Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cirque Du Soleil Presents "Alegria" June 9-12 at KFC YUM! Center

Alegria is described by its presenter as a baroque ode to the energy, grace and power of youth. Since its 1994 premiere the classic show has entertained more than 10 million people worldwide. The man charged with maintaining Alegria's artistic integrity is Artistic Director Tim Smith who draws on a deep pool of experience gained during his career on Broadway where he was part of six original companies: Grease, Annie Get Your Gun, Dream, Aida, Sweet Charity, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. 

Fire-Knife Dance
For this interview I spoke with Mr. Smith via telephone. I will bring you an on-camera interview from the KFC YUM! Center on June 9. The 55-member company of Alegria will give 7 performances before it closes on June 12.
 Scott: Is this a transition in your career, or a continuation along the same path?

Tim: This is a whole new Chapter for me. I spent fifteen years on Broadway and for my next step I was looking for a company that dealt with similar budgets and production values.

Scott: How is the world of Cirque different than Broadway?

Tim: The biggest difference and the part I like the most is Cirque's mandate as a company is creation. On Broadway once it's opening night and the show is made, it freezes. If you see Phantom of the Opera now  you will see the exact same show you would have seen fifteen years ago. Cirque Du Soleil's mandate on the other hand means we constantly challenge the show. Our show (Alegria) was created 16 years ago and it constantly moves and changes to motivate the artists to try new skills. New images and new acts enter the show daily to keep the show fresh. Obviously the concept is the same; the visual is the same, but the energy behind every move is new. I find that amazing having been with shows that have had long runs.

Tim: It varies. Longevity is a testament to Cirque's management. Most employees stay six to ten years or longer.

Scott: Do they move from show to show within the Cirque Du Soleil family?

Synchronized Trapeze

Scott: The physical demands on these artists must be tremendous. About how long will the average performer stay with a Cirque show?

Tim: Sometimes. We have artists who have been doing their act in Alegria for ten years. We also have artists who have been with Cirque that long but have come in from other shows.

Scott: Describe your responsibility to the show.

Tim: My desk sits in the middle of everything. By definition I am the director of the show; I motivate the show, keep the quality of the show up to the standard audiences expect of a Cirque Du Soleil productions. I have 55 artists from 17 different countries that work in 11 different languages, so that environment is rather unique for a director/manager. The technical aspects of the show are huge. Not only are there safety concerns, but every act is supported by a huge technical staff that I work closely with. Then I am a direct length with the home office in Montreal. Because this is a 16 year old jewel and a signature piece I am in charge of keeping Alegria special and beautiful.

Scott: How long have you been the Artistic Director of Alegria?

Tim: A year-and-a-half.

Scott: Let's talk about some of the show.

Tim: I'll start with the general concept of Alegria: alegria is a spanish word that means joy, happiness and jubilation. It sets up the collaboration/struggle between generations. The characters of the Old Birds that you see in our show represent the old establishment, old money, the old generation. Then we move into characters that signify the fearlessness of youth and the angels that are seen throughout the show and the Russian Bar, which signify the innocence of youth. From the generation to generation the old generation has to pass the baton off to the new in order for their voice to be heard and to let the world move forward. That's the concept behind Alegria.

Scott: Tell me about the character Fleur.

Tim: In the world of Alegria the king has gone missing. Fleur was his major domo and he is in a struggle for power and leadership. He is a character from the past struggling for his own place now that the king and his leadership have vanished.

Scott: How does Tamir figure in the story?

Tim: Tamir is a prince. He is an ethereal character who is kind. What's great about Cirque is that all of these themes that have inspired the creators are so avant garde and widely painted in the show that it allows the audience to come up with their own story. I love that. It's so different from theatre. With Alegria we might sit next to each other and come away with two completely different stories. That is exactly what the creators have encouraged.

Scott: The music is always a big part of a Cirque show and in Alegria you have the White Singer and the Black Singer.

Tim: Yes, it's a Yin and Yang feeling. I find the score to be the star of the show that motivates all of the acts and drives the production. It's the highest-selling recording of any Cirque Du Soleil show to-date, so that gives you some idea of just how special it is.

Scott: Twenty-five years ago the founders of Cirque Du Soleil did something that many people say is impossible: they created something new. The shows in the Cirque brand are so unique, how do they begin?

Tim: This company is exciting because they're the only people doing what they're doing. It's a complete success story for that reason. The three founders have created a company that develops a new show each year. It starts with a Director of Creation and an idea passed down from creators within the company. The Director of Creation convenes the creative team (director, choreographer, composer, etc.); the Director of Creation is very important because the shows are completely unique. A director from the outside could not come in and put together a Cirque show. There are too many elements: acrobatic, structural, equipment, costume, etc. and we've learned so much in the past 25 years.

Scott: Broadway will often create multiple casts for a show that tour the country simultaneously. Is there more than on Alegria?

Tim: I love this part about company. There are 21 different productions traveling the world right now and all of them are different, and there is only one of each.

Scott: How long does it take you to move this show to a different city?

Tim: It's a large production that will come to Louisville in 18 semi tractor trailers. We will set up in the KFC YUM! Center in 12--18 hours and we will break down Sunday evening in about 3 hours. We will hire about a hundred Louisvillians to help us.

Show times for Alegria are:
Thursday, June 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, June 10 at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 11 at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, June 12 at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.

Tickets prices range from $28 to $79 and may be purchased at www.cirquedusoleil.com/alegria.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

 Sarah Peak as Teen FionaHaven Burton as Fiona and Scarlett Diaz as Young Fiona 
in the PNC Broadway Across America presentation of Shrek, June 7--12, 2011 
Whitney Hall, Kentucky Center for the Arts
502.584.7777, www.KentuckyCenter.org
 Photo credit: Joan Marcus

The national tour of the musical Shrek comes to the Kentucky Center for the Arts in June as part of the PNC Broadway Across America series. Among those flocking to Whitney Hall will be friends and family of Sarah Peak, a 2002 graduate of South Oldham high school. I spoke with her by phone recently as she lounged by the pool in Orlando, Florida.

Sarah: There is one song in the show during which Princess Fiona kind of grows up. In that song Fiona appears as a young child, a teenager and as an adult.

Scott: But you play other roles as well.

Sarah: I'm in the ensemble and everyone in the ensemble plays several roles: I'm Teen Fiona, and I'm the Ugly Duckling in the Fairy Tale Creature scenes. So during that part of the show I'm in gigantic orange flippers and have big tail feathers to shake. There are also a few big production numbers that include tap dancing rats and plastic dolls and I'm in there too.

Scott: When did you join the cast?

Sarah: We started rehearsals last May so we just had our one-year anniversary. I didn't do the Broadway production, but I've been with the national tour from the beginning.

Scott: What year did you graduate from South Oldham?

Sarah: I graduated high school in 2002 and went to Northern Kentucky University to earn a bachelor of fine arts in musical theatre. I had a fantastic college experience; I was in all sorts of productions with really great teachers. It was also great that it was so close to home. Any time I was in a show my family could drive up to see me, but I was still on my own and having he whole college experience.

Scott: How long ago did you move to New York City?

Sarah: Not long after graduation, October 2006.

Scott: Did you know anybody in New York?

Sarah: A couple of people I knew from college had already moved, or were in the process of moving there. I was really fortunate that one of my girlfriends was already living in New York and had an extra room in her apartment. That made the transition really easy for me.

Scott: It's amazing that she even had two rooms in her apartment.

Sarah: I know, right? We weren't even in bunk beds.

Scott: You have been on the road for the last year. What did you do, put everything in storage?

Sarah: I still have an apartment in New York that I was able to sublet. There is a nice actors community and people to take over your rent while you're on the road working.

Scott: What has the past year been like for you?

Sarah: Well, we fly from city to city so I've been living out of two suitcases. You definitely learn not to be a pack rat. I don't hang on to anything. But, I'm having a great time: this week I've been able to go to Disney World and last week I had a couple of days at the beach. I like to take advantage of whatever city I'm in and see what they have to offer.

Scott: What will you do while you're home?

Sarah: I'll get a break from hotels, which is cool. I'll stay with my parents and I can't wait to perform at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. I have family and friends coming through the week so I'm sure I'll be insanely nervous every night. I never get nervous in other cities, but I'm anticipating them in Louisville.

Scott: Are your parents involved in the arts locally?

Sarah: My dad was always a singer and plays the guitar. He has always loved music, but I have four sisters and I think we got into it because my parents put us all in dance class when we were little. We all took to it and have danced ever since. That was our introduction to the performing arts, but I took it a little further with the singing and acting.

Scott: Do any of your sisters still perform?

Sarah: One of my sisters just graduated from Western Kentucky University and she is dancing in Italy right now. My oldest sister is a choreographer and teaches dance at a studio in Louisville. Dance is still a part of our lives; I'm glad there was a little studio up the road because I think that's the only reason we signed up in the first place. 

Scott: You have been in other shows, but have you done any in New York as yet?

Sarah: I haven't gotten to be on Broadway yet. But, I have done some regional theatre in upstate New York. I did Gypsy at Westchester Broadway Theatre and I was in the first national tour of The Wedding Singer. But Shrek is definitely my biggest job so far. 

Scott: How long will you stay with the show?

Sarah: Our tour goes through July 31, so we actually don't have too much longer. 

Scott: What will you do in August?

Sarah: It's back to the city and back to auditions. Hoping something else will come my way. 

Scott: Is that process as grueling as it's portrayed?

Sarah: Yes. It really is. You have to have thick skin and a side job.

Scott: What do you do when you're not acting?

Sarah: The stereotypical stuff. My side job was being a nanny. I would babysit and go to as many auditions as I could get myself to. The problem isn't that the auditions are particularly difficult, it's just that there are so many people there. I think the most important piece of advice I would give someone is to be persistent and wait it out. But, if you put the time in I think you can get some good jobs. 

Scott: Do you think the audition sometimes turns on something other than talent?

Sarah: Like anywhere else connections help. The more you work the more people get to know you.

Scott: But, I mean sometimes you can just be too tall or too short.

Sarah: I'm just about five feet tall which really hurts me in some shows, but they needed a short person for my part in Shrek

Scott: Do you have an agent helping you?

Sarah: I've been networking during this tour and I'm hoping to have one when I move back to the city. It's not the "only" way to go, but I think it makes things a little easier because it can help get you in the door. 

Scott: How many people are in Shrek?

Sarah: There are 25 cast members. But, that includes five off-stage swings; they know all the ensemble parts to that if somebody is sick, on vacation, or gets hurt in the middle of the show they can literally step right in to it. It's pretty amazing to tell you the truth.

Scott: Do many people get injured in this show?

Sarah: There is a lot of dancing and, since it's a cartoon brought to the stage, the costumes are huge and incredible. Knock-on-wood we haven't had any bad injuries. But, we've had a couple of twisted ankles. I've gotten through okay thank goodness. When you're on the road you get sick a lot. Through the winter I think we were passing flu back and forth. We are really fortunate to have those talented swings.

Scott: What will you do as soon as the tour is over? Will you take a vacation before you head back into the fray?

Sarah: The day after we close I'm going to Florida to vacation with my family. Then, I have about a month off and I'm getting married.

Scott: Congratulations!

Sarah: Thank you. Yes, I'm getting married in Louisville. After the wedding we'll go on a honeymoon and then back to New York.

Scott: Is your fiance an actor?

Sarah: Yes.

Scott: Did you meet him in the show?

Sarah: I met him in my first tour, The Wedding Singer.

Scott: That's appropriate.

Sarah: I know, it's really ironic. He's on the tour of 9 to 5 right now. Our shows close on the exact same day so we get to go to Florida and get married and head back the City together.

Scott: What is that like, being on different tours?

Sarah: Both of tours have had a couple of layoffs here and there, so we've been very lucky in getting to visit each other. We take turns traveling to see each other. It's a tricky schedule, but it's exciting because we always have a new place to go on a date because we're always in a different city. But, we are looking forward to being together in New York for a little bit. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Do See "Zanna Don't." See?

"If musical theatre won't take on the important social and political questions of our day, then who will?" This question is indicative of the world created by Tim Acito to tell the story of Zanna and his friends. At Heartville High, and the world it inhabits, everyone is homosexual; from five-star generals to baristas. What may surprise some audience members who are not members of the GLBTQ community is how few things that actually changes. Because this story is told as a fairytale, Acito has introduced an element of magic into the storyline. Those elements aside the world goes on pretty much as you would expect. Regretfully prejudice and bigotry are alive and well: it is only the foci of fear and derision that change. The author underscores his point with a sophisticated twist ending, that may surprise you too.

Opening night performances are often long on adrenaline and short on preparation. While I saw plenty of the former the latter was not in evidence. Director Michael Drury and his cast have been rehearsing this show hard for weeks and their efforts are all on stage. Sure, some of the performances will be more fully realized when you see it; that is one of the many great things about live theatre. But, all the building blocks of a successful run were there on opening night.

One of the strengths of the play is Acito's broad musical capabilities that run from standard Broadway recitative to a Country-flavored patter song, to a moving and insightful quartet in the second act that briefly allows the underlying pathos of the story to surface. 

The producer's choice to add a live band to the production broadened the experience. Led by music director John Spencer on keyboard, the four-piece ensemble was flawless in its performance. Congratulations also to choreographer Frank Goodloe and costume designer Donna Lawrence-Downs for their light touches in adding elements that contributed to the storytelling without overwhelming it.

As Zanna Robbie Lewis's pantomime is exceptional and gives life to two props that become, in his hands, full characters. I may go back for the final performance to see how he has grown and refined the character. 

If there is a standout performance within this tight ensemble, however, it has to be Jill Sullivan's Roberta. Her commitment and fearlessness in delivering the sensuality of her character elevates the entire production. Keep an eye on Patrick Brophy too. His character Arvin has only a few moments in the spotlight but watch what he's doing in the shadows.

Cover from the Off-Broadway cast recording.
Pandora Productions show runs through May 29
Bingham Theatre @ ATL
For tickets and more info: 502.216.5502

Pandora Productions's final show of the season is The New Century. Already in rehearsal the show runs June 16--26, 2011. The 2011/2012 season opens in September with Terrence McNally's a Man of No Importance. You will find more information about these shows and the upcoming season at www.PandoraProds.org. To get behind the scenes interviews and a deeper look at the works check in at www.Arts-Louisville.com.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: The Howlin' Wolf Story

Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf

Blue Sea Productions' The Howlin' Wolf Story is a tribute to Blues great Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf. Burnett was a massive industry presence and no less impressive in person.

The Kentucky Center's presentation of the film last night is part of programming director Dan Forte's Rock Docs series in the Kentucky Show! Theatre, and his desire to bring more cinema to the facility.

For the Howlin' Wolf Story producer Joe Lauro has gathered an impressive collection of candid recording session films, kinescope footage and some amazing stills. To these he adds contemporary interviews with musicians like Son House, Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim, and post mortems with his biological children, Barbara Marks and Bettye Kelly.

Revelation is not the first goal of the Howlin' Wolf Story; but the interview with Burnett's mentee Hubert Sumlin provides some insights into the man behind the persona. On stage Howlin' Wolf lived up to his name, throwing his massive 6'6 frame around the stage, eyes bulging, limbs flailing, appearing so caught up in the music that he wanted to devour it. Off stage Burnett was a tough, thoughtful, savvy businessman who put together the incredible sum of $4,000 to finance his 1953 move from West Memphis, Arkansas to Chicago, where he became one of the deans of the electric blues scene.

I didn't learn much from The Howlin' Wolf Story, but watching him perform some of his best sides has inspired me once again to pull out those old records and dust off the turntable.

The Kentucky Center's series continues May 25 with Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart, a 97-minute film that documents his journeys in Africa as he searches for the origins of the banjo. Tickets are only $7 for the 7:30 show and may be purchased by calling 502.584.7777 or online at www.kentuckycenter.org.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: LePetomane Theatre Company's "Twelfth Night"

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was built (literally) from the bones of the first building known to have been constructed for the sole purpose of performing plays. That building, constructed by James Burbage and his brother-in-lay, was called The Theatre; the term "theatre" relating to the trestle-built stages erected in the courtyards of English inns where plays were performed by vagabond actors.

Commedia dell'Arte
Stock Characters
The construction of a permanent stage allowed Shakespeare and his contemporaries to create more complex productions filled with all the latest technologies of the day. Technological innovations such as trap doors and a rudimentary "fly" system that moved actors and scenery quickly on and off the stage. The actors themselves, one expects, brought with them to this new venue all the traditions of the traveling player going back through the stock characterizations of Commedie dell'Arte to the Zanies of the Roman theatre.

These are the traditions carried forward by Gregory Maupin and the members of LePetomane Theatre Company in their marvelous production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which opened last night at the Rudyard Kipling (422 W. Oak St.). The production runs through May 22 (see the calendar at Arts-Louisville.com for dates and times).

With the luxury of a resident company supported at various times by the Lord Chamberlain, King James I and Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare wrote at least 15 necessary characters into Twelfth Night. This presents a challenge for modern professional companies like Le Petomane, few of which have the resources to mount a production of these proportions. The solutions employed by the troupe of six are among the many reasons you should not miss this production. Using a set of thirteen masks manufactured by the multi-talented Gregory Maupin, and a series of stuffed animals, slippers and a steamer trunk, the players create the play in real time, almost as though they were making it up on the spot.

According to the program this production was directed and designed in ensemble. This is surprising only in that the point of presented is so cohesive that it suggests a single point of view. Like singers each member of the ensemble brings their own unique voice that, when blended in perfect pitch, creates a series of over and undertones that amplifies the individual notes. The whole is a rare and beautiful performance that I urge you not to miss.

Highlights of the evening are too numerous to list here, but look for outstanding performances throughout. Gregory Maupin's Feste/Fabian provides a musical through note that centers the production; Kyle Ware's lovesick Orsinio contrasted with the self love of his Malvolio are nothing short of brilliant; As the protaganist Viola and her brother Sebastian Abagail Bailey Maupin's characterizations are beautifully subtle giving heart to what could have become broad comedy; Kristie Rolape who plays both the haughty and manipulative beauty Olivia and the buffoon Sir Andrew Aguecheek is nothing short of amazing; the same can be said of Heather Burns who gives us the saucy lady-in-waiting Maria and the complex pirate Antonio. Tony Dingman's portrayal of the drunken reprobate Sir Toby Belch and numerous secondary characters who take the stage as bears, moose, and pigs are hilarious.

Finally, another well-deserved thank you to Ken Pyle who has enhanced this community over and over again through his encouragement of small theatre companies, bands, jugglers and whatnots over the years. Be sure to lift a glass or have a meal while you're there to enjoy Le Petomane.