A fine new musical had its world premiere at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theater last night, Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues at Bay Street, based on Maybelle Smith, a blues singer from the early 20th century, who once opened for Billie Holliday and toured America in the perilous segregation era, plagued by diabetes, an unhealthy girth, and low self-esteem. The Tony Award-winning Lillias White has the chops to portray her, accompanied by a stellar band, narrating a classic horror tale of drug and sexual abuse, but most of all, performing her material with measures of sass and grace.
Written and directed by Paul Levine, the show has the intimate feel of a jazz club in Bay Street's cozy space. Neon Birdland and Three Deuces signs adorn the background where video enhances the history of blacks in the South, and in urban America. Most generous is Lillias White herself, shimmying her way through "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," writhing on a bed with desire singing tunes, some unfamiliar and most standards: "Until the Real Thing Comes Along," "Mean to Me," "Say It Isn't So," "If I Could Be With You," "What a Difference a Day Makes," "It's a Man's World," "Gloomy Sunday," "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," "Candy," and many more.
The band features Eric Brown on drums doubling as Sully, a philandering boyfriend, Kiku Collins on trumpet and Sully's girlfriend, George Farmer on bass, Jason Marshall on saxophone, Michael Mitchell on piano, and John Putnam on guitar. The night I attended, the audience leapt up whooping and yelling, worked up by White's rich, soulful sound, and this spirited show.
The woods are dark and deep, and rife with loss, chance encounter, menace and mischief in the revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical Into the Woods, well staged amidst the foliage at Central Park's Delacorte Theater. A giant voiced by an unseen Glenn Close towers against the highest trees, a beanstalk ascends nearing the aerie occupied by wayward teen Rapunzel (Tess Soltau), and Red Riding Hood as a crimson helmeted roller skater in a coveted cape (Sarah Stiles) is seduced by a long tongued charismatic wolf (Ivan Hernandez) en route to Grandma's. A gnarly witch (Donna Murphy) works her magic on characters from several Grimm legends, having cast a spell that keeps a Baker (Denis O'Hare) and his wife (Amy Adams) from having a much-desired child.
Brother princes (Hernandez and Paris Remillard) vie for true love and Cinderella's stepmother and her daughters (Ellen Harvey, Bethany Moore, Jennifer Rias) play like Goth harpies. A bespectacled Cinderella (Jessie Mueller) is atypical, a homebody type; uninterested in shoes, she is reminiscent of the Anne Sexton feminist variation with its demystifying refrain: That Story. The new version, an import from director Timothy Sheader's much acclaimed London production at the Regent's Park Open Air Theater a few years ago with different actors, deviates from the original with a Narrator, a young boy (Noah Radcliffe the night I attended), which makes sense as he turns out to have much at stake in the miraculous birth. Stephen Sondheim was lurking about and I had to wonder what he made of this change.
If this leafy production is cluttered, its large canvas teeming with activity, you get used to the tumult of life quickly. Movie star Amy Adams is lovely in her theater debut, despite an ill-shaped peasant dress, bad beehive of a wig, odd lack of chemistry with the stolid O'Hare. And, in case you were wondering, she can sing.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.