Don’t Ask, I’m Gonna Tell Anyway

When most people think about war, their imaginations tend to lead them to the traditional sense – old and middle-aged men and women in Brooks Brother’s suits sitting in the House chamber making proclamations of war, the president reciting a skillfully prepared address to the American people describing why we must plunge into a conflict, young men and women in fatigues flying off to foreign lands, carrying the fears, pride and sometimes anger of a nation square across their shoulders all while preparing to face death daily.  But what if the war is not being waged in humid jungles or blistering deserts, what if the battleground lies within? 

A soldier’s job is not to ask why, theirs but to do and die.  But what if you cannot relegate yourself to be a weapon of destruction killing on the government’s command?  What if the word “why “echoes in your head until the sound replaces a soldier’s instinct to act without question?

Opposing fractions gripping and ripping at one’s soul can be just as deleterious and exhausting as watching for landmines or dodging bullets.  Former Lance Corporal Jeff Key was already at war when he was flying off to Iraq to strike as our sword of vengeance for the attacks of 9/11 and liberate our country and indeed the world from terror-mongers like Saddam Hussein.  The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy instituted under President Clinton forced a soldier to betray his existence.  The propaganda President Bush used to invade Iraq forced a soldier to betray his oath. What to do?  Keep a descriptive journal and transform it into a robust, introspective one-man stage production.

There is no doubt that the American public was inundated with images, video streams and commentary from the Iraq War.  It was like a soap opera “As the War Turns” or a Sony Playstation videogame, only this version had real casualties.  Using photos he took and the illumination of his rhythmical verse, Key’s narrative transports the audience into the Iraq War in a more intimate way than CNN and other network’s daily updates ever did.  The Eyes of Babylon is a spellbinding 90-minute monologue that is real soldier’s story instead of a manufactured segment of media.  Told with humor and conviction, Key relates a story with his Alabama/Forrest Gump accent that displays pure emotion.  He takes the audience on a journey that begins with 9/11 and ends with him coming out as a gay man on CNN.  Along this journey Key communicates the feeling of connecting with the universe’s most insignificant creatures, the eroticism of a subtle shared moment with a gay Iraqi man, the joy for simple pleasures such as the soundtrack from Rent that allowed him to mentally venture off from the state he was currently in, the realities of how soldiers shower and move their bowels in combat situations, the brutality of soldiers with a hard on to get their gun off and his growing abhorrence for the war he was sent to.

The words of this warrior poet are as powerful as a M16 with a full clip and no less haunting than a wolf howling at the full moon.  I was beyond transfixed; I hung on to every word that flowed from his lips like a recruit swinging on an immense set of monkey bars.  Key was my sergeant and it was up to me to follow his guidance and make the links until I had finished the task, feeling better for going through the exercise with him. Key is truthful and is the personification of the Marine term “Semper Fi”.  Always faithful, Key demonstrates what it means to be a true patriot all while changing conventional paradigms of the expression.  This production is a significant piece of theatre – it is Off-Broadway’s To Hell and Back. Exchanging a rifle and assault vehicle for a pen and stage Key is more formidable.  Using his weapon to the fullest, The Eyes of Babylon challenges the status quo, flips them the bird and gives them a salute at the same time.  Key is mercenary for those who have known little mercy, for those who are used by this government and forgotten about like cracked egg shells after the omelets has been cooked and you best believe he will go down with his boots on.

The Eyes of Babylon is not just a gay man’s account of his stint in the military during wartime.  It is a story every military person can relate to.  A person joins the military for different reasons.  When he spoke I felt the presence of my friend that gave the ultimate sacrifice in a gun battle in Iraq, a man that joined the military to provide a better life for his two sons, a man whose beautiful face I will never see again.  On a personal note, this production was closure for me.  I want thank Key for sharing his story.  I was so angry upon hearing of my friend’s death, knowing that he lost his life without any of his friends or family around as he made his transition plagued my heart.  But after viewing The Eyes of Babylon I realized that he was surrounded with love from his fellow brethren and if he passed serving with anyone like Key, he was never alone.  I salute you Jeff Key for a job well done.

Photos courtesy of The Mehadi Foundation

The Earp Women Revisit History

One of the most retold stories of the old west is the account of the events that occurred at the O.K. Corral.  It has been the subject of dozens of films, books and documentaries – some historically accurate, while others are unadulterated romantic fantasy.  Generally this story is told from the Earp brothers’ perspective, but a new musical gives audiences a glimpse of the harshness of the west from a feminine point of view. I Married Wyatt Earp is based on a book of the same name penned by Glenn G. Boyer and tells the story of Josie Earp (Wyatt’s third wife and widow), Allie Earp (Virgil’s widow), Bess Earp (James’ wife), Mattie Blaylock (Wyatt’s ill-fated second spouse) as well as the events that led up to the famous gunfight.

Life in the west was hard and love was even harder.  Josie Marcus is weary of her restrictive life in San Francisco.  Refusing to live the existence of an upper-class Jewish woman, the naive young girl finagles her way into becoming a member of a traveling troupe of actors in search of adventure.  The troupe travels to Tombstone, where Josie meets a whole horde of personalities and falls in love with Wyatt Earp.   Her affair with the married lawman comes off the heels of her break up with Sheriff John Behan and also adds fuel to a rivalry between Behan and Earp.  The feud also enlists Wyatt’s brothers and Doc Holiday on Wyatt’s side and the Clanton-McLaury gang on Behan’s.  The bad blood felt between these men would spill over in a 30-second gunfight on October 26, 1881.  Subsequently, Wyatt and Josie’s affair also rippled into the discentagration of Doc Holliday’s relationship with Kate, his traveling companion, and the ruination of Mattie and Wyatt’s relationship, which also led to Mattie’s descent into addiction and her death from an overdose of laudanum. The production deals with these themes as well as Josie’s guilt over her decisions as an older Josie and Allie recall the past and how that fateful day affected their lives.

I Married Wyatt Earp is being touted as a “creative nonfiction” musical.  To retell a story that has been told countless times is a definitely a daunting endeavor.  The narration of this famous legend from the wives and girlfriend’s viewpoint is definitely creative, but the creators of I Married Wyatt Earp relied too much on this concept to try to sell the production.  It appears the rest of the production had not been fleshed out, so its innovative concept became reduced to a ploy to pull in the audience.  While the musical does have some southern fried charm, it lacks the grit that is associated with the old west.  It is sort of like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral light, similar to a decaf cup of coffee it has flavor but is deficient of a kick.   The cast delivers with the material, but the material could have been more polished.  The choreography is mediocre; however the music and lyrics are memorable.  “Don’t Blame Me For That,” “Pins and Needles,” “Did Ya Hear” and “Stand Our Ground” are songs that will remain in your head long after the show closes at 59 East 59 Theatres on June 12.   

While I do believe this story may have to go back to the proverbial “drawing board” if it wants to take the O.K. Corral to Broadway, I also feel there is enough there to keep an audience with a proclivity for American folklore interested.






Photos: Gerry Goodstein

The Best of Cy Coleman on Display on Off-Broadway

The word legend is almost too small of a term to describe Cy Coleman and his epic talent.  By the time he turned six, the Bronx native, born Seymour Kaufman, was considered a prodigy and had graced the stages of Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and Steinway Hall.  The Cy Coleman Trio was an extremely popular club attraction and completed numerous recordings.  Cy could have become a maestro in either the classical or jazz scenes, but it was popular music and Broadway that reaped the benefits of his genius.  Never one to be put in box, Cy collaborated with some of the best lyricists in the history of American music to create classics that were featured in Hollywood, The Great White Way and the small screen and garnered Tony, Emmy and Grammy Awards.   Cy was a vital creative force in the theatre world and was not one to let grass grow under his feet.  When Cy passed away at age 75 in 2004 from cardiac arrest, he was preparing for an engagement at a Manhattan club.

Six years after his death, the eastside welcomes a phenomenal piece of musical theatre that pays homage to a phenomenal man.  The Best Is Yet to Come: the Music of CY Coleman is currently playing at 59E59 Theatres and consists of standards, musical numbers and previously unreleased material from this extraordinary musician.  One the best elements of a musical is the music and lyrics; The Best Is Yet To Come showcases great music without the potential of boiler plate dialogue and trite choreography.  The show features well known songs like “Witchcraft,” “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” as well as music that the audience may not have known was part of Cy’s catalog. 

The cast is comprised of David Burnham, Sally Mayes, Howard McGillin, Billy Stritch (who is also the musical director and pianist), Lillias White and Rachel York, all of whom are Broadway veterans.  The band encompasses a brass, woodwind and percussion section along with a bass and piano.  The set is reminiscent of Saturday night at The Copa in its heyday – all that is missing are the huge clouds of cigarette smoke and drinks.  I have always loved a cabaret; this production superbly exceeded all of my expectations.  Although there was no dialogue or set changes, The Best Is Yet To Come followed the blueprint of a jukebox musical.  The numbers blend one into the other very well and tell the story of love, loss, desire and hope. The vocal arrangements are exquisite.  Together the performers form a jazz super group, sort of like Manhattan Transfer on steroids.  Separately the vocalists illuminate the stage.  Ladies will not just be swooning from David Burnham’s good looks, but from his golden voice.   “The Doodling Song” is one of my favorite Cy Coleman songs and York delivers it with oodles of pizzazz.  I could listen to her doodle anytime. Howard McGillin will always be the Phantom to me.  His voice is classic Broadway – rich, velvety with a wonderful timbre.  Sally Mayes is the perfect personification of a cabaret singer – sassy, sultry and full of energy.  Lillias White is a New York City treasure.  Every solo she sang became my new instant favorite.  White has a way of contorting chords until they become new notes on the musical scale.  Her voice is a true instrument.

When you are not singing along to the tunes you know, you will be toe-tapping and hip twisting to the rest.   For a man who was as versatile as he was gifted, I believe Coleman would be pleased with The Best Is Yet To Come.  Out of the tree of musical theatre it is a ripe, juicy plum.   The Best Is Yet To Come: The Music of Cy Coleman ends it limited engagement on July 3.  Before it closes get down to the eastside, buy a ticket and fasten your seatbelts; you are in for a swinging good time, man!

Photos:  Carol Rosegg

WTC View Rocks the Eastside

There is no New Yorker, indeed no American that has not been affected by the tragic events of September 11, 2001.  The images of that day have been indelibly seared into our minds and the emotions branded into our hearts.  But the days and weeks following that catastrophic day can sometimes be as blurry as a Monet and other times it is as vivid as a Matisse.  This year marks the 10th anniversary of that infamous day.  Playwright Brian Sloan explores the surreal time after the 9/11 attacks in WTC View.

WTC View examines the psychological effects on a group of New Yorkers after the World Trade Center attacks.  It centers on a photographer named Eric and his quest to find a roommate to assist in paying the rent in his two bedroom SoHo apartment.  Eric, portrayed by Nick Lewis, was in his apartment when the attacks began, which has a bird’s eye view of the Twin Towers; he witnessed the cataclysmic episode unfold outside a bedroom window.  He meets an array of interested applicants, each with their own perspective on 9/11.  Jeremy, played by Bob Braswell, is the British St. Regis employee who loses his job because of the lack of tourists and returns home to England.  Kevin, played by Michael Carlsen, was unable to go back to his Battery Park apartment after the attacks and was stuck in New Jersey with a one night stand for three days.  Jeff, depicted by Torsten Hillhouse, is a democratic campaign worker who was born in NYC and decided to return because he felt New York City needed him.  Alex, played by Patrick Edward O’Brien, worked at the World Trade Center and was present during the time of the attacks.  His story is one of the carnage left in the wake such a vicious act of terrorism as well as one of hope.  Max, played by Martin Edward Cohen, is a young NYU student that mixes his feelings of guilt and activism into one huge twenty-something M80 that is just ready to burst.  All these young men, along with Eric’s friend Josie, played by Leah Curney, and Eric’s ex-boyfriend (who is only heard via Eric’s answering machine) assist Eric in coming to terms with the loss he felt as a result of 9/11 as well as the hysteria that subsequently followed in the days and weeks that followed.

With September marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, this review is the first time I have written anything about what happened on that Tuesday morning in September 2001.  Somehow I could not locate the words that I felt adequately expressed my pain.   Almost ten years later, and it was not until I witnessed WTC View that I realized why I never did.  All humans react differently during times of distress and earth-shattering events.  I was like Eric.  I wanted desperately to pretend that watching those towers fall did not affect me.  I wanted to believe that the weeks of watching funerals on television or passing by dozens of missing person bulletins had no impact on my psyche, but the glaring truth for me and the protagonist of the play is that it did.  Eric finally came to grips with his pain after several breakdowns.  I buried it as deep as I could and as a result it paralyzed my fingers and mind.  I thought I had covered the wounds inflicted on us as a society that day with the finest emotional band-aids, but as I watched each actor recount how 9/11 changed their life as they knew it and observed Eric slowly succumb to his grief and fear, I could feel the bandage being ripped from my heart.  What I found was that I had not healed at all, but thanks to the crafty storytelling of Brian Sloan, I recognized that I was ready to go back to the pain and try to heal.

Watching WTC View is similar to having the deepest deep tissue massage you will ever have.  The right hand grabs your heart, the left clutches your soul, sometimes you will wince in pain, but you will leave feeling more healed than when you came in.  WTC View is a must see for all New Yorkers, it is a riveting piece of theater, powerfully acted by an impressive cast.  Currently playing at 59E59 Theaters until June 5 as part of the America’s Off-Broadway series, WTC View is a production that embodies the true spirit of New York and its unrelenting resiliency.   

Photos:  Carol Rosegg

Triangle Offers Homage to a Centennial NYC Tragedy

March 25, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  The inferno was the most deleterious industrial catastrophe in NYC history and ranked the fourth highest in casualties from an industrial accident in US history.  It was also the most mortiferous tragedy in Manhattan until 9/11.  The sweatshop blaze, located in the Asch Building on 23-29 Washington Place, resulted in the deaths of 146 workers, most of whom were Jewish and Italian immigrants.  Because of locked doors, people jumped to their deaths and created outrage with the community and politicians alike. But the fire’s lasting legacies were not just the deaths, it was the legislation passed to improve factory safety standards and the creation of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. 

Currently, the Americas Off-Broadway series offers a production that exhumes the ghosts of that tragedy and the lives it affected with TriangleTriangle is a 120 minute drama that recounts the adulterous liaison between “Big” Tim Sullivan and actress Margaret Holland against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the events that followed.   When young, beautiful Margaret goes to audition for Big Tim at his headquarters, he is already known as “The Boss of the Bowery.”  Along with being a one of the prominent politicos of Tammany Hall, he was also the kingfish of various criminal enterprises which included prostitution, gambling and extortion.  Margaret, a highbrow, progressive woman, becomes seduced by Tim’s immoral, yet captivating demeanor.  Tim immediately recognizes Margaret’s beauty and casts her in his productions out of state.  While Margaret continues to tour on the acting circuit, she and Tim fall in love and have an illegitimate daughter named Mary Catherine.  But the Triangle Factory fire forever changes Margaret, Tim and Mary Catherine.  Margaret tirelessly works as a reformist, causing a strain on her relationship with her growing daughter, and blames Tim for taking kickbacks.  Guilt spurs Tim into using his political muscle to aide the reformers and sponsors legislation limiting the maximum number of hours women were forced to work despite his failing health from syphilis. 

One aspect I find with Off-Broadway productions is that they are generally hit or miss.  This production teeters somewhere in the middle.  At best Triangle is a nondescript tribute to the legacies of the women and men who perished in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, focusing more on the love affair between Tim and Margaret instead of the immigrant men and women who toiled and died in the fire.  It reminded me of Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, a think piece that provided a glimpse into the lives of people placed in a stressful situation.  The acting in Triangle impressed me more than the story itself, and when the play did focus on the fire specifically, it showed flashes of brilliance.  Ruba Audeh is superb, playing dual roles as a young Jewish girl and a former Triangle Shirtwaist worker turned hooker – her scenes are some of the most telling, emotional moments of the play and will painfully stick with you like burnt clothing on skin.  Donna Davis and Dennis Wit are very engaging as Cathleen Murphy and Izzy Weissman, a common law couple on Big Tim’s payroll.  Their banter and narration throughout the production not only offered comic relief, but prevented the show from dragging.  They, along with Audeh, are without a doubt the most memorable characters and performances.  Joe Gately, Ashley C. Williams and Michaela McPherson round out the cast giving fine performances as Tim Sullivan, Margaret Holland and Mary Catherine. 

Triangle’s final performance at 59E59 Theatre is May 1.  It is my conclusion that parts of this show were greater than its sum.  Overall, Triangle is a satisfactory play that produced solid performances, but the jury is still out on whether this drama did or did not deliver on its commitment to honor the victims of the fire.

Photos:  Carol Rosegg