A Year in Performance – 2012

31 12 2012

2012 has been a year of travel and transition. When compiling my Best of 2012 list from the reviews I had written for L.A. Weekly and Stage and Cinema, not to mention the playbills I had accumulated from a hundred or so additional shows that I had seen but not reviewed, I was thrilled to find that my list encompassed my final months in LA, my first months in my new New York City home, and even a brief trek to DC for a friend’s wedding. The list also crosses genres from musicals and plays to cabarets and concerts, from mainstream Broadway venues to 99 seat black box theaters. In no particular order, here are my theatrical highlights of 2012.

Everything at Joe’s Pub … but especially February House

Since moving to NYC, I have spent many a night at Joe’s Pub. With affordable ticket prices and a dynamic lineup of entertainment, not to mention a snazzy new menu featuring pizza popcorn, Joe’s Pub has quickly become one of my favorite venues in the city. I streamed The Civilians’ first Occupy Wall Street cabarets when I was living in LA in 2011, but I was thrilled to catch their one year anniversary cabaret live and in person. My friends and I were relieved that we didn’t have to commit mass suicide with Ben Walker and his cohort of provocative standup comics at Find the Funny on Election Night. Frisk Me: The Songs of Max Vernon packed the house unlike any other show I had seen at Joe’s Pub, marking an exciting step in this genre-bending singer-songwriter’s career. And having fallen in love with the folk storytelling of PigPen Theatre Company at The Old Man and the Old Moon, I swept my friends away to two concerts featuring songs from their new album Bremen; the boys’ rolling harmonies are guaranteed make your jaw drop, and their camaraderie – swapping instruments as they share silly stories – is totally endearing.

One night at Joe’s Pub in particular soars in my memory: the cast album release concert for February House, with book by Seth Bockley and music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane. February House chronicles an attempt to build an empire of artists in a Brooklyn Heights boardinghouse just before the outbreak of WWII; George Davis’ utopian experiment included artistic luminaries such as Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and even Gypsy Rose Lee. While the musical may have been criticized for a weak book at the Public, the score stuns in concert. A sophisticated musical vocabulary breathes life into this reimagined writer’s menagerie: Kristen Sieh sighs secret longings into Carson McCullers’ lonely ballads, which are accompanied by a sole banjo; Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and Pears (played by an exuberant Kahane on this night) burst into an hysterical operatic duet about “Bedbugs” plaguing the boardinghouse; and Kacie Sheik stops the show with the sassy and smart stripper’s song “A Little Brain.”

Yet it was the longing strains of “Wanderlust” that most captivated me: a scalar melody underpinned by an unexpected and entrancing chord progression; a queer quartet, gently unfolding and subsuming me into this artistic utopia. I wanted to cling to that expansive moment forever. Suffice it to say, February House – along with Kahane’s other astounding body of work in popular and classical music – became the soundtrack for my transition to NYC this fall. Be sure to catch Kahane’s concert at Joe’s Pub on January 14, and keep your eyes peeled for his WPA project with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra later in 2013, which should prove to be another fresh and rewarding take on a history that resonates in the here and now.

GATZ (Elevator Repair Service)

Elevator Repair Service’s trilogy of literary adaptations has been an essential part of my theatrical landscape over the past several years, and The Select (The Sun Also Rises) made my Best of 2011 list. Not only did I see The Select a second time in 2012, but I marathoned the legendary Gatz … twice. A man sits down at his office desk one morning to discover his computer isn’t working, so he picks up a novel – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – and begins to read aloud. Over the course of his workday (a full 8 hours, including an hour-long dinner break and several intermissions), his coworkers gradually become characters in the novel – and this initially awkward reader (the indomitable Scott Shepherd) gradually becomes the cool and confident narrator, Nick Carraway. While I was enthralled by my first encounter with Gatz at the Public, I was even more attuned to the processes of performance in my second viewing at REDCAT, wondrously aware of the gradual transformation of the characters and of the space as we collectively immersed ourselves into the world of the novel.

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play (The Civilians) – Review

I am an avid advocate of The Civilians’ investigative theater and enjoyed both their OWS cabaret at Joe’s Pub and Paris Commune at BAM this fall – but Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play at Woolly Mammoth takes the cake. When a nuclear disaster wipes out much of the United States’ population, the survivors establish tenuous alliances with one another for provisions and protection – and they retell the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons to pass the time. Anne Washburn’s script is a compelling exploration of storytelling as an essential mode of human survival; Michael Friedman’s pastiche music is wonderfully witty; and you may never look at pop culture the same when this show wends its way to NYC in 2013. Two more cabarets and a second production of The Great Immensity, a play about environmental challenges, are planned for 2013/14, as well!

LOLPERA (The Epic Futurists) – Review

LOLCATS + musical theater = the best pop opera since Jerry Springer the Opera. In a not-too-distant dystopian future in which lolcats are humans’ only form of communication, the epic LOLPERA links our memes into a new religion for the Internet age; watch in shock and awe as Ceiling Cat and Basement Cat, God and the Devil, music and the machine, battle for our souls. Ellen Warkentine and Andrew Pedroza’s inspired new work provoked, disturbed, and endlessly entertained. I can has cast album?

Fellowship! The Musical Parody of The Fellowship of the Ring (Steve Allen Theater) – Article

I first encountered Fellowship! The Musical Parody of the Fellowship of the Ring in 2009, when my sci-fi/fantasy fangirl of a roommate introduced me to this delightful improv-based musical. With most of the company intact from the original run in 2005, Fellowship! returned to LA this summer for a raucous run at the Steve Allen Theater. After roaring with laughter from the audience for several weeks, I was fortunate enough to be subsumed into the company as a music director for the last month of performances. The Balrog (Peter Allen Vogt) initiated me into the company during the “Balrog Blues”: “Hey, Sarah? Sarah! You’re a girl. You’re new. I don’t care if you’re new, I will cut you.” Here’s hoping Fellowship! has another revival during the excitement of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit over the next few years.

Hamlet (Wooster Group)

Wooster Group’s Hamlet uses Shakespeare’s canonical text as a provocative springboard to consider our complicated relationship to technology, which makes identity ever more fragmentary. The production stages an encounter between the 1964 production of Hamlet – an edited and remixed film of the Broadway production, which is projected onto the back wall – and a live reenactment, which recreates not only every vocal inflection and action, but also every costume, set piece, and camera angle. The ghosts of Hamlets past, present, and future flicker into view across the splintered screens. Between narrating Gatz and reperforming Richard Burton’s Hamlet in this multimedia production, it has been a challenging and undoubtedly rewarding year for the versatile Scott Shepherd. Kate Valk also stuns in her dual roles as Gertrude and Ophelia; my group of friends hardly recognized her until the transitions between characters became too quick for her costume changes. In spite of the incredible technology at play, the live performers’ uncanny acts of mimesis – including one of the best (recreated) sword fights on stage in recent memory – stand out most in my mind.

One Man, Two Guvnors (Music Box Theatre)

A deliciously witty update of Goldoni’s commedia The Servant of Two Masters and an incomparable comedic ensemble made for one of the best concocted comedies of the year. I enjoyed One Man, Two Guvnors so much that I saw it three times, including the wild closing show that extended a good half hour beyond its usual running time as the cast played endless pranks on one another. One Man, Two Guvs struck the perfect balance of carefully crafted comedy and unpredictable improv, making every performance thrillingly unique.

Once (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

Already a fan of the indie film, the musical adaptation of Once swept me off my feet with its homespun storytelling by a stirring ensemble of actor-musicians. It probably helps that my twenty-something artsy friends and I feel oh so much like pianist Girl (Cristin Milioti, whose rich timbre fleshes out her Manic Pixie Dream Girl character) and guitarist Guy (the gorgeous Steve Kazee): always missing one another in love, but making beautiful music in their infinite longing. Catching composer Glen Hansard in concert at the Wiltern in LA was another musical highlight of my year; the raw emotion and rich complexities of his songs cross beautifully from the concert to the theatrical stage.

Peter and the Starcatcher (Brooks Atkinson Theatre) – Review

A high-tech Broadway spectacle has been swapped for the homespun magic of a talented troupe of players and the audience’s engaged imaginations at the Brooks Atkinson. With an unbelievably smart and sassy script by Rick Elice and innovative direction by Alex Timbers and Roger Rees, this captivating prequel to Peter Pan inspires childlike wonder. I may have already seen Peter and the Starcatcher four times (twice with the unfairly charismatic Christian Borle as Black Stache, twice with the crafty team player Matthew Saldivar), but I wouldn’t say no to a return to Neverland before it closes on January 20.

Our Town (Broad Stage) – Review

Because of my small town background, I have always been wary of Our Town – but David Cromer’s production amplified the play’s embedded critique of small town life to strike a necessary balance between nostalgia and criticism. Cromer’s direction restored nuance, depth, and detail to a play that too often falls into idyllic cliche. His production made me see Our Town as if for the first time, and I emerged from the theater with my senses wide awake, able to embrace my life and background in all its beautiful contradictions.

Honorable Mentions: Cock (The Duke on 42nd), Follies (Ahmanson Theater), Fun Home (The Public Lab), Sleep No More (Punchdrunk), Uncle Vanya (Sydney Theatre Company), Venus in Fur (Lyceum Theatre), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Booth Theatre), The Woman in the Wall (Overtone Industries)


The Tempest: Rhymes with Opera Salon

22 10 2012

Director/lyricist Lane Williamson and I have recently composed several songs for his upcoming production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Lancaster, CA. I had the pleasure to premiere this new music with a stunning ensemble at the Rhymes with Opera salon in NYC on October 21, 2012. Enjoy!

The Tempest

Live performance at the Rhymes with Opera Salon, October 21, 2012

Lyrics by Lane Williamson
Music by Sarah Taylor Ellis

Performed by Jordan Aragon, Christina Benedetto, Shaun Dozier, Becky Sweren, and Rebecca Tucker, with Sarah Taylor Ellis on keys

Songs: “O, Prospero,” “Ferdinand and Miranda’s Love Theme,” “Caliban,” “Brotherly Love,” “Finale”

A Fond Farewell to Los Angeles

12 09 2012

I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2008 to start a PhD in Theater and Performance Studies at UCLA. My dad and I packed up Lil Pesh Aveo in North Carolina and road tripped across the country, stopping at all the sites we had never seen before – Oklahoma City, Santa Fe, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas. The smog descended as we inched onto the 405 a week later. Los Angeles sprawled before me: thrilling and terrifying. ‘I am moving for my education,’ I kept reminding myself. ‘I may never love this city, but I only have to live 4 or 5 years in this strange place. Then, NYC.’

Los Angeles shook up that attitude fairly quickly.

I found a church and started singing in choir, reprising many of the same glorious anthems I remembered from my days at Duke Chapel. I stumbled upon brilliant, creative friends: designers and musicians and playwrights. I moved to Santa Monica, opened my windows to the ocean breezes, and took a walk to the pier every day. Los Angeles was no less strange than when I first arrived, but I began to consider that fantastical strangeness an essential part of this city that I finally started to call “home.”

The real change in my attitude came about when I started attending the theater in Los Angeles – then blogging about the theater – then accompanying and music directing and composing and dramaturging. I have always felt at home in the arts, and LA offered unprecedented cultural opportunities. From writing my personal blog to penning articles for the LA Weekly, from working on UCLA student productions to fangirling my way into the company of Fellowship! The Musical Parody of The Fellowship of the Ring, I began to feel a part of the wonderfully nebulous Los Angeles theater community. Bitter Lemons placed me in virtual dialogue with this strange new world, and the once-intimidating urban sprawl soon became my own personalized map of theatrical adventures – each site overflowing with artistic memories and chance encounters.

I began to feel a responsibility to this community, as well: to advocate for innovative new productions, to champion up-and-coming companies, and to support the live performing arts in a city where theater is too often overshadowed by film and television. I have no idea whether I succeeded, but at the very least, all my writing and collaborations were acts of hope  that someone might read or see or hear – and perhaps be provoked to discuss.

It is not without a great sense of sadness and even guilt, then, that I recently made the decision to move to New York City.

As much as I have loved being a part of the thriving LA theater community over the past four years, NYC seems to offer more opportunities for making a living in theater – at least for me, for now. I received a dissertation year fellowship from UCLA, which provides me with funding to finish my research and writing over the next academic year; the time felt right to embed myself in the New York theater community before I graduate in spring 2013. I already have a wonderful community of collaborators in NYC, with more friends making the move each year. Even while living in LA, I have had an ongoing love affair with NYC: with the public transportation, the packed audiences, the ongoing dialog about theater among people who work both in and out of the industry. Ticket prices are obscene and the sense of theatrical elitism can be frustrating, but I am thrilled to explore the artistic possibilities of my new home.

Two weeks ago, my dad and I packed my life into 19 boxes and shipped it across the country. One of those 50 pound boxes exclusively contained playbills and programs from the past four years in Los Angeles: Cyclops at Son of Semele and the Pasadena Playhouse, Venice at the Kirk Douglas, my own family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker at the Morgan-Wixson, and hundreds more. Those memories have undeniable weight. They have been formative to my life and career, and I will not soon forget the artistry and innovation, the community and dialogue, surrounding these shows. My time in Los Angeles has radically decentralized my notions of where, how, and why great theater happens – and in many ways, I feel more gratitude for and responsibility to the LA theater community than ever before.

Thank you to everyone who made my years in Los Angeles genuinely transformative. Let’s keep up the conversation.

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