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.

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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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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” on WHIV, Ep. 16: Will Coviello on Krewe du Vieux, Leslie Castay and John Pope on “Sweeney Todd” and Alison Logan on “The Original Classy Broad”

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We had a lot of fun on Saturday’s (Feb. 11) episode of WHIV (102.3 FM), in which we welcomed a wide range of guests:

Will Coviello, arts and entertainment editor for Gambit, as Krewe du Vieux prepared to roll in the Marigny and French Quarter that night. (Coviello also is a member of the sub-krewe Spermes).

Leslie Castay, who played The Beggar Woman in the New Orleans Opera Association’s staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” and writer John Pope, who offered his take on the blurred lines between opera and musical theater for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.

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Can watching The NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men” help make America great again?

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“A FEW GOOD MEN”
WHAT: The NOLA Project presents Aaron Sorkin’s debut stage work, a military courtroom drama; Jason Kirkpatrick directs A.J. Allegra, Cecile Monteyne, Michael Aaron Santos and others
WHEN: Thurs.-Sat. (Feb. 9-11), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Feb. 12), 3 p.m.
WHERE: Timothy K. Baker Theatre, Delgado Community College
TICKETS: $30 (general admission), $20 (NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members, $24 (military & veterans: $24, $10 (Delgado students)
MORE INFO: Visit The NOLA Project website

To attend a production of The NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men” at Delgado Community College is to take a step back in time. Yes, it takes one back to the early 1990s, when the kinetic rhythms of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogues and monologues had not yet invaded America by way of movies (“The American President”) or TV shows (“Sports Night,” “The West Wing,” “The Newsroom”). The stage and screen versions arrived as a kind of postscript to 1980s Hollywood — in which macho, Reagan-era action thrillers like “Red Dawn” and subtle, pro-military movies like “An Officer and a Gentleman” were juxtaposed with Vietnam War cautionary parables like “Platoon” bemoaning the insanity of war.

But it also feels like going all the way back … to 2016.

As noted a few weeks ago in the preview to the show, Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep’s famous “You can’t handle the truth” monologue provided the rationale for collateral damage; that to defend our country, we need the few, the proud, but also, the strong. The weak must be pushed to the side — even eliminated — to defend our higher ideals. This is not just about thinning the herd. The Marines, as their soldier characters tell us, live by a code: “Unit, corps, God, country.” And when someone breaks that code, they must pay a price, for the good of the country. But Sorkin tells us that there’s such a thing as understanding the differences, the nuances, of a code, especially when improperly applied. We are, he argues, rational, thinking human beings, and we must understand when living a life blindly following orders, we blind ourselves to doing what is right.

All of this stuff has been pondered over the years, but watching the show live onstage for the first time in over a decade — there was a capable mounting of the play at True Brew Theater — conjured fresher images. And part of that is because, intended or unintended, “A Few Good Men” arrived again fresh off a contentious presidential election, and finished up a few weeks into the Trump administration. It’s almost impossible to think about words like strength and weakness and not think about Trump’s motto — “Make America great again” — and wonder at what price, or even in what way, that greatness is supposed to be achieved. In my mind, what Trump is also getting at is strength, which is part of the backbone of the kind of authoritarianism and nationalism Trump is consistently pushing. When forced to criticize Russian President Vladmir Putin, Trump always demurs, preferring instead to compare Putin’s so-called strength as a leader to the perceived weakness of Trump’s more cerebral predecessor, ex-President Barack Obama.

In some ways, I see a lot of Trump in Lt. Col. Jessep, and a little bit of Obama in his underling, Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson. Jessep is hard charging, a win-at-all-costs kind of guy who only respects action and strength, and detests weakness. He’s also a bit caught up in his own vanity, comfortable not just in his moral certitude (as confirmed by his other underling) but also in the knowledge he’s about to move up in the military ranks. The latter, like Obama, is cerebral, reticent, and hesitant to use force.

[Learn more: “Hillary Is Tom Cruise To Trump’s Jack Nicholson In ‘A Few Good Men’ Debate”: Huffington Post]

So what does that make the rest of us, in this play, or in this new world order? Maybe we’re like the two grunts, Dawson and Downey, who did a bad thing, however hesitantly, because they were only following orders, and following a code to its letter or face some version of dishonor. How will we respond as citizens when we’re told to do things in the name of strength, or in the name of the law (our “code”), when it doesn’t seem right to us?

Or maybe we’re more like the callow Lt. Daniel Kaffee, who has at least a smidgeon of rank but who’s also oblivious to the ways of a military that is (as Jessep continually insists) in the business of saving lives? And someone who doesn’t initially appreciate this strict code? And someone who, to better fight this code’s misinterpretations, must work the unused muscles of his own code of ethics.

Living in 2017 and not 1992, I most related to Kaffee’s good friend and defense teammate, Lt. Sam Weinberg (played here by Andrew Larrimer), arguably the moral conscience of the group, and (not to be overlooked) a new father. When guiding a newborn life, a parent appreciates the dangers of this world, and almost immediately develops a pathological wariness of bullies. When asked by Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway why he doesn’t like his clients, Sam retorts, “They beat up on a weakling. The rest is just smoke-filled coffee house crap. They tortured and tormented a weaker kid. They didn’t like him. So, they killed him.” (Galloway’s response about why she likes her clients — in the movie version but not this play’s version — is awesome: “Because they stand on a wall and say, ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.’” It’s as maternal a thought was one could imagine, just applied differently.)

So what, if anything, does “A Few Good Men” tell us about doing the right thing, or even about the moral or ethical value of disobeying orders in the service of a greater good — especially now? While conceding the realities of political theater, we are seeing various forms of disobedience (or “resistance”) in these early, chaotic weeks of the Trump administration. We see it in the firing of then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates (an Obama appointee) after she instructed the Justice Department not to defend Trump’s immigration-related executive order in court.

[Learn more: Performances overcome script’s flaws in NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men”: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune]

We see it in the increasingly popular Twitter feed “Rogue Potus Staff,” which describes itself as “The unofficial resistance team inside the White House.” (This has not yet been confirmed.)

But after watching “A Few Good Men,” I can’t help but wonder where else we might see someone in the government, in the military, even, refusing a direct order they believe to be wrong. I’m reminded of one of the two missile silo operators in another Reagan-era movie, “WarGames,” in which he refuses to follow orders and launch a nuclear strike on Russia because he just can’t believe he’s supposed to do this. (He’s replaced by a computer.) In the real world, how many times can the intelligence community listen to a president demean its work? How many times can the military be asked to execute a possibly poorly planned mission, or see its role on the National Security Council diminished? At what point will good people, with good intentions, be asked to do something they believe in their heart is wrong, and contradict an order? And should they?

President Trump believes he can “Make American great again,” and that he can do it through authoritarian action, and through a strain of nationalism that strikes at the heart of our own rather obvious multicultural and pluralistic identity. And so we might seek wisdom where we can find it. I confess to an affinity for Sorkin’s often-lofty and idealistic prose. In the final scene, Dawson explains to Downey why, even after Jessep’s improbably confession, they’re still found guilty of a lesser charge — “It means we beat the shit out of the wrong guy.”

I wonder if we’ll be coming to that realization, like Dawson and Downey — after the fact, when it’s too late.

Podcast: Another year, another “Sweeney Todd” for Leslie Castay

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(Photo by Tom Grosscup)

“SWEENEY TODD”
WHAT: New Orleans Opera Association presents the Stephen Sondheim classic inspired by the “penny dreadfuls” of Victorian London
WHEN: Fri. (Feb. 10), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Feb. 12), 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts
TICKETS: $25-$218
MORE INFO: Visit NOOA website

To say that speaking with Leslie Castay is in familiar territory is an understatement. She’s sitting in the office of B. Michael Howard, the Tulane musical theater chair and former leader of the Summer Lyric Theatre, which staged Stephen Sondheim’s classic “Sweeney Todd,” just a few steps downstairs in the Lupin Theater.

Castay, who’s working with Howard as she gets her master’s in musical theater, played the role of Mrs. Lovett in that 2016 production, and, in what is more than a happy coincidence, is back in the same production but in a different role when the New Orleans Opera Association presents the show on Friday night (Feb. 10) and Sunday afternoon (Feb. 12) at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in Armstrong Park. In this production, Castay takes on the role of the Beggar Woman, who (spoiler alert!) is just as familiar with “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” as the other woman, so to speak.

(You might remember Leslie Castay from her PopSmart NOLA contribution about performing in “The Lion in Winter.”)

As John Pope notes in NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, “Sweeney Todd” blurs the lines between musical theater and traditional opera, but definitely will enjoy a grander stage and with a more fleshed-out stage production. In this little “PopSmart NOLA” podcast treat (in advance of Saturday’s show on WHIV, 102.3 FM, 3 p.m.-4 p.m.), Castay discusses why she loves the production and how those lines blur.

“Sweeney Todd” is inspired by the “penny dreadfuls” of Victorian London; Sondheim’s score fueled eight Tony Awards in 1979 in telling a darkly funny and macabre tale of murder and revenge.

This particular production features a family reunion of sorts; the husband-and-wife team of New Orleans native Greer Grimsley (Sweeney Todd) and Luretta Bybee (Mrs. Lovett) join forces for this production after having performed in the show separately over the years.

Michael Aaron Santos, “A Few Good Men” and how to handle the truth

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“A FEW GOOD MEN”
WHAT: The NOLA Project presents Aaron Sorkin’s debut stage work, a military courtroom drama; Jason Kirkpatrick directs A.J. Allegra, Cecile Monteyne, Michael Aaron Santos and others
WHEN: Jan. 26-Feb. 12; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
WHERE: Timothy K. Baker Theatre, Delgado Community College
TICKETS: $30 (general admission), $20 (NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members, $24 (military & veterans: $24, $10 (Delgado students)
MORE INFO: Visit The NOLA Project website

You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives … You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty … we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I’d rather you just said ‘thank you’ and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to!”

Michael Aaron Santos has the juiciest monologue fueled by the sharpest rebuke of the 2016-2017 New Orleans theater season. Almost by extension, then, he carries the heaviest burden as well, given its history. Like so many stage moments, it’s from a movie that the monologue gets its currency, with Jack Nicholson solidifying its place in cinema history as a part of Rob Reiner’s Academy Award-winning 1992 film adaptation of “A Few Good Men.”

And like so many others, the stage version is a different animal, as The NOLA Project hopes to prove this weekend when it opens the military drama at Delgado Community College. (The premiere is Thursday, Jan. 26.) Santos, a NOLA Project ensemble member, will play Col. Nathan Jessup opposite Artistic Director A.J. Allegra as Lt. Daniel Kaffee and Cecile Monteyne as Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway.

The play follows the defense by a callow Naval attorney of two Marines accused of murdering a fellow Marine while stationed at Guantanamo Bay, and the suspicion that the trial is part of a cover-up to protect Jessup, a rising star in the military. Kaffee must wrestle with one of the other members of his legal team, Galloway, who, along with the memory of his famous father, serve as his conscience.

There’s no problem with Jessup’s conscience, who sees the late Marine as collateral damage in a continual war to protect his country. The “You can’t handle the truth” serves to explains Jessup’s motivations and actions, which, in the hands of the legendary Nicholson, are as wrongheaded as they are calculated.

Santos is a study in contrasts to Nicholson; Santos is tall and lanky, where Nicholson was short and stocky. In the rehearsal I got to witness earlier in the week, Santos offers his own version of Jessup, foul-mouthed but charming but almost heartfelt in his self-defense. Santos is well aware of the ground he’s covering here.

“When you break it down, you kind of have this image of it from the movie,” Santos said during a break, as captured in the video posted here. “But then you try to learn the monologue and looking at each sentence and each phrase in there, and applying meaning in it. One that struck me is the irony in it — that here is someone who is speaking so vehemently and passionately about something he believes in. And he even calls Kaffee blind.

“But he’s sort of blinded by his own sense of the truth, his own sense of the code that can’t be broken, or that is the right path, so to speak. He has found the truth, the right path in life, and everybody else needs to get in line and follow him, or at least get out of the way. I find a little bit of sympathy towards him … .”

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A.J. Allegra and Cecile Monteyne. (Photo by John Barrois)

Needless to say, Santos will be working slightly against the legacy of one of Nicholson’s career-defining roles — and an Academy Award-nominated one, at that. In interviews, both director Rob Reiner and Tom Cruise spoke of Nicholson’s commitment to the role. Nicholson stuck around the set after he’d shot the “You can’t handle the truth” monologue, happy to repeat the line some 40-50 times while they filmed different reaction shots.

“We spent the entire day just shooting that speech,” Sorkin said on the Jimmy Kimmel show. “There came a time when he didn’t need to be there anymore because we’re doing coverage of other people. The director Rob Reiner said, ‘Jack you don’t have to keep doing this three-page speech.’ He said, ‘Nah, I just love to act,’ and he kept doing it all day and all night.

“There’s nothing like having your first movie experience be with Jack Nicholson.”

Cruise, who spent the first half of his career seeking out roles set opposite some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, marveled at his technique: Playing the scene out, Col. Jessup as a written character is overpowering, so Jack needed to give him that power,” he told GQ magazine’s David Bailey. “But he understands the camera in such a manner that the power had to come from stillness. I could see the motions becoming less and less.”

So much about “A Few Good Men” is about the lines we draw as we try balance our duties to uniform, country and our own, sometimes-elusive sense of right and wrong. The defense’s main argument is one that has been heard over the years, and resonates in everything from the Holocaust to Vietnam War: They were only following orders.

Counter-balancing that is Aaron Sorkin’s time-honored examination smart professional men at work, and how the professional space becomes intertwined with their own certitude. In a New Yorker essay that serves as a more modern critique of Sorkin’s more recent work (and actions outside that work), writer Nathan Heller perfectly encapsulates Sorkin’s views on whether the ends justify the means, and keys in on the “You can’t handle the truth” monologue:

That it has become perhaps the best-known paragraph of his career is unfair … it is often taken as realpolitik fact. Though Jessup is a villain, after all, he acknowledges his ugly amorality. He believes instead in the essential righteousness of what he does, the greater good of his hard, unrelenting work. This willingness to ride over small decencies for a big cause is a regular theme in Sorkin’s writing, from “The West Wing” to “The Social Network” (tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”), and it underscores a basic tenet of the universe he conjures: that messiness of process can bear majestic results.

Heller comes back to Sorkin’s career later in the piece, concluding:

Onscreen, repeatedly, he’s led us through the boiler room of Camelot: here are the young, fast-talking, best-and-brightest types, perennially at one another’s throats, maybe a little Machiavellian, but still good. Their hearts are in the right place—that’s the difference between these people and the bad guys—and they’re looking out for normal folks like you. Sorkin is a creative child of the eighties, which is to say that he came of age at a moment when the possibilities of institutional ascent, governmental and otherwise, were being remade after a period of shame and disappointment. He’s the liberal answer to Tom Clancy, celebrating the hidden mechanics of power not as a source of perfidy but as a site of grace.

Santos’ sympathy for Jessup lies in Sorkin’s consistent theme that men of purported valor believe they’re doing the right thing. Indeed, one of the best lines of the monologue is inspired by the notion that the older, wiser, battle-tested Jessup sees through Kaffee’s inexperience and flippant nature: “[D]eep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty … we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline.”

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(Photo by John Barrois)

As someone who’s developed closer personal relationships with those in the military after the movie’s 1992 release (including my own brother and sister-in-law in the process of becoming colonels themselves), I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for that contrast. Jessup’s saying, in part, that his strength must stand in sharper contrast to us weaker civilians — that, after failed misadventures in Korea and Vietnam, we don’t have the stomach for war even when it’s necessary. Not because we’re pacifists, necessarily; because we don’t have the moral courage, but we’re happy to let others shoulder this heavy burden and mock them as they do it.

As Santos notes, “The one line that he repeats throughout the play is saving lives, the phrase of ‘saving lives.’ I think that’s very important to him. But it’s the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, sometimes.”

Perhaps Jessup, as Santos muses, is a relic who, like George “Blood and Guts” Patton before him, had no problem with the notion of cannon fodder.

“I told (director Jason Kirkpatrick) from the very beginning, he reminds me of a Spartan warrior dropped in the middle of an Athenean assembly,” Santos says. “There’s just this culture divide that is going to take years of working through it to get anywhere with it. Two cultures that are going to have generational gaps and slowly hopefully come to some kind of co-exist.”

With that kind of insight, it’s pretty safe to say that, as he approaches Thursday’s curtain call, and a chance to face a major legacy, Michael Aaron Santos is ready to handle the truth.

With “Yiddishe Shtunde,” Elliot Raisen recalls his Top 5 radio days memories

jim-elliot-7889-768x588“YIDDISHE SHTUNDE”
WHAT:
Elliot Raisen’s tribute to the radio shows of the 1930s through the ’50s stars Bunny Love, Matthew Mickal, Maggie Corbett, Margeaux Fanning and Jim Fitzmorris
WHEN: Thurs.-Sat. (Jan. 12-14), 8 p.m.
WHERE: The Theatre at St. Claude, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
TICKETS: $15-$20
MORE INFO: Visit the website

Elliot Raisen has a deep and abiding love of the radio shows from the good old days, and, at age, 88, is happy to share them with New Orleans audiences. So we asked him to take a swing at his top five favorites, and here’s what he came up with as The Theatre at St. Claude presents “Yiddishe Shtunde”:

When I was a teenager, I saw almost every radio show that was being broadcast in the 1940s. Tickets were free. People always asked for more tickets than they needed because it took about a year to receive them by mail. We would go to the theater and ask for extra tickets.

I loved ”Hit Parade,” ”The Bob Hope Show,” ”Fibber McGee and Molly,” ”The Shadow,” ”The Green Hornet,” “Double or Nothing,” ”The $64 Question,” ”Dick Tracy,” ”Molly Goldberg,” ”The Aldrich Family,” ”Against The Storm,” ”The Abbott and Costello Show,” ”Abie’s Irish Rose,” ”Whiles the World Turns,” ”Guiding Lights,” ”Fred Allen’s Show,” ”The Great Gildersleeve,” and ”The Mercury Theater on The Air.”

I loved hearing The Shadow say, “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men?” Today it would be not only men but also women and transgender people as well.

I loved hearing the announcers talking about the train coming into Grand Central Station with the reminder, “There’s a story in every window”. This is so true.

When we weren’t listening to the radio, we used to take the Third Avenue El to its end and go back. There was no A/C then, so we could open the windows. We did it just to look at the buildings and look into the windows, because it only cost five cents.

But those adventures are another story. Ask me. Here are five memories from radio:

  1. I remember the sponsor for “Double or Nothing” was Feenamints. These are little candies that look just like Chiclets. They act like Ex-Lax. They gave samples to the audience. We used to put them in an Chiclet box and give them to our friends. Actually , at one of my productions I bought 200 Chiclets and gave them out.I still have a few.
  1. We saw Marlene Dietrich on “The Bob Hope Show.” They would read the script and throw each page on the floor after they read it. At the end of the show, we ran to the stage, scooped up the scripts, and ran out … with them chasing us. After I moved from home, my mother threw the scripts out before I could retrieve them. She also threw out a Japanese sword from World War II that my friend in the army gave it to me.
  1. At “The Abbott and Costello Show,”I went to the men’s room and peed next to Bud Abbott! Now I can go into Puccino’s and pee next to him again. They have a picture of Abbott and Costello on the wall there.
  1. I saw Constance Bennett in the hallway one time. I thought she looked anorexic. I realized years later that the film made them look heavier, so they used very thin actresses.
  1. I hated Frank Sinatra, because he got all the “bobby-soxers.” When he was on “The Hit Parade,” all the “soxers” (my wife Sandy was one of them) screamed and tried to attack him. On the other hand, when we tried to pick them up? They ignored us completely. Hated him. But the man could sing.