‘Opera for All’ Maryland Opera Studio to Perform Contemporary Works in Weekend Dedicated to Female Composers ‘Opera for All’

illustration of woman in water
The best-known opera composers tend to have one thing in common: They’re men. This weekend, the Maryland Opera Studio presents new works by New York-based female composers Justine F. Chen and Missy Mazzoli.
“TWA” graphic by Eric Wheatley

From Claudio Monteverdi to Benjamin Britten, the classical music canon’s best-known opera composers tend to have one thing in common: They’re men.

This weekend, the University of Maryland’s Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) presents new works by New York-based female composers Justine F. Chen and Missy Mazzoli. Though both operas take on timeless themes—including love, jealousy and the pursuit of wealth—and are at least partially set in the past, they aim to resonate with modern audiences.

“These works show opera is still living and breathing,” said soprano Kira Neary, a second-year Master of Music student who will perform in Mazzoli’s “Proving Up” on Saturday night. The 2018 piece, which The Washington Post called “a true opera of our time,” is a commentary on the American dream as experienced by the Zegners, a fictional family of 1860s homesteaders.

“Of course, there will always be a certain joy for me in performing works from the 18th and 19th centuries,” Neary said, “but there is something so exciting about a work written by a young, contemporary voice, with a message that is so timely.”

Chen’s “TWA,” commissioned by MOS and composed in collaboration with its singers, was inspired by the historic folk ballad “The Twa Sisters,” which recounts the tale of a girl drowned by her lovesick, jealous sister.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have such a well-established composer write a work for our singers,” said MOS Director Craig Kier. “This is our form of scholarship. This is our form of research. And this is our way of moving the operatic canon forward.”

Chen signed on librettist Jaqueline Goldfinger to create an episodic work in two acts. The first retells the dramatic tale, while the second looks at the story through the present-day lens of social media and internet trolls.

“I want to make opera something that everyone feels is relevant to their lives now,” said Goldfinger. “Canonical works are great works, and they should be performed. But if we’re making something new for today’s audiences, it should reflect their lives. This is really an opera for all.”

Throughout the process, Chen and Goldfinger met with MOS students, individually and as a group. Chen called the singers “fascinating individuals” and said: “I’m so happy to be working with them.”

For first-year Master of Music student Claire Marguerite Iverson, a soprano who will perform in “TWA” as a sister in the present-day, working with Chen and Goldfinger has been unforgettable.

“As singers, we can be left wondering what composers like Mozart intended, but seeing an actual person as they try and understand how they want to tell a story is amazing,” she said. “We’ve seen it come to life in front of our eyes.”

Article by Jessica Weis ’05 for the University of Maryland’s Maryland Today.

Silicon Valley TheatreWorks’ ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ Directed by Jeffrey Lo, is a kick in the plants

Audrey II (voiced by Katrina Lauren McGraw, puppeteered by Brandon Leland, puppet by Matthew McAvene Creations) demands food from Seymour (Phil Wong) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” (photo: Kevin Berne)

Forget the poinsettias and celebrate this holiday season with an Audrey II. Perennial stage favorite “Little Shop of Horrors” is blooming in the Bay Area for a second time this year (Another production was mounted at the Berkeley Playhouse in the spring) at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley), and for good reason.

With its pop-culture savvy book and lyrics by the late gay writer Howard Ashman, a zippy 1950s pastiche score by Alan Menken and an off-kilter monster movie-meets-“Sesame Street” scenario adapted from Roger Corman’s grindhouse classic, “Little Shop” offers family-friendly entertainment (Let’s say for ages 10 and up) with a full stratum of funny subterranean dirt for adults to dig while the kids remain oblivious.

Chief among the musical’s adult pleasures is the sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello, played here to puffed up perfection by Nick Nakashima. Under the wise direction of Jeffrey Lo, he combines the looming but cartoonish physical presence of a parade float with an endlessly elastic repertoire of facial expressions to simultaneously portray and undermine his potentially problematic character. (Orin physically and psychologically abuses shop girl Audrey, played by Sumi Yu, who effectively conveys a growing confidence as the show progresses).

Late in the second act, Nakashima nearly steals the show altogether, unexpectedly popping up in three smaller roles —one of which is female— in rapid succession. But complete larceny is impossible given the wealth of talent on stage here.

In addition to Yu, whose comic sweetness feels entirely natural, Phil Wong turns in a deliciously self-conscious Seymour, keeping you on his side even when his dorkyness turns to darkness; and the Motown Greek chorus of Ronette, Chiffon and Crystal (Lucca Troutman, Alia Hodge and Naima Alakham) aces their giggle-inducing blend of choreographic slinkiness and editorial side-eye.

Audrey (Sumi Yu), Seymour (Phil Wong), and Mr. Mushnik (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) investigate an unusual plant (puppet by Matthew McAvene Creations) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” (photo: Kevin Berne)  

If Ashman and Menken, who also wrote the lyrics and music for Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” are role models for teamwork, their standard is lived up to by this production’s puppetry crew. Matthew McAvenue Creations’ design, Brandon Leland’s remarkably expressive manipulation and Katrina Lauren McGraw’s disco diva vocals combine to give Audrey II, the man-eating plant, an alluring vegetal vavoom.

As Mr. Mushnik, Seymour and Audrey’s boss, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias’ turns in another yet another laugh-out-loud performance. He takes a character usually played with the exaggerated shtetl schmaltz of a downtown Tevye and instead pushes the caricature full-on Filipino, complete with thick accent (Think: “Ip I were a rich man!”).

Director Lo’s decision to make this switch from “Oy!” to Pinoy, trading one comic stereotype for another, feels clever given Arias’ background, and inoffensive given the show’s broad brush humor (The character’s name remains Mushnik; Wong’s Chinese-American Seymour’s similarly semitic surname is “Krelborn”).

Unfortunately, in marketing this otherwise top-notch production, Lo and TheatreWorks have effortfully stressed the fact that they’ve set their “Little Shop” in San Francisco’s Chinatown and cast mainly AAPI actors. It’s great to see representation, but other than a bit of set-dressing —a tail-wagging cat clock, a mural of Bruce Lee, Chinese characters on store signage— the shift feels largely irrelevant otherwise.

There’s a little rainbow flag by the cash register and a photo of Harvey Milk (next to a headshot of former SF Giants’ Tim Lincecum) pinned to the flower shop wall; a nice little bit of queer and local representation on stage, yes. But is there any deep meaning? Might Mushnik be growing pansies? I noticed these clever details without a press release extolling their virtues.

“Little Shop” is a smart, silly comedy. TheaterWorks’ noise about its version subtly addressing issues including Chinatown gentrification and domestic violence in the Asian-American community feels overstated and unattractively opportunistic. There’s a theater marketing strategist who deserves a meeting with Audrey II.

‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ through Dec. 24. $30-$100. Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. (877) 662-8978 www.theatreworks.org

Article by Jim Gladstone for The Bay Area Reporter

‘The Wiz’ Aims for Broadway After a U.S. Tour

Schele Williams will direct and JaQuel Knight is choreographing a new production of the show, with additional material by Amber Ruffin. It will start its tour in Baltimore.

From left, Nipsey Russell as Tinman, Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as Scarecrow filming “The Wiz” in 1977. A new production of the musical will have a pre-Broadway national tour next year.

The Tony Award-winning musical “The Wiz” will be landing on Broadway for a limited run in the spring of 2024, after a national tour next year, producers announced on Thursday. The tour will start in Baltimore, where the musical made its original debut.

“The Wiz,” inspired by L. Frank Baum’s children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” had an all-Black cast, and premiered on Broadway in 1975. It netted seven Tonys, including best musical.

For the director of this reimagined “The Wiz,” Schele Williams, the work is personal. “I wouldn’t be on Broadway if it wasn’t for ‘The Wiz,’” Williams said in a statement, adding, “Seeing that show changed my life.”

Williams is a founding member of Black Theater United and serves on the board of trustees for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. This will be the first time she has directed a show on Broadway; she previously served as an associate director on the Broadway production of “Motown: The Musical,” and she performed on Broadway in “Aida” and “Rent.”

This version of the musical is choreographed by JaQuel Knight and contains musical arrangements, music supervision and orchestrations by Joseph Joubert. It will also feature additional material by Amber Ruffin, and the original Tony-winning score by Charlie Smalls.

The original show ran for four years and had 1,672 performances on Broadway. In 1978, a film adaptation included stars like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Richard Pryor and Lena Horne.

Article by Khalia Richardson for the New York Times.

Review: THE HELLO GIRLS at Phoenix Theatre Company

Michelle Chin, Rosemarie Chandler,
Gabrielle Smith, Bonnie Beus Romney,
and Carmiña Garey

Photo by Reg Madison Photography

Similar to recent films like Hidden Figures, which helped shed light on the virtually unknown stories of how women were involved in important historical events, the musical The Hello Girls introduces us to Grace Barker, the woman who led a group of skilled female switchboard operators serving in the U.S. Army in France during the final battles of World War I. It’s a superb new musical that focuses on this remarkable woman and the dozens of others who were some of the first to break the “glass ceiling” of serving in the Army, even though they barely got any recognition for their efforts. The Phoenix Theatre Company is presenting the regional premiere in a smashing production with a wonderful cast, rich creative elements, and excellent direction, resulting in a moving theatrical experience.

The story focuses on Barker and four of the women who worked for her. Their story is set in motion when General John J. Pershing issues a request for female switchboard operators who are fluent in both English and French to serve in the Army in order to more quickly field calls from the base in Chaumont, France. More than 5000 women applied and 223 served, managing millions of calls during their time. They were dubbed “the hello girls,” a reference to the way they answered the calls: “Hello, how may I connect your call?” Barker was chosen to head up this new division, which was overseen by Captain Riser, the somewhat misogynistic and “by the book” Army man who was assigned to interview and hire the group of women and who often doubted their abilities and didn’t think they should be as close as they were to the enemy lines. The struggle for Barker and the other “girls” to be seen as equals, and to prove they are just as loyal, smart, and patriotic as the men in the Army, is the main focus of the plot. There is also an epilogue that gives facts about the characters after the war and shows how it took years for the women to get the recognition they deserved.

The show premiered in 2018 at Prospect Theater Company, where founders Peter Mills and Cara Reichel were also the show’s creators, with both writing the show’s book, Mills writing the music and lyrics, and Reichel directing. The well-crafted book provides plenty of character development for Barker, the four other “girls,” Riser, and Pershing, and Mills’ score is rich and evocative with witty lyrics and wonderful rhymes in a range of musical styles. Reichel repeats directing duties for the Phoenix Theatre production with fluid movement and layered character portrayals from the wonderful cast.

Grace, played by Rosemarie Chandler, is a force of constant determination, although sometimes she finds herself doubting or second guessing her own abilities. Fortunately, her friend and former co-worker Suzanne is a sounding board and confidante, and Gabrielle Smith exhibits a beautiful amount of strength in that role. Michelle Chin is appropriately innocent and slightly confused as Helen, who hadn’t left her Idaho farm before joining the Army; Carmiña Garey is feisty and fun as the French-born Louise, the 18-year-old who lies about her age so she is able to join; and Bonnie Beus Romney is Bertha, the older, married member of the group who exhibits poise and grace under pressure even though her husband is off fighting the war.

While Riser is the antagonist of the piece, Mills and Reichel’s script beautifully depicts him as a conflicted man and Teddy Ladley does a wonderful job portraying the many layers of Riser. As General Pershing, Scott Wakefield, who created the role in the Prospect Theater production, exhibits a layer of fatherly charm that adds poignancy to the show under a steely military exterior. Alex Crossland, Keiji Ishiguri, and Kevin Robert White portray numerous other characters with ease, with Crossland’s portrayal of the soldier who takes a shine to Suzanne especially heartwarming.

With the exception of just a few instruments, the majority of the cast also double as the orchestra and they are all adept musicians under White’s music direction. Many even play numerous instruments throughout. Reichel’s musical staging exhibits tight choreography as the actors trade off instruments and move set pieces around on Douglas Clarke’s beautiful multi-layer wood set. Clarke uses a mass of cords that evoke telephone wires doubling as a screen for the beautiful projections by Dallas Nichols, which incorporate archival pictures and video to help depict the period and various settings. The choreography by Molly Lajoie is bright, fun, and well danced by the cast. Daniel Davisson’s lighting paints the stage in beautiful images, including a fairly realistic portrayal of a fire, and the costumes by Cari Sue Smith are a wonderful combination of period pieces and modern street clothes used for the modern-day period framing device which helps provide a connection between the past and the present.

The Hello Girls is a refreshing and rewarding musical that sheds light on these unknown women. It’s both a patriotic musical and a lesson in feminism as it honors the first women soldiers in the U.S. Army. It’s also a rich, rousing and enjoyable piece of theater and an eye-opening history lesson.

The Hello Girls runs through January 30, 2022, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, visit phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151.

Music and Lyrics by Peter Mills; Book by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel
Director/Musical Staging: Cara Reichel
Choreographer: Molly Lajoie
Musical Director: Kevin Robert White
Assistant Director: Elise Palma
Dialect and Language Coach: Pasha Yamotahari
Scenic Designer: Douglas Clarke
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Video Designer: Dallas Nichols
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Costume Designer: Cari Sue Smith
Hair + Makeup Designer: Shelby Joiner
Properties Master: Sarah Harris br> Director of Production: Karla Frederick
Stage Manager: Michelle Elias*
Assistant Stage Manager: Maylea Bauers*
Covid Safety Manager: Tatiana Trujillo
Company Manager/Assoc. Production Manager: Tyler Welden

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Grace Banker: Rosemarie Chandler*
Helen Hill/Dance Captain: Michelle Chin*
Pvt. Eugene Matterson/Others: Alex Crossland
Agnes Coleman: Alicia Ferrin
Louise LeBreton: Carmiña Garey
Pvt. Robert Dempsey/Others: Keiji Ishiguri
Cpt. Joseph Riser: Teddy Ladley
Bertha Hunt: Bonnie Beus Romney
Suzanne Prevot: Gabrielle Smith*
General John Pershing: Scott Wakefield*
Lt. Ernest Wessen/Others: Kevin Robert White*

*Members of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.

This review is by Gil Benbrook for Talkin’ Broadway.