New York Musical Theatre Festival 2013 – July 8th-28th
Bend in the Road and Castle Walk
By Joel Benjamin
In a summer of umpteen theater festivals in New York City, some of the most sought-after tickets were for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Every sophisticated theater-goer wanted to be there at the birth of a new hit musical. Two shows, though not perfect, had promise. Bend in the Road (an Anne of Green Gables-inspired show) and Castle Walk (about Irene Castle’s battle to keep RKO honest) were professional, entertaining and well-constructed.
Bend in the Road, written by Benita Scheckel (book & lyrics) and Michael Upward (music & lyrics), spins out Lucy Maud Montgomery’s world-famous novel, Anne of Green Gables, the book that put the little town of Avonlea, Prince Edward Island, Canada on the perpetual tourist map. For those who treasure this lovely novel, it’s good that there is not an iota of updating or “concept.” Bend hews closely to the original storyline and period, its creators choosing only the most theatrical incidents to dramatize and set to music, very skillfully. The plot: fifteen-year-old Anne Shirley is adopted by the middle-aged brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert of the titular farm and her life changes just as she changes the lives of all who know her. That’s pretty much it.
Using little more than a moveable picket fence, some lawn-like green carpeting, a few chairs and tables (scenery by Lauren Helpern) and fine rear projections suggesting places in Avonlea (by Andrew Lazarow), the turn of the 20th century period was effectively re-created. The extraordinary costumes by David Kaley were also invaluable in communicating place, time and character.
The plot was brought along by very effective and occasionally quite beautiful songs, many of which had a striking, but happy, kinship with the work of Stephen Schwartz. The dramatic high points of the story involved Anne’s unintentionally getting her best pal, Diana drunk and Anne being accused of stealing a piece of jewelry. The real drama occurred only in undercurrents of quotidian bickering and whispered secrets of lost love, so it’s important that the score would fill in the gaps and fill out the emotional subtext. Songs like the opening, full company “A Home for Me,” tells both of Anne’s yearnings and of the daily life of the people in her adopted town of Avonlea. She finds a best friend in “Walk Like Sisters” and gets to the heart of her relationship with her adopted father, Matthew in “Trouble is Trouble.” The title anthem, “Bend in the Road,” which sums up the gentle plot threads, is followed by an anthem version of “Walk Like Sisters.”
The performances were all on a high level, with particularly wonderful character work from Martin Vidnovic as the kind, yet vexed Matthew; Anne Kanengeiser as his hard to convince, but ultimately won over sister Marilla; Maureen Silliman as the hard-edged Rachel Lynde with a still-waters-run-deep secret; and Rachel Weintraub as Minnie Mae who managed to make her 180 degree change viable after Anne saves her life. The younger actors made the most of their sweetly naïve roles. CJ Pawlikowski was an ardent and steady Gilbert, the fellow who eventually woos Anne. Whitney Winfield was particularly lovely as Anne’s best friend, Diana. Ms. Winfield even managed to evoke some full-bodied sensuality beneath all the banter.
As the precociously literate Anne, Alison Woods caught the wide-eyed wonder of the character and managed to keep her more saccharine qualities muted. She was a convincing center of attention.
Bend in the Road may eventually appeal mainly to a younger audience, but it is a true family show which will keep even the most jaded adult involved.
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Castle Walk, a musical with definite appeal to sophisticates and neophytes alike, on the other hand, may have one major problem: are there enough people interested in Irene Castle’s story, however fascinatingly dramatized, to attract an audience? As written by Milton Granger (book, music and lyrics) the story of Irene and her husband/partner Vernon is turned into both a grand Hollywood story and an intimate look at the casualties of fame. As personified by the inimitable Lynne Wintersteller, Irene becomes an almost tragic figure, given multi-dimensions and a total physicality by Ms. Wintersteller. Mr. Granger takes the story of Irene Castle being hired by H.C. (Henry) Potter of RKO to be an adviser on the production of the Astaire/Rogers musical biopic, “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” and spins it into a lovely meditation on fame, aging and the crassness of the film industry.
As famously told in Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s Book, Irene Castle was taken on as an expert in the making of what was supposed to be the story of her fabulous career with her husband, Vernon who died in World War One. She became a pain in the butt to the director, the producer, the stars and to anyone who would listen in her vain attempt to make RKO’s portrayal stick to the truth in every single detail from the color of the shoe buckles to the color of her best friend and companion, Walter Ash who was a Black man but was portrayed by, in the actual film,Walter Brennan, a fine actor, but white. In the most moving song of the evening, “Forever,” Irene proclaims the reason for her unreasonableness. The movie portrayal of the Castle’s lives, she realizes, will be the one that will be around forever whether it is the truth or not. She finally, sadly, has to contend with the realities of the film industry of the 1930s in which a Black man cannot possibly be a white woman’s best friend and the length of Ginger Roger’s bob is totally up to that star’s whims. This song, as well as two others, “Pills” and “The Oscar” were worth the price of admission. The first is a humorous and witty account of the chemical dependencies—and the reasons for them—in high stress Hollywood. The second is Ginger Roger’s divinely superficial take on the role of Irene Castle as an Oscar worthy gambol (and gamble!). With just a little tweaking, these three songs could be used to great effect in cabaret acts for years to come.
Other songs range from the plaintive “Where is Spring” to the lovely “She Dances Like an Angel” (Vernon’s attempt to buck up a young Irene’s spirits) to the joyous “Let’s Go Around the Town,” a light-hearted polka. The director Richard Stafford’s choreography barely evoked the glamour of the period, but his direction kept the plot moving efficiently.
This production also depended on rear projections (designed by Gertjan Houben) to create the time period, show bits of film from the Castle’s heyday and change the backdrop. Other than a few elegant chairs and some office furniture, that was the set. The costumes by Loren Shaw didn’t quite rival RKO, but were perfectly adequate.
This brings up a basic problem in reproducing Hollywood on stage. It’s difficult not only to approximate the richness of the period, but to portray these real life personalities. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made appearances as portrayed by Chris Kane and Lauren Sprague who worked hard to convince. The other characters aren’t as well known so that James Clow, as the much put-upon RKO executive, was a study in contained anger. Bret Shuford as Vernon was not particularly full-bodied, but he was intended as a memory. As the good-natured RKO secretary Diane, Mia Michelle McClain kept her dignity. As the bone-of-contention Black friend, Walter, Wayne W. Pretlow was the calm center of the story whose memory Irene continually stirred up.
This was Lynne Wintersteller’s show and she was as amazing as always. She has found the perfect role for a woman her age and stature.
Mr. Granger might want to re-think Castle Walk, focusing more on Irene Castle with the rest of the characters more ephemeral and suggested. However, with sharper choreography, more glamorous surroundings and more concentration on the leading lady, Castle Walk just may work.
The New York Musical Theatre Festival (July 8th-28th)
Bend in the Road and Castle Walk
PTC Performance Space
555 West 42nd St.
New York, NY
Information about Next Season’s NYMF: www.NYMF.org or 212-352-3101