By Dorian Palumbo
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
Six women who take a class in “Mediumship and Divination” bite off more than they can chew in Dorian Palumbo’s supernatural drama Divination, which had its world premiere Off-Off-Broadway.
This cautionary tale for the grown Harry Potter generation shows what happens when a troubled young woman named Tara (Yating Sun) sets out to explore the latent powers she has only begun to understand, and winds up moving too quickly, drawing the five other nascent clairvoyants in her class into a paranormal whirlpool that endangers them all.
It’s an exciting and interesting idea for a play, but Palumbo’s script needs to develop the enigmatic Tara much more and the supporting characters relatively less. Ken Coughlin’s production winds up emphasizing that difference, with stronger performances in some of those supporting roles, especially Esther Ayomide Akinsanya as the peppery crystal-seller Michelle, and Abigail Choi Arader as the sensitive budding sorceress Badriyah.
Considering the subject matter, the play could also benefit either from more numerous magical special effects, or a more suspenseful build toward the climactic special effect it does have. The play gets A-plus for diversity, creating a naturally interacting multi-ethnic variety of characters who never fall into stereotypes in a play about a variety of spirits whose externals are less important than their hearts.
Divination had its world premiere at the Sargent Theatre in the American Theatre of Actors complex at 314 West 54th Street in Manhattan through Nov. 11.
Director/producer/choreographer, two-time TONY Award nominee, Joey McKneely, has assembled a gifted group of musicians to bring award-winning playwright, Randall David Cook’s memorizing Gothic romance, SHADOWS, to life. Edison Woods, Maxim Moston, and Karen Bishko transport their audiences into an hypnotic world where lovers – living and otherwise – tell their tales in soaring song and elaborate dance.
SHADOWS follows the secret romance of Claire and Alex. Well, secret to those on this plane. In the afterworld, behind the chiming clock and shuddered windows, another romance between Woman in Red (Claire’s Grandmother) and Man in Blue weave gracefully between the passions of Claire and her young lover. The other spirits, Man in Black and Woman in Silver, unhappy about this affair, torment the lovers. It isn’t until the last few minutes of this stirring piece that we see how the lovers of this world are the salvation for the ones beyond the grave.
SHADOWS was born between a collaboration of playwright and choreographer, using dance as an equal form of narrative to the book. The dances either tell of past encounters, reveal parallel emotions with the main characters, or foreshadow events. In addition, there are two female composer/lyricists who give this musical a unique voice by alternating from hauntingly poetic, alternative dance music to emotional, character driven songs. Along with the third composer, the score creates a modern complexity by using music to set the mood of the characters inner selves. Also, Kabuki style staging was utilized to create the world of the supernatural.
Ai and other five Star Arts Journal sites will follow the production now that its begun rehearsals and continue through coverage of opening night … and beyond.
So speaking of Claire … let’s meet one of the stars, Janine DiVita.
Janine Divita has been seen on Broadway as Rizzo in Grease, Anything Goes, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. National Tours: Anne in If/Then starring Idina Menzel, Mary Barrie in Finding Neverland, Elizabeth in Young Frankenstein. Regional credits include: Evita (Eva Peron, JET), Oliver! (Nancy, WST– Barrymore Award Nom.), Spamalot (Lady of the Lake, TUTS), A Walk on the Moon (Pearl, NYSF/Vassar/Powerhouse), Candide (Paquette, Alliance/Atlanta Symphony). Concert work includes: Edmonton Symphony, Omaha Symphony, Broadway Rox (International Tour), Lincoln Center, 54 Below (Solo Shows: #LIT: Modern Broad and Blonde Ammunition). TV/Film: The Deuce, Elementary, The Americans, This Is The Moment, Hear My Song (feature film). University of Michigan alum. Love to husband, Rich.
We were thrilled to sit and chat with this jewel of Broadway on creating this powerful role.
Tell us about yourself as an artist.
I’ve been working in the entertainment industry for over 10 years now. My career has been varied and I am always challenging myself with new ideas and projects. I studied musical theater and communication studies in college, and with that I have been able to not only work on Broadway, on National Tours, and in Tony Award winning Regional theaters, but I’ve been able to expand to on-camera work, concert work, writing, and producing. I am also very passionate about teaching and outreach and have brought the arts to the military through my company Empowered Voices. I’ve come to realize that I am not one thing and that that is my identity. I am ever changing and ever growing, and I am fortunate to live a life and be in an industry that encourages that.
Tell us about your role in Shadows
I play Claire in Shadows. She is a wonderfully complex woman who is discovering new sides of herself throughout the journey of piece. The colors are endless and I have such empathy for her struggles. Like all of us, Claire has gone through different seasons of life and she wrestles with her decisions and with her need to give and receive love in a genuine way.
What I find fascinating about Shadows is that the storytelling defies genres. Audiences will not only experience a suspenseful book musical, but they will be entranced by the phenomenal dancers who interpret the story and emotion simultaneously. I’ve never been a part of something so innovative and I’m very excited to be a part of this daring piece.
Share with us your thoughts on independent theater. What is its significance to the skyline of entertainment in NYC?
Independent theater is the heartbeat of NYC theater. Shadows is sexy, funny, human, and scary as hell (kind of the way I would describe New York)!
Also, Shadows has been in the works for years. It takes guts to make a show happen. The sheer tenacity of the creative team aligns with the “won’t quit” attitude of New Yorkers. We all know that when something matters, quitting is not an option!
I also think that New York audiences want to see something different. New York theater goers have seen it all. They want to be excited and surprised and independent theater can do that.
Give ’Em Hell, Harry! by Samuel Gallu
Reviewed by Robert Viagas
The tiniest one-man show in one of the smallest Off-Off-Broadway venues thundered out some of the most powerful verbal brickbats about America’s political situation on the eve of the fraught 2019 elections.
Though Give ’Em Hell, Harry! was written more than 40 years ago and toured back then with James Whitmore in the title role of President Harry S Truman, the play sounds to 2018 ears to have been written last week as a reproach to the current holder of that job. And all without mentioning his name.
The thirty-third president, Truman served 1945 to 1953, from the end of the World War II through the Korean War. The play presents him as a folksy and amiable Everyman who was catapulted by fate into the Oval Office by the untimely death of his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt. For all his humility, Truman had a spine of steel. This is the man who okayed the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and personally sacked the popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination in Korea. J. Dolan Byrnes plays Truman in this production as such a naturally sweet little guy that when he loses his temper—as Truman often did—it really makes an impact.
But what gives his production its sharp edge is Truman’s warnings about the potential for abuse of power and publicity that he saw in the highest offices of the land. He was talking about the likes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other period demagogues, but his cautions ring even truer today. He asserts that the public must remember that it is the boss and elected officials are its servants, reminds us that “the law is for everybody in this country,” warns of “reckless fanatics who could destroy us all,” and insists that one of the biggest dangers in the public discourse is “the Big Lie,” one that leaders “repeat over and over until people believe it.”
He concludes with Truman’s statement that “The most valuable piece of property in this country” is—“the voting booth.”
The play’s title comes from an apocryphal incident at one of the Truman’s fiery campaign speeches. A supporter reportedly yelled out, “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” to which Truman is said to have replied, “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s Hell.” This revival certainly gives Truman’s current successor a good hot taste.
Directed by Joan Kane, Give ’Em Hell, Harry! was presented by Ego Actus at the Episcopal Actors Guild, 1 East 29th Street in Manhattan through October 28.
Stage and film professional, Joey McKneely, is a two-time Tony Nominated Broadway Choreographer (Smokey Joe’s Cafe and The Life) and the international Director and Choreographer of West Side Story. Other Broadway credentials include Twelfth Night, The Wild Party, The Boy From OZ and the West Side Story revival. He directed/choreographed the U.S. National Tours of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Annie Get Your Gun, Crazy For You and Smokey Joe’s Café. Internationally, he directed/choreographed the world premieres of Love U Theresa, Ah, Kuling! And Jiu Gan Tang Mai Wu In China; The Beautiful Game, Thoroughly Modern Millie, West Side Story in Japan; Evita and Dusty in London. On film, McKneely is known for his work on Zoolander, The In Crowd, and Far East.
SO WHAT’S HE DOING HERE??
Mr. McKneely is making the transition to NY stage director as well as choreographer. After nine years workshopping his gothic dance musical, Shadows, he is ready to unveil the dancing specters and klavish romantic plot. A powerhouse cast including Janine Divita, who appeared on Broadway in Grease, Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Anything Goes; and Alex (John Arthur Greene, who will be appearing in Tootsie on Broadway with previous Broadway credits of School of Rock, Chicago, West Side Story, Matilda, and on NBC in Peter Pan Live. and special guest, Irina Dvorovenko; a Soloist with the American Ballet Theatre as well as having made Broadway star-turns in Encores! productions of On Your Toes and Grand Hotel).
Let’s learn about indie theatre’s newest luminary:
Tell us about yourself as an artist.
Wow…that’s a loaded question. Which part of me as an artist?
- The driven, unrelenting, anal retentive, detail artist?
- The compassionate, boundary pushing, the up in the middle of the night with a new idea artist?
- The laughter, screamer, emotional, method actor artist?
- The arrive early-leave late, sweaty, full out dancer artist?
- The insecure, cerebral, the need to be accepted, commercial artist?
- Or maybe the artist who is so in love with being an artist that he wouldn’t be happy doing anything else?
Not sure how to answer this question.
Tell us about your role in Shadows
I am the Director, Choreographer and a co-Creator. I have been developing this project for 9yrs with Randall David Cook. And more recently with our composers who have added songs which have really given life to the piece. Each time Edison Woods, Maxim or Karen bring a new piece of music into the show, the show gets elevated to a whole new level. It’s been so satisfying to work with all of these artist. I am so proud of the work all of them have done.
Our mission was to create a story where dance was an equal part of the narrative. The Spirits tell their story through dance, and the Lovers through song and text. Both stories feed on each other and interweave emotions, plot and character. It’s been interesting shifting hats from Director to Choreographer and then back to an author. It’s made me very hyper-aware of storytelling in every detail. I learn everyday something more about the show though this process and the process of collaborating with each of the other authors. Each member of the team shines because of this process.
Share with us your thoughts on independent theater. What is its significance to the skyline of entertainment in NYC?
As someone who is new to independent theater, I am exhilarated by the freedom of it! It’s an arena which one can make up one’s own rules. Find new ways of telling a story without the constraints of having to make a profit or please a particular crowd. One can experiment. Hopefully, if we do it right, we will find a greater path for the show and reach a wider audience. Right now, it’s all about the work. Which is what NY Theater needs more of. Affordable ways to produce theater in order for artist to discover how to be great story tellers. I applaud all of those artist! Because it ain’t easy, especially if one is a self-producing artist. I feel there is an undercurrent of desire not only on the theater artist side but on the audience side who are hungry for original story telling that’s entertaining and invigorating. I believe independent theater is not part of the skyline of entertainment in NYC….it is part of the underground of entertainment in the city. Doesn’t always work, but it’s affordable, real, and vital to the life blood of the artist who one day may very well be lighting up the skyline of NYC.
Theater Resources Unlimited’s The 2018 TRU Love Benefit, “The Power of Community” honoring Baayork Lee and John Chatterton
The event honors legendary A Chorus Line co-star and co-founder of the National Asian Artists Project Baayork Lee, who will receive the TRU Spirit of Theater Award for a lifetime of creating opportunities for Asian artists. Ms. Lee is choreographing the upcoming 50th Anniversary celebration of A Chorus Line at City Center. Cast members will be coming to TRU to help celebrate her. TRU is also honoring off-off-Broadway maverick, creator of the former OOBR Awards and the Midtown International Theatre Festival, John Chatterton who will receive the TRU Entrepreneur Award for providing 17 years of developmental opportunities for a range of independent theater artists.
Performance and award show will be directed by Jonathan Cerullo, Broadway/NYC choreography consultant for Say, Goodnight Gracie; assistant director and/or choreographer for Band in Berlin, Anna Karenina, The Three Musketeers, original cast of Legs Diamond; and choreographer for Big Apple Circus’ Carnivale! & Picturesque @ Lincoln Center. He will be assisted by Andrew Winans, with music director Lulu Picart and stage manager Jim Semmelman.
APPEARANCES INCLUDE: Members of the recent U.S. National Tour, Japan International Tour, upcoming China International Tour and upcoming 50th Anniversary New York City Center productions of A Chorus Line (Mel Cabey, Samantha Cho Grossman, Aaron Patrick Craven, Giovanni Da Silva, Steven Del Col, Veronica Fiaoni, Lauren Garriott, David Grindrod, Ryan Koerber, Laura Pierpont, Zoe Schneider-Smith, Madison Tinder, Jake Vielbig and Baayork’s assistant Andrew Winans), plus Sam Simahk (Carousel revival, Curly in Oklahoma! at TUTS, 1st National Company of The King and I), will be joining Tony Award nominated Brenda Braxton (Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Chicago); original A Chorus Line co-stars and Tony Award winners Donna McKechnie and Priscilla Lopez; NAAP co-founders Nina Zoie Lam and Steven Eng, as well as selections from MITF musicals Thrill Me! by Stephen Dolginoff, Sistas (the long-run off-Broadway hit) by Dorothy Marcic, Take Me America by Bill Nable, and more!
It all takes place on Sunday, November 4, 2018 from 12pm-4pm at Caroline’s on Broadway, 1626 Broadway, NYC. Tickets are available at Eventbrite(https://www.eventbrite.com/e/tru-love-benefit-2018-the-power-of-community-tickets-50935196544); details about the gala are athttps://truonline.org/events/tru-love-2018/. Tickets start at $50 for the performance only, $115 for performance plus three-course luncheon.
Event committee members include: Broadway/Off-Broadway Producers Lisa Dozier King, Pat Flicker Addiss, and Jim Kierstead and Broadway notables Donna McKechnie and Priscilla Lopez (both from the original production of A Chorus Line) and producer/promoter, Jay Michaels.
Ms. Lee was gracious enough to share a few thoughts with Ai regarding life, career and TRU.
- You are part of American theater history. Not just A Chorus Line – where you were the basis for your character – but two of Rodgers ad Hammerstein’s most pivotal works. How does that feel and how did it influence your career goals?
- Please share with us something about the National Asian Artists Project. What was the inspiration for creating it?
- How has theater changed over the years?
- What does being honored by TRU mean to you?
Robert Viagas is an editor, author, manager, and journalist with more than thirty-five years’ experience, most it working on Broadway with Playbill Inc., the iconic theatre program company. The founding editor of Playbill.com, Playbill’s theatre news website, Viagas has published 19 books on the performing arts, and served as a nominator for the annual Tony Awards.
Playbill placed extraordinary responsibility in Viagas’ hands during the past 21 years to spearhead virtually all of that company’s new projects, notably the widely used and cited theatre news site, Playbill.com, for which Viagas served as founding editor. In addition to Playbill Radio, Viagas also founded Playbill Books (including the Playbill Broadway Yearbook series). He has held various titles at the company over the years. His current title is Special Features Editor, overseeing PlaybillUniverse.com, a new website for the Playbill family of websites, developing content for all platforms, from books and print, to websites and social media.
Always fascinated with the entertainment business, Viagas was a pioneer broadcaster on satellite radio. In 2002 he began hosting “Radio Playbill,” a program of news and recordings that was part of the original content offered at the premiere of Sirius Satellite Radio (now SiriusXM). He later hosted Playbill Radio, a 24-hour web radio service that drew on more than 20,000 tracks that Viagas assembled for Playbill. Viagas also was asked by Sony to supply liner notes for the special 40th anniversary re-release of the original cast album of the classic A Chorus Line. The anniversary package was released in October 2015.
He took over writing and editing the “At This Theatre” column from Louis Botto, hosted the Tony Awards webcasts from 2002 to 2008, and produced the special Tony Awards Playbill each year from 2002 to 2012, and again in 2015. He enjoyed the rare honor of serving on the nominating committee for the Tonys 2012-14.
The New York Times’ CyberTimes described him as “encyclopedic” in his knowledge of Broadway.
Among his other books, Viagas was chosen by the original cast of A Chorus Line to tell their story in On the Line: The Creation of “A Chorus Line” (Morrow) and by the creators of the original The Fantasticks to tell their story in “The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks” (Citadel).
When it comes to the difficult area of collaboration he literally wrote the book on it—The Alchemy of Theatre (Applause Books), consisting of essays on collaboration, in which he worked with the likes of Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Hal Prince, Chita Rivera and others to codify how one collaborates in the world of theatre. The roll-out book-signing event sold out the 92nd Street Y in 2006.
His 2009 book I’m the Greatest Star! (Applause) contained biographies of the 40 people he considers the most brilliant stars of Broadway musical history, from George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice to today’s Nathan Lane and Sutton Foster. The book was also adapted as a stage musical and presented at Hofstra University that same year.
He is a juror for the annual Boston Science-Fiction Film Festival and Marathon, and performs his solo shows, The 10 Secrets of Broadway and The Ghosts of Broadway at libraries and colleges.
Viagas’ experience extends to the world of classical music. In addition to serving at various times as editor of the Playbill programs for the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera, Houston Ballet, the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Ballet, he co-authored the book Scales to Scalpels (with Dr. Lisa Wong), about the remarkable Longwood Symphony Orchestra, consisting entirely of professional doctors.
“I draw inspiration from Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner… their ‘laugh till you think’ philosophy”
“I draw inspiration and patterns in my work from the comedic geniuses of Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner. It’s their kind of ‘laugh till you think’ philosophy that I put into my work,” says the ambitious, actor/producer/director/playwright, Jeffrey E. Milstein.
JEM Productions presents the world premiere of his uproarious send-up of the prison system: Fort Dicks, a new musical. Based a true story, Milstein, a prolific author both in NYC and regionally, “lampooning to the tooning of Brooks, Reiner, and Simon” in telling the story of a low-level prison in the famed military installation … and then sets the whole things to music! The dark social commentary is played like a Marx Brothers movie complete with sight-gags and prat falls. The cast features Sean Farrelly & Joe Sherbin; with Marek Ardito-Proulx, Pauline Breeze, Dana Cavagnaro, Carlos Cervantes, Mario Claudio, Sunflower Duran, Annabel Espinal, Donna Glaesener, Dominick Gonzalez, Andrew Gordon, Jason Lee, Federica Morra, Richard Sacher, Lindsy Thomas, and Laura Young
We met with the heir to the humor fortune of Sid Caesar for a few serious words about art and his take on it.
Tell us about the play and what was the inspiration in writing it?
Fort Dicks, The Musical which I wrote the dialogue and lyrics for the songs is about the justice system and how it treats white collar criminals. I will be directing and producing the play at the Chernuchin Theatre at ATA at 314 West 54th Street in NYC. As you can see from the name of the play, it is a comedy which makes fun of the prison system and not the Army camp as you might think. My inspiration in writing the play in 2006, was real life experiences with the system and how unfairly the inmates are treated. If you make fun of the system, it will be corrected.
Tell us about yourself as a director.
I am a full-time accountant with my own business, I have written, novels, plays and a sitcom in addition to acting on stage and on film. I started out as an assistant director and when the cast came to me to make changes, I couldn’t as an AD. So I started writing my own works so I could adapt them to the cast. I have performed plays in New York City and New Jersey of original material that I wrote.
What is your style of directing and how do you go about choosing your team?
My style of directing is actor friendly. When you get a cast for a show, then own you, you do not own them. Since I have acted myself, I know what it’s like on both sides of the stage and I try to work within the cast. I choose my team of actors from actors that I have worked with before and I know what they are capable of and I audition for new talent because they bring a fresh idea to the table.
Do you feel the play resonates with audiences today?
When you speak to people, it is amazing how many have or know of someone that has been incarcerated. Not only is it bad for the accused, but it is a hardship on the family. When they visit the inmate, they are treated like criminals and not family. Nobody should have to go thru that. Recently, due to DNA testing, people have been released from prison after spending years in the institution. THey have lost family, friends and self-esteem. No amount of money can make up for that. The system is wrong and has to be fixed.
You have a solid career in the arts and a good relationship at the ATA. Tell us about directing in NYC – good and bad – and tell us about the venerable ATA – good and -um bad.
It is good to direct in NYC because the talent pool is great. You are able to pick and choose talent from NY, NJ, PA and CT. ATA is a great venue to present new work to a large audience. I like working on a stage that gives the talent different areas of egress and exit from the stage. You do not get that with a small theatre. Even though it is expensive to rent the Chernuchin Theatre, it is good in the long run. James Jennings is good to work with from ATA if he likes the play. He is not into comedy and musicals. Only drama. So this play is not up his alley but I want to take it to the next plateau.
Were you always a playwright or is this a stop in a more intricate journey?
I have been an accountant since 1975 and still am to this day picking up new clients wherever I go. However, I love theatre and would like to make it my life’s work. I enjoy comedy and love the sight gags and shtick that the audience will laugh at. To take their cares away for a few hours is a god send.
What’s your next endeavor?
My next endeavor is a play that I wrote and will perform at my local theatre in NJ called “The Dinner.” It is about a husband and wife who have their son, daughter in law and grand-daughter over to the house for dinner. It is a comedy taken from real life and will be showcased in January 2019. Watch for it. Sight gags and shtick are what makes the play move and the audience to come alive and be a part of the show. We get our energy from a good audience.
FORT DICKS, A MUSICAL
Friday and Saturday November 9 & 10; 16 & 17 @ 8:00 p.m.
Sunday matinées: November 11 & 18 @ 2:00 p.m.
American Theatre of Actors, 314 W 54th St, New York City
Jail time never was this much fun!