Category: Arts

On being a paper boy in the 50s

On being a paper boy in the 50s

skyscraper

In Columbus, at the corner of North High and W.N. Broadway there was an Isaly’s store in the 1950s. This popular dairy store served their famous Skyscraper cones, sundaes, sodas, shakes and sold cheeses and cold cuts, included their famous Chipped Chopped Ham. Since Isaly’s was right next to the Clinton Theater, they did a good business after every show. I gave them my business for another reason.

If you walked west on W.N. Broadway about half a block, you would come to an alley, and just up the alley on the left was a small frame building painted dark green. It was maybe 10’ x 16’ in size and locked with a padlock much of the day. But around 3pm, the Station Manager opened the building so you could see shelves running down each side and a counter in the rear. This is where I and other paper boys (there were soon some paper girls, too although not at that particular substation) picked up our papers every afternoon.

Columbus, in the mid-1950s was a city of about 380,000 (Greater Columbus was probably half a million) and had three newspapers: the Columbus Dispatch, the Columbus Citizen and the Ohio State Journal. The Dispatch and Citizen were evening papers and the Journal a morning paper. Each of these were at that time independently owned, with the Columbus Dispatch, the largest in circulation and advertising being held by the powerful (and somewhat secretive) Wolfe family.

The Columbus Citizen was part of the Scripps-Howard media empire, and the Journal was held over the years by a number of owners.

Politically, Ohio was definitively a Republican state and the Dispatch was clearly a rock-ribbed Republican newspaper. Ohio went for Eisenhower in the 50s and for Nixon over Kennedy in 1960. Only a few counties around Cleveland went for Kennedy. However, by 1964 most of Ohio went for Johnson over Goldwater. But after that, Ohio has remained Republican most of the time until Obama, although considered a “swing state” by some currently.

347walhallacolorI lived at the end of East Longview in Columbus, but our modest 3 bedroom 1-bath house faced the Walhalla ravine and had a Walhalla address. From there I could easily bike to Clinton Elementary School, just a few blocks away, and later to Crestview Junior High when I entered seventh grade. It was about that time that I became a paper carrier. I think that the paper sent notices to the classes of rising seventh graders inviting them to apply for paper carrier jobs, and I applied.

In any case, soon after I started Junior High in the fall of 1954, I began my paper route. I would bike home, leave my schoolbooks and grab my paper bags and bike down to the substation behind Isaly’s. Many days I beat the truck that left the papers off at the substation. We’d all be sitting around on the shelves waiting until some sharp eyed boy spotted the truck and called out “Papers!” We’d all grab the bundles out of the truck and bring them into the station, where the young station manager, Jim Lawson, would count them into groups and hand them out to each of us, more or less in the order we had arrived.

rolledpapers

While we could go off right away to deliver the papers, many of us stayed to fold the papers to make them easier to throw onto a customer’s porches. We could use rubber bands, but most of us learned how to fold newspapers quickly   by tucking the folded section into the opening on the spine side of the paper. A quick twist and these papers were very stable for throwing without messing with rubber bands. It became a point of pride among the carriers to be able to fold your entire route’s papers in a couple of minutes before setting out. I only used rubber bands to secure the Sunday papers, which were a bit larger.

I did stop off at Isaly’s from time to time, and in June they had a  Dairy Month special: half price ice cream sodas! They cost 12 cents! I usually had more than one that month.

My paper route

elakeview2

My first paper route on East Lakeview Ave was a relatively small one with only 34 subscribers. The street looks much the same today. The Citizen (and the Dispatch for that matter) cost 5¢ a copy daily and 15 cents on Sunday. Of that, we got, I think a little over 2 cents a paper, and probably a bit more for the Sunday paper. (I later learned that Dispatch carriers were paid a bit more, closer to 3 cents a paper.)

I folded all the papers, put them in my saddle bags and set off about 4 blocks south to Lakeview. Usually, I put some folded papers in my shoulder bag and walked up one side of the street and back down the other delivering papers.  Most houses in this era had covered wooden porches, and if I could toss the paper on the porch, it was pretty safe from the elements. Some customers had specified “In the door,” ot “In box” and we had to walk up and deliver these in person.

Then I rode my bike up to the next block and repeated the process. The last part of Lakeview made a left turn and ran along the Walhalla ravine. These houses were below street level and a bit harder to get to. Sometimes this engendered small tips, but that was pretty rare.

Sometimes there were mishaps: you got a paper wet or accidentally tossed it into the bushes. But since I added my parents’ house to my route, I always had an extra. In one particularly wild mishap, a wild throw left a paper on the customer’s porch roof. Fortunately, that was Jim Lawson’s parents’ house, and  we had a good laugh over it.

Delivering papers was pretty quick once you got the hang of it, but Sunday papers were a bit more of an effort. The papers were heavier and hard to manage, and most carriers, including me, talked their parents into driving them on Sundays. You picked up the papers, I think, between 6 and 7am and were expected to have them all delivered before 8am. And yes, on Sunday, I used rubber bands.

Collecting

Collecting from customers was one of the bigger pieces of drudgery in what at first seemed like a halcyon experience. Carriers were given half-size 3 ring notebooks with a page for each subscriber, and it was up to you to collect weekly and keep records of whether they had. Generally, we collected Thursday evening after dinner, when people would be home. Daily subscribers paid 30 cents a week, daily and Sunday paid 45 cents, and those who ordered magazine subscriptions through the Citizen paid an additional 15 cent a week. So, you collected 30, 45 or 60 cents per subscriber per week.

changerThis took some time but wasn’t too hard. There were almost always a few you had to go back to because they didn’t seem to be home or didn’t want to answer the door, or didn’t have change.  I  had one of those belt change dispensers loaded with nickels, dimes and quarters. This is the same sort of changer that came up in the testimony of Anthony Ulasiewicz, one of Nixon’s White House Plumbers, who testified that he carried a changer to make all those phone calls from pay phones.

The second year, the Citizen came up with subscriber pages with little postage stamp sized tear-off tabs to give the subscribers as receipts. While this might have seemed like a good idea to someone, that meant there was little space to write notes about subscriber requests, and they weren’t all that sturdy.

Paying your bill

Every Saturday morning, a bunch of bleary eyed paper boys, carrying little canvas bags of money showed up at the substation to pay their paper bills. They didn’t want change or checks, so you had to have your parents launder the checks and If you had a bunch of coins, you eventually had to take them to the bank.

My bills that first year were around $11.50, meaning that I got to keep around $3 a week. Not really a big haul, but this was worth a bit more in the 1950s than it is now.

After about a year I got the chance to switch to a larger route on Clinton Heights, with about 56 subscribers. This took longer to deliver, but I made almost twice as much money, about $6 as week. And the route ended up only a block from our house. Clinton Heights had some larger houses, especially at the top of the street, but most wealthier people preferred the Dispatch.

Snow

Looking back at my childhood in Columbus, I tend to think of the smell of new-mown grass, fresh morning dew and hot summer days. But Columbus did have winters, and sometimes significant snowfalls. I don’t recall exactly all we did, but  I do remember pushing my balloon tire bike through the snow as it carried the papers for me. I also remember that that little green carrier’s substation had a stove in it, and on cold afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings, Lawson would build a fire in that metal stove, vented through the roof. And that heat was really welcome.

Canvassing

One truly unwelcome feature of being paper carrier was the Citizen’s insistence on our canvassing for new subscribers. One night every month or so, we’d meet at the station about 6pm and jump into cars provided by Lawson and our district manager. They’d take us to unfamiliar neighborhoods and give us a pep talk about the wonderful trips we could win if we sold enough subscriptions (and magazines). The Dispatch did not require its carriers to canvas. But according to my friend Jeff Luce, who carried the Dispatch at the same time, they were required to sell accident insurance policies to their subscribers.

Some of the boys on these canvases came up with amusing, fictional trips instead such as rides on the Goodyear Blimp and alligator rides. Sometimes we went in pairs, egging each other on to enhance the fictions we were spinning. Sometimes, the customers found it entertaining enough to order a subscription.

Other times we were turned away because the Citizen was a “damned Democrat” newspaper. It certainly wasn’t as Republican as the Dispatch (in local argot pronounced DIS-patch) and it seemed more centrist to me. However, since Scripps Howard’s syndicate was wide ranging, some of the stories were probably less parochial. Later when I was back in Columbus for graduate school, I did compare the papers with a better eye to their politics, and as this was during the Vietnam war era, the differences were fairly plain. The Dispatch was far less forgiving in any stories about war protests and the Citizen much more neutral. Few of the nationally known liberal columnists appeared in either paper.

Selling Extras

In those simpler days, newspapers still sold extras on the street when a major story broke mid-day. I was called out of classes at Crestview to sell extras twice. The major one was the conviction on December 21, 1954 of neurosurgeon Dr Sam Sheppard in the murder of his wife Marilyn. I was given a bag of papers and a spot on North High street where I was to hawk the extras. I think I may have sold 6 or 7.

Sheppard was exonerated in a second trial and released from prison in 1966. The judge blamed the media circus atmosphere for influencing the jurors in the first trial. Columbus papers had stories nearly every day about “Dr Sam” and his sensational trial,  but the Cleveland papers practically tried and convicted Sheppard in their articles. The television series The Fugitive seemed to be loosely based on Sheppard’s case, but this was always denied by its creators.

Carrier Awards

I did win one trip to Washington, DC with the newsboys when I was about 12, selling subscriptions. It was a really successful trip and we had a great time. We saw the usual sights: the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and yes, I and most us did climb all 800-some steps to the top of the monument. We also saw Monticello, Arlington Cemetery, and I think, part of the Smithsonian.

I was selected a Carrier of the Year my last year in the job and took a bus down to the Citizen office and have my picture taken along with a handful of other lucky carriers. We got our pictures in the paper and a snow globe with a gold paper carrier in it, that sadly I seem to have lost some time since. In my 2-1/2 years as a paper boy, I had only one “missed” delivery, so I had a pretty good record, but it probably didn’t help me much with my college applications.

Time to Go

Partway through 9th grade at Crestview Jr High, I realized that it was time to leave the paper business as North High School was approaching, and it would make more demands on my time. So, I submitted my resignation. And, in the place for a reason, my wise-guy parents suggested I put down a biblical reference: I Corinthians 13:11.  The quote is:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Sex

Like Peyton Place, no story would be complete without some sex. You would probably like to read about some flamboyant affair with a customer or wife or something, But I was 14 then and that never happened. The best story I can tell you is the Susie Scott lived on Clinton Heights and I saw her once or twice and took her out at least once. That was to go to a Teen Dance Party TV broadcast one Saturday afternoon. And yes, we did dance, so I can say this was my (our) TV debut as dancers: an event never repeated.

Epilog

isalys-logoThe Isaly family retired in the 1960s and many of the beloved stores closed with them. The delicious Klondike Bars remain, now made by Unilever. Most of the Ohio Stores closed by the 1990s, and one or two remained longer in the Pittsburgh area.

The little green substation is gone now, and that space looks to be a parking lot. Isaly’s seems to have been replaced by a Kroger and, sadly, the elegant Clinton Theater, where I saw lots of kid’s matinees has been torn down. Right now, there is just a patch of grass there.

clintontheater

In 1959, Scripps Howard merged the Ohio State Journal with the Columbus Citizen and the Citizen-Journal was published as a morning paper under a Joint Operating Agreement with the Columbus Dispatch, using the same press facilities, and some of the same back office staff. This was possible because of a recent law that was intended to save struggling papers, and did for a while. But in 1985, recognizing that evening papers were passé, the Dispatch terminated the operating agreement and the Citizen-Journal, lacking a buyer, closed. The Dispatch became the morning paper the next day.

journalimage

By the third generation, the children of the powerful Wolfe family were less interested in running the family businesses. In addition, the newspaper publishing business was no longer all that profitable and in 2015, the family sold the Columbus Dispatch to Gatehouse Media.  In 2016, the new Dispatch owners endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, although Ohio went for Trump. This was only the second time the Dispatch had endorsed a Democrat. Their other endorsement was of Woodrow Wilson.

The family patriarch John F Wolfe died in June, 2016, and The Wigwam, the Wolfe family’s hunting lodge and retreat was sold to Violet Township in 2018 by the Wolfe family at a substantial discount from its valuation, bringing to an end some of the power of the Wolfe clan. They still owned broadcast media, substantial real estate holdings and investment banking businesses, but Wolfe’s philanthropic leadership and strong opinions were no more.

 

 

Want to drink Margaritas with a bunch of soused seniors?

Want to drink Margaritas with a bunch of soused seniors?

 

Margaritaville is a 1977 Jimmy Buffett song that despite its simplicity became a huge hit for Buffett. It’s essentially a mournful break-up song set to what Buffett himself calls “drunken Caribbean music.”

Cashing in on what turned out to be his biggest hit, Buffet franchised a series of Margaritaville restaurants, serving middling but undistinguished American food and less than distinguished service. There are now about 30 of them, mostly in the South, but there is one at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT.

Not to stop there, his company has franchised Margaritaville Resorts, mostly in the South and Caribbean, but there is one coming to New York City as well. These are hotels with pools and the Margaritaville restaurant featured, along with some sort of entertainment.

But now, we learn that his franchising organization has formed a new business for “55 and over”: senior living. The first of these is in operation in Daytona, call Latitude Margarita. Another has also opened in Hilton Head. We learned about these from an article in this Sunday’s Times Magazine. This is a development for the 55 and over crowd of homes ranging from $200K to $300K in a senior living community for “active residents,” which is or will include a Town Center with shops, concerts presumably other activities.

One Yelp reviewer said it was like being on a permanent Carnival Cruise with noisy neighbors! And a real estate expert said “I see the appeal, but it has a good chance of wearing out quickly.”

The problem I have with all of this is that even though we fit their age demographic (and then some), the idea of an age-restricted community with no young adults or children sounds stultifying. You keep young by interacting with younger people, not getting snockered on salted Tequila drinks every night.

And just how much activity is there really? Are there singing groups you can join? Are there wood working and other crafts available? What about community theater, where seniors really tend to thrive?  And to tell you the truth, we prefer gin and tonics!

Oh, and that beach they show in all their brochure. It isn’t on the property. It’s a shuttle ride away.

‘Man of La Mancha’: Half a loaf

‘Man of La Mancha’: Half a loaf

(Top: Philip Hernandez (Cervantes/Don Quixote) and the cast of Man of La Mancha)

The famous 1966 musical “Man of La Mancha” opened on September 25 at the Westport Country Playhouse, and continues through October 14. The musical with book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion won the 1966 Tony for  best musical, as well as best score, best leading actor and best scenic design, beating out Sweet Charity, Mame, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and Superman.

The Westport Playhouse production, directed by Mark Lamos, with music direction by Andrew David Sotomayor and scenic design by Wilson Chin, attempts to duplicate that success on a pared down scale, and with limited success.

Briefly, the show tells the story of the Spanish playwright and poet Cervantes being imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition (this never happened) and being put “on trial” by the other prisoners. Cervantes tells the prisoners the tale of Alonso Quijano , a madman who fancies  himself to be the knight Don Quixote, using costumes from a trunk he had brought with him to costume himself and the other prisoners to tell the story.

In this production Phillip Hernandez is a commanding presence as Cervantes and Don Quixote, with a great baritone voice to match: singing 9 of the show’s songs. In fact he dominates the stage completely, unlike any of the other actors.

4_WCP_ManofLaMancha_GAdisa_TManna_byCRosegg_217Tony Manna, in the comic role of Sancho, got off to a bad start in his first song, the second verse of “I am I, Don Quixote,” coming in excruciatingly flat. And staying flat for the entire song. He redeemed himself, however, in “I Really Like Him,” showing off his excellent tenor voice. It would have been better if he had separated the words in the comic lines “You can barbecue my nose, Make a giblet of my toes.”

(Above: Gisela Adisa (Aldonza) and Tony Manna (Sancho Panza))

Gisela Adisa plays Aldonza (whom Quixote calls Dulcinea) is a commanding presence as well, acting well. But her singing made her sound like she was in some other show, since as soon as she left her chest voice, her voice turned into a nasal pop style that just didn’t fit the songs or the show. Her singing in “What Does He Want With Me” might have been better if she had held the notes out instead of cutting them all short, and in her second act “Aldonza,” she basically shouted what would have been better as a smoother ballad.

For some odd reason, the directors had the cast pronounce Dulcinea as DOOL-cinea rather than DULL-cinea. We assume there was a reason for that, but we don’t know what it was.

Particular praise goes to Carlos Encinias as the Padre, who also had a lovely tenor voice, and showed it well in the beautiful ballad, “To Each his Dulcinea.” Unfortunately, the music director added some tinkling keyboard accompaniment to this song that not only isn’t in the score, it isn’t even in the instrumentation.

You might ask if there were any basses singing in the company. Well, other than baritone Quixote, the only real bass role is the Innkeeper, played by tenor Michael Mendea, who sang part of his song “Hail Knight of the Woeful Countenance” up an octave. He did sing, well, however.

The entire cast is made up of 14 performers. Don Quixote, Aldonza and Sancho just play one role, but the remaining 11 take on a number of small roles, including being the chorus, identified in the script as Muleteers. This doesn’t work out too well, as the choral numbers sound weak and off-hand for the most part. The Broadway cast had 6 Muleteers as well as having separate actors for each role.

The set by Wilson Chin is suitably dark and depressing looking and has the expected staircase that lowers from above when prisoners arrive or leave and the guards come to harass the prisoners.

However, unlike the recommendation in the script, the orchestra and conductor are not on stage behind the actors. Instead the orchestra is split and placed in the second row of each side balcony, making the front row balcony seats less desirable. More to the point, the orchestra would overwhelm the cast, and the singers all wear body mikes, something I have never before seen at the Playhouse.

I was surprised how hollow the orchestra sounded at the beginning fanfare, and that they skipped the whole overture. But the reason soon became apparent: the orchestra was only 7 players: trumpet, trombone, French horn, reeds, guitar, string bass and percussion.  The score calls for more than twice those forces: Flute/Piccolo, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon/Clarinet, 2 trumpets, 2 horns, 2 trombones, 2 timpani, 2 percussion players, 2 Spanish guitars and a string bass.

The two percussion players play traps (snare and bass drum), floor tom-tom, suspended cymbal, triangle, large floor tom-tom, another suspended cymbal, finger cymbals, tambourine, castanets, temple blocks, xylophone and bells.  I heard very few of these in this performance.

So, we had less than half an orchestra, and I would ask: “Did we really see ‘Man of La Mancha’ at all, or was it just a thin facsimile? Without all 6 brass players, the chords were never filled in. The full orchestra would have been only 16 players and would have easily fit in their pit or behind the set as recommended. And this is professional theater, with a top ticket price of $75.

The show that we saw had the usual Westport Playhouse professionalism and most of the audience enjoyed it. But it could have been so much better!

(Photos by Carole Rosegg for the Westport Country Playhouse.)

‘Sex with Strangers’ opens at Westport Playhouse

‘Sex with Strangers’ opens at Westport Playhouse

Laura Eason’s romantic drama “Sex with Strangers” opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse to a nearly full house. Eason, who was a writer/producer of Netflix House of Cards, has written a 2 character drama that at first appears to be a romantic sit-com, but turns into a more nuanced consideration of the craft of writing.

Directed by Katherine M Carter, the play opens in what the program calls a “bed and breakfast,” but which actually appears to be an elaborate two level ski chalet, designed by Edward T Morris. Olivia (Jessica Love), a 30-something writer and teacher has booked time there to work on her novel, and is surprised when Ethan (Chris Ghaffari) pounds on the door one snowy evening after the B&B proprietor has left. Ethan is a younger 20-something writer who is brash, over confident, and as it turns out a successful writer.

His improbable book, “Sex with Strangers” is a memoir of his having sex with a different woman each week for a year. While we eventually learn that Ethan is actually a skilled writer, this rather schlocky Hefner-esque book has unbelievably been on the NY Times paperback best-seller list for 5 years. Your life ruined by masturbation? Visit masturbationaddiction.com and get help regain your life.

Meanwhile, we learn that Olivia had published one book, to some good reviews but poor sales because of inept marketing of her novel as “chick-lit.” She is currently at work on another, but is quite sensitive about it. Ethan, however, had actually read her first novel, which was recommended to him by a writing teacher they both had worked with.

6_WCP_SexWithStrangers_JLove_CGhaffari_byPChenotWith this setup, you would think they would fall in love, go to bed and live happily ever after, but this is not quite what Eason has in mind. Since the wireless is down, they of course do go to bed at least 4 times during blackouts punctuating the two acts, but as Olivia gradually regains her confidence with Ethan’s help, they begin to drift apart.

In the second act in Olivia’s Chicago apartment, (another spectacular 2-story set) they spar about their writing and careers and the movie Hollywood is making of Ethan’s trashy book. The story ends as they move on to audience acclaim.

As Olivia, Jessica Love is brittle and protective at first but eventually connects with Ethan at least physically and she slowly grows with Ethan’s encouragement. Chris Ghaffari as Ethan is pretty aggressive and at first pretty obnoxious. However, after he struggles through the production of the movie version of his novel, becomes more thoughtful, but also more distant. Both do an excellent job with their characters and you easily can identify with both of them.

While the playwright, in interviews, has suggested that her play is about young people getting by in the digital internet world, I don’t see it that way. Rather, it seems to me to be about two writers trying to learn their craft and eventually succeeding in different ways. This would have been true even if the wireless connection at the B&B had stayed down for the whole show.

“Sex with Strangers” is a charming, funny play with some really challenging ideas buried in the couples and coupling, and was fun to watch. The show continues through October 14, with performances on Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8 pm, Thursdays and Fridays and 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are available at westportplayhouse.org.

‘Appropriate’ opens at Westport Country Playhouse

‘Appropriate’ opens at Westport Country Playhouse

Imagine a house party or even a business meeting where the five participants shout at each other non-stop for an hour,. If you are like me, you’d just want to leave, and I nearly did, to be honest, if I ever need a house I’ll just contact Tiny house kits which seems to be easier.  And several people in the lobby I talked to agreed with me.

That is the first act of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Appropriate, that opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse, directed by Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy. In MacArthur award winning Jacobs-Jenkins play, three siblings, 2 of their spouses and  three children return to their late father’s home in rural Alabama, to clean out the house and arrange for an estate sale of the contents and the sale of the decaying house.

Betsy Aidem and David Aaron Bake
Toni (Betsy Aidem) and Bo (David Aaron Bake). Photo: Carole Rosegg

Toni (Betsy Aidem) is the eldest sibling, in her later 40s or early 50s and is consistently abrasive and angry to everyone: it is very difficult to identify with her. She is also the estate’s executor.  Bo, (Beauregard) the middle sibling (David Aaron Baker, above and left) is just slightly younger than Toni, and is arrogant, angry and hopeful that the sale of the estate will produce some income for him, as he has spent a lot on his father in recent years, and, we learn is likely to be losing his job. His wife, Rachael (Diane Davis, above) is only slightly more pleasant and quite sure her late father-in-law was anti-Semitic as he was overheard calling her Bo’s “Jew-wife.” It doesn’t take long before Toni and Rachael are at it hammer and tongs.

Franz (formerly named Frank) is the youngest sibling (Shawn Fagan) and the black sheep of the family, having struggled with drug and alcohol addiction as well as what we learn was probably pedophilia. Many people suffer from addiction. Click here to check your Beacon Health Strategies rehab insurance benefits covers rehab treatment.

Anna Crivelli and Shawn Fagan
River ( Anna Crivelli) and Franz (Shawn Fagan). Photo: Carole Rosegg

He seems more reasonable than his older siblings but is not easy to like. His girlfriend River (Anna Crivelli) is a clichéd young (about 23) Portland hippie who works as a vegan chef, and while she is considerably less visible, her calm, likeable hippie style is a marked contrast to the rest of the battling clan. Incidentally, she was also the fight director. And oh, yes, there is a fight.

We are told that this is a play about family secrets that gradually reveal themselves, and once you learn that the deceased father was once a powerful lawyer before he settled into rural Arkansas, the “surprise” about his racist past is quite predictable. His character is quite thinly drawn, we only learn a few dribbled out facts about him as the play proceeds, but we see where this is going. To a large degree, they are all present hoping to get some money out of the estate.

The fight
The fight. Shawn Fagan, Diane Davis, Nick Selting, Betsy Aidem, and David Aaron Baker. Photo: Carole Rosegg
River and Cassidy
River(Anna Crivelli) and Cassidy (Allison Winn). Photo: Carole Rosegg

Three young actors are utterly charming in their smaller roles: Rhys (Nick Selting) as an older teenager, and Cassidy (Allison Winn) as a younger teenager. Oddly, even though the script always refers to her as “Cassidy,” the program lists her as “Cassie.” Finally, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) zooms around as a hyper maybe 8-year old, in Act I and in Act III is part of the Big Reveal.

The set, by Andrew Boyce, has been lovingly executed by the skilled Westport Playhouse staff, led by David Dreyfoos, and represents the shabby living room, windows, semi-spiral stairs and parts of two other rooms in exceptional detail. One thing you can almost always count on is the fact that there will be some sort of inlaid flooring on the stage that is appropriate for the décor. The lighting by Matthew Richards is important, as there are night scenes without lights as well as lightning and outdoor glow coming through the windows. And the sound cues of cicadas chirping between scenes are excellent.

Playwright Jacobs-Jenkins has said that he wanted to create a southern family drama in the tradition of Streetcar Named Desire and August, Osage County, but while his characters are annoyingly well-drawn, the writing lacks the lyricism of Tennessee Williams or Tracy Letts. Jacobs-Jenkins, who is African American, noted that most of these great family dramas do not include any people of color, and that was a driving factor in his creating this play. However, the entire cast is white, although reference is made to the slave graveyard on the estate, and to past lynchings.

But having praised all these capable players, the result is 2 hours of people screaming at each other almost non-stop. This, we must assume, is the choice of director David Kennedy, and this makes for a really uncomfortable evening. While the publicity suggests that this is a comedy: it really is not. I counted just four laughs in the entire one hour first act, and only a few more in the other two.

The acts are pretentiously named “The Book of Revelations,” “Walpurgisnacht,” and “The Book of Genesis,” but the reasons for these names are not all that apparent. The first act runs about an hour, and after a 15-minute intermission, the second two acts are played without pause, ending about 10:40. The playwright suggests that the mysterious title might be read as the verb “appropriATE,” rather than the adjective “apPROpriate.”  I still don’t get it. The script lists 6 dictionary definitions of the word, and the playwright suggests that he has incorporated all of them.

“Appropriate” runs through September 2. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available at the theater’s website: westportplayhouse.org.

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‘Grounded’ opens at Westport Playhouse

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Elizabeth Stahlmann as The Pilot. Photo by Carole Rosegg

George Brant’s 2012 play Grounded opened last Saturday at the Westport Country Playhouse. This riveting one-woman monologue stars Elizabeth Stahlmann as The Pilot. Brant’s play premiered in Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013, where it received the Smith Prize for Political Theater and was named a Top 10 London Play by both the Guardian and the London Evening Standard. While this is a strongly written play about a difficult subject, it does not really seem to have any political content that would really make it “political theater.”

It then had a rolling world premiere  by SF Playhouse (California), Borderlands Theatre (Arizona), and Unicorn Theatre (Missouri) as part of the National New Play Network’s Continued Life Program.

It has apparently had over 100 productions around the world since then, including a 3 week Off-Broadway run in 2014 with Hanna Cabell and a 6 week Off Broadway run in 2015 with Anne Hathaway. Hathaway claims to have plans to make a movie version eventually.

The play runs about 90 minutes in this version and is played without intermission or blackouts. Brant’s script has few stage directions (or punctuation) except for a few sound cues, leaving much to the imagination of the actress, the director and the set designer.

This Westport Playhouse production was directed by Liz Diamond, a Resident Director at Yale Rep and Chair of Directing at the Yale School of Drama, where Stahlmann also once studied. Perhaps not coincidentally, the complex projections were by Yana Birykova, who also has worked extensively with the Yale Rep.

The play is about a young hot-shot combat pilot (unnamed), arrogant and overconfident as pilots can be, who on leave meets a young man at a pilot’s bar who is not a pilot and is not put off by her job. She spends three days of her leave with him, and when back at her overseas military base suddenly discovers she is pregnant.  The Army does not permit pilots who are pregnant to fly fighter jets because the G-forces could be too much for the developing baby, and she is reassigned to a desk job. She has kept in contact with her boyfriend by Skype, and he is overjoyed at the news of her pregnancy, and apparently agrees to marry her. It is not clear why such a dedicated gung-ho pilot wouldn’t consider abortion in this situation, but this is never even mentioned.

We next hear that she is being transferred to Las Vegas to become a drone pilot, or as she contemptuously refers to it, the “chair corps.” She claims that no one ever comes back from the chair corps to piloting and wants to resist, but this is her assignment. So she and her (unnamed) husband and her new baby Samantha move to Las Vegas, where she begins training and soon becomes a drone pilot.

Drone piloting is a very stressful job, as reported in this Times article, and can lead to combat stress disorders, since you actually watch the carnage you create rather than quickly flying away as combat pilots can do. You also add to this the stress of switching gears to family life every night as well. To a large degree the rest of the play is about the effect of this assignment on The Pilot and her eventual Icarus-like ascent and descent.

The set, by Ricardo Hernandez, who also designed the Off-Broadway production, is stunningly ugly, made up of a single platform, barely bigger than a standard 4 x 8 platform, perhaps 5 x 10, covered with dappled aluminum, and containing a single chair which Stahlmann sits on, perches on and leans against. Behind her, ribbed aluminum strips rather like an aluminum awning cover the entire proscenium of the playhouse, perhaps 35 x 16. Eventually, colored lighting changes the mood and turns blue as she describes the joy of piloting her combat jet into the sky. But once she begins drone training, Birykova’s projections simulate the video screens she watches from her drone, with 18 identical rectangular images of several sizes covering the entire wall. Later, a single full screen image shows the target she is following.

3_WCP_Grounded_ElizabethStahlmann_byCRosegg_219Every actress will interpret Brant’s script differently, bringing her own take on who the overconfident young Pilot really is and how she feels, because Brant gives the actress so much leeway. Stahlmann’s interpretation is powerful, but not all that sympathetic, making it hard to connect with her experiences. However, one can still admire the enormous energy she gives in every performance.

Grounded continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 29, with performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available at the theater’s website or by calling 203-227-4177 or 888-927-7529.

‘Lettice and Lovage” opens at Westport Playhouse

‘Lettice and Lovage” opens at Westport Playhouse

Peter Schaffer’s 1987 comedy, “Lettice and Lovage” opened last Saturday at the Westport Country Playhouse to a rapturous audience reception.  Directed by Mark Lamos, the play is about Lettice (actually her name is Laetetia) played by Kandis Chappell, who makes up fascinating and hilarious, but outrageously fictional “facts” about the stately British home where she gives house tours. Eventually her supervisor Lotte Schoen (Mia Dillon) finds out and sacks her.

Feeling guilty about firing her, Lotte comes to see Lettice with a recommendation for a new job she might like narrating a tour boat. They share an aperitif Lettice has made of vodka, brandy and lovage, (an aromatic herb with seeds that are similar to fennel seeds) and begin a tipsy friendship despite the huge difference in their personalities.  Lotte is straight-laced and bureaucratic, while Lettice is flamboyant and theatrical.

The comic virtue of Shaffer’s work lies in Lettice’s bizarre historical reimaginings as well as his elegant and beautiful language.

5_WCP_Lettice&Lovage_PaxtonWhitehead_MiaDillon_KandisChappell_byCRosegg_334aFollowing the development of their friendship as well their cleverly barbed exchanges make up much of the fun of this piece, but following intermission we meet the lawyer Mr Bardolph, played by the redoubtable Paxton Whitehead, who tried to tell Lettice this she is in a great deal of trouble and could end up in prison if she doesn’t cooperate with him and preparing her defense.  How this turn of events came about and the hilarious way it is resolved make up the highly entertaining finale to this delightful evening.

In playing Lettice, Kandis Chappell is very funny, very theatrical and extremely entertaining, and dominates the stage throughout. The role, originally written for Maggie Smith, is a challenge to any actress, bringing out the characters over-the-top theatricality without herself going over the top. In this, Chappell succeeds admirably, and the audience more than demonstrated their affection for her performance.

Mia Dillon as Lotte, plays sensibility against Chappell’s theatricality and is quite affecting when she finally reveals her history and the reasons for her hatred of terrible architecture.

Sarah Manton plays Lotte’s secretary with great aplomb against the stormy forces of Lettice and Lotte’s first confrontation.

Sometimes, theater has its own internal theatricality and Patricia Connolly who was supposed to play Lettice was taken ill just a week before the show’s opening and Kandis Chappel flew in from San Diego to take over the role on very short notice, arriving Tuesday, when previews normally begin. The Tuesday and Wednesday previews were cancelled and the first preview was Thursday, and the official opening just last Saturday.

In the opening scene, we see Lettice giving several versions of her fantasy version of history to a group of tourists, portrayed by local actors  Kara Hankard of Glastonbury, Travis James of Weston, Richard Mancini of Stratford, Michele S. Mueller of Rocky Hill, Robert Peterpaul of Darien, Hermon Telyan of Wilton, and Danielle Anna White of Ridgefield.

Despite the simplicity of the story, the sets created by John Arnone are stunning. The first British house scene is a huge wall of portraits and heraldry, and Lotte’s office is a small unit set that rolls on as the wall is flown out. But the major piece of the set is Lettice’s basement flat, which is cluttered and elaborate, and is  enhance by an entire brick building flat behind it and a stairway down to her flat’s entrance level.

“Lettice and Lovage” runs through June 17, and you won’t find a more entertaining evening than this.

 

Allegiance- George Takei’s musical in HD

Allegiance- George Takei’s musical in HD

The short-lived Broadway musical Allegiance was screened in HD in some 600 theaters throughout the country yesterday. The show, inspired by Takei’s experiences in a Japanese-American internment camp had music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, and a book by Marc Acito, Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. It follows the experiences of the fictional Kimura family who were forcibly relocated to internment camps far from their west coast homes after the attack on Pearl Harbor, along with about 120,000 other Japanese-Americans.

Generally, HD rebroadcasts of plays, and musical works come with at least a single sheet program listing all the actors and production credits, but the neither Fathom Events organization nor the Trumbull Conn Post 14 theaters bothered with this nicety. Having only a brief glance at the closing credits, most of the cast information came from online sources.

George Takei, the beloved actor who started his career as Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu, and has become an activist and comic commentator led the bill, playing the avuncular grandfather of the Kimura clan, and in a present-day scene the aged version of young Sam from that clan.

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While Takei headed the playbill, the real stars were Lea Salonga, playing Sam’s older sister Kei, and Telly Leung ,a fantastic actor with a gorgeous tenor voice who plays Sam Kimura as a young man. Salonga began her Broadway career in  Miss Saigon and played roles in Les Miz and voiced the lead in the cartoon Mulan.

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Equally important are the excellent Michael K Lee, playing Frankie Suzuki, a young man who becomes Kei’s suitor and eventually husband, and the charming Katie Rose Clark who plays the (white) camp nurse Hannah Campbell and Sam’s love interest.

This show provided an excellent opportunity for a nearly all-Asian cast to shine and they proved themselves incredibly talented again and again in song and dance numbers, where the entire cast performed beautifully.

With such a talented cast, it is a shame that Allegiance never caught hold, running only about 4 months, and the fear that this was a just a history lesson about a shameful period of U.S. history might have kept audiences away.  Much of the show, however, is quite entertaining, with the developing relationships and family conflicts making up much of the story.

The central crisis of the first act is the idea that the Japanese-American men should be allowed to enlist to fight the enemy if they would swear allegiance to the U.S. and renounce and allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. This led to principled conflicts both ways, with Sam signing the paper and enlisting, while Frankie refuses and is imprisoned until the end of the war. The second act seems longer than the first and has fewer compelling scenes to keep it moving. The show ran 2:15 without intermission.

Jay Kuo’s music might have been part of the problem, with much of it the sort of full-throated poperetta ballads full of quarter-note triplets that infested much of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s music as well as much of Les Miz. On the other hand the upbeat songs, written in a 1940s swing style are utterly charming, beginning with Sam and Hannah’s duet, “I Oughta Go,” which you can hear on the Amazon site. Unfortunately, all of Lea Salonga’s songs (and there are too many) are in that overblown poperetta style and basically all sound alike. The award-winning orchestrations by Lynne Shankel for a 13-piece orchestra, is wind-instrument heavy with only 3 strings and the wind harmonies are lush and lovely.

Interestingly, the only character based on a real person is the controversial Mike Masauoka (played by Greg Watanabe), a Japanese American functionary in Washington, who became the face of the JACL (Japanese American Citizen’s League) and worked to try to improve life in the camps, primarily by cooperating. He is shown as somewhat of a wheeler-dealer and was not well liked.

This is an important piece of Broadway history that was worth seeing even with its flaws, and it is a shame it never found much of an audience. Now that the HD showing is over, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a DVD version some time in the future. Look for it.

Camelot at Westport Playhouse: a chamber version

Lusty Month of May
“Lusty Month of May,” Guenevere and Knights. Patrick Andrews, Michael De Souza, Britney Coleman, Mike Evariste, and Jon-Michael Reese. Photo by Carole Rosegg

Camelot opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse, in a new pared-down “reimagined”version with a cast of only 8 (plus young Tom) and an orchestra of the same size. While Camelot has a reputation of being overly long and swampy, this “chamber” version runs a fairly brisk 2:15 with one intermission.

The newly adapted book by David Lee features the 4 main characters: Guenevere (Britney Coleman),  Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lucas)and Mordred (Patrick Andrews), and 4 men who are remarkable singers and dancers: Michael de Souza, Mike Evariste, Brian Owen, and Jon-Michael Reese. Young Tom of Warwick is played by Sana Sarr.

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Britney Coleman and Robert Sean Leonard

Britney Coleman as Guenevere is simply spectacular and steals every scene with her gorgeous bell-like voice and smoothly glamorous acting. She alone makes it worth your while to see this interesting adaptation.

As Arthur, Robert Sean Leonard, is an excellent actor who gives you Arthur’s early immaturity and his later commanding persona with great skill and magnetism. Unfortunately, he is not a singer and talks his way through most of the music, often coming in late, to its detriment. He does sing in ”What Do the Simple Folk Do?” showing that he can sing a little.

Patrick Andrews as Mordred is everything you want in an evil, snarky, oily villain who also happens to be Arthur’s illegitimate son. He sings, he dances, and his two numbers with the 4 men: “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and “Fie on Goodness” show off his excellent dancing and Connor Gallagher’s imaginative choreography.

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Britney Coleman and Stephen Mark Lukas

Stephen Mark Lukas is a dazzling Lancelot, tall, ridiculously handsome and suitably arrogant, with a lovely, rich baritone voice. His “If Ever I Would Leave You” is quite lovely and satisfying, although he was really working on those low notes.

This is really a chamber version of Camelot, cut down in size and length, and emphasizing the four main characters over any real ensemble work: there is no women’s chorus. The only female voice belongs to the fabulous Ms Coleman. The story is a little simplified, but almost all the great songs are there and Ms Coleman sings in eight of them.

What do we lose in this version? We lose Nimue and the lovely “Follow Me,” as well as Merlin, King Pellinore and Morgan Le Fay. And with the serviceable 8-player orchestra we miss Robert Russell Bennett’s and Phillip J Lang’s lush orchestrations. And of course, we miss the Overture and the opening Camelot March.

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The Revelers

 

While Camelot was always about spectacle, we don’t find that here. There is an opening dance, accompanied mostly by drumming that has the entire cast in colorful capes and grotesque masks that is quite stunning, but we have no idea what it was there for, except, perhaps to replace that opening march. The sets are fairly simple. Much of the action is played against floor to ceiling wooden panels, with a few pieces, like Arthur and Guenevere’s bed wheeled in. The wooden panels open to reveal a distant castle painted on a drop behind a scrim. From time to time banners are lowered and a huge circle, rather like a roulette wheel is lowered. I finally realized that this represented the Round Table.

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Robert Sean Leonard and Sana Sarr

The script called for Young Tom of Warwick to appear at the end of the show to tell Arthur he wants to become a Knight of the Round Table, after many of the original knights were defeated in the final battle. The director or adaptors have expanded that role. Tom appears in the opening number, barefoot and in pajamas playing with models of knights on horses. And he appears again during the jousting tournament, with his toys representing the actual jousting.

This adaptation does nothing to clarify the climactic, but baffling song “Guenevere,” where apparently an entire battle between Lancelot’s and Mordred’s forces seems to have taken place offstage. Arthur explains it afterwards. But the quiet ending with Arthur and Young Tom is as effective as ever.

If you go expecting to dread the original Camelot’s length and bloatedness, you will be pleasantly surprised at this compact version. If you are looking for spectacle, that is really only there by proxy. But the singing actors and orchestra put on a thoroughly professional and entertaining version of the story of Camelot.

The show runs through November 7, with performances on Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday ant 3 and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available on the theater’s website or by callng 203-227-4177.

 

Troupers Light Opera to present Northeastern Premiere of ‘Thespis’

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Jupiter, grown old

Gilbert and Sullivan’s first collaboration, “Thespis” was for years considered lost because while the dialog was known, the music has not been found. However, thanks to a skillful reconstruction by opera designer Anthony Baker and conductor/composer Timothy Henty, a truly entertaining version of Thespis has been created.

Troupers will present the Northeastern Premiere of  this Thespis on November 5th and 6th in Norwalk, CT at All Saints School at 139 West Rocks Rd. The 20 member cast, under the direction of Marian Shulman and Jim Cooper will present the full comic operetta as created by Gilbert and Sullivan as a special Christmas entertainment for the company of London’s Gaiety Theater.

Troupers has been performing Gilbert and Sullivan in Fairfield County for 72 years and is delighted to premiere this Baker-Henty version of Thespis to Northeast US audiences. Each year Troupers welcomes new members to our company: this year we are delighted to welcome soprano leads Anne Collin and Jennifer Wallace. New members are always welcome!

In the ridiculous story, the gods on Olympus have become old and tired (except Mercury) and would like a vacation. They happen on a theater company picnicking on the side of the mountain and quickly reach an agreement that the actors will play the parts of the gods fo a year, while they go down to Earth. Of course, this doesn’t work very well, as Mercury sings “Olympus is in a terrible muddle” in the second act.

The famous chorus number “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain” first appeared in Thespis, and it was so successful that Sullivan reused it in “Pirates of Penzance.”  Some musicians believe that a lot more of the music from Pirates originated in Thespis, and Baker and Henty have included several references to Pirates in their reconstruction, as well as using music from several other familiar and less familiar Sullivan works. You will also hear a bit of Offenbach in Thespis, because early reviews suggested that Sullivan had borrowed some, perhaps as a jest.

The Troupers cast of Thespis stars Brett Kroeger as Mercury and Greg Suss as Thespis along with Anne Collin as Nicemis and David Richy as Sparkeion. Rounding out the gods: Bob Scrofani plays Jupiter,  Wendy Falconer is seen as Diana, John Matilaine as Apollo, and Rob Strom plays Mars.

Among the mortals, Deborah Connelly plays the flirt Daphne, and Jennifer Wallace plays Pretteia. Other cast members include Ty Goff playing Sillimon, the stage manager,  John Hoover as Timidon, Guy Stretton as Tipseion and Tammy Strom as Cymon, or Father Time. Also appearing will be Rebecca Kovacs, Rosa Parrotta, Ruth-Anne Ring, Bill Abbott, and Neil Flores. The accompanist will be Troupers 35-year veteran, Dorothy Kolinsky.

Tickets are available on Troupers’ web site: TroupersLightOpera.org.  Don’t miss a chance to see this rarely performed gem!