tour the segregationist South, suffering through the indignities of Jim Crow. He finally demanded his own Pullman car.
The song “Minnie The Moocher” with its endlessly scatted chorus of “Hi de ho”, Calloway became the first black performer to sell a million copies of a 78 rpm record. Oddly enough, the upbeat-sounding song actually tells the tale of a poor girl under the thumb of a pimp who cares more about coke than love. The lyrics, emanating from the primordial core of Calloway, perhaps are never fully absorbed.
The PBS show explores Calloway's musical beginnings and milestones in the context of the Harlem Renaissance including period footage of that era of segregation.
The Broadway composing master of them all, George Gershwin, modeled the character Sportin' Life after Calloway. In 1952 he sang that part in a production and toured for two years.
He had his own Renaissance with “The Blues Brothers” in 1980. Calloway influenced Michael and Janet Jackson, Prince, Alicia Keys but others that you might not consider: present day hip-hoppers!
The biopic includes interviews of Cab's daughters, Cecilia and Camay, one of whom lives in Hockessin and continues a presence at Cab Calloway School of The Arts.
Aisle Say suggests you see this show on PBS. Additionally, if there is one movie that captures ALL the Afro American performers of that glorious age, it's Stormy Weather (1943). The history of jazz is brought to life with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fats Waller, Lena Horne, and in the grand finale, Cab Calloway, surrounded by celebrated tap dancers the Nicholas Brothers. Wow! While Horne's “Stormy Weather” makes every male wish he was snuggling up with her on that wet and wild night, the Nicholas Brothers dancing sequence down that staircase is extraterrestrial.
One assumes there will be a universal home work assignment at Cab on Friday the 24th!
PBS. Monday, February 27, 2012, 10:00-11:00 pm. ET; repeat. Friday, March 2, 2012, 9:00-10:00 pm. ET

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

After witnessing a number of Irish penned plays at UD REP Ensemble, Aisle Say comes to the conclusion this 'Sons of Erin' author/playwright fellowship are a most schizophrenic lot. From George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett to the more contemporary Gabriel Bryne, Brian Friel and now to 'Cripples' author Martin McDonagh, their love for their land is 'just complicated'!
“What would heaven be like? It can't be more beautiful than Ireland.” The writers love the beauty, revere the simple folk but rail at their passiveness against the ruling classes (UK), extol Catholicism in one breathe but are horrified by the oppressiveness it demands relating to one's feelings.
I am amazed and disconcerted by the lack of young people in the audience. The REP is a laboratory for students of theatre. Pretty words on a sheet are one thing. The REP actors give the written word flesh and blood and by the art and character they create, the drive those words without abandon into your soul.
So it is with “The Cripple of Inishman”.Directed at a pretty pace by J.R.Sullivan, the story takes place on a small island. Author McDonagh attacks the stereotypical portrayals of the Irish and their culture like Seinfeld goes after George Costanza. “I've seen nicer eyes on a goat!” “I'll be laying off the whiskey now and again....and at breakfast.” “Did you ever see the Virgin Mary thinkin' aloud? It didn't do her much good, now did it?”
The first reaction to this beautiful theatre is the consistency of dialects. Steve Tague – also a REP actor – has been an exquisite teacher of dialects since the groups inception.
The second reaction is the contortions that Billy (Michael Gotch), the Cripple, must put himself through to realistically portray a seriously handicapped person. His entire hand appeared to have no attending ligaments. Mammy (Carine Montbertrand) continues to astound comically. She is a latter day Imogene Coca.
Teachers, bring hither your students.
Through Feb 12. 832.2202


Speak about a kid who stepped in it. Over 60 years ago Agatha Christie's daughter birthed a boy. As a present, Agatha said, “Oh, I'll give him the rights to my new whodunit, 'The Mousetrap' Nothing will come of it.”
On this, the 60th anniversary of the world's longest running play (24,500), Mousetrap Productions has licensed 60 productions world-wide. Walnut Street is one of the few US venues. Seeing it live is the only way audiences can experience the mystery for their has never been a film adaptation.
There lurks a murderer amongst this group of strangers trapped by a snowstorm in the manor house. With each performance, audiences are pledged not to divulge the culprit.
The Walnut's production qualities continue to be excellent. The scenic design by Glen Sears gives off that musty air of the glory of a wood paneled manor house of centuries past.
Mollie Ralston (Jennie Eisenhower – yes, David and Tricia Nixon Eisenhower's daughter) is one of the most gifted triple threats in the region. She's too pretty and talented to be the murderer...but just could be.
Christopher Wren ( Eric Bryant) plays a very flamboyant boarder at the manor. His mannerisms are quite amusing and reminds one of the foppish valet character in 'The Producers.” Christopher does have motivation indeed! He is constantly being criticized for his limp wrists.
Inspector Giles Ralston (Dan Hodge) sports a terrific Cockney accent. But...sacre bleu...he cannot be culpable, he's a law enforcement officer.
'The Mousetrap' is one for the bucket list. Next up is 'Ethel', the life of Ethel Waters.
Running thru March 4. 215.574.3550

Friday, February 3, 2012

MISS SAIGON Premiere "ascends" by helicopter & ascendant voices

With great risks come even greater rewards. This has been the mantra for the last year at New Candlelight. “Miss Saigon” had never been staged by a local production company, mostly attributed to that pesky- but iconic – descending helicopter scene in Act 2. Design and engineering such a feat separates soldiers from civilians in the world of regional theatre. The show was penned by the duo of “Les Miserables” (you may have heard of it). The plot is nearly as epic; the characters equally flawed; the emotions stirred similarly heart wrenching; the music and lyrics bear resemblance in power and majesty. The duo of Sonny Leo (Director and Choreographer) and Chris Alberts (Producer and Lighting Design) have teamed once again to create transcendent musical theatre. Leads were two newcomers Kim (Dana Kreitz) and Chris (Anthony Connell). Cast aside any notions of musical comedy; this is a serious show. (Vietnam never contributed a lot of yucks). These two characters must not only have soaring voices but must sell the pain, pity and pathos and of their relationship. They are superb. Two locals that Aisle Say has seen in tens of productions give their finest performances. Engineer (Paul Goodman) who has been type cast historically as a 'nice guy', 'you can lean on my shoulder type”, sheds that golly gee image in this slimy, predatory, obsequious role. His “American Dream” was a come-to-Jesus show stopper. For Ellen (Sharon Brown Ruegsegger), the tragic but noble figure is this sorrowful triangle, Aisle Say always has admired her voice. She rose to another plateau above the clouds in this role. Thuy (Rick Fountas) was strong of voice but his cartoonish and over the top stridency of evil incarnate was way out of balance of the naturalistic portrayals of the characters around him. Staging is choreography, especially under Leo's direction. The fluidity of the fall of Saigon scene was ballet unto itself. Hours must have been spent in rehearsal to not only keep the masses flowing but to create the frenetic energy of the moment. This may have been the impetus for Leo's program book comment, “I've learned patience.” The awe-inspiring highlight of the production was the opener of Act 2, “Bui Doi”. In Vietnamese it means 'the dust of life', the brand burned into the mixed race children spawned by American soldiers and Vietnamese women; those left behind. It's a horrific appellation but an incredible song. John (Dave Snyder) along with a men's chorus, OWNS that song. If there had been live action replay, I would have been there 4 more times. In a drama this tense, there must be comic release. Peter Briccotto and Adam McLean ? (oh, I get it) were hysterical as American sex tourists. Their costumes, by Linda Reilly, were right testimony, I still have a few memorabilia in my closet from the very plaid and brightly pallet-ed '70's. Jonny Carroll (Tam) the offspring of the two weeks between Chris and Kim, was deemed 'adorable' by not one but two Elizabeth's at my table. Now, back to the helicopter. Alberts pulls it off. It descends in the chaos of evacuation. His dramatic lighting (especially the spot lights searching the audience) give a strong sense of the abject fear in the hearts of the evacuees. During that time Chris screams out, “all I made a mess”, which to those who lived through this era, is a metaphor for the US involvement in Nam. Thru March 11. 302.475.23 NCT is staging their annual fund raiser on February 11. Call the box office for details.