Tag Archives: Karen Ziemba

Prince of Broadway –Looking Back at a Long, Successful Career

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Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Chuck Cooper, Tony Yazbeck. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

Follies, Evita, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, Cabaret – the list is endless of shows that Hal Prince either directed or produced or both.

So a Broadway show that includes scenes from all these should be terrific. Right? Unfortunately, while Prince of Broadway has many delightful moments, the sum of its parts doesn’t add up to a hit show.

Why is hard to determine. Certainly the cast of the Manhattan Theater Club production (now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Oct 22) includes top notch musical theater talent – Tony Yazbeck, Brandon Uranowitz, Emily Skinner, Karen Ziemba and more.

Yet this evening that uses Prince’s biography to string together scenes from both hit and flop shows, only sometimes catches fire.

The show gets off to a slow start. The overture, arranged by composer Jason Robert Brown lists 17 songs as being included, yet somehow it was hard to identify many of them. It seemed as only phrase or two was included.

Throughout the show, various cast members, each speaking as if he or she were Hal Prince, detail parts of his biography. It opens with some bio and then just a snitch of the first show he was involved in – The Pajama Game.  We hear a few bars of “Hey, There” but we see no-one. From there were are on to a well sung, but somehow lifeless rendition of “Heart” from Damn Yankees.

 The show begins to gather some momentum with West Side Story, the first show Prince produced; at that point chronology goes out the window. Why the remainder of the show is organized the way it is, is a mystery. It seems relatively random.

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Janet Dacal Photo by Matthew Murphy

So what are the highlights?  Each member of the nine person cast has moments that are terrific.  Kaley Ann Voorhees is a luminous Maria in “Tonight” from West Side Story and Janet Dacal is hilarious doing “You’ve Got Possibilities “ from It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman. She’s also a very good Eva Peron and Aurora (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Byronha Marie Parkham does her best work as Amalia in She Loves Me with “Will He Like Me?”

 Tony Yazbeck once again demonstrates not only his exceptional dance talent, but also his strong voice. He’s Tony in West Side Story, Che in Evita, and with a nod to Jason Robert Brown, Leo in Parade. Since I had never seen nor heard the entire show, his rendition of “It’s Not Over Yet” was a highlight for me. It is an exceptionally moving song. But the extended dance number in Follies, while well executed doesn’t seem to have a purpose beyond showing off his skills.

Once again, I was delighted with the performance of Brandon Uranowitz,as the Emcee in Cabaret, George in She Loves Me and Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Chuck Cooper scored with songs from Showboat and as Sweeny Todd, though his Tevye was not as good.

Michael Xavier has followed up his performance as Joe in the recent Sunset Boulevard with some excellent work as the Phantom, Bobby in Company and Fredrik in A Little Night Music.

 The first act closing number, a series of songs from Cabaret was terrific. Not only was Brandon Uranowitz is excellent as the Emcee but Karen Ziemba gave us two characters – the gorilla in “If You Could See Her” and a touching Fraulien Schneider is “So What?” Her performance as Mrs. Lovett in “The Worst Pies in London” was a highlight of the second act. These are two roles I hope some director casts Ziemba in very soon.

Emily Skinner’s best number is“The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company; her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is very good but not outstanding.

Certainly the production values are excellent. Beowulf Boritt (scenic and production

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Emily Skinner. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

design) and William Ivey Long (costume design) have handled the huge task for recreating moods for these diverse shows in different periods and location with finesse. As has Howell Binnkley with the lighting design.

Susan Stroman is credited as both choreographer and co-director with Prince himself.

Although I just wish that Prince of Broadway had somehow caught fire more than did, it is still a very enjoyable evening in the theater – revisiting favorite musicals or discovering some new ones.

It is at the Manhattan Theater Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

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Tony Yazbeck, Kaley Ann Voorhees. Photo by Matthew Murphy

 

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“Kid Victory” – New Musical by Kander & Pierce Will Move You

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Brandon Flynn and Jeffry Denman. Photo by Carol Rosseg

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Brandon Flynn and Karen Ziemba. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 What is it with musicals about teenage boys?

With Dear Evan Hansen garnering rave reviews first Off-Broadway and now on Broadway, a new musical about a teenage boy has opened at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theater.

Kid Victory is the latest collaboration between John Kander and Greg Pierce. Previously the Vineyard had produced The Landing, their first collaboration: three one-act musicals.

After a career working mainly with Fred Ebb, Kander has taken a new partner and in addition to the two already produced shows, they are working on two more.

Kid Victory is about Luke, a teen in a small town in Kansas, living in what is obviously a conservative Christian household; the mother refers to their church as “the fellowship.”

In a brief introductory scene, we see Luke shackled in a basement; then we are in the family home. Mom (Karen Ziemba) is hovering and has invited members of the fellowship to welcome Luke “home.” Luke however wants no part of it. He is obviously uncomfortable even in the family surroundings and by the thought of interacting with others.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn what has happened. Luke was missing for almost a year, abducted by a man he met through an internet game site devoted to yacht racing. His screen name was Kid Victory.

Mom wants to pretend that nothing has happened when “he was away” – which Luke rightly points out sounds as if he were on an extended vacation. She wants life to go back to normal; that he should immediately resume high school, go back to “the fellowship” and resume his friendship with Suze. She doesn’t recognize that he has become a different person. His dad seems to alternate between silently looking concerned and assuring his wife that all will be OK but to back off.

Instead of returning to school for the remainder of the year, he gets a job at a local, small garden shop (Wicker Witch of the North) run by the town eccentric.

uring the course of the one-act musical which runs about 110 minutes, we learn more about Michael, his abductor, who was a history teacher and about their life together. As in many such situations, it varied unpredictably between kindness, affection and abuse.

I found a lot to like in this show.

Let’s start with the music. Kander has not lost his touch; this show is filled with songs that reflect the range of emotions and situations. The lyrics by Pierce help us know the characters. I’d love a recording of the show.

Then we can look to the cast. Brandon Flynn is terrific as the teenage Luke. He projects the nervous energy, the lack of ease that Luke finds back home and the emotions. His feelings about Michael are conflicted. He is ill-at-ease except when working at the garden shop with Emily.

It seems as though the adults are all letting him down; he feels his father can’t look him in the eye; his mother denies the past; Michael both helped and hurt him; the police detective accuses him of withholding information, and even Emily who has been so supportive ultimately disappoints him.

Jeffry Denman is outstanding as Michael, the abductor. He switches from friendly to threatening in a second. Denman’s performance blends the two, so that you are constantly off-balance.

As the mother, Karen Ziemba is so good you want to shake her; to tell her to back off and give her son room and time to readjust to life at home. The moment late in the play when Luke tells her and his father of visiting the home, is chilling as you see her reaction.

But the rest of the cast is equally good: Daniel Jenkins as the father who has more understanding and sympathy than he seems at first and Joe Blum, Ann Arvia and Blake Zolfo as play the members of the fellowship and other characters

Liesl Tommy has directed the show with a sure hand, never over-doing either the terror or the pathos. Christopher Windom has choreographed the show.  Clifford Ramos has managed to combine all the settings – the shop, the basement and the home in a seamless whole, though never letting you forget about the basement.

Kid Victory is a musical that should have a life after the Vineyard Theatre. I walked out moved, disturbed and yet strangely optimistic.

I’ll await the next developments of this show; and look forward to hearing the score again.

Kid Victory is at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street through March 19. Tickets are available at Ovation Tix.

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Brandon Flynn and Dee Roscioli. Photo by Carol Rosegg

 

Is Greed Still Good? Long Wharf’s “Other People’s Money” Explores Corporate Raiders

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Jordon Lage and Liv Rooth. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner now at Long Wharf Theatre through December 18, is a play that has always been schizophrenic. Does it want to be a romantic comedy with a bit of cynicism thrown in OR does it want to be a hard-hitting play about our current economic/business environment?

It tries to have it all, but doesn’t quite succeed, not even in this excellent production directed by Marc Bruni.The play was written in the late 1980s and had its first major production at Hartford Stage, later it had a successful run off-Broadway and was made into a film.

Other People’s Money is about corporate raiders, small town values and the economic costs to our country of greed. When it was written by Sterner (who was in finance/Wall Street), theater and film goers were seeing Wall Street where George Gecko proclaimed the virtue of greed, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross showed the cut-throat world of the boiler room salesman, and people were reading Tom Wolfe’s novel, Bonfires of the Vanities.

The play is about a wire and cable factory in a small Rhode Island town. The family run business – led by Jorgey as its chairman – has been in business for years serving as the leader of the local economy. Times have been tough yet the company has hung on though not really making money.  One day, the president of the company, Coles, notes that the stock has had unusually high trading volumes and the price is climbing. He is instantly suspicious though Jorgey just thinks it is because people are recognizing its value.

Soon the corporate raider/takeover specialist, Garfinkle is arriving to point out that the company’s assets and subsidiary businesses are worth millions. As weeks go by Garfinkle continues to buy up stock and soon owns a substantial percentage.

Coles and the audience soon realize what Garfinkle’s plan will be: gain enough stock to convince others to cede control to him; he will sell off assets, possibly keep the profitable parts and shut down the plant.

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Karen Ziemba, Edward James Hyland, Jordan Lage. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

But Jorgey is an old-fashioned business man, a pillar in the community, who cannot recognize what is happening. When he finally listens to advice, he will not do what needs to be done to protect his company and workers.

His longtime assistant, Bea (who is also the love of his life though they both were married to others) convinces her daughter, Kate to help out. She’s a high powered lawyer who works in merger and acquisitions. Battling Garfinkle is something she jumps at but is frustrated by Jorgey’s reluctance to take action.

Lots of corporate financial terms get bounced around – golden parachutes, poison pills and more. Also there is a lot of sexual talk. Garfinkle’s conversation is crass and vulgar to the extreme and Kate isn’t above using her looks and the same in return.

Yes, a plan is developed to try to save the company but I won’t spoil the ending.

Bruni has directed a fine cast. The play is narrated in part by the company president Coles played by Steve Routman. Should we be shocked that some point he is willing to sell out in order to look after his own goals?  In fact, most of the characters are less than heroic, with the possible exception of Bea, Kate’s mother and Jorgey’s assistant who will do whatever she can for the man she loves.

But while Kate tries to save the company, she too has one eye on the prize of what defeating Garfinkle would do for her career. Even Jorgey is not a totally heroic figure; his unwillingness to understand the current economic/corporate world leads to his problems.

Lee Savage has created a fine two-tiered set with Garfinkle’s shiny modern office in the back and the more homespun factory office in front. Even the paint is peeling. Anita Yavich has also delineated the differences between these two worlds in the costumes for Kate and Garfinkle – NYC polished but provocative—and Coles, Bea and Jorgey – more middle class conservative.

The cast is fine. Steve Routman’s Coles seems all professional and honest yet we early are on are shown his self-interest;  at least initially you feel sympathetic for him. Edwards James Hyland gives us a Jorgey (everyone calls him that though his name is Jorgenson) is the downhome business man straight out of a Sinclair Lewis novel. He’s stubborn, honest and has bought him to the conventional values.  Karen Ziemba’s Bea is the motherly type. Her scenes with Kate have a harder edge and you really want to know more of the backstory between Bea, her husband and Jorgey.

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Steve  Routman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Liv Rooth gives us a Kate who is ambitious and realistic. She is the stereotyped Wall Street lawyer. Rooth’s Kate seems to enjoy the game with Garfinkle, but accepts the outcome too earily.

As Garfinkle, Jordan Lage is all greed and testosterone. He truly could be called “the snake.”

The problem with Other People’s Money isn’t the cast or the directing; it is that you leave the theater not depressed that nothing has changed but feeling slightly dirty from the humor and the ideas.

Other People’s Money is at Long Wharf Theatre through Dec. 18. For tickets, contact Long Wharf

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Jordan Lagee, Edward James Hyland, Steve Routman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Karen Ziemba Is Terrific as Mama Rose at Sharon Playhouse

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Karen Ziemba. Photo by Randy O’Rourke

By Karen Isaacs

 Let’s all salute Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba who is showing her range as Mama Rose in Gypsy at Sharon Playhouse through July 3.

It is an old-fashioned summer theater in the far northwest corner of Connecticut near both the Massachusetts and New York borders.  It’s a pleasant summertime drive, about 90 minutes from the New Haven area.

The Playhouse follows the older format for summer theater: bring in a veteran performer who may or may not have box office draw, surround him or her with a couple of other professionals, and then fill out the cast with aspiring performers who may also be apprentices and help with scenery, box office, concessions, etc.

Broadway aficionados know Karen Ziemba for her consistently fine work. She has won a Tony and multiple other awards for her performances in Contact, Curtains, Never Gonna Dance, And the World Goes ‘Round, Steel Pier and others.

Now she is taking on one of the great female roles in musical theater: Mama Rose. While her performance is very good, I have no doubt that as the run progresses (it runs through July 3), her performance will deepen and become even better. After all, there was only two weeks of rehearsal.

She gives us a Rose who doesn’t belt as much as Merman though her vocal chops are excellent, but she does add more femininity and flirtatiousness than Merman did. She makes obvious that Rose is making up for what is lacking in her own life with her determination to make her children stars, even if they don’t want to be them. She needs them to succeed or rather she needs to succeed in making them stars. The line between her and her children is very blurred.

“Rose’s Turn” is the big eleven o’clock number where Rose finally recognizes some truths about herself. It has to be a challenge to perform that emotionally and vocally difficult number after close to three hours of performing. Ziemba does well by it, but again, I suspect as she settles in to the role, it will become truly a tour de force.

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Photo by Randy O’Rourke

The two main supporting roles: Herbie and Louise (Gypsy) are played by Rufus Collins and Kyra Kennedy. Both are solid professionals but neither bring anything special to the roles. Collins’ Herbie just seems too glum; even at the curtain call, he did not smile.  Kennedy is very good in the scenes as the teenage tomboyish Louise; but her strip routine as she moves from scared novice to star lacks pizzazz and star power. You never believe her.

The other members of the cast vary from quite good to adequate.  Julia Hemp is very good as June and I enjoyed Emily Soell in the two roles of Miss Cratchitt and Electra. In the latter, she really played well with the audience.

The sets – there are many of them – costumes (ditto) and lighting were all good.

One complaint I had – and I overheard audience members at intermission expressing the same one – was the sound system. I do not know exactly what the problems were. One, it was often way too loud; this is a relatively small theater and it was loud enough to amplify a 500+ seat theater. Also, higher pitched voices sounded screetchy. This was particularly a problem for Julia Hemp as June.  I saw audience members putting hands over their ears.

The show was directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford. The pace needed to be picked up; as I was watching this show that most view as one of the top ten musicals, I realized that some songs could easily be cut, and that the scenes seem to have a similar format: set up with some short dialogue followed by a song. I’ve seen numerous productions and never found myself with such thoughts.

Gypsy is worth seeing for Karen Ziemba’s performance. I look forward to seeing her do the role again as I am certain it will continue to develop.

Gypsy is at Sharon Playhouse, Sharon, CT. through July 3. For tickets or information, call 860-364-7469 or visit sharonplayhouse.org.

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Karen Ziemba and Rufus Collins. Photo by Randy O’Rourke

 

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