Encores Off-Center Brings Vonnegut Novel to Life

by Anne E. Johnson

There probably weren’t many of us in the audience at City Center for the Encores Off-Center production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater who had read the Kurt Vonnegut novel on which the musical was based. I’d read it three times. I got hooked on Vonnegut by a forward-thinking high school English teacher, so by college I was seeking out the more obscure books. Decades later, Rosewater remains my favorite of his works.Rosewater

Given that the music was by Alan Menken and the lyrics by Howard Ashman, I expected a saccharin, Disney-esque treatment of the material. Not so! The ruthless criticism of the status quo and power structures; the baffled wonderment at life’s purpose; the deep-seated love of all humanity despite its considerable foibles — these trademarks of Vonnegut’s worldview, present in all his writing, were offered in the music, lyrics, lively direction and spirited performances.

And, a fun surprise: we all knew James Earl Jones’ recorded voice would be used for narration, but in the last scene Jones actually came onstage to play the role of the wise science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout (who is mentioned in most of Vonnegut’s novels and clearly represents Vonnegut himself).

2014-15 Off-Broadway season. Such a smorgasbord!

I wish I had the time and money to be a season subscriber to every single Off-Broadway company this year, plus a few Off-Off Broadway troupes.

One can’t eat every single dessert at the buffet, but one can have a lot of fun filling up one’s plate. Here are just a few of the tasty treats on offer. Click through and support some terrific New York theatre!

Signature Theater. You had me at “A new play by Athol Fugard.” Plus, I love the cafe and live music at the Pershing Center.

Vineyard Theatre. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play Gloria is about editorial assistants. Let’s just say, I can relate.

Playwright’s Horizons. One of my favorite things about Playwright’s is how they beta-test new musicals (Ever heard of a little show called Sunday in the Park with George?). This year’s is called Iowa, and it’s by Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond.

Pearl Theater Company. Their new season includes Moliere’s Don Juan, directed by Hal Brooks. French farce? Yes, please!

Classic Stage Company. I’m especially excited for Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus, the inspiration for Goethe’s massively influential Faust plays.

Don’t see that perfect gateau? Click here for a list of more NYC Off-Broadway companies.

Summer is Musical Theatre Festival season in NYC!

Worried that you’ll die from withdrawal before the new Broadway season gets rolling? Don’t want to slog out to  Williamstown, but you really need to see a musical, like, now? We got ya covered:

 

WEST VILLAGE MUSICAL THEATRE FESTIVAL

 

This festival is for short, stand-alone musicals and “snapshots” of larger works.

Thirty, count ’em, thirty little musicals that could (and can and will!) are being presented in five series of six shows, June 19-29, 2014 at the Player’s Theatre.

claudia schmidt

FINAL APPROACH composer Claudia Schmidt

Promising highlights:

Final Approach: The Amelia Earhart Musical, offering a surprising new look at the life and motivations of the famous flyer. Written by Laura McLachlan with music by Claudia Schmidt.

Save the Robots, a sci-fi rock musical based on Karel Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R., which introduced the word “robot” into science fiction. Written by Erica Ether, with music by Robert Susman and Clark Render.

A Jury Line, or Twelve Potentially Angry Men, a satire about jury duty, riffing on A Chorus Line. Written by Gil Varod with music by Scott Stein.

NEW YORK MUSICAL THEATRE FESTIVAL

Big Mama of musical theatre festivals. Running July 7-27, 2014. Twenty-five full-length musicals in various venues.

Promising highlights:

Valueville, a musical that takes place in a giant superstore. As do many American lives. Written and composed by Rowen Casey.

The Snow Queen, an updated musical version of the Hans Christian Anderson classic fairy tale. This show is particularly notable for offering an autism-friendly performance. Written and composed by Kristen Brandt, Rick Lombardo, and Haddon Kime.

alexis fishman

DER GELBE STERN writer and performer, Alexis Fishman

Der Gelbe Stern (The Yellow Star), a musical about the excesses and glamour of the cabaret scene in Weimar-era Berlin. Written by James Millar and Alexis Fishman, who also stars. Music by composers of the era.

 

 

Playwright chat: THE BARDY BUNCH, #BradyBunch #PartridgeFamily #Shakespeare mashup #musical #comedy #OffBway

In 2011 I saw a remarkable work at the New York Fringe Festival. The Bardy Bunch is an ingenious “musical situation comedy of errors,” in which characters from The Brady Bunch are pitted against those from The Partridge Family in a feud inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Oh, and with songs from the old TV shows, no less. What’s not to adore?

Well, some producers did adore it, and now the show is about to start a limited run off-Broadway at the Theatre at St. Clemens. For heaven’s sake, don’t miss it. And while you wait, here’s an interview I did with Stephen Garvey, who masterminded and wrote The Bardy Bunch:

BUSKER ALLEY: How dare you taint the hallowed relics of good old American television with the hoity-toity perfumes of Shakespeare? Defend yourself!

STEPHEN GARVEY: We were very concerned about how Brady and Partridge purists would feel about our sullying the dialogue from those classic sitcoms with all that Shakespeare tripe, but as it turns out, the Bard and these shows go great together…like pork chops and applesauce!

BA: Indeed, in his day Shakespeare was never seen as elitist, but as a storyteller everyone could enjoy after a long day at work, very much like a sitcom.

Is The Bardy Bunch a one-off, or can you envision any other mash-up of TV (or Hollywood) with theatrical or literary masterworks?

SG: Without giving away secrets, Director Jay Stern and I are working on another mash-up. All I’m at liberty to say is it focuses on a different decade AND the music will be original. The Bardy Bunch taught us many lessons about licensing the performing rights to other people’s songs!

BA: Oh, that’s an enticing tease!

Now, to the academic portion of this chat: Besides Romeo & Juliet, what other Shakespearean allusions should we watch for in The Bardy Bunch? And was that the plan from the start, or did elements of other plays creep in as you wrote?

SG: From the very start, the idea was to assign a different Shakespearean character and story arc to each Brady and Partridge. Romeo and Juliet takes front and center, but there are over a dozen Shakespearean plotlines sprinkled throughout The Bardy Bunch, from Macbeth to Much Ado About Nothing to Othello to Hamlet to As You Like It... There’s even a sonnet reference!

BA: Clearly, I’d better dig up my Shakespearean Cliff’s Notes Omnibus before I see your show again.

The Bard is timeless and universally respected, but I dare say visiting aliens would have trouble believing The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family were important elements of our culture. In your opinion, what explains the enduring appeal of these shows?

SG: The lasting power of these shows is truly amazing. I think for people in their late-thirties, forties and fifties, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family represent childhood…coming home from school, making a Fluffernutter, and kicking back to these sitcoms, which in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were on ALL THE TIME.  But the appeal goes beyond that demo. Most of our cast is in their twenties and they love the shows, too, and so does my seven-year-old daughter. I just think there’s a very loving spirit to both

Angry Bradys programs that’s very easy to glide into, like a cozy pair of slippers…or a bathrobe. Those families really loved their bathrobes. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden urge for a Fluffernutter.

BA: And now I want one, too. Thanks, Stephen Garvey, and much success with The Bardy Bunch.

~ ~

 

 

Click here for Bardy Bunch tickets and showtimes.