Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 14

Curated by Advisory Company member Mike Fischer


Advisory Company member Mike Fischer is a dramaturg and former theater critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This. Guy. Knows. Theater. We hope you'll enjoy his recommendations for the best arts-in-quarantine content.

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VOLUME 14: AUGUST 26, 2020: LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING

Just seeing the magazine cover was enough to make me well up.

Rescuing the August 24 issue of The New Yorker from my mail box, I was greeted by the illustration of a diva – wafting notes into the air from a stage in an empty theater, where the seats were filled by ghastly and ghostly cardboard-cutout simulacra of real people. Once upon a time, singing simply spread joy. Now we must worry that this most infectiously contagious of activities is also spreading pathogens.

I came to theater as a child through my first love, for music; there’s little I’m missing more in theater (or life) right now than the glorious sound of the human voice as it bursts forth in song. And since the pandemic prevents me from traveling to Massachusetts or London – where recently opened onstage productions of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar herald the coming of the dawn – I’m virtually celebrating the sweet sound of music, with an edition of picks that’s focused on music and song. It covers the waterfront, from an oratorio and epic poetry to an indie-folk song cycle and pop rock, with plenty of love for American musicals in between.

As Shakespeare’s Caliban well knew, the “sounds and sweet airs” that give us music are made of the “thousand twangling instruments” composing the human symphony. Rarest sounds!,” proclaims Shakespeare’s Pericles, upon hearing the music of the spheres. “Most heavenly music!,” he continues. How right he was. And is. And always be, now and forever, from the beginning of the world until the end of time.

I’d love to hear from you about the theater experiences making your heart sing (or inspiring you to sing in the shower!). You can reach me through Forward at info@forwardtheater.com or contact me directly at mjfischer1985@gmail.com.

Bonus Selections:

All three of this week’s bonus selections showcase new musicals in which women composed the music, wrote the lyrics and/or wrote the book; the first two bonus selections involve still-developing musicals that will be profiled in the star-studded Women in Theatre event (see pick one, below).

First, from the musical Jeannette about Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress (music and lyrics by Ari Afsar and book by Forward Theater fave Lauren Gunderson), here’s a rousing rendition of the song We Won’t Sleep (plenty more of where this came from, including additional videos and a profile of Rankin, at the excellent Jeannette home page): WATCH

Second, from the musical Gun & Powder (book and lyrics by Angelica Chéri; music by Ross Baum) – inspired by the true story of two young Black women in the American West just after the Civil War – here’s Solena Pfeiffer and Emmy Raver-Lampman singing Freedom in rehearsal for the world premiere Signature Theatre production in February 2020): WATCH

Finally, from the Diablo Cody musical inspired by Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill – which had recently opened on Broadway and was still running when theaters closed – here’s a sweet rendition of Head Over Feet: WATCH

Selections for Volume 14 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):

1. Women in Theatre: A Centennial Celebration (Playbill):

Celebrating the role(s) women have played in making theater what it is today, Women in Theatre: A Centennial Celebration will continue this month’s commemoration of the 19th Amendment’s centennial by showcasing both known and unknown female-identifying artists during the past 100 years through stories and (yes!) musical performances.

Hosted by playwright Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) and actor Rebecca Naomi Jones (Laurey in the stunning Daniel Fish revival of Oklahoma!), the show’s star-studded lineup of scheduled performers includes Sara Bareilles, Shoshana Bean, Heather Christian, Charlotte d’Amboise, Crystal Monee Hall, Ann Harada, Afra Hines, Nikki M. James, L Morgan Lee, Beth Malone, Bianca Marroquín, Jessie Mueller, Ashley Park, Solea Pfeiffer, Saycon Sengbloh, Alysha Umphress, Daphne-Rubin Vega, and Kuhoo Verma. Among the additional artists making guest-appearances: Jocelyn Bioh, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Dominique Morisseau, Lynn Nottage, Ming Peiffer, Susan Stroman, and Paula Vogel.

There’ll be still more, including a new song by Six creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, as well as a look at developing musicals Jeannette (see the first bonus selection above) and Gun & Powder (see the second bonus selection above). The live stream gets underway at 7 pm CDT tonight, August 26; the program will remain available for viewing for four days, through 7 CDT on Sunday, August 30.

2. Sing, Wisconsin! (Skylight Music Theatre; Northern Sky Theater):

Even their names are similar. And for all their differences in style and mission, Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee and Northern Sky Theater in Door County have, in the aggregate, given Wisconsin more than 100 years of high-quality music. This past week, new virtual releases from each of these gems drove home anew how vital both are to Wisconsin’s theatrical ecosystem.

From Skylight With Love: A Concert for Unity
Here’s the sort of collaboration we need more of: Kicking off Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Black Theater Festival (profiled in last week’s picks), Skylight Music Theatre has offered a free on-demand stream of a 16-song, hour-long concert featuring 17 Black artists who’ve made Skylight magic in seasons past. Co-hosted by director Sheri Williams Pannell and music director Christie Chiles Twillie, Skylight’s concert ranges from Celia Davis’ operatic Summertime (reprising her memorable turn as Clara in Skylight’s 2013 Porgy & Bess) and Byron Jones’ majestic rendering of a Handel aria, to Kevin James Sievert’s joyously playful version of Drew Gasparini’s If I Had You and Bill Jackson’s puckish, pandemic-inspired tweak to Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s As Long As I Live.

Many of the numbers play variations on a theme enunciated in an original song by Forward alum Tosha Freeman (Mary Jane): we’ve got but one life to live, so we damn well better make the most of it, living and loving to the fullest lest we reach judgment day with nothing but regret and nowhere to hide (Twillie sounds this variation with a wonderful take on Nina Simone’s Sinnerman). Those naysayers trying to deny such self-fulfillment can stuff it (kudos to Raven Dockery, who slays twice in driving this message home). Cue the opening rendition of the Black national anthem by the Bronzeville Divas: Pannell, Dockery, Krystal Drake, and Cynthia Cobb. It’s a fitting start to both this concert and the Black Theater Festival.

Songs of Hope
Northern Sky Theater mainstay Katie Dahl wasn’t kidding when, on a recent episode of her weekly streamed show with Artistic Director Jeff Herbst, she referred to Northern Sky as the "Netflix of Door County." This past Friday, Northern Sky released Songs of Hope, its latest virtual offering: 40 minutes of archival clips from past shows, many of which resonated in new ways for me because of the pandemic.

I enjoyed a virtual Northern Sky release from early August even more. As its title suggests, Trunk Songs allows us to hear songs that were cut from a show (which often happens during development as a show’s narrative and characters change, rendering even excellent songs irrelevant). Introduced and sung by the artists who made them, Trunk Songs sneaks up and grabs you when you least expect it; I’m still getting goosebumps recalling a quarantined Laurie Flanigan Hegge singing a song cut from Loose Lips Sink Ships, juxtaposed with photo stills of her in the original production. And Dahl, long one of my favorite Wisconsin songwriters, gives us a newly composed gem to lyrics cut from Victory Farm.

These shows are each separately available for donations of $30; a third is available for free as long as you first register. It’s The Healing Session, in which Forward alum Lachrisa Grandberry (Exit Strategy) takes us on an hour-long journey, rendered through spoken word and song, traveling her own road as a woman of color in a racist and sexist America. It’s alternately harrowing and uplifting; most of all, it’s extraordinarily honest and generous, from a talented artist with a huge heart.

3. Audra McDonald Goes High (Carnegie Hall):

I’ll skip the accolades; there’s really nothing I can say about Audra McDonald’s voice that hasn’t already been said – and nothing from any of those paeans that even remotely approximates what Queen Audra continually delivers through her combination of raw talent and brilliant interpretations.

Released two months after George Floyd’s murder, this 80-minute concert gives us all of that and more. McDonald not only sings ten songs (one of which she’s never sung publicly before), including a version of Somewhere that will wreck you. She also explains why she chose these ten particular songs at a time when two pandemics are ravaging this country. Each song has its own story, but her abiding theme is what she tells us is her mantra: love is the answer.

Even as she talks about this country’s systemic racism and her role this summer as one of the founders of Black Theatre United – and even as she sings about the “stormy weather . . . breaking my heart” – McDonald’s overall message exudes the determination and confidence that we shall overcome through love. And even as she pays homage to James Baldwin and James Weldon Johnson, she also conveys her ongoing love for the American musical as she gives new life to old standards.

Many of the picks I’ve shared with you this year have offered both beauty and truth. I’m not sure any of them have simultaneously delivered so much heart and hope, for theater and for this country, during a dark hour when both are so endangered – and so desperately need our love and commitment.

4. A Leap of Faith (Actors Theatre of Louisville; American Modern Opera Company):

Greek drama began as a musical ritual that we’d call a church service. Hence it’s no accident that in the midst of a pandemic, theater is again drawing on its religious roots in seeking cosmic answers – or at least taking in a bit of inspiration (from Latin, “to breathe in”) – to (en)lighten our way. One need not be overtly religious to grasp theater’s continued quest for answers – and solace – in mysteries extending beyond our atomized, isolated selves. And in this century, those answers often entail radically revising hoary and frequently patriarchal stories so that theater might more fully embrace another of its foundations: genuine communitarianism.

Voilà: On Thursday night I found myself watching a reading from the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival that allowed me to fall in love all over again with Erin Shields’ Paradise Lost, a wickedly funny feminist redo of Milton’s great epic that I first saw at the Stratford Festival two years ago (its juiciest role, a charismatic female Satan, is made for Tracy Michelle Arnold, much as this play is made for APT; just saying).

The reading was a livestream that’s come and gone, and it’s not a musical. I mention it at all in this week’s picks because Shields’ lyrical play reminds one of the intimate relation between music and poetry – and because it’s been published and is well worth a read, so that you can discover these connections for yourself. Maybe it will even inspire you to pick up Milton’s epic, which is one of the greatest poems ever written.

The Keep Going Song
Friday night, I watched Actors Theatre of Louisville’s The Keep Going Song. It’s the latest creation from The Bengsons, the married indie-folk duo of Abigail and Shaun whose Hundred Days – about making the most of love and life in a world of approaching death – couldn’t be more relevant to our current moment. The Keep Going Song is available through October 8 on a pay-what-you-can basis.

Like Hundred Days, The Keep Going Song – a song cycle which was written during quarantine – plunks for life in a time of death, without ever ignoring the pain and suffering all around us. The Bengsons’ hour-long journey into the light is unapologetically religious without being traditional; while it invokes Judeo-Christian rituals, it moves toward a free-wheeling and exuberantly ecumenical pantheism. Musically and thematically, the Bengsons suggest Pete Seeger crossed with Sufjan Stevens, abetted by Abigail’s big and expressive voice, which sings the blues with a twang reminiscent of Janis Joplin. I intend all three comparisons as supreme compliments.

El Niño
Saturday, I made time for El Niño, an abridged chamber music version of John Adams and Peter Sellars’ massive Nativity oratorio. Think Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity with Latin American poetry and a Latinx twist. The 2000 original not only included big choruses, fleets of soloists, and huge orchestral arrangements, but also included a Sellars film featuring young Latinx mothers in California. This meditative version has no film or chorus, four soloists, and a chamber orchestra of twelve; it’s more akin to a song cycle.

It’s positively delicious to see mostly BIPOC singers, led by truly divine soprano Julia Bullock, performing this hour-long piece in the Eurocentric Fuentidueña Chapel at the Met Cloisters. True to its creators, El Niño itself is nontraditional: not only multicultural, but also feminist, focused on the environment, and willing to draw parallels between events like Herod’s killing of the innocents and atrocities such as the Tlatelolco Massacre.

For all that, its final redemptive moments remind me of the conclusion of The Keep Going Song; in both of these song cycles, we don’t so much circle back as spiral upward, having emerged from our journey through the valley of death with a hard-earned victory over darkness and despair in which love conquers all.

5. John & Jen (Highland Arts Theatre):

While August productions of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar are getting most of the attention, there’s another musical being performed live this month before socially distanced audiences, in a country that’s done far better than this one in tackling the pandemic. Nova Scotia’s Highland Arts Theatre is not only offering free tickets to audience members for its current production of John & Jen, but also offering one free livestream performance of this early Andrew Lippa musical. It’s available this coming Friday, August 28, at 6 pm CDT.

Best known as the composer of musicals like You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown (1999), The Wild Party (2000), The Addams Family (2009), and Big Fish (2013), Lippa’s John & Jen debuted in 1993. It’s a generation-spanning two-hander about siblings (Jen and John #1) as well as a mother and son (Jen and John #2) that travels from 1952 to 1990 while exploring how fraught family relations can be – and the abiding love that nevertheless makes them worth it.

I’ve seen most of Lippa’s work; Milwaukee companies staged each of the above-mentioned shows during my years as a critic. But I’ve never seen this one. Watch along with me this Friday and tell me what you think. It may not be the same as a contrapuntal exchange in the lobby after the show. But who’s to say theater lovers can’t still make sweet harmonies that transcend the sound of silence, bringing us together even if we’re still oceans away?

References (in order of mention):

* Ari Afsar, We Won’t Sleep:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLopDUYgvIY

* Ari Afsar and Lauren Gunderson, Jeannette (homepage):
https://jeannettemusical.com/

* Angelica Chéri (lyrics) and Ross Baum (music), Freedom (as sung by Solena Pfeiffer and Emmy Raver-Lampman in rehearsal for the Signature Theatre production of Gun & Powder):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZfU4Si6rag

* Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard, Head Over Feet (as sung by Antonio Cipriano, Celia Rose Gooding, Sean Allan Krill, and Elizabeth Stanley from the Jagged Little Pill cast):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHilyL6YfYU

* Women in Theatre: A Centennial Celebration (Playbill) (trailer):
https://playbill.com/womenintheatre

* From Skylight With Love: A Concert for Unity (Skylight Music Theatre) (registration):
https://www.skylightmusictheatre.org/news-media/please-register-here-for...

* Jeff Herbst and Katie Dahl, The Jeff and Katie Show (Northern Sky Theater):
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0u1DbwW6oLl0JoacjhZQcVFuKllno_qv

* Songs of Hope (Northern Sky Theater) (trailer/registration):
https://northernskytheater.com/songs-of-hope/

* Trunk Songs (Northern Sky Theater) (trailer/registration):
https://northernskytheater.com/trunk-songs/

* Lachrisa Grandberry, The Healing Session (Northern Sky Theater) (trailer/registration):
https://northernskytheater.com/healing-session/

* Audra McDonald, Live with Carnegie Hall:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2O8kD97sj8Y

* Black Theatre United (informational video):
https://www.blacktheatreunited.com/

* Erin Shields, Paradise Lost (Playwrights Canada Press, 2018)

* The Bengsons, The Keep Going Song (Actors Theatre of Louisville):
https://www.actorstheatre.org/

* John Adams and Peter Sellars, El Niño (American Modern Opera Company):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlPo0s-JXok

* Tom Greenwald and Andrew Lippa, John & Jen (Highland Arts Theatre):
https://tickets.highlandartstheatre.com/TheatreManager/4/tmEvent/tmEvent...