Tag Archives: Phoenix Theatre

“I Am Van Gogh”

Plenty of people have toured the “Van Gogh Alive” exhibition that’s running through June 17 at the Arizona Science Center, but reactions to the multi-media presentation of Van Gogh’s work and words vary. I stood in a single spot for a very long time, reading Van Gogh quotes projected onto an otherwise blank wall. Pasha Yamotahari recalls heading for a corner — looking at the silhouettes of people lingering in front of towering screens featuring rotating images of Van Gogh paintings and related fare. Yamotahari says he was struck by “people standing frozen in time with something timeless.” And then it hit him.

“Hey,” he recalls thinking to himself. “I wrote something about Van Gogh some time ago.” The exhibit conjured memories of a screenplay written about eight years ago when Yamotahari was studying theatre, film and television at Scottsdale Community College. It was about a little’s boy first museum experience, which included an unexpected encounter with one of Van Gogh’s paintings. He pictured Van Gogh coming alive to interact with the boy, but felt at the time that staging such a thing would be rather tricky. Hence the choice to write it as a screenplay.

But times are changing in theater world, as new technologies make all sorts of things more doable. Yamotahari knows this better than most as a member of the artistic staff for Phoenix Theatre, where he’s been known to wear lots of hats. He holds both an AAFA in theatre arts and film/TV from SCC and a BA in journalism from ASU’s Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix — but his talents also include directing, dramaturgy and more.

For years he’s been part of bringing Phoenix Theatre’s “Hormel New Works Festival” to life. But this year, he’s adding another hat — presenting a sit-down reading of his own full-length play called “I Am Van Gogh.” It’s an adaptation of his earlier screenplay reworked after that “Aha!” moment at the Arizona Science Center. His is one of two sit-down readings that’s free and open to the public.

Playwright Pasha Yamotahari still treasures this book his mother gave him

Yamotahari’s mother gave him a book during high school that contained letters written by Van Gogh. Yamotahari remembers reading it — fascinated that someone so gifted achieved success only after his death and curious about why so few people recognized Van Gogh’s greatness when the artist was alive. Nowadays it gives him pause to consider what counts as true greatness in the arts, to wonder about the ways we define success and to live with the ambiguity of never really knowing where one’s devotion to art might lead.

“I Am Van Gogh” runs about two hours and features four actors playing close to 20 characters. The play imagines a young son of devout parents who’s magically taken inside a painting where he meets Van Gogh. The artist tells the boy it’s his destiny to be the next Van Gogh, something complicated by the fact that 8-year-old Marc is simply “not that good at painting.”

Yamotahari was born in Iran but his family fled to France around the time of the Iranian Revolution, later moving to Toronto. Play goers meet Marc as an eight year old because that’s the age when Yamotahari first saw a Van Gogh work at a small gallery in Nice. Also because children develop rich memories around that age. Yamotahari notes that Marc “sees Van Gogh throughout his life pushing him.” Marc finds his destiny, but it’s not without sacrifice.

Knowing that Van Gogh is on most short lists of artists who lived with mental illness, I asked Yamotahari whether he’d integrated the issue into the play. Yamotahari notes that the more he worked with the protagonists, the more he realized that some artists feel the only way to truly reach art is to lose their mind. He describes it as “putting themselves in a constant state of pseudo-insanity.” Sometimes it’s merely an artist’s “obsession with a piece that gets misconstrued as mental illness.”

Though we don’t have works of Van Gogh here in the Valley, Yamotahari’s been able to study the artist’s works online via the “Google Art Project” featuring artworks from 17 of the world’s great art museums. Yamotahari recalls reading the words of Van Gogh, which felt fluid early on but changed somehow as if madness was brewing — especially near the end of Van Gogh’s life.

Yamotahari says he’s fondest of Van Gogh works depicting cornfields, and thinks it’s “cool to zoom in and see those brush strokes.” If you look closely enough, says Yamotahari, you’ll see mistakes — even moments of rage and passion. The playwright wants those who see “I Am Van Gogh” to wonder about the difference between destiny and free will. But don’t expect easy answers. Yamotahari hopes the play will “evoke ambiguity and mystery.”

— Lynn

Note: The 2012 “Hormel New Works Festival” takes place July 8-22. Click here to explore selections and learn about a related art contest. Click here to explore the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Coming up: Art meets asylum, James Garcia talks playwriting and social justice, Drawing a diary

Monday, Monday

The house was full of baby boomers Sunday afternoon as Phoenix Theatre presented an updated version of the work they debuted in 2007 — a “nearly true story of the Mamas & Papas” dubbed “Dream a Little Dream.” It explores the intertwined and sometimes twisted personal and professional lives of four musicians — John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Mama Cass. It’s directed and choreographed by Michael Barnard.

The work originated as a monologue performance by Doherty, first performed in Nova Scotia during 1996. It was directed by Paul Ledoux, who now shares the bookwriting credit with Doherty. Seeing Doherty’s take made me long for a version akin to the movie “Vantage Point” — which considers events from the perspectives of several folks close to the scene of a crime.

Explore the life and times of The Mamas & The Papas through May 27 at Phoenix Theatre

The Phoenix Theatre cast includes two actors from their previous production of “Dream a Little Dream” — Alisa Schiff-Warner (Mama Cass) and Michael Sample (John Phillips). Evan Siegel (Denny Doherty) and Tori Anderson (Michelle Phillips) are new to Phoenix Theatre. All four are members of Actor’s Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the U.S.

Behind all the groovy tunes (and sometimes within them), there was plenty of “Sturm und Drang.” Sexual liaisons. Drug use. Lousy choices in matters big and small. It made me think the show should be required viewing for high schoolers who assume too often that all those hippie years were laced with magic rather than mayhem. The show’s final scenes are especially bittersweet, and touching even to those who already know how the story ends.

“Dream a Little Dream” features dozens of songs, so fans of The Mamas & The Papas get a good fix. My personal favorites during the show included “500 Miles” and “Monday, Monday.” Also “San Francisco,” sung by Sam Sherwood (Scott McKenzie) in front of vintage footage from the “City on the Bay” and “Dream a Little Dream” featuring soulful, bluesy vocals by Kimball.

Much of the show’s humor stems from vignettes with fellow famous folk like John Lennon (Sam Sherwood) and Ed Sullivan (Beau Heckman). Its greatest visual appeal is lighting (Mike Eddy) with a psychedelic vibe and costumes (Connie Furr-Soloman) equally lush in pattern and color. Dark set elements apparently painted to make a glow in the dark effect possible were a bit off-putting.

I’d have preferred a cleaner palette for the show’s other design elements — and wish the live band’s sound hadn’t been somewhat muted by its placement behind the show’s backdrop. Still, it’s a fun bit of musical theater meets memory lane. Haul out your go-go boots and all things fringe. Then take a spin back in time, grateful if you’re old enough to have both lived through and survived the ’60s.

— Lynn

Note: Phoenix Theatre performs “Dream a Little Dream” through May 27 — click here for show and ticket information. Click here to read more about the life and times of The Mamas & The Papas in a Vanity Fair piece titled “California Dreamgirl” by Sheila Weller .

Coming up: Mark Lewis talks Beatles tribute “RAIN”

Before there was the Web

The cast of Cookie Company's "Charlotte's Web" preparing to meet and greet young fans after a Sunday afternoon performance in Scottsdale

Before there was the Web, which makes it possible for people to click themselves in and out of friendships, there was a tale of true friendship called “Charlotte’s Web.” No mouse needed for that baby, though a rat named Templeton does fall into the fray. He’s one of many character living on a farm where a pig named Wilbur makes friends with a spider named Charlotte. Theirs is a tale of mutual support and sacrifice, first penned by author E.B. White, and adapted through the years for live theater performance.

Phoenix Theatre’s Cookie Company is presenting “Charlotte’s Web” in Scottsdale through April 29 — so you’ve just one more weekend to enjoy the show. It’s being performed at Greasepaint Youtheatre, where my son used to tag along when his sisters were in shows a decade or so ago. He joined me for the Sunday performance of “Charlotte’s Web,” which made for a lovely bit of remembering. When my children were little, theater outings were a fun way to explore the world, meet other families and start conversations about things that truly matter.

“Charlotte’s Web” a la Cookie Company is bright, bold and cheerful — like the set that features a big red barn and a beautiful backdrop painted with full trees, floating clouds and rolling hillsides. The little girl, Fern, who works so hard to assure that Wilbur won’t wind up on the menu, sports orange tights and tulle under a whimsical dress that matches her spunky personality. Snaps for scenic designer Robert Kovach, and costume designer Gail Wolfenden-Steib.

Also director Pasha Yamotahari, who makes a tale told countless times feel truly fresh. Young theater goers let out gaggles of giggles as farm animals worked together to save Wilbur from a frying pan fate. Every actor gave a skilled, energetic performance that seemed to reach right out into the audience. But I especially loved the goose (Nathalie Cadieux)/gander (Kim Manning) pairing. One rocked a French vibe while the other channeled Spanish-American performer Charro — making the show plenty fun for adults in the crowd.

Come next season, Cookie Company will return to performing on the Phoenix Theatre mainstage campus, where exciting renovations are currently underway. Phoenix Theatre Family is presenting three Cookie Company productions for the 2012-2013 season — including “Peacemaker” (both fall and spring), “Quiltmaker’s Gift” (Nov/Dec) and “Hanky and Girlo” (March/April). Children enjoy milk and cookies, and get to meet costumed cast members, after every show. Naturally, I made sure my son snagged a cookie after Sunday’s  performance. For old time’s sake.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about Cookie Company and Phoenix Theatre offerings, which include school shows, summer camps, new theater works, mainstage shows and more.

Coming up: Hormel is coming (don’t tell Wilbur)

Resurrecting a rock opera

The current revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a sort of fourth coming for me. I’ve seen three previous productions of the classic rock opera featuring music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice — starting as a tween who first fell in love with the concept album, then saw a touring production of the show many years later in California.

For a time, I lived and died by the record that felt like my generation’s version of Green Day’s “American Idiot.” Listening to the double album, with its mottled dirt-colored cover and gold logo depicting a pair of angels, felt like an act of supreme rebellion. I remember opening the folded album cover atop my bed, pouring over the matching booklet and kneeling nearly prayer-like on the floor while singing along to songs like “What’s the Buzz?” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

My daughter Lizabeth, who performs this weekend in the Pace Performing Arts production of “Our Lady of 121st Street” at the Lion Theatre on NYC’s famed 42nd Street, has joined me for two national touring productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” performed at ASU Gammage in Tempe.

She admits to being too young to truly understand “Jesus Christ Superstar” the first time around, but I remember thinking at the time that I wanted her to experience the music that’d meant so much to me during a similar age and stage. Some things — like Springsteen concerts and favorite Broadway musicals — are important to share with our children along the journey.

During my last trip to NYC, we saw a preview of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” directed by Des McAnuff (think “Jersey Boys“) — which has since officially opened at the Neil Simon Theatre. Lizabeth shared after the show that it was the first time she really understood the full measure of the story, based loosely on the last seven days of Jesus’ life.

Though some see blasphemy in the musical’s broad strokes, it’s clearly educating a whole new generation about geopolitical and religious issues of Jesus’ day. For kids not raised with Bible in hand, it’s as close as they may ever come to considering Jesus’ life and times — to witnessing a work within the “passion play” tradition.

Those who’ve suggested the current revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a tad over the top may have preferred tamer takes featuring Ted Neely as Jesus — but we’re not among them. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival production –performed at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego before heading to Broadway — is bolder by far, and much better for it. I loved “The Book of Mormon,” but can’t say that I adore “Jesus Christ Superstar” any less. God has been good to Broadway of late.

I spent much of “Jesus Christ Superstar” fighting the urge to get up and dance. Nobody wants their mom to have the musical theater equivalent of a “come to Jesus” moment in public, so I settled for a swift bit of toe-tapping and a silent sing-along in my head. This resurrection of “Superstar” is fresh, fabulous and fun. No apologies needed.

The “Jesus Christ Superstar” cast includes Paul Nolan (Jesus), Josh Young (Judas), Chilina Kennedy (Mary Magdalene), Tom Hewitt (Pontius Pilate) and Bruce Dow (King Herod). Also Marcus Nance (Caiaphas) and Aaron Walpole (Annas). Nick Cartell (Jonah/Swing) grew up in Arizona, where he performed with Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix Theatre and more. Liz tells me he’s already rocked the role of Judas in understudy mode.

The creative team includes Andrew Lloyd Webber (composer), Tim Rice (lyricist), Des McAnuff (director), Lisa Shriver (choreographer), Rick Fox (music director), Robert Brill (set design), Paul Tazewell (costume design) and Howell Binkley (lighting design). Also Steve Canyon Kennedy (sound design), Sean Nieuwenhuis (video design), Daniel Levinson (fight director), Simon Fox (stunt coordinator) and John Miller (music coordinator).

It’s about time we had a “Superstar” laced with sensitivity and sass. Think sets featuring tall metal bleachers and a giant ticker counting down Jesus’ final days. Costumes in lush fabrics saturated with rich color or earthy materials muted with feminizing tones. Choreography with tent-revival fervor. And layers of glorious orchestration with a hint of folk fare. All bring modern scale to an ancient tale — making “Jesus Christ Superstar” a resurrection well worth the wait.

— Lynn

Coming up: “Rock of Ages” on Valley stages

Photos courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Get out, get art!

After hitting just a single night of this year’s “Phoenix Film Festival,” I’m giving serious thought to running away from home. Not forever. Just through next Thursday when the festival comes to a close. With so many amazing offerings, it seems silly to drive back and forth from theater to laundry room and such.

All sorts of things caught my eye on this weekend’s festival schedule — including a free “Kids’ Day” for families presented by IFP Phoenix from 9am-2pm on Sat, March 31 (where you can also see three family films for just $5 each — including “Chimpanzee” from Disney at 1:05pm).

Also high school shorts, college shorts, animated shorts, a silent auction, a preview of Phoenix Comicon 2012 and plenty of live performance art by folks from Scorpius Dance Theatre to Carol Pacey & the Honey Shakers. Even workshops on topics like “Casting Indies” and “Life as an Indie Actor.”

A film titled “Kerry and Angie” that’s part of a Saturday morning “Arizona Showcase” is directed by Amanda Melby, head coach and owner at Verve Studios in Scottsdale — one of many performing arts groups to participate in this year’s RAK Camp Fair. Folks who attend the Actors Theatre production of “Body Awareness” at the Herberger Theater Center will get to see Melby in action.

Those seeking more family-friendly fare have another great option in the “Children’s Day & Kite Festival” taking place Sat, March 31 from 10am-3pm at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix — which features martial arts, games, food, face painting and other activities. Families are invited to wear kimonos and bring a kite along (or make kites during the festival). Best they not offer kimono-making. I would only embarrass myself.

Fans of Rodgers & Hammerstein can enjoy a double dose of musical theater this weekend as Greasepaint Youtheatre performs “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” and The Phoenix Symphony performs “An Evening with Rodgers & Hammerstein” (don’t let the name “fool” you — Sunday’s show is actually a matinee). The latter is a collaboration with Phoenix Theatre featuring direction by Michael Barnard and a collection of vocalists that bears a startling resemblance to my list of favorite people.

Your last chance to see the Scottsdale Community College production of “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson is Sat, March 31 at 2pm and 7:30pm — and I happen to know first hand that at least one of the show’s young actors is cuter than the dickens. If acting is hereditary, she’s also rocking her role.

— Lynn

Note: Family-friendly activities are always available in print and online calendars from Raising Arizona Kids magazine.

Coming up: Two of the most imporant hours of my life

From Phoenix to Broadway

Hometown boy Nick Cartell, a swing for the Broadway production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” opening this week at the Neil Simon Theatre in NYC, moved from Michigan to Phoenix at just six months old — where he lived until completing a BA in theatre performance at ASU in Tempe.

Cartell was a member of the Phoenix Boys Choir from third through fifth grade, and describes the experience as “the beginning of my training.” Back then, he was a boy soprano. Today he’s a high tenor, and one of several actors prepared to take over should a male cast member be unable to perform for some reason.

Nick Cartell performs in "The Sound of Music" during Valley Youth Theatre's 1998-99 season.

Between boys choir and Broadway, there were performances with several local theater companies. Cartell’s last show with Valley Youth Theatre (“West Side Story”) overlapped with his first show with Phoenix Theatre (“Man of La Mancha”), so the transition from youth to adult theater felt seamless. But it was three years performing with Disney in Tokyo that made the leap to Broadway feel natural. “If I can make it in Tokyo,” thought Cartell, “I can do a big city like New York.” Before landing the Broadway gig, he did several Off-Broadway productions.

We assume too often that someone who can sing, dance and act will nail every audition. Or think that being a great performer is enough. Not so, says Cartell. Auditioning is a skill, just like acting, that has to be honed. “I wish more schools would teach it,” reflects Cartell — who also shares that NYC is full of folks who can sing, act and dance. Making it requires something more — like hard work, preparation, ongoing training and a desire to improve at every juncture.

Teens interested in musical theater careers should get all the voice, dance and acting training they can, says Cartell, who notes that plenty of community-based options exist for those who can’t afford one-on-one vocal coaching and such. “Keep learning and working to get better,” urges Cartell. Sitting too pretty in pride over past accomplishments won’t set you apart in settings like Broadway that are filled with talented folk.

For some, it’s tough to balance training/performing demands with schoolwork and other responsibilities. But Cartell says he rarely struggled with such things. He knew what he wanted and he worked like the dickens to get it all done. Meeting and shaking hands with one of his musical theater idols, Andrew Lloyd Webber (composer for “Jesus Christ Superstar”), was one of many moments when it all paid off.

Cartell heard last October that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” would be heading to Broadway, and spotted the Actors Equity audition posting in late December. Auditions began one January day at 9:30am, and several hundred people showed up. Cartell arrived at 7am, and ended up being the first to audition that day — singing Journey’s “Open Arms” for musical director Rick Fox and the casting director.

A series of callbacks followed, each requiring that Cartell learn and perform more material. As I interviewed Cartell in a diner near the Neil Simon Theatre, he gleefully recounted each step in the process — recalling, along with wife Christie Bettes Cartell, the exact date and time of each. Dance callback — Jan. 30 at 3pm. Final callback — Jan. 31 at 1pm — before director Des McAnuff, choreographer Lisa Shriver and two others.

Cartell recalls choosing an order for the songs he’d been asked to prepare in case he was told to just run with it. Instead, they asked first for the most difficult piece — “Gethsemane.” Cartell felt afterwards that he’d given the best audition of his life. There was nothing more he could do. It was in the show’s hands. By 3pm the call came in. He was chosen for the role of swing. A formal offer followed on Feb. 1, and he began rehearsing Feb. 9 for his first preview on March 9.

Cartell admits that it all feels a bit “surreal” at this point, adding that he’s “so proud to be part of this show.” Cartell notes that the “Jesus Christ Superstar” story is appealing “regardless of what you believe” — suggesting that most are familiar with the story, and empathize with the challenges faced by Jesus the man.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” focuses on the last seven days of Jesus’ life, so key players include Judas, Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate, King Herod and others. But there’s something new in this production, according to Cartell, who says there’s a bit of a love triangle vibe between Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene. Seems there’s magnetism between both men and Mary, and perhaps both men as well.

When I asked Cartell to share audition tips with young actors back home, he first recounted a piece of advice received as an 18 year old fresh out of high school — Listen to soundtracks. “Sing along,” Cartell suggests, “but find your own voice with it.”  The advice, by the way, came from Matt Bogart — then performing the role of Chris in “Miss Saigon,” and now performing the role of Nick across the street from Cartell in “Jersey Boys” at the August Wilson Theatre.

Sometimes the gig goes not to the best performer in the room, but to the one with the most passion. “If you connect with what you are singing, even if you are not the best singer, they will go on that journey with you.” Auditions start before you ever begin to sing, says Cartell. It’s also about how you handle yourself in the room — and even the hallway where you’re waiting to be called. “You never know,” shares Christie, “who the monitor is.”

Have your music cut correctly, adds Cartell. You may only get 8 or 16 bars, so prepare your music accordingly. Nobody wants to fuss over your music at the piano. Stay in shape, recommends Cartell, because musical theater requires plenty of stamina. “Get into dance, acting classes — anything and everything.” Do voice lessons too if you can swing it financially. Time spent learning tap, jazz, ballet and theater makes you more marketable, says Cartell. At the end of the day, adds Cartell, it’s a business.

Previews for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which had a San Diego run before heading from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to Broadway, end March 21 — and the show officially opens March 22. If you’ve been toying with making the trip from Phoenix to Broadway, consider getting tickets to “Jesus Christ Superstar” so you can support our hometown talent. Who knows, it might be your own child making the journey from Phoenix to Broadway one day.

— Lynn

Note: Spring performing arts classes at VYT start Sat, March 24. Click here to explore both weekday and weekend options.

Coming up: More adventures with VYT alumni, A way with words, Quilting for a cause, Art contest for kids

The swing and I

Little did we know, when Lizabeth performed with Nick Cartell in "The King and I" more than a decade ago, that we'd one day witness his Broadway debut in "Jesus Christ Superstar," currently in previews at the Neil Simon Theatre

My daughter Lizabeth performed more than a decade ago in a Greasepaint Youtheatre production of “The King and I.” So did Nick Cartell, now a swing with the Broadway revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” currently in previews at the Neil Simon Theatre. If an actor who performs the role of Jesus, Judas or Annas (or one of ten ensemble tracks) can’t go onstage for any reason, Cartell is among those ready to run with it.

Cartell graciously invited Lizabeth and I to join him for a bite to eat before Wednesday night’s show, and we were delighted that his wife Christie joined us as well. Seems they met several years ago while living in Japan. Cartell performed for Disney in Japan for three years, and Christie quips that she was “friends with lots of the princesses.” Each shines, but together they sparkle.

Cartell graciously answered all sorts of questions between bites of burger sans bun, raw veggies and cottage cheese. Best to be buff when working on Broadway, and this show in particular. Heaven forbid the call might come to don a loincloth when you’ve more flab than abs. Not something Cartell needs to fret, but his work ethic is admirable.

Stay in shape. Continue acting training. Seize opportunities to learn more. Honor fellow performers. Be grateful for the chance to do what you love. And remember those who helped along the way. For Cartell, it’s family, friends and a pair of Arizona directors — Bobb Cooper, producing artistic director for Valley Youth Theatre and Michael Barnard, artistic director for Phoenix Theatre.

We saw a preview performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” Wednesday night after Cartell made his way from burger to backstage, and he graciously treated us to a backstage tour after the show — where it became clear just how much gets accomplished in small pockets of space. Everyone we met who had anything at all to do with the show was incredibly generous in spirit.

We can’t share a formal review because “Jesus Christ Superstar” is still in previews, but I don’t see the harm in simply telling you that we both loved it big time. I’ve seen four different productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” since my teens, and this is my favorite by far for all sorts of reasons I’ll happily share after reviewers have a chance to see the show post-previews and give their opinions. Lizabeth is already talking about seeing the show again, but I suppose it’ll be James’ turn to tag along next time.

Cartell’s on-stage time is relatively brief, but it’s delightful all the same. His heart is clearly in it — really in it. And his smile lights up the theater as cast members take their bows. When the Arizona heat feels too much to bear, just head for the bright lights of Broadway. Cartell will surely be there.

— Lynn

Note: I’ll be sharing more of Cartell’s journey to Broadway in future posts, plus his insights for young actors on things like training and auditioning — and his thoughts about trends in Broadway theater.

Coming up: NYC museum adventures, Building a better portrait