Everything Old Is New Again: Max von Essen at Birdland Jazz Club – August 19, 2019

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Nostalgia is a powerful thing – it seems just about every movie or television franchise is being revived or revamped for the newer generation who may not have experienced the hype (good or bad) surrounding its original run or even seen them (though these days it’s streamed online). Same goes for songs, many of which are re-recorded by different artists, who may (or may not) provide their own spin on the songs. On the other hand, there are those singers who remain true to the song’s original intent and lend their voices to reviving that sound from yesteryear to the modern era. Max von Essen is in the latter category, bringing back elegance and style with his first solo album “Call Me Old Fashioned: The Broadway Standard”.

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I’ve been acquainted with Max von Essen for several years, having first encountered him in Dance of the Vampires (which should have been a greater success, but that’s a discussion / digression for another post), and have seen him in Les Miserables, and Evita. A gifted musical theater actor, he has a natural charm about him and an affinity for the Standards (songs from the early to mid-20th Century), which has resulted in this first solo album (the first of many, one can hope). While the album was released earlier this year in April, it was only this week he was able to celebrate its release (having been on the US national tour in Falsettos for most of the Spring/Summer); the event was held at Birdland Jazz Club on August 19, 2019.

The evening consisted of Max singing songs from the album, accompanied by Billy Stritch, who also features on several tracks, coupled with anecdotes of how he discovered these songs and its influence on his life and career. Among my favorite songs (well, they’re all my favorites, obviously) is the gentle and romantic interpretation of “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” from Evita, a contrast to the soaring, borderline melodramatic aria as it (usually) exists within the musical. Another highlight of the evening was a rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” (not on the album, but hopefully on the next one…?) prefaced with his history with Les Miserables; he told the tale of his opportunity to cover the role of Marius (twice!) towards the end of the show’s original run and the first revival of the show a few years later, and never getting to play the role (though he was a fantastic Enjolras in the latter production).

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Needless to say, the event (and the album) was a joy to experience, and it’s probably safe to say that Max is among the next generation to keep the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Lerner and Lowe (to name but a few) alive and introduce them to generations to come.

Once-a-Year Day – Adventures at the Broadway Cares /Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Grand Auction

Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) is a stellar organization that supports a variety of social causes, and has a multitude of fundraising events throughout the year. One of their most popular events is the annual Flea Market & Grand Auction, held on the last Sunday in September, often referred to as “Broadway Christmas”, as fans can obtain almost everything theatre related, from vintage and contemporary playbills and /or posters (signed and unsigned) to prop pieces and costumes worn on stage, as well as the typical flea market items (books, CDs, and baked goods). There’s also an autograph table with a rotating list of theater actors, a silent auction for unique (usually signed) items, and the Grand Auction, where extraordinary experiences such as walk-on roles for specific shows, backstage tours and opening night tickets for next season’s shows are up for the bidding. The Flea Market & Grand Auction starts at 10 AM and ends at 7PM (the Grand Auction starts around 5PM – I think. I never stick around to watch the Grand Auction, as it’s somewhat distressing to not be able to afford the starting bid for such unique experiences; besides, by that time I’m usually exhausted and out of funds.)

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There are a multitude of tables, most of which are show specific, selling memorabilia from their shows, but by far my favorite table is the TDF Pik-a-Tkt table, where you can win a pair of tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway (and sometimes off-off Broadway) shows. It’s one of the most popular tables, and (in my opinion) one of the most addictive, and probably one that raises a lot of money. The premise is simple: there are three medium sized containers full of (stapled) raffle tickets; if one of the raffles has a winning stamp, you are awarded a white envelope with a pair of tickets, or a voucher good for two tickets. The envelopes are sealed, and are randomly selected by the volunteers working the table, so there’s a level of suspense and (sweet) anticipation of finding out the winning show. Then there’s the “trading pen” – well it’s it’s not really a pen per se, but it is a quasi-contained and designated area where raffle winners confer with one another to maximize their winnings by either straight trading for different shows or change show dates. It’s a kind of networking and semi-collaborative effort to get the shows (and the date) you want, and a pretty good way to get to know fellow fans.

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I’ve mentioned the BC/EFA and its Flea Market & Auction in most of my entries, as it’s usually the source of where I’ve obtained tickets to the many shows I’ve seen (and blogged about) thus far. I’ve attended the Flea Market & Auction for the past fifteen years, and in recent years I’ve spent the bulk of my day actively participating in the TDF table, usually winning a multitude of tickets every year, sometimes making good trades, and sometimes not (depending on which shows I’ve won and my willingness to trade). I also spend the day perusing the other tables picking up interesting trinkets or CDs, almost always taking copious amount photos of items for sale (for posterity), wishing I had the funds to purchase them. Even though there are designated tables where credit cards are accepted, I always bring a set amount of cash with me, thus limiting my spending ability (and to ensure that I don’t bankrupt myself inadvertently). It’s also a day on which I can easily see friends I’ve met through the various shows I’ve seen (usually bonding at the stage door), friends I’ve known since high school and “friends” I’ve encountered and interacted with at the TDF table (usually in the trading area.

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As it’s an outdoor event literally in and around Shubert Alley, weather is a key element. The weather is almost always fair in temperature, sometimes with overcast skies; sometimes it’s warmer than usual and sunny. There was one year when it was indoors (at the now closed) Roseland Ballroom due to the torrential rain. In years past, West 44th Street was closed off so that the entire street (and sidewalks on either side were full of people looking for great deals on theatre-related items, which resulted in congestion and crowds around the more popular tables. There had been a few years when the pedestrian areas in the middle of Times Square were used to station tables, which spread out the Flea Market experience. The 2016 Flea Market was different than it had been in previous years in that only half of West 44th Street was cordoned off for tables, allowing for ongoing (one way) traffic the other half of the street. The flea market then wrapped around to West 45th Street with the same configuration, and was limited to that city block; Shubert Alley remained in use as it always had been, and the use of the pedestrian areas in Times Square proper were not utilized. I suppose this was done to ease traffic (for cars and people alike) in the area, as Times Square is already a popular and (usually) overpopulated area on any good day.

It’s always a fun day and a great start to the new Broadway season. As the title of this entry says, it’s my Once-a-Year Day, where I have loads of fun, meet up with friends and find the most unique theater-related items (and win lots and lots of show tickets). All the proceeds go to a worthy cause and helps scores of people throughout the City and across the country. For more information about Broadway Cares and the other Events it holds, visit their website: https://broadwaycares.org/

Where Everything is New: Something Rotten! CD signing at Barnes & Noble – July 16, 2015

Another cast recording release, another CD signing – Barnes & Noble recently held a CD signing for the (physical copy of the) cast recording of Something Rotten!, including a three-song performance from the cast. These performances/signings occurred at the Barnes & Noble store on the Upper East Side (on 86th Street), which logistically makes (somewhat) sense for currently running shows, since the cast would arrive at the CD signing (which started at 4PM), perform and sign CDs then head to the theatre for the evening’s performance.

Something Rotten! CD signing Sign

As I often do, I arrived at the Barnes & Noble that morning to get the CD and the [peach] wristband that ensured me a seat inside the event. Of course, if you’ve followed the (few) blog posts I’ve written about CD signings, you’ll know that even though the [peach] wristband guarantees priority seating, I still camp out outside the event space to ensure a front row seat (I know I don’t really have to, I do it anyway), listening to the cast recording on repeat on my iPod. Other people started to arrive around a bit before noon, and I saw a few of the familiar faces I usually see at these events, which makes the time pass at a faster pace.

The cast trickled in shortly before the event start to conduct sound check (it’s always a fun to watch (and take copious amounts of photos of) the “pre-show” and see the cast go through the motions before the performance). Once again, Barnes & Noble Event manager Steven Sorrentino greeted the (very enthusiastic) crowd and introduced each song, accompanied by a pre-recorded backing track (as opposed to a piano accompanist). First to the stage were cast members Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani singing “God, I Hate Shakespeare”, followed by Kate Reinders and John Cariani singing “I Love the Way” and ended with Christian Borle singing “Hard to be the Bard”.

Brian d'Arcy James & John Cariani - "God, I Hate Shakespeare"

Brian d’Arcy James & John Cariani – “God, I Hate Shakespeare”

Top: Kate Reinders & John Cariani - "I Love The Way" Bottom: Christian Borle - "Hard to Be the Bard"

Top: Kate Reinders & John Cariani – “I Love The Way” Bottom: Christian Borle – “Hard to Be the Bard”

Additional cast members Heidi Blickenstaff, Brad Oscar, and Michael James Scott joined the aforementioned for the customary (mini) press photo session before assuming their seats for the CD signing. The line moved at an even pace, even with the press photographers (and those waiting in line – including me) snapping photos as the CD booklets was passed down the table. There wasn’t as much chatting amongst the cast and those waiting, as there was a huge line of people waiting, and (as mentioned earlier) the cast had a 8PM show to perform.

From left to right: Michael James Scott, Heidi Blickenstaff, John Cariani, Brad Oscar, Kate Reinders, Brian d'Arcy James and Christian Borle

From left to right: Michael James Scott, Heidi Blickenstaff, John Cariani, Brad Oscar, Kate Reinders, Brian d’Arcy James and Christian Borle

The cast recording of Something Rotten! is hilarious and the show (as I understand it, as I have yet to see it, due to financial constraints) is a reminiscent of Spamalot and The Producers, with a dash of The Drowsy Chaperone  and a plethora of Shakespeare (obviously). There are hundreds (thousands?) of references to other musicals, both in the lyrics and the music, and the overall sound of the score reminds me of other great musical scores, both from the “Golden Age” as well as contemporary scores. It’s a delightful cast recording for any musical theatre fan – they’ll be laughing and singing along with the cast (as well as making a checklist of all the musical theatre references).

I also hope someone, somewhere will actually write Omlette The Musical.

Something Rotten! signed CD booklet

Brady vs. Partridge: The Bardy Bunch at 54 Below – June 21, 2015

The Bradys and Partridges are movin’ on up…

Oh wait – wrong (classic) TV show.

As mentioned in previous blog posts, I’ve been a fan of The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady, written by Stephen Garvey, since I saw the production four years ago in the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa (located downtown in the East Village), during the New York International Fringe Festival. Since then, the show has undergone some (minor) script changes as it continues its trek uptown, having most recently played at the Theatre at St. Clement’s (located on 46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue) last spring. The latest stop on its (hopefully inevitable) journey to the Great White Way reached 54 Below (located at 54th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue), where musical theatre performers perform intimate cabaret shows.

Bardy Bunch at 54 Below

The performance I attended was an encore presentation (the first show happened a month prior), and was more of a mini-concert than excerpts from the stage production. Yet the overall premise was similar: the Bradys and Partridges crossed paths due to an inadvertent double booking and took turns to win over the audience. Several of the iconic songs from The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family were sung, along with other notable ‘70s songs – fitting given the reputation of the venue. Some of the Shakespearean elements from the stage production were sprinkled throughout. Many of the cast remained the same from previous incarnations, and expertly used the intimacy of the venue to their advantage, weaving between the tables and interacting with the audience to their great amusement.

Bardy Bunch 54 Below

For more information about The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady, please visit their website: thebardybunch.com.

Bardy Bunch cast list

Dance With Never A Care: An American in Paris CD signing at Barnes & Noble – June 12, 2015

So, it’s been a while since I attended a CD signing, or seen a show for that matter – but that has more to do with finances than lack of interest; there are so many shows (new and ongoing), yet not as much time to go see them all (and then there’s the exorbitant ticket prices…). Nevertheless, attending a CD signing is almost always within my budget, and more times than not, cast members perform songs from their show, which is always a draw.  As mentioned in past CD signing blog entries, I don’t/can’t always attend every CD signing Barnes & Noble, (and I’m grateful that Barnes & Noble is still around so events such as these can take place), I always make an effort to attend one in which I have an interest, which leads me to the recently released cast recording of An American in Paris. Along with the CD signing, the event included performances from the cast, held at the Barnes & Noble store on the Upper East Side (on 86th Street).

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Per usual, I arrived at that Barnes & Noble early to get the CD at the main register (though I had purchased the cast recording via iTunes before they announced the CD signing) and received my [silver] wristband to guarantee a seat inside the event. Also, per usual, I staked out my “usual” spot outside the event area to start the attendance line, listening to the cast recording on repeat on my iPod (other people started to arrive around noon, and the crowd steadily gathered afterwards). For events such as these, I often see the same bunch of people waiting in line, and struck up conversations with them while we all waited – it’s usually the only time I see these (same) people, and the camaraderie that emerges from these quasi-occasional events is special in its own way.

Cast members arrived roughly an hour before the event start [4:30PM] to conduct a sound check, and we were ushered into the room shortly before the event start. Barnes & Noble Event manager Steven Sorrentino greeted the crowd and introduced to the makeshift stage cast members Leanne Cope, Robert Fairchild, Max von Essen, Jill Paice, and Brandon Uranowitz. First, Robert Fairchild and Jill Paice sang “Shall We Dance?”, who were then joined by Leanne Cope and Max von Essen to sing “For You, For Me, For Evermore”, which segued to Brandon Uranowitz and Jill Paice singing an emotional “But Not For Me”. The performance section ended with Robert Fairchild, Max von Essen and Brandon Uranowitz singing (in three part harmony!) “‘S Wonderful”, all of which were greeted with great applause from the crowd.

Top row: Jill Paice & Robert Fairchild (Shall We Dance?), Leanne Cope & Max Von Essen (For You, For Me, For Evermore) Bottom row: Jill Paice & Brandon Uranowitz (But Not For Me), Robert Fairchild, Brandon Uranowitz & Max von Essen ('S Wonderful)

Top row: Jill Paice & Robert Fairchild (Shall We Dance?), Leanne Cope & Max Von Essen (For You, For Me, For Evermore) Bottom row: Jill Paice & Brandon Uranowitz (But Not For Me), Robert Fairchild, Brandon Uranowitz & Max von Essen (‘S Wonderful)

After the customary (mini) press photo session (at which the press photographers in attendance stood in front of the seated audience (I managed to snap a few photos during the portion of the event), the signing took place, wherein the aforementioned cast members sat at the table to sign the CDs (plus a few other memorabilia). They greeted and (sometimes) briefly chatted with the attendees, while the press photographers were taking photos of the proceedings. As there was a long line of people, and the knowledge that the cast members were time constrained (due to the fact that they’d need to be back at the theatre for their show that evening), I didn’t linger around (though I kinda wish I had).

From left to right: Robert Fairchild, Jill Paice, Brandon Uranowitz, Leanne Cope & Max von Essen

From left to right: Robert Fairchild, Jill Paice, Brandon Uranowitz, Leanne Cope & Max von Essen

Needless to say, An American in Paris is one of the new shows I need to see, with its lush Gershwin score, as well as its choreography and exquisite scenic and lighting design, (for which it won the 2015 Tony Award). Amid the jukebox musicals and the long running standards, it’s lovely to hear the music and lyrics from George and Ira Gershwin back on Broadway.

Actually, it’s more than lovely – ‘S Wonderful.

An American in Paris Signed CD booklet

Coming Up Roses: Thoughts on Mama Rose’s Turn – The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Door Mother

Mention the phrase “stage door mother” and the first thought on most people’s minds is Mama Rose, the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc, in the musical Gypsy; for avid theater fans, this line of thinking can (and usually will) lead to a discussion/debate on the various actors who have portrayed the larger-than-life character on stage, screen and television since the musical’s debut in 1959. Yet the character as depicted in the musical, as well as some of the events that occur in the musical were loosely based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, as discovered by Carolyn Quinn in her book, Mama Rose’s Turn – The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Door Mother, which recently was dramatized in conjunction with the Ziegfeld Society on February 22, 2014.

Mama Rose's Turn playbill

[Disclaimer: Once again for the sake of full disclosure, Carolyn Quinn is one of the good friends I met during my (almost) year of seeing the 2010-2011 revival production of La Cage aux Folles. As always, the opinions and musings stated in this blog are my own, with no influence from the author whatsoever.]

While the book was published last November, (at which time there was a discussion and book signing), I have yet to read her book (though it’s on my never-ending “to read” list). The dramatic summation of her book began with Loria Parker, playing the role of Rose, reenacting Gypsy’s act one finale, singing out the showstopper “Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses” only to be interrupted by the narrator, who proceeded to tell the true life story of Rose Hovick, with the aid of archival photos. During the narration, there were several period-specific songs such as “I Want To Be A Janitor’s Child” and “Hard Boiled Rose” sung by June and Louise, portrayed by Merrill Grant and Vanessa Altshuler, respectively (piano accompaniment provided by Mark York from the Ziegfeld Society), and a few dialogue driven scenes in between songs, wherein the narrator assumed the role of various other characters who interacted (mainly) with Rose.

Mama Rose cast

From left to right: Author & Narrator Carolyn Quinn, Merrill Grant (June Havoc), Loria Parker (Rose Hovick) & Vanessa Altshuler (Gypsy Rose Lee)

The show was informative and entertaining, and the three actors portraying Rose, June and Gypsy were fantastic in their respective roles, capturing the spirit of those three memorable personages, with some of the inconsistencies and myths surrounding the family explained. The show’s content was thoroughly researched by the author with the aim of providing (for the first time) an accurate biography of such an iconic figure in entertainment history. To date, there is no word of whether this show will have a future, but considering the popularity of Gypsy and the character of Mama Rose (or at least the archetype she represents), there will always be an interest and fascination for this legendary character. While this production was put together in a short period of time (four days, to be precise) I do hope there will be an expanded version with a full cast – perhaps even billed as a companion to Gypsy – in the years to come.

To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics, it’s about time Mama Rose had her turn to have her own dream to be in the spotlight.

Love, All Ways: Mandy Gonzalez at 54 Below – December 4, 2013

Best known for her roles in In the Heights and Wicked, Mandy Gonzalez is a Broadway singer/actress with a considerable vocal range who recently made her cabaret debut at 54 Below singing an eclectic mix of songs from her various stage roles and pop/rock songs. She is also a quasi-acquaintance of mine (somewhere between being a fan and a friend), as I had first met her when she was in the short-lived Dance of the Vampires and was blown away by her impressive vocals (and probably one of the few actors that I have seen on stage who could match the vocal intensity to share the stage with Michael Crawford as they had when they sung “Total Eclipse of the Heart”). When I had first met her at the stage door all those years ago, I recall telling her that she’d be a Broadway star, and sure enough, she has fulfilled that prophesy.

 Mandy Gonzalez at 54 Below

54 Below is a perfect venue for her to make her cabaret debut, as that space is intimate as well as infamous – its location (as the venue name suggests) was where the famed Studio 54 was located, not too far from the Times Square area. The venue itself is relatively new, having opened in June 2012, and has quickly become a hub for theatre cabaret shows, with the likes of Patti LuPone, Norbert Leo Butz, Aaron Tveit, Sherie Rene Scott (to name but a few) taking to the stage to perform to an audience that are at arm’s length from the stage.

54 Below

Dressed in a black sequin top and black leather pants, Mandy started the show with a bit of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, exuding lots of spunk and sass before segueing into a brief fit of nerves from doing her first solo show, to which the musical director advised her to just “Breathe” (a reference to one of her songs from In the Heights). She didn’t sing all of “Defying Gravity”, as she wanted us to “get to know her better” before she went on to belt that song out (which garnered some laughs).Among the non-theatrical songs she proceeded to sing (and belt) were “A Little Less Conversation”, originally sung by Elvis Presley, Prince’s “Kiss”, and the Queen song “Crazy Thing Called Love”; she also sang The Temptations’ song “Get Ready” both with an upbeat tempo and also as a haunting torch song – in between these two renditions she spoke of her family and their influence on her life and career. She then spoke of her parents and the love letters they had written to one another early in their courtship and remarked how her father would sign his letters “Love always” but spelling it “wrong” so that it read “love all ways”, which no doubt was the inspiration behind her naming her first cabaret show “Love, All Ways”. She then sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (the longer version of the song with its original lyrics), which was greeted with much applause and cheering, especially as she belted out and riffed the final notes as she had done at the final performance of Dance of the Vampires. There was also a portion of the show dedicated to her experiences in In the Heights, including a confession that she never really learned how to speak Spanish growing up, and how there had been several different songs for her character Nina’s first song in the show – she sang one of those songs (I can’t remember the exact title) then sang “Breathe”, the song that ended up in the show. At the end, she finally sang the entirety of “Defying Gravity” which earned her a standing ovation from the audience. For an encore, she sang “The Best in the World” from A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine as a tribute to Priscilla Lopez, her co-star in In the Heights, who had originally sung; Ms. Lopez was in the audience, and Mandy had acknowledged her as being a valued friend and inspiration.

Mandy Gonzalez

She lingered about after the show, greeting friends and fans alike, posing for photos and such, conversant and personable as she always is. Though she only performed for one night, there has been talk of future shows (including a return engagement at 54 Below some time in 2014!) and I sincerely hope there will be more opportunities for those in New York City (and perhaps elsewhere) to hear her amazing voice and experience her vivacious personality.

Me and Mandy