Give ‘em the ol’ Razzle Dazzle

Need a song-and-dance cabaret act for your next event? Look no further than Ovation!, the Patel Conservatory’s traveling troupe of professionally trained entertainers for hire.

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The Straz Center launched its first ever professional student cabaret ensemble, Ovation!, in a 2015 pilot program. Here, they perform in our TECO Theater.

For a few years, a delightful idea from the Patel Conservatory’s theater department rolled around in The Straz’s creative hopper: what if … is it possible … could we have a group of students trained and prepared to gig like any other working performers? And, could they collaborate with our food and beverage team to provide entertainment for public and private clients?

A few stars needed to align with timing and leadership – and, eventually, they did. Last year, the Patel Conservatory hand-picked 16 students who they invited to try out a pilot program to see if the idea could grow legs. Ovation! was born.

The 2016-2017 Ovation! ensemble

The 2016-2017 Ovation! ensemble prepares for its working season in the Straz Center Rehearsal Hall.

Under the vocal direction of Vice President of Education Suzanne Livesay and with choreography from theater faculty member Scott Daniel, Ovation! eventually congealed into a hybrid show choir and cabaret act able to perform medleys for public and private events. The group cut its teeth in-house, performing for the President’s Luncheon, the Patel Conservatory end-of-year Spotlight show and an Evening of Dance.

Eventually, Ovation! made its way into the world, entertaining at the Neiman Marcus holiday event and in Whole Foods during a fundraiser for the Patel Conservatory. Their big break came when Redstone Investments booked the group as a surprise for co-founder Jonathan Levy during their holiday gathering. The party organizers requested the Ovation! crew pretend to be random carolers – but instead of singing traditional songs, the medleys would be parodies of the company set to the tunes of holiday classics starting with “Jonathan the Levy,” a rendition of “Frosty the Snowman.”

“It was fantastic,” says Patel Conservatory theater instructor Audrey Siegler. “Redstone died laughing. Everyone at the party was hysterical. Ovation! was a hit, and we knew we had something that worked.”

The gigs throughout 2015 defined and refined the shape of Ovation!, with the directors deciding to create customizable gigs depending on the client’s needs. “We have 10-20 minute medleys ready to go around Broadway themes, love songs, holidays. But there can be other themes, or a longer duration, and combinations of performers depending on what the client wants. We’re training talented young people to sing and dance. They’re prepared to go anywhere and perform to professional standards,” Siegler continues.

With the ground under its feet, Ovation! has deepened its training this season with Popular Dance program director Kelly King, a former Rockette, taking the helm as choreographer with Livesay. Auditions happened in August and will again in January. The Ovation! company rehearses weekly to keep the material and their performance chops sharp.

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Ovation! strikes a tableau from a show number. The company is for hire. All proceeds from Ovation! gigs go directly to Patel Conservatory scholarship funds.

“We’re still shaping and working out the logistics,” says Siegler. “We’re looking for more gigs this season, and anyone interested in hiring Ovation! – please contact us and we can work out a show for your event. All the booking fees go directly to the Patel Conservatory scholarship program, so the more they perform, the more opportunities become available for others.”

If you want to book Ovation! or get more information, please email audrey.siegler@strazcenter.org. If you are a Straz Center donor and would like to book Ovation! or get more information, please contact bill.rolon@strazcenter.org.

Lizzie Borden Took an Acts

Performing arts adaptations of one of America’s most grisly and haunting murder stories

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Portrait of Lizzie Borden, circa 1889.

The facts are simple.

On Aug. 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found dead in their Falls River, Mass., home from multiple hatchet wounds. Police found no sign of a struggle, no convincing murder weapon, no bloody clothes on any possible suspect—even the one tried for the murders, Andrew’s younger daughter Lizzie.

Lizzie’s case stood as the 19th century’s version of the O.J. Simpson trial, feeding the public’s imagination and raising countless speculations about motives, what really happened and a friend’s testimony stating she saw Lizzie burning a “paint-stained” dress three days after the murders. Even though the jury acquitted her, Lizzie Borden galvanized into a horror legend guilty of the crime, spending the rest of her life as a social outcast and ghosting into history as an axe-wielding, Victorian psychopath who continues to provide fertile ground for storytellers of all artistic genres.

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Colleen Cherry plays Lizzie Borden in Jobsite Theater’s rock musical production of LIZZIE (photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.).

Lizzie Borden’s legend, staged at The Straz this month by Jobsite Theater as the killer rock musical LIZZIE, features one of the latest stabs at adapting this gruesome, fascinating episode for the stage. LIZZIE features an all-female “riot-grrrl” band with Lizzie and Co. belting out musical metal as they perform a rock concert version of the events from Lizzie’s point of view. LIZZIE runs in the Jaeb Theater from Oct. 12-Nov. 6.

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Left: The Boston Ballet’s 1972 production of Fall River Legend (photo: King Douglas). Right: American Ballet Theatre’s Fall River Legend, 2007 (photo: Lois Greenfield).

But before this current version, ballet choreographer extraordinaire Agnes deMille took a whack at capturing the complex social and emotional subtext surrounding Lizzie’s life. Her dance version, which ends in a guilty verdict, examined Lizzie’s relationship with the local priest, her complicated feelings toward her father and stepmother and the role of the small-town mindset. DeMille’s invention, premiered by American Ballet Theatre to a cinematic score by Morton Gould in 1954, arrived as an instant classic called Fall River Legend. The piece entered the repertory of other major ballet powerhouses including Dance Theatre of Harlem and Paris Opera Ballet.

The boring real-life outcome of Lizzie’s innocent verdict also provided a problem for another adaptation 11 years later when City Opera of New York transcribed the tale to the optimal form for murdering psychopaths: opera. Jack Beeson’s titular opera was conducted by none other than Maestro Anton Coppola, who later became the inaugural artistic director of the Straz Center’s Opera Tampa. In Beeson’s version, the plot centers around Lizzie’s psychological abuse by her father and stepmother, casting Lizzie as a tragic figure with little choice of escape except by removing the forces of unpleasantness. In short, administering the 81 whacks reported in the jump-rope rhyme. (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/Gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/Gave her father 41.”) To be historically accurate, 19 whacks befell Abby, who was her stepmom, with 11 landing upon Mr. Borden, both numbers that make catchy rhyming next to impossible. As usual, the facts disrupt the dramatic potential. However, Beeson’s sharp-edged psychological interpretation was no hatchet job. The critics and audiences loved the opera, and Maestro Coppola was lauded for his command of the challenging score.

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Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden in a scene from the made for TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden, 1975.

Television and movies revisit the story, mining the details for new ways to cut and wrap film adaptations that keep audiences titillated by Lizzie’s mysterious and misunderstood personality. Goth lovely Christina Ricci killed the role in Lifetime’s TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, inspiring a Lifetime mini-series about Lizzie’s life after the trial. In a creepy turn of events, Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) portrayed the Fall River spinster in ABC’s 1975 airing of The Legend of Lizzie Borden. Later, a genealogist discovered Montgomery was Borden’s sixth cousin. Talk in Tinseltown today suggests a new feature film is in the works starring Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry, Big Love) with the trying-to-get-past-Twilight superstar Kristen Stewart as Lizzie’s maid, Bridget Sullivan.

Although it’s a bloody mess trying to understand why the public remains so morbidly fascinated with the Borden story on stage and screen, this fact remains: Lizzie performs well with acts.

What Is Love? Baby, Don’t Hurt Me.

Mary Shelley, the first science fiction novel and why Victor Frankenstein is not just a deadbeat dad but the worst human ever.

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Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 Universal  Studios’ film. Makeup design by Jack Pierce.

It literally was a dark and stormy night.

In 1816.

Self-appointed (accurately) poetic geniuses Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley lounged in Byron’s Swiss chalet during one of the darkest, rainiest summers on record. Fueled by opium, laudanum and most likely a terrible combination of ennui and cabin fever, Byron recited Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s creepy poem, “Christabel,” to Shelley and the other intelligentsia gathered for a summer of free thinking and open relationships.

At this point, we imagine Percy made a crack about Byron’s choice of recitation because Byron’s response—“Do you think we can do better?”—incited another genius in the room, an 18-year-old woman named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, to answer silently yes, I can.

And she did.

The novel she penned in one year and published in 1818 at 19 years old seared itself into the Western literary canon and gave humankind one of its most fascinating, most disturbing, most heartbreaking characters—Frankenstein was alive.

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Manuscript page from Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein.

The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the indomitable, outspoken author and pioneer of the women’s rights movement, and anarchist William Godwin, the cult hero who wrote An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, little Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was only 11 days old when her mother died of a common post-partum fever. However, her mother’s presence, and the guilt Mary squirreled away in her heart over causing her mother’s death, never left her.

For the next 24 years, Mary’s life would resemble a Gothic tale with soap opera plot lines, including meeting her soulmate and baby daddy, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and sharing him with her half-sister and frenemy, Claire Clairmont. (Mary’s dad remarried, an arrangement that included an unpleasant stepmother and Claire.  Oh, and did we mention Mary’s mom had another daughter named Fanny that was Mary’s older half-sister? Yes, by someone who was not William Godwin. We told you this was a soap opera. However, Fanny will be an important detail later.)

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Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840.

Mary and Percy held their assignations in the cemetery near Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, which, incidentally, is also how Mary learned to spell: by tracing her mother’s headstone. By the time she was 16, Mary was mentally emancipated, a fierce and headstrong person whom her dad called “almost invincible.” Mr. Godwin forbade Percy and Mary from seeing each other, as anarchism and moral freedom become much less appealing when it’s your daughter doing it.

Oh yes, we forgot to mention that Percy Bysshe Shelley was married. With children.

At this time, biology was the burgeoning science of the day. Tales of alchemists and scientists using electricity and magnetism to bring dead animals and newly-hanged convict corpses back to life made their way into the conversations Mary overheard in the elite, scholarly circles that surrounded her. The notion of “galvanizing”—“to give life to”—using electric currents struck a chord in Mary’s imagination and a nerve in her ethical foundation.

When Lord Byron, a notable yet morally bankrupt wit, entered the picture, things got very exciting and (even more) complicated. The young, free-thinking, free-loving radicals wended through Europe to Byron’s chalet on Lake Geneva. While traveling the Rhine, Mary heard of a dubious anatomist named Konrad Dipple who conducted gruesome re-animation and soul-transference experiments from his home, a stone fortress called Castle Frankenstein.

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From Mel Brook’s 1974 sequel-spoof, Young Frankenstein.

That fateful summer of 1816, Mary not only took the ghost story challenge Byron issued, but she had a vivid, lucid dream of walking into a grimy room while a young doctor stood before a creature on a medical slab, a creature mish-mashed of human and animals parts, jolting to life before the doctor’s terrified gaze. She had her story.

She also had a baby inside her. By Percy. The baby died shortly after birth and around the time that Percy’s abandoned wife drowned herself from misery. Mary and Percy married, despite their free love ideology, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin became Mary Shelley. Her half-sister Fanny committed suicide as well, in unrelated circumstances, two months after the Shelleys’ wedding. These complicated, melancholic facts of Mary’s life weaved themselves into the moral and ethical questions at the heart of her tragic novel: what does it mean to love? What does it mean to have responsibility to another? What happens if you play God with someone else’s life?

That was a terrible year for Mary Shelley, but it was the year she wrote Frankenstein, which she completed while still nursing the second baby with Percy. That child, and the two after, would also die. Only the fifth child survived to adulthood, and even Percy Bysshe Shelley himself did not make it to 30 years old. He drowned on a stormy sea voyage to visit Lord Byron, his body identified by the unmistakable copy of Keats poems Percy carried in his pocket.

By then, Frankenstein was an international phenomenon. Mary Shelley, who could not bring herself to attend Percy’s pyre on the shores of Italy, was a mere 24-years-old.

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David Dukes as Victor Frankenstein and John Glover as Henry Clerval in the 1981 Broadway production of Frankenstein by Victor Gialanella.

Because Frankenstein posits the medical possibility of electrifying tissues to life and succeeding, critics credit Mary Shelley’s masterpiece as the first true work of science fiction. For whatever reasons, over time the two main characters, Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his Creation, became confused, with folks mistakenly referring to the Creature as Frankenstein.

There’s a subtle poetic justice in that misnomer, though, because Mary Shelley portrayed Victor Frankenstein as the worst possible example of man: he wants the glory of knowing he can do the work of God yet wants none of the responsibility of being both father and god to his unattractive creation. Instead of loving his child, Victor Frankenstein rejects the Creature based on appearances, denying the Creature’s basic needs for love and belonging. The Creature, with his childlike innocence, loves Frankenstein faithfully, unquestioningly, confused by his creator’s disgust and abandonment. Creature Frankenstein, orphaned by his father, warps into a brute as he is brutalized by the cruelty of man. His name changes to “demon” or “monster” in the novel as he traverses the world in vengeance, resorting to murder.

So, society has done for Dr. Frankenstein what he could not do for his own son: claimed the creature as his own.

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James McAvoy in Victor Frankenstein, the 2015 film adaptation.

Famed Yale literary critic Harold Bloom scathingly notes Victor Frankenstein is a “moral idiot” and a fitting archetype for our present time as he is a man who cannot comprehend his role in the consequences of his actions. The demon, Bloom writes, is superior to Frankenstein in feeling, which Mary Shelley biographers have noted must have been a feeling she knew too well in the company of Percy and Byron.

In the end, Mary Shelley, at 18 years old, penned the horror of the human heart, of rejection and the ways withholding love and kindness turn innocence and childlike curiosity into a corrupted and destructive spirit.

But if it’s true that to err is human and to forgive is divine, it’s worth noting that at the end of the novel, after the monster has killed Victor Frankenstein, he anguishes over his father’s body. He asks for forgiveness. By the end of the tale, we can be certain that if roles had reversed, the doctor would never have stood over the creature’s body begging for the same.

What that suggests is pretty terrifying.

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Extra Sensory Perception

How the stage allows us to get inside another person’s experience

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Alex Sharp in The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“You never know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes,” goes the popular adage about trying to be less judgmental and more compassionate. The key to getting in someone else’s shoes is to imagine what his or her experience must be like, to feel what she or he must be feeling. This exercise is known as empathy.

One place that’s crackerjack at making empathy 3-D is the theater.

Since its invention, theater has served as a platform for dramatizing the human experience with all the joys, humor, complications, tragedies, injustices and awkward awakenings of the human heart. The stage also acted as a mirror, reflecting back at society what it refused to see—or, in many cases, was unable to see about itself until other people literally showed humanity what it looked like. The stage is a safe place to say uncomfortable things, to challenge the status quo, to make people laugh at themselves and others, to experiment with how to make abstract concepts concrete and in-the-flesh. Sometimes a play does all of these things while singing and dancing. (We’re looking at you, Book of Mormon.)

With the rise of interest in human psychology at the turn of the 20th century, a new challenge cropped up for playwrights and actors: how to capture the workings of the mind? We know Freud relied on his knowledge of Greek theater to name two of his bigger concepts (Oedipus and Electra complexes) and that psyche is the Greek word for “soul,” from the eponymous goddess. So, drama in real life goes hand-in-hand with the drama of the mind.

However, putting that mental activity on paper in dialogue and stage directions is not so natural. The key rests in the collaborative, team-based nature of manufacturing make believe: on stage and screen, other designers lend their skills to bring the vision of the mental landscape to completion. Set design, lighting, color palettes, sound and choreography become crucial to pulling the lofty, abstract ideas of “torment,” “sensory overload,” “insanity,” or “schizophrenia,” “addiction,” or “depression” into a detailed, concrete picture that audiences can see and understand. These elements help bring audiences to empathy, to the shift in perception that allows us to see into the soul of another—or ourselves.

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Some of the best representations of the wacky, disjointed nature of thought occur on film. We’re thinking here of Charlie Kaufman’s body of work (Human Nature, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or Chris Nolan (Memento, Inception) or Pixar’s 2015 offering, Inside Out, the animated film where even emotions get emotions.

Theater plays tend to explore psychology not as a setting (like literally finding a portal into John Malkovich’s brain in Kaufman’s delightfully bizarro screenplay) but as character traits or as a theme. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf scarred several generations with its unflinching examination of alcoholism and head games, and Peter Shaffer’s boy-who-blinds-horses drama, Equus, continued to make audiences squirm even when Harry Potter’s actor played the lead. And let’s quickly nod to Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, a frightful interweaving of psychological cruelty and children’s storytelling, that proved illuminating the deep, dark perversities of the minds of men was alive and well for this 2004 Laurence Olivier award-winner.

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Daniel Radcliffe, Lorenzo Pisoni, and Richard Griffiths in the Broadway revival of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus.” (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Back in the day, playwright Arthur Miller wrote in his stage directions to Death of a Salesman that the set should indicate titular salesman Willy Loman’s varying psychological conditions, and Ntozake Shange’s fierce use of dance and poetry to reveal the psychological effects of racism and sexism on black women pushed For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf to be nominated for a Tony® award for Best Play in 1977.

Yet theater still experiments with finding ways to do what Kaufman’s and Nolan’s films are able to do—namely, make a character’s mind the landscape of a story. Finding plays or musicals that take place inside a person’s experience of the world to put the audience inside the character’s worldview are few and far between.

Then there’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre

Original Broadway Company of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

This play (it’s not a musical), based on Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name, takes theater one step further. Curious Incident follows the events of the main character, Christopher, a boy who has a rather brilliant and extraordinary mind, after a neighbor’s dog is murdered. That mind, however, processes the world unlike most people’s minds. So, how does a production team build a play to spark compassion and empathy for Christopher? It puts the audience in Christopher’s shoes. Or, literally, in Christopher’s sensory experience.

The set itself serves as Christopher’s psychological boundaries. His mind, a grid-based thinking system (as opposed to our floaty, nebulous artists’ minds), becomes the walls of the set, the grid illuminated in different ways throughout the performance. As audience members, we are thrust into Christopher’s perception of the world with its numbers, noises, chaotic choreography, indirect and disorganized language and baffling array of incomprehensible adult reactions to facts. Christopher and his pet rat Toby must solve the murder, and we tag along for the ride, strapped into the observer’s seat in Christopher’s worldview. Often, like Christopher, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the onslaught of movement, sound and unpredictability of every day living.

Frankly, it’s a stunning theatrical achievement. Perhaps, at least in this case, we can say we know Christopher by the end of the show, not because we’ve walked a mile in his shoes, but because we’ve watched two hours from the inside of his mind.

Curious about Curious? Then come see the show.