Broadway in Portland

DramaWatch: Cause for celebration at OSF

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 85th anniversary season; plus new shows open across Portland, "West Side Story" gets too dark a makeover, and more.

In a way it feels odd to refer to something that goes on eight months of each year as a festival. And yet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — originally launched in 1935 as a two-play, three-evening event, now grown into one of the largest, busiest theater companies in the country — still feels celebratory.

The 2020 season, which opens Friday and continues through Nov. 1, has more than usual to celebrate, or at the very least to consider noteworthy. It is the festival’s 85th anniversary season, of course, an impressive achievement for any American arts organization, especially one in a small Northwestern town. This season also is the first under the full-time leadership of Nataki Garrett, who last August became the festival’s sixth artistic director, replacing Bill Rauch, now the inaugural artistic director of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center in New York. (Garrett recently spoke with ArtsWatch for an interview published separately.)

The current festival leadership also includes interim associate artistic director Evren Odcikin (currently in Portland directing Portland Center Stage’s upcoming production of Nine Parts of Desire) and acting executive director Paul Christy, a retired U.S. government economist.

And in addition to being an anniversary and a celebration in its own right, this festival season is a part of the Jubilee

The Wars of the Roses are seeded in Bring Down the House, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In the works since 2015, the Jubilee is, as the program’s website describes it, “a yearlong, nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have historically been excluded — including but not limited to artists of color, Native American and Indigenous and First Nations artists, women, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists, LGBTQIA2+ artists, Deaf artists, and artists with disabilities.” Providing a clear, tangible goal to help along the cause of diversity and inclusion, the Jubilee involves a commitment from numerous theater producers across the country — from professional companies to high schools — to put previously marginalized voices at the center of their programming for the 2020-2021 season. In addition to OSF, participating Oregon companies include Portland Center Stage, Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble and Corrib Theatre.

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DramaWatch: It’s Bath Night, kids

Former "Live Wire" star Sean McGrath is back in town, getting ready for a run of sketch comedy. Plus "Hair" and other openings.

During his 14 years living in Portland, from 2002 to 2016, Sean McGrath made a name for himself as a comedy writer and performer for the public radio variety show Live Wire, as a member of the all-star sketch-comedy troupe Sweat, and as an intermittent stage actor at Portland Playhouse and other theaters. But a few years ago he moved back to his native New York, where he’d spent early childhood in, as he puts it, “the heyday of Hell’s Kitchen, pre-Bloomberg.” So what’s he doing there now? 

“I’m pretty much doing whatever I can,” he says. “It’s a tough town.” He maps out what sounds like something you’d expect of a struggling theater artist’s work life: auditioning a couple of times a week for Off-Broadway roles, taking acting classes, shooting commercials (a national ad for Budweiser among them), motion-capture work for video games such as Grand Theft Auto V

Lori Ferraro and Todd Van Voris in rehearsal for Bath Night sketch comedy.

He’s even studying improv with the famed Upright Citizens Brigade. “I don’t love it the way I love sketch,” he admits. “I think of something and I want to go in the corner and refine it. Do that in improv and you’re just standing at the back of the room all night. You can’t go with your best idea, you gotta go with your first idea.”

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DramaWatch: Drammys for all

This year's Portland theater awards put the spotlight on inclusion. Plus: "Indecent" opens in Ashland, "Wicked" flies back into town.

The annual Drammy Awards ceremony, which celebrates outstanding work in Portland-area theater, is a warm and welcoming event. How welcoming? Well, so much so that, after one acting award was announced, the evening’s host, Carla Rossi, observed, “That is the only instance in which it is acceptable to rise and cheer at the words ‘Nazi sympathizer.’”

Drag clown Carlo Rossi was emcee at an inclusionary Drammy Award ceremony. Photo: Scott Fisher/Sleeper Studios

Of course, the assembled theater artists and fans at last week’s party at The Armory weren’t cheering a Nazi sympathizer, but rather the portrayal of one, by Michael J. Teufel, who picked up a trophy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical as an unsavory character in Cabaret. Actual Nazis and their sympathizers weren’t among the welcome. As that production of Cabaret, by Fuse Theatre Ensemble, turned into the night’s big winner, acceptance speeches were peppered with what came to seem like the show’s unlikely mantra: “Fuck fascism!”

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Come from Away: the true tale

As the Broadway hit comes to town, the inside story of the town that took care of 6,500 passengers stranded by the terrorist attacks of 9/11

[Editors’ note: On the morning of September 11, 2001, Kevin Tuerff, founder/CEO of Austin’s EnviroMedia marketing company, was returning from a vacation in France with his boyfriend. As their transatlantic flight approached New York City, the plane suddenly turned north. Half an hour later it landed in Newfoundland, a large Canadian island in the North Atlantic ocean. For the next 11 hours, Tuerff, his boyfriend (called Evan here), and 248 other passengers remained aboard the plane – one of 38 forced to land at the Newfoundland airport – as they learned the horrifying news of the terrorist attack on New York. As night fell, they were finally allowed to disembark. They were stranded in the small town of Gander.

What happened next would change Tuerff’s life forever — including becoming one of the subjects of the hit musical Come from Away, which opens Tuesday and continues through Sunday, March 3, at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Portland/New York producers Corey and Jessica Brunish are among the producers of the Broadway production.

There’s another Portland connection. “Portland was introduced to this story in 2009, two years before I met the writers of the musical,” Tuerff remembers. “That’s when EnviroMedia had an office in the White Stag building and we brought our Pay it Forward 9/11 effort to the Pacific Northwest.” He visited the city often over the next few years. Now living in New York City, Tuerff is a public speaker, CEO of the marketing and public relations firm Kevin Tuerff Consulting, LLC, and author of the new book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 about his life-changing Gander experience. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3, Where Am I and Who Are These Nice People.]

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By KEVIN TUERFF

After finally stepping off the plane, walking down the stairway onto the tarmac, I felt a great sense of relief. It was around 9 p.m. It was dark and the air temperature felt cool, considering I was wearing shorts. I turned my camera on, capturing the airport’s Gander sign. I spoke into the microphone, “We’re free, we’re free! After I-don’t-know-how-many hours on that awful plane, we’re free. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going.”

I turned the camera to Evan. He said, “We’re in Gander, and all I know is they better have CNN here.”

Inside the airport, security was very serious and tight, and there were just two Canadian immigration and customs authorities available to check passports. The airport staff would work nonstop around the clock for days to deplane the 6,500 stranded passengers. We were among the first. After the immigration screening, we entered the main terminal, which was barely bigger than a high school auditorium. And that’s when the first wave of unconditional love hit us: the terminal was filled with volunteers greeting us as we registered. It was like we had walked into a party! There were dozens of volunteers present. Some were wearing their Salvation Army or Red Cross uniforms and sat at ten-foot-long tables. Their job was to make sure every stranded passenger was documented and taken care of. Most of them were older adults, perhaps looking a bit Irish, like me. There were dozens of volunteers at tables set up with food that had everything from home-baked cookies and squares to buckets of KFC fried chicken.

First National Tour of “Come from Away.” The Broadway touring company opens in Portland at Keller Auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 26, in Portland Opera’s Broadway Across America series. Photo: Matthew Murphy/2018

The Air France flight crew had distributed all the food they had, so we weren’t hungry. Thinking we might be headed to a tent camp, Evan and I grabbed lots of food and drinks, unsure of when we might be fortunate enough to have these items again. We were told to immediately head outside to a waiting school bus that would take us to our shelter.

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Order up! “Waitress” hits the spot

In the hit Broadway musical, soaring, soulful pop songs help a server find a sense of place.

It’s amazing that Waitress, the tiny little indie film from 2007 about a pregnant pie-making server in a bad marriage, ever became a Broadway musical. That this story – a rather intimate tale about a simple Southern woman’s life and love – has become a hit and is now on a Broadway Across America tour is even more surprising.

That is, until you see the touring production of Waitress — with a book by Jessie Nelson, music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, and directed by Diane Paulus — which is serving up pie and plenty of female sass through Sunday at Keller Auditorium.

Pie in the sky’s the limit: Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman in the national tour of “Waitress.” Photo: Joan Marcus.

If you don’t remember the film — which starred Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion and was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly — the basic plot is about an unhappily-married waitress, Jenna (Desi Oakley in the touring cast) who also happens to be a fantastic pie maker. After a drunken night with her husband, Earl (Nick Bailey), she ends up pregnant and then falls for her new OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart) who is married. Although Jenna’s love life takes center stage, the real story here is about her life at the diner, with her best friends/surrogate family, Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman).

Oakley, with Broadway cred in Wicked, Les Miserables, and Annie, sparkles as Jenna. She is a solid actress, showing us Jenna’s insecurities and struggles to find her own strength, but where she really soars is in those numbers by Bareilles, especially when she’s singing with Fenkart. The two actors actually don’t seem to have much chemistry when they first meet, but when they belt out “It Only Takes a Taste” together, you start to believe their affection for one another; it only grows stronger when they sing “Bad Idea” and “You Matter to Me.” That’s the power of Bareilles’s songwriting.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Summer Shakes into view

Summer arrives on the wings of Shakespeare and lands in Ashland

In a recent TV ad, pretty young folks in swimwear cluster on a beach while one of their ilk thrusts a hand into a cooler. They look on expectantly, until he fishes a beer from amid the ice, then rejoice at the news he offers: “Summer is here!” The tell-tale sign, we’re told, is that the beer is in its “summer can.”

This, apparently, is how morons recognize the change of seasons.

Summer starts when summer starts—that is, at the solstice (3:07 a.m., next Thursday, should you have some pagan ritual to plan). But there are other markers in the popular imagination, such as Memorial Day (for the truly anxious), the last day of school, or, in Portland, the end of the rains of Rose Festering.

“You kiss by the book.” Romeo (William Thomas Hodgson) and Juliet (Emily Ota) fall in love at first sight./ Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But if we orient ourselves around what really matters, we know that summer starts this weekend with the opening of three plays in the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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‘Hamilton’ in Portland: Historic!

The national company of Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking, dazzling Broadway musical lights up the Keller. Got your ticket?

The audience erupted in cheers Wednesday evening as the lights went down in Keller Auditorium and we were instructed to turn off our cellphones. The anticipation was palpable in that moment. I realized, Oh my god. I’m about to see Hamilton.

If you’re not familiar with Hamilton – in which case, welcome to our arts blog, I’m not sure how you got here – it’s a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. If you’re struggling to remember who Alexander Hamilton was, he’s one of the founding fathers, most famous for promoting the U.S. Constitution and setting up our financial system.

Hamilton was incredibly well-received by critics and audiences when it opened in 2015, and has quickly become a cultural touchstone. How did Miranda make a musical about one of the lesser-known founding fathers such a success?

By putting it together in ways people wouldn’t expect.

Joseph Morales and Marcus Choi in “Hamilton.” Photo © Joan Marcus 2018

Miranda makes it clear from the start of the show that this won’t be like any other musical you’d normally see. The opening number, Alexander Hamilton, builds slowly with the cast rapping the history of Hamilton’s youth while adding layers of more traditional musical harmonies before ending in an enormous crescendo.

Wednesday’s Portland audience really lost their minds after that.

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