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Half Moon And The CIA Bring New Meaning To Dinner Theater

By Andrea Pyros

Dinner-and-a-show never gets old, but “dinner theater?” Not so much.

Fortunately for us in the Rural Intelligence region, the days of Burt Reynolds, half-baked whodunits and overcooked Chicken à la King have been replaced with a brilliant partnership between Half Moon Theatre and The Culinary Institute of America. In this inventive theatrical and culinary subscription series, theatergoers dine at one of The CIA’s award-winning restaurants — American Bounty Restaurant, Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici or The Bocuse Restaurant — then walk a few steps to a Half Moon Theatre production, all on the CIA campus in Hyde Park, NY.

Sutton Foster. Photo: Lauren Marie Duncan

Now in its second year of residency at The CIA, Half Moon, a year-round professional theater company, is continuing to grow and intends to make a splash with its upcoming gala benefit, “An Evening with Sutton Foster!” at The Culinary Institute of America on September 26. The evening will showcase the partnership at The CIA’s Marriott Pavilion, with a pre-show cocktail party and the performance by Foster, followed by a dessert and meet-the-performer reception. (Foster is an award-winning actor, singer and dancer who has performed in 11 Broadway shows including “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Little Women,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Shrek The Musical,” along with her Tony Award-winning performances in “Anything Goes” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”)

Half Moon is the brainchild of a group of Poughkeepsie-based artists who decided that the area deserved top-notch theater, and that the many professional actors, writers and assorted theater folk who lived in the Hudson Valley needed a home of their own, says Half Moon’s executive director, Molly Renfroe Katz [photo, right].

“There is great music at the Bardavon and great dance companies in the area, but along with the marvelous summer companies, we wanted to give people who live here year-round real regional theater, so that’s what we set out to build.”

The company casts exclusively from the area. “We have a tremendously talented company of actors who had careers [on Broadway and elsewhere] and have ended up living in the Hudson Valley,” Renfroe Katz continues. “Part of the mission of the theater was to build a home for those people who wanted to do creative work in the place where they live. We’re a cultural organization that is really committed to this community.”

“Half Moon’s collaboration with The Culinary Institute of America began soon after The CIA opened its state-of-the-art theater and conference center, the Marriott Pavilion. CIA President Dr. Tim Ryan attended Half Moon’s staging of “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which led to talks about Half Moon taking up residency at the school.

“The CIA wanted their students to have access to our creativity, and for the staff to enjoy those performances,” Renfroe Katz explains. “The potential is enormous — there’s nothing like it with a culinary school of this caliber and Broadway talent and production. It’s taking dinner theater to a whole new level.”

You don’t have to eat before a performance (although, as Renfroe Katz points out, why wouldn’t you?) but theatergoers can take advantage of The CIA’s special pre-theater dining options, with 5:30 seatings at different restaurants for each show.

Upcoming shows for the 2015—2016 season include a streamlined retelling of “A Christmas Carol” with dining at American Bounty Restaurant; Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” paired with a meal at The Bocuse Restaurant; and “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” with a pre-theater meal at Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici, naturally. ILILIMS is a one-woman show in which the actress cooks a three-course meal onstage during the performance. It’s one example of Half Moon’s goal of integrating the dining experience with live theater, as is June’s 6th Annual Ten Minute Play Festival where each of the featured playwrights is assigned a dish to feature in his/her play (and yes, audiences get to sample the food afterwards). 

Like other arts organizations, Half Moon works to reach and develop that next generation of theater professionals and theatergoers, with student and senior discounts, an usher program so that volunteers can see a show for free, and invitations to student groups. HMT also has a school of the arts, with acting and performance classes offered for children, teens and adults. Those are held at the Black Box Theater located in the Oakwood Commons in Poughkeepsie.

World-class cuisine paired with professional theater: this is a partnership that combines the best of what the Hudson Valley offers. We can’t wait to sample it.

Half Moon Theatre Benefit Gala with Sutton Foster
Saturday, September 26 beginning at 6 p.m.
The Culinary Institute of America
1946 Campus Drive, Hyde Park, NY
(800) 838-3006
For season overview and tickets, click here.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/14/15 at 07:51 PM • Permalink

Review: “The Comedy of Errors” at Shakespeare & Company

By Dan Shaw

When you walk into the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox for its production of The Comedy of Errors, you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a backyard barbecue scene about to be shot for a John Waters movie. The actors, who are dressed in an eclectic (if not eccentric) array of casual clothes, are already on the Astrotuf-covered thrust stage; they are dancing, rollerblading and chatting up the audience. They have you laughing before the play has even begun.

The Comedy of Errors is a case of mistaken identity — a pair of separated twin brothers, their twin servants and the havoc that ensues when their lives crisscross and they cannot be distinguished. Director Taibi Magar has made the play a screwball comedy that seems like an episode of The Sopranos hijacked by the Marx Brothers.

Physical comedy has always been one of the hallmarks of Shakespeare & Company, and The Comedy of Errors is like a master class in slapstick where all the students will get an A+. Every pratfall and punch line is a knockout. Every exit and entrance is an event unto itself. Every actor in every moment is thoroughly engaged and engaging.

As Antipholus of Esphesus and Antinpholus of Syracuse, Ian Lassiter makes the twin brothers so distinct that you marvel as he switches back and forth between the two roles. As his twin servants (both named Dromio) who are thoroughly perplexed by which master they are waiting on, Aaron Bartz is delightfully frustrated and confused. With her blonde updo and pedal pushers, Kelley Curran looks like a caricature of a mobster’s moll, and she nearly steals the show with her performance as the haughty wife who is dumbfounded by her husband and his doppelganger. As her sister, Cloteal L. Home is sexy, flirty and fiery.

There’s no need to catalogue all the ways that Magar has ingeniously produced a 90-minute comic tour de force. Whether she has the actors singing like pop-music stars or astonishingly miming a slow-motion homage to Chariots of Fire,  the surprises are fast and furious, including how she cleverly brings the two sets of twins together onstage for the final scene.

It’s hard to imagine that you will see a harder-working or more enthusiastic ensemble on any stage in the Berkshires this summer. Casting directors should hie thee to Lenox because this production is a showcase for comedic talent. And anyone who wants to laugh out loud while being reminded that there are never-ending ways to reinterpret the Bard should see The Comedy of Errors, which Shakespeare & Company has made a comedy of perfection.

The Comedy of Errors (through August 23)
Shakespeare & Company
Lenox, MA
(413) 637-3353

Dan Shaw is the co-founder of Rural Intelligence.

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 07/22/15 at 06:26 PM • Permalink

At Rhinebeck Writers Retreat, Watch Musicals In The Making

By Robert Burke Warren

When it comes to creating art, inspiration is only a fraction of the process. Artists also contend with time constraints, isolation, and financial woes, especially in aggressively capitalist, crowded, notoriously noisy New York City. Musical theater folks have it particularly hard; Broadway depends on lavish sure-thing revivals, and for-profit producers are increasingly less likely to take a chance on new material. Money is tight. Yet musical theatre is hardly dying out, in part because of benefactors like Rhinebeck’s own Kathy Evans, former executive director of the National Alliance of Musical Theatre, and a modern-day Medici of sorts.

Every summer since 2011, a handful of promising writers have been spending time at Evans’ Rhinebeck Writers Retreat. Evans is following in the footsteps of the great patrons of yore, although in lieu of big money, she provides essential time, space, and encouragement; all free. This year marks the fifth annual retreat, at which she bequeaths selected writers a week of peace and quiet, plus meals, a small stipend, and lodging in the Hudson Valley woods. Of the eight weeklong workshops, five feature Saturday “Meet the Writers” receptions, where the public is invited into homes in the Rhinebeck area, enjoy hors d’oeuvres and wine, and talk to the creators in a charmed atmosphere of appreciation and possibility.

“Many of our artists have gone on to exciting things, other residencies and awards,” says the ebullient, quick-to-laugh Evans. In fact, Variety recently announced that two musicals developed previously at Rhinebeck Writers Retreat will be featured in National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals in NYC in October — Noir by Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow and The Last Queen of Canaan, by Rebekah Melocik, Jacob Yandura and Harrison David Rivers. 

“From just an idea to concept to success, I couldn’t be prouder about the retreat,” Evans says. And word has spread. In 2012, for example, there were 55 applications. This year, there were 90.” Of those, 17 writers will be on retreat, working on eight new musicals.

“Musical theater has always been a passion for me,” says Evans. “I worked in the corporate world most of my career until 15 years ago when I became executive director at the National Alliance of Musical Theatre. Part of its mission is supporting new work. I became engrossed in that world and decided ‘This is what I want to do, I want to help these writers who are so creative.’ There’s so much talent out there and not enough opportunity, so I wanted to give them an opportunity to develop.”

Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne.

The season’s first musical theater writing team gave a taste of what the week was like at the reception on July 11. Charlie Sohne, bookwriter/lyricist, and Tim Rosser, composer, both recipients of a 2015 Jonathan Larson Grant, presented three songs from their work in progress, Run Away Home (one of which they had written that morning). The week away from the distractions of the city and in a house where all their needs were met did more than give them a place to work.

“We are actually changing the entire way we’re telling the story,” says Sohne.  “That wouldn’t have happened without this week of intense, uninterrupted work.”

Evans began the retreat modestly, but has since honed her skills as fundraiser extraordinaire, enlisting financial commitments from a widening circle of donors. “I’ve learned if I tell my story passionately,” she says, “and tell why it’s so important to support writers, people get it. People want to support the form and support writers. My task is to find those people who share my passion.”

You’ll find them — and the musical theater writing teams — at the “Meet and Greet” receptions held on Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free, but space is limited to 30 per reception. Reservations accepted and address info given by email: 

August 1, Staatsburg, NY
Elizabeth A. Davis, Luke Holloway, Jason Michael Webb, creators of Indian Joe.

August 8, Germantown, NY
Kellen Blair, Joe Kinosian, creators of The More Things Change

August 22, Red Hook, NY
David Hein, Irene Sankoff, creators of Mitzvah

August 29, Staatsburg, NY
Mike Lew, Rehana Lew Mirza, Sam Willmott, creators of Bhangin’ It

Check Rhinebeck Writers Retreat website for bios and show synopses.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 07/18/15 at 09:38 AM • Permalink

Review: “Merrily We Roll Along” at Sharon Playhouse

By Dan Shaw
Walking out of the Sharon Playhouse after its exhilarating production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, it’s impossible to comprehend how this musical was a flop when it opened on Broadway in 1981, closing after 16 performances. The story of three best friends — composer Franklin Shephard (Jason Tam), lyricist Charley Kringas (A.J. Shivley) and novelist-turned-critic Mary Flynn (Lauren Marcus) —  the show begins in California in 1976 when success has shattered their triumvirate and bonhomie has devolved into bitterness. The show moves backwards through the 1960s in New York City until the final scene in 1957, when the three meet as optimistic college students intoxicated by possibility and youthful dreams on a rooftop near Columbia University.

Sondheim’s genius is that his cynical story — he’s basically saying be careful what you wish for — is nevertheless full of heart and by the time you leave the theater you feel euphoric despite the plot’s inherent sadness. As both the composer and lyricist, Sondheim wrote words and melodies that fit together like pieces of a complicated jigsaw puzzle. But it’s not until the final scene that the big picture finally comes into full focus — -and it’s not exactly what you expect. Merrily, like Sondheim’ brilliant Company, is a sociological musical about quintessential New Yorkers, and it captures the Broadway era before Andrew Lloyd Weber and Disney. It’s a psychological show, too, as if Sondheim had stolen files from the main characters’ psychoanalysts.

The onstage Sharon Playhouse orchestra captures all the exuberance and urgency of Sondheim’s score from the magnificent overture to the reprise of “Old Friends” at the curtain call. The music is reason enough to see this show, which is summer stock as it should be — invigorating, entertaining and thought provoking.

The performances by the three principals make this production soar. They have perfect chemistry, whether they’re loving or hating one another. Tam’s transformation of Franklin from arrogant to earnest is convincingly heartbreaking. Marcus plays Mary, the troika’s third wheel, with the perfect balance of pluck and pathos. And Shivley’s Charley stops the show when he sings “Franklin Shephard, Inc,” humorously and poignantly unloading all his anger and pain about how his show-writing partner has betrayed and disappointed him.

The three main supporting players are just as well cast. Emma Davis as Shephard’s first wife is especially endearing when she joins Tam and Shivley for “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” a rip-roaringly funny parody about the Kennedy family as they capture the White House and the nation’s imagination in 1960. Sarah Cline, as the Broadway star who lures Shephard away from his first wife, and David Fanning, as her Broadway producer first husband, convey the schmaltzy side of “show business” as it was called when Sondheim was starting out in the 1950s.

In the second act, on the opening night of Franklin and Charley’s first Broadway show, they stand at the stage door listening to the audience’s enthusiastic applause. They perform a number called “It’s a Hit,” which they could also be singing about this production of Merrily We Roll Along.

Merrily We Roll Along (through July 19)
Sharon Playhouse, Sharon, CT



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Posted by Dan Shaw on 07/16/15 at 01:23 PM • Permalink

Review: “Oklahoma!” at Bard Summerscape

By Dan Shaw

Everything is up to date at Bard Summerscape, where director Daniel Fish has gone as far as he can go in reimagining Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (which opened on Broadway in 1943), transforming it into an edgy, immersive and sexy musical.

If you’ve seen Oklahoma! performed at junior high schools, colleges, community theaters and on Broadway (as I have), you will be awed by how the familiar feels as fresh as the just-shucked corn piled on the set as you take your seat at one of the long picnic-style tables that ring the stage in two tiers.

Scenic designer Laura Jellinek has transformed the black box LUMA Theater into a rustic setting made of plywood with a tinge of the Brooklyn hipster DIY aesthetic. The accomplished actors and new musical arrangements give the production a thoroughly contemporary attitude. You know this production is like “a bright golden haze on the meadow” when the swarthy Damon Daunno (who plays Curly) opens the show with a bluesy rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” that he performs with the swagger of the young Elvis Presley.

As Laury, the girl of his dreams, Amber Gray is not demure, a far cry from Shirley Jones’ portrayal in the 1955 movie. The sexual frisson between Curly and Laury is hardly innocent, but it’s still family friendly. When Daunno sings “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” it becomes a true song of seduction. The lyrics “Don’t you wisht y’d go on forever and ud never stop” make you envision Curly and Laury enjoying a long night of lovemaking on the edge of a cornfield.

As the promiscuous and likable Ado Annie, Allison Strong dressed in a tank top, barely-there denim cut-offs and cowboy boots looks as if she walked right off the set of Girls.  When she sings “I Cain’t Say No,” it’s less a cheerful, cornball showstopper than a Nashville ballad that conveys her feisty sense of independence and unbridled pleasure in keeping company with a variety of men. And when Gray sings “Many a New Day,” it comes across as a defiant feminist anthem.

Jud Fry, the farmhand who lives in the smoke house, is not the usual monstrous sociopath, and you feel empathy for his alienation and anomie. The ruggedly handsome Patrick Vaill makes Jud a misunderstood bad boy who should not be looked down upon but given a second chance.

Unlike other productions of Oklahoma! I’ve seen, Aunt Eller, Will Parker and Ali Hakim don’t come across as caricatures. Mary Testa, James Patrick Davis and Benji Merman respectively imbue their roles with “plen’y of heart and plen’y of hope.” Because every member of the audience sits just steps from the stage and the actors sometimes sit or dance on the tables, the performances have a verisimilitude that is as engaging as it is unexpected.

After intermission, the audience returns to the theater where they’re served lemonade, cornbread and chili (that has been simmering in crockpots on the tables in front of them during the first act). You feel part of the hoedown that ignites Act 2 as the company square dances to “The Farmer and the Cowman.” With a bluegrass style band on stage, the music has a country twang that pays homage to the original score while making it much more appropriate to the book.

Without irony or cynicism, director Fish has breathtakingly updated Oklahoma! and maintained its all-American spirit while making it a musical of our time. If it moves to New York, as it ought to, Oklahoma! would no doubt become a cult show that would endear a new generation to the magic of Rodgers & Hammerstein. 

Certainly, aficionados of Oklahoma! will appreciate Fish’s innovative interpretation more than those unfamiliar with the show. Nevertheless, anyone who loves live musical theater should immediately try to get tickets to Oklahoma! at Bard Summerstage where the avant garde is accessible and entertaining. Oh, what a beautiful morning it is the day after seeing this extraordinary show.

Oklahoma! (through July 19)
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
(845) 758-7900

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 07/07/15 at 04:08 PM • Permalink