Tag Archives: musical

‘Beauty and the Beast’ aims to enchant a new generation

In 1991, Disney struck gold with Beauty and the Beast. The film enchanted audiences and critics alike, and raked in several hundred million dollars along the way, but also upended expectations of what an animated film could be.

Not only did the New York Times theater critic controversially call it the best Broadway musical score of the year (spurring an actual Broadway show three years later), it also was the first-ever animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar.

Over a quarter century later, the legacy endures but times have changed, and there’s a new Beauty and the Beast on the block. Out March 17, the film is a lavish live-action reimagining of the “tale as old as time” with state-of-the-art CG splendor, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s classic songs and score (and a few new tunes with Tim Rice), and a modern social consciousness.

The film stars Harry Potter’s Emma Watson as the bookish heroine Belle, who yearns for adventure outside of the confines of her “small provincial town” and Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens as the cursed and cold Beast. Their supporting cast is a coterie of veterans, including Kevin Kline (Maurice), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza) and Ewan McGregor (Lumiere).

That Disney’s specific vision for Beauty and the Beast has lived on is no surprise, and its 13-year run on Broadway helped keep it in the cultural consciousness.

“It’s genuinely romantic, a genuinely beautiful story,” Menken said of its lasting appeal.

And then there’s the nostalgia aspect. For many (including the cast), this was a seminal childhood film.

Luke Evans (Gaston) saw it when he was 12, Josh Gad (LeFou) when he was 10, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette) when she was 8. Suffice it to say, they all knew the lyrics to the songs before they were cast.

The remake is also part of the Walt Disney Company’s ongoing strategy to mine their vaults for animated fare worthy of live-action re-creations. Mulan, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King are just a few already in the works.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t worthy updates to be made in Beauty and the Beast. Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) delighted in rooting the story in a specific time and place — 1740 France — and adorning every last corner of the production with Rococo and Baroque details.

Technology advances allowed the production to render household objects that look believable when brought to life. The Beast’s look, meanwhile, was achieved by combining performance capture and MOVA, a facial capture system, meaning Stevens throughout production walked on stilts and sported a prosthetic muscle suit with a gray body suit on top. (Yes, he danced in this getup).

The characters are more fleshed out as well. The Beast gets a backstory. As does Belle, whose independence looked refreshingly radical in ‘91 and goes even further here.

“She’s a 21st century Disney princess. She’s not just a pretty girl in a dress,” Evans said. “She’s fearless and needs no one to validate her.”

That the woman behind the character is also the UN women’s goodwill ambassador only adds to its resonance.

“I think Emma’s an incredible role model for young girls, as somebody who has two daughters but also has a young son who I want to grow up with these values instilled,” Stevens said.

And, in a tribute to Ashman, who died of complications relating to AIDS at age 40 before the ‘91 film came out, the production even unearthed forgotten lyrics from his notes, which they’ve added to two songs in the new film — Gaston and Beauty and the Beast.

While many of the beats, and even lines, remain the same as in 1991, the world looks more diverse from the very first shots. Faces of all races can be seen both in the grand castle and the country town.

“(Condon) wanted to make a film that was resonant for 2017, that represents the world as it is today,” said Mbatha-Raw.

Much has been made, too, of LeFou’s subtle “gay moment,” which put the internet in a tizzy far ahead of anyone actually seeing the film. On one side, GLAAD was applauding, on the other, a Facebook page apparently belonging to the Henagar Drive-In Theatre in Henagar, Alabama, announced that it would not be showing the film.

Many in the production have backed away from the topic entirely.

“To define LeFou as gay … nobody who sees the movie could define it that way. He’s enthralled with Gaston,” Menken said. “I’m happy that LeFou is getting so much attention. But I pray that this stupid topic goes away because it’s just not relevant with any respect to the story. Even the one moment that’s being discussed is just a silly little wink. It’s nothing.”

For his part, Gad thinks it’s been “overblown,” too, and that the story is more about “inclusiveness” and not judging a book by its cover.

“It’s a story with a lot of wonderful messages, and, really once you watch the film, anyone who is wondering what it’s all about will understand that it’s a beautiful story, inclusive of everyone. It’s a legacy that I’m proud to be part of,” Evans added.

“But you can judge Gaston by his cover,” he said with a smirk. “That’s exactly who he is.”

 ‘La La Land’ is something to sing about

In time for Christmas, there’s the eye-popping, heart-lifting “La La Land,” which honors and modernizes the screen musical to such joyful effect that you might find yourself pirouetting home from the multiplex.

OK, perhaps we exaggerate.

“La La Land,” created by the copiously talented writer/director Damien Chazelle and featuring the dream pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is not for everyone.

Perhaps you don’t like music, or singing, or dancing. Or romance, or love, or beautiful people falling in love. Or sunsets, or primary colors, or pastels. Or stories. Or, heck, the movies themselves.

If you don’t like any of those things, maybe stay home.

Otherwise, be prepared: By the end, something will surely have activated those tear ducts. The one complaint I overheard upon leaving the film was: “I didn’t have enough Kleenex.”

The first obvious gift of “La La Land” is its sheer originality. Let’s start with the music. Unlike in so many other films, nobody else’s hits are used here. The affecting score is by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (also getting kudos for Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen.”)

Our setting is Los Angeles, and so it begins — as it must — on a jammed freeway.

But unlike Michael Douglas in “Falling Down,” the drivers here simply brush off their frustrations, exit their cars, and break into song and dance.

This virtuoso number, “Another Day of Sun,” which was filmed on a freeway interchange with some 100 dancers toiling in sizzling temperatures, establishes Chazelle’s high-flying ambitions. It also tells us we’d darned well better be ready for people to break out into song — because that happens in musicals. And it introduces our main characters.

Sebastian (Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist, with stubborn dreams of opening his own club. Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress, working as a barista while auditioning for TV parts. They clash on the freeway. She gives him the finger.

They have a second bad meeting at a piano bar. Finally they meet a third time, at a party. Suddenly, they find themselves on a bench overlooking the Hollywood Hills at dusk. And then … they dance.

Is it Astaire and Rogers (or Charisse)? Yes and no. Stone and Gosling are charming musical performers, but way less polished and ethereal than their cinematic forbears. This human quality in their first duet makes us root for them.

And we keep on rooting. It’s hard to imagine more perfect casting here. Gosling’s Sebastian is suave and sexy but also ornery and unsure of himself; Stone’s Mia is warm and ebullient but also fretful and self-doubting. They need each other to chase their respective dreams.

But what will success mean, and can they possibly achieve it together? It’s this pillar of the story that lends it a very modern, melancholy bite.

Chazelle, 31, shows his love for cinema with references both sly and overt to classics like “Singin’ In the Rain” and Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”

And then there’s the nod to “Rebel Without a Cause,” with a scene at LA’s Griffith Observatory.

There, at a place built to watch the stars, the two dancing lovers actually lift up into them.

It’s corny, sure, and gorgeous and romantic. As Sebastian says to his sister earlier in the film, “You say ‘romantic’ like it’s a bad word!” In a musical, romantic is NEVER a bad word.

Some people resist musicals because in real life, people never break out into song; they just speak their feelings. To which musical lovers say: “Exactly! And this is why we need musicals.”

Long live the musical. Bring enough Kleenex.

J.K. Rowling’s ‘Potter’ world roars back to life

The pop culture juggernaut of J.K. Rowling’s Potter-mania appeared to be breathing its last gasp when the eighth film in the series, part two of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, made its premiere amid teeming throngs of bittersweet Potter fans in London’s Leicester Square in 2011.

Wands went into their cases. Hogwarts scarves were hung up.

“When Potter finished, I thought that was it,” says producer David Heyman, who oversaw the movie adaptations from the start and has since produced Gravity, Paddington and other films. Director David Yates, who helmed the final four Potter movies, staggered away for a much-needed holiday.

“I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d come back so quickly,” says Yates. “But it was the script that pulled me back in.”

The script was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and it, unlike all the Potter films, was penned by Rowling herself. Based on Rowling’s 2001 book, which was framed as Harry’s Hogwarts textbook, Fantastic Beasts is set in Rowling’s familiar, magical world, but takes place 60 years earlier, in a more adult 1926 New York where wizards and Muggles (called “No-Majs,” as in “no magic,” in America) live in disharmony.

This fall, Rowling’s $7.8 billion film franchise will roar back into life, resurrecting one of the most potent and lucrative big-screen sensations. It’s a two-pronged attack. While Fantastic Beasts is reaching back into the past of Rowling’s Potter world, the two-part West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (only co-written by Rowling) is going into the future. It moves the tale 19 years ahead of where the books left off.

Authorship, timelines and casts may be extending in new directions, but the old obsession is still goblet-of-fire hot. The script of Cursed Child sold 2 million copies in two days.

Big expectations naturally also surround Fantastic Beasts (Nov. 18). For Warner Bros., which has endured sometimes rocky times in the intervening non-Potter years, it’s a happy reunion. In today’s constantly rebooting, ever-sequalizing Hollywood, did you really think Rowling’s world was finished?

“This isn’t Harry Potter. There aren’t Harry Potter characters in this,” says Heyman. “But there is connective tissue. To (Rowling), it’s part of one big story.”

That connective tissue, like a prequel, will grow more pronounced in coming Fantastic Beasts installments, eventually leading close to Harry, himself. A trilogy is planned, with the next chapter going into production next July. Less diehard fans should prepare for some very hardcore nerding-out by Potter fans as they trace illuminating hints in the tale’s history.

Eddie Redmayne stars as the bumbling magizoologist Newt Scamander, the future author of the Hogwarts textbook. Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler and Colin Farrell are among the many supporting roles. The story about escaped magical beasts loose in a city with anti-magic elements, the filmmakers claim, bears contemporary relevance.

“We in a time of great bigotry in America, the UK and around the world,” says Heyman. “This context of the story, while not political with a capital ‘P,’ is relevant in this time. It’s an entertainment but it’s not a hollow entertainment.”

Along with the new cast and the hop across the Atlantic, the biggest change is Rowling’s deeper involvement as screenwriter. She’s also writing the next “Fantastic Beasts” film.

“There were lots of things that inevitably got left behind,” says Yates of forming the Potter films. “In this case, we’re working directly with (Rowling) and the material is pouring out of her.”

“She’s a great writer and a quick study,” says Heyman. “She approached it with incredible humility but at the same time with the confidence of someone with boundless imagination. She wanted to be as good as she possibly could at it.”

Before Broadway, ‘Miss Saigon’ to appear on movie screens

American audiences will get the rare chance to catch a sneak peek of the new Miss Saigon before it opens on Broadway next spring. They just have to go to a movie theater.

A filmed version of the musical’s live 25th-anniversary celebration in London will make its world premiere on some 175 U.S. movie theaters on Sept. 22, some six months before the same production with the same leading actors lands on Broadway.

The show captured the performance at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End in September 2014 and was augmented by close-ups recorded a few months after the show closed there earlier this year.

The same stars — Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer and Eva Noblezada as Kim — are slated to appear when the show opens at the Broadway Theatre in March, but mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh isn’t worried the broadcast will cannibalize fans.

“It encourages business,” he said. “This is the greatest cinematic trailer for a theatrical production that’s ever been produced. I could be wrong, but I defy anybody who loves the show and isn’t bowled over by the film not to want to go.”

Miss Saigon, a tragic Vietnam War love story inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, has songs by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who also wrote Les Miserables.

Mackintosh said he didn’t initially plan for a broadcast version of Miss Saigon, but was persuaded to capture the 25th anniversary of its West End arrival with a dozen cameras. A special finale was added that featured the original stars Jonathan Pryce, Lea Salonga and Simon Bowman — as well as Mackintosh making a surprise appearance.

He considered it one of the top three performances of Miss Saigon in its history. “Beyond just it being a wonderful performance, there was a sense of magic in the air,” he said. (As for Mackintosh himself, “I bounce around like an irrepressible ball.”)

He and his team decided to add documentary footage and fold in close-ups shot later. They reminded viewers it was a live event by not digitally removing the performers’ microphones and layering in shots of the audience going into the theater and their reactions at some scenes.

“What producer in his lifetime gets the chance to do a great show twice with two brilliant companies in two different productions? Not many people have ever had that opportunity,” said Mackintosh.

The final result is presented by Fathom Events, Universal Pictures and Picturehouse Entertainment. American audiences will see the same production from London directed by Laurence Connor and with its two stars. “They’re seeing what they’re going to get,” Mackintosh said.

When the revival finally arrives on Broadway, it will join other Mackintosh-produced works like The Phantom of the Opera and Cats, which returned this summer. (It will have missed his latest revival of Les Miserables, which closes next month after 21/2 years.)

“Thirty years on, to have my four great musicals of that era still firing on all cylinders is amazing,” he said. “I’m as enthusiastic about these great shows now as I was when I helped create them all those decades ago because, to me, they smell as if they’re absolutely freshly minted.”


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Tim Curry, Laverne Cox commit to ‘Rocky Horror’ remake

Tim Curry’s participation in Fox TV’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show helped erode fan resistance to a remake of the 1975 cult film, producer Lou Adler said.

“As you can imagine, when we announced we were doing this there was a tremendous backlash from fans who have been with us for 40 years,” said Adler, who was behind both the big-screen original and the Fox version airing in October.

“That all loosened up,” he said, when Curry signed on to the role of Narrator. The actor played scientist and transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the film.

“You really made the difference,” director-choreographer Kenny Ortega told Curry during a Q&A with TV critics about the project.

“It was a blessing. I loved being there,” Curry replied. Asked how he felt about Frank-N-Furter being his most enduring role, his reply was droll.

“That’s not much I can do about it, really,” he said.

The lovefest resumed when producers discussed the performance of Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) as the new Frank-N-Furter. Cox didn’t participate in the panel.

“She had so much to give to it,” Ortega, also a producer on the project, said of Cox, citing her depth of talent, life experience and “incredible respect” for the movie. He recalled the first day of rehearsal for the cast album, when Cox performed “Sweet, Sweet Transvestite” with Curry, who uses a wheelchair, sitting alongside the pianist.

When she finished, Ortega said, Curry was the first to respond, shouting “bravo!”

There was a note of cynicism introduced, this from reporters who asked why a remake of a beloved film was needed.

Ortega replied that the remake gives an “incredible cast” the opportunity to bring new life to the characters with “vivacity and creativity.”

The stars include Ben Vereen as Dr. Everett Scott, Staz Nair as Rocky, Ryan McCartan as Brad Majors and Victoria Justice as Janet Weiss.

The TV movie, airing Oct. 20, also incorporates the audience-participation element — including costumes and commentary — that ultimately became a staple of the film’s late-night screenings in theaters.

Justice, playing the role filled by Susan Sarandon in the movie, said she’s a longtime “Rocky Horror” fan herself: She saw the film first as a fifth-grader and attended one of those midnight showings, at age 15 and in fishnet stockings and feather boa, with her mom.

“I’d never seen anything like it before in my life,” including the music and the campiness, Justice said, calling the part “a dream come true.”

Joel Grey, now unburdened and emboldened, tells his story

At a cafe the other day, Joel Grey was drawn to an item on the menu that was both confusing and intriguing.

He called over a waiter and asked: “What is this thing? The herbed goat cheese with chili flakes and pomegranate syrup?” The waiter was stumped. “OK, I’m going to take a chance,” said the Tony-and Oscar-winning actor.

Grey, 83, was in high spirits this day, which marked the publication of his memoir, “Master of Ceremonies.” For a performer who hid who he was for decades, Grey is now unburdened and emboldened.  

“Let’s put it this way: I really feel good. But I have been feeling good for a long time. I don’t think I could have written this book if I’d had axes to grind,” he said. “I don’t like that in a book.”

The memoir traces his childhood in Cleveland, his rise as a nightclub performer and his breakthrough both on stage and film as the Emcee with rouged cheeks and cupid’s-bow lips in “Cabaret.”

It also examines his 24-year marriage to actress Jo Wilder and a long internal struggle with his attraction to men, which triggered feelings of self-loathing and proved his mother’s love was not unconditional.

Grey, who loved men and women, tentatively calls himself a “closeted bisexual” but language comes up short: “I never really thought that any of the names were exactly right for me,” he said.

A complex portrait emerges of Grey in black and white. He reveals he’s had a nose job, slept with a stripper, fought with legendary director Bob Fosse and once lugged his dirty laundry on a plane.

“I’m not that good. I’m just like the rest of you,” he said. “Maybe worse.”

Colin Dickerman, the editorial director of the Macmillan division Flatiron Books, which published the 230-page book, said it’s not a tell-all or a collection of funny stories, but an attempt to explore the roots of the man behind some beloved characters.

“He wanted to be as honest as he could be and I think the book really reflects that,” said Dickerman. “It really goes into some personal places and I think does so remaining incredibly respectful to everyone in his life.”

Grey’s story also mirrors the evolution of American entertainment, from vaudeville to nightclubs to Broadway and Hollywood, weaving both his personal and professional lives. It reaches a peak in 1985 when Grey started thinking about coming out while starring in the AIDS play “The Normal Heart.”

The book was written over 2 1/2 years with the help of Rebecca Paley and Grey consulted with his brother and his daughter — “Dirty Dancing” star Jennifer Grey — on parts of the manuscript. He said he was inspired, in part, by reading Andre Agassi’s very honest 2010 memoir “Open: An Autobiography.”

“I didn’t see that I could tell the story of my career and not my life because they were so intertwined. And I also saw myself as maybe an example and maybe, in some small way, helping one person,” he said. “I like that idea.”

Grey writes that he was attracted to boys as early as 8 — one of his first crushes was a 16-year-old bellboy — but being openly gay wasn’t an option. Physical violence and closed doors would have been his life.

“The price was very high,” he said. “There would be no career. Look how long it’s even taken for there to be a few out gay people. In the last 10 years, maybe. The last five, maybe.”

His embrace of his sexuality was also complicated by the fact that he desperately wanted to be a father. “It was something I was meant to do along with acting. However, it was a strange time,” he said. “Now gay people are having babies all over the place.”

Grey has since forgiven his mother, restored cordial relations with his ex-wife and is next focusing on his fifth book of photographs. The parts of his life that were volatile and complicated have gone.

“It seems to have all very much quieted down,” he said with a wry smile. 

New adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ heads to Broadway

Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” — and its now-somewhat sullied hero Atticus Finch — are heading to Broadway in a new adaptation written by Aaron Sorkin.

Producer Scott Rudin said Wednesday the play will land during the 2017-2018 season under the direction of Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher, who is represented on Broadway now with the brilliant revivals of “The King and I” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” No casting was revealed.

Sorkin’s plays include “A Few Good Men” and “The Farnsworth Invention.” He won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which Rudin produced, along with Sorkin’s other films “Steve Jobs” and “Moneyball.”

The book has been made the leap to the stage before, including a 1991 adaptation by Christopher Sergel, which premiered at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. There also was a production in 2013 that had a run at London’s Barbican Theatre with Robert Sean Leonard in the role of Finch, the noble widower and lawyer called upon to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman in Depression-era Alabama. This new version will mark the story’s Broadway debut.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960, introduced Finch, Scout, Boo Radley and other beloved literary characters. The book was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus and has become standard reading in schools and other reading programs, with worldwide sales topping 40 million copies.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and widely praised as a sensitive portrait of racial tension as seen through the eyes of a child in 1930s Alabama, it also has been criticized as sentimental and paternalistic.

Last year saw the publication of Lee’s recently discovered manuscript, “Go Set a Watchman,” described as a first draft of the story that evolved into “Mockingbird.” Critics and readers were startled to find the heroic Atticus of “Mockingbird” disparaging blacks and condemning the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw segregation in public schools.

Locally grown baritone gets villainous in ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Some performing artists find their career path through trial and error, but operatic baritone Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek knows exactly when and where he decided to become a professional singer.

The Milwaukee-born Smith-Kotlarek, who was raised in Neenah, was a voice student at UW-Madison when he saw Madison Opera’s 2007 production of Puccini’s La Boheme. He already knew music would be a part of his life, but when tenor Dinyar Vania, playing Rodolpho, began a particular aria in Act II, it struck a chord with the college senior.

“There is a scene in which Rodolpho tells Mimi how much he loves her and how difficult it will be to leave her,” Smith-Kotlarek remembers. “Puccini’s music hit a high note and the orchestra swelled up underneath to create an incredibly intense moment. I thought, ‘I want to sing like that!’”

Since that time, Smith-Kotlarek has pursued a career in vocal performance that has spanned both opera and musical theater. The 29-year-old singer/actor may have hit his stride this season as the villain Gaston in the current national touring production of Beauty and the Beast. The traveling Broadway show opens at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton for a five-show run Dec. 18-20, then goes to Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts Jan. 13-17 (a different cast not including Smith-Kotlarek will visit Milwaukee in March).

Smith-Kotlarek, who played John Wilkes Booth in Four Seasons Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in Madison this past December, will once again get to test his mettle as the villainous suitor of the Beauty and ultimately battle the Beast for her hand. But this is Disney and true love triumphs, much to Gaston’s dismay, all in the name of an evening of entertaining theater.

“When you include the animated film version, Beauty and the Beast has been around for 24 years and it already has its own traditions,” Smith-Kotlarek says. “That’s long enough to establish a full set of audience expectations.”

Until the fateful performance of La Boheme, Smith-Kotlarek had no specific expectations for his career. But he did develop quite a few interests along the way, following multiple musical threads that matured with time and training.

Smith-Kotlarek began taking Suzuki piano lessons at age 7, but at age 10, he switched to guitar, eventually joining a punk band in middle school. By high school, his tastes had tamed and he became more interested in what he calls “the singer-y, songwriter type of stuff.”

While still in high school, he started taking voice lessons and studying jazz guitar at Appleton’s Lawrence University. Arriving at UW-Madison in 2004, he pursued a degree in vocal performance and music, working with a variety of professors, including baritone Paul Rowe and legendary jazz bassist Richard Davis.

“I had a number of realizations while studying with (Davis),” Smith-Kotlarek says. ”He played with everyone from Miles Davis to Leonard Bernstein. His career always fascinated me and he inspired me a lot.”

In addition to singing, Smith-Kotlarek continued his work as a jazz guitarist, fronting a group called Simply Put that played in various Madison-area clubs. The combo’s momentary brush with fame came in 2007 when it was hired to open for a then-relatively unknown presidential candidate named Barack Obama, who visited Madison while on the campaign trail.

“I got to play some of my original songs,” the musician remembers. “I also ran the sound board for the group.”

He also sang with the University of Wisconsin Opera and in the chorus for the Madison Opera, which helped confirm his musical interests. He decided to immerse himself in opera at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, which netted him his first major role as Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

While at IU, Smith-Kotlarek studied with his professor and fellow baritone Timothy Noble, whom he credits with talking him into auditioning for the role of Gaston. Noble, he notes, also is a jazz fan.

After receiving his master’s degree, Smith-Kotlarek was chosen as one of 12 vocalists to attend the Opera Institute, part of Boston University’s School of Fine Arts. It was at BU that the singer first performed the role of Booth in a university production of Assassins.

BU also allowed Smith-Kotlarek to meet and work with Jake Heggie, composer of the opera Dead Man Walking, a Terrence McNally adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s book about death row convicts. The singer would eventually perform the opera’s lead role, murderer Joseph De Rocher.

“Jake gave me a real feel for his work and even gave me a small mentorship in opera,” says Smith-Kotlarek, who most recently performed the part in 2014 at Chicago’s DePaul University. “I loved that role.”

The baritone’s 6’4” athletic frame made him a good physical fit for the DeRocher part, just as it has for the part of Gaston. However, he’s added a little more muscle to that frame to support what he describes as Gaston’s athleticism.

“I am not necessarily the size of Gaston, so that required some gym time for me, not to mention an adjustment to his arrogance and misogynist point of view,” Smith-Kotlarek says.

The main thing the various roles, performances and higher education have taught Smith-Kotlarek is how to function as part of a team when it comes to putting on a show as complex as Beauty and the Beast. It’s not a lesson that all performers learn right out of school, but one he believes to be invaluable for a performer’s success.

“The show’s creative team had developed specific and useful ways of mounting each performance, and it’s nice just to walk in, get your blocking and know that if you follow instructions, things will look good,” Smith-Kotlarek explains. “But there is still room to put yourself into the character, which is expected. And for a performer, that’s the best of both worlds.”


Beauty and the Beast will appear Dec. 18-20 at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, 400 W. College Ave., Appleton. Tickets start at $50 and can be ordered at 920-730-3760 or foxcitiespac.org. The show returns to Madison Jan. 13 to 17 at Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St. Tickets range from $45 to $100 and can be ordered at 608-258-4141 or overturecenter.org.

Review: ‘School of Rock’ a crowd-pleasing, upbeat musical

Hard rock’s two-fingered hand gesture is back on Broadway, thanks to an English lord.

The crowd-pleasing, upbeat musical based on the beloved film “School of Rock” opened Sunday at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre with a wondrously rebellious spirit and a superb cast.

This sweet, well-constructed musical left a recent preview audience cheering, head-banging and flashing the hand signal known as the “devil’s sign,” with index and pinky fingers extended. Metal fans who mourned the passing of “Rock of Ages” have a new place to rock out.

The stage version stays close to the plot of the Jack Black-led 2003 film, in which a wannabe rocker who hopes to one day “stick it to the Man” enlists his fifth-graders to form a rock group and conquer the Battle of the Bands.

This time, the lesson in anarchic fun is a bunch of Men Who Should Be Having it Stuck To, namely the legendary songwriter Andrew Lloyd Webber and the “Downton Abby” creator Julian Fellowes as book writer. Both are in the House of Lords, for God’s sake.

It is treacherous water for a pair of lords to swim: The film was a star vehicle for Black and virtually a musical already, with riffs or songs by The Doors, AC/DC, Stevie Nicks and Led Zeppelin, among others. Webber blasted the theatrical doors down to let rock in with such shows as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Cats” but how could he handle this assignment?

Not too badly, it turns out. While leaning a little bit too much on his new song “Stick It to the Man,” Webber, with lyricist Glenn Slater, turns in some perfectly solid mainstream rock-ish anthems in “Mount Rock” and “If Only You Would Listen.” He even mocks the genre with “I’m Too Hot for You.”

But he also graciously allows the film’s best song, “School of Rock” — with its ooh-la-la and AC/DC-like lick —to be a highlight, and bought the rights to “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks, which is key to a plot point. That means that two of the musical’s best songs have not been written by the composer.

No matter. A heartwarming story and a stage full of pre-pubescent kids who know their way around an amp prove irresistible. Alex Brightman in the Jack Black role may not have the film star’s crazed menace but he shares his goofy, sweet spirit. Brightman is a ball of energy onstage and seems to be having a ball. It’s infectious.

Sierra Boggess, as the uptight school principal, has brilliantly been allowed to tap into her operatic background and also deliver a truly wondrous ballad in “Where Did the Rock Go?” The only other woman to rival her onstage is the pig-tailed bass player Evie Dolan, a funky burst of sunlight who is about 10. Other kid standouts are Brandon Niederauer, who melts faces off with his axe, and Bobbi MacKenzie does it with her lungs.

Fellowes has been so faithful to the film’s story that you may wonder why he even gets a credit, with whole sections of dialogue lifted word-for-word and the plot pretty much identical. True, he’s added a sly romantic angle and a fun “Guitar Hero” section, plus thrown in a few jokes about gluten-free food, Facebook and the Kardashians, but it’s hard to detect a whole lot of original work here.

That’s not the case for director Laurence Connor, who leads a crisp, snappy show that neither gets bogged down in irrelevant secondary stories or in easy manipulation, despite having a stage full of cute kids, who all play instruments. 

Webber and Fellowes have nicely added a bit of focus to the frustrations faced by over-scheduled, stressed-out children, making “School of Rock” the third musical on Broadway featuring rebellious kids in school uniforms after “Matilda” and “Spring Awakening.”

The answer to that is simple: Bring them to the Winter Garden Theatre. They’ll leave pumping their fists in the air.

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Emotions in ‘Light in the Piazza’ reflect holiday spirit

To Sarah Marty, the holiday season is as much a time for emotion and spirit as it is a string of calendar dates. Because of its inherent sensitivity, she believes The Light in the Piazza, the next production for Madison’s Four Seasons Theatre, constitutes the perfect holiday fare.

“The Light in the Piazza is a favorite among musical theater people and one of those treasured shows that didn’t make a huge splash commercially, but found a devoted following,” says Marty, Four Seasons’ producing artistic director. “The story is poignant and compelling, so although it’s not a holiday story per se, it seemed a good fit for the season.”

The production, which takes the stage Dec. 4-13 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, should also be considered a regional premiere for the Madison area — Marty found only one other production, at the Waukesha Civic Theatre in 2009.

The musical concerns an encounter that American tourist Margaret Johnson (Tamara Brognano) and her daughter Clara (Abby Nichols) have with Fabrizio Naccarelli (Kenneth Lyons), a tall, handsome Italian stranger they meet in a Florentine piazza. A gust of wind snatches Clara’s hat off her head, carrying it across the square and into the hands Fabrizio, who catches it in midair. 

In the same way the wind snatched Clara’s hat, Fabrizio captures her heart, much to her mother’s dismay. The musical then tracks their courtship, as Margaret and Fabrizio’s family (who largely speak and sing in Italian) watch and meddle with varying degrees of concern.

But despite the simplicity of the premise, drawn from Elizabeth Spencer’s novella of the same name, there is more depth to The Light in the Piazza than first meets the eye, Marty says.

“Layered onto the core love story are several themes, including among them the transformative power of travel and the challenges of being a mother,” Marty says. “In The Light in the Piazza, there aren’t simple solutions or easy answers. There is ambiguity and doubt, and eventually, hope.”

The show’s depth and polish also are captured in composer Adam Guettel’s poignant lyrics and lush score, which won Guettel two of the show’s six Tony Awards in 2005. The harmonic complexity of Guettel’s score, in fact, has caused it be labeled more operatic than most musical theater, an assertion that David Ronis, the show’s director, disputes.

“There are musical passages that we might label as operatic because they represent heightened emotion and extended big moments,” says Ronis, a visiting assistant professor of opera at the UW-Madison School of Music. “The show’s ensemble is akin to an operatic ensemble, but this is not opera. This is musical theater.”

The differentiation between opera and musical theater comes in the way a work is created, Ronis says. Opera is through-composed, meaning that there is music from beginning to end and virtually all of the dialogue between the characters is sung. Musical theater, on the other hand, is a play with songs, he explains.

But there are close calls on both sides of the musical staff. Mozart’s The Magic Flute, composed in 1791, was in its day described as a songspiel, roughly translated as a play with songs. Because Mozart composed the work, however, it has over time entered the operatic canon.

Conversely, Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score for the Broadway hit Les Misérables, through-composed as it is, strays perilously close to being operatic in at least that sense. But in the end, Ronis, maintains, Les Mis is still musical theater.

“The score lacks the depth and musical complexity that opera has,” Ronis says. “The composer writes more in the musical theater vein because the score lacks harmonic complexity.”

On the other hand, Guettel’s core for The Light in the Piazza contains more harmonic structure than might first be expected. He comes the closest to being truly operatic in style, says Ronis.

“The operatic passages are totally connected with the narrative,” he explains. “It is Adam’s artistry that I love about this work. It has a level of musical sophistication that is deeply part of the storytelling.”

That artistry could prove daunting, but Ronis is proud of and pleased with the high musical levels of the cast, including both students and teachers from UW-Madison.

“This is a difficult piece musically, and singing the pitches is more difficult than most musical theater because of the sophisticated level at which Adam writes,” Ronis says. “Half the cast members have musical degrees and have the training to do this kind of music more easily. They picked it up quickly and they’re fantastic.”

The complexity and quality of that music also contributes to the show’s emotional impact, which is what makes The Light in the Piazza such a moving and effective piece of theater, Ronis explains.

“I am a little bit of a sap and do choke up at some performances and there are many moments in this show where even in rehearsal I was getting choked up,” he admits. “The music makes that pathos happen and translates that mood to the audience in a meaningful way. It’s a very moving and emotional piece of theater. It’s beautiful.”


Four Seasons Theatre’s production of The Light in the Piazza runs Dec. 4-13 at The Playhouse at Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison. For tickets, call 608-258-4141 or visit