Many guises of music celebrated in Queens

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The word “music” is rooted in origin to the “muses” — those powerful seductresses that lured and inspired humans with an all-consuming passion of the arts. Music is indeed a mighty force of expression that has many forms and can affect many people in all kinds of ways. It is said that after experiencing the Paris premiere of Auber’s opera “La Muette di portici” with its rousing rebellion chorus, its audience ran into the streets and triggered what became a true revolution. Several years later, Verdi’s music had the same affect on the people of Italy, with a chorus from his opera “Nabucco” becoming the unofficial national anthem to this day.

Certainly we are not triggering rebellion in Queens, but since my initial move to this borough I became increasingly aware of the wide variety of musical outlets — for performers — and offerings — for audiences, enough to satisfy the strongest desires. With the Queens Symphony and the Oratorio Society handling the classical end, community theaters, school groups, and touring groups bring the best of Broadway and popular contemporary music right into our neighborhoods.

Dames at Sea

Queens Theatre in the Park

As a specialist in British literature, focusing on 20th century drama and its influence on American theatre, my interest in musical theater comes from a love of drama. I generally shy away from mindless musicals that have little plot other than a faulty sequence of events that make up a lame excuse for presenting a series of tunes. Strangely enough, “Dames at Sea,” a musical which basically has no discernible, adult plot at all, was the highlight of a music-filled weekend. My friend Bette’s husband and I decided to treat the wives to the professional touring production of this musical currently playing on the main stage at the Queens Theatre in the Park.

Needless to say, I went begrudgingly. But within minutes, the “muse” was working its magic on me. During the first of an endless succession of tap-dancing chorus numbers, I found my foot tapping and heard myself laughing with amazement. The vast amount of professionally trained talent that filled the chorus on that stage — never mind the extremely astute principal performers — was rather staggering. Visions of parents driving eager youngsters to countless dance and singing lessons, paying through the nose for professionally geared training so that these talented sons and daughters could end up touring the country and entertaining the grumpy-old likes of me brought a philosophical smile to my lips.

And when the show was over, I cheered over this mindless concoction of ballads, zesty duets, and dance numbers. As I looked around me the smiles of a completely enchanted audience blossomed in all directions. It is not my goal, as a reviewer of community theaters, to plug professional shows or performers. That’s what professional theatrical management is all about. However, as an outlet for Queens audiences, I must note that this production is a bonbon not to be missed. With productions continuing this weekend (Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.), you might want to take advantage of this bargain at only $28. And while you are there, take advantage of the promotional material in the lobby announcing the wide assortment of productions that are coming to this unique theater.

Queens Theatre in the Park is located in Flushing Meadows Park, as you approach Shea Stadium off the Grand Central Parkway, with signs to direct you straight to the parking lot. For tickets and information call 718-760-0064.

Hooray for Hollywood

Ozone Park

Talent, so they say, is inborn. The seed is there, but has to be nurtured. I certainly believe that, with such recent juvenile productions as “Bye Bye Birdie” at St. Andrew of Avellino in Flushing, as well as productions of the Learning Space in Holliswood. A neighbor of ours has a quite talented grandchild who attends a parochial school in Ozone Park. I have so often heard about this talented child that I knew eventually I would be asked to attend a school performance.

At long last the day arrived, and I promised that I would come to a performance of “Hooray for Hollywood” at the St. Mary Gate of Heaven School at 104-06 101st Ave. in Ozone Park. Never dreaming that I would include a school production among the pieces in my column, I sat next to the proud grandparents last Saturday — only to be amazed at the talent, sheer energy and boundless joy of these delightful youngsters. No one had to shout from offstage “Smile, Rose” to these kids. They smiled, they sang, they danced, they filled your heart with their spirit. The smiles were infectious, as were the cheers of parents and friends, along with an old fuddy duddy like me. This two-day run, Friday and Saturday night, generated enough good-cheer to last months.

I, for one, have vowed never to dismiss a “school production” as something relegated to grandparents. I heartily recommend that all Queens residents longing for a fun night out at a low, low cost — tickets for this production were only $7 — take a look around at their local schools for upcoming events. And of course, if I learn of any in the future, I’ll shout the word.

Side Man

The Outrageous Fortune Company

Not all tales of music are “musicals,” as in The Outrageous Fortune Company’s current tale of jazz musicians, Warren Leight’s award-winning play “Side Man.” When I heard announcements of this production, I wondered, having been privileged to see a performance of the original run, whether a non-professional group would be able to match a professional production in the level of ugliness or communicate the total devastation brought on by the “muse” of music in its most soul-devouring form, the basis of “Side Man.” But then again, if any group could do it, The Outrageous Fortune Company is the one.

The characters in this gritty, grotesque tale are trapped in a self-absorbed adulation of jazz, or rather the performance of jazz — to the point that their lives exist only to perform jazz, whatever the consequences may be, or whatever drug-induced state may be required to maintain the ability to express. They forsake all the roads of ordinary humans — family, friends, homes — and like true acolytes of the muse — sell their very souls to perform.

I could only imagine that to reach the level of self-absorption the characters in this piece must attain would require total immersion into the script — a “luxury” afforded to professional actors who can spend their entire days in preparation for such a grueling task. No slur intended toward The Outrageous Fortune Company’s cast in terms of professionalism, since — as with many local groups — this company’s productions are so often worthy of professional runs.

And this cast certainly does try to deliver the inferno-like message of this piece. The failed musician/father, the desperate son, the alcoholic mother, the drug-ridden cronies who talk of their hellish devotion to their art as if it was yesterday’s news, are all played well by this cast. And certainly director Jonathan Park is to be commended for attempting to bring this profoundly dark tale to Queens audiences, and putting the talents and reputations of the company on the line. However, like all theater companies, professional or community — the complete success of a production depends so much on its cast.

Truly, all of The Outrageous Fortune Company’s recent offerings walked a dangerous tightrope, great pieces that depended almost entirely on superior actors — assuming, of course, solid production values and direction. For example, what would their recent “The Cripple of Inishmaan” have been with out the superb performances of Jonathan Desley and James Doherty — or their fall offering of “Fuddy Meers” without Adrienne Makowski? Vapor.

Makowski has been part of all three of the recent Outrageous Fortune productions, including the current one, and she truly deserves praise here — as do Scott Clarkson, Ryan Etzel, Michael Fritz, John Geoffrion, Richard Pioreck, and Janet Turner. Moreover, the sets by William Wolf are certainly evocative of the mood of the piece.

But is this production anywhere near as devastating as must be to tell its sordid tale? Perhaps I should leave that up the adventurous theater-goer to find out for him- or herself. This production certainly does deserve the attention of Queens audiences for their efforts. And in that respect, I will certainly recommend this production with a hearty “A” for effort.

For something truly out of the ordinary, something that will tax your faith in your fellow human beings, you certainly might want to catch one of the remaining performances of “Side Man” this coming weekend, Saturday at both 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. The Saturday night performance will have a question-and-answer session with the cast following the performance.

The Outrageous Fortune Company is located at the Studio Theatre at Queens Theatre in the Park, Flushing Meadows, downstairs from where “Dames at Sea” is playing. Tickets are $20 ($18 for seniors), certainly a bargain from the original professional run. For information, call 718-428-2500, Ext. 20.

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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