Archive for July, 2013

ethelsingsEvery once in a while, one happens upon an evening of theater that might be described as “a most unlikely formula.” So it goes at the heavenly Off-Broadway theater Walkerspace, at 46 Walker Street in TriBeCa, with Joan Beber’s new two-act piece Ethel Sings, directed by Jules Aaron. A superb play-with-music, the title initially makes one think of a one-woman evening showcasing the career of Miss Merman, possibly embodied by Rita McKenzie or Kristine Zbornik,¬† when it’s actually a riveting slice-of-life drama depicting the marriage, trial, conviction and ultimate execution of the husband-and-wife spy team of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (Hence the play’s subtitle, Espionage in High C).

For those unfamiliar with modern history, we’re shown a true behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Rosenberg marriage and the raising of sons Michael and Robby, as well as their foray into Communism and eventually selling bomb-making secrets to the Soviets. The trial that ensued was one of the most sensational stories of the early 1950s (with prosecution by a young Roy Cohn and defense by Manny Bloch, who would die of a heart attack not long after the couple was executed). We also see the curious dysfunction of Ethel’s family the Greenglasses, including her very uninterested mother and both the brother and sister-in-law (David and wife Ruth), who turned key evidence against Julius and Ethel. Add to this that Beber has chosen Joan of Arc (Ethel’s personal heroine) as a sort of Greek chorus to help move the action along, and all of the brilliant musical compositions (ranging in a variety of styles) make this truly unlike anything the New York theater scene has experienced in many a moon.

The actors herein are not merely a top-notch team of thespians, but a true ensemble.¬† As Ethel, Shelby Kocee could not be more perfect, embodying a woman alternately defiant but vulnerable, cunning but oblivious, and above all else completely in love with her husband at all times. Dan Sykes similarly brings spectacular passion to his portrayal of Julius. Ben Goldsmith (who also composed the string music and provides the guitar accompaniment) and Ross Alden provide performances as the Rosenberg sons Michael and Robby, and are never less than utterly purposeful. As Mrs. Greenglass, Julia Silverman does a job that is never less than riveting. Alan Aymie’s David brings just the right touch of odiousness to the character, and Penny Peyser (in her triumphant return to Off-Broadway after nearly forty years on the Coast in film and television) is equally sensational as Ruth. Manny Bloch, interestingly enough, is portrayed by Greg Mullavey, who most remember as husband Tom on the 1970s Norman Lear series “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and proves himself equally at home on a stage as in front of the camera. And as Roy Cohn, Richard Chassler’s work borders on other-wordly; there are moments it’s almost possible to forget that we’re watching an actor. Rounding out this incredible bunch is Stasha Surdyke as Joan of Arc; she’s a lithe beauty with definitive presence who simply owns every moment of her time on stage.

Producers Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger (who also designed the impeccable sets) have also chosen the best crew imaginable, including¬† Max Kinberg on sound design (and music), the lighting by John Eckert, and Michele Young’s costumes.

Ethel Sings: Espionage in High C will continue to run at Walkerspace through Sunday, July 21st. This most unlikely formula would have a much longer run in a just world.

marieannIt was an unusually-warm Wednesday night in April of 1990 when your humble reporter stumbled into the now-defunct Broadway Baby, a wonderful piano bar on Amsterdam Avenue between 79th and 80th Streets on the Upper West Side, and met singer Marieann Meringolo for the first time. There was already scuttlebutt about her; she was known for having the potential to become the likes of another Jane Olivor for her incredible vocal precision and carriage on a stage. Like the aforementioned, she wasn’t exactly the prettiest peach on the tree (although undeniably glamorous) and in fact was quite aloof and somewhat mistrustful of someone she’d just met for the first time. But when she sang…oh, when she sang…she transformed instantly into a Botticelli angel. It was a mere two seasons later that she had a bonafide cabaret hit on her hands with the brilliant Wonderful, Wonderful: The Songs of Johnny Mathis in New York City besides Fire Island and beyond, and has since gone on to phenomenal glory in the arena whether at Feinstein’s with a wonderful evening of the music of Michel Legrand, or her Ladies tribute concert honoring the ouevres of such giants as Streisand and Warwick. However, it is with her most recent offering, Orchestrated!, which features her alongside a seven-piece band replete with lush ornamentation including a full section of brass, that the lady has completely come into her own as a major cabaret star with which to be reckoned. In point of fact, if this show doesn’t cement her success and elevate her to the stardom previously achieved by someone along the lines of the late Nancy LaMott or Eva Cassidy, there is simply no justice in this world. Yes, it’s THAT good.

It should be noted right off the bat that the majority of Meringolo’s selections mostly comprises material she’s done in previous shows, which (as she explains, are being done because while she’s been making her most-recent living as a headliner on cruise ships, are showcased with a full orchestra in tow, and she wanted to bring the beauty of the sound to the cabaret world) are really not the sort of catalog that others might choose to bring to a new cabaret act. This, however, is no obstacle to the miraculous Meringolo; it’s material that might otherwise crumble in the hands of a lesser-accomplished artist and yet somehow she’s owning every moment. In the more-than-capable sight of musical director Doyle Newmyer, she manages to take such songs as “Thou Swell,” “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “Fever” and “I’m a Woman” and transform them instantly into personal anthems. And a favorite old standby of hers, “Italian Menu,” is rendered into genius. More than this is her tribute to Dionne Warwick in a medley of no less than eight songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and a tribute to Streisand that features a coupling of “Where Is It Written?” and “I’m the Greatest Star.” And Meringolo does include new music, notably two tunes by Marsha Malamet, “Crazy Love” and “I Am Blessed.” In point of fact, she couldn’t possibly have gotten any single element of the show more pointedly correct. It was certainly no secret in the nightlife world that she was already on a path to greatness, but Meringolo now possesses a maturity previously unwitnessed, not to mention an ability for sustaining an important note in a song, that trumps every possible ace .

And then there’s the band. Oh, goodness, where to begin? Aside from the aforementioned Newmyer, she’s got the legendary John Loehrke on bass, the brilliantly-animated Ayodele Maakheru on guitar, Sipho Kunene doing a wonderful job on percussion, Richie Vitale blowing on the trumpet, Jonathan Kantor on alto sax (who is REALLY outstanding), and the terrific Charlie Gordon on the trombone. The fact that JP Perreaux is loaning his eye to technical direction is merely the icing on the cake.

Marieann Meringolo and Orchestrated! will return to the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, on Friday, August 2nd at 7 PM for one night only. Run. Do not walk. And run QUICKLY!!!