It’s unusual to see a Broadway musical enriched with a full symphony orchestra onstage behind the actors, but Phoenix Theatre’s fifth collaboration with The Phoenix Symphony promises the best of both worlds.
“It’s something so unique for an audience, because you’re basically watching a symphonic concert at the same time you’re witnessing a semi-staged production, so it’s just a very cool experience that you’re not going to get anywhere else,” says Phoenix Theatre Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard, who directs Oliver! at Symphony Hall this weekend. “You can walk out going, ‘Wow — I’ve never seen this show done that way,’ you know? …And it only happens once a year and it’s a really neat collaboration with two arts organizations working in sync with each other.” He adds, “And Tito’s been great.”
“Phoenix Theatre is a great company, and the way we’re collaborating in Symphony Hall is very unique to both institutions,” agrees Tito Muñoz, who’s wrapping up his first season as music director of The Phoenix Symphony. “The wind parts for a lot of musicals are written for a small complement, but it’s the strings that we can augment and have much more than there normally would be,” he says, anticipating a full, lush sound.
“When we do a show at Phoenix Theatre – and even on Broadway any more – pit orchestras aren’t much bigger than 14,” says Barnard, “so to be able to have 56 pieces is quite remarkable. It definitely has its challenges, but it’s really quite lovely, and you don’t get that opportunity.” He continues, “It’s just completely unaffordable other than this kind of concertized version.”
Before his appointment in Phoenix, Muñoz served as music director for France’s Opéra National de Lorraine and the Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy. “Between opera and musical theater…the only big difference is that everything is amplified,” he says. “And generally speaking, in opera the stage and the theater are vehicles for the music, so the music is the most important part of the art in opera. In musical theater that’s not necessarily the case.”
Muñoz grew up conducting musical theater throughout high school and college before playing as a violinist for Broadway shows in New York. He explains, “I think there’s a little bit more balance between the storytelling, the production itself and of course the musical numbers, but there’s a lot of underscoring dialogue, there’s a lot of scene change music.”
Although this is his first official pops concert with The Phoenix Symphony, he’s confident in the musicians’ expertise. “The orchestra does so much pops that this kind of thing is nothing new to them, actually…they’re well versed in musical theater.”
First produced in London in 1960, Oliver! was written by Lionel Bart, who based his musical on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The novel was Dickens’s social commentary on the Poor Law of Victorian England, and was published in serialized form between 1837 and 1839. As a 25-year-old author Dickens drew on his own experiences working in a shoe-blacking factory as a child when his family was trapped in debtors’ prison. His misery during those years was aggravated by a bullying coworker named Bob Fagin, after whom Dickens named a villain in Oliver Twist.
Set in England, the plot follows the orphaned Oliver’s difficult and abuse-filled journey from workhouse – where we hear the famous tune “Food, Glorious Food” — to a dangerous community of pickpockets overseen by Fagin (“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”). After a kidnapping and a murder, Oliver ultimately finds his way to better fortune in a comfortable household thanks to a kindly benefactor.
This production’s cast includes familiar Phoenix Theatre favorites D. Scott Withers as Fagin, along with Toby Yatso, Johanna Carlisle, Yolanda London and David Simmons. Sixth-grader Vincent Jacovo stars as Oliver with 12-year-old Asher Angel as The Artful Dodger, a youthful criminal.
“It’s so easy with these kids,” says Muñoz. “They’re unbelievably well trained; they’re fantastic onstage.” Adds Barnard, “Hats off to their parents, and hats off to the other youth theaters that have helped prepare them for an experience like this…they’ve done a good job.”
He continues, “I think the challenge is always in making sure that you can get the best out of the kids without losing your ability to get the best out of the adults as well. Molly Lajoie has been the choreographer in particular for the kids, so she’s been a big help in that regard.” Phoenix Theatre’s technical team also features music director and rehearsal pianist Jeff Kennedy.
Other challenges include timing and staging constraints. “The entire show has to come in with intermission under two hours and 15 minutes [due to the Symphony’s contract with its musicians],” explains Barnard. “Second – and probably one of the bigger challenges – is [that] we only use the apron of the stage because the symphony is occupying the bulk of the stage.” Muñoz elaborates: “We’re having the staging…in front of the proscenium, and so the orchestra’s onstage but behind all the action…so it’s a very big symphonic sound.” He says, “I’m not facing the action, so we’re doing it very much electronically – the singers have a couple of monitors so they can have a visual of my baton…and then I also have a monitor in front of me that shows the stage.”
Barnard continues, “Scenically speaking, we want to just do just fragmented or suggested locales because we want the audience to see the symphony orchestra – that’s part of the fun. So you just have to sort of think it out – necessity becomes the mother of invention. But since this is our fifth collaboration we’ve sort of learned a lot about how this might work.” He adds wistfully, “This also could be our last. I’m not really sure why, but from what I understand it’s not part of the Symphony’s calendar for next season, so this may be the swan song. I’m sad about that because I love that collaboration.”
If you go:
- The Phoenix Symphony and Phoenix Theatre perform Oliver!
Although the new venue’s gala grand opening isn’t until October 26, Phoenix Theatre opens the doors of its 250-seat black box theater for the off-Broadway hit Ruthless! The Musical this weekend, turning the spotlight on a split-personality child star.
“Outrageous, but in a funny way” is how Phoenix Theatre Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard describes the campy show. “It’s done with such a heightened style…it sort of parodies those great old films,” he says. “Part of it’s like the movie The Women, or like Gypsy, or…All About Eve…or Mommie Dearest…so they were smashing all of these different shows together.”
“So if you know those movies,” he continues, “…it’s really fun on that level. It’s not offensive in any way…but it’s quirky and it’s bizarre, and it’s more of a black comedy humor than straight-across humor, because…I mean, the little girl is a little demon child …she’s like The Bad Seed.”
The comically disturbing role of Tina Denmark is shared by 11-year-old Riley Glick and 12-year-old Alex Kirby, both sixth-graders at Arizona School for the Arts and past veterans of Valley Youth Theatre. Glick also landed a role in the national tour of the Broadway show Dr. Seuss’ [sic] How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, which she’ll repeat this holiday season.
Invited to join the cast of Ruthless by Barnard, who knew her work from Phoenix Theatre’s production of Gypsy, Glick plays a character described as “adorably diabolical.” Is it fun to portray a monster? “Yeah, I like it a lot,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, she really has a sweet vs. evil side, and she can flip any second, so it’s…fun because you get to show a lot of different emotion while you’re playing the role.” Glick continues, “It’s kind of Gypsy, but opposite…so it’s the little girl that’s pushing it rather than the mom.”
With a concert producer and an art director for parents, Glick was accustomed to behind-the-scenes creativity when she began her career in the role of a baby spider in Charlotte’s Web at Desert Stages Theatre. “She went to a play when she was three,” explains her mother, Ronna Glick. “Yeah, and I was like, ‘I want to do that,’” says Riley. “But then my parents made me wait ‘til I was four.”
More than 30 shows later, Glick enthusiastically describes a few special effects from her role in Ruthless. “So I baton-twirl in the show, and I do a couple of tricks…that’s a lot of fun, and that’s more on the sweeter side of Tina,” she says. “But when she gets to the more evil side, I throw a knife.” In a somewhat regretful aside, she reassures me, “Not really, though.”
“This is definitely an adult show,” Glick continues. “I mean, there are bad words in it.” Says Barnard, “The worst word that’s used is ‘bullsh*t’…and somebody gets called a b*tch once, and somebody gets called ‘assh*le’ once.” He pauses for a moment to consider. “I would totally say that an 11-, 12-, 13-year-old could find it funny…it’s just quirky fun…and the characters are very colorful.”
The cast of Ruthless includes longtime Valley favorites like Johanna Carlisle, Debby Rosenthal as stage mother Judy Denmark, and Rusty Ferracane in the drag role of flamboyant manager Sylvia St. Croix. A four-piece cabaret band plays just offstage — still clearly visible in the cozy confines of the black box.
Glick declares, “I promise you, when you walk out of that theater, you will not regret coming to see the show.” Barnard agrees. “If you’re looking for some laughs and…not just the same old fare…just when you think you’ve figured it out, it…keeps changing gears on you.” He concludes, “So it’s really not quite ‘til the bitter end that you know exactly what all’s happened and what transpired.”
“And I think you’ll really dig the black box,” Barnard adds. “We want to do…sort of like an off-Broadway type of material [in the new venue]…the gamut from quirky little musicals to aggressive niche musicals, comedies, or dramas; performance art, little musical revues, cabaret-style stuff…sometimes very heart-wrenching pieces that are…not for the masses…really interesting, provocative.” He cites productions like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Spring Awakening as recent examples.
“There’s a whole different kind of energy that happens…off-Broadway…. There’s usually a whole different kind of audience there, too…whether they’re a thrill-seeker, whether they’re a risk-taker, whether they’re politically-minded, whether they’re romantically inclined…” he says. These are audiences willing to venture beyond traditional shows.
“I think also half the fun or enjoyment of seeing an off-Broadway piece…is the conversation that’s stimulated by it.” Barnard continues purposefully, “And Lord knows…that’s one thing that theater can do…to provide reasons for communication and socialization in conversation, because we’re becoming so much more…isolated as we go into our telephones, into our computers…” He smiles and tips his head slightly. “It’s nice when you can put that phone down and just talk face to face…’Well, why’d you think that?’ or ‘I didn’t understand this part’…it asks you to have a reaction to it, so that you can converse about it.”
Managing Director Vincent VanVleet explains that the company’s carefully planned ongoing capital building campaign funded the new black box and the airy atrium connecting the two performance spaces.
He reminds me that, after 93 years, Phoenix Theatre is “one of only three professional theaters left in Phoenix presenting local productions.” Growth is vital, and audiences expand in more comfortable surroundings.
Other improvements and plans accompany the new black box: a private donor lounge, a small area set aside for group ticket patrons, an inviting 45-foot bar, and the atrium’s huge glass wall, which can be fully opened to the courtyard.
Staggered curtain & intermission times will optimize use of the expanded bathrooms. “It’s not lost on us that women are the primary purchasers of beverages and gift cart items, so if they’re standing in line they’re also not buying,” says VanVleet. “They’re the primary buyers of tickets, too.”
Theatergoers will take advantage of additional opportunities to attend performances, he says, especially expertly-staged off-Broadway-style productions. “People who buy the arts buy more arts, so we’re not in competition with any of the other companies in town,” VanVleet continues. “The data suggests that the more you go, the more you go.”
If you go:
- Phoenix Theatre’s Ruthless! The Musical continues through September 29 — tickets at phoenixtheatre.com or 602-254-2151
- Bonus: The Broadway Brat Karaoke Party on Wed., Sep. 18, at 6:30PM — free, but tickets required (also at phoenixtheatre.com or 602-254-2151)
- Phoenix Theatre’s season in the Black Box Theatre:
The fabulous high-kicking dancers of La Cage aux Folles (which translates as The Birdcage) hang up their feather boas after Sunday’s final evening performance on April 7 at Phoenix Theatre. Known as Les Cagelles, eight gender illusionists provide flirtatious, flouncing backup for their headliner, Zaza.
Rusty Ferracane plays the role of Georges, the owner of the musical’s eponymous St. Tropez nightclub and long-time partner to Albin, who performs as Zaza. “That’s usually my most challenging part in a musical — the dance,” Ferracane confides, shaking his head in appreciation of the inimitable Cagelles.
“I always say I’m not talented enough to be in the chorus, because they have to dance and sing and act, and…that’s too hard,” continues Ferracane, downplaying his stellar performances in shows like Man of La Mancha and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. He laughs. “Poor guys! I’m really grateful I’m not doing that — I make a very unattractive woman.”
“The Cagelles are difficult to cast,” declares director Michael Barnard. “Some men’s faces just don’t translate to a female face…and yet they’re very talented. But the point is, you’re trying to create an illusion that this is actually a female.”
“The real La Cage aux Folles takes the business of being a female illusionist quite seriously,” Barnard continues, “so they’re professionals to the nth degree…part of that is to truly try to fool the audience. After a while you begin to wonder, ‘Am I really staring at a man?’”
The actors playing Les Cagelles arrive at least 90 minutes before curtain, tucking away extra bits using gaffs between their legs. They don several pairs of stockings, chest and hip padding, tape, and layers of make-up — “plus they’re dancing in high heels,” adds Barnard with a chuckle.
Ferracane believes the appeal of female illusionists lies in what he calls the ‘wow’ factor — “you know, the glamour of a drag queen,” he explains. “You don’t have that with a woman turned into a man, because there’s no glamour there, there’s no entertainment value to that. You need the glitz.”
Traditionally, men impersonating women have always had greater entertainment value onstage than women posing as men. “I just think it’s fighting the stigma,” suggests Robert Kolby Harper, who plays Albin/Zaza opposite Ferracane in a role requiring plenty of mascara and chutzpah. “Men dressing up as women…it’s a wider gap from the typical idea of what a man is.”
“Lots of men get in touch with their feminine side in different ways, but capturing the illusion of it — it’s an art form. But think about it,” Harper continues. “It’s really no fun being a man. I mean, how fabulous is that?” He shrugs. “Not very. There’s no mystique.”
Barnard suggests that the innate allure of men dressed as women stems from the appeal of the forbidden. “I think men have a stronger sense of fascination when it comes to fantasy…so I think there’s something strangely titillating and yet at the same time dangerous…mysterious and unique.” He adds, “Any time men dress up as a woman it’s always good for a laugh.”
The comfortable, loving partnership of Georges and Albin in La Cage shows signs of stress when their son Jean-Michel asks his parents to disguise their relationship in order to pass muster with his future in-laws. Ferracane and Harper use the foundation of their own long-time friendship and previous acting collaborations to establish a credible on-stage rapport.
Says Barnard, “They’re good friends in real life… I think they play off each other and…know each other’s sense of humor well.” Harper laughs. “Oh, yes — we’ve played lovers like four billion times.”
Their first show together was Hello, Dolly. “We played lovers then too,” jokes Harper, “…Cornelius and Barnaby. I mean, they’re not really lovers, but we always thought that it could have happened.” He chortles wickedly. “That was our first romance,” agrees Ferracane with a chuckle.
“I feel so comfortable with Rusty,” Harper continues. “I’ve known him about 21 or 22 years, and we’ve worked together many times…so that’s the awesome part — that kind of camaraderie.” He and Ferracane strive to give their characters believable depth.
“It’s the warmth in the relationship,” says Harper. “Ultimately you have to get two people who make the audience forget that it’s two men. I think…why this show’s done so well in the past, even back when it opened, was that…the relationship kind of sneaks up on you.”
“Because it’s fine to be gay if you’re funny and campy,” Harper adds ruefully, “but if you get real, some people can react negatively to that. If they’re real and loving and caring and honest, it’s sometimes hard for audiences.” He continues, “You sneak up on them. It’s much harder for somebody to reject someone they adore.”
“I enjoy showing family values in a different light,” says Ferracane. “It’s not…typical, but they’re definitely a strong, loving, committed family that’s supportive.” He thoroughly enjoys the show’s music, too. “Jerry Herman is so great with a lyric and…a melody, and he really tugs at your heart.”
Is the show still relevant, despite the progress of equality since the play’s birth in 1973 and the creation of the musical ten years later? Harper has no doubt. “I think it’s totally an issue — otherwise gays would be allowed to marry,” he declares.
“There are many unconventional families,” Harper continues. “If you’re an adoptive parent, and you’ve given everything to a child, you know what that’s like. If you’re a stepparent, you know what it’s like to be accepted or not in that child’s life. So I think it’s bigger than just the ‘gay thing.’”
He elaborates, “I don’t know of anybody who has a normal family. What is ‘normal’? A child can be ashamed of one or both parents no matter who the parents are. And what is it like for that child to make you or your partner feel like you don’t have a place?”
“This piece holds up very well,” agrees director Barnard. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that the prejudices of this lifestyle and this world still very much exist today.”
If you go:
La Cage aux Folles continues at Phoenix Theatre through Sunday, April 7.
This weekend Phoenix Theatre offers its final performances of the all-Gershwin musical ‘S Wonderful, directed by Associate Artistic Director Robert Kolby Harper. “This kind of show is really hard,” he says, “not just for the director-choreographer but for the actors because they’ll change clothes 50,000 times, and they’ll sing 40 songs by the end of the night.”
Perhaps the number of wardrobe changes is slightly exaggerated, but ‘S Wonderful does cover more than 42 Gershwin tunes in its whirlwind tour of five time periods and locations. Mini-musicals take audiences to a 1939 Parisian café, a 1948 Hollywood movie studio, and New Orleans in 1957 – there’s a total of five vignettes of 15-20 minutes each, all sharing the same sleek but effective Art Deco-inspired set pieces.
If you’re searching for a deep, complex plot, don’t bother – the simple, timeless themes of yearning, attraction, romance, and love are carried on the thinnest of storylines. It’s all a vehicle for the rich music of the Gershwin brothers. And “if you’re looking for linear,” says Harper with a chuckle, “you’re screwed, because it’s not gonna happen.” He shakes his head and continues, “But that’s not how memories are; memories are collages, feelings…sometimes just snapshots.”
A tight, talented onstage three-piece combo of piano, bass, and drums plays nearly non-stop, providing not only accompaniment but also interludes between the mini-musicals and seamless segues between styles.
So many songs in such a relatively short show might create a dizzying, abbreviated effect, but Harper says that while “there are moments where it’s more snippety, there’s a big group of songs where you get a nice chunk.” A few of the numbers receiving more extended play include “Nice Work If You Can Get It” as well as selections from the Gershwins’ beloved folk opera.
“[The songs] that I’m most excited about are from Porgy and Bess, because I get to sing a little bit on ‘There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,’” says actor Toby Yatso. “I’ll probably never be in a production of Porgy and Bess for racial reasons,” he continues, “so I think it’s fun to be able to experience those songs, that music, that score, even if it’s just a little taste…it’s a unique opportunity.”
Yatso is an Associate Artist at Phoenix Theatre, and serves on the faculty for Arizona State University’s Lyric Opera Theatre program (as does Harper). He’s won numerous ariZoni and Encore Society awards for his work onstage and as a director, teacher, and choreographer in shows like The Producers, Avenue Q, and Glorious.
“What I like about Toby is that he’s never satisfied with just bringing the same-old same-old,” explains Harper. “And he’s just awesome to work with – I laugh hysterically.” He smiles. “That’s one of my big things in rehearsal: if we’re not laughing, we’re going home, ‘cause life’s too short. We’re not curing cancer here, people – we’re doing a musical revue.”
“At the end of the day, if you’re in a revue, yeah – sing pretty, but you’ve got to be funny. It can’t all be about the voice, because I can get a CD and sit at home in my PJs and have a cocktail,” Harper continues. “So I want people who can be interesting to watch, and move you to feel something…lift the music off the page.”
The cast also includes Kaitlynn Kleinman Bluth, Jenny Hintze, Kyle Erickson Hewitt, and Jenn Taber, who stars in ‘S Wonderful’s mini-musical “Of Thee I Sing,” embracing the role of an abandoned chanteuse. “Jenn’s one of the funniest women I’ve ever met,” says Yatso. “She can sing anything and is just so committed to everything she does…and it’s fun to work with her because we’re such different-sized people. And I love that – I just love the contrast of us.”
The 6-foot-5-inch-plus Yatso continues, “I think I’m known because of my height, and as a unique physical presence.” His character in the first vignette is a newsroom worker, a sort of silent movie standard with choreography making the most of Yatso’s build. “This is so much about the physical storytelling — I get to heighten all my physical attributes…and I have a lot!” he laughs wryly.
He’s delighted with all three of his female co-stars. “Jenny and I have danced together a lot – I always feel like she makes me look like a better dancer than I probably would be by myself,” Yatso chuckles. “And Kaitlynn…we always felt we were so connected onstage.” He smiles again, and exclaims, “When I heard it was those three women, I thought, ‘I am a lucky, lucky man!’”
‘S Wonderful includes plenty of dancing along with songs ranging from the less familiar (“My Cousin in Milwaukee”) to beloved favorites. “Of course you can’t have Gershwin without ‘Someone To Watch Over Me,’” says Yatso. Harper agrees; “I don’t know who can hear that song and not have a real visceral reaction to those lyrics.” He continues, “I think even now…even teenagers can listen to that and go, ‘Wow – yes, I feel that. That’d be awesome – I’d love to have someone watch over me like that.”
“And that’s the whole point,” Harper says. “That’s what music does, especially the Gershwins’ music – it connects people in ways that are meaningful, that are deeper than just dancing in the club. It boils down to love.”
Even as ‘S Wonderful leaves the stage, Phoenix Theatre prepares for the world premiere of another production: Love Makes the World Go ‘Round, based on the music of Bob Merrill, who wrote hits like “Mambo Italiano,” “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake,” and “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” as well as works for theatre and film like Funny Girl and Carnival. Merrill, who reportedly composed on toy xylophones, took his life in 1998 at the age of 74.
“Love Makes the World Go ‘Round is set in a New York piano bar, where these three women have sort of wandered in,” explains Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard. “They’re each in a different stage in their lives and their marriages – or ‘not-marriages’ – so they get into conversations with the help of the piano player…it’s a very funny piece.”
The tiny cast includes Jeannie Shubitz, Allison Houston, and Patti Davis, while the pianist is Brad Ellis, an arranger and accompanist for television’s “Glee,” who also worked with writer Duane Poole on the show’s arrangements.