It has taken me a while to sit down to write this review, but I am not sure as to why this has happened.  I think it may be that it was such a disappointing experience that I didn’t want to think about it.  An anonymous writer once penned, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but in this case, it didn’t.  Even though it’s been quite a while since I saw the performance, I’m still miffed at this production by the Fiasco Theatre Company which appeared at McCarter Theatre’s Berlind Theatre from May 3 to June 9.   It was a “new take” on Sondheim’s incredible musical, and whenever I see terms like “a new take,” “reimagined,” or “updated,” I immediately get suspicious.

INTO THE WOODS is another of “those” musicals; people either love it or hate this show that has been on Broadway three times chalking up a total of 1044 performances and garnering five Tony Awards and a host of other awards for those outings.  It is one of Sondheim’s most clever shows lyrically, and the clarity of the music and lyrics is essential to the success of the piece.

I have been fortunate in seeing this show done many times.  The original Broadway production was charmingly set with most of the woods suggested by a series of drops – very simply done.  The original London production was much darker with an almost gothic feel to the dark and foreboding woods and a huge cuckoo clock presiding over all.  An edge was added to this production which made it less accessible.  A pared-down, but successful production was mounted by students at The Royal Academy of Music in the 1990’s because they preserved the integrity of the music, lyrics, and book, and the most recent Broadway outing in 2002 which seemed unfocused for some reason.  There have been touring companies, as well as many regional companies that have met with various levels of success. However, all of these have tried to do just service to the material.

However, here, the show was unmercifully hacked down to a cast of eleven from nineteen as written with the musical accompaniment by a lone piano which simply does not do this rich score, originally orchestrated by the legendary Jonathan Tunick, any justice whatsoever.  Not only was it hacked to pieces, there was far too much “cutesy” staging and abject mugging going on throughout the evening that it interfered with and detracted from the script and score.  This production simply looked like there was no money and not enough people, so the company “made do” with a bargain-basement version.

It is a credit to the score by Sondheim and book by James Lapine that people were still able to enjoy it through all of the muck on stage in this production.  Knowing what this show can be made me realize how much more the audience would have enjoyed it if they had seen it unencumbered by antics, musical accompaniment that didn’t often get lost, and voices that were up to the task at hand.

Let me interject here that I am probably in the minority about this although there were audience members who left during the intermission on the evening I attended.  The show was extended.  I have had several conversations with those who saw it after me; several of whom had never seen it before.  Their responses included remarks like, “It was so imaginative,”  “They really made do with very little,” and “I thought the clutter on stage was wonderful.”  When I asked those who had not seen it before about specific plot points like The Mysterious Man being The Baker’s father, I was generally met with “He was?  Oh, I didn’t get that.”  In fact, many of them didn’t get much of the storyline, and it’s not because they are incapable of it.  They, like the theatre company, lost the plot somewhere along the way.

The story, in brief, mixes together the lives of several fairytale characters:  Cinderella, The Baker and His Wife (which seems to have been adapted for dramatic purposes from THUMBELINA), Jack the Giant Killer, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood.  Oh, there’s a bit of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White thrown in as well.  They all wish for something, and as they find out “Wishes come true, not free.”  The first act has a seemingly happy ending, Jack and his mother are rich, Cinderella is marrying her Prince, The Baker and His Wife have a child, and the Witch is once again beautiful.  However, that happiness is short-lived, and the second act deals with all of the repercussions of their transgressions with the few remaining characters wiser and stronger because of their ordeals.

The first problem with this production was the set.  There was no sense of focus on the stage.  Left and right featured floor to ceiling panels of piano sound boards, and the back of the stage was filled with ropes which one can only imagine were supposed to be piano strings.  Here comes the question, folks: “Why?”   Did it look like a woods?  No, it looked like a series of ropes.  The rest of the set consisted of unmatched tables, chairs – stuff spread about which often got in the way of the action and never helped the audience to truly establish a scene.  The costumes by Whitney Locher were simply a series of rag-bag things that made it look more like MARAT/SADE than INTO THE WOODS.  The witch came out particularly poorly with what looked like a black slip for a costume along with black opera gloves.   The physical production could only be described as “post-apocalyptic” grunge or a badly interpreted production of GODSPELL.

Vocally, the show was weak as well.  Only a few of the performers were up to the challenges of this score which requires solid singing along with extremely crisp diction.  Sondheim’s lyrics are dense and contain wonderful plays on the language.  For instance, Jack’s Mother sings the following about their cow Milky White (I’ll get to him in a minute):

“There are bugs on her dugs.  There are flies in her eyes. There’s a lump on her rump big enough to be a hump, son.  There’s no time to sit and dither while her withers wither with her”

Although Liz Hayes, who played Jack’s Mother and Cinderella’s Stepmother, was too young for the roles, she sang well and delivered and excellent performance, there were others who did not handle the music well.  They included Noah Brody who mangled the Wolf’s song and his work as Cinderella’s Prince, Andy Grotelueschen who gave a weak performance as Rapunzel’s Prince, and Paul J. Coffey who just seemed out of sorts as the Mysterious Man who is eventually revealed as The Baker’s Father, and sadly, Jennifer Mudge who was simply lackluster, wanting, and sometimes apologetic as the Witch.

There were some good voices and performances in the cast, but they were up against the dire physical production.  Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld were both charming as The Baker’s Wife and The Baker.  They showed that they understood the material and gave it its proper due.  Patrick Mulryan, who is a giant himself, gave an excellent performance as Jack, and Claire Karpen was charming as Cinderella.  Emily Young was wonderfully quirky as Red Riding Hood, but she did not have the proper edge to make the character fully successful.

Musically, Matt Castle worked valiantly to keep the company together with his piano playing which he had to augment to catch up or cover errors by the performers.   There is just too much music in this show for it to be reduced to one piano and be successful.  The addition of a few other instruments (including some really bad guitar playing) just made things more disjointed and sad.

One of the overused words I heard from the audience was “clever.”  Much of what was on stage was so clever that it didn’t seem to belong to this script in the same manner as the set did not belong with what was happening.

The Wicked Stepsisters were played by Grotelueschen and Brody as they stood behind a drapery rod with the dirty drapes acting as dresses.  They mugged so badly that their lines were obscured and the moment lost.  Grotelueschen was also guilty of this when he played Milky White.  His antics overshadowed what was being said, and he not only drew focus, he also upstaged the others who were delivering plot points.  Mugging was rampant throughout the evening.

The problems here more than likely came from their being two directors who were also in the show.  They truly needed someone to play referee and simply say, “NO” many times.  Brody and Steinfeld are both founders and artistic directors of Fiasco Theater, and they have been responsible for many interesting productions.  This is not one of them.  They were out of their depth with this production of INTO THE WOODS, and were too close to the project since they were in it and controlled it.  This may have worked for them in the past, but it did not work here.

INTO THE WOODS is a huge undertaking, and unlike others, I cannot get excited about “reimagining” works that are proven, especially when that reimagining means that the production will not do justice to the work, and Fiasco Theater certainly did not do justice to this work.

Absence did not make my heart grow fonder; I just got angrier and wish that all of those audience members who enjoyed what they saw would find a copy of the DVD of the original so that they could hear what the show should sound like.  I’m not saying that the original production of any show is always the best, but here, it was certainly far more understandable and enjoyable.

I really wanted to like this production because I truly love this show, but it was impossible for me to do so here

Ben Brantley of THE NEW YORK TIMES wrote in his review of the show, “Never mind that this production doesn’t feature anything like the usual highly polished, highly trained vocalists and orchestra customary for the rendering of Sondheim. Onstage you’ll find one upright piano (played by Matt Castle) and a few other instruments (a cello, a guitar, some woodwinds) scattered about for cast members to pick up from time to time. And some of the performers, to be blunt, can barely carry a tune.”   Perhaps Mr. Brantley can “never mind” that there are few singers or a decent production on stage for a show, but some of us who love the theatre still expect it.  This production was simply far too much about process and not nearly enough about production.   It was a glimpse at what happens in a workshop environment before all of the pieces are put together in a finished “whole.”  There was far too much of the “Let’s throw it at the wall to see if it sticks” on view here.

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The latest revival of the stage adaptation of Henry James’ novel WASHINGTON SQUARE titled THE HEIRESS closed on February 9, 2013 after a successful eighteen-week limited run of 117 performances that earned back its investment.  The story of a young woman who is filled with self-doubt due to the machinations of a parent is timeless, and it is now receiving a fresh infusion in the George St. Playhouse / Cleveland Playhouse co-production of Victoria Stewart’s RICH GIRL which is appearing at the George St. Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ through April 7.

Where noted physician, Dr. Sloper, belittles his daughter Catherine because she is alive and her “perfect” mother died at Catherine’s birth in the original, here money guru Eve Walker (Dee Hoty) controls and marginalizes her daughter Claudine (Crystal Finn) because she is the product of an unhappy marriage.  In both stories, the young women must find their strengths themselves.  However, where Catherine seems to be left in a world of darkens and solitude, there is hope for Claudine, especially for those of us who are incurable romantics and really need happy endings.

Eve is a popular financial speaker and author in the mode of Suze Ormon.  She was a waitress who married a young law student, put him through school, and was then left destitute by him while eight months pregnant with Claudine.  It’s no wonder then that her suggestions include ideas like, “Being in love means seeing a lawyer before you get married,” and “When a man and a woman truly love each other, they will sign a pre-nup.”  She now has a multi-million dollar philanthropic organization that focuses on educating children which she intends to leave to Claudine if Claudine can manage to prove her worth to her mother.

Also, as in the original, there is a speculative love interest.  Here, it is theatrical producer, director, designer, and actor Henry (Tony Roach).  Where the original Morris Townsend was overtly an opportunist looking to get Catherine’s money, Henry is written with such care that the question remains entirely open-ended.  Eve, however, believes that her money is all he is after since she cannot imagine why anyone would love or even want her clumsy, awkward, and backward daughter.  It is clear to see that Henry is, in many ways, similar to Morris, but Henry has an obvious conscience that Morris lacks.

One final character comes into play in this mix.  In the original, it’s Catherine’s widowed Aunt Lavinia who only sees a chance for Catherine to not be alone any longer.   RICH GIRL has the formidable talents of Liz Larsen as Maggie, Eve’s assistant and Claudine’s guardian angel.  Larsen adds a wonderfully sarcastic edge to the proceedings with hilarious readings of lines like “If you were only married, older, balding, and on the Internet, you’d be perfect for me” which Stewart has amply scattered throughout the script.  There is a pleasant balance here of comedy and pathos that is not evident in the original text, and the treatment is fresh and beautifully realized.

Does Henry really love Claudine and will they be together eventually?  It would be unfair of me to tell – besides, I know what I want to happen, and it may not have been Stewart’s intent.

Just about everything regarding this production is superb.  The unit set by Wilson Chin is attractive and serviceable.  When it comes down to people discussing minutiae such as to whether or not the sofa, coffee table, and bar set-up are right for the room (I do not think they are.) and finally deciding that Eve has money and possibly not taste, it’s a good sign that the set is stellar.  One or two costumes in the otherwise excellent design by Jennifer Caprio also missed the mark such as the ugly red “sweat pants” and strangely patterned top for Claudine in the last scene.  The lighting by Matthew Richards includes some absolutely stunning sunrises and sunsets, and Dave Bova deserves a special mention for the excellent wig designs for Claudine and Eve.

The ensemble on stage at George St. is extremely strong.  Hoty makes Eve both a detestable and empathetic character.  Where Dr. Sloper overtly loathes his daughter, Eve can’t help but see her as the product of her failure, and she does not like failure, but also as something she needs to protect and for which she must ensure a solid future.  She does care, but she is so emotionally damaged that she cannot fully show it.  Eve has decided that the only way she can survive is by being a harder person than everyone else.  It is to Hoty’s credit that one can still care about Eve even though she seems as though she is heading towards the isolation of Dickens’ Miss Haversham in her single-mindedness.  She believes she fully understands the world, and sums up Henry’s proposal of marriage to Claudine by reminding her that “I can turn on the T.V. every night of the week to watch someone eat bugs for the chance to win $25,000.  That’s the world we live in.” To liken a marriage to one’s daughter as being as questionable as eating “bugs” and other such stunts for money is reprehensible.

Finn’s Claudine is a charming study in self-doubt initially, but as she becomes more self aware and sure of herself, her spine and carriage change as well, and she blossoms before the audience.  Claudine could also be an unlikable character, but Finn imbues her with so many nuances and failings that one cannot help but care for her.  Even when she has made the transition to successful businesswoman, there is still some of the child-like Claudine present.

Maggie acts as the Greek chorus and fills in all of the necessary talking points; this is often a thankless job on stage.  Shakespeare often singled out one character like Benvolio in ROMEO AND JULIET who always got left behind to tell everyone what happened in case they were napping.  Do people generally remember Benvolio when they talk about the play?  No!  However, people will remember Liz Larsen who is immediately recognizable as the wisecracking “Eve Arden” friend who always seems to be on the fringes but is right in the middle of everything.  Here too is a character who is somewhat reprehensible.  She spies on Claudine for Eve, does thorough background checks on Henry, but is still immensely loveable.  Larsen also shows her impeccable timing delivering the often Simon-esque one-liners supplied to her by Stewart.

Roach has the toughest job of the evening since he works with a character who is purposefully enigmatic.  Whatever choices he has made for his character’s actions must pretty much remain transparent so that the audience keeps guessing throughout.  Roach is charming and energetic and, most of all, is believable.  Even if he is a heel, he is still a likable heel, but he might not be a heel at all.

When all is said and done, RICH GIRL is an excellent way to spend two hours in a theatre.  The well written characters are superbly acted in a visually pleasing production, and the adaptation is never forced and, for those who know the original material, more of a homage to the creations of James than a copy.  It is nice to see an intelligently adapted piece that actually extends the characters, adding depth and nuances that are true to the change in time periods.   Even if it does not make it to Broadway, this show is certain to be around in regional theatres for some time to come.

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Enough!  Director John Doyle needs to stop his intrusive, gimmicky destruction of good material.  Currently, his production of Ten Cents a Dance is on stage at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. His conceit is that performers who play a variety of instruments while performing on stage in some way enhance the performance.  How? The instruments and the necessity to pick-up, carry, play, and put them down again, generally has nothing to do with the material.  To many, this intrusion of instruments just appears to be a cheap way of doing a musical without an orchestra.  In this piece especially, those instruments get in the way of the performance, and the result is that the proceedings appear aimless and unfocused and the integrity of the material is severely diminished if not destroyed.  What he has done to some of the most iconic music of the theatre by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart is criminal.

Doyle won a Tony Award for his misdirection of Sweeney Todd on Broadway, but for some, it was a case of being dazzled by the “emperor’s new clothes.”  In London, where this production of Todd began its life, it was ridiculous that Mrs. Lovett would pick up a trumpet and play as Toby sang “Not While I’m Around,” and it was equally disturbing for Anthony and Johanna to sing sweetly to each other while seated on either side of the stage with celli in their crotches.   This gave new meaning to the concept of “safe sex.”  Many people in the audience lost the plot, literally, as the minimal staging did nothing to support Sondheim’s often superbly dense language.

He is also guilty of a splendidly inept production of Mack and Mabel in London.   Once again, a down-sized cast running around with various instruments got in the way of the staging.  The action that drives the show came in second to the necessity to get somewhere else on stage to grab something to pluck, bang, or blow.  There are musicals where this works, but these are shows about bands of some sort.  The excellent Pump Boys and DinettesCowgirlsOil City Symphony, andSmoke on the Mountain need the instruments because they are based on stories about people playing them.  They are written in as part of the script; they are not imposed where they do not belong.

This is the case with Ten Cents a Dance.  Supposedly, the setting is an empty bar.  It looks more like a musical instrument storeroom or the bargain basement of a large music shop.  Dreary lighting by Jane Cox does not add to the necessary clutter of the set by Scott Pask.  The program relates that Doyle is a story teller.  It would help if the audience could possibly figure out what that story might be.

Before I go further, please let me assure you that I felt the cast was excellent, and they were committed to the material – which is superb.  Malcolm Getz shows that he fully understands these songs, and he presents them well even with awkward orchestrations and unfounded thematic concepts are thrust upon them.  From what I can gather, five women play “Miss Jones,” the woman he has loved and lost – maybe?  I was told that they represent the “women” in his life, but they are all named Miss Jones, and they are all versions of the same woman which does not support this claim.  I was also wondering, at points, if he might have been a musical mass murderer, and these were the women he had killed and hidden in a variety of double bass cases or something.  If this were the case, one of the songs in the evening, the lovely “Dancing on the Ceiling” from a long forgotten musical entitled Evergreen, may have served the cause better by changing the lyrics to “She dangles overhead from the ceiling by my bed…”

In essence, the evening can be summed up as:  Man plays piano, progressively aging women in rather ugly dresses descend a spiral staircase, play a variety of instruments, sing some songs, and climb back up the staircase.  You fill in the story.

Joining Getz as Miss Jones 5, and I considered her to be the lead Miss Jones, is Donna McKechnie.  I must say, it was a thrill to see her on stage again.  She can “sparkle” just as brightly here in this train wreck as she did when I saw her in London in Can-Can or back in A Chorus Line.  She is one of those people whose personality draws attention for all of the right reasons.

None of this is to diminish the other Miss Joneses as they all show good presence and talent, but it seemed obvious that some of them may have been hired because they could play a variety of instruments and not because they sang well.  Some of the voices are not bad; they are just not strong or full enough to do justice to the wonderful songs here.  The respective Miss Jones, from Miss Jones 1 through 4 (if this helps in any way) are: Elisa Winter, Jane Pfitsch, Jessica Tyler Wright, and Diana DiMarzio.

Since the program does not give a song list with credits as to who sings what, it is a bit difficult to give credit where it is due.  All five women wear variations on the same dress by costumer Ann Hould-Ward with variations on the same red hairstyles created by Paul Huntley, so the middle three Miss Jones blended together at times.  Also, why the dresses and hairstyles seemed purposefully based on 1940’s designs and are made from a fabric whose ugliness defies description begs questioning.  The busy floral pattern of the material and brown/blue coloring does not read well from the back two-thirds of the house.  They just look like messy blobs as several of the dresses have intricate pleating and draping which further contorts the patter.  For variety, wouldn’t it have been better if it was more of a similar dress pattern but with a progressive color change that would indicate the station in life of each Miss Jones?  This too would give the audience some visual variety.  As it is, these dresses are just more clutter in an already cluttered set.

The songs that work the best in this scant 80 minute one-act are the songs that Doyle has allowed to simply be sung.  Most of the time, the Miss Joneses wander aimlessly around stage, the piano spins for no apparent reason, or Mr. Getz takes off his coat, vest, shirt, for no apparent reason – actually, it almost appeared at one point that he was rolling up his sleeves as if to exorcise these demonic women who have come back from the grave to attack him.

I honestly believe that I had more fun making up my own storyline which, like the proceedings on stage, also had nothing to do with these thirty-plus wonderful songs than I did trying to figure out what was happening on stage…but I digress.

The songs that work best are “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from Pal Joey and “Sing for Your Supper” from The Boys from Syracuse.  Because the ladies did not have to move quickly from one side of the set to another or climb the stairs to play in some half-lit area or drape themselves over the piano to play instruments from positions that are too awkward to describe, the songs retained their integrity and were joyous reminders about just how good Rodgers and Hart were/are.  Doyle has imposed his bizarre vision on these songs and no one has won.  What should have been an uplifting reminder of the glory of one of America’s true original art forms is a blurry, enigmatic mess.

The movement of the women on stage also destroys the opportunity to fully appreciate Hart’s often biting and always clever lyrics.  The lyrics to one of Hart’s most inspired songs in particular, “To Keep My Love Alive” from A Connecticut Yankee are almost totally lost, and the delightful “Little Girl Blue” from Jumbo is turned into a game of musical freeze-tag here.  It’s all too aggravating.

All of this saddens me as I was very much looking forward to seeing this show.  I have enjoyed Getz in his other shows and films, and the chance to see Donna McKechnie again is one I would not miss.  I was happy to have seen them; I just wish they had been allowed to do the material as it was meant to be performed: straightforward and from the hip.  There is no pretense in a Rodgers and Hart song.  In this production by the misguided John Doyle, there is nothing but pretense and the resounding thud of pretentiousness masquerading as thoughtful art.

mk

Ted Writes a Letter to God

September 18, 2011

Dear God,

I need a favor – again. This time it’s not for me; it’s for someone named John Doyle. Please, please inspire him to do something with his life that does not include directing musicals. He’s the director of McCarter Theatre’s season opener, Ten Cents a Dance. I’ve seen three other musicals he directed, and all of them have left me feeling disappointed . No, that word isn’t strong enough. Let’s try outraged.

I know that you’ve already blessed him with supreme self-confidence and a monumental ego. He’d need those to put himself and his concepts ahead of the obvious and established talents of Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, and now Rodgers and Hart.

I wonder if he’s ever really listened to the wondrous creations that Rodgers and Hart offered us, sometimes as long ago as eight decades. So many of those lovely ballads, like the title song, look into the human heart and see regret, resignation, hope and joy in the most simple and direct ways imaginable. Those songs have stood the test of time and, hopefully, will survive the disrespect and trivialization his concept and this show have subjected them to. He squandered or misused the talents of six fine performers who wandered the stage aimlessly, rushing about to pick up and discard various musical instruments to no purpose I could fathom.

I know that some people see novelty as automatically better than tradition. I sometimes do, and I have the feeling that You do as well.  Mr. Doyle has awards and a sheaf of good reviews, so it must be a matter of taste. You could give him some of that too as long as it’s closer to mine. Or Sondheim’s. Or Herman’s.  Or, especially and regretfully, Rodgers and Hart’s.

OK, So I still harbor the desire to make my living as an actor, and my Equity card is burning a hole in my pocket.  Actually, it’s just a dull-thudding reminder that I haven’t made any of my career goals – yet.  However, it would be nice if I could manage to go to an audition where I didn’t meet up with some of the world’s most interesting, if unprepared, casting directors.  I’ve been to many auditions in my life, and as a teenager, I was “typed out” of more auditions than I care to remember.  (To be “typed out” is to not make it through the door of the audition.  Some miserable sod walks down the line of hopefuls at a cattle call, looks, and simply says, “No.”  Some are nicer; they’ll add an “I’m sorry,” but the inevitable “No” will be forthcoming.)

Ravishingly Dapper Headshot of Michael Tomas Otten

Just so that you have a point of reference, this is one of the headshots I use most often.  I honestly do look like this, and you must keep this in mind as I relate the following anecdotes about the fun world of theatrical auditions.

I think I must first explain that an audition can take place absolutely anywhere.  I have been in ballrooms, on stages, in a kitchen, in an empty office that echoed worse than the Grand Canyon, and, among others, a room so small, the three of us were touching knees.  Often, there is a table or two with an assortment of people who generally do everything except watch the audition.  These can be assistants, designers, boyfriends, etc.  It is extremely annoying when the entire row of people are all on their phones, texting furiously while one is pouring his or her heart out.  In any event, I think you get the picture.  Here are just a few of the interchanges that have taken place after I have not gotten the job:

1. Casting Director (CD): “Who called you for this audition?” (Definitely not a good sign.)

Me (Knowing full well that I have not gotten this job): “Well, since I sent my picture and resume to your office, and I received a telephone call from your office to come here today, I am assuming that you called me in for this audition.”

CD: “Why would I call you in for an audition for this show?”

Me: “Because you wanted to hire me is the only reason that springs to my mind.”

CD: “No, I don’t think it was that.”

Me: “Oh.  Well, do you want me to read anyway?”

CD: “No, I don’t think so,” Then, turning to the young man on his left, “What show are we casting today?”

Me: “Well then, I hope you find whatever you’re not looking for.” (Exuent)

2.  CD (Digging through a pile of photos scattered across the table in no particular order): “Who are you?”

Me:  “My stage name is Michael Tomas Otten.  You just missed me on your left.”

CD:  “OK, thank you… Ah – Um, You look like your headshot.”

Me:  “Pardon?”

CD:  “You look like your headshot.”

Me (Looking at the others seated at the table to see if this is a joke or an ice-breaker or something): “I thought that was the purpose of headshots – to be “looked-like” and all.”

CD:  “Well, you’re a character actor aren’t you?”

Me:  “I do and have played ‘characters,’ but I have also done leads.”

CD:  “…But everyone knows that the headshots of character actors are always fifteen years out of date.  This looks recent.”

Me (Knowing once again that this audition is going nowhere): “Oh, I’m sorry.  I must have been absent that day in character actor school when they told us that our headshots should always be fifteen years out of date.  I should have gotten the notes from a classmate.”  (At this point the CD just looked at me, and the director turned and left the room by a side door.  I could hear him laughing in the hallway.  The CD just looked at me, so I left.)

3. (a personal favorite!) CD: “Thank you for coming in today.  This is a brand new play, and we’re very pleased to be mounting it.  What role are you reading for?”

Me:  “I’m sure I don’t know.   I was told to prepare a monologue as you didn’t have a character breakdown yet.  You said you would supply script pages if needed.”

CD:  “Well, I can’t give you a script if I don’t know what the part is.”

Me:  “…But I don’t know what the characters are, so I wouldn’t know what to ask for.”

CD:  “Well, we’re writing characters in and out of the show all of the time, so you need to tell us.”

Me (After standing quietly for a few seconds):  “I just think I’ll go outside and try this again later.  Thank you.”  (I was always told to be polite, even to those who are obviously deranged.)

4. CD:  “Wow, thank you.  You gave a phenomenal reading; the best we’ve had today, but I’m sorry; you aren’t what we’re looking for.”

Me:  “I know I shouldn’t ask this, but I would like to know for future reference.  What is it about me that ‘is not right’?  Am I too fat, too short, too tall, or is it the mustache or hair color?  I only ask so that I can better prepare.”

CD:  “No, that’s an excellent question.  You don’t need to change anything.  If we were looking for someone like you, you’d be fine.  However, you just don’t look like anybody.”

Me:  “Pardon?”

CD:  “You don’t look like anybody.”

Me:  “Ah, I look like – me.”

CD:  “Yes, but you’re not somebody else.”

Me (OK, by this time, I was totally confused, and I’m afraid that I said the first thing that came into my mind.):  “Who’s on first?’  (…And with that, I gathered what dignity I had left, performed a rather graceful turn, and sauntered out of the room.)

5. (One last one –  a vocal audition when I was through singing) CD:  “Wow!  Thank you.  That was wonderful.  That’s the way that song should be sung!  That’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Me (…feeling as though I have it this time – he really seemed to mean it.):  “Thank you.”

CD: “Now, if we could just get some other actor to sing it the same way.”

Me:  “…but you just said that I did it extremely well.”

CD:  “Yes, you did, but I wouldn’t hire you.  You don’t have enough credits.”

Me (suddenly feeling like a pinball machine with not enough quarters in it):  “…but if I did it well, why not take a chance with me if it was exactly what you were looking for?”  (Actually, I wanted to ask how many credits I needed, but…)

CD:  “No, it’s too risky.  I’d rather have someone I know who won’t be as good than take a chance on someone I don’t know who may or may not be phenomenal.”  (Looking back, I can applaud his candor, but I still want to throw a chair at him.  He cast a known “friend” in the role.  He was terrible and got the worst reviews I’ve seen in quite a while.  I was too upset to gloat.)

The moral of all of this is: “Leave the ego at the door.”   I have been to many good auditions where I did well, but I knew I was wrong for the role.  They don’t hurt that bad.  It’s the auditions where I know I’m right for the role, and I see someone who is not nearly as good as me get it that hurt.    Just once, I want to look like “someone” or be known or have the correct headshot.  Ah, well…

This is a short posting today. It’s been a while since I have been able to write. Summer school has taken its toll, and I was very happy to find a recording that made the last week bearable.

I have long been a fan of Readers Theatre – I mean true Readers Theatre, not poetry slam or rhapsodic utterances that get lost in an imposed rhythmic pattern alien to the pieces. Readers Theatre, or Oral Interpretation, has its roots in the Dithyramb of ancient Greece – this was the festival to Dionysus, the demigod who was born of Zeus’ thigh, twice. It’s one of those fun stories worth reading. The Romans took Dionysus and turned him into Bacchus, and you know the stories about him, but that is enough of that.

Modern Readers Theatre seemed to originate in the 1940’s, somewhere around 1945. Some credit a Chicago theatre troupe who wanted to do Shakespeare but did not have the cast or money for costumes and sets. Others suggest that it was with the group that called itself Readers Theatre. Inc. who presented a production of Oedipus Rex in New York City. This is immaterial for this posting too, but it makes for good fodder to liven up dull cocktail party conversation. Really, look up the Dithyramb – those Greeks knew how to party!

Readers Theatre is basically taking text that was or was not initially meant for performance and performing it. It embodies all of the various forms of theatre and gives the actors involved the challenge of performing different characters in often split-second shifts. One performer can also portray a variety of characters using off-stage focus and different focal points. It really is a great deal of fun, but first and foremost, there is a respect for the material being performed. It is acted; characters are defined; it is not merely spoken to a strident rhythm in the same manner of the rhapsodes of ancient Greece who traveled the ancient world with their various tales which were augmented by anyone with a few drachmas to spend.

What does any of this have to do with a modern day CD? Not much really, excepting that it’s a wonderful Readers Theatre production of a text written by novelist E.B. White. The piece in question is The Trumpet of the Swan, and it’s wonderful. Marsha Norman of Night Mother fame has voiced this material for a stellar cast that includes John Lithgow, James Naughton, Kathy Bates, Jesse Tyler Fergusen, Mandy Moore, and Martin Short, and the results are simply charming.

The story centers on Louie, a Trumpeter Swan who is born without a voice. Through a series of events, he is befriended by a young boy who teaches him to write on a chalkboard that is hung around his neck, and eventually, his father steals a trumpet from a nearby music store, so Louie gets his “voice.” I don’t know why this story has affected me as it has. It is gentle, positive, and reassuring in some way, and the performances are just wonderful.

Even though Lithgow is excellent as both the boy involved in helping Louie and the narrator (the boy’s older self), I find James Naughton’s commitment to the role of the father to be the most endearing. The scene in which he steals the trumpet along with the voicing of his self-recriminations for a lack of morality still make me laugh on the fifth hearing.

It’s a wonderful example of what Readers Theatre should be. This was a text that was written to be read, but Norman’s care in scripting it leaves the listener with a sense of joy that is sadly missing in today’s world.

This is all beautifully scored by Jason Robert Brown with some wonderful trumpet work by Christopher Michael Venditti. Peter and the Wolf has long been a favorite of children, but that obnoxious brat and the stupid duck are no match for the lessons being taught in this piece that contains the moral of “Be true to your dream, and you can overcome any obstacle.” I defy anyone not to smile when they listen to this recording.

This took me back to my years in college and the many performances of Readers Theatre I was in under the direction of my dear friend Dr. Annette Mazzaferri whom I miss very much. This is so beautifully simple and effective that it reminded me of how unnecessary it is to have million dollar sets and over-the-top costumes. They are not needed as long as the source material is superb, the adaptation intelligent and moving, and the performances sublime. This is a CD that will be played many times in my home. I need the reinforcement that good can happen; I teach English composition.