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

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A Good Nightmare Comes So Rarely, While Ordinary Dreams Are So Easy To Find: Ruminations on Dance of the Vampires

Vampires and vampire hunters have always been a ubiquitous and (for the most part) successful presence in popular culture – in movies, on television, in video games and of course, in literature; the one genre where this kind of achievement has proven to be elusive is on stage, particularly in the realm of musical theatre (at least on Broadway). Ten years ago tonight, Dance of the Vampires started its previews at the Minskoff Theatre (after a two-day postponement due to technical issues), and had been (at the time) the most expensive musical to be produced on Broadway. The show was an English adaptation of the German musical Tanz Der Vampire, which was, in turn, based on the Roman Polanski film The Fearless Vampire Killers and boasted a score by Jim Steinman, most noted for epic rock songs for Meat Loaf. The show also heralded the return of Michael Crawford to the Broadway stage since his definitive performance in Phantom of the Opera. There were great expectations for the show, and on the surface it seemed that it was destined to be a sure-fire success – sadly, the reality fell far short of the expectations.

[Disclaimer: Once again, in the spirit of full disclosure, my interest in Dance of the Vampires began when it had been announced that Michael Crawford would be returning to Broadway as Count von Krolock. I’ve already mentioned previously that Mr. Crawford is one of my favorite theatre actors, and I was greatly looking forward to seeing him live on stage – so this is advanced warning that parts of this blog will come across as highly emotional and quite possibly end up just being one quasi-coherent long rant. Also, as this blog is about Dance and not Tanz, there will not be any overt comparisons/criticisms between the two productions; again this blog, as with all my previous and future blogs, is of my own opinion and should be respected as such.]

I have already mentioned in a previous blog, the fact that Dance of the Vampires was slated to play at the Minskoff Theatre (which at the time was still “cursed”) did not bode well in my mind; added to the fact that there were substantial changes from its source material, Tanz der Vampire, to make Dance less dark and more comical was probably not a good sign either. I will not speculate on hearsay on the reasons behind these changes or other rumors on the goings on during rehearsals and such; I’ve never put too much stock in that kind of gossip and repeating them all these years late would perpetuate the initial incident, which could or could not have been something totally different. Needless to say, the changes were made, songs were dropped and other songs were added – would Dance have had a longer run had the plot and score been just like Tanz? Maybe, but then again maybe not; there’s no point in wondering what could have been, but to reflect on what did happen.

The plot of Dance of the Vampires revolves around the highly logical vampire hunter Professor Abronsius and his former theology student turned factotum Alfred arriving in the village of Lower Belabartovich in Transylvania to slay the last of the vampires, the charismatic Count Giovanni von Krolock. The Count, in turn, has his sights set on seducing Sarah, the innkeeper’s daughter, who is destined to fulfill an ancient prophesy that “vampires will dance in the light of the sun”. My initial and everlasting impression of the show was that it was highly entertaining, with a fantastic score, which included “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (which was always received with applause and laughter, mostly due to recognition). The set design was spectacular and the visual effects astounding, though I will admit that some of the early preview costumes for Count von Krolock were far too outlandish and unbelievable – thankfully the Count’s costumes were changed to be more in the same vein (pun intended) of the traditional image of vampires. Also I found it highly ironic for a show with vampires to have so much bright white light in it – artistically done, but it was all far too much.

The entire cast was astounding – having missed seeing Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera, I was delighted to have been able to see and hear him on stage in character (I had only seen and hear him sing in concert several years prior); he has a knack for comedy along with a flair for drama as the charming yet conflicted Count von Krolock. As Professor Abronsius, René Auberjonois, best known for his TV and movie roles, was equally brilliant; other standout performances came from Mandy Gonzalez and Max von Essen, as Sarah and Alfred, both of whom were vocal powerhouses destined for greatness. Also,  given the show’s title, I was amused and delighted that every cast member, at one point or another, did dance on stage.

Again, as stated in a previous blog, Dance of the Vampires had received the most hateful, negative “reviews” I have ever read, most of which were not so much reviews for the production itself, but seemed to be personal attacks on Crawford himself, and barely mentioned any of the other cast. All the print reviews were so similar to one another that I could almost believe that one critic had written the review and the other critics had used that as their template. I felt (and still feel) that this was deliberate, uncalled for, and most certainly contrary to what a critical review should be; I could understand (though not agree) that had these personal attacks been limited to newspaper gossip columns or internet message boards and forums, I would have considered them to be opinions of whomever had written them – everyone is entitled to an opinion, after all. I may not agree with them, but they have a right to them, as do I have a right to my own opinions.

The production ran a little over three months, and I was fortunate to have seen the show nine times within that time frame. This show was also the first show for which I had attended both the matinee and evening performance – the final two performances, which were highly emotional and enthusiastically received (if memory serves). I even recall overhearing some departing theater-goers question why such an entertaining show was closing, which was in stark contrast to an incident that happened to me shortly after the “reviews” came out. I had been outside the Minskoff Theatre waiting to enter the theater, when I stuck a conversation with some passersby looking to see a show; when I had recommended they see Dance I can recall the haughty tone of one of the passersby, who had accused me of being a shill for the show. When I had responded that I wasn’t, I was looked upon with suspicion and disbelief. Needless to say the incident startled me immensely and gave me some insight on how persuasive press reviews can be to the average theatergoer, as well as a sober lesson that even if “everyone” dislikes a show, there are some who love that same show, and their adoration should not be dismissed.

I can recall the stage door area being swarmed with theater-goers that final night, which was astounding not only for their appreciation for the hard work the cast and crew gave, but also due to the fact that it had been  quite a cold and windy winter evening (though it did not snow). Looking back at the show ten years after it started, despite the negative reviews, I thoroughly enjoyed the Dance of the Vampires and saw it for what it was – an evening of fun entertainment with great songs, brilliant staging and a fantastic cast. It’s a shame that an official cast recording was never made (if there is one, it’s never been released).

So it would seem the moral of this story is that singing vampires apparently do not and/or cannot succeed on Broadway – subsequent to Dance, two other vampire-centric musicals open and quickly closed – Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula: The Musical and Elton John’s Lestat. Though with the rise in popularity of vampires on film and TV these days, maybe there’s hope that Dance could possibly have a second life (or at least perhaps a concert version).

Michael Crawford as the Count von Krolock – his final (albeit blurry) appearance