REVIEW: WORLD PREMIERE OF “LEMPICKA” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

LempickaMaking its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Lempicka is a breathtaking masterpiece that is destined to become the next great American musical.

Based on the rags-to-riches story of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, the show begins in 1916 with the artist and her husband Tadeusz abandoning their aristocratic lives to flee the Russian Revolution. The couple arrives in Paris to start anew, and to survive, Lempicka embraces her all-consuming love of painting. It’s there that she meets Rafaela, a prostitute who becomes both her lover and muse. Suddenly, Lempicka is torn between two worlds: the comfortable life she knows with Tadeusz and the infinite possibilities she is discovering through her affair.

“I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe,” Lempicka once famously said. But as fascism casts an increasingly long shadow over Parisian society, the innovative painter must decide who she is – and if she can have it all – in a moment of history defined by intolerance and chaos.

Playing the titular character, Eden Espinosa (Brooklyn the Musical) is a revelation. As an actor, she arms Lempicka with confidence, charm, staggering intellect, a bleeding heart, and a raw, urgent need to express herself through art. As a vocalist, Espinosa is as powerful and talented as the character she’s playing was a painter. Even notoriously hard-to-please critic Ben Brantley proclaimed that “Eden Espinosa’s Lempicka is indeed a legitimate successor to Ms. Patty LuPone’s Eva Perón” in his glowing New York Times Critic’s Pick review.

“From the very first moment I heard the music, I knew it was special and unique. I knew Tamara’s story needed to be told,” Espinosa posted to Instagram on the show’s opening night. “I’m beyond humbled to portray this unbelievable woman. So proud to share the stage with the kindest, most generous, hearts and spirits. In awe of the talents and visions of the creatives. I have been broken open and renewed. I have been stretched beyond limits. I am new.”

While playing this character may be a transformative point in Espinosa’s career, the audience also has the rare treat of watching her tackle what is a role that she so clearly was born to play. The result is one of those can’t miss, superstar-solidifying performances of the same caliber as Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple or Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. In fact, her depiction of Lempicka is so nuanced and multi-dimensional that if it could be captured on a canvas, it would fit perfectly alongside the artist’s renowned self-portraits as a mandatory understanding of her legacy.

One would think, then, that it would be impossible to have eyes on anything but Espinosa’s greatness during this show. Yet part of what makes Lempicka so marvelous and unstoppably delightful is that not only does the rest of the company hold their own, they shine in their individual and undeniable ways.

This is particularly true of the always-fabulous Carmen Cusack, whose impassioned portrayal of Rafaela is as gorgeous and unique as her unmistakable singing voice. As the spark that ignites Lempicka’s artistic fire, the Tony nominee (2016’s Bright Star) delivers yet another unforgettable performance. Like Espinosa, her vocal prowess is a weapon that penetrates deeply into the souls of her audience. Hearing the two of them belt and blend harmonies at once induces the type of full body chills that too few theatergoers ever have the luxury of experiencing first-hand. Despite the nearly three-hour runtime, the show feels too short: you don’t want to ever stop listening to these two powerhouses duet.

Lempicka

Additional standout performances include Rachel Tucker (who like both Espinosa and Cusack has played Elphaba in Wicked) as The Baroness, a bold woman who commissions Lempicka for a portrait based on ulterior motives. As Suzi Solidor, a lesbian whose bar becomes a temporary refuge for the Parisian queer community, Natalie Joy Johnson is a scene-stealer. And as Tadeusz, Andrew Samonsky brings palpable vulnerability to a man who increasingly struggles with living in his wife’s shadow.

With a book and lyrics by Carson Kreitzer and music by Matt Gould, the songs of Lempicka are as exquisite as are the talents performing them. Though the musical is set in the first half of the twentieth century, the songs are definitively present-day. With a modern pop flair combined with echoes of the storytelling grandeur of classics like Les Misérables, the richly layered music of Lempicka demands that the cast give their A-games at every show.

The results are catchy, impressive and beautiful—so much so that the fact that the cast recording is not yet available for sale feels like a major crime.  In an era dominated by jukebox musicals and revivals, numbers like the empowering “Burn It Up”, the sultry “Stillness” and the climactic “The New Woman” serve as vivid reminders of how impactful original musicals can still be.

“A friend introduced me to Lempicka and I realized I knew her paintings, but I didn’t know who she was. And that’s a wrong in the universe,” Kreitzer told The Berkshire Eagle. “I wanted to crack open her paintings the way they crack the world open.”

“The music leapt off the canvasses,” Gould continued. “And I didn’t know who she is, and that pissed me off. I could name you off the top of my head 10 male painters of that time.” Through their combined brushstrokes, Kreitzer and Gould’s songs paint a picture of a phenomenally talented and complex woman whose extraordinary story becomes instantly unforgettable for anyone who listens to them.

Like the score, Rachel Chavkin’s avant-garde directorial vision fuses the period piece with a contemporary sensibility. Chavkin already demonstrated her genius with Broadway’s cutting-edge 2016 musical, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812– another show that interpolated a perennial story with a distinctly current imagination. With Lempicka, she once again breaks theatrical ground. Between these two shows, it’s quite evident that the Tony-nominated director has a penchant for reshaping the lenses with which audiences observe stories they may think they already know.

Lempicka

Whether it’s completely revamping a Broadway theater into an Imperial Russian ballroom or marrying a sparse set with evocative lighting, Chavkin creates a fully immersive and genre-defying experience for those consuming her meticulous work (think of the grand scope of Julie Taymor mixed with the intimacy of David Cromer). Her brilliant staging is complemented perfectly by Bradley King’s stunning lighting, Riccardo Hernandez’ minimalist scenic design, Montana Levi Blanco’s lavish costumes and Raja Feather Kelly’s magnificent choreography. The sum of these parts adds up to the most astounding, daring and exciting new musical of 2018.

In its 64th season, the esteemed Williamstown Theatre Festival has delivered home run after home run. For Lempicka, this world premiere production is the beginning of a journey that should include a sweep of the Tony Awards, affirming the legacy of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.



CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Lempicka, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts until August 1.

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: LAURA BENANTI HEADLINES BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY’S ANNUAL GALA

Laura BenantiEvery summer, Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts hosts a gala.

This hotly ticketed event raises funds for two of the renowned theater company’s most important programs, the Playwright Mentoring Project and the New Works Initiative. They focus on providing an artistic home for participants and lifting up the voices of under-served youth across Berkshire County. Shows that have been introduced to the world as a result of these programs include the eagerly anticipated American Son, which will have its Broadway premiere this fall; its all-star cast boasts the likes of Kerry WashingtonSteven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan.

On July 23, BSC’s 24th Annual Gala was headlined by the extraordinarily talented Tony Award winner (and 5-time nominee) Laura Benanti. Along with her musical director Todd Almond, Benanti brought her marvelously audacious one-woman show, Tales From Soprano Isle, to the Berkshires for one exceptional night only.

Benanti opened her set with “She Loves Me in 15 Minutes,” a condensed version of the beloved musical that interspersed the show’s biggest numbers with a hilarious SparkNotes-like summary of the plot. As she sang the musical’s biggest highlights (including ones that her character didn’t perform in the acclaimed 2016 Broadway revival that she starred in), the soprano wasted no time in introducing the audience to the pitch perfect high notes that have catapulted her into a musical theater superstar. While “Vanilla Ice Cream” marked the medley’s showstopper, Benanti’s entire performance showcased her two major strengths: a big voice and an equally big sense of humor.

In fact, Benanti is as brilliant a comedienne as she is a vocalist. Of course, this is no secret to those who have seen her scintillating appearances as Melania Trump on Late Night with Stephen Colbert– a recurring role that has generated a stream of viral sensations since 2016. Not since Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin has a comedic impersonation of a political figure penetrated the cultural zeitgeist on such a massive scale while remaining so consistently spot-on.

“I’m not going to assume what your political leanings are,” Benanti told her audience while getting ready to perform as Melania. “Assume!” cried out someone from an orchestra seat. “You know what they say about assumptions,” she swiftly replied with a smile. “I don’t get paid.”

“Regardless of your political beliefs, I think we can all agree that Melania never expected to be First Lady of the United States,” Benanti continued. “Gold toilets? Yes. But the White House?” Then, it was as though she flipped a switch that instantaneously transformed her accent and Blue Steel pout into her now signature impression of the Obama birther conspiracy theory propagator.

As Melania, Benanti performed a rendition of “Send in the Clowns” that—yes, there’s no other way of saying it– brought the house down. This time plagiarizing Sondheim’s melody and refrain, her Melania retooled the lyrics to apply them to herself – including zingers about self-imprisonment, wealth, and Kellyanne Conway. Benanti’s comedic instincts, timing and writing seamlessly came together in this standout song – as clearly evidenced by the rapturous applause and fervent whistle blowing that immediately followed its final note.

Always quick on her feet, Benanti is at her best when playing off the energy of a live audience. Whether it’s saying, “God bless you” to a sneezing audience member in the middle of a song or finding a clever way to incorporate someone else’s ringing cell phone into her performance, her constant adlibbing adeptly demonstrated her ability to command the stage.

Taking the audience on a musical journey through her illustrious career, Benanti not only underlined her impeccable skills as a raconteur, but she also provided rare insights into what it was like behind the scenes when she was working on some of the best-known shows of the past two decades.

She recalled her Broadway debut in the 1998 production of The Sound of Music, when at only 18, she played Maria von Trapp’s understudy. When the show’s star went on a two-week vacation, Benanti was finally ready to take center stage as the world’s favorite former nun. Yet despite all of her confidence and excitement, nothing had prepared her for her first panic attack. It occurred a mere seconds before she was to run out on stage with her arms stretched out wide (àla the iconic Julie Andrews pose) for the opening number on her first night.

Benanti then sang “The Sound of Music” exactly as she did during that harrowing inaugural performance – with her arms locked above her head, profusely shaking, mock wiping sweat from her armpits, stammering her words while keeping her face lit with a full deer-in-headlights expression. Watching Benanti reclaim what was truly a traumatic experience into a master class of physical comedy was as inspiring as it was hysterical.

Similarly, Benanti shared two amazing stories about her frequent collaborator and Broadway legend, Patti LuPone. In the first, Benanti was playing the role of Louise (for which she won a Tony Award) opposite LuPone in Gypsy. When they first met, Benanti was nearly starving herself for her role. LuPone asked her to get drinks after rehearsal, and – like any young actor spending one-on-one time with PATTI LUPONE would do – Benanti ordered the same as her co-star: two double vodkas with lime. The next morning, she couldn’t remember anything beyond the first 45 minutes of her night out and woke up fully clothed in her apartment shower with the water pouring down on her. “What happened to you?” asked her alarmed then husband when he found her. “Patti LuPone,” Benanti deadpanned.

In her second LuPone story, Benanti took us back to the 2010 production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. At one point in the musical, she was to descend to the audience in a harness attached to the ceiling. During one performance, she broke her pelvis executing this stunt and passed out. When she came to, LuPone was holding a bag of ice on her crotch. “What happened?” Benanti asked her co-star. “Doll, you broke your vagina!”

But the night wasn’t entirely full of laughs. Before announcing her final song (and quipping, “Oh, you’ll be fine” to the cumulative groans from the audience that the show was ending), Benanti told a heartwarming story about her mother. She recalled how as a little girl, the moment that made her realize that her mother had an individual identity aside from “mom” was when she caught her singing Kander and Ebb’s “A Quiet Thing” on their staircase.

This scene in Benanti’s youth also opened her eyes to the enormous sacrifice that her mother made. She set her passion for performing aside to raise her and her sister. Today, Benanti and her mother Linda regularly tour their mother-daughter concerts all around the country.

Laura BenantiIn a tribute to both her mother and to her year-and-a-half old daughter, Benanti closed her set with a stunning acapella take on “A Quiet Thing.” As she sat without a microphone and with her legs dangling from the edge of the stage, Benanti filled the theater from wall to wall with her gorgeous voice. It was easily the cherry on top of an already unforgettable evening.

To call the Annual Gala a success for Barrington Stage Company would be a massive understatement. This year, they raised a record-breaking $140,000 ($100,000 of which will go towards the Playwright Mentoring Project).

“Thank you for supporting live theater,” Benanti told the crowd. She expressed that in these times wherein so many people are dismissed as “other,” the unparalleled sense of community, empathy and understanding live theater can provide is of the utmost importance.

And with that she took a final bow … along with the giant bouquet of flowers off of the piano.


With her exquisite voice, humor, and storytelling, Laura Benanti puts on a must-see show. Don’t miss Tales from Soprano Isle, touring across the United States this summer!

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2” WITH DIRECTOR JOE CALARCO

IT’S SAID THAT WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER ONE OPENS.

At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, A Doll’s House, protagonist Nora Helmer decides to (spoiler alert!) leave her husband and children to start a new life. This game-changing examination of gender roles and 19th century marriage was bold, controversial, shocking, and liberating in ways that were never seen on stage before the time of the play’s publication.

The lingering question of where Nora’s journey took her next is now being answered in the new play, A Doll’s House, Part 2. Picking up fifteen years after Nora closed the door of the Helmer house and on her old life, this new play written by Lucas Hnath finds Nora returning to her previous home to finalize her divorce. What ensues is yet another brilliant and poignant exploration of identity and society that expand upon both the world and ideas that Ibsen presented over a century ago.

Now playing through July 28 at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is directed by Joe Calarco. I chatted with the director about the show, the timelessness of Nora’s story, the impact of the #MeToo movement on this production, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: A Doll’s House features one of the most iconic endings of all time. What is it about Nora’s story that makes her such a fascinating character to continue exploring beyond the groundbreaking source material?

JOE CALARCO: Well, Ibsen’s original play was incredibly controversial. When it first premiered in 1879, many were appalled by it, finding it an attack on the institution of marriage. It was forbidden to be performed in London. For the German premiere, the actress playing Nora refused to play the last scene, saying she could not imagine a mother leaving her children. So Ibsen wrote an alternate ending for that production – though he felt doing so was “an abomination.”

The play opens with the stakes already incredibly high. Nora knocks on a door – the same one she walked out of fifteen years prior. Now a successful writer, she has evolved a great deal since the last time she stepped foot in the Helmer house. How challenging is it to maintain this same level of tension throughout the duration of the entire show?

Honestly, that tension is so beautifully written into the play by Lucas Hnath that it wasn’t a challenge at all. The play is a series of two person-sparring sessions between different characters. The tension is there because of the loaded 15-year history all the characters are bringing into those interactions.

What does Obie Award winner Laila Robins bring to her interpretation of Nora that audiences may be surprised by?

I’ve known Laila for a long time. I first saw her in Albee’s Tiny Alice at Second Stage in New York years ago and became determined to work with her. We ended up workshopping the musical Picnic At Hanging Rock by Daniel Zaitchik at Lincoln Center and at the O’Neill Music Theater Conference but we had never done a full production together. The minute I read this play I thought, “Laila has to play this part.” She is always surprising to me. She makes choices most actors don’t think of, so those who know her work will just revel in getting to see her rip into a character that demands so much from any actress playing her, and boy does she meet those demands. If you don’t know her work, then you will have the great joy and thrill of seeing one of the best actresses we have just killing it. She’s as good as it gets.

A Doll's House, Part 2

Although it’s set in the late 19th century, the play remains very topical to contemporary audiences. What is it about this story that makes it so timeless?

It was way ahead of its time when first written in terms of showing a complicated three-dimensional woman who has a clear understanding of self on stage. The box she’s put into in her marriage is suffocating her and she makes a decision she has to make in order to survive – a decision that was considered unforgivable by many when it first premiered well over a hundred years ago. Watching audiences during previews and seeing some people gasp or look shocked at things Nora says is a sad reminder that times have not changed as much as some would like to think they have.

How has this production been influenced and/or shaped by the #MeToo movement?

To me, context is everything in the theater. What is happening in the world allows or forces an audience to hear things differently. The first use of the “me too” phrase was in 2006 by Tarana Burke as part of a campaign to unite and support women of color who had experienced sexual abuse. The phrase did not become widely known about until (surprise surprise) a white woman appropriated the phrase and used it as a hashtag on social media in October of 2017 to draw attention to sexual assault and harassment. The original Broadway production of the play closed in September right before the hashtag became widely used on social media.

I think hearing the play in the current environment ignites an audience in a very immediate way and in different ways, depending on who they are and their feelings about the movement. On opening night when Nora yells, “I don’t need a fucking savior!” some people cheered and I could see others a bit more cold to it, maybe threatened by it. That’s what good theater does— startles, provokes and creates the opportunity for conversation.

Often times, sequels to beloved classics by different authors tend to not be embraced the same way that the original stories are. Why do you think Lucas Hnath’s play has become such a hit?

It’s a damn good play even if you haven’t read the original! It stands on its own as a really good play. But anyone who knows Ibsen’s original has wondered what happened to Nora after she slammed that door and this play allows you to engage with that question.

Is there a specific scene that you’re most excited for audiences to see? If so, which one and why?

Every scene is a tour de force. Each one is almost a three act play unto itself in terms of how they’re structured so I love them all. But I find the Emmy scene the most surprising because I think an audience has its own ideas of how Nora’s absence will have impacted her children. And Nora wonders too, of course. So in that moment when Emmy first appears, the audience is in the exact same place as Nora is – and where Emmy is in her life isn’t at all where Nora expected her to be and I think most audiences have the same response.

What are some of the key takeaways that you hope audience members have after seeing this production?

I know they will be knocked out by the performances and I hope they leave talking about the play and discussing how far we’ve come or not come as a culture in terms of how we view women.

When you were laying out your directorial vision for this production, did you approach it more as a brand new and standalone piece? Or was it more similar to working on a revival since the characters and their backstories are already so well known?

I think the play stands alone as a great piece of writing, but of course our knowledge of Ibsen’s play informs so much of how you view the characters. We read parts of Ibsen’s play in the early days of rehearsal and that was fascinating— to see who Nora was and who she has become— or as Hnath has Nora say about who she was in the marriage “That’s not me. That was a thing I was doing because if I didn’t do it, then you wouldn’t have listened to me about anything that was important to me.”

As the recipient of several Helen Hayes Awards, the Barrymore Award, and the Lucille Lortel Award, along with numerous nominations, what would you consider your signature touch as a director? 

I think I provide a safe rehearsal space for actors to take risks so I hope the plays and musicals I direct always have very raw, honest performances in them. I’m fortunate enough to work with designers who share the same aesthetic as I do and we always challenge each other to up our game. I think visually my shows are always very striking without getting in the way of the performances— the design is always there to support the actors.

How will this production be both similar to and different from last year’s Broadway production?

I actually didn’t see the Broadway production, which I’m happy for. I didn’t have any images to influence me or to have to fight against. I feel very strongly as a member of the directors union, SDC— I sit on the Executive Board— that a director’s work is their work and it should not be replicated without permission. It is a director’s job to bring their own vision to a piece. The script itself demands certain things, but I think our production is even more spare visually than the Broadway production, allowing the actors to carry the play. I think, like on Broadway, the audience will see four master actors tear into a great play.

You’ve worked on many shows at Barrington Stage Company, including Ragtime and The Burnt Part Boys. What is about this specific theater company that makes you keep wanting to work on more projects here in the Berkshires?

Julie [Boyd, Artistic Director of BSC] has always been so supportive of me. BSC is like a second artistic home for me. I’ve gotten to work on new work here both as a director and as a writer and I’ve gotten to re-examine existing work like Ragtimeand Breaking the Code. Julie trusts me and always is there to support my vision of a piece. That’s a gift.

The show has its final bow on July 28. What’s next on your plate? And what are some dream projects you hope to work on in the near future?

I get a little bit of a break, which I’m looking forward to because this is my third show in a row since April and I’m looking forward to letting my brain recharge. I’m a writer as well as a director and I have a new play I’m looking to finish. I’m Director of New Works and Resident Director at Signature Theatre outside of D.C. and I’m directing two shows there next season – the first being Heisenberg starting rehearsals in August. I also write a world premiere one-act play each year for Signature’s education program, Signature in the Schools, so I will be getting started on that soon. I’m looking to expand the play we did last year, 12 Million Footsteps, about the Syrian refugee crisis, into a full length play, which I’m going to develop with some Syrian actors. Another theater in D.C.— 4615 Theatre Company — is producing the world premiere of another play of mine, Separate Rooms, next spring.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to A Doll’s House, Part 2, now playing at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA through July 28.

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEWS: “THE CLOSET” AND “THE SOUND INSIDE” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

Williamstown Theatre Festival

You know it’s officially summertime in the Berkshires when the annual Williamstown Theatre Festival kicks off. This year, the iconic institution celebrates its 64th season, holding its inaugural performances last week.


Up first on the Main Stage is The Closet. Written by Douglas Carter Beane (XanaduSister Act) and inspired by the French play Le Placard by Francis Veber, this world premiere comedy is running from June 26-July 14. Starring Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick (Brighton Beach Memoirs; How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying), Tony Award nominees Jessica Hecht (A View from the Bridge) and Brooks Ashmanskas (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me), as well as Ann HaradaBen AhlersWill Cobbs and Raymond BokhourThe Closet is an uproarious contemporary farce guaranteed to make its audience ache from non-stop laughter.

The Closet

Set in modern-day Scranton, Pennsylvania, the play tells the story of Martin O’Reilly (Broderick), a middle-aged man who’s all but given up on his dreams of a bright future. He’s barely holding onto his dead-end job, his wife has left him, and his son (Ahlers) thinks he’s too boring and ordinary to spend even a minimal amount of time with him. At work, his impending firing is an open secret that office gossip queen (a scene-stealing Harada) loves to spread. Meanwhile, Martin obliviously and regularly accepts baked goods from his co-worker Patricia (Hecht), whose crush on him is as subtle as the giant crucifixes that adorn the office of the Catholic supplies distributor where they work.

Martin’s life is soon turned upside down with the introduction of his new roommate, Ronnie Wilde (the always hysterical Ashmanskas) – a flamboyant man who is as loudly boisterous as the patterns on his blazers. It’s not long before Ronnie infiltrates both Martin’s personal and professional lives.

Upon learning what Martin’s boss, Roland (Cobbs), is planning on doing at lunch that day, Ronnie concocts a wild and lavish scheme to convince Martin’s colleagues that the two of them are a gay couple. As a result, he can argue that if they do let Martin go, it would be because he was gay. Therefore, the already-floundering company would get terrible PR for its discriminatory treatment of a gay worker (despite the fact that they would be completely within their legal rights to fire him for that reason – Ugh).

The chain of events that ensues is a rollicking and whimsical ride in which every character is ultimately pushed to come out of their own respective closets, whatever they may be. Brilliantly directed by Mark Brokaw (How I Learned to Drive), The Closet is an undeniably laugh-out-loud satire about political correctness, yearning to fit in, and the pursuit of love in extraordinary places.

An equally intelligent and slapstick comedy, The Closet manages to both entertain and pack a poignant punch. After all, there’s an encouraging message at the heart of the show: live life as your most authentic self. In these uncertain times, that’s a reminder that’s never in short supply.

The Closet


The Sound InsideUp first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s more intimate Nikos Stage is another world premiere play. Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp (Red Light Winter) and starring Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony Award winner Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds; Angels in America), The Sound Inside is the absolute must-see show of the summer. Directed by freshly minted Tony Award winner David Cromer (The Band’s Visit), this cerebral drama runs from June 27 – July 8.

Although she enjoyed some literary success early in her career, Yale University professor Bella Baird (Parker) hasn’t published a novel in nearly two decades. Now in her early 50s, Bella is diagnosed with cancer and given less than a 20% chance of survival.

Enter Christopher (Will Hochman). A freshman in one of Bella’s English classes, Christopher is unlike his contemporary peers. He doesn’t “do e-mail” and prefers discussing the merits of William Faulkner to taking selfies. One day, he shows up to Bella’s office hours without an appointment. Despite his professor’s insistence that he follow protocol and schedule a formal session through the university’s online calendar, Christopher keeps appearing unannounced. He tells Bella that he’s writing a novel and that, as someone enamored by her class, early prose and expertise, he needs her help in fleshing it out.

As Bella and Christopher spend more time together, she aids him in developing not only his novel’s characters and plot, but also (most importantly) his literary voice. At one point when his new mentor asks for an update on his progress, Christopher explains that he can’t think about anything other than his book. He says he feels like the novel is writing him instead of the other way around. With a knowing smile, Bella describes this as “the free-fall,” the part of a writer’s process in which their work begins to pour out of them like a faucet. This is the point when the author’s mind becomes so completely consumed by their story that the lines between what’s real and what’s fiction become a blur. It’s the stage that can only be reached when you listen and give in to the sound inside.

But as Christopher inches towards the milestone of completing his first draft, Bella becomes consumed by a different kind of force. In order to achieve the harrowing new goal she’s set for herself, she needs someone to help her – but as discreetly as possible. A prized loner with a rapidly intensifying disease, she decides to turn to the one person who she feels she can fully trust: her student. The result is a staggering exploration of not just what people are able to do for one another, but also what mortality means for an artist.

Parker’s tour-de-force transformation into Bella is a master class in stage performance. Her nuanced and raw portrayal allows audiences to peel back enough layers of Bella to become fully immersed in her audacious and often erratic psyche. Parker’s performance skillfully juxtaposes Bella’s sorrow and confidence, painting a vivid portrait of a simultaneously hungry and depleted woman on a quest to define her legacy.

The jaw-dropping reveal in the play’s climax dares its viewers to refocus the lens through which they not only examine Bella but also the overwhelming and sometimes shocking power art can have over its creator. The Sound Inside is a bold, remarkable and unforgettable character study that will haunt, challenge and inspire you long after the curtain closes.

The Sound Inside

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY” WITH STAR WILL SWENSON

WILL SWENSON HASN’T TAKEN A BREAK IN YEARS.

After back-to-back runs in Broadway shows like Les MisérablesWaitress, and Disaster, off-Broadway shows like Little Miss SunshinePericles and Jerry Springer – The Opera, and films such as The Greatest Showman and the upcoming The Kitchen, the 44-year-old Tony Award nominee (Hair, 2009) is truly an unstoppable force.

Following his Berkshire Theatre Award win for Best Lead Actor in 2016’s The Pirates of Penzance, Swenson has returned to the Berkshires this summer to star in the world premiere production of the new musical, The Royal Family of Broadway. With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn (the acclaimed creative team behind The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee)The Royal Family has been playing to sold-out audiences and critical acclaim at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

I spoke with Swenson about The Royal Family, the difference between working on revivals versus brand new musicals, the role of art in today’s political climate, filming The Kitchen, and more.

The Royal Family of Broadway

ALEX NAGORSKI:What initially attracted you to The Royal Family of Broadway?

WILL SWENSON: A bunch of things! First and foremost, it’s just a great role. When I read it, I was like, “Oh, I could do a lot with this!” Plus, I’d seen the revival of the play it’s based on (The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber), so I was pretty familiar with the story. I knew it was a good play and I liked the part a ton. Then, of course, Bill Finn’s music is always spectacular. Getting the chance to work with him is great.

Also, John Rando is just one of the best directors in the business. I’d worked with him just recently and a few times prior. I think this is my fourth project with him. It was just a perfect storm of very appealing things to work with.

What are some of the ways that you find Tony to be a different type of character for you to play than the previous roles in your career thus far?

Hopefully, they’re all pretty different from one another. It does get frustrating as an actor sometimes when you get pigeonholed. People can be like, “Oh, he’s the guy that does this or that.” So I try to spread it around and play different people in diverse types of projects.

Tony is just a wacky, self-centered, full-of-life character. The Royal Family is a period piece so it has some high language and great songs. So just looking at something new to do was very appealing.

What does it mean for you to get to introduce this brand new music by William Finn, who wrote such contemporary classics as Falsettos, to the world through this show?

Well, my favorite kind of show to do is one that’s brand new. When you do revivals or shows that have been widely done, there’s often a preconceived idea of what the show should be or who the characters are. Even down to the moment, like, “This is when typically the actor does this because it’s the way it’s always been done.” Therefore, sometimes you can feel a little bit like a puppet and like you’re walking in somebody else’s shoes.

But doing something new is really thrilling because you’re creating it. It’s legitimate creation and you get to tread new ground and call the shots. Doing something new is just my favorite. In the rehearsal room, you’re discovering things for the very first time and going, “Oh, this works, this doesn’t work.” It’s just a lot more fun for me.

The Royal Family is set in the 1920s and is loosely based on the legendary Barrymore family. What was your creative process like discovering the world of this show?

I YouTubed a ton and read a bunch on the Barrymores – particularly John Barrymore, who it seems like my character is based on. He was this amazing, larger than life archetype of an actor – down to the drunkenness, the carousing, the heightened personality, and the arrogant speech on camera. So I watched as much footage as I could of interviews with John Barrymore, as well as a lot of his actual work. It was like a treasure trove of stuff to use. Some of the stuff I found in his movies was just like, “Oh, that’s going in the show!”

Also, Lionel Barrymore wrote a book about his family and his siblings, in which he told all kinds of wonderful stories. That was great stuff for the backstory and to understand what the family dynamic was. That’s kind of what I did to prepare for this role.

As far as the rehearsal room, it was much more fast and furious. We whipped the show up in only three weeks – which is a crazy, small amount of time to mount a new musical. That’d be a really quick amount of time to whip up a musical that’s well known and already written! We were cutting songs, adding songs, adding dialogue, rewriting stuff – it was just all in a super short amount of time.

The Royal Family of Broadway

You and your wife (6-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald) have a long history of performing in the Berkshires, including shows at places like Barrington Stage Company, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Tanglewood, to name a few. What is it about this area that keeps bringing you both back here?

It’s the combo of doing great art and the beauty of the area. There are so many amazing forums up here for performance. We love to go hike and kayak during the day and then work on some new and fun projects at night. We love to go hike up on Mount Greylock and over at Williamstown. I like to mountain bike up to Vermont. We go to various cafes and eat gigantic pancakes. We just love being up here in the summer.

While I’ve been up here, I’ve been going back and forth to New York to shoot a movie I just finished. I’ve missed a couple of shows but I’m done now. So because of this movie, my memory of this summer will be driving back and forth between Pittsfield and New York City.

What’s the movie?

It’s called The Kitchen and it’s starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss. It’s about the Irish Mob in the ’70s. I play an Italian hit man. It was pretty fun!

The Royal Family wraps up on July 7. What are the rest of your plans for this summer and where can your fans catch you next?

I’ve got a couple of concerts that I’m singing at in Provincetown at the end of July. My wife has a bunch of concerts too. I’m going to hit the road with her and watch our baby during that time. I have not spent nearly enough time with them during the run of The Royal Family because they couldn’t always come up here. So I’m going to be a dad, do a few concerts and then go be a roadie for my wife.

What are the plans for The Royal Family after the final curtain drops this weekend? And if it does indeed come to Broadway, do you plan to reprise your role?

If there are future plans for it, I definitely want to stay involved. There most likely will be. Because it’s a new show, I imagine there will probably be a workshop of some kind to try to nail down the things that we wanted to continue working on. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if someone wants to take it to Broadway!

This musical comedy is very much a feel-good show. In these horrifying times we’re living in, do you consider the role of an artist to be to entertain, educate and/or distract audiences?

Hopefully, it’s all of it. I’ve said before in interviews that I feel like history remembers civilizations for two things: their wars and their art. As an artist, that’s the beauty we leave behind in this world. Hopefully what we do makes people question their places in the world and question their decisions and thought processes.

Some art forms are much more escapist. Sometimes it’s nice to forget about the world and just go into a room and enjoy it and laugh for a couple of hours. Other times, it makes you ask yourself hard questions. Hopefully, we can do all of that with our storytelling, which I think is such a noble and a beautiful art form.

You recently tweeted that you “used to feel so inspired and lucky” whenever you saw the Statue of Liberty, but that now seeing it “just makes me feel sad and embarrassed.” As both a performer and a father, how do you hold onto hope in such a toxic political climate?

Man, it is tough. I’ll tell you what – a buddy of mine did a little blog on his website about why we shouldn’t lose hope. And he basically wrote that the reason is because there’s no other option. Because we’re alive. There’s a scary, murky end to all of us, and that’s death. But we get up each day and try to be good people and to try to make a difference because that’s just what you do. That’s part of life. There are challenges, setbacks, hard times and good times. But surrendering is just not an option.

We try – speaking for my wife and hopefully my kids as well – to make our lives as productive and positive as we can. We try to make a difference where we can. Hopefully, those ripples will travel far enough that it can make a difference and we can help make the world a better place.

That’s very inspiring. On a lighter topic, congratulations on your recent Obie Award win for Jerry Springer – The Opera! What were some of the highlights of playing Satan?

Thank you! It was so great on so many levels. I mean, I’d never played Satan before. He’s just such a terrific character. And to do it in such a bizarre setting with such a twist on how the character is portrayed in the context of The Jerry Springer Show was a total ball. And through the medium of opera! That just added an extra cool facet to the delivery of it. That show was directed by John Rando as well. It was just a ball! That was a great company and a really, really fun project.

You’ve played a lot of “bad guys” on Broadway, such as Earl in Waitress and Javert in Les Misérables. What type of creative itch does playing these types of villainous roles scratch versus playing the hero of a story?

Generally, I think they’re more complex. If I was given the choice to play the “bad guy” versus the “good guy,” I think I would generally choose the antagonist.  Playing somebody troubled is a lot more fun than playing somebody who has all of their stuff figured out. Discovering how the “bad guy” gets to that point and how they justify their actions or why they probably think they’re the “good guy” because they’ve lost track of their values or motives … I just like it a lot.

You mentioned that you’ll be doing some solo concerts soon. Do you have any plans to release any solo music?

Probably not but you never know. I just really love the theater. It’s not my number one passion to be like, “Will Swenson sings you this song.” I like hiding behind my characters a little more. But when things come up, I surely enjoy them and they’re a good way to take a vacation with my kids.

What are some of your musical theater dream roles and/or collaborators?

Well, as I mentioned, new stuff is really my favorite so I don’t have a huge, long list of “Oh, I want to play that” or “I want to play him.” What really turns me on the most is creating something new.

I suppose if there was one that comes to mind, it’d be Sweeney Todd. I’d like to do that one someday. Of course, Sondheim is someone that I would love to get to work with, but I haven’t been able to thus far. I’m a fan of so, so many great musical theater composers and am lucky enough to have been able to work with a lot of them.

As someone who has appeared everywhere from the stage to films to television, what do you feel is the most important thing that live theater can achieve for an audience that these other mediums do not?

Well, theater is my favorite performance medium. I enjoy working in TV and film as well, but there’s just that intangible thing in the room in a theater where we’re all connected. It’s this living kind of organism of storytelling that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s communal.

I was watching Oskar Eustis give this speech the other day and he said, “When you go to a movie theater and you walk in and you’re the only person there, you’re thrilled! You sit by yourself and you’re totally excited to be the only person in the movie theater. But if you walked into a stage performance and you’re the only person in the theater, or if there’s not a full house, your heart sinks because whether you know it or not, you’re going to have a communal experience.” You know?

The shows that are sold out, that are hard to get a ticket to, there’s something exciting about being one of those select few that get to see it. The fact that it’s so alive and it varies from night to night is just thrilling. Other acting art forms, like film and television, are wonderful and are accomplishing many other things – but they’re very set and they’re the same way forever once the project is finished. So there’s just that extra thing about theater that binds people together. It’s so beautifully communal. I just love it!


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to The Royal Family of Broadway, now playing through July 7 at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Originally published on PopBytes