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.

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Memories In Concert – Elaine Paige at Town Hall – March 9, 2013

From her West End debut in Hair to her acclaimed performances in Evita, Cats, Chess and Sunset Boulevard (to name but a few) Elaine Paige has (rightfully) earned the title “The First Lady of British Musical Theatre”. Along the way, she has had success on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard, a brief stint in the New York City Opera production of Sweeney Todd and most recently in the revival of Follies. She is also a noted recording artist, with albums that cover a wide variety of songs, from musical theatre to standards, and even an entire album of Queen songs; she also hosts her own radio program on BBC Radio. She has had concert tours in her native England, as well as all around the world, and it is only in 2013 that she has finally (!) embarked on an American concert tour, with her New York concert venue at the historic Town Hall.

Elaine Paige in Concert

Her concert kicked off with a Sting song “An Englishman in New York”, with fragments of “America” (from West Side Story) interpolated, to which she quipped afterwards that it was her only opportunity to sing that particular song. She went on to point out the confusion she experienced in the verbal differences between British and American English [French fries instead of chips, chips instead of crisps, eggplant instead of aubergine] when she was last in New York during Follies. This segued into her acknowledging that there were a few of her Follies co-stars in attendance (indeed, I spotted Jayne Houdyshell in the audience, and another concert goer had remarked he also spotted Mary Beth Piel), which followed with her spectacular rendition of “Broadway Baby” during which she briefly outlined her early theatre credits in between verses. Next she related a colorful story about her time in the Hair tribe, and her trepidation of having to be naked on stage, which led into “Easy to be Hard”. Next up was “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King and I, which she had played on the West End, and which she humorously had re-titled The Kings and Me, due to the seemly revolving door of actors playing the King.

Next, she related a story of meeting Dustin Hoffman early on in her career when she had doubts on pursuing her musical theatre career – she had related that he had given up pursuing a career as a concert pianist in favor of becoming an actor, and she credits Hoffman for giving her advice to keep at singing. This lead to her auditioning for a role coveted by every actress – the role of Eva Peron in Evita – and she proceeded to sing her audition song – the Beatles song “Yesterday”, which was sung much more dramatically than the original version; this naturally segued into the first of her signature songs, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” from Evita. I should note that the accompaniment was a four member band playing the piano, string bass, guitar and various woodwinds (flute and alto saxophone). While not on a Broadway stage, it was thrilling to finally hear Ms. Paige sing this song live in New York, to which she quipped “it only took 35 years” for her to do so, which was rewarded with a rousing standing ovation. This was followed by “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard, which was the show in which she made her Broadway debut. I was fortunate to have seen her as Norma Desmond, and she was amazing in the role (I’ve discussed in a previous blog that I had cheered so much during her performance that I literally lost my voice and therefore physically unable to speak with her at the stage door). The song was also greeted with thunderous applause and a few people giving a standing ovation (myself included – Sunset Boulevard is one of my all time favorite musical scores).

Next up was a tongue in cheek song “Small Packages” written especially for her – as she is four-foot eleven in height, her dreams of being a “tall, leggy blonde” were out of the question, lamenting that she was too short for most of the leading roles but as the song reveals, thankfully for her, “Eva Peron was short”. Following this was another humorous story of her meeting the Queen Mother after a performance of Anything Goes, which led to a fantastic rendition of “I Get A Kick Out Of You” followed by the Noel Coward song “Mad About The Boy” (which she had recorded on her “Romance and the Stage” album), which she sang with the stylistic mannerisms of a socialite, a maid and a chanteuse singing of their fixation on a silent movie star.  This led to her discussion of her involvement in the development of Chess, singing “I Know Him So Well” as a solo song instead of as a duet as the song was originally sung. She then remarked on how she has played two roles that share the same initials as her own – Eva Peron and Edith Piaf, leading into a staccato-laden, declarative arrangement of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (which was originally arranged more lyrically and softer on her Piaf recording). Her final song was “If You Love Me” also from Piaf, which was a powerhouse of a rendition – I wish I had been able to have seen her in Piaf – this was greeted with much applause and another rousing standing ovation.

For her first encore, she related the story of how she had become involved in Cats, which (as she told the story) was unexpected and perhaps by fate – she told of how she had heard the radio DJ stating that the theme to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s [then] new musical would be played after the midnight news. Rushing home to tape the music off the radio, she relates how a bedraggled black cat found its way into her home and how that was a sign of good fortune (unlike how it is in the US). The next day she was contacted by Lloyd Webber to replace Judi Dench, who had suffered an injury and had to withdraw from the production. This led into a powerful rendition of her “other” signature song “Memory”, once again greeted with a huge standing ovation, and induced a second encore, which was an amazingly powerful rendition of “With One “Look”, from Sunset Boulevard.

Elaine Paige in Concert

Elaine Paige looking stunning in red.

 The stage door area was a bit crowded, with no visible barricades (though as it was a concert and not a stage performance, that wasn’t to surprising); when Ms. Paige came out (after waiting about twenty minutes or so) she was quickly ushered into her car, as her next concert was the next day. I don’t recall if she was able to sign anything, but those waiting out in the brisk evening were miffed that she was rushed off into her car. In fairness, her next venue was in New Jersey, and taking into account the fact that the clocks were to be set an hour ahead due to Daylight Savings, it made sense for her to rest up for her next concert – and at least she did exit out the stage door, so at least those waiting at the stage door were able to thank her for her wonderful concert.

This is the only photo I was able to take outside the stage door

This is the only photo I was able to take outside the stage door

I thoroughly enjoyed this concert, which touched upon the majority of her musical theatre career, and many of the stories she told during the concert I had heard several years ago when there was a book signing for her memoirs, Memories at Barnes & Noble. Her voice was as powerful and emotional as always, sustaining long notes with ease, and her banter was easygoing and witty (with the cultural word differences between England and America as a running theme).  I would have loved to have heard some of the pop and standards songs she has sung on her many solo recordings – perhaps she will be able to if she were to embark on another US concert tour.

Just a Little Touch of Star Quality: Ruminations on Evita – January 18, 2013

A healthy dose of charisma and ambition coupled with excellent networking skills and good timing can almost always guarantee success in all aspects of life, though rising to fame and fortune from humble beginnings does have its dangers as well. Such is the case in Evita, based on the life of Eva Peron, the famous or infamous (depending on your view of Argentinian history) First Lady of Argentina in the mid 20th Century, which is currently playing (at least until January 26, 2013) at the Marquis Theatre.

Evita Marquee

[Brief Disclaimer: I have been a great fan of and have seen most of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, and Evita was the fourth and final of what I have dubbed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Big Four” that I had yet see live on stage, the other three being Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Blvd. and designated as such due to the fact that each of those Lloyd Webber musicals won seven Tony Awards in the year they were nominated. This was the first Broadway revival of Evita since the original production played over thirty years ago, and it’s only now I’ve had a chance to see this production. Also, as I had not seen the original production, (though I had seen the 1996 film adaptation) my frame of reference for the musical is via the various English language cast recordings which interestingly enough, are different from one another (of course, aside from the different casts) – certain songs were changed, and others added in, most notably “You Must Love Me”, which was written for the film adaptation is now included in the musical’s score.]

As often the case, I had obtained my ticket via the TKTS board located in the heart of Times Square, which was fortunate, as it was a full house, aside from a few single empty seats. The show as a whole was great, from the sparse yet effective set design, the elaborate choreography and costumes, capturing the essence of post World War II Buenos Aires. Of course, the “star quality” draw for this revival was Ricky Martin, whose entrance was greeted with much applause – his portrayal of Che, the everyman narrator, was great, though for whatever reason, he elongated every vowel in every word he sang in the opening number “Oh What a Circus”, which seemed to slow down the tempo of the song. This did not occur as much in his subsequent songs, and his charisma shone throughout. As the titular character, Elena Roger, who has the distinction of being the first Argentinean actress to portray the role, she was fine acting-wise, but her singing was quite shrill and vibrato-laden; ironically perhaps, her voice became tolerable and more lyrical as the evening progressed, so that the lament she sings at the end was quietly poignant. But then again, having grown up listening to Julie Covington, Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone on the Original 1976 concept album, the London and Broadway cast recordings, respectively, (and later Madonna in the film adaptation movie soundtrack) the bar was set pretty high on how the songs were to be sung, and my expectations were equally as high. While not having the same amount of songs, Michael Cerveris was fantastic as Juan Peron, displaying a wide range of emotions throughout. Other standout performances were from Max von Essen as Augustin Magaldi, who belted out “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” with much gusto, and Rachel Potter, as the Mistress, who sang “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” with a balance of pragmatism and trepidation.

Evita Curtain Call -forefront (left to right):Michael Cerveris, Elena Roger & Ricky Martin

Evita Curtain Call – forefront (left to right): Michael Cerveris, Elena Roger & Ricky Martin

The stage door experience was a bit more eventful than usual or expected – I should preface this with the fact that the Marquis Theatre is located on the second floor within the Marriott Hotel, and the stage door is roughly a street block distance and on street level from the hotel doors, so there’s quite a distance to cover if one is to attempt to get a good spot to wait at the stage door. All this being said, I’m usually quite agile in getting to the Marquis stage door, and can usually secure a spot right in front of the metal barricades; however, knowing that there would be a larger than usual throng waiting (mostly for Ricky Martin, and some for Elena Roger), I made a mad dash to the stage door and perhaps my forward momentum combined with the occasional wind gusts propelled me forward too quickly and I stumbled roughly midway to the stage door. I was fine, nothing broken, (though I felt a bit bruised as I got up) and there was a tiny gash on my forehead, for which the helpful stage door security personnel directed me back inside the Marriott Hotel to get cleaned and bandaged up. As I (slowly) made my way back to the stage door area, a huge crowd already surrounded the stage door, as well as across the street (as there were cops on horseback on patrol ensuring the street was clear for the oncoming traffic) with the metal barricades a good six feet or so away from the actual door. The stage door security personnel who helped me had allowed me to wait on the other side of the barricade, closer to the stage door.  Probably a good twenty minutes or so passed before the cast started to emerge – of course there was a huge ovation when Ricky Martin came out, and he was good at signing as many playbills as possible before leaving via SUV, after which the crowd thinned considerably. Elena Roger, Michael Cerveris as well as ensemble member George Lee Andrews stuck around to chat and pose for photos.

At the stage door: Ricky Martin, Elena Roger & Michael Cerveris

At the stage door: Ricky Martin, Elena Roger & Michael Cerveris

Despite my aforementioned critiques, the overall production is great, and it’s a shame it’s closing – the official reason is that the producers were unable to find suitable replacements (as I believe Ricky Martin was to depart the show next week). I have a sneaking feeling that one of the reasons is that the producers could not find a replacement of the same celebrity stature as Ricky Martin; there are plenty of capable (albeit not well-known outside the theatre community) actors who could take over the role – Max von Essen, who does understudy for and has performed the role multiple times, could be a viable successor, but alas the business side of show business seems to take precedence these days. I’m glad to have seen this production, and would recommend it.

Signed playbill

Signed playbill

Broadway in Bryant Park 2012: Rebecca, Sistas: The Musical, Chicago, Rent, Evita, & Newsies – August 9, 2012

For the penultimate 2012 Broadway in Bryant Park lunchtime concert, the apparent theme for the afternoon was one word titled musicals (discounting the usually ever-present “The Musical” descriptor) with grand showstoppers and loyal and vocal fan bases: Rebecca, Sistas: The Musical, Chicago, Rent, Evita, and Newsies. I arrived at Bryant Park that morning at my usual time and sat in my usual seat, and like the previous week, the weather was warm and sunny, but it wasn’t to be exactly as usual. Not too long after I settled into my seat, I was politely informed by one of the event volunteers that the row in which I usually sat (front center, on the lawn behind the gravel path where the press sat) as well as the rows to the left and right was to be reserved for VIPs. It was the first time this has happened (at least to me), so I moved to the second row on the left side, which was still a good view of the stage, albeit a smidge to the left. As always, the seats filled up quickly, with some opting to stay in the shade until the performance began. The 106.7 Lite FM host was Victor Sosa.

106.7 Lite FM host Victor Sosa

First to perform was the upcoming Rebecca, which starts its preview performances on October 30, 2012 at the Broadhurst Theatre, and is based on the book of the same name (from which the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film was also based) by Daphne du Maurier. Stars Ryan Silverman, Jill Paice, and understudy Maree Johnson were on hand to perform four songs: Jill Paice sang “Free Now”, Maree Johnson sang “She’s Invincible” Paice and Ryan Silverman sang “Help Me Through the Night” and all three sang the title song “Rebecca”. I must say I am looking forward to seeing this show (and hoping it succeeds), which was originally produced and performed in Vienna (and in German) – the songs were grand, sweeping arias befitting the grandeur of the source material.

From left to right: Jill Paice, Maree Johnson & Ryan Silverman

Next to perform was Sistas: The Musical, an off-Broadway show about a multi-generational African-American family, currently playing at St. Luke’s Theatre, and was a “Broadway Bite” (though technically speaking the show is running off-Broadway) with the cast Tracey Conyer Lee, Lexi Rhoades, April Nixon, Jennifer Fouché and Amy Goldberger singing a pair of songs; I wish I could recall the first song they sang, but the second song was the oft-used family oriented anthem “We Are Family”, to which the cast encouraged the crowd to sing along (most did).

Cast of Sistas The Musical: Tracey Conyer Lee, Lexi Rhoades, April Nixon, Jennifer Fouché and Amy Goldberger

Next was Chicago, which is currently the longest running revival, playing at the Ambassador Theater, and is (as stated at the very start of the show) “a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery – all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts”. The cast members on hand were Donna Marie Asbury, Dylis Croman, Cristy Candler, Tonya Wathen, Tony Yazbeck, Peter Nelson, Amos Wolff and Denny Paschall; the songs that were sung were “All That Jazz”, sung by Donna Marie Asbury, “Roxie” sung by Dylis Croman, “All I Care About”, sung by Tony Yazbeck, and “My Baby and Me”, sung by Dylis Croman, all performed with the classic Bob Fosse choreography.

Clockwise from top left: Donna Marie Asbury, Tony Yazbeck & Dylis Croman

Next up was Rent, the off-Broadway incarnation of the modern adaptation of La Bohème playing at New World Stages until September 9, 2012. Cast members Anthony Federov, Sean Michael Murray, Emma Hunton, and Shaleah Adkisson were on hand to sing three songs: Anthony Federov sang “One Song Glory”, Federov was joined by Sean Michael Murray to sing “What You Own” and Emma Hunton, and Shaleah Adkisson sang “Take Me Or Leave Me”.

Clockwise from top left: Anthony Federov, Sean Michael Murray, Emma Hunton, & Shaleah Adkisson

Next was Evita, currently playing at the Marquis Theatre and tells the life story of Eva Peron, the former first lady of Argentina. Stars Christina DeCicco, Max von Essen and Rachel Potter were on hand to sing a trio of songs: Christina DeCicco sang “Buenos Aires”, Rachel Potter sang “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, and Max von Essen and Christina DeCicco sang “High Flying, Adored”.

Left to right: Christina DeCicco,Rachel Potter & Max von Essen

The final performance of the afternoon was from Newsies, based on the Disney film of the same name, currently playing at the Nederlander Theater based on a true story about the trials and tribulations of teenage newspaper sellers at the turn of the 20th century. This was the show that had the most vocal fans present at the park, and presumably the reason for the increase in reserved seating. Cast members Corey Cott, Kara Lindsay, and Julie Foldesi were on hand to sing three songs: Julie Foldesi sang “That’s Rich”, Corey Cott and Kara Lindsay sang ‘Something to Believe In” and Corey Cott sang “Santa Fe”.

Left to right: Julie Foldesi, Corey Cott & Kara Lindsay & Corey Cott

 

Again, despite the warmer than usual yet typical August weather, it was  an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.