Thank You from Thank You, Mr. Falker

30 05 2011

Thank you to all who attended and supported the new family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker over the past three weeks at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre!

By the numbers, we reached at least 1500 audience members over the course of our run: 6 public performances and 4 school shows. Thanks to our kickstarter campaign and a grant from the City of Santa Monica and the Santa Monica Arts Commission, we were able to donate many tickets to underprivileged youth in the area. We had an incredibly diverse audience, from young children to grandparents, from families in need to unexpected celebrities like Jennifer Garner and William H. Macy. I was particularly thankful to share the show with my librettist Andrew Bentz visiting from VA, my family visiting from NC, and my fellow LA theater critics and friends. Your feedback and support means more than you will ever know.

More important than the statistics, though, I think our production had a tangible impact on the audience members and the production team alike. Patricia Polacco’s book Thank You, Mr. Falker is probably not a natural choice for a musical. It is the story of a little girl struggling with dyslexia until an inspirational new teacher helps open up the world of literature. But thanks to the incredible work of the cast, creative team, parents, and other volunteers, I hope … and I truly believe … we created something special on that stage. A show enjoyable for both kids and adults. A show that advocates for the importance of arts education without being too didactic. A show in a classic musical theater tradition that builds a strong sense of ensemble.

At least these were the ideals that we aimed for. And in fleeting and beautiful moments, I think we actually achieved them. Just look how much fun our kids had warming up before every performance. I wish I had this sort of creative community at their age:

I was lucky enough to sit in the middle of the audience for the closing show yesterday. There was a little girl in front of me, probably 7 or 8 years old, perched on the edge of her seat during the entire musical – enthralled by the kids singing and dancing together. There were children around me who sounded out the words along with Trisha and shared in her triumph of finally learning to read. And the talkbacks and the conversations I have had after each and every performance often exceeded the joys of the show itself.

This was the first live theater experience for many children in our audience. Whether these young audience members become theater practitioners, regular theatergoers, or just more empathetic individuals for having seen our show, it is fulfilling to have been a part of something with the potential to positively, tangibly shape someone’s life. I know the experience of collaborating with such a talented, dedicated production team has positively shaped my own.

So what’s next? I’ll be catching up on a few theater reviews in the next couple of weeks, then I am off to Israel with Emanuel Azenberg and friends for a (much-needed) vacation. Sadly, I will be missing the excitement of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, TCG Conference, and RADAR L.A. in June … but I will be back reviewing in full force by July! Again … thank you, all.

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Student-produced musical ‘Thank You, Mr. Falker’ makes debut

16 05 2011

Student-produced musical ‘Thank You, Mr. Falker’ makes debut

Thank you, Andrew Froug, for the great write-up in The Daily Bruin. If you haven’t seen Thank You, Mr. Falker yet, join us! I will be attending all remaining shows and would love to see you there!

Dates: May 14 – 29, Saturdays and Sundays at 11am

Venue: Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd. Santa Monica, CA 90405

Tickets: Available online at https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/1221 or by calling 310-828-7519. $8 for adults, $6 for children 12 and under.

Press: If you are interested in reviewing this new family musical, please contact the box office at MWTboxoffice@gmail.com or 310-828-7519.





Gratitude for the LA Theater Community

10 05 2011

I have been less present on the theater reviewing scene in the past few months – for several reasons. My family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker opens this weekend at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre. I have had a slight addiction to CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera, which inspired repeat viewings and multiple posts on the same show. But even more significantly, I have been in the midst of PhD qualifying exams. I have been studying theories of corporeality, integration, and temporality for at least 8 months. (A little theater here and there, too.) Writtens were just before Easter, my final oral exam was today – and I passed! I am now a PhD candidate with “only” the dissertation to go. 🙂

Academia was an obvious choice for me after undergrad. I have an insatiable passion for knowledge, and I am genuinely excited to get started on the dissertation now that I have advanced to candidacy. I am so fortunate to have 4 brilliant, supportive scholars on my dissertation committee. Today’s exam was more like a conversation than an intense questioning. A lot more enjoyable and less stressful than I expected!

Of course, one reason why the exam was less stressful is that I had “rehearsed” my answers. I didn’t know the questions going into the exam today. But for the past 8 months, I have been an avid theatergoer, a fan, a critic, a composer, a music director – and this nebulous thing called the LA Theater Community has continually engaged me in conversations about theater and performance studies. For that, I feel incredibly blessed and grateful.

One reason I decided on a PhD program in Theater and Performance Studies (rather than English, which I was also considering) was the collaborative aspect of theater. While I was at Duke, theater – and specifically musicals – became an important mode of mediating my social relationships and shaping my cultural world. As much as I enjoy academia, it can be a lonely and isolating pursuit – even in the realm of Theater and Performance Studies. The past 8 months consisted of studying my bibliographies, writing and rewriting my prospectus, organizing and reorganizing my plan for the dissertation; I was mainly holed up in my apartment amidst stacks of articles and books. Meetings with my professors were always welcome conversations, but scholarship is still often an isolated, mental pursuit. Writing stages imaginary conversations among theorists and texts.

Enter the “LA Theater Community.” Amidst all this potentially isolating intellectual work, the idea of a theater as a mode of relation has been central to my life in the past few months. Music directing (Is There Life After High School, Happy End, Gone Missing, Thank You, Mr. Falker, and sporadic concerts and benefits with friends) has been a space of rehearsing my theories about the musical, of actively engaging with my thoughts in practice, of seeing both the ideals – and the contradictions and conflicts – within any community. Thank you to all with whom I worked creatively over the past few months – directors Gary Gardner, Hunter Bird, and Lane Williamson, choreographer Christopher Albrecht, all the stage managers and casts and crews. You were the vibrant musical numbers to my academic narrative; you gave me a renewing respite from my academic work each and every day, not to mention a space to actively discuss and engage in embodied practice of the musical, which I view as invaluable to my scholarship.

What more can I write about CYCLOPS? (Perhaps you should ask me again when I start my dissertation.) This rock opera was simultaneously an ecstatic, Dionysian release from my academic work – and a theatrical experience that actively engaged my scholarship. Psittacus Productions could not be a more brilliant or welcoming company; the sense of communitas among their ensemble palpably extends to the audience. And, by the way, I wrote most of this post before closing night … which Colin Mitchell can attest was a pretty ridiculous and unforgettable experience in my superfandom. (Yes, that was my imaginary overture of Jayson Landon Marcus’ and Benjamin Sherman’s incredible music playing at closing.) Once in a while, shows like Venice and Cyclops come along, reassuring me that theater (and specifically musical theater) can be layered, political, generous, and endlessly entertaining.

I feel blessed to be in a position in the LA theater community where I can advocate for such exceptional new work, in my own small way. But my position in the critical community would not be possible without a great deal of support from readers and fellow critics. I started blogging about a year and a half ago. Colin Mitchell at Bitter Lemons picked up on my work first, for which I am endlessly grateful; he has been one of my greatest supporters and has brought attention to my random, start-up blog in a way that I never imagined possible. In the early months of my blog, I had some fun debates about styles of theater criticism with Trevor Thomas – who is now my fantastic editor at EDGE Los Angeles. And I recently signed on to write for Stage & Cinema, as well. A theatergoing habit has turned into a reviewing practice and, hopefully, can one day become a core part of my career.

My place in this virtual community of theater critics is amplified and enhanced when I have the great pleasure of spotting a fellow critic at the theater: Steven Leigh Morris at Crack Whore Galore, Tony Frankel after Three Sisters or Perestroika, Colin Mitchell at CYCLOPS (twice!). My life is literally structured around theater dates with friends. I cherish the conversations that surround the theater experience as much as, if not more, than the theatrical experience itself.

I recently accompanied a group of UCLA musical theater undergraduates at a Center Theatre Group benefit in Palos Verdes Estates. Over dinner, one of the donors asked me what my “dream role” would be. I explained that I’m not really an actor, but my dream role is actually what I’m doing right now: composing, music directing, reviewing, and engaging in academia. The LA theater community allows me to negotiate multiple roles and to continually push myself into new fields. I never thought I’d find my “dream role” in Los Angeles; I was certain to be NYC-bound after undergrad. And yet here I am after 3 years, honored to be a part of it all and even beginning to call LA “home.”

With so many upcoming theater conferences in LA, we are continually attempting to define this nebulous thing called Los Angeles theater. Yet its excitement, perhaps, is its dynamism and continually shifting shape. We all play multiple roles, as artists and audiences. LA theater is multifaceted, decentralized, vibrant, and mutually supportive. The sense of community is palpable and has been so important to me lately. Thank you all for your continuing support. See you at the theater!





Press Release: Thank You, Mr. Falker

8 05 2011

Fellow critics and friends, my new family musical premieres next weekend! One reason I have been quieter on the critical scene lately is because I have been music directing my LA premiere Thank You, Mr. Falker, part of the LA Festival of New American Musicals. I would love to see you there!


Music by Sarah Taylor Ellis
Book and lyrics by Andrew Bentz
Directed by Lane Williamson
Music direction by Sarah Taylor Ellis
Choreography by Christopher Albrecht
Produced by Mary Morra & Jennifer Polhemus

Trisha has a talent for drawing, but when she tries to read stories she loves, the letters appear all mixed up. She hides her disability from teachers and classmates until the arrival of Mr. Falker, a gifted teacher who makes the ultimate difference for Trisha. A humorous, poignant new musical best enjoyed by ages 5 to 105.

Dates: May 14 – 29, Saturdays and Sundays at 11am

Venue: Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd. Santa Monica, CA 90405

Tickets: Available online at https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/1221 or by calling 310-828-7519. $8 for adults, $6 for children 12 and under.

Press: If you are interested in reviewing this new family musical, please contact the box office at MWTboxoffice@gmail.com or 310-828-7519.

Hear a preview of the show and our talented cast, which features 5 adults and 10 amazing children, at soundcloud.com/staylorellis. (You can also hear an imaginary overture to CYCLOPS on my soundcloud, because I have a ridiculously diverse musical theater personality.) Feel free to contact me with any further questions (staylorellis@gmail.com), and I hope to see you soon!





Kickstarter: Thank You, Mr. Falker

8 04 2011

“Stories are like honey, flowing through my mind …”

When I first learned to read, every book seemed to open onto a new, fantastic world. Patricia Polacco’s popular children’s book Thank You, Mr. Falker is all about the pleasures of the wide world of literature. But it also reminds us that for some, learning to read is a challenge. Thank You, Mr. Falker is an autobiographical account Polacco’s struggles with dyslexia: the kids who teased her at school, the family members who stood by her side, and the teacher who helped her to triumph and become a world-renowned children’s book author and illustrator.

As of May 2011, Thank You, Mr. Falker is also a new family musical!

When I am not reviewing theater or working on my PhD at UCLA, I am a music director and a musical theater composer. (All that ample spare time …) My librettist, Andrew Bentz, is a current law student at UVA with equal penchant for crafting a debate or a song. We met at Duke University and have been writing musicals together ever since. Our latest project is a musical adaptation of Thank You, Mr. Falker for the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, which was workshopped in summer 2010. The world premiere production (May 14 – 29) is part of the 2011 LA Festival of New American Musicals.

The Morgan-Wixson’s award-winning Youth Entertainment / Education Series is free for all participating children; the cast for Mr. Falker includes 10 amazing kids, as well as 5 talented adults, fostering a special intergenerational bond in rehearsals. In addition to community shows, YES also invites school groups for special weekday matinees. For many children, this will be their first live theater experience.

To encourage a diverse range of families to attend, all tickets are less than the cost of a movie: $6 for kids and $8 for adults. But nonprofit performing arts cannot exist on ticket revenue alone. We recently started a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise money to provide more free tickets for underserved youth as well as to help offset the production costs, to enhance the set and costume budgets, to provide promotional support, and to pay small honoraria to the creative team who is giving so generously of their time to make the world premiere a reality.

Please support our world premiere production via Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/morganwixson/thank-you-mr-falker-a-new-musical

You can hear a few demos on MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/mrfalker

And if you are interested in mounting a future production at your theater, please be in touch: staylorellis@gmail.com. Andrew and I hope to publish and license the show following this exciting world premiere. We believe it is a story worth sharing.

(Now back to your regularly-scheduled programming of theater criticism …)





A Series of Fragmentary Reviews

22 03 2011

In January, I music directed a one-act version of Brecht and Weill’s Happy End at UCLA with director Hunter Bird. In February, I music directed The Civilian’s Gone Missing at UCLA with director Lane Williamson. Now, I am music directing the world premiere of my new family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, again with director Lane Williamson. On top of all this, I have PhD qualifying exams coming up this spring.

Suffice it to say, I haven’t had the time to review all the shows I have seen this year …

But I have a stack of playbills beside my desk, begging for a paragraph or two. Over the next few days, I plan to craft a few fragmentary reviews based on notes that I took just after seeing the shows. Some of the shows closed months ago, but I blog to remember and reflect, as much as to recommend to audiences. I hope you’ll enjoy the series!





Seeking Mr. Falker

7 03 2011

We just finished two great days of auditions for my new family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica, but we are still missing a key part: Mr. Falker! Mr. Falker (baritone or tenor) is Trisha’s caring teacher who helps her overcome her obstacles and learn to read. This is a very special show for its intergenerational bonds, with a cast ranging from 8-year-olds to an endearing grandpa.

If you are interested in being a part of this rewarding family theater experience, please contact the Morgan-Wixson (MWTYES@gmail.com) or me (staylorellis@gmail.com) for more info. We will be holding callbacks this Tuesday night from 6:30 – 8:30pm and happy to schedule auditions earlier that evening or at another convenient time. Original audition information can be found here.

Thank You, Mr. Falker, A New Musical

Part of the L.A. Festival of New American Musicals
World Premiere

Adapted from Patricia Polacco’s popular book

Book and lyrics by Andrew Bentz
Music by Sarah Taylor Ellis

Directed by Lane Williamson
Music direction by Sarah Taylor Ellis
Choreography by Christopher Albrecht

Produced by Mary Morra & Jennifer Polhemus

Thank You, Mr. Falker is about Trisha, a young student who is eager to read, to taste the “sweetness of knowledge” that her grandfather has always revered. But she struggles with a learning disability, where words and letters on the page are all mixed up in her brain. Trisha falls behind with her schoolwork and endures classmates’ taunts until her new teacher, Mr. Falker, helps her to blossom and eventually triumph. The book is based on Patricia Polacco’s own struggle with a childhood reading disability. This production is supported in part by a grant from the City of Santa Monica, and will feature live music performed by Jennifer Lin.

Roles are available for youth and adults. Please come out to audition for an exciting world premiere musical through Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson Theatre: Y.E.S. (Youth Education/Entertainment Series), AATE’s Outstanding New Children’s Theatre Company 2008.