Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Class Act: Anything Goes!

A group of music education majors from New York University under the leadership of Candace Parr formed a student production group called A Class Act and on April 7-9th demonstrated they rated that designation and more. They transformed a space at Thompson Center into a Broadway Theatre, complete with their own improvised orchestra pit and proceeded to perform an inspired production of Cole Porter's Anything Goes, even exceeding to some degree the professional training programs in musical theatre at New York University. What they lacked in financial and institutional support, they made up for with imagination and inventiveness.

Producer Danielle Lazarowitz, who may be our next David Merrick, helped Candace maneuver through all of the obstacles of producing a musical with absolutely no financial support from the unversity as well as no support in providing space. But the driving force was the vision of Candace Parr and the talents of everyone involved.

The scene was set by the pianist/accompanist Kyle Henry who was playing at the "piano bar" as the audience arrived. He has a genuine connection with the audience, and is one of the few left-foot pedal pushers you will find, which gives the impression that he is always poised and ready to leap off the bench to take care of some musical problem.

Sitting in the audience and inspired by these young song and dance actors, I thought back on the early efforts of those who went on to fame, and saw that same potential in all the talent on stage. I couldn't help seeing analogies of actors who have gone from their initial efforts to full careers.

Michael Holder playing Billy Crocker combines the looks of Sam Shepard and Richard Gere, but brings his own distinctive style to the role, with a wonderful voice and deft character. There were also elements of Fred Astaire as he shaped an utterly convincing portrait of a schemer and dreamer who has fallen in love with Hope Harcourt.

Joe Piccirillo as Moonface Martin could be the double of a young Robert De Niro who brings sleight of hand, humor, and perhaps the best performance of "Be Like the Bluebird" that is on record. His performance and his character were classic. He has an instinctive comedic flair, but also has the natural tools of an actor. I doubt that he studied the moves of De Niro in The King Of Comedy, but he has them in his vocabulary.

The Ethel Merman role, Reno Sweeney, played by Jaclyn Altieri, at times must carry the show with numbers like "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're The Top," "Anything Goes," and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," to name a few. Not only does she manage this feat, but she has a presence that reminds me of a mix of Mitzi Gaynor and Debbie Reynolds.

A vivacious Heather Wilson playing Bonnie Le Tour could be how Laura Dern must have looked in her early acting days... fresh, energetic and enthusiastic... she brightened the stage with a dazzling incandescence. And Christina Kompar played mother Harcourt with all of the comic panache of Peggy Cass as Agnes Gooch in Mame. And while we are at it, Jim Kuerschner reminds me of how Eric Roberts looked in his first days as a professional, projecting a kind of lyrical devil-may-care cynicism. His portrayal of Elisha J. Whitney was superb.

Darrell Dumas as Sir Evelyn Oakleigh turned in a performance that was as masterful as anything David Hyde Pierce has done, bringing a great deal of detail to the role with a distinctive flair. Everything he does has a sense of connection and secure control, as was always apparent in "Let's Misbehave." His work gives us a sense of immediacy and spontaneity. He has a comic imagination that seems inexhaustible, tempered with the craft of an actor.

Jeanne Cascio's Hope Harcourt, reminiscent of Leslie Caron or Anne Baxter, captures the essence of the ingenue lead. winning the day along with Michael Holder in "DeLovely" and "All Through the Night."

Proving it is true that "there are no small roles" were the likes of Sutton Stewart (Captain), Louis Winsberg (Purser), Meghan Phadke (Stewardess), Richard Vagnigno (Bishop), Natalie Nachimson (Soloist), Jennie Chiaramonte (Reporter/Ling), Megan Himel (Cameraperson /Ching), and Lianna Purjes, Julia Rosenfeld (Sailors). The performance was marked by the synchronicity of a total ensemble effort.

Certainly Cole Porter's lyrics and music of this 1936 musical astound us with how well they wear, even when they are topical. The ever lyrical "All Through the Night" as a duet of separated lovers heightens their separation through its spiraling downward flow, but we are lifted up by Reno's Angels (Laura Chzaszcz, Courtney Marello, Amy Rosenfield, Marissa Ur) in a show stopper "Take Me Back to Manhattan." Cole Porter would be proud.

Anything Goes goes because of Candace Parr who masterfully directs the production with a sense of fun, pace, and style. Candace is a budding Hal Prince, with that rare combination of production sense, performance savvy, and a conceptual approach to staging and direction. Anything Goes goes because of the talented students on stage, and the talents of student instrumentalists supporting them in the pit. Conductor Tammy Edwards is poised and keeps the orchestra cohesive and balanced, and even makes a cameo appearance in the second act. The rich choreographic touch of Jeanne Cascio finds just the right moves for the actors and ensemble.

By now, you may have forgotten that this started as a project of music education students who are A Class Act, and who from my perspective are "the top... the Coliseum... The Louvre Museum... the top!" If the future of music education is in the hands of these resourceful, musical, enterprising students, music education is in for a renaissance such as we have never seen before. Look out world...cause here they come! They're the top!

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