Review - Isaiah Fest & Wonder of the World

When Isaiah Sheffer first walked into the dilapidated movie house on Broadway and 95th Street in the late '70s he saw some kind of makeshift boxing ring on the creaky stage. But what he envisioned was a great center for the arts on the Upper West Side that filled the wide cultural gap between Lincoln Center and Columbia University.

In January of 1978, he and Allan Miller organized a day-long free concert called Wall to Wall Bach, igniting the first of many legacies Sheffer leaves as he steps away from his 32-year position as Artistic Director of Symphony Space and begins a less-hectic career with the new title of Founding Artistic Director.

On Monday evening, June 7th, Symphony Space held a special benefit performance in Sheffer's honor, with tributes, songs and readings celebrating his many outstanding accomplishments in establishing the venue as one of New York's most valuable multi-cultural centers for the performing arts.

With music director Lanny Meyers leading the on-stage band, the evening opened on a jaunty note with host and director James Naughton putting on his best Tom Jones-ish vocals for the parody lyrics of "Why, Why, Why, Isaiah?," followed by a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof praising, "The Very Model of a Director Artistical." Both numbers had lyrics by Martin Sage with Naughton being joined by the ensemble of The Thalia Follies (Ivy Austin, Mary Brienza, Sidney J. Burgoyne, David Buskin, Kathryn Markey, Leenya Rideout, and Lisa Flanagan), the political and social satire song and sketch show Sheffer co-created.

Sheffer's own lyrics were enjoyed throughout the evening, such as his parody of "The Candy Man" ("The Seltzer Man") and his uproarious collaboration with Sheldon Harnick, "The Zabar's Beguine," sung with delirious passion by Ivy Austin. To represent his two Off-Broadway musicals Eleanor Reissa gave old world warmth to "The Boarder" from The Rise and Fall of David Levinsky and "Help Is On The Way" from Yiddle With A Fiddle.

In a video tribute, Stephen Colbert quipped of his participation in the annual Bloomsday On Broadway, "This year, for the first time, I hope to understand what I'm reading." Live performers, representing Selected Shorts, included Jane Curtain, Jacques d'Amboise, Fritz Weaver, John Shea, Marian Seldes, Malachy McCourt, Leonard Nimoy, and Calvin Trillan, who describes Sheffer as, "an alternate side of the street parker who runs an arts organization on the side."

More highlights were provided by Jay Leonhart, Brian Stokes Mitchell ("Where Is The Life That Late I Led?"), KT Sullivan ("Non, je ne regrette rien") and Carmen de Lavallade ("Willie's Lady Sings The Blues.").

The admiration and love for the evening's honoree was more than apparent throughout the evening; not just from the performers but from the audience itself. As a long-time resident of the Upper West Side, I've seen the neighborhood's growth and revitalization parallel the growth of Symphony Space through the years, and Isaiah Sheffer's efforts to bring a world of culture to that corner of 95th and Broadway has certainly been a huge part of the area's character.

Photo of Isaiah Sheffer and Company by Ric Kallaher.

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The Moxie Street Picture Shows company made a notable New York debut recently with their charming and well-acted production of David Lindsay-Abaire's dark and whimsical (if that's possible) 2000 comedy, Wonder of the World.

After hitting the town big with his first Off-Broadway effort, Fuddy Meers, Lindsay-Abaire's sophomore play offered a Candide-ish heroine looking for a new life away from her dullard of a husband after a Nora Helmer-like door slam. A bus ride from their Park Slope home to Niagara Falls leads to encounters with a wisecracking alcoholic looking to commit suicide by going over the falls in a pickle barrel, a pair of eccentric detectives and a Prince Charming who comes in the form of a Maid of the Mist captain.

While the evening's straight-faced absurdity (very much in the style of the playwright's Julliard mentor, Christopher Durang) keeps the laughter rolling, the play's major flaw is the unsympathetic central character, Cass, who is cruelly indifferent to her husband's feelings as he sincerely, but ineptly, tries to make their marriage work. (Okay, so he's got a rather creative sexual fetish. He's not cheating on her and he's not hurting anybody.) Fortunately, Kimberly Yates' airy appeal smoothed over Cass' more annoying qualities in a grounded comic performance made her a likeable underdog. John Keabler was endearingly awkward as her romantically challenged husband, Kip.

Director Brian Rhinehart did a fine job in keeping the evening brisk and cheery over the dark subtext, though the play's sudden jolt of meaningfulness toward the end is a tricky maneuver. The quite loveable company of players included Tavia Trepte as the abrasively funny Lois, Scott Janes as a charming ferry captain with a passion for buying in bulk quantities, and Barbara Ann Davison and Arthur Harold as a pair of would-be gumshoes. The sextet of comic roles played by Sue Galloway are traditionally a highlight of the play, and the talented clown (literally, in one scene) scored some big laughs in her moments.

Working on an Off-Off Broadway budget, Dustin O'Neill's set and Christina Kim's costumes helped convey the lightly satiric feel of the piece. Wonder of the World might best be called an interesting early effort from one of the past decade's more significant playwrights, but the Moxie Street Picture Shows production displayed the kind of talent and professionalism that helps prove that New York does offer quality live theatre that can be enjoyed at a reasonable price.

Logo by Brittany Grass.

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I see that Tommy Tune is selling his New York penthouse. Does he have to bother to put "high ceiling" in the ad or is that just understood?

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The trouble all started when Jule Styne composed a score for Funny Girl that Fanny Brice could not possibly have sung.

You've heard the story, right? How Mary Martin was originally set to star in the show until she was eventually convinced that audiences might not accept her as a young Jewish girl from The Bronx. Anne Bancroft, certainly an excellent choice to replicate the essence of Fanny Brice in a stage biography, was then lined up to star in My Man, which was intended to be more of a play with songs. But Styne wanted that Tony-nominated kid who stopped I Can Get It For You Wholesale nightly with the very Brice-like comic lament, "Miss Marmelstein," so, inspired by a visit to Barbra Streisand's gig at Bon Soir, he simply started setting Bob Merrill's lyrics to complicated rhythms and wide, high-belting ranges that he knew Bancroft could never master.

Oh sure, the former Anne Sullivan would probably have been great with the specialty material patterned after the Ziegfeld star's repertoire, like "Private Schwartz," "Sadie, Sadie" and "His Love Makes Me Beautiful." And if she had a chance to hit center stage in a follow spot and emote that torchiest of torchers, "My Man," she may have brought down the house with the same kind of pathos that made it the great comic's signature song. But after hearing "People," "The Music That Makes Me Dance" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" Anne Bancroft knew this wasn't the show for her.

And if Fanny Brice herself was reincarnated as a young auditioner for the upcoming Bartlett Sher-directed Broadway revival of Funny Girl, she might find that, without some changes in the score, it's not the show for her either. As a vocalist, Brice had an average range, known to half-talk many of her songs for comic or dramatic effect. What put her name up in lights was a lovable knack for ethnic humor and a heart-grabbing way of pulling emotions out of a lyric with melodic simplicity. In Barbra Streisand, the creators found the possessor of a vibrant musical and emotional pallet with proven comedic skills.

But have you noticed that after last week's announcement of the Bob Boyett-produced mounting, looking to hit town in the spring of 2012, nearly all the speculation about who might be cast in the demanding role has been focused on singers and actor/singers who may be perfectly capable of mastering the score, but whose careers thus far have not included any major comic turns? I say "nearly all" because there are exceptions. And that's not to say that someone untested in broad, Jewish vaudevillian humor cannot turn out a fully realized Fanny, but if we musical theatre lovers are going to be obsessing over the casting of this role for the next year and a half it would be nice to be able to do more than speculate on a candidate's ability to shtick it up.

And then, of course, there's the celebrity factor. We live in an era where over 60% of the tickets sold on Broadway are purchased by infrequent theatre-goers; the kind who traditionally equate the Broadway experience with seeing a recognizable star. So I say let's give 'em one... as Nick Arnstein.

Think of it... Before Streisand's reviews came out, Tony-winner Sydney Chaplin was the original production's more bankable star, drawing squeals and cheers for his matinee idol looks and charisma, just as John Stamos recently did in Bye, Bye, Birdie. Say now... Stamos would make quite the elegant and manly Nick, wouldn't he? He sure proved to be a box office draw despite that production's reviews. And casting a Nick with a proven Broadway fan base might put Boyett and Sher in a better financial position to cast the best possible Fanny; even if tourists from Indiana, or even Westchester, never heard of her.

And let's face it; Nick is not a very demanding role. It's perfect for a big handsome star who thinks it might be fun to do a musical, but doesn't want to stray too far from his comfort zone. Sure, a terrific actor and singer can draw some depth out of the character (think Peter Gallagher in the 2002 Actors' Fund concert staging) but I doubt many would have a problem with songs that were written for an actor with a smaller vocal range than Rosalind Russell. Hell, why not go the non-traditional route? Hey, Denzel Washington! You want to do something groundbreaking?

Of course, whoever does get cast as Fanny Brice will have a heck of a good director working with her, and in the end it will be the person who best fits Bartlett Sher's vision of the role who'll be boasting of her 36 expressions come opening night. And if that means Kelli O'Hara wearing a fake nose and sporting a Jewish accent, hey, maybe it'll work. But in the meantime it might be a good idea to find out if Liev Schreiber can carry a tune.

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-- Marian Seldes

The grosses are out for the week ending 6/13/2010 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: AMERICAN IDIOT (20.5%), HAIR (16.1%), RED (15.4%), MEMPHIS (13.7%), FELA! (12.5%), COLLECTED STORIES (12.4%), RACE (11.7%), IN THE HEIGHTS (11.5%), MARY POPPINS (10.5%), LEND ME A TENOR (9.8%), NEXT TO NORMAL (9.2%), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (9.1%), COME FLY AWAY (8.7%), LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (8.5%), NEXT FALL (7.8%), JERSEY BOYS (7.7%), PROMISES, PROMISES (7.5%), SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM (6.8%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (6.4%), SOUTH PACIFIC (5.9%), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (5.7%), ROCK OF AGES (5.1%), MAMMA MIA! (4.5%), WEST SIDE STORY (4.0%), MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (3.8%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (3.2%), CHICAGO (2.2%), THE LION KING (0.2%),

Down for the week was: FENCES (-0.2%), EVERYDAY RAPTURE (-0.1%),

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