Based on the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” takes the F. Otto Haas stage at the Arden Theatre through June 10.
Written by Sondheim in 1973, with a score set entirely as a waltz in ¾ time, and featuring one of Sondheim’s most well-known songs “Send in the Clowns,” it is a story of regret, loss and life. The cast of 15 includes many actors we are familiar with, like Derrick Cobey who has performed at the Arden before working with this show’s director, Terrence J. Nolen, the Arden’s producing artistic director.
Cobey is one of a quintet that Sondheim introduces to open the show and reappear throughout the evening. “I am Mr. Linquist, one of five sometimes referred to as Liebelieders Singers,” Cobey explains. “Sondheim introduces them in this musical and we serve much like a Greek chorus.”
Cobey, who was born in Virginia and first studied opera, changed his mind when he accompanied his high school class to New York to see a revival of “Showboat.” Susan Stroman was the show’s choreographer and she also choreographed “Scottsboro Boys,” which marked Cobey’s Broadway debut.
He says, “It was as if it all came full circle. The passion and integrity she put into her work had inspired me to take on this career and years later there we were collaborating again.”
“Scottsboro Boys” also marked a major highlight in his life and his career. “Even after we closed we got repeated phone calls telling us we received 12 Tony nominations. That was a record at the time. We even got to perform on the Tony show that year. So it was an experience I will never forget.”
Cobey acknowledges what a wonderful experience his current role is, and that he and his fellow actors get to collaborate with Nolen and discuss the show as well as their various roles.
“Terry is very intelligent man who gave us (the liebeslieders) very specific outlines, like a coloring book if you will, and left it up to us to fill it in.”
The Tony Award-winning “A Little Night Music” marks the eleventh production of Sondheim’s work at the Arden, making him the most produced writer in the company’s 25-year history. Says Nolen, “Our mission is to tell great stories by great storytellers, and Sondheim is one of the best. Given our long history with his work, it was fitting to close our anniversary season with his masterpiece.”
Before getting this role, which makes Cobey very proud and happy because he was virtually hand-picked by Nolen who knew his work, the actor appeared in regional productions such as “Ragtime,” “Into the Woods,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and others. He also did “Scottsboro Boys” off-Broadway, and “Ragtime in Concert” at Lincoln Center.
Today, describing himself as an “actor who sings and dances,” Cobey says actually anyone entering the field of musical theater must learn to do all three. “Susan says that’s a must and that most producers only want to hire people who can do it all.”
Cobey has other advise for young actors, such as “don’t pigeonhole yourself. I never let my race get in my way. For instance, Terry knew me and trusted my work, so that today I am the only African American in this show. I also got to do shows like ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Brigadoon’ because I trusted my acting, not my color. I think that’s what matters and helps the most.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 922-1122.
Opening on May 30 for a limited engagement under the blue-and-yellow Big Top on Camden’s Waterfront is “Totem,” Cirque du Soleil’s newest production. Running through June 30, “Totem,” written and directed by Robert Lepage, traces the fascinating journey of the human species, from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly.
The characters evolve on a stage evoking a giant turtle, the symbol of origin for many ancient civilizations. “Totem” explores the ties that bind man to other species, his dreams and his infinite potential. The cast of “Totem” comprises 52 performing artists from 19 countries. One of those performers is lead singer Esi Acquaah-Harrison, a native of Ghana, who started her professional career in the UK by doing freelance singing while also working as an accountant. She says she was brought to the attention of Cirque by a friend, and auditioned and joined Cirque du Soleil in January 2010.
“I think I always wanted to be a singer,” Acquaah-Harrison says. “I remember watching and trying to copy people I saw on the TV. And my mom told me very early on I could sing and sing pretty well. But it took me some 27 years to become aware that I might make a career of it.”
Over the years, while working in the accounting field, Acquaah-Harrison sang as much as she could everywhere she could. Finally the day came when she got to sing professionally.
“I started doing some session work, and being paid for it, for people like Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, Boy George and others,” she recalls. “Eventually in 2007, having done lots of auditions for ‘The Lion King’ in the West End, without much success I might add, the casting director signed me up for a role to do the show in Paris.”
It was while doing this role that a friend eventually had her contact the people in charge of “Totem” in Montreal. She says she was very interested because, of course, she had heard of Cirque du Soleil and knew it as a wonderful company to work for. Soon, emailing back and forth, and eventually flying to Montreal for an audition, she was given a role in this show, and started officially as a member of “Totem” in January 2010.
And so here she is today, admittedly enjoying every single moment of her new role.
“Because we have so many people from so many countries in the show, sometimes it’s hard to communicate, although most of the performers speak some English,” she explains. “And the Chinese performers travel with their own interpreter, a person who goes everywhere with them. But we all manage to get along quite well together,”
Even when she sings, the language sounds like it could be a mixture of many languages. “Actually,” she says, “what you hear is a mixture of African music, something that sounds like Spanish and Portuguese, and more. I sing songs which have written lyrics but not necessarily of a language you are familiar with. In fact, I call it ‘creative language,’”
But whatever the music is called, by all accounts, “Totem” is called terrific. The show is constantly on the road, and by the end of its life, will have traveled to six continents and around the world. And Acquaah-Harrison says she is proud to be a part of it.
“Doing a job that I love t do, which is singing, is one of the best parts about being in ‘Totem.’ And even though we do this show day-after-day after-day, I try to keep it fresh for the audience. I feel proud and happy to be able to share my voice with people and I always try to do my best for them. Here they are, spending their money or their time to come see me, so I dig deep inside because, even though I do get tired at times, I want to make them appreciate what they are seeing.”
For the first time ever, Robert O’Hara, who has directed plays before at the Wilma Theater, will have one that he’s written taking the stage there. “Bootycandy” will be presented May 15 through June 16 at the Center City venue.
The play looks behind a tall church pulpit, where a fire-and-brimstone preacher delivers a shocking sermon to his congregation.
On the tropical sands of a deserted island, two lesbians come together. And, at the home of a young boy a mother scolds her son for reading Jackie Collins romance novels.
This is just a taste of playwright O’Hara’s imaginative anthology of sassy lessons in sex ed, a kaleidoscope of sketches that interconnect to portray growing up gay and African-American.
The play’s title, says the multi-award winner, including the 2010 NAACP Best Director Award for his direction of “Eclipsed,” is a reference to his childhood days when his mother and grandmother used that as a word for male genitals.
“Growing up, my mother would say, ‘don’t forget to wash your Bootycandy,’” O’Hara explains. “Looking back, my mother said she called it ‘boo boo candy,’ but I think she’s just trying to rewrite history.”
Living in Cincinnati, Ohio, and “escaping it at age 18,” O’Hara said he first wanted to be a lawyer because he liked watching the lawyer shows on TV. But always writing and directing, although he never thought of them as viable career choices, O’Hara soon changed his mind and changed his major from law to English to drama.
“From then on, I knew I wanted to become a director and writer. So I got my undergraduate degree at Tufts University and eventually my MFA in directing from Columbia University,” he recalled.
In addition to his other work, O’Hara has written a Richard Pryor biopic for Martin Scorsese, and a play about Pearl Bailey.
“I’d like to do even more,” he said, “including one on Whitney Houston. Scorsese once told me, ‘You don’t have to write everything from birth to death. Just find something that’s emblematic of their life, and what we think we know about them, and the rest will take care of itself.’”
Over the years, O’Hara has received many awards and accolades, including the 2010 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play for “Antebellum,” and an OBIE Award for his direction of the world premiere, critically acclaimed “In The Continuum.”
Asked what he considers the secret to a long life in the theater, O’Hara says with a laugh, “Rum and Coke. In that order. Of course, I’m kidding. The real answer is to find and do something that makes you happy and that means not just theater but your life as well. I have a loving partnership. I like where I live. I have many friends. You can’t make theater, or any one thing for that matter, your whole life. You have to build around it and then you can appreciate what you are doing.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 546-7824.
They’ve been on the road for more than 50 years, despite losing key members of the group time after time. And yet, Otis Williams, who founded the group that was ultimately to become known as The Temptations, has somehow managed to keep it all together since 1961.
And on May 10, The Temptations, along with The Four Tops, will take the stage at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside for a great night of Motown hits.
Describing their origins, Williams says in the beginning everything was wonderful.
“But after a while, trouble started brewing, especially after we began to be successful,” said Williams. “You know, they say money won’t change you, but that’s not true. Everybody handles money and success differently, It can bring out the best or the worst in people. And that’s when some [members] of our group started going off on the wrong foot, making money and having all the adulations that comes with it.”
But somehow Williams managed to keep the act going.
“Actually, I was caught up in the throes of it, too, but I think I knew that somebody had to keep it together, and I guess I knew that somebody had to be me,“ he said. “Not that I was a saint, but I did realize that we had something good going and I also knew that quite a few people were depending on me. So I had that job to do, and I did it.”
Williams was born in1939 in Texarkana, Texas. He spent the early years of his life with his grandmother but eventually moved to Detroit to live with his mother. That’s when, he says, music began to consume more and more of his life, until he realized that any career without making music was out of the question.
In the 1950s he began putting together little musical groups with various members dropping in and out to what was then called The Distants. As they grew and began to hone their craft, Motown eventually called and Berry Gordy signed the group.
That’s when their fate was sealed and, ultimately, The Temptations were born,” he said.
With their fine tuned choreography and harmonies, The Temptations became the definitive male vocal group of the ’60s, putting out such memorable songs as “My Girl,” “How I wish it would rain,“ and later Just My Imagination,” “Poppa Was A Rolling Stone” and more.
Having accumulated numerous Grammy Awards, platinum and gold records, various No.1 hits on the Billboard charts, they have weathered changed personnel and consumer taste and still remain a top vocal group.
Williams thinks it’s because of their music and the fact that they put on a clean, family-oriented show.
“We’re not one of those acts that comes out and bump and grinds all over the place,” he said. “You can bring the whole family to see The Temptations, and you don’t have to worry abut a thing. We come from a different mind-set than some of the acts today. We were taught to be performers and entertainers in the truest sense of the word.”
In 1998, NBC-TV did a mini-series based on Williams’ autobiography. Penned a decade before the telemovie, Williams said it has brought the group a whole new generation of fans and continues to run from time to time.
Today, The Temptations, under Williams’ leadership, consists of Williams, Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Joe Herndon and Bruce Williamson.
And just like past lineups, today’s Temptations continue to please crowds everywhere
“Our challenge is to live in the present while respecting the past,” said Williams. “Our past is filled with riches only a fool would discard. At the same time, we thrive on competition. Coming from Motown, I grew up in the most competitive musical atmosphere imaginable. But we also understand that for a group with history, no matter how glorious that history might be, reinvention is the name of the game.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 572-7650.
She was a member of one of the most popular vocal group of the 1960s; a group that still bears her name - Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Today, many decades later, Reeves is still on the Rock ‘n Roll trail, bringing back lots of lively and fond memories for old and new fans alike.
And on Sunday, April 28, Reeves and her group will be appearing at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, in a show dedicated to Motown. Also on the bill will be Bobby Rydell, The Happenings and The Orlons.
“I think I’m still on the charts after all these years because I’m a product of good teachers,” Reeves said. “I know my craft and I always encourage others to do the same.” Reeves said her very first teacher was her mother. Reeves and her siblings would sing in her grandfather’s church and a lot was expected of them.
“My mom taught us how to sing and retain the lyrics of a song, so we were always the stars in our church. Mother would have nothing less,” she said.
And Reeves admits she loved every minute of it.
“I always wanted to be a singer,” she said. “I was the oldest girl in the family, and as I stood at the sink washing dishes I sang all the time. I prayed I would be famous some day and make money as a singer. I wanted to make music the world would embrace, and I think it all came true.”
Indeed it did. After winning a local amateur contest, she was spotted by William Stevenson, the artist and repertoire man at Motown. She eventually got to audition for Berry Gordy, which led to a string of hits on the Gordy label with the Vandellas, including hits like “Heat Wave” “Dancing in the Street,” “Jimmy Mack” and many, many more.
Over the years there have been several changes in the Vandellas’ lineup. Today, The Vandellas are Reeve’s sisters, Lois and Delphine Reeves. Lois has been with the group since 1967 and was on the last four Motown studio albums. Delphine joined in the early 1980s and can be heard on several recordings.
“We all get along quite well because we realize that business is business,” Reeves said. “And as for me, there’s no sweeter time in the world than when I’m on stage and people identify with what we’ve done in the past and what we’re bringing them in the present. Sometimes, the minute the audience hears the intro to a song, they get excited and get up and dance. The thing I love about Motown music is that it touches the heart and the spirit, and I’m proud to be one of the original makers of that Motown sound.”
Not one to let any grass grow under her feet, Reeves served a four—year term as a member of the Detroit City Council in addition to making great and timeless music. Admitting she loves all the music she makes, she insists she has no favorites.
“They’re all like my children so there are no favorites. I think of each and every song as beautiful. I’ve recorded over 1,200 songs at this point, and I treat them all as individuals, although I know the audience has some favorites. For instance, if I don’t sing ‘Jimmy Mack’ someone’s gong to stand up and holler.”
“Never,” Reeves said. “Singing is my life, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. And as long as I can sing, and as long as audiences want to hear me, that’s what I’ll be doing.”
With no real regrets, Reeves said, “Maybe socially or somewhere in my development I might scan over my life and find some things I’d probably like to change. But as far as music and show business, I have nothing but good feelings for what I’ve done and a desire to do even better.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 572-7650.