Sunday morning Michael Dale: Dear Funny Girl: Let Julie Benko sing!

This week…

Romeo & Juliet presented by Sister Shakes Productions through August 14 at the Under St. Marks Theater as part of FRIGID’s Little Shakespeare Festival. ($25 or pay what you can)

Shut UP, Emily Dickinson at the Abrons Arts Center until August 13. ($31, students $21)

Funny Girl at the August Wilson Theater. ($69 discount tickets available)

Inexpensive and recommended…

Down To Eartha at the Gene Frankel Theater, August 18-21. Dierdra McDowell’s excellent solo piece on the blacklisting of Eartha Kitt after her anti-war comments during a luncheon at the White House. ($25, students/seniors $20)

I can not wait to…

Mom On Skype at Irondale, August 13-14 ($30, students/seniors/working artists $15). A group of Ukrainian children were flown to America to perform a play they created and created while in a bomb shelter.

Opening number…

In 2005, I overheard the musical theater’s formidable triple threat Charlotte d’Amboise replacing Christina Applegate in that season’s Broadway revival of Sweet Charity, the Neil Simon/Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical which, upon its premiered in 1966, was fashioned by director/choreographer Bob Fosse into a smashing vehicle for Gwen Verdon.

Since then, the title role of Charity Hope Valentine has been a landmark piece for notable musical theater dancers such as Chita Rivera on tour, Juliet Prowse in London, Debbie Allen and Ann Reinking in the 1986 Broadway revival and, well, sure, Shirley MacLaine on film.

Daughter of New York City Ballet stars Jacques d’Amboise (a Kennedy Center winner) and Carolyn George, Charlotte d’Amboise had risen to Tony-nominated Broadway dance star with Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and the knocked out (and still does on occasion) like Roxie Hart in Chicago.

Without a doubt, Charlotte d’Amboise did a good job that night as Applegate recovered from a foot injury, but I left the theater feeling that what kept her from really rising skyrocketing is that she was in a production that was set for a star known more for her acting talent than her dancing ability. Stand-ins and stunt doubles often say their job is to faithfully replicate the performance of the person who regularly plays the part and, while I have no idea what the situation is, it wouldn’t surprise me if the dancing star was governed by a choreography that was created for someone who doesn’t quite have his expertise.

I had the same feeling watching Julie Benko do similar work last Tuesday night during the first performance of her 5 week run as Fanny Brice 8 times a week in the Broadway revival of Funny Girl. Like many theater fans, I had read the accolades she was getting as a replacement for Beanie Feldstein, and since I doubted the press would be offered compositions during her run, I popped in for a ticket to see by myself.

Benko caught my eye, oh so subtly, in the opening scene, which, in Harvey Fierstein’s revision of Isobel Lennart’s book, has Fanny looking at herself in a mirror to sing a snippet from the ballad “Who Are You Now?”. As originally written by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill, Fanny sings the lyrics to her husband Nick Arnstein, trying to make sense of the state of their marriage. But here it is a moment of introspection that Benko sings with a slight murmur in a voice that sounds fully supported; force that brings vulnerability. I was excited to hear what was to follow.

But by the end of the night, I was convinced that Fierstein’s revisions, intentionally or not, drastically reduced the main character’s flashiest vocal moments, which I think prevented the new star from really soaring.

Kurt Csolak, Julie Benko and Justin Prescott
(Photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

For example, the sexy blues intro to “Cornet Man,” a moment when young Fanny gets the chance to really show her stuff, was cut in favor of a new plot point that hit Brice with stage fright. debuting at The Keeney Vaudeville House. Watching her gradually gain confidence while performing the number is a cute routine, but it takes away the opportunity for a terrific “biggest star” vocal performance.

When it’s time for “Who are you now?” being sung entirely by Fanny, at the end of the second act the chance of hearing Benko’s captivating quiet strength continue through the end of the number is eliminated as the new version evolves the song into a duet with Nick of Ramin Karimloo , leading into a cover of the show’s hit song, People.

But the most radical vocal cut is that of the extraordinary torch song that has always served as Funny Girl’s 11 o’clock number, “The Music That Makes Me Dance.” The selection that features Styne’s most delightfully complex melody in the score is cut short before the grand finale, depriving the audience of a chance to cheer on the star who sings the song’s devastating climax. Instead, we see a ballet of Fanny’s memories that eventually lead her to sing “Funny Girl,” a far less complex and vocally demanding song that was added for the film. This transitions into the traditional musical comedy ending, an inspirational short cover of “Don’t Rain On My Parade”. It’s an encouraging moment, sure, but the potential thrill of hearing a huge response to Benko ringing at the end of that 11 o’clock is certainly missed.

“Someone else has already written La Belle d’Amherst, and it was…good.”

By the time our esteemed narrator (Gregg Bellón) took his low-key swipe at William Luce’s popular bio-play, it’s already become apparent that Shut UP, playwright/actress Tanya O’Debra, Emily Dickinson ($31, students 21 $) isn’t going to be, as our host sarcastically states, “My book report on Emily Dickinson, by Tanya O’Debra.”

Sunday morning Michael Dale: Dear Funny Girl: Let Julie Benko sing!
Tanya O’Debra and Gregg Bellon
(Photo: George Courtney)

Well, I guess the title gives it away pretty quickly, but if not, certainly the all-white set and props of director Sara Wolkowitz’s production (no set designer is credited) – a reference to the poet’s reputation as a that The Woman in White – and the fact that at the entrance the audience can see the main character wrapped in his sheet in his nightgown, with his back to the house, are solid clues.

After receiving a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson, O’Debra, after some rudimentary research, concluded that Amherst’s famous recluse was most likely “a deeply boring person”, so her portrayal is less that of an intellectual. proper and witty New Englander and more of a devious East Village sage whose esoteric genius can be sexually alluring to the unprepared. Hang around art/literary enclaves long enough and you’ve probably dated a few before you built your self-esteem.

What little plot there is in the 65 minute procedural is inspired by a collection of letters and poems that Dickinson addressed to the “Master”. Stationed backstage, Bellón seems to represent an assortment of stable presences for O’Debra, including The Master and a pizza delivery man.

I won’t really pretend to be silent, Emily Dickinson, but watching how the literary giant balances contemplating mortality, obsessing over cats and craving compliments in her latest social media photo was weird and fun.

Press invitation of the week…

There is so much live theater in New York City and every week, critics and other theater journalists find their inboxes filled with invites to more than any human being can handle. But a catchy description can put a show at the top of the must-see list. Like this one for Don’t Do This To Us! by Stephanie Swirsky, from August 12 to 28 at the Tank. (Tickets $35)

“It’s 2022 and Rachel worries about growing anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world. She blames Jared Kushner for making the world more dangerous for Jews because his public image embodies the worst of Jewish stereotypes: he’s rich, greedy, and disturbingly wields world power behind the scenes.She hatches a plan to travel back in time to 1999, meet teenage boy Jared, and break his penis, preventing him from marrying Ivanka – saving the life and reputation of Jews around the world.

While a friend of mine once described Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as “a bit of a bro-show”…

…for its abundance of flashy male characters strutting their testosterone on stage, Sister Shakes Productions, a New York-based company on a mission to present stories of female and non-binary identification, casts the bard classic in an effort to interrogate concepts of masculinity and femininity and focus on queer joy.

Presented at the cozy Beneath the St. Marks Theater as part of FRIGID’s Little Shakespeare Festival, director Sam Stone’s abbreviated 90-minute production may be stripped down, but the five young company members give lively, funny and enthusiastic performances, with the vigorous Romeo by Annella Kaine and Shelby Capone’s flirtatious Juliet leads the ensemble of Yessenia Rivas, Michael Springthorpe and Natalia Urzua, all of whom play multiple roles. With tickets available on a paid basis, this would be a great production for young theatergoers just getting into Shakespeare.

Curtain line…

Suggested name for a company that specializes in delivering non-traditional opening night gifts: I Won’t Send Roses.

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