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NYMF Roundup #3

(Clockwise from left:) Aaron Berk,
Aaron Ramey, Deb Heinig, and Kate Shindle
in The Woman Upstairs
(Photo © Marcus Jones)
[Ed. Note: This is the third in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the New York Musical Theatre Festival.]

Jot down the name Brian Lowdermilk, the composer-lyricist who has written the astonishing score for The Woman Upstairs. Incorporating additional lyrics by director-librettist Kait Kerrigan, the Lowdermilk has tossed out a cornucopia of melodies and counter-melodies that rocket him upward on the list of people who are pointing to exciting new directions for the book musical. Among the elements that he's blended into his work are hip-hip rhythms and the sophisticated joys of folk-rock philosophers like Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. With each adventurous song, the listener increasingly wants to hear what Lowdermilk will unfurl next. The pinnacle of his achievement may be the company number "Fusion" -- fusion being Lowdermilk's strongest suit and, ultimately, one of the tuner's important messages.

The woman upstairs is Helen Morton (Deb Heinig), a teaching scientist who's more a dedicated scientist than teacher. After being fired by her department head, Professor Kassan (Kate Shindle), Helen has to endure the awkwardness of having the aggressive prof put romantic moves on her. No go, since Helen has embarked on a love/hate relationship with blind street violinist Milo (Aaron Ramey). There's little question that the disoriented Helen will soften her attitude, especially as guided by the boozing street person Gracie (Alison Fraser); this is a love story, after all. But before Gracie's admonitions take effect, Helen has to complete a few actions -- one of them bidding farewell to her dead brother, Phil (Aaron Berk), who keeps haunting her.

The Woman Upstairs is being presented as a "concert reading," and not everything in the production jells. The purposes of both brother Phil and Professor Kassan waver. There's an even bigger problem: Lowdermilk and the adept director Kerrigan have carefully spread the song goodies around to everyone but Helen, who sings only at the end when she finally lets music into her soul. Helen is a role no first-rate singer-actresses will hasten to play -- yet when she finally sings, she has to knock audience socks off. Lovely actresses who sing okay, which Deb Heinig is, may not be able to deliver the necessary goods when it's most crucial to do so. Still, Lowdermilk and Kerrigan are the real thing, and The Woman Upstairs is as promising as a musical in the developmental stage can get.


The Man Who Would Be King is another in what may someday be looked back on unenthusiastically as "Moment Musicals." In each of these, a determined protagonist sings at least once and maybe even twice or three times about pursuing a transcendent moment, and the audience is supposed to care.

In the DJ Salisbury-Neil Berg adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's tale, the fellow declaring "the moment is now" is Daniel Dravot (Tony Lawson). In turn-of-the-19th-century India, he travels to a far-flung corner, hoping to locate gold that will set him up for life. When he finally gets there after causing an avalanche, he's crowned king and given the hand of princess Roxane (Mandy Bruno) -- for a while. (This is one of those sleight-of-hand plot twists that novelists like Kipling get away with.) Dravot's ultimately futile escapade is reported in flashback by his traveling companion, Peachy Carnahan (Paul Anthony Stewart), who alone lives to tell the woeful tale.

Well, librettist-lyricist Salisbury also tells the tale, but not well; he has had trouble finding a seamless structure for this musical based on Kipling's cautionary tale about the wages of colonialism. The main problem is that neither Salisbury's dialogue nor his lyrics turn Daniel into a charismatic character. Daniel and Peachy are supposed to be charming rogues who eventually lose their charms by over-reaching; here, they're charmless. Princess Roxane sings a song about wanting a man with laughter in his eyes, but as Dravot and Carnahan are written and as they're played by Tony Lawson (who looks and sounds like Robert Goulet) and Paul Anthony Stewart, the eyes don't have it.

The Man Who Would Be King has the feel of a musical-comedy-classroom exercise indifferently executed. In a curious way, Kipling's saga could be a metaphor for Salisbury and Berg. With Paul Dobie directing and Karen Azenberg choreographing, they've ventured into Kipling's promising hills for gold and come back empty handed.


Like You Like It
It takes chutzpah to transform a Shakespeare comedy into a musical. The plots, late Renaissance equivalents of the campus musical, are there for the plucking, but there's no escaping the language comparisons that are invited. Sometimes -- as with, for instance, the John Guare-Galt MacDermot tuner Two Gentlemen of Verona and Danny Apolinar's Your Own Thing, the laudable cockiness inherent in such undertakings works into the piece itself.

That has happened again with Like You Like It, the spirited entertainment that librettist-lyricist Sammy Buck and composer Daniel S. Acquisto have made of the Bard's As You Like It. The title alone, recognizing contemporary disregard for correct grammar, signals craftiness and craft. The Buck-Acquisto imaginations extend to moving the Bard's Arden Forest to Arden Mall, where teens celebrating 1983 trendiness try to connect with each other while playing hooky. Rosalind Duke (Rebecca Bellingham) is chased by Orlando Bateman (Charlie Mechling) until she catches him and simultaneously brings together other hormone-happy couples.

Librettist-lyricist Buck's liberty-taking is the kind of which it's said, "If Shakespeare were alive today, he would have written like this." Maybe -- although he probably wouldn't have put "Holy crap, he's talking to me" into Rosalind's otherwise witty mouth, and he might have found a way to keep his amusing first-act wrestling match in the action. He also would have thought twice before eliminating the seven-ages-of-man Jacques from the dramatis personae. Among the welcome additions in this show directed by Jen Bender and choreographed by Stephen Nachamie is a rock singer (Michele Ragusa) who calls Chrissie Hynde to mind.

The score is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Rock is the mode, and a rock band is situated upstage, playing under Gillian Berkowitz's direction. Though tunesmith Acquisto is too busy emulating '80s sounds to establish a sound unique to him, the melodies are serviceable. Buck's lyrics are more than that: "Easy Way Out," "So Close So Far Way" and "Be With Me" would be chart-climbers if this were a time when show tunes still climbed charts.

Like You Like It is so knowing that, at one point, Rosalind -- having strutted through Arden in man's clothes -- cries, "I'm a girl dressed as a boy. Can't anyone see that?" How Rosalind gets away with her thinly-veiled ruse is a question that Shakespeare audiences have asked for centuries. It's clever of Buck to have her call attention to the flimsy disguise, and that's only one of many examples of this musical's cleverness.


Oscar Wilde didn't get around to writing the plays that earned him international fame until after he'd published his lush, moralistic fairy tales in 1888. The Happy Prince, which Frank Schiro has adapted, is about a crying statue. As Wilde frames it, the tale itself would make a statue cry: A prince (Tally Sessions) who's laden with rubies, sapphires and gold leaf enlists the help of a migrating swallow (Cristin Boyle) to distribute his rich adornments to suffering townsfolk.

The story is sentimental as all get-out, and odd coming from the man who said of Charles Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." It turns out that Wilde could be as big a softie as the next fellow -- and so can librettist-lyricist-composer Schiro. Flaunting Wilde's kind heart and his own, he writes emotionally in a program note, "If even one or two of you tonight experience only the smallest flickering of a light finding its way to a place inside you that might be in shadow, I will have succeeded."

Let it be known that he's succeeded. In musicalizing The Happy Prince --and he's not the first to do so -- Schiro has kept Wilde's extremely Christian fable about self-sacrifice intact, this both despite and because of the liberties taken with the tale. Among the beneficial and amusing changes, Schiro has made Wilde's swallow part of a Modernaires/Manhattan Transfer-like singing group. In another inspiration, he has decided to name the swallow Rara Avis. (He also changes the bird's gender, thereby avoiding a homoerotic frisson when prince and swallow fall in love.) Among Schiro's less dubious achievements is his alteration of Wilde's joltingly sad ending. (He may have thought it too much for the kiddies in a musical with large family-fare potential.)

Schiro has a nice way with melody and a straightforward approach to lyrics; Sessions and Boyle sing the songs assigned them with lyric beauty. (They're well-directed by Shawn Churchman, and Boyle's fancy flights are soaringly choreographed by Susan Ancheta.) Sessions is so strong that he would benefit from a few more tunes, possibly including an early one elaborating on his then-happy disposition. In the original, Wilde stresses the importance of being earnest, but Schiro doesn't hold the pose; he takes two repressive town councilmen (Tim Howard, Roland Rusinek) and uses them as comic relief. Calling the snickering heavies Cedric and Fredric, he hasn't yet made them genuinely funny, which is disappointing. If he's gotten this far, Schiro should be able to go completely Wilde.


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