Haskell Fitz-Simons, the longtime artistic director of Raleigh Little Theatre, died last night at UNC Hospitals following a lengthy battle with lymphoma. He was 64. The Chapel Hill native had served as a director at the prominent Raleigh community theater for 30 years, joining the company in 1983. Before that, Fitz-Simons had been a drama and speech instructor at University of Wisconsin at Superior. His theatrical resume included work with the Light Opera of Manhattan, an apprenticeship at the Alley Theatre in Houston, and seasons with the Manteo, N.C., outdoor drama The Lost Colony. Fitz-Simons earned his MFA in theater from UNC Chapel Hill in 1979.
“His death was so sudden and unexpected,” RLT executive director Charles Phaneuf said this morning.
“From the outpouring of support, it's clear that his legacy is not only about the fact that he directed so many shows for us and was here for so many years. People today are talking about the spirit of Haskell, his mentorship, and how many lives he touched.”
Fitz-Simons came to the stage from a theatrical family. As a child, he performed with other family members in summer productions of Unto These Hills, the Cherokee, N.C., outdoor drama. His parents also had a hand in notable early productions by Raleigh Little Theatre. In 1936, his mother, born Marion Tatum, directed RLT's second production, the African-American drama Heaven Bound; Fitz-Simons would later direct her in a 1984 RLT production of Deathtrap. His father, Foster, was a novelist, a dancer who worked with modern dance choreographer Ted Shawn, and an actor who performed at RLT in the 1940s and taught at UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Dramatic Art.
Fitz-Simons’ last production for the company was a December 2012 restaging of the company's holiday classic, Cinderella. He also directed The Rocky Horror Show in August and The 39 Steps in October.
Funeral and memorial service arrangements are incomplete.
Musical theater fans can be quite rigid in their tastes, and even more so once they’ve reached a certain age. Take this tart little number, whom I encountered the other night in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Mere moments from the opening curtain, he was already griping to me about the long-term decline of the American musical—and at a North Carolina Theatre show, no less: They’re too disappointing. Too long. And then there are those productions—you know, the ones where the cast comes out into the audience: “God. I didn’t pay $100,” he snarked, “to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears.”
“You know,” he groused, “there was a time when people sat in darkened theatres and thought to themselves, ‘What have George and Ira got for me tonight?’ Or ‘Can Cole Porter pull it off again?’”
“Can you imagine? Now, it’s ‘Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?’”
(What can I say? People have always felt that they can just open up to me.)
But this little-too-lonesome character wasn’t some crank on a night pass from assisted living in North Raleigh. The man in the chair was actually our host. (His name? Man in Chair.) And as the central figure in the musical THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, he not only ushered us into his all-time favorite night at the theater, dropping the needle on a phonograph to share the soundtrack by its original cast with us. He then proceeded to lead us on a guided personal tour of it as well, repeatedly interrupting the playback with his annotations on the careers of the performers, the mechanics of the show—and almost anything else that came to mind as the record spun. As obsessive musical theater fans will sometimes do.
And, as also sometimes happens, that musical, which becomes the play within this play, takes over and remakes his rather gray little flat into the dynamic stage of an all-singing, all-dancing (and definitely all-mugging) spectacular which supposedly bowled them over on Broadway in 1928.
Its characters may or may not be the kind of folks they used to warn some of us about back on the farm.
But PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT is most definitely the kind of show they warned me about in grad school.
“Beware of spectacle,” one theater teacher said. “Sure, it’s flashy. And it’s undeniably effective—in the short term.
"But as the audience acclimates to it, it takes greater and greater dosages just to have the same effect.”
The professor paused. “Ultimately, it’s unsustainable—and the crash is something wicked.”
That’s precisely the case for this 2006 musical, adapted from the 1994 Stephan Elliott film starring Terrence Stamp, Hugo Weaving (a half-decade before he became Agent Smith in The Matrix), and a pre-Memento Guy Pearce. It took five years for Priscilla to make it to New York—a clear sign of early difficulties. Once it got there, it ran for a little over a year on Broadway, in 2011. Ultimately though, it turns out to be significant that, during that run, Priscilla took only one Tony Award—for costumes.
It all starts so innocently, as ensemble and designers simultaneously embody and poke fun at the campy excesses of the golden age of disco and big city drag shows in the mid-1980s. But by the middle of the first act, Priscilla begins to look and feel as if it’s been hijacked at gunpoint by costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner.
Universes, the Bronx-based performance troupe that fuses spoken word, song, rhythm and theater, epitomizes the concept of arts-as-multidisciplinary. The performers who comprise Universes—all of whom are persons of color—serve as storytellers and poets and music-makers. They're also social critics who aim to give voice to the silenced. And, for the most part, they succeed in doing so without being too heavy-handed. That’s no easy feat.
Their newest piece, Spring Training, currently has its world premiere at PRC2 in Chapel Hill. Commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and PlayMakers Repertory Company as part of their Rite of Spring at 100 project, a centennial celebration of Stravinsky’s revolutionary composition, the members of Universes were given free rein to adapt The Rite of Spring in any manner they chose. The result is less an adaptation or a recreation of Rite than an entirely new piece incorporating Rite as one thematic ingredient. In culinary terms, Universes uses Stravinsky to season Spring Training, but doesn't let Stravinsky be the dominant flavor.
That’s not to say you can't taste Rite in the work, which features Universes’ company members Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William “Ninja” Ruiz, Steven Sapp and Gamal Chasten under direction by Chay Yew. The opening and closing song of Spring Training, a soulful evocation of the struggles of everyday life, melodically mirrors the familiar, haunting bassoon at the beginning of Stravinsky’s composition. But here, the music gives way to Bobby McFerrin-esque rhythmic beatboxing and shadows of James Brown and Marvin Gaye.
Then begin the stories: poignant, heartbreaking and sometimes funny tales of suffering and, yes, the rites of passage young people must go through—the spring training of our lives we endure before confronting the even greater challenges of adulthood.
Duke Theater Studies
Sheafer Lab Theater
closed April 14
Young Jean Lee’s LEAR has a similar feel to it, with one marked exception: In this case, the parents are never coming home—not after King Lear and Gloucester, the fathers of the quintet we ultimately see on stage, have both been stripped of all power and banished to the storm, presumably to their deaths in this interpretation.
In the absence of such gods, the children in this bizarre redraft have already turned quite feral. The varying mixtures of mania, malice—and panic—in their eyes suggest kids who’ve gotten permanently lost while playing hide and seek in grownup’s bodies. Their impulsivity and increasingly radical swings in mood and focus speak to characters who’ve only just discovered that their games now have no frontiers, no exit—and no end.
So far, so interesting. In Young’s vision, the refinements of a ruling class have gradually crossed over into opulence and psychosis, if not mutation. Those dynamics are fully realized in a trio of performances director Jody McAuliffe has crafted with actors Jazmine Noble as Goneril, Madeleine Roberts as Regan, and particularly Faye Goodwin as Cordelia. In Sonya Drum’s costumes and the equally skillful (but uncredited) wigs and makeup, the daughters’ almost—but not quite—flawless skin and hair recalls the exquisite porcelain horrors of painter Ray Caesar, and more than hints at the madness and corruption underneath.
I love it when a theater review heralds the arrival of a new artist or a new work of art.
Sorry, but this isn’t one of those. Instead, we have more of a report from the road that director / adaptor / designer Chip Rodgers is currently exploring. His certainly audacious—and, at times, extremely frustrating—new adaptation of the ancient Greek drama ELEKTRA, whose workshop production runs through Sunday at Meredith College’s studio theater, is a work that can only be said to be in process. Still, presently, it’s headed in a most interesting direction.
We find in its torturous discourse an examination and critique of a psychologically land-locked age that should look hauntingly familiar to present-day audiences. Its inhabitants remain preoccupied with a search for true meaning and emotional and ethical authenticity, while being perpetually distracted by contingency and plagued by indecision and self-doubt. At several points, the modern language the work is housed in recalls the conversationalisms novelist Don DeLillo uses to indict the glib, reductive and facile grasp his modern characters have when it comes to contemporary dilemmas.
But, as also happens with DeLillo, Rodgers’ characters wind up talking past each other an awful lot—so much so, in fact, that the trait veers from the merely irritating, well into the theatrically problematic.
It's clear that this young, alternative-theater triple-threat, who impressed in last spring’s atmospheric staging of Hungry at Meredith, is on the trail of big, generational issues. Unfortunately, it’s just as clear that a number of fundamental script, character and performance-oriented questions haven’t yet been solved in this still-developing work.
But the series—known as “mommy porn” by some—catapulted to fame thanks to the power of word-of-mouth and the thrill of the transgressive. For many readers, the tale of the sadomasochistic relationship between young Anastasia Steele and sexy millionaire Christian Grey was their first foray into smutty literature.
To date, the Fifty Shades series has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide, setting the record for the fastest-selling paperback of all time. (Yes, outpacing even Harry Potter—sex sells.) As is to be expected for any best-selling cultural phenomenon, there’s already a Fifty Shades of Grey movie in the works.
And now, thanks to efforts by members of Chicago-based improv company Baby Wants Candy, there’s even a musical based on the trilogy. 50 Shades! The Musical made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, continued on to previews in Chicago and New York—and is now playing in Raleigh as the first stop on its national tour.
“Times have changed,” croons dazzling nightclub star Reno Sweeney in the title song of Anything Goes. “The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today.”
Maybe so, but the touring production of this Broadway revival shows that some good things have staying power. This comic tale of romance and madcap hijinks aboard a luxury liner originally opened on Broadway in 1934, starring the legendary Ethel Merman as Sweeney. Nearly 80 years later, Cole Porter’s delicious songs set against an updated book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman still add up to an escapist delight.
Do take the term “updated book” with a grain of salt. The show remains old-fashioned, featuring groan-worthy one-liners and a mostly nonsensical plot about Billy Crocker (Josh Franklin), a young financier who sneaks aboard a London-bound cruiser to pursue a lovely but betrothed debutante, Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke).
Also on board are Moonface Martin (Fred Applegate, who played The Producers’ Max Bialystock on Broadway), a charismatic gangster disguised as a priest; his tarty sidekick, Erma (Joyce Chittick); Hope’s very British and very wealthy fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (a hysterical Edward Staudenmayer); and the brassy, big-voiced evangelist-turned-showgirl Reno (a show-stealing Rachel York).
“I wanted to scream,” Byrne recalls when she received news of the agreement at the end of last week. “[My agent] was excited, everyone was so excited, and so pleased by the deal, which was considerable.”
Crown signed what Byrne characterized as a six-figure deal for the North American publication rights in a pre-emptive contract for the book, buying it before it went to auction with other publishers. As a result, she now joins a group whose roster of writers is capped by the likes of Rachel Maddow, Martha Stewart, George W. Bush and Michelle and Barack Obama.
The Girl in the Road, some 98,000 words long in manuscript form, traces the harrowing twin journeys of two women forced to flee their homes in different times in the near future. The first, Meena, is a Brahmin-caste student whose odyssey takes her from the coastal city of Mumbai toward Djibouti across a futuristic but treacherous bridge that spans the Arabian Sea. The second, Mariama, escapes from slavery as a small child in Mauritania, joining a caravan heading across Saharan Africa toward Ethiopia.
The novel took five years to write, Byrne says, and was completed during a research trip to Belize at the end of last year. Its purchase came three weeks after she acquired representation with the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, a New York firm specializing in literary fiction and politically oriented nonfiction. Its clients include Barbara Kingsolver, Adrienne Rich, Dorothy Allison and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The development follows Byrne’s successes as a playwright on local stages over the last two years. After she appeared in productions of Fistful of Love and REDGHOST with Durham’s Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, artistic director Jay O’Berski directed Byrne’s dark comedy Nightwork for Manbites Dog Theater in 2011. Last April, Little Green Pig commissioned and produced What Every Girl Should Know, a speculative historical drama inspired by the work of Margaret Sanger. The company has commissioned a new work for their 2013—14 season. A subsequent drama, The Pentaeon, was selected for the 2012 Collider New Play Project, a collaboration between Fermilab and Fox Valley Repertory Theater in Illinois.
Byrne is currently at work on her second novel.
Sir Andrew’s work may be found in three of the seven new shows announced at DPAC’s SunTrust Broadway Preview Event on Friday, specifically the touring version of the recently-closed revival of Evita, the 2011 West End musical version of The Wizard of Oz film with new songs by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and a whole concert featuring songs from Lloyd Webber’s extensive oeuvre, including The Phantom of the Opera and Cats.
If you’re not a Lloyd Webber fan and you hold season tickets for DPAC’s Broadway series, you might be in trouble.
The other new shows are a strange mix. I’m most excited about the touring productions of two recent Tony winners, The Book of Mormon and the minimalist stage adaptation of the film Once. I’m less enthused by a musical of the Patrick Swayze film Ghost that flopped after 136 performances on Broadway last year, or by a new musical of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, though the Grinch costume shown to us is less trauma-inducing than the Jim Carrey film from a decade back.
Mind you, my cynicism wasn't shared by the DPAC members who swarmed the auditorium on Friday for the announcement (at least 1,200 were present, based on the number of raffle tickets submitted to the event organizers), who cheered loudly at the announcements. One patron told me that he was pleased that the lineup features shows with more “broad appeal,” claiming DPAC’s recent showing of Jekyll and Hyde with American Idol’s Constantine Maroulis was “too dark.")