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'The Showtune Mosh Pit' for March 5th, 2014

'The Showtune Mosh Pit' for March 5th, 2014




by Paul W. Thompson

Overheard last weekend under the showtune

video screens at Sidetrack and The Call:

And so, the amazing musical theater master class known as the Oscars took place on Sunday night. And social media (and voice lessons) may never be the same! There is so much to talk about! Because it all HAS been talked about. And who knew that the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences would be such a fertile source of showtune gossip and buzz? Who knew?

First of all, Judy Garland's three children were there, and didn't get to do anything! Well, they mugged a little bit, and interacted with host Ellen DeGeneres and all the red carpet paparazzi. And of course, Liza Minnelli is not only Judy's daughter but is an Oscar winner (for "Cabaret," natch), so she can go there whenever she wants, I'm sure. But I was looking forward to some sort of trio that Liza, her sister Lorna Luft and brother Joey Luft would get to perform together. Ah, well. Alas. Maybe in my dreams.

So who did perform in the tribute to "The Wizard Of Oz," the beloved musical film celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and surely one of the most watched films ever made? Well, recording artist Pink. She sang "Over The Rainbow" the Oscar-winning song by Harold Arlen ("House Of Flowers") and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg ("Finian's Rainbow") that Garland sang in the film and throughout her career. Heck, Pink even sang the verse ("When all the world is a hopeless jumble..."), which is not in the film and which almost nobody sang back in the good old days. And then the conversation on social media began. Why was she breathing so frequently? And why was she breathing in the middle of two-syllable words (most notably, both "somewhere" and "over")? Style? Nerves? The answer is yet unknown. Most folks thought she sounded great and that the number was very effective. Yet the choppy wordplay gave a lot of observers pause.

Then Bette Midler came on, after the annual filmclipfest honoring Oscar greats who died during the past year. The Divine Miss M sang a shortened version of "Wind Beneath My Wings," which she had performed in the movie "Beaches" in a version of the song (originally written some years earlier, and so not Oscar-eligible) that won big at the Grammy Awards in 1990. Midler, now 68 years old, provided a contrast to Pink in almost every way you could compare two women singing famous movie power ballads. The conversation escalated.

And then, as the Walt Disney film "Frozen" was on the verge of picking up its second award of the night, the star of the film versions of "Grease" and "Hairspray," John Travolta, stepped forward to introduce Idina Menzel, a contemporary showtune star of the first rank whose recording of the film's song, "Let It Go," has topped the sales charts and set little girls' hearts soaring for three months now. Only, he called her something like "Adele Dazeem," and the intrawebs nearly busted with traffic. And then Menzel, for whatever travel/pressure reason, didn't sound her best on the song, notably the last long high note ("Let the storm rage ON!). She looked great, and of course the musical in which she stars, "If/Then" begins previews on Broadway this very night! But at the Oscars, she was a little bit less than perfect (her hairstyle and gown were great, though, hands down). At any rate, the top blew off everything! What did he say? What did she do? Why didn't she sing the second section of the opening verse? What just happened? The fact that Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q," "The Book Of Mormon") became an EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) before age 40 was almost lost on folks. His co-writer and wife, Kristin Anderson-Lopez, accompanied Lopez to the stage, but Travolta's flub, Menzel's scratchy note, Midler's older contribution and Pink's breathing were the takeaways for most Mosh Pit peeps. So much to talk about! And learn from. As for me, I'm still waiting for a mash-up of "Let It Go" from "Frozen" and "Let It Go" from "The Fully Monty." Now THAT would break social media!


Back here in good old frozen Chi-town, Lyric Opera Of Chicago set some hearts afluttering with news about the last showtune property that set television and Facebook ablaze, Rodgers' and Hammerstein's "The Sound Of Music." It announced that Chicago native and film star Billy Zane ("Titanic") would star opposite Jenn Gambatese in "The Sound Of Music" this spring, this being the last bit of big casting news about the highly visible Lyric production. Edward Hibbert, Christine Brewer and Elizabeth Futral will also star, with Marc Bruni directing and Rob Fisher (the Encores series) conducting (April 25-May 18 at the Civic Opera House). Bruni's last job before this one? Directing Chicago stage darling Jessie Mueller in the current Broadway musical, "Beautiful," the Carole King story. See how it all fits together?


Another big musical theater title, which had its own moments or two at last year's Oscar ceremony, is "Les Miserables," And the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace finally announced the full cast for its production, which begins previews March 29 and runs through June 8, 2014. Broadway veteran Ivan Rutherford will headline as Jean Valjean, with Quentin Earl Darrington (returning to the DLO after starring in "Ragtime" there) as Javert and local star-on-the-rise Jennie Sophia as Fantine. It's a pretty powerhouse cast overall, with Mark David Kaplan (also from the DLO "Ragtime") as Thenardier, Skyler Adams as Marius, Emily Rohm as Cosette, Travis Taylor as Enjolras, and the likes of Justin Adair, Missy Aguilar, Brandon Chandler, Nick Foster, Nathan Gardner, David Girolmo, George Keating, Ann McMann, James Nedrud, Rob Riddle, Joe Tokarz and more in the ensemble. My fingers are tired, or I would list everybody! Rachel Rockwell is the lucky director, and Roberta Duchak, the vocal coach for Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman on the film version of the musical, is the musical director. Sounds pretty awesome!


Things are once again heating up at Porchlight Music Theatre, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" is about to go into production, running April 26-June 1 at Stage 773. Directed by Rob Lindley, with music direction by Kory Danielson and choreography by Brenda Didier (anything she does is big news), the "Voice of the Book" will be portrayed by legendary broadcaster Bill Kurtis! (That's even bigger news.) The cast will star Tyler Ravelson as J. Pierrepont Finch, with Elizabeth Telford as Rosemary. Fred Zimmerman will be Mr. Biggley, with Sharriese Hamilton as Smitty and Iris Lieberman as Miss Jones. John Keating will be Bud Frump, with Emily Rogers as the infamous Hedy LaRue.


Speaking of Rob Lindley, do you know where he is now? With some other Chicagoans in New York, co-directing along with Al Samuels the premiere of "50 Shades! The Musical" off-Broadway at the Elektra Theatre on 43rd Street. With its roots in Chicago's sketch comedy and musical improv communities, and after a run at our Broadway Playhouse, on tour and at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the show's New York cast features David Andino, Kaitlyn Frotton, Chris Grace, Adam Hyndman, Tim Murray, Amber Petty, Casey Rogers, Alec Varcas, Ashley Ward and Chloe Williamson. I think there's a touring cast out now as well. Strike while the iron is hot, you guys!


Beginning performances this weekend is the Bailiwick Chicago production of "Dessa Rose," written by the "Ragtime" team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and seen off-Broadway in 2005. It was seen at the end of that year at the late lamented Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park, but this is its Chicago debut (March 6-April 5 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, in the Richard Christiansen space). Set in the same time period as this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture, "12 Years A Slave," "Dessa Rose" is about two women of different races who need each other, portrayed by Sydney Charles and Harmony France. Also starring are Jayson "JC" Brooks, Brigitte Ditmars, Jasondra Johnson, Jaymes Osbourne, Gilbert Domally, Pavi Proczko, Steven Perkins, David Schlumpf, Sasha Smith and Eunice Woods. Lili-Anne Brown directs, with music direction by James Morehead. Based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams, and based on two real women, this production is generating a great deal of buzz.


Last week I mentioned that small-cast shows featuring country, folk, or bluegrass (or other such rural American musical styles) seem to do well in Chicago, and somewhat surprisingly so. And I listed "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" as one of those shows. Little did I know that it is coming back! Gwendolyn Whiteside's American Blues Theater announced its coming season last week, and the company is bringing back its acclaimed and popular production of the musical based on the Country and Western star's life and songs (July 25-August 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue). Also playing there in November and December will be the return of ABT's "It's A Wonderful Life: Live In Chicago!," a radio play with songs.


The musical roots of those American musical styles can be traced back to Ireland in many ways. And of course, Chicago is home to a very large and active Irish-American community. Timed to usher in the St. Patrick's Day celebrations this year is the United States premiere of "Heartbeat Of Home," the dance musical spectacular that is in some ways a reboot or offspring of "Riverdance," the phenomenally successful and Grammy-winning, auditorium-touring and PBS-inhabiting musical production of the 1990s. The show is here for two weeks (March 4-16 at Broadway In Chicago's Oriental Theatre), and the preliminary buzz is quite positive. If you like that sort of thing. But isn't that true about all art? "Hamlet" is good, if you like that sort of thing. So is the Mona Lisa. So are The Beatles. If you like that sort of thing!


"Option Up!" with Christopher Pazdernick and Aaron Benham has announced its line-up for Sunday night, March 9 at 7:30, in the Cab space at Stage 773. The monthly musical theater variety show will feature Chicago leading lady (and currently Electra in "Gypsy" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater), Barbara Robertson, singing songs and telling stories from her extraordinary Chicago stage career (Madame Morrible in "Wicked," among many other roles). How awesome is that? Also appearing will be Sarah Bockel (currently in "Into The Woods" at Mercury Theater Chicago, produced by The Hypocrites, and Columbia College senior Conner Reinhart. Sounds like a winning formula, you guys....


The future of musical theater singing in the Chicago area was once again on display last Saturday, as the Chicago Chapter of NATS (the National Association Of Teachers Of Singing) held its (our) musical theater voice competition for high school, college and immediate post-college voice students. Yours truly is a member and was one of the 18 judges. I can tell you that our local stages will be filled in future years with an abundance of vocal talent! The aforementioned Conner Reinhart was there, btw. And some of you loyal Mosh Pit peeps were there, too! It was great to meet you. And to hear you sing. Believe it or not, no one that I know of sang "Let It Go." Guess that will be next year! But it was a great day of inspiration, networking, new song ideas and great promise. I always leave completely stoked. I can't wait to see you all in full productions!


And so, there you have it. All kinds of things going on, around and about. And I hope to see you in productions, in audiences, in auditions and master classes, in competitions and workshops and concerts and cabarets and karaoke nights and benefits and closing night cast parties. And, of course, I'll see you under the video screens.....-PWT

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Paul W. Thompson Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to BroadwayWorld.com since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as a performer, teacher and writer is centered at Paul W. Thompson Music, located in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, where he teaches the great songs of Broadway to the next generation of musical theater performers. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Paul was raised in a family of professional musicians and teachers, steeped in classical, gospel, country, pop, sacred and show music. Dubbed a “thin, winsome lad” at the age of 13 by a critic for the Nashville Banner, he earned two degrees in musical theater (a B.F.A. with Honors from Baylor University and an M.M. from the University of Miami, Florida), plus an M.B.A. with Distinction from DePaul University. Paul’s memberships include Actors’ Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (proud voter for the Grammy Awards!), the National Association of Teachers of Singing and New York’s Drama League.

Moving easily between the worlds of classical music, religious music, classic pop and musical theater, Paul has appeared onstage or in the orchestra pit in concerts, musicals, operettas and operas in 30 states and in Europe, in a career spanning more than 35 years. His Chicagoland stage credits include “Forever Plaid” at the Royal George Theater and twenty mainstage productions at Light Opera Works. Paul joined the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1995 (he was Tenor I Section Leader for four years and sings on two Grammy-winning recordings), and is one of Chicago’s foremost liturgical singers, marking 20 years as a member of the choir at St. James Cathedral (Episcopal) in 2011.He has composed and arranged a number of anthems, hymns and songs for worship and concert use, and collaborates on the creation of new works of musical theater. Paul can be found on Monday nights watching showtune videos at the world-famous Sidetrack nightclub, the inspiration for his weekly column, “The Showtune Mosh Pit.” His proudest achievement is that he has seen the original Broadway production of every Tony Award-winning Best Musical since “Cats.” No, really. Since “Cats!”

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