Find Neverland in Tampa

I was thrilled to see that the musical “Finding Neverland” opens with Tinker Bell. Not the blonde flying on a wire you may find most evenings at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, but rather the tinkling, twinkling light version of the stage musical “Peter Pan.” Most of the other “Peter Pan” references you might hope to find are present in the show as well. The familiar can be heartwarming.

“Finding Neverland” is a behind-the-scenes peek at Peter Pan’s creator and playwright J.M. Barrie. As a fan of the book (I named one of my children after one of the characters, after all), it was fun to see events in Barrie’s life inspiring the classic story. Children jumping on a bed made him think of the Darling children flying, the top of his producer’s cane is curved like a pirate’s hook… a little imagination turned the ordinary into plot points.

Based on the 2004 Miramax movie by David Magee which starred Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, and the play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” by Allan Knee, the focus is on Barrie’s romance – or rather possible affair – with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and his closeness with her four sons. A lot of the illicitness of their relationship is toned down and the emotional workout the audience may go through thinking of these adorable children being orphaned is replaced with charming moments and songs.

There were some moments of the show I could do without. Some of the digital projections and effects seemed unnecessary. Some of the songs were too pop-rock for the time period. And I really wish the song “We’re all Made of Stars” was longer because of the message it sends and the fun the boys have. Some of the songs in the show are repetitive and long, but this one is unfortunately a quick 2 minutes.

My favorite part was phenomenal child actor Ben Krieger as Peter Llewelyn Davies and the period costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb, especially the blue dress Mary Barrie wears for her dinner party. My husband said his favorite part was – believe it or not – the use of glittering pixie dust in Act 2.

You don’t have to travel to Kensington Gardens to get a taste of Peter Pan. Just follow the second star to the right to Finding Neverland the Straz Theatre in Tampa, Florida, now through June 4, 2017. TODAY, TICKETS START AT $31.

Disclaimer: I received 2 free tickets to the show in exchange for this honest review as a member of the Tampa Bay Bloggers

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Musical “The King and I” is Touring Again

“The King and I” is a large-scale musical by one of my favorite teams: composer Richard Rodgers and dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II. If you’ve seen the Broadway version of “Cinderella” on stage or screen, that’s thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein too. AND it’s topped with choreography by Jerome Robbins (“West Side Story,” “Peter Pan.”) The Broadway production is based on the novel “Anna and the King of Siam” which was based on the real-life memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam.

Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a widowed schoolteacher whom the King hires to teach his many wives and even more children.

The King and I deals with huge issues through its drama and song, among them sexism, racism, slavery, polygamy, death and human trafficking; making the show timely and thought provoking – while still family-friendly and optimistic. (If you plan to take little ones to the show, there is an educational guide you can prep or follow up with.) This revival production of the show is directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher and won four 2015 Tony Awards. The U.S. national tour of “The King and I” began in November 2016 and is currently in Tampa, Florida, at the Straz Center.

In this version the costumes are more period appropriate and simpler, all adopted from actual images of nineteenth century Siam. But don’t worry, Anna still floats about the stage in one of the largest ball gowns Broadway has ever seen in the musical number “Shall we Dance?” The acting and singing of the extraordinary cast captivates audiences. The set, though sparse, is interesting and innovative.

Though I remember my mom singing “Getting To Know You” and “Shall We Dance” when I was little, I never saw the stage production and only saw small clips of the movie. I was excited to be offered 2 complimentary tickets by Tampa Bay Bloggers for a date night to finally view the show in its entirety in exchange for this review. I enjoyed the pro-female sentiments and far-Eastern critique of the West trying to change their culture to better them, while both cultures saw each other as a bit backwards. My husband likened the show to “The Sound of Music,” another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece, due to the many cute, singing children a woman is brought in to care for while having an increasingly confusing relationship with their father.

The show does make one wonder, however, how long we’ll continue viewing classic scripts full of prejudice before they are retired for tales with more modern themes. It is unfortunate that this show is still so relatable in 2017.

“The King and I” is in Tampa through May 7 and tickets start at $58. 

View more photos at https://www.instagram.com/kingandimusical/. 

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3rd Annual Fantastic Ekphrastic in St. Pete

This weekend marks the 3rd Annual Fantastic Ekphrastic by Keep St. Pete Lit on  February 24 and 25, 2017.

If you go, you’ll be treated to live readings of Plays, Poetry and Prose inspired by Visual Art on display in the same space. Basically, 16 local fine artists (mainly photographers, painters and sculptors) created intriguing/pretty/wonderful things, and then local writers were asked to write about them. You get see actors perform those written works! “Ekphrastic” is from a Greek word that means a ‘written commentary on a visual work of art.’ The event will be held at Soft Water Studios with Bob Devin Jones directing. (He used to be my landlord.)

Keep St. Pete Lit’s Maureen McDole, my friend, explains the unique event. “There is nothing like seeing a writer’s work come to life, while also viewing the artwork that inspired it. It’s a totally visceral experience and every performance is different. I had a strong desire to merge the visual and literary arts in a collaborative environment. By adding the performance aspect, we create a dynamic interdisciplinary experience.”

Tickets are $25 and on sale at keepstpetelit.org. All proceeds help Keep St. Pete Lit promote the vibrant local literary arts community, including low-cost writing classes at the Morean Art Center, LitSpace Writers Residency program in April, SunLit Literary Festival, a used bookstore at Morean Art Center, an upcoming kids summer writing camp and much more. Find out more at keepstpetelit.org or see my post from last year’s event.

Each year when you go to Fantastic Ekphrastic, you can discover something new!

When: Friday, February 24 and Saturday, February 25
Two shows each night, at 5:30pm and 8pm
Doors open at 4:30pm so you can immerse yourself in the art before the performances begin.

Where: Soft Water Studios – 515 22nd St. S., St. Petersburg

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Can a Cabaret be a Distraction?

I’m a little bit speechless.

Last night I went to see “Cabaret” at the Straz Theatre in Tampa. I was offered 2 free tickets through Tampa Bay Bloggers. I had never seen the show or the movie, nor had I read the book it was based on. I knew a few of the songs, and I knew there was a Fosse connection and a Liza Minnelli connection. (The 1972 American musical drama film was directed by Bob Fosse and starred Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey.)  

My daughter was in “Chicago The Musical” a few years ago – also Fosse – and I expected something similar. Now, Chicago also has women running around scantly clad. Chicago also has great song and dance moments. Chicago also deals with relationships and human flaws. And DEEP DOWN Chicago is about press, media and our f’-ed up legal system, but with a lot of fishnets and razzle dazzle to keep you engaged while telling its morals.

“Cabaret” started similarly for me. Fun songs, girls in a nightclub being naughty, skeletons coming out of the closet. And I knew in advance that the setting was pre-Holocaust Germany. Here’s this handful of normal people learning to handle their lives in the best ways they know… should there be booze and drugs? Should they be married or free to try anything in any bedroom?

“Then bang! Crash! A lightning flash!” (That’s from “Into the Woods.”) And you’re forced to choose sides. You’re forced to decide what’s good and what’s bad. Suddenly a night at the club won’t erase the craziness going on around you. 

Sound familiar???

I was hoping to escape reality for a couple hours. The show even welcomes you that way! You’re invited to sit in the Cabaret and forget what’s happening outside the door. “Leave your troubles outside! So, life is disappointing? Forget it! In here life is beautiful,” (That’s how yoga class starts, but the way.) What a tease. Suddenly – swastikas, nazis and concentration camps!

Now, I thought perhaps the show might tie in Nazi Germany in a creepy, “Sound of Music” kind of way. Umm, nope. It’s more of an in your face, make your stomach turn kind of way. And in today’s political unrest, it’s awfully hard not to use that as a way to shine a light on what’s happening in the USA in early 2017.

The set is sparse and perfect. The on-stage orchestra above the show is nothing less than I’d expect from Roundabout Theatre Company. Playbill shares great photos here. And that voiceAndrea Goss, who holds back and reels you in, and then fills the theatre with her grand and gorgeous voice from such a tiny package… it’s amazing! (She understudied Michelle Williams, Emma Stone and Sienna Miller in this role of Sally Bowles. Her Broadway credits include “Once” and “Rent.”) Have a listen here.

Todd Haimes, the artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre Company, said, “I think it’s something that should be seen by every generation.”

 

It probably should be, lest we forget.

 

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Fiasco’s Into the Woods at the Straz Center, Tampa

into-the-woodsbroadwayIn 1989, the full original Broadway cast of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” (with the exception of Cindy Robinson as Snow White instead of Jean Kelly) reunited for 3 performances for the taping of the musical in its entirety for the Season 10 premiere episode of PBS’s “American Playhouse”. When it aired on March 15, 1991, I popped a worn tape in the VCR and made a horrible copy. This is the version of “Into the Woods” my daughters grew up with. The professional video has since been released, remastered and re-released. It is considered to be the original Into The Woods. (You can watch it here.)

In 2014, a film version was released, which I’m guessing most of you saw. I mean – Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman and a Christmas Day release date could be the perfect fairy tale. I actually much preferred the original version, but by now my tape is pretty hard to watch. Luckily someone gave me a DVD version of the PBS special!

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Shorecrest dress rehearsal photo by Leslie Ellen Photography

Then, this fall, the school I work at, known for lavish musical productions, performed “Into the Woods” much like the original version. The sets were gorgeous, the costumes were perfect, the teens gave it their all! This was no school auditorium make-shift production. This was a professional theatre production that happened to have high-school-aged actors.

Now Fiasco Theater has reimagined “Into the Woods.” If you’ve seen the show before, like me, you’ve most likely not seen anything similar to this! It’s completely stripped down. It’s only a 10-person cast, and there is no orchestra. The instruments are strewn around the edges of the stage and the actors occasionally pick them up and play them. The set is also stripped down, using a few tables and boxes and a ladder to get the point across. It’s low-tech and very accessible, and made me think back to making up skits in my grandmother’s basement with my cousins.

It’s hard to not get caught up in the differences every time you see a beloved show reimagined by a new Director, costume artist, stage manager, etc. (No narrator, a cow’s death sequence, actors as musicians?) And this is truly a whole new production – with a focus on pantomime and reacting. But what remains the same are the clever, tongue-twisting, fast-talking lyrics and the highly personal themes.

My favorite of these comes from the simple lyric, “Into the woods to get the thing that makes it worth the journeying.”

So much thought caught up in a seemingly unassuming sentence! What makes it all worth it? What makes you get up every day? What makes you face fear and uncertainty? What makes you put yourself out there around new people and experiences?

And this is the genius of Sondheim, wrapping itself around your brain. You can grab at the surface alone and enjoy the fairy tale, or you can realize that every song is giving you a lesson or a warning.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-8-21-33-amThink I’m nuts? That I’m reading too much into it? Consider for a moment that Little Red Riding Hood is not meeting a wolf, but a first teenage romance, and then listen to the lyrics:

“He made me feel excited, well, excited and scared. Though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.

Isn’t it nice to know a lot? …and a little bit not.”

If you haven’t seen the show, you may have gathered from the names I’ve mentioned that the show follows fairy tale characters, both familiar and new, as their stories intersect in pursuit of their dreams in the mysterious woods surrounding their kingdom. The show is a fascinating musical tapestry about hopes and dreams, triumphs and failures, as it explores the question, “Is there really a happily ever after?”

itwbloggersAs I walked into the Straz Center’s Morsani Hall for their production running through Dec 4, with 2 complementary tickets courtesy of Tampa Bay Bloggers, I was warned that the first act is 90 minutes long. (In other words, visit the ladies’ room and unwrap your candy now.) And Act 1 is almost like 2 acts blended together. Just as the cast sits comfortably and you think the lights will come up, Jack (of giant and beanstalk fame) suddenly proclaims “There are giants in the sky!” and a new storyline unfolds.

When we marketed the performance at work, a school including ages 3-18, we gave parents a warning. “The production is split into two acts, the first of which highlights popular fairy tale personalities like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Prince Charming portrayed as normal, flawed people. There’s a witch, a wolf and a giant, but the scares are mild for young viewers. Intermission may be a good time to leave with little ones, however. As the play progresses into Act 2, plot twists become more mature and at times dark, reminding the audience, ‘be careful what you wish for’. Characters tackle moral dilemmas in ways that will resonate with viewers aged 15 and up.” So that’s my note for you if you are taking little-littles to the show. You can almost get away with ducking out at intermission if they are sleepy enough. The songs even come back around to the popular “Into the Woods” refrain where everything started.

The themes of family relationships, facing your fears, helicopter parenting and creating unity are also very prevalent. The Baker and his Wife may even make you ponder the American Dream. The show is truly timely and relatable for all ages. And we’re lucky that this new production is hitting Tampa very early in it’s US Tour! Grab your tickets here ASAP!

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