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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Living with Our Differences

blocksLast Friday I was part of a cool learning experiment. The school I work for brought in an expert who specializing in active block programs in schools. That means “playing blocks.” Did you play with blocks when you were a child? Maybe bright wooden ones that came in a large tub that doubled as a drum, or plastic LEGO-like blocks that could keep an imagination active for hours and a toe sore for days. We also had ABC blocks and Tinkertoys.

The session last week was about implementing a program that allows children to learn from their block play with the right amount of hands-on and hands-off guidance. We talked about what is at eye level in the room with the blocks, and photos of architecture to allow budding minds to expand when building. FIRST we played with blocks. For about 45 minutes our group broke into smaller groups of 2-4 and played with blocks. Most of the attendees taught kindergarten or first grade, and most were female over age 45. (I’m neither a teacher, but I was invited to attend so as to later make a video for parents explaining how blocks are used at the school.)

So there I was paired up with a woman older than me who taught DD2 first grade and a woman younger than me who had at one time been her soccer coach, and is also a kindergarten teacher. Coach wanted to make the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. We were happy to let her idea give us a place to start. First grade teacher started collecting some of the shapes she thought we might need that would run out quickly, and Coach wanted to use Google to find a picture of the Skyway as a reference. Then we got to building.

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I learned a few things in those 45 minutes. I learned the first grade teacher is very competitive. She overhead another group say they were building the Skyway as well, and watching their progress distracted her. I saw Coach emerge as the team lead architect – even though she didn’t care either way, she just wanted to make a bridge. I learned that I say “please” and “excuse me” a lot more than most six year olds playing with blocks do. I also learned it wasn’t PLAY at all. It was strategy and math and efficiency and architecture and physics. There was teamwork and collaboration and imagination and creativity. We were serious about our work, and as it ebbed and flowed we would get close and intense, and later step back and examine. And when we were done, we wanted to take a picture of it. I certainly couldn’t do that when I was six years old!

After 45 minutes we explored the room silently to see what everyone else had built. Then discussion started. People realized how different thought processes and personalities came into play. Who was a good leader and why? Who needed to draw plans before they started, and who just wanted to build and think later… We were mature enough to work well with these different personalities, but that’s a lot harder to do when you are a kindergartener.

My social media has been BLARING with different personalities lately as well – because of the Presidential Election. Those who seek reason, those who mouth off, those who ask for unity and those who repost news stories that were never fact-checked. My Facebook friends have not been mature enough to work well with other personalities.

This leads me to an opportunity for you to get insides someone else’s head.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is playing this week at the Straz Center in Tampa, Florida. It is a Tony Award®-winning new play adapted from Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel and directed by Tony winner Marianne Elliott. The lead character is a teenage boy on the autistic spectrum. He is exceptionally intelligent but ill-equipped to interpret everyday life. He does not understand feelings, comedy, metaphors, noise and pretty much anything else that doesn’t follow a logical pattern. He does understand time, math, detective work, and can name every prime number up to 7,057. His parents are trying to seek their own happiness while living with his quirks up close.

Talk about different personalities!

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I have mom-friends who are living like this boy’s mother, unable to hug their child for fear of a tantrum, or ready for the next time chaos ensues due to overstimulation. A close friend of mine who is a single mother to an autistic son once told me, “Nothing about parenting a child with autism will be anything like what you expected.”

And deep down I know parenting any child will not be like what you expected, but caring for my neurotypical daughters was a lot closer to the experience I had babysitting for my neurotypical neighbors, or being a camp counselor each summer to neurotypical 3-6 year olds. My daughters surprise me – coming out of the closet, getting tattoos, getting excited about Calculus 3, joining a kickball team, haircuts, boyfriends, girlfriends, emergency surgery, tantrums at Walt Disney World — but we are mature and loving enough to work well with each other’s personalities.

This play takes you inside the mind of a boy who is not neurotypical. From its very abrupt start, to its grid-like, minimalist set, you’ll be opened up to a new way of thinking — if you allow yourself to be. And I think we all grow and learn from that type of experience.

I recommend seeing this show. I recommend sitting near the stage. I also recommend bringing tissues – because you may laugh and cry your makeup off. Reality and truth aren’t always pretty, but they can smack you in the butt and remind you of what’s really important in life.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is playing this week through Nov 13th 2016 at the Straz Center in Tampa, Florida. I was given 2 free tickets to see the show, and as always all opinions are my own.

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