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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The Wizard of Oz is at the Straz Center

National Touring Production of the Wizard of Oz.You might find something new about the beloved classic finishing its tour in Florida this month. No, I don’t mean Dorothy’s dungarees – although I loved that addition, because who works on a farm in a dress and petticoat??! I meant the show’s name. It’s now Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Wizard of Oz”. The new stage adaptation includes new songs by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The tour I saw starred Sarah Lasko as Dorothy, and she was adorable with a showstopping voice. She truly sounded like an effortless Broadway talent through the whole show. The only part of the show better than Sarah was the powerful orchestra. Sometimes I hear the start of an overture in my theatre seat and get carried off into the show, but when I heard the first notes at “The Wizard of Oz”, I took stock and noticed how full and rich the sound was. It held throughout the show with emotion and power, and also cute added sound affects.

Back to Dorothy’s pants… not only are they practical for a girl on a farm, they’re kind of taupe. In fact, much of the first few scenes has the color notes of a dusty Kansas plain. This echoes the opening and closing credits as well as the Kansas sequences from the film. Just like the color parts of the movie astounded viewers when it first aired on television, audiences will love when colors and flowers and rainbows brighten the stage production.

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ozOne of the new lyrics of the show is “mainly magic, slightly science,” and that’s what this hopeful, wondrous musical is made of. It has love and laughter, a little touch of evil, fairy dust, magic wishes – with a message and musical score great for all ages to enjoy. There were many little girls of kindergarten age around me in sparkly, red shoes enjoying the show and the special affects. They were so proud of themselves when they knew the set was moving or that the lighting was coming from above and behind them. They seemed more afraid of the storm than the witch – I think Glinda was the alpha-witch in this version.

Basically, the only people I think who won’t enjoy this show are those who really hate the movie. And I’m not sure those people exist. Most people sat like me, riveted, singing along in their heads (I could tell by the head bopping), and knowing exactly what was going to come next. It was slightly more modern, more obviously gay friendly, had people laughing out loud, and caught even diehard fans by surprise at times. Although the stage show does not follow the movie exactly, the only part I really missed and wished I had heard was this little tune. (And I was surprised the flying monkeys weren’t carried away on a wire.)

Before you take your littles, you can prep them with coloring pages from the Oz tour website, and watch clips from the show here:

Don’t ease on down for tickets – get a move on! “The Wizard of Oz” is ending its North American tour for 2016 in Tampa – and it’s at the Straz just through July 17.

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If/Then at the Straz Center in Tampa

I was offered two free tickets to see the Broadway touring production of “If / Then” at the Straz Center in Tampa, Florida so I could tell you about it. All opinions are my own. And I’ll begin with a poem from my childhood…

Whatif

by Shel Silverstein

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pol?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there’s poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don’t grow talle?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the fish won’t bite?
Whatif the wind tears up my kite?
Whatif they start a war?
Whatif my parents get divorced?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don’t grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems swell, and then
The nighttime Whatifs strike again!

I always thought the poem above was relatable but exaggerated, until I had a daughter with high anxiety. Whatifs drove her crazy. I think a combination of high intelligence and a vivid imagination allows her to think of many possible outcomes every time she is faced with a decision. She immediately conjures up worst case scenarios. This can help with being prepared for many situations, but imagine applying to college when your brain works overtime trying to sabotage you?! And so we tried talk therapy to help my daughter learn to calm the whatifs. She need to sleep soundly each night. She needed to not have rigid shoulders up to her ears in stress. And early in high school after she met with Dr. Deb for the first time, she left saying, “I wish I had started therapy in fourth grade.”

May is Mental Health Month, with a mission to spread the word that mental health is something everyone should care about, not be scared to talk about. Although I know what it feels like to have my mind racing or feelings of high anticipation, I also know it is not the same thing as true anxiety. Over 21% of adults (42.5 million) are affected by debilitating anxiety each year! Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the tactic I have read up on the most to help my children understand their thinking patterns so they can react differently to the situations that cause them anxiety. It gives them a great toolbox to turn to in times of stress.

For my day-to-day whatifs, what works best is a quiet yoga class and meditative breathing exercises. Although I sometimes wonder whatif, I can use these tools to dispel the mind racing that might have once kept me awake at night. Instead, a like to think of my whatifs as a little healthy daydreaming. What if I had a Master’s Degree? What if one of my daughters loved ballet class instead of sports? And the biggest question of my life – what if I hadn’t contracted colitis during sophomore year of college and come home sick and met that cute guy named Brian – my husband of nearly 20 years?

If/Then is a contemporary Broadway musical about the whatifs that come along with living in New York as an adult today. When you are on your own and making adult decisions that have a domino affect on your future and those around you, it gives you pause to wonder and consider the many possible outcomes.

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When I first heard about “If/Then”, it was often compared to the Broadway musical “Rent”. I don’t like the comparison – mainly because If/Then is much less edgy and deals with a slightly older crowd, maybe 10-15 years after the lives of those in Rent. But LUCKILY Anthony Rapp of the original Rent cast AND the Rent movie cast is touring with If/Then right NOW and you can see/hear him at the Straz Center if you get your tickets this week!

The top three reasons to see If/Then in Tampa this week are Jackie Burns (played Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway), Anthony Rapp (from RENT as mentioned above) and Tamyra Gray (from the first season of American Idol.)

Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the writer and composer team of If/Then, literally composed songs for Idina Menzel (Wicked, Frozen). Idina’s first Broadway job was in — Rent! Also in the original cast of Rent was — Anthony Rapp. And now Jackie Burns has followed in Idina’s footsteps twice, playing both Elphaba in Wicked and Elizabeth in If/Then – touting similar dark locks and a belting voice that won’t quit. Notice the serendipity? The interconnectivity? The stuff that makes you wonder if it’s a coincidence or fate? THAT is what If/Then is all about!! Like the line “We somehow find each other in each other’s eyes” from the If/Then song “Ain’t No Man Manhattan.”

There’s minimal dancing in this show. It highlights characters, lives, stories, and voices. It shows how we’re braver with great friends by our sides (or capes on our backs) and that the amazing joys life brings usually make the crap tolerable. It also deals with the delicate balance many women face of pursuing a career head-on or focusing on family, and how both routes bring joy but both force women to learn to live without some desires.

The show started kind of cheesy for me, but the voices kept my attention and the ending roped me in and made me a fan! If/Then is playing May 19th-22nd (mostly evening with 2pm matinees Saturday and Sunday) at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Carol Morsani Hall, Tampa. $40-$95. (813) 229-7827 or strazcenter.org. Upcoming Broadway shows include “Jersey Boys”, “Into the Woods”, “An American in Paris”, “Cabaret”, “Wicked” and much more!

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