BWW Review: Encores! Off-Center Brings Back Maria Irene Fornes and Rev. Al Carmines' Fresh and Vibrant PROMENADE
Through the leadership of Reverend Bernard Scott, Greenwich Village's Judson Memorial Church became a center for emerging artists during the 1950s, welcoming the experimental, the avant-garde and the political to have their work seen without fear of censorship.
When Reverend Al Carmines joined the staff in the early 1960s, his Judson's Poets' Theatre helped the Washington Square South locale become recognized, along with Caffe Cino and La MaMa E.T.C., as one of the major hotbeds of the Off-Off Broadway movement.
A prolific composer and frequent lyricist for his own song-cycle and oratorio style musicals, Carmines was awarded an Obie for his collaboration with librettist Rosalyn Drexler, HOME MOVIES/SOFTLY CONSIDER THE NEARNESS and both an Obie and a Drama Desk for his musical incorporating the words of Gertrude Stein, IN CIRCLES. Additional Drama Desk honors followed for his Aristophanes adaptation, PEACE, and his landmark collection of musical vignettes of gay themes, THE FAGGOT.
The great Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, who would solidify her Importance in American drama with works like Pulitzer finalist AND WHAT OF THE NIGHT?, dealing with issues of survival for people living in poverty, and LETTERS FROM CUBA, about the personal relationship of a pair separated by governments, was just establishing her artistic voice in 1965 when she wrote the book and lyrics for PROMENADE, for which Carmines penned the music.
Its brief run at Judson, along with her THE SUCCESSFUL LIFE OF 3: A SKIT IN VAUDEVILLE, earned Fornes the first of her nine career Obie Awards and four years later, PROMENADE moved uptown to Broadway and 76th Street as the debut attraction for Off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre, with a cast including Madeline Kahn, George S. Irving, Alice Playten, Gilbert Price and Shannon Bolin.
As joyously displayed by director Laurie Woolery and choreographer Hope Boykin in New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center two-night concert production, PROMENADE very much contains the kind of freestyle experimental spirit associated with 1960s Off-Broadway. And while many such pieces were dismissed in their day as being just silly or weird for the sake of being different, PROMENADE's façade of frivolity provides a frame for moments of sincere poignancy and serious protest.
As music director/conductor Greg Jarrett and his seven-piece orchestra played Carmine's impish recurring vamp (the orchestrations are by that eclectic master Eddie Sauter), the company opened the show by literally promenading onto the stage, many garbed by designer Clint Ramos' in outlandish statements of wealth and privilege.
What little there is of the story then commenced, as two convicts, 105 and 106 (James T. Lane and Kent Overshown) dug their way to freedom and into the city, mingling with the haves and the have-nots while being pursued by the bumbling jailer (Mark Bedard) who gets too busy having sex with the wives and sweethearts of his prisoners in exchange for visiting time to notice what the inmates are doing.
Though Fornes' libretto contains a great deal of wit and insight into social attitudes, specific plot points serve primarily as connective tissue between songs. The presentational style of her lyrics is matched with an assortment of musical genres featuring several jazzy and operatic flourishes.
This is a show where the women receive the choicest material and the exceptional cast feasted on it all. Bonnie Milligan popped out of a cake wearing a pink babydoll nightie to belt out, "Chicken is he who does not love me, for there's more to the cake than the icing."
Soara-Joye Ross' icy delivery of a ballad of waning passion "The Moment Has Passed," ("He said we would kill for me. / And I said, 'Like, for instance, who?'") was followed by Carmen Ruby Floyd's exquisite soprano enhancing the aria of dissatisfaction, "A Flower." Marcy Harriell positively floored the place belting the torchy waltz "Capricious and Fickle," about a woman angered by a lover who treated her the way she treats others.
An absurdist scene indirectly criticizing America's involvement in Vietnam had 105 and 106 encountering an unlucky pair of draftees (Steve Routman and Danny Darryl Rivera) and the rich using their bandages to dance around them like maypoles.
If there is a theme to it all, perhaps it was best expressed when Saundra Santiago sang, "I have to live with my own truth, whether you like it or not," in the next to closing number, "I Saw A Man," where a woman thanks God she's better than the homeless man she sees lying on the street.
Encores! and Encores! Off-Center productions are often enjoyed with a hearty dose of nostalgia, but the excitement generated by PROMENADE seemed fresh and vibrant. This material, and this production, are certainly worthy of more than a two-night stint.