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.

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

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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
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.


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.

Rivertown Theaters announces 2017-2018 season filled with mix of musicals and comedies

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Contemporary and classic Broadway musicals, a novel approach to a venerable comedy and a whole lotta Ricky Graham are among the highlights of the 2017-2017 season announced by Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts in a fundraiser celebration Saturday (Jan. 7).

Rivertown Theaters will go old school by kicking off the season with “Guys and Dolls” but also ups the ante with the season-closing “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” The latter production will be directed by Graham, his third for the company this season, with each of them having a distinct aspect. With “Beauty and the Beast,” it will be the sheer spectacle of the production. With Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” it will be the novelty of having both male and female actors rotating in the lead roles.

Then there’s Robert Harling’s 1987 play, “Steel Magnolias,” set in North Louisiana and the inspiration for the tear-jerker film. Graham also co-wrote, starred and directed (with Jeffery Roberson) in the recent holiday drag spoof, “Steel Poinsettias,” so we should have seen this one coming.

Other productions for the season: “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Million Dollar Quartet,” featuring the music of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Ferriday’s own Jerry Lee Lewis. This will be directed by Michael McKelvey.

“For our sixth season, we are widening our range of shows to feature titles and music everyone knows and loves,” said Rivertown co-artistic/managing director Kelly Fouchi said in a press release. “There is so much talent in the New Orleans area, so we are very proud to introduce some new directors to Rivertown Theaters. We have great respect for them and their work and know they will bring the same level of excellence we are committed to.”

Fouchi and co-artisistic director Gary Rucker and presented “People of the Year” recognition awards to | The Times-Picayune theater critic Ted Mahne and videographer Bill Blanke at the celebration.

Visit the website for more info.

Herewith is the complete Main Stage schedule, with descriptions provided by Rivertown Theaters in italics.

“Guys & Dolls”
Sept. 8-24, 2017
Directed by David Hoover
Frank Loesser’s celebrated musical comedy about rolling the dice and falling in love under the bright lights of Broadway. “Guys and Dolls” is considered by many to be the perfect musical comedy. This multi Tony & Olivier Award-winning classic is packed with one unforgettable song after another—not to mention loads of romance and charm to spare. With beloved tunes such as “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and “The Oldest Established,” there is plenty of toe-tapping to be had. If you are the betting type, you should know that Guys and Dolls is the odds-on favorite to ride to the winners’ circle of your greatest Broadway loves. These gents and dames have an irresistible mix of naughty, nice and classic Broadway pizzazz that will entertain audiences of all ages.

“The Odd Couple” (male & female version)
Nov. 2-19, 2017
Directed by Ricky Graham
Neil Simon’s classic comedy about two mismatched roommates, has enjoyed countless revivals, three TV series and a hit film testifying to the sure-fire hilarity of “The Odd Couple.” Filled with one-liners, slapstick comedy and likeable characters, we’re delivering a one-two punch by presenting the male AND female versions. two different scripts, both written by Neil Simon. Watch the same casts flip roles and switch places as they perform the two different versions throughout the run, proving that gender has nothing to do with being a bad roommate, or a great friend. Audiences can pick and choose their preferred version and are encouraged to come back a second time to experience both shows. We will offer a special “combo package” ticket price for the two-timers! Director Ricky Graham will bring his comedic expertise to the poker game (male) and Trivial Pursuit night (female), assuring a night full of laughter for all.

“Million Dollar Quartet”
Jan. 12-28, 2018
Directed by Michael McKelvey
“Million Dollar Quartet” is the new smash-hit musical inspired by the famed recording session that brought together rock ‘n’ roll icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins for the first and only time. On Dec. 4, 1956, these four young musicians gathered at Sun Records in Memphis for what would be one of the greatest jam sessions ever. This thrilling musical brings you inside the recording studio with four major talents who came together as a red-hot rock ’n’ roll band for one unforgettable night. Million Dollar Quartet brings that legendary night to life, featuring a score of rock hits including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Walk the Line,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog” and more. Don’t miss your chance to sing and dance along with some of the greatest of all time!

“Steel Magnolias”
March 2-18, 2018
Directed by Ricky Graham
It’s somewhat of a “Louisiana rite of passage” to experience Steel Magnolias live on stage. If you’ve already had the pleasure, continue the tradition – grab your loved ones and closest friends to share this beloved “comedy that will make you cry!” Six women come together in this hilarious and heartwarming story of life, love and loss in a small North Louisiana parish. At the center of the group is Shelby, newly married and joyfully pregnant, despite the fact that her diabetes could make childbirth life-threatening. Terrified and angry at the possibility of losing her only daughter, M’Lynn looks to her four closest friends for strength and laughter as she battles her deepest fear of death in order to join Shelby in celebrating the miracle of new life. Not just for the ladies, this wonderfully crafted play is a beautiful tribute to friendship, community and the power of the human spirit that will touch the hearts of all theatergoers. Spend an evening celebrating the Louisiana woman …”delicate as a magnolia, but tough as steel.”

“Little Shop of Horrors”
May 4-20, 2018
Directed by Gary Rucker
Feed the need for musical hilarity with this delicious sci-fi smash about a man-eating plant. A deviously delicious Broadway and Hollywood musical hit, Little Shop of Horrors has devoured the hearts of theatre goers for over 30 years. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, and Aladdin) are the creative geniuses behind what has become one of the most popular shows in the world. This charmingly tongue in cheek comedy features the meek floral assistant Seymour Krelborn who stumbles across a new breed of plant he names “Audrey II” — after his coworker crush. This foul-mouthed, R&B-singing carnivore promises unending fame and fortune to the down and out Krelborn as long as he keeps feeding it, BLOOD. Over time, though, Seymour discovers Audrey II’s out of this world origins and intent towards global domination! Throw in a trio of sassy, high belting street-urchins, a nitrous oxide loving dentist and a cast of “Skid Row” characters, and you’ve got an evening of “over the top” musical fun for everyone.

“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”
July 12-22, 2018
Directed by Ricky Graham

“Be our guest!” The Academy Award-winning film comes to life in this romantic and beloved take on the classic fairytale. Step into the enchanted world of Broadway’s modern classic, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” an international sensation that has played to over 35 million people worldwide in 13 countries. The stage version includes all of the wonderful songs written by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, along with new songs by Mr. Menken and Tim Rice. The original Broadway production ran for over thirteen years and was nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. This “tale as old as time” is filled with spectacular costume, sets and your favorite characters like Belle, Gaston, Lumiere, Cogsworth, Ms. Potts, Chip and more. Keeping with our summer tradition, we look forward to bringing the community together for family theatre at its best.


“1776,” a bit dated yet very timely, gets a patriotic salute at Rivertown Theaters

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WHAT: Rivertown Theaters presents the Tony Award-winning musical about the backstory of the Declaration of Independence. A.J. Allegra directs Sherman Edwards music (book by Peter Stone); starring Gary Rucker, David Hoover, Louis Dudoussat and others.
WHEN: Nov. 4-5, 8 p.m.; Nov. 6, 2 p.m.; through Nov. 20
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St.
TICKETS: $44 adults, $41.90 seniors, $39.80 students

There is something grandiose about Rivertown Theaters’ staging of “1776” that goes beyond the obviously calculated timing of its presentation over the course of this presidential election finale. The musical itself, which debuted in 1969, was an ambitious affair, trying to meld politics, policy and poetry long before Aaron Sorkin broke all the rules with TV’s masterful “The West Wing.”

Much as John Adams tries to help herd the cats that were the nation’s first Congress, director A.J. Allegra must herd a cast of characters that must feel distinct, yes, but also, well, entertaining. But because, nearly 50 years since the musical’s premiere, politics as entertainment has taken on a whole new meaning, anyway, so “1776” becomes a whole other challenge.

And with a few curious exceptions — not necessarily the fault of the production — the musical is a smashing success that should be seen before the glow of this fraught election subsides. Intricate, complicated, uncomfortable but filled with pride, music and respect, “1776” restores your faith in musical theater as something more than just a song-and-dance piece of fluff. It’s a testament to this collaboration, ostensibly, of two of the most talented figures in the greater New Orleans theater scene.

Allegra, as artistic director of The NOLA Project, here is in cahoots with Rivertown’s Gary Rucker, the co-artistic director and, in this case, the star of the show in playing John Adams. I have no idea what kind of collaborative spirit was sparked between the two in the production; maybe Rucker just stuck to the production and acting side and left the directing to Allegra. But the final product does indeed feel like a powerhouse team effort.

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“PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV, Ep. 2: A.J. Allegra, Gary Rucker, Jason Brad Berry and Corey Mack

PROMO 11-5-16.pngOur sophomore effort of the radio version of “PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM) was, if nothing else, a very fun time — an “Outsized Political Discussion” episode with interesting observations, an embarrassing technical difficulty (my bad) and Donald Trump showing up in the most unlikely places (in the conversation).

We welcomed director A.J. Allegra and co-star Gary Rucker of Rivertown Theaters’ current production of “1776” and its relevance heading into Tuesday’s (Nov. 8) elections, investigative journalist Jason Brad Berry of American Zombie, and comedian (and guest co-host) Corey Mack. We also had a chance to hear southwest Louisiana journalist Herman Fuselier read an excerpt from his new book, “Ghosts of Good Times: Louisiana Dance Halls Past and Present” (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press), a coffee-table book in collaboration with photographer Philip Gould. (My apologies to listeners for the minute-long gap of dead silence, cleaned up here in the edit.)

This week’s playlist:
Tupac Shakur — “Changes”
“1776” soundtrack — “Sit Down John”
“1776” soundtrack — “Piddle Twiddle and Resolve”
Vivaldi — “The Four Seasons”

[Read more: A.J. Allegra’s Top 5 political-themed musicals]

Tune in next Saturday at 3 p.m. for our next episode, in which we examine the Affordable Care Act and its impact on New Orleans musicians and other artists, now that the registration period has opened. Until then, keep following along on Facebook as well as on Instagram (@popsmartnola) and Twitter (@dlsnola504), and please remember to keep the intelligent conversation of New Orleans culture going.

A.J. Allegra’s Top 5 political-themed musicals as Rivertown Theaters mounts its “1776” campaign

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WHAT: Rivertown Theaters presents the Tony Award-winning musical about the backstory of the Declaration of Independence. A.J. Allegra directs Sherman Edwards music (book by Peter Stone); starring Gary Rucker, David Hoover, Louis Dudoussat and others.
WHEN: Nov. 4-5, 8 p.m.; Nov. 6, 2 p.m.; through Nov. 20
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St.
TICKETS: $44 adults, $41.90 seniors, $39.80 students

When Rivertown Theaters’ Gary Rucker and Kelly Fouchi announced they would include “1776” as part of their 2016-17 season, they cleverly timed it to coincide with the Nov. 8 presidential election. Well played! But did they really know what they were getting into, given how crazy this election season has become? Some are lamenting the death of a republic in this toxic campaign, so now more than ever it’s crucial to witness the birth of a nation in this Tony Award-winning 1969 musical from Sherman Edwards (working from Peter Stone’s book). A.J. Allegra, artistic director of The NOLA Project, slides over to direct a cast that includes Rucker in the lead role of co-founding father John Adams, with David Hoover as Benjamin Franklin, Nori Pritchard as Abigail Adams and Louis Dudoussat as John Hancock.

Allegra, who I tapped to offer insights into a NOLA Project production a couple years ago, offered up his favorite musicals with a political theme — including this production, which opens this week at Rivertown Theaters in Kenner.

In anticipation of the opening of “1776” and our impending election, here are my picks for my favorite political musicals. I use the term “political” a little loosely, but all of them are very political at heart. Also, it is important to note that these are simply my favorite and not an objective “best of” list in any way.

I think comparing most pieces of theater is comparing apples and oranges. But all of these shows have moved or affected me in some way. It should not be surprising that many are shows I’ve worked on. You tend to develop an affinity for those ones.

“ASSASSINS” — This show is one of the most uncomfortable pieces of art ever created for musical theater. At a very surface-level interpretation, it can be viewed as a glorification of the men and women who have attempted to take the lives of Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, F.D.R., Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Ronald Geagan, and John F. Kennedy. But in reality, this pastiche and bizarre Stephen Sondheim musical review set in a vague carnival purgatory setting is an acidic indictment of the American culture of “Me” that drives individuals with sociopathic tendencies towards seeking the greatest form of infamy. I love the darkness of the piece and the intentional discomfort that it aims squarely at the audience, forcing us all as viewers to come to terms with our own jaded views of the American Dreams that were promised to us but did not come true. This was the first professional musical I ever directed back in November of 2008 on the eve of our election of Barack Obama. While that was certainly a historic and (for me, wonderful) time, I honestly feel that the musical might be even more appropriate during this year’s absolutely toxic and vile election campaign, where one candidate’s large and vocal support base is made up in very large part of furious and (sometimes) violent Americans who feel that the American Dream promised to them has been deceitfully stolen from them by others. And yet, sometimes I think it is best to combat reality with art rather than reflect it. Perhaps a production of Assassins this year might just be too much to handle. I’m glad we are opening “1776,” in that case!

“CABARET” — Like “Assassins,” “Cabaret” is a dark concept musical (the first “concept musical,” in fact!) with many, many layers that really was revolutionary in its 1969 inception. If Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized the American musical with “Oklahoma!” in 1943 by creating the first fully integrated story using music, dialogue and dance, then Kander and Ebb and director Harold Prince re-revolutionized the form with “Cabaret” by blowing that straightforward storytelling concept to smithereens. “Cabaret” is a show within a show within the head of a central character who is far more passive bystander than objective-oriented story hero. The entire thing is controlled and run by a seedy and somewhat creepy, nameless emcee. And the central female hero of the story is a cabaret performer in 1930s Berlin whose final dilemma revolves around whether she receives an abortion. So I think you could say things have come a damn long way since Nellie Forbush sang about being corny in Kansas! Now, you might be curious as to what makes “Cabaret” a political musical, but that is because the piece is so multi-layered. The most interesting layer of “Cabaret,” for me, has always been about the political circumstances of 1930s Berlin (a highly liberal city) that allowed for the unprecedented rise of Naziism. The city is intentionally presented as a very familiar depiction of an urban liberal bastion where, despite the reigning “It could never happen here” mentality, Naziism eventually takes a sudden and unprecedented hold. The musical ends with the knowledge that those same carefree figures enjoying the good life in the first scene are very likely the first ones to be sent to die in the concentration camps of Hitler. It’s chilling. Perhaps another apropos musical to our 2016 election, but best left untouched for now… As a fun personal note, I have never worked on any production of “Cabaret,” though I have seen several. Every year, when The NOLA Project sends out our year-end audience surveys, we ask for suggestions on future shows people would like to see. Year after year, one patron sends back the request that we produce “Cabaret” with myself as the Emcee. The egotist in me always thinks “What a fine idea!” but the more prudent artistic director always wins out.

“BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON” — Now here is a controversial musical. In fact, I would venture to guess that this musical may never be performed professionally again, despite premiering at the Public Theatre (home of “Hamilton” and “Fun Home,” recently) less than a decade ago. The difficulty and controversy, of course, revolves around the supremely controversial titular character, President Andrew Jackson. Jackson was America’s first populist president, rising to power on the supportive backs of several million Americans who were tired of the elite Washington class ruling everything in government. After losing his first presidential bid to John Quincy Adams (son of the central character in “1776”), Jackson claimed that the election was essentially rigged. (Dear God, the terrifying parallels!) He regrouped, re-energized his base, and defeated Adams four years later in a landslide. And then things got tricky, because, as Jackson tried to please all parties, he ended up directionless, clueless and totally lost. And so the musical represents him as such a man: a childish Emo rockstar. But what makes the musical controversial and essentially unperformable today is in its depiction of indigenous people. Jackson famously maligned several thousand Native Americans, forcing them off of their lands and onto the infamous Trail of Tears. And while the musical certainly depicts these acts and never puts Jackson in anything close to an admirable light for doing so, the Native Americans in the show were played by non-Native performers, both off and on Broadway. In my own local production of the show that I directed during the re-election of Obama in October/November 2012, I admit to practicing the same. But the American Theatre has progressed in many ways since just four years ago, and agency in storytelling has become a major and necessary sticking point for indigenous people. And they have deemed the portrayals in this musical as mostly offensive. So we owe it to them to follow suit. Look, by no means am I ashamed of my work on this show, nor does its present un-performability make me appreciate it any less. I still consider it to be a scathing and hilarious satire of a fascinatingly complicated American figure dealing with a lot of his own neurotic demons. It also features some of the best pop-rock music in the last decade on Broadway. By no means does it glorify Andrew Jackson or his actions. In fact it plainly mocks them and holds presidential incompetence sternly to the fire. But by denying those Americans who have already been denied so much the right to speak for themselves and tell their own version of the story, it oversteps its boundaries. So do yourself a favor and give the cast recording a listen. Because I doubt you’ll see it again.

“PACIFIC OVERTURES” — This is one of those musicals that theater fans mostly know of, but don’t actually know. And I was completely in this camp myself until Jefferson Turner, my good friend and former NOCCA colleague suggested that I direct it with the students at NOCCA in 2013. I was terrified. Wasn’t this Stephen Sondheim’s Kabuki-inspired musical about something in Japan that flopped in the 1970s? Well, the answer is yes! But that is far too ignorant and simplistic of a definition. So I dove in and discovered it to be a rich and complicated examination of the forceful opening of Japan to Western trade by American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 as told from the Japanese perspective. The music and book, by Sondheim and James Weidman (the same pair behind Assassins) are a detailed depiction of Japanese society as they slowly become Westernized following the visit by Perry and his ships. It has a “Rashomon”-like effect, telling the same story from multiple points of view, leaving the final say so with the audience. Would Japan have been better off left alone, or did America do a great thing by bringing the insular country into great commerce with the rest of the industrializing world? These are questions that we do not ask enough in America, because, to us, if we did it, then of course it was right and good. This musical does not beg to differ, but rather just begs the question. I would encourage everyone reading this to discover it for yourself, as I did three years ago. It is greatly rewarding and intellectually stimulation for those of you that do.

“1776” — Of course. “1776” is, to my mind, the finest book of a musical ever written. Now for those with less of a theater-nerd vocabulary, the “book” of a musical is another way to say the scripted dialogue of the show. In this masterfully crafted musical, there are a mere 11 songs. Today, most two-act musicals have more than 11 songs in each act alone. And yet, the musical is not short of music for any reason. The dialogue, written by Peter Stone, is so sharply crafted, that the show would quite honestly work as a taught and thrilling play on its own terms. The music only adds to the sheer American delight of it all. I discovered the power of this show in a high school U.S. history class in 2001 when my teacher popped the “1776” VHS in for a very skeptical class of jaded and eye-rolling teenagers. Certain that I would be the sole theater-loving student in the room enjoying myself, I remembered watching as every singly student grew uniformly transfixed to the happenings on screen. A singing and dancing Benjamin Franklin was suddenly not a subject for mockery, but a fully formed, randy and hysterical old man who the kids all uniformly loved. The truest mark of its success was the second day of class when we found ourselves half-way through the film and one boy raised his hand to ask “Are we gonna finish the “1776” musical today? I want to know how it ends.” There is the success of this show — you actually sit there in fearful anticipation of how it will end.

Lastly, I would be remiss to leave out mention of the phenomenon that is “Hamilton.” But in all honesty, I do not yet have the knowledge or expertise of any kind to write anything worthwhile about it. I very badly want to experience it in person for myself, and will do so this May in Chicago! Lord, those tickets were hard to get! If the mountains of recommendations I have heard are correct, if all of my good friends are to be trusted, and if the truckload of phenomenal press and awards heaped upon it thus far are to be deemed worthy, then it goes without saying that the political musical list has now been topped by this. And for that I am very excited. To be living in a time when a piece of new theater has such a profound affect on the American public is something to be cherished for an artist like me. So by the time election 2020 rolls around, I hope to have a lot more to say about “Hamilton.”

Until May, I wait in hopeful anticipation.

Rivertown Theaters announces 2016-2017 season

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Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts announces its upcoming seasons with all the “Let’s put on a show!” brio you’d come to expect from the most consistently popular producer of Broadway musicals. And so it was with Tony Award-ceremony grandeur, once again, that the company rolled out its 2016-2107 season Saturday (Jan. 9) with a reception and sneak preview in the venue, complete with co-emcees (and company partners) Gary Rucker and Kelly Fouchi, songs from upcoming shows, and a sneak preview of the upcoming “Sweet Charity.”

It will be the company’s fifth season. For more info, call  504-461-9475 or 504.468.7221 or visit

“How do you top last year’s most ambitious season of all musicals? You raise the bar again by presenting a season filled with different, unique, yet challenging and spectacular offerings to appeal to our extremely loyal and appreciative audiences who have supported, cheered us on, and grown with us over the past years,” Fouchi, co-artistic/managing director, said in a press release. “… We are thrilled with the support and response that we have received for each season’s offerings. Topping the ‘best of’ lists, each of the shows last year played to sold out houses and enthusiastic audiences.

“Our goal is to continue to present audiences with productions that are full of high entertainment value featuring some of the area’s most talented performers.”

Rivertown Theaters’ upcoming season will see the following productions: “Let the Good Times Roll” (Sept. 9-25) another musical jukebox from the Big Easy Buddies (“Under the Boardwalk”); “1776” (Nov. 4-20), the 1969 Sherman Edwards-Peter Stone musical about the founding of a nation; “Billy Elliot the Musical” (Jan. 13-29), Elton John’s 2005 adaptation of the the 2000 movie about a boy who dreams of being a dancer; “The 39 Steps” (March 10-26, 2017), Patrick Barlow’s satire of both John Buchan’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller; “Bye Bye Birdie” (May 5-21, 2017), the Michael Stewart-Lee Adams musical send-up of the Elvis Presley mania of the 1950s; and “The Little Mermaid” (July 13-23, 2017) Alan Menken’s 2008 adaptation of the 1989 Disney animated musical blockbuster.

At Saturday’s preview/fundraiser, which included an auction, the company recognized the contributions of “Volunteers of the Year”: Jane Hirling (Kelly Fouchi’s mother) and Kenner City Councilman Keith Reynaud.

Here is a breakdown of those productions, with descriptions provided by Rivertown Theaters:

“Let The Good Times Roll”
Sept. 9-25, 2016
Directed by Rich Arnold

“The Big Easy Buddies are back with an all new show! Since their crowd pleasing, sold out hit show “Under The Boardwalk” here at Rivertown Theaters, patrons continually request that we bring back The Buddies. So here they are kicking off our 2016-2017 season, and bringing their tight harmonies and slick choreography to your favorite doo-wop, Motown and rock ‘n’ roll hits, including classics inspired by the city of New Orleans. ‘The Buddies’ will again be joined by the dazzling ‘Big Easy Babes’ with their nod to the girl groups and diva anthems of the 1950’s and ’60’s. The great American Radio Songbook comes to life in a rollicking musical event that promises all the spectacle, excitement and extraordinary talent our audiences have come to expect. The Times-Picayune says, ‘The non-stop energy the quartet brings to the stage is positively infectious and makes the show a treat not just for those audience members who heard this music originally on jukeboxes at the malt shops. It is a night for the entire family to enjoy.’ ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ will have audiences smiling and singing along, proving that retro never sounded so new!”

Nov. 4-20,2016
Directed by AJ Allegra

“What better time to celebrate the birth of America’s independence than during an election year … and what better way than with a Tony Award winning musical set in 1776? The turning point in American history blazes to vivid life in our November musical offering, ‘1776.’ A funny, insightful and compelling musical with a striking score and legendary book, ‘1776’ puts a human face on the pages of history. We see the men behind the national icons: proud, frightened, uncertain, charming and ultimately noble figures determined to do the right thing for a fledgling nation. Step back in time and be inspired by our founding fathers as they attempt to convince Congress to vote for independence from the shackles of the British monarch by signing the Declaration of Independence. This uplifting musical will have you beaming with pride and patriotism.”

“Billy Elliot, the Musical”
Jan. 13-29, 2017
Directed by Kelly Fouchi

“Millions of fans … Thousands of standing ovations … 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical … this is ‘Billy Elliot The Musical,’ the spectacular show with the heart, humor and passion named Time Magazine’s “Best Musical of the Decade!” Based on the international smash-hit film and featuring a score by music legend Elton John, ‘Billy Elliot’ is an astonishing theatrical experience that will stay with you forever. Set in a northern English mining town, against the background of the 1984 miners’ strike, ‘Billy Elliot’ is the inspirational story of a young boy’s struggle against the odds to make his dream come true. Follow Billy’s journey as he stumbles out of the boxing ring and into a ballet class where he discovers a passion for dance that inspires his family and community and changes his life forever. Join us for this powerful story that has captivated audiences around the world. Contains adult language, PG-13.”

“The 39 Steps”
March 10-26, 2017
Directed by Ricky Graham

“This two-time Tony Award winner is currently enjoying a second run on Broadway and is in its 10th year of performances in London’s West End. The 39 Steps is a comedic spoof of the classic 1935 Hitchcock film, with only four actors portraying more than 150 characters, sometimes changing roles in the blink of an eye. The brilliantly madcap and gripping comedy thriller follows our dashing hero Richard Hannay, as he races to solve the mystery of ‘The 39 Steps,’ all the while trying to clear his name! This ‘whodunit, part espionage thriller and part slapstick comedy’ is great fun for everyone from 9 to 99. The show’s uproarious fast pace promises to leave you gasping for breath … in a good way!”

“Bye Bye Birdie”
May 5-21, 2017
Directed by Gary Rucker

“Before Beatlemania, before Beiber Fever, came hip-swingin’ teen idol Conrad Birdie (loosely based on Elvis), who, to the dismay of his adoring fans, is about to be drafted into the army by Uncle Sam. In Bye Bye Birdie, the 1950’s rock-n-roll musical comedy, Birdie’s agent, Albert and his secretary/girlfriend, Rosie, cook up a plan to send him off in style. They must write Birdie a new hit song and have him bestow “one last kiss” on a lucky fan, live on the Ed Sullivan Show. A town full of colorful characters including crazed teenagers, a jealous boyfriend, and a spotlight stealing father make for a rollicking good time. In addition to the popular silver screen adaptation starring Ann Margaret, Bye Bye Birdie is a Tony Award winner for Best Musical and features such beloved songs as ‘Put on A Happy Face,’ ‘Kids,’ ‘The Telephone Hour’ and ‘A Lot of Livin’ To Do.'”

“The Little Mermaid”
July 13-23, 2017
Directed by Ricky Graham

“Based on the Disney animated film, the hit Broadway musical, and one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved stories Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ is a hauntingly beautiful love story for the ages. In a magical kingdom fathoms below, we meet Ariel, the little mermaid who is tired of flipping her fins and longs to be part of the fascinating world on dry land. Joining her are Sebastian, Ariel’s crabby sidekick; Ursula, the evil sea witch; Triton, King of the Sea and the handsome and human Prince Eric. Dive on in! Life is the bubbles, under the sea! Reserve the best seats early for your little guppies, our summer family shows sell out quick!”

Trina Beck on Morticia, “The Addams Family” and being a secret weirdo (podcast)

Trina Beck is, in the words of playwright Jim Fitzmorris, a secret weirdo. But as Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts mounts the Broadway musical “The Addams Family” for its run (through Nov. 22), the secret’s out.

“I’m a Kander & Ebb girl, and they’re shows tend to be darker themed,” she told me before a run-through last week, noting her playing Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” awhile back.

(Related: “The Addams Family” preview in the New Orleans Advocate)

Check out the podcast of the interview, and also check out her top five weirdo countdown, which she’s brought to life for Halloween on occasion as her photos above show.  You can also listen to my podcast interview with Gary Rucker, and watch Madison Kerth rehearse as Wednesday, singing “Pulled.” (Click here for ticket info.)

5. “Woman in Black,” Rivertown Theaters, 2006 — “This was my first show at Rivertown. Gary Rucker and Sean Patterson broke from their usual comedy-duo mold for this super spooky play, which only lists two actors in the program. It was too much fun to lurk backstage in a dark corner and scare the crap out of Gary or Sean when they came offstage.”
4. “Corpse Bride,” Halloween, 2005 — “A new Tim Burton movie was one of the highlights of my post-Katrina life in exile. I also had enough time to make myself this costume.”
3. Lydia Deetz, “Beetlejuice,” Halloween 2013 — “It suddenly dawned on me that I had never done a Beetlejuice costume, and that Lydia would not be tough to pull off. (Next year I’m determined to go as Miss Argentina.)”
2. Sally, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Halloween 2006 — “Things were still pretty slow in NOLA a year after the flood, so I had time to sew this costume completely by hand.”
1. Morticia!

Watch: Madison Kerth as Wednesday rehearses “Pulled” for Rivertown Theaters’ “The Addams Family”

Madison Kerth as Wednesday performs "Pulled"

Madison Kerth as Wednesday performs “Pulled”; Christian Collins (Pugsley) is hanging loose at right.

Dropping by Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts on a recent weeknight for a run-through of “The Addams Family” offered an opportunity to catch the cast going through the paces and working on the songlist for the show, naturally. I only had time to catch most of the first half while recording interviews with director Gary Rucker and Trina Beck (Morticia). (Check out the podcast interview with Rucker here.)

(Related: Read the “Addams Family” preview)

It also offered the chance to catch young Madison Kerth perform one of the show’s early numbers, “Pulled,” and while this is obviously a rehearsal (you can hear Rucker piping in directing notes from the back of the auditorium), it nevertheless hints at what could be a really fun performance by Kerth. A senior at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), Kerth gets around. She’s already performed in several location productions and earned 2009 Big Easy and Storer Boone nominations for her performance in the title role of a touring production of “Annie.” (Check out her list of performances here.) Not only did she perform with the NOCCA vocal students at this past New Orleans Jazz Fest (watch the video), but she also appeared in a little fashion spread with some of her fellow students this past July in the New Orleans Advocate.

So check out the video below of her rehearsing “Pulled.” For more details on “The Addams Family,” click here.

“The Addams Family” at Rivertown Theaters kicks off a series of articles for the New Orleans Advocate (podcast)

Very excited about being given the opportunity to contribute to the New Orleans Advocate, which starts in Thursday’s (Nov. 5) Beaucoup section with three — count ’em, three — features spanning a nice little spectrum of entertainment.

But the most exciting opportunity of all was a chance to preview Rivertown Theaters’ production of the Broadway musical adaptation of “The Addams Family,” directed by Gary Rucker and starring Trina Beck as Morticia and Johnny Lee Missakian as Gomez.

While I was working on the feature I got a chance to interview both Gary Rucker and Trina Beck about the musical, which has an interesting history and required a pretty shrewd production strategy. Check out this podcast of the interview with Rucker (below). I’ll have the Trina Beck interview up later today, hopefully.

Also check out my previews of the 26th Mirliton Festival in Bywater, and “Sesame Street Live” at UNO Lakefront Arena.