TALKING “ALADDIN” WITH BROADWAY STAR TELLY LEUNG

TELLY LEUNG IS DISCOVERING A WHOLE NEW WORLD.

This summer, the acclaimed Broadway veteran took over playing the titular character in Aladdin, Disney’s blockbuster stage adaptation of their 1992 animated classic. With a theater career that spans nearly two decades, the revered actor is tackling his largest role yet. And coming off two back-to-back shows (Allegiance and In Transit), Leung is proving himself to be one of the busiest and hardest working performers on Broadway today.

I caught up with Leung about what getting to play Aladdin means to him, how Broadway has evolved since his 2002 stage debut, how Carol Channing changed his life, defying the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Were you a fan of the animated movie growing up? What memories do you have associated with watching it as a kid?

TELLY LEUNG: Like everyone of my generation, I fell in love with the animated film in 1992. I remember falling in love with the music (and having it stuck in my head for weeks!) and I remember the amazing, a-hundred-miles-a-minute performance by Robin Williams. It was a tour-de-force. As I was watching the movie as an adult, I realized there were so many jokes I actually MISSED as a kid that I now understand as an adult. The movie is timeless.

What does getting to play the titular character in Aladdin mean to you?

It’s an absolute blast. I’m having the time of my life with this stellar company, and YES – it IS as much fun as it looks! Every night! That being said, it’s also a daunting responsibility to play a character that is so beloved by so many for generations. It was a wonderful challenge to meet the demands of this role, and the expectations of this classic Disney prince – but to also find that special thing that I can contribute to it as an artist.

You made your Broadway debut in 2002 in Flower Drum Song. Now, Aladdin marks your seventh show on the Great White Way. How do you decide which roles to take and/or which shows to participate in? And how do you think Broadway as a whole has evolved since your first curtain call 15 years ago?

The honest truth is I don’t get to choose as much as one might think. Yes, I’ve had a wonderfully blessed (and lucky) career on Broadway the last 15 years, but it’s because I’m constantly auditioning and putting myself out there for opportunities. One’s Playbill bio only lists the shows I’ve done, but it doesn’t list all the shows I auditioned for and DIDN’T get. In many ways, the wonderful opportunities that I got on Broadway all happened for very specific and different reasons – and, in some ways, the show chose ME at that moment in my life, and I just said, “Yes.”

As for the evolution of Broadway in the last 15 years, I think the doors of possibility have been blown wide open! Every season, I am blown away by something that, on paper, doesn’t look or sound like a Broadway show or I say to myself, “How are they going to do THAT on Broadway?” and I am constantly blown away (and pleasantly surprised) when I’m proven wrong. I recently had that mind-blowing experience seeing Indecent on Broadway. The use of staging, musicians, stagecraft, etc. to tell this very difficult-to-tell story with a tough subject matter was so innovating and surprising – and it created a very satisfying and moving evening of theater.

Your career has given you the opportunities to perform in Broadway’s smallest and biggest venues. How does doing an intimate show like Godspell compare to the experience of a huge show like Aladdin?

Telly LeungI love performing at intimate houses like Circle in the Square, where the audience is only inches away from you. It’s initially very challenging and scary for actors because there’s nowhere to hide! You are constantly being watched by someone in the audience when you’re performing in the round (like Godspell) or in three-quarter thrust (like In Transit). But, once you embrace the nature of the space, it’s actually quite freeing to perform in a space and accept the fact that everyone in the audience will be seeing a slightly different show from their vantage point. Performing in a big proscenium house like the New Amsterdam is a challenge to actors because one has to fill the space with size – but to play the size with TRUTH. Luckily, I’ve had some great training at Carnegie Mellon University that taught me to do just that! That’s not to say that simplicity isn’t an actor’s friend in these large spaces. One of my favorite moments to perform is Aladdin’s solo, “Proud of Your Boy,” and it’s my challenge every night to get all 1,700 people in that massive theater to take an intimate look at my character and what drives him to be the kind of man that would make his mother proud. In that moment, I try to get the New Amsterdam to feel more like Circle in the Square.

The inclusion of “Proud of Your Boy” is just one of the notable differences between the original film and this musical. For those who have not yet seen the show, how do you think this look at Aladdin gives audiences a more intricate and fleshed out understanding of the character?

“Proud of Your Boy” is a song that was cut from the original film when the animators realized they didn’t have enough time to delve deep into Aladdin’s character. Aladdin’s mom was an integral part of the original animated film, but they had to cut her character due to time constraints. Now that we are in the theater, and Aladdin has been reconceived from an animated film to a theatrical piece, we have 2.5 hours in the theater to delve deeper into his character motivations. In our play, we’ve raised the stakes for Aladdin – and his mother has just passed several months prior to the beginning of the play. Before she passes, he promises her that he will give up his dishonest life as a liar and thief – and make something of himself that will make mom proud. This song ends up being Aladdin’s character spine and drives all the actions in the play.

Given the large amount of families and children who attend, what type of pressure does it add to know that Aladdin is the first Broadway show many audience members are seeing?

While the show is family-friendly and we know we’re welcoming plenty of children to their first Broadway show, Aladdin is such a beloved story around the world (and has been for centuries!) that we get lots of adults who are seeing their first Broadway show with us too. It’s awesome to have so many young audience members experiencing their first Broadway show in Agrabah. As a Broadway performer, we do eight shows a week – and sometimes we get tired or we aren’t in the mood (we’re human, after all). But I always remind myself at places backstage that there’s someone in audience that is experiencing their first Broadway show, and they’ve chosen US to give them a magical experience for the next 2.5 hours. It’s an honor I cannot (and do not) take lightly, and it’s my job to give every audience 100% of myself every night.

If you could take a ride on a magic carpet to anywhere in the world, where would you want to go and why?

I’ve always wanted to visit India.

Recently, Disney announced the primary cast for their upcoming new adaptation of Aladdin. What are your thoughts on the company’s recent initiative of remaking their animated classics into live-action movies?

I’m super excited to see these live-action movies! I think Disney did a wonderful job with Beauty and the Beast, and I’m thrilled that a whole new generation of moviegoers will get to experience these stories in a new and fresh way. Hopefully, it’ll make them go back to revisit the original animated source material!

You had a very strict Chinese upbringing, in which your parents wanted you to become a doctor or lawyer instead of an actor. What was the defining moment that made you realize that your dreams meant taking a different path in life than what was expected of you?

I remember exactly where I was when this “a-ha!” moment came to me. It was the day I took my SATs, and I rewarded myself by taking myself to see a matinee after the exam. I had saved up my allowance money, and I went to the TKTS booth, where I got my half-price ticket to see Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly. As I was hearing her sing “Before The Parade Passes By” at the end of act one, I felt like she was singing right to me. She was telling me, through song, to not let life pass me by. She was telling me to dig deep and ask myself if I really wanted to go to college and study medicine or law – or if I wanted a life in the theater. I was in the presence of a living legend – Carol Channing – who dedicated her life to Broadway. The answer was clear.

Telly LeungYou recently got married to your partner of nearly 13 years. Congratulations! You announced the wedding via Instagram, writing “LOVE makes America GREAT.” You’ve also previously spoken publicly about how the election of Donald Trump inspired you and James to tie the knot. Can you please elaborate on why that was? And at a time when the current U.S. administration is attempting to strip rights from the LGBTQ community, how do you think people should fight back to defend both themselves and their loved ones?

Jimmy and I have been together for years, and though we support marriage equality, we never thought we needed our relationship recognized by any government or religious institution. We are part of the LGBTQ generation that never even thought marriage was a possibility, so we had resigned ourselves to defining our own relationship. However, we both watched the election results in November with shock and anxiety. Never before have I feared for my inalienable rights as an LGBTQ person, as a person of color, and as a son of immigrants. Never before have I felt like my rights were in danger.

On a personal level, we wanted to get married and make sure we protected our union under the law. With Trump in the White House, we didn’t know if he and his cronies would try and take marriage equality away during his 4 years in office, and if we’d ever get those rights back. Jimmy and I wanted to know that as we grow old together, we had all the rights and benefits of being spouses.

On a political level, we also wanted to make a statement. We knew that there was going to be a political fight ahead against this administration and their agenda to eradicate all the progress made for the LGBTQ community, and the ring on my finger is not just a symbol of my love for my husband, but it’s also to signify my resistance to this hateful administration’s anti-LGBTQ agenda.

Do you still keep in touch with any of your former Glee co-stars? Have any come to see you in Aladdin yet?

Yes! We keep in touch. I love my band of brothers! Titus (Makin Jr.) has come to see Aladdin. I hope all my Warbler brothers get to visit me in Agrabah at some point!

Who are some current musical theater performers who inspire you the most?

Mandy Gonzalez. Initially, I was just a fan. We’ve started to collaborate on many concerts together – and I’m lucky to consider her a friend. Not only do I admire her talent as a Broadway performer, but I also love the way she balances her life on Broadway with a concerts and TV, all the while being an amazing mom and an extraordinary human being. Wow.

What is your musical theater dream role?

This is always a tough question! Aladdin is pretty close to a “dream role!”

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see Telly Leung in Aladdin on Broadway.

And CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to “Show/Swap,” a one-night-only benefit that Telly is producing. Taking place on Sunday, August 20 (8:00PM at Yotel), “Show/Swap” will feature the cast of Aladdin singing the songs of Boublil & Schönberg, and the cast of Miss Saigon singing the songs of Alan Menken.

Originally published on PopBytes

FRENCHIE DAVIS TAKES “THE VIEW UPSTAIRS”

FRENCHIE DAVIS IS NOT AFRAID TO GET PERSONAL.

The View UpstairsIn The View UpStairs, a provocative new off-Broadway musical set in 1970’s New Orleans, Davis plays the owner of the gay bar where the show takes place. Directed by Scott Ebersold and with music, book and lyrics by Max Vernon, The View UpStairs tells a poignant tale that not only examines the past, but explores how the lessons learned then can guide us in the fight for equality that still persists today.

Frenchie DavisDavis herself is bisexual and has deep family connections to The Big Easy. In her quest to bring The View UpStairs to life, she felt inspired by her own history to inform who her character is and why this story is so important for contemporary audiences. We spoke in detail about this journey, the role of art in today’s world, her days as a contestant on both American Idol and The Voice, and much more.

NAGORSKI: What has been the most exciting part about returning to the New Year theater scene?

DAVIS: The most exciting part of all of this, I think, has been being able to bring the character, Henri, to life and being able to be a part of telling this story.

The View UpStairs is inspired by one of the most significant yet all-but-ignored attacks against the LGBTQ community. As an LGBT woman yourself, you’ve been a vocal advocate for the community throughout your career. Is this what attracted you to this show?

Partially. I was attracted to this show because I thought the storytelling was witty and beautiful.  I believed that this is such an important piece of our history and was really honored to have been considered for it.

The View UpStairsHow does Henri differ from other characters you’ve played on stage?

Well, she’s this no-nonsense, leather-wearing black motorcycle lesbian running a gay bar in the South in the 70s. Let’s start there! But underneath all of that tough exterior, she’s vulnerable and she loves very deeply the community of people who frequent the lounge.

What do you think audience members can learn from The View UpStairs about the fight for equality today?

So much of the dialogue in the show reminds me that even though it may often feel like we haven’t progressed at all, we have actually come a long way. We have a loooooooong way to go, but we have progressed and we should never take for granted the sacrifices those before us have made to ensure that progress.

The View UpStairs takes place in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Have you ever been to New Orleans? If so, how did that experience inform your interpretation of your character/this show?

Yes, I travel to New Orleans often actually. I have family there and it is a place of such rich history. It’s the birthplace of jazz! It’s the only place where slaves were allowed to maintain and practice many of the cultural traditions they carried with them from West Africa. My grandmother got her doctorate in pharmacy in New Orleans! It was the closest city to her hometown where a black woman would have even been allowed to obtain a degree in any medical field.

So I carry all of that with me in bringing Henri to life. Yes, on the surface, the upstairs lounge is a shitty hole-in-the-wall gay bar. But for Henri, it’s a home. It’s a place she takes a tremendous amount of pride in. She’s a black lesbian in the south in the 70s, and yet here she is, running this business and using it as a safe haven for her LGBT brothers and sisters. These are the types of things that helped me to interpret the character of Henri and the show in its entirety.

As a vocalist, what are the most challenging aspects of singing Max Vernon’s score?

Belting F sharps!

Fashion plays a large part in this show as well. Do you have a favorite costume or look that you get to wear?

Well, Henri’s wardrobe is nothing like the stuff I like to wear. Although I have become a fan of the skinny black Levi 512s she wears. I can’t breathe! But I look good!

The show spans two generations of queer history. Who are some historic figures that have influenced you in your personal life?

Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Hattie McDaniel, and Bessie Smith to name a few.

 The View UpStairs runs through May 21. Do you already have a sense of where your fans can catch you next after this show wraps?

Probably singing at Pride festivals and doing my cabaret act at various performance spaces across the country.

Simply speaking as a theater fan, what’s your favorite show currently playing on Broadway?

That’s impossible to answer! I love so many of them. All for different reasons.

You’ve been a part of several iconic musicals, including RentDreamgirls and Cinderella. What is your musical theater dream role?

Oh my god, Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show!

As someone who competed on both American Idol and The Voice, which show do you think shaped who you are as a performer more?

Neither of them shaped me as a performer. I was on TV for five minutes. I’ve been doing professional theater for fifteen years.

In 2012, you released your debut solo single, “Love’s Got A Hold On Me,” which went on to peak at #12 on the Billboard Dance Chart. Do you have any plans to release any other new solo music anytime soon? If so, do you plan to continue releasing dance music or are there other genres you’d like to tackle as well?

Well, I will always continue to do dance music. But I would love to do some ‘30s jazz/songbook stuff, as well as some soulful pop stuff. I also love trap music!

You’ve got two new movies coming out this year – We Are Family and Snapshots. As an actress, do you feel more drawn to the stage or to the screen? Why?

We Are Family! Oh my god, I filmed that like 7 years ago! I love both but theater is my first love. It’s what made me want to be a performer in the first place.

As a nation, we are going through some horribly dark, terrifying and divided times. What do you think the role of art is (or should be) as a form of making people feel safer and bringing them together? In other words, do you believe that art has a duty beyond escapism?

Art has always had a duty beyond escapism. I think that it is my responsibility as an artist, particularly as a queer artist of color, to use whatever platform I have to be a voice for justice and equality.

What’s your favorite thing to do to unwind after a show?

I love to come home after a show and listen to my ‘30s/’40s Jazz music playlist while engaging in herbal refreshments or alcohol drinking. Or both!


Click HERE to purchase your tickets for The View UpStairs, now playing at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in New York City through May 21st.


Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812” WITH STAR GRACE MCLEAN

Grace McLean

THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE IS CONQUERING BROADWAY.

Later this season, audiences will be invited to journey to the past with the opening of Anastasia, a story based on the 1997 animated film about the last surviving Romanov. But for those looking to explore this era of history through a grittier, sexier, and more unconventional lens, they need not look further than the Imperial Theater.

Now playing there, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is a breathtaking and electrifying new musical inspired by a 70-page portion of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal literary masterpiece, War and Peace. Taking a page from more than just Tolstoy, however, this innovative production blends various musical genres, creates a distinct and remarkable ambiance, and demands that its audiences have a theatrical experience unlike any other.

Written by Dave Malloy, The Great Comet tells the story of Natasha (Denée Benton), a young woman who begins an affair with a hedonistic rebel while her fiancée is off at war. When Natasha comes to Moscow, she and her cousin stay with Marya (Grace McLean), a grand dame who commands who’s who within her aristocratic circle. Meanwhile, a man named Pierre (Josh Groban) seeks answers for the existential crisis he faces while he watches Natasha’s new romance flourish.

McLean spoke with me about this ambitious and unique show, its journey to Broadway, interacting with audiences in unprecedented ways, and much more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: As Natasha’s godmother and one of Pierre’s oldest friends, Marya provides a central link between the two titular characters. How do you think her relationship with each of them informs and/or defines the journey they each take during the show?

GRACE MCLEAN: Marya is called a “dragon woman” in the book, and I think this tells us a lot about who she is and what she expects of people. She’s strong-willed and fierce, she loves hard, and she despises laziness of mind, heart, and intention. She loves Natasha because she sees this same fierceness in her, and she loves Pierre because of his lack of pretension. At the point in the story when our show takes place, it is ultimately the clash of ferocities between Marya and Natasha that pushes Natasha over the edge. As for Pierre, I think Marya is there to pull him out of the stupor he’s found himself in and to give him a real call to action – something he feels he’s lost touch with at the start of our play.

You’ve been with this show for several years now, from Off-Broadway to the out-of-town run (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) to Broadway. In your opinion, how has the show evolved throughout its various incarnations?

It has been a real gift and a luxury to be able to work on this show in its various incarnations because although the story itself is largely unchanged, we’ve gotten to play with refinements and details in our storytelling. I think now, at The Imperial, we’ve achieved our greatest clarity in the storytelling because we’ve been able to experiment with ways to achieve both intimacy and a sense of grandness in the staging.

You provide much of the show’s comedic relief. What do you think it is about Marya’s personality and delivery that provides so much humor to otherwise serious and/or complex scenes?

First of all, thank you! I don’t think I approached Marya thinking of her as a funny character, but I think there is something about her severity which, in certain circumstances, comes off as comical simply because she’s in juxtaposition to other very tender and delicate moments. Of course, this severity becomes quite unfunny – or at least I hope it does – when circumstances get out of control. Marya doesn’t like being out of control.

How helpful was the original Tolstoy text when it came to fleshing out Marya and landing on your interpretation of who she is? Who/what else inspired your understanding of her?

It was definitely helpful to have an understanding of Marya within the text of War and Peace, to find out who she likes and why, how she operates within this decadent society, the kind of mother figure she is. Natasha’s mother is very different from Marya, her whole family is really, and I think Natasha needs an authority figure who delights in, fans, and hopefully shapes her fiery nature.

Also, in terms of inspiration, I think a lot about love in this play. There are a lot of different types of love flying around in our show. When I, Grace, can latch on to that, then I start to know what to do with my character. So for me, I’m thinking about deepening Marya’s love for Natasha because that says something about how she’s treated in the first act versus the second act, when Marya is still acting from a place of love – but of love betrayed.

The show’s set is quite possibly the most interesting I’ve ever seen. Without giving too much away, I can say that immediately upon stepping into the theater, the audience is fully transported to Imperial Russia. What do you think this unconventional staging adds to the experience of the show?

I think the audience is asked to step into the world of the play from the moment they step into the Imperial, even before the “set” is seen. It is a total experience, not one that the audience is necessarily asked to be an active part of, but this is what I love about the design- it’s that even in the audience’s passivity, an inescapable and palpable tone has been set to prime them for the story.

As an actress, what advantages and obstacles does performing on such a radically different and unique set present?

I don’t think in terms of disadvantages, so I’ll just talk a bit about the things it has taught me. I’ve had to really become aware of my whole body. Because the audience is all around, I think about finding ways to include everyone. There’s also an interesting game to play between giving something to someone a mile away, and sharing a little secret with someone else right next to you. This all requires great particularity and intention, because people can really see the fake or the phoned in when it’s up close.

The show allows for (and encourages) a good deal of actor interaction with the audience. What has been the most memorable encounter (either good or bad) you’ve had during a scene in which you engage directly with audience members?

Early on, during the off-Broadway run in the tent downtown, we got a lot of good lessons about unruly audiences. There was one night when a woman I was sitting with during “Pierre & Anatole” would not stop shaking her shaker. She was drunk and loud and talking to her friends. I took the shaker from her and she demanded I give it back, but of course I didn’t and kept watching the scene. She grabbed another shaker from one of her friends and shook it in my face. At this point I stood up and tried to take it from her again but she hung on very tight like she wanted to wrestle. Oy! This was a poor decision on my part because it just made both of us look like assholes. So lesson learned! Never get angry at the crazy because then you look crazy too.

Marya is a very fabulous woman who clearly has a penchant for fashion. What are some of your favorite costumes that you get to wear?

I love all of my costumes! They are so beautiful! But truly, my favorite piece is the little jacket I wear to the opera with the fox trimmed sleeves and neck. I want it for my life.

The show is filled with so many high-energy and visually spectacular musical numbers. Do you have a favorite to perform each night?

I wish I could watch them! But one of my favorite moments in the show happens in the middle of the opera right before Anatole makes his big entrance. We all have opera glasses and have been moving in slow motion before we all point our glasses at Natasha and sway in this slow eerie manner as the lights dazzle around her and slowly turn red. Basically, Natasha is getting high and I think this is the moment in the show when the audience feels it too, and can feel the palpable anticipation of something really different about to enter the world of the play.

The music combines so many genres – such as traditional Russian folk music, indie rock, and EDM just to name a few. Stylistically, how does singing this type of “electropop opera” differ from performing a more traditional musical theater score?

I have so much fun singing this music because it uses a lot of my range, not just in terms of notes on the page but stylistically. I get to use many sides of my voice, the rough, pretty, operatic, screlt, choral. And honestly because of the workout my voice is getting and the care required to be able to do all of those things, I’ve never felt healthier.

When you’re not performing in the show, you’re working on your own original music. Your band, Grace McLean & Them Apples, headlined Lincoln Center’s American Songbook in 2015 and 2016, and even toured Pakistan as U.S. State Department musical ambassadors. How do you find the balance between your acting career and being a singer/songwriter?

I find it necessary! I love that I have the opportunity to use my creative impulses critically in my own work because this allows me to approach the show with a fresh and present mind. Honestly, if I haven’t thought about or made other work before I go to the show, it’s harder for me to concentrate on the task at hand. Also, each informs the other. Performing my own music with my band in front of a very real, very present crowd prepared me to be able to perform in a show like this where the audience is very much a part of each moment. There is no fourth wall in a concert, nor is there one at The Great Comet. And I’m writing my own first full-length musical right now, so being inside of one gives me that extra perspective about how to approach character and storytelling, and about how to acknowledge my audience.

What do you find to be more creatively fulfilling – playing a character on stage or expressing yourself through your own original music?

Both are useful in different ways- writing is an outlet for my obsessions, and performing a role is an opportunity to learn about someone else’s.

What is your Broadway dream role?

Fanny Brice in Funny Girl!


Click HERE to purchase tickets to Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, playing now at the Imperial Theater in New York City.

Click HERE to purchase The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this acclaimed musical.

PHOTOS | CHAD BATKA

 Originally published on PopBytes

QUICK PICK: “THE WOODSMAN” AT NEW WORLD STAGES

Ever since Judy Garland clicked her ruby slippers three times, audiences worldwide have been clamoring to return to the magical land of Oz.

The WoodsmanBased on the beloved classic novels by L. Frank Baum, Oz has been revisited in practically every creative medium imaginable. Films like Journey Back to Oz, Oz The Great and Powerful and Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return are just a sampling of the many motion picture follow-ups that have been released since The Wizard of Oz debuted in 1939. Television specials like Return to Oz, Tin Man, and The Witches of Oz continued to navigate the mythology in vastly different styles, as have countless books, comics, and video games.

On stage, Oz has also been revisited in various incarnations. Based on Gregory Maguire’s series of novels, Wicked is the blockbuster musical that pulls back the Emerald Curtain on the secret backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West. Now starring two-time Tony Award-winner Judy Kaye, Wicked is a testament to the enduring legacy of the world Baum created so many years ago. The musical, which opened in 2003, just surpassed Rent to become the 10th longest-running show in Broadway history. The current national tour of The Wizard of Oz is an adaptation of the classic film, injected with new songs by the powerhouse collaborative efforts of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. And, of course, who could forget NBC’s spectacular live broadcast of The Wiz this past December?

So since Oz is such a frequently explored place in our pop culture, it may seem a difficult task to create a piece of art that shows it to us through a truly fresh and innovative new lens. But James Ortiz, the creator, star, and co-director of The Woodsman, was more than up for the challenge. And the result paid off beautifully.

The WoodsmanNow playing off-Broadway at New World Stages,The Woodsman is a breathtaking and unique look at the Tin Man. Told mostly through gorgeous puppetry and accompanied by haunting original music by Edward W. Hardy, the intimately presented origin story of the most beloved heartless man in Oz is a striking piece of work.

Following its critically revered and sold-out engagements at 59E59 Theaters, The Woodsman chronicles the harrowing journey of a man who both literally and figuratively loses his heart when the life he has created with the woman he loves is ripped away from him by the evil Wicked Witch. With hardly any dialogue, the story unfolds through movement, allowing the puppets to convey the narrative in revelatory ways.

“Often puppetry is used as an effect or like a trick. But could we actually express complicated feelings without words? That was the challenge,” Ortiz told Playbill. Discussing the frail appearance of the puppet once the transformation into the Tin Man is complete, he added: “It was important for me that he be fragile in appearance. His earlier form is a very sensitive young man who is in the midst of trying to figure out what’s best for the person he loves. It was important that he had a fragility that could also be reflected in this other version of him.”

With an eerie set that complements the dark and melancholy tone of the show, The Woodsman is a daring, unprecedented, stunning, and completely unmissable twist on Oz folklore. It is sure to shock, awe, dazzle, and inspire you.

FOR TICKETS VISIT THEWOODSMANPLAY.COM

Originally published on PopBytes

SCHOOL OF ROCK: THE EPIC COMEBACK OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER

There was a time when Andrew Lloyd Webber was unstoppable.

The prolific musical theater composer is, after all, responsible for some of the most beloved and commercially successful shows of all time – including (but not limited to) Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Sunset Boulevard. Yet despite his impressive, divergent, and cherished repertoire, it’s been quite a number of years since Webber has achieved the kind of critical and box office success that was once synonymous with his name. His more recent efforts, such as The Woman In White and the long-gestating Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, had fans and critics speculating whether Webber had lost his creative touch. They feared that he would never recapture the magic of his earlier work.

But now Webber is proving them wrong. With his School of Rock, he has created a new triumphant blockbuster that showcases the talent that made him so beloved. With a masterfully (and infectiously catchy) rock-infused score, this new musical finds Webber brilliantly contemporizing the sound that made him into a living legend. Once again, he has become the role model for any aspiring composer, performer or impresario.

Alex_Brightman_and_the_kid_band_from_School_of_Rock_-_The_Musical_Photo_by_Matthew_Murphy

Now playing on Broadway, School of Rock is based on the 2003 Jack Black film of the same name. Directed by Laurence Connor (Les Miserables) and with a book by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, the comical musical tells the story of Dewey, a struggling musician who secretly takes on his roommate’s identity to accept a position as a substitute teacher at an elite private elementary school. At first, he is simply interested in collecting a paycheck, but then Dewey discovers the astounding musical talent of the kids in his classroom. Enlisting the help of these students, Dewey forms a new rock group to help him exact revenge against his former band members who kicked him out – by showing them up at a local Battle of the Bands competition.

With this new goal in mind, Dewey teaches his students all about the rock greats. He encourages them to listen to artists like Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin to hone their understanding of their individual skills, making that their homework assignment. As the students respond to Dewey’s teaching methods, they visibly mature, awakening their senses of self-expression and building their self-confidence. While their parents aren’t always on board, the kids realize that through hard work and music, no dream is unobtainable.

A true star is born in Alex Brightman, who plays Dewey with ferocious stamina and meticulous comedic timing. His humor instincts are, unsurprisingly, very reminiscent of Black’s, but in a far more likeable and less doofy way. Vocally, he’s a powerhouse who can somehow manage to jump around the whole stage while seamlessly turning his screaming into impressive riffs and stretched out notes. His voice is the perfect marriage between a classically trained performer and a gritty rock star, and he can go from one end of that spectrum to the other with what sounds like effortless conviction. Brightman’s commanding blend of these two genres makes him the ideal candidate to tackle Webber’s score; it also makes his frenetic and dedicated performance one of the very best this Broadway season.

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Not surprisingly, Webber has found a contemporary muse in Sierra Boggess. Collaborating on their third musical together, the immensely talented soprano has a long history of playing Phantom of the Operaleading lady Christine Daaé. Not only did she originate the role in the West End production of Love Never Dies, Boggess also played the character in Phantom on Broadway on several occasions, originated the role in the Las Vegas production, and starred in the show’s 25th anniversary concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, resulting in the greatest recording of the musical to date.

This time around, Boggess plays Principal Rosalie Mullins, whose journey in the show transforms her from an uptight, rule-enforcing type-A authority figure to someone who literally lets her hair down and channels her inner Stevie Nicks in the name of rock. Although Webber’s score doesn’t call for Boggess to belt her face off in the way she was born to do (seriously, listen to her sing “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid), her big solo, “Where Did The Rock Go,” is a powerful ballad that beautifully juxtaposes the energetic rock numbers the show is primarily consisted of.

“Obviously you’re in really good hands if you’re doing a show written by him. I feel very lucky — he started my career, really, with Phantom in Las Vegas and then continued on with many different versions of Phantom,” Boggess told AMNY. “I feel like how he writes is where I want to sing. And at this point, he knows me very well and he knows my voice and he wanted to be able to showcase many different parts of my voice. And he knows me as a funny person, too, and he wanted to showcase that stuff. So, it was very nice coming into this production with him where we weren’t doing the show where someone’s going to die or it’s terribly sad.”

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While Brightman and Boggess are tremendous forces to be reckoned with, the real highlights of the show are the children. Playing all of their instruments live on stage throughout the entire production, these young actors and actresses are already scene-stealers. They also sing and dance, while performing with enough virtuosity to be regarded as musical prodigies with their respective instruments.

For 12-year-old School of Rock super fan Brandon Niederhauer, getting a chance to play lead guitarist Zach is a dream come true. “Zach was obviously my favorite character and that’s what got me into playing guitar, and the movie came out the year I was born,” he told Newsweek. “And now a couple of years later, I tried out for School of Rock the musical and I got it, and I don’t know what’s more ironic than that?”

While School of Rock is the perfect show for children, it’s certainly not just a show for kids. Adults will undoubtedly enjoy it just as much, if not more, than the young audience members. It ticks off all the boxes to be a smash, and anyone in attendance will leave with a smile on their face, regardless of their age. It’s a heartwarming story that is performed and put together with exorbitant talent from top to bottom, making for a show that will surely become a Broadway staple for many years to come.

School of Rock is playing now at NYC’s Winter Garden Theatre. Click here to purchase tickets.

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Originally published on PopBytes