Alex Martinez Wallace on “The Three Musketeers,” sword-fighting, and the need for stage combat to be huge (Artist Statement)

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“THE THREE MUSKETEERS”
WHAT:
The NOLA Project continues its 2017-18 season with a mounting of Pete McElligott’s adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic. Mark Routhier directs James Bartelle, Alex Martinez Wallace, Will Bowling, Kali Russell, John Neisler, Sarah Carlton, Keith Claverie, among others; stage combat directed by Wallace.
WHEN: May 9-27
WHERE: New Orleans Museum of Art Besthoff Sculpture Garden
TICKETS: $25 general admission, $18 NOMA members
MORE INFO: Visit The NOLA Project website

Staged combat — mainly in the form of sword play — becomes a character in itself in The NOLA Project’s staging of Pete McElligott’s adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic, “The Three Musketeers.” In this installment of “Artist Statement,” Alex Martinez Wallace — who directs the staged combat — explains the value of this form of action in the production, and why the willing suspension of disbelief matters here as much as anywhere in a work of theater.

When I attempt to reflect on my youth, so that I might put a finger on the influences that led me to study stage combat in a professional manner, I’m left flummoxed. Certainly professional televised wrestling played a key role in things. And while I ceased watching it around the age of 11 or 12 as my interests veered into the pursuit of true martial study, professional wrestling has a rhythmic blueprint to be utilized in stage combat that I’m uncertain whether choreographers fully appreciate.

I’ve never heard it discussed before, anyways. Rhythmic blueprint: because when choreographing a fight I’ll often hear it in my head before I see it. The sounds of breathing, hissing, stomping, punching, yelling, etc. Sometimes when teaching a routine, and things are coming along onstage with the players, I’ll close my eyes and just listen to the fight — listen for the story of struggle crescendoing into fury or desperation or the decrescendo into exhaustion and surrender. Stage combat is, after all, a study in acting and scene work with high stakes, and just like you can hear the story of regular scene work through spoken lines and conveyed emotion, so too can you hear the story within stage combat through the sounds of physical struggle.

Swords are another musical instrument to tell that story with, in a way. I enjoy working with swords because I can get away with more shenanigans, you see. The common man truly doesn’t know what a fight looks like. We are influenced by what we see in film, but unless one has pursued a study in martial arts or some form of combat, it’s something you see very seldom in real life. And as unfamiliar with combat as the common man is, even less so are they familiar with what swordplay actually looks like. None of us will likely ever witness a real sword fight in this life. It’s truly alien territory this day and age, and as such, I can create story with movements that people swallow down without question.

There is a type of person who will critique choreographed combat in film or stage with disdain if they believe it wouldn’t “work” or “look like that” in real life. I pray to God that those people experience such stark horror in a dream one stormy night where they wake up in a vegetative state the next morning: unable to move, unable to speak— having been jauntified by such psychotic visions that previous night so that I might be relieved by their witless prattle forever and ever, amen. Have you ever seen real fights? They’re as boring and Bunny Bread. Why on earth would I want to subject an audience to the ruthless pawing at each other that happens in real violence? And even more rare are those who will make similar critique about swordplay since, as I said earlier, we hardly know what it actually looks like. You’ll know those people when you see them: they’ve studied some historical European martial arts or fencing or whatever. You’ll be watching “Game of Thrones” and in-between bites of their mayonnaise sandwich on Bunny Bread they’ll say something like, “You can’t really stand on a horse while it’s in full gallop you know … .” And you pray for Jesus to come down and carpenter them into floorboards that go under the urinal in the bathroom of a house belonging to a dizzy drunk with a corkscrew cock.

What I’m trying to say is that swordplay in stage combat allows for a greater suspension of disbelief, which, in these garden shows, is necessary. Because like the acting in outdoor theatre and big open spaces, stage combat has to be huge. No room for subtlety here. It’s the opera of stage combat. It has to be great big silly fun. I have to manage the fact that with swordplay comes serious injury and death for characters while keeping things big silly and fun, which is a delicate balancing act in a family-friendly show. How do I do it? I hope you’ll come see and find out.

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What to do beyond Jazz Fest for the rest

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Far from the madding crowds, there are plenty of options for those who aren’t terribly festival when it comes to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell, or maybe not even the ancillary musical shows around the city over a two-week period.

And truth be told, it can often feel like Jazz Fest sucks the oxygen out of the cultural air even if New Orleans somehow continues to motor along outside the of the Fair Grounds. Not unlike Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest has its own rhythms, its own allure, its own vibe. And it’s not for everyone. There are other options.

“Jazz Fest is a premier music and cultural celebration in the City of New Orleans. Every year residents and visitors from across the world gather for two weekends of music, food, and fun,” said NORD CEO, Vic Richard. “What many don’t realize is there are lots of other fun things to do across our city, and NORD plays host to several family-friendly events.”

Other options have their own festive vibe.

“It may come as a surprise to some, but Jazz Fest is not the only place to enjoy great music and mouth-watering New Orleans food on the first Friday in May,’’ said Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman. “For four decades, Audubon has presented what’s now known as Whitney Zoo-To- Do on the picturesque grounds of Audubon Zoo. We like to call our black-tie fundraiser a party with a purpose because it has helped Audubon build and expand countless animal habitats and other Zoo projects over the years. And since the festivities don’t get going until 8 p.m., the young at heart can take in Jazz Fest and still have time to head on down to the Audubon Zoo for a little after-hours partying.’’

Here’s a little roundup to give you some ideas.

Zurich Golf Classic
April 23-29
TPC Louisiana, Avondale

The Zurich Classic is like Jazz Fest for golf fans; each of the 18 holes sets a stage for some of the best the PGA has to offer, most notably Masters champion Sergio Garcia and two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson. The tournament, in an attempt to boost attendance, agreed to create a two-man team format in 2017 and the results (beyond an attendance spike) included Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith taking the title in a playoff. The tournament also features an Executive Women’s Day, Celebrity Shootout, a Pro-Am, and a performance by Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. & The Zydeco Twisters following the tournament’s conclusion on Sunday evening. Single-Day Grounds Pass: $35; Weekly Badge: $85.

International Jazz Day
April 26
Treme Rec Center

NORD sponsors this opportunity to connect with music and community in the heart of Tremé. There will be a jazz concert in celebration of International Jazz Day in the birthplace of jazz, which will include a special performance from New Orleans Jazz singer Charmaine Neville.

NORD’s Movies in the Park
“The Princess and the Frog”; April 27, Lafitte Greenway
“Ghostbusters”; May 4, Behrman Playground
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Bob Murrell on comedy, theater, music and putting it all together (Artist Statement)

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WHAT: Release party for “Hey, It’s Bob,” Bob Murrell’s new comedy album, which combines musical theater and stand-up comedy to delve into his transformation from an awkward kid to an awkward man.
WHEN: Friday, April 20 (album release); Saturday, April 21, 8 p.m. (album-release party)
WHERE: Hi-Ho Lounge (2239 St. Claude Avenue)
TICKETS: Free admission to the party
MORE INFO: Visit Bob Murrell’s website

WHAT: “Little Shop of Horrors”; directed by Gary Rucker; starring Bob Murrell, Sara Ebert, Earl Scioneaux, Bryce Slocumb, Christina Early, Nachelle Scott, Drew Johnson, and Bryan Williams and Scott Sauber as Audrey II
WHEN: May 4-May 20
WHERE: Rivertown Theater of the Performing Arts (325 Minor St., Kenner)
TICKETS: $36-$40
MORE INFO: Visit Rivertown Theaters’ tickets page

New Orleans performer Bob Murrell is a busy fellow, but finds himself maximizing all of his formidable skills over the next month with the release of his comedy album, “Hey, It’s Bob,” recorded at Rivertown Theaters, as well as the Rivertown Theaters’ mounting of the classic musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” For his “Artist Statement,” Murrell explains the challenges of putting all of his talent together to make it work onstage — regardless of the stage.

I’m getting my things together after a rehearsal for an upcoming production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” The director is giving me some notes and tells me, “Don’t worry about accents or impressions; just be yourself. We need Seymour to be this shy, awkward guy.” I always knew I was shy and awkward, but I never thought that those personality traits would be sought after for a leading man in a musical. Instead, I always figured it was something to make fun of, which is why stand-up comedy has been the perfect place for me to laugh at my insecurities.

Musical theater is hard. It requires you to act, sing on pitch and, on occasion, dance some assigned choreography. I always felt a little out of place sharing the stage with amazingly talented artists who are way better at all of those things than me. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been given opportunities to be silly on stage in costumes with amazing people, just singing my face off and dancing my butt off.

Stand-up comedy is hard. It requires you to continuously write, adapt to a crowd of strangers, and being put under constant criticism for your material being considered “funny” by people’s individual tastes. I always felt a little out of place doing shows with confident comedians who can talk about anything, sometimes without even writing down what they’re saying. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been given opportunities to be silly on stage at casinos, coffee houses, bars, backyards, and basements around the country, just making fun of how dumb and awkward I am sometimes.

Stand-up and musical theater have been this competing duality in my life since 2009. On the one hand, New Orleans has a thriving local comedy scene, with opportunities to perform stand-up every day of the week. On the other hand, New Orleans has a great local theater scene, with opportunities to perform interesting theater in cool spaces like art galleries, historic homes or beautiful proscenium theaters. The problem? Doing a play or musical means sacrificing nearly two months of gigs during the week to rehearse your shows. This is the part where someone would post the GIF of the little girl from the taco shell commercial saying, “Why not both?”

I had a few comedy song ideas spoofing specific genres — bounce, hip-hop, country, rock, even kid-pop. The problem was trying to incorporate it with my stand-up material, because there wasn’t any cohesive thread or narrative. Then it clicked after seeing a musical with my wife — write it like a musical, ya jackass. Musicals aren’t just about the music or choreography. It’s about having the songs advance the character development — the character has so much to say that they can’t even say it; they sing it. What was missing wasn’t the thread; it was the character development (and a lack of ability to actually compose music). I started piecing together all these jokes that I’ve written and performed over the years and realizing I was telling the story of me (how conceited!), specifically about how awkward and dumb I am, combined with these songs that elevate the absurdity of white appropriation or telling your friends to “drive safe” after drinking at bars.

I didn’t know what journey I was going to go on nearly a decade ago when I started dating my wife, who suggested I try doing stand-up or audition with her for “Damn Yankees.” Perhaps embracing the man that she fell in love with is how you make great comedy and theater — just be yourself.

They need you to be this shy, awkward guy.

Lou Henry Hoover on the notion of gender in queer performance art (Artist Statement)

 

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(Editor’s note: As we resurrect PopSmart NOLA, we do so with more intention of making this a forum for the creative people of New Orleans. The inspiration came from, of all places, a sports-related website. (Read more about that soon.) This means more content generated BY the artists and entertainers of New Orleans who explain their craft, their performances, their intentions, their challenges, you name it, as a way of making PopSmart NOLA a forum and a safe space for dialogue and engagement. Here acclaimed boylesque performer Lou Henry Hoover explains the complications of performance on the eve of “BASKETCASE,” a collaboration with partner Kitten LaRue.)

“BASKETCASE: AN EASTER EGG-STRAVAGANZA OF PASTEL PERVERSION”
WHAT:
 Kitten N’ Lou present “gender-bending, rhinestone-encrusted drag, burlesque, and surreal fabulosity” featuring visiting performers Cherdonna Shinatra (Seattle Drag Dance Genius) The One The Only Inga (Atomic Bombshells) Elektra Cute (Minneapolis’ Tesla of Tease) and others.
WHEN: Sunday (April 1), 8 p.m.
WHERE: One Eye Jacks, 615 Toulouse St.
TICKETS: $35 (VIP table seating), $25 (reserved seating), $15 (general admission)
MORE INFO: Visit the Facebook event page

I’m sitting on my porch watching little green sprouts push their way up through plants that I thought for sure were dead from the freeze. Rebirth! Transformation! Growth! These themes are repeating like a prism in this city in this season, and I can’t think of a more perfect way to celebrate than with “BASKETCASE: An Easter Egg-stravaganza of Pastel Perversion.”

Let me tell you why.

I’m a burlesque-ing drag king who was seduced by queer performance art out of a contemporary dance career and then married into New Orleans. My wife, Kitten LaRue, was born and raised in Louisiana and got her start in showbiz in the legendary Shim- Sham Revue at the venue that is now One Eyed Jacks. We are constant collaborators in life and art, Kitten N’ Lou onstage and off.  We both had performance careers before we fell in love, and Kitten was a bit reluctant to collaborate in the early days, with good reason.  Showbiz is an endless roller coaster.  We had our wedding guests sing the Ella Fitzgerald song “It’s Only A Paper Moon” at our wedding, and the lyrics couldn’t ring more true:

Say, it’s only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed in me

Being in this business we call show requires an endless well of belief that what you are doing is important, despite whatever personal self doubts might get in the way. I’m still at it over a decade later because live performance has taught me something deep and lasting about generosity. All the costumes, the makeup, the smoke and mirrors, they aren’t there to hide behind. They are tools we get to use to create a little magic, and that magic is special because it is analogue, it is happening in real time and in real space. It’s risky by nature, and to be truly captivating it has to be an act of generosity between performer and audience member. Maybe that performer looks a little bit like you, maybe you feel an affinity with them in that way. Or maybe they don’t at all, but they make you feel something and you feel an affinity with them in that way. And either way you are invited to look at them, listen to them, and drink in a little piece of their story.

We were inspired to create a show to celebrate Easter in New Orleans initially out of a deep love for pastels, Peeps, and the Chris Owens’ Gay Easter parade, but as we write material for our grumpy gay Easter Bunny (played by Seattle’s brillikant Scott Shoemaker, most famous for his touring production of “Ms. PacMan”) and decide what best to wrestle in — Green Jell-O? Lube? (it’s even better; you’ll have to come see) — and choreograph a disco Last Supper, the importance of the actual themes of Easter are resonating with us in a very real way.

Rebirth! Transformation! Growth! Our country, our city and the queer community are all going through all kinds of growing pains right now, too numerous to list here, and drag and burlesque are no exception. The thing I currently get asked about the most in my career is gender in burlesque and performance. It’s a really interesting time to be a woman in the world, and that definitely includes the world of drag and burlesque. As I get older, I see misogyny more and more — not because there’s more, but because I’m learning to recognize something that is so ingrained that it’s hard to even notice all the ways it plays out. Since I was asked, here are a few ways that misogyny has specifically affected my experience as a performer.

It’s the so-called “Golden Age of Drag!” Hooray! I am so happy that more and more people are celebrating and enjoying drag, thanks to the visibility provided by reality TV and the incredible touring opportunities that have resulted. But so far that’s only for drag queens — so the gap between what mostly cis male drag performers (queens) are being paid and the opportunities they have and what mostly woman-identified drag performers (kings) are being paid and the opportunities they have is getting bigger and bigger.

Burlesque has been a primarily women run and dominated art form since it’s revival in the 1990s. Hooray! The burlesque community has been generally very open and accepting of all genders and gender presentations. This has resulted in a subcategory of burlesque called boylesque, which features performers who identify as male or as performing some type of masculinity. Now here’s where things get weird: When we start having these categories, people start defining them, and sometimes that leads to exclusion. Recently a festival put out a call for cis-male-only performers for their boylesque show. As the first drag king and non-cis male to ever win the title of Mr. Exotic World, the Burlesque Hall of Fame’s King of Boylesque, I find that incredibly strange and demeaning. What producer is checking under performer’s cod pieces to make sure their genitals match the application requirements? Winning the crown in this field is still not enough to make up for the fact that my penis is detachable? This kind of policy is not only misogynist, but also homophobic and transphobic.

Kitten N’ Lou: Holier Than Thou is coming to Denver, New Orleans, and Minneapolis this Fall! from Kitten N’ Lou on Vimeo.

I am undeniably a queer artist, I draw that queerness on my face. I use the artifice of drag to reveal this queerness, to express something about gender and my queer identity. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Come for the queerness, stay for the show. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s camp, it’s surprising, it’s got great music and it’s wearing very exciting costumes. I’m an entertainer, I make work that is hopeful in challenging times, and celebrates our humanity. Live performance is very special, a whole room full of humans, sharing an experience that is creative and life affirming — this is an art form to be cherished.

So how do we do that? Make the art you want to see! Go see the art you want to see! Let’s all support artists who bring diversity to the form, and the easiest and most fun way to do that is by going to see them perform. One of my favorite things about New Orleans is that it holds seemingly contradictory truths at the same time. We celebrate while we mourn, beginnings and endings are fluid and seasons are incredibly important. Easter is no exception. “BASKETCASE” not only celebrates rebirth, transformation, and growth, but it also supports some damn good women artists, some damn good queer artists, some damn good POC artists, and some damn good New Orleans artists. Happy Easter, love bunnies!

Chris Kaminstein on “The Stranger Disease” and the magic of theater (Artist Statement)

 

 

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“THE STRANGER DISEASE”
WHAT:
Goat in the Road Productions partners with the Louisiana State Museum and Friends of the Cabildo for its latest work, an immersive and historical look at yellow-fever in 19th century New Orleans.
WHEN: March 23-April 15; Thurs.-Sat., 6 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
WHERE: Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine St.)
TICKETS: $25
MORE: Visit the website

(Editor’s note: As we resurrect PopSmart NOLA, we do so with more intention of making this a forum for the creative people of New Orleans. The inspiration came from, of all places, a sports-related website. (Read more about that soon.) This means more content generated BY the artists and entertainers of New Orleans who explain their craft, their performances, their intentions, their challenges, you name it, as a way of making PopSmart NOLA a forum and a safe space for dialogue and engagement. Here Chris Kaminstein of Goat in the Road Productions kicks off the “Artist Statement” series as he discusses the creative process at work in their latest work, “The Stranger Disease.”)

Ian likes to creep out tourists out the second floor window. Here’s what he does: He stands with his face in one of the panes of glass and stares out at Dumaine Street. When a passing tour group sees him — some member of the group, the person particularly attuned to the hauntedness of the French Quarter — yells out, “It’s a ghost!” Ian waves, then fades away from the pane. Fun game.

I’m talking about “The Stranger Disease,” an immersive performance that Goat in the Road Productions — the theater company I help lead — is producing at Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine St.) in collaboration with the Louisiana State Museum and Friends of the Cabildo. The show is about yellow fever and the rapidly changing “color line” in 1878 New Orleans. It’s immersive because the audience can follow multiple story lines and characters at their leisure. That’s the spiel.

A piece of theater is like a magic show. When it works well, it is effortless looking, surprising, as smooth as a cresting wave. The actors move in tandem, entrances happen at precisely the right moment, monologues are recited, feelings are felt, applause is exerted. Yet for all the complication of putting on live performance, one of the most common questions that actors seem to get from non-performance folks is, “How did you learn all those lines?”

Ask this to an actor and they will roll their eyes; learning lines is the basic price of admission for acting. Not knowing your lines is like a baseball player trying to take their at-bat without a bat.

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Girl’s Got Rhythm: All-woman AC/DC tribute band Shoot to Thrill explains their highway to HOB on Saturday

 

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SHOOT TO THRILL: ALL-FEMALE TRIBUTE TO AC/DC”
WHAT: All-woman band pays tribute to the legendary hard-rock band
WHEN: Sat. (March 10), 8 p.m.
WHERE: House of Blues, 225 Decatur St.
TICKETS: $11
MORE INFO: Visit the House of Blues ticket event page

“She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean. / She was the best damn woman I had ever seen. / She had the sightless eyes, telling me no lies. / Knockin’ me out with those American thighs. / Taking more than her share, had me fighting for air. / She told me to come but I was already there.”

Don’t forget the guitars.

As lead singer Kara explains it, her bandmates in the all-woman AC/DC tribute band Shoot to Thrill can do everything the menfolk can do when it comes to capturing the spirit one of the most celebrated hard-rock bands ever. And this is a band so popular to emulate, there’s not just one, but at least three other AC/DC tribute bands named Shoot to Thrill, though more in keeping with the original gender portfolio.

“It’s all love,” she responded in a follow-up question after our earlier phone interview. “There’s plenty to go around. We’re cool with everyone.

Karasinging

Lead singer Kara

Including their fans and those of AC/DC, as they pull into New Orleans on Saturday for a gig at the House of Blues — which, along with Southport Hall, have become favored stops for tribute bands.

Kara is a newcomer to this Raleigh, N.C.-based band that formed seven years ago. More familiar the blues music and having previously worked with cover bands, she joined Shoot to Thrill last fall after they caught her singing back-up at a gig. Now she’s all about to rock, and we salute her with this edited Q&A pulled from our phone conversation hours before he band was to load up heir gear and head to New Orleans.

When did you form the band? How long have you been performing?
I’ve been performing since I was a child. The band itself has been together for seven years, with a few rotating members. I myself have been with them since September. I was in another original band out of Raleigh (as) a back-up singer. As a lead singer, up in New Hampshire, I was part of a cover band called Close Range.

What intrigued you to get involved in an all-woman, tribute band for AC/DC?
Well, actually I kind of stumbled across it. It wasn’t something that I had originally in my plan, as I’m kind of more of a blues singer. But the girls took an interest in me at a venue that I was opening for them at and they asked me to come try out, and it clicked and I’ve been in love with it ever since.

Were you an AC/DC fan growing up? What did you like most about them?
[My family] spent a lot of time out on Lake Winnipesaukee, in one of my uncle’s speedboats as a kid, and we used to go out to the sandbar and listen to all kinds of different classic rock, and AC/DC was one of his favorites. And it just is part of my childhood and hearing that type of music.

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For Rivertown Theaters’ “Die Die Birdie,” Gary Rucker’s Top 5 zombie stories

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“DIE DIE BIRDIE”
WHAT: Rivertown Theaters diverges for a zombie-fied version of the classic Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” Gary Rucker directs Trevor Brown, Bryce Slocumb, Abby Botnick, Kyle Daigrepont, Helen Blanke and Haley Nicole Taylor
WHEN: Fri.-Sat. (May 26-27), 8 p.m.; Sun. (May 28), 2 p.m.
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St., Kenner
TICKETS: $25
MORE INFO: Visit the Rivertown Theaters website

One of the things that makes productions at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts so compelling to watch is how they bring fresh ideas to classic works. But with “Bye Bye Birdie,” they are going the extra mile. In what might qualify as the ultimate example of lagniappe, director Gary Rucker is presenting a bonus weekend of performances with the show reconfigured as a zombie story, “Die Die Birdie.” Here he delivers his Top 5 zombie stories of all time, prefaced with one of the funnier artist statements I have seen.

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Gary Rucker, transitioning zombie

In the early 2000s, over way too many beers, some friends and I got on the subject of how terrible puberty was for each one of us. My own experience was horrifying — bad skin, crackly voice, gangly limbs, hungry all the time, listless … it was terrible. I brought up the fact that hitting puberty was a lot like turning into a zombie. We all ran with that premise for a bit, eventually said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. Not long after that, I happen to be listening to some random show tunes and “Bye Bye Birdie” came on, specifically the song “Put on a Happy Face.” I imagined how funny it would be if the little girls Albert was so desperately trying to cheer up were actually zombies but he had no idea. This tickled me to no end. It suddenly occurred to me that “Bye Bye Birdie” would actually make a pretty terrific zombie story. The themes are already pretty much laid out in the original text, and even the lyrics of the songs fit the new interpretation perfectly. It became my mission.

Over the next 17 or so years, I tried to figure out any way I could to present “Bye Bye Birdie” as a zombie musical. The key would be to stay true to the original work without changing a single word of dialogue or lyric. I would direct the show traditionally, and then convert the exact same production into a vehicle for a zombie apocalypse. Same cast, same technical elements … same story. Only now, there’s a new threat.

The problem was always the cost and risk of mounting such a wacky concept. Luckily, I found a loophole. Since my partner Kelly and I are now in charge of The Rivertown Theaters in Kenner, it was a no-brainer (pun) to present the traditional version of “Bye Bye Birdie” as part of our main stage season, and since the show would already be paid for, there would be very little risk in running it for one weekend with some zombie visitors. I told my son all about this on a car trip and he said, “You should call it “Die Die Birdie.”

Yes I should, son. Yes I should.

“So how do you add zombies to Birdie? Is everyone just dead now?”

[Learn more: Ted Mahne reviews “Bye Bye Birdie”]

That’s the question I get the most … and without ruining the surprise of the show … no, not at all. There’s a whole through line and rules just like in any regular zombie movie. They arrive, they kill some people, they’re dealt with. I really wish I could say more without giving too much away but I will say that my dream of watching Albert try to cheer up two dead girls has come true. And it’s as funny as I thought it was. Please come see it. I’ll even throw in a discount code! At checkout use the code word “ZOMBIE” for $15 tickets. I promise it’s worth every penny.

OK, so now onto the point of this whole thing: my top five zombie movies! These aren’t the most traditional choices but each movie has inspired me in directing “Die Die Birdie” in some way. There are even a few “Easter eggs” in the show … see if you can spot them.

“SHAUN OF THE DEAD” — Not only my favorite zombie movie, but also one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s the most like what I’m trying to present. I love how Edgar Wright shot a scene as a normal, ordinary day and then shot basically the same exact scene after the zombies had arrived. It completely encouraged me in trying to tell Birdie two different ways. It’s chock full of its own set of Easter eggs as well. This one is paid a pretty big homage in “Die Die Birdie.” Also it kicked off the Cornetto Trilogy, and any time Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost get together you know good things are bound to happen. Also, the only zombie movie to say zombie!

“WARM BODIES” — “Romeo and Juliet” told as a zombie love story. I was prepared to hate this movie, as I was dragged to it, but I ultimately really loved it. I had no idea it was based on “Romeo and Juliet” when I went in, and although the characters are clearly named R, Julie, Nora (Nurse), Perry (Paris), M (Mercutio), it took me about half the movie to put it together. Nicholas Hoult is particularly good in this. Also, the dialogue between the zombies is particularly funny.

“ZOMBIELAND” — “Holy crap, the zombies are running!” It’s a great, well-told and well-directed adventure movie that is touching and very funny. And with a fantastic cameo! **NO SPOILERS** Also, this is the movie that really kicked off Jesse Eisenberg’s career and he’s just great in it. Woody Harrelson is at his most Woody Harrelson, and his character’s quest for Twinkies is gold. My favorite part of the movie is the Zombie Tips that Jesse Eisenberg’s character explains to us throughout the movie. My favorite is Rule No. 1: Cardio. I wouldn’t need any other rules. I’d be dead instantly.

“THE WALKING DEAD” (THE BOOK) — I know books don’t really count but it’s probably the best ongoing zombie story ever told. The TV show gets it right once in a while when it STICKS TO THE SOURCE MATERIAL, but nothing compares to the graphic novels. I’ve been emotionally devastated by these books … I’ve felt betrayed and heartbroken, and once actually had to put the book down and walk away because I was so upset by something that had just happened. After all this time, it still hooks me.

“DAWN OF THE DEAD” — Because George A. Romero is the master of this genre. And it premiered on my birthday, but that is literally the only reason I picked this title over any of the others. Every one of his movies is a masterpiece in zombie horror. If you want to be really scared, these are the movies for you. The zombies are terrifying … they look angry and desperate, and even though the style of the acting is a little over the top, those zombies are committed to their performances. It’s a movie very much of its time, but man is it intense.

For “The Spider Queen,” Alex Martinez Wallace’s Top 5 crazy fantasies

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The cast of “The Spider Queen” (Photo by Jeremy Blum)

“THE SPIDER QUEEN”
WHAT:
The NOLA Project’s annual collaboration with the New Orleans Museum of Art is a fantasy story and world premiere from members James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace
WHERE: NOMA’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden, City Park
WHEN: 7 p.m. May 10-14, 17-18, 21, 24-26, 28
TICKETS: Adults: $25, NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members: $18, NOMA Members: $18, Students with ID: $18
MORE INFO: http://www.nolaproject.com

We are blessed this week with a double-dose of inspiration at The NOLA Project launches “The Spider Queen” for its annual collaboration with the New Orleans Museum of Art. First, the obvious inspiration: “The Spider Queen, co-written by James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace,” is heavily influenced by “Spider,” the sculpture by Louise Bourgeois that resides in the production’s stage, NOMA’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden. “Spider” tells the story of a teen on a mission to learn how his father died, but winds up going down a rabbit hall along with a tepid park ranger. Along they way they encounter a characters that includes plenty of crazy creatures and, of course, a spider. So we figured Wallace would make for a fun choice to double down on the notion of inspiration by citing some inspirations of his own:

Alex Wallace (1)

Alex Martinez Wallace

I understand that I’m supposed to remark and embark on a vernacular voyage wherein I divulge with everyone the five cinematic influences that most affected the part I played in writing “The Spider Queen” — but I’m going to break the rules a little bit. And you’re honestly very lucky. Because I could go rule-breaking mad. I could have just sent to the editor-in-chief a painting of my influences. Or just a dreadful pencil drawing or some other such thing they absolutely didn’t ask for (mud slung fitfully against a blank wooden door), which, while it might mean something truthful and genuine to me, gives the kind readers of this editorial virtually nothing to go on.

I’ve lived non-sequiturally before. Sometimes I like getting yelled at. James Bartelle, with whom I co-wrote this story, was very good about keeping things from getting absolutely Loony Tunes while simultaneously letting me stretch my big dumb feathery wings. So I’m only going to break the rules a little here. And so most of my influences aren’t films. Some are television shows, and one is a play. I’m actually being really well behaved. A good boy! Arguably.

5) “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING” (BOTH THE MOVIE AND THE BOOK) — Particularly the first installment of the trilogy, because it, more than the other two, asks you to swallow the most nonsense right out the gate. If you aren’t willing right away to eat the history of the One Ring, and the thousands of elves and dwarves and men and the great war that was many thousands of years ago and has now come thundering back into the present with the rediscovery of the ominous golden circlet and another imaginary race of tiny Hobbits … then the rest of the movie will sit with you as well as a hot-shit sandwich. You really just gotta go with it. It’s like the smash hit film “Inception.” If you start asking too many questions, you’re gonna miss something and then, before you know it, the main character of the play is in Gardendale talking to a flower person and you won’t know why. Just go with it. And “The Spider Queen” plunges you headlong right into the Council of Elrond. No foreplay! In theater, we can’t have lengthy voiceovers with historical cut scenes, or a length of text scrolling into the stars that sets the tone of the show. Well, we could, but it’s a lazy-bum solution. And we don’t have tiiimmme. There’s a kingdom in peril and two worlds colliding, and if you want in, you’ll have to hold on to your butts and jump in headfirst. And, like in Middle Earth, singing a song or poetry recital is a perfectly acceptable way to respond to any situation. That was particularly true in the books. “Why is Tom Bombadil singing? Again? Why, God, why?” Go with it — this isn’t your world — you aren’t in Kansas anymore. If you can’t tell by now, I’m a geek by many measures; if you’ve any experience with fantasy stories of any kind, you’ll slip into this play as easily as a familiar old worn leather boot

4) “STRANGER THINGS” — The first and largest revision of the play happened right when Netflix released “Stranger Things” — and just in time, too. The first cut of the play was going in a very odd direction. Very 1980s … but like… too 1980s. Like each character had their own hairband rock song. It’s ironic that a show set so completely in the ’80s helped move our play out of the ’80s. But more than anything, “Stranger Things” helped us conceptualize a fantasy world whose features were a reflection of our own world as opposed to a fantasy world with its own random lineaments. It also helped us, we hope, create a multifaceted heroine who takes the audience on a journey unlike any that has been seen onstage before. We also incorporated Eggo Waffles into the play — lololol that’s a lie. Continue reading

“PopSmart NOLA,” Ep. 24: Harlem String Quartet, David Kunian on Pete Fountain, and Jenna Guidry and Paul Sanchez

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For what by pure coincidence turned into “An All-Music Episode,” we welcomed a varied assortment of guests with local and national connections. First we welcomed the Harlem String Quartet, which performed at Loyola’s Roussel Hall to conclude the Friends of Music 2016-2017 series. We sat down to chat about that visit, as well as the diversity of this troupe, which you can see in their membership and in their musical selections.

Next we asked David Kunian, longtime WWOZ radio host and documentarian, and more recently, curator of Music for the New Orleans Jazz Museum, to ruminate on the recently opened exhibition of the late, great Pete Fountain — just in time for the French Quarter Festival. The result is a personal and professional recollection about Pete Fountain and his place in New Orleans music as well as his national imprint.

And finally we visited the home of 18-year-old singer-songwriter Jenna Guidry, a Houma native and New Orleans transplant who graduated from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and now at Loyola University. Guidry has released a four-song EP, “Back to Me,” produced by her friend, mentor and collaborator Paul Sanchez. They discussed their work together and performed “Precious” from the EP.

Below you’ll also find this week’s Relevant Link, which had to be cut from this week’s show due to time constraints.

SEGMENT ONE: Harlem String Quartet
Harlem Quartet advances diversity in classical music while engaging new audiences with varied repertoire that includes works by minority composers. Their mission to share their passion with a wider audience has taken them around the world; from a 2009 performance at The White House for President Obama and First Lady, Michelle Obama, to a highly successful tour of South Africa in 2012, and numerous venues in between. The musically versatile ensemble has performed with such distinguished performers as Itzhak Perlman, Ida Kavafian, Carter Brey, Fred Sherry, Misha Dicter, Jeremy Denk, and Paquito D’Rivera. Their most recent recording, Hot House, with jazz master Chick Corea and percussionist Gary Burton was a 2013 multi-Grammy Award winner.

For their performance tonight at Loyola’s Roussel Hall to conclude the Friends of Music’s 2016-2017 series, Harlem Quartet has a special program planned:

Concert Program

  • A. Mozart – String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat major, Op. 27 “The Hunt”
  • Antonio Carlos Jobim arr. Dave Glenn – The Girl from Ipanema
  • Guido Gavilan – Cuarteto en Guaguancó
  • Edvard Grieg – String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 27

I sat down with the Quartet Thursday inside their rehearsal space near the Hall. I basically reserved one question each — so you’ll be hearing from cellist Felix Umansky, viola player Jaime Amador, and violinists Melissa White and Ilmar Gavilan. We discussed the Harlem Quartet’s eclectic musical approach that includes serious jazz influences, collaborating with legends such as Yitzhak Perlman, playing in the White House, and why diversity matters – not just in their musical lineup and their musical approach, but also in their outreach to audiences.

SEGMENT TWO: David Kunian
When Pete Fountain died Aug. 6, 2016, New Orleans lost more than one of the few traditional jazz musicians to chart a Top-40 hit. The city lost a beloved and colorful personality who, despite international fame, never lost his love of the Crescent City — perhaps best known to many through his whimsically named Carnival walking troupe. In tribute, the Louisiana State Museum’s New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U. S. Mint presents “Pete Fountain: A Life Half-Fast.” This modest exhibition, which includes posters, albums, doubloons and other artifacts, comes complete with a musical soundtrack pulled from recently digitized archival music.

The museum’s curator, David Kunian, has been playing and chronicling music for a quarter century, offered personal and professional thoughts on Pete Fountain from the perch of the museum’s performance space. Those thoughts started with Kunian’s first encounter with Pete Fountain’s museum upon his arrival to New Orleans back in 1992 as a white hipster looking for the city’s coolest music.

SEGMENT THREE: Jenna Guidry and Paul Sanchez
Welcome back to “PopSmart NOLA.” I’m your host, David Lee Simmons. Our next guests are a study in contrasts. Our first guest, singer-songwriter Jenna Guidy, already has a decade of musical experience under her belt at the ripe old age of 18. Her friend, mentor and collaborator, Paul Sanchez, already was a couple years removed from his 16-year-run with Cowboy Mouth, in pursuit of his own solo efforts. Their friendship, sparked by a Facebook message, has helped Guidry along an already impressive career path.

I first came across Jenna Guidry when she performed with Michael Cerveris at his appearance at NOCCA, where Guidry was then a junior. Now the Houma native has graduated and is studying music at Loyola, and already having performed at Buffa’s, with Sanchez at her side. Last week marked the release of her four-song EP, “Back to Me,” which was produced by Sanchez. I visited with Guidry and Sanchez at her home in Lakeview, with her mother nearby as we chatted about her nearly decade-long career, what “Back to Me” means to her, and the challenges of being a young female artist in an often unforgiving music business and world. And we even took a moment to listen to a song.

SEGMENT FOUR: Relevant Link
For our Relevant Link this week, I wanted to revisit a post on NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune last week that raised the question, “Does New Orleans have too many festivals?” In some ways, it’s a trick question, right? I mean, New Orleans and Louisiana already were synonymous with festivals, and since Katrina there’s been a boom in festivals and most of them have welcomed packed crowds. Maybe too crowded, yes, but you can’t argue their success.

Nor can you argue, necessarily, with how they help hard-working musicians. In the article, musicians made the point that it’s the spring festival season that has become their most consistent financial pipeline, and are far more reliable income stream than regular club bookings.

And for the most part, fans of festivals were pretty vocal in their support in the comments section of the article. For many, it’s a no-brainer. But while those who loved festivals LOVE festivals, there was an undercurrent of opposition to so much fun. It should be noted that the attendant poll showed 47 percent in support of festivals, while 34 percent “absolutely” thought there were too many — and, interestingly, 16.5 percent chose “Maybe”, apparently agreeing with that choice’s caveat: “ I like the old standards, but these new kids on the block are too much. See y’all at Creole Tomato Fest!”

Some of the complaints about so many festivals were not too surprising — they’re too crowded, food and ticket prices are high and sometimes the portions are small, the festivals are becoming so narrow in focus they minimize the idea of cultural celebration. But one comment caught my eye: “Feel like New Orleans keeps partying as the ship is sinking. We have a deteriorating wetlands problem with water lapping at the Levees. Band plays on, people keep partying. Dont look behind the wall. Most of the festivals will disappear when next hurricane hits and half the non-locals move home or to Portland.” It taps into a notion, as one other commenter put, that we’re embracing Rome’s “bread and circus” mentality of amusing ourselves to death in light of grave concerns facing the city.

That’s all to say, as with so much about New Orleans, maybe all things in moderation?